Sunday, December 27, 2009

Crime Fiction by James and Grafton: Night and Day

(Reflections on two detective novels: THE PRIVATE PATIENT by P. D. James (Vintage Paperback 2008), and U IS FOR UNDERTOW by Sue Grafton (Putnam, 2009))

Whodunnit is almost beside the point by the time we get to the ends of these novels, and good thing, too. We love an intriguing situation, we love atmospherics, we love characters that we can despise whole-heartedly, and we love to anticipate a confrontation. Best of all, investigation provides urgency for the exercise of unearthing the past. While both novels have these characteristics, they are night and day: James is grim, autumnal, dark. Grafton's tale of crime has its share of ugly behavior, deception and death, but its outlook is sunny.

In THE PRIVATE PATIENT, it’s victim number one whose past pulls us in. A notoriously ruthless investigative reporter, single and successful, Rhoda Gradwyn carries a deep scar across her face from an incident of parental brutality. She tells her high society plastic surgeon that she “no longer needs” her scar. We know from the novel’s first sentence that this decision will cost her her life, and we even know the date of her murder. As we learn more about her past, and as she begins to anticipate change, it’s a little as if we were to be told that Ebenezer Scrooge will die on Christmas morning on the cusp of a new life.

James has said often that her process of writing a novel begins with a place. Here, it’s an ancient manor house in the country, where druids’ stones mark the boundary, where the surgeon has set up shop for his more private and wealthy clients. For some characters, it’s a place to hide; for others, its past is an obsession; of course, there’s money and inheritance involved, too. James soaks the place in atmosphere, as several characters hear the shriek of some meadow creature being found by some night time predator, and others tell of the supposed witch who was executed on those druids’ stones. She builds suspense very well in a chapter where two women search a building for some sign of a young man who’s missing, as they, no less than we, gradually come to realize that they’re liable to find a corpse. They do, in a memorably horrific context.

Sue Grafton said in an interview recently that she begins at least some of her novels with a social problem in mind. "T" began with the notion of elder abuse. For "U," she started with the phenomenon of grownups who claim to have just remembered sexual abuse from childhood. A boy who once cried “wolf” gets detective Kinsey Millhone into an investigation of the past, and her ambivalence about him keeps this novel rich in possibilities and ambiguities.

Grafton is using elements recently used in others of her series. “S is for Silence” also alternated chapters in the present (ca. 1987) with chapters decades before. “T is for Trespass” gave us chapters from the bad guy’s perspective. And Grafton took us into the time of extreme social flux, 1967-1968, in “Q is for Quarry.”

Grafton once again mines that Summer of Love and strikes gold. We get the social milieu of suburban parents, imbibing martinis at the yacht club. We get their incredulity when their clean – cut college drop out son arrives with an appalling hippy girl friend and her two children, parking their ratty school bus in the back yard to freeload. It’s those two children who become most vivid to me. Their story is ancillary to the main narrative, but I found myself most interested in their progress. I was rooting for the grandparents to save those children from their clueless, self-indulgent parents – who call themselves “Creed” and “Destiny,” their daughter “Rain.” After a day with his grandmother, the boy “Shawn Dancer” has his eyes opened to what he’s been missing. It’s also very real of Grafton to show us how the boy also never lets go the lie that his mother loves him.

Aside from the story itself, I enjoyed once more how Grafton weaves a texture with parallel plotlines and shared themes. A guilty man feels the “undertow” of his past, and literal undertow took one of the past characters out to her death. A climactic scene takes place on a promontory formed by undertow. A continuing subplot in the series involves Kinsey’s own abandonment by family in her childhood, here made to parallel the virtual abandonment of the little girl “Rain.”

I devoured this one in a single weekend, half of it late on a Saturday night.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Night Music and South Pacific: Revelatory Revivals

(Reflections on the revivals of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, directed by Trevor Nunn, currently playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York, and of SOUTH PACIFIC, directed by Bartlet Sher, playing at the Lincoln Center's Vivien Beaumont Theatre.)

Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Keaton Whittaker in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Joan Marcus, photo

At fifteen, I turned down a chance to see A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC when it was on Broadway the first time. I've regretted it ever since. Around the same age, seeing SOUTH PACIFIC at a dinner theatre, I judged it harshly for alternating cute numbers with tediously earnest ones. This past weekend I saw the first Broadway revivals of both shows, and I'm ready to right some old wrongs.

Stephen Sondheim's score for NIGHT MUSIC intricately weaves horizontal elements of melody and story with vertical elements of rhyme and character in ways that inspire awe, not to mention laughter and satisfaction. Most astonishing is the intersection of three distinct musical numbers, "Now," "Soon," and "Later" early in the show.

Sondheim's work fits in neatly to the work of his original collaborators Harold Prince and Hugh Wheeler. Together, they chose the waltz itself as a metaphor for the show, and everything happens in threes, not just the meters of the songs. Besides that suite of three numbers to introduce the Egerman family, there is the opening waltz that gives us a visual preview of the story, as couples flirt with third parties and change partners. Two characters sing of a third (Fredrika and Mme. Armfeldt comment on the "Glamorous LIfe" of Desiree, who duets with Fredrik about his wife; Carl-Magnus sings of his mistress Desiree and his wife Charlotte; Charlotte sings to Anne about Carl-Magnus; Fredrik and Carl-Magnus sing of Desiree). Soloists sing of three lovers ("Liaisons" and "The Miller's Son"). The summer night smiles three times, for three sets of characters - the young, the fools, and the old.

The standout song, "Send in the Clowns," is the exception, being the only song in NIGHT MUSIC for one character to address another directly: "Just when I'd stopped / Opening doors / Finally knowing the one that I wanted / Was yours...."

How director Trevor Nunn handled that number shows how he achieves fine effects through elegant simplicity. He and his designer David Farley presented all the action within a demi-lune of cream - colored panels, mostly covered with smokey mirrors. Panels could open outward to suggest walls, or they could slide to reveal countryside. Only once, a panel opened to reveal an ante room beyond the one that we could see, and it's for the climactic scene when Fredrik knocks at the door to Desiree's bedroom, intending to tell her that he will leave her. Before the final verse, he rises, turns his back on Desiree, and exits, closing that door behind him.

Nunn also re-imagined the opening sequence of numbers, downplaying the comic operetta elements to highlight the mood of Sondheim's haunting "Night Waltz." Henrik in dark shadow sustains the first pitch on cello at stage center, and the voices of the quintet float in from offstage before we see the singers. As other characters enter in shadow, the Quintet sings, "Remember." It merges into the aforementioned "Night Waltz," before the lights come up full for the first time on the words "Bring up the curtain, la - la - la," for a rousing finish.

In the compressed space of this setting, the vocal Quintet doubles as scenery. They are the acting company with suitcases and trunks, riding with Desiree on trains and arriving at stages in "The Glamorous Life." They are servants standing by in Madame Armfeldt's chateau. At the first word of the song "Remember," the baritone and the mezzo stand behind Fredrik and Desiree, identifying their reminiscences with Fredrik's and Desiree's. In fact, the quintet is dressed and groomed to resemble the lead characters whom they shadow at various times.

Musically, the cast possesses fine voices that seem to handle all the demands of their parts effortlessly, and listening to them is pure pleasure. A salon ensemble of eight covers all the layers of the score so well that I did not miss having a full orchestra.

Dramatically, the actors don't blend so well as their voices do. Leigh Ann Larkin as "Petra" literally sounded some jarring notes in "The Miller's Son," when she purposefully distorted ends of phrases in some kind of exaggerrated mockery of the higher classes. Ramona Mallory would seem to have been born to play "Anne," being the daughter of the original cast's "Anne" and "Henrik," but she, too, seemed to exaggerrate the extremes of her character without giving us the center.

She could take lessons from Aaron Lazar, who plays another character who bounces comically between extremes. But Count Carl - Magnus doesn't seem cartoonish, as Lazar always made clear the character's thoughts and feelings, even in the transition between, "I'll kill him! / Why should I bother? / The woman's mine!"

Angela Lansbury earns the star on her dressing room door in the role of Madame Armfeldt. She gets double the laughs on some Wildesque epigrams by suggesting punchlines before she even completes the sentences. Pause for laugh; complete the joke; pause for bigger laugh. But she seemed truly affectionate for her granddaughter "Fredrika," played believably by young Keaton Whittaker, and sincerely tender reminiscing about the duke "who was prematurely deaf, but a dear." In an interview, Lansbury comments that Mme. Armfeldt is shaken when she sees her daughter in love, an experience that the elder woman never has had. Over the course of the drama, Lansbury conveys increasing frailty, confusion, and awareness of her profound loneliness.

On the spectrum between those actors whose characters seem real, and those who seem to be auditioning for their parts, the leads Catherine Zeta - Jones as "Desiree" and Alexander Hanson as "Fredrik" are close to the real end, best when they're joking with each other. Best of all is the moment that provokes "Send in the Clowns," when, mid-smile, Desiree realizes that Fredrik is rejecting her.

At the very end of the show, a reprise of the Night Waltz, each character is with his or her true romantic partner -- and Nunn adds little Fredrika to Fredrik and Desiree to complete a family. It's fitting, it's warm, and isn't it rich!


Photo: Sara Krulwich, NY Times

In Bartlet Sher's production of Rodgers' and Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC, songs I've known and even sung since adolescence suddenly connected to each other in that same vertical - and - horizontal way that I've admired in NIGHT MUSIC. If the waltz is a central metaphor for ALNM, the isolation of "islands" is the metaphor for all of SOUTH PACIFIC.

The set is a vast sandy beach rising to a dune upstage. Beyond that is the image of blue water, blue sky, and, sometimes visible through a mist, the island of Bali Hai. The characters Nelly and Emile sing of each other in parallel verses, isolated. The signature songs "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Bali Hai" are about crossing a distance, water or "a crowded room" to connect with a special someone, a special island. Even the children's ditty "Dites - Moi" echoes the same theme. Nelly sings of her "faith in romance" despite what everyone else says, and Cable sings "My Girl Back Home" about his alienation from his old life. Far from being cute, the song "Happy Talk" is painful to watch, as Bloody Mary is desperate for Sgt. Cable to commit himself to her trusting daughter Liat. He expresses his anger at the social forces that would make misery out of her life with him in America -- and anger at himself for not bucking those forces -- in the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." It links musically and thematically to the next song, Emile's "This Nearly Was Mine." Both songs are in three-quarter time, each sung in turn by a man who has missed an opportunity to connect to "his special island." By the end of the two songs, they are two guys with nothing left to lose, and they are motivated to risk their lives on their mission to the island.

Like all the classic musicals, this one has its older couple (Nellie and Emile), its young couple (Liat and Cable), and its comic Luther Billis. All their stories converge on a distant island where the US armed forces can spy on Japanese movements to turn the failing war effort around.

Famously, there's also the theme of artificial barriers to connecting. That's not only the divide between "white" and "colored" on which the stories hinge, but also the class tension between the enlisted men and the officers. In the larger context, the second act's show - within - a - show, featuring the 20s pastiche number "Honey Bun," becomes not a mere comic relief, but an emotional moment when such barriers drop.

While I enjoyed the entire show, it was the very first scene that captivated me. The setting was simple, an inner and outer wall of slatted blinds between the viewer and the shore, and some furniture. For a stretch of fifteen minutes or more, the setting doesn't change, but the story moves forward and moves deep, too. The children's "Dites-Moi" leads to the entrance of Nellie and Emile. Actress Kelli O'Hara, whom I saw in this same theatre in THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, shows Nellie's enthusiasm, humility, sensuality, reticence all at the same time, different emotions shimmering like an opal in her face, her eyes, her hands, and her voice. As "Emile," Paulo Szot was more steady, and clearly focused on winning Nellie. "Cockeyed Optimist" blends into "Twin Soliloquies" which lead naturally to "Some Enchanted Evening." I'd have been happy enough if the show had ended right there.

Bonus photo: The marquee of the Walter Kerr Theatre as the "Blizzard of 2009" began. Photo by my friend Suzanne Swann.

Monday, December 14, 2009

RED ORCHESTRA Plays; No One Listens

(reflection on RED ORCHESTRA: The Story of The Berlin Underground and The Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler, by Anne Nelson, Random House, 2009.)

This chronicle of heroic risks taken to undermine Hitler's regime by a group of artsy - lefty friends and acquaintances, tragic as it is, verges chapter by chapter on black comedy.

The Red Orchestra, a term for a very loose group of Communists who opposed Hitler, fought him with mimeographed sheets of information, plus radio broadcasts of useful information about troop preparations on the Russian border. Gullible Stalin swallows Hitler's assurances that reports of his gathering troop strength on the Russian border for attack (including intelligence from members of the Red Orchestra) were all "foolish rumors" (178). When Stalin's faithful Communists send him intelligence via radio, their equipment is faulty, and no information gets out.

Through it all, there are men and women who disappear, who die in torture, officially suicides in custody or victims of accidents. When the loose circle of friends is finally caught, it's through bungling of Soviet "professionals" (262).

Trying as early as 1933, Ambassador William Dodd couldn't alarm an American journalist who wanted an interview with Hitler because "the facts of perfect order and absence of crime in Germany" made some "well - to - do Americans" eager to try having "a sort of Hitler" in the states (108). Dodd abhorred the Nazis, but he saw favorable press for them in the US, including a favorable view of the Hitler Youth. The "America First" movement made the Roosevelt administration leery of strong anti - Nazi rhetoric or action (124). 22,000 American Nazis rallied at Madison Square Garden in February 1939.

Most foolish of all are the dictators Hitler and Stalin. A German officer writes to Hitler in horror at "atrocities and abuses" in Poland, receiving Hitler's response that "You can't wage war with salvation Army methods" (180). Hitler is shown to be stupid in most things, but right often enough, with an early "string of victories" (240) to appear prescient. He's anything but. Hitler interrupts his invasion of the Soviet Union, postponing it to winter -- obviously a stupid choice -- in order to punish Yogoslavia for its disrespect of Hitler's representatives (193).

I confess that, reading this book over several months, half a chapter here and there, I lost track of who was who. The bravery and futility of it all, along with stupidity at the highest levels -- these are what I take away from the book.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

JAYBER CROW, part II: Deep Rivers

Illustration is a detail from the front cover of the book as displayed on

Even before the first page of JAYBER CROW, Berry pays homage to Mark Twain. In a "NOTICE" that parodies Twain's warning at the top of Huckleberry Finn, Berry exiles to a desert island anyone who attempts to "deconstruct or otherwise 'understand'" his novel. Cognizant of the risk, I proceed with my second reflection on it. (See Part I, "More Fun in Port William KY".)

That warning isn't the only nod to Twain, here. Like Huck, Jayber is witness to, and sometime participant in, slapstick pranks and incidents involving a plumber's plunger, a drunk’s confrontation with a truck, a ferry boat on ice, and a blind man's opportunistic dog. Jayber comments that knowledge of a town -- including that of "unauthorized" familial relationships -- comes to a barber the way stray cats come to a barn (94).

The river runs through Berry's novel, as the Mississippi runs through Twain's, becoming something more than a backdrop. Like Huck, Jayber lives his earliest years at a landing on the river. During his travels as a young man, he glimpses a whole house floating in the flooded river, reminiscent of Huck’s encounter with the "house of death.” Unlike Huck, who heads West in the end, Jayber follows the river back to his point of origin, to stay.

Jayber reflects often on the river itself. Is the "river" the water? the ditch in the earth etched by the water? the landscape that the river creates? Doesn’t a river embody time and memory (24)? Finally, Jayber decides that Port William is "a little port for the departure and arrival of souls" (301). The river’s beauty, unaffected by the trashiness of speedboating tourists who are "in an emergency to relax" (331), is that the river "keeps to its way" (310).

There's a theology implicit, here, as in all of Berry's works that I've read. Unlike those other works, there's some explicit theology, too, thanks to Jayber Crow's stint at a preachers’ college, ended when he loses his feeling of being called. "I assumed that since I didn't have the religion of Pigeonville College,” Crow tells us, “I didn't have any religion at all" (68). But a new theology grows on the foundation of the old one, beginning where the Bible does, in a chaos of deep waters and darkness. While the river floods, he feels the longing to return home “rising" in him like the water.

Working his part-time position as sexton to Port William’s little church, Jayber keeps to himself a theology that turns that of the preachers on its head: “They [have] a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of His works.” He doubts that any of the hearers of those sermons believed what they heard.
The people who heard those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries. While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, the young husbands and wives and the courting couples sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of the children.
The preachers themselves, he observes, would be invited to dinner after their world-condemning sermons, and they would eat good food with “unconsecrated relish” (161). (I should add that Jayber’s theology strikes me as perfectly Episcopalian.)

Jayber’s world has its saints and its devils, too. A central figure in this novel, a sort of Beatrice to Jayber’s Dante, is the girl Mattie Keith, glimpsed through the barber’s window as she walks home from school, often in the company of her popular classmate Troy Chatham. Not just because of jealousy, Troy comes to embody for Jayber everything wrong with the world we live in, everything that pulls Port William apart. Former high school basketball star, Troy “was all show, and he had the conviction, as such people do, that show is the same as substance. He didn’t think he was fooling other people; he had fooled himself” (177). Mattie’s father Athey Keith is set up as his son in law’s opposite: “There was never much room between what he said and what he thought,” and he operates his farm on the principle, “Wherever I look.. I want to see more than I need, and have more than I use.” Troy, enamored of expensive new machinery and agri- business says instead, “Never let a quarter’s worth of equity stand idle. Use it or borrow against it.” Troy exhausts his credit while he exhausts his father – in – law’s land (179) all in a futile effort to “make something of himself.”

Near the end of his story, Jayber Crow admires the Branch family: “The Branches seemed uninterested in getting somewhere and making something of themselves. What they liked was making something of nearly nothing.”

That strikes me as Jayber’s ideal, and Wendell Berry’s, too. The author has made a world out of nearly nothing, and he has not seen the need to go anywhere else to find stories worth telling.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Wendell Berry's JAYBER CROW: More Fun in Port William, KY

(reflections on the novel JAYBER CROW by Wendell Berry.)

Stories by Berry, and a novel of his that I've commented on here at this blog, have been beautiful, funny, thought-provoking, occasionally annoying when Berry turns his characters into mouth pieces for his political views. But JAYBER CROW is the first book that struck me as "fun."

Small town barber Jayber Crow is a kind of priest. In the town of Port William, KY, invented by Wendell Berry to be core of his stories and novels, others are the creators and shakers and prodigals; bad boy Burley Coulter is a prophet, and Mat Feltner is a kind of judge. But Crow, handling the heads and locks of the male population for decades, noticing some "unauthorized" family relationships among boys and men of different families, is a kind of father confessor and, as part - time grave digger, he even administers some last rites.

His story, contrived to make him both an orphan and a boy dedicated to the Church, takes him through orphanage and educational institutions, through flood and voyage, to Port William, where Burley Coulter is the first person he sees.

From then on, he's witness to and party to the horse play and bad behavior of the male half of the population of small town Port William, KY.

As observer and ex-religious, Jayber Crow is an enthusiastic convert to Burley Coulter's idea of "The Membership," a tight bond of personal responsibility for each other that characterizes the best people in Port William.

I made enough notes about themes in this book, and techniques in this book, to have two or three more commentaries.