Lives Of Quiet Desperation In Maine


Title: Olive Kitteridge

Rating: 5 Stars

Many years ago, I realized that I wasn’t reading a whole lot of modern American fiction. Being a somewhat list driven person, I thought about ways to rectify the situation and decided that I’d focus on the Pulitzer prize winners for fiction. I ended up reading most of the winners going back to the mid 1960s. It was an interesting exercise because, although there were certainly some high quality reads, some of them, looking back in time, seemed slight and even now I’m somewhat curious regarding the selection process.

This was many years ago. Occasionally I check the Pulitzer list and try to catch myself up a bit. For that reason, Olive Kitteridge ended up on my reading list. Since I had no other compelling reason to read it and really didn’t know anything about it, I had at best modest expectations. I was expecting something along the lines of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.

This is one of those occasions where all expectations were exceeded. From a quick review, I was expecting a set of short stories about life in a small town in Maine. Most assuredly, this is the setting of the stories. I was expecting some kind of quaint, possibly gentle, series of vignettes of small town living. I was thinking maybe a Yankee version of Lake Woebegon.

I couldn’t have been wider of the mark. The stories are deceptively gentle and simple, but nearly each one contains a bite.

This edge shows most clearly in Olive Kitteridge. She is the common thread running throughout all of the stories. In some cases, she makes a minor, passing appearance. In others she is the center.

Olive is a fascinating character. On the one hand, she is intimidating. She is large, fierce, and ruthlessly pragmatic. She is a retired math teacher that most students were quite terrified of. However, in one story, seeing a struggling young girl wasting away due to anorexia, Olive breaks down into tears and successfully begs her to get treatment. She is curt with her husband, but loves him in her way, can’t believe that such a wonderful man would marry such a beast (as she calls herself), and visits him daily after he has a stroke that renders him nearly unresponsive. However, even within this odd but happy marriage there are moments when both Olive and her husband (Henry) separately have bouts of doubt and fall in love with another.

A major theme here seems to be secrets. Looking at this little village from a distance, everyone seems to be living somewhat happy, if mundane, lives. Scratch a bit below the surface and you see exposed so much more. There is infidelity, anorexia, suicide, murder, abandonment, and other violence.

Nearly each story starts off with what appears to be a somewhat predictable path but then veers off in some completely unexpected direction. An example of this is Basket of Trips. A man has just died and everyone has gathered together. The widow (Marlene) is grief stricken but appears to be holding up nicely. Although Marlene’s husband is dead, her children are grown and appear happy. Despite the grief, Marlene appears steadfast. One of her close friends that’s also her cousin (Kerry) has a bit too much to drink.  Marlene takes Kerry up to her room. When Olive goes to check on them, Kerry is passed out drunk on the bed and Marlene is sitting next to her. When Olive walks up to Marlene, Marlene looks up to Olive and says that she wants to kill Kerry. She is holding a knife.

Not exactly what I was expecting! Most of the stories take turns like this. Although their styles are completely different, as I was reading this, I was reminded of Ottessa Moshfegh, specifically her collections of stories called Homesick of Another World. Moshfegh’s characters are definitely way more out on the fringe than Strout’s, but in both cases, the characters regularly make unexpected choices that lead them far from the beaten path.

Since one of my favorite things reading literature is to be surprised, this set of stories consistently met the bill. It’s one of the strongest collections that I’ve read in a while.

Redemption In Any Form


Title: Church of the Auntie Christ

Every now and then, I try to find the fringiest cultural event possible. Earlier this year, I went and saw Bat-Hamlet, a version of Hamlet where all of the major characters are from the Batman universe, at a tiny theater that was difficult to even get into (the venue was basically a room inside a locked building). In the previous year or so I saw Psycho Beach Party, a cross between Sybil and Gidget, at a playhouse that no longer exists. Let’s not forget about the time that, in the International District, I saw a series of vignettes featuring puppets.

This one might have all of those beat in the fringe factor. Let’s start with the price. I paid $6.66). Paying that much for a live performance tells you a couple of things. First of all, it’s going to be as stripped down as possible. Secondly, it’s a labor of love and you should appreciate it as that.

I had trouble actually finding the theater. Only when I called up the event website and saw a note that you have to go down stairs was I actually able to find it (called the Studio Current). The theater was tiny. It was essentially a bare room. Maybe it could seat forty. I’d guess that about thirty showed up (I was glad to see thirty; I was moderately worried that it’d be another event like the Finnegan’s Wake fiasco where attendance was so sparse that I ran away like the coward that I am).

As you can tell from the image, the star of the show (Miss Texas 1988) is in drag. She played Auntie Christ, the leader of her own church. She had two former choir boys that acted like twinks who were part of the youth ministry. She had a couple of musical guests (more about that later).

Until the end, the play was structured similar to a church service. There was a call to service, there was readings from the bible (of questionable accuracy), communion was served, an offering plate was passed around, and there was a sermon.

As can probably be imagined, it wasn’t quite authentic. The call to service imagined God rather explicitly putting it to the congregation and the congregation responding by um…enthusiastically receiving it. Communion was cheetos and cranberry juice.

The sermon was actually quite affective. In fact, through it, behind the camp there was an undercurrent of sadness. The back story was that Christine had fallen in love with another young woman while at college. She and the woman were both religious conservatives, so really could only express their love through joint religious experience. When the young woman died, Christine dedicated her life to that love by founding the church. This church is the expression of that suppressed love that she once felt.

A quick word about the musical guests. There was two, both men in drag. In both cases, they lip synced to songs. The first one performed Radiohead’s Creep. The second one performed Ave Maria. I’ve been to a couple of performances now featuring drag and I always discover that there’s a whole cultural language taking place that clearly I don’t understand.

Masks were used extensively in both performances. Both performances were weirdly unsettling (there’s probably messaging taking place that is beyond me). Both performances start off clothed and end up in thongs / jock straps. In particular, the second performance featured the dancer clothed in layers of clear plastic waving pom pom’s. At one point, the dancer clearly was channeling Madonna’s Like A Virgin MTV performance.

Towards the end of the service, in literal Deus Ex Machina fashion, Auntie Christ gets a message from God. That message, which is actually from her deceased friend from college, basically tells Auntie Christ that it was OK for the two of them to be in love. It’s OK to be gay. She doesn’t need the church to validate their love.

The service ends with Auntie Christ and her two acolytes dancing a chorus line to a disco version of Amazing Grace with a general message of love whoever you want to love.

#meToo A Century Late

Well here we go again with another possible Supreme Court nominee possibly behaving badly towards women. For those old enough, this brings back to memory the Clarence Thomas hearings and having a bunch of old white guys asking questions about pubic hairs on Cokes and Long Dong Silver. Possibly my favorite memory from that time was Teddy Kennedy, a member of the committee and usually a dynamic presence in any hearing, fresh off his own sex scandals, doing everything possible to blend in with the curtains behind him.

This also brings to mind Grover Cleveland. Yes, that Grover Cleveland, the president who is pretty much only known today for the distinction of serving non-sequential terms in office (therefore being known as both the 22nd and the 24th president).

Believe it or not, that portly gentlemen with the amazing bushy mustache that apparently John Bolton once saw, probably in his teenage years, and said, yep, that’s the look that I’m going to rock my entire life, had himself a sex scandal.

First, let me tell you the story the way that I first heard it. It was the year 1884. Cleveland was the presidential nominee of the Democratic party. Keep in mind that we’re still in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Democrats were still thought of as Copperheads, who during the Civil War were a group of Northern Democrats that wanted to end the Civil War even if it meant making peace with the Confederacy as a separate nation. At the conclusion of the Civil War, the Copperheads were understandably held in poor repute. In fact, no Democrat had been elected president since before the Civil War (a shout-out to James Buchanan, who for different reasons needs his own blog article).

However, Cleveland has a real chance of becoming president. As is usual with parties that have been in power too long, the Republicans have become corrupt. Cleveland has a clean record, is known as a reformer (as Governor, he helped clean up Tammany Hall), and is generally considered to be pro-business (at least for a Democrat). He has a fighting chance.

His opponent is James G Blaine. Blaine was a well respected career politician. However, he did not have a great reputation. He received payments during the Credit Mobilier scandal. There were damaging letters written by him that included phrases like “burn this letter”, which, for future reference, if you ever feel the need to write in a letter is probably a pretty good clue that you shouldn’t write or send the letter.

So, Cleveland is a spotless reformer while Blaine is a corrupt crony hack. Slam dunk, right? Well…

The Republicans get evidence that Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock some number of years ago. Gasp!

Scandal erupts. Cleveland decides to take the high road. He acknowledges relations with the woman. The woman was promiscuous, so he couldn’t be sure that he was the father. However, he knew that the three or four other men that the woman was ‘intimate’ with were all married men and would be destroyed by scandal. So, Cleveland, as the only bachelor among them, nobly decides to do the right thing and acknowledges paternity.

Although the Republicans continue to try to keep the issue alive by chanting “Ma, my, where’s my pa?” (dirty politics that would warm Nixon’s heart), Cleveland weathers the storm and possibly even comes out of it with an even higher moral standing because of his ‘manly’ assumption of responsibilities, and wins the election.

That was the version that I heard, and for those who are presidential fan boys, is still the popular one. The reformer won! A man beats a dirty trick by being honest! How awesome is that?


There’s a darker version.

The woman’s name is Maria Halpin. At the time of the event, she was 38 years old. She was a widow with two young children. She was a chaste churchgoer.

Cleveland had been courting her for some months. He bumped into her on the street and bought her dinner. He then escorted her home. Whereupon he raped her (“use of force and violence without my consent”). When she threatened to go to the authorities, he told her that he’d ruin her.

Some time later, she found out she was pregnant. After she gave birth to a boy, Cleveland arranged for the boy to be forcibly removed from her and sent to an orphanage. He then had Halpin committed to an insane asylum.

She was released and tried to live her life, but thanks to Cleveland’s smears, she lived a life of shame. On her deathbed, she requested a private funeral so that strangers wouldn’t gawk at her in death.

Understand that the #meToo movement is built on an endless stream of stories like this. Sure, Kavanaugh’s story happened over thirty years ago. Still, until behavior like this is condemned and real punishment is meted out, what will keep it from continuing?


A White Man Doing Black Man’s Time


Title: White Boy Rick

Rating: 2 Stars

A while ago, I’d read an Amazon Single about Ricky Wershe Jr., aka White Boy Rick.

It is a compelling story. White Boy Rick is a legendary figure in Detroit. The fable is that Rick, a young white man (not even 18), through brash ambition and ruthlessness, became a drug kingpin in Detroit. He was brought down and sentenced to life without parole at the age of 17 under Michigan’s draconian drug laws. In the year 2018, he’s still in prison, the longest serving inmate in Michigan. People in Detroit still tell tales of his exploits.

The truth turns out to be more complicated. First of all, his father was a small time guns dealer. The FBI put pressure on him to given them information on the drug trade in Detroit. Rick’s father legitimately did not know anything about drugs. To help his father, Rick, who knew more about the people involved, stepped in and identified some drug players from photos. This began his career as an FBI informant. He was 14 years old.

The FBI encouraged Rick to get deeper into the drug trade. They gave him money for his information. He used the money the FBI provided to buy drugs and to deal. They allowed him to sell drugs and to keep the profit.

Ultimately, the FBI severed the relationship with Rick. In short order, he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

And there he is now. Michigan’s life without parole law has been repealed for quite some time now. Politicians, including the one that signed the bill into law, admit it was a mistake. All other prisoners convicted under it have been released.

Why is he still in prison? The theory is that he knows too much about Detroit corruption. There are still people in power that are preventing his release. I have no idea if that’s true, but it does seem odd that a person with no history of violence is still in prison after 30 years. Technically, he’s been paroled, but is currently incarcerated on another conviction.

So, where does this leave the movie?

It was OK at best. Matthew McConaughey does good work as Rick’s father, an ambitious hustler always striving and yet always failing. The actor playing Rick, Richie Merritt, is new to acting and it shows here. Perhaps it was the intent, but he plays Rick passively. He does not appear particularly intelligent and things just kind of happen to him. Maybe showing Rick to be just some leaf being blown about in the wind was intentional, but doing so leaves a vacuum in the center of the film. It’s never particularly clear why he does the things that he does, so instead of anything like a narrative flow the film ended up being a nearly disjoint set of vignettes.

There’s also a larger social issue here. In previous years this might have been a more effective movie. Especially over the last couple of years, there has been increased emphasis and visibility on the subject of mass incarceration. Men of color have been disproportionately given longer prison sentences for a generation now.

Focusing on Rick’s harsh prison sentence seems to be some weird version of reverse Columbusing. Named after Christopher Columbus ‘discovering’ the new world when clearly there have been people living there for millenia, Columbusing is when a white person discovers something that is already popular with people of color but is new to his/her little social circle.

The fact is that there are probably tens of thousands of examples of people of color that, like Rick, were given prison sentences well beyond any reasonable interpretation of justice. Rick was, in fact, dealing drugs. There are most assuredly men of color serving extreme sentences that are innocent.

The film is not blind to this fact. In the film, one of the true drug kingpins of Detroit, a black man, talks to Rick about the difference between black man’s prison time and white man’s prison time. The fact that here a white man actually got a black man’s prison time does not lessen the fact that draconian drug sentences have been laid down to an entire generation of people of color.

So, not a great film with a message that seems discordant to the time in which it was released.

Loyalty and Betrayal


Title: The Departed

Rating: 5 Stars

I know that this is an old movie. I just recently re-watched it on Netflix and I was blown away by how good it was.

In terms of themes, it’s nearly Shakespearean. At a very basic level it’s about loyalty. Who or what do you choose to be loyal to, regardless of consequences, and who do you betray. Wrapped up inside of that is parental loyalty and responsibility.

Being Scorsese, the story is told with great violence and much abuse of language.

You have a boy named Colin Sullivan. His family is poor but he see the glamour and power of organized crime when Frank Costello waltzes in, terrorizes a shop owner, attempts to seduce the shop owner’s daughter, and then sees Sullivan and buys him a bag of groceries for his family. This starts a long term recruitment that ends with Sullivan as an up and coming state police trooper assigned to a unit specifically created to hunt down Costello. He has a secret allegiance to Costello and serves as his mole within the unit.

You have another young man named Billy Costigan. He comes from a family with ties to organized crime, although his father was not part of it. His father raised him with a strong core of values and Costigan is determined to be a good state trooper. Captain Queenan, the leader of the unit  hunting down Costello, sees Costigan’s checkered family history, thinks that Costello would accept him, and offers him a chance to truly be a real cop by going undercover into Costello’s gang.

This is the root of the conflict. Both young men have surrogate fathers (Costello is Sullivan’s and Queenan is Costigan’s). Both, at the behest of their surrogate fathers, are living increasingly stressful, conflicted, and dangerous lives betraying the organization that they’ve sworn loyalty to.

In both cases, the surrogate fathers actively manipulate their sons. Costello does it through overt threats while Queenan is much gentler (and probably psychologically more damaging) by leaning upon Costigan’s values and his feelings of loyalty and duty to Queenan.

There is also betrayal at a romantic level. Sullivan apparently falls for a police psychiatrist named Madolyn. It’s never explicitly stated, but Sullivan could be latently gay and is engaging in the relationship because he knows that to advance in the department, he needs to project the stability that a committed relationship brings. Costigan also meets the psychiatrist but is feeling so fragile and vulnerable that he is emotionally attracted to Madolyn on a much deeper level. While with Sullivan, Madolyn betrays him by starting a short affair with Costigan. She becomes pregnant but the film never makes explicit who the father is.

As their lives become increasingly more compromised, both characters begin to disintegrate. Costigan is regularly popping pills. Sullivan simply represses it but you can see the tension building up to him nearly to the breaking point.

Both of the father figures end up murdered. Captain Queenan, true to his character, dies protecting Costigan. Sullivan finds out Costello is an FBI informant (yet another betrayal), so he feels betrayed by his father figure. Sullivan tricks Costello into a drug bust shoot-out. True to his character, Costello first tries to shoot Sullivan but Sullivan shoots him dead.

With Costello dead, Costigan comes in from his undercover work. However, he discovers that Sullivan was the mole in the unit and prepares to arrest him. There follows yet more violence.

Suffice it to say that it’s a very Shakespearean ending. Everyone is dead but one relatively minor character that lives to tell the tale, but in all likelihood he’s not talking.

Not Your Daddy’s Faulkner


Title: Joe

Rating: 4 Stars

Since Larry Brown was born in Oxford Mississippi, it’s probably inevitable to compare him to William Faulkner. In the novel Joe, two of the primary characters are Wade Jones, a self centered father that bears some familiarity with Anse Bundren from As I Lay Dying, and Gary Jones, his long suffering son, who can be compared with Anse’s son Darl.

Other than the family dynamics, the similarity pretty much ends there. While Faulkner experimented with techniques and was quite often hard to decipher, Brown’s writing is pretty straightforward. In fact, he pretty much hits you with a sledgehammer in the forehead with this novel.

The Jones family is homeless and aimless. The wife and children all suffer under the drunkenness, shiftlessness, and selfishness of Wade. They finally find themselves at a long abandoned, decrepit house that they squat at. Whatever money and food any family member gets goes immediately to Ward. The rest live on scraps.

Gary is the Jones’ only son still alive. He is a young man of strong character and work ethic. He just wants to save a little money and provide for his family. He has never gone to school, can’t read or write, and does not even know how old he is (apparently around fifteen). At one point, having never done it before or even heard of it, someone has to teach him how to brush his teeth. Despite all of this, he is grimly determined to work hard and to get ahead.

The final major character is the eponymous Joe, as in Joe Ransom. While Ward and Gary are pretty simply drawn with clear motivations, Joe is much more complex.

He is a hard working man running his own business. His business is poisoning trees to clear land. He is at best conflicted with this because, although the money is good, he comes from this land, loves the woods, and knows that he’s killing it.

Joe is initially portrayed as a pretty typical decent man. The other men respect him if not actually fear him. He takes Gary under his wing and starts to teach him the things that a father should teach but knows that Ward never will. He’s fair to his workers. He works them hard but does pay them overtime for their hard work.

However, excessive amounts of alcohol changes him. If he gets drunk enough, he’ll do irrational things like sicking his vicious dog onto another dog and needlessly provoke police to the point that he wakes up beaten in a prison cell.

Although he’s paternal and protective of Gary, Joe does introduce him to cigarettes, alcohol and prostitutes (remember that Gary is around fifteen and is small for his age).

A point of tension in the novel is these two forces acting upon Gary. His father is irremediable. He beats Gary and steals his money until Joe threatens Ward. By the end of the novel, Gary’s only chance to get away would be Ward’s death. Joe is unquestionably a positive force in Gary’s life and it appears that he’s willing to be even more paternal with him when Joe’s demons crop up once again and he has a decision to make. The novel ends with Joe on the cusp of the decision.

This is a spare and brutal story. There are no happy endings where everyone’s problems are resolved. This is a story of a struggle for meager existence and the nobility of that struggle. It’s a tough read but a frank look at a slice of the world that I have never seen.

Apparently there is a form of literature (that a friend recently told me about) called Grit Lit. I took a look at Good Reads of Grit Lit examples and apparently I have been for some time unknowingly a fan of Grit Lit because I’d already read and enjoyed many of the books listed.

So, go Grit Lit?

A Conspiracy Of Dunces


Title: Watergate

Rating: 5 Stars

I’ve written before how fascinating it is to read books about events in which I was alive and then discovering so many new or forgotten things. Watergate was another great example of this.

This book is an exhaustive work on Watergate. It goes nearly day by day, and sometimes, hour by hour. You’d think that this would be tedious, but I found it fascinating. It was like watching a crime and its ensuing conspiracy unfold in real time.

Much of that dense narrative is possible because, for a bunch of criminals, they kept incredibly detailed notes on their crimes. Everyone knows about Nixon’s tapes, but it’s so much more than that. In fact, at the time that Emery wrote this (1994), most of the tapes were generally untranscribed and unavailable.

But that’s OK! Haldeman kept detailed notes on every conversation that he had. Beyond Nixon’s tapes, other major Watergate figures regularly taped each other. Also let’s not forget the fact that every major (and some minor) Watergate figures wrote a book.

The crimes and the ensuing conspiracy was spelled out in explicit detail. Sure, there were inconsistencies between the voluminous records that people kept. Even so, with much research, Emery was able to build a pretty convincing narrative.

It’s really hard to even begin to get started on this story. In some way, you can blame all of this on the Kennedys. Nixon pretty seriously resented JFK. First of all, JFK was the upper class Harvard educated Eastern elite while Nixon was the desperately poor product who graduated from Whittier. Nixon from the start had an inferiority complex and felt resentment.

Their careers proceeded apace. They started in Congress at the same time and both shortly became senators. Eventually they competed in the 1960 presidential election and Nixon just barely lost an election that had, to say the least, suspicious Democratic voting coming out of Cook County in Illinois.

When Nixon became president in 1968, he did not forget. He was obsessed with Teddy Kennedy and with smearing JFK’s legacy any chance he could. For example, a Nixon investigator spent weeks posing as a reporter in the aftermath of Chappaquiddick.

The leaking of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg inspired the formation of the infamous White House plumbers, a group dedicated to eliminating leaks. Nixon made it clear that getting to Ellsberg was vital to him and led to their first break-in of the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. However, Nixon’s primary motive wasn’t to somehow protect our nation’s secrets. He was hoping to dig up dirt on Ellsberg and use it to tie him and the Vietnam War to the Democrats, specifically to Teddy Kennedy.

Many of the CRP dirty tricks in the 1972 election were to keep Teddy Kennedy out of the race and to swing the nomination to McGovern. Many of the shenanigans during this time seem almost cartoonish (stealing shoes, bulk ordering pizzas, and things like that).

However, keep in mind that the plumbers and later the CRP organization later considered breaking into Arthur Bremer’s apartment shortly after he tried to assassinate George Wallace to plant left wing (ie Kennedy) material and also consulted a CIA doctor about the best way to kill the muckraking journalist Jack Anderson. They had plans to drug and kidnap convention demonstrators, lease a houseboat and fill it with prostitutes to compromise democrats, multiple blackbag bugging operations, and, I shit you not, a Cuban commando team to sabotage the Democrats’ convention hall air-conditioning system. They were without question a runaway criminal enterprise.

The only saving grace was their utter incompetence. CRP employees Liddy and Hunt were photographed casing Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.  The burglars were busted because they taped a door lock that didn’t even need to be taped. Hunt, the covert CIA operative leading the break-in, fled in such a hurry after the burglars were arrested that he left key information behind that was easily traceable to himself and Liddy.

They frantically built up a conspiracy for pretty much the sole purpose of surviving the election, apparently not really reckoning with the fact that it could (and did) very easily fall apart almost immediately after Nixon started serving his second term. Within a year of his second inauguration, it had pretty much collapsed. Once the rats started leaving the ship, it rapidly turned into a flood of rats, and since each of the rats kept detailed logs if not actual recorded conversations, it turned into a blood bath.

Two attorney generals ended up convicted of crimes. One FBI director literally destroyed evidence while he was the FBI director. I’m not talking some subtle destruction. He took contents of a safe from a known conspirator, brought it home, and set fire to it in his fireplace. This was corruption on an absolutely massive scale.

One of the fun things about reading a 25 year old book is that, no matter how well researched, you can end up knowing things that the author didn’t. He talks in a couple of passages about the identity of Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein’s legendary anonymous source. In the book, there are a couple of theories of who it could be, including one that supposes that it’s actually a composite of sources. In other passages, he makes reference to the Associate Director of the FBI, Mark Felt. Now, 25 years later, we know that Mark Felt was Deep Throat. I find it fascinating how he would occasionally pop up at various moments almost in a cameo. He was the inside source that was just enough on the periphery not to get sucked into the web.

In case you can’t tell, I found this book to be exciting. This really was narrative history at its best.


The Dogman Cometh


Title: The Heart Of A Dog

Rating: 5 Stars

If nothing else, Mikhail Bulgakov had a big brass set. In the 1920s, he wrote biting satires of the new Soviet Union. He finally went too far and the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, ransacked his apartment and confiscated his writings. Struggling to make a living, he wrote to Stalin himself asking to be allowed to write. Stalin called him back to ask him how it was going and Bulgakov apparently filled his ear with complaints. Ultimately, Stalin let him join a theater. Stalin criticized Bulgakov but never had him arrested or imprisoned. Maybe he had a little soft spot for him?

Regardless, The Heart of a Dog was one of the stories that was confiscated during the NKVD invasion. He wrote it in 1925 but it wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until 1968, some 25 years after Bulgakov died.

It was confiscated for good reason.

The story starts with a mongrel dog living on the streets. It’s a freezing cold night and a cook has just flung a pot of boiling water at him. The dog is in pain, hungry, and miserable. He thinks he is going to die.

A fancy upper class Russian notices him, comes up to him, and offers him sausage. The dog eats it and, of course, follows the man home. The man takes him in, continues to feed him, and nurses him back to health. The dog is named Sharik.

It turns out that the man is Philip Philipovich, a famous research physician, specializing in transplants. He has in mind a major innovation in this field. Another doctor, Bormenthal, comes in excitedly one night to say that they’ve found a specimen.

It is a recently deceased man. The doctors chloroform Sharik and replace his testicles and pituitary gland with that of the recently deceased mans.

Things are touch and go for a while, but ultimately Sharik pulls through. He almost immediately begins to undergo changes. His hair falls out, his legs grow, and he begins to walk around on his hind legs. Sharik begins to learn how to talk. At first he can only speak in obscenities, but gradually increases his vocabulary and then later can speak in sentences and express thought.

Things begin to go rapidly downhill. Sharik first decides to assume a new name, Poligraph Poligraphovich Sharikov. He begins to dress ostentatiously. He begins to drink. He begins to steal. He deceives a woman and tries to marry her. He still has a great hatred of cats and gets a job that pays him to strangle stray cats. He curses and shows great disrespect to Philipovich and to Bormenthal. He’s abusive to the servants. He falls under the sway of the local communist bureaucrat, Shvonder, and begins to spout radical ideas that he clearly doesn’t understand. When angry, he still barks and snaps.

Finally, Philip Philipovich and Bormenthal decide to reverse the operation. The book ends with Sharik once again content, dozing at the feet of his master.

Bulgakov is taking aim at the Soviet concept of the New Man. This is the idea that with proper education, training, and strict adherence to Socialist principles, that anyone can rise up and assume the mantle of a superior man of the future.

Bulgakov is clearly not a fan of the Soviet era. His two doctors are both members of the upper class elite that treat the Soviet lackeys like Shvonder with great contempt. Philipovich longs for the days when he could leave his galoshes in the hallway without being stolen by the riffraff that are now allowed into the building. Everyone else in his building has to share their units but he imperiously declares that he must keep his seven rooms for himself.

Sharik is the folly of making a better man out of such poor quality. No matter how far he advances, he will still be a dog. He will always bark and snap. He will always hate cats. He will not become a Socialist superman.

Considering that this fundamentally goes against Socialist philosophy (in fact, Philipovich burns a book by Engels at one point in the story), this is a bold story to write under repressive conditions. Considering the lack of subtly, it’s somewhat amazing to me that Bulgakov didn’t end up in worse trouble. His possible only saving grace is that he wrote it in 1925, before Stalin had securely grabbed power and censorship had clamped down.

Compare this story to Solzhenitsyn’s crime of making derogatory comments in a private letter, for which he received eight years in a gulag.

Looking at it from a non political view, I find it interesting how it prefigures that certain type of literature where a simple person is made artificially extraordinary and how this artificial intellectual boost seems to spell disaster for the person. I’m thinking of stories like Flowers for Algernon or (more obscurely) the John Travolta film Phenomenon.

The idea seems to be that simple people are happiest being simple and messing with that will only upset them. As a philosophy, this seems problematic at best.

Having said that, it struck me as a brave statement made in the face of repression and a clever and amusing indictment of the Soviet system.

The KKK And Strange Bedfellows


Title: BlacKkKlansman

Rating: 4 Stars

Ron Stallworth is the first black detective hired by the Colorado Springs police department (in real life this happened in 1979, which in of itself is mind blowing). After a short stint in the property room, he gets moved to the Intelligence bureau. There he makes a cold call to the KKK and expresses an interest in joining. They want to recruit him but he has a problem since he gave them his real name and he can’t quite show up to the KKK meeting as a black man.

A white undercover agent named Flip Zimmerman is recruited to play the part of Ron Stallworth during face to face meetings while the real Ron Stallworth continues all of the phone conversations. The two of them work together to infiltrate the KKK. Stallworth becomes so successful seducing members of the KKK over the phone that he ends up having lengthy conversations with David Duke himself.

At the same time, the police have concerns regarding the growth of the Black Power movement in Colorado Springs. Stallworth went undercover to attend a meeting featuring Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael). There he meets the president of the local black student union, a woman named Patrice Dumas. He continues to see her, even as he continues to deny to her that he is a police officer (she seeing the police as instruments of institutional racism).

These two main threads begin to converge as the KKK is plotting violence and see Patrice as a potential target.

So much to talk about here. First of all, does the plot even make sense? I know that it was based upon a real story (there actually is a Ron Stallworth), but it seems absurd to continue to have one person being the phone person and a second person be the live person. After the first phone call, couldn’t Flip Zimmerman just have taken over both duties? It’s not as if the first phone call was that long and the face to face meeting takes place almost immediately thereafter. This is literally the linchpin of the plot and it just doesn’t seem to hold up.

There’s  a theme of the dualities of lives, especially those of undercover policemen. Stallworth for a time is lying as part of his job and, by denying that he’s a cop to Patrice, is lying as part of his personal life. Zimmerman is Jewish, although only nominally. Playing the part of Stallworth when meeting with the Klan, he must regularly and actively denounce Jewish people. Having done so, even though he previously never really thought of himself as Jewish, now he must face that while balancing it with the hatred of all things Jewish that he must now spew.

We are now living in a time when messages of hatred are again overt. Since this is a subject often of interest to Spike Lee, he makes several connections throughout the film between this plot (set in 1979) and the policies of the current administration. During the course of the film, the connections quite frankly are crude, unsophisticated, and do not flow with the story. There are claims of restoring greatness, America first, and a discussion revolving around whether or not America could elect a president that has a blatantly racist agenda.

At the conclusion of the film, the events of Charlottesville are re-lived. This is much more effective. During the film we can laugh at the room temperature IQ white racists blowing themselves up way back in the 1970s, but reliving the marches, violence, and anguish of Charlottesville puts the lie to the smugness that we might have been feeling.

The film is book-ended by long expositions. It starts off with a long speech by Kwame Ture speaking about the need for Black Power and ends with another long story of an elderly gentlemen recounting, in explicit detail, a lynching that he witnessed. The Ture speech was inspirational and the described lynching was harrowing. However, including two such long expositions in a film seems to me to be a problematic choice. It seems honestly to be kind of a lazy way to spoon feed the politics and emotion of the film.

Contrast that with Get Out and Sorry To Bother You. These two films also had significant political/racial messages, but they were able to make them without resorting to such basic exposition and thus seemed more engaging.

For that reason, although I enjoyed it and the ending was certainly affective, I felt that it did not achieve greatness.