Junior High Confidential: The Young Literary Reviewer Looks at “Across the Tracks”

Reading old journals offers endless pleasures. I found my inner literary critic at an early age, and I especially wrote about books that touched on the world around me. In the early 1970s, tales of vampires and werewolves and Hunger Games were decades in the future. Social realism attracted me. From September 18, 1971, at Mission Junior High School in Texas. I was 13 years old and had just started the 8th grade:

Finally, yesterday 2nd period, Mrs. Smith let us go to the library. I checked out a book, a paperback, that I noticed but never got around to reading. It’s called “Across the Tracks,” about this senior at a high school in South. Cal, Betty Ochoa, who wants to: 1) be accepted by the top social group at school (the Anglos) 2) help the tough, bitter gang leader, Pete Flores, before he gets killed. 3) she wants to bring gringo and chicano together. Though it has some faults (the author can’t go a page without having Betty  blush) + everyone’s always hugging each other, it’s interesting because, with only a few alterations, it could be Mission.

What to make of this? Even then I noted other books with similar themes of Anglo-Hispanic (today’s terms of choice) conflict. Everything seemed to set in California, Texas didn’t get much ink as far as I could tell, and what books did cover South Texas were of the Anglo-focused triumphalist sort. More realistic views of interactions in Texas now exist and I’ve read them, through the novels of Rolando Hinojosa, set in an imaginary landscape of South Texas. I tried to find out more about Across the Tracks, but online searching turned up nothing about this book that so caught the life swirling around me in my small town.

One of these days I hope to make my own contribution to the genre of life along the tracks of Mission, Texas.

“The Son” Also Rises

When last I wrote, I lamented the difficulties I have finding books I really like. I struggled through sci-fi, winners of glittering international awards, Jewish historical fiction, Latin American books. The list of grim hikes through trails of directionless prose discouraged me.

But, with hope springing eternal, I rolled the reading dice on “The Son,” by Phillip Meyer, published last year and weighing in at 561 pages. The book gripped me from the beginning, as it rolled across 170 years of Texas history, seen through the eyes of members of the McCullough family, with tortured and violent interactions with their neighbors, the ancient Garcia family, on ranches in South Texas.

How firmly did the book hold my attention? I stayed up, fully awake, until 2:30 a.m. one night last week to finish it, and I wasn’t just skimming the pages either, as I have with other massive recent tomes. No, Meyer’s clear style , sure sense of landscape and unblinking view of his subject material took me on the reading ride I crave and so rarely encounter.

The book follows three main characters from the McCullough, starting with patriarch Eli, born in the day the Republic of Texas was proclaimed on March 2, 1836, and kidnapped by Comanches in 1849. He becomes a member of the tribe, its leader, as warfare and disease shrink it down to nothing. He goes back, reluctantly, to white society, where he doesn’t fit in. But as a Texas Ranger and Confederate he makes his way in life and finally a fortune in land and oil. The family seems cursed, and that’s told through the stories of his son Peter and great-granddaughter Jeannie.

Wending through the narrative, especially of Peter and Jeannie, is the specter of the Garcias—I’ll leave that angle to your own reading. The prose is biting in the way it captures the attitudes of the power elite. Here are Jeannie’s childhood musings on her neighbors’ ancient destroyed home:

Only the children had interest in the casa mayor. The Mexican hands, if forced to fetch cattle from the pastures nearby, always crossed themselves. They could not help being ignorant Catholics. And the Garcias had not been able to help being lazy, cattle-stealing greasers and she felt sorry for them, even if they had shot her uncle Glenn.

The book could have used a genealogy table to keep the characters straight. Other than Eli, the main characters spend most of their time moaning about fate and their lot in life (fabulous riches be damned, they want to suffer), and minor characters keep getting shoved on-stage even to the end. I could see another, more compelling book carved from the material, more on the Garcias, less on the McCulloughs. The issues become a little too trendy in the last years covered. Quick appearances by Lyndon Johnson and an unnamed woman writer (obviously Edna Ferber, when she was researching her Texas epic, Giant) suggest another plot direction that never develops.

Still, the book did a great job of communicating a sense of place. Having grown up in South Texas, I know that territory on an instinctual level, even if I haven’t lived there in almost 40 years. References to Brownsville and Hidalgo County jumped out at me, as did the bloody guerilla warfare along the border during the Mexican Revolution. The Texas Rangers, so revered in Anglo society, look very different through the eyes of the Hispanic families that had lived in the region for centuries. They were the Rangers for one population, and the dreaded “Los Rinches” for another.

Peter kept a diary of his life on the Rio Grande, with this September 17, 1915 entry:

Trying to console myself that we aren’t alone in our suffering. Two weeks ago the railroad bridges to Brownsville were burned (again), the telegraph lines cut, two white men singled out from a crowd of laborers and shot in the middle of the morning. About twenty Tejanos killed in reprisals—twenty that anyone heard about. The Third Cavalry has been in regular fights with the Mexican army all along the border, shooting across the river. Three cavalrymen killed by insurgents near Los Indios and, across from Progress, on the Mexican side, the head of a missing U.S. private was displayed on a on a pole.

June 19, 1917: [After Hispanics move north to Michigan to work in car factories, and a local Anglo finds this amusing] Considered mentioning that several of the “greasers” (Vargas and Rivera, at least) had gone to college in Mexico City while Gilbert and his cross-eyed brothers were diddling heifers in Eagle Pass.

Meyer captured the attitudes of both viciousness and generosity that I heard growing up. After Jeannie’s husband Hank dies, she finds this type of response from her business circle:

The Texans had been relentless; they might hate the blacks and Mexicans, they might hate the president enough to kill him, but they had not let her alone, they had cared for her like a mother or daughter, men she barely knew, men whose absence from their offices cost thousands of dollars an hour, and yet she would come downstairs and find them asleep on her couch, and call their drivers to pick them up.

This is Meyer’s second book, very good but not quite great, and I predict he has other major works ahead of him, on topics I cannot even imagine. I’ll be waiting for them.

A Reader’s Lament: Beware Book Award Winners

I finally powered through the sci-fi novel Rainbows End by by sci-fi legend Vernor Vinge. I had earlier read his novel A Fire Upon the Deep, which I found to have great ideas but sluggish execution. Still, I liked Vinge’s short stories, so I decided to give Rainbows End the old college try.

I didn’t give up, but Rainbows End was more of a challenge than a reading pleasure. Again: great ideas presented with blah characters and a plot that never grabbed me, despite a promising spy vs. spy techno-war beginning.

And this novel won a Hugo Award.

I should know better by now than to get seduced by high profile books. Winners of fiction prizes sing a siren song to me, enticing me to dive into their crisp pages of critically praised copy. I’m seekng both reading enjoyment and writing approaches tghat I can apply to my own writing. Yet, I have had consistently poor experiences with the novels that racked up the awards. My hopes crumpled time and again against the plotlessness, lack of empathetic characters and exuberant but indulgent writing. Even worse, these books stick in my mind because I stuck with them due to a mulishness that convinced me the book HAD to improve, the themes would coalesce into a riveting reading that would leave me thinking, “That was a wild ride, long but worth it.”

I never thought that about a book that didn’t grab me. The rides never improved. In some extreme cases I even bailed out, but otherwise I hung on and wound up using the tricks I used to get through Moby-Dick and Les Miserables – skimming great swathes of the books, especially their latter sections, in a search for turns of phrase and plot advancements that made the book worthwhile.

What books rode prizes to a claim on my precious time? Let me count the ways:

  • Rainbows End, Hugo Award. Vernor Vinge is very highly regarded. As a mathematician and computer scientist, he’s got the background to write with authority on science topics. I had seen several references to his work and decided to give it a try. A Fire Upon the Deep, about different zones of space defined by the ability to travel faster than the speed of light, sounded good. The ideas summarize well, but I never got into the mood. Rainbows End, set in San Diego without any interstellar travel or even non-human species, was much closer to current reality. Still, it reflected every problem I had with Deepness in the Sky. Having bailed on The Children of the Sky, the sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, I should have known better. The problem is, I hugely enjoy some sci-fi. Short story collections on time travel and apocalyptic themes haunt me. The novels of John Scalzi (Old Man’s War, Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts, all prize winners with Old Man’s War being one of the top sci-fi novels of all time) always delight me and, even better, make me think. Sci-fi, however, is wildly unpredictable as a genre so I can’t presume anything will work.
  • White Teeth, loads of UK awards for a first novel. Zadie Smith’s sprawling, imaginative novel about families in England from World War II to 2000 won a spot on Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. I can appreciate Smith’s ambition but I found the book an impossible slog, with some intriguing parts about culture clashes, but full of characters I could not care about an ending that seemed rushed. Maybe I just have overly linear and plot-driven tastes. I need three attempts to push my way through White Teeth. I’ve had no desire to read her later novels, awards or no awards.
  • The Finkler Question, Man Booker Prize. Howard Jacobson’s novel about three men in London differs from the others in that I liked his writing style, which had some screamingly funny and insightful passages. I don’t begrudge him the 2010 award. Still, the book seemed less than an integrated novel than a collection of chapters that could have been arranged any which way.
  • Tree of Smoke, National Book Award. Denis Johnson’s 2007 about the Vietnam War had a solid premise and writing style, but the plot just wandered and never came together, completely tanking at the end. I think he succumbed to the need to make any novel about Vietnam hallucinatory and fragmented, without the linear flow of anything suggesting a sensible story. Soldiers, do-gooders, double agents, refugees and spooks wandering the jungles had the makings of something great, but I missed the prize point and felt cheated that I put my time into this.
  • 2666, called one of the 10 best books of 2008 by the New York Times and the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s 900-page epic excited me as a concept. The setting, a fictional reworking of Ciudad Juarez, drew me in because of the location on the Texas-Mexico border. Once I got in, and kept flipping ahead to see if the epic would untangle the avant-garde, style-blending prose, I knew I’d never engage.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. These are highly regarded flights of polished, knotty prose and imagination from Michael Chabon. I finished both, but they were exhausting and left me with a “who cares?” attitude. My high hopes were dashed, especially with the great concept of the second book about Jews with their own Yiddish-speaking nation in Alaska. Well, I knocked them off my fiction bucket list and I know what I don’t want to emulate as a writer, although the source material was terrific.

Sometimes I can tell a book is not going to work for me, no matter how hard I root for it. Most recently, I slammed shut the cover on The Children of the Sky, the long-distance sequel to A Deepness in the Sky. I read about 10 pages and knew I’d never get into the characters I didn’t much connect with in the original book. Further back, I surprised myself by not finishing Rashi’s Daughters, Book I: Joheved: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France by Maggie Anton. Unlike the other books here, the writing style had a straight-ahead direction and I cared about the characters. But the book just didn’t come to life for me; it had a stolid tone that wore me down that reminded me of a romance novel. Of all the books listed here, this is the one I might try again, in case I wasn’t in the right mental mindset to appreciate it the first time around.

Lest you think I’m a literary crank who seeks out books for the sole purpose of complaining about them, I really do enjoy reading novels and, lately, short fiction. John Scalzi is a sci-fi favorite, and Alan Furst goes to the top of my list whenever he releases one of his romantic-spy novels set in the tumultuous Europe of the 1930s and 1940s; most of the titles sound like recent Woody Allen movies, by the way, like Mission to Paris and the upcoming Midnight in Europe. Carl Hiaasen’s comic mysteries set in corrupt and sunny South Florida are a new favorite; I’ve greatly enjoyed Bad Monkey and Skinny Dip and can see my own mentality in their language and material.

Novels with Russian themes always work for me. I can read long, profound Soviet historical novels (Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, the series Children of the Arbat, 1935 and Other Years, Fear, and Dust & Ashes by Anatoly Rybakov) and they make great sense because I’ve done a lot of non-fiction reading on that era. Fictional investigations of the Stalinist era are my version of horror and vampire novels– forbidding, frightening yet irresistable. William Ryan’s thrillers about a Soviet investigator in the late 1930s dazzled me, with Holy Thief and The Darkening Field. Tom Rob Smith’s brilliant, brooding trilogy about troubled Soviet investigator Leo Demydov gave me a real feel for an era I’ve studied in depth, spanning the 1930s to the 1980s, with Child 44, The Secret Speech and Agent 6. He just released the psychological thriller The Farm, so I’ll hunt that down at the library.

I know I can always turn to Anita Shreve for a close look at relationships and, as a have called it, angst-ridden baby-boomers enjoying illicit affairs in tasteful vacation locales. Jodi Picoult also gives me reading enjoyment.

The lesson, sad as it may be: I’m resolutely classical and genre-driven in my reading tastes. I’ve learned to choose my targets wisely when looking for both enjoyment and writers to emulate. Soaring pyres of tangled prose simply don’t work for me, no matter how they stunned the po-mo crit crowd.

I’ll be at my local library on Sunday — let’s see what jumps out at me.

“Nothing But Trash” = Nothing But Fun

Showing once again that you don’t have to drop a bundle to enjoy high-quality live theater in New York, I had a great time on Saturday night viewing “Nothing But Trash” at the Theater for the New City at 155 First Avenue. Trash is set in the late 1950s on a summer-resort island, as hunky teenage guys toss footballs, engage in horseplay, and check each other out. In one highly amusing scene, lead characters Troy and Tab (played by Rory Max Kaplan and Tim McGarrigan) assess each other’s reactions to, shall we say, certain stimuli to determine whether or not they’re “queer.”

But complications ensue involving the alcoholic mother Beatrice (played by playwright Andy Halliday), old flames, questions of paternity, snooping by gravel-voiced grumpy resort caretaker Lucas (played with piratical glee by Jeffrey Vause in one of his three roles in Trash) and then a “crime” that lands lovers Troy and Tab in — horrors! — the juvenile justice system. But true love prevails in the end.

I knew I’d like Nothing But Trash because it affectionately nods to entertainment I already enjoy. It self-consciously twists the themes of romantic dramas of the 1950s, especially A Summer Place. Indeed, the play takes place on Pine Island, the same as the 1959 movie, and its promotional poster is a same-sex reworking of the movie poster. The bubbly cast’s bright, tight sweaters and shirts communicate both clean-cut silliness and sensuality. Halliday described his sources well:

I wanted to tell a story about repressed love. I was inspired by the lurid teenage romance movies of the 1950s. The first act satirizes films like “Peyton Place.” I love Lana Turner’s character – a frustrated widow, hungry for love, but fearful of sex. The second act delves into teenage rebel movies like “Reform School Girl,” where only the tough girls survive. But ultimately, this story is about two innocent teenage boys who must hide their love.

Nothing But Trash was also a homecoming of sorts for my own theatrical memories of my life in New York 30 years ago. Playwright Halliday performed in the original versions of plays by Charles Busch, such as Times Square Angel, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Theodora: She-Bitch of Byzantium. They were short, punchy, campy and hilarious, as Busch lit up the stage in immortal drag roles like Irish O’Flanagan, the hard-bitten chanteuse of the 1948 New York milieu of Times Square Angel. I can still remember the play’s last line, as an arrested mobster is led away: “We’ll see who has the last laugh!” And then the entire cast laughs at him.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what my 27-year old self wrote after I saw Times Square Angel with my friend Amy Frost and a friend of hers on the frigid night of December 29, 1984 at the Limbo Lounge at 647 E. 9th Street, deep deep in New York’s then-decrepit and drug-haunted Alphabet City:

Times Square Angel was a hoot, w/ a transvestite playwright-author. The scene outside the theater was astonishing — an “Ethiopeaner” church down the block. Across the street were ghostly vacant buildings and an empty playground. Yet the menace was mostly mental. Afterwards the three of us walked right through Tompkins Sq. Park, with a young cop at the entrance. Amy’s guy, with earrings in each ear, said Operation Pressure Point helped a lot. Afterward we had drinks at the Village Gate. I got home in time to watch Star Trek.

So, Nothing But Trash was a delightful connection with my mid-80s lifestyle, when New York was in the throes of its gritty, real (as the nutty nostalgic types describe it) collapse into social chaos. Halligan learned well from the master Charles Busch in both drag style (as if I know anything about that) and how to construct irresistible comic theater.

The play also had a generational aspect to it. I had tickets for me and my Significant Other, and I surprised her with our special guests: my nephew Tyler Wallach, up and coming graphic designer and man-about-Williamsburg, and his boyfriend. I rather enjoyed executing my familial duties as the doting uncle introducing my nephew to a connection of the time when I was young and creative and living in Brooklyn. From Times Square Angel 1984 to Nothing But Trash 2014, what goes around comes around.

Nothing But Trash plays through March 23, and the place was packed when I attended, so if you want a thrifty but enjoyable night of theater, make the call now! Operators are standing by!

Jan. 23 BlogTalkRadio Interview Coming Up on “Last First Date”

I’ll be interviewed on the BlogTalkRadio program “Last First Date” on Thursday, January 23 from 2-3 pm. I’ll be speaking with host Sandy Weiner on the topic of “Role of Religion and Spirituality in Dating.

Weiner is a speaker and dating coach who helps people achieve their goals. She writes about her approach on her website

I walk my talk. As a woman actively dating after my divorce, I bring first-hand knowledge and wisdom about what it’s like to be over 40, dating in the 21st century. Like you, I am navigating through the sometimes confusing world of online dating. I am always learning new ways to talk to men and get different results. I share my extensive knowledge with my clients.

I am a woman of action. I kick butts, but always from a place of love. I want you to rise up to your highest self. Therefore, I don’t settle for the same old answers or excuses. I challenge you to push yourself to do things differently and attract the love you want. And, I bring my warmth and sense of humor to my coaching, because if you can’t laugh at life, you’re in big trouble!

 

I’m looking forward to getting on to her program and digging in to issues of spirituality and dating, and how I got to where I am today (wherever that is).

 

Rolando Hinojosa’s Valley, and Mine

I can read, say, Philip Roth or Chaim Potok novels about Newark and Brooklyn and enjoy the literary qualities and the cultural sense of Jewish life in the New York region. I can hear the people talking, sense the family dynamics. But in reading Klail City, one of the short novels in the Klail City Death Trip series by Texas writer and academic Rolando Hinojosa, I’m reading about something more visceral and evocative — the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where I grew up, in Mission. Even if, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can’t go home again, Hinojosa gets me close enough to feel the Gulf winds blowing across the fields.

Set in fictional Belken County, Klail City’s short, kaleidoscopic chapters recount the Hispanic experience in deep South Texas from the 1940s on, with historical glances even further back. Hinojosa grew up in Mercedes, Texas, about 25 miles east of my home town, Mission, both in Hidalgo County (I associate Mercedes with its annual Livestock Show and Rodeo, held every March for going on 75 years). Hinojosa describes a world that surrounded me every day but unfolded at a distance from mine. He writes

The number of Texas Anglos to be seen here is scant, but perhaps, understandably so. These fellow Texans of ours are out of place here; out of their element, so to speak. So to speak. The Belken County Texas Mexicans, on the other hand, are the majority, but this doesn’t mean they ignore the other population; they can ill afford to do so. For their part, the mexicano are usually ignored, although not always, true, and not forever either. (After all, what physical pain is there that lasts a hundred years?)

The geography hit me, with the Missouri-Pacific railroad tracks dividing towns into the Anglo and Mexican sides (I’ll use the terminology found in the book), with their own elementary schools. As in Mission in the 1960s, those schools’ pupils came together in junior high and high school, years of tensions and explorations.

Hinojosa carefully delineated the gradations of religion that are essential to Valley life. Catholics predominate, but Mexican Protestants are fully recognized as a culture of their own. Masses, revivals, Bibles, scriptural references weave in and out of the stories, as common as the carnal side of life seen through beer joints, pool halls, shotgun weddings of teenagers in the family way, the soldiers killed in Europe, the Pacific and Korea, war veterans gunned down by unrestrained and unpunished police, crooked politicians, curanderas (healers), the old men selling things on the street, seasonal migrations Up North. Hinojosa packs an enormous number of familiar touchpoints into the short book.

And I reflected on the names he summons from the depths of memory. Rafe Buenrostro, Bruno Cano, don Celso Villalon, Manuel Guzman, de Anda, Viola Barragan, Horacio Navarro, Maria Lara, Dorothea Cavazos, and the dead-accurate Anglo names like Liz Ann Moore, Lulu Gottlieb, high school librarian Miss Mary Jane McClarity, Choche Markham, the kind and good Tom Purdy of Michigan, and Sheriff Big Foot Parkinson. And, in an amazing bit of prophecy, Sofia Vergara — exactly like the actress. These just sample the roster of names. Many of them resonate with memories of friends and classmates and their parents, local characters from my version of the Valley. Dorothea, Maria, Elizabeth Ann, Horacio, Navarro — they’re all mental bursts of associations going back a half-century now.

I’ll see if I can find other books in the series to find out what else goes on with the characters simmering and stewing under the South Texas sun. My Klail City Death Trip is just hitting the road.

I, Gym-Rat Tribute

I’m a jaundiced consumer of marketing messages. Sales don’t impress me, corporate incentive programs rarely catch my eye, and I save money when shopping by not buying anything–I can swing through Macy’s or a mall and enjoy the shopping experience without actually buying stuff to clutter my life. But a marketing pitch that combines simplicity and cleverness can grab my attention. And even inspire a blog post.

So here I am, gazing with fevered curiosity at a program that I picked up at the Westport branch of the New York Spots Club yesterday. Do I have what it takes to “TRAIN LIKE A TRIBUTE-CAN YOU SURVIVE THE GAMES?” Today’s the deadline! Order now at the low, low price of $105 for four one-hour sessions! Should I?

NYSC, employing nothing more advanced than a black-and-white printer, caught my eye with a deal for a fitness program geared to The Hunger Games. As fate would have it, I read the book about six weeks ago and greatly enjoyed it. Now, here’s the NYSC rolling out a program, “limited to 12 members one for each district,” mimicking the skills used to deadly effect in the book by survivor Katniss Everdeen.

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To train like a tribute, the NYSC mixes traditional fitness-class moves with some Hunger Games specialties: You get archery (ka-zinggg!), tree climbing simulation, speed work, strength training, and high-intensity cardio with weight-lifting exercises. Given my age, I’d probably keel over before I reached tribute-level fitness level, but, still, I’m curious. If the sale continues past today, heck, I may do it. I could use some diversity in my workout routine, which mostly centers on hand weights with a focus of not overdoing anything that would result in a yanked muscle or tendon.

Thirty years ago, I would have laughed if anybody had suggested I sign up for a fitness class, let alone join a fancy-pants place like the NY Sports Club (fancy only in my imagination, given that my previous gym experience was limited to the weight room at the PE center of Mission High School). I disdained gyms in favor of relentless walking around New York and Brooklyn. If I wanted to push myself, I’d jog along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, starting around the fabled Brooklyn House of Detention and plodding along to the intersection with fabled Flatbush Avenue. I’d stagger back home and collapse, waiting for any twinge in my knee to blossom in to a full-blown health crisis. It never did, but I never became a regular jogger.

My attitude changed once I moved to suburban Connecticut and eventually became a commuter in 1996, on the train daily from Westport to Grand Central Terminal, and then on to blue-chip accounting firm Price Waterhouse on Avenue of the Americas. Soon after I started this job,after a year of unemployment, I heard about the employee discount program for memberships at the NYSC. Somehow, the idea that I needed to take better care of myself as a new father penetrated my sometimes-thick skull, and I became a member.

Except for a four-year period between 2002 and 2006–when I dropped my membership due to post-divorce financial reasons, then joined the Jewish Community Center with its own fitness center in Stamford–I’ve been a member ever since.

I’m the most surprised person in the world at this evolution from sluggard to gym rat. In the early years I mixed treadmill workouts (timed to coincide with watching the soap opera Days of Our Lives on the big monitors at the club) with total-body conditioning classes. I mostly stick with weights now, with the occasional session on the elliptical walker (where I usually watch country-western or 80s/90s videos on the machine’s monitor). Frankly, I’m in a rut. A few years ago I tried cardio kickboxing, and before that yoga, but breaking out of the typical routine takes effort. Separate from the club, I also took a 10-week krav maga class in Stamford in 2007, which was the most exhausting physical workout I’ve ever had

Thus, the tribute program jolted me with the promise of something new, something fresh and engaging. Archery and tree-climbing: well, those are ways to break out of the routine. I just hope I don’t break a bone — after various aches and pains from overdoing workouts over the years, I’m very attuned to my limits.

Do I dare rise beyond the routine to become a Tribute, proudly representing District Westport in the Fairfield County Games? Stay tuned.

The Alt-Alt-History: Nelson Mandela and Lavrenti Beria

In retrospect, history is a series of what-ifs, branching out from key points from what did happen to the unknown possibilities of what never happened. Alternative history explores that. One of the great questions of recent decades—simple because it involves one man and his fate—was, “what would have happened if Nelson Mandela had survived his captivity?” His death in the early 1960s, during his confinement at the Robben Island prison, has intrigued historians. Had he survived, the consensus view is that he would have been released in the early 1970s as a goodwill gesture, after renouncing violence. Most likely, he would have survived after his release as a minor figure, respected but mostly forgotten, visited primarily by foreign college students and displaced by a new generation of activists.

Other more radical views assign a greater role to Mandela in freedom. Students of missed opportunities wonder that the easing of the Cold War through the 1950s and early 1960s might have led the South African government to release Mandela or not even imprison him, once the country was not seen as a pawn caught between the USSR and the United States. In this highly speculative scenario, productive negotiations between Soviet premier and former secret-police chief Lavrenti Beria and U.S. President Richard Nixon de-escalated tensions at flash points worldwide, especially South Africa, Viet Nam and Cuba. Nixon, known as a hardline Cold Warrior while Vice President, nevertheless saw potential in a working relationship with Beria, the sinister NKVD chief who nonetheless embraced policies of economic and (within limits) political reform immediately after Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953. As President, Nixon engaged Beria in negotiations following their famous “rumpus-room debate” in Moscow in 1959, where they spent hours playing billiards in a mock-up of a typical U.S. basement-level entertainment center.

Showing realpolitik at its highest global level, Nixon and Beria worked out understandings that supported a withdrawal of Soviet forces from much of Eastern Europe (East Germany a notable exception) and economic reforms and legalization of opposition parties, coupled with U.S. agreement to not reflexively oppose national liberation movements as harbingers of communist rule. The tectonic shifts in global politics simultaneously removed Soviet financing of South African communist movements and U.S. support for apartheid policies as a bulwark against communism. Suddenly without support on both sides due to Nixon and Beria (who wanted to put finances into rebuilding the USSR), the South African government and the African National Congress would have found a rapprochement mirroring U.S.-Soviet relations. In the turn of phrase popularized by The New Yorker’s diplomatic correspondent, John F. Kennedy, “Trust but verify.”

In this line of reasoning, Mandela would have been released from prison to assume a place as an influential statesman, perhaps even president, of a post-apartheid South Africa. Would Mandela have been able to dampen the potential for violence and take the first steps toward building a multiracial society? Would the country have stood as a role model for other African nations emerging from colonial rule? Mandela might have joined Richard Nixon and Lavrenti Beria among the leaders who reshaped the 1960s following the decisive end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, we will never know what history had in store for Nelson Mandela.

The analyses of the passing of Nelson Mandela reflected on his life’s accomplishments refracted through views of his politics, economics, militancy, place in the great game of the Cold War, whether he was an anti-semite or a philo-semite, and role in moving South Africa beyond apartheid. I don’t have anything original to say about any of this. What does strike me about Mandela is the sheer improbability that lived long enough to leave prison after 27 years AND immediately resumed political life. Twenty-seven years; In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Dr. Alexandre Manette spent a mere 18 years as a prisoner in the Bastille. Mandela entered prison in his early 40s and left in his early 70s. For a U.S. frame of reference, imagine Richard Nixon retiring after his loss in the election of 1960, then returning to win the presidency against Bill Clinton in 1992; that’s a long time.

The path of one man over a great stretch of time reminds me of alt-history, a form of fiction I like that takes a change in history, often a minor event, and traces the impact of it. Prison, release and a return to life, in Dickens’ phrase, sounds far more unlikely than the alternative I sketched above. But that’s how Mandela bent history to his purposes, refusing to submit, remaining alive and leaving his own mark on the world.

Mandela’s alt-alt-history, as I think of it, leads me to think about other crinkles in time. I’ve read big ideas of alt-history, typically wars going in new directions: the South winning the Civil War, the Germans winning World War II (as in Robert Harris’ novel Fatherland) and the three volume series starting with Without Warning by John Birmingham, after a mysterious energy wave wipes out most of North America just before the 2003 Iraq War started).

One great what-if involved the change of leadership in the USSR following the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953. Long ailing, Stalin was preparing a pogrom against Russian Jews when he had a stroke that went untreated, with the doctors supposedly held off by his secret police chief and vice premier, Lavrenti Beria. As Stalin lay dying in his country hours, Beria was alternately obsequious and jubilant, and historians have speculated that he might have given Stalin more than a gentle shove into the next world. In any case, Beria immediately grabbed the spotlight among surviving leaders and positioned himself to become the premier. The plans for the pogrom immediately ended, as did Stalin’s plans to execute his remaining inner circle. According to Wikipedia, Beria had big ambitions:

Based on Beria’s own statements, other leaders suspected that in the wake of the uprising, he might be willing to trade the reunification of Germany and the end of the Cold War for massive aid from the United States, as had been received in World War II. The cost of the war still weighed heavily on the Soviet economy. Beria craved the vast financial resources that another (more sustained) relationship with the United States could provide. He had already argued for “de-Bolshevization” of Soviet foreign policy (though he still favored traditional terror methods as necessary to control domestic power). For example, Beria gave Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania serious prospects of national autonomy, possibly similarly to other Soviet satellite states in Europe.

Those plans never reached fruition. The worst among  Soviet leaders all drowning in blood, the rapist and torturer Beria and his security forces were rightly feared by Nikita Khrushchev, Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgi Malenkov and others.

On 26 June 1953, Beria was arrested and held in an undisclosed location near Moscow. Accounts of Beria’s fall vary considerably. By the most likely account, Khrushchev prepared an elaborate ambush, convening a meeting of the Presidium on 26 June, where he suddenly launched a scathing attack on Beria, accusing him of being a traitor and spy in the pay of British intelligence. Beria was taken completely by surprise. He asked, “What’s going on, Nikita Sergeyevich? Why are you picking fleas in my trousers?” Molotov and others quickly spoke against Beria one after the other, followed by a motion by Khrushchev for his instant dismissal. When Beria finally realized what was happening and plaintively appealed to Malenkov to speak for him, his old friend and crony silently hung his head and refused to meet his gaze. Malenkov pressed a button on his desk as the pre-arranged signal to Marshal Georgy Zhukov and a group of armed officers in a nearby room. They burst in and arrested Beria.

Beria had plenty of time to reflect on the fruits of his past deeds and onrushing fate before his December 1953 trial. He was tried and convicted with other leaders of what was then called the MVD (previously the NKVD, later the KGB, now the FSB). He enjoyed the same degree of consideration and mercy he showed others:

Beria and all the other defendants were sentenced to death. When the death sentence was passed, Beria pleaded on his knees for mercy before collapsing to the floor and wailing and crying energetically, but to no avail: the other six defendants were executed by firing squad on 23 December 1953, the same day as the trial, while Beria was fatally shot through the forehead by General Batitsky after the latter stuffed a rag into Beria’s mouth to silence his bawling. The body of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria was subsequently cremated and buried around Moscow’s forest.

If the alt-alt-history had played out, would Beria have been a sort of proto-Mikhail Gorbachev, or more so, ditching the rigidity and suspicions of Stalinism for some more tolerant approach? Would he have worked through and eased the pent-up anger that, in the late 1980s, unleashed revolutions that swept Eastern Europe? Would he have used the Red Army to suppress rebellions, as happened in 1953 in East Germany, 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Czechoslovakia? Or would the internal contradictions of communism have led to the same dead end other Soviet leaders failed to fix, because they were unfixable? Would he have been more coolly rational and informed than Khrushchev and focused on the USSR’s post-war rebuilding rather than endless global intrigues in support of communism? Nobody knows what the alt-history had in store for Lavrenti Beria.

Fortunately, we do know that the alt-alt history did indeed come true for Nelson Mandela, who emerged to life and left a world made better for his improbable survival and leadership.

Before Lena Dunham (Girls), There Was Lena Nyman (Yellow)

The slow-building surge of publicity for the third season of HBO’s Girls is beginning, with ads, cast profiles and soon, no doubt, magazine covers. Lena Dunham knows how to capture an audience. I find Girls’ characters sometimes tedious, but the series is compulsively watchable — and I can identify with some of their concerns? After all, I spent my 20s in Brooklyn, fresh out of college and scraping for work and romance as a creative type, back in the Jurassic Age.

While I’m waiting for the new season, I’m wondering about the significance of the show. The NY Times can scarcely go a day without mentioning it in some context. So daring, so of the era it is.

But how controversial and pathbreaking is Lena Dunham compared to another Lena — Lena Nyman, who starred as “Lena” in the 1967 Swedish movie I Am Curious (Yellow), which was banned from being imported into the U.S. for being obscene. I remember reading about the obscenity case as a kid and I was always, well, curious about the film. The movie posters with the pouty, direct gaze of Nynam said nothing about the content, other than it featured a pouty Swedish actress.

Time passes. Courts rule the movie is not obscene and it becomes a huge art-house hit in the U.S. Forty-four years after the movie squirms its way into the U.S., rocking the moviegoing public with its boldly uncompromising Euro-New Wave style, I finally get my sweaty, trembling paws on a copy of what must be a sizzling piece of cinema — at the Westport, CT, Public Library. There’s the history of American morality in one movie, from banned in the U.S. to a safe little nook at the library (I expect Deep Throat will show up one of these tolerant days).

And that brings me to Lena and Lena. For all the hats thrown into the air in celebration of what Lena D. does with Girls, Lena N. paved the way for her on the sexual front in the 1960s (albeit in black and white). Topless meditation? Check. Sex in her father’s apartment? Check. Public copulation? And she did it all without a lot of distracting, skanky tattoos. The two Lenas even bear a physical resemblance, in the bare sense. They’re not beauties, fleshier than the scrawny model types, but they’re ready to make the most of what they’ve got and put themselves out for their art. Both are fearless in front of the camera.

The degrees of different in the limits of sexual expression between late 1960s and now are instructive. Yellow has full-frontal nudity, which Girls hasn’t yet leaped into yet. That must be a taboo Dunham can’t quite break. Yellow has also more roughly physical sex, enough to trouble the sensitivities of modern viewers, although Girls has its share of uncomfortable couplings. The men of Yellow and Girls show lots similarities — sneaking around and keeping their relationship secrets, working on their careers, wheeling and dealing emotionally.

The two works differ most sharply, tonally, in the ferociously political world of Yellow versus the withdrawal from politics in Girls. The first part of Yellow, to the point of tedium, involves Nyman interviewing Swedes, like an investigative reporter, about income inequality in Sweden, class issues, even their thoughts on vacationing in Francisco Franco’s Spain. She’s quite the fearless interviewer, going right into the labor union headquarter to pepper leaders with her questions. How much is real, how much is scripted? That’s part of the film’s charming mix of fact and fiction; it even includes interviews with Martin Luther King Jr., (interviewed by director Vilgot Sjöman on civil disobedience during a trip of his to Sweden), a backyard interview with Olof Palme, who later became the Swedish prime minister, and a presentation by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Nyman and her friends protest against the Vietnam War, the Swedish military and other issues. The film is a time capsule of its era.

And Girls? I’ve seen every episode and I can’t recall anything political, unless you want to say the personal is political. The ailing economy looms over the characters, Wall Street financiers are loathed yet longed-for, real estate prices are in the background (how can marginally employed characters live anywhere?), but my impressions is that Dunham and friends live in a time warp slightly distant from the realities that surround them. That’s OK with me, I’m not looking for political lectures, but the contrast is stark.

For all the differences, I’ll always link Yellow and Girls. They get people talking and stirred up, they reflected distinct visions, I was sorry to learn than Nyman died in 2011 at the age of 66. A meeting between the two Lenas, pathbreakers in their own ways, would have been enjoyable, two women talking about their times.