Halibut on the Moon, Lesson in Depression or Just Depressing?




By David Vann

Grove Atlantic, 260 pages.





Halibut on the Moon was deaccessioned rather quickly by my local library, so I had to track it down for an interlibrary loan. I admit that I was mostly intrigued by the title, but now I understand why it had such a short shelf life. Not many people want to read about a guy contemplating suicide, even if the tale is fictional. I get that, though I give author David Vann credit for capturing the despair and hopelessness associated with chronic depression.


One wonders if any part of the novel is autobiographical, given that the protagonist is 39-year-old Jim Vann. Jim has been living in Fairbanks since his second marriage to Rhoda ended in divorce. Alaska, with its painfully short winter days, is not the best place for a gloomy person to live–especially in a home he’s never bothered to furnish. His younger brother Gary convinces him that he needs to come to get over his woes by spending time with his family in California. Jim has two children, David, and Tracy, to his first wife Elizabeth, plus a sister (Ginny), and both parents scattered between Santa Rosa and Lakeport, the latter where Jim was once a dentist like his father. Like many, Gary treats “family” as if it’s a magical incantation rather than one of the things that might fuel depression. The psychiatrist Jim sees in Lakeport is incompetent, but he’s at least smart enough to start him on medication immediately. The kicker is that the drugs take at least two weeks to kick in and Jim carries a .44 magnum with him because he’s not sure he can take his anguish any longer.


Jim is the epitome of a hollowed-out man. He’s intelligent but he trashed his career, repeatedly cheated on both wives, frequents hookers, owes the IRS $365,000, can’t sleep, doesn’t believe in anything, and is especially contemptuous of his family’s Lutheranism. Nor does he possess many filters, so even those trying to help him vacillate between sympathy and repulsion. All he wants to do is call Rhoda and have sex with her. He can’t even articulate why, as he doesn’t find her very attractive and family members try to tell him that she’s “poison.” Perhaps she’s just the only thing remotely interesting in Lakeport, a small town of about 5,000 souls in which nothing much happens. Jim even has to scale a fence to get to its namesake shoreside.


For sure Jim is several fries short of a Happy Meal. He shoots a scrub jay and talks of cooking it. The book’s title is a preposterous tale he tells his kids of sending an astronaut halibut to the moon, where it flies. The meds mess with him; he’s manic one moment and fingering his gun the next. He imagines he should be proud of his Cherokee ancestry, though he can’t muster much enthusiasm about that or anything else. Mostly he ponders suicide and views himself as a breathing ghost   


The open question is whether Jim will become a non-breathing ghost. Halibut on the Moon is an interior novel told from Jim’s point of view. It’s a short book that’s long on troubled thoughts, an apt lens through which to view someone who can’t see beyond his pain and isn’t sure he wants to. Still, dwelling upon Jim’s dark, angst-ridden, and disjointed thoughts parallels his conflicted self-awareness, but it makes the book a will-he-or-won’t-he one-trick pony. In essence, Jim is on a roller coaster between life and death perched on the crest of a steep piece of track; “stalled” is a challenging place for readers along for the ride.


Should you nonetheless read Halibut on the Moon? It depends. If you think of it as didactic, you will attain a deeper understanding of a mental state you never wish to visit. You will also get the message that telling a profoundly disturbed person to snap out of it and be thankful for what he has is a ludicrous piece of advice. If you’re reading for pleasure, that’s another matter altogether. Either way, though, be cautious of thinking of family as a panacea.


Rob Weir


The Killers: See the 1946 Masterpiece; Ignore the Remake



Directed by Robert Siodmak

Universal Pictures, 103 minutes




The 1946 version of The Killers was heralded in its day, but has retreated to relative obscurity. Too bad; it’s an exemplar of the film noir genre. It takes its title and basic plot from an Ernest Hemingway short story in which even the double crossers are double-crossed.


The film opens bold by offing its protagonist, Ole “Swede” Andreson (Burt Lancaster), before you can butter your popcorn. Two guys enter a Bentwood, New Jersey greasy spoon, ask for Swede, terrorize the staff, and trumpet their intention to murder him. When Swede fails to show up at the diner, customer Nick Adams–a character Hemingway fans know from other tales–rushes to Andreson’s house to warn him, but he acts as if he has been expecting them and orders Nick to leave. Sure enough, the killers (William Conrad, Charles McGraw) show up and fill him full of lead. The rest of the film is told in flashbacks.


Lancaster cut his teeth in impulsive, not-so-bright tough guy roles. In The Killers he is a boxer whose best buddy, Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) is a cop, who attends Swede’s last fight before he is forced to quit the game. Sam and Swede fall out shortly thereafter. Andreson dumps his wholesome girlfriend, Lily (Virginia Christine) for a sultry brunet, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). When Sam tries to pinch Lily for possessing a stolen broach, Swede insists he stole it, ignores Sam’s advice, pulls three years in prison, and disappears after his parole.


Sam and insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) try to get to the bottom of Swede’s murder­­–Sam out of past friendship and his marriage to Lily, and Reardon because of a suspicious $2,500 life insurance policy Andreson left to a boarding house owner. They speculate that the gunmen were contract killers taking revenge for a $255,000 payroll heist in which Swede allegedly took part after his release.


Sam and Reardon are baffled, though. Swede didn’t possess enough gray cells to plan such a caper and, as his former boxing manager, his New Jersey gas station boss and, as fellow attendant Nick attest, Andreson was a loner who owned little more than the clothes on his back and his dopp kit. Who planned the caper and where’s the money? “Big Jim” Colfax (Albert Dekker), a Pittsburgh contractor, might not be as legit as he claims and several others are shadier than a rainforest, but proving guilt is easier said than done. What about Kitty? Is she a puma or a domestic tabby? All I will say is that Swede isn’t the last corpse and The Killers has a killer ending.


Lancaster plays a dim bulb, but he’s candescent whenever he’s on the screen.  Levene exudes folksy charm, and they certainly don’t make insurance adjusters as tough as O’Brien anymore. Gardner positively sizzles in a role that will keep you wondering if she’s a femme fatale or just a gal who once kept unfortunate company. Toss in a thematically appropriate soundtrack from the masterful Miklos Rozsa and crisp black and white cinematography from Woody Bredell and you will wonder why a movie that once garnered four Oscar nominations is now infrequently viewed.



If only Hollywood could resist the temptation to touch up a Michelangelo. In 1964, Universal released a remake directed by Don Siegel. It’s shorter (95 minutes) and in color because it was supposed to be a TV movie but was deemed too violent for the small box. (By today’s standards it’s practically Sesame Street.)


The 1964 movie is pared, though it follows the same arc as Siodmak’s 1946 film. In what now looks like a cheap ploy to appear hip, Swede was transformed into Johnny North (John Cassavetes), a racecar driver who also teaches at a school for the blind. (Really!?) His spurned best friend Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins) is a mechanic instead of a cop, and subplots of a gun-toting insurance guy and a dumped sweetheart are dropped. Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) is the female interest. She’s a built-for-speed bad girl, but also invites viewers to wonder if she’s misunderstood.


Lee Marvin plays one of the killers with icy ruthlessness and is easily the best thing in the movie, though Cassavetes is also competent. Alas, the script is so sappy that you need not queue the remake unless you’re a curious comparative shopper. The Colfax analog is Jack Browning–Ronald Reagan in his last movie role. Virginia Christine was the only actor to appear in both versions; she’s a blind secretary in Johnny’s school. Angie Dickinson was no Ava Gardner, nor John Williams the equal of Rozsa.


The 1946 film is worthy of its inclusion in the Criterion Collection, but that’s not the case for its 1964 counterpart. The first is a hearty stew; the second tomato soup from the can and mixed with water.


Rob Weir   










Code Girls: The Women Who Helped Win WWII



By Liza Mundy

Hachette Books, 2017, 448 pages.





Perhaps you have heard of the WACS and WAVES, but women’s contributions during World War II remain underappreciated. This is certainly true of those who worked as code breakers, like a deceased friend who was recruited when she was an undergraduate at Mt. Holyoke College. In deference to what would have been her wishes, I will refer to her  by the initial B.


 I did not know of Code Girls by Liza Mundy when B was alive. I sometimes wish we had known about this book earlier, though it probably wouldn’t have made a difference. B was chatty, sharp, and irreverent, but took no bait when prompted to talk about her wartime role. “I took an oath," said she, and maintained that stance even though stories about code girls had begun to surface in her lifetime and much of their once-secret mission had been declassified.


Mundy’s book gives an appreciation for the burden these women carried. They came from all walks of life, including those plucked from the best women’s colleges, but given that just four percent of women attended four-year colleges in 1942, the main criteria were an affinity for math, languages, and/or puzzle solving. B was highly intelligent, so I'm sure she ticked all of the boxes. The task was nothing less than breaking German and Japanese secret communications in an age in which electronic computing was in its infancy and there was no such thing artificial intelligence. Try cracking powerful mechanical encrypting machines through brainpower alone. Even if you figured out messages linguistically, what did the nonsensical words mean? That took late nights, intuition, and sweat.


Here's the kicker: much of what the women discovered could not be used, lest Axis powers suspect that their codes were compromised and change them. Information had to be parceled carefully and saved for crucial moments. Imagine the enormous weight of having advance knowledge that hundreds of GIs were marching toward their deaths. Many of the women had brothers and husbands in the war and their information could have prevented the slaughter of someone else's brothers and husbands. I often wonder if that's why B took her oath to the grave.


Mundy does a fine job of giving glimpses into the mindsets and patriotism of her subjects. Decades after the war ended in 1945, some were allowed to break their silence. Among them were a former Virginia school teacher, an African American recruit, a Smith College history major, an English scholar and champion swimmer, and a woman from a backwoods Pennsylvania town. Naturally, though, Mundy has lacunae in her story. After all, how much has been forgotten or embellished after the more than seven decades later?


There are common touchstones. The women spoke of their training. Those from humble backgrounds had never before ventured far from home before they reported to training facilities; several had to scrape together fare to get there. Quite a few had no idea what they had volunteered to do until they arrived. They had a sense of duty, but were also aware of the sexism of male superiors and bristled from the disrespect shown by men who were their intellectual inferiors. There were also maters of lower pay, poor work conditions, and crummy lodging. In the 1940s, what we’d today call structural sexism was the social norm. Many of Munde’s informants did not reflect upon fairness until years later; one gets the sense they were too busy and too exhausted to dwell upon it at the time. They simply figured out how to bypass inter-service rivalries, deflect personality clashes that led to inefficiencies, and cope with everyday indignities.


The code “girls”–and most were indeed young–were a mix of traditional and non-traditional individuals, some of whom presented in conventional feminine ways and others who embraced proto-feminist ideals. However we view the code breakers though, the stakes couldn’t have been much higher. Until the Japanese codes were broken in 1943, the United States was losing the war in the Pacific and it wasn’t much better in Europe. This alone makes the case that more attention should be cast upon those women whose names do not make the history books. They should take their place aside famous men such as MacArthur, Eisenhower, Halsey, and Patton.


Mundy’s is a fine early corrective. Only a lack of an index mars an otherwise stellar work.


Rob Weir