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Posts Tagged ‘Saul Bellow’

Author of Henderson the Fire King

January 13, 2014 | by

This week, we’re presenting Timothy Leo Taranto’s author puns. Today:

Saul Bellows

Saul Bellows

 

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Henry Doesn’t Have Any Bats

June 6, 2013 | by

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My poetry shelf is slim but holds the most thumbed book I own: John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, and, until recently, I would read several songs a week, rereading my favorites as if they held some kind of clue. I read them to cheer myself or wallow. I read them aloud, alone and to other people. Some nights after having wine, I’d read the meanest, strangest ones aloud. When I found a copy in a bookstore, I’d open to a favorite and hand it to someone. Even his darkest, most dire, most hopeless songs soothe me. Lines worm in me for weeks.

It’s not that I think Berryman is the most talented writer or that he has written the most important poems or that his work has reached some aesthetic pinnacle or that I have nothing better to read. All of those things are untrue, and yet I am compelled to read his work in a way I am not often compelled by anyone else’s work. I am still trying to understand why.

Nearly a decade ago, I almost made myself sick on them during a New Orleans summer. While hurricanes spun toward us from the gulf, dire conversations at the grocery store blended into my Dream Song summer like milk poured into milk.

A note signed J.B. at the front of the book: 

The poem then … is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age … who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second.

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Afterlife

April 16, 2013 | by

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Christopher Wallace is dead, murdered in the early hours of March 9, 1997, one block from my childhood home in Los Angeles. But exactly two weeks after his death, Wallace’s alter ego, the Notorious B.I.G., rose again with the album Life After Death. Geppetto was gone, but his Pinocchio lived on.

Like Wallace, “Biggie” grew up in Brooklyn, but in Bed-Stuy rather than Wallace’s more middle-class Clinton Hill. He dealt drugs, toted four-fours, and took falls, all of which Wallace did. But Biggie was a goddamned capo compared to his dramaturge’s small-time crook. Where Wallace was really gifted—almost preternaturally so, considering he died at twenty-four—was in the constructing and performing of a character, his character. Biggie was a fiction—not so farfetched as to court incredulity, but idealized, a romanticization of the writer. He was autobiographical to a point, but embellished into a Mitty-esque wish-fulfillment through whom his audience could vicariously fantasize about the good life: popping bottles and topping models.

In character, and within the strictures of the medium, Wallace could do and say things he’d never get away with as himself. With his heavy tongue he could probe the decay of poverty in a bouncy radio hit, or parody our nihilistic materialism with a club banger that made him millions, and never be in danger of hypocrisy.

Biggie was, his fans understood, the Flatbush Falstaff, dedicated to excess and frivolity, while Wallace was the mysterious magus who spawned him. Sadly, even magi are mortal. But, luckily for us, Big Poppa is forever.

Christopher Wallace is dead. Long live Biggie Smalls. Read More »

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Stuffed

August 30, 2012 | by

Around Valentine’s Day, my gut finally confirmed what my head had long known: I would in fact be graduating from college in just three months, which meant that something would have to be done about the books.

This was in Philadelphia, in a large room on the second floor of a three-story house on Baltimore Avenue. Not wanting the hassle of selling a sofa or armchair at year’s end, I had furnished the room with little other than a bed, a salvaged nightstand, and a too-small desk borrowed from a friend’s girlfriend’s roommate. If it weren’t for the books (and the Robert Kennedy campaign poster that passed for decoration), a visitor to my room might surmise that its occupant tended toward a mildly disturbed kind of solitude. But there were books, lots of them. Books lined the mantel of the bricked-up fireplace. Books were stacked at the foot of the bed; they were strewn on the floor around the desk like a blast radius. Piles of books that frequently collapsed into small landslides annexed the nightstand. A stray book or two often lay on the floor in the middle of the room, the aftermath of hasty between-class transitions. For the first time in my life, I felt I had too many books.

You have to understand that like many bibliophiles, this was a Rubicon I never imagined crossing. In my experience, the adage “all things in moderation” carries much wisdom; until last winter, I thought books were an exception to this rule, occupying a higher moral plane than other things one might collect, like bottles of fine scotch or European football jerseys. In my reverence for the printed word, I subscribed to all the humanistic pieties: books as worlds between two covers, as food for the mind and soul, as a link between living and dead. Walking into Penn’s library every day for the last two years, I passed beneath a window bearing a breathless quotation from Samuel Daniel: “O blessed letters! That combine in one all ages past, and make one live with all!” The pane’s religiosity was apt; my faith in books had never been higher than in college. There, they protected me from the terrifying emptiness of Sunday afternoons, distracted me from one girl or another’s failure to return my call, and transported me from the campuses where I often felt I was merely playing at life, swept away from my old comfortable St. Louis existence because I needed a college degree. Books were the tributaries that returned me to the main current, if only for a few hours.

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On Cataloguing Flaubert

August 27, 2012 | by

Joanna Neborsky is a book lover’s illustrator. She may be as passionate and romantic about books and bookmaking as anyone I’ve met. She also draws the kind of pictures I’ve always wanted to make. They are deceptively simple due to the naive charm of each wobbly line, and they owe a great deal to the inspiration of mid-twentieth-century illustration—an obsession she and I both share. A few years ago Joanna and I collaborated on the cover of John Bowe’s Americans Talk About Love. A recent art school grad, she was willing to endlessly modify caricatures of the people interviewed for the book. The final package made for a witty and accessible take on social history. I always urge the artists I work with to keep me apprised of new projects, and so a few weeks ago I was tickled to discover a jpeg of Joanna’s poster “A Partial Inventory of Gustave Flaubert’s Personal Effects, As Catalogued by M. Lemoel on May 20, 1880, Twelve Days after the Writer’s Death” in my inbox. We had to share it with readers of The Paris Review, and now I wanted to share a little about how it came to be.

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Something for Nothing

March 19, 2012 | by

America, from its Puritan past to its mass-incarceration present, has never been particularly hospitable to criminals. Yet, from time to time, an outlaw rises to the level of folk hero, based on a captivating personal narrative or a prevailing mood in the culture. Perhaps no category of crook has been more consistently compelling than the con artist. During their heyday, from the mid-nineteenth century up through the first decades of the twentieth, when innovations in transportation brought more strangers together and promises of fast fortune spread across the country, practitioners earned memorable nicknames—Soapy Smith, Snitzer the Kid, Appetite Bill—and spoke in a florid and amusing argot. (Every object in the game, from money to cards to actors, was given a nickname, as were the games themselves, dubbed the wipe, the wire, the big mitt, the huge duke, the tip, the tale, the strap, the spud, or the shake with the button.) Con men normally stole by guile rather than by physical intimidation or brute force. And their thieving relied on complicated mechanisms of performance and intelligence—it was indeed an art, complete with its own hierarchy of ability. The best of them could be imagined as dashing and debonair—like Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting, men who valued the game more than what it earned.

Most important, the nature of the con implicated the victim in its own criminal logic. Marks were roped in with promises of inside information on a fixed horse race, rigged stock market, or some other path to easy money—only to see their contributions to the dubious venture stolen right before their eyes. As the linguist David Maurer wrote in The Big Con, his encyclopedic study of confidence crimes and the men that ran them, the operation worked based on a fixed maxim: “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

For many con artists, this was as much an excuse as a credo. Take, for example, the Chicago con man Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, who claimed to have stolen more than eight million dollars from assorted marks, as victims in the con game are known, during a career that spanned more than half a century. You would think he’d be the last person inclined to judge harshly the avarice of his fellow man. Yet, in 1956, after he’d turned eighty, he explained himself to Saul Bellow, who summed up the man’s conception of the moral universe:

The years have not softened his heart toward the victims of his confidence schemes. Of course he was a crook, but the “marks” whom he and his associates trimmed were not honest men. “I have never cheated any honest men,” he says, “only rascals. They may have been respectable but they were never any good.” And this is how he sums the matter up: “They wanted something for nothing. I gave them nothing for something.” He says it clearly and sternly; he is not a pitying man. To be sure, he wants to justify his crimes, but quite apart from this he believes that honest men do not exist.

While many con artists gained larger-than-life reputations, their victims mostly remained faceless, since, as Amy Reading explains in her engrossing new book, The Mark Inside, most were reluctant to take a complaint to the authorities. Local police were often paid off to look the other way, but even if they hadn’t been, marks were unlikely to confess to being robbed while putting money on a crooked scheme. Even the truly innocent—and indeed there were honest and decent people cleaned in cons—wouldn’t be eager to come forward and announce their gullibility to the world.

Who, then, would stand up for the victims, the marks who were considered at best fools, or at worst, criminals themselves? Enter J. Frank Norfleet, a short, mustachioed cattle rancher from the Texas panhandle, who became the most renowned advocate for the victims of cons in the history of the game. Read More »

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