12/3/21

Thin Man x 6


 

You’re not wrong to think that a lot of movie studio heads are so myopic that they offer one sequel after another. If it worked once, why not twice, thrice, or more? There have been 10 X-Men movies, for instance. It’s not a new phenomenon. As a case in point, consider six classic films that featured Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) that took its name from the first film, The Thin Man. The movies were famed for their snarky humor and the witty repartee between Powell and Loy, the latter of whom never enjoyed as much success in other roles as she did as Nora.

 

Five of the six productions were adapted from stories penned by the great detective writer Dashiell Hammett, though most follow the same format. Nick is a “retired” private detective who has given up the flatfoot trade and has taken up professional drinking, courtesy of his marriage to Nora, a wealthy heiress. Of course, Nick can’t really retire. His reputation is such that he always manages to get sucked into another case. There is an endless parade of scruffy characters from Nick’s past that pop in and out and he’s such a rascal himself that even those he’s sent to jail consider him a friend. The feisty Nora finagles herself into a pickle from which she must be extricated. (These presage plot setups for I Love Lucy.)

 

The other major character is the Charles’ wire-haired fox terrier Asta, who accompanies them everywhere. Asta’s real name was Skippy and he was probably the highest paid pooch in media history. He’s a dog, but what a ham! Each film allows Asta to do his shtick. Another constant is that the films end Agatha Christie-style with all the accused in one place. Nick is pretty sure who is guilty, but feigns ignorance until the perp makes a mistake and Nick spools out the logic that condemns the guilty party. Because he’s trying to quit being a detective, Nick usually gives crime-solving credit to bumbling police investigators who couldn’t solve a three-piece puzzle.

 

Brilliant plotting is not a Thin Man staple. We are treated to don’t-tax-your-brain romps with amusing central characters. We are drawn in because the principals are charming in a plastered sort of way. Even by the heavy drinking standards of the 1930s/40s it’s hard to imagine any human could consume as much booze as Nick and Nora without lapsing into a coma, but our enjoyment is enhanced by ignoring all of that.

 

Here’s your thumbnail of the six films.

 

The Thin Man (1934) Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, 93 minutes

 

Start with this one, as it’s your intro to Nick, Nora, and Asta. Many people assume the namesake “Thin Man” is Nick Charles, but it’s actually Clyde Wynant, who has gone missing on a business trip. His daughter wants Nick to find him, but the murder victim is his former secretary Julia Wolf. It’s one of the weaker Thin Man plots, but the goal of launching the franchise succeeded brilliantly. ★★★

 

After the Thin Man (1936) Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, 112 minutes

 

This one got the ball rolling. Nick and Nora return to their home in San Francisco, where several of Nora’s snooty family members look down upon Nick because of his immigrant roots, his scruffy friends, his former unsavory profession, perceptions he’s dull-witted, and his heavy drinking. They’re only right about the last of these. Nora’s cousin Selma is married to Robert Landis, a n’er do-well playboy who has disappeared. Nick and Nora take us into a shady nightclub and inside a Chinese gambling ring. Jimmy Stewart plays a vital role and we meet police Lt. Abrams (Sam Levene), who redefines the term clueless. Nick has to unravel a higher body count in this one, which ends with Nick and Nora on a train back to New York and the revelation that Nick will soon be a father. ★★★★

 

Another Thin Man (1939), Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, 103minutes

 

Welcome to domesticity, if not domestic bliss. Nicky Junior is three when Nick is prevailed upon to investigate threats against Colonel MacFay, a former business partner of Nora’s father. When MacFay nonetheless meets his demise, Nick is unsatisfied with whom the police finger as the murderer. The attempt to turn Nick into a sober and conventional father has no chance of happening and we chuckle over the absurd attempt, especially when some of Nick’s ex-con friends lend their skills to babysitting. (One is Shemp Howard, a sometime member of The Three Stooges.) Virginia Grey, a well-known actress in her day appears as Lois MacFay. ★★★

 

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) Directed by W. S. Van Dyke, 93 minutes

 

A dead jockey, wrestling, more of Nick’s low-life chums, and who knew that fearless Nick had vertigo. Little Nicky is now a chatterbox and Lt. Abrams is still about as sharp as an anvil. Donna Reed guests, as does the underrated African American actress Louise Beavers. Intriguingly, Stella Adler of the famed acting school also appears, though her role wasn’t exactly a promo for her studio. The rotund Tor Johnson, who plays grappler Jack the Ripper really was a pro wrestler when he wasn’t acting. ★★★ 

 

The Thin Man Goes Home (1944) Directed by Richard Thorpe, 100 minutes

 

Film five had an original screenplay and story rather than adapting a Dashiell Hammett story. This appears to have liberated Powell and Loy and reinvigorated a sagging concept. It also helps that Nicky Junior is away at private school and we can dispense with Nick’s attempts to be a doting dad. Nick and Nora travel to Nick’s New England hometown to visit his parents. We learn that Bertram, his physician father, had hoped Nick would follow in his footsteps. Though Papa Charles loves his son, he is disappointed by his dissolute ways and refuses to believe Nick is on the wagon. Because Nick’s investigative reputation precedes him, locals are sure he is on a case and when a local factory worker is found with a bullet in him, they are correct. Toss in a crazy hermit, an ugly painting, a military secret, and still another corpse and it makes for the best-plotted of the series. Will Nick make his parents proud? ★★★★ ½.  

 

Song of the Thin Man (1947) Directed by Edward Buzzell, 86 minutes

 

It’s back to Hammett for this adaptation, though the major realization is that all good things must come to an end. Loy, though officially just 42, has aged before our eyes and has lost a lot of her glamour. Most of the action takes place on a gambling ship so naturally, allegations of an unpaid debt factor into one murder and then another. Nick’s failure to make sense of jazz lingo provides some pretty dated humor, but Nick tackles a case that hinges on gangsters, musical earrings, a matchbox, hanky-panky, and antique guns. Dean Stockwell, who died a few weeks ago, portrays Nick Junior. It’s not a bad film, but the energy flags and the Thin Man franchise was laid to rest. ★★★ ½

 

Rob Weir

12/1/21

French Dispatch Doesn't Translate Well

 


 

 

THE FRENCH DISPATCH OF LIBERTY, KANSAS EVENING SUN

Directed by Wes Anderson

Searchlight Pictures, 103 minutes, R (nudity, language, sexual references)

★★ ½

 

Wes Anderson drives me crazy. He made a nearly perfect film in Rushmore back in 1998, but he has been akin to a sloppy sophomore ever since. Nearly all of his films have absolutely brilliant ideas and sequences. The problem is that he stuffs his holiday birds with unappetizing innards.

 

After 30 minutes of The French Dispatch, I dared think, “At last! Wes Anderson has fulfilled his promise.” I should have left the theater a happy man instead of suffering through the following 73.  With this film, Anderson has officially replaced Quentin Tarantino as cinema’s reigning enfant terrible.

 

The setup is inspired. Bill Murray is Arthur Howitzer, Junior, the editor of a Kansas newspaper with an overseas office based in Ennui, France. (Pay attention to small details in the film, as many of them will induce guffaws.) The only lump in the pulp is that upon his death, the paper is to be closed and its assets sold. Murray is perfect in the role of a droll, world-weary publisher/editor who can be talked into just about any harebrained assignment as long as the writers stay within his word limit and endure his sharp editor’s pen.

 

The French Dispatch is not really a single movie; it’s a series of vignettes that use newspaper sections as a loose way of force fitting five sketches cohere. I’m not an Owen Wilson fan, but he’s a proper mix of insouciance and conman as Herbsaint Sazerac in “The Cycling Reporter.” His putative assignment is to contribute to the paper’s Travel section, but it’s just an excuse for him to ride his bike around the French countryside and go native. It was like an understated version of Michael Palin’s Monty Python cycling gag.

 

Anderson’s pièce de résistance is “The Concrete Masterpiece,” which takes place inside a prison for dangerous inmates. It falls under the Art section, where reporter J. K. L. Berenson (Tilda Swinton) recounts the rise of art world sensation Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro in an Oscar-nomination-worthy role). His abstract nudes have caught the art world’s attention, though there are a few flies on the easel. First, Moses is a murderous psychotic; second his model Simone (Léa Seydoux) is both a prison guard and the only person who Moses fears and obeys. Bob Balaban, Adrien Brody, and Henry Winkler also appear in this devastating takedown of art “professionals,” public taste, and gallery-owner greed.

 

Perhaps you already detect a potential problem. We’ve already met eight leading actors and numerous second bananas. Politics gets a workout in “Revisions and Manifesto,” covered by reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). I am one of McDormand’s biggest fans, but I’m not sure what in the name of spilt ink she is doing in this piece–perhaps attempting a Dorothy Parker/Martha Gellhorn/Joan Didion mashup. It appears as if Anderson intended a satire of France’s May '68 debacle, though the entire sequence is a mess and a dull one at that. Timothée Chalfont is Zeffirelli, a libidinous revolutionary who can definitely be bought and Lyné Khoudri is Juliette, who seems to be little more than a fiery waif with a head full of slogans and not much else.

 

This is followed by “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” narrated and starring Jeffrey Wright as a food reporter. If you thought “Revisions and Manifesto” was boring, this vignette will have you staring at the calendar. More big names float in and out of an unappetizing look at Keystone Kops-like police whose gustatory talents outstrip their detective skills: Willem DaFoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Liev Schreiber….

 

By the time we get back to Kansas for Howitizer’s demise and with it the folding of the paper, add appearances from others you might know–Griffin Dunne, Bruno Delbonnel, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman–and toss in Anjelica Huston’s narration, we have run through 47 actors in billed roles and dozens more add-ins. Do the math and you’ll quickly surmise that almost everyone in the film should have been listed as having a cameo part. It’s too much and can only be accomplished via the cinematic equivalent of shoehorning. Anderson co-produced the film, but one wonders why the other two–Jeremy Dawson and Steven Rales–didn’t make Anderson flesh out the screenplay that he wrote, and give editor Andrew Weisblum marching orders to whip the film into an even consistency. But I suppose Anderson is now the poster boy for hipsters and the self-absorbed. It's all a pity, as this could have been a screaming triumph. Instead, two-thirds of it is a dull thud.

 

Rob Weir

11/26/21

Highly Irregular: For Those Who Love Words

HIGHLY IRREGULAR: WHY TOUGH, TROUGH, AND DOUGH DON’T RHYME

            AND OTHER ODDITIES OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (2021)

By Arika Okrent, Illustrated by Sean O’Neill

Oxford, 244 pages (+ back matter)

★★★★★

 


 

 

If someone on your holiday list is a words person, have I got a book for you! The title says it all. English is a top contender for the globe’s quirkiest tongue. Most languages turn to “mutts” over time, but English might be the mangiest pooch in the lingo kennel.

 

Perhaps the author’s surname seems familiar. Arika Okrent is the niece of writer, editor, and media personality Daniel Okrent. (He also invented Rotisserie Baseball.) Arika has something “Uncle Danny” (her handle) doesn’t: a Ph.D. in linguistics. At a glance, Highly Irregular is a shrunken coffee table book, but Okrent knows her stuff. Her special gift is to take expertise and spin it in cheeky tones that make her book a delight.

 

She divides her work into seven sections, beginning with a reoccurring exclamatory question: “What the Hell, English.” She explores silent letters in words such as colonel, should, surprise, and those with y vowels (like gym). She also analyzes head-scratchers such as why we drive on a parkway but park in a driveway. And what about the weird ways we use big and large? (No one is ever a “large” spender.)

 

How did English get to be such a literary Jello salad? In Section II, Okrent tells us to “Blame the Barbarians,” the Germanic tribes who got the English ball rolling. We don’t pronounce the g in gnat, gist has a j sound, it’s a gh in give, but the one in girl is a hard sound. In most cases, the original Germanic peoples sounded words differently, or our current words derived from completely different ones no longer used. I won’t even get into words ending in ing or ly, but Okrent does.

 

The Germans don’t bear all the blame. In Section III Okrent tells us to “Blame the French.” They gave us a bunch of synonyms the likes of which confuse those seeking to learn English. Why does veal come from a calf, and pork from a pig? There are words whose context determines how we stress them–insult, transform, protest–and phrases that need prepositions and those that don’t. Do we really need to say “without a doubt” when we already have doubtless? Why is love pronounced as if it is “l-of?”

 

We can also “Blame the Printing Press,” which Okrent does in Section IV. Standardized spelling led to the “Great Vowel Shift,” which left us with ghost sounds–like the very h in ghost. It also left us with aspirated sounds that don’t appear on the page, like that same h sound in girl. The printing press helps explain why grew and sew don’t rhyme, nor do steak and freak. I was surprised (or sup-prised if you must) that Ed Sullivan got it right when he promised a really big “shew” (show). If you want to know why Worcester is pronounced in ways unlike how it looks, or why the Brits make Cholmondeley sound like “Chumley,” this chapter explains.

 

In Section VI we “Blame the Snobs” who add extra letters, use Latin plurals, show off by pronouncing letters no one else does, set the rules on homophones (words that sound alike), and lay down the law on how to say and spell foreign words. They are the sort who pronounce the p in receipt and the l in salmon, cough up phlegm, and insist that more than one octopus or rhinoceros are octopi and rhinoceri. They tell us when we are here and when we hear, and exhort us to be discreet when we are discussing discrete data–and I don’t mean datum. Noah Webster gets either credit or a kick in the pajamas (foreign word) for dumping the u in colour and sending people off to jail instead of gaol.

 

In the end, we also have to “Blame Ourselves.” Why on earth would we keep words that now usually exist only in the negative, like uncouth, unkempt, and disgruntled? It makes no sense that we “clean” things that are dirty but never “undirty” them, or raise "up" a window. (You can’t raise it down!)  Why is the plural of goose, geese but an extra moose or two isn’t meese? We have weird negative phrases such as “I didn’t sleep a wink.” (Presumably there must be people who go to bed, sleep one wink, and arise.) We retain abbreviations that are outdated. You might not wish to tell a woman who introduces herself as Mrs. Smith that her abbreviation is short for “mistress.” Most of the time when someone says literally, they mean figuratively.

 

What a fun book. Give it someone in your family but save it for the last gift, as you’ll spend the rest of the day laughing at the absurdity of your native tongue. Because, what the hell, English?

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

11/22/21

The Paris Library: Half of a Superb Novel

 

THE PARIS LIBRARY (2020)

By Janet Skeslien Charles

Simon and Schuster, 368 pages.

★★★

 


 

 

The Paris Library was the best seller, but is it a great novel? In my estimation, it is half of a very good one.

 

I mean this literally. Janet Skeslien Charles’ novel takes place in two different time periods: Paris in 1939–40, and Montana in 1983. You perhaps associate the first dates as the outbreak of World War II and the year of France fell to the Nazis. You probably don't associate 1983 in Montana with anything at all, though that's not necessarily a problem. It does, however, make for a force fit when Charles attempts to link the two periods.

 

The action revolves around Odile Souchet, a young French woman with a head for numbers and a good command of English–good qualifications for working at the American Library in Paris at a time in which shelf classification was done by the Dewey Decimal System. One of the first questions many readers wish to know is whether such a thing as the American Library actually existed. Yes, and it still does, though 1939 wasn't the best time to begin a career there. Odile, though, yearns for independence and experience, and her job at the library is arguably safer than that of her twin brother Rémy who joins the French army, or those of her boyfriend Paul or her father. Paul is a policeman and Odile’s father is the chief of his police prefect. We meet the library’s fascinating and eccentric staff and clientele, including directress Dorothy Reeder; Boris Netchaff, a Russian who works at the circulation desk; Helen, a reference librarian; Peter, a bookshelver; and researchers the likes of Professor Cohen, Mr. Pryce-Jones, an Englishmen; and several women of noble or upper bourgeois standing. All will be in jeopardy when the Nazis capture Paris in June 1940.

 

Much about the library is "based on a true story," a phrase that means the broad strokes occurred but most of the details are imagined. American libraries existed across Europe and tried to stay open when hostilities broke out, a situation easier to manage until late 1941, as the United States was not yet at war with Germany. It was also the case that, in some instances, Nazi commanders of a literary bent sought to protect American libraries and their collections–until they no longer could.

 

The travails of Odile and her colleagues are by far the most engaging part of the novel. War changes those like or Odile who managed to survive. She will not be a librarian when the war ends and, through various circumstances, she loses her social mentor Margaret, an ambassador's wife; her boyfriend Paul; and several family members. She will also gain an American husband, Buck.

 

Buck is the Montana connection, though Odile is a widow in 1983. She is living in Froid, Montana, a real place that had a population of around 300 people in 1983. You might also recognize its name as French for “cold,” which it certainly is for Odile. She's the resident oddball, a sophisticate among the hayseeds. Montana advances Charles’ attempt at a circular tale, as Odile will act as a mentor to teenaged Lily Jacobsen, a banker's daughter whose mother has died. Lily is as much at sea on the ranch as Odile was in her own family, plus Lily is at the awkward age in which she has a school* tormentor who also happens to be her rival for the boy she likes. Among the ways Lily seeks to become different is through an interest in French language and culture. Odile will be her guide, until that role abruptly ends.

 

There are various acts of betrayal in The Paris Library, each of which is plausible, though they sometimes smack of contrivance. I was left wondering why Charles bothered with the Montana part of the novel at all, aside from wishing to show older women mentoring younger ones. I am an advocate of mentoring, but The Paris Library suffers from trying to do too much and gives short shrift to Lilly's development. This necessitates a few illogical leaps. As many do when writing love letters to libraries, Charles also occasionally ascribes too much power to the written word.

 

More seriously, to make the two halves meld, Charles resorts to unconvincing histrionics that cheapen Odile’s saga, which would have been a gripping and compelling on its own. The Paris Library is a good read, but were I the editor, I would have advised centering the book on Odile and would have left Lily in Montana to grow up on her own.

 

Rob Weir

 

* Lily’s school days might be an inside joke on Charles’ part. The only time Froid made the news was in 2007, when it had a graduating class of one!

11/19/21

See Quilts and Ekua Holmes at the MFA

FABRIC OF A NATION: AMERICAN QUILT STORIES

            Through January 17, 2022

PAPER STORIES, LAYERED DREAMS: THE ART OF EKUA HOLMES

            Through January 23, 23, 2022

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 

It had been 18 months since we last entered the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and for our first trip back, we decided to concentrate on just a few shows. So, let’s cut to the chase.  

 

Bisa Butler

  

Cut is a good segue to Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories, a look at what sewing projects tell us about our past and ourselves. Some of the quilts were “folk art” and others might be classified as “fine art.” I’ve never cared much for such distinctions. Some of the quilters are known in the stitcher community. One is Bisa Butler, whose To God and Truth (2019) depicts the Morris Brown College baseball team. She makes us see the hues among African-Americans by rendering “black” faces in vibrant colors. 

 

Faith Ringgold

 

Another well-known artist (in numerous media) is Faith Ringgold. Her Martin Luther King and the Sisterhood is self-explanatory. Some might also know the name Lillie Mae Pettway, a link to the Gee’s Bend, Alabama quilters whose work has gotten a lot of belated recognition. 

Housetop is a 12-block pattern with variations. 

 

Lillie Mae Pettway

 

The MFA exhibit samples three centuries’ worth of quilts that indeed tell tales. The show is strongest in highlighting people of color and LGBTQIA communities. This is revelatory given that many of the quilters are unknown or forgotten. One quilt points us to reasons to recover their stories, as it depicts various ways in which those outside the mainstream have been (mis)represented. Still others make statements through the sheer skill that went into creating such meticulous work, including one from an unknown Amish stitcher and one from Celestine 

Bacheller titled Pictorial Quilt (c. 1880).

 

Celestine Bacheller

 

 

World’s fairs occasionally spotlight the work of those on the social margins. Some of that has been a sly dance of tokenism, a way to trumpet American progressivism without actually being progressive, yet the art speaks for itself. Edith Morrow Matthews contributed The Spectrum, a trippy quilt that presaged op-art at the 1933 Chicago fair.  Richard Rowley quilted the fair’s map in fabric: A Century of Progress.

 



Matthews above/Rowley below
 

 

There are a surprising number of men represented at the MFA show, including the well-known Sanford Biggers, though his work pushes the boundaries of what we think of as a quilt. Most visitors will probably relate best to overtly political works that require little explanation to (if you will) unravel. Carolyn Mazloomi mused upon a famous song about lynching for her Strange Fruit II and Sylvia Hernandez put thread to needle to ask the question about gun violence that rests upon many lips: How Many More? Edward Larson and Fran Soika cram a lot of troubled politicians into a 1979 work titled Nixon Resigns

 

Carolyn Mazloomi

 

 

Sylvia Henandez

 

Two intriguing works caught my eye. Sabrina Gscwandtner’s Camouflage lives up to its title. Those in a hurry could walk right past it without realizing it is made of discarded 16mm film strips. The most in-your-face work belongs to Agusta Agustsson whose Blanket of Red Flowers makes tangible the phrase “banned in Boston.” It was removed from its first viewing in 1979, as it represents alternating blocks of male and female genitalia. Note the date. It came at the dawning of the AIDS crisis, though its meaning is broader than that. 

 

 

Camouflage


Banned in Boston!


 

If works on paper haven’t caught your attention before, check out a retrospective culled from book projects illustrated by Roxbury artist Ekua Holmes (b. 1955). She celebrates the positivity of blackness in various ways: play, black history, ordinary people, poetry, children’s stories, and the connections that occur in unlikely ways in unlikely places. Her energy is infectious, her colors bold, and her ability to bring a smile to your face a rare and beautiful thing. Kudos to the MFA for allowing teens in its Curatorial Study Hall to write the wall text. Read: You can actually understand what is being said! 

 




 

_________________________________________________________________

 

We vowed to ease back into the viewing groove rather than trying to take in everything. Nice try! We ended up dipping into several other shows, including a good one on Monet that has already closed and two others that were disappointing. “Masterpieces of Egyptian Sculpture” was billed as a total revamp of the MFA’s holdings. It’s not really–more like rearranging the den chairs and sofa. “Collecting Stories: The Invention of Folk Art” was an example of how museums should have the courage to fold their cards when they don’t have a matching pair. It’s really about collectors, not the art, plus the MFA’s folk art collection is so painfully thin it should offload it to an institution that knows the genre.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

11/17/21

WISH IT LASTED FOREVER: LIFE WITH THE LARRY BIRD CELTICS

By Dan Shaughnessy

Scribner, 256 pages.

★★★★

 

 

Were the 1985-86 Boston Celtics the greatest team in National Basketball Association history? Such questions are pointless because sports–rules, equipment, players–evolve. Few analysts, though, take umbrage with saying that the Celtics front court of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish–with Bill Walton coming off the bench–defined the adjective dominant.

 

Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy revives memories of the 1980s. He was a newbie at Globe in 1981, the year after Larry Joe Bird was the NBA’s 1980 Rookie of the Year.  The epic battles between Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the years 1980-87 redefined the NBA and brought it into national prominence.

 

Perhaps you wonder about the showdowns in the 1950s and early 1960s between the Bill Russell-led Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors. Today, the NBA is a global product and the second-most popular team sport in North America. When Russell was a rookie in 1956, he and Chamberlain shed light on a 10-year-old league that played in crummy gyms and had franchises in places like Cincinnati, Fort Wayne, Rochester, and Syracuse. The Lakers were in Minneapolis and the Warriors in Philly. Russell helped define the NBA. It grew from the mid-60s on, but didn’t become a media-fueled juggernaut until Bird, Magic, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Julius Erving, and others broadened TV viewership and gained sponsors.  

 

The best parts of Shaughnessy’s book deal with change, not just in the game but also in the media and social mores. Shaughnessy was dubbed “Scoop” by Celtics players and it wasn’t endearing. He was part of a new wave of sportswriters whose perspective was investigative and (in many cases) combative. Consider, for example, that Boston Herald writer Mike Carey had been so chummy with players that he lent them his car and acted as their agents. Today that would be conflict of interest. Bloody on-court fisticuffs would yield lengthy suspensions; in the 1980s, they didn’t always lead to technical fouls. Bill Walton reveals that he knew he loved new coach when K. C. Jones when he put the Lakers’ James Worthy into a headlock during a melee.

 

Shaughnessy was in the seam between the chummy old-style NBA and the emergent; he wanted access to players, but because he didn’t write fluff, he often ruffled feathers. He had a hot/cold relationship with Bird and Parrish refused to talk to him at all. Diehard basketball fans might wish to skim the parts of the book that rehash the long familiar: Red Auerbach’s iron-fisted management style, coach Bill Fitch’s abrasive egoism, Parrish’s sullenness, and Bird’s cockiness. (Bird took trash-talk to the next level. He once defended BYU grad/teammates Danny Ainge and Greg Kite by saying nobody would have heard of Utah without them–and murderer Gary Gilmore!)

 

Bird was the pivot piece, but Auerbach’s unsentimental roster retooling was the lever. During Bird’s peak years he was league MVP three years in a row and the Celtics won the NBA title in 1980-81 and 1983-84, lost the finals in 1984-85, and won again in 1985-86. Auerbach had no problem jettisoning popular players he felt were no longer useful, such as Cedric Maxwell, Quinn Buckner, or Rick Robey. (He robbed Seattle by trading Gerald Henderson for Dennis Johnson.) He also felt (rightly) that the Celtics lost in 1984-85 because the players despised Fitch. Enter K. C. Jones and a magical season.

 

You may never see another team like it. The roster had eight white players, just four African Americans, a black coach, and not a hint of racial tension. (Bird called Jones “the nicest man I ever met.”) Walton claimed that coming to Boston saved his life. That’s hyperbolic, but the Celtics played with infectious joy. McHale set a team record by scoring 58 points, which fell the very next game when Bird poured in 60. They were so cohesive that they went 37-1 at home, wrapped up their division so early they didn’t bother to try for an NBA victory record, and won their final game by playing only the bench. There was no partying when they won the conference title; as Bird insisted, celebrations only came after titles. He also proved that a slow white dude who didn’t jump well could become a hoop god through hard work and a high court IQ. (Shaughnessy advises skepticism re: the “Hick from French Lick” guise; Bird knew how to conjugate verbs!) 

 

Wish It Lasted Forever has eyeopeners, including pranks that wouldn’t fly today, like putting an M. L. Carr jersey on a car lot’s advertising gorilla. Casual sexism was also a thing. We laugh when Shaughnessy loses $160 in a free throw challenge with Bird, who taped his entire hand and thumb. Shaughnessy also gets another booby prize for leaving the basketball beat in the spring to cover the Red Sox, then the city’s biggest sports attraction. (Today, they might be number four.) We appreciate Bird’s color-blind judgments, including his prediction that Michael Jordan would become the NBA’s greatest player. (M.J. transformed the game a third time.) Alas, nothing lasts forever. Injuries took their toll and it would be 22 years before the Celtics hoisted another championship banner.

 

Rob Weir

11/15/21

Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird


 

 

GO SET A WATCHMAN (2015)

By Harper Lee

HarperCollins, 278 pages.

★★ ½

 

I didn’t rush to read Go Set a Watchman. The initial reviews were damning, though they gave way to others declaring it a brilliant lost gem. Which is it? In my estimation, neither. I’d call it a prosaic effort that wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day had not Harper Lee (1926-2016) published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960.

 

Go Set a Watchman is an oddity in Lee’s total output of two novels. It was supposed to be her first novel. She penned it around 1957, began revisions, and then locked it away. To Kill a Mockingbird went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a hit movie in 1962 that won three Academy Awards. Lee either never got around to finishing revisions of Go Set a Watchman, or deemed it beyond repair. It was thought to be lost until it surfaced in a lockbox and, in 2015, Lee was persuaded to allow its publication. This was controversial, as some critics alleged elder abuse on the part of Lee’s conservators.

 

It’s a pointless debate given that the novel was ultimately released. What we have is a first book sequel to a book that was released before it– a sequel to a prequel, if you will. If only that were the most problematic thing about it. Before diving into this, a quick note on the title. It’s from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah: “Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” (It’s from Chapter 21 and the next line gave rise to a famed song: “Babylon Has Fallen.”)

 

In Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise Finch (“Scout”) is a 26-year-old woman who has been living in New York City. Each year she spends two weeks with her father, Atticus, in Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus is now 72 and slowing down a bit. He still has his law practice, but most of the work has been turned over to his protégé, Henry “Hank” Clinton, who comes from a humble background, but is seen by Jean Louise as the man she’ll probably marry. Her brother Jem is dead from the same weak heart that killed their mother and their African American maid Calpurnia has retired.

 

One wonders if Lee was channeling Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again. Jean Louise is a young woman who is too Southern for New York and too New York for Alabama. She loves Atticus, her Uncle Jack, and her Aunt Alexandra, but the latter two drive her batty. The learned Jack, a retired doctor, tells circuitous stories and utters remarks obscure even by his standards and the heavily corseted Alexandra is obsessed with propriety, religion, and getting Jean Louise married off. She’d be okay with the latter, but New York has made her too independent for the traditional role expected of her, she’s not at all sure she wants to move back to Maycomb, and Hank wants to stay. Gossip seems to follow Jean Louise around like a shadow. Go Set a Watchman is at its best in revealing Alabama as a time warp challenged by post-World War II social changes.

 

The novel’s crisis comes from those changes. When Calpurnia’s grandson runs over an elderly drunken pedestrian, it scarcely matters that it’s not his fault. The accident reveals racial fault lines in the Deep South just a few years removed from Brown v. the Board of Education. Suffice it to say, the NAACP is not popular among Maycomb whites and African Americans are beginning to sluff off their subordinated skin and with it the fiction of easygoing racial relations.

 

Social friction gives way to personal trauma when Jean Louise catches wind a meeting of the all-white Citizen’s Council and finds that both Hank and Atticus are members of it and the Ku Klux Klan. She is outraged and explodes at each of them. The open question is whether they are infiltrators or collaborators. Uncle Jack helps bring the book to what I’d call a compromised conclusion that certainly will not please those weaned in the age of wokeness.

 

The last point aside, Go Set a Watchman is a wildly uneven novel that reads like what it probably was: an insufficiently revised work. Numerous To Kill a Mockingbird devotees expressed their displeasure at the depiction of Atticus Finch, whose morality is at best ambiguous in Go Set a Watchman. Other detractors have called the novel an apologetics for whiteness, though one could just as easily make a case that it is a more realistic portrait of race than one gets from To Kill a Mockingbird. I hold the view that it’s simply a subpar book.

 

Rob Weir