A Monster

Our new house is on the water, and I now have the privilege of watching the sun set over Mobile Bay every evening. I was doing so one day a week or so ago, standing on the front porch. I only caught the last moments before the sun went below the horizon, but frequently that's when the real spectacle begins, and goes on for twenty minutes or more. I stood there until it was almost fully dark, and I was about to go in when something odd in the water caught my eye.

Like almost every house on the bay, ours has a pier. I don't know exactly how long it is but it's over two hundred feet. Out a bit past the end of it, between our neighbor's pier and ours, there was a weird thrashing in the water. And when I say "weird" I mean to suggest some of the old connotations of the word, those which made Shakespeare call the witches who helped to doom Macbeth "the weird sisters." 

There was something not right about what I was seeing. It was not any of the normal disturbances of the water. In the bay one often sees mullet leap out of the water, sometimes travelling several feet before they fall back. One sees gulls swoop down and snatch something out of the water, or try to; there's a quick and shallow splash, and they spring away. Hunting pelicans, big heavy birds with a wingspan of four or five feet, climb, hang, then drop like bombs with a noisy splash on whatever they have seen, going well under water. And when they surface they often sit for a few moments or more, perhaps enjoying their catch. Getting back into the air again seems to be a lot of work for them. Now and then there are diving ducks, marvelously slick and cool swimmers and divers; they hardly disturb the surface at all. 

And then there are the dolphins, with their well-known arcing plunge, dorsal fins out of the water in a way that momentarily spooks anyone who's ever seen a movie about sharks. And once in a long while one might see something that looks at a glance like a floating log, but is too low in the water and has a couple of rounded knobs at one end: an alligator, its eyes a little higher than the rest of it. Mobile Bay is an estuary, and though the river delta which empties into it is full of alligators, I saw only a few over the span of the thirty years that we lived in our old house. It was roughly ten miles south of the delta, and now we are another ten miles down. So I may never see an alligator here; the Gulf of Mexico is only a few miles away, and the water is saltier than suits the gator. 

This was none of those things. It was a slow clumsy flopping and thrashing along the surface of the water, almost a hopping movement. But there is nothing that normally hops on the surface of the water. For a few moments I felt a creeping uneasiness. For a few moments I felt I was seeing some unknown and perhaps menacing form of life. I'm not sure whether the word "monster" actually entered my mind or not, but what I felt was something like what I imagine one might feel on spying an actual sea monster. As much as I love being near the water, I also have, at times, a trace of primitive fear of it, the fear that Job implies when he praises God for confining the sea to its limits: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further." And whatever I was seeing touched that nerve.

I walked out to the water's edge and soon realized what the thing was: a bird, apparently injured, trying to swim with its wings. It was like a person doing the breast stroke, that absurd method of swimming which seems designed for maximum inefficiency. The poor bird thrashed at the water with its wings and was propelled forward for a foot or two, paused, then thrashed again. It was moving parallel to the shore, and up the bay, which is to say more or less northeasterly, away from the Gulf. 

Then the more-strange began. I was standing on the bulkhead, at the foot of the pier. The bird got a little past the end of our pier, then made an abrupt hard right turn and headed toward me. I stood there and waited for him--I will call him "him" because that's what my wife always does with any wild creature unless its sex is obvious (even when, as with a spider, it may be inaccurate) and I rather like that, and because I soon had a sort of relationship with him which the use of "it" would seem to disrespect.

I stepped out onto the rocks and concrete rubble which constitute the bulk of the bulkhead. The bird continued toward me. I sat down on the rocks. He came to them and very slowly struggled up a few feet over the rocks until I could reach him. I picked him up. He offered no resistance and did not seem alarmed. I took him to the porch, where there was enough light to get a good look at him. 

He was a seabird, a tern, not very large. He was hopelessly, and without human assistance fatally, entangled in some kind of very fine, very strong, pale green nylon (or other synthetic) thread. I thought at first it was fishing line, but I've never seen any fishing line so extremely fine. Some kind of net, perhaps? I don't know. But everything except his wings--his webbed feet, his long pointed beak--was immobilized. He could not properly swim, and he could not open his beak, and so could not eat. I don't know why he could not fly but I suspect that he had at one time been able to, but had completely exhausted himself, so that one flap every ten seconds or so was all he could manage, enough to keep him hopping along the surface of the water but not enough to get him airborne. The thread was also tightly looped around his neck, deep within the feathers, which may have been doing further harm. 

I called for someone to bring me a pair of scissors, and together we spent ten minutes or so snipping away at the thread. The bird remained still and unresisting, though he did manage one squawk of fear or outrage after his bill was freed and he could do so. When we had finished, I set him on a piling by the water, from which he immediately fell. But, feet now free, he paddled over to the sandy shore of the vacant lot next door, stepped out of and away from the water, and settled down onto the sand. 

I offered him a bit of bread and a bit of tuna (they eat fish, don't they?). But he was not interested. He just sat there perfectly still. So I left him there. An hour later I checked on him and he was still there, but at my approach he got up and walked into the water. An hour or so after that I checked on him and he was gone: on his wings, I hope. 

Now, maybe this means nothing. Yes, it was an odd incident. But purely naturalistic explanations are ready to hand and plausible. He had been struggling for God knows how long and come God knows how far. Perhaps initially he had been able to fly, but, unable to eat or free himself, he had gradually become so exhausted that the thrashing breast stroke, wingbeats a couple of seconds apart, was absolutely all he could do. And the exhaustion would certainly explain the docility. 

I'm a natural skeptic and not one to turn quickly to supernatural or even merely providential explanations for phenomena that might suggest them; in fact I probably err on the skeptical side, probably more reluctant than required by strict adherence reason to see the hand of God at work. Physical causality and coincidence can explain almost everything if you want them to.

But as I listen to the interior voice that would explain away this incident I keep being stopped by that hard right turn. That is an accurate description: it was as direct a ninety-degree turn as you would make to turn right at an intersection. The bird turned right and came straight toward me. Considering that it had miles of water in which to decide--by whatever means a bird decides--to head toward shore, the fact that it did so when it was directly opposite me is at minimum a very striking coincidence. And it only did so when I had come out to get a better look at it. And it came straight toward me, in contradiction to the normal behavior of wild things, in which fear and flight are the instinctive responses to the human, not hesitating even when it was only a few feet away, climbing out of the water and struggling over the rocks directly to me. 

It was as if in that extremity the bird's natural barrier broke down. He was going to die if he were not freed from the thread that bound him. And somehow he saw in me the possibility of help, and came to me, against his normal instincts, as the only alternative to death.

I am one of those people, those perhaps somewhat ridiculous people, who are disturbed almost to the point of nihilism by the pain of the world. I'm a little ashamed of this, because my own circumstances are quite comfortable. Get a grip on yourself, I say to myself. But Dante's picture of the love that moves the stars seems untenable in the face of the suffering that happens at every moment of time on this planet. There is nothing in what we can see that plausibly suggests that the cycle of birth, pleasure, pain, and death is less than an absolute rule for all creatures in all places at all times, or that there is any reason for it beyond whatever immediate circumstance produces it, or that any of it has any meaning independent of the subjective experience of the creature.

This bird's approach to me, and my ability to help, was for me a moment when something else shone through material cause and effect. It was a bit of evidence that although all of creation "groaneth and travaileth" there is something beyond, a justification for believing that the promise of redemption and healing is not a fantasy. "Coincidence" is not an adequate word for the force that brought bound and helpless suffering together with mercy and a pair of scissors. 

The word "monster" shares an etymology with words like "demonstrate": Latin words rooted in the basic concept of to show, to point out. The direct ancestor of "monster" diverged early on to mean specifically a strange and uncanny thing, often serving as a warning or omen. But though all monsters startle, the message they bring is not always bad, at least if we have properly understood it, and anyway is almost always one we need to hear.

"Monstrance" comes from the same root. 

TernAs best I can determine, he is of the species known as the Royal Tern. 


Two Three By Chandler

Between trying to get settled in a new house, the Thanksgiving gathering and feast, and a bad cold, I haven't had any time and not much inclination for writing over the past four or five days. The cold is a bigger factor than perhaps it should be, as it's been accompanied by a fairly bad headache which makes me want to avoid exercise of both mind and eyes. But it's better today, enough for a brief post, at least.

The term "cozy mystery," or simply "cozy," refers to a species of detective fiction in the Agatha Christie mold: low in violence and other sensationalism, set in a small community, with an amateur detective. If you've read any Christie at all, or similar others (and who hasn't?) you'll understand the term (and probably already know it). The cozy usually depicts a decent and orderly world, and the killer or killers is/are not terrifying psychopaths or habitually violent. It doesn't usually give you the feeling that you're looking into the abyss; the orderly world is not deeply shaken by the crime, and order returns.

I'm not particularly drawn to the cozy mystery, but I get the appeal. And the detective stories I like most serve a similar purpose for me. It sounds absurd to suggest that there is anything cozy about the worlds of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald's work, but there is something in my attraction to it that's similar to the appeal of the cozy. In Chandler especially it's a dark and violent world, and there isn't so much a breakdown of order as an established and conquering disorder into which the detective forces a very limited and often unwelcomed ordered space. And in both writers there's a pervasive melancholy with a romantic streak, a sense of the world as a fundamentally sad but beautiful place. That's the cozy-ness of it for me, and it's enabled by the knowledge that, unlike some contemporary crime fiction, there is not going to be a sudden injection of truly sickening violence, the kind of thing that will disturb me to the point of not wanting to read further. (That's probably a sad testimony to our culture's increased tolerance for realistic depictions of violence in books and film--and to mine.)

When we were packing up books to move a few weeks ago I held back The Midnight Raymond Chandler because I wanted, in the midst of all the stress, the kind of "comfort reading" I'm talking about. It's a collection containing several novellas and two full novels. I read the first piece, "Red Wind," a fairly early novella which, I just realized, is a Marlowe story which preceded Marlowe--that is, he first appears by name in The Big Sleep in 1939, which was after "Red Wind." But he's essentially the same character. 

"Red Wind" begins memorably:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.

Crypto-Marlowe goes to a bar where the only other customer is a man who seems to have been drinking there for some time. A well-dressed man walks in and asks if anyone has seen a woman, whom he describes. The drunk...well, I'll let Chandler describe it:

[The newcomer] took three or four steps and stopped, facing the drunk. The drunk was grinning. He swept a gun from somewhere so fast that it was just a blur coming out. He held it steady and he didn't look any drunker than I was.... The drunk's gun was a .22 target automatic, with a large front sight. It made a couple of hard snaps and a little smoke curled--very little.

"So long, Waldo," the drunk said.

That's how they wrote 'em for Black Mask, where the story appeared. The story that unfolds from there involves a woman who is still pining for her first love, and who talks of him and that love in almost mystical terms which it is possible that they do not entirely merit. 

Then I skipped to the last work in the volume, The Long Goodbye, which is also the last novel Chandler wrote, published in 1953, and was a little surprised to find in it another woman speaking in much the same way of the same sort of lost lover. It's a big part of the plot in both works, and it makes me think that there was something in Chandler's life that made it an especially powerful device for him.

As far as I can remember I read The Long Goodbye once long ago, probably the early 1980s or maybe late '70s, and not since. It's as good as I remembered, though I can't say that this reading confirmed my opinion from back then that it's my favorite, since it's been more or less as long since I read the others. Suffice to say that it has all the vivid California color, romance, sleaze, and sadness that one expects of a Chandler work. 

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.... There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile.

I don't recall that Marlowe explains what he was doing at such a ritzy club. The "girl" with Terry Lennox is his wife, who disdains him and, when he slides out of the Rolls onto the pavement, drives away without him. Marlowe rescues him, gets to know him a bit, likes him a bit, and they have a sort of friendship that mainly involves meeting now and then for a drink. Then Lennox's wife, who, not surprisingly, was chronically unfaithful to him, is murdered, and he, the obvious suspect, disappears. And it seems for a while as if that little story is over and apparently unrelated to what comes after, in which Marlowe gets mixed up with an alcoholic novelist and his wife, but of course it isn't.

I'm quoting this passage not because it's important to the story but because I like it so much; it's a good instance of Chandler's skill:

I hit the office about ten, picked up some odds and ends of mail, slit the envelopes and let the stuff lie on the desk. I opened the windows wide to let out the smell of dust and dinginess that collected in the night and hung in the still air, in the corners of the room, in the slats of the venetian blinds. A dead moth was spread-eagled on a corner of the desk. On the window sill a bee with tattered wings was crawling along the woodwork, buzzing in a tired remote sort of way, as if she knew it wasn't any use, she was finished, she had flown too many missions and would never get back to the hive again.

There is a twist in the denouement which struck me as implausible. Very implausible. In fact there are several incidents in the plot which struck me that way, but only the last one broke through the suspension-of-disbelief threshold. You might suppose--at least I did--that the title is just a way of referring to death, like calling it "the big sleep." It doesn't, though, at least not primarily; it's more poignant than that. 

The Blue Dahlia is a 1946 movie for which Chandler wrote the screen play. It's Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, and William Bendix again, this time Bendix playing a good guy but still a somewhat unbalanced one, due to a brain injury in the war. 

Three newly discharged veterans return home--to Los Angeles, of course. One of them is married, and after a couple of farewell drinks he leaves the others and seeks out his wife. She is not at all glad to see him; she has been living a life of partying, drinking, and infidelity. (That kind of betrayal was apparently not as rare as one would like to think.) He leaves, determined to have nothing more to do with her. Sometime in the following hours she is murdered, and of course he is the prime suspect. (As this pattern occurs in The Long Goodbye, it's worth noting that the film came first.)

As a whodunit puzzle, and just in general as a movie, it's very good, definitely one to see if you like this type of thing. Somehow, though, it didn't engage me as strongly as some others in this vein; not as strongly, for instance, as Detour, maybe because it isn't as noir. And it isn't a Philip Marlowe story; the hero is somewhat on the vague and ordinary side in comparison, but then he's not a detective, either, just a good man with a bad wife. 

Maybe it should have been in color. The effect of the blue dahlia is rather lost in black-and-white.


Goodreaders on The Summerhouse Trilogy; More Noir

Lat week when I wanted to check certain details about The Summerhouse Trilogy but didn't have access to the book, I looked around on the web a bit for reviews or summaries which might help. I didn't find any, but I ended up looking through all the reader comments at Goodreads. Most were positive, and at least one reader says that she reads the book every year. But the negatives...well, they say much more about the reviewer than the reviewed.

Some seem not to have paid very close attention, as the full story is not "retold" in the three sections, but rather revealed gradually and cumulatively. Unless my memory is wrong, which it could be, or I missed something, the most startling bit is not revealed until the third section. But these folks didn't get it. Or maybe they're just that jaded:

I could have done without the third re-telling of the story.

I had hoped this final chapter would shed some light on things, but it really didn't. I wish I had given up after the first chapter spent time with a book I enjoyed.

And these two people, especially the second, seem to be the sort for whom anything not of the present day and culture is for precisely that reason dull and irrelevant:

Depressing first section in a supposedly funny British satire on trite callous middle class values.

Gah. This book did not age well at all. It was awful and prehistoric.

I don't see exactly how "callous" comes into it. I do have some sympathy for those who found the book dull, as much of it is subtle and without visible drama. Several readers complained about Margaret, the miserable girl of the first section--"a dishrag," one said. That's not unjustified, but it's an aspect of Margaret's problem. Still, these three apparently would have preferred a romance or thriller: 

A perfectly adequate, well written, thoroughly dull book. Not even hashish, sex and suicide could save this book from the monotony of the characters.

I am still reading this book, which is a book club nomination. It is awful! The characters are extremely unlikeable (except for Aunt Lily, and that is only because she is intoxicated most of the time and wears garish clothes). Even the dog has no name. It is the most uninspiring, slow moving, non-interesting book I have read.

Blecchhhh! I can't believe I finished reading this book, or that anyone would think it was interesting enough to make a movie out of! I hated it to the very last page.

At least that last one did push through every hated page.

This one I rather liked, and would suggest to the reader that she keep thinking about the book:

The author is an English Catholic whose work I’ve seen compared to that of Flannery O'Connor. She does not provide a nice, tidy, Christian ending or even tidy Christian answers. If I had read this book in my youth, I think I might even have interpreted it as anti-Christian.

*

Detour is an excellent example of the noir genre, apparently considered one of the classics. It has a pretty simple plot, which makes it different from many of its type. A famous story has it that William Faulkner and another writer working on the script for The Big Sleep were puzzled by a plot point and asked Raymond Chandler for clarification--and he didn't know, either. 

A young man and a young woman are working together as a night club act in New York. They plan to be married, but the young woman leaves for Hollywood, hoping to become a star, and the young man stays behind. (It isn't entirely clear to me why he didn't go with her, but never mind.) Later he decides to follow her after all, and begins hitchhiking across the country. He gets as far as Arizona when he gets a ride from a man in a big expensive car. Thus begins the detour. 

Detour

It's a low budget movie, starring people I hadn't heard of before (Tom Neal and Ann Savage), and it's not much more than an hour long, but it really works. 

*

I'm often struck in these older films by little things indicative of the degree to which many things have changed since the films were made. Many big things are striking, too, of course, but I mean the almost trivial ones. When was the last time you heard someone say "Give me change for a dime"? Or one which I think I may have heard as a child or a teenager, but which has disappeared for very good reason: "That's white of you." I mean that it's disappeared as a compliment. You may still hear it today, but if you do it will be  as an insult. 

Before the young man leaves for California, he calls his girlfriend. Remember long-distance calls? His brief New York-Los Angeles call costs him five dollars. That's eighty-two dollars in today's money, according to this site, which says that the dollar has lost 94% of its value since 1945. That sounds like a catastrophe, doesn't it? 

Another phrase you don't hear anymore: "sound as a dollar."