death and taxes

My new review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is just out in the Texas Observer‘s June 27 Books Issue.

It’s as if David Foster Wallace, a generation’s leading literary light, has reinvented himself in a parallel world. Not the feckless wastoid fiddling with fiction, but an anonymous David Wallace knuckled down to the genuinely heroic work of number-crunching. As one character tells another in one of The Pale King’s many veiled summations, “Sometimes what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t works of art for your entertainment…” Preparing taxes, on the other hand, matters, “one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sorts of terms …” America’s civic sense is “… adolescent—that is, ambivalent in its twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony.” We want all the entitlements of citizenship, but we don’t want to pay our taxes.


the origins of alt

Got a new review out today in the Texas Observer‘s latest biannual books issue. It’s on John MacMillian’s Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media — a subject near and dear to my heart as a longtime fan of the former and contributor to the latter. Here’s a sample of the review:

SOME PEOPLE REMEMBER EXACTLY what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed or their whereabouts when JFK was shot. I remember reading my first alternative newspaper.

It was 1985, and it was called Public News—a gritty little shoestring tabloid, now defunct, that helped anchor and define Houston’s pre-gentrified Montrose neighborhood as a quasi-bohemian lodestar for those of us stuck in the suburbs. A high-school friend brought it back from a record-buying expedition, and inside its ink-smeared pages we gained our first gleanings of concepts like intentional community, participatory democracy and an aesthetic avant-garde.

Just kidding. We learned there was a band called the Butthole Surfers and that a porny art flick was screening that weekend at the University of Houston’s Clear Lake campus, an easy bike ride from our homes…



writing about pictures

Five Decades: A Retrospective, by William Allard, foreword by William Kittredge, Focal Point, National Geographic.

So it’s certainly only coincidence that a month or so back, I was in Missoula hanging out with Al and Ginger and watching a fledgling Missoula rollerderby team get trounced by a much more experienced team from Spokane, I think, which reminded me of one of my favorite all-time phrases, which is the Spokanification of Missoula, all of which was lots of fledgling fun, when Al introduced me briefly to a guy named Bill Allard, who quite enjoys the Kettlehouse, and who was hanging around looking like Ernest Hemingway’s idea of a photographer.

And then a week later, my editor at the Missoula Independent asked out of the blue if I’d review a new book I didn’t know Allard, who I didn’t otherwise know, had out. I remembered the name then, but didn’t remember that I already have one of his books, Portraits of America, presently stored away in a box somewhere. I’d found it in an Ann Arbor usedbook store and picked it up out of curiosity and looked at it quite a lot last year without the name quite embedding. The foreword to that book had been written, I’d also forgotten, by Thomas McGuane. Whose name may in fact have generated my original curiosity. About whom I tried hard to be thoughtful in my last review for the Indy. With the result that Tom McGuane took public offense in his online comment on the story, reproduced in its entirety below:

A friend of mine who claims I always get my worst reviews in Missoula which he describes as “a pleasant town fifteen minutes from Montana”, sent me this harsh view of my life and work. It does appear that I am in bad trouble both artistically and personally. For those readers who think the literary world ends with the Missoula Independent, I attach these positive notices in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. -Tom McGuane



And of course I’m all like OMG, Tom McGuane read my review, and then I’m like, well, crap.

I said yes to the Allard, and it came in the mail, and I spent some quality time with it, and I talk on the phone to Allard about it, and you can READ THE ESSAY-TYPE RESULT  HERE.

Allard's "Eduardo Ramos with his dead sheep, Puno, Peru, 1981." Copyright William Allard I assume. Apologies for the craptacular lo-res web file. (His photos look much better in larger format, obviously, but big good-looking images are Allard's bread and butter, and one hesitates to just appropriate that on a blog, electronic displays and photographic authorship being what they are. So: the postage stamp, just to give you the barest idea.

Alternately, you could scan the excerpt below:

Allard refers to himself at various times as a street-shooter (his primary self-identification), a documentarian, and a photojournalist, and maybe as a result of his range, there’s really no instantly identifiable Allard style. An Allard photo is fully about its subject, even if what the subject is may be open to interpretation. For instance, there’s a picture on page 59, “Calving time, Padlock ranch, Montana, 1975,” that any idiot could tell you is a profile portrait of a horse standing in a storm. It looks to me like the most accurate visual representation of the verb “snow” I’ve seen.

He frames portraits and landscapes, almost-abstractions and pure color. His “streets” over the course of a career have included Paris catwalks, Hutterite living rooms, Nevada chuckwagons, Peruvian slaughterhouses, Brazilian brothels and Indian sewers. You can find echoes in Allard’s work of Robert Frank (if he’d shot The Americans in color), and street-shooting pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson (a 1967 tableau of boys playing ball in France). A few of his photos could be passingly confused for the work of contemporaries like Peter Brown (a luminous Winifred, Mont., homestead), or Annie Leibovitz (the uncannily illuminated Wyoming range detective Ed Cantrell). But none of the occasional touchstones is much to the point.

His photos are about what they’re of. The self-portrait they imply shows a photographer with an eye open to any possibility of color, character and composition that might wander through his view. A picture with the cool formal rigor of “Minor league spring training, Phoenix, Arizona, 1990” has little in common with the warm grainy blur of Allard’s prostitute portraits, which have little in common with the grin on bandleader Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s face as he finishes a set in Memphis. What they do have in common is that Allard was there, open and equal to the moment. Sitting in a French cafe watching the girls smoke or tromping through cornstubble with Iowa birdhunters, Allard, more than anything else, is receptive.

mindreading McGuane

Man, it is snowing like a mofo here, a perfectly horizontal march of particulate white blowing past outside the window on gusts that sound like they’re taking the roof off. A fine day to blog. And since my review of Thomas McGuane’s new novel Driving on the Rim just came out in the Missoula Independent (bless them for keeping me in occasional bylines during this terminal book-writing endeavor), figured I’d plaster that up here.

Here’s a sample:

It may be hard to remember now, but Tom McGuane used to be a literary rock star. His prose “pyrotechnics” (the word appears in almost every review) in early works—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwacked Piano (1971) and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)—put him in critical company with the likes of Thomas Pynchon (whose Gravity’s Rainbow topped Ninety-Two for the 1974 National Book Award). He courted actresses, wrote coke-fueled screenplays and crashed a Porsche in Texas on his way to earning the doubtless now embarrassing nickname Captain Berserko.

Since those early salad days, it’s become reviewer’s sport, especially in The New York Times, to chide McGuane for not living up to early expectations, wrist-slapping his over-reliance on “quirky” scenarios, quoting easy-to-find examples of McGuane’s acknowledged sentence-level mastery and sending him off with a condescending pat on the rump and instructions to try harder next time.

Part of this is surely because McGuane planted himself in Montana in the late 1960s and started training horses and setting his books in flyover country. But a larger part is that McGuane is a writer of not easily reconciled impulses. His two exceptional modes are almost-slapstick absurdity and lush depiction of landscape. He’s a comic novelist with a penchant for corseted Victorian diction and a jones for rural vistas and the creatures of field and stream. It’s not a combo critics look West for, and it can be jarring even to readers without geographical bias.

You can read the whole thing here.

river miles

One of my fondest river-tripping memories is from the Buffalo River in northwest Arkansas, late 2001 I think. I was paddling a canoe and two dogs down a three-night jaunt, and one morning I found myself rounding a bend where a road dead-ended into an overlook. There was a car there, and a couple standing on the bank of a bluff a bit above me. They seemed excited to see someone on the river and the woman asked me where I was going. When I named the spot where I planned to take out a few days later, she pointed downstream and told me my destination was thataway.

Well no shit.

Which raises the question of why a river tripper would need a river map. You’re going thataway—thataway being downstream—until you get there. Otherwise, you’re working way too hard. And going the wrong way.

True enough, as far as it goes, and most of my river-running has been map-free, with the occasional exceptions of guidebooks identifying access points.

Salmon River, Idaho, October 2010.

But 80-mile wilderness whitewater trips on permitted and camping-limited rivers are different. It can be good to know when it’s starting to get dark that the tent-friendly sandbar next to the creek on river right is the last such opportunity for eight miles. It can be good to know which beachable slackwater is just a short hike from the Indian pictographs. Or the hot springs. And it can be good to know whether the next rapid is a read-and-run Class II or something hairier that you’d really rather pull out and scout.

So when I got a chance to glom on to a late-October run down the Salmon River in Idaho a few weeks ago, I bit the bullet and dropped $23.95 for this map covering the Middle Fork and main-stem Salmon. It’s produced by an outfit called RiverMaps out of Buda, Texas (which produces a whole series of western-state whitewater river maps) and it’s brilliant. For one thing, the maps are oriented such that when you strap it onto the cooler in front of you, both the right-side map and the left-side points-of-interest progress toward the top of the page, downstream, where you’re headed. I don’t know why all river maps aren’t made this way, but they’re not.

The coup de grace is that it’s waterproof. Mine got soaked, sloshed and sandblasted (and frozen into a hard roll when I left it on the porch the cold-ass night I got back), but with a defrost and a few swipes from a rag, it’s good as new.

Which is sweet, because I sure as hell hope to get a chance to use it again. This was my second trip on the so-called River of No Return, and I don’t expect to get tired of it anytime soon.

I’ve got some TRIP PICTURES ON FLICKR if you care to take a look.

reading and/or writing

One of the (incredibly many) challenges I’m finding in trying to write a partially research-based book is trying to decide where the reading ends and the writing begins. It’s a false delineation for sure, because I can’t see how the reading is ever going to end, but a reasonably important question anyway, since the writing has to progress, simultaneously or otherwise. And the fact of the matter is that reading is easier than writing, and it’s awfully tempting to respond to writing difficulty with a fuck-it shrug, pad upstairs, and curl up on the couch with a highlighter and a book.

But then there’s always the hopeful chance that someone will pay me to write (I tend to subscribe to Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”), and there ain’t nobody gonna pay me, alas, for sitting around and reading. (Though my friend Lorie may beg to differ: Hi Lorie!)

I’ve compiled a bibliography for my Opportunity, Montana book that’s now topped 60 titles and counting, of which I’ve so far read about two-thirds. The most recently read of this bunch is The Story of Copper, a 1924 title by one Watson Davis. There are contemporary trade titles on coal and uranium, among other elemental ingredients of human history and progress, and you might think there’d be one dealing with copper as well, but you’d be wrong. I’ve had a hell of time finding lay treatises on copper (shy of something like the not-exactly-page-turning Copper: A Materials Survey, by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines), so I was — I admit it — excited when I found this battered $5 copy of The Story of Copper in Butte’s Second Edition used-book store (a fine place to while away an afternoon, by the way, with a reasonably extensive and locally topical geology section).

This thing is swollen and moldy with water damage (otherwise I’m sure I would have been charged closer to $40 for the privilege), and it’s actually been a pretty damn good read, full of useful tidbits (who knew (and, arguably, who cares?) that New York City’s Grand Central Station, from tap screws to desk fans, contains 2,718,000 pounds of copper?).

The Story of Copper also contains perhaps my favorite sentence so far unearthed in all this digging. Davis opens a chapter titled “The Brass and Bronze of War” with this juicy bombshell:

A man can not be killed in an up-to-date manner without copper.

Umm: Go copper!

looking back

Just did a short piece for the Texas Observer on one of my favorite Houston books, the long-out-of-print Sig Byrd’s Houston, which in my humble opinion stands tall in the company of the best of mid-century newspaper columnizing anywhere in the country.

A short excerpt of the short review:

The persons, places, and incidents in this book are real persons, places and incidents,” Byrd wrote in the book’s not-quite-boilerplate front matter. “Any resemblance between this book and a work of fiction is either coincidental or, what is more likely, is entirely in the reader’s imagination. He probably has been reading too many novels and has neglected to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors.”

Byrd wrote a column called “The Stroller” for the daily Houston Press in the 1950s, and later for the Houston Chronicle. These stories were adapted from the columns. Byrd did not neglect to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors. He found them gassed up on Milam Street’s Catfish Reef and cutting vinyl sides in the Bloody Fifth Ward, shoeing horses on Vinegar Hill, and fishing for gar in the East End’s “bilge-green bayou.” Fun-gals and law-hawks; ex-boxers and lady bouncers; pachucos, pastors, poets, and ragpickers with handles like Twitchy Tess, Deacon Neal the Gospel Man, Sam Petro the Tomato King, and Don Antonio of the Segundo Barrio—each wearing what Byrd called “the story face,” wherein he discerned “truth with the bark off.”

You can read the entire review here.