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:

After Laura's drive in the Mercedes, her coach accidentally dropped her SD card between the console and seat. They searched the car but couldn't find the card, so they let Laura take another ride, either as a driver or passenger. She elected to ride shotgun in a Corvette convertible as one of the professionals drove, so she could get a feel for what it was like on the track with someone who knew what he was doing at the wheel. Here's the video from that ride:

I've never really been a car guy, but now I can understand why someone would want to become rich just to be able to do something like this every weekend from April to October.

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.

I think I'll still write that story someday, though.

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.

Engines 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."

Gene Wolfe receives the Fuller Award from Neil Gaiman 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.

Next we were favored with a staged reading of the story "The Toy Theater," adapted by Lawrence Santoro and performed with organ accompaniment by Terra Mysterium, all clad in their steampunkiest finery. Organist R. Jelani Eddington then performed half a dozen pieces on the 8,000-pipe organ, after which we were invited to walk back to the carousel house for the banquet.

Entering the Eden Palais Carousel pavilion If we had seen wonders already, no one was prepared for the bright-lit scene we encountered upon entering the carousel house. The Eden Palais Carousel toured France from 1890 until 1959, and resided in Colorado and Montana until Jasper Sanfilippo purchased it in 1987. It's the most complete example of a European salon carousel in existence. Our banquet tables were set up in the pavilion outside the carousel chamber itself, each table named after a Gene Wolfe novel. I found my place at Free Live Free, and was delighted to sit next to Patrick O'Leary and his wife Sandy Rice, and across from Sandman artist Jill Thompson. At each of our place settings was a signed copy of Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman's A Walking Tour of the Shambles.

The toastmaster for the banquet was Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, who quickly established his geek bona fides by recounting his first reading of The Shadow of the Torturer at the age of fifteen, and how it taught him that science fiction could have more to say about the real world than realistic fiction. He then introduced a cavalcade of Wolfe appreciators who spoke for a minute or two apiece, including (and I know I will leave some out) author Michael Swanwick, author Patrick O'Leary, Gene Wolfe on the phantasmagorical Eden Palais Carousel author Luis Alberto Urrea, scholar Elizabeth Anne Hull (wife of Frederik Pohl), photographer Kyle Cassidy, author Lawrence Santoro, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, author Jody Lynn Nye, author Neil Gaiman, and Gene's long-time editor David G. Hartwell. (Hartwell related amusing stories of Gene calling him an inattentive reader.)

But that wasn't the end of the evening! Not by any stretch! As the dessert buffet and coffee station opened, anyone who wished was invited to enter the inner chamber and queue up for rides on the impossibly ornate carousel. I was one of the first in line, and during my turn on the carousel I got to watch Gary Wolfe, in one of the backward-facing carriages, shooting a photo of Michael Dirda on horseback. When our ride was done, I joined the crowd watching the second running of the painted horses, which included Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick ... well, why don't you just watch the video I took and see how many familiar faces you can spot whirling by?

I'm sure you'll understand when I say it was difficult not to grin like an idiot through the whole evening. As I was getting ready to leave, I asked Gary Wolfe, who was out in front of the carousel house smoking his pipe, if he'd had any idea what the Sanfilippo Estate was going to be like. David G. Hartwell finds focus on the Eden Palais Carousel "None," he said, adding that of all the long-time Chicago residents present he'd talked to, only one of them had ever heard of the place before the invitation to the award ceremony arrived.

You know, as the setting for a celebration of any other writer, the Sanfilippo Estate would have struck me as hopelessly over-the-top. For Gene Wolfe, however, it was perfectly apt. In fact, I can't imagine a better externalization of what I assume it's like inside his head. If only I had known what the occasion would be like, I would have begged Laura to change her plans and come along with me. I would have begged all of you to change your plans and come along.

But of course you can. Just pick up any novel or story collection by Gene Wolfe. I might start with The Fifth Head of Cerberus, if you're unfamiliar, or the collection Storeys from the Old Hotel. When you've warmed up a little, move on to the four volumes of The Book of the New Sun, and continue your exploration from there. Welcome to the labyrinth.

[More of my photos from the evening are here.]

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.

Or maybe they're
really the same
thing, these
painstaking
recreations of
unknowable
worlds, fictions
based in fact
or vice versa--
cathedrals
never to be
completed in
our lifetimes,
which, with luck,
will still draw
tourists after
the architects
are dead.

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.
raylan.jpg 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.

I found the book to be an unfocused, disappointing mess. I'm not sure whether Leonard assembled it from scenarios he'd generated himself as an executive producer of Justified or borrowed ideas from the show's writers, but either way it's hard to see how it would appeal to anyone. The narrative is too fractured and too reliant on familiarity with past Givens stories to appeal to new readers, and it recycles too much familiar material from the show to appeal to Justified fans.

In the end, though I'm pained to say it, Raylan simply comes off as a crass attempt to cash in on the popularity of the show, and on that level I guess it worked. It fooled me into parting with my 25 bucks.

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.)

mittbot.jpg 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.

Like I say, not all Mormon leaders come across that way. I've known many of them, particularly down at the lowly level of ward bishop, who were warm and understanding and human—and also obviously not destined to rise far in the Church ranks. But on those occasions that I've met one-on-one, behind closed doors, with the Mitt-style leaders, I've always come away intimidated and not a little terrified by way they seem to channel the cold, wrathful, unshakable judgment of God in the counsel and censure they calmly and coolly offer. These are not men you negotiate with. These are men who tell you how it is, and how it's going to be.

Now that Mitt has won the Michigan primary and is that much closer to capturing the Republican nomination, I'm that much more terrified of a masked man like that, already accustomed to the title of president and with full confidence in the correctness of his calling, occupying the Oval Office.

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