Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon has been one of those books deep in my to-read list since I first read reviews of it in 1982, but I’m just getting around to reading it now. Imagine my surprise this morning when I ran across the following passage in that book (on page 370/location 6798 of the Kindle version) as the author enters New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.
It isn’t widely known in America that the descendants of Jolly Roger pirates put an end to dirigible flight. So I heard at breakfast in a diner.
As someone who did a little bit of research about the event that ended airship travel for my own 2014 novel Fire Answers Fire, the story about offspring of pirates bringing down the Hindenburg was new to me, but here are the details, as related to William Least Heat-Moon by a diner companion in a loud shirt.
“Let me tell you about the Pines,” he said. “Maybe you heard of the Hindenburg — the zeppelin — but I’ll let you in on the true story of what really happened. I’ve lived here all my life, and I know what happened even if the government said they didn’t know.”
The gist was this: a storm forced the Hindenburg into a holding pattern (that was a fact I could check out). The airship, only a few hundred feet off the ground, circled central New Jersey for two hours. Lakehurst, where it was trying to land, is on the edge of the Pines, and everyone knows Pineys don’t tolerate anyone poking into their woods. They figured the zeppelin was a government ship looking for their stills where they turn blueberries into whiskey, so they shot at the thing and opened leaks in the fabric. By the time the Hindenburg started to tie up, there was enough free hydrogen to blow the ship to kingdom come, which it did.
“The official explanation was St. Elmo’s fire,” he said. “Static electricity. St. Elmo never in his life set fire to any aircraft. People can believe it was anti-Nazi sabotage if they want, but I’m telling the truth. It was potshots by the Pineys, and it was nothing new. They’re descendants of pirates and smugglers who ran into the woods to hide. Mixed in with a few Tories and Hessians.”
When I was writing Fire Answers Fire, it never occured to me to give its first-person narrator a name, even when my early readers commented on this absence of a label. I was well aware of the famous nameless narrators from Marcel Proust and Ralph Ellison and Samuel Beckett, but I had no idea that I was part of the powerful contemporary trend being examined in this article, “The Rise of the Nameless Narrator” by Sam Sacks on The New Yorker website.
Who knew I was simply part of the Zeitgeist?
Here are a couple of truisms (for me anyway):
- Politicians should never comment on art that’s anything but decorative, old, and uncontroversial.
- When politicians of both parties agree about anything (but especially about art), they’re wrong.
Both of these prejudices of mine jumped out strongly when I read some of the comments by politicians of both parties protesting the Met’s current staging of John Adams’ 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer.
In a perfectly bipartisan stand against the opera, Rudy Giuliani (Republican ex-Mayor) and U.S. Representatives Peter King (R-NY), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and Eliot Engel (D-NY), all spoke at a rally outside Lincoln Center protesting the opening performance on October 20.
I have a knee-jerk reaction when I hear tabloid newspapers or religious organizations or pandering politicians calling for the suppression of any artist whether it’s Andres Serrano or 2 Live Crew or Entartete Kunst, but this latest particular example of that all-too-common phenomenon had a special resonance for me because my novel Fire Answers Fire has in its later chapters the story of an unproduced (and totally fictional) Ernst Toller play (or opera) also entitled Fire Answers Fire shot down in 1939 by would-be musical collaborators and producers because of its sympathetic portrayal of terrorists (in this case the attackers of the Nazi Hindenburg).
… So Toller had gone ahead without a collaborator and shown the play without music to a producer and old friend, Jude Lear. Despite the English name borrowed from Hardy and Shakespeare, Lear was a recent exile like himself with an even thicker German accent than Toller’s. Lear didn’t even skim halfway through the script before rendering his judgment. “Why don’t you just write a sympathetic play about the kidnapper and killer of the Lindbergh baby? After all, Lindbergh’s a Nazi sympathizer too.”
“That’s different. That’s an attack on a child. On an individual. This is a symbolic striking at power. At a machine. At giant swastikas flying as provocations over American cities.”
“That’s not the way the audience will see it. Lindbergh and the Hindenburg are both innocent victims. Lucky Fucking Lindy could wipe his ass with an American flag and fly a plane around the world bedecked with swastikas and christened the ‘Spirit of Berchtesgarten’ and he’d still get sympathy about the kidnapping of his son. The swastikas on the tail of a Zeppelin don’t mean shit either. The audience members won’t care about the politics. It’s the fiery scene they all remember from the newsreels that’s important. And it’s not the announcer saying ‘Oh, the poor dead Nazis’ they remember. It’s ‘Oh, the humanity!’ they remember. It’s the same on these boards,” he said, sweeping his hand across the floor on which they stood in front of rows of empty red velveteen seats. “People react to people on this stage. Not ideas. Not rallying cries. Not politics. Especially not European politics. Your politics. They want to see themselves reflected in the actors up here, not terrorists fighting foreign wars.” He might as well have said this isn’t 1918 and this isn’t revolutionary Munich. No one will care what you have to write or think anymore. … (from chapter 12, “And Happy Endings With Dead Villains”)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
As in IQ84, a single piece of music plays a repeating role throughout the book; this time it’s Liszt’s ‘Le mal du pays’ rather than Janáček’s Sinfonietta. Listening to that short piano piece at a key moment late (page 322) in his pilgrimage, this paragraph appears:
“And in that moment, he was finally able to accept it all. In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood. One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.”
Once again, I was immediately hooked by the music behind Murakami’s deceptively simple prose. I highly recommend Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I also want to say that (though I’m sure I would have also loved this book on an e-reader) the size, look, and feel of this physical Chip Kidd-designed hardcover added to the experience of following Tsukuru Tazaki on his journey. Everything from the railway maps to the significant colors used on the endsheets and the treatment of the page numbers contributed greatly to the pleasure of reading.
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Gilligan’s Wake: A Novel by Tom Carson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was just reminded of this novel by a friend who posted that today (9/26/2014) is the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast episode of ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ so I dug into Amazon where I see that my 1/31/2003 review of ‘Gilligan’s Wake’ – probably the first Amazon review I wrote – was featured. Here it is:
(Five Stars) Joycean ride for nondubliners
I just finished this guilty pleasure on the train to work this morning. I read and enjoy a lot of books, but I never feel the need to comment immediately to the Amazonian public about them. This is one that I’d hate to see slip quietly below the radar in the flood of new novels.
It’s not just a pop culture pastiche I’ve seen it described as; it’s a very heartfelt picture of the world for those of us who grew up in the second half of the American century. If you’ve ever read Ulysses wishing that you had more firsthand experience with the streets of 1904 Dublin, or tried to read Finnegans Wake wishing that you had a better working knowledge of Norwegian puns, this is the book for you (assuming of course, you owned a TV, were aware of current events and maybe read some T.S. Eliot and had a few years of French).
Here’s proof once again that St. James of Dublin (Trieste, Paris and Zurich) was not a dead end for literature, but a new beginning.
Now I want to read it again.
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This well-illustrated article, The Opposite of Icarus, on The Paris Review blog today helps to explain why the British fell behind the Germans in the development of airships when His Majesty’s Airship Mayfly (or the Won’t Fly in Winston Churchill’s words) broke up before leaving the ground on this date in 1911.
The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The tale of the FBI office burglary itself deserves five stars and it deserves to be known by every American. The loss of a star comes from some loss of focus as the book spends a few more pages than necessary on the current decade’s familiar intelligence history and abuses since 9/11 (but even if you skim some of the later chapters, please read the acknowledgments for the personal, almost accidental, story of two of the burglars revealing their identities to the author).
The world of 1971 is well rendered and the brave people who burglarized the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania to expose J. Edgar Hoover’s crimes are treated sympathetically. How much longer would the FBI have been able to deny their abuses if not for the documents stolen by these eight ordinary people, sent to Betty Medsger at The Washington Post, and published by the Post over the objections of the Nixon Administration? The fact that none of the burglars were ever caught by the FBI despite J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with finding them is astonishing. I was personally struck by the connections with Catholic peace movement of the Berrigans and with Philadelphia Resistance (a group I was at the fringes of in high school) and the members who overlapped with the Camden 28. That draft board break-in (and the amazing trial and verdict that followed) deserves a book of its own, but Betty Medsger does a great job of placing the Camden 28 story in context here. I hadn’t thought of that group of priests and lay people in years, but I remember going to benefits for them, including one starring George Carlin. I wholeheartedly recommend this book. I don’t think my recommendation is too highly colored by the fact that the story has some resonances from my youth; it’s an amazing and overlooked event in our recent national history, and a personal story of what ordinary people can do in extraordinary times.
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