Wednesday Hangovers

Guest Essay: Cars and Katrina

Mr. Christopher Rowe recently went back to college, as many of you know. Yesterday morning he had to get up early to write a one pager of thoughts on Hurricane Katrina for his anthro class. He saw fit to include one of my favorite CVR anecdotes and I asked him if I could run it here. He had little choice but to say yes.

Here it is:

When I was sixteen I made the first and only trip I ever took to New Orleans. I traveled with my late stepfather, who was a used car salesman possessed of a deserved "colorful" reputation in matters of business. It was also the first time I ever flew on an airplane, and when we took off from the Nashville airport I was carrying $30,000 in cash in the pockets of my jeans. My stepfather explained that it was best if we split up our money in case we were mugged.

We were going to buy "sinkers," which was used car terminology for the considerable number of automobiles that are pulled from the waterways of Louisiana, Mississippi and even extreme southeast Texas following accidents or storms. There’s nothing illegal about it, actually. We bought dozens and dozens of cars at various lots in the city dedicated to the "rehabilitation" of sinkers. I remember that the lots weren’t paved with gravel, but with crushed seashells, because on the Gulf, it’s easier to find shells for grinding than the limestone we use here. Eventually, we arranged for the cars to be shipped back to Kentucky on freight trains, where my stepfather would resell them to car lots throughout the Commonwealth. When I asked him if the dealers who sold the cars to new owners would admit that they’d once been submerged in swamp water, my stepfather replied, "What do you think?"

I think that in the next year or so, a lot of sinkers will be making their ways to car lots all over the country. I think that sales of the smaller, more fuel efficient cars will outstrip those of SUVs and trucks, because I think that fuel prices–corrected to something approaching half the world average for end users in the wake of the destruction and obstruction of much of the USA’s domestic production capability–will continue to rise.

Revealed by Katrina’s winds as having been a thin scrim of a First World vacation town resting atop a Fourth World city teeming with poverty and desperation even before the storm, New Orleans may or may not rise again. The city’s location in the Delta was not chosen by caprice at its founding almost 300 years ago, however, as a deep water port is crucial at the mouth of the Mississippi if the vast center of the nation is to continue to engage in international trade. Further, Bourbon Street and the Quarter did not develop and maintain their reputations as destinations for Midwestern burghers and their college aged children to engage in a few extra-Christian activities far from the eyes of their neighbors only to see the bars shut down because the people working in them no longer have homes.

I believe it can be said, then, that the Port of New Orleans and the French Quarter will definitely be rebuilt in fashion that serves the business and social needs of the ruling plurality. Whether the city itself will be rebuilt is another question.

The best kind of con: The Girl in the Glass

Girlintheglass

You may assume I’m predisposed to like a book like The Girl in the Glass. It features some of my very favorite things–both as pieces of reality and fictional constructs–including but not limited to the Spiritualist movement, Coney Island freaks, magicians, butterflies, stylish con men, a witty girl, at least a few monsters, a murder mystery with powerful men at its heart, and language alternating between soft and rough poetry. Actually, though, I’m the opposite. A shoddy treatment of any one of these things is enough to engender immediate hatred and at least some ranting. All these things bring so much weight with them; they’ve been done well and they’ve been done terribly. To tackle them all, and to try to do so in a way that honors the historical moment the book is set in (1932), and be funny and dark at the same time–that’s damn hard.

Let it be known: Jeffrey Ford has done more than accomplish the damn hard, he’s made it seem effortless.

This book is as sweet a read as any magnificent con in action, and isn’t all real storytelling a con of some kind anyway? The story is anchored by the relationships between three scammers working together to bilk the wealthy bereaved: aging con man, Thomas Schell; a Mexican teenager adopted from the streets and playing the part of Ondoo the Mystic, Diego; and good-hearted heavy, Antony Cleopatra. During a con, Schell sees a ghostly little girl reflected in glass, which ends up landing the three in the midst of an investigation into the ritual murder of a rich family’s young daughter. The book is dedicated to the author’s own son, to me tellingly appropriate, as I read this as being very much about fatherhood–and add to that family, in the larger sense of the word. Vonda the Rubber Lady doesn’t help out for nothing, nor does Hal Izzle, or Belinda bring her pigeons; likewise, Merlin protects Morgan for reasons that seem instinctive. (Not that those are the only things Girl is about. One of this novel’s great virtues is that it manages to be about many things, as all good novels do.)

I hesitate to give away much more, because I don’t want to deprive anyone of the pleasure of reading this book. A couple of words though, for the darker side of the novel. The Klan and eugenics figure prominently, as does the mass deportation of Mexicans during the time period, and the backdrop of other people’s poverty in contrast to the rich living of our main characters as they live off the obscenely rich. This balances out the novel’s humor and prevents it from ever seeming slight. And the ending, the ending is perfect, absolutely right in the way so few endings are–and especially considering that the ending takes place much later than the conclusion of the story’s main action, with Diego looking back late in life on these events.

I’ll leave you with an excerpted exchange between Antony and Diego that comes not long after Schell sees the little girl in the glass. The novel is told through Diego’s eyes and here he’s puzzling over Schell’s dark mood with Antony:

"Look, Diego," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder as we walked along. "This ain’t fuckng geometry. It makes sense that when he goes loopy he sees a kid. He had no childhood. That’s why he took you in. Why’s a guy without a wife, a con man no less, take in a Mexican kid off the streets? He’s making up for what his old man didn’t do. Makes sense, right?"

"It does, actually," I said.

"When you see things, when your eyes play tricks on you, what you see is what you want. Maybe Parks is a screwball, but in a way Schell wants his mother too. Or at least he wants his childhood, get it? He grew up hard and doesn’t believe in anything but the con, or so he says. He’s taken people six ways to Sunday for years. So he sees a little girl. What’s a little girl?"

"What?" I asked.

"Innocent," he said.

"Antony," I said, "you should move to Vienna and hang a shingle."

"Hang my ass," he said.

Related links:

Jeff Ford’s blog
Austin Chronicle
NYTimes
The Globe and Mail

newsflash

When Alex Trebec drops a "Git R Done" at the top of Jeopardy, the phrase has officially "jumped the shark." (Unless on your TV it actually continued into the bizarro world edition where all the questions focused on Redneck Lore.)

In happy/sad news, on the way home I heard a song unmistakably sung by Rob Dickinson, front man of the much-lamented Catherine Wheel (and possessor of the sexiest singing voice within several solar systems), and it’s off his new solo record "Fresh Wine for the Horses." Sad for the solo part, happy for a new album–the song I heard was "My Name is Love" and it was very much in line with Catherine Wheel’s sound circa Wishville.

GilmoreGossipCircle

That’s right, it’s Tuesday. (Thinking about doing something similar with Veronica Mars, btw; anybody in?) This week’s episode is "Fight Face." Sez the WB:

Rory (Alexis Bledel) begins serving her 300 hours of community service and finds that life on a road crew is not pretty. Lorelai and Luke try to decide whether they will fix up Lorelai’s house or buy the Twickham house. Luke’s sister Liz (guest star Kathleen Wilhoite) begs him to hire her husband T.J. (guest star Michael DeLuise) as a contractor. When Rory pays Luke a surprise visit at the diner to find out how Lorelai is, he feels obligated to tell her that he and Lorelai are engaged. Afterwards, Luke confronts Lorelai about her estrangement from Rory. Feeling lonely, Lorelai adopts a dog at the Stars Hollow pet fair. Finally, during a chance meeting, Lorelai and Rory have an angry confrontation about their mutual hurt feelings.

Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann also star.  Daniel Palladino wrote and directed the episode.

Adopts a dog: maybe it’ll be a George.

Also, I forgot to mention last week that I was very excited they played one of my favorite songs from the summer, Graham Coxon’s "Freakin’ Out," during the felon party. And this week, I plan not to take three days to weigh in.

He’s a genius! No, really! (updated)

Jonathan Lethem just won a MacArthur. (Thx to Reechard, for the heads up.) Holla!

I imagine this is the award that will launch a thousand posts. And I love how the one sentence USA Today bio understates things:

Jonathan Lethem, 41, New York City writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker and Rolling Stone

Although I suppose saying that just dropping The New Yorker’s name is understating it is overstating it.

Update: "Conversation at a Book Store" — no doubt all in good fun.

And another: Matt Cheney weighs in at The Mumpsimus.

Well hmmm…

Importing posts didn’t work. In fact, I may have just erased the Shaken & Stirred blogger archives back aways (although the instructions said they would prevent you from doing that). Anyone who knows how to do this stuff, feel free to email with face-saving instructions. Otherwise, we are starting from scratch over here. Except for this one feat of technology I foolishly attempted on my own, we likes it over here. It’s much easier to control the design and the interface kicks the b-l-o-g-g’s a s s.

Anyhoo. Now I post up a storm.