Monday, November 3, 2008

New York Post Review of Adam Langer's "Ellington Boulevard"

Gentrification, the Musical

(Originally appeared in the New York Post, February 2008)

by Dylan Foley

After burying his mother in his hometown of Chicago, jazzman Ike Morphy comes home with his dog Herbie Mann to New York to find a real estate broker and two buyers standing in his battered rental apartment on West 106th Street in Manhattan. Ike's whole life is being sold out from under him. He starts a fight with the realtor and thus begins "Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in B-Flat," Adam Langer's glorious comedy of gentrification, rent control and love.

Langer's witty novel is an ode to a gritty stretch of Manhattan real estate on the Upper West Side. Like the old Broadway musical comedies, like "Wonderful Town' he introduces the readers to his cast: There is the buyer, Rebecca Sugarman, an earnest literary editor; her husband, Darrell Schiff, a snide grad student; the renter Ike, an embattled jazz musician ; Josh Dybnick, a realtor with musical theater dreams, and the seller, Mark Masler, an ex-cocaine, ex-sex addict who wants to open a high-end restaurant/car wash. Like all musicals, there are the lead characters’ trials and cliffhangers: Will Rebecca's marriage survive? Will Ike and Herbie Mann find a new home? Will Mark find a nice Jewish girl? Can Josh realize his dream of becoming a theater impresario?

In the novel, Langer excels at digging into the nitty gritty of West 106th Street, which he calls by the obscure moniker of Duke Ellington Boulevard, where the novelist actually lives. He chronicles the loss of local bodegas, replaced by breakfast nooks and nail salons.

Langer is gleeful in using the plot tools of chance, coincidence and happy endings that were the backbone of old Broadway musicals. Rebecca's boss, who is gutting the venerable literary magazine Rebecca works at, once abused the dog Herbie Mann, but the pup will get his revenge. Darrell's lover Gigi is the writer of bad, angst-ridden short stories, brilliant children's books and is writing a real estate musical with the boyfriend of Josh, the realtor that is selling Ike's apartment. And who is the mystery woman that Josh's boss is screwing and what is her relationship to Rebecca?

With much of the action in the book framed in the three-month closing on the apartment and its tumultuous aftermath, Langer’s chapter have titles like “An Offer is Made” and “Closing Costs Are Assessed.” Herbie Mann runs afoul of the law and the NYPD is in hot pursuit. Ike Morphy must chose between his new, surprise romantic interest and the city he loves and the dog that he promised always to protect.

On the musical stage that “Ellington Boulevard” becomes, New York City itself plays a starring role, with its name above the title. Langer’s characters, like Ike and Rebecca, and even the once-sour Darrell, are mostly outsiders who came to the Big City to follow their dreams. The City can be a cold brutal place at first, but when the spotlight picks them up and they start to sing, the audience knows that everything is going to be all right, that the girl will get the boy, and the dog Herbie Mann will find a new home.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Q&A: Ian Rankin on Detective Inspector Rebus' Last Case

In 1987, a Scottish graduate student named Ian Rankin created the grouchy Edinburgh police detective John Rebus. The chain-smoking, hard-drinking Rebus exposed the underbelly of Edinburgh society, a world of addicts, gangsters and conmen, with the detective often following corruption up to the highest government levels. From his novels “Knots and Crosses” to “The Naming of the Dead,” Rankin helped elevate the Rebus series into the pantheon of the literary detective mysteries.

In Rankin’s 17th Rebus novel “Exit Music”(Little, Brown, $25) the tough and bitter detective inspector is 10 days away from his mandatory retirement at 60. Rebus must solve the grisly murder of a a prominent Russian dissident poet while a delegation of Russian oligarchs are in Edinburgh. At the same time, his nemesis, the brutal ganglord Cafferty, is given a savage beating. Rebus tangles with his own police brass in an attempt to solve a gritty, convoluted murder where everything is not that it seems.

Rankin, 48, spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from his home in Edinburgh.

Q. How did you wind up retiring Rebus in his 17th mystery?

A. A few years ago, an Edinburgh detective I know said to me, “Hey, this guy Rebus was 40 in 1987, right?8 0 I said yeah. “In 2007,” he said, “he’s going to be 60. If he’s a cop in Scotland, he’s going to have to retire.”

When I wrote the first book, I never planned to write a series. Rebus was actually supposed to die in the first novel. I was trying to write an updated version of “Jekyll and Hyde” with a cop instead of a doctor. Quite early in the series, I decided the books would take place over a real space of time and would reflect the changes in the world around me.

The reason I wrote the first book was in part because there was an Edinburgh that no one was thinking about. People thought that Edinburgh was a very quiet, genteel city where nothing happened. Away from the tourist spots, there were areas of great deprivation and the problems of drugs, drug violence and prostitution. I wanted to write about contemporary society and its problems.

Q. You’ve said that Rebus came out of your head fully formed in 1987. How has he changed in the last 20 years?

A. Rebus has changed dramatically over time. Slowly over the course of the series, I’ve given him my taste in music. In 1987, he liked classical music and jazz, but I realized it was easier for me to write about rock and roll. Rebus has been changed by every case has undertaken. He evolved with each book, becoming more cynical, and his health and personal life continued to deteriorate. The only thing that saves him is hi s job. That has been his whole life and that makes me worry about him now that he is retired.

Q. Rebus’ cat-and-mouse game with the master criminal Cafferty went on for more than two decades. How did Cafferty develop as a character?

A. In my third book, Cafferty appeared for only six lines as a criminal Rebus was giving evidence against. It was a couple of books later that I realized that Cafferty was a very good way of capturing all of society’s bad stuff in one character. He became Rebus’ Moriarty. Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Rebus and Cafferty are very similar. They have the same background, they are the same age and they both feel like dinosaurs, the last of a dying breed. You can never tell if they are going to become bosom buddies or if they are going to destroy each other. For both men, the lives they have chosen for themselves are lives without family and friends. Rebus rejects the nice women I’ve given him to play with. He’s just not very good at relationships.

Q. Detective Inspector Rebus pulled you out of graduate school and turned you into a bestselling author. Is it a shock that the crotchety old Rebus has retired?

A. I haven’t thought much about it until people ask me. I have a lot of other projects going on. If I want to bring Rebus back, there are realistic ways to do it. Retired cops often come back to handle cases on the Cold Case Review Team. Detective Sergeant Siobahn Clarke, his sidekick, could take over the series, with Rebus being there to help or to hinder the future cases.

Q&A with Ed Park on his debut novel "Personal Days"

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger on June 22, 2008)

“The Ninth Circle of Cubicle Hell”

In Ed Park’s hilarious debut novel “Personal Days”(Random House, $13), a crew of office drones wait at a unnamed New York City corporate hell for the downsizing ax to fall. In a witty satire of office culture, Park harnesses the Orwellian doublespeak of corporate bloodletting, where workers are stripped of tasks and fired by speakerphone, while the survivors wait for the ominous “Californians” to fly in and brutally fire the rest. An eerie calm settles in as the workers realize that someone is out to destroy the company.

“Personal Days” was inspired in part by the corporate gutting of the once-venerable Village Voice, where Park was fired as an editor in 2006. In his dead-on character studies, Park introduces the reader to Pru, the ex-graduate-student-turned-cubicle inmate, and Jack II, who gives unwanted “jackrubs.” There is Sprout, the Canadian boss who may be evil, and the bizarre Grime, a British worker who has a murky past and an impenetrable accent. There is the highly neurotic Lars, and Jill, who compiles the “Jilliad,” a collection of ludicrous business writings that becomes an almost holy text for the remaining workers. The literary coup at the end of the novel is a 52-page sentence, written by a worker trapped in an elevator with a dying laptop, answering all mysteries and making a strangled plea for love.

Park, 37, was raised in Buffalo and educated at Yale and Columbia universities. He was the editor of the Village Voice Literary Supplement and is a founding editor of “The Believer.” Park spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a cafe not far from his Manhattan apartment.

Q. You started writing fragments of “Personal Days” during the mass firings and layoffs at the Village Voice. What was the process?

A. At some point in 2005, I started writing and didn’t really know what I was working on. “Personal Days” is definitely not a roman a clef about the Voice, but as things at the Voice started going downhill more and more, there was more material. I had never written about the office before and all of a sudden, I was sitting on this great material--all these interesting hierarchies, the interactions between people in the office and the language they use. As the downsizing accelerated, this chaos and confusion magnified everything. The stories were screaming to be used.

For most people at work, there is the mystery, who rules over me? During the Voice downsizing, you had executives flying in from out of town. They have this embarrassingly dumb swagger and they pretend they know everything, which they clearly don’t. I was treated shabbily, but there were people treated worse. I eventually was fired over speakerphone.

Q. The novel is written in three distinct sections--a breezy, first-person narrative, an ominous report written in outline form and a 52-page single sentence. Why?

A. If you are going to write a novel about restructuring a company, you should have a structure that is changing, that is being restructured. That’s why there are three distinct narratives in the novel. The first section is “bad things are happening,” but it is entertaining and written in bite-sized sections. The second section is more anonymous. You have this report but who wrote it? The third section needed to be radically different. It is a love letter and a solution to various mysteries.

Q. The boss Sprout seems to be evil, but with a human face. How did he evolve in the novel?

A. I thought it was funny to have a character like Sprout who was described as “a proud native of Canada.” I started trying to make Sprout be seen as a bad guy through the eyes of his employees. By the end, I wanted him to be a more sympathetic character. You have to figure out the position that he was put in with the firings and who put him there.

Q. In one hysterical section, a fired worker named Jill leaves behind a notebook called “The Jilliad,” a compilation of absurd business sayings. How did you write this?

A. The Jilliad is the one part I didn’t write on my laptop. I wrote it using an old-fashioned typewriter. The typewriter gave the section a neat tone. Jill is this milquetoast character who won’t go into therapy because she is too shy. On the other hand, she is this incredible project going on, that speaks to incredible depths of character. I made all the business homilies up. It was me doing a workout on the typewriter.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Paul Theroux on Blindness in "Blinding Light"

(Originally published in the Denver Post, July 2005)

By Dylan Foley

In his 24th novel, “Blinding Light,” Paul Theroux writes about Slade Steadman, a travel writer who published one great book about sneaking across borders 20 years ago, but has not written any books since. The book “Trespassing” made Steadman fabulously wealthy through a clothing line, but has done nothing for his brutal writer’s block. He travels down to Ecuador to find a cure, takes a psychotropic and becomes a visionary, but also goes blind.

Theroux is written an incredibly witty, sensual novel about blindness, hubris, trespassing over borders and transgressions against the people. Theroux also writes a major cameo for Chappaqua’s most famous resident: Bill Clinton, who Theroux considers to be one of the great modern tragic figures.

The inspiration for Theroux’s latest novel came when he almost lost his own sight. “I had a double cataract operation in 1999,” said Theroux, at a New York hotel during the start of his book tour. “It was traumatic because I wasn’t that old. It made me really think about blindness. I wondered if there was a drug that could make you blind.”

At 64, Theroux is tan and robust, fresh from a recent trip to India. He says that the book took him six years to write. Along the way, Theroux explored the inability to write. “The book is also about writer’s block, for even writers like myself with 40 books can have writer’s block,” he says. But it is also the American condition of being a one-hit wonder. In other countries, we don’t have that problem. You can write on book and become celebrated. Here it becomes a serious problem.”

Theroux reels off a list of the great one-hit wonders: “Ralph Ellison and ‘The Invisible Man.’ Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird.’ And J.D. Salinger, who really only had the one great novel, ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’”

Theroux went down to Ecuador in 2000 on a psychotropic drug tour to try ayahuasca, a hallucenogen used by native South Americans. “I got sick and threw up,” he says, “and I had auditory sensations of insight, lights shining and visions of snakes and animals.” Theroux was also offered datura, a stronger drug that has harsh side effects. “I didn’t try datura because I didn’t want to go blind.”

Theroux has Steadman try datura and he becomes addicted to it. Steadman goes temporarily blind. He sees into people’s souls and even rescues a child who is drowning. Using his doctor girlfriend Ava as an assistant, he writes what he believes will be the greatest American novel ever. They begin to carry out complicated sexual fantasies, acting out the carnal experiences of Steadman’s youth.

“Steadman doesn’t have omnipotence, so much as prescience and second sight,” says Theroux. “He becomes a seer, for a lot of seers are blind.”

Theroux himself has been one of the most famous travel writers of the past 30 years, with his classic books “Riding the Iron Rooster” and “The Great Railway Bazaar.” At the beginning of the new novel, Theroux indulges in a satire of the yuppie travel world.

While in Ecuador, Steadman encounters a tour of four wealthy tourists. They spend huge sums of money to go to the most remote places in the world--Tibet, Rwanda and now a South American jungle drug tour. The group is blind to their own arrogance, greed and infidelity. Steadman, with his drug-enhanced senses, gives them their comeuppance.

Theroux, like other professional travelers before him, laments the overtouristed parts of the world. “When I was traveling Africa in the 1960s, there were still wonderful places to see,” he says. “Now even the remote places have been trashed.”

Instead of going to far-flung places where everybody else goes, Theroux urges intrepid travelers to go deep. “Travel isn’t about going to remote places anymore,” he says. “It is about going deep. There is always a place that has been misunderstood, but can be penetrated or understood by traveling there in a different way. A travel editor boasted to me that he’d been to Tibet. I said, ‘I would have been more impressed if you had gone to a remote part of Jackson, Mississippi, to an inner city ghetto.’ There is all kind of activity there, good, bad and ugly.”

Bill Clinton’s several extended cameos in the novel are hysterical. Theroux’s portrait of the brilliant and needy ex-president are dead on. The time is 1997, right on the cusp of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Steadman and Clinton meet at a big fundraiser on Martha’s Vineyard. Clinton embraces the blind Steadman as a new friend and talisman. Steadman winds up visiting the White House and senses the corruption of the people at a state dinner and the moral rot in the walls of the building itself.

It was Theroux’s leisure reading of a particular government document that brought Clinton into the novel. “What interested me a lot was the Starr Report,” says Theroux, of the massive report prying into Clinton’s personal indiscretions. “A lot of people haven’t read it. I can tell you it is pretty interesting. It is a total invasion of privacy on the level of going into someone’s house who you barely knew, opening all the drawers and looked at letters, money, devices and secrets. Not big secrets, but appalling secrets. Steadman meets Clinton and thinks that he’s got a secret, that there’s something rumbling in the background.”

For Theroux, Clinton is not only a tragic character in the Greek sense, where a man’s flaws bring about his downfall, but he’s almost a fictional figure. “People have written about Clinton, but it is the Clinton metaphor that interests me,” says Theroux. “It is almost like Clinton is a fictional character. The tragedy with Clinton was that everyone saw into the most intimate aspects of his life. No one wants that. Where does it happen? Only in novels, where the omniscient narrator peers into the crevices of a man’s life. That’s why Clinton is a fictional character to me.”

With 40 books under his belt, including novels, travel books and memoirs, Theroux said that one of the challenges is not to repeat himself, to do something new. “I wanted this book to be an erotic novel, which is one of the things I really haven’t written before,” he says. “It is a great area, to plumb a character’s personal, sexual fantasies. Writing about sex is very difficult to do and very easy to mock. People are very conflicted in reading about sex. There is very little in prose fiction nowadays. Once there was a lot of it.”

Steadman’s visionary blindness eventually makes him insufferable, until he finds that he is permanently blind. “The magic potion has cast a spell on him,” says Theroux. “Steadman is arrogant and hubristic, but he’s in for a mighty fall. He thinks he can control his blindness like Dr. Jekyll thinks he can control Mr. Hyde. The arrogance is punished when he loses control over going blind.”

The subtext of “Blinding Light” may be the general idea of the writing life. Living with Steadman for the past six years, Theroux says he has insights into his character and maybe that of all writers. “A writer who spends all his time at home is pretty unbalanced,” he says. “Steadman wouldn’t be a writer in the first place unless he was unbalanced.

“One of the things about writing about a writer is you are writing about an eccentric person,” says Theroux. “Where do you find a warm and fuzzy writer? They almost don’t exist.”

Dylan Foley is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Caroline Moorehead on the Masses of Refugees Worldwide in “Human Cargo”

(Originally published in the Denver Post, June 2005)

By Dylan Foley

There are an estimated 20 million refugees scattered around the world, forced out of their home countries by ethnic strife, civil wars and religious persecution. Some are survivors from wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone that chased them over the border into Guinea, others are Palestinians pushed out of Israel in 1948 and there are victims of political violence from the former Soviet Union, desperately seeking asylum in London.

The acclaimed British biographer and journalist Caroline Moorehead investigates the plight of these and other world refugees in her new book “Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees” (Holt, $26). Moorehead’s refugee project started when she went to Cairo four years ago to meet with Liberian asylum seekers hoping to resettle in the West.

“When I got there, it was clear that the asylum situation was chaotic,” said Moorehead, from her publisher’s office in New York. “We put together a system of taking refugee testimonies. Their stories became their passports. I went back to England and helped raise money for a legal office in Cairo.”

Moorehead’s Cairo trip started her own odyssey, with journeys to Guinea to look at the refugee camps and to Australia where Iranian Christians are kept in a desert gulag, helplessly watching their children go insane.

She went to Sicily to see how Liberian refugees fare after incredibly dangerous boat journeys, to San Diego to see how the U.S. border is crossed and to London and smaller English cities to meet with refugees warehoused in hostels, waiting in depression and anxiety for asylum.

Moorehead is no stranger to human right journalism. “In 1980, I was a feature writer at the Times of London,” she said. “My editors asked me if I’d like to do a column on this new sort of thought, these ‘prisoners of conscience,’ the Amnesty International idea. I wrote pieces about human rights and became involved in the human rights movement.”

The interview is interrupted by Moorehead’s cell phone. After a quick, animated conversation, Moorehead said sheepishly, “I feel like I am a human rights groupie.” She came to New York to meet with one of the Liberian men she mentored in Cairo, who has gained asylum in the U.S. and now drives a cab.

The 60 year-old Moorehead’s cultured manner doesn’t hide her steely determination. After her New York visit, she planned to jet up to Montreal, to find a human rights lawyer to help obtain a Canadian humanitarian visa for another Liberian refugee who is working as a virtual slave in a cement factory in Israel.

The personal involvement in the book came as a surprise. “When I first started, I never realized to what extent that I would become involved,” she said. “I think of a lot of these young men as friends, because I have a proper relationship with them. For many of these asylum seekers, they’d never really told their story to anyone. When they began talking, the conversation became important in itself.”

To write the book, Moorehead took nine journeys of her own in 18 months, including a trip to a harsh refugee camp in Guinea, where refugees from strife in Liberia and Sierra Leone wind up. Moorehead shows the dignity of a mother trying to care for her children in destitute

“It was the first time that I had ever seen a big refugee camp,” she said. “What I felt was the utter poverty. None of us in the West literally have the experience of having nothing. There are very few words to describe nothing. In the West, we go into a restaurant and eat what we want. These refugees, year after year, eat bulgur and a few greens. There is no milk, no meat, no dairy products, no coffee, no sugar, no tea. It is extraordinary what nothing means. And the hardships the children experienced, I found that very hard to take.”

Throughout the book, Moorhead puts a human face on dozens of refugees. There is one young Liberian man who dreams of a philosophy degree while he washes dishes, and there is Mary from the Sudan, who watched family members murdered and is now in the strange safety of Finland. In a humane, touching chronicle, Moorehead reveals the great determination of the refugees to survive and explores their few shreds of hope.

Turning her gaze homeward to her native England, Moorehead found the condition of asylum seekers to be quite bleak. “There was much desperation,” said Moorehead. “One of the insane rules in Britain is they can’t work, so they’ve got not money or self worth. Because they are treated as non people, all the horrors they’ve fled are magnified. They arrive in the West and they are treated as spongers. They are anxious and terrified, and all they have are their memories.”

Moorehead noted that a better foreign policy might prevent the creation of new refugees. “We are making refugees by selling arms and by unfair trade practices,” she said. “Western countries could stop countries from producing refugees if we put more money into improving conditions (in the refugees’ home countries), so they stayed home and did not become refugees in the first place. The notion of an ethical foreign policy is very attractive, but who is practicing it?”

In Cairo, Moorehead found the 57 Liberian men and women she mentored hungry for education, despite their uncertain futures. They rented a flat and held classes. “It was so terribly touching when we asked them at the beginning what they wanted to learn,” she said. “They wrote down nuclear physics, philosophy, biology and dentistry, as if they were possibilities.”

The Egyptian police had other ideas. “Egypt is a police state,” she said. “Eventually, the authorities started picking up and questioning our students on what we were teaching them and it became too dangerous. We closed down the school, but moved the classes to American University in Cairo.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Khaled Hosseini Returns to Afghanistan in “A Thousand Splendid Suns”

(Originally published in the Denver Post, July 2007)

By Dylan Foley

In 2003, the Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini exploded on the
literary scene with his novel “The Kite Runner,” about a friendship
between two boy in war-torn Afghanistan. The book sold more than four
million copies. His engrossing, new novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns”(Riverhead, $26), has also shot to the top of the national bestseller lists. In the new book, Hosseini covers 35 years in Afghanistan’s turbulent, tragic history through the eyes of Mariam and Laila, the two abused wives of a Kabul shoemaker.

Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy man. After her
mother’s suicide in the mid-1970s, the 15-year-old girl is married to
Rasheed, a man 30 years older who starts beating her after they find
she cannot bear children. For 19 years, she lives alone with Rasheed, forced to wear the burkha, the head-to-toe covering, and suffers his abuse as Afghanistan undergoes Soviet occupation and genocidal civil war.

In 1992, Rasheed marries the war orphan Laila, also 15 years-old. The
two women are at first adversaries, but then find a bond against their
hateful husband. As the country descends into the hell of endless war
and the Taliban, the women’s affection for each other grows, as they raise two children. Out of the grim environment of war and domestic abuse, they are able to pull out a common joy in each other’s company.

For Husseini, the story of two women trapped in an abusive marriage to
the same man came from his 2003 visit to Afghanistan.

"When I went to Kabul, the things I heard were really
astonishing," said the 42-year-old Hosseini in an interview at a New
York City hotel. "Women had seen their children starve to death. A
woman’s sister had been raped and killed herself. There were women
living in abject poverty who were beggars."

Then there was the grim execution video. "It is a rather famous video
out of Afghanistan," he said. “It is a grainy shot of a woman wearing a
burkha being led to a spot in a soccer stadium. The Taliban guy behind
her shoots her in the head rather casually. She collapses. It disturbed
me, but the writer in me thought, ‘What was her crime? Who was she?
What kind of dreams did she have? What was she like as a child?’”

Mariam and Laila come from vastly different experiences. "The key word with Mariam is that she is isolated in every sense of
the word,” said Hosseini. “She is a woman who is detached from the day-to-day norms of human existence. Really, she just wants connection with another human being. Until Laila comes along, you hasn’t found these things. Laila had much higher aspirations. She had a much more fulfilling relationship with her father, her girlfriends and her childhood friend
Tariq. She expected to finish school and is looking for personal
fulfillment. These are two very different, representative kinds of

Throwing the women together in his novel, Hosseini expected some
friction, but his women found kinship in adversity, despite beatings and emotional cruelty from Rasheed. "Mariam had been there for 19 years, and she would feel her territory infringed upon," said Hosseini, whose family emigrated to the United States in 1980. "What the women found out is they shared a common hardship, namely an abusive, psychologically imposing man. Mariam finally finds a person to connect with, and because she is childless, Laila becomes her
daughter for all practical purposes. Laila finds a friend and a doting alternative mother."

In Hosseini's deft hands, the abusive husband Rasheed is a multilayered
person. "Rasheed's the embodiment of the patriarchal, tribal
character. In writing him, I didn’t want to write him as an
irredeemable villain. He is a reprehensible person, but there are
moments of humanity, such as his love for his son."

To keep centered with Rasheed, Hosseini kept remembering an experience
he had in Afghanistan four years ago. "I had dinner with a man who had a very sweet, subservient wife. He said to me slyly, 'She doesn’t know this
yet, but I have another one coming.' He meant he was getting a second
wife. I would go back to that to put more meat on Rasheed’s bones."

During the four decades that the novel covers, Afghanistan and the
condition of its women become more horrible with each passing year. Despite slaughtering a million people in the countryside, the Soviets had a liberal policy towards Afghani women. Mariam and Leila observe this horrible collapse.

"Once the Soviets left and the international community lost interest in
Afghanistan, Afghanistan fell into the hands of the mujahideen
factions," said Hosseini. "These folks had identical ideas about women
as the Taliban had, but were too busy killing each other to implement
them. When the Taliban came in, they severely restricted women’s access
to jobs and healthcare. Women became invisible to society."

Even with the abusive conditions at home and the cruelty of endless war
and the Taliban, Mariam and Leila find contentment with each other.
"The women find joy in their day-to-day lives, from the children, to
doing chores together and the cup of tea they have at the end of a hard
day," said Hosseini. “People find meaning and redemption in the most
unusual human connections.

Like Sidney Carton in Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities,' Mariam
chooses death to save Leila and her two children, but goes to her
execution with dignity. "Mariam really matured by the end of this novel," said Hosseini "She had found what
she wanted in life, a companion. She had found love and acceptance, and
a home. It was with peace that she could walk to her death. She did
what every mother does, which is to put the well-being of her child

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y.

David Mamet on the Eternal Scams of Hollywood in "Bambi vs. Godzilla"

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in March 2007)

In the mid-1970s, David Mamet became one of America’s most prominent playwrights, with the cracking, harsh dialogue in “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” and “American Buffalo.” In the late 1980s, he started writing screenplays and directing films. His acclaimed film work includes “House of Games” “Homicide,” and the more recent “State and Main.”

In his new book “Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business” (Pantheon, $22), Mamet hits the Hollywood film world head on, bashing sequels, the death of good screenplays and how Tinseltown is packed with legions of executives who dodge responsibility. Mamet loves Hollywood, but he gives his shots, mocking film schools, predicting the demise of movie studios and indicating that screenwriting is often a whore’s game, where the aspiring screenwriter will do “anything” to get his work produced. While exploring why Hollywood movies can be so bad, Mamet offers a primer in the classics-- going through his love love of film noir and dusting off the oldies that must be seen, like director William Wyler’s 1936 “Dodsworth” and the 1973 Robert Mitchum vehicle, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”

Mamet, 59, was raised in Chicago and educated at Goddard College in Vermont. He is the author of more than 20 plays and 18 screenplays, and has written nonfiction books and novels. He lives in Vermont and Hollywood with the actress Rebecca Pidgeon and their two children. Mamet met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at an exclusive hotel in Manhattan.

Q. You’ve written a witty and at times scathing commentary on the Hollywood filmmaking system. What motivated you to do this?

A. I love Hollywood, I really do. I don’t think this book is a critique. It’s my attempt to make a unified field guide of what goes on in Hollywood. It’s an attempt, for want of a better word, to describe the Marxian dialectic between the workers and capital in the movie industry.

Q. Could you describe the Hollywood movie culture?

A. It’s a company town. The business just happens to be the entertainment industry. It’s no different than Detroit. Detroit’s auto industry got taken down by the Japanese automakers. The Japanese said, “Are they crazy? What are they doing with all that mid-level management, with this outdated infrastructure? We can do better.”

Q. But American movies having amazing box office grosses around the world. No one is going to take down Hollywood like Detroit.

A. No, but eventually the studios are going to fall apart. Someone with a better idea is going to come along and supplant the studios. It’s not going to be someone from another country. Whether the idea is organization of technology, it happens all the time, like YouTube, the Internet or the Weinstein brothers. Just like the Japanese, the Weinsteins looked at Hollywood. They’re great businessmen. “Why are American movies so bad?” they asked. “Because you have to spend too much money to promote them. All the studios are involved in the air war. How can I buy the opening weekend?” The Weinsteins looked at it and said, “To a certain extent, you need the promotion.” Then they said, “Wait a minute, why do I also have to spend $100 million to make the stupid movie?” If I have to promote the movies, to get the critics to see it, I can still make the movie cheaply.” Maybe you’ll even make a better movie cheaply. Or you can buy them for no money from Bulgaria.

Q. It appears that Hollywood is going through a period of bad movies. Do you agree?

A. They’re making some good movies and they are making some less good movies. I think “Crash” was spectacular. It came out of nowhere and they made it for no money. Are Hollywood movies worse? The answer is yeah. Then you have to ask, but then what? What are you going to about it? Nothing. What is happening to the studios is playing itself out.

In the 1950s, the studios were making 10 times the amount of films. The actual percentage of good films is probably the same. Nowadays, the absolute number of good films made is less because less films are made.

Q. One of your most interesting essays is about how screenplays have gotten so bad, with the studios looking for last year’s hit. What is the studio mindset?

A. It’s the bureaucratic mentality (of the executives). The entrepreneur says, “I’ve got an idea that nobody has seen before.” The bureaucrat says, “I’ve got to keep my head down. I’m not going to support anything that hasn’t been seen before That’s not what we do.” The bureaucrat sees their loyalty as correctly linked to the studio, not to the public that goes to the movies.

Q. You criticized test audiences that can change a film’s ending. Why?

A. The only thing wrong with this is they don’t work. There is no correlation between testing and movies grosses. You can’t quantify the audience’s reaction. It’s an interesting illusion. If they like x last year, they are going to like x+1 this year. A lot of people put a lot of time and money into trying to second guess The audience. You can’t do that. I’ve been in the entertainment business for 40 years. It’s all I think about everyday. What does the audience need? People are attracted to novelty. They want to go, “Ooh!” It’s like dating. You can’t know what people are going to fall in love with. When we go to the movies, we fall in love with an idea. It’s new and it hasn’t been seen before.

Q. How do you view graduate film schools?

A. Of course it’s a scam. It’s complete b.s. In general, I don’t know what they teach you. Here’s the thing—it doesn’t count ‘til the meter is running. The meter ain’t running until you are trying the please the audience. It’s not about regurgitating theory. You have to think, how I am I going to tell the story to an audience? As my great friend (film editor) Barbara Tulliver said about the movies, “There are no rules. And there is just one law: Don’t be boring.”

Karen Abbott on White Slavery Madness

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in August 2007)

In her gripping and wry book, “Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul”(Random House, $26), the journalist Karen Abbott tackles prostitution and white slavery hysteria in Chicago during the first decade of the 20th century. The book centers on the infamous madams Minna and Ada Everleigh, two Southern sisters whose Everleigh Club was the most classy and exclusive brothel in North America.

The action of the book takes place in the Levee, Chicago’s red light district, segregated from the rest of the city to protect the morals of pure, young women. With corrupt aldermen and Democratic politicians like Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna on the take, brothels abounded, with 5,000 women and girls working in them. The Everleigh sisters created a spectacular 50-room whorehouse, with a gold room, fountains of perfume and the the most beautiful girls. They were so famous that “to be Everleighed” became its own verb, inspiring its shorter, modern equivalent. With stories of kidnapped and abused young girls hitting the newspapers, a frenzy over white slavery heats up and the reformers leap in. A crusading cleric, Rev. Ernest Bell, vowed to shut down the Everleigh Club and an ambitious young State’s attorney named Clifford Roe fought to lock up the pimps and panderers who traffic in girls. Legendary characters abound, from Congressman James Mann of Mann Act fame to the Chinese courtesan Suzy Poon Tang (whose name became a bawdy noun). Abbott’s research is extensive and her narrative is witty, relentless and intriguing, covering the rise and fall of the Everleigh sisters and the Levee.

Abbott, 34, was raised in Norristown, Pennsylvania and educated at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. She was a staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and has written for She presently lives in Atlanta with her husband. Abbott spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from Chicago.

Q. How did the story of the Everleigh sisters and their Everleigh Club come to you?

A. It came from a bit of family lore. My great-grandmother and her sister emigrated from Slovenia to the United States in 1905. The sister went to Chicago and disappeared. She was never heard from again. I wanted to investigate the circumstance that could have led to her disappearance. I started looking at Chicago in 1905 and came across the shooting death of Marshall Field Jr. shooting pretty quickly. That led me to the Everleigh sisters, and then I didn’t really care at all what happened to my relative.

Q. How did the Everleigh sisters create their identity?

A. When I started looking into the Everleighs, they very expertly created these myths about themselves that was perpetuated through decades. They presented themselves as Southern debutantes, women of social standing and grace. Their personas were as important to them as the decor of their parlors and the beauty of their girls They had some pretty tragic and heartbreaking pasts. Their family lost their fortune after the Civil War. Their grandniece said that their father forced them into prostitution.

Q. Why did you expand the book from the Everleigh sisters to cover corruption, immigration and white slavery madness?

A. At the beginning, I thought it was an interesting story about two women, but then it occurred to me that it was a larger story about America at the time and America’s identity crisis. Immigration was exploding and urbanization was speeding up and people were changing their ideas about sex. There were thousands of white slave narratives, “P@rn for Puritans,” as I call them, were reflecting concerns about shifting mores and values. The country was terrified. The government was really expert at manipulating the fear. It was kind of like their Progressive-era terror alerts.

Q. What was the swirling scene at the Everleigh Club like?

A. The Everleigh Club was the place to be. Prince Henry, the Kaiser’s brother, shows up in New York. The press corps is all bored, asking questions like, “What do you want to see? The Statue of Liberty?” He says, “No, I want to go to the Everleigh Club.” For Prince Henry, they put on an elaborate production of the murder of Zeus’ son, complete with a cloth bull and fake blood.

For young women at the time, they’d be lucky to get a job as a typist. a clerk or a domestic at six dollars a week. If you went to a lesser whorehouse, a girl could get a job for $50 a week. At the Everleigh Club, a girl could make $100 a week.

In the book, I talk about all the fun, fabulous things that happened at the- club, but there was an undercurrent of tragedy. Some girls showed up at the club because they were abandoned by their husbands and had children to care for. Others met with tragedy. One committed suicide. Another was found murdered in a New Orleans alley with her hands cut off to steal her rings.

Q. With characters like Ike Bloom, Hinky Dink Kenna and several dead Chicago millionaires, how did you keep the narrative moving?

A. I’m really lucky. I have a great writing group They’re novelists. I’d spent days reading these dry academic papers on white slavery and would be at risk for writing like that, they would write things in the margin like “Boring!” They were helpful in keeping the narrative focused.

Q. Did you find any evidence that the hysteria over forced prostitution had any basis in fact?

A. The academics are still debating this. The unfortunately named Maurice Van Bever and (brothel owner) Big Jim Colosimo did play a role in some coercion, but I don’t think it was to the extent that the reformers were saying, that 60,000 girls were dying every year in brothels. The backlash against the furor was insightful. The former mayor of Toledo said that the white slavery narratives were the sort of pornography used to satisfy the American sense of news.

Q. Two of your main reformers--Rev. Ernest Bell and State’s attorney Clifford Roe come off as sympathetic characters. How did you write them?

A. If they weren’t sympathetic characters, the reader would dismiss them as a viable enemy to the Everleigh sisters. Ernest Bell was probably the most interesting person to research. He kept everything, from his diaries and his doodles, to pamphlets of men with faces eaten away by syphilis. He even left his personal effects. I felt like I was going through his pants pockets.

Nathan Englander on “The Ministry of Special Cases”

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in May 2007)

In 1999, the writer Nathan Englander burst onto the American literary
scene with his masterful and satirical story collection “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” chronicling the Jewish communities in New York Jerusalem and Europe. Eight years later, Englander is back with his debut novel “The Ministry of Special Cases”(Knopf, $25), which is the story of the Poznan family during the Argentine “Dirty War” in the mid-1970s after their only son is “disappeared” by the military. The novel moves deftly from the black comedy of one family to the unmitigated horror of parents realizing that their child will never been seen again.

Kaddish Poznan is a hijo de puta, son of a whore, born in a Buenos Aires brothel where his Jewish immigrant mother worked. For his entire life, Kaddish has been an outcast from the Argentine Jewish community. Nearing 50, Kaddish has a lucrative job going into the section of the Jewish cemetery reserved for prostitutes and pimps, obliterating the names on the gravestones for the occupants’ now-respectable children. Kaddish and his wife Lillian have a 20-year-old son named Pato, a college student dreaming of revolution and smoking a lot of pot. Pato is taken by unidentified military men. The parents plunge into a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, where Lillian waits at a government office with other desperate parents looking for their children, while Kaddish goes into the underworld he knows well. He finds out the grim reality, that the military has dropped thousands of drugged, naked young people out of airplanes into the hungry River Plate. Lillian refuses to believe her son is dead. Kaddish has the
unimaginable burden: how to mourn for his son where there is no body? Englander, has created a beautiful novel that is both witty and brutal. In the swirling terror he has created, Englander addresses issues of identity, community and the destruction of a civil society.

Englander, 37, was raised on Long Island and educated at SUNY Binghamton and the Iowa Writers Workshop. “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” won the Pen/Malamud Award. Englander lives in New York City and
poke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a cafe near his home.

Q. How did you get involved with writing about the “Dirty War” and
Buenos Aires?

A.. With a book that you’ve spent a decade on, it is so strange to explain where it came from. In a sense, the book became my life. If somebody asked me, “Why is Kaddish this way?” I would have to say, “How else could he be?” I had meet some older Argentine guys when I lived in Israel whose lives had been so completely shaped by the politics of the 1970s. I had
also been to Buenos Aires for a friend’s wedding in 1991 and loved it there. Honestly, for me, it is the ideas that I have been obsessed, like identity, community and injustice, and the idea of bodies. Argentina became the right setting for it It’s not like a chose a setting and came up with the story. These big ideas were banging around in my head.

Q. There is an hysterical section about the Jewish pimps and whores of
Buenos Aires, and Kaddish’s family history, with tough guys like Hezzi Two-Blades
and Talmud Harry who formed their own synagogue called the Society of the
Benevolent Self. Did you invent this all?

For me, research works backwards. I like to dream. There was an actual
society of pimps and whores. People ask me, “What is your research? I
laugh. I don’t read Spanish, but I may have looked in a Spanish book
and have seen a picture. The picture was all I needed. In other books I used, I may have just read a paragraph. I read about a cemetery (for pimps and prostitutes). I could have spent 10,000 pages on the Jewish whorehouses. In the end, I wrote 150 pages, and I got it down to the 10 or 12 pages that it is now. That world in itself was fun to write. It took a while for me to figure out that this book was not about that world that Kaddish was born into, but the legacy of that world.

Q. Where did the Ministry of Special Cases come from?

A. Living in Israel, you learn that Kafka is not made up. People ask me how I would have imagined such a bureaucracy. Just try to get a parking permit in Jerusalem. You shall know the horrors.

Q. Why didn’t you go back to Buenos Aires while writing the book?

Last year, my editor and agent were each holding me by the arm. “You will cost us another decade if you go near that city,” they said. It made me realize that this novel is my own world. If I dream something, if I invent a Ministry of Special Cases, it exists and is true because it is central to my world.

Q. Kaddish believes that his son is dead. Lillian fervently believes he is alive. These positions shreds their marriage. How did you create their scenes together?

A. In terms of spending all this time in the book, for me to write these two characters, I had to treat them with absolute respect. That they can be in the same house during this nightmare and have opposing views on their son, it is not for me or the narrator to judge them.

Q. Under curfews, military killers drive around in green Falcons rounding up kids, torturing and killing them. Neighbors pretend to be blind to these atrocities. Is this the collapse of civil society?

A. Part of civil society is a politeness that allows for things like this to happen. A woman’s relative disappears and she is told not to help to look for him. The idea is that a neighbor disappears and you don’ mention it for fear of dying. It allows for a surface to form. It’s a world upside down. I feel like it is politeness flipped into terror.

John McGahern’s Last Literary Effort in "All Will Be Well"

(Originally published in the Denver Post in April 2006)

By Dylan Foley

“Writing this memoir, I discovered how treacherous the memory is,” said the great Irish novelist John McGahern two weeks before his death on March 30th. “We tend to telescope things that actually took place over a long period of time.”

In one of his last interviews by telephone from his farmhouse in County Leitrim, Ireland, McGahern discussed his powerful and moving autobiography “All Will Be Well” (Knopf, $25), which chronicles his mother’s death from cancer in the 1940s when he was nine and his survival in the house of his abusive police sergeant father.

Like his novels “The Barracks” and “By the Lake,” McGahern’s memoir is a lyrical telling of a lost rural Ireland. The book opens with the intense bond between the writer and his schoolteacher mother Susan, and her battle with cancer. Her death is inevitable and she is all that protects her seven children from the violent rages of her husband Frank.

The author of six novels and three short story collections, McGahern was known as one of Ireland’s most beautiful prose stylists. He wrote about bleak family relationships and the endings in the novels, all set in the Irish countryside, were not usually happy.

McGahern had a bout with colon cancer, but battled it into remission in 2002. The disease came back with a vengeance this year. McGahern had to cancel his American book tour in early March. “My bags were packed, but the doctors told me it was not a good idea to go,” he said.

Despite his terminal illness, the 71-year-old McGahern was an engaging and witty interview subject, reflecting on life with his mother and father from sixty years ago.

“My father was very attractive and handsome, like a movie star,” said McGahern. “In the marriage, he started behaving badly even before I was born. My mother was very religious. She was committed to one man and would think that was her duty.”

The memoir is a clear-eyed account of the abuse in the McGahern family and how the children survived. It is told without melodrama or self pity. Outside his immediate family, Frank McGahern could be a charming figure. At home, he beat his children often without provocation. “He hated when we were at peace or getting along well,” said McGahern. “He had to cause some incident or violence to break up that happiness. The violence was to direct the attention back at himself.”

One of the father’s cruelest acts was to neglect the mother in the last months of her life. The mother and father were living in separate villages 20 miles away, but he rarely visited. The title of the book comes from a bizarre letter that the father sent the dying mother, telling her that all will be well if she put her faith in god.

Three days before Susan McGahern died, her husband sent men to take the children away and to strip her house of all its furniture, except for the room she was dying in. McGahern was forever haunted by the moment that he ran out of her room for the last time.

“It was extraordinary just to leave one room furnished in the whole house,” said McGahern. “All the furniture was taken out. I can still hear those iron beds being banged apart.”

The children were also banned from the funeral. “My father wouldn’t let me go because he wanted to be the lone star of the funeral,” he said.

In a magnificently written, wrenching scene, at the same time that his mother’s funeral begins, the nine-year-old McGahern runs out to the neighboring fields with a clock, following the rituals of the mass minute by minute as his heart breaks.

“It wasn’t very hard to write because it was so vivid,” said McGahern. “It was as vivid as yesterday.”

It was the memory of his loving and nurturing mother that enabled McGahern and his siblings to live through violent and unstable conditions. “We certainly wouldn’t have survived if we didn’t have the years we had with her,” he said.

McGahern and his five sisters and one brother banded together to subvert their father. “We became a small army to ourselves,” he said. “We organized ourselves against our father. Anyone who tried to curry favor with him would be punished by us. He became isolated in his own home, even when we were just 14 or 15.”

The McGahern children would parody the father’s whining and complaining that he had such ungrateful sons and daughters. “We would have these jazz sessions, where we would imitate him,” said McGahern. Imitating someone is like mastery. We used to laugh at him.”

Despite the abuse at home, all seven McGahern children eventually escaped the father. Several of the sisters became nurses in England and others became civil servants in Ireland. The human toll on the children was heavy, especially on the youngest Frank. “Frank did very well in life,” said McGahern. “He was the financial comptroller of the BBC in London, but he never really recovered. He eventually drank himself to death.”

In the memoir, McGahern explores the roots of his life as a writer. His mother’s burning desire was that he become a priest and say Mass for her. He had the epiphany that he would rather be a writer, to be a god of his own fictional world.

McGahern touches on the early scandals of his 1965 second novel “The Dark,” which includes scene of a father sexually molesting his son. The book got him fired from his job as a schoolteacher by the Archbishop of Dublin. “The Archbishop of Dublin was obsessed with impure books and movies,” said McGahern, laughing at the 40-year-old memory. “He didn’t want a writer of impure books in his school.”

“All Will Be Well” has sold 70,000 hardbacks in Ireland. For his only memoir, McGahern resisted embellishment. “The fiction writer’s instinct is to improve and reinvent, but of course you can’t do that,” he said.

Though John McGahern’s death is a loss to the world literary community, he has given readers his final gift, a starkly beautiful memoir of a boy surviving a harsh childhood to become a world-class writer. “McGahern’s “All Will Be Well” has set a high standard to meet for the memoirs that follow.

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Jane Smiley’s Take on War, Sex and Hollywood in "Ten Days in the Hills"

(Originally published in the Denver Post in June 2007)

By Dylan Foley

Jane Smiley’s new novel “Ten Days in the Hills”(Knopf, $26) takes place during the opening days of the Iraq War in 2003, where a has-been movie director named Max entertains his family, friends and some unwanted house guests in his isolated mansion in the hills overlooking Hollywood. Inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century stories in “The Decameron,” the participants fight about the war, have sex, discuss movies and tell stories.

With two of her novels, “A Thousand Acres” and “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” having been turned into films, Smiley has her own views on Hollywood. “My experience is that you get screwed one way or the other in Hollywood,” said Smiley, in an interview at a New York hotel, “but there are variations on getting screwed.”

Bringing this experience to bear on the new novel, Smiley has created a witty, talkie fiction about the Hollywood culture, where not much happens. Ten complex characters reveal their angst, humor and fixations, discussing their failed careers and successes while picking a voluntary quarantine in the lap of luxury while a war rages in a distant land.

For Smiley, the origins of the new novel come from her long-burning desire to write a sex novel set in Hollywood. In 2002, the plot developed when she started reading the “The Decameron,” about citizens of Florence trying to escape the Black Death.

“I read ‘The Decameron’ at the same time of the anthrax scare,” said Smiley. “Our press was full of panic over a dozen anthrax cases. In Florence in the 14th century, 50 to 70 percent of the city was dying of the plague. Plagues were on my mind.”

Smiley assembled a motley crew of guests in her novel. There is Max’s girlfriend Elena, an ardent lefty; Zoe Cunningham, Max’s movie star ex-wife; Paul, Zoe’s New Age boyfriend; Isabel, Max’s daughter, who is secretly sleeping with his agent Stoney, Charlie, a depressed country club Republican friend of Max’s, and assorted others.

Like “The Decameron,” the book is divided into 10 parts, each marking a day in America’s newest war. Smiley writes explicitly about sex, often using street terms for the various parts involved. The desire to write honestly about sex, she noted, comes from Hollywood’s failures.

“I saw ‘Meet Joe Black,’ a movie about love, and when the characters had sex,” said Smiley, “the cameras focused on their faces. How would you portray lovemaking? It’s very difficult.

“I think people talk explicitly when the make love,” she said, “especially when they are sexually satisfied. Zoe and Paul are sexually satisfied, though they can’t make their relationship work any other way.”

In Max’s house, the amicable, dysfunctional family starts to crack after some arguments over the war. The occupants retreat into discussing movies, sex and older horrors, like the Nazi death camps, the Crusades and the Rwandan genocide. Life goes on, despite the war. People eat, people discuss old family conflicts as the war becomes a faraway news event. “It had to be in a house far way from the center of things, like ‘The Decameron,’” she said.

“If you’ve seen my pieces on the Huffington Post,” said Smiley, referring to the opinion web site, “you’ll know that I am a fiery polemicist against George Bush and the war. My editor and I felt that to go on and on about the war was really boring. We decided to get to the war by talking about the other dislocations of history.”

In Max’s house, there is a sexual betrayal, then the residents continue eating healthy, expensive organic food. They watch and discuss movies, from “Sunset Boulevard” to “The Ten Commandments.” “I also had to get the Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal’ in there because it deals with the Black Death,” said Smiley, in a nod to “The Decameron.”

The complacency of the people in the house is further shaken when they are invited to stay with a Russian billionaire who wants Max to remake an old Yul Brynner Cossack film “Taras Bulba,” based on a novel by Nikolai Gogol. All 10 members of the hodgepodge family move to the Russian’s house in Bel Air, a fantasy mansion full of stolen Vermeers and Rembrandts.

The Russians offer Max anything he could ever want to make their film. In the megamansion, two maids try to sleep with the guests. The novel shifts into what is almost a fantasy sequence, a fable.

“As soon as you have wretched excess in Hollywood, you have wretched excess on a high level,” said Smiley. “As soon as you have Russian billionaires, you have more wretched excess. The Russian house appears to be a dream that will disappear.”

Even in the fantasy mansion, the occupants are left with the turbulent realities of America’s future. For most of us in America, life goes on,” said Smiley. “For Isabel, there is a feeling that her prospects, despite her privilege, are much darker than Max’s were at his age. Though she finally admits she loves Stoney, her lover, that doesn’t make them safe, or that that the prospects for their children are good.”

Smiley’s own trials as a novelist in Hollywood were mixed. “For ‘A Thousand Acres,’” the book that won Smiley a Pulitzer, “they treated me great, had me on the set and made a dull, earnest movie,” said Smiley. “For ‘The Secret Lives of Dentists,’ they treated me like I was dead, I had trouble getting paid and I had to buy my own ticket to see the movie. I thought the movie was fabulous, so I forgave them for being such [creeps]. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could be good to you and still make good movies?”

Smiley is about to take her third expedition into Hollywood. “I’m in the midst of taking the plunge with my last novel, ‘Horse Heaven’,” she said “It’s not such a crime, because now I’m prepared.

“My advice to any novelist involved with movies is to keep writing novels,” she said. “Hollywood will tickle you under the chin and make you feel great, but they are not reliable.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mailer Writes Hitler Novel with Devils

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in January 2006)

By Dylan Foley

“I can say that I’ve been obsessed with Hitler since I was nine years old,” said the novelist Norman Mailer, from his Provincetown, Massachusetts home. “My mother only had a high school education, but she was a highly intelligent woman. In the early 1930s, she said, ‘This man is going to kill half the Jews.’ She took him seriously long before anyone else did.”

Mailer has turned his obsession into a new novel, “The Castle in the Forest” (Random House, $27), where he imagines the tortured, incestuous history of Adolf Hitler and his father Alois Sr. in late 19th century Austria. The book is narrated by Dieter, the urbane mid-level management devil who is trying to corrupt the young Adolf.

“To me, Hitler has always been very real to me and frightening,” said Mailer in a recent interview from his majestic living room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, as he referred to his Jewish upbringing in New York City. “There is a part of me that has concentrated on Hitler my whole life. I wasn’t that surprised when I started writing about him.”

The book is narrated by Dieter after World War II, where he served as an SS officer. As a demon, Dieter’s history with the Hitler family starts 80 years before the war, where he follows the career of Alois Sr. as he climbs out of poverty to become a customs official in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alois Sr. is a brutal sexual predator, and an abusive husband and father. His third wife is Klara, a woman who in Mailer’s fictionalized tale is almost certainly his own daughter. She gives birth to Adolf. The demonic Dieter uses not pitchforks and claws, but subtle manipulation, otherworldly spies, human agents and implanted thoughts to sculpt Adolf to have the potential for great evil. Battling the angels who try to protect the boy’s soul, Dieter helps crush Adolf’s fragile dreams. At the same time, Alois teaches his son cruelty and bitterness.

Mailer turns 84 this week. Though his knees are shot, forcing him to walk with two canes, the old literary lion’s mind and wit are still very sharp. In the interview, he meditated on Hitler, God and the Devil.

“It occurred to me that there was a bureaucracy to Satanism,” said Mailer. “The devils are working all the time. God’s angels, the Cudgels, are working all the time. That’s where people see my novel as a farce.”

Mailer has been a public literary figure and target since “The Naked and the Dead,” his World War II novel, was published six decades ago in 1948. He has written 35 works of fiction and nonfiction since then, but Mailer ignores the labels that people put on his books.

“I don’t care about the names that people put on things,” he said. “What I try to20do in a book is to get the people as real as possible I don’t see people the way that others do. I’m interested in the double aspect of people.”

Working with his research assistants, Mailer went through more than 400 books about Hitler and related subjects in the four years it took to write the novel. Using novelistic license, he wrote an incest plot. “There were hints all over in Hitler’s family history of incest,” said Mailer. “At this point, you have to grab the nettles, bite the bullet. We need more than a simple explanation of Hitler. As a novelist, I had to make choices.”

Mailer’s gripping and intriguing rewrite of the Hitler family with devils asks dark questions about the human soul and the forces of good and evil.

Mailer’s Dieter is an overworked functionary who takes pride in his work. “For me, it was natural to have the Devil in the book,” he said. “Dieter is the perfect gentleman. I’ve believed that the devil has existed for a long time. My notion is that God is a creator, not a law giver. I’ve always seen God as existential, a God who may succeed or fail. God is doing the best that he or she can do. The Devil is doing his best to overthrow God. That’s the battleground.”

Alois and Klara have a turbulent marriage, with Alois’ violence and infidelity. “I didn’t see their marriage as that terrible,” said Mailer , who lives with his sixth wife, the painter Norris Church Mailer. “Having been married six times, so marriage is a theme for me. I’m very interested in the nature of marriage, what’s good about it, what’s contradictory about it?”

It was Hitler’s father that intrigued Mailer. “I found Alois to be a fascinating character,” he said. “He’s a man who’s had a hard life, and he’s tough and vulnerable, like so many other people. People who are macho are macho here and vulnerable there. People have a tendency to say, ‘What is Mailer up to?’ I can say no more than these are people as well as I understand them.

“How could a man have a life like Alois, without having a great deal of cruelty?” asked Mailer. “I am not a moralist. Moralism is often the first strength of a mediocre mind. In other words, people tend to be moral because it gives them a sense of security that they haven’t earned.”

For Mailer, the life of Adolf Hitler and the crimes that he committed are still beyond human comprehension.

“Hitler is so beyond the pale that, humanly speaking, one can’t understand him,” he said. “If Jesus was born as God’s son, I would go so far as to say that Hitler was born as the Devil’s son. Hitler is the ghost of the 20th century. Speaking as a Jew, Hitler did tremendous damage to the Jews after his death, so that they can’t think of Hitler without becoming paralyzed.”

As the novel progresses, it shifts from Alois Sr. to Adolf. Adolf becomes hardened by the death of his baby brother Edmund, after Adolf intentionally infects him with the measles. “After the death of Edmund, there is a serious change in Adolf,” said Mailer. “There is a huge guilt that he thinks he might have killed Edmund, and he may well have. It poisoned something in him and he began to go through bad years, not only the bad years in school, but the bad years later in Vienna. He was pursued by a profound guilt that he could not accept. I don’t get into it in this book, but maybe we’ll get into in another book. I’m almost 84. I’m not going to make predictions about what books I am going to do.”

In the twilight years of his formidable life, Mailer admitted he thinks a lot more about God and the Devil. “I haven’t spent my life thinking, ‘God’s with me,’ or ‘The Devil’s with me,” said Mailer, “but as I get older, I think about these things.”

Mailer mused that it may have been divine intervention that forced him to remain a novelist. “There were years in my life when I wanted to be anything but a novelist,” said Mailer, referring to his attempts to be a boxer, a playwright and even to be Mayor of New York. “If I had a guardian angel, he would h ave been saying to me, “Don’t think you can be a boxer, you’ll get clobbered. Don’t think you’re the world’s greatest sex object, because you are not.’ This guardian angel kept pushing me back into the novel, whether I wanted it or not.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mark Danielewski’s Second Wild Ride in "Only Revolutions"

(Originally published in the Denver Post, August 2006)

By Dylan Foley

In 2000, Mark Z. Danielewski published his debut novel “House of Leaves,” a spoof of a horror story about a house that was one-quarter inch larger on the inside than the outside, and the fatal expedition to explore the caverns underneath. Filled with footnotes, fake graduate school dissertations and documentary film commentary, the novel segues into a grim tale of the brutality of human existence as told through the eyes of former battered child Johnny Truant. Backed by a committed group of Internet-savvy uber-fans, the book has sold 300,000 copies worldwide.

Now Danielewski is back with his sophomore effort, an equally demanding and swirling novel called “Only Revolutions ”(Pantheon, $26), the story of Sam and Hailey, two discarded teenagers who blaze across the United States in souped up automobiles, traveling from 1863 to 2063. Like he did in “House of Leaves” by standing the horror story on its head, Danielewski has now used his brilliance to hijack the classic American road trip by turning it into a mythical journey with two storytellers. For his efforts on the new book, Danielewski has been nominated for the prestigious National Book Award, to be decided on November 14th.

The 360-page novel is narrated by both Sam and Hailey. Sam’s story travels from 1863 to 1963, when John Kennedy was assassinated. Hailey chronicles the same events,=2 0but they take place from 1963 to 2063. The reader has to flip the book over every eight pages to read their different versions of events. Like “House of Leaves,” the layout and even the fonts used are crucial to the story. Each page is broken into four quadrants, with 360 words on the page, the number of degrees in a circle There are 90 words of Sam’s side, 90 words of Hailey’s side, and each has a “ticker tape” of history in a sidebar, listing famines, wars and more mundane things.

The book revels in an over-the-top “he said, she said” conflict where Sam’s glowing views of his heroism are contradicted by Hailey’s more pragmatic views. Sam’s transcendent sexual experiences with Hailey are in her eyes much less fun.

Danielewski’s work, told all in free verse, calls to mind the work of Walt Whitman in its celebration, denunciation and chronicle of America. It also pays homage to John Dos Passos’ epic “U.S.A. Trilogy.”

“Only Revolutions” is a vastly different novel than the writer’s debut work. “I looked at the moment,” said Danielewski, in a recent interview, of the success of his first novel. “I realized I could write a sequel to ‘House of Leaves,’ some riff on Johnny Truant, but that would be to support my lifestyle. Or I could take a different path and write a novel that I really believed in. That is what I ultimately did. ”

For Danielewski, “Only Revolutions” began with an image of urban grittiness, that he pulled from things he’d seen in New York City or Los Angeles, where he lives. “The book started for me with two kids who were homeless, asking for change on the corner,” said Danielewski, from a battered tea shop in New York City. “They had each other. If the law cared enough about them, it was only to move them along.

“I always knew the book was going to be a road trip,” he said. “I always like doing genres. As they are tearing across the country, they are withering the world around them. I love road trips, their energy, their malice and romanticism.”

Moving through two hundred years, America’s past, present and future, Sam and Hailey don’t age. Their speech changes, from the archaic vocabulary of the Civil War era, to the Roaring Twenties and the earnest phrases of the Kennedy era. “I realized that for Sam and Hailey, what came out of poverty was the richness of language,” said Danielewski “For me, I ended up finding the language of teenagers. It’s an outcast vocabulary. Your normal Webster doesn’t have most of these terms.”

Sam and Hailey start in a Civil War battlefield in the East. They then move through the Jim Crow South, and wind up in New Orleans in 1929, right before the stock market crash. It is a time of decadence.

“In New Orlea ns, it is the Roaring Twenties,” said Danielewski. “People were taking baths in Dom Perignon. Wall Street sneezed and the rest of the world caught pneumonia. Hailey sneezes that sneeze. As Sam and Hailey crash, the world crashes.”

Other mythical historical parallels abound. “Hailey winds up being taken to the hospital and being taken care of by a doctor in a wheelchair,” he said, shades of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.

The adrenaline pulses through the book as they travel out West. “The first time you read it, I would say you should read it fast,” said Danielewski. “Otherwise, you might begin to sink into it.”

Sam and Hailey’s physical descriptions prove elusive. Are they white, are they black? It is not clear. “You couldn’t film this book, for they all races,” said Danielewski. “At one point, there is an indication they may be two screaming queens,” meaning two gay men.

As Sam and Hailey go on a collision course through the book from opposite ends, they begin to fall in love. “On the simplest level, I wanted to use the book to describe their relationship,” said Danielewski. “They start far apart, then move closer and closer until at the very middle they see each other accurately, then they move to a greater distance.”

At the end of the book, Sam and Hailey wind up on a snow-covered mountain, both having to make their own heartbre aking choices. For Danielewski, the end of the road has important symbolic value. “In many ways, we are talking about an epic journey,” he said. “It is about the death of adolescence.”

After Sam and Hailey’s wild ride across the country, Danielewski extends this idea to America. “We are at a place in our cultural history,” he said, “where it is time for the United States to mature. The time has come for a greater sense of awareness of the rest of the world.”

Dylan Foley is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Alice Sebold on Matricide, Grief and Freedom in "The Almost Moon"

By Dylan Foley

In the first paragraph of Alice Sebold’s new novel “The Almost Moon”(Little Brown, $24.95), Helen Knightly admits that she has killed her mother. “When all was said and done,” says Helen, “killing my mother came easily.” After two decades of caring for her cruel, mentally ill mother, Helen is now free. As her life unravels in the following 24-hour period, Helen botches hiding the body and muses on the love, anger and the hatred she has felt for her mother.

“I always start with obsessions in my writing,” said Sebold in a telephone interview from her home in San Francisco. “For me, it is always an obsession in the culture that greatly affects the culture. Now it’s the phenomenon that people are living longer and longer lives, and the caregiver, usually a she, is living longer and longer under the auspices of being a caregiver.

“There’s really no kind of roadmap of how you can gain your freedom while you’re being a caregiver up into your seventies,” said Sebold. “I kept thinking about that, and the basic idea of freedom and identity from one’s parents.”

Helen’s mother Claire, once a lingerie model, is an agoraphobic shut-in. At 18, Helen escapes her dead-end Pennsylvania town to college and then a doomed marriage to her art professor. Sh e returns to the small town with her young daughters, and after her father’s suicide, takes care of her mother for the next 22 years, locked in a brutal codependency.

At 86, the mother has entered an end stage of obscenity-laced dementia. Following a harsh exchange, Helen smothers her with a bath towel. After the unpremeditated murder, the 49-year-old Helen seduces her best friend’s son, drives around aimlessly and through flashbacks contemplates her shattered family life as the police close in.

“All bets are off in the 24 hours after the murder,” said Sebold. “Helen does need human warmth right after the murder. She goes looking for her friend Natalie, but finds Natalie’s 30-year-old son Hamish and sleeps with him. She’s been brought back to the living. I was interested in what happens when you go so far and kill your mother. It’s not like you’d go home and have an espresso and mow the lawn.”

Helen’s ex-husband Jake flies in from California to support her after the killing. A neighbor finds her mother’s body and Helen becomes a suspect. In a flashback, Helen remembers how Jake accused her of making her own prison with her mother.

“In Helen’s case, the prison can be a more comfortable place than the enlightening reality of freedom,” said Sebold. “You know the prison, you know the warden, and there are comforts within. If you do literal transference with the character, you c an fight Helen and say, ‘She could have gotten out.’ Some people could have and some people would have, but many don’t and many people wouldn’t have. Helen’s lack of ambition brings her back to the prison rather than going into the scary outside.”

Like Sebold’s earlier work, “Lucky,” a memoir of her own 1981 rape, and her bestselling novel “The Lucky Bones,” narrated by a murdered child, “The Almost Moon” is a dark tale, but it incorporates wit and compassion in telling Helen’s story of duty, breakdown, grief and freedom.

In Helen’s decades of caring for her mother, the line between duty and love have become blurred and murky. “One’s mother, one’s parent, is one’s responsibility,” said Sebold. “Even if that person is very difficult to deal with, they are your responsibility. We are obligated to fulfill this duty, even if you see it is hurting you, other members of your family or the person themselves. Then there is this love, which is hard to see sometimes. Young children who are actively being abused by their mothers still want to be with them.”

One macabre mother-daughter story jumps out at Sebold. “I always think of the mystery writer Patricia Highsmith, whose mother tried to abort her by drinking turpentine,” she said. “Highsmith supported her mother her whole life by writing these deeply misanthropic novels. She was locked in to caretaking for this woman who had literally tried to kill her. To me, that is an endlessly fascinating relationship.”

Society’s view on mother-daughter relationships is a bit too candy-coated for Sebold’s tastes. “We live in a society that makes the mother-daughter baby thing so sweet, puffy and pink,” she said. “I distrust that and I think it’s not the experience that most people have.”

At the end of the novel, Helen sleeps with Hamish a second time to borrow a getaway car from him. He bitterly notes that Helen can be very harsh and judgmental, like her own mother.

“You are in training, like ‘Grasshopper, here is a pointed barb. This is what you use when you weigh half the weight of your opponents,’” said Sebold with an infectious laugh. “In her mother’s case, this is what she used when she was trapped in the house. Helen learned this, but her mother used the weapons against her. Your teacher is your first opponent.”

Despite the fact that Helen feels little remorse over killing her mother, Sebold has written a horribly human character, sympathetic in her tortured own way. It was, however, a hard road to get to Helen.

“I wrote a lot of drafts,” said Sebold. “I started with other points of view because I didn’t have Helen. I had a woman with two grown up kids who had a very difficult relationship with her mother. I w rote a draft from her ex-husband Jake’s point of view. It was a lot of struggling in the dark.”

After three years, Helen came to her. “It was much more challenging to write a first-person story by the woman who does the killing and the 24-hour period afterward,” said Sebold. “As a writer, I got closer and closer to the ledge, then I just jumped off.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Michael Sallah on "Tiger Force" and the Horror of the Vietnam War

(Originally Published in the Denver Post in August 2006)

The Atrocities of War, as Explored by Two Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalists

By Dylan Foley

In 1967, Tiger Force, an elite commando unit from the Army’s 101st Airborne Divisionwent on a seven-month rampage through the Central Highlands of Vietnam, burning down peasant villages and killing men, women and children. A report issued by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division in 1974 implicated individual soldiers in the atrocities. The report accused the unit’s commanders of turning a blind eye to rampant atrocities that killed hundreds of civilians. In 1975, the Defense Department under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld covered up the report.

In 2002, reporters Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss of the Toledo Blade, received a box of still-classified Army documents revealing the Tiger Force atrocities. In a series that ran in the Blade, Sallah and Weiss interviewed dozens of former Tiger Force soldiers and Vietnamese survivors for a three-part series that won them the 2004 Pulitzer Prize.

In their riveting new book, “Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War”(Little, Brown, $26), Sallah and Weiss detail a 40-man unit descending into the heart of darkness. Led by an incompetent captain and egged on by their commanders, the commandos destroy ed villages, shot anything that moved and made necklaces out of human ears. The book details the hellish atrocities, but then moves on the fascinating detective story of one Army criminal investigator, Warrant Officer Gus Aspey, who was determined to bring the killers to justice. Finally, the book is a powerful exploration of why fighting men unravel in combat.

In a recent interview in New York City, Sallah sat down to discuss one of the darkest chapters in America’s war in Vietnam. The war crimes investigation, he said, started with the murder of a baby.

“The investigation started in 1971,” said 50-year-old Sallah. “Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) agents were investigating another company. They ran across a sergeant named Gary Coy. He mentioned the story of a baby’s head being cut off by a soldier named Sam in the Central Highlands. They realized the soldier was in Tiger Force.”

Using numerous interviews and quoting government reports, the two reporters write a vivid story of a unit operating without supervision, where the killing of civilians became routine, and men who initially refused to kill civilians were pulled into heinous atrocities. In late 1960s, it was a time of “free fire zones,” where civilians were fair game and the Army inflated body counts.

The Tiger Force was an experimental unit used to beat the Viet Cong at their own game. “Tiger Force was a ‘recondo’ unit, both reconnaissance and co mmando unit,” said Sallah. “They were set up in 1965 to ‘out-guerilla the guerillas.’ This was the kind of war where soldiers were fighting in underground tunnels and dealing with ambushes and booby traps. Tiger force members wore their own tiger-strip fatigues, grew beards and carried their own side arms. The Army would screen the enlistees: ‘What is your willingness to kill? Can you kill close up? Can you slit a person’s throat without flinching?’ They wanted bad@sses.”

As evidence mounts that U.S. Marines angered over the death of a comrade shot and killed 24 men, women and children in Haditha, Iraq, last November, the Tiger Force story gains a grim relevance. Why do atrocities occur in war? How can they be stopped, or at least how can the killers be brought to justice?

Tiger Force’s murderous rampage started in April 1967. “They got a new commander named Captain James Hawkins, a yahoo who was not a very good soldier,” said Sallah. “Tiger Force was sent to the Central Highlands to clean out the farmers of the Song Ve Valley. The Tigers were used as terrorists to get the civilians out. The Army commanders said, ‘Send the Tigers in. They are the mop up. They are the fist.’ They were the commanders’ kill squad.”

Almost as soon as they are sent into the Song Ve Valley, Hawkins murdered an elderly farmer. He orders 10 more farmers mowed down. Squad leaders William Doyle and=2 0James Barnett forced reluctant soldiers to kill civilians. The most vicious killer, Sam Ybarra, who kills the infant, took scalps and ears of civilians he has murdered.

“All of these guys dehumanized the enemy, that the Vietnamese were less than human,” said Sallah. “You could kill any of them. It didn’t matter if they were older or younger, or farmers in the field begging for their lives. Tiger Force soldiers would watch women and children run into bomb shelters. They would unclip their grenades and throw them in, turning the shelters into mass graves.”

There was, however, the heroism of the men who refused to kill civilians. “Some of the men who refused to cross the line, who risked their lives to save prisoners and civilians, were Donald Wood, Gerald Bruner and Manny Sanchez,” said Sallah. “Look at their backgrounds--they were deeply religious. They refused to go along with the plan. At one point Bruner lifted up his rifle to another soldier. He said, ‘If you grease that kid, I am going to grease you.’”

Sallah and Weiss dug up extensive evidence that military brass knew what was going on.

“Men in the unit went above their officers and told the commanders,” said Sallah. “They did nothing. The unit commander, Lt. Col. Gerald Morse, had access to the battle records. He knew that Tiger Force was supposedly killing Viet Cong but no weapons were seized. In one 11-day person, 50 ‘ V.C.’ were killed, but not one weapon was seized. The commanders should have known. The battalion surgeon said, ‘We knew all these body mutilations and war crimes were going on in the field, but we didn’t want to know much more.’”

Instead of stopping the massacres, Morse pushed his men for higher body counts. “Morse had the radio code name ‘Ghost Rider,’” said Sallah. “Soldiers heard a man named Ghost Rider say over the radio, “You’re the 327th Infantry. I want 327 kills.’”

It was the Austrian-born Army investigator Gus Aspey who brought the Tiger Force atrocities to light through a four-year investigation that sent 100 investigators to 63 U.S. military bases around the world. “The investigation was hell for him,” said Sallah. “He was undermined at the bottom and the top in the CID. He was unrelenting. He was a pitbull.”

Despite the extensive evidence of atrocities, no charges were filed. The final Tiger Force report was buried for three decades and a shocked Aspey was banished to a CID office in Seoul, Korea. “It was November 1975, the same month that Donald Rumsfeld took over as President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Defense,” said Sallah. “Dick Cheney was Ford’s chief of staff. The war was over. Rumsfeld wanted to get beyond Vietnam. We had lost. You didn’t want something like this coming out. It was another My Lai.”

After covering the Tiger Force story, Sallah blames the commanders for the ongoing killings. “The story of Tiger Force is a breakdown in leadership,’ said Sallah. “I don’t blame the men. I blame the leadership that could of stopped the atrocities.”

Sallah raised the bleak specter that the U.S. military hasn’t learned any lessons from Vietnam. “[Tiger Force] is a classic case study on how soldiers break down during counterinsurgency guerilla warfare,” said Sallah. “The Tiger Force story could help with the safeguards and training that all soldiers need in battle. We can learn from this today, but the Army doesn’t recognize these things. You are going to find things like Tiger Force happening in Iraq.”

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in New York City