Book Review – Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

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60s (and early-70s) nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. I read Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, but I went away thoroughly disappointed. The novel isn’t terrible, but reading it was still a waste of time. I can’t give it more than 4 out of 10.

Bohemian Private Eye

Inherent Vice concerns an almost-thirty year-old bohemian p.i. named Doc Sportello who lives near the beach. The plot involves scheming land developers, corrupt cops, and lots of hippies. Though Pynchon does a nice job of re-creating the atmosphere of early-1970s Southern California, he makes the reader work far too hard when trying to follow his Byzantine plot and over-large cast of characters

Pynchon lets the characters get into long, dope-addled conversations that do nothing for the reader. It’s like being stuck in a van with Cheech and Chong for hours on end. But the worst flaw is that you just don’t care what happens to these people.

Generally, I review only books that I like because I seldom finish the duds. I seriously considered quitting Inherent Vice after falling asleep on my sofa while trying to read it Friday night. But I persevered. And, to be fair, the book got somewhat better after I resumed reading it.

Nice Atmosphere, Tangled Plot

Inherent Vice reminds me of William Kotzwinkle’s novel The Fan Man. Both are “hippie” books that create nice atmosphere, but both lack plots that engage the reader. So much has been written about the late 60s – early 70s, that the bar is pretty high for any new contributions on the subject.

Pynchon fails when he tries to inject more serious notes into the book. The shifts of tone from light to heavy discombobulate the reader. Even worse, Pynchon falls back on the tired us-versus-them, the-bourgeoisie-is awful notes that have been mined to death. Here’s a typical passage in which Pynchon unsubtly suggests that the real criminals are not the hippies, but Joe and Jane Average Citizen –

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Yawn – I’ve heard it all before.

Couldn’t Give It Up

So, I slouched to the book’s finish line – but I probably should have quit. Reading Inherent Vice was sort of like dating someone you’re not crazy about – not bad enough to leave, but not anything to get excited over, either.

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Back cover

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The Way We Lived Then by Dominick Dunne

8146796D-F5C3-4D37-94EF-AF1E2523BAA7The best books are those that you just happen upon. I think that when you find a good book “out of the blue,” it’s like finding a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk. Your unexpected good fortune makes you feel doubly lucky.

While loafing in the stacks at the Orange Beach Public Library, I saw a copy of Dominick Dunne’s The Way We Lived Then. Once I realized that it was a quick, breezy account of his Hollywood years – with tons of photos taken by Dunne – I had to read it. It’s a very-quick read that holds the reader throughout.

Dunne (1925-2009) was the son of a heart surgeon from Hartford, Connecticut. Though the Dunnes were well off, they were Roman Catholic, which led to their exclusion from Hartford’s WASP social circles. Dominick said that his obsession with wealth, status, and power came from that early experience.

By the 1950s, Dunne was a married father and an up and comer in Hollywood, where he would live until the early 1980s. His passion for entertaining and connecting with the right people pushed his career forward. It is these salad days that The Way We Lived Then celebrates.

The book is an easy read, it’s momentum propelled by the fantasy life the Dunnes lived. The Way We Lived Then is an odd book of Dunne’s rise, fall, and (after leaving Hollywood) recovery. Dunne laments the shallow nature of Hollywood, but it’s clear that he’s discussing the best days of his life. When the Dunnes had their 10th wedding anniversary, they invited about 250 guests to their home, put their furniture into storage, and hired a decorator for that night. I wonder about the cost.

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A description of the Dunnes’ 10th wedding anniversary (p. 115). Not much later, their marriage ended in divorce.

The human costs were huge. Dunne didn’t mind being catty with people and he says that he eventually came to be regarded as an “asshole” by the Hollywood crowd. He said that a lot of the people he associated with in Hollywood later flamed out. I guess that it’s a crowd where it’s difficult to stay on top. And, Dunne makes clear, in Hollywood failure is the one unforgivable sin.

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3 cocktail parties and a dinner party in a day

There was one woman in Hollywood who attended up to three cocktail parties per day. Dunne says that he and his wife (Lenny) went out every evening. I can’t imagine living that way. I doubt that today there are too many women doing the party circuit the way it was done before – working full time makes it pretty hard to go out and paint the town.

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Dunne snapped so many pictures that you wonder whether people considered him a pest.

The ride up was something else, however. He lived on the beach next door to Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford. He hobnobbed with all kinds of beautiful people. By the early 1970s, his career foundered after he became an addict and produced a bomb (Ash Wednesday) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Fonda. Dunne ran afoul of power players Robert Evans and Sue Mengers after the press repeated a nasty joke Dunne made about Mengers’ marriage.

(A frustrating aspect of the book is that Dunne sometimes pulls his punches. Dunne doesn’t repeat the infamous joke, though it’s easy to find (http://boatagainstthecurrent.blogspot.com/2010/02/quote-of-day-dominick-dunne-with-ash.html). He also references an off-color joke that he made about an actor who’d had a colostomy, but doesn’t name the actor. While The Way We Lived Then is fun, it ain’t Hamlet and not getting to hear these anecdotes in full disappoints the gossip-hungry reader (i.e., everyone who’d be interested in reading this book).

This book is fluff – but it’s great fluff. For a trip to the Hollywood fast lane, it’s very hard to beat. I give The Way We Lived Then 9 out of 10.

Since “dish” is the whole point of the book, I’ll close with an anecdote about Frank Sinatra’s hatred for Dunne and a photo of the back cover –

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Book Review – The Beneficiary by Janny Scott

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A few months ago, I saw a review of Janny Scott’s The Beneficiary in The Wall-Street Journal and wanted to read it. This summer – thanks to inter-library loan, I obtained a copy and read it. While The Beneficiary wasn’t terrible, I can’t give it more than 6 out of 10.

The Story

Janny Scott’s father, Robert Montgomery Scott (1929-2005) was part of the old “mainline” Protestant families near Philadelphia. Robert was one of a long line of wealthy family members who enjoyed privileges typical of the upper crust. He had two Ivy League degrees, served on many boards, and was so representative of the old WASP establishment that – behind his back – his children called him The Duke of Villanova.

But he was also a bitterly-unhappy alcoholic, and a serial philanderer who never seemed to find anything in his life fulfilling. After he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2005, Janny Scott began to wonder if she’d ever known him. Robert had long promised to leave her his diaries. In The Beneficiary, Janny Scott recounts her reaction to reading the diaries –

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Letdown

For me, The Beneficiary had huge potential as one of those “How-did-it-all go-wrong?” books. At times, it is compelling reading. But I felt let down for a number of reasons.

Lack of focus is the book’s biggest problem. Scott spends too much time on her extended family. 260 pages is too little space to do the subject justice and the diluted focus hurts The Beneficiary.

Similarly, Janny Scott doesn’t focus on the diaries enough. She remarks that her father’s total writings amounted to much less than she had thought that they would. But the book teases the reader with the idea that the diaries will be the center of the story, when – in fact – they are just a facet of it.

Some of the other topics just aren’t that interesting. For instance, there’s a huge amount of time spent on the family’s many houses, the houses’ furnishings, and the Scotts’ efforts to preserve these white elephants. The level of detail given to renovations and the various living arrangements at the many homes left me cold.

Finally, Janny Scott might have been more revealing of herself. She decries the pernicious influences of inherited wealth, but doesn’t reveal how she’s dealt with it in her life. Certainly, she has enjoyed some of its advantages (e.g., a Harvard education). She says little of how she raised her own children in light of the many burdens she perceives in her family’s history.

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What It All Means

When putting the Scotts’ story in a larger context, Ms. Scott contends that her family’s history should give today’s plutocrats pause in planning their estates for their children. Inherited wealth, she believes, is as much a burden as a blessing. Wisely, she doesn’t belabor the point, given that one family’s history – while interesting – really can’t tell us that much about the typical family’s experience.

In summary, The Beneficiary is “just OK.” My expectations weren’t met. Maybe they were too high. The book is worth a look, but it’s not outstanding.

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Book Review – Fat Chance (AKA Deadfall) by Keith Laumer

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Sometimes a book is sort of like a Hershey bar – a good, solid choice that doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but still satisfies. For me, that pretty much describes Keith Laumer’s Fat Chance, which was adapted into a 1975 film starring Michael Caine.

Laumer dedicates the book to Raymond Chandler. For me, it recalled both Chandler and Ross Macdonald – a novel set in Southern California featuring a world-weary private eye. Laumer draws on Macdonald’s standard plot – somebody did something bad in the past and the past catches up to them (or their children) in the present. While Fat Chance isn’t quite as good as Chandler or Macdonald, I still enjoyed it. I give 7 out of 10.

Joe Shaw

Laumer’s private eye is Joe Shaw, whom a woman describes as one of those “tall, tough men with cool gray eyes” (p. 79). Shaw isn’t one of those “new-age” private eyes who started appearing in the 70s. He’s a hard-drinking, sarcastic loner in the old mode. I didn’t always find Shaw to be convincing, as he often gets what he wants to “running over” people who have no incentive to cooperate with him.

The Plot

The book starts with an aging thug named Lou Anglich who tells Shaw that he had an adopted daughter in Tampa during World War II. Anglich lost her but has reason to suspect she’s in California. He wants Shaw to track her down. Predictably, Anglich isn’t telling the whole truth. Shaw’s search leads him deep into a rich family’s murky past – that the family wants to keep hidden.

Shaw’s cynicism is a good fit with 1970s America. He describes a fallen world –

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P. 121

Drawbacks

Again, I like this book, but it has several flaws. One of the issues is that – aside from Shaw – it needs a stronger center. Anglich becomes a peripheral character and Shaw’s cynicism prevents him from getting too emotionally involved in what’s happening. Laumer needed to give the reader more reason to care.

Another concern is that the Byzantine plot is nearly impossible to figure out. Laumer wraps it up well; but as the novel unwinds, he provides few clues to the backstory that is driving the case.

Case Closed

Still, I enjoyed Fat Chance. It’s not great, but for fans of old-school private eye novels, it’s a lot of fun.

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Book Review – Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante by Stephen Cooper

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Nearly all artists toil in anonymity. Most of these unknowns must have thought that maybe they will receive their due at some point in the future. Occasionally, it actually happens. Such was the case with John Fante (1909-1983), whose novels about Los Angeles have become renowned since his death.

In summer 2018, I saw a copy of Stephen Cooper’s Fante biography, Full of Life, in one of my favorite bookstores – The Book Nook in Atlanta. They wanted $10 for a used copy, which was more than I wanted to pay. So, I filed the book away in my memory, then got around to ordering it in 2019.

Fante’s Life

Fante was born in Colorado into a family of Italian-American immigrants. During his younger years, his family spent time in both Boulder and Denver. His home life was turbulent. John escaped (to some degree) when he attended a Roman Catholic high school in Denver. In author Cooper’s telling, Fante’s difficult childhood and Catholicism combined to shape his novels.

Eventually, Fante moved to Los Angeles. With no credentials, he worked a series of menial jobs and gradually established himself as a writer. It was Fante’s novels featuring his semi-autobiographical protagonist Arturo Bandini that would eventually be hailed as the greatest novels ever written about Los Angeles.

The Book

Author Stephen Cooper, an English professor, follows Fante’s journey from beginning to end. The biography is mostly successful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Cooper’s background , Full of Life shines when it discusses Fante’s work, which Cooper knows very well.

The portrait of Fante that emerges is of a great, but tortured artist. Fante could mine the hurts and prejudices he’d endured and turn them into fine literature. But he couldn’t escape his past. Eventually, he married and had four children, and then treated his own family to many of the same cruelties he’d been exposed to as a child.

The following passage has a quote from Fante’s wife, Joyce, and a passage that he wrote. It gets at John’s dual nature –

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P. 248

Criticism and Questions

The book can be clunky in places. The sections on John’s early years in Colorado contain too much of what Cooper imagines happened to John, perhaps due to a lack of sources. Also, there are some clumsy attempts to introduce politics into the story. (A quibble – Cooper twice states that Representative Martin Dies of Texas was a Republican, which is untrue).

Cooper leaves one nagging question that probably can’t be answered – did Fante realize his potential? After his successes with novels, John primarily supported himself as a Hollywood screenwriter over the last 40 years or so of his career. Cooper appreciates Fante’s achievement, but can’t help wondering what might have been.

Sad Ending

The most-moving aspect of Full of Life is its ending. Fante became diabetic and endured a long, awful decline during which he went blind and lost both of his legs. Cooper’s account of these years will move even the most-hardened readers.

Last Thoughts

Cooper succeeds at portraying an enigmatic subject’s art and life. The reader gets a good understanding of Fante in about 330 pages. Full of Life closes on a high note that surprises the reader – a brief account of Cooper’s personal contact that Fante in the 1970s.

I give Full of Life 8 out of 10 and recommend it.

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Back Cover

 

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Book Review – A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean

2C0E1D9B-6E7B-4FC5-BE4B-A16E52C7BDA9The front cover of A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean states that author Gary Buslik is “P.J. O’Rourke and Paul Theroux in a blender.“ That sounded good enough for me, so I read it. While I’m glad that I did, Rotten Person is a difficult book to pigeonhole.

Buslik & Idi Amin

Buslik starts with a strong story titled “The Time I Accidentally Urinated on Idi Amin.” The story describes a vacation that Buslik and his wife, Annie, took to Mustique. They have one funny adventure after another until, indeed, Buslik and Idi Amin end up in the same restroom. (Though Rotten Person is supposed to be nonfiction, I’d guess that it’s “faction” – some truth with a lot of artistic license).

The story is very funny. Buslik presents himself as a bumbling everyman, similar to the way Dave Barry writes about himself. After that first story, I thought I knew what Rotten Person was going to be like. But I didn’t.

At the end of the book, Buslik’s Acknowledgments reveal that he wrote many of the pieces for magazines. Perhaps that explains why the book’s tone is all over the board. Some of the pieces are funny. But others are sad or matter of fact. The reader really doesn’t know at the beginning of each story.

“Weed Killer” & Other Successes

One of the best stories is “Weed Killer.” In it, Buslik describes how he went to Grenada in September 1983, just before the U.S. invasion. He ended up attending a cockfight with man called Bones. Buslik provides vivid descriptions of his journey to the fight, the people there, and the fight itself.

The “About the Author” states that Buslik teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Illinois – Chicago. Rotten Person demonstrates that he learned something about telling a good story during all of his years of writing and studying. Also, there is also some nice prose –

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P. 39

 

Not All Stories are Aces

Though I was positive on the book, some material in Rotten Person is not entirely satisfying.

“Papa’s Ghost” is unsettling. In it, Buslik track down Ernest Hemingway’s old pal Gregorio Fuentes in Cuba. But when Buslik meets the 104-year-old Fuentes, he doesn’t know what to do. Fuentes is near death and Buslik manages only to make a few lame comments about the situation. It’s a memorable – not necessarily bad – but unnerving.

Perhaps the one story that I really disliked was “Black Power.” The piece concerns a racist American businessman on Antigua. The man lives down to every stereotype of The Ugly American – in addition to being racist, he’s self absorbed, ignorant, and even likes country music (gasp!). The black Antiguans, on the other hand, are upstanding and wise. My sense was that Buslik was engaging in a bit of “virtue signaling” to let the world know that he “gets it.” But he created a story-length cliche, a piece without complexity or originality.

Readers will have different reactions to other aspects of the book. Buslik includes a lot of thoughts on dying and on religion. In regard to the latter, he is irreverent. (In regard to the book’s subtitle, there’s no sign he’s a horrible person. Perhaps that was just his publisher’s attempt at a hook to sell more copies).

The Departure Lounge

Fortunately, “Black Power” is an anomaly. While a few of the other entries didn’t do much for me, the collection is pretty good on the whole. I give it 7 out of 10.

Rotten Person is an easy book to pick up and put down. You can read what interests you – in any order – and disregard the rest. My bookworm mother likes to use the entries in books such as Rotten Person as “fill ins” between longer books that she reads cover to cover. Rotten Person would also make a nice beach book – whether you’re in the Caribbean or not.

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Back Cover

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Book Review – Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill

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Near the beginning of Chaos, author Tom O’Neill consider his 20-year investigation of Charles Manson’s crimes and muses –

Who cares? I’ve asked myself that a lot over the years. Was it worth investing so much of my time and energy in these, some of the most well-known, worn-out crimes in American history? How did I end up falling into this, anyway? (Pp. 5-6).

Unfortunately, the reader has to ask him- or herself similar questions. Authors of any new entries on Charles Manson’s crimes have to compete against dozens of previous efforts and the fact that the crimes recede farther into the past each day. O’Neill tries – does offer some fascinating information – but Chaos is just middling success.

Long Road to Publication

Back in 1999, O’Neil received an assignment to write about Manson’s connections with Hollywood for the now-defunct Premiere magazine. Amazingly, that assignment led to a 20-year odyssey to learn what really happened. The result is Chaos – an unfortunately-apt title.

Official Story vs. The Facts

When Chaos shines, it’s excellent. O’Neill had me for the first 200 pages; then the book derailed. Consistently, O’Neill shows that the official story of the Manson murders is not the full story. He’s particularly strong in recounting how record producer Terry Melcher’s court testimony concerning his involvement with Manson differed from some of his prior statements to police. There is a particularly strong scene in which O’Neill confronts Melcher at the rooftop pool of the latter’s Los Angeles condo.

If O’Neill succeeds at taking down anyone in the book, it’s Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who sent Manson to prison. O’Neill provides convincing evidence that Bugliosi shaped the prosecution around an “official” version of the murders that excluded many important facts.

Even more damning are O’Neill’s revelations about Bugliosi’s tawdry private life. He writes about Bugliosi’s vendetta against his milkman, which occurred after Bugliosi somehow convinced himself that the milkman had fathered his son, Vincent, Jr. Later, Bugliosi became involved in another scandal when a woman claimed that the married Bugliosi assaulted her and forced her to have an abortion after they  conceived a child together. Though both stories had been whispered about for years, O’Neill brings these facts to a wide audience.

Down a Million Rabbit Holes

Given Chaos’ many interesting stories, the book could have been a qualified success. But O’Neill fills large parts of the book with long, unrewarding stories. Less would have been more.

After the first 200 pages, the narrative veers off into conspiracy land. The book implodes in Chapters 6 and 7, rights itself in Chapters 8-10, then implodes again in Chapter 11. Fortunately, O’Neill does close the book with some interesting thoughts (in Chapter 12 and the Epilogue).

The weak material gets into a rogue intelligence agent named Reeve Whitson, the Kennedy assassination, the CIA, and other unlikely topics. (By the end of the book, I wouldn’t have been surprised to read references to black helicopters and the New World Order). What all of the weak material in Chaos shares is a low-M (Manson) quotient – the number of references to Manson on each page is very low. Perhaps this is no surprise, given that Manson probably had nothing to do with the CIA or the Kennedy assassination.

O’Neill goes off track in other ways as well. He engages in rampant speculation, accusing everyone he interviews of being involved in a big coverup. Anyone who can’t remember, or who failed to follow procedures to the letter, is guilty of nefarious conduct. (Ironically, O’Neill impugns Bugliosi for speculating in presenting the Manson case in court).

Final (?) Verdict

I have a tortured relationship with these latter-day Manson books. I’m frequently disappointed in them, but I always come back for more. Recently, Dianne “Snake” Lake published Member of the Family about her time in The Family. Lake’s book is much less ambitious than is O’Neill’s – she doesn’t claim to know anything other than her own experiences with Manson. But her book is much more satisfying than is O’Neill’s.

At the end, O’Neill seems to realize that – at least in some respects – he’s fallen short. He writes that “The evidence I’d amassed against the official version of the Manson murders was so voluminous, from so many angles, that it was overdetermined. I could poke a thousand holds in the story, but I couldn’t say what really happened” (pp. 394-5). So, O’Neill moves the goalposts, stating that “My goal isn’t to say what did happen – it’s to prove that the official story didn’t. I’ve learned to accept the ambiguity” (p. 430).

Whether that’s enough will depend on each reader’s interpretation. At its best, Chaos  is a page turner. The Manson story continues to fascinate and O’Neill manages to wring a bit more out of the old Manson sponge. But, it’s only a qualified success – that rarity, an unsatisfying page turner.

I give Chaos 6.5 out of 10.

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