Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Pearl

           As I read John Steinbeck’s The Pearl*, I tried to imagine what the pearl in question looked like physically. I envisioned an enormous white ball sitting luminously in a room with everyone around it like...
             Instead, it was probably a reasonably sized pearl rendered overly impressive in the small town of La Paz. The novella tells of a small family living in a tribal community. The father, a pearl diver, hauls in the Pearl of the World one day and their life changes forever (Steinbeck, 29). He is not educated; he relies solely on his instincts and the tradition of his people. Thus, he is not prepared for this unprecedented find, and many people attempt to manipulate his newfound fortune. When he initially discovers the pearl, he dreams of a better future for his wife and his son. By the end of the book, his wishes are perversely fulfilled.
            Steinbeck is an American guy with American concerns. This novel, published in 1947, and East of Eden, published in 1952, address the divide between good and evil and focus on the greed that fuels evil-doers. My biggest takeaway from East of Eden was Steinbeck’s uncanny ability to describe people and get to the root of who they truly are. Every mannerism, every piece of clothing, and every speech inflection reveal a person’s innermost characteristics. Here, even though Steinbeck discusses the same themes, he adopts a different writing style. His words take on a more dreamy and lyrical tone. He’s less descriptive and more straightforward, as if the book is more like a parable intended to be told in soothing tones to successive generations. In both novels, he proves his knack for interweaving complex ideas into simpler storylines. But don’t take him lightly--his words might be easy to read but they’re packed with profundity.

            Similar to East of Eden, The Pearl highlights the stereotypical complementary attributes of men and women. Women offer their infinite wisdom (duh) and men maintain their stubborn ways. The couple in the story joins forces in order to retain their dignity in the face of evil. I giggled a little when Kino, the man, puts his wife’s advice immediately to rest. “‘Hush,’ he said fiercely. ‘I am a man. Hush.’” (Steinbeck, 74) Of course, he says this right before shit goes down that would have been avoided had he listened to his woman.

            Steinbeck has mad skills when it comes to telling a good story. This novel is succinct, entertaining, and eerily rhythmical in a way that I did not know he was capable of. He continues to live up to my expectations of an author who knows what he’s talking about and is able to talk about it creatively. As such, I give The Pearl four out of five camel humps. It is a foreboding and humbling reminder that sometimes the greatest treasures can lead to the most desolate wastes.

*Steinbeck, John. The Pearl. New York: Bantam Books, 1947. Print.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Bonfire of the Vanities

            A few months ago, I spoke to a patient at my hospital who was an English teacher. Obviously, I bombarded him with questions about his personal lit preferences as well as his favorite books to teach. When he mentioned Tom Wolfe, I gave him a knowing glance like “DUH. Who hasn’t read all of Wolfe’s novels?” I scurried out, Googled Wolfe for the first time, and proceeded to order The Bonfire of the Vanities so that I could keep up with the hot high school English class trends. The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Acid Test sounded cooler but I thought it prudent to switch it up after recent reviews on drug-addled books like Fear and Loathing, Just Kids, My Booky Wook, Naked Lunch, etc.

            Wolfe is a well-established journalist and novelist not afraid to tackle contentious topics—namely race-relations and the financial current behind them. Specifically, The Bonfire of the Vanities contrasts affluent, waspy white men with the frustrations of dispossessed black men in the Bronx. I can’t help but notice that Wolfe is a well-to-do white man himself. Yet, his words don’t come across as hypocritical or ignorant. He cycles through three perspectives in the book—all exclusively white males; but impressively, the unspoken black voice is what resonates. You’re not rooting for these white men.

            The three men in question are Sherman McCoy (a self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe” who works on Wall Street and lives in a Park Avenue mansion), Peter Fallow (a scumbag alcoholic journalist), and Larry Kramer (an assistant district attorney dissatisfied with his middleclass life). Their lives are interwoven when McCoy commits a crime, Fallow capitalizes on McCoy’s fall from grace, and Kramer prosecutes the case. Such a straightforward storyline might not seem worthy of 690 printed pages, but honestly I was hooked every step of the way. Each detail has a purpose; there is not a single wasted space or worthless description because every minute plot point proves its relevance eventually. Wolfe retains reader interest by adding a little bit of new knowledge with each chapter. The story brilliantly unfolds before our eyes. We don’t learn anything too quickly or too slowly-- the pace is just right…up until the end.

            My biggest compliment to Wolfe is his ability to portray the spectrum of human emotion. Throughout the novel, characters are painted by their peers as “good” or “evil” based on an isolated action. Extenuating circumstances are often not considered in our evaluation of others. After a while, it doesn’t matter what you did or who you truly know yourself to be. Your self becomes how other people perceive you. If someone does something bad, we think they are bad, and then we ignore evidence to the contrary. This phenomenon leads us vilify others even when we do the same things as them. Likewise, it prods us to skew the facts in a given situation to help support our steadfast idea of someone’s moral character. In highlighting this generalization of “good” people and “evil” people, Wolfe effectively captures the grey areas that we all know to be true but don’t readily admit. McCoy’s crime balloons into a disaster and takes on a moral weight. Wolfe sneakily reminds us that even this once-womanizing bigot is a human too. We come to see the “pangs of men whose egos lose their virginity” and although we don’t necessarily grow to like McCoy, we come to empathize with some of his more brutal collisions with reality (Wolfe, 669). Ultimately, we’re still looking at McCoy like…

            Overall, I appreciate that Wolfe does not shy from the cold truths of humanity’s desire for possession, sex, wealth, and status. Nor does he ignore the corruption of the NYC judicial system or the dogged loyalty of an in-group vs. an out-group. All of these things come up to some degree in every single character, which is precisely why the book’s longevity is so necessary. Admittedly though, I was a little let down by the ending. The way it ended was not disagreeable, but it did feel abrupt. I would have been happier with a longer book and a neater finish. Thus, I give it 3 out of 5 camel humps. Like many of my 3-humpers, I respect the writing and I am eager to read more of Wolfe’s works. At the same time, I couldn’t look past the conclusion, which felt like a door had been slowly closed in my face. Not a slam—but a premature, unwanted closing. Interestingly, the novel was originally published serially in Rolling Stone magazine. It came out chapter by chapter while in the process of being written (super dope). In this case, I feel like that method probably softened the blow at the end.

            Still, I think that the book would be valuable to readers, especially those involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Wolfe literally asks us if “a black life [is] worth as much as a white life” in the American court system (Wolfe, 586). I’m confident that this novel would prove a worthwhile compliment to a movement that validates black lives in the face of systematic opposition.

*Wolfe, Tom. The Bonfire of the Vanities. New York: Bantam Books, 1987. Print.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

                  Today marks the start of a new kind of post: the *Hollywood Hardbacks*. The first Wednesday of every month, I will review a book that has been made into a film, commenting on the substance of both the writing and the movie. Am I qualified to give my informed opinion on a major motion picture? Ummm obviously… I took one course on detectives in film in college. You can have it on good authority that I am fully prepared to provide you the multilayer review you’ve been waiting for.

                  The first book in my Hollywood Hardbacks series is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I went to Vegas in August and I’ve been legitimately terrified of it ever since. Flashbacks of wading in large pools with hundreds of other assholes listening to loud music and drinking $50 drinks. Woof. Hunter S. Thompson’s infamous book perfectly encapsulates the vileness of this derelict desert. The setting is pretty straightforward. Thompson, in real life, roams on a drug-induced binge through Sin City with his attorney/friend in a search for the “American Dream”. The text draws from a notebook that Thompson kept during two trips to the city commissioned by magazines. Thompson found that it wasn’t exactly a stroll down the strip to complete his reporting duties considering he was on a combination of LSD, mescaline, ether, amyl nitrite (is this a thing?), coke, marijuana, and alcohol at all times. I’m honestly impressed that his beer belly physique was capable of withstanding it all. Hard body.

                  The actions and dialogue are purposefully outrageous throughout. Chapter titles include things like “A terrible experience with extremely dangerous drugs”, “Paranoid terror and the awful specter of sodomy…a flashing of knives and green water”, etc. Per usual Thompson flair (see my old review on The Rum Diary), he aggressively plunges into the depths of human despair as a way to exemplify America’s lusts and consumerist obsessions. He wants to push the envelope as far as it would go because he felt that his generation’s counterculture ethos had failed as a guide towards life’s answers or as a coping mechanism for life’s problems. Specifically, he calls out Timothy Leary’s psychedelic advocacy, stating that the movement did not satisfy society’s vicious search for happiness.

                  Thompson says we’re all just “humping the American Dream” (lol), but what exactly is this so-called vision (Thompson, 57)? Americans love a self-made man—someone who can pull himself up by his bootstraps and make something of himself. To portray the ridiculousness of that ideal—the endless search for more, more, more—Thompson took more and more and more drugs and spent more and more and more money in a city that thrives on excessive expenditure. Like, he took all of the drugs. As an aside, I believe the British dream involves crumpets in a pub and being pompously polite.

                  In book form, Thompson never fails to titillate. He’s an extremely intelligent and talented hedonist who will frankly prostrate himself in the pursuit of journalistic integrity. Hunter S. Thompson: the gonzo journalist sacrifice! He is a good writer, even if the extreme drug use rubs you the wrong way. Thompson is telling a story and if you judge him, that’s no skin off his back. At the same time, as entertaining as it was, I wouldn’t say that it’s brilliant literature. I had similar feelings towards The Rum Diary—I like it and I like Thompson, but I can only give it 3 out of 5 camel humps because I don’t find it absolutely groundbreaking. And I don’t think it’s intended to be.

                  Truthfully, the book did more for me than the movie. I was impressed that the film was virtually a verbatim account of Thompson’s text. He practically wrote a screenplay. Cartoonist Ralph Stedman did a remarkable job illustrating the novel, so I had high expectations for the film’s visual interpretations and it delivered. Aesthetically, I enjoyed certain scenes like Thompson losing his shit when he thinks the people around him are transforming into reptiles or when he takes too much of the mysterious adenochrome drug.  In terms of character portrayal, Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro were spot on. Depp romps around like a certified lunatic and Benicio dons this menacing drawl that renders his character simultaneously absurd and believable. Still, some magic was lost in the making of the motion picture. I think that if you watched the film without the context of the book, it would seem incomprehensible or at least disorienting; I’m not sure that the movie could stand alone well. When your storyline centers so exclusively on drugs, I can imagine it’s difficult to honor the message behind Thompson’s vulgarity while depicting the vulgarity itself. Sure, you can show some trippy acid scenes and have it be compelling, but does that really get to the heart of Thompson’s assertion that our gratuitous ways are unfulfilling like the written word can? Once again, we have the classic case of *the book is better than the movie*. So, I give the movie 2 out of 5 camel humps, not because it didn’t amuse, but because it paled in comparison.

*Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York: Random House, 1971. Print.