Em and Stu do America part 3: Stephen King’s Maine

Let me explain why we love Stephen King, commonly misrepresented as a horror writer. The true horror of King is not terrible and frightening things happening, but that they are happening to people he has made you care for.

I recently read The Shining and could not get through a subsequent re-watch of the famous Kubrick adaptation because it casually disregarded all I’d read, wide-eyed, transfixed, begging inwardly throughout that salvation might be granted to the family I’d somehow grown to love.

Stephen King’s dope fence ironwork a blacksmith made ‘forspecial’. He doesn’t lock his gates!

Pet Sematary, better known as a schlocky horror movie, was a book whose true horror was its confronting examination of a parent confronting that most inconceivable of griefs, the loss of a child. With that inexorable tumble of mishap that seems to precipitate all literary tragedies, it illuminated parental terrors that were, at the time of writing, almost taboo in fiction.

The ghouls and gore are just a bonus, and he’s a master of those too, but this is how King really drags you under: emotional truth.

So why go to Bangor, where King lives and works? The first thing you need to understand is that King’s locations, characters and motifs inhabit multiple works – the more you read, the more it becomes a bit of a treasure hunt as you build a mental map of the King universe and plot the connections between the books. “Derry”, a fictional town based on Bangor, is the centre of that universe.

The section of a Bangor cemetery where Pet Sematary was filmed. I chose the spookiest pic but this is actually a very beautiful ‘garden cemetery’, where King used to go to walk, reflect… and get ideas for character names. It’s unusual in having these hillside graves, no longer common practice.

Pet Sematary contains a reference to an affectionate doglike raccoon domesticated by his Derry ‘owners’. About eight years later, this re-emerges as the ‘billy bumbler’ Oy in Wastelands.

Father Donald Callahan is a Derry resident who fights the head vampire in 1975’s Salem’s Lot. Callahan reappears in 2003’s Wolves of the Calla, a story in which he must go back in time. He briefly considers, while he is at it, attempting to avert the Kennedy assassination, but fears the butterfly effect.

This idea formed the plot of King’s 2011 novel 11.22.63, recently adapted as a miniseries.

A fictionalised version of Bangor, including King’s house, also appears in the Dark Tower 6, Song of Susannah; Randall Flagg, named for a kitchen store in Bangor, appears as villain under various guises in numerous King novels.

The inspiration for the infamous Randall Flagg. Not so scary when you see the origin!

There are websites that go through all of the hundreds of connections exhaustively, but before I get carried away… our pilgrimage was not just to gawk like dorks at King’s awesome house or tick sightings of the famous locations off a list, but to appreciate the beauty of small-town Maine that King has described over our entire lifetimes with such a wealth of affectionate detail that the moment we stepped into town we already felt we had been there, ‘once upon a dream.’

Our guide at SK Tours, also named Stu, put us to shame, though. Not only had he seemingly read just about all of King’s 60-odd books but as a smallish town (around the size of Bunbury) everyone is connected through numerous community, personal and professional ties. So Stu knows King, knows his family, knows his friends, as well as knowing the works and films, and the history of the development of King’s career right back to the time he was an impoverished, unpublished wannabe. He wove the stories of King’s early struggles and setbacks, slowly building the suspense of the various stories he told in an expertly paced drive through town that lasted for about 3.5 hours and left us hanging on every word.

This local FM station was going under. So King bought it and turned it into a rock’n’roll station.

We knew, perhaps, about the locations in town that key scenes were based on, but we didn’t know about how much King’s love for his town has shaped what he and wife Tabitha King have done through their charitable foundation. We’re talking a beautiful new children’s wing for the local hospital, perhaps 90 new kids’ playgrounds, a public pool with super low entrance fees, countless sizeable donations to local not-for-profits and a baseball field for children. Tabitha King led a fundraising campaign for the previously crumbling library that unexpectedly raised millions, which the Kings then gamely matched – their only condition being the extension and restorations had to include a vastly improved children’s wing.

Stu and I later visited this library and found it massive and beautiful, with a huge and delightful children’s wing. Putting Perth to shame, the library is open until 8pm nightly in winter and 7pm in summer, and its book circulation outstrips that of Boston’s despite Boston being a city nearly 50 times larger!

Only a tiny portion of a gorgeous and enormous kids’ wing, full of books and comfy nooks.

Needless to say, all this warmed the cockles of our hearts and fanned admiration into something closer to adoration.

I’ll add here that the couple has not insisted any of these buildings be called “The King Pool” or “King Library” or King Baseball Field”, etc. Instead, they had the pool and field named for local children who died from illness, whose families the Kings knew. The local city hall has had to content itself with subtle plaques at each location thanking the Kings for their donations.

Yep, he built the kids a stadium.

I should also mention the fantastic King-focused bookstore in town, Gerald Winters & Son, which has “ordinary” editions of King and other books but is also stuffed full of carefully chosen collectors’ items, first and other rare editions of King’s works. It’s definitely a labour of love and is a must-visit for anyone going to Bangor.

Our whole week in Maine was a lesson in why the Kings love this town so. It’s small and beautiful, and has no creepy Pleasantville vibe like Jeffersonville but has the nostalgic country town vibe in spades. Kids rode around everywhere on their bikes, calling to mind E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Now and Then and Stranger Things. We were a little disappointed not to have stumbled over any corpses, Stand By Me-style.

There were fewer American flags here, a welcome respite. But nobody skimped on that other must-have, hanging baskets full of flowers. Almost every cute wooden porch was festooned with them and surrounded by a full cottage garden. The Americans seem unparalleled in embracing the cottage garden. As an Australian, used to spindly trees, frizzled lawns and grey-green natives, I can’t get enough of it. And every patch not filled with flowers sports a leafy big maple full of squirrels that cavort saucily before bemused housecats. I stalked them faithfully but the money shot continues to elude.

I’ll get you yet, squirrel.

Even the derelict population seemed less confronting than in Chicago or even Perth. Rather than overwhelming numbers of people begging on street corners we saw little evidence of social disadvantage, though I don’t doubt it exists. We only saw one guy actually begging with a sign. It read “Why lie? Need beer.”

The other beggar, who we referred to as our friendly neighbourhood homeless guy, asked us to buy him beers on the first night. After we refused, he didn’t try again though we walked past him at least once a day to or from town, but just gave us a kind of morose greeting.

A completely typical Bangor garden.

The last time we saw him was as we walked home from a dinner out. I remarked to Stu as we walked that I liked Bangor because it was so pretty, but not overly neat or perfect it still had personality.

It was right then that friendly neighbourhood homeless guy appeared and did a perfectly timed little spew on the pavement right in front of us. He performed this with the brevity of a cat abruptly yakking its dinner up on the rug.

We managed to hold in our giggles until we were past the poor fellow, who looked philosophical rather than embarrassed.

Bangor Pride.

Overall, we loved Bangor, its sense of community that came out not just in Stu the tour guide’s tales of the town but in the big crowd that turned out for the local high school’s rhythm and blues band show outside the library one mild Wednesday night (see video below), and in the huge crowd that turned out for the town Pride Parade on the morning we left.

It’s lucky King’s got the place licked, or I’d be pulling up stumps and carting Stu off permanently.

Stumobservations part 3: Maine

  • Average WiFi and acceptable Netflix = 3 out of 5 happy StuMos watching Archer.
  • People spending the night in train stations naturally huddle in groups seeking sanctuary. (We spent 1am to 7am in Boston between our overnight train and three subsequent buses totalling 26 hours of continuous travel).
  • Racing matching suitcases is a fun pastime.
  • Lobster is expensive.
  • Stephen King’s life story is fascinating. Lesson: If your wife doesn’t like the neighbours, just buy their house.
  • SQUIRRELS!
  • Three sets of earbuds plus a set of headphones is a bit excessive. (Donated bulky headphones to Airbnb).
  • Take notes because you will not remember later.
  • A flat white is called a latte… but still not what I wanted.
  • Dollar stores are a good source of junk food.
  • My idea of consumable fries and others understanding of what constitutes acceptable fries differs greatly.
  • Bare minimum, pack a spray jacket.
  • My name is pronounced Stoo now. May as well embrace it (still cringed even as I write this).

The lesson being, ask what the “MP” is before you buy the tiny weeny lobster roll. Thank goodness we were sharing it.

What we’re reading
Em: Mistress Pat, L.M. Montgomery – in preparation for Canada and all of the Anne of Green Gables madness. Still going on Walden, Artist’s Way, My Salinger Year.
StuMo: finished Em’s novel draft! Apparently did not hate it. Will be incorporating his suggestions next month in New York. Now closing in on the end of The Red Queen.

What we’re listening to
Audiobooks: Lee Child’s Worth Dying For; Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn, narrated super well by the author (thanks Charlie!) 
Music: Miles Davis, John Coltrane… and Native American Dance Trance. Yes. That’s what it is called. Also, the Pitch Perfect soundtrack was a key player in our six-hour drive from Bangor to Prince Edward Island, Canada.

What we’re watching
The Handmaid’s Tale – an Atwood adaptation seems appropriate for Canada. Just finished, and absolutely loved it.

 

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How Tim Winton got my mojo back, and other stories.

They all hurled sticks for galumphine mutts, their sun-fucked faces shining with adoration.

Tim Winton, Eyrie

The 2017 state election campaign was one of the most gruelling periods of my working life.

It wasn’t all because of the self-imposed workload; equally to blame was the nature of the work.

Without really intending to, I had become what felt like the sole statewide reporter questioning the Roe 8 project, simply because for every story I wrote, more swarmed from the woodwork with questions demanding answers. The more I looked in vain for those answers, the dodgier the whole project looked.

I wrote countless reports on the protests, the machine lock-ons, the clashes with police. I wrote The Idiot’s Guide to Roe 8, and covered the Senate inquiry into the unnecessary slaughter of animals caused by the haste with which the works were being rushed through pre-election. After the release of more than 350 pages of documents when Alannah MacTiernan’s Freedom of Information application was finally approved after the government spent years fighting it, I hunkered down with the documents and finally produced one of the most demanding stories of my working life, Figures fudged in Roe 8 rush job.

Roe 8 was by no means the only environmental issue I covered in the months preceding the election. I covered the Beach not Bitumen campaign against the Esplanade extension through Bush Forever land in Scarborough and Trigg and the No Houses in Wetlands campaign against the bulldozing of Carter’s Lot in Bayswater – including another trawl through Freedom of Information documents showing the approvals for the development had been based on incomplete paperwork.

I covered the establishment of marine parks scientists were calling “paper parks” because of the lack of inclusion of any sanctuary zones for marine life. I covered the race to the bottom that was the evolution of WA’s hunt-to-kill ‘serious threat’ shark policy. I covered the new Biodiversity ‘Conservation’ Act passing into law, complete with a clause allowing an environment minister to approve the extinction of any species should ‘progress’ require it.

Hot on the heels of this charming piece of legislation came the approval of the Yeelirrie uranium mine, ignoring the Environmental Protection Authority’s knockback on grounds the mine would cause the extinction of subterranean fauna species. Things that look like prawns, and aren’t cute, but whose role in purifying our underground aquifers could be significant – things that should be studied further, not destroyed by humans drunk on their own power.

As the election drew near I was going to write an opinion piece drawing all this together, but by then I was just too damn exhausted. (Note, it’s now May that I’m writing this). The only thing that kept me going was the emails that poured in from readers after every story, saying thank you, and pointing me to the next. Still, it was disheartening. I was starting to think it was just too hard to keep caring. Those emails from LinkedIn offering cushy jobs in PR, toeing the company line, were starting to look very attractive.

Especially since more emails were coming in from people asking me to investigate more stories, more stories I would never, even if there were twelve of me, have enough time to get to.

In fact, I just looked at my Evernote and found this. A blurt, jotted then forgotten on February 21.

I am utterly competent, hard, brisk but compassionate and capable. 
I am petrified 
The emails keep coming. 
Fifty-plus a day. 
I worry when i am there, 
more when i am not  
The people continue to reply
I try to leap out of the loop
But i cant stop checking
Clicking
Pecking
At these emails that just keep coming. 

Enter Tim Winton

It was in this frame of mind I picked up Eyrie. I was innocent of its subject matter, having seen it in a bookshop and remembered that I had been planning to read it since its 2014 release. I thought, now is the moment – I was headed to Rotto for the weekend for a wedding and planned serious down time.

Eyrie starts with a jangling hangover and a weird wet patch on the carpet for Tom Keely, divorced by his wife and disgraced in the public eye after an event in his previous professional life as an environmental campaign spokesman left him unemployed. The mining companies would love to have him come to the dark side in their PR departments, but he’s not yet having a bar of it.

Instead, he staggers from blind drunk to blinding daylight, trying to work out how to pay the bills now his old career has locked him out for good. He is “doubly bound, trapped like a bug in a jar – addled, livid, dizzy, butting his head and turning circles”, high up in his ‘eyrie’ – atop a bleak block of flats in Fremantle inhabited by people down on their luck.

The block, in real life, is one nicknamed the ‘suicide flats’, generally regarded as a colossal town planning mistake in Freo.

Into this block of flats, and the mess that is Keely’s life, returns a distant childhood friend, bringing a hefty set of her own problems and a vague but highly uncomfortable sense of responsibility for Keely.

Whenever I mention Tim Winton, one of my most beloved authors, inevitably someone tells me they still have a Cloudstreet hangover after being made to study it in school. I never understood this, but I never had to read it for school. I just read it because that’s the kind of nerd kid I was.

Whether or not they have a point, I say to them – get over it! You are missing out. This book is raw, angry and humbling in its brilliance.

It casts a merciless glare on to the murky underbelly of environmental politics and activism in WA, and their uneasy coexistence with the all-powerful mining industry.

It brings Fremantle and Perth into sharp relief, cities painfully under-represented in our national literature. Ours is a culture dangerously lacking in self-reflection and as Winton shines his pitiless light on Keely, he shines it on us all.

Here’s a glimpse of Freo’s cappuccino strip through the eyes of Keely:

It’s hard to look at but harder to look away, like squeezing a zit under a fluorescent bulb.

The writing makes you realise how long Winton has been honing his craft. It’s as though every year and every book that has passed has made him more devastatingly effective

He doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s stripped down to diamond hardness.

Back to work

The emails have piled up over my long weekend. But this time, a different email lies buried among them.

Would I like to interview Tim Winton pre-election on gas fracking?

You’ve got to be kidding me. I am spent. There is a week to go until I can drop this gargantuan election effort. I am behind. I still have more stories to write than I can poke a stick at. I have researched every bloody environmental issue under the sun in the lead up to this election. Except bloody gas fracking. I have only the vaguest idea of what it even is. I thought, bless me, there was one thing I was going to let slide.

Of course, I make time. I do some hasty cramming. He’s my hero.

People say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because they will disappoint you. But this is not always true. Winton talks like he writes. He is funny and self-deprecating and wise and full of memorable idioms. He tells me it’s normal to get discouraged when you campaign on environmental issues. He riffs on power and politics and defeat in WA with the authority of someone who knows all the dirtiest secrets. I’m entranced.

He talks for 40 minutes. I try not to interrupt in case he remembers his time is valuable.

I summon energy, pull together research and write another pre-election environmental story. The result got more than 10,000 readers – testament to Winton’s star power.

There has now been a change in government. Polling said Roe 8 was a factor in the decisions of about 20 per cent of voters – a significant influencer.

The new government has helped buy back Carter’s Wetland, stopped the Esplanade extension through the dunes, and has said that while the Yeelirrie mine approval still stands, it will not approve further uranium mines. Its true stance on gas fracking remains to be seen.

My trust in governments, like everyone else’s, runs sadly low. But the election coverage was, nonetheless, worth the effort.

Eyrie? Even more so.

 

Movie version of Jasper Jones is off with a bang

Jasper Jones - Photograph by David Dare Parker

Jasper Jones – Photograph by David Dare Parker

It’s been eight years since Fremantle author Craig Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones hit the shelves and was devoured with equal adoration by both critics and the public.

If he’s been a little quiet since, I hear it’s because Silvey has spent the intervening years crafting and honing that remarkable novel into a tight, twisty hour-and-45-minute screenplay.

Read more at WAtoday.

Performance-enhancing book: Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans

the-tim-ferriss-show-podcast

Tim Ferriss and trusty steed Laura keep me inspired and happy through each and every commute. 

Just as with fiction I tend to fall down the rabbit hole, I get excited when I find a good resource covering one of my more “real” areas of obsession.

I find a new font of inspiration and information and sort of suck them dry like a vampire, until I have consumed everything they have to say and grown stronger. Hmm, perhaps more of a parasite.
Unflattering self-depictions aside, recent examples include the financial freedom blog of Mr Money Mustache (nearly 500 posts, worked through gluttonously and chronologically) and the 100-odd hours of The Minimalists’ podcasts so far released.
Eventually, I find, I absorb the message. I’m converted. I get it. I know the Minimalists’ stories and catchphrases so well I listen to them more like a soothing old bedtime story now than a source of excitement. I’ve done the projectsjoined the cult.
But a slightly different case is the Tim Ferriss Show,  the podcast in which optimisation junkie Ferriss conducts long-form interviews with the world’s top performers across myriad fields, deconstructing their habits and back-stories in an effort to find out what habits lead to success.
Ferriss is also author of business classic The Four-Hour Workweek, health hacker bible The Four-Hour Body and learning-method deconstruction The Four-Hour Chef. He is so adored it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s more star-struck, him or his famous guests.
(Imagine my delight, incidentally, when finally my nerd prayers were answered this week and Ferriss bowed to fan pressure to interview Mr Money Mustache in the latest episode).
This show never gets old and never runs out. You never learn it all. It’s the personal development equivalent of a gold mine that runs to the other side of the earth. You could never hope to read all the books recommended, follow up all the little side routes and innovations you hear about. I’ve read two of the books, bits of the others and listened to more than 200 hours of interviews and yet feel I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I have the books on Kindle, but am planning to buck my own minimalist trends and buy them in hard copy to keep for more easy and frequent referencing. And throughout the interviews, there are certainly common themes, but there is far more variation than there is repetition, and the recurrences are, in themselves, fascinating.

This was the reasoning behind the book, an attempt by Ferriss to capture and distill the best of all his interviews thus far, and draw the connections between them. I approached it with greedy anticipation, having bought it for myself as a Christmas present (though I had to get it on Kindle, the city bookstores having sold out).

It’s a diamond-hard read without an ounce of fat, and includes plenty of new material and insight into Ferriss’ personal struggles. But a word of warning: don’t bother if you’re not seriously into personal challenges and life-hacking. Otherwise it will quickly overwhelm. Even a medium-level devotee such as I found many of the concepts covered (it is divided into sections Healthy, Wealthy and Wise) too advanced for me, at least in terms of finance, exercise, diet and biomedical science. But even if you skim over parts, that, he says, is the way he intends the book to be read. More like a buffet than a three-course meal (my words, not his).
And it’s endlessly stimulating. I love knowing there is always more out there to learn, about people, the capacity of an individual mind and body to reach extreme performance. It’s humorous and fast-paced, and at 700-odd pages, you can skim the parts you’re not up for yet without feeling like you’re not getting bang for your buck.
Cool features include a comprehensive reading list from each interviewee, and a cartooned spirit animal for each based on how they imagine themselves. My advice is get it in hard copy, devour it for fun, then go back and drill down.
Happy nerding!

Hercule Poirot is alive and well in The Monogram Murders

hannah-monogram-murdersI was dubious when I heard modern crime writer Sophie Hannah was approved by the descendants of Agatha Christie to resurrect her detective Hercule Poirot, beloved by many.
So dubious I avoided it on its release in 2014. I read positive reviews, which mentioned Hannah’s chops as a crime writer, her love of all things Poirot and her faithful promise she  would cut no corners in dusting him off for a new case.
This was good enough for the family, but inexplicably still not good enough for me, so I just eyed it suspiciously in bookshops every time I passed it, stroking the cover creepily but still not quite trusting.
I love Poirot, OK?
Dipping my toe in, I assessed Hannah’s skills by reading her Kind of Cruel, which I found highly satisfactory, twisty and mucky like all good crime.
Finally took the plunge on The Monogram Murders and – ! – was not disappointed.
This has the wit and psychological insight Hannah clearly already commands, and that obviously made her an ideal choice for the project.
It’s also, more importantly, so spot-on rendition of Poirot that – and I feel disloyal, but – I just can’t tell the difference. I can actually hear David Suchet speaking the lines. The rhythm, the cadence, the humour; all perfect.
It’s uncanny, as though the Belgian detective, quirks, mannerisms, wardrobe and all, has stepped prissily from the yellowed pages of Agatha Christie into another woman’s book, where he is rendered in loving, lifelike detail and doesn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed.
Strait-laced young detective Catchpool makes a good solid foil, just the kind Poirot needs to shine. The murders, too are very Christie. Three corpses are found laid out in three different rooms of the same hotel, each with a monogrammed cufflink in his or her mouth.
The plot is full of classic Christie tropes and features, though I will not say what they were for fear of spoilers, and is quite as convoluted and macabre as Christie at her nastiest.
Yet nothing feels contrived or formulaic. It does not feel exactly like Christie and yet I could not put my finger on any difference. You can feel the confidence and the the fun the author has had, and it is infectious. A joy to read.
I’ve caught up just in time – the family must have been happy, too, because her second Poirot mystery, Closed Casket, is now on shelves. Hurrah!

Am I stupid? The kind of existential crisis only Don DeLillo can cause

Nicholas Branch has unpublished state documents, polygraph reports, Dictabelt recordings from the police radio net on November 22. He has photo enhancements, floor plans, home movies, biographies, letters, rumours, mirages, dreams. This is the room of dreams, the room where it has taken him all these years to learn that his subject is not politics or violent crime but men in small rooms.

Is he one of them now? Frustrated, stuck, self-watching, looking for a means of connection, a way to break out. After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.

Branch is stuck all right. He has abandoned his life to understanding that moment in Dallas, the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.

delillo-libra

When I studied literature at uni it was my task to probe deeply into one work of literature at a time, painstakingly dissecting each then fossicking through the rubble for its secrets. On these I was welcome – nay, expected! to write 3000 words. I failed to appreciate this luxury at the time, not knowing or caring that the public like to read things online for perhaps one minute; maybe, if they are very interested, two.

Now that my day job, like so many others’, requires bounding from task to task, email to email and snatching fragments of time for ‘deep work’ that feels as difficult as giving birth (note, I have never given birth), I look back on that time with wonder.

Immediately after it, I avoided ‘hard’ books, plunging through as much crime fiction as I possibly could, and while a murder mystery is one of life’s purest pleasures, the deep reading mind is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Sometimes I fear I have lost it altogether, and nowhere as much as in the attempt to read Don DeLillo, a postmodernist author described aptly by New Republic as “master chronicler of American dread” in a recent article about how it’s high time he won the Nobel prize already.

Each book is entirely different in subject matter to the last. White Noise, perhaps the most famous, I dissected at university. This story of a professor’s terror of death after an ‘airborne toxic event’ hits his town was one of the best books I have ever read.

Cosmopolis is about a genius billionaire financier who spends the whole book taking a limo across town to get a haircut, encountering various riots and lovers along the way. While it was startlingly inventive I probably, honestly, only got through it because it was relatively short. Later, I thought about watching the movie, a 2012 David Cronenberg production starring Robert Pattinson, but I think I abandoned this idea within minutes. I hope the adaptation of White Noise now underway does better.

Underworld was a massive tome of 1000-odd pages sparked by the parallel events of the 1991 New York Giants’ Superbowl win, and the Soviet Union’s explosion of its first nuclear bomb. It was widely acclaimed as a Great American Novel. I lugged on a camping trip a year or two ago, read a couple of hundred pages, admired the incredibly beautiful writing, then turfed it in favour of something easier.

Turns out even in ideal surroundings, I couldn’t muster the necessary concentration. I was full of theories at the time after a bout of minimising that if I wasn’t enjoying something, I shouldn’t bother, life too short, etc, but it was likely just a cover for the towering ineptitude I felt, failing to force my fragmented modern brain to focus.

So when I recently arrived at Libra, I was full of determination to get some intellectual gumption. Libra, as ambitious as the rest of DeLillo’s novels, blends fiction and fact to recreate the lives and events that coalesced into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Threaded throughout it are flash-forwards to the life of Nicholas Branch, an ageing CIA official assigned to write the secret history of the assassination, for Agency eyes only. He has been supplied with every possible material and left alone for years. Decades, even. He thinks they might have forgotten he’s on the payroll. He goes to sleep in his chair sometimes, surrounded by papers and countless words in a room the Agency has paid to fireproof.

He has his forensic pathology rundown, his neutron activation analysis. There is also the Warren report, of course, with its twenty-six accompanying volumes of testimony and exhibits, its millions of words. Branch thinks this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.

Everything is here. Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, canceled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language.

Documents. There is Jack Ruby’s mother”s dental chart, dated January 15, 1938. There is a microphotograph of Lee H. Oswald’s public hair. Elsewhere (everything in the Warren Report is elsewhere) there is a detailed description of this hair. It is smooth, not knobby. The scales are medium-size. The root area is rather clear of pigment.

Branch doesn’t know how to approach this kind of data. He wants to believe the hair belongs in the record. It is vital to his sense of responsible obsession that everything in his room warrants careful study. Everything belongs, everything adheres, the mutter of obscure witnesses, the photos of illegible documents and odd sad personal debris, things gathered up at a dying – old shoes, pajama tops, letters from Russia. It is all one thing, a ruined city of trivia where people feel real pain. This is the Joycean book of America, remember – the novel in which nothing is left out.

Branch has long since forgiven the Warren Report for its failures. It is too valuable a document of human heartbreak and muddle to be scorned or dismissed. The twenty-six volumes haunt him. Men and women surface in FBI memos, are tracked for several pages, then disappear – waitresses, prostitutes, mind readers, motel managers, owners of rifle ranges. Their stories hang in time, spare, perfect in their way, unfinished.

It was slow going at first, with me hampered by my lack of understanding of the events of that Cold-War era, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the relationship of JFK with his people, the street life of Dallas, Miami and New Orleans, which may as well be on another planet to Perth, Western Australia, 2017.

I spent the first quarter of the book Googling details I felt, with shame, that I should already know. My eyes glazed over at times. I was spurred on by the moments of just utter perfection I stumbled upon like treasure.

The dog lay throbbing in the shade.

Frank Vasquez showed up with a wife, two kids and some food. The wife and kids took a peek at the visitor. Wayne waited for someone to say, “Mi casa es suya.” He got a little charge from the Old World graces. But they slipped back inside, leaving his smile hanging like a rag on a stick.

One hot afternoon, I lay down in front of a fan, away from my mobile phone, and told myself I could not get up until I had read solidly for an hour. This helped get me over the hump. I finally joined the slipstream. I became absorbed.

I almost began to feel as though I were reading a crime novel as this reminded me, in its beautiful ugliness and powerful sense of place, of James Ellroy’s L.A Confidential, also set in the 1950s.

But between its chronicling the FBI, CIA, New Orleans crime lords, and their circling a stumbling Lee Harvey Oswald like hawks, it returns repeatedly to Branch, locked in his study receiving more and more reference material.

Language begins to loom as a character as much as any other, and perhaps the most powerful, able to oppress those who seek release through it but are unable to control it – not just Branch but Oswald too, whose disability in reading and writing completes his isolation even as he tries to harness words to lessen it.

It was his goodbye to Russia. It signified the official end of a major era in his life. It validated the experience, as the writing of any history brings a persuasion and form to events.

Even as he printed the words, he imagined people reading them, people moved by his loneliness and disappointment, even by his wretched spelling, the childish mess of composition. Let them see the struggle and humiliation, the effort he had to exert to write a single sentence. The pages were crowded, smudged, urgent, a true picture of his state of mind, of his rage and frustration, knowing a thing but not able to record it properly.

He went back to the first day, fall of 1959, jumping right in, writing in a child’s high fever in which half-waking dreams, dreams with many colours, can seem a state of purer knowledge…

Always the pain, the chaos of composition. He could not find order in the field of little symbols. They were in the hazy distance. He could not see clearly the picture that is called a word. A word is also a picture of a word. He saw spaces, incomplete features, and tried to guess at the rest.

He made wild tries at phonetic spelling. But the language tricked him with its inconsistencies. He watched sentences deteriorate, powerless to make them right. The nature of things was to be elusive. Things slipped through his perceptions. He could not get a grip on the runaway world.”    

DeLillo creates a man at the mercy of forces much larger than his own choices;

“He walked through empty downtown Dallas, empty Sunday in the heat and light. He felt the loneliness he had always hated to admit to, a vaster isolation than Russia, stranger dreams, a dead white glare burning down. He wanted to carry himself with a clearer sense of role, make a move one time that was not disappointed. He walked in the shadows of insurance towers and bank buildings. He thought the only end to isolation was to reach the point where he was no longer separated from the true struggles that went on around him. The name we give this point is history.”

This point is arrived at not logically, not by reason, but inevitability.

Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy or armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death.

The novel closes in a hypnotic exploration of the endless looping replay of the terrible shootings on screens both of Kennedy and of Oswald. They somehow never get to the heart of what happened any more than Branch, locked in his maelstrom of paper, can.

By its wrenching close, I’m mesmerised. DeLillo will never be light reading. There is no reason he should be. He has to be one of the world’s best writers and you meet him on his terms. Read it and weep… and remember, the best things don’t come easy.

 

Madman releases Jasper Jones trailer

Madman Entertainment has finally released the trailer for Jasper Jones, adapted from Fremantle author Craig Silvey’s best-seller and featuring an all-star Australian cast including Hugo Weaving and Toni Collette.

Silvey is also known for his debut Rhubarb, but I and most people I speak to agree Jasper Jones is by far the favourite: a novel you never forget. It’s done the book club rounds because it’s that rarest of combinations, a literary novel and a thumping good read.

Now from Bran Nue Dae director Rachel Perkins, Animal Kingdom producer Vincent Sheehan and Goldstone producer David Jowsey comes this eagerly awaited adaptation.

It feels like it’s been a long time coming, with my anticipation heightened by Barking Gecko’s stage version a couple of years ago at the State Theatre Centre of WA, and more recently by hearing about the advance premiere screening of this adaptation at CinefestOZ in Margaret River some months ago.

The movie, set for theatrical release in March, follows Charlie Bucktin, a bookish 14-year-old misfit living in a small Australian town in 1969.

In the dead of night during the scorching summer, Charlie is startled awake by local outcast Jasper Jones outside his window, pleading for help.

Jasper leads him deep into the forest to show him something that will change his life forever, setting them both on a dangerous journey to solve a mystery that will consume the entire community.

In an isolated town full of secrecy, gossip and thinly veiled tragedy, Charlie faces family breakdown, finds his first love and discovers the meaning of courage.

But don’t think this is going to be boring and worthy. This was a seriously funny and vibrant book – that’s why its following is so loyal.

As well as Collette and Weaving, stars include Levi Miller from Pan and Angourie Rice from the excellent These Final Hours. Just looking at the stills makes me think they’ve cast this movie perfectly. I’m excited!