Monday, October 31, 2016


Talese is up to his old tricks again
by Don Stradley

Gay Talese has always been a voyeur of sorts. Granted, he bills himself as an "observer", or a "participatory journalist", but I've never known what to make of a guy who gets a job managing a massage parlor and then spends a year diddling his neighbor's wife, all so he can write a book about America's sexual mores. His dried out, buttoned up writing style, a leftover from his days at The New York Times, made his books seem less prurient, I guess, but I've never been persuaded that he's not an outright pervert. Just because your subject knows you're watching him doesn't make you any less of a peep artist. Talese's latest, The Voyeur's Motel, is a lightweight effort, something like a long suppressed, bad-tasting burp, but it's subject is voyeurism, which makes it intriguing when you consider Talese's history as a sort of gentleman perv.

The book's star is Gerald Foos, a Colorado man who bought a highway motel to satisfy his lifelong fascination with watching what people do in private. Foos outfits the place with special vents that allow him to see inside various rooms; he takes notes on what he sees, stopping now and then to pleasure himself as he watches. Over the years he witnesses rapes and incest, as well as a rise in lesbianism, wife swapping, and interracial coupling. He even witnesses a murder, which he doesn't report because he doesn't want the police to know he's been watching couples from his attic perch. Yes, he's a real creep. Still, he craves respect and validation, which is why he started sending his notes to Talese in 1980.

Talese represents Foos as a kind of well-meaning lummox - he's as human as any of us, with his various family problems, money struggles, and his collection of baseball cards - but it's difficult to get behind a guy with such an unsavory interest. Foos likes to pass judgment on his customers, and if they aren't sexy enough he gets angry. He offers weak excuses for his hobby, saying that all people are voyeurs, and that peeking at his customers is no worse than how the government keeps track of us with technology and surveillance cameras. Mostly, Foos doesn't want us to judge him, though he loves to judge others, and even sets traps to test their honesty.

The relationship between Foos and Talese is tricky. Foos obviously wants Talese as a friend, while Talese sees Foos as a possible subject to write about. Foos won't allow Talese to use his real name, so that ruins Talese's plan. It was only recently that Foos, now in his 80s, agreed to let Talese tell his tale. "I think of myself as a pioneering sex researcher," says Foos, though he worries that some people may just see him as a weird old pervert. Too bad so much of his note-taking sounds less like the Kinsey report and more like an old issue of Penthouse Letters, complete with references to "dense forests of pubic hair," and his own "constant yearning and unquenchable desires." He also likes to watch women shit.

Talese finds some humor in the story. Foos is nearly caught a few times, and there's a funny moment when Foos invites Talese up to see how the vents work.  And some of the events Foos reports on are poignant, such as when he watches a legless Vietnam vet try to have sex, or when an aging couple realizes their relationship has lost its spark. These scenes play out like episodes from a Raymond Carver story; they're touching even within Foos' clumsy notes. 

I've heard that Hollywood has grabbed this book up for a potential movie, and I think a good director can do something with it, something along the lines of Robert Altman's Shortcuts. But as a book, it feels as slight as a dirty napkin. Foos' conclusion that people are filthy and dishonest is probably true, but I could've told him that without spending decades in a hotel attic, watching a bunch of sweaty travelers cheat on their spouses, dress up as sheep, and gobble each other's naughty bits. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016


Ann Rule gets my vote. A chronicler of America’s most despicable people, a lovable grandma figure who wrote about sickos and psychopaths, all for the enjoyment of readers who crave tales of murder and greed, she was the queen of the true crime genre. This is an interesting distinction since there’s no king. Jack Olsen was pound for pound a better writer than Ann Rule, and Harold Schechter a better historian, but good ol’ Ann, who died last year at 83, seems to rank above her male counterparts by simply reigning longer, and creating more widespread appeal. One of her earliest books, The Want-Ad Killer, is now available as an audio book from Tantor Audio; it still kicks up a storm of ill feelings. Ann Rule could look evil in the face, smell its breath, count the zits on its forehead, and come back home to write about it. 

Early in The Want-Ad Killer we meet Harvey Louis Carignan, a hulking psycho who has spent most of his life in Alcatraz and other comfy spots. Known as “Harvey The Hammer” for reasons I can’t share on such a genteel blog as this one, Carignan killed and raped several women. His stomping grounds spread from Alaska to Washington and Minnesota. Rule writes about him from a distance, like a big game expert studying a jungle  beast from afar, learning his habits, describing him as a “carefully programmed killing machine, but one who could mimic human responses cleverly.” Rule’s style was straightforward, bordering on the simplistic; perhaps her background as a police officer kept her from trying anything too ornate, as if fancy prose might give her subjects an unintended glamor. But now and then a mischievous humor comes out: when an intended victim avoids death because Carignan was momentarily confused at having yanked off her wig, Rule writes that she “escaped by a hair.” That’s funny to me, in an Alfred Hitchcock sort of way.

Along with The Lust Killer and The I-5 Killer, The Want-Ad Killer completes a sort of trilogy that Rule wrote in her early days as “Andy Stack,” a name she used while writing for True Detective. It’s a handle fairly dripping with ambulance chasing, missed deadlines, and sensationalism. I’ve always imagined Andy Stack as a short guy in a baggy suit, unmarried, a cheap tipper. Granted, “Stack” was merely a shortening of Rule’s maiden name – Stackhouse – but it’s still a name that conjures up lowlifes and their horrific crimes. Rule eventually became a different sort of writer, one who covered crimes committed by handsome, wealthy people, rather than lower-class brutes. Hence, aside from a few instances like her 2005 book about the Green River killer, she’d rarely write about obvious monsters like Carignan. Instead, Rule focused on prosperous people who were evil on the inside, the soccer moms and well-heeled lawyers who killed their secret lovers and smothered their kids with pillows. Though the quality of her later books was wildly uneven - I often thought her pace of two books per year was killing her as a writer – she’d staked out her territory and claimed it like a tyrant. Not surprisingly, the “Andy Stack” name was retired.

Still, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Andy Stack books. They were tighter, more visceral, meaner. I like how the detectives in The Want-Ad Killer are depicted merely as working men; they aren’t especially heroic, but they’re diligent. The court scenes don’t drag on, either, which should be noted by other true crime authors. The sympathy for the victims, a Rule trademark,  was already there in the Stack books, but wasn’t as all-consuming as it would be in her later books, which I believe she wrote with a female audience in mind. As Andy Stack, I think she wrote with a male audience in mind, serving up sex and violence, and base characters like the “oddly brilliant” Carignan, the “roving, prowling killer intent on gratifying his own murderous fantasies.” But Rule knew that “Andy Stack” was limited to an audience of people like me, and my stoop-shouldered, hairy-knuckled brethren, whereas “Ann Rule” and her tales of gated communities could appeal to a much larger readership. Ann Rule books could be found in supermarket racks next to the Danielle Steel novels. Andy Stack’s? Never. So be it. (The Stack name isn’t even mentioned in the marketing of the new audio version; I weep for an old friend’s demise.) 

In the 1990s, when the true crime genre boomed, and bookstores piled crime titles from the floor to the ceiling, Rule enjoyed an unprecedented heyday. She wrote bestsellers. Some were turned into movies. The Andy Stack books were eventually republished under Rule’s real name to cash in on her popularity, but her target readership preferred crimes committed by attractive, affluent people, not goons like Harvey Carignan. I guess this is a fairly human trait; there’s something tasty about learning that our good-looking, educated neighbors are, deep down, no better than Harvey the Hammer. We like to read about rich hypocrites and their punishments. But I think Rule needed characters like Harvey to get her engine running. The Beatles had the Star Club in Germany; Ann Rule had highway killers, women strangled in garages, fiends placing ads in newspapers looking for prey, men who mutilated corpses like they were killing time on a summer retreat,  men who, in short, took rejection as an excuse to bash a woman’s face in with a gardening tool. Rule may have gone the Aaron Spelling course of billionaires behaving badly, but her roots were in more feral places.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


The uncrowned king of Weekend Update gives us an update on his life. Sort of.
By Don Stradley

Based on a True Story might’ve been called And Now, A Fake Memoir. Norm Macdonald is a funny man, but as a memoirist he’s a dirty bum and can’t be trusted. He’s what my grandfather would’ve called “a leg puller.” He writes in the introduction that the book will be “the truth, every word of it, to the best of my memory.” This titillated me because anyone who can quote both Billy Joe Shaver and Leo Tolstoy, as Macdonald does at the book’s beginning, might write something of interest. I’ve often suspected Macdonald of being smarter than he acts, with a dark, wintry side, as if the pauses in his comedy are run through by a cold Canadian wind. But by page 24, when a very young Norm is locked in the toolshed with a perverted creep, I realized I was reading a variation on the usual Macdonald fantasia, where Jeffrey Dahmer might appear alongside Rodney Dangerfield, and pervs run amok, and Macdonald’s folksy delivery gives way to weirdness. So be it. Norm is Norm. If my leg must be pulled, he’s the guy to do it. 

“Surrealism is destructive,” Salvador Dali once said, “but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” And Macdonald offers a kind of donut shop surrealism, his vision decidedly unshackled. Sure, there are some anecdotes about Adam Sandler and Chris Farley and SNL, but these “true” morsels are merely links to connect the greater part of the book, the bizarre, cartoonish set pieces that Macdonald hopes will distract the reader from the fact that he hasn’t really written a memoir. Imagine Garrison Keillor shooting his tongue full of morphine and winging it.

You’ll read along as Macdonald meets God, the Devil, various loan sharks and fixers, and a sickly child whose dying wish is to meet Macdonald. “As dying wishes go,” Macdonald writes, “it seemed like a damn poor one.” You’ll read about Macdonald’s unrequited love for Sarah Silverman, and how it landed him a four month term at Rikers Island. (This allows him to riff on a longtime Macdonald fixation: prison rape.) There’s also a menacing transvestite,  the killing of baby seals, and a gig at an asylum for the criminally insane; in the meantime, fortunes are won and lost, and Macdonald ruminates on a career loaded with peaks and valleys. The story’s frame is clever enough – Macdonald is simply telling these tales to his longtime sidekick Adam Eget as they travel to Las Vegas where Macdonald plans to win some money. If Macdonald portrays himself as a dolt on par with Navin Johnson of The Jerk, he depicts Eget as an even dimmer bulb; their exchange about Nelson Mandela is one of the book’s funniest bits. (In a way, Eget is the book’s unsung hero.)

Macdonald occasionally interrupts the proceedings to share some insights into the life of a stand-up comedian. It’s a “shabby business,” he writes, “made up of shabby fellows like me who cross the country, stay at shabby hotels, and tell jokes they no longer find funny.” He compares himself to a “criminal drifter…never in one place long enough to experience anything but the shabbiest of love.” As for his status as a cult figure, it “just means that most folks hate your guts.” 

Surely, to describe Macdonald as a mere stand-up comic who spent a few years on SNL is to sell him short. It’s not just that his eyes twinkle when reciting the grimmest details of cannibalism. It’s that he’s so utterly different than any other comic out there. Most comedians who write a book will try to show their intelligence, while Macdonald tries to keep his intelligence hidden. But he can’t keep it entirely covered up, any more than a fat guy can successfully hide his gut. The penultimate chapter, with its mix of wistfulness, self-deprecation, and gratitude,  is perhaps the best “look back” you’ll ever read in a show business memoir. His passages about his gambling addiction are stirring and poignant, as is his account of being an ex-SNLer. “It can be difficult,” he writes, “to define yourself by something that happened so long ago and is gone forever.”

“It’s like a fellow at the end of the bar telling no one in particular about the silver medal he won in high school track, the one he still wears around his neck.”

As a storyteller, Macdonald is somewhere between vintage Steve Martin and the surreal novels of Nathanael West. In fact, he takes enough beatings in this book to rival Lem Pitkin in West’s A Cool Million.  There’s a bit of W.C. Fields here, too, especially the later Fields of The Bank Dick and Never Give A Sucker An Even Break.  Like Fields, Macdonald meanders from one unlikely scenario to the next, escaping danger by the skin of his teeth, usually by a fluke. And like Fields, Macdonald enjoys the way words sound. “I’ve been on the road a pickler’s fortnight,” Macdonald writes, which is pure Fields, as is his habit of calling his assistant “Adam Eget” rather than just “Adam”. Fields would do the same. To my knowledge, Macdonald has never cited Fields as an influence, but if Fields wrote a book, it would’ve been something like Based on a True Story.

Granted, not everything works. There are too many subplots, and the switching from serious to surreal is sometimes ragged. But the parts that succeed are as brilliant as gold dust. I especially liked a chapter where Macdonald speaks at a funeral. In a moment that borders on Pythonesque, he can’t think of anything to say so he goes on about the greatness of Gordie Howe. Then, showing he’s more of a swashbuckler in print than he is onstage, he ends the scene with the rhythms of Ernest Hemingway: “Afterward, I walked back alone down a long blacktop road, and it was cold, and in the sky there were white clouds, and they all looked like white clouds and nothing else.” From Python to Papa? In one scene? Even if you don’t find it funny, you must admire the daring. 

Macdonald has tipped his hand. He probably wouldn’t want me to mention people like Hemingway or Nat West, because he wouldn’t want to discourage customers from attending his next gig at Yuk Yuks. Spare me the highfalutin mumbo-jumbo, he’d say, and tell the people it’s a funny book. But I can no longer look at Macdonald as merely a comic. He’s a writer, a very fine one, and if I may use a worn and battered cliché to describe him, he’s unique. And if being on the road for so many years has left him feeling shabby, it’s also afforded him a type of freedom that few of us will ever know.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016


The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years Movie Review

John Lennon once described The Beatles on tour as something akin to Satyricon, the Fellini movie about Roman decadence during the reign of Nero. I remember reading Lennon’s description of those days in his famous Rolling Stone interview; I imagined dozens of expensive call girls lying naked on hotel room carpets, ushered in by tour manager Mal Evans for The Fab Four to chew up and spit out like grape seeds. Of course, we hear of nothing so squalid in Ron Howard’s likable new documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-The Touring Years. That’s just as well. Howard’s well-scrubbed retelling of The Beatle phenomenon is so entertaining that anything smutty might’ve hurt its momentum. It may not be the best Beatles doc ever made- hell, they’re all about the same – but Howard sets out to recapture the pandemonium of The Beatles, circa 1963-1966, and he succeeds grandly. 

If you’re like me, having been thoroughly drenched in Beatle lore from a young age, when Beatle movies played regularly on television, and aunts and uncles handed down their vinyl copies of Beatles For Sale and Rubber Soul, and Lennon’s murder caused a tidal wave of new interest in the music, you’ll enjoy the movie as a sort of reset button; it’ll remind you of why you liked The Beatles in the first place. In fact, I found myself teary-eyed at a couple of points, because I’d forgotten how close The Beatles came to sheer perfection; the sight and sound of them in their prime can still send shivers through me. How was it for people who experienced it as it happened?

The recurring theme in the movie is emotion. The band seemed to tap into a collective joy that most people didn’t know existed. Whoopi Goldberg recalls her own joy at seeing the band on The Ed Sullivan Show, and then, when she recalls how her mother conjured up two tickets for their Shea Stadium concert, she nearly cries. Even Paul McCartney gets emotional when he recalls the first day Ringo Starr sat in with the band, and how the sound, the miraculous sound, finally crystallized.  And as has happened so often over the years, it’s Ringo who steals the show, especially in the old concert footage. A vintage clip of the band playing ‘I Saw her Standing There’ is a revelation, as Ringo hunches over his famous Ludwig kit like a bicycle racer, hammering away, the most underrated drummer in rock history. Again, Howard reminds us that these weren’t just four guys singing love ballads; they also rocked with awesome power.

It’s an unusual Beatle documentary in that there’s no Yoko, no LSD, no Maharishi, no death of Brian Epstein, no summit meeting with Bob Dylan. There’s a sense, though, that the game was nearly over before any of that stuff entered the narrative. We also get the feeling that something disastrous was about to happen; the crowds were growing larger and more out of control; the press was growing hostile; and American rednecks were bent out of shape over Lennon’s comment that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. By retiring as a live act, The Beatles not only allowed themselves more time in the studio to create their late period masterpieces, but likely prevented some kind of catastrophe.  

And why, exactly, were those kids going so crazy back in ’64? The theories about "Beatlemania" have never satisfied me - I think they would've hit regardless of the Kennedy assassination, or civil unrest - but watching this movie gave me a kernel of an idea. The Beatles were having fun onstage in a way that differed from most entertainers. They were unbridled. The kids in the audience wanted in. But since the fans were mostly 14-year-old girls, and since they couldn’t speak in The Beatles’ own language, their only response was to scream, swoon, or wet themselves. The girls in the movie are like anxious puppies scratching at their cages; they’re trying to communicate something that isn’t in their vocabulary. We see boys at the concerts, too, and they’re no less fascinating than the females. They’re not as frantic, but their smiles almost burst from their faces; they’re happy to be on the fringe of such an emotional earthquake. The boys were also seeing firsthand that their female neighbors had something untamed going on inside, which must’ve been a tasty concept in those pre-Summer of Love years.

Howard’s version of The Beatles is a good one for the time capsule. The fellas are portrayed as fun, cheeky lads, good friends having a good laugh, riding along on a typhoon of unprecedented success; they even stand up against segregated concert halls in the South (Howard includes a touching scene of a large black cop carrying a little white girl who has fainted at a concert). True, we get a few blah-blah comments from people like Elvis Costello and Malcolm Gladwell, and we get the usual music aficionado comparing The Beatles to Schubert and Mozart. The movie would’ve been fine without them. Journalist Larry Kane is onboard– he joined The Beatles for some of their touring, and his remarks are amusing, if not especially insightful. I preferred Sigourney Weaver’s sweet recollection of the hours she spent trying to choose the right dress to wear at a Beatles’ show, as if anyone might see her. And Howard sort of betrays his mission by not ending at Candlestick Park in ’66, where the band packed it in. Instead, he teases bits of Sergeant Pepper and the Let It Be movie. But such complaints feel unfair when discussing so electric and uplifting a movie as Eight Days A Week.

Theatrical showings of the movie are followed by the 30-minute Shea Stadium concert from ‘65 Not only is it restored and pristine, but to see it in its entirety is stunning. Before a crowd of approximately 55,000, the band rushes through a dozen or so songs, killing the old myth that their playing suffered in these stadium settings. Aside from McCartney flubbing a line in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ – which drew a long chuckle from Lennon – the performances are strong, if a bit breathless. Yet, the band seems glad to leave the stage when it’s all over. Also intriguing is the number of covers they play – I counted three or four - as if The Beatles were still a bar band at heart, keeping their chops up, even as the joy they’d inspired turned grotesque.