Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review: The Man Called Noon

© 1970 by Louis L’Amour

Formulaic but fun and fast

“Using his hands to feel for good grips, he worked his way up the steep incline. Once a stone rolled under him, and he glanced back. Fan was close behind him, and beyond her was the dark depth of the canyon.

“He started climbing once more. The top was such a few feet away, but the distance seemed enormous. He felt for another grip, hoisted the sack a bit to let it rest, then went on. The chute was even steeper than it had seemed. Perspiration was streaming down his face, down his ribs underneath his shirt, and his wounded shoulder was stiff. Gasping with effort, he paused again to rest for a moment. Glancing up, he could see the rim, now so close. If Niland and Janish found them now they could be shot like frogs in a tub.”

The Man Called Noon, chapter fifteen

But they were not shot like frogs in a tub.

What’s a good western without a Man With No Name? In this case, literally. Dude comes to after a fall from a two-story window, scrambling in the inky blackness of night, with no idea as to who he is or why they’re trying to kill him. Oh, he knows they’re trying to kill him all right. Blood pouring from a savage but superficial scalp wound, as well as a gunfighter’s sixth sense, tell him that.

Miraculously eluding the posse out to hunt him down, our nameless hero stumbles upon outlaw J.B. Rimes, who convinces him to head on over to the Rafter D Ranch. Seems like a couple gangs have been taking advantage of Fan Davidge, owner of said ranch after her pa was killed, as a crafty hide out between train robberies and such. Their leader is a nasty thug name of Ben Janish – a name our Man heard earlier whilst escaping with his life.

After piecing together a string of clues, our protagonist realizes he’s the feared hired gun called Ruble Noon. Seems he was hired to “take care of four men and a woman.” Could they be Ben Janish and his crew – and Fan Davidge? Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe not exactly in the way Noon thinks. After all, he may not have any memory of his life prior to that fall out the window, but something deep inside tells him he ain’t no killer. Despite a lightning fast draw and a reputation for murder across the western plains.

It’s all there in this tale. El Paso. The Denver & Rio Grande railroad. The Ute Indian Trail. Wells Fargo, the Cherokee Nation, the Acme Saloon. $100,000 in treasure in the form of hidden gold. There’s a Pinkerton man undercover in the guise of one of the bandoleros at the ranch. A judge, Judge Niland in this case. Crooked lawyer Dean Cullane and his money-hungry sister, Peg. There’s even Wing the grumpy Chinese cook, who curses your appetite then overfeeds you with the best grub you’ll find west of the Mississippi.

Oh, and the names of the characters! The good guys are okay – Ruble Noon, Jonas Mandrin, Miguel Lebo, Fan Davidge, “Hen” Henneker, Arch Billings. But the bad guys! I love ’em, love the sound of ’em, can actually visualize killers with these names slow marching out of history with spurs in the mud down Main Street with hands twitching over holstered Colt 45s:

Ben Janish
Dave Cherry
John Lang
Finn Cagle
German Bayles
Mitt Ford
Lynch Manly (kicked out of the Canadian Mounties for too violent a temper)
Cristobal, the Mexican gunslinger
And various baddies mentioned only in passing: A. J. Fountain, Magoffin, and the Mannings (Peyton and Eli?)

This is the third Louis L’Amour western I’ve read, the other two being Hondo (1953) and The Lonely Men (1969). Yeah, it’s kinda the same-old same-old, but it works. It’s a fun, fast read, even though you kinda know what’s going to happen. The hero will dispatch the bad guys with ten pages to go, win the girl, and save the ranch.

But every now and then a L’Amour novel will throw me a curve ball. In this case, it was the very moving, sad, lonely existential one-page death of a minor henchman named Charlie in chapter thirteen. Ol’ Charlie thinks he can get the drop on Noon, and thinks he does, until he realizes he’s feeling a bit dizzy. Then something wet and warm under his shirt. Blood. Huh? From that small gunshot wound? Then the thirst comes on, then the confusion, and then Charlie drops to his knees, rolls over. He calls out to Janish and his men, knowing that even if they hear him they’ll leave him for dead. Dead? Is he really going to die? So young … then he imagines playing by the stream by his house as a youngling, ma coming by, finding him, she’d know what to do, she always did …

Took me two days to read the novel, and I recommend reading it – or any Louis L’Amour western  out of doors. In my case I read it on the banks of a lake in my town an hour or two each day. Bright sun, warm spring, and a simpler time, where one lived and died by the gun and one’s word.

Found out that The Man Called Noon was made into a forgettable spaghetti western in 1973. It stars a pre-Rambo’s-commanding-officer Richard Crenna as Noon (not one iota how I visualized the character) and Stephen Boyd as Rimes, whose most famous prior role was that of Messala, Charlton Heston’s friend-turned-foe in Ben Hur.

Grade: lighthearted A-minus.

PS. I also took a gander through L’Amour’s bibliography. Seems he wrote over a hundred westerns … and one Science Fiction novel! Hmm – interesting. And this morning, cruising the used book shelves at B&N with Little One during our errands, what do I find literally jumping out and into my arms? You guessed it. It’s now on the shelf behind me. Should get to it in eighteen or nineteen months or so …

Friday, April 29, 2016

The River Rolls On and On

Lack of blogging due to a very, very busy week.

I did my first “interview” over my iPhone’s Facetime app. Had to have my eleven-year-old teach me how to do it. It was with an accounting recruiting company. I spoke with them last week, they liked my resume, and they wanted to see me so they could reassure themselves I wasn’t a freak. It was a great twenty minute conversation. Two hours later I received a call from a different recruiter over there wanting to forward my resume to a company five miles from my house. I enthusiastically said yes. That’s a developing lead.

To balance it all out, Monday I had a terrible interview with the owner of a company that received one of the letters I send out. The job wasn’t what I was looking for, and I wasn’t what he was looking for, and it went downhill from there. First he kept me waiting twenty minutes (which is a normal and boring power trip thing). Once in his office, I had to sit and stare while he took two phone calls and finished up a hunt-and-peck email. Then, after allowing me to pitch myself for a few minutes, the gotcha grilling began. My favorite question / accusation was, “If you’re such a great bookkeeper, why haven’t you found work yet?”

How do you answer a question like that? I said that the job market was tight and since there’s more applicants than open positions, companies aren’t taking chances on anyone who doesn’t fit the job description to a tee. But I don’t begrudge him his scrutiny. A self-made man who’s thoroughly used to people saying “How high?” when he says, “Jump!” I respect him for founding a successful company (that he’s now in the process of passing off to his son).

Fought a little depression for 24 or 36 hours after that. If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, there’s no way I can explain it to you. My morning walk and weight-lifting session helps, and I quickly resumed that. My father-in-law drove up from the Jersey shore for some mutual job hunting and lunch. I applied to payroll positions in a wide variety of places: a Japanese fragrance corporation, a construction company, a well-known watchmaker.  

Yesterday after all my daily tasks were completed and before Patch got out from school (Little One was with the wife for Take Your Daughter to Work Day), I drove out to a secluded lakeside spot. The water flows by very rapidly, and very quickly I drifted off in thought watching the hypnotic play of sunlight off the undulating elastic waves. Before I knew it, dozens of questions emerged from deep within my psyche …

There’s a big analogy hidden in here, of that I was certain. What was it? A metaphor for reality? Perhaps. The river as time. Flowing by eternally, neverending, pitiless. We are not rocks in the water, we are molecules and floating debris in the river, being pulled along relentlessly, towards some point downstream we cannot see. What, then, would the rocks be? What could they be?

And – with my fascination with higher dimensions – would not a river in four dimensions more accurately describe reality? How could that be envisioned? How about taking the surrounding banks, riverbed, and air above that river and move that, too. The river flowing within the surrounding elements flowing. Then, a thought. Some cultures believed in cyclical time (the Mayans, for example, and so to the philosopher Nietzsche). What if instead of having the surrounding banks, riverbed, and air above move in the same direction as the river, we have it circle it? Almost as if it was a garden hose rotating as a stream of water shot through it. Hmmm. Nice.

Oh, to be free of stress and have all the time in the world to work such thoughts out to their logical, illogical conclusions!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book Review: Selected Stories of Jack London

Very early on in reading through the short stories in this collection, two very strong, heartfelt conclusions came over me, numbing my limbs and ultimately my heart as only the northernmost frost can do:

1) Jack London is an extraordinarily brilliant short story writer.

2) Jack London is an extraordinarily depressing short story writer.

I was looking for a break from the SF I was reading of late – Pohl’s Space Merchants; the novel the movie Limitless was based on; Wolfshead; The Hero of Downways. I wanted something ACTION-oriented. Tough guys battling the elements, and not each other, for a change. Or maybe each other, in the case of righting a personal injustice, Leo-DiCaprio-The-Revenant-style. John Wayne killin’ a bear, then killin’ the injun that set it upon him.

Hence, the Jack London stories, found during a recent visit to a used book store.

The paperback anthology I read contained twenty-five of London’s short stories (ranging in length from a modest 6 to a hefty 24 pages), divided into two sections: 12 “Selected Klondike Stories,” 13 “Selected Short Stories.” I found the Klondike tales riveting, exciting, mysterious, in the sense that the Yukon is a place completely alien to me. The closest experience I get to traversing the Arctic Circle is shoveling a foot of snow off my driveway a few times a year. I knew it’s a dangerous, deadly adversary, these upper regions of the Earth, capable of killing a man in minutes if the man doesn’t pay proper obeisance to the gods of snow.

Heck, I read “To Build a Fire,” way back in school, Middle School, I believe it was. You probably did too.

My verdict? Well, #1 and #2 above came to me pretty quickly, and biased every story after the first I read. I fairly enjoyed the Klondike stories. But by the time I got to the second half of the anthology, I noted the tales grew grimmer, darker, more cynical. Man can never overcome nature (most of the stories in both sections). Civilized man is evil (ditto). Don’t try to right an injustice, you just can’t (“The Chinago”). The economics of big business is evil (“The Apostate”, “South of the Slot”). Religion and religious belief is essentially hypocritical (just about all of ’em).

It became a grind to read the work. Grimwork.

With the modest assumption that life is too short to spend willingly depressing oneself, I set the book aside, the final nine tales unread. I’ve had my sampling of Jack London. Like I said, he is a wonderful writer, if you can stomach the drear inherent in his work. 

As far as originality, “Bȃtard” is about as best as they come, a story of a downright evil adventurer, a man of foul disposition, who trains a trail dog to become even more eviler and fouler than himself. The two develop a kind of perverse symbiotic relationship, and each play a willful part in the other’s death – in an extremely imaginative and unconventional way. I’m not going to spoil it for you. Check it out for that first paragraph alone; pure, unadulterated genius in 175 words.

And, for those book nerds out there that may come across this entry, here are the humble grades I, an unpublished writer of short stories himself who isn’t even in the same league as London (for at heart he’s an expositionist, whereas I fancy myself a dialoguarian), assign those tales I did read:

“In a Far Country” … A–

“To the Man on Trail” … B+

“The White Silence” … A

“Wisdom of the Trail” … B+

“An Odyssey of the North” … B+

“The Law of Life” … B+ … depressing

“The God of His Fathers” … B … brutal!

“Bȃtard” … A+

“The League of Old Men” … B+

“Love of Life” … B+

“The Wit of Porportuk” … A

“To Build a Fire” … A+

“All Gold Canyon” … B

“The Apostate” … C … dreadfully depressing

“South of the Slot” … B

“The Chinago” … B … depressing

Friday, April 22, 2016

Musician Apocalypse

2016 continues to cut a brutal swath through music. Man, when Lemmy died, on Christmas Eve, I had a bad premonition. After all, I was just recovering from the passing away of New York Philharmonic conductor Kurt Masur the week before. But how was I to know that four months later, by my unofficial count, eleven more moderate to well-known musicians would be called home, wherever “home” may be.

January saw the demise of Pierre Boulez (he was a very famous conductor – I probably have more CDs of music he produced than any other), David Bowie, and Glenn Frey. February had Maurice White, founder of Earth Wind and Fire. I wasn’t too familiar with him (though I knew the songs he wrote and sung), but the wife was. March claimed George Martin, who, it must be confessed, led a long, long life to age 90, Keith Emerson (“ooooh, what a lucky man, he was!”), Frank Sinatra Jr, and Steve “Seven Bridges Road” Young. Yesterday saw the deaths of Lonnie Mack, a guitarist who influenced all the guitarists who’ve influenced me, and, of course, Prince.

Now, I never was into Prince. He was more of a chick thing, I think. Perhaps I heard two or three of his songs start to finish. He wasn’t really my thing, nor was he the thing of the people I grew up and hung out with. But I respect him as a musician, writer, and overall promoter, even if I considered him a little too weirdly effeminate. Despite the whole getting tons of women thing.

Can we have a moratorium on musician deaths, 2016? Please? I’m fearing for the surviving members of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Black Sabbath here, okay?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

I Have Guaranteed a Ted Cruz Presidency


Well, I signed up to take a course to become a tax preparer.


Allow me a quick sidetrack.

I am not cut out for retail. I have no handy skills worth exploiting. I am not a shameless self-marketer. What I do like, I’ve found over the years, is helping people one-on-one understand complicated things. I did this anywhere from 800 to 3,500 times in my career, by my off-the-cuff reckoning. Payroll, benefits, health plans, company policies and procedures, 401k questions, you name it, I helped employees navigate these dreaded waters. Most times, believe it or not, with a smile on my face.

Now, tax preparation, you say? What next, Hopper, a hair shirt? Self-flagellating purgatorial scourging? Not at all. When it comes to taxes, I know a fair deal already. It’s only cousin to what I’ve been doing since 2002. And two other people have told me I’d be good at it – including the woman who used to do my taxes.

Now – how does this get Ted Cruz, of all people, elected President?


I watched him on TV the other day and saw him hawking his ten percent flat tax plan, arguing it will eliminate the IRS and boost GDP, increase wages, and create jobs. And all the taxpayer need do is fill out a post card once a year and mail it to the Treasury.

Thus eliminating the need for people like me, who would like to help you file your returns.

See the logic? Trust me, it’s irrefutable.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Mighty Theme

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”  

– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, chapter 104

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

The “mighty” themes of my two novels (one completed, on Amazon, the other half-way through the final phase of editing) are:

Oncewhere Walked the Whale: What is a messiah?

Kirana (working title): What is fear?

Note: the two books, and thus their themes, are not related.

Monday, April 11, 2016


Átaremma i ëa han ëa,
na airë esselya,
aranielya na tuluva,
na carë indómelya
cemendë tambë Erumandë.
Ámen anta síra ilaurëa massamma,
ar ámen apsenë úcaremmar
sív' emmë apsenet tien i úcarer emmen.
Álame tulya úsahtienna
mal ámë etelehta ulcullo.


*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Starting to feel those pangs again … perhaps a fourth reading of The Lord of the Rings is just over the near hills? There is so much to do, though, so much other stuff to read, to digest, to write upon. Also the strong urge to move past this limbo, to get my life in some sort of profitable, regimented order. And so I will postpone this youthful calling, for a few more weeks and months, allowing only small sips such as the Ataremma or the ae Adar nín to quench this thirst.


Friday, April 8, 2016

The Great Man

“In war, men are nothing; it is the man who is everything. The general is the head, the whole of an army. It was not the Roman army that conquered Gaul, but Caesar; it was not the Carthaginian army that made Rome tremble in her gates, but Hannibal; it was not the Macedonian army that reached the Indus, but Alexander.”

– Napoleon Bonaparte

Read this quotation in Bevin Alexander’s interesting How the South Could Have Won the Civil War. Restricting itself purely to the military facets of the war, the book analyzes the strategic and tactical implications of a dozen of the more notable Civil War battles, emphasizing how the South failed to take advantage of the North’s blunders or follow faithfully their own, generally more competent leaders. Particularly Thomas Jackson, genius in the Art of War, the Great Man of Napoleon. By no means am I an expert on all this, but I am getting to be well-read, and Alexander’s book has induced in me an appreciation for Stonewall Jackson that I had not had prior. Sure, everything I read told me he was a tactical revolutionary, but this book shows how he was a tactical – and strategic – visionary.

General Jackson died of friendly fire wounds received during the battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863, just past the halfway point of the Civil War. Had this singular event not happened, there very well might have been two superpowers in North America: The United States, and the Confederate States.

(Which brings up another interesting point I read somewhere, a source I can’t honestly recall. If the CSA did gain its independence, think of how the 20th century may have turned out. The South courted English and French recognition during the Civil War. The North had an influx of German immigrants before and during this period. Imagine if during World War I the CSA entered on behalf of the Allies [England, France, Italy, Russia] and the US entered on behalf of the Central Powers [Germany and Austria]. Would the US then have allied itself with the Axis Powers, with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, twenty years later?

There’s a bizarre thought, no? … )

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Mystic Cipher

I doubt it not – then more, far more;
In each old song bequeath’d – in every noble page or text,
(Different – something, unreck’d before –
   some unsuspected author,)
In every object, mountain, tree, and star – in every birth and life,
As part of each – evolv’d from each – meaning, behind the ostent,
A mystic cipher waits infolded.

– Walt Whitman, “Shakspere-Bacon’s Cipher”, 1891

Monday, April 4, 2016

Breaking Bad

[spoilers …]

Okay. I’m a little late to this party. Anywhere from three to eight years or so.

Purely on a whim, I picked up Season One of Breaking Bad from the local library about a month ago, looking for something to watch when I ate my lunch. And after the pilot episode, I was mercilessly hooked. I burned through all five seasons over the course of the thirty days, averaging two episodes a day. What can I say that hasn’t been already stated by others? The series, thanks primarily to Bryan Cranston’s epic portrayal of Walter White, is equal measures brutal, ugly, sympathetic, pathetic, intense, heartbreakingly sad, funny, clever (adjectives in order that came immediately to mind), and more addictive than, I’ve learned, crystal meth.


Well, first and foremost, the character of Walter White. Fifty-year-old high school chemistry teacher, married to a domineering woman, father to a sixteen-year-old son with cerebral palsy and an unplanned baby daughter well on the way. He makes $43,000 a year, has no savings to speak of, and has a lifetime of regrets and bad decisions.

The regrets and bad decisions will continue as he decides to cook crystal meth to provide a financial future for his family – after he is unexpectedly diagnosed with an aggressive, malignant form of lung cancer and given a year to live.

So … why is the character of Walter White so riveting?

Allow me to get personal for a few moments here. I am not saying I am Walter White. Nor will I be saying you are. But I believe the head writer, Vince Gilligan, has created an archetype, a Jungian archetype if you will, that appeals – to wildly varying degrees – to the average middle age man of 2010 America. He has tapped into something authentic.


– We all want to excel at something.

– We all want to be paid well for excelling at something.

– We all have that unnerving, uncertain sense that, in this crappy economy, we are not providing adequately for our family.

– We all live under the Sword of Damocles (for Walt, the cancer diagnosis; for me, for example, the pulmonary vein stenosis aftermath; for anyone else, perhaps, a car accident, a layoff, a divorce, who knows?). We all live with a death sentence. Though some sentences have due dates much earlier than others.

– We all believe our motives are more selfless than selfish; however, and we usually know this, the opposite is usually the truth.

– We all tend to feel that the major decisions of our lives have been made for us, not by us, when in reality, and again we usually know this, the opposite is often the truth.

– We all feel overqualified in what we often find we have to do. Overqualified and underappreciated. Unfortunately, this is usually true.

– We all see others merrily and easily advancing in their careers, experiencing glorious success in their life circumstances and situations, leapfrogging over us, and it hurts. (Been on Facebook, lately?)

– We all have deep, cutting, lasting past regrets. For Walt, it is cashing out as a young rising star from ownership in the Gray Matters corporation, for $5,000 (a few months’ rent) on what would turn out to be a $2.1 billion company. For me – I don’t go there, for if I made different decisions in the past I would not have the few things that truly bring me joy now. For you – who knows but you, but you and I both know there’s stuff there.

So Walter White immediately appealed to me, as I believe he appeals to a lot of men today. Right from the first couple of minutes of the pilot episode (after the cold open, I must state), I felt a strange, magnetic kinship with him.

Here’s where I – and I believe ninety-nine point nine-something of us, differ from Walter. Walter’s first biggest mistake, I believe. As a chemist, he never prays or develops a spiritual faith after his cancer diagnosis. (Though he does utter one “prayer”, so to speak, in the series finale, asking for the car he is attempting to steal to start: “Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.”) Though I have been struggling through months of utter silence, I do believe with every fiber of my being, if and when I get that visit from the oncologist, soon after I drop to my knees answers will be forthcoming.

So, by taking the fork the vast majority of us rightly never will or would, Walter puts us in the uncomfortable position of rooting for him. Rooting for the bad good guy, or the good bad guy. Because we watch him slide hyperbolically, faster and faster, down into moral depravity, and we are unable to do anything about it except strap ourselves in for the ride.

Despite initial intuition, Walt is not the moral center of Breaking Bad. There is no true moral center, as every character is portrayed warts and all, no true center except, perhaps, brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank Schrader. Hank grows from a pilot episode caricature into a mature, conflicted, and ultimately good man – and surrogate father figure for Walter Junior – that is one of the best surprises of a show that consistently surprises you.

All the characters, not just Walt and Hank, are affecting and effective: Skyler, Walt’s wife; Marie, her sister who’s married to Hank; Walter Jr. with cerebral palsy; Saul the crooked lawyer; Mike the fixer. But even better are the plethora of really, really nasty bad guys, menacing, lethal, intimidating, but still human and grounded in reality bad guys: Krazy-8, Tuco, uncle Tio, members of the Mexican cartel, Gustavo Fring, the Twins, aforementioned Mike to a certain extent, creepy Todd, the white supremacists. The show, without a doubt in my mind, has the best secondary characters, and of these secondary characters, the one who undeniably has the best introduction is Saul, of Better Call Saul fame. His first scene alone is priceless and essential viewing.

For those in the know, I liked Season Two the best. I found its frame story, the future tidbits mysteriously hinted to us in the black-and-white cold opens, immensely intriguing. Like deciphering a puzzle. If you string together some of the episode titles you might anticipate the incredible vision in the final moments of the season’s final episode. While Walt is not bumbling and inexperienced, he’s beginning to find his way around, and prove to us he’s a quick – and deadly – learner, and the ruin and wreckage of lives hes never physically touched come crashing down around him.

The final season, Five, had a much much darker tone. Walt has devolved fully into drug kingpin Heisenberg, and his meth “empire” reaches its zenith early on. Hank, as we guessed he would from the very beginning, is finally on to Walt. There are gruesome jail house murders, a neo-Nazi gang, the enslavement of Jesse (Walter’s surrogate son and partner from Day One in the meth business), creepy Todd, and the deaths of several major “good guys.”

The series has many highly memorable moments. Two that struck me the most were the Gus Fring–Uncle Tio showdown and the completely unexpected and shocking death of Hank Schrader. I felt certain (well, I weighted it with the greatest probability) that Walt’s brother-in-law Hank would be the one to kill him in the final episode. How wrong I turned out to be.

But without a doubt the most memorable moment, the one that still brings goose bumps to my arms, is the series’ hugely satisfying ending, which I immediately compared to The Sopranos. Breaking Bad has about the same number of episodes as The Sopranos – both are “sixty-hour movies.” But Walter White is more complex than Tony Soprano. Tony Soprano is evil, was born into evil, and becomes more or less eviler as that series progressed. Walter White is initially good – flawed, but essentially good, like the vast majority of us. But Walter consciously chooses evil means for a good end, and in so doing, becomes evil and loses everything that means the most to him. And at the finale of both shows both main characters die – though the creators of both series leave the door slightly open to interpretation on that count.

In one sentence, Walter White was pitiably good at the beginning of the series and pitiably bad at its end. And the most pitiable thing of it all was when he said:

“I liked it and I was good at it, and it made me feel alive.”

Grade: A+++

PS. To this day, Huell is still sitting at the safe house …