September 13, 2011 | by J. D. Mitchell
Seventy-three-year-old Ishmael Reed has been a major figure in American letters for more than four decades. In April, Dalkey Archive published Juice!, Reed’s first novel in more than fifteen years. Juice! tells the story of a struggling African American cartoonist whose personal and professional life is disrupted by the media frenzy surrounding the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Earlier this summer, Reed, who is based in Oakland, California, responded to some of my questions about his latest work.
Juice! is your first novel since 1993. What inspired you to write another novel after all these years?
I began this one as soon as I heard about the murders. I was vacationing in Hawaii, and the murders ruined my vacation. The media went berserk over the murder of Nicole Simpson, the kind of ideal white woman—a Rhine maiden—one finds in Nazi art and propaganda, murdered allegedly by a black beast. It was a story that reached into the viscera of the American unconscious, recalling the old Confederate art of the black boogeyman as an incubus squatting on top of a sleeping, half-clad white woman. It was also an example of collective blame. All black men became O. J. The murders ignited a kind of hysteria.
Juice! does not have a conventional structure. The novel incorporates courtroom documents, television transcripts, and pieces of visual art. It also plays around quite a bit with time. What gave rise to the novel’s peculiar shape?
I try to experiment. Writing a conventional novel would be boring for me. In this novel, I added cartoons. Cartoons were probably my introduction to storytelling as a child, because on Sundays we got The Chattanooga Times, and I’d read the funnies. A publisher wanted to publish Juice! but decided that the cartoons weren’t up to par. So, at the age of seventy, I studied at the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco, and the cartoons improved so much that I now do political cartoons for The San Francisco Chronicle’s blog, City Brights.Read More »
June 8, 2011 | by J. D. Mitchell
“It’s actually nice to play on this piano because it’s got the funk,” said the virtuoso jazz pianist Jason Moran. He was seated at an old Kurtzman upright piano and had just finished playing a lush, hard-swinging solo version of “The Sheik of Araby,” a tune he recently learned for his Fats Waller dance party at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. His comment elicited nervous laughter from the crowd of fans who’d crammed themselves into the main room of a suffocatingly hot Lower East Side apartment late last month—some of us seated on fold-out chairs, others on the floor—to hear him play two unaccompanied sets. Moran, one of the most celebrated young jazz artists of the last ten years, seemed right at home in this intimate, makeshift performance space, aptly named A Gathering of Tribes. Although he has been justly praised for his sometimes cerebral approach to jazz, the no-frills atmosphere of the venue, which attracts players of every school and listeners of every stripe, accentuated the earthier side of his style.
A Gathering of Tribes is the home of author and educator Steve Cannon, a man the writer Paul Beatty, who dropped by for Moran’s second set, once referred to as “professor emeritus of the Lower East Side.” For the past twenty years Cannon has used his apartment to stage public readings, concerts, and art exhibitions. The venture reflects his devotion to the local community and his desire to preserve its vanishing bohemian character, which he came to know firsthand upon moving there from New Orleans in the 1960s. Cannon has made Tribes a particularly important site for contemporary jazz music. It boasts an impressive roster of past performers, including Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Butch Morris, and Matthew Shipp.
November 17, 2010 | by J. D. Mitchell
Christopher Sorrentino’s Death Wish is a monograph on the controversial and eponymous 1974 action movie. It stars Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey, an architect turned vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter is brutally assaulted in their New York City apartment. The book is the second installment in Soft Skull’s Deep Focus series, which invites contemporary writers to examine important popular films. I recently interviewed Sorrentino about his new book via e-mail.
In the 1970s, Hollywood produced a number of superficially political, urban action films. I’m thinking of Dirty Harry, which you discuss at some length in the book, and, of course, blaxploitation cinema. What made you decide to revisit Death Wish in particular?
Sean Howe approached me with the idea of writing about a movie that hadn’t been done to death, and we batted around a list of titles and genres ranging from eighties romantic comedies to zombie movies. The most prominent one we talked about was The French Connection. I really don’t like that movie, but it did get us talking about New York on film in the seventies. Among other reasons, Death Wish appealed to me because I’ve always been fascinated by Charles Bronson—since I was a kid. I didn’t have especially high expectations for the film itself, although Death Wish ended up surprising me a lot.
When did you first see the film?
Oh, probably when I was a teenager.