Sunday Night Journal —February 6, 2011
A Few Seconds of Panic, by Stefan Fatsis. Football season is over, so it’s a bit late for me to be mentioning this book, but maybe anyone who’s interested will be as dilatory as I am and won’t get around to reading it till late next summer. It’s one of two books about football given to me by Jesse Canterbury after several email conversations on the subject. (The other was The Blind Side, which is excellent, and is pretty well known thanks to the movie made from it.) A Few Seconds is the story of Fatsis’s attempt to emulate the feat of George Plimpton, who in the mid-‘60s convinced the Detroit Lions to let him train with them and play a few downs in an exhibition game, and then wrote a book about the experience, the famous Paper Lion, which I haven’t read but would like to.
Plimpton attempted to play quarterback, a pretty bold move. Fatsis, having been a decent soccer player, and at 43 years old, 5’8’’ and 160lb, too old and small to do anything else, decided he might have a shot at place-kicking, and talked the Denver Broncos into giving him a chance. In this age of highly specialized players, a place-kicker is in a strange, isolated, and isolating position. Apart from the occasional trick play or odd situation, he doesn’t do the things that other players do—blocking, tackling, carrying the ball—and his time on the field hardly adds up to a minute in the average game. But when he is needed, all eyes are on him, and a field-goal kicker sooner or later finds himself in the position of having the outcome of a game depend solely on him. He may achieve lasting fame (Van Tiffin, Alabama vs. Auburn, 1985, 52-yard field goal to win the game as time expired) or humiliation (the New Orleans Saints kicker who was fired last fall after missing in a similar situation).
The book does an excellent job of capturing the struggles Fatsis wages with himself (physical and mental), with the other players, and with the coaches and management of the Broncos. As one might suspect, the stress and isolation of being a kicker are reflected and reinforced in the culture of the team, in practice and in pretty much everything the team does. It’s also a vivid portrait of several other players, some of whom have names a fan will recognize (e.g. Jay Cutler, now quarterback of the Chicago Bears) and of the life of a professional player. I don’t suppose it will come as a surprise to anyone that it’s not a bed of roses. Recommended to anyone who has the least interest in the subject.
No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. This is an outstanding novel, but one of the grimmest you’ll ever read. It combines the skillful suspense of Elmore Leonard with great philosophical depth. The story, set in 1980 (a significant fact which you can easily miss, or at least I did) along the Texas-Mexico border, begins with the aftermath of a drug-related shootout in a remote desert area. A hunter, a Vietnam veteran named Llewellyn Moss, comes across the scene and finds a lot of dead men and a suitcase full of money. He decides that the money might just as well be his, takes it, and goes on the run, pursued by some very bad people. This may sound like the beginning of an ordinary thriller, and it is a thriller, but it’s also much more.
Among the bad people is a very cold-blooded killer named Anton Chigurh, who seems to see himself as a sort of incarnation of fate or nemesis, an impersonal force which is only doing the inevitable when it encounters another person who could in any way inconvenience or impede it. “I have no enemies,” he says, in one of his more chilling lines, to one of his victims before shooting him. “I don’t permit such a thing.”
Trailing along behind the bloodshed, trying to figure out what’s going on and stop it, is a wise and kind old sheriff, Ed Tom Bell. A significant part of the book is taken up with his meditations on a long life in a rough country, and it is these, and in particular their revelation of the effect upon him of his growing knowledge of what Chigurh is, that give it much of its depth.
It’s a life’s work to see yourself for what you are, and even then you might be wrong.
I’ve known for years that McCarthy is a highly regarded novelist, but never really considered reading him because of my generally low opinion of contemporary fiction. Well, that was a mistake.
A relatively minor thing worth mentioning is the startling accuracy of McCarthy’s ear for a certain sort of southern and apparently Texan turn of speech. I don’t think I’ve encountered in any other writing the use of “kindly” as a synonym for (or mispronounciation of?) “kind of,” e.g. “it’s kindly warm today.” I would think that would be confusing to those who aren’t familiar with it.
No Country for Old Men, film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. It was in large part the recommendation of this movie by people on this blog that caused me to read the book, as I generally don’t like to see movies made from books before reading the book (unless it’s something I know is pretty lightweight). The movie is excellent. I really can’t find fault with it as a movie; it is very skillfully done and extremely well-acted. Tommy Lee Jones is absolutely perfect as Sheriff Bell. I personally didn’t find the portrayal of Chigurh as chilling as it might have been, but I think that’s just my idiosyncracy, and not any fault of the actor, because I had formed a somewhat different mental image of him. (If you’ve seen the movie: I imagined Chigurh looking more like a somewhat younger version of Carson Wells.) And the movie is as faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the book as one could expect a movie to be. Its limitation in comparison to the book is the fact that it is a movie: only a small amount of Sheriff Bell’s monologue, which in the book appears to be voiced well after the events, can be fitted into the movie, and without that the bloody action takes over almost completely. But it’s worth seeing, if you can stand a fair amount of violence and the challenge of the pure evil which Bell knows he is confronting. I might mention that the violence in the book is not so viscerally disturbing, because most of it isn’t described in great detail.
District 9, film directed by Neill Blomkamp. I’m always on the lookout for good sci-fi movies, and had heard this was one, but I found it pretty disappointing. The premise has a lot of potential: a large number of aliens have been stranded on earth (some sort of problem with their spacecraft, not clearly explained) and become semi-prisoners in a sort of ghetto, subject to a full system of apartheid. The movie was in fact both produced and set in South Africa and was apparently intended to suggest a parallel between the situation of the aliens and that of black Africans under apartheid.
This is much like the basic situation of an older movie, Alien Nation, but is worked out very differently. It gets off to a very interesting start, because the filmmakers took the unusual step of making the aliens pretty repulsive in both appearance and behavior, so that you have some sympathy for the earthlings who want nothing to do with them. (I mean that it’s unusual when you’re supposed to sympathize with the aliens; usually when the aliens are repulsive they’re also evil.) A further unusual step is the portrayal of the former victims of apartheid as being just as willing as everyone else to engage in bigotry toward the aliens and to exploit them ruthlessly.
But it doesn’t hold up. It soon turns into a rather ordinary sermon-ish portrayal of the evils of being hostile to people who are different, unless they’re businessmen or soldiers, and then into an even more ordinary action movie. It’s not terrible, and it’s well-made, with a particularly excellent performance by the actor in the lead role, a corporate employee who undergoes a conversion which is more than usually thorough for this kind of story (if you’ve seen it, you’re supposed to chuckle at that). But it’s very violent and very, very disgusting. The last scene is very sweet, though, and helps ameliorate the rest.
Summertime, film directed by David Lean and starring Katherine Hepburn. I think my wife and I only watched this because it happened to be on tv. It’s a slight, simple 1955 romance which I might have liked if the leading lady had been someone other than Katherine Hepburn. I know she’s one of our great stars, but I’ve never much liked her. She reminds me of a certain type of upper-class WASP woman with progressive ideas and puritan, if not prudish, instincts—the kind of woman who advocates free love while expecting that it be exercised in a cool, controlled, hygienic way, with no violent emotions and no diseases and absolutely no unplanned babies, and doesn’t understand the havoc her ideas wreak when set loose among more impulsive people. These words may be unfair to Hepburn as a person, though there is plenty of evidence in her biography that they are not—she was in fact an upper class WASP and a supporter of Planned Parenthood, of which her mother was a founder. What’s relevant here, though, is that she comes across that way in her films: she is too chilly and brittle to be appealing to me as a romantic lead. She’s better as the prickly straitlaced missionary in The African Queen, a role that gives expression to what is admirable in the type.