Scarlet Tanager

After I read Bernadette Mayer’s poem, Politician (“It seems to us you convert your farts into speeches”), I immediately headed to the library to pick up the collection of her poetry that includes that one. Oh wonderful Dewey Decimal system, I parked in the 811.54s and went to town, greedily grabbing all of her work and snooping to see what else looked good.

I have a love/hate relationship with poetry and it’s mostly been hate for some reason (Muriel Rukeyser has some thoughts about that if I ever get around to finishing her book and posting it). But it’s the perfect form for today’s attention deficit. Have 60 seconds? Read a short poem instead of 10 tweets. Such as Grow Up, which has some great advice for poets:

i don’t know what to do next, this/is not how anyone should feel, most/bad poetry is badly thought through, it’s/terrible because it’s chaotic, whenever/you read it you feel full, actually/you should feel hungry when you read poetry, it’s like/an amuse-bouche at best, someday/you will have the main course, but/if the poem’s short & excellent, probably/you won’t need it, this/poem will drag on forever, rendering/you full as a whale’s brain, full/as the stupid future, however/you may take a shortcut, hit/on some beauty, maybe, probably/just homework, drudgery/making you feel the sink is full, you/have nothing to eat, why/don’t you just watch goldfinches?

Book of Mutter

I will read every book that Kate Zambreno publishes, but this will not be one of my favorites (that honor goes to Heroines and Green Girl). I’m just not a sucker for the drama of the mother-daughter relationship, with the daughter left scurrying about trying to make sense of it all in the aftermath of death.

But once again she’s introduced me to a whole cast of characters, weaving in Louise Bourgeois into the story, reminding me of Henry Darger, and creating a compelling tale through sparse, tight, poetry.

This roll call cuts straight to the chase. I’m never going to turn my back on anyone who name checks Valerie Solanas, Virginia Woolf, Chantal Ackerman, Shulamith Firestone, Sylvia Plath, and Zelda Fitzgerald:

All the women Louise Bourgeois collected like these fragile glasses, women I also collect, fictional and fictionalized, that I abandon myself to in acts of intense research and investigation—Anne Sexton, Antigone, Marilyn Monroe, Medea, Ophelia, Cassandra, Sylvia, Virginia, Zelda.

Addendum: Barbara Loden, Nella Larsen, Diane Arbus, Shulamith Firestone, Valerie Solanas, Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, Chantal Ackerman, Louise Brooks.

Any woman remote and unknowable. Any woman furious and desperate. I collect them for my mantle.

In her acknowledgements, she mentions that while she was finishing up the book (it lingered over 10 years), she found out she was pregnant. I hope that this addition to her life does not take her or her intensity away.

The Helens of Troy, New York

I love this idea! Bernadette Mayer wraps her poetry skills around an investigation of all the women named Helen who live in Troy, NY. She interviews them, photographs them, then writes their poems. Some are hardcore sestinas or villanelles, others merely meander.

My favorite was that of Helen Crandall Whalen, a looping villanelle. What’s that, you ask? Officially it’s a French poem highly structured with five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas. Bernadette flexes it up a bit.

Helen Crandall Whalen Villanelle

everybody died
i’m learning to control my temper
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

there were cameras in the store
i don’t have to look
everybody died

one helen’s enough, trust me
i love reading books
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

people think i’m stupid
i went to proctor’s theater
everybody died

there’s nothing more to say
my hair’s braided like a family
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

if you did something wrong, they punished you
one helen is enough, trust me
i don’t have to look

she was mean
she didn’t like any of the crandalls
one helen is enough, trust me

i had to clean other people’s houses
for a dollar a day
my hair’s braided like a family

if you did something wrong, they punished you
one helen is enough, trust me
i don’t have to look

she was mean
she didn’t like any of the crandalls
one helen is enough, trust me

i had to clean other people’s houses
for a dollar a day
my hair’s braided like a family

i’m 66 & smart as a whip
they’d call me the orphan-brat
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

when you’re an orphan you do anything
i went to proctor’s theater
i’m learning to control my temper

it’s been rough
my favorite color’s maybe yellow
everybody died
i took off, it was fun, i loved it

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues

This is the type of book that gives me nightmares. It hovers in mediocrity with brief flashes of insight, and my greatest fear is that my own writing falls into this tepid category. I’d rather not be published than to be allowed to put something like this out.

The book has every indication that it’d be up my alley—it’s a book about her (Pamela Paul’s) lifelong journey through reading, centered on a notebook she’s kept from 1988 where she enters the book titles she’s read. Sounds familiar, but she abandoned the idea of recording her thoughts about the books and only lists titles. Is that really useful? Unfortunately, the flaccidity of the story proves that it takes more to being a solid writer than hoovering up books for decades. There goes my lifelong preparation, guess I’ll have to start pushing the pen across the page instead.

We have several things in common—a likelihood of mispronouncing words we’ve only seen in print, dubbed “mumblenyms” by Liesl Schillinger); the realization that the more you read the more you realize remains to be read and the more that you’re aware of not having scratched the surface; the fact that being told “you should read this book” is never as simple as it sounds (and most likely not advice to be taken).

Pamela’s life is sliced and diced into chapters, overlain on a particular book’s theme. Not all lives are worthy of this dissection, and I yawned reading the cliché of her Southeast Asian travel years to boring first marriage to dull rebound relationships to even duller second marriage with family life. She read Hunger Games. I should have thrown it down at that point. (And hasn’t read Ulysses.)

She’s the editor of the NYT book review, the only part of the Sunday Times that I immediately recycle, which should have been a red flag for me and made me avoid this book. Alas.

Mermaids on the Golf Course

Will I ever find a Patricia Highsmith book that I don’t enjoy? Unlikely. This is another collection of short stories decidedly less murderous and creepy than the last batch. Perhaps she mellowed as she aged, this one coming out in 1985. The stories are mostly of deteriorating relationships plus death this time.

Mermaids on the Golf Course is about a man recovering from brain injury from hurling his body in front of the President who was shot at. He makes inappropriate comments and jokes and leers at one woman journalist who he asks for photos of, to the dismay of his wife.

The Button follows a man who is pissed that his son has Down’s Syndrome, but instead of harming his son, he goes out and strangles a random stranger, saving the button on his coat for a souvenir.

Where the Action is – a photographer at a small town newspaper captures a photo of a woman with her parents immediately after she has been attacked, raped. His reputation skyrockets while hers diminishes, and many people don’t believe she was attacked.

Chris’s Last Party – an aging Broadway actor joins a group of friends around their benefactor Chris’s deathbed and decides to kill himself. He survives, finds that Chris has left his house to him.

A Clock Ticks at Christmas – a rich woman gives a street urchin some change, then invites him up to her apartment, and things start to go missing. She buys him some shoes, he steals a clock that has sentimental value to her husband. The couple divorces a few months after Xmas.

A shot from nowhere – an artist witnesses a murder in Mexico but, when he demands that the police be called, is hauled away as the prime suspect. Eventually he’s released, thrown across the border, goes back to NYC and paints pictures of the dead boy.

The Stuff of Madness – a man becomes upset when he finds that his wife is being interviewed about her odd habit of displaying all her dead pets in the garden, post-taxidermy. He wishes he had left her for the other woman he was having an affair with, then goes off to find a mannequin and dresses it up as the other woman, stages it in the garden. The wife sees it while giving a tour to the journalist and photographer, has a stroke, recovers. The man kills himself with his head laying in the lap of the mannequin.

Not in this Life, maybe the next – a woman sees a goblin that only she can see, has it help out with yard chores. Her friend insists that she see an eye doctor, but instead she kills herself.

I am not as efficient as other people – A man lacking handyman skills becomes enraged by his capable neighbors’ home improvements. He attempts to pull his own house down around him, ends up in the hospital.

The Cruelest Month – a woman’s main enjoyment in life is in corresponding with famous authors. When she invades one of their privacy by trespassing in search of an autograph, she’s devastated to see that he was repulsed by her, so she throws herself in front of a taxi becoming hideously scarred.

The Romantic – a woman spends her youth nursing her mother through the final stages of cancer, then decides she enjoys her pretend dates more than the real dates she goes on.

 

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

I spent way too much time reading this book but I’m a sucker for adventure travel books, especially when they combine lyrical descriptions of surfing/beaches/the sea. I’m sad to see that this won a Pulitzer, since it’s a fairly uneven book. If Finnegan had stuck to writing about surfing, he would have earned that prize fully, but he veers into the danger zone when he starts blathering sexist comments about the ladies he’s encountered. He doesn’t know that he’s being terrible, laying himself bare with eye-popping statements. The utter cluelessness yet confidence of white males will never cease to amaze me. One of  many examples: he breaks into an all-women commune in Australia to search for a girl and has the cops called on him.

Unlike most negative reviews I issue here, I won’t obsessively catalog the flaws of this book, since it was buoyed by its positive aspects. I will mention a few: a phrase that should never be used— “pursing his own PhD in having fun;” the time a woman lets him know that his endless chatter about surfing is mindlessly boring, she’s “rudely interrupting;” his pretentious lit-talk discussing “the decadence of Sartre and situationism;” his goal go “sleep with women from many lands” being cruelly foiled by the prudishness of the Tahitian women— “I did not want to leave someone else weeping. Neither did I want to get my ass kicked by her uncles.”

The good parts are the surfing parts and luckily that’s most of the book. He takes up surfing early as a kid in LA, then his family moves to Oahu where he surfs, then he ditches UC-SantaCruz to surf some more, then a quasi-round-the-world surf trip for 4 years where he finds many occasions to be an asshole surf tourist somewhat aware of his privileges but pushing on regardless (and years later having regrets about not paying the family that they imposed on for many weeks, instead giving them worthless trinkets).

Really interesting section about surfing San Francisco’s Ocean Beach in the 1980s. Apparently there were pedestrian tunnels under Great Highway—now you’ve got to scurry across the road like a chicken. The surfing sections are where his descriptive powers excel and all the cultural bullshit he’s caught up in unawares fades away. He moves to NYC and surfs there, finds a buddy who convinces him to surf Madeira in Portugal before it gets modernized (they actually destroy the surf by building a seawall for some reason).

If you’re an old white man, you’ll probably enjoy this book 100%. Everyone else might register at 85% or less as you see what types of adventures are possible if you were a white male growing up in the 1960s.

The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination

I’m muddling through reading a sexist and mundane book about surfing, so it was a relief to switch over to reading Schulman’s intellectual musings about gentrification, specifically the impact that the AIDS holocaust had on accelerating the process. I’d never thought about this, and she raises an excellent point—you had a generation of artists who died off, unable to leave their apartments to their lovers (they weren’t “married”), and suddenly rents skyrocketed from $300/month to the market rate in NYC and SF. The high rate of death from AIDS was a significant factor in the rapid gentrification of certain Manhattan neighborhoods.

Her book is a bit of a ramble, but I didn’t mind taking that leisurely walk with her brain. She had a front row seat to seeing gentrification take over her East Village neighborhood. Privileged new tenants didn’t have to be aware of their power or even of the people who’d been brushed aside. They “saw their dominance as simultaneously nonexistent and as the natural deserving order. This is the essence of supremacy ideology: the self-deceived pretense that one’s power is acquired by being deserved and has no machinery of enforcement.”

Since the mirror of gentrification is representation in popular culture, increasingly only the gentrified get their stories told in mass ways. They look in the mirror and think it’s a window, believing that corporate support for and inflation of their story is in fact a neutral and accurate picture of the world. If all art, politics, entertainment, relationships, and conversations must maintain that what is constructed and imposed by force is actually natural and neutral, then the gentrified mind is a very fragile parasite.

She and two lesbian artist friends watched limos arrive in 1980 to the first art gallery on E 11th and Ave C where champagne and oysters were served up. She and her friends felt no sense of threat, just watched it as a spectacle. Then a posh restaurant named after the Hawaii Five-O tv show opened on the block:

Almost immediately it was filled with a kind of person unfamiliar to us, wearing clothes and paying prices that came from another place… That was one of the bizarre things about these new businesses. They would open one day and be immediately packed, as though the yuppies were waiting in holding pens to be transported en masse to new, ugly, expensive places.

After the influx of Europeans into the East Village, the acronym “B&T” for bridge & tunnel got amended to “B&T&A” to include airplane.

While outlining the connection between AIDS and gentrification, she isn’t shy about speaking truth about gay men. “Although I have spent thirty years of my life writing about the heroism of gay men, I have also come to understand their particular brand of cowardice. There is a destructive impulse inside many white gay men, where they become cruel or childlike or spineless out of a rage about not having the privileges that straight men of our race take for granted. They have grief about not being able to subjugate everyone else at will.” She then calls out Andrew Sullivan for declaring in 1996 that we’d reached “the end of AIDS.”

Schulman goes after the younger generation of queers, too, saying that they don’t seem to appreciate what had happened, seemed blithely unaware about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, seemed to take their freedom for granted. Artists, too, seem to be much more conservative, flocking to get MFAs instead of congregating with freaks and other artists. Schulman was tapped to write a piece about emerging theater in 1997 and she was shocked by the new scene that was geared toward profitability instead of pushing boundaries or talking politics. One director said that “issues are for television,” while another amazingly said “Many artists today don’t have to suffer like they did in the fifties. They have enough intelligence to avoid it.” The MFA crisis is another function of gentrification, homogenizing the creation process.

I was pleased that she included a significant section of devotion to Kathy Acker, a victim of the forgetting/whitewashing away of gay thought more than a victim of AIDS (she died of breast cancer). Ultimately, Kathy’s wealthy background gave her the ability to create art, and Schulman says flat out that many people who aren’t the source of their own financial lives are infantilized and tyrannical. “They seem to believe, on some level, that they deserve this advantage. In Kathy’s case, her background and financial cushion gave her a sense of entitlement that was unreasonable.”

Schulman holds her own writing workshops out of her apartment, called “The Satellite Academy”, charging $40 a class and providing “no chit-chat, no nurturing, no consciousness raising or eating. They come on time, and I take out my little blackboard and we go through each person’s work with an eye towards craft alone… We’re artists together, looking at each other’s work, and I am the senior one sharing what I know. In this way, I have recreated my lost world for myself, and it give me hope that bohemian, smart angry girls with something new to say and a desire to say it are never in short supply.”

Her interview with Marcia Gallo about her book Different Daughters included detail about the shock troops who were working to enact change. Gallo’s comments about feminism are strong:

Feminism is still subversive. It’s still scary. Feminism means humanity moving forward and addressing inequalities. And that women lead. Independent women who do not need men for their emotional, physical, and economic well-being are scary still. Even those of us who love men. I think that the fact that we strive to be independent is frightening because we challenge all the paradigms. When we’re at our best we challenge the way power gets constructed. We challenge how knowledge is transmitted. We are just too powerful, too uncontrollable, too queer.

I’m always appreciative when someone comes right out and says what they feel about raising children as clearly as Schulman does, watching her lesbian friends adopt or get artificial insemination to carry on the mother duties:

Very few children actually grow up to make the world a better place. Personally, I don’t feel that creating new victims, perpetrators, and bystanders is the great social ooh-and-aah that it is made out to be. I do understand that people want to have children for reasons personal to their own needs, not necessarily for the child or for the world, and perhaps that’s reason enough, but I don’t know why.

 

 

Blood on the Forehead: What I Know About Writing

This is one of the worst books I’ve read about writing. I got hipped to Kerr because she’s supposedly the inspiration for Carol in Price of Salt by the immensely talented Patricia Highsmith. Sadly, Kerr has nothing to offer a discerning reader/writer in any of her many permutations.

The book seems to be created out of an urgent need for cash. There are perhaps 20 pages about the craft of writing wedged in betwixt too many pages of Kerr’s not so great short stories or a few chapters of her tepid novels.

I had hope in the beginning: “The difference between a short story and a novel is the difference between a visit to a nearby town and at trip to another country. To visit the nearby town you don’t pack much, you don’t have as far to go, fewer people are involved, and you take a direct route to your destination.”

Perhaps the most helpful piece of information conveyed was her technique for using posterboard to list out the elements of her stories before she began: NAME, AGE, DESCRIPTION, BACKGROUND, HABITS, BEGINNING, END.

Then she does dumb stuff like qualify her sources: “The famous writer W. Somerset Maugham wrote: ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.'” Did we really need the explanation that Maugham was a famous writer? Didn’t we already know that? This book is clearly not aimed at people like me, lit-nerds.

Possibly the worst abuse she inflicted on my eyes was her explanation of why she assumes a male point of view. “Teachers have told me that boys prefer to read only stories that boys tell. Girls like both. So if I use a male voice, then everyone’s happy.” Except me, frustrated and banging my fists against the willful ignorance of people perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

A collection of creepy short stories published in 1979 by the reigning champ of psychological tales, Patricia Highsmith. I couldn’t resist dipping back into her oeuvre and this collection did not disappoint. A tremendous story starts us off, The Man Who Wrote Books In His Head, a concept I might try getting away with. Once Cheever figures out the complete plot and flushes out all the pages in his mind, he sits down to write it:

 

He procrastinated, and lit another pipe. He had put a sheet of paper in the typewriter, but this was the title page, and as yet he had written nothing. Suddenly, at 10.15 a.m., he was award of boredom – oppressive, paralysing boredom. He knew the book, it was in his mind entirely, and in fact, why write it?

The thought of hammering away at the keys for the next many weeks, putting words he already knew onto two hundred and ninety-two pages (so Cheever estimated) dismayed him. He fell onto the green sofa and slept until 11. He awakened refreshed and with a changed outlook: the book was done, after all, not only done but polished. Why not go on to something else?

And so he begins to “write” other books in his head. The second story, Network, is the other one in the collection that doesn’t involve something devious and criminal. It’s the story of a woman, Fran, who’s on disability leave from her job and who becomes the spoke of a network of friends all calling to give and take news of each other. They help a young man get started in the city, a grand-nephew of one of their own, and in the end he offers Fran flowers.

The other tales involve death, murder, stabbings, the usual Highsmith fare. A woman kills an intruder, another woman witnesses her toddler’s drowning in a pool in the backyard before joining him, a delivery boy executes a triple murder in a wax museum but no one believes that he did it.

One of the gruesome stories that sticks with me is the eponymous one, Slowly, Slowly in the Wind. Skip, a retired businessman with tons of money, buys a farm and tries to acquire the fishing rights to a piece of the river nearby. Foiled, he ends up murdering his enemy and sticking his corpse up as a scarecrow in his field.

A quick skim of 4 WPA state/city guides

My interest was piqued after reading the entertaining perspectives of 1930’s San Francisco via the WPA writers’ project, so I dove in and grabbed a handful from the stacks at the library. None of them are worth reading cover to cover, but I did pick up some tidbits and amusements. The librarian who handed them over gave me an “are you insane” look and asked if I was reading these as travel guides or as history. I tried explaining what a great resource these WPA guides are and he got a bored look on his face then pronounced that the WPA program still existed and was still paying writers. I wish!

WPA Guide to California– This was a later edition (1984) that contained a somewhat snarky introduction saying that much had changed since 1939, “often for the worse,” citing Cannery Row’s and Fisherman Wharf’s tourist attractions and that Daly City now had tract homes instead of being covered by fields of lettuce, artichokes, pansies, and violets. The intro also revealed that Tillie Olsen was a contributor, among others (Kenneth Rexroth, Madeline Gleason, etc.).

  • The Hollywood section lists out actual house addresses of celebrities of the time, including Wallace Beery (816 N. Alpine Drive), Edward G. Robinson (910 N. Rexford Drive), Greta Garbo (250 N. Cliffword Ave), Joan Crawford (426 N. Bristol Ave.), Groucho Marx, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astair, Ginger Rogers, Shirley Temple…
  • The SF library used ot have a “piano for the use of patrons wishing to try out selections.”
  • The Mint on Buchanan was scaled by “two schoolboys by daylight by means of a drain pipe” who slipped into an open window and threw out a copper plate just to see if it could be done (Jan 1939).
  • North Beach in SF used to be known as the Latin Quarter.
  • Pescadero was once “the whitest town in the State; when the S.S. Columbia was wrecked near Pigeon Point, most of her cargo of white paint drifted ashore and, salvaged by the inhabitants, was used lavishly.”

WPA’s New York city guide; a comprehensive guide to the five boroughs of the metropolis–Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond

  • Wait, Staten Island is officially known as “Richmond”?
  • Richard Wright was a contributor!
  • The accommodations section lists out prices of hotel rooms per day – $2.00 up to $8.00 (Hampshire House, 150 Central Park South)
  • The traffic rules section cracked me up. “SIGNAL LIGHTS (1) Green means go. (2) Red means stop… (5) when light turns red drivers shall stop at nearest intersecting street.” Also, “PLAY STREETS. These streets are set aside for children to play in; no traffic is permitted except vehicles having business in such streets.” And “HORNS. Horns must not be sounded except to warn a person or animal of danger.”
  • In the foreign meals section, they helpfully list out common dishes under each heading. Tortillas are explained as “corn pancakes.”
  • Once again, the distinction between “legitimate theaters” and “motion picture theaters.”

Massachusetts’s WPA state guide, the 1971 edition.

zzz boring, nothing to even call out here. They go town by town alphabetically trying to squeeze out a few lines per town. Louisa May Alcott is denigrated by saying she wrote “sentimental” novels.

Kansas, A Guide to the Sunflower State; compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Kansas.

No credit is given to the writers and none is due. This, too, was a snoozer. The only note I made was on climate, where they said “topcoats and overcoats necessary Sept 1 to June 1.” Oh really? Also a lot of regulations around fishing, saying it was prohibited to have more than 2 poles and a line, or dynamiting, poisoning, ice fishing or “any manner of taking fish except with artificial lures or baited hooks.”

San Francisco: A Map of Perceptions

This book perfectly captures the mood of the city… until it doesn’t. I was dreamily reading along, appreciating an outsider’s perspective on my city, loving the descriptions of fog, small paragraphs about disparate topics, peppered with watercolor drawings of the city itself. But then our opinions differ and he seems to crap all over my neighborhood while glorying in all that North Beach contains (clearly the preference for any Italian). A callous attitude about homeless here, a snide comment about the committee to prevent the Manhattanization of the city there, then he loops the Bay from Berkeley to SF to Marin to Richmond to Berkeley to end the book. Strange.

He’s absolutely in love with the Beats, claiming that “with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s last breath, San Francisco will become a different city.” Alas that time has already come while Ferlie is still alive, although he’s approaching 100 years of age.

Perhaps the best section was describing the Embarcadero Freeway (R.I.P.):

An architect friend of mind told me, in the long-ago 1980s, that speeding into downtown San Francisco on the Embarcadero Freeway was one of the most exciting experiences he had ever had. The Embarcadero exit was the last turnoff before the elevated freeway entered onto the Bay Bridge in the direction of East Bay. Drivers felt as if they were riding a hyperurban roller coaster, flying along for at least a mile in the midst of skyscrapers very close at hand until, after a broad curve, they glided into the heart of North Beach. Seen from the ground, the freeway had a completely different flavor: it was an incongruous, Brutalist wilderness of enormous concrete pilings, a barrier separating downtown from the front along the bay. The long piers and the beloved Ferry Building were cut off form the rest of the city, relegated to a narrow space, wedged in between the freeway and the sea.

The freeway ended at North Beach, but the idea of its original designers was to continue it all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. This would have meant six miles of uninterrupted destruction of the most beautiful waterfront in America. The advantage was that it would save motorists the inconvenience of having to pass through the residential areas of North Beach, Russian Hill, and the Marina. A potential premeditated urban murder, this insane plan was luckily never carried out.

But great descriptions of fog swirling around the streets. Not terrible, but slightly disappointing.

Ripley Under Water

The last of the Ripleys, believe it or not. Highsmith kicks it into high gear with the ludicrous close calls that Ripley endures without being caught. This time, it’s a meddlesome rich American (David Pritchard) who arrives in the small French town to torment Tom by prank calling as Dickie Greenleaf and insinuating all sorts of crimes were committed by Tom (rightfully so). Creepily following Tom and his wife to Morocco, Pritchard endures a beat down from Tom and returns to their small village to begin sweeping the local rivers and dredging the waterways for any sign of the missing businessman who was going to expose Ripley’s art fraud in book 2. Hilariously, he finds the skeleton! And then deposits it on Ripley’s doorstep! But then Ripley removes the ring and throws it back into Pritchard’s pond, causing Pritchard and his wife to slip in and drown while trying to retrieve it. I think Tom calls it his easiest murders yet, which weren’t really murders, just not assisting the drowning figures. All of it is highly unlikely, and he gets off Scot free in the end, per usual.

Now that I’ve overdosed on Ripley, I have a few thoughts. Highsmith has an impeccable touch conveying the banality of evil. Throughout the series, Tom is more bothered by his perception of the screams of live lobsters being boiled to death by his housekeeper than by the many murders he accomplishes. You hang on every detail of domestic life, every mundane mention of a cocktail pour, a cigarette lit, because you’re never quite sure when the hammer blow of an unexpected Ripley-violence will occur. His propensity for confessing murder to his friends is unparalleled, yet does not get him busted. It’s mesmerizing, and some of the best crime/mystery I’ve read in awhile. On to headier and more substantial reads!

The Boy Who Followed Ripley

It’s almost as if Highsmith wants to see how much nonsense we can take. Book 4 of the Ripley series is almost completely unbelievable from beginning to end, but extremely entertaining. I think readers of the series gave up hoping for realism in book 2, happily trading their bullshit radar for an enchanting tale that takes them anywhere but here.

This one is about a young American boy who pushes his rich, disabled father off a cliff and flees to France, enamored with Ripley based on some newspaper accounts he’s read. The boy takes a job as an underpaid gardener and gazes longingly at Ripley’s house until he’s discovered and invited in. Then, kidnapping! For a ransom of $2M USD! And Ripley doesn’t find a way to weasel any of the money, simply rescues his pal after dressing in drag (WTF!) and only killing one of the kidnappers. The ransom money is dutifully sent back to the various Berlin banks it came from, and Ripley’s paternal attitude toward Frank continues all the way until Frank jumps off the very cliff he shoved his dad from.

None of it is remotely believable, but it’s easy on the eyes (and the brain).

LaRose

This book exhausted me. I thought I’d take a quick sojourn out of my complete immersion in Patricia Highsmith to read this novel, which came highly recommended from a friend with spectacular literary taste. And yet, I didn’t feel any connection to the characters and plodded along dutifully for hundreds of pages past my usual expiration date. It’s a tangle of characters and emotions, all swirling around the main story of one man shooting another man’s son by accident, and then donating their own son to the victim’s family to raise. Throughout the present day narrative there are specks of an older story of ancestors which bogged it down further for me. I can appreciate the sparkle of the writing, but it lacked the necessary oomph to reach into my chest and pull out my heart. A hollow feeling came across, and I dreaded reaching for it in between gorging myself on Highsmith.

Ripley’s Game

The third book in the series is more interesting than the second. Highsmith realizes our devotion to Tom flags a bit, so she devises a way that he can fade a bit into the background. Tom is snubbed by a local Englishman (Jonathan) and decides to get back at him by planting a rumor that his blood disease is worse than expected and sicking his pal Reeves on him with an offer to earn a bunch of cash in return for offing 2 Mafiosa. Jon can’t resist the easy money, as expected, and this otherwise upstanding citizen finds himself mired in criminal activity. The first murder goes off without a hitch, a gunshot in a busy subway terminal, but the second is fraught—Reeves wants Jon to use a garrotte which he shies away from. On the train as he’s contemplating how exactly he’s going to muster the courage to go through with it, lo and behold here comes Ripley to the rescue! I actually laughed at the reappearance of Tom, so eager to help Jon with the killing. Jon’s wife becomes suspicious about all the cash he’s bringing home, and ultimately he gets killed in a shootout while Tom walks away unharmed back to his charmed life.