Monday, October 26, 2009

Rob keeps on rereading

(Continuing my revisitation of one of my favorite literary relics from my misspent youth -- Old Glory and the Real-Time Freaks by Ralph Blum.)

All right, well, QED is really starting to get on my nerves. It's not just the fact that he's rich, but that's certainly one strike against him. This dude is so rich he has somebody who types up his scribbled diary or letter to his unborn grandson or whatever it is. He's also a snob:

We ate Laura's bread with lots of margarine, and I thought how Mommy never even buys margarine. Probably divorced ladies have to compromise, even with alimony.

The only thing I can think as to why I identified so much with QED was because I figured I was going to be rich too and I was looking for some pointers as to how to behave. I have no such illusions today and it's just as well. If I had been rich and followed in QED's footsteps I'd have been just another rich, snobby arsehole and the world doesn't need any more of them, for sure.

I didn't like him having sex with the diary-typist either, a married woman. But his girlfriend thinks it's great. She's the real hippie, not this spoiled rich poser QED.

But it's impossible to completely dislike the guy. Even if he does say things that leave you scratching your head, things like "Worrying about the wrong problem is like jacking off with sandpaper." I mean, does that make any sense?

Well, I've finished the book now, and the main feeling it leaves me with is bewilderment. Why did this book mean so much to me when I was a lad? Nothing happens in it -- this spoiled, rich 17-year old smokes a ton of grass and that's about it. The action -- such as it is -- do not present the protagonist in a positive light. He steals his best friend's girlfriend, loses his virginity to a married pregnant woman -- who works for him, typing up his diary, because even though he has no job and no responsibilities he can't type up his own scribblings. It's not at all romantic or erotic, so I hope it was meant to be comedic. It fails at that too, but it's less creepy considered that way.

The one part that should have been comedic -- QED's GF's father railroads him into participating in a sailboat race -- fizzles out when our hero overturns the craft before he gets to the starting line. This event makes him sexually climax but only because the author wants to use the pun "Nautical emission."

Oh, and his grandfather dies, but this is not dramatic or poignant. The old man is ready to go. I can see how most people who had to spend their days with Quintus Ells might long for death's embrace.

So the book stands or falls on QED's personality. If you like him you'll like the book. I don't like him very much. He's selfish, ignorant, racist and, as previously noted, spoiled, rich, snobby and immoral.

I must have liked him when I was 15 though. Maybe because back then I believed that rich people could still be decent and down-to-earth. I labor under no such delusions nowadays.

But, I would still say that this reread was success. It was good getting in touch with my 15-year-old self (and good saying good-bye to that knucklehead too). Some books are only great at certain times in your life. I loved Thomas Wolfe as a young man. Now I found him pompous, flowery and verbose. When they made me read "The Great Gatsby" in high school I thought it was putrid. When I reread it in my 40's it blew me away. So let's just say that "Old Glory and the Real-Time Freaks" is not a bad book, but for me it's past its expiration date.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rob Rereads, part 4

(in which I revisit one of my favorite literary relics from my misspent youth -- Old Glory and the Real-Time Freaks by Ralph Blum.)

Wow, QED is this weird combination of stoner and preppie. His family is mega-rich, old Connecticut money, there are these massive family croquet games going on the south lawn of the estate. He calls his parents "Mommy" and "Father". But he smokes dope constantly.

And he's kind of a racist too (discussing Vietnam and his older brother who recently returned from there):

"Well, I'd rather get burned buying dope in Seattle than be picked off by a dink in Nam."

Tunis goes, "You mean a gook?"

Ells shakes his head; the dust from marijuana makes him sneeze. (QED also sometimes refers to himself in the third person) "Naw, everyone's a gook, friend or foe. Dinks are a sub-set, being all gooks after your ass."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rob Rereads, part 3

(in which I revisit one of my favorite literary relics from my misspent youth -- Old Glory and the Real-Time Freaks by Ralph Blum.)

Well, I'm only on page one, and I see where my memory has failed me once again. His name is not Quentin Ells, as I remembered -- it's Quintus Ells. I'd also forgotten his nickname -- Fiver -- not sure how he got it since he's 6'6''. I was right about how much he loves his grandfather.

"If you don't have a grandfather, go adopt yourself. Almost any old man who has really lived a life will do. But every kid should have a grandfather, and preferably one like mine."

And here are some words of wisdom from Quintus's grandfather: "I am all but convinced, Quintus, that our life is actually the container in which we keep our death."

Obviously, I remember the format very well. Here's how Old Glory and the Real-Time Freaks begins: I'm 17, fighting a case of the munchies, and trying to crank out an opening page to someone who won't read it for a hundred years.
And here is how my first novel A Bridge to the Moon Begins: Dear Son,

Happy Birthday!
I wish I could be there with you at your party and all, but I'm afraid I won't be able to make it. You see, I'm trapped here at 2:27 in the morning twenty-five or thirty years ago.
About the only thing I can do is send a senile old buzzard with my name there in my place. It won't be the same, I know, but I'll try to make sure he brings you a nice present - like a new Porsche or something. A Porsche and this letter.
You can go for a ride later. You can even do us both a favor and run over the senile old buzzard wearing my name if you want to. But first you gotta read this letter. It's important.

pg, 18 -- OMG, I'm even more of a plagiarist than I thought. QED gives himself a deadline to finish this letter -- his 18th birthday 38 days away. My protagonist Todd Burwell gives himself a birthday deadline too -- his 15th coming up in a few days.

I had also forgotten that QED was rich -- although if I'd thought about it, I might have wondered what he was doing on Air Force One. (Actually I'm still wondering about that -- haven't got to that part yet.)

And QED -- one lasting impression that the book left me with. I had never heard of QED in its original Quad Erat Demonstrandum sense -- Hey, I went to school in South Carolina, we don't cotton to a lot of Latin and suchlike. The first time I did see it that way, I totally thought the ancient Romans were ripping off Ralph Blum. And to this day, every time I see QED, I think of Quintus Ells and hope he's not deceased.

Almost all of my literary heroes are romantics and QED is no exception: I love Laura a lot, Grandson. I do that best. It's the only thing I do half right. (That last statement is false modesty, by the way, Quintus is a very self-confident young man.)

Later he says, I walk behind Laura whenever I can. Her hips kill me. She has this sway to her walk, a kind of stately way of moving her ass that practically puts me in Zone 99.

And, Kim, if you've ever wondered why I usually let you go up the stairs first, it's not because I'm a gentleman. I just love how you send me to Zone 99.

pg. 25. Now I know why he was on Air Force One. His father is some sort of diplomat and they were headed out to San Clemente for a meeting with President Nixon. You don't see many books with protagonists as wealthy as QED -- I mean, this guy is loaded, his family's been in the banking biz for a long time. But I don't think there many in 1972 either. Rich folks are so rarely heroic.

More later

Monday, October 19, 2009

Rob Rereads, part 2

No, I still haven't begun my reread of "Old Glory and the Real-Time Freaks", haven't even opened it yet. But I will soon. For one thing, I want to give the book every chance to be what I remember it as, and I know that too much anticipation can make even the world's greatest book something of a letdown.

While preparing for the big reread, I have been researching the author Ralph Blum. All I knew about him was that he quit writing fiction to write books about runes -- self-discovery and divination with, well, with rocks. And that's about all the Internet knows too. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University with a degree in Russian Studies. He's written several books about runes, and co-authored books about UFOs and zen and other new-age subjects. Most of his books are out of print. He evidently only wrote one other novel "The Simultaneous Man" a science-fiction work that predates "Old Glory" and is even harder to find. He is 77 years old and he has a new book coming out in early 2010, called Invasion of the Prostate Snatchers: No More Unnecessary Biopsies, Radical Treatment or Loss of Sexual Potency. According to the co-author bio, Mr. Blum has been living with prostate cancer for 20 years without radical treatment, which makes me think he must know something.

Then there's this quote from that makes me think maybe he doesn't:

"Know thyself. Nothing in excess. The Self is required to balance the Self."
Okay, yeah, whatever you say; no, I don't want to buy a flower.

I also found a 1972 review in the New York Times "In Old Glory and the Real Time Freaks, Ralph Blum. . . maps the self-guidance, self-adjustment and self-landing of a 6-foot-6 17-year old. . . He is a funny writer, his jokes expose hypocrisy, shorten social distance, suggest a more decent order of values in our society. . . his novel is likely to elicit a complicated set of responses. For me, the range goes from amusement and delight to compassion and anger."

This is the cover to the hardback version, not the paperback. The PB cover was better, if you ask me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rob Rereads, part 1

I read a lot when I was a kid, started before I began school because I just didn't want to wait that long. My first literary love was biographies and I plowed through every one that Jackson Davis Elementary School Library had --- which pissed off my Elmira Gulch-esque librarian, but that's another story for another time -- but somewhere along the line I graduated to fiction and it's still by far my favorite genre. Most novels I just plowed through on my way to the next one, but some of them made a bigger impression on me. Some of them I had to go back and reread, either because I missed something or because I wanted to go on living in that world with those people. One of the first books I remember that sort of blew me away was "If I Loved You, Am I Trapped Forever?" by M.E. Kerr, which is about this boy in high school who seems to have everything going for him -- he's popular, he's got a hot girlfriend -- and this new kid (Duncan Stein, nicknamed "Doomed") who starts school. He is a weirdo and a misfit, but he and his philosophy of unrequited love being the only kind of love that's real become a phenomenon at that school, much to our hero's chagrin. I think the reason I had to keep going back and rereading it was because it may have been the first book I ever read that did not have a happy ending and that fascinated me.
I reread this book a couple years ago and I'm happy to say it was just as good as I remembered it. I wrote to M.E. Kerr to tell her how much I liked that book and I received a very nice letter from her in return. Kerr never attained the status of her contemporary Judy Blume, but all her books -- and she was quite prolific -- are worth seeking out.

On the other hand, I also used to just devour Carter Brown books. Part of the reason was the great covers by the incomparable Robert McGinnis, but I also thought the books were funny, sexy and exciting. My favorite of his protagonists was Danny Boyd, who was always talking about how irresistible his profile was. But when I try to reread these, I can't get even halfway through. Carter Brown uses so many damned adverbs -- several per page, nobody ever whispers, they state "softly" -- that I find myself tensed up waiting for the next one like a prisoner expecting another lash from the whip. Not a pleasant experience.
Although the McGinnis covers are still breathtaking.

So, my results with rereading favorites from my youth have been mixed. So maybe you'll understand why I'm feeling a little trepidation about revisiting "Old Glory and the Real-Time Freaks" by Ralph Blum. You want to talk about being blown away by a book, this is the one that did for me. It's about a guy named Quentin Ells. (And isn't it interesting that I can't remember the names of the characters in the book I read last week -- not to mention the names of many of my co-workers -- but I cannot forget Duncan Stein, Danny Boyd and Quentin Ells?) Quentin is a teenager, but the book is a letter to his unborn son (or grandson maybe, I forget) and spends most of the book high; he tokes up on Air Force One, drops acid with his grandfather. He refers to himself as QED (Quentin Ells Deceased) because he expects he'll be gone by the time his grandson reads the letter.
How much did this book affect me? It made me decide I wanted nothing more than to be a hippie, and for better or worse, I've pretty much stuck with that career plan. When I decided I wanted to write a book I basically stole the letter to unborn progeny format.
I've been looking for this book a long time -- and by looking I mean looking for a cheap copy -- thanks anyway, Alibris) -- and I've finally found it and ordered it. Now I'm a little nervous. So much so that I haven't even opened the package and it arrived last Thursday and that is not like me at all. I usually rip open packages while standing in front of the mailbox. Will it be as good as I remember like "If I Love You. . . " or will it be adverb-addled crap like Carter Brown? Or will it be somewhere in between, just your typical mediocre novel? I'm going to find out soon, but for now I'm enjoying the anticipation. While we're waiting here's some more Robert McGinnis art. Is this guy good or what?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How did I do at the Library book sale?

Great, actually; thanks for asking. This year I decided that going to the pre-opening Thursday night party was not good enough. To really get first crack at the books you've got to volunteer to help with the set-up on Thursday morning, which is what I did. It's very exciting opening up those boxes and not knowing what kind of treasure -- or Grisham-Patterson-Brown crapola -- you might find therein. (Well, it's exciting if you're a book nerd.)

The best thing I got this year was the book "Baseball" the companion to Ken Burns's magnificent documentary. This thing is gorgeous, truly a thing of beauty and a joy forever. A 60 dollar book in great condition for four dollars.
I also picked up "Excelsior" Stan Lee's autobiography, which I have read before but did not own
"Mad Cover to Cover" cuz I just can't get enough Norman Mingo:This beautiful oversized poster book
I also got the Buddy Chronicles from Peter Bagge, I can't find an online copy of the cover, and I'm too lazy to scan it, and it's not that impressive, so here's a shot of Buddy Bradley with some other comic immortals. For those of you not in the know, Buddy is the one with bones made of rubbber.

Evidently this a Quality Paperback Book Club edition, which collects "The Bradleys" "Hey Buddy" and "Buddy the Dreamer." I already possess all three of those books, which collect issues of the comic series "The Bradleys" and "Hate". I also possess all of those comics too. I might have a problem.

What else did I get? "Powerhouse Pepper" from Basil Wolverton. Wolverton's frenetic, nonsensical, punny style of humor is currently out of vogue, but not with me. Wolverton did a lot of comics work, but he's probably best known for winning the contest sponsored by Al Cappp and "Li'l Abner" to draw Lena the Hyena, the ugliest women in the world. A celebrity jury panel consisting of Salvador Dali, Boris Karloff and Frank Sinatra picked Wolverton's entry over thousands of others. I think you can see why.

I also got "Bufffy the Vapire Slayer: The Watcher's Guide, Volume 2".
I bow to no one in my appreciation of Whedon's slayer, and I will fight anybody who says the show ever jumped the shark. All seven seasons were great -- the eighth season in Dark Horse comics is great too. That being said, I have to say that as a shipper, the show was never as compelling for me after Angel left at the end of the third season. This will give me yet another way to relive season three.

I got this book cuz I used to love those celebrity roasts, and I want to see if a certain portion of Milton Berle's anatomy is actually mentioned at every roast.

And this book, which is nothing but pictures of naked people, cuz you know I love art:
I also love A.J. Jacobs, and I'm looking forward to reading about him reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica. (I did mention that I'm a book nerd, did I not?)
And the Marx Brothers Scrapbook, which looks great if you love Groucho, Chico and (especially) Harpo as much as I do.I've been reading "Bizarre Books" which is just what it sounds like, a bunch of books with weird titles, subjects or authors. My favorite so far is "How to Put Constipation and Hemorrhoids Behind You" so if you ever find that book pick it up I'll reimburse you.
So when I saw a book entitled "Through the Alimentary Canal With Gun and Camera" I had to get it, to add to my fledgling bizarre books collection:

And it seems like at every book sale, there's always one book that I come home with and wonder what I was thinking. This time it "The Guru's Guide to Serenity" which seems to be about how celebrities relax. The only thing I can figure is that I was getting a little stressed from digging through all those books and at that knuckleheaded guy in the Games and Humor section who insisted on displaying the books upside-down.

Also at every book sale there's one that gets away. This time it was Tom Robbins's "Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates" which I hid but forgot to go back and retrieve.

So anyway, not bad, eh? Oh, and with the volunteer gift certificate and the newby cashier who rang all my paperbacks up at a dollar even though all of them were priced higher than that, these books set me back only 14 bucks.

I went back on Friday of course. I'll tell you about that later.