Inhuman Swill : March 2012

This past Sunday my father-in-law turned 71. He used to be (and quite possibly I will get this wrong) a Formula Four racer and has always had a thing for cars. In planning for this birthday, he found a Groupon for an exotic-car driving experience at the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet. The country club is exactly what it sounds like—a place where, instead of golfing, members get to race their high-performance cars on one of the private tracks. And for a few weeks every year, an outfit called Imagine Lifestyles puts on events there where reg'lar folks like you or me can drive Lamborghinis or Ferraris or Maseratis or what have you.

It was supposed to be my father-in-law, my brother-in-law Tom, and me, but it so happened that my father-in-law was ill on Sunday so he offered his slot to Laura. (Our friend Barbara Lynn was in town from New York, so she tagged along with us to the track, too.) I was very nervous about driving, especially after the quick safety-training session we had to go through, which explained all the flags you might see around the track and how to use the orange and green cones to guide you through the execution of each curve.

Tom drove a Lamborghini Gallardo (I believe that was the make). Laura drove a Mercedes SLS with gull-wing doors. I drove a Ferrari F430. Four cars would go out at a time, led by a souped-up Mustang as the pace car. My Ferrari happened to be the first car after the pace car, and I was pretty worried about not keeping up and ruining the experience for the three drivers behind me. Fortunately, there was a coach in the passenger seat beside me, and though I lagged a little through the first lap, I managed to keep up pretty well through the next two. My knuckles were white, though.

There was a video camera mounted in every car, so we each got an SD card with our cockpit video on it after the "race" to take home. Here's mine, if you want to hop into the Ferrari with me for a little spin:

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Like many writers, I have long had the habit of keeping notes about future story ideas. I was probably 17 or 18 when I had an idea for a story about man whose many siblings are one by one being picked off by an unknown assailant. The man grows increasingly paranoid and isolated as each one dies, until at last he is the only sibling left. We come to understand that the story has unfolded over the course of a lifetime, and the only assailant is implacable death itself. My note for the story was probably something along the lines of "Brothers and sisters murdered one by one."

Like many fathers, mine long had the habit of going through my stuff from time to time. So it was that my father sat me down one night with a solemn look on his face, waved my story notes, and said, "Are you planning to kill your brothers and sisters?"

As the eldest of eight kids, I admit that I did not take much interest in my family, and I did keep to myself as best I could and keep my many creative pursuits secret. But was that chicken or egg? Was I like that because I had to put up with stupid questions like that one?

I think my father died without ever honestly understanding why I didn't like to talk to him. Which is a shame because he was a smart, interesting guy, and I could have learned a lot of things from him. I mean things besides the ones he taught inadvertently.

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Engines
I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the Sanfilippo Estate last Saturday afternoon. I certainly didn't expect to feel as if I were literally walking into the mind of Gene Wolfe, but that's what it was like.

The occasion was an evening to honor Gene Wolfe as the first recipient of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame's Fuller Award for lifetime contribution to letters. Since the Hall of Fame itself is reserved for dead Chicago writers—Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg, Ida B. Wells, Theodore Dreiser, and the like—the Fuller Award was created to recognize the achievements of great living Chicago writers. It was miraculous enough that the first Fuller was being bestowed upon a writer of science fiction and fantasy. The amazing setting for the festivities was like a bushel of cherries poured on top of a spun-sugar sundae.

As we guests arrived at the gated estate in Barrington Hills, we left our cars with the valets at the carousel house and either walked or rode in a shuttle over rolling lawns, past a rail line (no train in evidence, sadly), and around an expansive pond to a huge brick Victorian mansion. Even inside the soaring foyer, where I ran into Gary K. Wolfe, met Peter Straub, and chatted with Patrick O'Leary, I had no idea the wonders I was about to see. The mansion, you see, is more of less a museum of mechanical marvels collected by Chicago engineer and roasted-nut magnate Jasper Sanfilippo. As I wandered through three levels of the house, I saw orchestrions, pianolas, vionolas, music boxes, moviolas, record players, gaming machines, fortune-telling machines, and all manner of fin de si├Ęcle era devices in overwhelming profusion. The bright lights, brass, and air of seaside merriment continually reminded me of such Wolfe stories as "Seven American Nights" and "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton."

At five-thirty, we all gathered in the theater, an immense balconied chamber draped in velvet and built to house the world's largest theater organ. Critic and scholar Gary K. Wolfe (no relation, of course, to Gene) opened the award ceremony with a quick history of the realist and fantastic traditions in Chicago literature and the building where they may once have shared offices. Neil Gaiman read the short story "A Solar Labyrinth," then presented the Fuller Award to Gene Wolfe, whose acceptance speech was itself an intricate flight of fancy.

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Lost things

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On my walk this morning
I encountered lost things
here and there:

A glove.
A key ring.
A hearing aid.
Me.

La sagrada tarea

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Today I read
about a man
who has spent
the past thirty
years writing
someone else's
biography.
And he's still
not finished.

Not to quibble
with anyone's
life's work, but
that's a lot of
years to spend
on somebody
else's life.
I'm not sure
I've even spent
that much time
on my own.

How does that
even happen?
A random turn,
a shiny detour,
and suddenly
you've walked
a hundred miles
in someone
else's shoes?
Too late to
turn back, the
only way out
is through?

No doubt my
own devotion
to invented lives
in invented times
and places
would look as
puzzling to him.
What, reality not
good enough?
Earth not room
enough for you?
I guess not.

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raylan.jpg
Update: Since writing this little review, I've learned that Elmore Leonard gave the manuscript of Raylan to the writers of Justified a couple of years ago so they could "hang it up and strip it for parts." This answers some questions of mine but doesn't change my opinion of the book.
Let me say up front that I adore Elmore Leonard. Wait, rever might be a better word. Worship. Idolize. I've been working my way through his immense canon for years. When I bought my iPad, the first thing I did was load it up with his ebooks. His minimalist, dialog-driven prose conveys more than most writers' wordier, clumsy attempts at clarity. He's surely our greatest living writer of crime fiction, and I wish I could write like he does.

That said, Leonard has always had a problem with sequels, which is what his new novel Raylan essentially is. Whether bringing Chili Palmer from Get Shorty back in Be Cool or Jack Foley from Out of Sight back in Road Dogs, he simply seems to have trouble finding a story of equal weight to build around characters who've already had their perfect turn in the spotlight. I appreciate the fact that major characters from some Leonard novels often show up in supporting roles in others, but two major outings always seems to be one too many.

This, I regret to say, is the case with Raylan. U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens was a supporting character in Leonard's 1993 novel Pronto, then a more major character in 1995's Riding the Rap, but he probably enjoyed his finest role in the 2000 novella "Fire in the Hole." In that story Givens, who sees himself as a modern-day gunslinging lawman, is punished for his trigger-happy ways with a reassignment from Florida to Kentucky, where he grew up and mined coal as a teenager. He is drawn reluctantly but inevitably into a showdown with his former friend and colleague Boyd Crowder, who has gone the other way into a life of crime and violence.

"Fire in the Hole" was the direct inspiration for the FX series Justified, which is in its third season and is currently one of my favorite shows on television. Unfortunately Justified seems to have been the direct inspiration for Raylan, which is less a novel than three slightly overlapping Raylan Givens novellas smooshed together into one book. The first plotline, about a gang who steal kidneys and then try to sell them back to the victims, has appeared in slightly different form on Justified already this season. The second, about a mining company's attempts to intimidate land owners into selling, was the story underlying most of Justified's second season. The third features hookers coerced into committing dangerous robberies in exchange for oxycontin, a plotline that appeared in last week's Justified, and I think it's reasonable to assume that the high-stakes poker subplot will show up in a future episode.

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mittbot.jpg
Mitt Romney is used to being called "President Romney." From 1986 until 1994, he served as what's called a stake president in the LDS Church. A stake president is the lay ecclesiastical leader who oversees a local group of Mormon congregations (wards) and their bishops. Mitt led the Boston Stake, comprising about 4,000 Mormons at the time, all of whom would properly have referred to him as "President Romney" and addressed him as "President." Not only that, but once released from the calling he would still have been called "President" by his flock, as a courtesy, in recognition of his past service. Once a president, always a president.

(One wonders whether, once Mitt became governor of Massachusetts, church members started addressing him as "Governor" or continued addressing him as "President." Hmm. I could see it going either way.)

I don't want to sound prejudiced, but that past as part of the LDS hierarchy is one of the reasons I instinctively dislike Mitt Romney. I don't know if it's chicken or egg, but there's a certain demeanor that men at the level of stake president and above seem to bring to the calling. Not all of them, but certainly a majority of them. There's a bland kind of handsomeness. There's an aura of being not quite present, of being above everything and everyone around them. There's a core of certainty to everything they say, backed up as it is by the full weight of a highly centralized doctrinal structure. Their delivery is usually grave, as if they're delivering difficult news straight from the mouth of God himself, except when there's a forced, cheesy jokiness that seems calculated to soften the rest of this authoritarian, patriarchal baggage. And there is never, ever a sense of the real person underneath. The role inhabits the man, not vice versa.

The best way to get a look at the parade of blandness that is the LDS leadership is to tune in to a televised General Conference in early April or October. If you don't see a marked similarity between the way Mitt Romney comes across and the way most of the church leaders present themselves as they address the worldwide membership of the Church—well, let's just say I'll be surprised. There's a good reason Mitt comes off as such a robot to so many people. The Sanctibot-1850 is a proud Mormon tradition.

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