Review – Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone

  • Hall of Mirrors
  • by Robert Stone
  • Publisher – Houghton, Mifflin
  • Copyrights – 1964, 1966
  • 409 pages

Rating – 6.5/10

Summary – Hall of Mirrors is Robert Stone’s first attempt at The Great American Novel. Set in New Orleans in the 1960s, the novel centers on three seekers who become enmeshed in a toxic brew of right-wing politics, racism, and religion. Stone falls short of his ambitions, but there are some nice passages and there’s plenty of food for thought.

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Review –   Robert Stone uses 1960s New Orleans as the setting for Hall of Mirrors, which is an interesting “big novel” about America’s obsessions.

Seekers Without Maps

3 people are at the core of Hall of Mirrors – 

1) Rheinhardt is the focus. He’s an alcoholic, itinerant disc jockey who drifts into a homeless mission at Hall’s beginning. Soon, he finds himself working again as a d.j. At a radio station (WUSA) that is enmeshed in nefarious, right-wing plots.

Rheinhardt is largely bereft of hope. But Stone provides a flashback that reveals that Rheinhardt was once a promising clarinetist who auditioned at Juilliard –

“…they said that every five years or so he [Somlio, the man for whom Rheinhardt is auditioning] might take a clarinet.

It was a bright October day, the room was full of sunlight. Somlio, pale and fat, came in with his four musicians, treacherous and bitter little men, they said, who liked to lead you down the glory road and then leave you impaled on a transition, drowning in spit and clinkers. Somlio had to hear all his woodwinds in company with that quartet.

One by one – first and second fiddle, viola, cello – they seated themselves on folding chairs and set up, while Rheinhardt nervously tootled and kept changing reeds. Then Somlio gestured from his seat and the swings welled with what seemed a sudden violence and went into the opening bar of the theme, the ten notes that sounded like “East Side, West Side.” And Rheinhardt, fifteen seconds from his ordeal, looked across the street to the rocky vacant lots where the Harlem housing projects were going up and little Puerto Rican kids were throwing rocks at a cement truck, turned, feeling nothing at all, picked up on G and performed the first arpeggio.

Then came the repeat passages, the first line over again and the strings came in pure symmetry and logic – the fiddles working down, the cello and viola rising, concerned only with themselves, ignoring him – and Rheinhardt sounded again his lonely, unregarded arpeggio that floated unwelcome above the richness of the strings. But in the third line, he could feel them yielding, playing gently with his theme, then taking it up, and he and the strings were rising and falling together in bright harmonies; he making love to the strings, cowing them, fondling them, they ignored him no longer.

So it turned out that morning that just above the barrier of form was a world of sunlight in which he could soar and caper with an eagle’s freedom, rule and dispense passion, where his breath was the instrument of infinite invention, yet not a pause was lost – not a note. He was not going to make any mistakes that morning; he found himself in control as he had never before been. Because there was perfection in this music, something of God in this music, a divine thing in it – and the hungry coiled apparatus in Rheinhardt was hounding it down with a deadly instinct, finding it again and again.

By the time they came to the trio in the Menuetto third movement where Mozart had taken out the clarinet to give old Stadler, who was playing fo his pension, a minute or two of rest, Rheinhardt, standing with his eyes closed, fingers trembling on the stops, felt the silence of the room behind the strings and felt the strings themselves loving and missing him. He opened his eyes to see the cellist bent low over his strings; the man’s eyes were bright with love, and as his fingers moved tenderly across the board his upturned wrist displayed the five blue characters where they had taken that caressing arm and tattooed on it – DK 412. Just before Rheinhardt picked up on his next note the old man had turned expectantly toward him and with the rapture of and tenderness still shining in his face and Rheinhardt had caught that transfigured look and held it, and begun again.

At the end, in the final passage allegro alla breve he could feel himself – the brain , mouth, diaphgram, lungs and fingers of the musician Rheinhardt fused together in a terrible invincible unity. And as he and the strings came down together in the last lovely tremolo, he had thought – how beautiful, how beautiful I am!

Joyful and trembling, he had put his axe away and gone over to shake hands with the quartet, hoping that they they would say something, but they did not – they smiled and nodded and packed their instruments and went.

“Tell me again,” Somlio had said, looking at his own fingernails, “what name?”

“Rheinhardt, maestro.”

“Bien, Rheinhardt,” Somlio had said casually and shrugged. “Of the first. Of the first excellence. We accept Rheinhardt”  (Pp. 45-47).

But for the part about “making love to the strings,” I think that the passage is perfect, beautiful. What makes it remarkable in Hall is that it stands in such stark contrast to almost everything else the reader learns about the hard-bitten Rheinhardt. The passage redeems Rheinhardt, makes the reader care about him.

2) Morgan Rainey – seems to be Rheinhardt’s opposite (but the reader eventually realizes that the two men are opposite sides of the same coin). A young Harvard graduate from Louisiana, Rainey has been to Venezuela to work in its slums. In New Orleans, Rainey takes a job interviewing welfare recipients and gets a harsh lesson in the real world. Often, Rainey comes across as the classic liberal do gooder – pure of heart, but ineffectual.

In one scene, Rainey and Rheinhardt interact in a French Quarter apartment. Their dialogue reveals each man’s struggles and Hall’s themes –

“What happened to you, Rheinhardt?” Rainey asked.

“Rainey,” Rheinhardt said, “are you so childish-foolish that you don’t know a prick when you see one?”

“I know a prick when I see one. I don’t believe you’re such a prick that you’re … that you have no humanity. I don’t know why.” He looked about him as though for escape. “If I thought that I wouldn’t have asked you to help me. As far as I can see you’re the only one who can tell me what I need to know” (p. 251).

Ostensibly, the two men are discussing the right-wing plots emanating from WUSA, where Rheinhardt works. But a different interpretation would be that the older Rheinhardt has seen things about life that Rainey feels that he should know.

3) Geraldine – If Rheinhardt and Rainey are mirror images, Geraldine is unique. At the beginning, she gets a car ride to New Orleans with a Mexican laborer. She is on the run from a violent lover in Galveston who sliced her face, leaving her scarred. Upon arriving in New Orleans, various men approach her and try to use her sexually (which is exactly what one would expect in Stone’s heartless world). Eventually, Geraldine meets Rheinhardt on the job and the two become lovers.

In comparison with Rheinhardt and Rainey, Geraldine’s wounds are both literal and psychic. And yet, in contrast with the two men, she never seems to have dreamed “big dreams.” Geraldine’s “everywoman” persona makes the reader like her all the more, cheering for her success.

Unfortunately, Geraldine never quite works in Hall. She isn’t woven into the plot as well as are the two male characters. Her scenes are good, but the plot threads involving Geraldine seem forced, almost as though Stone felt that he had to include a female lead but didn’t know what to do with her character.

3 R’s – Themes

To me, Hall centers on three themes –

1) Religion – Stone’s view of religion is elitist – it’s just a sham, used to fleece people and keep them in line. Stone handles religion unimaginatively in Hall; there’s a never a moment that makes the reader think “Ah! I never thought of it that way.”

Typical of Hall’s treatment of religion is a scene at Hall’s beginning. Shortly after Rheinhardt arrives in New Orleans, he spends the night in a homeless shelter and runs into an old acquaintance from New York. The man is a religious huckster who is on the run for various unsavory actions.

2) Race – is a topic on which Stone had more-interesting insight. In the novel, Rainey ventures into the black community, conducting a survey of welfare clients. (According to online sources, Stone had a similar job – helping collect information in New Orleans for the 1960 U.S. Census).

Rainey meets two, very-different black men. Lester Clotho is an entrepreneur who seems to know everyone in his neighborhoood. Stone makes it clear that – without Clotho – the ingenuous Rainey would be in deep trouble. The reader senses that there is much that Clotho does not tell Rainey.

While working with Clotho, Rainey meets Roosevelt Berry, a younger black man who works as a journalist at a black-owned newspaper. Berry dislikes Clotho, seeing him as an Uncle Tom. Rainey is intrigued by Berry’s hard-edged politics.

In Clotho and Berry, Stone crafts two characters who represent the old and new approaches to civil rights that would soon divide the black community in the 1960s.

3) Right-wing politics – the first two themes are “ingredients” in the third. As the three protagonists attempt to find their way, each falls into a sinister right-wing plot to start a race riot at a rally in a New Orleans stadium.

The idea is interesting, but Stone doesn’t quite pull it off. He breaks the book’s realism by mocking the right wingers as a bunch of cartoonish villains would have been at home in an old Batman episode. At the rally, Rheinhardt’s old acquaintance, the disgraced preacher from New York, offers the following prayer –

“Lord, let your divine protection descend on this small embattled band of Christians. Sustain us in the face of the Darkness Outside. For we know that beyond our little circle of Light in the night’s gloom there throbs a black and evil world of subversion and intrigue which constantly threatens our innocence and wholesomeness to strike down the foulness that rises daily at our feet as we pursue the righteous way. Defend us from the contamination which suffuses our newspapers and magazines, our libraries and so called institutions of learning, which lurks disguised as mere frivolity in our entertainments. Keep us as we are – simple upright men unconfused by the devious rhetoric of ever-present anti-Christ. Bless our innocence Lord, let it ascend heavenward as a sweet odor in tribute to Yourself. Protect and arm us before the black forces of blackness who daily blacken our clear path with their black menace. Amen.” (P. 335).

I think that the passage is funny, and it brings together Stone’s themes – religion, race, and right-wing politics. The problem with Hall’s conclusion is that – after 300 pages of fairly-serious material, Stone lets the book become a farce. The shift in tone is jarring and largely unsuccessful. Stone wasn’t even thirty-years old when he published Hall and perhaps he was still maturing both as a person and as a writer.

While the ending isn’t satisfying, it’s not an abject failure, either. Stone ties a lot of threads together. However, he also makes clear that – in our cruel world – any successes are likely to be rare, temporary and uninspiring.

Leaving New Orleans

If you’re a writer, trying to write The Great American Novel is like trying to find Nirvana – you know you’re going to fall short, but you can’t help making the effort. Indeed, Stone would try again with his 1974 novel Dog Soldiers, which more successfully captured the zeitgeist. (Dog Soldiers won the National Book Award and was adapted into the 1978 movie Who’ll Stop the Rain?). For those interested in Stone’s work, Dog Soldiers is the place to start.

As for Hall, it’s a middling success, a bleak look at beaten people who have given up or are in the process of giving up. But Stone had his finger on America’s pulse and the issues that he explored still resonate today.

 

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Book Review – Mondo Mandingo by Paul Talbot

  • Mondo Mandingo – The “Falconhurst” Books and Films
  • by Paul Talbot
  • Publisher – iUniverse, Inc. 
  • Copyright 2009
  • 266 pages (+ 6 Appendices, Bibliography, & Index)

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Rating – 7.5 / 10

Summary – Race is America’s obsession. The Mandingo books and films captured attention by discussing race in a strange form of popular entertainment that engaged the public for about 30 years. Author Paul Talbot discusses this phenomenon in his good book Mondo Mandingo.

Review – Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the James Bond films enjoyed great popularity. People said that the secrets of 007’s success was simple – the films were filled with sex and violence. If sex and violence made Bond a hit, then the Falconhurst books and films should have been even bigger because they focused on the all-American trifecta – sex, violence, AND race.

The idea behind the Falconhurst books was to set the work at a plantation during the days of slavery. Then create a plot that centered around interracial sex and horrific acts of violence. It wasn’t complex, but it sure got people’s attention – especially, the interracial sex part. The Falconhurst works probably won’t ever quality as a great art, but the phenomenon is quite interesting.

Kyle Onstott (1887-1966)

Back in the 1950s, as the United States slowly turned its attention to civil rights, an eccentric named Kyle Onstott began drafting a novel titled Mandingo. Onstott was an intriguing character – independently wealthy, he spent his life as a dilettante, often indulging his passion for breeding dogs. Somehow, Onstott became intrigued by the stories he’d heard about plantation life in the 1800s.

Following his obsession, Onstott finished his novel and published it to surprising success. Prior to Mandingo’s publication, no one could have envisioned the series’ success. (Falconhurst is the name of the plantation in many of the novels).

For all of his success, Onstott quickly faded from the scene. In Mondo Mandingo, author Paul Talbot states that Onstott wrote only the initial Mandingo novel. Authors Lance Horner and Harry Whittington (who used the pen name Ashley Carter) stepped in to fill in the rest of the series. The Mandingo series would total fourteen novels published over thirty-one years (1957-1988).

The Mandingo Books

Interestingly, Talbot writes that Onstott didn’t even write the best version of his own Mandingo novelTalbot considers the unabridged version of Mandingo to be overly long and burdened by digressions that read nowhere. (Having attempted to read the unabridged version of Mandingo, I share his opinion).

Talbot’s discussion of the Mandingo books covers only about the first 75 pages of Mondo Mandingo. But this section has some of the book’s best material. Onstott’s biography is terrific reading and there are a number of other good war stories. For instance, Talbot suggests that the second author of the Mandingo books, Lance Horner, was poisoned to death in 1973 by his male lover (who hoped to inherit Horner’s estate).

If there’s a downside to this section, it’s that it can be hard to follow. The Mandingo series contains so many sequels and prequels that the reader’s head spins while trying to follow Talbot’s plot summaries. This isn’t Talbot’s fault, because there isn’t a neat, linear story in the Mandingo novels.

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Back cover

A 1961 Play

The Broadway play was a disaster and ran for just eight shows after its previews ended. The play came about mainly because – given the social mores of the time – there was no other suitable medium for a Mandingo adaptation. Talbot’s account of the play is relatively short (covering pages 77 – 98), but it has a few nice pieces of information.

For instance, Talbot quotes extensively from the negative reviews and discusses the casting decisions. Cast members included –

  • James Caan (who was fired after four rehearsals),
  • Dennis Hopper (who replaced Caan),
  • Brooke Hayward,
  • and former boxer Rockne Tarkington (who played the slave, Mede).

Two Movies – Mandingo (1975) and Drum (1976) 

Talbot’s discussion of the movies Mandingo and Drum takes up the bulk of Mondo Mandingo (pages 95-222). Fortunately, these sections are where the book is strongest. I’m much more of a reader than a movie goer, but I really enjoyed learning how a motion picture moves from the idea stage to the final product. In the case of both films, there were many false starts, stops, and changes along the way. Talbot makes all of this interesting.

Readers will enjoy Talbot’s extensive interviews with those who worked on Drum and Mandingo. Heavyweight boxer Ken Norton starred in both films and offers readers some good insight. Talbot also interviewed Steve Carver, who directed Drum (after the producers fired the original director, George Kennedy). Carver explains what it is like to take over a film and try to make changes in a limited time.

As with the Broadway play, Talbot did in-depth research on critics’ and audiences’ reactions to the two movies. The critics were scathing, but audiences were kinder. In their interviews, many of the actors are defensive about their participation in the films; several state that they think that the critics were too harsh.

Misses – What Could Have Been Better

While I really enjoyed Mondo Mandingo, the book has some weaknesses. It can be difficult to follow in places. For instance, Talbot often includes over-long lists of everyone who was involved in the movies. Likewise, the discussions of the Falconhurst novels tend to run together. Some simple editing (including more subheadings and moving some of the long lists into the appendices) would have made the book more readable.

Another negative is that Mondo Mandingo closes on a weak note. The final chapter (pages 223-266) focuses on other “slave-sploitation” films that grew out of the success of Mandingo. This material is interesting, but it diverts attention from the book’s main focus, which is supposed to be the Mandingo phenomena. (Talbot also includes some discussion of the many series of books that were inspired by Mandingo’s success). Mondo Mandingo just “dead stops” after this last chapter; Talbot should have at least given his readers a one-page parting shot.

Find Your Own Answers

Talbot may not offer any conclusions, but he doesn’t push an agenda, either. You will have to find the answers for yourself. My take is that Mandingo’s success – and that of all of its many spinoffs – is a case of popular entertainment outdoing “deeper” works. Highbrow critics hated the Mandingo films, but the highbrows offered few works about race that engaged people on main street.

Mondo Mandingo’s a one-of-a-kind book that offers insight the American psyche and into the worlds of publishing and movies. Readers meet a number of interesting people along the way. The book is well worth a look.

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Book Review – Missoula by Jon Krakauer

  • Missoula – Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
  • by Jon Krakauer
  • Copyright 2015
  • Publisher – Doubleday
  • 349 pages

Rating – 6.5/10

Summary – In Missoula, Jon Krakauer examines the rash of sexual assaults around the University of Montana circa 2010. The book is readable, and sobering. However, Krakauer’s passion bogs down his narrative, forcing the reader to endure the author’s proselytizing on how to solve the issue.

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Review – Around 2010, The University of Montana and the surrounding City of Missoula endured a series of highly-publicized sexual assaults. Many of the crimes involved UM students, including several University of Montana football players. Jon Krakauer covers these cases in his book Missoula.

Krakauer Giveth

Missoula’s strengths are an interesting story and Krakauer’s ability to make the reader care about what happens. At his best, Krakauer keeps you on the edge of your seat. He even manages to inject drama into the sentencing hearing for one of the perpetrators. The reader will not be unmoved by Missoula.

Krakauer Taketh Away

But each strength is also a potential form of weakness. In Missoula, Krakauer is engaging in advocacy journalism – he’s up on a soapbox and his book is lesser for it. The Obama administration’s response to campus sexual assault was to require colleges and universities to institute a version of England’s Star Chambers.  The “defendants” in such proceedings have zero right to counsel, to question witnesses, or to due process in general. A preponderance of evidence (51%) is all that is needed for a university to “convict” the accused.

Krakauer supports these hearings, though not without reservations. (He mentions of the Duke lacrosse case, but ignores the cautions that it might suggest). To Krakauer, since hearings are merely held to administer university discipline, it is acceptable to label someone a rapist and permanently expel him after of such a hearing, even if those hearing ignore due process. As for universities’ need to make such proceedings fair to all involved, he lamely concludes “Establishing such a process will be difficult, but it’s not rocket science. The challenge can be met, and must be met, because failing to do so would be unconscionable” (p. 347).

My Soapbox – One Person’s Opinion

I’ve spent my entire adult life at universities, as both a student and now as a faculty member. How Krakauer can be sanguine about the outcomes of these hearings baffles me. Judges have training in trying to conduct fair proceedings and in seeking justice. College administrators have zero training in either. In the long run, such proceedings are so antithetical to our ideas of fairness, that I believe that they will be replaced by some other way of seeking the truth.

On the other hand, I do see rays of hope if – as a society – we can encourage rape victims to come forward. In Missoula, Krakauer makes a good case in noting that police can greatly improve the support sexual-assault victims receive. If authorities – and society as a whole – can remove the stigma of alleging sexual assault, I believe that we can begin to address these crimes without bringing back the Star Chamber. Unfortunately, Missoula establishes that we have a long way to travel before victims will feel well served by universities’ and courts’ attempts to right the wrongs they suffer.

My Final Verdict

Missoula is the fourth Krakauer book that I’ve read. (The other three were Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven, and Into Thin Air). Unfortunately, Missoula is the weakest book of the four.

On the positive side, Krakauer brings up a serious issue and makes you care about the victims. But he is so passionate about his point of view that he shows too little respect for the reader’s ability to decide for him- or herself. He’s also blasé about trashing standards of justice that have evolved over centuries.

Missoula’s worth a look, but it’s hardly Krakauer’s finest hour.

 

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Book Review – Freedom Walk by Mary Stanton

  • Freedom Walk – Mississippi or Bust
  • by Mary Stanton
  • University Press of Mississippi
  • Copyright 2003
  • 208 pages

Rating –   7/10

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Summary – Freedom Walk tells the stories of two dreamers – Bill Moore and Sam Shirah, Jr. Both attempted a protest march during the civil rights movement. Neither man succeeded and their stories are largely forgotten. Freedom Walk is good and holds the reader’s attention. However, author Mary Stanton misses some opportunities and that will frustrate her readers.

Review – In April 1963, an eccentric postal worker named Bill Moore announced that he was going to walk from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. His walk was a protest against segregation. Moore never made it. He was shot to death near Attala, Alabama, on the third day of his walk. A grand jury declined to indict the alleged shooter. Freedom Walk’s first hundred pages focus on Moore.

After Moore’s death, other civil rights workers vowed to finish his walk. The second half of the book discusses their attempts and – unfortunately – strays much farther afield. Stanton includes the life story of Sam Shirah, Jr. – an Alabama-born son of a Methodist minister who was one of the marchers who tried to finish what Moore started.

The Shirah material is not bad. He was an interesting person, the rare southern white who had the nerve to speak in favor of civil rights. However, the shift from Moore’s story to Shirah’s isn’t entirely successful. The reader feels as though he or she accidently changed channels in the middle of a TV show.

What Might Have Been

At the very end of the book, author Mary Stanton recounts her attempt to retrace some of Moore’s steps in 2000. Floyd Simpson, the man who allegedly shot Moore, had died in 1998; however, when Simpson met Moore on the day of Moore’s death, he’d been with a friend named Gaddis Killian. Moore, Simpson, and Killian had a charged conversation a few hours before Moore’s murder.

In 2000, Stanton pulled up to Killian’s junk shop and talked to him about nothing in particular. Then, losing her nerve, she drove away without even mentioning Moore’s death. For the reader, it’s a huge letdown. To be blunt, Stanton’s unwillingness to ask a single question about Moore amounts to malpractice.

What’s Left

If the reader wants to look at the glass as half full, there’s a lot of good in Freedom Walk. A recurring theme is that most of the white volunteers in the civil rights struggle came from society’s fringe. If the white activists weren’t on the fringes when they started, they soon ended up there.

Moore fits into that mold. He was a dreamer who always needed somewhere to put his energy. The civil rights and disarmament movements provided him with outlets. Other aspects of his life were less successful. He spent years in a New York mental hospital and was living apart from his wife and stepchildren at the time of his death.

The reader is more ambivalent about Stanton’s portrait of Shirah. It takes you a while to comprehend the abrupt turn that the narrative takes when Stanton shifts from Moore to Shirah. Once you wrap your mind around the shift, the material is interesting, but not wholly compelling.

Shirah was a lot like Moore, a dreamer in search of a cause, who happened to come along at the time of the civil rights movement. The ties between the two men are ever so slight – they tried to complete the same, quixotic march. Predictably, Shirah’s life after the civil rights movement was nowhere near as compelling as what came before.

Footnotes in “The Movement”

Unfortunately, it seems as though the world may “little note nor long remember” Moore or Shirah. Neither was a Martin Luther King. But both played interesting parts in one of the most-important social movements in the past hundred years. Their stories are worth remembering and Stanton does a good job of ensuring that both receive a measure of our acclaim.

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What I’m Reading – Missoula by Jon Krakauer

I started reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula in the evening. Before bed, I managed the first thirteen chapters (through page 157).

Missoula’s about the rape crisis at the University of Montana around 2010. So far, I’m ambivalent on the book. Krakauer does a good job of discussing the crisis, including some graphic descriptions of the indignities suffered by rape victims.

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At least so far, I haven’t seen much in the way of solutions. He discusses the Obama administration’s insistence that colleges use the preponderance-of-evidence standard to adjudicate rape allegations. That standard – and the hearings that colleges conduct to review the allegations – are controversial for the way in which they treat the accused.

Missoula’s a good book on a difficult issue.

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Book Review – That Championship by Jason Miller

  • The Championship Season
  • by Jason Miller
  • Copyright 1972
  • Publisher – Atheneum
  • 133 pages

Rating – 7/10

Summary – It’s been 20 years since the team from Fillmore High School won the state championship in basketball. Four of the five team members reunite with their coach to talk about old times. But there’s dissension, betrayal, and anger beneath the surface. The play is interesting, but it’s a bleak view of middle-class American men.

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Review – The last time I’d read a play was high school – and that was 27 years ago. But I’d always wanted to read That Championship Season. James Michener mentioned the play in his book Sports in America as a work that exposed the dark side of sports. That was enough for me.

Last week, I was over at the university library and checked out their copy. Championship is a quick, easy read that holds the your attention.

Yesterday’s Heroes and Yesterday’s Dreams

In 1952 the Fillmore High School basketball team won the Pennsylvania state championship. Twenty years later, four of the five starters have a reunion with their beloved coach. The players are –

  • Tom – a cynical alcoholic who has fallen on hard times and missed the last three reunions. He is a bomb thrower who often refuses to accept the rose-colored views of the past.
  • George – an insurance agent who has become mayor of the town. He’s viewed by the others as an incompetent and is in for a tough fight for re-election.
  • James – a junior high school principal who wants to be in politics like George. He laments that he had to spend his younger years taking care of his invalid, alcoholic father. James hopes that George will back him for superintendent of schools if he wins reelection.
  • Phil – a successful businessman who owns a strip mine. Phil loves flashy cars and young women.
  • Coach – who is now retired. He never married and encourages his former players to support each other as adults. The team meets at Coach’s home.

Martin, the fifth player on the team, has not been heard from in 20 years. But there’s a tortured story behind his absence and Miller’s just waiting to hit the reader with it.

“It’s high tide before you know it” –  Coach (p. 68)

Viewed 45 years later, That Championship Season is a product of its times. In 1972 Americans were reevaluating everything about the mythical American dream. Championship’s answer to the questions raised by that reassessment seems to be “The American dream is dead – and it never existed anyway.”img_0170

As the play progresses, it becomes apparent that all five men lead lives of quiet desperation. As the four classmates slide into middle age, they feel the frustration of all that they will never accomplish. Their coach – old, alone, and regretful – shows them what they may become.

Perhaps Miller expresses it most bluntly through Phil –

Sometimes I think that it’s the only thing that I can still feel, you know, still feel in my gut, that championship season, feel the crowds… my best memory to date, yeah, nothing matched it, nothing (p. 97).

Miller’s play strips away layer after layer of the men’s “successful” facades. Nothing is as it seems, not in their middle-aged lives nor in their pasts. Miller uses the five men to comment on America’s ills – greed, war, Anti-Semitism, racism, cruelty, cheating, etc. Unfortunately, some of these themes now seem tired because so many other authors have plowed the same ground.

Once you know where Miller is heading, you can anticipate how much of Champioship will play out. By the end, everything is exposed and the men have nothing left to lose. As a reader, you somehow still care about these flawed, hateful, egotistical men. However, you don’t feel that what happens to them in the future is all that important, they have already lost the game of life and are now just running out the clock.

At the Buzzer

Championship is well worth reading if you accept that it is a downer. Miller seemed to worry that people would miss his point if he didn’t apply it with a sledgehammer. But I still enjoyed reading the play and recommend it to those who want to think about life in America.

 

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Book Review – Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini

  • Pre-Suasion – A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade
  • by Robert Cialdini
  • Copyright 2016
  • Publisher – Simon & Schuster
  • 233 pages (+ about 180 pages of footnotes & other “back matter”)

Rating – 6/10

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My copy – hot off the press

Summary – You can’t go home again. Roughly 30 years ago, Robert Cialdini wrote the outstanding book Influence. 30 years later, he returns with the his follow up, Pre-Suasion. The new book isn’t bad, but you should start with Influence.

Review – One thing that research teaches us is that the higher our expectations, the harder we are to please. Maybe I should have realized that I was setting myself up for dashed hopes when I got so excited about Robert Cialdini’s Pre-Suasion. I’m certifiably cheap, but I went all in and bought Pre-Suasion new and in hardcover.

About 10 years ago, I’d read Cialdini’s Influence and thoroughly enjoyed it. In Influence, Cialdini provides six methods that we use to sway others. (They are 1 – social proof, 2 — commitment, 3 – reciprocation, 4 – liking, 5 – authority, and 6 – scarcity). Unlike most popular psychology books, Cialdini’s six principles are based on solid research.  Cialdini made his living as a faculty member in psychology at Arizona State University.

To Be Fair

While I don’t think that Pre-Suasion is particularly good, it does have its moments. The book’s thesis is that the actions that we take before we try to influence people are critical to our success. This is a good point and Cialdini does a good job of showing the implications of pre-suasion.

One interesting point is that people tend to believe that “what’s focal is causal.” This means that if we can see something, we tend to believe that it causes other things that are happening in the environment. For example, if people watch a recording of a police interrogation and the suspect is in the center of the picture, people are more likely to believe that the suspect did it. But if people see a recording of the same interrogation and the camera focused on the police officer, people are much less likely to believe that the suspect was guilty.

Another fascinating finding discusses which advertising appeals work in which situations. Cialdini and his fellow researchers hypothesized that – due to our evolution in a dangerous world – we would be more receptive to appeals emphasizing the popularity of products if we were watching scary TV programs (because there is safety in numbers when we feel threatened).

On the other hand, if romance is possible, we want to be separate from the herd so that we can receive our potential mate’s advances without the presence of competition. (Of course, being alone also gives us a chance to respond to the advances). So, when we are watching TV programs with romantic storylines, we are more receptive to ads that tell us we can “stand out from the crowd.”

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Back cover

Why I Wasn’t Pre-Suaded

I think that Pre-Suasion would be excellent as a 50-page addendum to Influence. But it is “padded out” – there’s just not enough material for a book. Cialdini labors to make it work, but – if you’ve read Influence – you can’t miss the redundancy in Pre-Suasion. 

The padding includes a section recounting Cialdini’s six influence principles (pp. 151-172). Also, Cialdini includes a mildly-interesting section on the ethics of persuasion and influence (pp. 209-223). I don’t know if Cialdini really cares about the ethical implications of persuasion or if he just needed more material.

My Advice – Maybe I’ll Influence You

Cialdini is a smart, interesting thinker. If this sort of material intrigues you, I recommend finding a copy of Influence, which has terrific material and is a lot of fun to read. If you enjoy Influence, you might consider also reading Pre-Suasion. 

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I’d read this one first. It’s terrific.

In summary, Pre-Suasion’s worth a look, but I don’t know that I would pay “full retail” for a copy.

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