Gomorrah’s Woes

gomorrah locale

I’ve been anticipating the movie adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s landmark piece of journalism, Gomorrah, since I finished the book about a year ago and proceeded to recommend it to anyone who’d listen. Unfortunately, while it’s a good enough movie by itself, compared to the book it falls short.

First, a word or two on the book. Saviano, a native of the Naples area, lived and breathed the Camorra, the network of clans of organized criminals growing up, and after twenty-something years had enough and wrote a blow-by-blow account of all the different ways it infects the region, from its fashion output to the mozzarella it eats.  Saviano, who narrates the book while hopping from murder scene to murder scene on his scooter and detailing his own family’s determined path around the muck, published the work to the dual accolades of it becoming the most-requested tome in the Italian prison system as well as drawing death threats from the clans whose foibles and excesses it chronicles. And it made him a very rich, well known (both deservedly so) man, at the price of his own safety and freedom–a true commitment to the cause.

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McPheeters & Miscellany

photos by Billy Whitfield
photos by Billy Whitfield

It’s always interesting when punks get old. That’s why my emphatic finger-point this week is towards a story in Vice by former Born Against frontman Sam McPheeters. McPheeters ventures into one of the Midwest’s  strangest regions, the wealthy suburbs of Michigan’s capital, Lansing, to profile Doc Dart, former frontman for hardcore group Crucifucks. Dart, who calls himself “26,” appears to be suffering from several forms of mental illness, and has become a suburban pariah in the Mason-Okemos area.

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Iceland, Icelander, Icelanding

Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984
Halldór Laxness by Einar Hákonarson, 1984

For me, one of the more fun and exciting parts of meeting people who write stuff for a living comes when you skip onto something, appreciate it, and, looking back at the byline, realize a respected colleague has written it. That’s more or less what happened the other day when I followed a link from Arts and Letters Daily to this article, “Becoming Halldór Laxness” at the incipient The National out of the UAE. Turns out, it’s pal (and old roommate) Sam Munson reviewing restless Iceland native Laxness’ The Great Weaver from Kashmir. Munson says it bears resemblance to “other works of hectic spiritual heroics” such as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, which is enough for me to check it out.

In other news barely related to our credit-crunched North Atlantic friends, another chum, Dustin Long, who wrote a novel called Icelander, has provided some year-end recos over at The Millions.

To continue this terribly tenuous connection, I had an icy landing on Friday, barely escaping New York’s snowfall to be blown headlong into a huge Michigan dump. And guess what was on TV that night? Well, Johnny, nothing but a beautiful documentary about an Icelandic band Sigur Rós, Heima.

So, Nick, you ask, what’s the takeaway? And of course I ignore you because “takeaway” is one of those terrible beige middle management words we should actively conduct disgust towards. I guess, though, check these books out, if you’re interested, or have some late-game gift-giving to do for someone who loves reading.

I’m in my own private Iceland in Michigan for a few weeks, but I’ve recently uncovered some childhood treasures I want to bring to you soon, a little treasure trove you can consider your holiday treat.

Burgerman Bogusky Flips and More Late-Summer Follies

It’s been an interesting, albeit slow, few August weeks round these parts, so here’s a bit of a Creativity-related fill-in.

One of our favorite publishers, PowerHouse books, sent by a catalog for its new season, which, strangely, included a huge, front-and-center push for a book on small-plates portion control written by none other than Alex Bogusky. If you failed Know Your Advertising Creatives 101 (and no shame in that–certainly other coursework has greater world relevance) Mr. Bogusky is the Chief Creative Officer of Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, the Miami-based ad agency whose clients include Burger King and Domino’s. The evangelical pizza business is new, but CP+B’s relationship with Burger King is going on a decade, in which time they’ve revitalized the marketing, with a rock-n-jock approach hitting hard in the agency’s breadbasket, the young adult male. Continue reading “Burgerman Bogusky Flips and More Late-Summer Follies”

Navel Gazing and other Humid Pursuits

Self reference time! Post-Euroswing I’ve had to relearn the most basic human motor functions, including complex cognition and not expecting chilled bottles of champagne lurking at every turn and beaches packed with delirious hedonism. Unravelling? No, I’ve tied up several loose ends in recent weeks in several strange twists of fate.

The first came in Cannes, a few days after I left the techno madness of Barcelona behind. I was dining at a quaint Italian restaurant called Arcimboldo when I noticed a guy at the table next to me was wearing a M.A.N.D.Y. T-shirt. I had to mention something, and when I did he introduced himself as Peter Hayo, a founding member of Get Physical and producer of many fine dance records. He was in town as part of his other concern, Perky Park, a company that does music production for commercials and otherwise. His two co-conspirators, Walter Merziger, Arno Kammermeier are also known as Booka Shade. So, naturally, I asked him about a rumor I’d heard, that they produced Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” The rumor delighted me–that the popularity of a silly Danish pop song I’d found so much delight in could have been been responsible for the genesis of one of the biggest forces in contemporary dance music would have been an utterly fun piece of cosmic coincidence. Alas, not so, entirely. Hayo and chums just remixed the track for Universal Music, and, as you know, it spent a significant amount of time on the charts, and, subsequently, fattened the Perky Park synth fund.

The second weird, ‘What the?’ techno moment came after I returned, and got a tip from a diligent German about the closeness between the group awarded the Titanium Lion at Cannes and work done by pfadfinderei, Bpitch’s design gurus. Turns out, shaping barcodes to make them look cool while still functioning is a pretty routine concept in graphic design. So kids, don’t believe everything the awards shows tell you.

Also worth noting, on recommendation from this man I picked up some Hans Fallada, which, some months and many pleasurable pages later, turned out to be appropriate here:

Hans Fallada wrote The Drinker over two weeks in 1944, while residing in a a criminal asylum near AltStrelitz, Germany. He was confined there for the attempted murder of his wife. Given these inauspicious beginnings, the book has been especially troublesome for critics. It’s disingenous, however, to look at The Drinker as anything but the personal reflection of an author torn asunder by a turbulent society in collapse.The novel begins as narrator Erwin Sommer’s successful grocery concern teeters on the brink of collapse. With sparse language, the book composes an intimate psychological profile of an obsessive who would fling everything to the wind sooner than ask for assistance. He empties his savings and steals his wife’s silver — anything for another moment with his muse, Elinor, a village barmaid he fixates upon during his initial jag and who becomes his queen of schnapps, ruler of a woozy and throbbing world.

All his life, Fallada — a pseudonym chosen by Rudolf Ditzen — has inflicted tortures upon himself and others. During a melancholy childhood, he killed a chum when a suicide pact disguised as a duel went awry. Ditzen later grew into morphine addiction, alcoholism, and a carton-a-day smoking habit, with eventual trips in and out of institutions and prisons. Astonishingly, Ditzen found time to write nearly two dozen books during his dissolute life, very few of which are available in English. While Little Man, What Now? is justly famous for its excavation of pre-War German consciousness, The Drinker is an equally profound exploration of the author’s own demons of substance abuse.

While the book’s spare tone, lack of flashy language, and stark portrayal of German society are all signature marks of Ditzen, The Drinker more closely resembles Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. The novel is clearly founded in life experience, yet its narrative flights of fancy cultivate readers who place confidence in the narrator’s inner turmoil, but remain wary of the details.
– Nick Parish

Sunday Money

Sports books generally aren’t very good. At least for the sort of people who prefer reading to sports. But Jeff MacGregor nailed the crossover in his most recent, Sunday Money. It was by far my favorite sports read last year, and if you’re looking for an introduction to NASCAR you’d be hard pressed to find a better primer.

For the uninitiated, NASCAR can seem a set of baffling unknowables — or just 300,000 rednecks in the grandstand, braying at death-frenzied hayseeds. Lacking the pastoral sophistication of baseball or the strategy of football, for as many adherents NASCAR claims (around 75 million) there are sports fans set against its inevitable rise.

Jeff MacGregor’s first book serves as a shot across the bow for those staunchly in the “stick-and-ball world;” Sunday Money is a primer on the history of stock car racing and a vivid portrait of the season MacGregor and the Beep (his “Beautiful, Brilliant Partner,” photographer Olya Evanitsky) spent crisscrossing America in a motorhome, clocking 47,649 miles on the Winston Cup tour.

But more than offering race descriptions, anecdotes, or driver hijinks, more than recounting life in the NASCAR tent cities or parking lots of Wal-Marts, MacGregor examines the sport’s commercial machine — the squadrons of flacks regulating image, the promotional juggernaut packing logos and endorsements into sports columns and TV highlights. Incorporating an analysis of consumerism into his book, MacGregor shows NASCAR as larger than the sport and its myth. It is the inexorable Tony Stewart, Orangeman of Home Depot; Mark Martin in the Viagra Ford; Jimmie Johnson in the Lowe’s Chevy. It is Will Ferrell as Official Spokesman of NASCAR Day. It is the scads of products bearing drivers and their cars, it is the cardboard cutout of Dale Jr. in the beer aisle with a pile of Bud. As MacGregor argues, in buying widgets, shopping at Home Depot, or seeing Will in his new movie (coming this fall with Sacha Baron Cohen), you’re anteing up, so you might as well learn how to enjoy it. To that end, short of attending a race, track down this primer. The depth of description and insight jacks it head and shoulders above the ordinary.
– Nick Parish

Brokeback Mountain Picture Show

In what amounts to true insight in these days of false comprehension, the editors of Boldtype have deigned to include blurbage on Larry McMurtry (who could just grab an Oscar for his work on the “Brokeback Mountain” screenplay) by yours truly in their current issue, on Film.

If you’re not hip to what they’re doing, well, they’re preachin’ great books. And if you’re not like me and are less than a decade from clearing out your reading list, subscribe, take some recommendations, and count yourself all the wiser.

Well Well Wellington…

Cruising through James Agee’s greatest hits, I found an essay he wrote for Fortune‘s August 1935 issue, titled “Saratoga.”

Surprisingly, it concerns Wellington Mara’s father, who was then one of the major bookmakers, as well as the an owner of the New York Giants. This was before all betting was parimutuel and you could shop your horse picks to different bookies while at the Spa. Here’s what Agee has to say:

Tim Mara is a large, curly-headed, thick-fleshed Irishman with the wide, relaxed, dimpled, big-mouthed, and keen type of Irish face. Timothy James Mara’s life is too colorfully involved to bear writing on a thumbnail. He was born forty-eight years ago in Greenwich Village; sold papers, Madison Square programs, candy in a Third Avenue Theatre; was a Ziegfeld usher; sold lawbooks. Became a bookie in 1910. Of late years has been in and out of bookmaking. Some of his avocations: customers’ man in Wall Street for Al Smith’s pal Mike Meehan (1927-30); coal business (Mara Fuel Co., still listed); liquor business (Kenny-Mara Importers Co., 1933, still listed; a Scotch labeled Timara); owner of New York Giants (football, he has never played the game). He has been often in court, most spectacularly in a row over what Gene Tunney owned him for Build-ups, political lubrication. Has two sons: John, president of the Giants, and Wellington Timothy, who is at Fordham. He is a fight promoter (Schmeling-Baer, the second Ross-Canzoneri); plays golf; has never driven a car since, twenty years ago, he was in a bad accident; has a place at Lake Luzerne, near Saratoga. He is variously known about the tracks as (a) just a big good-natured guy and (b) the ultimate truculent mug. But everyone agrees that as a mental mathematician he’s second only to [Long Tom] Shaw and, as a bookie, among the most imminently successful.”

pp 103-104, James Agee: Selected Journalism

Selected Journalism and Agee on Film have been collected into a handsome Library of America edition, which will no doubt torpedo any remaining sales of the University of Tennessee edition. But shelling out thirty bucks isn’t such a bad idea, so long as some of the standout essays from Journalism, “Cockfighting,” “Roman Society,” “The American Roadside,” “The U.S. Commercial Orchid” and “Saratoga” remain.