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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (William Burroughs)

By Jack Kerouac & William S. Burroughs

Publisher: Grove Press (2008)

Hardcover 224 pages

          “Just at the alcove to the right of the balcony, there is usually a group of fags hanging around, looking half of the time at the picture and the rest of the time along the balcony seats for any good prospects. They were standing there giving us the side glance as we came up the stairs, when Phillip ran up to the sand jar and began holding the macaroni to his fly and shaking it in the sand, so that it looked like he was pissing diffusely into the sand jar. The fags glided away like crayfish.”
William S. Burroughs
          The long lost collaboration novel of the two fathers of the Beat literary movement, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, finally in print since it was first written in 1945. This is the Gospel of Judas equivalent for beat readers, and is just as disappointing.
          Essentially this is a first draft of Kerouac’s first published book, The Town and the City, containing many similar elements and focusing on the real life murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr (who went on to become an important editor for UPI). This seems to be a trope that Kerouac returns to over and over again in his writing. His personal involvement in the case (he was held as a material witness for several weeks), may be why it clung so heavily to his mind.
          The title apparently refers a news report that the pair had overheard while in a bar one night, about a circus that had caught on fire. The line that caught Burroughs’s ear was the reporter saying “And the hippos were boiled in their tanks.”  This possibly may have been the Ringling Brothers, Barnum, & Bailey circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut in 1944, known colloquially as “the day the clowns cried” where the main tent caught fire and close to 165 people died.
Jack Kerouac
          There is a reason why the book wasn’t published until 2008. It is by far the blandest writing I have read from either of these two authors. Each take turns writing a chapter from a different character’s first person’s perspective and they both feel like the same character. Neither of the protagonists are distinguishable, all of the characters are flat, none of them are interesting. You simply do not care at all about anything that is happening and the action isn’t outrageous enough to keep the reader interested. Everything that is going on is dull, unless I guess you were one of the people mention in the text. By the time the murder happens, when it finally happens, it is almost a non-event. The narrators seem to feel nothing and  you are left with a shrug.
          It isn’t badly written, but it is below par for most literature. There is no trace of the future literary masterpieces that would pour from their pens. It is a dull flat affair. If you were to tell someone back in 1945 that these two writers would define a literary genre, no one would have believed you.  This book is for Burroughs or Kerouac completionists only.

           For more readings, try my collection of books. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Naked Scientology/ Ali's Smile (William Burroughs)

By William S. Burroughs

Publisher: Expanded Media (1991) Contains material original published in L.A. Free Press (1970); East Village Other (1970); and Rolling Stone Magazine (1972).

Paperback 106 pages.

“When the Founder, Controller, and Guardian of “the road to total freedom” starts spouting John Birch talk, his road is called into question and we have every right to ask what his ‘method of solution’ is. If Mr. Hubbard were content to be a technician who has made some important discoveries we could afford to ignore his personal opinions. When he sets himself up as the savior of all possible universes then we cannot. The shoddy presentation, the reactionary opinions, the atrocious writing are so immediately repellent that few intelligent people can be persuaded that Scientology is worth a second glance.”
William S. Burroughs
This is a collection of articles and responses to articles by William Burroughs on the matter of Scientology. He was involved in the cult in 1968, this was back before it was so obviously known to be a cult and had a quasi-scientific reputation among the uninitiated. This is Burroughs at his most scathing. The book is half in German, with only about 50 in English, so it will take a reader long to get through it.
It should be noted that Burroughs, while an American genius of a poet, is not that swift when it comes to scientific matters, often his comprehension is addled by years of drug abuse to the point where reality and fantasy blurred. He was a lifelong proponent of the syphilitic ramblings of Wilhelm Reich and his Orgone chamber- a device which caused the death of many cancer patients, whom Reich had convinced that it would cure them. His problem with Scientology is not the techniques, which he states that “10 minutes of Scientology did more than 10 years of psychotherapy”, but the organization surrounding it.
He does not come straight out and call it a cult, perhaps he did not even consider it one, but the descriptions of the inner workings of the group, the paranoia, the necessity of adhering to groupthink on pain of excommunication, all bear the known hallmarks of such an organization.
L. Ron Hubbard
It also collects the short story Ali’s Smile where the main character, one of the main characters, is a door-to-door Scientologist- sort of. As with most of Burrough’s prose plot, when there is any, tends to be secondary to the flow of the language and the emotions stirring. Fans of Naked Lunch will probably enjoy it.

          For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst.  

Monday, February 13, 2017

Five Years in a Warsaw Ghetto: The Stars Bear Witness (Autobiography) (War)

Author: Bernard Goldstein

Publisher: AK Press (2004) (Originally published 1952).

Paperback 256 pages

          “It was impossible to describe the hellish scenes which took place in Warsaw’s streets during those two terrible weeks. Everywhere there was wild panic, unashamed hysterical terror. People ran frantically through the streets, a deathly fear unmistakable in their grim, weary eyes... The multitude filled the streets, a nation on the march. Long, long rows of little carts and all sorts of makeshift vehicles heaped with household possessions, wailing children, the old, the sick, the half-dead, moved from all directions toward the ghetto, pulled or led by the stronger and the healthier, who plodded along, tearful despairing, bewildered.”
Waiting for deportation
          A man who survived five years in the Warsaw Ghetto after the Nazi invasion of Poland and the clustering of all Jews in the country into a very small area, for obvious easy deportation. The author managed to escape the concentration camps, but that did not make his trials any easier. The author was a well-known figure in pre-WWII Warsaw labor struggles and when the time came to make the ghetto at least semi-livable he worked tirelessly to do so. It is a fascinating read in their attempts to organize and struggle against the Nazi regime.
Captured members of the Jewish resistance
          Now it should be pointed out that the author was a socialist, not a communist. We have a tendency to confuse the two nowadays, but history has shown us (also mentioned in Out of the Night) the socialists do the heavy lifting in organizing and fighting for labor rights, then the communist elements come in and subvert them, eventually changing the organization into a different direction to suit their purposes (as we have seen recently in the atheist organizations), thereby latching on to a popular cause to sneakily promote their own. Goldstein, mentions several of his fellow organizers being shot by communist agents, and several more disappearing into the Lubyanka, after the Russians drove the Nazis out of Poland.
          The author describes the actions with a strange distance, keeping all emotions out of it (the quote above being one of the rare exceptions). In fact we learn almost nothing about him, his beliefs, or his background, except where it becomes important to reference it in his recounting. This is the Warsaw Ghetto’s story, as he saw it, not his own. As such it is more technical, and not emotional, as one might expect. This conversely demonstrates the author’s deep depression and anger over the events. He must divorce himself emotionally from the events in order to discuss them.
          Strange as this may sound, one of the great stumbling blocks that the resistance found was hope. People clung to the hope that things could not get worse, the propaganda about extermination of the Jews was just bluster. First they came for the weak and infirm, then the unemployed, then whoever they could grab. It wasn’t until the population of 500,000 was whittled down to 40,000 that real resistance popped up.
          This resulted in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the fall 1943. This was on the eve of the final attempt by the Nazi’s to clear out the Ghetto for good. There were heavy losses on both sides, but it ultimately ended with the Ghetto destruction and its survivors scattering about the city. This did set the stage for the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, which was a general revolt by the remaining inhabitants of the city. The uprising was urged on by the nearby Russian army, who promised to support them, but ultimately failed to do so. This was probably a calculated move on the Soviet’s part, as it had two potential resistors wear themselves down battling each other: The Nazi’s whom they wanted to push out, and the Poles whom they wanted to oppress.
          The truly crushing blow comes right at the end of the book. After all the devastation, the author is filthy, dressed in rags, covered in lice, afflicted with dysentery, malnourished and yet must flee. Not due to Nazis, but because of the incoming Russian Communist army and its puppet Polish government. The Communists begin rounding up the Jews again, including anyone with a hand in the previous labor struggle before WWII. He discovers that there is an old death sentence against him by the Polish Communist Party and thus has to flee to save his life.

           For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Who Goes There? (The Thing) (Science Fiction)

Author: John W. Campbell (includes an introduction and the original screen treatment by William F. Nolan)

Published: Rocket Ride Books (2009) (originally published 1938 in Astounding Science Fiction)

Paperback 168 pages 

          "The room stiffened abruptly. It was face up there on the plain, greasy planks of the table. The broken half of the bronze ice-axe   was still buried in the queer skull. Three mad, hate-filled eyes blazed up with a living fire, bright as fresh-filled blood from a face ringed with a writhing, loathsome nest of worms, blue, mobile worms that crawled where hair should grow-"
          This classic novella about a shape-shifting alien monster discovered by an isolated outpost in Antarctica, who comes back to life and begins to wreak havoc among the crew. It was the basis for 1951 Howard Hawk film The Thing From Another World, as well as John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing and its prequel from 2011 of the same name.
          It is an incredibly readable novella, even close to 80 years after its initial publication, it effectively brings out the fear, claustrophobia, and paranoia of a group of men being stalked by a monster with abilities they can barely comprehend. Even though I knew the ending, I was on the edge of seat rereading this story. It grips you in a very personal and real way.
          Included with the story is the original screenplay by William F. Nolan, the author of another classic sci-fi novel Logan’s Run (Yes, it was a book first). In the late 70s he was approached to create a treatment that adhered closer to the original text. The main aspect the producers wanted added was to reintroduce the monster’s shapeshifting ability, which was not included in the 50’s version, probably due to budgetary considerations. It was eventually shelved.
          The screenplay is an interesting read, essentially a third adaptation of the story. However I’m not sure that it would have made a better story than John Carpenter’s 1982 version. In fact I doubt it would have. It would have been perhaps the most faithful version of the three.

       For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Farewell to the Master (Science Fiction)

Author: Harry Bates

Publisher: Spastic Cats (2013) (Originally Published 1940 in Astounding Science Fiction magazine)

Paperback 82 pages.

“At last, after exactly two days, in full view of tens of thousands of persons assembled and standing well back, and under the muzzles of scores of the army’s most powerful guns and ray projectors, an opening appeared in the walls of the ship, and a ramp slid down, and out stepped man, godlike in appearance and human in form, closely followed by a giant robot” 
The classic science fiction story remembered mainly because the film The Day the Earth Stood Still was adapted from the tale. For those who are fans of the 1951 film, starring Micheal Rennie and Patricia Neal (or even its 2008 remake), you may be surprised that its main focus is not Klaatu, but his silent counterpart Gort (called Gnut in the story). Klaatu is killed three pages in.
The protagonist is a photojournalist named Cliff Sutherland who notices something strange. Gnut becomes inert after Kaatu is killed by a religious maniac, but Sutherland after comparing some photographs he took of the robot discovers that it is in a slightly different position. He stalks out the interplanetary wing of the Smithsonian in Washington to unravel the mystery.
What I found most amusing was the lack of technological advancement in this story set in our future. For while the movie was set in 1950’s America, the setting of the story is way past that, after man has landed on other planets. Still for all this, the main character stalks the inert robot Gnut with an infrared camera (state of the art when it was written), rather than a recording on his cell phone. And while there are robots, there are no computers. Newspapers are still the front line for news. The protagonist states only two spaceships were ever built. The first was sucked into the sun, while the other had colonized Mars. I am aware that much of what we have was well beyond the ideas of the time, but it is still fun reflecting on our “old future” as envisioned from the past.

        For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst.