Death Comes For The Poet

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Title: Pale Fire

Rating: 5 Stars

The plot is actually relatively straightforward (kind of). Buckle your seat belts.

There’s a beloved king of the small country of Zembla. Plotters overthrow him and he barely escapes. He ends up in America, posing as a professor (Charles Kinbote).

At the university that he teaches at, he befriends a poet, John Shade, that he not so secretly worships. They form a close friendship and they take long walks together. While walking, hoping to inspire Shade to write an epic heroic poem, Kinbote repeats tales of the great king of Zembla. Seemingly inspired, Shade commences to write a poem, but refuses to share it with Kinbote.

Just as he almost finishes it, an assassin that has tracked down the wayward king tries to shoot Kinbote. However, he misses and shoots Shade dead.

Shade happens to have the manuscript with him. Kinbote grabs it and immediately heads off to a remote location so that he can annotate what he is sure is the great last work of a great poet, featuring the adventures that he’s so gloriously narrated to Shade on their walks.

Pale Fire is the fruit of this work. It contains a foreword, the poem itself, and Kinbote’s commentary.

What’s the problem? Well, for starters, Shade’s poem has nothing to do with the king of Zembla. It is actually a touching, highly personal poem regarding the pain and search for meaning in the suicide of Shade’s daughter.

This is about as far from Zembla as you can get. However, Kinbote is undeterred. In his commentary, he scrapes for every scrap of evidence, every insinuation, every hint of Zembla and her king in this poem about the pain of loss and the search for meaning.

As Kinbote’s commentary continues, many times he just gets frustrated and tells the king’s stories in the commentary itself, at times barely even trying to connect it to the poem that he’s supposedly commenting upon. In fact, as you increasingly read between the lines, it’s pretty clear that Shade not only did not consider Kinbote to be his bosom buddy but at times actively tried to avoid him. It’s pretty clear that Kinbote was an active nuisance, overbearing busybody, pretty close to a stalker of Shade that Shade simply tolerated.

Over time, more and more of what is real becomes questioned. Is Kinbote really an exiled king? Was the assassin (Gradus) actually trying to kill Shade? Kinbote definitely seems somewhat unhinged. How much of the narrative is the madness of Kinbote?

If you do any literary research on Pale Fire, you’ll see even more interesting theories. Perhaps Shade invented Kinbote as a vehicle for his work? Or maybe Kinbote invented Shade and actually wrote the poem himself? Or possibly the ghost of Shade’s suicidal daughter inspired Kinbote’s efforts (and no, I’m not making that up).

As you can tell, we are entering post modern territory. Clearly Kinbote is an unreliable narrator. The structure of the book is itself an ironic statement on poems and the commentary that takes place on them. The fact that you posit the fact that some of these characters themselves might be characters that are products of other characters within the book is also a postmodern landmark to be on the lookout for.

Another interesting aspect to this work is that it is a very early prototype of hyperlinking. Notes point to other notes which point to parts of the poem. You can read it, if you so choose, as a kind of choose your adventure story. Since this was published, in 1962, nearly thirty years before the development of the web browser, this is truly innovative. This could potentially yield slightly different reading experiences every time that you re-read it.

There are interesting connections between Pale Fire and Lolita. In both cases, you have a failing European man (Humbert Humbert in Lolita) emigrating from Europe to America and trying (and failing) to integrate in it. They are both men of maturity with predilections for much younger partners (young girls for Humbert and young men for Kinbote). Written in the decades immediately following WW2, is this the hunger of a faded people for the fresh new world? The sophisticated past being overthrown by the guileless future?

Technically, Pale Fire is brilliant. Nabokov is simply a magician with words. Like Cormac McCarthy, he finds rare or obsolete words and uses them to perfection. I came across a word (ombrioles) and when I googled it, the entire first page of results pointed back to Pale Fire.  He essentially invents a new language so that Kinbote can quote Zemblan sayings in their mother tongue.

As you can see, there is a lot to unpack here and I barely scratched the surface. I’m sure that with a carefully annotated version, I could have easily spent weeks reading / appreciating  it.

It is justifiably considered one of the great works of the twentieth century.

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Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

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Title: Good Time

Rating: 3 Stars

A mentally handicapped man, Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie), is apparently in a treatment center undergoing therapy when his brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) busts in and takes him.

We next see the two brothers rob a bank. They’re successful, but a die pack explodes, causing them to panic and to flee. In the ensuing chaos Nick is captured, arrested, and thrown in Rikers. There, he does not fare well, and is severely beaten.

Connie bears the full responsibility for Nick being in jail and desperately tries to free him. He first tries to bail him out, but does not have enough money. He then hears that Nick has been beaten so severely that he has been removed from prison and is placed in a hospital. His mission becomes to free his brother from the hospital.

His attempts take most of the night, and fair to say, they don’t go well.

Connie, although deeply caring of his brother, is a violent man with poor impulse control. He thinks quickly, but never wisely. Connie clearly thinks of himself as some kind of master criminal, but his tactics are anything but.

Pretty much everyone he comes into contact with, his brother, his girlfriend, a young woman he befriends, his accidental comrade in crime (Ray), a security night guard, all end up worse off having met him. Everyone who he consciously manipulates into helping him end up being hurt.

In fact, by the end of the movie, when Benny is back in the treatment center, it becomes apparent that this is a healthy environment for him and possibly be the place that he should have been along. Connie’s poor decision of ‘rescuing’ him set off a cascade of many other bad decisions.

The movie was effective at portraying the actions of a violent, desperate man. Pattinson shed his romantic lead heart throb personae and threw himself into the role. His eyes are constantly desperate and calculating. Casting Pattinson was probably a bit of a stunt, but his efforts offset the calculated nature of the choice.

One big demerit is the soundtrack. At various times, it sounded like some odd cross of Hitchcock and Nine Inch Nails and Velvet Underground at their most pretentious. That’s not a compliment. It was grating and annoying and actively detracted from some of the key scenes.

Other than that, the movie was basically episodic. There’s a long side story concerning Ray that could have been shortened.

At times the plot was obvious. There were a couple of plot twists that you could see coming from a mile away. The bank teller took an awfully long time filling the bag. Perhaps that was the point. Connie, who thinks he’s a genius criminal, is willfully blind to things that would be obvious to the even most amateur of criminals. Perhaps Bennie isn’t the only member of the Nikas family that has a below average intellect.

Regardless, it was a good film with adult themes that was grimly entertaining. In the midst of the lightness of summer, that is often enough to make a good movie night out.

 

Dukes of Hazzard Meets Ocean’s 11

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Title: Logan Lucky

Rating: 4 Stars

Steven Soderbergh takes his caper film trope (Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen) and moves it decidedly South.

No longer set in glitzy Las Vegas with its Rat Pack milieu, most of the planning takes place in a West Virginian dive bar named Duck Tape. The plan is to steal all of the cash that is stored at a vault at the Charlotte motor speedway.

Leading the crew is an unemployed construction worker Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) that needs some cash so that he can continue to be close to his daughter, who is moving with her mother over the state line. He enlists his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who is missing part of his arm from a tour in Iraq and his hair stylist sister Mellie (Riley Keough). He needs help blowing the vault, so he enlists a currently incarcerated explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who insists that his two dimwitted brothers who have recently discovered God be brought along as well.

So, the plot involves getting Joe Bang out of prison and back in before it is noticed, blowing up the vault, getting all of the money, and making good on an escape. As is usual in such films, at several points things appear to be going completely haywire. However, in true Danny Ocean form, Jimmy seems to have a plan for everything and the heist continues on.

As a heist movie, it was just about par for the course. It had the usual complex elements requiring some pretty serious suspension of belief as events move in perfect synchronicity.

The characters were fun, especially Daniel Craig in full Southern accent. He appeared to be having good fun with his role. His use of fake salt and gummy bears as his explosive device was a fun wink at the sophisticated devices used in the Oceans movies.

It pokes hopefully gentle fun at Southern culture. You see characters playing horseshoes with toilet seat covers. A major plot point revolves around whether or not Jimmy will be able to make his daughter’s beauty pageant. His daughter is less than ten and at the pageant is in full JonBenet Ramsey makeup and hair.

It was not a film for deep thought. It was fun, entertaining, and had a couple of solid laughs.

And yes, Steven Soderbergh has pretty much made his fortune showing how much crime pays and how much fun you can have while committing crimes.

Bucharest PD!

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Title: Comrade Detective

Rating: 4 Stars

The premise is almost irresistible. There is a long lost Romanian detective series from the 1980s produced to glorify the Romanian state. An old tape of the series is found and it’s such a masterpiece that great care is taken to restore it and dub it in English so that we can all enjoy it.

It works on many levels. First of all, for those of us who were around in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s a great spoof of detective shows from that time. It was a golden era of hard nosed detective shows, including Starsky and Hutch, Baretta, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, and Mannix. These were all hard men that were somehow irresistible to the ladies.

The lead detective, Gregor Anghel, with his leather jacket, shaggy unkempt hair, and general glower perfectly matches the bill. He actually reminded me of Joe Don Baker playing Mitchell in the great MST3K movie. Women can’t seem to keep themselves from falling for him.

Just like in those old television series, there is rampant violence. Suspects are beaten, guns are fired, and the cops just bust in where ever they want to, hilariously shouting “Bucharest PD!”.

Above and  beyond that is the overt propaganda. Being dedicated communists, they hold capitalism, and specifically, United States, in contempt. They visit the US embassy, where grossly fat men sit around eating mounds of hamburgers. The ambassador is an oversexed Texan woman. The Monopoly game is seen as a capitalist tool to subvert communists. Jordache jeans drive susceptible Romanians mad with desire. The suspect (who murdered Anghel’s partner) goes around wearing a Reagan mask.

This is contrasted with the perfection of Romania. They extol the virtues of Romanian vehicles, the Romanian healthcare system, and Romanian cops. They do this despite the fact that Romanian cars are clearly tiny little boxes, the healthcare system has beat up beds and soiled pillows, and the actual Romanian police force kind of resembles Keystone cops.

On the one hand, you laugh at the absurdity of it all. But then you start to think a little about the affect that the Cold War propaganda had on the Western culture. The obvious example here is Red Dawn. That’s scarcely the only one. Think of the Rambo movies (after First Blood). Think of pretty much any 1970s / 1980s James Bond film. How many positive examples can you come up with where the people of the Soviet Union were presented fairly? The propaganda here is broad and is therefore amusing, but there is a message here about how culture makes a distinction between Us and Them, and then makes sure that the Them is represented as unflattering as possible.

In one episode, there is even a Trump reference that’s pretty awesome.  Clearly, Trump, with his accusations of fake news and his pretty absolute disregard for the truth (with the support of various other media outlets) understands the value of propaganda, and as is done here, he lays it on with the subtlety of a meat cleaver.

The last episode, trying to tie up loose ends, is kind of a slog and the satire becomes a little too obvious as it goes along, but all in all, I’d highly recommend this series. There’s a lot more here than meets the eye.

Killing To See His Daughter

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Title: The Second Life of Nick Mason

Rating: 2 Stars

I’ve read several of Steven Hamilton’s works. The Alex McKnight series is OK. I enjoyed the first in the series, A Cold Day in Paradise. I read one or two more in the series, but they quickly devolved into a predictable formula. The Lock Artist, which is a one off, was actually pretty awesome. The protagonist was a mute dedicated to a life of crime whose skill was to be able to break any lock. Having a quiet person at the heart of an action story was novel and affecting.

It looks like Nick Mason is going to be another series, so I thought that I’d give him another shot. Nick Mason was a career criminal in Boston. He’d been a thief for about ten years. He then got married, had a child, and walked the straight and narrow. In true crime fiction fashion, he’s convinced to do one more job, which of course goes completely haywire, a cop is killed, and he’s sentenced to twenty years in prison.

While there, he meets an organized crime leader (Darius Cole) that’s serving multiple life sentences. Darius takes a liking to Nick and sees potential in him. He makes a deal with Nick. He will get Nick out of prison but in exchange, while Nick is out, he must do whatever Darius orders.

Desperate to see his daughter, Nick agrees. In short order, a detective on Nick’s original case recants his testimony and Nick walks free.

However, the devil always gets his due. Almost immediately, Darius orders him to kill a man. Reluctant to do so, he takes the gun and hesitantly goes to the hotel room where the man is at. His victim attacks him first and in the ensuing fight, Nick kills him.

Darius now assumes that he’s a stone cold killer and continues to order him out for additional hits, all of which Nick, in one form or another, manages to accomplish.

And this brings us to the essential problem here. Are we supposed to believe that a semi-reformed thief with no history of violence decides to go out and become a stone cold assassin just because he wants to see his daughter? And this is the protagonist. Are we supposed to be rooting for him as he does the killing for a crime lord?

It’d be one thing if his character morphed from a general nice guy to a remorseless killer (think Breaking Bad), but here, we’re supposed to be seeing him as this basic nice guy trying to make a relationship work while at the same time has preternatural skills killing people.

I don’t know. Even for crime fiction, the premise seems incredulous if not actually ridiculous, and as the novel progressed, I just couldn’t find myself to feel any empathy for the character and I found his motivation completely unbelievable. I seriously doubt whether there’s any person that’d willingly become a highly efficient hit man just so that he can catch an occasional glance at his daughter as she’s playing soccer.

War Between The Desert States

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Title: The Water Knife

Rating: 4 Stars

I’m guessing that this book will not be featured prominently on Fox News anytime soon. It’s the story of a near future dystopia where Arizona, Nevada, and California are nearly in a state of war over water rights. Climate change deniers be forewarned.

At the start of the novel, Texas is essentially a wasteland. Cities such as San Antonio and Dallas have collapsed. In desperation, the Texans have migrated northward into Arizona, where they are universally despised as worthless immigrants. Meanwhile, Phoenix itself is on the verge of collapse. It is in a rather desperate struggle with Las Vegas to maintain access to a water supply. Above all of this is California, which with its wealth and size is a fearsome force to be reckoned with.

Inside this dystopian tale are three main characters. There is Angel, a Las Vegas mercenary trying to track down a mystery regarding water rights in Phoenix. There is Maria, a native Texan that has immigrated to Phoenix, desperately poor, just trying to survive. Finally, there is Lucy, an intrepid reporter, also living in Phoenix, on the track of a big scoop as the body count ratchets up. Their paths collide as the three states battle to recover a document that describes the original water rights.

A book that is heavily referenced here is Cadillac Desert (a real book) that describes how the federal government took an area of what was essentially arid desert, and through sophisticated water management, helped to create thriving cities. The book posits that as the growth continues and the climate dries up, inevitably cities will collapse and states will desperately fight each other for access to the dwindling water supplies.

This is an interesting subject. Water has played an out sized role in these parched states. If you’re interested, read about the California Water Wars, which describes how Los Angeles basically screwed over a bunch of farmers to get water rights, thus creating a thriving, growing Los Angeles and the death of farming in Owens Valley (basically the plot of the movie Chinatown).

Around that same time, a preposterous idea promulgated was the concept that rain follows the plow. The idea was that somehow human cultivation naturally led to the formation of clouds and the increase of rain (something about the dirt being kicked up by the plow). This actually passed as science at one point. The government actively encouraged farmers to inhabit arid lands and try to farm them, thinking that it would increase rain supply. This coincidentally seemed to work for a while due to a natural wet cycle but ultimately farmers starved, died, and abandoned farms during the Great American Dust Bowl (read The Worst Hard Time).

This is the context in which the novel is written. Its dystopian future, with desperate refugees from American states, with American citizens lynching fellow citizens trying to sneak into their states, with Phoenix constantly beset by dust storms, and Chinese corporations lurking in the background looking to pick at the carcass of the fading American economy, are all clearly drawn in a grim manner. Knowing what little that I do know about the formation of the Southwest, it’s not entirely an impossible narrative.

My only complaint is that the characters are pretty stock. You just know that Angel, the brutal mercenary, really has a heart of gold. You know that Lucy, the reporter, is going to be full of pluck and will relentlessly pursue the story. You know that Maria, the immigrant, will be given a whole series of hard knocks but will ultimately prevail.

This is clearly a book with an agenda and a political conscience. In no way does it hide it. Even given that, I still found it not only to be provoking but also an entertaining read.

Something New…White People Behaving Badly

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Title: Killers of the Flower Moon

Rating: 3 Stars

As a practice, I try to write my thoughts on a book within a day or two of reading it. For the last week, I’ve been on vacation where I did not have time to write, so I’ll have to make an exception here. I actually read this book early last week. We’ll see how it goes.

Grann’s book explores yet another dark chapter in the history of white people doing bad things to indigenous people. The Osage once populated a large chunk of the Midwest. Over time, they were forced onto reservations. Ultimately, they ended up in a pretty forsaken part of Oklahoma. Early in the twentieth century, oil was discovered on their land. They’d previously negotiated to keep their mineral rights. By doing so, the Osage, which owned the land communally, became extremely wealthy extremely quickly.

The government could not leave well enough alone. They decided that the Osage did not have the mental ability to manage their money themselves, so they appointed white caretakers to manage their money for them. Even though they were all wealthy, they had to go to a white man to ask them for even the smallest amount of money.

And then, even more mysteriously, the Osage began to die prematurely. Some of them were found shot. While they were sleeping, a couple’s house was destroyed by an explosion. Several other Osage simply wasted away and died.

In vain, they appealed to the local authorities for help. Either through neglect or incompetence, nothing was done to solve the murders or to prevent additional murders. Ultimately, the Osage appealed to the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation for help.

At that time, the FBI was full of bright young Hoover approved college students that knew nothing about crime fighting and a bunch of rugged old cowboys (formerly Texas Rangers) that did not fit the mold of an FBI agent but actually knew how to solve crimes. Hoover bowed to the inevitable and sent off one of the cowboys to Oklahoma.

Despite local opposition, ultimately, the FBI was able to prove that one of the local leaders, William Hale, had persuaded his nephew to marry one of the local Osage women. Hale then arranged for two of the woman’s sisters and her mother to be murdered so that his nephew, via his marriage, would have control of a significant share of the Osage wealth. Ultimately, the nephew confessed and Hale was convicted of the crime.

The notoriety of the case and its successful conclusion first brought the FBI into the limelight.

However, Grann does not stop there. The murders of the Osage did not stop at Hale. Looking at records, it appears that as many as sixty Osage could have been murdered. Even today, the remnants of the Osage Nation keep boxes of records in the hope that they can be used to prove the murder of their ancestors.

So, why only three stars? Well, I’m beginning to suspect that I just like Grann’s long form articles more than his book length work. I remember only being moderately enthused by the Lost City of Z. However, his long form collection, the Devil & Sherlock Holmes, is a brilliant set of articles on a broad range of subjects.

Here, as with the Lost City of Z, I was only moderately entertained. I did appreciate the amount of research and the story of the FBI agents hunting down Hale. Even though I enjoyed it, it still didn’t seem all that compelling. These were not exactly master criminals. It was a lot of trouble to convict Hale, but that was mostly because of the prejudice in Oklahoma, not to any diabolical genius on Hale’s part.

To me, if you want to read about how the FBI truly hit the national spotlight and made its reputation, check out Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies. This was a great telling of how the FBI went from inexperienced bumblers to efficient crime fighters.

My other beef with this was the last part of the work where Grann tried to connect the dots of the larger conspiracy. I have no doubt that there was a conspiracy, but there is no documentation smoking gun. There is a lot of doubt and suspicion, but that’s it. Perhaps trying to get to the truth of a matter from a distance of 100 years will inevitably lead to this lack of certainty, but to end the book in this matter seems at best anticlimactic.

Iraq Through a Prism

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Title: Redeployment

Rating: 4 Stars

Having some time ago finished The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, which was an absolutely brilliant set of short stories about the Vietnam War, I began to wonder if there was an equivalent for the Iraq War. Redeployment appeared to be the closest candidate, so I gave it a shot. The bad news is that I didn’t find it as strong as The Things They Carried. The good news is that it was still pretty damn good.

Unlike O’Brien’s collection, which really seemed to be tinged with a sense of the nearly autobiographical, Klay’s stories are clearly fiction. Each of the dozen or so stories are told from a different point of view. You view the war as a private on patrol in an MRAP. You view it as a soldier that collected the remains of dead soldiers. You view it as a chaplain. You view it as a soldier in an artillery crew. You view it as a psych ops officer. You view it as a civilian in Iraq to help the reconstruction. There are a couple of stories of soldiers coming home and trying to adjust. Each of these stories open a different viewport into the war.

O’Brien’s collections was that rarity where every story was strong. Here, the stories are more of a mixed bag.

Money as a Weapons System is the story of a civilian sent in to help re-build Iraq. Here you get the Catch-22 nature of the Iraq War. He wants to do the right thing, but the government, the army, and the Iraqis themselves pretty much prevent that from happening. He wants to rebuild their water supply but just ends up having to pretend to have formed an Iraqi baseball team to please some congressman’s benefactor. This is the dark humor of unwieldy bureaucracies colliding in a place where solutions are impossible.

Frago is a raid of a suspected Al Qaeda house that goes wrong. As the house is getting cleared, a favorite Corporal is severely wounded. Also, as they go deeper into the house, they come upon a torture scene of two men bound to chairs, horrible beaten and crippled. The fresh Lieutenant has trouble coping. Members of the injured Corporal’s team are barely functional. In this story, the narrator is the Sargent. He has to be alert to everything and be responsive to the needs of the team. He has to know when to tell the dirty joke to lighten the mood and when to gently help a distraught private eat his ice cream. This is a deeply affecting story of the horrors that a team on patrol regularly must face during their deployment.

Sometimes I forget how young soldiers really are. These are men and women that face extreme hardship and need strong emotional resilience, but so many of them are only nineteen or twenty years old. In the story After Action Report, one of the soldiers who has just killed his first man (actually a boy), tries to escape his pain through endless hours of playing Pokemon. It just seems so unfair to them to ask to sacrifice so much. There’s simply no way that you can come back from some of those experiences unscarred, be it emotionally or physically

Especially in the early stories, there is a heavy reliance upon acronyms and jargon. It’s used to highlight the foreignness of the Iraq War. They are Americans fighting this war, but they are Americans that nearly have a language of their own. While I understood that, it did make for rough reading.

The stories also seemed to have a bit of an emotional distance. Perhaps Klay is still working on his craft and trying to draw so many characters was just a little too much for him. In too many of the stories, instead of feeling drawn to the character, I felt as if the character was just a straw man built to bring out another dimension of the Iraq War.

I found this to be an effective, affective collection, but it does not seem that this will be the definitive final literary word on the Iraq War.

 

A Few Scant Words About A Hypergraphic

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Title: Joe Gould’s Teeth

Rating: 2 Stars

This has all of the makings of a great story. First of all, there is Joe Gould himself. He was a legendary, colorful, mysterious Greenwich Village character from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. He was known as a raconteur. He was allegedly writing an oral history of immense size. He walked around with copy books, incessantly writing in them (Lepore actually believes him to be suffering from hypergraphia). He gave volumes of writings to various friends and benefactors. He had literary friends such as E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and Edmund Wilson that believed in him and tried to get him published. He had fairly serious mental problems, was constantly on the edge of homelessness, and spent time in various mental hospitals. Although not clear, ultimately he appeared to die in a hospital after a stew of electro-shock, possible lobotomy, and doses of psychotropic drugs. It’s truly a tale of a possible lost, misunderstood genius.

And then you have Joseph Mitchell, yet another New York character. He was Jimmy Breslin before there was Jimmy Breslin. For decades, he was a journalist for various New York papers. He hung around the edges of society and wrote about people that no one else wrote about. He consorted with strippers, bartenders, gamblers, and gave them a voice that they never had before. He was a Runyonesque character that served as the pattern and inspiration of every following New York journalist.

Their paths collide in the early 1940’s when Mitchell wrote a profile of Gould called Professor Seagull. Gould was called Professor Seagull because he had a habit of flapping his arms and squawking, which in hindsight apparently are symptoms of autism. The profile gave Gould a measure of fame. Whatever goodwill that might have been gained by this fame was pretty much squandered by Gould by his strange behavior, public drunkenness, and never ending requests for money.

Later, after Gould died in the late 1950’s, Mitchell set off in search of Gould’s oral history. By the time of his death, it should have consisted of many hundreds of volumes. Gould always wanted it to be published after his death and that it would change the entire concept of what a history is.

Mitchell searched high and low for it. Finally, he came to the reluctant conclusion that the oral history never existed. He believed that Gould, despite his incessant writing in his copy books, really had a massive case of writer’s block. He wrote a second piece about Gould describing this search called Joe Gould’s Secret, which was much acclaimed.

Mitchell wrote this book in 1964. Interestingly enough, Mitchell continued to go to work every day at The New Yorker for another thirty years after he wrote that piece (well into his nineties). Before that time, he was remarkably prolific. After, for the following thirty year period of time, he didn’t write another significant story.

Mitchell, after accusing Gould of a multi-decade case of writer’s block, proceeded to himself experience a multi-decade case of writer’s block.

Isn’t that a great story? Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone like a Erik Larson or a David Grann or a Laura Hillebrand would dive into the details of this period and these characters and piece together exactly what that happened?

Unfortunately, instead we have this book. As far as I can tell, it was written over a very short period of time as an exercise for Lepore’s grad students. She finds original sources, but then barely even talks about them. She finds hospitals where Gould might have stayed, but then barely even gets information out of them. She finds evidence of a curious relationship with an African American sculptor (Augusta Savage), but discovers little about their relationship. It truly appears that Gould’s last years could have been harrowing and possibly could have served a larger purpose of describing the horrifying state of mid century mental health care in America, but even that seems to have been give short shrift.

The research here is so shallow it’s dismaying.