52 Poems, Week 40: The Windows (George Herbert)
52 Poems, Week 41: House of Rest (John Betjeman)

Sunday Night Journal, October 7, 2018

So Kavanaugh has been confirmed. As I fully expected would be the case, the result is not peace but mutual declarations of war. There isn't going to be any post-game handshake and congratulation here. Rather, many or most on both sides are saying "Our enemies now stand revealed as the devils we always knew they were, and must be destroyed." Few seem to grasp or care about the possibility that playing with matches and gasoline could result in a fire.

Some Democrats have already announced that they will attempt to impeach Kavanaugh. I said last week, and have said before, that all political victories are Pyrrhic now, because they only serve to inflame the other side. That's certainly the case here. Chances look pretty good to me that we just passed the point of no return in this conflict, though what lies at the end of it is not clear. We may be seeing the unfolding of a great historical tragedy, the self-destruction of a great nation.

As is usually the case in war, neutrality becomes difficult and eventually impossible. I personally refused to take a side in the question of whether Kavanaugh was guilty of the charge made by Christine Ford, on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to support it. But I'm assured that failure to believe Ford wholeheartedly makes me something of a monster; anyone who doubts that what she says is true is a misogynist and an apologist for sexual assault and rape. This is pretty much self-evidently false (not to mention irrational) and it distresses me that anyone would think this of me. But I have to either accept that, or say that I believe what I don't believe, so there really isn't a choice.

In fact I'm more in doubt about Ford's accusation today than I was a week ago. I assumed at first that she was at least telling the truth as she saw it, but in light of various pieces of information that have come out since then (such as the report issued by the attorney who questioned Ford at the hearing) I'm not so sure that she isn't lying outright, though the truth is still unknown and will most likely remain so.  

*

As far back as I can remember there was a copy of Nelson Algren's novel The Man With the Golden Arm on my parents' bookshelf. I don't think I ever attempted to read it but the title intrigued me. A few years ago...well, probably at least ten and maybe fifteen years ago, when they were moving into a smaller house, I brought the book home with me, and now at last have read it.

It won the National Book Award for fiction in 1950, so I expected it to be at least pretty good. And it is--but not great. It's a novel of low life in Chicago just after the end of the Second World War. All the characters are poor, mostly first or second-generation immigrants from Poland, and live in a sort of shifting middle ground between the lower end of the working class and criminality. The protagonist, the man of the title, is Frankie Machine, and the "golden arm" refers to his skill as a card-dealer and gambler. But it takes on a different connotation as we learn that he's also a heroin addict, having picked up a morphine habit while recovering from wounds in the army. 

It's a story of more or less uninterrupted misery. Frankie's wife, Sophie, is in a wheel chair, as a result of a drunk-driving accident in which Frankie was at the wheel, and their relationship now consists mostly of mutual torment, of guilt and anger on Frankie's part, anger and despair on Sophie's. Most of the few bright spots involve memories of the past, of a brief youth when better things seemed possible. By this point in Frankie's life, though he's still pretty young, perhaps not out of his twenties, it's clear that the future offers nothing for him or for anybody around him. His doom, which involves his heroin habit and various crimes, is worked out in a narrative that often reveals, stylistically, the limits of dialect and slang in fiction.  A dialog between Frankie and the man who's come to get him and his friend Sparrow out of jail:

"I don't even ask how come you're in," Schwiefka complained. "I just come to spring you--what's the big squawk?"

"You know all right why we're in, that's the big squawk," Frankie let Schwiefka know. "Every time you duck Kvorka for his double sawzie he cruises down Division till he spots me or the punk 'n' pulls us in on general principles. This time he caught us together. The next time it happens you're payin' me off 'n' the punk too."

I think what's being said here is that Schwiefka failed to pay protection money to a cop named Kvorka. "Big squawk" and "double sawzie" probably sounded authentic and up-to-the-minute at the time, but nothing sounds as outdated as slang that failed to make it into the language permanently. (Why is "cool" still cool but "groovy" is not?) That kind of late '40s urban slang in particular is unavoidably associated with movies of the time which are often difficult for us to enjoy without irony. 

But there are lyrical passages, often despairing, that are very effective. A scene late one night in the bar where Frankie deals poker:

Thus in the narrowing hours of night the play became faster and steeper and an air of despair, like a sickroom odor where one lies who never can be well again, moved across the light green baize, touched each player ever so lightly and settled down in a tiny whiff of cigar smoke about the dealer's hands.

Now dealer and players alike united in an unspoken conspiracy to stave off morning forever. Each bet as if the loss of a hand meant death in prison or disease and when it was lost hurried the dealer on. "Cards, cards." For the cars kept the everlasting darkness off, the cards lent everlasting hope. The cards meant any man in the world might win back his long-lost life, gone somewhere far away.

I often thought of Allen Ginsberg's Howl while reading this book. It even includes the phrase "the Negro streets," which made me wonder if Ginsberg had borrowed it (Howl was published in 1956.) And also of some of Tom Waits's characters. I wonder if he's read it.

This adds up, I guess, to a recommendation, but not a very enthusiastic one. 

*

 Nymph

Comments

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I'm sure happy that the Kavanaugh deal is behind us.

I think we should bring "groovy" back into the lexicon!

Your book review reminds me of what I am reading, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. This book was published in 1925, so is older. I can't say I'm not enjoying it at all, or I would put it down. But I am about 250 pages in, of an almost 900 page mass market paperback, and unsure whether the time left to spend with Clyde Griffiths is really worth it.

Which brings me to the question of what makes a book a classic that stays in print? Algren may no longer be in print, although that book (and movie) are famous enough that I had hear of them and knew "golden arm" referred to a heroin addiction.

When I re-read novels from the 18th and 19th century I feel much more enthusiastic about them than a lot of works of the 20th century, other than authors that I already love (P. Roth, S. Bellow, J. Irving, M. Atwood, etc.).

I stand corrected! Just looked at Amazon and there is a lot of Alren in print. Someone other than you is reading this guy. :)

"Groovy" actually is still in the lexicon, but in an ironic way, specifically about '60s stuff. I heard somebody say that a place was decorated in a "groovy" style, meaning that it was '60s-retro.

It occurred to me to wonder if Flannery O'Connor read Algren, since he was a big name in her day. So I checked and his name occurs several times in the index to her letters. The first one, August 1955, says she's reading "this book of Algren's", so I don't know whether it's Golden Arm or not. "I have read almost 200 pages so far. I don't think he is a good writer. This may be a hasty judgment and I suspect the book as a whole has an impact." And so on.

I was talking to my kids last evening about the word "square", as in "He's a real square." They didn't know what it mean. So I said, "It is the opposite of cool." Then they got it. Then we talked about the phrase, "Be there or be square." They use it correctly, but they didn't really know what it means.

Some of the reason for the demand that women be believed has to be a result of the Department of Education Title IX rules re campus sexual assault -- in a new piece in The Atlantic:

Many Democrats, in keeping with #BelieveSurvivors, are taking their certainty about Ford’s account and extrapolating it to all accounts of all accusers. This tendency has campus echoes, too: The Obama administration’s well-intended activism on campus sexual assault resulted in reforms that went too far and failed to protect the rights of the accused.

The impulse to arrive at a predetermined conclusion is familiar to Samantha Harris, a vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Harris says that under Title IX, students who report that they are victims of sexual misconduct must be provided with staffers who advocate on their behalf. These staffers should “hear them out, believe them, and help them navigate the process,” she said, but added, “When the instruction to ‘believe them’ extends to the people who are actually adjudicating guilt or innocence, fundamental fairness is compromised.”

There's been a lot of hooraw about that in the conservative press over the past few years. Seems to be a real problem. I'm a little surprised to see The Atlantic taking it seriously this way. Usually the Democratic press (which TA mostly is) treats any objection as "Republicans want to make it easier for sexual predators to escape punishment."

Funny about "square," Robert. A good example of a term that didn't really survive while its opposite did. There was an interesting use of "square" in Man With the Golden Arm that I should have marked, because I can't remember exactly how it went now. I think it was similar to the square-vs-cool usage, but with at least a suggestion of law-abiding-vs-criminal.

There was an 80's song called by Huey Lewis called "It's Hip to Be Square," which is as bad as it sounds.


One of the more forgettable bands of the period.

Definitely.

Hey, I kind of like "It's Hip to be Square"!

Let every reader judge for himself:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LB5YkmjalDg

I wonder if the term 'square' was invented by marketing men and used only irl by the most naive and adolescent people of that era

I liked Huey Lewis too back in the day. They played "Grad Night" at Disney World when I attended with my high school class back in 1984! Silly and catchy music.

In my day (said the old man) we didn't say "square," except maybe ironically. There were freaks and straights but that was a whole cultural-political divide, more than just cool and not-cool--early days of the culture war.

It's interesting that both the pejoratives used by the hip and cool against the non- are words that suggest genuine, honest, reliable, and the like. Square deal, straight story.

My Facebook name is Thomas Square. He is a character from the book Tom Jones.

I've been saying "Groovy" to people this week as much as possible. I think it's catching on!

So that's you! I've been ignoring that friend request.

If "groovy" comes back into common usage, I'll give you credit.

I think it's interesting that "freak out" is now pretty much a standard figure of speech for most people now. "Far out," though, which was actually more popular than "cool" at one time or in some circles, hasn't really survived as a general term of approval.

Grumpy as Ever, the Oxford dictionary gives this as the first use of "square" to mean "a person considered to hold conventional or old-fashioned views": "1944 Sun (Baltimore) 27 Jan. 10/5 Square, in musician's jargon, anyone who is not cognizant of the beauties of true jazz."

So maybe the music-related sense was the original.

I wonder if it had something to do with time signatures.

AMDG

I don't know.

Just found this in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Sense of "old-fashioned" is 1944, U.S. jazz slang, said to be from shape of a conductor's hand gestures in a regular four-beat rhythm. Square-toes meant nearly the same thing late 18c.: "precise, formal, old-fashioned person," from the style of men's shoes worn early 18c. and then fallen from fashion.

Interesting

Yes, it is.

I hope you're all ok in Mobile, after Hurricane Michael hit Florida.

Thanks, we're perfectly fine. It didn't even rain. Wouldn't even have known there was a hurricane if we didn't have modern communications.

Re "square": I just noticed that in something I'm writing I used the term "squared-off" as a description of rhythm: "The hymns were the old squared-off marching Protestant hymns."

Certainly different from (opposite to?) jazz rhythms.

Glad to hear it.

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