Cemetery Road by Gar A. Haywood … Although originally published in 2009, Cemetery Road and its author turn out to be one of my best finds in 2016. Character introspection isn’t something I usually favor, but when it’s done with grace and sophistication, it is wonderful.
The protagonist and narrator, Errol “Handy” White, tells a tale of guilt and the tragic consequence of best intentions. As a young man, Handy ran with two best friends, R.J. Burrow and O'Neal Holden (a.k.a. O). As young men will sometimes do, they engaged in petty thefts that were as harmless as they were dumb. When a young girl, Olivia, takes one of those regrettable first hits of cocaine, the kind that kill, an act of vengeance via theft becomes a bloodbath of far-reaching proportions. Handy’s brother Chancellor was in love with Olivia, but it was Handy who took her death to heart and felt the person responsible for the cocaine, Excel Rucker, should have to pay. Handy puts a plan of fairly simple vengeance into play, but the unintended consequences affect more lives than Handy or his two best friends could ever have imagined.
In the years that have passed, Handy’s background includes a move to Minneapolis and a marriage that bears a daughter, neither of which event has worked out all that well. The author does a wonderful job of teasing the reader while peeling the onion a layer at a time. Handy has issues with his daughter, who has fallen victim to substance abuse and has a burning desire to know who her mother was and where she might be. Handy also has a trip to make, which after a prologue, starts with a return to L.A. for the funeral of one of his two best friends. J.R. was murdered, but over what is the question. J.R. also had a daughter and wife, and although his murder has thus far been deemed a drug incident, J.R.’s wife refuses to accept the assumptions. J.R.’s daughter is a reporter who also has questions, so when Handy shows up and is also unconvinced about the effort the police are making to find his friend’s killer, he does some investigating of his own.
Nobody likes politicians, and throughout the novel, we’re not quite sure about O’Neal and/or his role in anything that has happened. He’s become a local mayor with more than old friendships to concern himself with, never mind the cause of one of their deaths. It all has to do with the plan of vengeance Handy proposed to his two friends back in the day. Has it come back to haunt them? No spoilers here, but the trip the author masterfully takes us on is compelling. Just as Handy’s background issues with his daughter and her mother, the act of vengeance is similarly revealed in stages that will keep readers glued to the page. Handling guilt and searching for some measure of redemption are powerful emotional trips to engage. Haywood takes us on such a trip through his wonderfully articulate and soul searching protagonist, Handy White, but perhaps the genius behind this novel for me was the empathy I felt for Handy’s hot-headed friend, J.R. The ghost of guilt that haunted his entire life was ever present, and it lent all the credibility necessary to understand Handy’s seemingly suicidal quest for redemption.
Cemetery Road is smart, sophisticated writing. The collection of starred industry reviews and high praise from newspapers were well deserved back in 2009. Trust me, this baby has staying power. I don’t keep every crime novel I read on the shelves in my writing room at Casa Stella, but this one will take its place on the top shelf along with some of my other favorites.
Family Portrait with Fidel by Carlos Franqui … some background on the author is necessary before a review of his sometimes sad and often times hilarious take on Fidel and the revolution that was, then quickly wasn’t. Franqui was born in a cane field and was a member of the communist party. He joined the 26th of July movement headed by Fidel Castro and co-edited the movement (and later the revolution’s) official newspaper, Revolución. Franqui was a writer, poet, journalist, art critic, and political activist who eventually fell out of favor with Castro due to the abandonment of all principle when it came to human rights and democratic power. Forced to leave Cuba, in 1968 he broke ties with the Cuban government (Castro) with a letter condemning the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Family Portrait was recommended by author Scott Adlerberg, and I had a fun time reading Franqui’s take on everything that went wrong under Fidel Castro and his much more vicious brother, Raul. Franqui’s take also reveals what a horse’s ass Fidel was when it came to doing the right thing and defending the principles of his revolution. What he did was consolidate all the power under an almighty, but not nearly as bright as he needed to be, God—Castro himself. He allowed his thug brother free reign of the military, and it was used just as horribly as can be imagined. Settling scores by taking lives is never a good idea.
Nor was Fidel nearly as smart as he was charismatic (i.e., Barry and The Donald?), but he was clever enough to play off the superpowers and retain his grip on his country. Surviving 11 presidents is no small feat. Still, his revolution was more a convertible one, unfortunately driving with the top up while destroying any sense of transparency. A thug when it came to culture of any kind, Fidel chose unwisely in repressing the poets and other artists of his culture, along with homosexuals. It is what cost him someone as obviously valuable as Franqui, a true voice of reason, but power is a nasty aphrodisiac and Fidel certainly showed no signs of being immune to it. It is obviously what cost him Che Guevara as well, someone Franqui felt was much more the true revolutionary than Fidel.
This book certainly left me with a more critical view of Fidel himself.
This book certainly left me with a more critical view of Fidel himself.
A wonderful passage to this informal memoir takes place at the end of Part IV, subtitled “Was Fidel a Communist?” Here’s the passage:
“In effect, did the revolution change anything? Yes, everything in the highest echelons of Cuban society changed: the Party-state was the new ruling class. But nothing changed below. Those of us—almost two million—who have suffered through this process know that the monster is not socialism. The word just has no meaning any more. Each side has its buzzwords. Pinochet and Videla always talk about the “free world,” while Kim Il Sung, Teng Siao-ping, Husak, Pan Van-don, and Brezhnev talk “the proletariat,” “popular democracy,” “communism,” “internationalism,” and “free territory.” No one believes these words anymore because everyday reality gives them the lie. The socialist world is not socialist; it’s a world where the people are forced to work and to endure permanent rationing and scarcity, where they have neither rights nor freedoms. If they are taught to read—an essential prerogative if the wall of ignorance is to be destroyed once and for all—they are deprived of the freedom to read what they like. The increase in literacy is more than offset by the increase in the new elite above. There is no equality in education, because the new elite give special attention to the children of Party members and state officials. The same applies to labor. There is no unemployment, because people are made to work at forced labor, in reeducation camps, and in military service. Salaries are not equal and are insufficient. This goes as well for housing, medical attention, transportation, and food.
“Those above enjoy privileges. So there are no more old bourgeois around, so what? There are plenty of bureaucrats who administer, control, and enjoy wealth. Above, everything is different, while below it’s the same old thing. In Cuba, we call this system socialismo.*
*There is a pun in which the word socio, meaning “partner” or “buddy,” is blended with socialismo, or ‘socialism.’”
Jewish Noir … from PM Press. I haven’t read all the stories, so I can speak to only those I read and enjoyed. Suzanne Solomon’s use of 2nd person in her story, “Silver Alert,” was wonderful. “Twisted Shikse” by Jedidiah Ayers is probably my favorite in the collection thus far. David Zeltserman’s “Something’s Not Right” was a story (fantasy?) I’m thinking most writers can appreciate, and S.J. Rozan’s “The Flowers of Shanghai” was a history lesson (at least for me) regarding how one might think there couldn’t have been more anti-Semitism in a world gone crazy (WWII). I learned it was prevalent in Japanese-occupied Shanghai as well. Nancy Richler’s “Some You Lose” very effectively deals with the difficulties of summing up one man’s life in a eulogy.
Fences, a non-spoiler review by J.R. Jarrod … Unlike many of his peers whose marquee status has faded, Denzel Washington can still “open” a movie. He’s one of my favorite movie stars, hands down, and I’m always eager to see his latest directorial endeavors. As if that wasn’t enough, add Viola Davis and material by August Wilson, and it was enough to get me into the theater, but was it enough to keep me riveted … ?
The Oscar buzz for this film is not without merit. The performances in this film are densely crafted, utterly humanizing, compelling and worthy of a stride along the red carpet. Standouts are of course Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson – a man haunted by opportunities that might have been – and Viola Davis as his indomitable, selfless wife Rose; among the rest of the cast, Stephen Henderson (reprising his Tony-nominated role as Bono) and Mykelti Williamson (as Gabriel) provide the most engaging supporting performances. (Williamson often steals scenes; his climactic final line of dialogue is no exception.)
Structurally, however, Fences plays like a throwback to Masterpiece Theatre or a made-for-HBO movie of the past. This is primarily because Fences is truly a filmed stage play, substituting real brick & mortar interior and exterior locations for their stage counterparts. We are teased by possible flashbacks, dream sequences and the like, but they never materialize, nor do the walk-ons or other juicy supporting roles evinced in the characters’ lengthy diatribes and soliloquies. (I’d hazard a guess that Denzel Washington speaks more words in this one film than he has in his entire cinematic career.) With no dam in sight, I found myself quickly drowning in the endless rivers of bombastic dialogue. Any event even remotely dramatic is simply referred to as having taken place off-screen, and the principal cast is never truly untethered from the two-story house, backyard, or locked-down camera. In this respect Fences inadvertently becomes an experimental film (that just happens to boast a stellar cast), but is hardly the cinematic experience I think many are expecting.
In cinema, the writer and director must assume their audience is unfamiliar with the world being depicted onscreen; therefore the filmmaker’s duty is to educate as well as to entertain. An example of where Fences fails to educate can be found in Troy’s tirades to his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) about 1950s race relations. Since the screenplay never provides any three-dimensional malevolent, let alone benevolent, white characters (or outsiders of any other race, for that matter), Troy’s rants seem targeted at straw men. Thus, rather than compelling the filmgoer with this tale of Black family life in the 1950s, such narrative and structural deficits serve to distance if not disenchant the filmgoer.
Having seen the screenplay, I can attest that it is indeed, for all intents and purposes, still formatted like a stage play, with copious runs of dialogue throughout. While August Wilson’s Pulitzer-prize winning genius can’t be contested, it seems this early stage-to-screen adaptation of his own work was deemed by contemporary producers as too sacrosanct to edit. (There is no other screenwriter credited in this production.) Unfortunately Wilson’s material is revered to a fault. Leaving the screenplay untouched (and the footage most likely minimally trimmed in post-production) was a decision by the producers which resulted in a film that mimics the award-winning play but never uses the semiotic tools necessary to dissect, translate or interpret the play for the cinematic medium. This yielded, in my opinion, an extremely claustrophobic movie going experience.
I wanted to love this film … I did. Yet rather than unpack or elevate the material, the artifice of this production undercuts verisimilitude and unintentionally breaks the fourth wall with its lack of cinematic dexterity. Fans of the stage play will find some solace, I’m sure, since they’re essentially getting a stage play redux, albeit in high-definition. Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007) are evidence that Denzel Washington is a fine and nuanced director, and though the performances in this film are flawless, I left the theatre feeling that Fences The Movie is unduly haunted by the ghost of August Wilson.
The Tweeter in Chief … or maybe the prestidigitator in chief is more appropriate. While the Orange Blowhard tweets, the media and other Democrat sycophants crack jokes and/or predict a new apocalypse based on the Blowhard’s cast of greedy capitalist/nationalist characters for his cabinet and staff, people who just might remake America in a way the Founding Fathers would most appreciate.
And, no, that isn’t a good thing, certainly not for the lot of us.
I’ve been waiting for the tweets that hint of appointments to whoever might be in charge of the evacuations of the cities and herding of the populaces into feudal land parcels, but even that might be an improvement on where the Blowhard seems to be taking us (somebody say 14 hour workdays, no vacation time, sick time, and/or unions?). Okay, that might be a bit dramatic, but no less so than Democrats seem to think.
Maybe he’ll leave those in the cities alone, especially those who can afford the subtle and/or not so subtle gentrifications.
What we should be afraid of, it seems to me, isn’t World War III, whether with China or somebody else nuclear capable. It seems to me the economy is about to take a big league boost for those who can afford it most, while the rest of us get used to lower wages for more production and less value. That seems to be were Herr Drumpf is headed with cabinet picks and staff appointments that defy even a hint of income gap control.
And let’s not get into the environment. Let’s face it, we were doomed a long time ago on that front. Trump will expedite the end of life on planet earth via the further ignoring of climate change. On the other hand, for those of you who might have a few years left before the climate apocalypse of hot air (pun not intended), poisoned water, rising sea levels and unbreathable air, you can always enjoy the time you have left. At least he’s giving you a good reason to go hedonistic.
The Democratic Party’s Suicidal Contortions … and over on the other side of the political aisle are the losers in the 2016 run for the power minus the glory. The Democratic Party and its never ending search for someone to blame for their own misdeeds (i.e., what was exposed in WikiLeaks) seems determined to hold fast and ignore progressives yet again. This week they’re back to blaming Vladimir Putin and his Russian team of hackers for wanting Trump to beat Hillary so bad they forced the DNC to sabotage Bernie Sanders’s campaign.
Just think about the shape-shifting that line of logic requires.
In any event, it is amusing watching Democratic lemmings twist and turn over Trump and all the projections about what the Blowhard will do next, although I sometimes think they forget who actually still is president. Then again why not? They certainly forgot Barry was president the last 7+ years. They were so drunk on the prediction that Trump would kill the Republican Party for good, and/or that they could do whatever they wanted (i.e., DNC sabotaging its own candidates), they didn’t see the train headed straight for their collective power. Well, the train has struck and the power is gone, at least for the next two years. We shall see if the contortions they continue to undertake will leave them any better off in 2018 and/or 2020 than they are right now, which is in the proverbial shitter.
Viva la Revolución!
Happy Holidays … give the gift of Stella. Need something to buy for one of yours? Give the gift of reading about a progressive thinking hit man who has zero respect for organized thugs and (or is it the same thing?) the government in general.