Purdue Pharma and Xalisco Tag Team America

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Title: Dreamland

Rating: 4 Stars

Two forces collide at a vulnerable time in America.

After a couple of decades of globalization, there are broad swaths of the country economically depressed. Trapped in small towns where all manufacturing has left and main street businesses have been destroyed by Wal-Mart, all that’s left is low wage jobs at places such as Wal-Mart. People want to work but can’t get work and ultimately give up wanting to work.

At the same time, in slightly more successful towns, there are middle to upper middle class kids that are bored with pot and want to experiment more dangerously.

Into the void steps the small Mexican city of Xalisco in the small state of Nayarit. The people there are mostly poor, doing back breaking work growing sugar cane. The farmers in the hills have a long history of growing poppy and there is a local tradition of cultivating it to grow black tar heroin.

Starting small, a few of the local townspeople cross into the US and start a modest drug operation. Unlike the more famous Mexican drug cartels, they eschew violence. In fact, they intentionally stay away from those cities where gangs are already established. They set up bases in modest places like Columbus, Ohio, or Santa Fe, New Mexico.

They bring up young Xalisco men to serve as their delivery drivers. These young men are paid a straight salary and must not use drugs themselves. They haunt methadone clinics and give out free samples. They hand out business cards. If an addict calls, the drivers will deliver to the addict’s home. If an addict complains of bad service, he/she will be given free drugs. Since heroin addicts are used to having to go to the rough part of town and try to negotiate with street dealers, this is obviously a huge step up in customer service. They’re basically the Domino’s of heroin.

And like Domino’s, they quickly franchise. They seek out any mid-size city that does not already have a gang presence and that has a methadone clinic. That’s the signal to them that there are heroin addicts there and that they are not being well served. They quickly fan out to many cities spanning many states.

In the one instance where racism actually helps out the black community, the men from Xalisco are unsophisticated country boys from Mexico and believe that black men are violent, so they have another rule of never selling to a black person. All of the addicts that they serve are white.

Since they’re dealing almost directly with the farmers that grow the poppies, the heroin is essentially uncut, so it’s significantly more powerful. Just that fact alone makes the heroin more dangerous and causes more overdoses.

Along with what the author calls the ‘Xalisco Boys’, there’s another development. In 1979, a Dr Jick, who kept a database of medical records, noticed that very few patients that were prescribed opiates became addicted. He thought that was interesting, so he and a graduate student named Jane Porter submitted a letter (one paragraph) to the New England Journal of Medicine stating that fact. Dr Jick forgot about the letter and went about his business.

Later, a scientist at Purdue Pharma figures out a way to create a pill comprised of oxycodone that coats the pill in such a way that the drug is released over time. Hence OxyContin was created.

Along with this was a revolution in pain management. People began to study pain and wanted pain to be listed as the fifth vital sign (along with the normal body temperature, pulse, respiration rate, and blood pressure).

Purdue Pharma then sent an army of sales people out to doctors. Doctors, who previously were very reluctant to prescribe opiates, were now effectively being told that not treating pain could be considered malpractice (since pain was so vital to a patient’s health). Also, that one paragraph letter by Porter and Jick was now being called a ‘landmark study’ proving that, for people in pain, that opiates are not addictive. Since this was in the 90’s, the letter wasn’t online, so no one apparently decided to check up on the details of this ‘landmark study’. There was some pseudo-mystical explanation that somehow pain prevents the euphoria of addiction (and no, I’m not making that up).

So, there was an explosion of opiate prescriptions. But that was OK because opiates are not addictive and because of the time release nature of OxyContin, right?

So…it took addicts about 5 minutes to realize that if you crush the pill, that destroys the time release shell of the pill and then you’re left with pure oxycodone. Even worse, the makers of OxyContin actually placed a warning on the box that crushing the pill would increase the dose.

From that knowledge, an entire underground drug industry was built. Pill mills quickly cropped up. Doctors that could get no other jobs (convicted of crimes, lost their licenses in other states, themselves addicted) set up clinics where they did nothing but prescribed pills and only accepted cash. Some of the clinics served as pharmacies as well. Entrepreneurs would round up a car full of addicts and drive them from doctor to doctor to get prescriptions, would give the addicts half of their prescription and then sell the rest. Senior citizens sold their prescribed pills to supplement their retirement income. At one point, the town of Portsmouth, Ohio had an underground economy based upon pills, where addicts shoplifted or sold their possessions in exchange for a fixed amount of pills.

However, over time, even the OxyContin pills would not be enough to feed a person’s addiction. At that point the Xalisco Boys would step up and start selling the addict heroin.

Young white men and women, high school age, looking for a little danger, found themselves addicted, and often dead. The children of policemen, the children of bankers, football players, cheerleaders, they all found themselves addicted. Children would die of an overdose and the parent, ashamed, thinking they were the only ones, said that it was a heart attack. This secret shame let the epidemic continue on unabated.

There were more deaths in Ohio due to this epidemic than Americans killed in Iraq. More people died than in the crack cocaine epidemic. More died during this time than died of HIV.

If there is anything approaching a silver lining to this is that, at least in the Southern and Appalachian states, there is a growing awareness that drug addiction is not just a black problem. After a couple of decades of draconian drug sentences, there is now an understanding that drugs are a problem for all of us, and perhaps addicts should be treated instead of imprisoned.

This was a sobering work, obviously. It was well researched and well written.

The only glitch that kept it from being a pure five star review is the afterword. After all of the talk about the forces (economic, social, global) that led us to this point, Quinones makes the odd point that maybe the root cause is that kids don’t play in public parks anymore. I guess that you can make an argument that social isolation is not great, but to close with that statement, after laying out all of the other forces at work, seemed, well, I’m sorry to say, kind of asinine. The afterword, at least in my edition, is written in a slightly different font than the rest of the book, which almost led me to the paranoid suspicion that this was somehow covertly inserted into my copy. Such was the difference in tone and style between it and the rest of the book.

A Quiet Life Meticulously Told

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Title: Stoner

Rating: 5 Stars

First things first, this has nothing to do with drugs. ūüôā

This is the story of William Stoner. He’s a farm boy who is sent off to college so that he can study agriculture and apply the knowledge that he’s learned there back on the small family farm. Once there, he takes a mandatory introduction to English literature. He falls under the thrall of language and decides (with the help of a mentor) that he wants to become a teacher. He does so, falls in love, has a child, lives in an unhappy marriage, has a short but passionate love affair, gets caught up in a faculty politics, gets cancer, retires, and dies.

That’s pretty much it. Stoner does not live a big life. He does not live a heroic life. He doesn’t even live a particularly happy life.

And I think that’s kind of the point.

John Williams takes a inconsequential life, and in simple prose, gives it a much richer meaning.

One of the themes of Stoner is duty. In the year 2017, that probably sounds quaint. However, William understands the duties that are expected of him and he quietly, without complaint, shoulders them. He goes off to the university so that he can better help his farmer parents. He has a moment of crisis when he confesses to them that he wishes to stay at the college, studying for his masters, and then to teach. His father, himself a disciple to duty, understands his duty as a father to his son, and grants his permission for Stoner to continue.

William’s marriage to Edith is dreadful. She, mentally unstable and treats him with hate. At no point does William even contemplate leaving her. He understands his duty to her and faithfully fulfills it. Edith, at most times, wants nothing to do with their daughter, Gloria. In addition to his work at the university, William is the parent that feeds and clothes his daughter. In the current time, that is not particularly shocking. In 1965, I’d imagine that this would be treated as some sort of heroic devotion to duty.

Another theme is adherence to some kind of other world idealism. When WWI breaks out, William’s two best friends, Finch and Masters, sign up immediately. However, after careful consideration and with no trace of cowardice, William decides that staying at the university is more important to fighting. He risks his friendship with Finch and Masters, not to mention possible future career impact, in making his decision.

In a similar manner, years later as a professor conducting a review of a student, he feels duty bound to fail the student even though the student is a protege of his department head, Professor Lomax. Lomax takes his revenge out on William in the ensuing decades, refusing to talk to him and denying him a promotion to full professor until William is dying of cancer. In William’s world, accepting a known poor candidate into the ranks of teaching would be a complete abandonment of duty and a betrayal to the higher call of teaching, so even though he knows that he will pay a steep price, he cannot allow the student to pass.

In lock step with his obligations to duty, his life is filled with sadness. He has an unhappy marriage. His child, Grace, growing up in an unhappy house with an unstable mother, lets herself get pregnant just so that she can escape. Her reluctant husband almost immediately goes off and dies in WWII. Grace in turn abandons her child to her in-laws and starts to lose herself to alcohol. Even William’s affair with Katherine, for all of the joy that it gives him, is ultimately forced to come to a premature end due to Lomax, and he then must return back to the duties of his unhappy marriage and middling career.

In this dreariness, there are moments of what can be described as awestruck passion. The first time that William reads a Shakespearean sonnet. When his mentor offers him the career opportunity of teaching. The first time that he sees Grace. The first time that he actually gets his teaching groove on and realizes that he can teach and inspire. His first moment of passion with Katherine. In a dull, dreary life, these moments shoot off like fireworks.

Williams is saying that even in the most dull, monotonous, and nondescript lives there are these moments of passion, joy, or spirit. Lying on a deathbed, looking back on one’s life, ¬†a person can remember and re-live these moments. It is these moments that make life worth living.

Contrarian Historian Hatorade

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Title: The Politicians & The Egalitarians

Rating: 2 Stars

I picked this book up pretty much on a whim. I was just wandering through a book store and, as per usual, I checked out the staff selections. I mean, who would have a deeper passion for books than people working at a bookstore? So, I saw it there on the rack, read the back of the book blurb, and took a dive.

On the surface, it showed a lot of promise. Especially recently, in our hyper polarized political world in which we live, the idea of compromising politicians and the dirty wheeling-dealing of the legislative process has given politics a bad name. Reading a book that grants the possibility that sometimes social progress lurches forward via the half a loaf of compromise approach might not be such a bad message now. Also, given the ever increasing economic divide that our country has experienced over the last several decades, some few kind words about the radicals that rise up in history and tilt at windmills in the name of our country’s ideals of equality of opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness might be a soothing balm. Understanding the ying and the yang of the compromising politician and the rigorous absolutism of the egalitarian might have made an entertaining read.

Alas, this book was not that. It was a series of essays of various political figures. There were essays on Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Brown, W.E.B. DuBois, and others. I was expecting that each one would be placed somewhere in the category of politicians or egalitarians or maybe how the pull of one or the other somehow moved the subject to a certain position.

But no, it was not that. Instead, a lot of it seemed to be throwing mud at previous historians. Apparently, over the last several decades, Thomas Jefferson has had some fair amount of shade thrown at him. You have to admit, it doesn’t look good for one of America’s philosophes, espousing equality for everyone and traumatized by the institution of slavery, to have had several children with a slave and upon his death, break up his slaves’ families¬†in an auction to pay off his bills. However, here, Wilentz goes to some lengths to try to reclaim Jefferson’s reputation. Fair enough, but what does that have to do with the theme of politicians and egalitarians?

Even more oddly, some of his essays don’t really even have anything to do with politicians or egalitarians. He wrote an essay on the Homestead strike. He wrote another essay on the difference between liberals and leftists. He even wrote one about junk history, specifically focusing on Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States.

What is the tie that binds all of these together?

To top it all off, he closes (without not even so much as an afterword to try to tie these essays together) with an essay on Lyndon Baines Johnson. Robert Caro has spent much of the last 30 years writing a mammoth biography of LBJ. He’s finished the fourth volume and is trying to finish the fifth before he dies (he’s in his 80’s). These works have won national book awards and Pulitzers. Wilentz spends a significant chunk of this essay trying to take Caro down, basically claiming that Caro made a fundamental mistake in an assessment of LBJ’s character in the early stages of his work. He is now trapped by¬†that mistake and as the decades unfold, is being forced to write within this trap of his own making.

OK, maybe that’s kind of interesting…if you’re a contrarian historian looking to take the piss out of someone, but again, remember your title and theme…you know…politicians and egalitarians?

He does try to tie this essay back to the theme by contrasting LBJ as the consummate politician who got shit done with Barack Obama, who theoretically wanted to be post partisan but was unable / unwilling to get down into the muck to actually get it done. Ultimately he even concedes that minor point by admitting that LBJ had huge majorities in both the Senate and the House, while Obama did not for most of his term.

Probably the only reason why this didn’t fall down to 1 star is because some of the essays were interesting (ie I didn’t know all that much about W.E.B. DuBois, so I found that essay enlightening).

1, 2, 3, 4…Words!

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Title: Chelsea Horror Hotel

Rating: 3 Stars

First of all, ignore the rating. I had no idea what rating to give it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s not a well written book but I was pretty entertained by it. It’s probably one of those books that people will give either 1 star or 5 stars to it.

I was just wandering around the University Book Store, really not intending to buy any books at all, when this book all but leaped out of the shelves at me. Dee Dee Ramone wrote a book? And it’s a horror story set at the infamous Chelsea Hotel? And it seems to have been inspired by the writings of William S. Burroughs? And it was published about a year before he died of a heroin overdose?

I’ve just been re-reading Please Kill Me, the brilliant, horrifying, hilarious oral history of punk rock, so of course, I had to buy it.

The work is made up of 31 vignettes, all taking place at or near the Chelsea Hotel. Most of the stories appear to be taking place on the same day, ostensibly the last day of Dee Dee’s life. ¬†The setting is somewhere the late 1990’s. It’s basically told in the form of Dee Dee’s diary.

Dee Dee is living with his wife, Barbara, at the Chelsea. He’s living there not because he wants to but because he has nowhere else to go. With his reputation and with his dwindling funds, he is, much to his regret, living in the same place that he started at over twenty years ago.

Real characters, dead or alive, appear in it. There is Stanley Bard, the true life manager of the hotel. Dee Dee’s¬†wife, Barbara has a prominent role. There are various denizens of the hotel with names like Leonardo, Loretta, Fernando, and Bambie, that may or may not be real. Dead punk rock friends, like Sid Vicious, Stiv Bators, Jerry Nolan, and Johnny Thunders, all make appearances.

Most stories start off comparatively normal. In several of them, Dee Dee is taking his dog, Banfield (who, by the way, talks to Dee Dee), for a walk. Although Dee Dee¬†repeatedly claims that he’s a nice guy that just wants to live his life, in fairly short order his errands turn into misadventures.

He sees his paranoid, hated, next door neighbor, Joe, on the street and pushes him in front of a bus and kills him. Bambie, who’s actually a male cross dresser, comes on to Dee Dee. Barbara catches him, and together Dee Dee and Barbara¬†murder Bambie and throw him out the window. In the basement of the Chelsea is a satanic cult that throws their victims into a bathtub full of piranhas.

Things continue to devolve. By the end, the hotel has nearly collapsed, a chasm to hell has opened up underneath it, and Dee Dee, Sid, Stiv, Jerry, and Johnny are playing one last song before, one by one, they slip and fall into the abyss of hell.

So, what to make of all of this? First of all, by no means is it technically well written in any way. Dee Dee was diagnosed as bipolar. He was on and off heroin for decades, but considering the fact that this was written pretty close to when he overdosed, it’s not a bad assumption that he was under its influence while writing. This is reflected in the writing.

This is pretty classic outsider art. If the author was not Dee Dee, this book would have never seen the light of day. However, since it is Dee Dee, and his back story is known, it can be interpreted within the context of his life.

I did find the first chapters to be pretty amusing. It was fun to think of Dee Dee, just trying to get through a day, trying to be an average Joe, and weird things just keep inevitably happening to him, much to his dismay and disgust. I found his repeated cries of what a nice guy he is and why does this keep happening to him to be pretty hilarious.

The chapters themselves were very short. In most cases, they were only a couple of pages. He’d jump right in, set the theme, shit would go down, and then close the chapter. In that way, the stories reminded me of Ramones songs.

By the end though, as events were approaching the climax, chapters were getting progressively longer. By the last chapter or two, the novel had pretty much spun completely out of control.

So, bottom line, if you are a Ramones fan, you could very easily find this work to be interesting and/or amusing. If you don’t get the Ramones, have no idea of who Dee Dee was, then you’re going to read it, probably hate it, and wonder how such a piece of trash got published in the first place.

A Cry For Empathy

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Title: Evicted

Rating: 4 Stars

A sociologist specializing in poverty embeds himself into the lives of the deeply poor in Milwaukee, one of our poorest large cities. He spends time in a nearly condemned trailer park in the poor white part of Milwaukee and shares an apartment in the poor black part.

The first thing you notice is how close the desperately poor are to homelessness. They seem to always be on the verge of eviction, on the verge of getting kicked out by a roommate, on the verge of a serious health issue. A roof over your head is something that most people take for granted, but at a certain level of poverty it really seems to be a nearly month to month kind of struggle.

The people that Desmond profiles do make what seem to be pretty overtly bad decisions. There are women who have children by several different fathers. There are people who buy a lobster dinner and then spend the rest of the month going to a food bank. There are people fighting addiction and yet still hanging out with addicts.

There are a couple of things of note here. One is that the environment that they live in does not encourage good decisions. If you’re going to be poor at the end of every month anyway, why not very occasionally make yourself a fancy dinner? If the state has defined guidelines that reduces your benefits if you save money, then why should you save it? If you know that the landlord isn’t going to fix it and you don’t have money for a plumber, why not just live in a house with a clogged toilet and sink?

Decision fatigue crops up everywhere here. This is the idea that you can only make so many decisions before the quality of your decisions begin to degrade. For instance, if you have five days to vacate the premises, you have previous evictions in your history, and you have looked at over fifty rental properties and no landlord is willing to rent to you, how important is it to you that your children attend school?

Tragedies occur while Desmond is embedded with the families. A house burns down and a child dies. A woman, in desperation, turns to prostitution. Another woman, a mother, again in an act of desperation, tries to rob someone, is caught, and is sent to jail.

The relationship between landlord and tenant is interesting. On the one hand, clearly there is a predatory element here. The landlord studied in the black neighborhood makes $10,000 a month, collecting up to 80% of the paycheck of her poor black tenants. The landlord of the trailer park is worth something like $2,000,000.

However, in both cases, you see the humanity in¬†the two landlords. They do occasionally try to work with their tenants (at least the ones they like; the ones they don’t they evict with barely a thought) and the tenants appreciate those efforts.

Since so many of the poor have been close to the edge themselves, you see a sense of sharing and community. One woman, evicted from her trailer home, with nowhere else to turn, knocks on the door of a nearby neighbor, a woman that she barely knows. She explains her situation, and her neighbor immediately lets her stay for a while.

In the black neighborhood, a woman (and her children) are days away from being evicted. The landlord shows the home to a new tenant. The new tenant and the evicted tenant start talking, and by the end, with tears and hugs, agree to live together in the house.

Overall, it’s a grim narrative. For the very large majority of people in this situation, there is no path out. Their existence is a month to month struggle to determine which bills to pay and which to let slide. They figure which are the best months that they can live without electricity. They figure which months landlords are most likely to let them slide. Their day-to-day life is a simply a struggle to endure.

Desmond does have some recommendations at the end, which have been implemented elsewhere (as in other countries) but just seems like so much pie in the sky nonsense in twenty-first century America.

How well will the idea of defining housing as a universal right go down? How many people are going to rise up and shout about how that’s going to coddle those lazy millions sucking at the teat of our country?

How well will the idea of a needs based universal housing voucher go down? Who’s going to support such an obvious socialist take over of the picket fenced American dream?

For those that do the shouting, I’d dare any of them to move out of their house, give up their cars, don’t touch their savings / checking, put away their credit cards, and actually try to live the life of the desperately poor. How long would they last? A week? A month?

This book is a cry for empathy and it’s a wonderful cry. It’s just so sad that the very people that need to hear this cry are precisely the people that won’t read it.

The Vastness of War In Small Stories

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Title: The Things They Carried

Rating: 5 Stars

The Things They Carried was recommended to me by a friend. In all honesty, I almost didn’t want to read it. Although I was too young to be a part of the Vietnam conversation, it’s colored my¬†culture and politics for a large part of the last 40 years.

How bad is¬†it that Bill Clinton protested the Vietnam War while he was a student in England? How bad is it that that great chest-thumping chicken hawk, Dick Cheney, got five draft deferments to avoid Vietnam? How bad is it that conservatives, those that allegedly value war service so highly, mocked John Kerry’s swift boat heroism and attacked triple amputee Georgia senator, Max Cleland (and in the case of Ann Coulter, mocked his wounds)? How bad is it that George W Bush avoided the war by joining and sporadically participating in the Texas Air National Guard? The war has been used as a pinata by both sides of the aisle.

This topic has been such a dull, background roar in my cultural life¬†that I’ve grown fatigued by it. I’ve read several histories of the war over the past twenty or thirty years, but beyond that, I’ve actually actively tried to avoid reading too much about it. It’s still too close to me for some reason.

I trust my friend’s judgment though, so I finally yielded. This is one of the best collection of short stories that I’ve ever read. I’m not just talking about war but any topic in general. In about twenty stories covering about 250 pages, O’Brien manages to distill the entire life cycle of the Vietnam War.

Do you want to know about the struggle over whether or not to serve in a war that you consider unjust? Read ‘On the Rainy River’, a story about receiving a draft notice, trying to ignore it, deciding to run off to Canada, and the final moment of determining what is right under the quiet guidance of a taciturn elder¬†guide.

Do you want to know what it is like to take a life? Read ‘The Man I Killed’, a story about a young man trained to kill, now in a foreign country, happening upon another young man trained to kill that happens to be, for reasons not obvious to either young man, enemies. O’Brien describing¬†the young man, dead by¬†his¬†hands, lying at his¬†feet and imagining who that person was is a haunting story.

Do you want to know what it is like to be shot? Read ‘The Ghost Soldiers’, which describes the two times that O’Brien was shot. The second time was particularly horrific, where he legitimately thought he was going to die, his initial care was bungled by a medic, and his painful recovery. He writes about meeting up with his comrades later, now that he is out of the field, and realizing that he is no longer one of them, that they consider him a citizen, an outsider, and how sad that leaves him. He does not really miss being out in the field, but he understands that he will never have relationships like that in the future.

I can go on. He has other stories about the boredom of war, the unfeeling brutality of it, the utter strangeness of it (in one story, a soldier manages to bring his girlfriend from the states into his camp), and coming home.

In all seriousness, there is not a weak story in this¬†collection. They all speak to a truth. The stories are fiction, but he uses fiction to get to some inner truth about the war that is deeper than the actual reality that he experienced. In the story ‘Good Form’, he talks about the distinction between happening-truth and story-truth. The story-truth is used to bring the past into the present, and he does this to wonderful affect.

 

Time I’ll Never Get Back

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Title: Time Travel

Rating: 2 Stars

Time is a fascinating concept. We know intrinsically what it is but ultimately no one can describe it. Often times dictionaries define time to be the duration between events. Fair enough. Perfectly clear. In some cases, those same dictionaries then define duration as the time during which something occurs.

Ummm…can someone say circular definition?

This book takes as its subject time. First of all, I found it interesting that even the concept of time passing is fairly new. Sure, the sun goes up and down and the moon waxes and wanes. Time itself, however, was not actually celebrated. It wasn’t until the year 1900 that centennials were widely celebrated.

Perhaps this was because of industrial inventions such as railroads and telegraphs. Suddenly, time was not a local event that was controlled by church bells. Railroad schedules were published. Greenwich Mean Time was defined. Systems were established that relied upon a standard definition of time.

Since then, we’ve become obsessed with time, what it means, and can we somehow reach outside our time. Of course, H.G. Wells The Time Machine started all of this off and entire generations of science fiction writers / film makers have taken the concept and have run wild with it. You have the idea of the closed loop expressed by a movie like La Jetee (that ultimately was partially remade as 12 Monkeys). You have the idea of multiple time lines, most realistically portrayed in Primer. And then you have movies, like Predestination, that go completely off the rails, where a time traveler ends up being both his mother and his father.

Starting with Einstein, the physicists get involved. They blow away the theory that somehow time is the same for everyone. They then totally lose their minds and start talking about the nature of time, does time actually pass, and what, physically, does it mean to move from one moment to the next. At some point, you end up with theories like MWI (many worlds interpretation), which essentially states that there is a possibly infinite number of universes for every possible action in our past not taken. This then opens up the world of time travel to the past. Go back in time, kill Hitler, and you are now in a different universe. If you’re into Borges, then that plays nicely into all of his compelling but mind blowing labyrinth fiction.

 

 

And of course the philosophers get involved as well. They’re the ones that approach time travel with formal logic and deduce that time travel to the past is impossible, or alternatively, that it’s possible to travel to the past but it is impossible for a time traveler to change the past (eg maybe you try to kill Hitler but you forget to load your gun or some nonsense like that).

So, all of this is interesting. It’s just too bad that the book wasn’t more interesting. Gleick had clearly done a tremendous amount of research and he seems hellbent on making sure that every single bit of it appears on a page somewhere. It’s all a bit overwhelming and scattershot.

There were chapters that pulled me in and kept me interested. There were other chapters where he appeared to be just throwing research sources against a wall to see what would stick.

The problem probably is that the entire exploration of time is just too big of a topic. If he’d just narrowed it down to the concept and problems of time travel, or if he’d talked about the physicists struggle to define, understand, and develop a framework of time, then that could have been a nice, compact, tightly focused work. Instead, it just ended up kind of a hodgepodge mess of semi-related essays.

At the end of the day, I really have no more idea of what time is than when I started, and that could very have been the point.

A Collection Of Short Stories Masquerading As A Novel

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Title: The Heavenly Table

Rating: 3 Stars

Pollock’s short story collection, Knockemstiff, is one of my favorites. His writing style has been called either Southern Ohio Gothic or¬†Hillbilly Gothic. The characters that populate his stories are usually poor, uneducated, brutal, addicted, and are just trying to make through the day.

This is a full length novel, set in the year 1917. The United States has just entered WWI. A town called Meade has gotten much larger as a result of an army base that has been built there.

The main characters are three brothers: Cane, Cob, and Chimney Jewitt. They are absolutely dirt poor, barely having enough to eat. They travel with their father, Pearl, in search of any menial work that they can find. The three boys are bound to their father. Their only relief from their desolate existence is a dime store novel that the oldest brother, Cane, reads aloud to the other two. The story is called, The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. He’s read it enough times that all can recite passages from memory.

One day, Pearl keels over dead. The brothers, free at last, debate upon what to do. They decide to steal their employer’s horses and take off to Canada. While trying to steal the horse, they semi-accidentally kill the employer. Now, under the threat of law, they decide that they’re committed to their path and commence to robbing banks, hoping to score a large enough stake to make their life in Canada easier.

At the same time, there is a¬†second plot line involving¬†Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler. They’ve been together for many years and over that¬†period, managed not only to scrape by but saved up a little something for their future. Ellsworth has recently been¬†swindled of those life savings. Nearly simultaneous to that, their only son has discovered alcohol and has found that he has quite a taste for it. He has now run off. So, the Fiddler’s, now in middle age on a nearly barren farm stead, are facing up to having to start over from scratch.

As you can imagine, these two plots eventually do intersect.

The first half or so of the novel is a thrill ride. It’s classic Pollock. The brothers quickly become the most wanted men in the state and various posses set out after him, most of which reach grisly ends. The violence is graphic and explicit. The humor is black as night. I liken reading fiction of this genre to putting your finger in an electric socket. Jolts of raw energy flash¬†off of the page. Characters are introduced, are fleshed out, and are then mercilessly murdered in some gruesome manner.

I was settling in for a wild, satisfying ride. Alas, sometime after the midpoint of the book, the three brothers actually end up in Meade. There, they settle down and try to blend in. In so doing, the action drags. What started out as a thrill ride ended with barely a whimper.

There’s a couple of problems here.

There were just too many characters introduced and Pollock ended up trying to keep at least some kind of plot line for each. Therefore, we end up with an owner of a bar that is actually a brutal serial murderer. We have an upper class army soldier with dreams of dying in battle, suffering from his attraction to men and ultimately becomes a victim of the serial murderer. We have a sanitation inspector, whose primary job is to measure the effluvia levels in people’s outhouses and is tortured by his strict religious teachings and by the size of his enormous penis. We have a black gigolo from Detroit, thrown out by his last paramour, trying to find his next place of repose.

There’s just too much going on, especially for the¬†relatively small size of the novel. It almost seemed as if Pollock had run out of gas on his main plots and was introducing additional characters and stories just to pad it. In fact, you could probably pull out some of the set pieces and create short stories out of them.

It could very well be that Pollock’s strength is short stories. I did enjoy his other novel, The Devil All The Time, but from what I remember it seemed to suffer from the same over adornment.

He is a master of the short story, but he still needs to work on his long game a bit more.

Pull Your Damn Pants Up

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Title: Hillbilly Elegy

Rating: 3 Stars

With Trump’s election, this has been one of the books that has been held up¬†as some kind of attempt to explain it. It is a kind of strange combination of memoir and social analysis.

As a memoir (even if it is the memoir of a 31 year old man), it is extremely moving. It provides a microscopic view of a sub-culture in America that does not usually reveal itself for inspection.

J.D. Vance was born a through and through Kentucky hillbilly (he calls himself that). He’s actually from something approaching hillbilly royalty. On his father’s side, he is a distant relation to Jim Vance, who was one of the key leaders of the Hatfield-McCoy feud (on the Hatfield side). On his mother’s side, his grandmother was legendary as one of the toughest hillbillies around.

He actually lived most of his childhood in Middleton, Ohio, but his family’s roots are in Jackson, Kentucky.

He learned the ways of the Scots-Irish from his very earliest days. In the early days of the republic, the Scots-Irish were known to be fighters. You can read narratives from the 19th century where fights in the Appalachian region would regularly lead to eyes being gouged out and ears being torn off.

Even now, any apparent insult to honor leads to brutality. Once someone insulted the mother of one of his relatives. That relative beat the man senseless and then cut him up with a power saw, nearly killing him. Not even arrested, he was instead respected for defending the sacred honor of his mother. In his early days, Vance learns this lesson well.

He had, to say the least, a troubled childhood. His mom was off and on addicted to drugs. Even when not addicted, she clearly had mental issues that included suicide attempts and at least one time when Vance thought she was going to kill him. She was married (I think) five times and took up with numerous other men, many of whom tried to act as some kind of paternal figure to him. At one time, he tried to count the number of siblings (step and half) that he had and figured it was over a dozen.

His life was almost undoubtedly going to end up like those that he knew growing up. There would have been drugs, multiple children with multiple women, jail, unemployment, and just a general sense of defeat.

His saving grace was his grandmother and grandfather, Mamaw and Papaw. Although they themselves were uneducated hill people, they understood the importance of education and wanted Vance to escape his upbringing.

After many difficulties with his mom, he ended up living pretty much permanently with Mamaw.  The three years or so that he lived with Mamaw would constitute the longest consistent stretch that he lived throughout his childhood.

After graduating from high school, desiring to attend college but knowing that he wasn’t ready, he joined the Marine Corps. There, he was taught the basic lessons of life (how to get a loan, how to balance a check book) that he never learned. After he was discharged from the Marines, with his new found life skills and iron discipline, he went to Ohio State and ultimately got a law degree from Yale. He considers him a conservative and now works at a venture capital firm that was founded by Peter Theil.

Now, from his perch among the elite, he tries to look back to piece together the path that led him there and whether any lessons can be applied to the Appalachian culture itself.

Considering his background and the obvious deep caring that he has for the people, his opinions must carry weight. He acknowledges the impact that the overall joblessness, loss of manufacturing, and addiction has had on his community.

He also says that choices matter. You can choose not to have three children with three different women. You can choose to work an eight hour day and consistently show up on time every day. You can choose not to take heroin or prescription opioids. You can choose not to give your six month old child Mountain Dew in its bottle.

Those are all fair points. The question that must be asked is, why do people make those choices? When he says those things, he kind of sounds like Bill Cosby telling black kids that they need to pull their damn pants up. He sounds like one of my friends, who says that the problem is not racism but black culture.

OK, but from where does the roots of black culture rise if not from systemic racism? And from where does the roots of Appalachian culture rise if not from centuries of oppression? I recently read about this in White Trash. Quite literally from when settlers first landed in Jamestown and Plymouth, there was a need for what was¬†then called ‘Waste People’. These were people who came over to be worked to death. There was no American dream for them. There was no education for them. There was toil and misery and an early death.

For a personal description of why smart people make poor decisions, I strongly recommend that you read “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America”. It’s a first hand story of Linda Tirado and her struggle to emerge out of poverty and the seemingly poor decisions that she made along the way.

Work ethic and good decisions can lift someone out of poverty. Until we acknowledge that our country has not equipped tens of millions of people with the tools to allow them to make good choices, it seems unfair to condemn them for there lack thereof.

A True Corporate Slave

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Title: Underground Airlines

Rating: 4 Stars

This is an action / mystery wrapped up inside of a counterfactual.

Winters re-imagines a world in which slavery still exists in the United States. This is¬†an interesting challenge because, at its core, it’s pretty tough to imagine a realistic scenario in which this could be true. How do you conjure a reality in which the South does not see the election of Abraham Lincoln as an attack upon¬†their cherished institution and immediately start to secede? How do you erase the enormous material and manpower advantage that the North had over the South? How do you resolve the implacable will that Abraham Lincoln had to keep the South from tearing the union asunder?

In a previous counterfactual fiction (The Guns of the South) that I read many years ago, Harry Turtledove actually resorted to having apartheid South Africa invent a time machine and give the rebels AK-47’s and ammunition from the future. Armed with firepower that far exceeded the unionists, the rebels successfully gain their freedom. The South Africans¬†hopes to have a Confederacy that would align with their values in the future is ultimately thwarted.

In Winter’s counterfactual, there is no such chicanery. Lincoln is almost immediately assassinated after elected. A shocked nation hurriedly comes to a compromise consensus that allows the South to continue its slavery practices but constrains it from growing. Thus the Civil War is avoided.

Now in present day, slavery is still an institution. Over time, slavery has disappeared in most states. In fact, it now exists only in four states, the so called Hard Four. However, the United States has paid a price for this. It’s now¬†universally considered a pariah nation due to its continuing slavery. Export and imports have largely dried up due to international boycotts. Americans can only get inferior products from countries like Pakistan and South Africa. Just recently, a ten year war with Texas had been fought to a standstill due to that state’s disgust with slavery. Even in the North, blacks suffer severe racism. America is an economically and spiritually bleak country.

In this milieu is Victor. Victor is an escaped slave from the Hard Four that was later captured and was forced to become a slave catcher. It’s now his job to track down the slaves that have escaped the Hard Four so that the government can capture them and ship them back down to where the slave escaped from. Victor¬†is very good at the job but is clearly tortured by it.

He’s in Indianapolis to track down a slave named Jackdaw. What seems at first to be a fairly simple case fairly quickly becomes something else. Ultimately, Victor must go back down to the Hard Four himself, exposing himself to much danger but possibly having a chance to truly earn his freedom.

I thought that Winters did a fine job here. I was more impressed with the counterfactual aspect of his work. What would a United States look like in the year 2017 if slavery was still legal? What compromises would the people up North make to allow themselves to sleep at night (like having Clean Hands statutes (eg like organic) to keep goods coming in from the Hard Four)? How would the modern day abolitionists act? In the corporate world of the twenty-first century, how would slavery actually manifest itself? Winters makes a credible attempt to address such questions.

This is reminiscent of Winters’ other work that I’m familiar with, The Last Policeman trilogy. In those novels, a policeman is still trying to do his job as the world is coming to an end (literally; scientists have discovered that an asteroid is heading towards the planet and there is nothing that they can do about it).

In both cases, you have a situation where you have someone trying to do his job (either a policeman or what is effectively a bounty hunter) in an unimaginable situation that they essentially have no control over. The two characters are both competent at their job and doggedly are trying to do it, even as the world itself seems to be collapsing around them.

Also, in both cases, I found the setting that the plot takes place in more interesting than the plot itself. This just might be the way of Winters’ writing. He just might natively be better at conjuring up interesting world views¬†than the actual execution of the narrative.

Regardless, I found Underground Airlines to be both engaging and thought provoking.