The Golem, by Edward Lee

Going back to when I was a little kid, I loved horror movies. I was raised on a regular Saturday night fix of Chiller Theater and Creature Features. Back in those prehistoric days before DVD or even VHS, when seven channels was all you got (in New York it was CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, WOR, WPIX, and whatever channel 5 used to be), you had to scour the TV Guide’s movie listing in the hope that a really good horror movie would be on.

But like most kids, I wasn’t all that discriminating. Sure, I knew that Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man were better movies than House On Haunted Hill or I Was A Teenage Frankenstein but hey, any port in a storm, as they say. So while I hoped for the original Invisible Man, I contented myself with Attack Of The Crab Monsters.

I never lost the enjoyment I got when watching a good horror movie, but I did become more discriminating. Not long ago I rented Attack Of The Crab Monsters and enjoyed it for the nostalgic dumb fun it was, but it’s not going to replace Rosemary’s Baby in my list of the great horror films.

This love of horror movies transferred to books, as well. I discovered Stephen King just before the movie version of The Shining came out, and spent the 1980s reading a lot of horror novels in my spare time. I enjoyed the best writers in that genre (King, Peter Straub, Thomas Tessier, Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert, and even, for awhile, Dean R. Koontz before he started pushing outright horror aside in favor of suspense). I also got into the so-called “splatterpunk” scene of the 1980s: Clive Barker, John Skipp and Craig Spector, David J. Schow, and others.

I like my horror readable, gritty, realistic in characterization, and fantastic in plot. Evil should be evil, good should be good, and good should triumph in the end.

The single best summation of my view of horror fiction was in The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, when Samwise Gamgee says:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

In my wildest dreams I couldn’t have put it any better. Which brings me to The Golem, by Edward Lee.

I’m not a prude in these matters by any stretch. I loved reading the splatterpunks, so violence and gore doesn’t make me faint or blush. I don’t have any problems with sex, either, though explicit sex scenes are almost 100% unnecessary. So what’s my problem with The Golem?

The key ingredient of any horror fiction is the evil that provides the antagonism. For horror fiction to be successful, the villain or villains of the piece must be believable.

I can hear the protests now…”What’s believable about a killer clown that lives in the sewer (Stephen King’s IT)? What’s believable about a fog that turns people into homicidal maniacs (James Herbert’s The Fog)? What’s believable about a hipster vampire in the New York subway system (Skipp and Spector’s The Light At The End)?” The answer is that elements that are outside of humanity can be accepted by the willing suspension of disbelief. The killer clown is believable because I’m willing to accept it.

When dealing with human beings, however, the suspension of disbelief is much harder. Human characters need to be well-constructed. Sure they can be evil, but they must be believable because they are human. I can buy the killer clown because I don’t know any killer clowns. I can also buy Hannibal Lecter because I’ve read about real-life serial killers and cannibals.

What I have a really hard time accepting are human characters that are so over-the-top in their evil that they become cartoons. In the portrayal of real, human, evil, Edward Lee’s The Golem is closer in spirit to Sleepaway Camp, Mother’s Day, and Motel Hell than it is to The Silence Of The Lambs or Psycho. There is a sliding scale of quality for horror fiction with The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Psycho at the top. Somewhere in the middle are movies like the original Halloween. Below that are the Halloween knockoffs like Friday The 13th. Mired in the dreck at the bottom are the Friday the 13th knockoffs and the cheap grade-Z movies like the immortal Monster A-Go-Go.

By the quality of the prose, Lee’s book belongs in that middle sphere. It’s a fast-paced, easy-to-read thriller with plenty of action. But in the characterizations, The Golem belongs with the grade-Z stories.

The two main characters are likable enough, but the villains are so overwrought in their evil that they remind me of the perpetually laughing, borderline hysterical, crazy man with the leering eyes that populated exploitation films like Reefer Madness.

What made Hannibal Lecter one of the greatest villains of all time? Was it the fact that he was a cannibal? No. In both the book and the film, it was because Hannibal Lecter could easily have been the man next door. He could have been the psychiatrist you went to for marriage counseling. Until he invited you to dinner.

The villains of The Golem are multiple: the first is a bunch of rabbis who practice a heretical form of Kabbalah that worships Satan. Okay? The second are the enforcers who work for the rabbis. They’re mean, stupid, rapists and drug dealers who look and sound like they stepped out of a parody of Deliverance. The third group of villains are two cops who are also drug dealers and rapists. One of the cops is also a necrophiliac. You still with me? ‘Cause it gets stupider.

The cops are prone to talking to each other in public places about their nefarious deeds, and always spell out just how evil they are for the reading public by guffawing over the crackheads who they’ve had killed, or what attractive female witness they might just rape. The enforcers engage in the same type of subtle dialogue. It’s as if every thing they say should be followed with, “Do you see how evil I am?” The rabbis come straight out of The Master’s lodge from Manos: Hands Of Fate. There’s also an ax murder in the prologue I still don’t understand.

As if the dialogue was not enough to alert the suspicious reader that they are reading about VERY BAD MEN, there are multiple scenes of rape that really made me want to take a shower to get the sleaze off.

Now none of this is beyond the realm of good horror fiction. All of these elements have been touched upon in better, more serious novels and films. But the reason those novels and films are better is because the characters were believable despite their actions. It is this combination that sends chills down the spine. What is really scarier? The idea that Jeffrey Dahmer was considered the guy next door even though he had human body parts in his refrigerator? Or Jack Nicholson hamming it up with rolling eyes and “Heeeeeeerrrrreee’s Johnny!” dialogue in the movie version of The Shining. Personally, I prefer the former. Clearly, Edward Lee prefers the latter…so much so that his book is filled with such characterizations.

It’s a shame because Lee isn’t a bad writer at all, but the book is so over-the-top that it nearly becomes a parody of horror fiction.

Under Their Thumb: How A Nice Boy From Brooklyn Got Mixed Up With The Rolling Stones (And Lived To Tell About It), by Bill German

This is certainly the most unusual book yet written about The Rolling Stones. Prior books had either been written by insiders (Up And Down With The Rolling Stones by Keith Richards’ drug supplier and aide-de-camp “Spanish” Tony Sanchez) or by professional writers/biographers (Old Gods Almost Dead by the ever-present Stephen Davis). What we have here in Under Their Thumb is a book written by a fan.

Bill German is not just any fan, though. As a teenager he started to self-publish the Rolling Stones fanzine Beggar’s Banquet. He toiled in obscurity for several years, building a network of fans and bootleggers who gave him tips about what (and who) the Stones were doing.

As fate would have it, German met the Rolling Stones and pressed a copy of his fanzine into the hands of Ron Wood, who looked it over and handed it to Keith Richards.

From this inauspicious beginning, Bill German somehow became a friend to the Rolling Stones. Not quite an insider, but far from being a mere fan, he managed to strike up friendships with both Ron Wood and Keith Richards. He went to their apartments, was invited to their parties, drank with them (but stayed away from drugs). He interviewed them, got insider information which was then published in Beggar’s Banquet with the approval of the Stones. Throughout he seems to have remained aware that he was possibly the luckiest Rolling Stones fan ever. Woody and Keith seemed to genuinely like the guy. Ron Wood asked him to help write his book of artwork, The Works. He got into press conferences, and backstage. Bill German was the proverbial fly on the wall.

His presence was disconcerting, if not downright alarming, to many of the business people that were tasked with taking care of the Stones. German would publish insider information straight from Ron Wood’s mouth, but then would get lectured by the managers and handlers who wanted all the information about the band to funnel from them. It seems apparent that, as the Stones went from their relatively care-free rock band days to becoming a business and marketing juggernaut, Mick Jagger began to become as much businessman as rocker, and as time went on he began to distance himself from German.

After first embracing German (Beggar’s Banquet became the official Stones newsletter around the time of the Undercover album), the suits behind the scenes began to fear him. Even though German usually sought approval before publishing anything, he still insisted that he was a “journalist.” Having a journalist deep in the heart of the Stones camp where outrageous drug use and serial infidelity were the norm was a worrisome prospect for those tasked with making sure the Stones got through customs at the airport and maintained good relationships with their wives.

The inevitable ending should surprise nobody except, apparently, the author. Bill German became frustrated and angry that the access he once enjoyed was now being denied. Once the Stones became the Machine starting with the 1989 Steel Wheels tour, even his friendship with Keith and Woody was not enough to get him where he felt he needed to be to continue putting out the fanzine.

He managed to hang in there until after the Voodoo Lounge tour but then closed the fanzine down and fell largely out of touch with his friends in the Stones camp.

German has a nice style, conversational, easy-to-read. He comes across as a likable and pretty level-headed guy and takes great pains to portray Ron Wood and Keith Richards as being wonderful human beings. Mick Jagger is, in Keith’s words, “a great bunch of guys.” Jagger is shown as coldly calculating, warm to those he likes and trusts, but he doesn’t like or trust too many people, including the author.

For me, the selling point of the book was that it was about the Rolling Stones well past their prime. Most Stones books concentrate on the Sixties and early Seventies, when they were challenging The Beatles for supremacy of the music world and The Who for the title of “Greatest Rock and Roll Band in The World.” Under Their Thumb is about the period of time that these earlier Stones biographies gloss over: the dreaded 80s and 90s when the Stones were releasing mediocre albums and tearing at each other’s throats. It’s a period that has an interesting story behind it. Here is where you’ll find the near break up of the band, Mick’s awful solo albums, Keith’s excellent solo albums, the Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll Chuck Berry film that Keith organized, and the massive tours that brought the Stones back from the brink of death, but brought them back in a way that was largely unrecognizable from what they had been before. It is, somewhat surprisingly, a fascinating period in the history of the band, and Bill German was there for almost all of it.

Hondo, by Louis L’Amour

Intrigued by a recent article in a news magazine, I decided to take my first stab at reading a novel by the prolific Louis L’Amour. I’d seen his books on the bookstore shelves my entire life, but never felt the desire to buy one. As far as I was concerned, Westerns were movies. Books about cowboys and Indians, outlaws and lawmen were dime novels.

The one exception I made in my snobbery was Larry McMurtry. I had read (and loved, loved, loved) Lonesome Dove over 20 years ago, and since then had read the other books in the Dove tetralogy, as well as the Western novels Anything for Billy and Buffalo Girls. But I never made the leap to L’Amour. I think I always associated him in my mind with Zane Grey, who also churned out an astonishing number of slim volumes about the American west.

The novel I chose for my inaugural dance was Hondo. I’ve seen the movie with John Wayne and enjoyed it thoroughly, so I hoped the source material would be as good.  Somewhat to my surprise, it was.

There’s no mistaking L’Amour’s prose with great literature. He’s not Larry McMurtry by any stretch of the imagination. The style is spare and lean, and the characters are not fleshed out to any degree. The book moves on the premise, and anything else is tossed overboard. Nary a word is wasted; there is no real padding.

The plot is straightforward. A scout for the U.S. Army meets a lone woman and her son deep in the heart of Apache territory. The Apaches are on the warpath, and she refuses to leave her home. They fall in love. He ends up defending her from the Apaches.

It’s a classic tale of hard men, tough women, and a parched landscape. As you read, it is easy to see what drew John Wayne to the idea of turning it into a movie.

I’m agnostic on the idea of reading more of L’Amour’s work. Even the otherwise laudatory article was clear that many of his novels are strictly second-rate. But this suggests a question: Why are there so few great novels of the American West? Maybe I’m just missing them, of course, and I’m open to recommendations. It seems to me, though, that the Great American Novel will most likely be a Western, because the story of how the West was won is the great mythos of America.

I think that Lonesome Dove is one of the finest novels ever written. The other books in the series run a gamut from mediocre (Dean Man’s Walk) to good (Streets Of Laredo) to great (Comanche Moon), but none come close to the towering achievement of Lonesome Dove. Few books do. But considering all of the sweep, romanticism, adventure, danger, and epic scope of the taming of the Wild West, why is this a genre that attracts more L’Amours and Greys (workman-like writers pumping out easy-to-read adventure stories with strictly functional dialogue, two-dimensional characters and limited descriptive sense) than McMurtrys (gifted stylists with an ear for brilliant dialogue and an Ansel Adams-like eye for setting)?

My fear is that because the Western is a traditionally conservative field with good guys and bad guys, strong men and the women who love them, many writers in today’s PC culture simply don’t want to be associated with the genre that John Wayne and John Ford popularized. This would be too bad because Westerns are a mother lode of gold ore that is waiting to be mined by great writers, and the old Westerns were rarely the clichéd anti-Injun tracts they are often purported to be.

Even in Hondo, as standard an old-style Western as they come, the Apaches are treated with a great deal of respect and sympathy. They could not possibly be on the warpath, Angie Lowe tell Hondo Lane. “There’s a treaty.”

“We broke it,” replies Hondo. Not exactly the stereotypical “the savage Red Man doesn’t respect treaties” nonsense that many would have you believe is the currency of Westerns. Even in the old movies of John Ford and John Wayne, the American Indian is often treated with respect. The Searchers is as strong an anti-racism film as has been made by any modern-day director.

But the clichés live, and have done a great disservice to a uniquely American genre that deserves a deeper look in literature. Instead of classic stories of good and bad, heroes and villains, sweep and grandeur, we get politically correct junk like Dances With Wolves, a story that is as annoying as it is patronizing to the Sioux, a proud warrior nation turned into a bunch of pacifist eco-weenies. Hondo is a classic Western because of the story it tells. If that story had been told by a first-class prose stylist, it would be considered a classic, period.

Odd Hours, by Dean Koontz

In the increasingly lengthy oeuvre of Dean Koontz, there have been two recurring main characters. The first of these is Christopher Snow, the hero of the books Fear Nothing and Seize The Night. Snow is a surfer dude with a rare skin condition that makes it impossible for him to be subjected to high degrees of light. The character is, frankly, lame, as were the two books in which he starred.

The second recurring character is Odd Thomas, a short-order fry cook who has various extrasensory perceptions. For starters, he can see dead people, though they can’t speak to him. He also has a type of psychic magnetism that allows him to find people or things just by thinking about them and following his instincts when they tell him whether to turn left or right. He can also see black, ghost-like forms that congregate days in advance wherever there is liable to be death and sorrow.

Odd Thomas is one of Koontz’s most likable characters. The books in which he appears, Odd Thomas, Forever Odd, Brother Odd, and Odd Hours, are written from his perspective as manuscripts detailing his adventures. Odd doesn’t seek trouble, but finds it seemingly wherever he turns. In the first book in the series, Odd stops a terrorist attack but not before many are killed including his girlfriend and soulmate, Stormy. Without her, he leaves his hometown and begins to wander.

Yes, just like Kane in Kung Fu.

All four of the Odd Thomas books are enjoyable. They’re light and breezy, full of good humor and thrilling action sequences. In these “manuscripts” Odd rarely lets more than a few paragraphs go by without making some kind of joke. Despite the deaths (and more than a few people are killed in various ways in each of the books), these really are somewhat comic novels.

Consider this: Odd Thomas is sneaking on board a boat that is going to rendezvous with another ship and retrieve four nuclear weapons to detonate in American cities. There is of course, a guard. It is night, Odd is trying not to be seen. The situation is tense.

To get aboard, I would have to take out the guard here on the dock, but I could see no way to do it quietly.

Besides,  I had to cross a swath of open planking to reach him, and I had no doubt that he would be better armed than I was. A better marksman. A better fighter. Tougher than I was. More brutal. Probably a kung fu master. Wicked with knives and martial-arts throwing stars that would be secreted in six places on his superbly fit body. And if I was somehow able to disarm him of every murderous implement, this guy would know how to make a lethal weapon from one of his shoes, left or right, he wouldn’t care which.

Koontz uses this tone in nearly all of his most recent books and it’s a tone that’s frequently jarring. Coming as the Voice of Odd, it’s not. One could make the case that it’s somewhat indulgent and serves little more than padding once it reaches a certain point, and those criticisms are at least partially true. Without the humorous asides and the Bringing Up Baby-style banter between characters, most Dean Koontz books would be about 150 pages long.

This makes it crucial to the success or failure of a Dean Koontz book that those 150 pages of serious content be good. The stronger the situation, the better the plot, the better the book. While that’s generally true of all fiction, for Koontz it is especially important. When he is inspired, his books become top-notch thrillers with a humorous edge. When the plot is lacking, there is no skeleton on which to hang clothes. The style is enjoyable, but it is not enough to carry a book.

Sad to say, the plot of Odd Hours is less than inspired.  A small cabal of beach town police and citizens are conspiring with an unnamed Middle Eastern country to detonate four nuclear bombs in four cities. Odd meets an equally odd pregnant woman who speaks in riddles and who serves no discernible purpose in the book. Perhaps she will in the next book, but in Odd Hours the character of Annamaria is nothing more than providing a female presence. She hints that she is somehow magical and is able to command threatening coyotes to leave. Then she disappears for the next 60% of the book and makes one last appearance at the end, joining Odd Thomas as he continues his journey.

Odd is captured by the cabal but escapes by goading the ever present ghost of Frank Sinatra (he sees dead people, remember? And Sinatra has replaced Elvis, who was Odd’s invisible companion in the previous books) into becoming an angry poltergeist. He then gets a helping hand from an old woman who also has some sort of psychic magnetism. He finds the cabal, kills them all, and rides off into the sunrise with Annamaria at his side.

Frankly, it’s all very humdrum. The plot is way too thin and the resolution of the dramatic acts way too matter-of-fact. The character deserves better. Odd Hours seems like it was dashed off over a long weekend.

I do want to take one minute here to praise Koontz for his own idiosyncratic style. He writes across multiple genres: thrillers, sci-fi, horror, suspense, action, comedy, romance…frequently all in the same book. He does not so much write in a genre as he has invented his own. Earlier books, like Phantoms or Darkfall were easily summarized as horror fiction, Strangers and Demon Seed were science fiction, etc.  But for over a decade now Koontz has been blending all of the different styles like an expert mixmaster.

The single biggest constant in his works, though, is hope. His books are not bleak or nihilistic (e,g, Scott Smith’s The Ruins). There is a genuine love of people (and dogs…boy, does Koontz love dogs!) that runs like a thread through all of his work. There is also a heavy amount of that ol’ time religion (Catholicism in Koontz’s case…whether the characters themselves are religious or not, the good guys at least behave in a uniquely Catholic manner, right down to abstaining from pre-marital sex). 

These threads of love and religion give Koontz a platform in every book to make the case that despite the evil that lurks in the heart of men, goodness and light will win the day in the end. Unfortunately in these days this counts as a profound point, and Koontz makes it at every opportunity. It’s a message worth hearing, and the fact that it’s usually wrapped in a good old comic thriller makes it even more palatable. Sadly, Odd Hours is not all that good. It’s a passable way to spend a few hours, and that’s about all.

But the message remains.

John Lennon: The Life, by Philip Norman

For all of the millions of words that have been written about the Beatles as a band or as singular musicians, it’s somewhat surprising that the man who formed the group and who was one of the two pillars that supported it has never been the subject of a serious biography. Until now.

There have been a couple of not-so-serious books written about Lennon. The most recent entry was Albert Goldman’s ridiculous and risible The Lives Of John Lennon, a book that was as mean-spirited in tone as it was unfair to subject and reader alike. The book grabbed a fair share of headlines back in the late 80s, and inspired U2 to write the song "God, Part II" (with the lyrics "I don’t believe in Goldman/His type like a curse/Instant Karma’s gonna get him/If I don’t get him first").

Now comes the first Lennon biography that is worthy of its subject, Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life. It is a massive book for a short life, but the life that was lived is endlessly fascinating. Of course, the lion’s share of the book is taken with the Beatle years, but a substantial amount is dedicated to the young Lennon, pre-Beatles and even pre-Quarrymen. Surprisingly, it is this account of the young man that is the most fascinating part of the book. The Beatle years have been written about endlessly. (Norman himself wrote one of the very first biographies of that band, the excellent Shout! The Beatles In Their Generation, way back in 1981 or so.) John Winston Lennon’s childhood and teenage years have only been glossed over.

The conventional narrative of John’s young life goes like this: Lennon was abandoned by his father, his mother was unable to care for him and gave John to her sister Mimi, Lennon managed to form a relationship with his mother shortly before she was killed by a drunk driver, Lennon channeled his anger and sadness into his new band.

The kernels of truth are all there, but the actual story is so much more complicated. Among other revelations, I had been unaware that John’s father had tried to take John away from his mother because his mother was not a particularly fit Mom, and that it was a very young John who made the choice to stay with his mother. His father abandoned John, but only after he was told that he wasn’t wanted (not an excuse, I know, but at least a wrinkle in the conventional narrative).

Julia Lennon was a very young woman who had almost no maternal instincts. She was at least as unwilling to care for John as she was unable. Again, it was news to me that John maintained a relationship with Julia the entire time he was living under the care of his Aunt Mimi. He would frequently stay at Julia’s home whenever he and Mimi had a row, and Julia went to see John play with the Quarrymen several times.

Far from the usual story (propagated by Lennon himself), John Lennon was not a poor kid from Liverpool. He was raised in what we would now call a middle class (or even upper middle class) home. Mimi adored him, despite their occasional fights. His mother also loved him, and so did the entire extended family. Far from being the alienated, disaffected youth he frequently portrayed himself as, John Lennon was a boy surrounded by love and concern. In retrospect, this is not surprising. Alienated, disaffected young men (think Kurt Cobain) do not write songs like "In My Life." John Lennon was no working class hero. He was a largely pampered, but deeply troubled, young boy.

There is also no question that a lot of Lennon’s angst was all too real. His young, attractive mother was more of a family friend than a mother, which led to some awfully conflicted feelings in John. Sigmund Freud may have been full of hot air about almost anything and everything, but John Lennon was a textbook case of the Oedipal Complex. He not only "loved" his mother, he lusted after her. As the boy started to become the teenager and started to become aware of his own sexuality, he found it directed towards his own mother…young, beautiful, free-spirited, independent Julia. Walking into her house one afternoon he found her with a lover in flagrante delicto, which further sent the signal to him that this woman was a highly sexual being. John would curl up behind his mother while she slept and wonder if he should touch her breasts. In John’s mind, Julia may have been willing. (The idea that she was willing is probably due to Julia’s cluelessness about her son’s feelings and her own lack of a maternal instinct…what mother lets her young teenage son cuddle with her on her bed?). It was a perfect storm of wrong signals that was set into concrete when Julia was killed. As you read Norman’s book, you can see John’s emotional and sexual needs coalescing around an ideal of the perfect woman: part nurturing Mother, part lover, free-spirited, independent, an outsider in her own society. Paging Yoko Ono, come in Yoko Ono.

John’s enrollment in art school, his friendship with Stuart Sutcliffe (also doomed to die at a crucial time in John’s life), the formation of the Quarrymen and the Beatles are also handled in depth. The Beatle years do take up the majority of the book, but a large amount of attention is paid to the early years of the band when they were a proto-punk band storming the stage in Hamburg, Germany, gorging themselves on amphetamines to help them stay awake and strippers to help them calm down. It is in Hamburg where they met Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchherr, two extremely influential figures in Beatle-lore. Klaus would later design the famous Revolver cover and become a bass player for Manfred Mann and, later, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. Astrid was the girl who stole Stuart Sutcliffe away from the Beatles and who provided the only early photographic record of what would soon be the most photographed band on the planet. But Klaus and Astrid also introduced the Beatles to the Exies, German and French Existentialists (the heavy duty artists crowd). Being introduced to these alternative types of art, literature, and music would later manifest itself when the Beatles broke out of the three-minute love song.

The fame years of the Beatles are handled perfectly for a Lennon biography. Paul McCartney remains a strong supporting role, but George Harrison and Ringo Starr are bit players. The focus, even during these years, is solidly on John. This book will never be confused with a general Beatles biography. John reconnects with his father (even has his father come live with him), becomes distant from his first wife Cynthia, loses his friend and manager Brian Epstein (another authority figure who dies too soon), and meets Yoko Ono. In the meantime there is an incredible amount of pot, LSD, cocaine, and heroin consumed and the most timeless music of the rock era written and recorded.

The Beatles were, in many ways, the first instance of the rock and roll band as a group. They were essentially a gang, and the public perception of them (written in stone by the movies A Hard Day’s Night and Help!) was of four close friends who lived together, wrote together, sang together, vacationed together. They were inseparable. Of course the reality was far different, but the shattering of that illusion by the sudden appearance of a certain diminutive Japanese "artist" caused bad feelings all around. To the average fan that grew up with this perception of the Beatles, the gnashing of teeth and public bickering during their breakup must have been difficult. It was "a golden age for lawyers" as stated in The Rutles.

Lennon’s post-Beatle life is similarly well chronicled in The Life. John’s solo career has achieved more legendary status than it deserves in the wake of his death. He released one stunningly brilliant album (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band), one great album of pop classics (Imagine), one God-awful piece of unlistenable junk (Some Time In New York City), two mediocre albums of original songs (Mind Games, Walls And Bridges), and one mediocre collection of oldies (Rock ‘N’ Roll). He is nearly as well known for his year-long "Lost Weekend" of depraved debauchery as he is for most of his solo music. The Life recounts in great detail the Lost Weekend and also John’s descent into hard Left radical buffoonery and his subsequent "What, me a radical? I’m just a singer" fight against deportation.

The last stage of John’s life was his retirement and withdrawl into the Dakota. He stayed home and raised (with a lot of help) his new son Sean and made several half-hearted attempts to reconnect with his first son Julian. He learned to bake bread, and stayed away from music and musicians. Keith Moon tried to visit and Lennon refused to see him, even though Moon was more than happy to just sit and have a cup of tea. "I don’t want to have tea with Keith Moon," said John. "If I see him at all I want to get loaded and have a party." Even during his househusband years, there was a devil inside of John that he somehow kept on a short leash. More power to him.

Lennon famously emerged from isolation in late 1980 with the album Double Fantasy. One half of the album is a collection of pop gems, odes to hearth and home, beautifully written and sung by John. The other half isn’t. Within a few days of being told that Double Fantasy had gone gold, and that his record was a hit, Lennon was dead, murdered by a fan.

In the public eye, Lennon’s murder did three things:

  • John became a martyr, despite the fact that his murderer was not some right wing reactionary, but was one of the millions of people who followed and supported Lennon throughout his career.
  • Despite his vocal and financial support of various violent Leftist groups like the IRA or the Black Panthers, he became the "man of Peace" and not just a musician. His ineffectual, goofball attempts at "promoting peace" were now seen as being parallel to Gandhi, or even Jesus, and not as childish publicity stunts. The doggerel rhymes of "Give Peace A Chance" and the insufferable naiveté of "Imagine" came to symbolize the man and his beliefs to millions of people who didn’t listen closely to the "count me in" lyric of "Revolution" and who (wisely) skipped the entire Some Time In New York City album. This is the favored portrayal of Lennon from Yoko and her spokespeople, and even from McCartney and Ringo, who should know better. Let me just add that for all of its starry-eyed utopian blather and Communist Manifesto sympathies, "Imagine" remains an exquisitely beautiful piece of music.
  • Lennon’s reputation as a Beatle and solo artist was enhanced at Paul McCartney’s expense. Suddenly McCartney was the guy who wrote those slight, silly love songs with moon/June/croon/spoon lyrics. It’s a criticism that is deeply unfair to McCartney who, yes, did write those songs but who also was the truly avant-garde Beatle and the writer of at least as many classic songs as Lennon and possibly more.

The murder of John Lennon is handled quickly in the book. John is killed in the last couple of pages. The Life is over and so is The Life. The spectacle of thousands of weeping, shell-shocked fans (I was one of them) is thankfully skipped. It is the common error of so many looks at Lennon’s life to include the post-murder tributes that have made a deeply flawed man who happened to be one of the greatest songwriters of the last 100 years into Blessed John, Martyred Patron Saint of Peace.

Several years ago, Barry Miles wrote a biography of Paul McCartney called Many Years From Now. It is one of the best of all rock biographies. Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life can now take a place proudly next to it on the bookshelf.

Who Are You: The Life of Pete Townshend, by Mark Ian Wilkerson

Mark Ian Wilkerson’s massive biography of Who guitarist/songwriter Pete Townshend is a long-overdue look at one of rock music’s greatest talents.

For all of their legendary status, The Who is a band whose career hasn’t seen all that many books. There was Dave Marsh’s excellent Before I Get Old, but that was back in 1983 or so, and there was Tony Fletcher’s masterful biography of the Who’s drummer, Moon (also titled Dear Boy in some editions).

But the main guiding force behind the band has received very little attention from biographers. Geoffrey Giuliano wrote a slim bio called Behind Blue Eyes a few years ago, but Giuliano is an atrocious writer whose main research tool is previously published interviews. So Who Are You: The Life Of Pete Townshend marks the first serious bio of one of rock music’s most towering figures.

It’s a qualified success. There is no question that the book is exhaustive. At more than 600 pages, it’s about twice as long as the average rock biography, and with good reasons. For starters, Pete Townshend is still alive and still making music more than 40 years after the Who first smashed their equipment. There’s a lot more to cover than there is in books about Hendrix, the Doors, Janis Joplin or any of the other dead-too-soon rock icons.

Another reason is that Pete Townshend agreed to be interviewed by the author, and God knows that once Pete starts talking he doesn’t shut up. Fortunately, he’s been the single best “rock interview” since about 1965, and age hasn’t mellowed him a bit. He’s still every bit as cantankerous and opinionated as the 19-year-old punk who wrote “My Generation.” So by all means, let the man talk. He’s almost invariably fascinating.

Where the book does not succeed is in giving much information about the man. Much of the first half of the book is virtually indistinguishable from a more general biography of the Who. Mentions of Townshend’s marriage, affairs, and other aspects of his off-stage life are skirted (the one exception being his devotion to the guru Meher Baba). Townshend’s childhood is covered briefly, but once the Who is formed the book becomes the story of that group, with a slight accent on the guitarist.

It is only around the time of the aborted Lifehouse project and the slightly later Quadrophenia that the author starts spending more effort on Pete’s life. This may be because these were quieter years for the Who. The albums were more spaced out, the tours not as endless. There was more time for Pete to be Pete. Whatever the reason, this is where Wilkerson’s book achieves lift off and becomes a truly world-class addition to the “rock bio” library.

Surprisingly the Who’s “Farewell Tour” (their first, that is, in 1982) happens at around the halfway mark. That leaves fully half the book to be about a small spattering of solo albums and some Who reunions. More surprisingly, this is the best part of the book. Seeing Townshend groping for meaning in his life and bouncing between solo artist, book editor, and writer…all while feeling the irresistable undertow pulling him back to the Who…makes for a fascinating story.

Townshend remains something of a mystery in the book. For someone as loquacious as Pete, the idea that there can be any mystery about him or his motivations may seem difficult to believe. But for all of his talk, Townshend has a tendency to stick to general philosophies: about the nature of art in rock music, about the meaning of life as expressed in lyrics, etc. He’s much less specific about his actual life. The closer one gets to Pete, the more closed he becomes. Dissing Roger Daltrey can be great fun, but he’s much more reticent to discuss his relationship with his wife.

This is why Who Are You is an excellent title for an excellent book. You will close the book knowing much more than you ever knew about Pete Townshend. What you won’t know is who he really is.

Forever Changes, by Andrew Hultkrans

I’ve read several of the slim volumes about classic albums that Continuum publishes in the “33 1/3” series. Most of them have been very enjoyable. The books on Electric Ladyland, Highway 61 Revisited, and Exile On Main Street were particularly enjoyable, and I came away with a much deeper appreciation of those classic albums.

So I had very high hopes when I saw that someone had the exquisite good taste to write a book about Love’s 1967 masterpiece, Forever Changes. When I first heard the album, back in the early ’80s I fell in love with the sound. In a year that saw the release of many classic albums by legendary artists (Sgt. Pepper, The Doors and Strange Days, Are You Experienced? and Axis: Bold As Love, Surrealistic Pillow…just to name a few), Forever Changes stands shoulder to shoulder with any of them. It has been in my “Top 20” albums of all time since 1981…one of the extremely few that has never fallen out of my favor.

Unfortunately, the book written about this classic album is one of the unfunniest jokes I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. I have no idea who Andrew Hultkrans is, but I know his type. In grad school, he was one of the extremely earnest guys who sat in the front and uncritically swallowed whatever “lit-crit” the teacher of the moment was spewing. After class he went to the bar with everyone else, but he ordered a mixed-drink when beer was the order of the day, and when the subject turned to baseball he tried desperately to drag it back to Jacques Derrida’s or Stanley Fish’s latest assault on Western civilization. He was a drag, and a well-known drag.

I know this despite never meeting the man. I know it because I read his atrocious book about Love’s Forever Changes.  It reminded me of all those awful late 20th century “critics” I had to read in grad school…the ones who wrote about Shakespeare in prose so convoluted and so inarticulate that it made you hate the Bard of Avon…until you realized that your anger was misdirected and that it was the critic who was deserving of scorn and opprobrium.

Hultkrans mentions almost nothing…nothing!…about the gorgeous music on the album. The strings and horns that are perhaps the most perfect ever put onto a rock album, the sublime acoustic guitar that serves as the foundation for every tracks, the intricate drums…none of it worth even a brief mention.

Similarly the recording of the album: how Neil Young was the original producer, but left; how the band was so strung out on drugs that the famous Wrecking Crew of L.A. session musicians was brought in to play the album until the band managed to pull itself together; the push and pull of the band personalities, lorded over by the supreme egoist, genius and eccentric Arthur Lee…yeah, none of that gets mentioned either.

What does get mentioned? Page after page about Gnosticism, Marat/Sade, The Crying Of Lot 49, the Manson murders, and several other irrelevancies. The author’s contention here is that Arthur Lee was a prophet, perhaps a mad prophet, in the jeremiad tradition. Late in the year of the Summer Of Love, Forever Changes cast a darker, bleaker view of flower power and hippiedom, while still coming from that tradition. Lee saw a different vision of the hippies, one that directly anticipated the Manson murders. I wonder if Hultkrans ever heard the first two Doors albums, both of which preceded Forever Changes, and both of which were considerably darker in tone and sound.

But other albums that took a similarly dim view of what was happening culturally in California in 1967 don’t figure in. Prophets don’t come in droves after all, and if you make the case that Lee’s pessimism about Flower Power was shared by artists as diverse as the Doors and the Mothers of Invention, well, then Hultkrans doesn’t have much to write about.

Throughout the book, lyrics are twisted and bent out of shape to fit Hultkran’s thesis and to forge allusions with other more literary works and critical theories. It’s all a buncha crap, if you ask me. I’m not saying the songs don’t have meaning; I’m saying they do. By twisting the meaning to match his overblown theories and overheated rhetoric, it is Hultkrans who is saying the lyrics mean anything he wants them to mean. Makes my head hurt just to think about it.

Eventually Hultkrans resorts to the sort of hideous wordplay that the lit-crit types love so much because it makes them seem so much smarter and more sophisticated that the bourgeois proles who just want to read about an album full of great songs. Let me be the first to say that anyone who seriously uses the word “zeitgeisticide” in a sentence should never be allowed to write again. Not even a letter to a friend.

Back away from the pen, Andrew Hultkrans, before you attempt to ruin another album with your bloated eggheadery.

Just After Sunset, by Stephen King

Fresh from the stellar return-to-form novel, Duma Key, Stephen King is back with his latest collection of short stories, Just After Sunset (not to be confused with Four Past Midnight). It’s an apt title. These are not the standard King horror stories of the darkest nights. These are twilight tales. Horror is present, but it exists on the edges, lurking in the lengthy shadows of sunset.

What you get with Just After Sunset is standard King. All of the conventions of his style are present, and it is (in King’s own words) the "literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." I think King sells himself short with that facile quip. At his best, King has written tales of horror that rank with the very best. The Shining can sit proudly on the bookshelf next to Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, The Haunting Of Hill House, and ‘Salem’s Lot (despite a few "young author" missteps) is a worthy addition to vampire literature. At his worst, King can be terrible (The Tommyknockers, Needful Things).

The stories in Just After Sunset range in between. Only one story, the cryptically titled "N." really rises to the highest standards of King’s earlier short fiction. The story, as King admits in his notes, owes a great debt to Arthur Machen’s "The Great God Pan," but also at least a passing shout out to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu myth. This tale of obsession and the fabric of reality stretched thin is the high-water mark of the book. The rest of the tales fall below that standard.

The oddest story, from a stylistic perspective, is "The Cat From Hell." This is the closest story in the book to the ones you will find in King’s earliest collection, Night Shift. The reason is that this is the oldest story in the book, written when King was an unproven author selling stories to men’s magazines for money to pay the phone bill. As such, the story has a kind of heat and intensity that most of the other tales lack. King may be a better writer today, but he was a far more intense writer back then. To make a musical analogy, Eric Clapton may be a better guitar player than he was in 1965, but the young buck’s recordings with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers have a heat and intensity that the elder statesman is missing.

Most of the other stories are creepy, though none are really scary. "Willa" is a nice, but forgettable, tale of true love in a dive bar; "Ayana" posits a miracle worker who passes her gift on, but with a price; "Mute" is a tale of guilt with a Strangers On A Train-type setup; "The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates" bears a resemblance to a story King wrote many years ago for the television show Tales From the Dark Side; "The Things They Left Behind" is a touching story of trying to come to grips with life in a post-9/11 world. On this last story, King strikes all the right notes.

Perhaps most notable is "A Very Tight Place." The final story in the book is not a great tale but it does give King the one opportunity in the book to really go for the gross-out: in this case a man trapped in a Port-A-John that has been tipped over onto its door. The gross-out here is not one of dismembered bodies or strewn viscera, but more natural bodily functions. There’s nothing supernatural or even horrific in this story (well…the poor guy getting covered in human waste is pretty horrible, but you know what I mean), and the conclusion is pretty limp, but there’s no question that the story is memorable. The problem is that it is memorable for the setup, whereas a story like "N." is memorable because it is a great story written well.

Most of the rest aren’t all that memorable. There’s nothing that compares to Skeleton Crew‘s "The Mist" and "The Raft," or Night Shift‘s "Strawberry Spring" and "I Am The Doorway." But there’s also nothing here that is a complete waste of time, either. The stories are good. Nothing more (except, again, for "N."), nothing less. Here’s hoping his next novel picks up with the same focus on character and story that made Duma Key so surprisingly refreshing, and not where "A Very Tight Place" leaves off.

Watch You Bleed: The Saga Of Guns ‘N’ Roses, by Stephen Davis

First it was Slash’s autobiography, cleverly titled Slash. Now it’s Stephen Davis’s latest entry into the rock bio sweepstakes, Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses. And I’m even listening to Chinese Democracy right now. I haven’t given this much attention to Guns N’ Roses since 1991, when I was driving around in my 1987 Toyota Celica with my “best of” the Use Your Illusion discs blaring out at top volume.

As rock biographies go, Watch You Bleed has enough debauchery to satisfy even the most jaded rock fans. Axl’s nuts, Slash, Izzy, and Steven are junkies, Duff’s a drunk, Dizzy’s wondering what on earth he’s doing on stage with these guys. Youth and good genes are the only reasons any of these guys are still alive. Their intake of both legal and illegal substances is legendary. I mean, come on, Duff’s pancreas ruptured causing third degree burns to his guts…that’s some serious indulgence. And Slash died a couple of times (he got better).

Watch You Bleed does a very good job of describing the Los Angeles music scene from which the Gunners emerged. But though they came from the same scene as bands like Poison, Guns were never really a part of that scene. They lived a life of total squalor, selling drugs to get the money to buy more drugs, using women to get them places to sleep and food to eat. The picture of the guys in this band that emerges is that none of these guys were the kind of people you wanted to associate with if you had even the slightest sense of normalcy in your life. These were genuinely bad guys, and the music they did reflected it: gritty, angry, determined, violent, and real. “Talk dirty to me,” sang Poison as they pranced around the stage, looking like girls playing dress up, mugging for the camera. “You’re in the jungle, baby/You’re gonna die,” countered Axl, face contorted in a very unphotogenic grimace of pure rage and adrenaline.

That first Guns album, the timeless Appetite For Destruction, remains their testament. They were a street gang at the time they recorded it. Largely homeless, broke, strung out, and carrying a massive chip on their collective shoulder, the resulting music is a roller coaster ride of whiplash riffs and Axl’s vicious, sometimes unearthly, vocals. At a time when the boys of Los Angeles were dressing like the girls of the Sunset Strip mall and doing anything they could to get on MTV and the radio, Guns filled an album with songs many of which couldn’t be played on either format because of FCC regulations. The album sold over 15 million copies based on a lot of airplay for the safest songs: the lovely “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and the anarchic “Paradise City” I have no doubt that there were more than a few people who purchased the album for “Sweet Child” and were…um…shocked by the casual misogyny and brutality of “It’s So Easy.”

But damn, that album rocked. Followed by the hodgepodge of Gn’R Lies, half bogus live tracks, and half stunningly good acoustic songs, this was clearly a band bigger than the stupid scene they came from. I can still remember hearing “Patience” for the first time and being so surprised and happy that the first verse wasn’t followed by the usual hard rock bombast of the “power ballads” that were all over the radio. No, “Patience” stayed an acoustic ballad, and it was awesome.

Stephen Davis does a very good job of tracing these years of forming the band, getting the record contract, and heading out on tour as an opening act for bands like Aerosmith. I was very surprised to learn that Guns didn’t do a major tour as a headliner until the Use Your Illusion tour, despite being arguably the biggest band on the planet in 1988 and 1989. Despite all the depravity going on behind the scenes, the early Guns were a juggernaut. By the time of the Illusion albums and tour, the excess had taken a severe toll and Axl, who was surprisingly non-toxic (well, less toxic) in his habits but completely poisonous in his attitude, was going off the rails in a cataclysmic collision of therapy, arrogance, paranoia, and megalomania.

Davis gives all credit to Appetite and Lies, despite spending a lot of time on decrying the lyrical content of Axl’s “One In A Million” (from Lies). Davis never misses an opportunity to wag a politically correct finger at Axl for his decidedly non-PC views and turns what was a small controversy into a seemingly major debacle.

Unfortunately Davis also slams the Illusion albums mercilessly. I’m the first to admit that there is a whole lot of filler spread out on those two discs, and there are some songs that should have never seen the light of day (“Get In The Ring,” “My World,” and their atrocious cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”). But the highlights of the Illusion albums are standout tracks. From the opening salvo of “Right Next Door To Hell” to the closing fever dream of “Coma” the first of the Illusion discs has more good songs and is a more consistent disc. The second, with “Civil War,” "Yesterdays," “Estranged,” “Breakdown” among others has some of the best songs, but also the most filler. Between the two discs, you can make one solid album that rivals Appetite For Destruction.

The book came out before the release of Chinese Democracy, and ends with the tormented story of that album, asking the musical question “Will it ever come out?” Well it has and, as Bart Simpson might say, “Meh.”

Where Davis fails miserably in this book, and in his others, are the errors of fact. The book is full of little things that are just flat out wrong. Paul Stanley is the bass player of Kiss? The Replacements were "the best new band of 1990"? That’ll be news to all those people who had been listening to them since 1981. There are dozens of examples, and I usually find many of these whenever I read one of his books. I get the impression that Davis is most interested in telling a savage tale in his books, and that he is more motivated by his love of the sales that sensational stories engender than he is by any love of the music these people create. Look at the subjects for his books: Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Jim Morrison, the Rolling Stones, Guns…the most drug-addled, groupie-shagging reprobates on the planet get the Davis treatment, and his books linger lovingly over every stained sheet and discarded needle. Music is always secondary to a good overdose story. It caught my eye in Watch You Bleed that Guns is frequently compared to other bands: Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, the Doors…hmmm, all subjects of previous Davis bios. While his research about the band itself is thorough, I get the impression that his knowledge of the broader history of rock music is fairly limited.

It’s a good story, told well, but I have a feeling the author is in it for the money, and that’s not very rock ‘n’ roll.

The Bonfire Of The Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

Okay, let’s give this one another shot. About a week ago I wrote a lengthy review of The Bonfire Of The Vanities in this very spot. It was brilliant and full of insight, possibly the finest critique of a major novel that anyone has ever read. However, when I clicked the "Post" button to put my words of wisdom on the site, the entire process hiccupped and my review was gone, lost in the cyber ether. This has forced me to write this new, substandard review that pales in comparison to the one I originally wrote which you, Constant Reader (whoever you are) will never see. Pity, really.

I kid, of course, but isn’t that what this is all about? Vanity? Yes, I believe it is.

Tom Wolfe is the acclaimed writer from the New Journalism that came of age in the 1960s (or maybe earlier…not my area of expertise). His books run the subject matter gamut from the beginnings of the space program (probably his most famous book, The Right Stuff) to the LSD-addled nightmare party of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But it took him over 20 years of writing before he set pen to paper in the service of fiction. The resulting first novel, originally published serially in Rolling Stone, was The Bonfire Of The Vanities.

I first attempted to read this book back in 1990, but I started grad school when I was only 100 pages into it, and the book was placed on the shelf where it was promptly forgotten. Every once in a while I’d see the spine and think, "I really should read that…but not right now." Well, a few weeks ago I had nothing else to read and there it was.

I’m curious to know what my reaction would have been in 1990, when the events and people so lovingly fictionalized here were still playing out in the newspapers. Bonfire is the quintessential "New York in the 1980s" novel. What’s fascinating to me is that the beginnings of the novel first appeared in 1984 in Rolling Stone, and the full book was not finished and published until 1987. Yet Wolfe seems to have caught the New York of the late 1980s in his crystal ball.

With the exception of the Reverend Bacon, who is clearly modeled after either Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, it doesn’t appear that the characters are supposed to represent actual people. Still, the characters are all familiar to anyone who grew up reading the New York newspapers and watching Live at Five for the local news.

There is Sherman McCoy, bond trader par excellence,who refers to himself without the slightest trace of irony as a Master Of The Universe. This title belongs to him because of his salary, his nice wife and daughter, and his smoking hot, man-eating mistress. By his side in good times and better times is Maria Luskin, the voracious mistress who is so wrapped up in herself that her vision extends only as far as the bridge of her own nose.

Nominally, the plot hinges on what happens when Sherman and Maria, Manhattanites to the core, get lost in that urban jungle that is the Bronx. The road is blocked, Sherman gets out of the Mercedes to move the obstruction and is approached by two young black men; he panics, Maria slides into the driver’s seat and, in the ensuing escape, lightly hits one of the black men who falls and hits his head. Two days later he’s in a coma and the police, at the urging of Reverend Bacon and a political hack Bronx DA,are looking for the driver of the silver Mercedes that ruthlessly slammed into and abandoned the young honor student. What they are really looking for is the Great White Defendant, and by luck they find him.

Wolfe tantalizingly never answers the questions that lie at the heart of the book. Were the two young men attempting to rob Sherman and Maria? Or were they really innocents who were just trying to help? There is plenty of evidence that points in either direction.

The injury to Henry Lamb is the sacrifice needed to light the bonfire. Over the next 500 pages or so, the preening Sherman McCoy is reduced to suicidal thoughts, abandoned by his wife, abandoned by his mistress (the woman who is really responsible), forced out of his job. He has gone from being a Master of The Universe to a shell of a man, someone who no longer knows his own identity.

But Sherman’s vanity is not the only one ready for consummation in the flames. Every bit as bad as Sherman is the Reverend Bacon, a charlatan and race hustler who exploits the Lamb family for his own ends. There is also Larry Kramer, the assistant DA charged with prosecuting McCoy. Kramer is so vain he flexes his neck muscles before attractive female jurors, like a peacock spreading his feathers before a tantalized peahen. There is Peter Fallow, the alcoholic British journalist who makes a name for himself with innuendo-laced articles about the case and who stretches the definition of objectivity well past the breaking point. There is Abe Weiss, the Bronx DA who cares only about re-election and sees McCoy as his ticket.

These people, and many others populating this massive book, are all too familiar to this New York boy who spent his young adulthood reading about the likes of Tawana Brawley, Al Sharpton, Lester Maddox, Ed Koch, Robert Morgenthau,  Michael Griffith, and Bernie Goetz. Yeah, NYC was  a real toddlin’ town back then, as we kept climbing towards over 2000 murders a year.

McCoy is hounded, even after the initial case is dismissed. Nearly everyone else manages to escape.  Peter Fallow wins a Pulitzer,  Maria flees the country and gets off scot-free. Only the judge who did the right thing by dismissing the case is burned in the bonfire. By doing the right thing, he seals his re-election chances: he now has none.

But McCoy strangely manages to find himself through his travails (for which he is, at least partially, responsible). It is implied in a bogus New York Times article that ends the book that McCoy is once again involved with his wife on at least a superficial level, and has gotten in touch with the man he used to be before he became a Master Of The Universe.

On trial yet again (this time because Henry Lamb has, a year later, died) for vehicular manslaughter, the fourth trial for the same incident, McCoy seems to have found something in himself in his new role as the Great White Defendant.

The Bonfire Of The Vanities is a time piece now. It is nearly perfect in its evocation of New York City politics in the mid-80s. Anyone reading it will be able to see the bloody core of racial politics and the small-minded hobgoblins that infest politics like so many tapeworms.  Anyone from the tri-state area who is my age or older will pull a whole different level of appreciation. The characters may or may not be modeled on any particular individuals, but we know who they are. We spent a decade reading about them in the New York Post.

Slash, by Slash and Anthony Bozza

As a writer, Slash makes for an awesome guitar player. It’s clear from the style of the book that Slash never actually set pen to paper, but told his "co-writer" Anthony Bozza his life story. Said life story was then written in such a way as to make it seem like you were sitting in a living room listening to Slash give his spiel.

Slash is a thoroughly entertaining rock autobiography, full of tales of debauchery: decadent, promiscuous sex, drug abuse, alcoholism, band in-fighting, great rock and roll music. It’s all there, in excess.

The Guns ‘n’ Roses/Velvet Revolver guitarist comes off as a generally nice guy, the kind of guy with whom you’d probably enjoy sitting down and talking about music. He also comes off as a thoroughly reprehensible human being, the kind of guy you would kill if he tried to date your sister.

The book handles some things better than the average rock bio. For example, Slash discusses his musical influences freely. He talks about his great love of Aerosmith, and recounts times when he and various members of Guns ‘n’ Roses would sit around listening to records. Personally, I find this stuff interesting. Too many rock biographies make it seem that the star in question emerged from the earth fully formed. Any successful musician has spent more hours than you can even imagine listening to other people’s music, but this is one of the few rock bios where this passive act of listening to music is described with great fondness. At one point, shortly after hearing Aerosmith’s Rocks for the first time, Slash hooked up with a girl he had been eyeing all night long, but when they got back to her place, he ignored her in order to listen to her copy of Rocks over and over again. She finally kicked him out.

The heart of the book is Slash’s struggles with drugs and drink. He spent most of the last twenty-odd years in a completely altered state. His heroin use was sporadic in the sense that he would be deeply addicted for lengthy periods, and then quit for equally lengthy periods, but his love of alcohol was never very far away. At the end of the book, he proudly speaks of his recovery, but the reader is left to wonder just how long that recovery will last.

In his riveting and harrowing autobiography, Long Time Gone, David Crosby paints the most terrifying picture of drug addiction I’ve ever read. Anyone ever tempted to try cocaine should be forced to read Long Time Gone first. Crosby, too, had made a recovery and it was believable. His regrets over the lost years and broken relationships were apparent on every page. In Slash, the tales of madness and drugs are told in a tone that approaches nostalgia. "Heroin sure is a terrible thing," Slash seems to be saying, "but it sure is fun." Alcohol abuse, too, largely gets a pass from any sort of judgment. You can almost sense that Slash is clean and sober, but feels that he can go back to his former ways at any moment.

Of course, a major plot point for the book is the second leading man. If Slash is the main star of the book, it is Axl Rose who neatly steals the scenes in which he appears. Slash is an addict and a born troublemaker, but Axl is a sociopath. Slash does a good job of portraying Axl in a relatively fair light. Axl’s talent and drive are never questioned, and the early years of the band are portrayed as a friendlier, more respectful, grouping. It is only after fame starts to rear its ugly head that the Axl we all know and loathe starts to come into his own. Concerts delayed for hours, riots started, band members fired, fans abused…now that’s Guns ‘n’ f’in’ Roses!

Fans of real, gritty, dirty rock music owe a great deal of debt to Slash. As a guitar player, he almost single-handedly killed off that Eddie Van Halen hammer-on school of guitar wanking that every blow-dried pretty boy with pouty lips, bedroom eyes, and a closet full of hair spray was riding to the top of the MTV playlists. In a particularly telling anecdote, Slash recounts the first time he heard Eddie Van Halen play. Like every other guitar slinger on the planet, he was dutifully and justifiably blown away. However, he continues, while all the other guitar players in L.A. started practicing their hammer-ons, Slash was listening to the band Van Halen, and trying to pick out the subtleties in Eddie’s playing…the stuff that all the pretty boys missed. Slash loved Van Halen’s playing, but considered himself more from the Chuck Berry school. It shows. Slash can certainly go on a little too long in some of his solos, but generally speaking he is one of the most tasteful heavy rock guitar players to ever play the instrument.  Nobody, except for Eddie Van Halen and some of the leftover wankers from that era of heavy metal (helloooooo Yngwie!), plays in that style anymore, and that’s in no small part due to the fact that Guns ‘n’ Roses became so huge with a guitar player that didn’t play in that style. So thanks for that, Slash.

Slash gives you a very good look at the inner workings of one of the biggest bands of the last 25 years, but in the end it’s not necessarily the most reliable look. By his own admission, Slash was out of his skull for almost all of the incidents described in the book. He apparently kept a diary of sorts in day planners that he used as sources for the book, but who knows how reliable those are? Alcohol and drugs not only destroy your memory of things that happened twenty years ago, they also taint your perception of things that are happening in the here and now. A perfect example is Slash’s story of how Axl refused to go onstage one night until all the band members signed away their rights to the name Guns ‘n’ Roses. Slash recounts that they didn’t know whether or not Axl would go onstage, so they signed the contract. Is the story true? Sorry, but it doesn’t pass the sniff test. Axl rightly points out that such a contract would have been thrown out of court since it was signed under duress. Score one for the sociopath…he may be bonkers, but he’s more believable on this point.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, I plan on reading the Stephen Davis Guns ‘n’ Roses bio, Watch You Bleed. Davis has his own issues, not the least of which is a taste for the sensational, but it will hopefully provide a more reliable presentation of what really happened in the G ‘n’ R camp.

Gods And Generals, by Jeff Shaara

In The Killer Angels, author Michael Shaara wrote what many consider to be the greatest novel of the Civil War ever written. When you consider that this company includes both Gone With The Wind and The Red Badge Of Courage, you realize you’re talking about some pretty heady company.

After Shaara died, his son Jeff picked up the mantle and began writing books in the same format and style as his father. Jeff Shaara doesn’t get a lot of points for originality since his style is virtually indistinguishable from that of his father, but he does score with his novels nonetheless.

Gods And Generals is Jeff Shaara’s prequel to his father’s The Killer Angels. The latter book focused entirely on three days in July 1863…the three bloodiest days in American history, at a tiny town in Pennsylvania that has become synonymous with all that is horrific in, and all that is honorable about, war: Gettysburg.

Gods And Generals starts just as the Civil War is about to begin. Fort Sumter has not been shelled, but war is in the air and seems inevitable. The book ends as the Southern commander, Robert E. Lee, begins his march north towards Pennsylvania and the turning point of the war. In between are battles at Harper’s Ferry, two battles at Bull Run (Manassas), Antietam and, acting as the centerpiece of the book, the horrible carnage of Fredericksburg and the confusion and incompetence that turned Chancellorsville into a humiliating Union defeat.

The battles are described with an historian’s eye for accuracy, and a storyteller’s eye for narrative. The problem with this book, and almost any book that attempts to describe the mass confusion generated by hundreds of thousands of men hurtling themselves at each other, is that there is so much going on at any given time the narrative can become confusing. The Killer Angels was remarkably coherent, which may explain its reputation. Stephen Pressfield’s Gates Of Fire was also an amazingly detailed, yet easy-to-follow, view of the battle of Thermopylae. Ditto Stephen Harrigan’s brilliant novel of the titular battle in The Gates Of The Alamo. In Gods And Generals, the overall narrative is sometimes lost in the thirst for accuracy and the seeming need to cover all bases.

It’s difficult to criticize the book, however, because in general it is so well done. Shaara may be copying his father’s style, but he does so flawlessly. If the descriptions of troop movements are a little confusing, there are maps to help out. If it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between many of the supporting characters, you can take solace in how well the main characters are drawn. I don’t know if there’s a finer portrayal of George Washington in fiction than in Jeff Shaara’s The Glorious Cause. In Gods And Generals, he applies the same fine brush to paint convincing portraits of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson especially, but also Joshua Chamberlain and Winfield Hancock on the Union side.

With Lee and Jackson, we feel the astonishment as one inept Union general after another blows one opportunity after another. What should have been a decisive Union victory at Chancellorsville, one that may even have ended the war two years and hundreds of thousands of lives earlier, instead becomes a panicked retreat from a vastly outnumbered Confederate force. What could have been a Union victory at Fredericksburg instead is handed to Lee’s forces on a silver platter: Lee’s forces sweep in and occupy the high ground while the Union forces are prevented by their leadership from crossing a shallow river because they don’t yet have pontoon bridges in place. Poor leadership on the Union side was so rife; it’s no surprise that Lee and Jackson genuinely believed that God was on the side of the South. One can only wonder what history would be like if Lincoln had not brought in Ulysses Grant to take over the Union forces.

There is talk early in the book about the why of the Civil War. As a college professor, Joshua Chamberlain pontificates about slavery as he makes his decision to enlist in the Army. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are both opposed to slavery, but view the encroaching war as an attack on the sovereignty of Virginia. For them, the issue is not slavery, but the right of individual states to make their own laws. These arguments largely disappear once the battles begin. I suppose that there is honesty in that. Contrary to what you’ll find in B-movies galore, my guess is that the average soldier rarely spends too much time debating the geopolitical events that landed him in a trench at Fredericksburg, or the Somme, or Bastogne, or Baghdad. But as a reader of a historical novel, it would have been good for Shaara to have the horrific battles of the Civil War placed in some context. Slavery was unquestionably the catalyst for the war and the main evil that the war was fought to address, but it was not the only issue. Without the exploration of these other issues, Lee’s and Jackson’s decision to take arms up in support of an institution they both abhorred seems odd.

As the war begins, many characters struggle with the idea of what to do. Many of the Southern military leaders were in the U.S. Army when hostilities erupted, and had to make a choice whether to stay loyal to the country, or their home state. Nowadays that seems like an odd thing about which to be conflicted, but at the time people considered themselves first off as citizens of their state, and secondly as citizens of the United States. In many ways, the Civil War was the bloody culmination of the debate between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. The Federalists won the debate in 1787, but Anti-Federalism was a way of life for many Americans outside of the immediate orbit of Washington, D.C., especially down South. The snake in the cotton fields of the South, of course, was slavery. While it was understandable that slavery was not outlawed by the Constitution when it was first crafted in 1787, the price of this compromise would be long and brutal.

A little more…not too much, lest it become tendentious…of the why of the war would have placed these combatants in the middle of a cause where they were fighting for what they believed was right, rather than subjecting them to the hail of musket fire and the end of the bayonet blade for reasons that many modern readers might find murky.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

For many years, I avoided reading Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel, Dracula. This is because many years ago I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Perhaps it’s because I spent my childhood watching the old Universal horror films, perhaps because I was at an impressionable age when Count Chocula and Frankenberry were released, perhaps because I know that the origins of both books can be traced back to one seriously wasted night in Switzerland during the Year Without A Summer, but Dracula and Frankenstein have always been linked in my mind.

Frankenstein is not a fun book to read. It’s the product of an extremely clever 19-year-old mind. The prose is as dry as kindling, and there are scenes that are just laugh-out-loud bad. (The monster teaches himself to read when he finds a copy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther? There’s that too clever 19-year-old again.) Not a lot happens in the book. Far from Boris Karloff’s hulking brute with the plugs in his neck, Shelley’s “monster” is a good-looking guy who wants to have lengthy philosophical debates with his creator. Dr. Frankenstein spends much of the book saying things like, “I am a wretched man for having created such a wretched creature and I am all the more wretched for wretchedly abandoning the wretched thing! Wretched!” Whenever I was asked if the book was any good, my reply was usually a simple, “Wretched!” Only H.P. Lovecraft’s incessant use of the non-descriptive cheating word “indescribable” matches Shelley’s use of this wonderful, but antiquated, word.

But Frankenstein is also a fascinating book. Whether she knew she was doing it or not (and I doubt she did), Mary Shelley created a myth that still resonates today. She was certainly aware that she was borrowing from mythology. Her subtitle, after all, is “The Modern Prometheus.” But instead of fire, Victor Frankenstein uses electricity to create life. At the time the book was written, the concept of electricity was fairly new and imbued with all sorts of possibilities, both positive and negative.

Shelley was writing a cautionary tale for the Enlightenment (this I strongly doubt she knew). Mary and her husband, the brilliant poet Percy, were champions of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, among the first generation to be raised in the aftermath. But even while they praised the Enlightenment ideals of reason and science, Mary Shelley was writing a tale warning against the idea of men taking on the powers of God. Frankenstein is among the first novels of the Enlightenment, and it is a tale of horror.

If you fast forward to the end of the 19th century, you will find that the Enlightenment fascination with electricity and science and reason no longer carries the same weight. In the years between Frankenstein and Dracula, Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species, which turned him into a literary and scientific rock star. Electricity had been replaced with genetics and blood. Clearly, a new horror was required for a new time.

Vampire myths are probably as old as mankind, and Dracula was not the first vampire novel. Dr. John Polidori’s The Vampyr (concocted that same wasted night in Switzerland, and inspired by Lord Byron), the novel Varney the Vampyr, and even a lesbian vampire novella called Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu, all preceded Dracula. But it was left to Abraham Stoker to write the classic vampire novel, Dracula. The name itself is now synonymous with vampirism.

Unlike Frankenstein, the writing in Dracula is almost breathless. The story hurtles along briskly and, even though the actual character of the Count disappears from the book about four or five chapters in and, for the duration of the novel, makes only slightly more appearances than Boo Radley for the rest of the book, the spirit of the vampire hovers over everything. It’s no small accomplishment to make a minor character the entire focus of a lengthy tale and make no mistake; Count Dracula is a minor character in his own book. The major characters are those hunting the elusive Count: the stalwart Jonathan Harker who unintentionally sets the events of the novel into motion; Harker’s wife, the pure of heart Mina; the grieving Lord Holmwood; the rogue Texan Quincey Morris; the psychologist Dr. Seward; and most of all Dr. Van Helsing, who is both a brilliant psychologist and a little cracked himself. Also figuring here is Lucy Westenra, the fiancé of Lord Holmwood who becomes the first victim of the Count on his arrival in England.

The story is well known. Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to work out a real estate deal with Count Dracula. While there, he becomes a prisoner and all too aware that something really bad is going on at the good Count’s castle. He is eventually freed and, by this time, quite mad. While Mina diligently searches for her missing betrothed, Dracula is on his way to England, courtesy of the real estate deal worked out for him by Harker. Once there, he attacks Lucy and eventually kills her. Lucy then rises from her grave to become the “bloofer lady” who kidnaps and kills small children. Van Helsing figures out what’s going on and, with help from his friends, kills Lucy once and for all by driving a stake through her heart, cutting off her head, and stuffing her mouth with garlic. The intrepid band of vampire killers then go in search of the Count who, unbeknownst to them, has turned his attentions to Mina. They eventually track down the Count, who flees back to Transylvania. Van Helsing and company follows him and eventually kills him in a very anti-climactic ending.

But it is what’s between the lines that is so fascinating here. Written in 1897 in Victorian England, there are scenes in this book that, with a word change or two, could have emerged from a letter to Penthouse. Jonathan Harker trembles with “dreadful anticipation” as three beautiful women go down on their knees in front of him. The passage that follows is a seduction scene, though because Harker is powerless to stop the women, it is also a rape scene. Jonathan Harker is about to be orally raped by the brides of Dracula, and he’s both terrified and cool with the whole idea. It is only the last second appearance of the Count, bearing strong words for his wives, and a half-smothered baby for them to snack on, that prevents the rape.

Similarly, when Lucy is having her blood drawn by the Count the description is that of a woman who is…well, orgasmic. It is not until the next day that Lucy appears weak and ill.

Harker’s guilt over the close encounter provides the thrust of the storyline. He writes of the incident, but prays Mina never sees it. Even though he was powerless to stop it, he seems to feel guilty of committing a sin of a sexual nature. He may not have been able to do anything to stop it, but the sin may be that he didn’t want to do anything to stop it. A foursome with three beautiful women was going to be the highlight of his trip to the Old Country. Realizing that he has sinned in spirit, if not in the flesh, his response is to go mad and get lost in the Transylvania countryside.

But the ramifications of his sin spread. Dracula goes to London. Mina’s cousin, the virginal, sweet Lucy is killed. Her Undead corpse then kills innocent children. Eventually, after Harker makes his way back to England and sanity, and marries Mina, the sin follows. Mina, too, becomes “infected” using Van Helsing’s word. It is the innocent women and children who must pay for Harker’s sin.

A quick look at the author shows a man who was very much a night owl, who slept during the day, who knew how to have a good time in the nightlife of 19th century London. In fact, that nightlife gave him the syphilis that later took his life. Was Dracula a metaphor for the disease that infected the author? Possibly. There is certainly little doubt that if Jonathan Harker had been sensible and stayed to himself within the castle walls as he was instructed to do, that many of the events that occurred would never have happened. Is it coincidence that Dracula chose to go after Harker’s friends and relatives? Surely not. London was a big city even then. Harker’s loved ones are paying the price for his dalliance with Dracula’s brides. The sin follows him, and infects those he cares about.

There is a question in “lit-crit” circles about whether or not Dracula is a romance of sorts. Certainly the popularity of the current Twilight saga is based on the notion of tween girls falling for dreamy vampire hunks. But whether the reaction of Dracula’s female victims, or Harker’s reaction to the brides, can be classified as erotic or, at least, sexual in nature, is something of a distraction to the larger point. Erotic, perhaps. Romantic, absolutely not. Dracula was a vampire and vampires are vicious, cruel, blood-thirsty monsters who seek death and turn the innocent into the demonic. If they happen to use time-honored seduction techniques (staring into the eyes, caressing the neck, etc), that really just makes them more evil. "I can love," Dracula says, but the love of a vampire is based on violence and death, consummated by a penetrative act that is a sick parody of affection and that leaves the recipient weaker and, eventually, either dead or monstrous.

Let the tweens reading Twilight suck on that.

The Ruins, by Scott Smith

I’ve purchased a lot of books that carried a cover blurb by Stephen King. Generally speaking, the guy’s got pretty good taste when it comes to recommending horror novels. I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) both Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and Dan Simmons’ Summer Of Night based on a few words from King pasted on the back cover.

So it was with this in mind that I bought and read The Ruins by Scott Smith. It was the "best horror novel of the new century" according to King. There was a movie earlier this year, but I haven’t seen it yet.

It’s not the best horror novel of the new century. I haven’t read all that many, but King’s own Duma Key is better. So was The Terror which I reviewed earlier on this blog. In fact, The Ruins is pretty blah.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a very good read. The characters are well-drawn, the situation certainly tense. But it’s 500 pages long and could have been cut by about, oh…400 of those pages. This is a novella engorged to novel length.

In many ways, it reminded me of Stephen King’s short story, "The Raft," published in his anthology Skeleton Crew. In that story, about 20-30 pages if I remember right, a handful of people swim out to a moored raft in the middle of a lake, only to find that they are trapped there by a spot on the water that resembles an oil slick, but moves independently and with thought, and which dissolves the flesh of anyone unlucky enough to contact it.

In The Ruins, a handful of people go to some ancient ruins near Cancun, Mexico only to find themselves trapped there by vines that move independently, can mimic sounds and even human voices, and which dissolve the flesh of anyone unlucky enough to get trapped by them. Also, like "The Raft" the entire story here could be staged as a play. Aside from a brief prologue in a beach resort, a short tale of the journey to the ruins, and a brief trip into a hole in the ground, all of the action takes place in one setting.

What is missing from The Ruins, aside from any real action, is a reason. Sure, we’re given a reason for the five intrepid vacationers to be there. But the murderous vines are never explained. What are they? Where are they from? I’ve read every page and I still don’t know.

What we have here is nihilism. Things happen, but there is never a reason for it. The book is little more than an excuse to describe some gruesome deaths. Since there is no point to the deaths, then everything leading up to it is rendered pointless as well. The essence of tragedy is when bad things happen to people for whom the reader cares. The endings of, say, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach or Daniel Keyes’ Flowers For Algernon are certainly sad, even depressing. But the ending of The Ruins just makes me wonder why I went through 500 pages to get to this point. The ending is not pathos as it is in the Shute or Keyes book. It’s just bleak.

The book is a diverting read. It’s certainly a fast read, like a Dean Koontz or Stephen King book. You could do a lot worse than to curl up in bed on a rainy weekend and lose yourself in this world (you could be reading a James Patterson novel, for instance), and once you start the book is pretty compelling. It’s no-holds-barred horror in the tradition of other "go-straight-for-the-throat-and-don’t-let-go" writers like James Herbert or the team of John Skipp and Craig Spector, and it shares something of the latter duo’s dark world view (but not their sense of humor which lightened even gloomfests like The Bridge). But when it’s over you may just find yourself asking why you didn’t read something else.

Read it if it’s there and you like a decently scary story that doesn’t require too much thought.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is one of those books that a lot of us read in high school. I have vague memories of seeing some of my classmates with the book. The book was never assigned to me, however. Nor was Lord Of The Flies, which just goes to prove that the English teachers I had in high school were the uncool ones. It’s disheartening now, all these years later, to learn that while I was stuck reading godawful tripe like West  Side Story, gems like Mockingbird were being read by the class down the hall.

My sole criticism first, just to get it out of the way. Harper Lee has a point to make in To Kill A Mockingbird and she’s going to make that point VERY CLEARLY. And if you don’t get it the first time around, the point will be made again in just a few pages. If you’ve read the book and still don’t get the point, allow me: Racism is bad.

Now, Lee is absolutely right about this. Racism is bad. And while the point may be a little obvious at times, the fact remains that To Kill A Mockingbird is still a profoundly moving book. The characters are beautifully drawn, especially Scout Finch, the young girl who comes of age during the course of the book’s 300 pages.

Lee does an amazing job of portraying the town of Maycomb, a dusty little spot on the map of Depression-era Alabama. I know nothing of Lee’s life, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Scout Finch has more than a bit of Harper Lee in her, and that Lee came from a town not unlike Maycomb.

It seems to me though that the book is not about racism, per se. The fulcrum on which the plot pivots is the trial of Tom Robinson, a one-armed black man accused of raping a white woman. The evidence all points to Robinson’s innocence, and his lawyer (the righteous Atticus Finch, father of Scout) makes a compelling case to the jury. Not only does Atticus provide a reasonable doubt as to Robinson’s  guilt, he even discloses who the real guilty parties are. Yet despite a rock solid case, Atticus knows going in that he will lose the trial. Everyone in town knows it’s a loser case. Everyone except Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill. They are stunned when the guilty verdict comes down. Dill disappears from the book shortly thereafter. Jem, now a teenager, reacts as teenagers always react when the world is upended. He becomes angry and defiant.

But the important one here is Scout. Her world has also been turned upside down. An innocent man is sent to prison and later killed for trying to escape. Her father, who can do no wrong in her eyes, has death threats against him. Scout is still too young to fully grasp what has happened in Maycomb, but she still tries to make sense of it. For the first time in her life, Scout has been introduced to the concept that there is evil in the world, an it lurks just down the street or in the house next door. Her neighbors, nice folks all of them, are threatening Atticus for defending Tom Robinson, a notion that doesn’t square with Scout’s view of fair trials for everyone. Her teacher despises Hitler for what he’s doing to the Jews, but is glad that Tom Robinson was found guilty despite the fact that she believes he’s probably innocent. Where is this coming from?

Earlier in the book there is a short scene that seems out of context when it occurs. Scout, Jem, and Dill are outside playing when they see one of the neighbors’ dog in the street. It’s a dog they’ve known for years, but now it’s acting funny, walking awkwardly and seeming to suffer from seizures. Jem goes for help and the neighbors come out. It’s clear that the dog is rabid, and the sheriff is asked to shoot it.

Instead, the sheriff turns over the gun to Atticus who shoots the dog dead with a single shot. Sickness and evil have come to Maycomb, and it is only the righteous man that can slay the beast.

Here is the sickness in the neighborhood. The dog serves as a symbol for what will happen to many of the residents of Maycomb when the trial begins. Good, decent, God-fearin’ folks will succumb to the sickness of their prejudices and become dangerous. And all the while, young Scout watches, wondering.

She also wonders about the shut-in neighbor, Arthur Radley. He’s a myth, this "Boo" Radley. The children believe he only comes out at night to eat squirrels, and they try to goad him into making a daytime appearance until Atticus tells them to stop. Boo Radley hangs over the book like a shroud. He’s the 500-pound gorilla in the room. In the imagination of the children, he is some kind of monster. In reality, he is a "mockingbird," something so innocent that he cannot bear to step foot outside into an evil world except when no one is around.

It is Boo who saves Scout and Jem from being murdered at the end of the book, and it is Boo for whom the sheriff is willing to lie. Locking up Boo Radley for killing a man, despite the fact that he acted to protect children, would be like killing a mockingbird, an act for which there can be no forgiveness. Innocence dies naturally  from exposure to the weather of experience, but killing it where it exists is  a crime against God. What Jem and Scout learn from their experiences is that evil exists in the hearts and minds of all men and women and they have choices  in how to deal with it. They can run from it like Boo Radley and become prisoners of the world, or they can face it head on, recognize that the good coexists with the bad, and try to change what’s wrong, like Atticus.

What comes to mind is the great Edmund Burke’s declaration that in order for evil to triumph, it is only necessary that good men do nothing. It’s clear the route that Scout and Jem will take, and that may be the overall message of To Kill A Mockingbird: yes, evil exists and racism is bad…but as long as there are people with integrity and honor, there is always hope.