Review of James Lee Burke’s Wayfaring Stranger

I hold James Lee Burke’s abilities to weave a story with style in the highest of esteem. I’ll give this novel 4.5/5 based on the Burke Scale. If it is on the scale of all of what I read, it’s a solid 5. And that silly half-point deduction is probably because it is a new character.

I like this new guy, Weldon Holland. He’s a man’s man. If you are a fan of Burke’s you might recognize the surname as related to Hackberry Holland and Billy Bob Holland. Those characters are cousins of this Holland and strength of character seems to be a family trait. In the real world, the dedication is to Burke’s cousin, Weldon Benbow “Buddy” Mallette. It’s not hard to see what Burke has been doing with his family history these past decades.

This novel gets its juice from a long remembered experience of the main character as a child when he encounters Bonnie and Clyde in a rural woods. That experience floats in and out of the entirety of this 444 page novel which starts in a dust bowl era pecan grove and winds its way through WWII in Europe and finishes out in the oil fields of Texas and gossip pages of Hollywood in the 50s. As is always the case with Burke, the pure descriptive strength of his prose is powerful in this broad sweep of landscape and history.

And that prose…oh, my, God…I would give treasured, even intimate parts of my body to be able to write prose like his. A chapter (6) in a TB Sanitarium is among the best writing I’ve seen. If you want to argue this in the comments, I have about a dozen examples that will melt your resistance to the prospect. But in this novel, he does the absolute best work with what I consider to be the hardest part of writing from the senses: the use of the sense of smell. Let me give you just two short examples. 1) At the sanitarium, “I was inside a chemical environment that was warm and cool at the same time; the air smelled of flowers and rain spotting on warm stone.” I hear you that “rain spotting on warm stone” says nothing of scent, but you are so, so wrong. You know in your soul that those flowers smell one way by themselves and a different way in the presence of “rain spotting on warm stone.” 2) On a stop at a Texas gas station in the ’50s: “The evening sun was red inside the dust from the fields, the cotton leaves wilted in the heat, the air close with the odor of  herbicide and hot tar.” As a wayfaring stranger myself, I spent a good portion of my youth hitchhiking all over this country. I KNOW that smell by the side of a Texas road.

Characters, let Burke draw you a picture: At an outdoor cocktail party– “I saw a man in a checkered sport coat and a loud tie pick up a drink from a tray and hand it to a woman in a strapless silver evening dress that exposed the tops of her breasts and was as tight as tin on the rest of her.”  Or, describing a character named McQueen. “He was a large man, with craggy good looks and no fat on his body and a voice that was like a dull saw cutting through a  dry board.”

What of the political context of Burke’s novels? I love this easily understood expression of how Fascism started to come to America. Remember, this was in description of a time before Ike warned us all about the “Industrial-Military complex.” It speaks to the perception of the American Dream and the lure of acquiring more. Weldon, who is becoming a successful business man as a pipeline provider during the oil rushes, is in conversation about a man much more wealthy, connected and dangerous than himself. Weldon wants him in jail.

The dangerous man’s son, Roy says, “…you have it all, Weldon, but you don’t realize it. Others covet what you take for granted. You’re an honorable man. Your wife loves you. You’re the captain of your soul. With time, others will take all that away from you. That’s what you fail to understand. They want your soul.”

“And how will they take that from me?”

“They’ll turn you into one of them. You’ll wake up one morning and look at your reflection in the mirror and wonder what happened to the little boy in his white First Communion suit. See you around, Buster Brown!”

If that is not a clarion call for our times, I don’t know what is. There are other, maybe greater ramifications of this particular conversation, but ultimately this entire section of the novel is designed to reveal that “ambition,” while lauded in our bootstraps mythology, is too easily perverted into “greed.” In Burke’s mind, it takes a man of honor to maintain the balance to walk that line. He shows us several more times in ensuing plot elements.

The struggle between the civilized, ambitious man and the greedy animal within becomes terribly obvious when Weldon is forced to defend himself from a very bad cop. If we are honest, Weldon went to the cop’s house armed in anticipation, but at some point he “chooses” to act. After it is over: “Let no man tell you our simian ancestor is not alive and well waiting for his moment to come aborning again.” Well, ain’t that some truth?

I’m not going to tell you if the good guy gets the girl and rides off into the sunset at the end. I will tell you that, as I approach my 67th year, I hope one of the things people will be able to say at the end of my road trip is, “He was honorable.”  Oh, yeah, and “not a  fascist.”

America Shops for Fashionable Fascist Boots (Part 1)

(Today is “Defining the Problem.” Later this week is “What to Do About It.”)

The images are not my images. If you own them and want them taken down, let me know. If you want credit only, let me know. No offense is meant by using them.

This is commentary by Steve Marsh. Nobody else is responsible for it. You may leave moderated comments here or look me up on facebook.

The Oxford Dictionaries define fascism as “an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization.”

This is a little misnomer in terms of current American politics. It says “right wing” and automatically Americans say “Republican.” Sadly, that is no longer historically accurate. Bill Clinton broke the traditional concept of right/left last century with his “triangulation” of the middle. That was after Reagan broke the traditional concept of “Right” in the ‘80s with his Reagan Democrats and hard turn toward conservatism.

Famously, Jimmy Carter pronounced the American system of politics to be “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery…” Rolling Stone Magazine quoted him as saying, “The same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”

Many of us who have been around in both centuries were heard to say, “Well, duh.”

But, as much as I’d like to bask in Carter’s courage to say so, and my beautiful, prescient mind for perceiving it, I’m stuck with acknowledging that this observation alone is not enough. In my estimation, the confluence of oligarchy in America with the populist wave that put Donald Trump in the most dangerous chair in the world means we have now passed on to full Fascism. I do not blame Trump alone. And not even those who voted for him, although any number of them would be happy to put on jackboots. What is left of Democratic voters have been as guilty. I hear my liberal friends recoiling in horror and denial. So let’s take this kind of slow.

It seems that you can find a definition of fascism that will say almost anything you want it to say. Or you can confound a definition with a lot of political language designed to obfuscate. So, how do I know we are in a Fascist Oligarchy instead of just a regular old oligarchy? I found a website that identifies what fascist states do: The thing this website attempts to do is to define what has been undefinable and implies that we should define the cheetah by her spots.

What does a fascist state do? This site identifies fourteen Cheetah Spots. Here we go.

1. Is America currently affected by Powerful and Continuing nationalism? Well, of course she is and before you get all excited about how we are now going to bash the Trumpsters (and we should) think back to summer 2016 and the images, especially on the closing night of the Democratic National Convention. Do you remember the multi-screen projections of HRC, dressed in stark white, parading in front of dozens of American flags, calling on neo-con General John Allen to assure “our enemies” that “we will pursue you as only Americans can.” Later that night she was joined on stage by Bill in a blue suit, white sh

2. Disdain for the recognition of human rights. That has been true of America since President W decided that it was appropriate for us to engage in prophylactic warfare and fed us all the false data necessary to whip America into a blood lust unimaginable even ten years before when his daddy was the boss. Gone were the restraints against torture, preemptive assassination, striking families and neighborhoods with the most amazingly destructive weapons possible. Back home, the stroke of a pen was all it took after Congress capitulated on the frighteningly Nazi-sounding creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Trumpsters say bring back torture. Trump himself is quoted by CNN on December 3, 2015 as saying: “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.” But further, did Obama prosecute anyone for water-boarding, even as he stopped its use? No. Did we ever get out of Guantanamo? Lack of human rights? Check.
3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. Al-Qaeda, ISIS and bad hombres. 9/11, Iraqi attacks (even though the vast majority of participants were Saudi), add Afghanistan to get Osama, add Pakistan because they were hiding Osama, add Syria, Lebanon, Yemen. Immigrants = Mexicans but Immigrants also = Refugees from the wars on Al-Qaeda and ISIS. And then….and then… home-grown terrorists. Self-radicalized individuals. Now the enemies are everywhere and they are brown. Muslims are proudly hated by at least a large plurality of Americans. And now Mexicans, and it spills out to Sikhs and…just Google “mistaken for terrorists in US.” Enemies named and pointed at? Check.
4. Supremacy of the military. Let me parse this one out a little. It says supremacy of the military. It does not say support for military families. It does not say health care for wounded veterans. It’s all about active military and missions. Look at T’s proposed budget. Military +$54 billion, Department of Homeland Security +6.8%, Department of Veterans Affairs +5.9%, National Nuclear Security Administration +11.3%. And literally, just about everything else is cut, including the chief tool for diplomacy, the Department of State -28%. Yup, that is an intentional hard-power budget. Supremacy of the military? Check.
5. Rampant sexism. Beyond normalizing the word “pussy” and demonizing all of women’s health care on the back of “abortion,” the number of women in the cabinet is self-evident. Even his supporters can find a quote or two they are happy to chant denigrating women. Every day, every newspaper in America carries this story or worse, exhibits this story. Rampant sexism? Check.
6. Controlled mass media. How many supporters of T are now firmly convinced that CNN stands for “Clinton’s News Network?” How many say “fake news” about any article with a headline that even obliquely challenges their world view. All sources of news are false, except the two or three sources the central personality deems to be “not fake.” This has been underway since Roger Ailes (ahem, speaking of rampant sexism) opened Fox News for business but now we have reached a new vista in media denial. The Executive Branch Press Secretary has taken to isolating the news source they approve of to hold conferences and to go on lengthy defensive rants if anyone asks a question perceived as offensive. Control the mass media? Check. (at least well on the way.)
7. Obsession with national security. ISIS and illegal immigrants. These stories continue to cycle at the top of lists. They get conflated and mixed up too. Don’t let in any refugees fleeing the chaos created by our enemy ISIS because those people could be ISIS disguised as refugees. Don’t let Mexican (rapists and murderers) come in because they are “bad hombres” and ISIS is probably coming into the country by smuggling themselves into Mexico too. Let’s look at Iran next month and N. Korea this week. National security, keeping you safe from all the danger, danger, danger. Obsession with National Security? Check.
8. Religion and government are intertwined. Fascists use the most common religion to manipulate opinions. If there were more Catholics in the USA, we would see a slightly different version of what is going on. This movement has come and gone over the course of our history but got its biggest burst of power under Reagan. The emergence of the religious right under the moniker of “Moral Majority” has now twisted itself into something far more insidious. What is the advantage to them? LOTS. Normalizing home schooling and getting federal education dollars for religious schools via vouchers and similar programs. That insures the concepts are self-perpetuating through another generation. It makes it easy to demonize the political opponent. Obama, for example was both non-American and non-Christian. Those are long tentacles. And remember it was the religious right who impeached Clinton. Not for a blowjob but for a lie. Religion and government intertwined? Check.

9. Corporate power is protected. Citizens United (what a great lie right in the title), “Corporations are people, my friend.” Gut the EPA, deregulate Wall Street, roll back 40 years of auto emissions regulations, states deferring taxes on corporate owned property, and restrictions on labor is outlined below. But this is the most dangerous trend in my lifetime. There used to be a time when corporations had natural restraints too. To get access to the American market, corporations had to use American labor. Well, just like those two big oceans don’t protect us militarily any longer, they also don’t protect us economically. Many corporations are larger than many countries. That is not hyperbole any longer. Add to the power to do what they want to the power to avoid taxes on the profits they secure in our markets and you have a pretty perfect storm. Corporate power? Check.

10. Labor power is suppressed. Right to Work (another great title lie), opposition of raising the minimum wage, demonize public servants (except cops and firemen…you need them for the riots), permitting two tiered hiring practices, gutting union shop laws, and importantly, long term economic downturns to erode stability and expectations in the work force. Depress the markets for young people generally and black young people specifically and you now have a ready market for people to be recruited into the military. Labor power suppression? Check.
11. Disdain for intellectuals and artists. Gut the NEA, gut PBS, pass laws forcing teaching creationism as alternative to evolution (see #8 above), the culture wars of 20 years ago has “leveled up.” Schools are now deficient if they don’t teach “marketable skills in the work marketplace.” Let’s add some more catch phrases: “I know more than the generals.” Active scrubbing of federal websites in regard to climate change and other scientific research. Fox News says global warming research is a con to get federal dollars for false research. Tweet: “Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big.” Schwarzenegger. Disdain for intellectuals and artists? Check.
12. Obsession with crime and punishment. First, think of what he, the T, wants to do with “leakers.” Second, as the states move to legalize the use of medical and recreational cannabis, the new Attorney General says, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Trump notoriously says the murder rate is the highest in 48 years while in fact it is less than ½ of what it was 48 years ago. Crime, both violent and non-violent are actually down in the nation, but the administration is fundamentally invested in scaring people to make them think they are not safe, that they can blame some other kind of people and that we should lock those “others” up in for-profit prisons. Crime and punishment? Check.
13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. Why are so many former executives of Goldman Sachs in the cabinet? It is hard to keep track of that number. Connections to Russia and the political oligarchy there? Plenty. Only took days to start booting folks out of the cabinet for obvious cons involving receiving huge sums of money from Russia and Turkey. How many? Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court? Sure, his mom was the EPA head from ’81-’83 under Reagan. What did she try to do? Slashed its budget 22%, rolled back clean air and clean water standards, prevented the EPA from bringing protection suits to the DOJ. Then she resigned. Why? Mismanagement (you put your own word in here, what does “mismanagement” mean, anyway?) of the Superfund program. This is not a new thing. More on that later. Or this from yesterday: Kellyanne Conway’s husband will be tapped to lead the Justice Department’s civil division. Another import from the Wall Street law firms. Cronyism and corruption? Check.
14. Fraudulent elections. This one scares me deeply. I think it has been going on for a long time. Both political parties are claiming it is ongoing. I think Republican redistricting efforts at the state level have effectively eliminated the democratic concept of “one man–one vote.” The number of federal elections and state elections affected has skyrocketed. And now Trump is blowing smoke over his trail by claiming that millions of illegal aliens voted against him and cost him the popular vote. I have never seen the winner of an election claim it was fraudulent before! The institution of the Electoral College has played into this strategy by the Fascists too. Smear campaigns, armed “poll watchers,” the list goes on. Courts are supposed to be the check here. HEY, COURTS! HELP. We are hanging by a fine thread. Fraudulent elections? Not 100% certain yet but something smells very bad about Russia and the unconscionable voter restrictions going on in communities of color. I’m not willing to put a check here yet, but reconnect with me next week.

So, that’s all fourteen functions, or at least 13 and a half. Do you think we are a Fascist Oligarchy? Well, look at that thing waddling and quacking down the road. I do believe it some kind of waterfowl.

Review of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

It is fair to say I have a favorable bias toward this material. I taught Mythology in high school for several years. I enjoyed it too, until we started eliminating all those superfluous subjects and ended up with Vanilla English 9, 10, 11 and 12.

Like most teachers of the time, I spent a lot of time talking about what a mythology was, how it supported the population and telling the long-told lie that the most important of the myths came from the Greeks who then had their stories stolen by the Romans. Then, we spent the last couple of weeks of the course looking at the “others,” with most of the others being the Norse.

This book suffers a little from that ideology too, although not to the point where it is a flaw necessarily. What Gaiman attempts to do is to put some of the stories into a kind of novelistic arc of storytelling. More or less he tells some of the creation myth, several of the stories unique to the personalities of the major players and then a representation of the end of times in Norse myth. He even poses the question of whether the end times tales are stories of what has already happened or whether it is a tale of what is yet to come.

I love the selections he has chosen to illuminate. We get a good sense of Odin, wisest of the wise but only because he has been willing to make literal mythic sacrifices in exchange for knowing. What a great and lasting tale for all who still care about knowing. Not an alt-fact anywhere in sight for Odin’s single eye.

Gaiman gives us some good tales about Odin’s son, Thor. He is, of course, the hero’s hero but depicted as not the brightest flame in Valhalla. Thor shows us the worth of lots of other characteristics, including strength, bravery, determination.

There are also stories about Loki, who isn’t technically a god as he is the son of a giant. But his association with Odin has always set him up for preferential treatment in Asgard, as well as the jealousy and, in some cases, outright hostility of the other gods and goddesses.

Two stories strike me as the best of the bunch, although it is difficult to tease the threads of one or two stories out of the beautiful tapestry Gaiman presents. I like particularly the story he calls, “The Mead of Poets.” I am a home winemaker and I have made several batches of mead. It is predominantly wine made from honey, but modern mead has little resemblance to the drink of the Vikings. They did quick and dirty fermentations and added a veritable cornucopia of adjunct ingredients. The mead you would drink in one village was likely to bear little resemblance to what you might encounter in another. The mead of this story is very much like that.

Ultimately, the mead is made from honey and the blood of a divine poet and drinking it sets the muse loose from one’s heart. For the sake of brevity, and to keep you interested when you get your copy of this book, here is a little synopsis of the end of the tale. Odin steals the mead by drinking it, changing into an eagle and flying back to Asgard to deliver the goods to the gods, where, like a father bird, he will spit it out for his underlings. This is the magic mead that makes wonderful poets. Great poets have tasted Odin’s gift. And that is the end of the story…except it is not.

There is another kind of poetry anyone who has ever attended an open mic has heard. Like any good myth, there has to be an explanation for bad poetry too. And the Norsemen provided a fine one.

Odin is flying back to Asgard as fast as he can with the stolen mead in his belly and Suttung, the one from whom Odin has stolen, has also changed into eagle form and is chasing Odin, actually nipping at his tail feathers as they approach. At this point, Gaiman, interrupts his story to speak directly to the reader, saying, “The delicate among you should stop your ears, or read no further.” And yet, two paragraphs remain.

With Suttung literally hot on his tail, “…Odin blew some of the mead out his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail. No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similes and ugly rhymes, you will know which of the meads they have tasted.”

I love a myth that explains both the good and the bad, don’t you?

The other individual story I loved in this collection is because of its obvious relation to our own life and times. The gods are perpetually at war, usually with the giants and they decide they need protection in the form of a wall. But they don’t want to actually invest in the actual building of a wall so they find a guy, an immigrant stranger actually, who will build the wall for them. (BTW, Loki figures out a way to enter a contract. It is a fine, binding deal until Loki figures out a way to cheat.) Mythology often serves the purpose of providing morality lessons.

“I can build you a wall,” said the stranger. “Build it so high that the tallest giant could not climb it, so thick that the strongest troll could not batter through it. I can build it so well, by placing stone upon stone, that not an ant could find space enough to crawl through it. I will build you a wall that will last for a thousand thousand years.”

“Such a wall would take a very long time to build,” said Loki.

“Not at all,” said the stranger. “I can build it in three seasons. Tomorrow is the first day of winter. It would only take me a winter, a summer and another winter to build.”

Of course, like in all myths and tales of super-human feats of strength and engineering, there are elements of subterfuge, trickery, treachery and falsity. In this story you’ll find a lot of those things, but in this case, the guy who has everything ends up with more and the guy doing the building gets screwed. Huh, imagine that.

Anyway, great book, fast read. It only took me a couple of days but you will do it in one. Buy a copy in hardbound for your library and then buy one for each of your grandchildren (no matter how many you are going to end up with.) Five out of Five, Neil.

It’s Undeniable Now…

When I was about 13, I remember distinctly trying to impress a girl with my ability to do a pratfall. We were in Bennett Park in my home town. There were several 500 pound cement blocks with heavy anchor chain strung between them to indicate the parking area. To prove my prowess, I hurled myself forward over the chain in a manner that showed I had “tripped” and landed on my front. I really did kind of understand what I was doing. If you spread the impact of the fall over enough of your body surface, it hurts very little and you get a great reaction from your audience. She asked me if I was okay and I jumped to my feet and pretended to stumble backwards over the same chain and landed flat on my back, using the same technique. She didn’t “fall” for me despite my demonstration of such a high class skill. Later in our lives she ended up going out with a football lineman, so maybe I set that up inadvertently. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I was young, invulnerable and impervious to injury. Something changed over the next 50+ years.

I took a serious fall two days ago. I was coming up the stairs from the basement and as I was closing the door I stepped back onto a rubber toy my dog had left on the floor. Without seeing it, I was certain I was stepping on the dog. It felt just the right size and softness to be one of her paws. I tried to lift pressure off that foot and put it on my other foot but it landed on the toy too and I thought I was on top of her again. By then, I was completely out of control, I had no balance and the top half of me continued backward while the lower half tried to save the dog. (The dog, by the way, was in the master bathroom bugging my wife, nowhere near me.) As I fell backwards, my old impervious brain knew exactly what to do. I threw both arms backward and out to maximize the surface area on my body as I would strike the wall in the hallway. And it would have worked too….if I hadn’t fallen directly into the doorway to the half-bath instead. So, when my hips and spine expected to absorb the blow and nothing came because the half-bath door was open, I stiffened my arms. I struck just the sides of the doorjamb with the backs of both upper arms, concentrating the impact onto a few square inches.

I am not writing this so you will say how sorry you are that I hurt myself in a fall. It’s about something much more personal than that. In that miniscule moment between when my hips should have struck the wall and when the backs of my arms took the entirety of the blow, I realized I was falling through the doorway and I also knew I was completely off balance. I saw me falling all the way back and striking my skull on the toilet or the edge of the sink. I saw blood and a cracking skull. I did see aftermath. I knew my wife needed to hear that I was in trouble so I made some sounds come out of my mouth. It was not an articulate sound. I’m not sure what I “said.” It may have been, “woah, woah, woah.” I don’t know. Later she said it sounded just like a cartoon. Today she told me it more the sound of my feet. I guess it was a Fred Flintstone yabba dabba do moment.



Anyway, the pic shows you the damage. I have one on each arm. I have shown you the worst one, of course. Yes, ouch. But really so much more. The actual damage is more impressive today. It has now gotten a good, deep wine grape purple. It has little runners out into the rest of my upper arm.

Getting old really sucks. On the day of this realization I was 66 years, 5 months and 8 days. Maybe I can draw in a big black line through the calendar of my life. Before that line, I was still a whole man. I was a man with skills and abilities and wisdom and experience. After that line, I am an old man. No, again, you are not supposed to feel sympathy. An artist is supposed to confront his or her times and describe them honestly, even at the cost of personal pain. So, there it is; I’m an old man (and it sucks!)

I have had hints of this coming day for a while. The first time I suspected such a thing, I was 35, playing volleyball. I was always pretty good at it despite not being overly athletic. But in playing a 2 on 2 set, best out of three games one afternoon, my partner and I had taken it to 1-1 and I had to dig down deep for that third game and whatever I was looking for had flown the coop. It just wasn’t there any more. I didn’t play volleyball much after that, at least not competitively. Sometime around 40, I realized it was much harder to run three miles than it had been. At 50, the cold started bothering me and altitude made it very hard to breathe. At 60, my rheumatoid arthritis was in full swing, but I was handling it (I said determinedly) with meds and exercise. And even though arthritis is an old person’s disease, I still didn’t see myself as old, not really. This fall changed that.

It is rare that a person is given the kind of clarity of thought and realization I was awarded in that one second between stepping on the dog toy and crashing into the doorjamb. But I literally saw things in that brief moment. (Not my life passing before me, but more like losing my grip on all of life.) It is humbling. And liberating.

Warren Zevon, the lowliest rock star, was given advance warning of his passing. He used that time exceedingly well. I don’t have his advantage of knowing that I have 1-2 years remaining. Hell, I could have twenty or more. (I hope not.) But I am pledging myself at this point to “enjoy every sandwich.” And to try to tell the truth of my times as I know it. I mean, what’s the alternative? And you can take that to the bank. An old man told you so.