Riversong: Classic Trash Novel

Tess Hardwick
Booktrope 978193596147


The line between “literature” and mere “fiction” is admittedly subjective, but if you think there is none, I’d suggest a few dozen pages of Riversong. There’s no way anyone would confuse this book with literature—not with its contrived plot, torturous dialogue, paste-up characters, logic gaps, and prose so florid I suspect the first draft was written with a purple Flair.

The book opens in a backcountry Oregon town, where reclusive Lee Tucker, the daughter of a single, alcoholic, and agoraphobic mother, is about to graduate from high school and must endure last indignity: a senior party alongside a river in which she can’t swim and in proximity with the obnoxious local town rich boy who is intent on getting into her cutoffs. Lee flees his advances, goes off to college to study art, changes her major, marries, moves to Seattle, and never looks back. That is, until her husband, a video game developer, commits suicide and saddles Lee with a pregnancy and over a million dollars of debt owed to local organized crime figures. A mob heavy named Von shows up to shake her down. She sells all she owns–about half of what is owed–promises Von the rest in a week, and flees town with the aid of her best friend, a gay guy she met in college.

Got all that? Wait; it gets more absurd. Lee goes back to her hometown determined to renovate her now-deceased mother’s house, earn some money, sell the property, and pay off Von before he finds her first and kills her for lighting out to avoid the 750 grand she still owes. I’ll bet none of you could figure out that Lee will find  that everything for which she was searching was right there in that dusty old river town all along. Sort of. Her old tormentor is still there, but his old man, Mike, is a hard-edged sweetie who can’t wait to bankroll Lee’s plan to revamp the town restaurant. And, of course, what this town of a thousand souls–half of whom seem to be drug dealers and the other half women who have been dumped upon–really wants is an upscale gourmet eatery. And I bet none of you could predict that Lee would find a new love just waiting to take her pregnant body into his arms. Okay, maybe you could, but did I tell you that he’s a Hispanic musician? Or that her gay friend decides to leave Seattle for the better prospects of a redneck country town? There’s also a lesbian character, so let’s give Hardwick props for political correctness. If only she had a Morgan Freeman-like elderly black gent dispensing pearls of wisdom, she’d have all the bases covered. As it is, that role goes to Ellen, her elderly neighbor, former English teacher, and caregiver for Lee’s late mother. I won’t even hint how she’s finally linked to Lee; you wouldn’t believe me.

This is a classic trashy novel, though Hardwick does manage to make the sex scenes read as if they are food reviews, and the food descriptions titillate like soft porn. Most of the book is predictable, the rest improbable. Who knew, for instance, that the Seattle mob underwrote video game programmers? (Why didn’t Lee’s husband just get the money from Rhode Island taxpayers like respectable video game purveyors are supposed to do?) Who knew that the mob’s hired muscle would be so clueless as never to think of searching for someone in the very town from which she hailed? Or that no one could figure out that the grown lads hanging out in a public parking lot might be dealing drugs rather than trading baseball cards? Or that everyone would live happily ever after?

This book is so hackneyed that it leaves a trail of horse manure in its wake.


The NHL’s Disorderly House

The NHL Seeks a Return to its Fishing Channel Recent History 

So here we go again—the fourth NHL labor stoppage in the past twenty years. A causal observer might think that the Lords of the Boards have a death wish. These guys do more than go out of their way to relegate the game to an afterthought in the collective North American sports fan mind–their idea of making a right turn is to head south out of Toronto and keep going.

We hear much about the NHL being in good financial shape–$3.3 billion in surplus revenue is the figure commonly bandied about.  According to Forbes that’s a pretty accurate figure, but it’s also a deceptive one; some teams make money, but in 2011-2012, eighteen did not. I’m always amused by political debates in North America if, for no other reason, some of the most strident free-market guys are the ones that think socialism—e.g. “revenue sharing”—is a good model for professional sports. One of the things that’s terribly wrong with the NHL is that well-run franchises subsidize the hobbies of rich men that want someone else to pay for their broken toys. In order, the rich teams (in terms of value) are: Toronto, the New York Rangers, Montreal, Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. But that doesn’t even tell the whole story; even the Pens actually lost a few bucks last year. Revenue is far more than putting fannies in the loge seats or the theoretical resale value of a club. If we parse the numbers further, we find that six Canadian teams—all of them sans Winnipeg, which must pay debt associated with leaving Atlanta—generated one-third of all hockey revenue (TV, radio, merchandise, and residuals). The Edmonton Oilers haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1990, but they sure do generate revenue! More to the point, Edmonton helps pay the tab for sand storms like the Phoenix Coyotes.

The first thing hockey has to do to get its act together is admit that the Southern strategy was a flop with a capital F. Phoenix set the NHL back by a whopping -$24.4 million last year and only Gary Bettman thinks the game is ever going to squeeze money from saguaros. Stop this farce. And while we’re at it, admit that there are Coyotes-in-the-making out there: Nashville, Tampa, Sunrise, and Raleigh. I mean no disrespect to rabid fans in those cities, but the harsh economic fact is that each of these is a second-tier city insofar as the Golden Goose–media revenue–is concerned. There’s a reason these cities are never mentioned when other major league sports speak of moving teams or expanding. Sunrise, its (sort of) proximity to Miami notwithstanding, is an overgrown town of under 85,000; Raleigh has just 416,000 people, and so on. More to the point, name a major media outlet in Nashville, Raleigh, or Sunrise. And haven’t the Rays proved that Tampa isn’t a pro sports city? Without major media penetration, there’s no more reason for these places to have a hockey team than Hartford, Connecticut. (Hey, there were a lot of rabid Whalers’ fans!)

There are several other critical franchises, Columbus topping the list. Ohio State football in Columbus? Sure! Hockey? (See media above). Only the Coyotes lost more money than the Blue Jackets, who have become the Kansas City Royals of hockey—a breeder of talent that skates away to cities that can afford it. The Islanders and Devils are also hemorrhaging money and another reality is that metro New York probably ought to have two hockey teams, not three. Also losing lots of cash are the Ducks, the Sharks, and the Capitals. See a pattern here?

I doubt this will happen, but the first step would be to trim the size of the league. Personally I’d like to see a 24-team league, but that won’t fly with owners or the union. So let’s try 28 by folding the Coyotes and Blue Jackets and holding a player dispersal draft. The next step is to move failing franchises. My new NHL would have four divisions of seven teams each. Division winners get a playoff bye and the next eight teams by point totals play for the right to move on. It would look like this:

Northeast: Boston, Brooklyn (the former New Jersey Devils), Montreal, New York (Rangers), Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Quebec City (the former Islanders).

Central: Chicago, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto (Maple Leafs), Toronto Lightning (from Tampa), Ottawa, St. Louis, and Buffalo. (Toronto is the Holy Land of Hockey. It could probably support four teams.) St. Louis and Buffalo are endangered franchises and should be put on notice that Hamilton and Milwaukee are relocation-ready.

Moutain/Plains: Calgary, Dallas, Denver, Edmonton, Houston (from Carolina), Minnesota, Winnipeg. I don’t know if hockey would go down any better in Houston than in Phoenix, but the AHL teams do well and Houston is a massive media market.

Pacific: Vancouver, Los Angeles, and a whole lot of reshuffling. San Jose isn’t doing well financially, but in contrast to the Deep South, the NHL really does need a team in the Bay area. (San Jose also needs the Sharks to work or baseball may rethink the city as a landing spot for the Oakland A’s.) So keep San Jose and relocate Nashville to Seattle, the Ducks to Portland, and the Panthers to Salt Lake City. The seventh team is, frankly (and appropriately), a gamble—the Capitals to Las Vegas. Leaving D.C. wouldn’t be popular with U.S. politicians, but Washington just isn’t a very good winter sports town. The Caps have been a fine team, but steadily lose money. (Even the NBA’s Wizards lost over $5 million last year; the Caps racked up $7.5 million of red ink.) Las Vegas has no other major league franchise, but it does have minor league hockey and a metro population of nearly 2 million. I’d make this my desert strategy, not Phoenix.

One can (and many will) dispute my realignment ideas. I can anticipate the howls of derision from those in or near cities that stand to lose franchises. I feel your pain, but there isn’t anybody watching hockey during lockouts and future problems are inevitable unless most of the NHL generates revenue, not just a handful of franchises. It took the NHL years to recover from the last lockout; one or two more and it’s back to competing with fishing shows for TV revenue. You can blame whomever or whatever you wish for the labor strife—greedy owners, spoiled players, outmoded rinks, an idiotic commissioner, bruised egos—but it all comes down to money. The NHL needs to get its entire financial house in order. Hockey isn’t a non-profit organization, thus, having a handful of teams that subsidize hopeless dreams and hapless management simply isn’t a viable long-term business plan. 


The Master: A Colossal and Pretentious Flop

THE MASTER  (2012)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Annapurna Pictures, 137 mins. R (for gratuitous nudity and mumbling)

The pre-release buzz was that The Master would be a heavyweight Oscar contender; the post-release reality is that moviegoers unfortunate enough to see it will be force-fed a Thanksgiving turkey that arrived two months early. Among the tag lines one might hang on this bloviating, bloated fowl/foul are: “Dianetics is more understandable than Paul Thomas Anderson’s script,” “A film that will make you want to join a cult that doesn’t allow movies,” and “Joaquin Phoenix—the greatest mumbler since Marlon Brando in Superman.” Regarding the latter, don’t look for this film to win any Oscars unless a new category is added: Best Delivery of Unintelligible Utterances,” in which case it’s Phoenix in a walkover. 

The Master is a not-so-thinly veiled slam at Dianetics/Scientology, with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Lancaster Dodd, an affable clone of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard Sr. All Dodd film family members are stand-ins for the Hubbards, including Jesse Plemons as Val (L. Ron, Junior), the eldest son and heir apparent, who knows the old man is making up nonsense off the top of his head; and Amy Adams as Peggy(Mary Sue), Lancaster’s younger, but domineering third wife who is the real brains behind the scam. The family storyline is so close to that of the Hubbards that one presumes that the only reason names were changed was to deflect the likelihood of a Scientology lawsuit. (For those who don’t know, Scientology is a controversial set of beliefs that appear to be equal doses of science fiction and mystical views adapted from other religions. Past-lives, the immortality of the individual, and the search for one’s true/pure nature are among its least controversial beliefs. It is generally viewed as a cult. The “auditing” ritual by which new members are considered is similar to the “processing” practices seen in The Master. )

What we might have gotten was a penetrating look at the power of charisma, the way cults recruit, and the making of a scoundrel. In other words, we could have gotten Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, a film superior to The Master on every imaginable level. The Master centers on the fiery attract/repulse relationship between Dodd and Freddie Quell (Phoenix). Freddie is one half a child of nature, and one half low-life, moonshine-making, sex-obsessed, alcoholic, nitwit bum. Freddie returns from World War II, where he spent his final days on a Pacific Ocean coral reef masturbating into a sand sculpture of a woman, one complete with a vagina. (I felt like leaving after this scene. I should have followed my pure nature!) When circumstances lead him to Dodd, Freddie is (barely) smart enough to see The Cause/Scientology as his one shot at finding a niche in life, though the cost would be mastery over his thirst, id, and libido.

I suppose we’re supposed to muse over the essential contradiction between Dodd’s insistence upon the need to discover one’s true nature and his inability to accept that the behavior Freddie exhibits is his authentic nature, but by giving such analysis to the film I give the script more credit for thoughtfulness than it exhibits.  It’s hard to know much more about Freddie, as you’ll miss every third word Joaquin Phoenix slurs. Granted he’s playing a character slowly rotting his mind and body with the (literal) poisons he cooks into his home brew. Fine. If that’s what you want to show on the screen, don’t try to use revelatory dialogue to convey it. Nothing in this film makes much sense; it’s a rambling mess in which it’s never clear if we are seeing something that’s really happening, or if it’s a projection emanating from Freddie’s torn-sprocket mind. Ambiguity, or simply bad writing? Go with the second. 

To borrow a concept from Scientology, it’s possible that Anderson was a scriptwriter in another life, but he isn’t in this one. If that’s not direct enough, try this: I haven’t wasted 2 ½ hours this badly since I took the PSATs forty years ago.   Still confused? Try this–The Master is a piece of pretentious garbage. I’m no fan of Scientology, but I’ll give its followers credit—they’ve ignored this film. And so should you.—Rob Weir

Maria Semple Overwrites an Otherwise Total Delight

Don't tell us! 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (2012)
Maria Semple
Little, Brown ISBN: 978-0316204279

* * *

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an unorthodox novel with unforgettable characters and an often-lamentable story arc. At its best it is wickedly funny, snarky, and inventive; at its worst it’s as contrived and implausible as TV sit-com scripts, which happen to be among the things on author Maria Semple’s resumé (“Mad About You,” “Arrested Development”). It’s a breezy, fun read, but one that will leave you feeling that maybe Semple equates her readership with some of the not-so-bright Seattle residents she incisively skewers.

The title character is Bernadette Fox, once the sensation of the architectural world and a former winner of a MacArthur Genius grant. Flash forward through professional disappointment, four miscarriages, and fifteen years, and Bernadette is now an agoraphobic eccentric living in Seattle with her husband, Elgin, a high flyer at Microsoft and a TED/YouTube sensation. They finally had a child, the precocious but heart-damaged Bee. She has all of her parents’ intelligence but more social skills than both of them combined. Bee is about to graduate (8th grade) from her expensive private school and go to Choate. As her graduation present, Bee requests a family trip to Antarctica.

Choate and Antarctica are both well within the family budget. Semple clobbers Seattle’s nouveau riche. Her Puget Sound is awash in money, unbridled ambition, and bad taste. Neither Elgin nor Bernadette is sufficiently plugged into reality to be social gadflies. He is an absentee workaholic and she such a recluse that she has outsourced daily routines to Marjula Kapoor, a personal assistant living in India, to whom she sends rambling emails and pays 75 cents per hour to order goods from catalogues and make the occasional appointment that prise her from her home. And what a home it is! It’s neither a McMansion nor an architectural project, rather a former girls’ school whose physical deterioration parallels the decline of Bernadette’s psyche. Think the Adams Family mansion-meets-an old school, complete with holes in the ceiling, roots growing through the floor, waterlogged furniture, and a blackberries-gone-wild hiilside.

Bee doesn’t care, Elgin’s never home, and Bernadette hardly notices as she spends much of her time in an Airstream trailer parked in the drive. The neighbors notice, however, and they gossip incessantly about the family. (The open question is whether they’re all nuts, or simply snobs who think they’re too good for everyone else.) This affects Bee as the neighbor children go to the same snooty school as she. The worst buttinski is Audrey Griffin, who lives on the bottom side of the slope. She sees herself as a devout Christian even as she digs her vicious claws into everyone. Her hypocrisy is hysterical (and we soon learn she’s as batty as Bernadette), but school headmaster Ollie is even more delicious–the perfect lampoon of elite wannabes who mouth clichéd Business Speak and have all the depth of spilled milk on a marble countertop. Pompous asses such as he are among the things that Semple disembowels. Seattle doesn’t come off very well either; it’s a city populated in equal parts by the clueless bourgeoisie and drug-addled criminals. Bernadette hates Seattle, its residents, the weather, and the unbearable niceness of nearby Canadians. Seattle, she notes, has only two types of people: those with short gray hair and those with long gray hair.

Semple has a clever hook for telling her tale. It is assembled mostly from emails, letters, memos, and documents that we later learn are being used by Bee to write a book to unravel the mystery of her mother’s disappearances (both mental and physical). This book could have been another Confederacy of Dunces in its portrait of sociopaths, if only Semple had resisted the impulse to impose a TV-like resolution to everything. I won’t spoil the plot–Semple does that on her own–but let’s just say that there comes a profound shift in tone in which the book ceases to be character-driven and devolves into silly capers with as much believability as a live Elvis crooning for Hitler and his henchmen. There is also a natural place to end the book, but Semple plods on. It’s as if she gave it to a TV writers’ group that convinced her to write a happy ending. All of the bitterness dissolves, all of the brilliant satire disappears, and characters experience epiphanies. Bah! The last section of this book tastes like an artificial sweetener recipe gone wrong. You won’t take this advice, but here it is anyhow: stop reading when Bee and Elgin bond on the boat. The book’s title question should have been left unresolved.
--Rob Weir