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Monday, August 30, 2004

The Buggy Prof Back Soon

Quite a few people have sent emails inquiring about the buggy site's inaction the last three weeks. My thanks to all of them, except for one poison-pen type who hoped that I had come down with some terminal brain disease and was in a comatose position in a site funded by Hospice. Well, no such luck. Nothing anyway as serious as terminal damage in the upstairs department, at any rate none that the buggy prof can detect (despite what his wife claims to notice daily) --- only a little time off for some reading and lazing around Santa Barbara, with the site primed for more bugged out incandescent stuff to start anew next week, probably with a report on some of the books (mainly novels and historical works, plus some terrific fact-based investigative journalism.)

Best Book

One of the latter is James McManus's Positively Fifth Street, the most absorbing book I've read in a year or two, and of any sort: fiction or non-fiction.

A novelist, McManus --- who also writes sports journalism on the side --- went to Las Vegas early in this decade to report on two related events, a murder trial and the World Series of Poker. Written with hilarious vigor and in a flashy style that works to a tee, McManus --- a totally amateur player --- uses some money to enter satellite competition, finds himself pitted against snake-eyed pros, and manages to win enough satellites to get into the finals with the real pros, the world's best. The book is also autobiographical in parts, revealing enough of McManus's own hyped-up persona --- Good Jim and Bad Jim, the former a solid husband and father, the latter given to a rakish life --- that makes him every bit as interesting as the grafters, casino owners, hookers, drugged-out poker pros, washed-out gangsters, and sad-sack millionaires who congregate in Las Vegas, 12 months of the year. You can tell, despite the racy, show-off style (which perfectly captures the Rabelaisian extravaganzas of Las Vegas life), there's a lot of careful thought that went into the book's composition, including McManus's deft ability to juggle four parallel stories: the murder trial (the victim, as it happens, none other than the druggy son of the man who owned the casino and invented the world-series of poker); the poker series itself with its colorful players; and McManus's own barnstorming antics . . . not to forget the gaudy story always in the background of Las Vegas itself, Sin City Deluxe, the Mecca of low-life people everywhere on terra-firma.


Films: A Slight Digression

Very fitting that Bugsy Siegel and the Syndicate who first financed him, then killed him off, is the creator of modern-day Las Vegas, no?

The film Bugsy, which is the best gangster movie since the Godfathers' saga, stars Warren Beatty, and has a great cast as a back up: Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, and Ben Kingsley. Interesting too, isn't it, that though films generally lack the scripts and cleverness that they enjoyed until the digital stuff took over in the 1990s, the consistently best ones since 1990 are gangster and cops-and-robbers ones: The Score (with Edward Norton, Robert De Niro, and Marlon Brandon), The Heist with Gene Hackman, Confidence with Edward Burns, Miller's Crossing with Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, and John Turtorro, and --- a twist of sorts --- American History X with Norton, Edward Furlong, and a remarkable supporting cast of neo-Nazis, black thugs, a terrific black inmate (who helps Norton overcome his racism), and what have you, plus several Clint Eastwood ones. Not to forget all the Coen brother films, including Fargo or L.A. Confidential or The Usual Suspects by other directors.

No, I'm not a Tarantino fan, for all the raves he gets. His films strike me as nihilistic, unfolded with radical chic hokum about American life and no redeeming features. A far better film than his Pulp Fiction is Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, with Andy Garcia and Christopher Walken, the script written before Quarantino's Pulp Fiction hit the movie circuit. Even at a cut below in quality, say Kiss of Death --- the 1995 remake of a film noir classic of the late 1940s --- most cops-and-robber films are far better than the average Hollywood product these days. Don't forget Silence of the Lambs or the slightly earlier Die Hard . . . version one, mind you, the brainless follow-ups about as exciting as the successors to Simple Blood, the first Rambo film, with its engrossing script and gorgeous wilderness scenery of western Washington. If you ever get a chance to see Al Pacino's Sea of Love (around 1987), don't let it slip by. It's a remarkably exciting police-film on one level, and on another all about the burned up lives of Pacino and Ellen Barkin and their hunger for a meaningful erotic relationship in big city America.

There are also the good prison films like the Shawshank Redemption or Eastwood's earlier Escape from Alcatraz, for my money the best breakout film of all time. The Fugitive too has to be placed in this category. For that matter, if you add spy thrillers to the list, the Bourne Identity or Robert Redford's Spy Game, you have the best films generally these days, period.

The secret of these films?

Not hard to fathom. Unless it's all shoot 'em up stuff with predictable car chases, or starring the biggest ham-actor in Hollywood these days --- Nicholas Cage --- these films need a good script and actors and directors who can interpret both action-scenes and the emotions of the chief characters even as a coherent plot unfolds with twists and surprises. Even when the rules of the genre set limits to any script's boundaries, there's still ample scope for imaginative end-rounds and extensions. Which, come to think of it, is why Red Rock West --- which featured Cage's first starring role in a gangster whodunnit --- was itself a film full of unpredictable twists and a solid performance by The Great Ham.


Other Top-Flight Books: Chess vs. Poker

A natural accompaniment to McManus's book --- less boisterous and absorbing but informative and highly readable all the same --- is Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Loss the Most Extraordinar Chess Match of All Time, a rapid-moving study of the 1972 match when Fischer best Boris Spassky and dethroned Russian supremacy in international chess. Agreed: poker --- even the Texas 'no limit holdem" form played in the Vegas world series (a variant of 7-card stud, where a player can throw in all his chips and force all others to match or throw in their hole cards) --- isn't as cerebral as chess, but it's hardly a game of pure luck either; and there are serious academic programs, statistically based, that have sought to apply game-theory and other approaches to the game, both as an aid to middling players and ultimately as a way to beat the human players.

No such luck.

The main difference is that chess is a game of complete information: once you have a board and the line-up of pieces on both sides, all strategic outcomes can be programmed, hundreds of millions . . . including the best counter-moves to an expert chess player's moves. That's why the reigning world champion loss to a computer-based game a few years back. By contrast, poker --- which involves bluffing and an ability to read various tell-tell signs of opponents (tics, changes in breathing rhythms when bluffing or holding a good hand, changes in voice tone, and so on) --- is a game of incomplete information, and the best poker programs can't beat the best pros.


Some Journalists and Essayists Outdo Most Novelists

Another top-drawer factual book is Homicide Special: A Year with the LAPD's Elite Detective Unit by Miles Corwin, one of the L.A. Times' better known journalists. You learn far more about the police, L.A. as a city of both energy and crime, and criminal investigations --- not to mention the lives of certain key detectives --- than you will in even the best novels about the same subjects by Michael Connelly or James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), or ---to leap back 60 years in time --- Raymond Chandler, much as the latter is an indispensable guide to the nature of life, criminal and otherwise, in the Los Angeles of the mid-20th century.

In the end, you can't but conclude that the best investigative journalists of this sort --- who have no equivalent in Europe, save a few in England --- are better writers than all but a handful of imaginative novelists these days: superior in intellect, insight, and writing style. Think here of Sebastian Junger's Perfect Storm, the filmed version far short of its caliber, or John Krakauer's Into Thin Air on a tragic climb on Mount Everest or the remarkable works of John McPhee until that very gifted writer for the New Yorker got a bug in his bonnet --- not from this site! --- about geology.


Paul Theroux, a Case Unto Himself

Similarly, a talented novelist like Paul Theroux is at his best when he writes those numerous first-person travels of his by train around the world, the latest being Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town --- a saga, full of adventure (often life-risking), as Theroux winds his way by train, bus, and canoe southward across east Africa, including a visit to Uganda where he spent a stint as a teacher of English back in the 1960s. Theroux had revolutionized the travel story back in the 1970s with his first train trip, and he has continued to do so ever since. How so? His works are really fact-based novels, with remarkable true characters, dialogue, adventures, and insights, Theroux himself --- like McManus --- the central figure, with a matchless ability to attract oddball types into his orbit as he gambits around the world.

Read Dark Star Safari --- written with brilliant dazzle --- and you'll have a better idea of why, in the end, despite Theroux's own fondness for the average Africans he keeps company with throughout his travels, from the Arabs in Egypt and the Sudan to the tropical Africans to the south, the Continent remains economically backward and in the grip of corrupt, totally incompetent leaders . . . no thanks due to the professional aid-givers from international organizations and wealthy countries whom Theroux comes to regard, rightly it seems, as part of the problem, not the solution.

Other Bugged Books

Lots of other books looked at or read by the buggy prof in the interval too: a few novels, some serious histories --- a very good one, full of riveting narrative and technical detail on submarine warfare in WWII (War Beneath the Seas by Peter Padfield, another on the Reformation, yet one more on the attractions of fascist thought to intellectuals from Nietzsche to post-modernist enthusiasts --- come to that, another on Italian fascism's attractions to the artists and writers in Italy --- and a couple on the Spanish civil war. One also on American history: Freedom Just Around the Corner by Walter McDougall. An intriguing book, written with skill too, it features a thesis that Mark Twain would have liked: America as a country of matchless hustlers and con artists from the start, people fleeing dark Europe and its tyrannies of poverty and political or religious persecution back in the 17th and 18th century --- followed by immigrants from all around the world afterwards --- who saw the New World as fertile ground for one clever scheme after another, with the Puritans convinced that such cleverness, assuming it succeeded, was a sign of God's grace.

That's the Calvinist specialty, first understood by Max Weber, the great German sociologist of the early 20th century (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). The main drawback of McDougall's book? it loses sight of its thesis too often, becoming too often a solid if not particularly astute work on early American history from the Puritans through the Jacksonian period of the 1830s.


Misunderstood: Franklin, The Embodiment of Calvinism???

Interestingly, Weber singled out Benjamin Franklin as the matchless exemplar of the Protestant spirit, frugal, hard-working, always out to improve himself, churning with one scheme after another to make himself famous . . . a stingy, self-denying man full of gabby piety.

In reality, Franklin as we now know was a rakish sort, a chronic womanizer and gambler, addicted to constant whoring and boozing . . . whether in the colonies, later the US, or in London or Paris. There's a moral here. Europeans, it appears, almost always have trouble making sense of the weird combinations of American life --- full of conniving people, restless and imaginative, ready to try one scheme after another if nothing pans out (failure nothing to fear in itself) while remaining religious, very patriotic, hard-working, and striving all the time to improve themselves . . . the residue of a strong Calvinist ethos. Then too, for all our individualism, we are able to cooperate easily for cooperative purposes. Anyone who has been in American universities can easily note the differences here . . . even compared to British ones. American universities teem with student-run newspapers, literary journals, intramural sports, choruses, threatrical groups, orchestras and bands, student government, and dozens of other voluntary organizations. And --- in ways almost impossible for foreign observers to appreciate --- the average American's mind mixes equal parts of idealism and hard-headed pragmatism, sometimes uneasily, other times in jarring form, yet other times in mutually reinforcing manner.

Life for Europeans tends to be different. They live in far more structured societies than the US --- more hierarchical in the Latin countries and Germany and Britain than in North Europe, with highly organized ways of advancement that can't be easily finessed (from adolescence on) --- and they are also far more accustomed to accepting life's shortcomings and constraints than Americans are. Except for the British, they are also more habituated to reliance on government and bureaucracy, and failure at almost any point in your life --- starting with the highly regulated school systems --- tends to be unforgiving, whether in school-life, universities, or business or the professions. Maybe --- a speculation only --- the big risk-takers in Europe and elsewhere left long ago for the USA, the last ones in the buggy prof's lifetime . . . fleeing European homicidal madness.


The upshot?

For Europeans, at any rate left-wing and paternalistic conservative politicos, most intellectuals, and most media types, American life is mainly full of greedy humbug, money-chasing schemers, and patriotic braggadocio. They can't appreciate how American life --- in its economic, cultural, and social existence --- is always in flux, swept up in multiple changes that most Americans easily adapt to. That includes the ability --- no, gritty habit --- to pick yourself up after a big setback or failure and start life anew . . . in a new university after dropping out, in a new profession, in a new business you start, or in a new city or state.

Take the head of Microsoft. Bored with Harvard, Bill Gates dropped out his first year, traveled 3000 miles across the USA to Seattle, founded a small company, and became the richest man in the world within two decades . . . even as he has put billions of dollars into a philanthropic effort to help minority students go on to university. A ruthless businessman, a freebooting entrepreneur, he also is concerned to improve American life, like the robber barons and others who created Stanford, the University of Chicago, Vanderbilt University, the Rockefeller Institute, Princeton's great mathematical department in the 1930s, not to forget Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Carnegic Tech, the US public library system (Carnegie again), and the Ford Foundation.


Back to Franklin, treated snobbishly in London before the revolution by the local aristocracy, but regarded as the most intriguing man in Paris when he served as the US diplomat to revolutionary France.

As his multi-sided life showed --- a statesman, businessman, diplomat, and inventor who conned others and himself repeatedly with a facade of piety --- he would no doubt have been happily at home in contemporary Las Vegas with its low-lifers and schemers, probably besting McManus and T.J. Coultier and the rest at poker to take the world-series, then going off at 2:00 A.M. to some strip joint for some dilly-dally lap dancing and booze . . . only to get up at seven the next morning and head for the nearest church for a tete-a-tete with the Deity (the latter a fitting description of his and most of the Founding Fathers' skepticism toward traditional Christianity).

Weber got Franklin wrong exactly the way most Europeans, whether in the past or at present, get most Americans wrong. If he embodies anything, it's not Calvinist piety and denial of worldly pleasures for the sake of money-grubbing . . . rather, the spirit of American freebooting capitalism and a roving, rambuctious imagination.


The End

And so . . . see you soon, no more than a week or so from now. After a longer report on the books, the buggy prof will follow up the article of August 9th on intellectuals and anti-capitalism with a study of why the USA never had either a socialist tradition or, on the right, paternalistic conservatism after the destruction of the Antebellum South by 1865, never mind fascism as a political movement. (Two of the novels the buggy prof has read on this vac are by that remarkable father-son duo, Killer Angels by Michael Sharra on Gettysburg, which came out in the late 1970s and won the Pulitzer Prize, and Jeff Sharra's Last Full Measure, a novel that deals with Lee and Grant and a few others from Gettysburg on until Appomatox in April 1865. Both are remarkably good books, written with penetrating ability to get into the minds of the real main characters. And both are in the same league as Emile Zola's Debacle (the Franco-Prussian War) and Stephen Crane's Badge of Courage as dissections of men holding up or collapsing under the strains of warfare, the main difference being the resort in the Sharras' books to the factual novel . . . a genre, I believe, pioneered by Truman Capote when he did In Cold Blood back in the late 1960s.

Oops, it just dawned on me. No need for a fuller report on the books or films the buggy prof has been whirligigging with of late. What's unfolded here is full enough, no?