On Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night”: The Last Waltz in Holt, Colorado

So I felt a mixture of sadness and readerly pleasure upon opening Kent Haruf’s final, posthumous novel, Our Souls at Night, to be published by Knopf this month. I first encountered Haruf’s fiction in 1999, when I was assigned his novel Plainsong to review for the Houston Chronicle. Ever since then I’ve read all of Haruf’s fiction, with perhaps Eventide (2004) being my favorite. I also had the good fortune to come to know Haruf, as I live in Colorado about an hour south of where he had a house near Salida. He was a soft-spoken, kind man, who worked as a teacher for many years, and, when I met him, was retired. He confessed to me that he was glad to be done with it. One of the main characters of Plainsong is a teacher, as is Louis Waters, the (retired) hero of Our Souls at Night.

Simply put, it’s a terrific book—understated, lyrical and deft—focusing on the lives of people who are often overlooked in the world, the denizens of a small town on the eastern plains of Colorado. I reviewed it for the Dallas Morning News, and will post my review here when it appears, in a couple weeks I would guess. Meanwhile fans of Haruf’s fiction should know that they won’t be disappointed wit this new novel. To me it’s better than Benediction (2013), his most recent novel before this.

Posted in The West, Uncategorized, books/film, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Dr. WarmLove or: How I Stopped Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Heat”

So I had the odd Flashback Experience of being visited last week by a college roommate I had not seen in twenty years (and we were roomies much longer ago than that, at the University of Texas, in Austin, circa 1984), a Polish friend who lives in Warsaw, and at one point I asked him about the perception of Climate Change in Poland, whether it was a major issue or not—while I also made the point that it seems to me a much bigger issue in the Western U.S. than in the East (I live in both places, and will spend five months this year in Pennsylvania, seven months in Colorado and beyond). He said no, that it wasn’t a major issue, and repeated some Climate Change skeptic claptrap, as if half the scientists of the world were in doubt of the issue, the same kind of blather that spews from the mouths of Fox News et al. That “ordinary people” believe this nonsense is no shocker, but it’s still disappointing. In a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s great film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) I wish I could turn it all into a comedy, as I am writing about it (in my novel The Bird Saviors, most recently), though it’s hard to pull that off. In today’s Bloomberg.com page, here, there’s a graphic about the rising temperatures, and how March has just been announced as the hottest March on record, with 2015 already on pace to outdo 2014 as the hottest year on record (we can hope this is a fluke, and it cools later this summer or fall, I guess). High Country News recently reported a debate about whether the West is in a mega-drought or not. California snowpack is at five percent of average. We keep this up, and here’s a vision of what the average home in the West will look like in another decade or two:

But I think the analogy to Dr. Strangelove is curiously apt: At some point you have to get over your frustration, anger, and irritation at the stupidity of the vested interests working so hard to deny Climate Change, and try to say something intelligent and visionary about it. I’m working on a new novel that’s set in the West, and the heat and wind and wildfires that we expect every summer are just part of the landscape now. It’s hard to laugh at it, but it doesn’t do anyone much good to be perpetually angry, either. Perhaps it’s time for a maniacal laugh, like Slim Pickens does as he whoops and hollers, riding the bomb down into Russia.

Posted in Climate Change, The West, Water Crisis | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Chris Nolan’s “Interstellar” as Half-Baked Cli-Fi, or What Does Matthew McConaughey Eat in Outer Space? Pretzel Ions?

So I must first confess I’ve never been seduced by the eye-candy of Christopher Nolan’s films: Yes, they’re imaginative, clever, outlandish and topical. I’m all for that. But at some point they tend to turn so “Hollywood” that you have to throw your brain into the wastebasket and just go with it. My students (Millenials, go figure!) loved Inception (2010), but I found my patience growing thin about, say, a half hour into the film. Which is all to say I wasn’t overly eager to see Interstellar (2104), even though I’m a sucker for a good scifi film, and even more so if there are aliens in it—a category Interstellar does and doesn’t fit. Yes, there are “unseen” aliens afoot, but unseen is close to out-of-sight, out-of-mind. They might be the same aliens in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012), for all we know—except in Prometheus, they are seen, kind of.

My curiosity finally got the best of me (a condition that has happened many times before, often with decidedly mixed results) and I watched Interstellar. The first part had its charms: the dust storms plaguing the nameless Midwest (Iowa?) or Great Plains (Kansas? which Easterners think is Midwest, but not really) locale are like the dust storms in my novel The Bird Saviors (2012), charmingly identified/pigeon-holed as “CliFi” (Climate Fiction) by some critics. So, yes, I was feeling a bit simpatico at that moment. Suffice to say all Nolan’s credibility wore off right about the time Matt Damon improbably pushed Matthew McConaughey down a glacial slope of some unnamed planet in another galaxy. At that point the film took a Hollywood turn about as logical as the dream-theft in Inception. And it kept going and going. One minute McConaughey is looking at a black hole that is probably quite a distance away and then he shoots off and moments later he ejects to float around in said black hole, without even so much as a scratch. Meanwhile I’m thinking, What is he eating up there in space? Those little Kraft cheese-and-crackers things for astronauts? Gallons of Tang? Pretzel ions? Anne Hathaway’s black bangs?

Speaking of which: Is Anne Hathaway the least-convincing astronaut ever? I liked her as the White Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland (2010). As an astronaut, not so much. Maybe Jennifer Jason Leigh would be better—sarcastic and insecure, like all astronauts, right? (Well, not really.) Who might be better, you ask? I don’t know. Someone not so pretty-in-plastic? Personally I think Matthew McConaughey’s role (“Coop,” who growled and breathed heavily through most of his lines) should have gone to John C. Reilly, and maybe Kristen Wiig could have played Brand, Hathaway’s pretty-but-unconvincing astronaut. At least we’d get some laughs from it, right?

Posted in Climate Change, The West, books/film | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Bear-Attack Film “Backcountry”: Generation D Goes for a Hike

So I’m a sucker for a good bear-attack movie, having backpacked many times in the gorgeous/treacherous wilds of grizzly country (Alaska, Montana, Wyoming), where it’s often said that humans are not the top of the food chain, which can certainly give one pause. A backpacking trip in Denali National Park probably ranks as my most bear-filled, as at one point my wife and I could see five different grizzlies from our perch on a hillside. I’ve never had a bad bear encounter, but I stay on my guard. I’ve read every bear attack book I could get my hands on, most of them being decidedly of the I Shouldn’t Be Alive genre—based on the gruesome fun of the I Shouldn’t Be Alive series. Case in point, Season 3, episode 23: “Nightmare on the Mountain”: “In 1995 Bram Schaffer, an 18 year-old elk hunter, was mauled by a grizzly bear in Montana. His severely injured parts of his thigh were ripped off the bone and he must get off the mountain during a large storm. Other hunters assist Bram during the ordeal, providing medical care and carrying him to a camp, eventually resulting in his survival”—http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Shouldn’t_Be_Alive.

Now comes the new indie film hit Backcountry (2014), from writer/director Adam MacDonald, set in the Canadian wilds, but so steeped in horror-movie tropes that it might as well have been set at Camp Crystal Lake, in the scenic nether reaches of New Jersey—locale of the classic slasher Friday the 13th (1980). Backcountry is benefitting from some good buzz and a rather glowing New York Times review, here. Or what about this ad: ”A Must See. Does for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean.” Sounds great, right? If you like that kind of thing?

What makes it kind of fun is its implicit cultural critique of Millennials—although, in this case it’s not so much the Millennials as Generation D, as in Dumb. From the get-go, the couple in the film are not-so-subtly identified as deserving of a gruesome fate: the boyfriend, Alex, is a perfect example of the contemporary Feckless Male, a loser who is lucky to be able to tie his hiking boots without calling Mom to explain to him, once again, how to tie a bow. He eschews a map, compass, and poo-poos the contents of his girlfriend’s backpack, which includes a cellphone and some bear spray. For her part, Jenn, the girlfriend, enters the film staring at her cellphone a lot, and seeming somewhat oblivious to where they are and what they’re actually doing in the real world, which is hiking off into the woods without a map, with only her feckless BF as her guide.

Typical to the horror-film genre, from the outset dire rumblings are heard. The backcountry ranger at the Provincial Park office is jokey and sinister, only one step removed from the threatening hillbilly Mordecai in the (much better film) Cabin in the Woods (2012). A threatening fellow hiker appears—Brad (Eric Balfour)—offering fish and sexual conquest threat, peeing in the camp, and all but daring Alex to a fistfight to see who gets to bed Jenn. At that point I’m thinking, “Jeez, this is the woods. Not a subway ride.” But “Brad” wanders off, only to return at the film’s finale, suddenly helpful.

Everything Alex does is wrong: He gets the two of them lost, has a silly emotional breakdown once lost, and then slowly plods along, seemingly for a couple days, as the bear threat (which he denied from the hike’s first moments) edges closer and closer. When the bear finally arrives in camp he huddles in the tent, even though any experienced hiker (which he’s supposed to be, actually) knows a little nylon shell offers no protection whatsoever. They’re carrying two weapons—bear spray and an ax—but, until the last possible moment, seem to forget that they would come in handy. And when Jenn finally gets the bear spray functional, Yogi has already crunched Alex’s shin into a bloody mess. Plus it doesn’t seem to work (although bear spray has been known to be generally quite effective), as the bear leaves, but returns to drag Alex away and eat him. Jenn then limps and falls and crawls her way back to the trailhead, although when she returns to find their canoe, essentially the first leg of their trip, I was surprised, because it had seemed she’d only managed to travel a half-mile or so since her BF was bear breakfast. Thank god she survived. And will probably never set foot outside her apartment again, and you will take the cellphone from her hands when you can pry her cold, dead fingers from it. As for Alex, I’m not saying he deserved it, but being a member of Generation D, an example of the (currently ubiquitous) Feckless Male, we can just feel sorry for him. If the bloody hiking boot fits . . . .

Posted in Bad TV, Bears, Horror Films, The West | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of Reif Larsen’s “I Am Radar” in the Dallas Morning News

So I’ve neglected this lonely little blog so often I should seriously feel guilty, but . . . I have my reasons. Note that I say I should feel guilty. But I don’t. (Well, maybe just a tad scrap of guilt is swirling around the door to the garage of my soul, like that plastic blag in American Beauty (1999). Why? I’ve completed the first draft of a new novel I’ve been working on for about two years, for one thing, which always ranked higher on my to-do list than blogging. A novel is (or attempts to be) an epic panorama of life, while blog posts tend to be snapshots, the digital kind. And in addition to finishing the novel’s first draft (I expect at least another, but hope to finish it all this year), roller-skating with my daughter (first time on skates in, um, forty years?), snow-slogging through this never-ending winter, and much more, I recently managed to read Reif Larsen’s epic, 644-page novel, I Am Radar, which I reviewed today in the Dallas Morning News, here. Although I stand by what I wrote for that review, interested people can know that the review’s first draft was over a thousand words, and I could easily write five thousand words on this book. It’s the kind of novel you almost want other people to read so you can argue with them about it. Yes, it’s overwritten, but many good books have their “overwritten” moments. There’s so much in the novel it’s hard to know where to begin: There’s a great deal about radio and puppets, which doesn’t seem to add up to much, but which is nonetheless fascinating. And isn’t being fascinating part of the fun of novels? I compare it to Thomas Pynchon’s V. (1963), a book that demands great patience to complete (I read it while riding around Europe one summer on their many trains), but which totally deserves the attention. And no, I don’t think I Am Radar is in the same category as V., but I greatly admire its ambition.

There’s something lyrically memorable about reading long, literary novels—a feeling of accomplishment, of being immersed in someone else’s brain, someone else’s vision of the world, for that long (it’s that TFW experience). I read much of I Am Radar over the Christmas break, at my home in Colorado, in the snows and blue light of winter.

Posted in The West, books, books/film | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Necrophilia, Anyone?” On the Horror-Show That Is James Franco’s Film Adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God”

So I’d heard that James Franco had made a film version of Cormac McCarthy’s powerful-and-disturbing novel Child of God (1974), and I casually wondered why I hadn’t heard anything about it. A year ago Franco also did a film version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), which I showed to an American Gothic literature class I was teaching, and that went well enough, even if it did seem rather amateurish at times. So innovator and film-buff that I am, I decided to show Child of God to a graduate seminar, in which we had just read Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful new novel, Lila, which concerns a loner/misfit of sorts, Lila Dahl, who often lives in isolation, and whose life is marked, at least to some extent, by violence. The stories have some similarities, but are also greatly different. It would illustrate a range of fictional/mythical approaches. Sounds reasonable, right?

Child of God is basically the life story of Lester Ballard, the misfit of all misfits, a deranged hillbilly that makes The Misfit of Flannery O’Connor’s great short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1953) look like a lightweight schoolteacher. He’s also a little like Faulkner’s Bundrens or Snopeses—or their evil twin, at least—an Appalachian ne’er-do-well to the nth degree. So I’d be comparing the representations of two isolated loners, both released recently, with Robinson’s novel published this year and Franco’s film made just last year. What could go wrong?

Still, I wondered why I hadn’t heard anything about this film. Now I know why. To say it’s horrible is an understatement. It mangles (and sexually abuses) the novel into a poorly done horror film. Not to mention it’s downright disgusting. The necrophilia was just too much. It makes The Hills Have Eyes (1977, 2006) look like The Sound of Music (1965). So be warned. I have to reread COG again to see how closely Franco’s aberration of a film follows the novel, but the main difference, I believe, is Franco shows the necrophilia that was mainly implied in the novel. At some point you realize you’re watching a crazed hillbilly screw dead women. Oy. It’s the reversal of that old adage: Show, don’t tell. In this case showing is not the right move. Or perhaps I (and all my shocked and dismayed graduate students, thank you very much) am just too squeamish. It was so awful it was kind of funny. Kind of.

My wife suggested, “Perhaps you could have watched the film first, before showing it to your class?” Good idea! Although not an idea whose time has come, but rather one that’s a bit late, like the horse that has escaped the proverbial barn, because she couldn’t stomach what that crazed hillbilly was doing in there . . . .

I’ll say it’s this bad: I feel the need to defend the novel. McCarthy’s Child of God is creepy and disturbing, true, but it’s also eloquent, austere—even poignant. There’s a touch of the sublime, and a compassion for the misfits of the world. Here’s a good mini-review of it by no less than Mary Gaitskill:

“The travails of a homeless, retarded necrophiliac killer roaming the hills of Kentucky. It sounds like a joke but somehow, it’s not. (Though, if I were John Waters, I’d option it immediately.) Not only do you take this ghoul seriously, once you’re halfway through the book, you realize you’re on his side. Without psychologizing, or even getting into the protagonist’s completely non-reflective head, McCarthy makes us understand him; what he’s doing makes total sense to him, given what he knows. He comes to seem merely an extreme version of all people – blind, cosmically and comically ignorant, doing what makes sense to us given what we know.”—Mary Gaitskill From The Salon**com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors, pg 156.

So, in the sonorous tones of a mockumentary “public service announcement,” be warned. This ain’t the Coen Brothers doing No Country for Old Men—and winning Best Picture for it. More like the original I Spit On Your Grave (1978), only worse.

Posted in Cormac McCarthy, Horror Films, books, books/film | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Death of Kent Haruf: One of Our Finest Novelists, and a Friend

So on this snowy morning it’s a sad day to hear of the passing of Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong (1999), Eventide (2004), and Benediction (2013), among others. (For more details, see a piece in the Washington Posthere.) Although I didn’t know him well, I’m glad to be able to say I had met him a few times, and was friends with Kent. I brought him to campus for a writerly visit once, and we struck up a casual friendship then. He was kind and thoughtful with the students, though he also told me he was glad to be retired from teaching. I remember when he read to a full lecture hall of students he skipped using the lectern, and just walked around and was friendly with people. Some terrorist events were in the press at the time and he went out of his way to mention how he’d done a stint in the Peace Corps years ago, in Turkey, in a small Muslim village, and how kind and respectful he had found their culture to be.

I first learned of Kent’s fiction when Fritz Lanham, the great former book editor at the Houston Chronicle, assigned me the novel Plainsong to review. It’s a beautiful book and I’ve since read all of his. As is mentioned in the article about his death, it appears that we will have one more novel to add to his impressive body of work, to be published next summer apparently, Our Souls at Night. That’s a fine send-off for a great man. We met a couple times for lunch at a coffee shop in Salida, Colorado, near which he had a home in the mountains—as I do, too. He told me about being shocked to discover a hunter had shot a deer not far from his mountainside property, and how even the local game warden was incensed that anyone would hunt so close to other people’s homes. One of the finest moments I remember in his fiction occurs in Eventide, describing some down-and-out characters at the local supermarket in his fictional small town of Holt, Colorado, which was based on towns in northeast Colorado where Haruf had taught high school and had family. In the scene the people using food stamps to buy their groceries are aware of the judgmental looks from the other people in line, and there’s a subtlety and nuance in the depiction of the moment that only the highest literary art can achieve. His work isn’t loud and histrionic, like a Gone Girl type of thing, but is elegiac, insightful, and noted for a loveliness in austerity. That doesn’t mean there isn’t trouble: The Ties That Bind ends with the local ne’er do well essentially “winning,” and the good man being tied up in his home at the end of the book. He always had a surprise up his sleeve, and I would bet he can show us some new wrinkle of understanding and beauty in this last book.

Kent was one of our great 21st century Western writers, a voice who elevated the plains of eastern Colorado, a place he described this way: “It’s not pretty, but it’s beautiful.”

Posted in books, books/film | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Heat Is On: Melting Santas and Family Values in the Era of Climate Change

So I haven’t blogged in—oh, just about forever (over two months)—but I’ve been fine and dandy, thank you very much, and trying to keep my ducks in a row: Besides being a professor, and all that entails, mainly I’ve been trying to finish a draft of this new novel that hangs around my neck like a stinkin’ albatross. (Note to self: use “eftsoons” somewhere in the text, as in “Eftsoons his hand dropt he.”) But I’m actually enjoying the writing of it when I can find/squeeze the time, and that makes me disinclined to bother to blog. But I suppose I’m feeling a bit peckish for the “short form,” and here I am.

To be more particular, here I am, saddled with righteous indignation at the fate of the world. My last two novels—Goodnight, Texas (2006) and The Bird Saviors (2012)—have been identified as falling into the CliFi (for Climate Fiction) category, and although I try never to stand on any soapbox in the novels themselves, I’ve been outspoken about the reality of Climate Change in the world as I see it, especially my beloved second home in the mountains of Colorado. It’s a given that the American Southwest will be (and has been) affected more quickly by Climate Change than, say, the Eastern U.S., and I’ve found that to be unfortunately quite true. Drought and summer wildfires have worsened in the last two decades. Yes, they’ve always been part of life in the Southwest, but now it’s worse.

So today comes this article in the NY Times, that bastion of lukewarm-at-best Climate Change blather, detailing the opinions and hopeful actions of scientists at the latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting in Lima, Peru, here. It’s all rather dire, as will be no surprise to those who have paid any attention to the science behind this for many years now. But as the holiday season is now or soon upon us (Does Black Friday count as a holiday? Thanksgiving, does, but it’s now past), I’ll soon be around other family and friends, who often seem to reflect much of the polls of Americans who don’t really know or care about Climate Change. When we bought a high-mileage vehicle recently, family members wondered why we didn’t get something bigger, roomier. Something you can stretch out in! Something you can enjoy while you ruin the planet! And they wonder why our house is relatively small (less than 2,000 square feet), when we could afford something bigger: more bedrooms, more bathrooms—a granite-countertop in the kitchen would be nice, for Chrissakes! Although it’s hard holding on to a glimmer of hope that my daughter’s life won’t be greatly affected by Climate Change, I do wish that individual attitudes would adapt, wake up and smell the zeitgeist. Santa’s home is melting. The North Pole may soon be kaput. What will happen to all the elves and their workshop when they sink to the bottom of the sea? No more American Girl dolls, egads? At least I’m glad that, at this moment anyway, my daughter can still play in the snow on a cold Thanksgiving day.

Posted in Climate Change, The West | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Review of “The Lousy Adult” Alongside Stephen Graham Jones’s “Not For Nothing”

So the Dallas Morning News published this last Sunday a review of several books by (ex or present) Texas writers and my book of stories The Lousy Adult was one of those mentioned, but the cooler thing is that it’s alongside Stephen Graham Jones’s Not for Nothing, here. Stephen and I are good friends and have been for twenty years, so it’s cool to be side-by-side. Plus he’s an amazing writer to boot.

Posted in The West, Uncategorized, books, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of Malcolm Brooks’s debut novel “Painted Horses,” and What I’ve Been Up to All This Time

So I feel bad for my uncared-for little blog here, languishing away as I rush about in my busy life, never finding time to nurture, as they say. It’s like the freckled orphan in the corner, who you notice now and then, and think, “When did I feed him last?” (Okay, now all the orphans of the world will be upset with me, treating them lightly and all.) It’s been months since I’ve even thought of it, for good reason: I’ve been working on finishing a new novel this summer, and made good progress, but I’m not there yet. I keep telling myself I’ll make time for my blog when I’m finished with the novel, which is like saying I’ll retire when I’m dead. And I am making nice progress on the book, thank you very much, but it’s not done.

Meanwhile I did review a new novel for the Dallas Morning News last Sunday, Malcolm Brooks’s Painted Horses, here.

And I did find time to backpack in Yellowstone at the start of this month, where we were caught in a six-hour rainstorm, laughing and playing cards in the tent the whole time. At the end of it, while it was still raining, we needed to eat dinner, and went outside to find this glorious rainbow, and my daughter, digging it:

Posted in The West, books/film | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment