Showing posts with label American Dream. Show all posts
Showing posts with label American Dream. Show all posts

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Lake Success in Dystopia Land

I was in the mood for a new “Great American Novel” and although Lake Success is now two years old, it filled the bill, at least in its intent.  If you define that “dream” as being just that, an apparition that exists only in the American psyche, mostly a rags-to-riches delusion, this novel is that.  And as NYC is its broad canvas, it personally resonates, particularly as one of our publishing offices was in the Metro Life Building at Madison Square, the vicinity in which the protagonist has his multi-million dollar condo, with his wife Seema, a gorgeous Indian-American, and their autistic son, three year old, Shiva.

 

Gary Shteyngart’s tale is a Bildungsroman of sorts, tracing Barry Cohen’s success and failure and redemption as a NYC hedge fund manager, having pushed the envelope a bit too far in his quest for the golden ring.  His marriage and his business are disintegrating and so Barry takes a physical and spiritual journey in the America of Trump’s rise to power.  Poor Barry, he impulsively flees his tower in la la land with the illusion that he can be reunited with his ex-girlfriend from college.  But traveling by Greyhound bus is not exactly the homey experience he might have fantasized about in It Happened One Night, where down to earth country people traveled and entertained each other with a sense of camaraderie.  Barry interacts with today’s travelers from the lower rung of a fractured society.  Perhaps he was thinking of a journey more along the lines of a Simon and Garfunkel song, They've all come to look for America, even imagining he could write the next On The Road.

 

His childhood dream was to lift himself out of Little Neck, LI and disassociate himself from being the son of a pool maintenance man, using his ability to think like a programmer of a Commodore computer to fill in responses when his peers questioned what he did over the weekend, such as having gone to the Lake Success mall.  Obviously, Barry is a genius, but much of it is of a savant nature, being able to think as a programmer, and that ability feeding his hedge fund success and his passion for collecting and knowing the nuances of the world’s most expensive watches.  In fact, his road trip is made with little cash but with a stash of watches in a rolleraboard.  He is a “Watch Idiot Savant.”

 

Still, it is on the bus trip, running away from his hedge fund world and Park Avenue life, with the perfect wife but with a damaged child to win back his college sweetheart, that he develops the thought of finding the son he thinks he’ll never have, even having fantasies of bringing a clever young inner city drug dealer, Javon, under his wing as a surrogate son.  It is a crossroads in the novel for Barry: So this was America.  A cruel place where a man could be thrown off the street because of the color of his skin, the cut of his watch.  It was disgraceful. He didn’t want any part of it.  Maybe it wasn’t too late to turn back.  He could picture it all.  His office.  Seema’s fine body, an endless stream of cacchiatos and uni rolls.  A Manhattan life for a Manhattan man.  He could rejoin the winner’s circle.  But he continues on. 

 

Ultimately, he latches on to the son (Jonah) of his ex-girlfriend, Layla, who reluctantly takes him in but none of his goals are realistic for a possible relationship.  Jonah is a different story.  He has his own obsession, cartography.  It is here that Barry can express his reverie for his own childhood and the significance of the place, Lake Success.  Jonah says: "I don't have any shared interests with my peers."  Barry laughed. … "I didn't either," he said. "You know what's right above Lake Success? Great Neck and Port Washington. One day when you're in high school you'll read a book called The Great Gatsby. There are these towns in the book called East Egg and West Egg, and that's them." …."That book The Great Gatsby is about a man who wanted to improve himself. And when I was your age I wanted to improve myself, too. So each day I'd practice my 'friend moves.' Like, what are ten things kids in school can ask me, and what are ten things I can say back? It's like drawing a map or knowing all the train systems in the world. Except instead of facts, you have to memorize what they call small talk. People who aren't smart like us, they love small talk. 'Did you hear about this?' 'Oh, what about that?' 'So-and-so got hurt in gym class.' 'That's cool.' So I worked my friend moves real hard, and then by the time I graduated from college, I was the friendliest guy in my profession. And it made me hundreds of millions of dollars."

 

His fascination with Fitzgerald (and his Alma Mater, Princeton) is highlighted in the names of his hedge funds, the first failed one being “This Side of Capital.”  Then another one , “Last Tycoon Capital” and ultimately, “Balance Wheel Capital,” ‘a reference to “the spinning part of a watch movement.”  In a sense, that is the conundrum of being Barry, a computer like mind who has a love of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Shteyngart’s writing sometimes becomes as lyrical as Fitzgerald and is frequently hilarious but melancholy dealing with the reality of what America has become.

 

The climax of the novel is his trip to Juarez, Mexico (ironically where I got a divorce more than 50 years ago) with Lalya and her friends where he becomes completely disoriented, nearly losing himself there to eternity, but after finding his way back Lalya kicks him out, back on the road, and ultimately to face the music of his financial shenanigans.

 

Meanwhile Seema’s story is juxtaposed to Barry’s, her affair with the downstairs neighbor, a Guatemalan writer, who defines his own work as being basically the same (“American colonialism, crimes against the indigenous, yada yada yada”), her devotion to Shiva, and having to invite her parents back into her life. 

 

Barry’s story runs parallel to his young son’s autism.  He is similarly affected by an inability to establish a normal human relationship.  Instead he has his watch fetish.  And there are parallels in the maturation of each reaching the novel’s redemptive Kumbaya conclusion.  All of this is told in a land of such division between the upper 1 percent and the rest of us, and in the dystopian land of Trump.  It is compulsive reading, at least for me at this sad moment in time.


 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Seeing into the Sick American Soul

Just once in a while, a piece of journalism surfaces which is so prescient, and so accurately reflects the kind of truth we all recognize but never see in its entirety, and such is Wade Davis’ “The Unraveling of America: how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era”, published in The Rolling Stone



Davis is a Canadian and it takes someone from the outside to see the forest through the trees.  My own essays written since theCOVID-19 took center stage touch upon many of Davis’ points, but I deal mostly with the detail and not the big, big picture, the decline of American exceptionalism and the probable permanent demise of America as a world leader, our slide into 3rd world status.

In a fairly recent essay I wrote “we have a full-blown culture war, not a new one, but intensified by [Trump’s] rhetoric and failures.  To what extent should individual rights transcend the need to follow measures to protect the greater good of society?  This is the essence of why other countries have had relative success after the initial battle [with COVID-19].”  However, I assign too much blame to Trump and not enough to us.  We brought this monster to life. It took decades of undermining our political system and values that brought this moment in time, which COVID-19 exposed in stark relief.

The American dream and what was supposed to facilitate its ability to be potentially achieved by all --individualism and capitalism -- have metastasized into a form of deadly social Darwinism in this country.  As Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd sings, “The history of the world, my sweet --Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!”  This is what a social net is supposed to eliminate.  We not only have no net, the alt-right is proud of it!

My wife, Ann, after reading the article said "oddly enough, it’s nothing that we didn’t already know. It’s just the surgical precision with which he exposes our ‘new norms’ that smacked me in the head.”  And it is indeed such a smack and major body blows of truth.

Here are some bullet points from the article which I hope will encourage the reader to go to the link for the full article:

*[What stands out] is the absolutely devastating impact that the pandemic has had on the reputation and international standing of the United States of America. In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. At the height of the crisis, with more than 2,000 dying each day, Americans found themselves members of a failed state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government largely responsible for death rates that added a tragic coda to America’s claim to supremacy in the world.

* In the wake of the war, with Europe and Japan in ashes, the United States with but 6 percent of the world’s population accounted for half of the global economy…. Such economic dominance birthed a vibrant middle class, a trade union movement that allowed a single breadwinner with limited education to own a home and a car, support a family, and send his kids to good schools. It was not by any means a perfect world but affluence allowed for a truce between capital and labor, a reciprocity of opportunity in a time of rapid growth and declining income inequality, marked by high tax rates for the wealthy, who were by no means the only beneficiaries of a golden age of American capitalism.

* More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family…. With slogans like “24/7” celebrating complete dedication to the workplace, men and women exhausted themselves in jobs that only reinforced their isolation from their families.

* At the root of this transformation and decline lies an ever-widening chasm between Americans who have and those who have little or nothing. Economic disparities exist in all nations, creating a tension that can be as disruptive as the inequities are unjust. In any number of settings, however, the negative forces tearing apart a society are mitigated or even muted if there are other elements that reinforce social solidarity — religious faith, the strength and comfort of family, the pride of tradition, fidelity to the land, a spirit of place.

*Though living in a nation that celebrates itself as the wealthiest in history, most Americans live on a high wire, with no safety net to brace a fall….COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken….[It] was reduced to a laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household disinfectants as a treatment for a disease that intellectually he could not begin to understand. As a number of countries moved expeditiously to contain the virus, the United States stumbled along in denial, as if willfully blind.

*Americans have not done themselves any favors. Their political process made possible the ascendancy to the highest office in the land a national disgrace, a demagogue as morally and ethically compromised as a person can be…. The American president lives to cultivate resentments, demonize his opponents, validate hatred. His main tool of governance is the lie…. Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent.

*The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.

* The measure of wealth in a civilized nation is not the currency accumulated by the lucky few, but rather the strength and resonance of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that connect all people in common purpose.

* Evidence of such terminal decadence is the choice that so many Americans made in 2016 to prioritize their personal indignations, placing their own resentments above any concerns for the fate of the country and the world, as they rushed to elect a man whose only credential for the job was his willingness to give voice to their hatreds, validate their anger, and target their enemies, real or imagined. …But even should Trump be resoundingly defeated, it’s not at all clear that such a profoundly polarized nation will be able to find a way forward. For better or for worse, America has had its time.

While I’ve tried to distill the essence, the entire article merits a careful reading

My last blog entry expressed a sense of optimism after the Democratic National Convention.  I have to cling to that hope or my condition of Acute Existential Dread will reel out of control.  But, now, more than ever I am convinced that we need not only to throw Trump out of the White House, but regain Democratic control of the Senate as well.  It is the only hope for beginning the process of restoring American exceptionalism and rejoining civilized nations, such as Canada. It will take decades and commitment to repair.

Friday, August 9, 2019

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley is an American 20th Century Classic


My good friend, a fellow boater and a terrific actor, James Andreassi, turned me on to this book, A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley.  Jim knows my love of American literature and as we are both NY Yankee fans, we also naturally share an interest in the NY Giant football team.  Back in my college days I used to go to Yankee Stadium to see YA Tittle and Frank Gifford star in the NFL in the early 1960s.

I think Jim was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with this book but now I understand why: you won’t find it on those lists of important American novels of the 20th century.  It ought to be.  It’s an under-the-radar American classic.  I felt the same way when I read Stoner by John Williams and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters.

Not that Exley’s work shares a similar writing style but its importance to the canon of American literature cannot be underestimated.  It certainly does not deserve its general anonymity. Its acclaim now depends on keepers of the flame (of which I am now one).

Exley describes his work as a “fictional memoir” and I sometimes wonder whether, when it comes down to it, other great pieces of writing should be similarly described.  But Exley puts it right out there with self-deprecation and hilarity equally balancing the forces of life that tear away at him.  No doubt he had ridden life hard and in turn was ridden, roaming between cities, women, bars and mental institutions.  These experiences permeate the novel, making it almost a documentary of the beat 50s and the turbulent 60s, and an astute commentary on the chimerical American dream.

Because of his bouts with alcoholism and mental illness, the novel similarly drifts in and out of consciousness, but even at its less lucid moments captures one’s attention.  His writing process is best described by himself in the novel.  He goes back and forth to “Avalon Valley” a mental institution where he finally begins to put pen to paper: “… what I was doing at Avalon Valley has begun to haunt me, and taking a deep breath, I started fearfully into the past in search of answers. In many ways that book was this book, which I wasn’t then ready to write. Without a thought of organization I wrote vignettes and 30 page paragraphs about anything and everything I could remember. There are times now when, in nostalgia, I tell myself I’ll never again put down the things I did then, but I know I’m only confusing quantity with quality. If nothing else, I wrote a great deal during those months, writing rapidly, furiously, exultantly, heart-sinkingly, and a manuscript of whatever merit began, page upon page, filling up the suitcase at the foot of my iron cot.”

Indeed, there are resemblances between that “book” and this one, particularly the observation about vignettes, as he goes from one subject, a bar, a person, a city, to another.  His character descriptions in particular are superlative, alive in every way.  Sometimes in tone, I think of Frederick as a mature Holden Caulfield gone berserk.  In fact there are several references to Caulfield in the book and the two characters certainly share a cynical view of the world.  There are hints of Amory Blaine from Fitzgerald’s first novel The Far Side of Paradise (in Exley’s more lyrical, optimistic moments) but also a reminder of the admonition from Fitzgerald’s Crack Up: "Of course all life is a process of breaking down ...."

One would think by the title that this is a sports book and it is as far as it serves as a metaphor.  In this regard it reminds me of the English novelist David Storey’s early 1960 novel, This Sporting Life, made into a movie starring Richard Harris, his first major screen role.  I reviewed that for my college newspaper at the time, saying “The challenge of the rugby game is juxtaposed to the challenge of life. Frank accepts both and deals with them in the only manner he knows how: using brute force. Although a vigorous, powerful, and relentless symbol of strength throughout the film, he is unable to dominate life entirely.”

That juxtaposition of sport to life is evident here as well, but unlike the main character of This Sporting Life, Fred’s sporting life is that of a fan, in particular, of Frank Gifford of the New York Giants.  He first comes across Frank when he’s in college at USC and naturally, Frank is playing for his college team and he is the Big Man on Campus, and is spoken of in reverential tones.  Unknown to Fred, it is Frank’s girl he spots on campus, his knees buckling at her beauty, never to be his though as he is “not in the game.”  It is just the beginning of his realizing that his life, no matter how far he stretches for the golden ring, will never attain the heights enjoyed by our sports heroes such as Frank Gifford.  Exley’s description of Frank’s girl when he first sees her on campus as well as his first roommate at college is testimony to Exley’s descriptive powers:

“I saw her first on one stunning spring day when the smog had momentarily lifted, and all the world seemed hard bright blue and green. She came across the campus straight at me, and though I had her in the range of my vision for perhaps a hundred feet, I was only able, for the fury of my heart, to give her five or six frantic glances. She had the kind of comeliness -- soft, shoulder-length chestnut hair; a sharp beauty mark right at her sensual mouth; and a figure that was like a swift, unexpected blow to the diaphragm-that to linger on makes the beholder feel obscene. I wanted to look. I couldn't look. I had to look. I could give her only the most gaspingly quick glances. Then she was by me. Waiting as long as I dared, I turned and she was gone.

“From that day forward I moved about the campus in a kind of vertigo, with my right eye watching the sidewalk come up to meet my anxious feet, and my left eye clacking in a wild orbit, all over and around its socket, trying to take in the entire campus in frantic split seconds, terrified that I might miss her. On the same day that I found out who she was I saw her again. I was standing in front of Founders' Hall talking with T., a gleaming-toothed, hand-pumping fraternity man with whom I had, my first semester out there, shared a room. We had since gone our separate ways; but whenever we met we always passed the time, being bound together by the contempt with which we viewed each other's world and by the sorrow we felt at really rather liking each other, a condition T. found more difficult to forgive in himself than I did.”

Fred’s father, Earl, was a football star in school and between his expectations and those fostered on him by society he seemed condemned to live a life of failure, especially trying to attain vestiges of the American Dream such as finding the girl next door.  He thinks he’s found her, when he meets Bunny Sue, who “had honey-blonde, bobbed hair and candid, near-insolent green eyes. She had a snub, delightful nose, a cool, regal, and tapering neck, a fine intelligent mouth, that covered teeth so startling they might have been cleansed by sun gods....she was so very American. She was the Big Ten coed whose completeness is such that a bead of perspiration at the temple is enough to break the heart.”

She is so, so perfect, though; he is totally impotent trying to make love to her.  She lives a placid life in the suburbs where her father boasts the tallest TV antenna in the area to bring in far away stations.  Is this to be his life too?  No, he was to be condemned again, and again, becoming a vicious alcoholic, coming home to his mother and step father when he could no longer function, and then, ultimately being sent back to Avalon for treatment.  He was a “repeater,” the underbelly of the American dream:

“These repeaters were the ugly, the broken, the carrion. They had crossed eyes and bug eyes and cavernous eyes. They had club feet or twisted limbs — sometimes no limbs. These people were grotesques. On noticing this, I thought I understood: there was in mid century America no place for them. America was drunk on physical comeliness. America was on a diet. America did its exercises. America, indeed brought a spirituality to its dedication to pink-cheeked straight-legged, clear-eyed health-exuding attractiveness -- a fierce strident dedication....To what, I asked myself, was America coming? To no more it seemed to me, than the carmine-hued, ever-sober ‘young marrieds’ in the Schlitz beer sign.”

The process of his returning to a modicum of sanity brings the novel back to the sports metaphor.  Constantly in bar rooms or street fights, he emerges from one such fight with bruises as well as an epiphany, one perhaps delayed too long in the novel, and in his life, but climatic nonetheless:

“In a moment I would fall asleep. But before I did, all the dread and the dismay and the foreboding I had been experiencing disappeared, were abruptly gone, and I feel quiet. They disappeared because, as I say, I understood the last and most important reason why I fought. The knowledge causes me to weep very quietly calmly, numbly, caused me to weep because in my heart I knew I had always understood this last and most distressing reason, which rendered the grief I had caused myself and others all for naught. I fought because I understood, and I could not bear to understand, that it was my destiny – unlike that of my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd — to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.”

He becomes an Englsih teacher and is able to express empathy: “…having attempted merely to dazzle the kids with the Bard’s poetry, with ever so much scholarly caution and hemming and hawing, I was one day starting back through the text elaborating this theory when a point eluded me, I looked up and off into the class, and my eyes came to rest on a girl who was smiling and weeping simultaneously. A stunningly salubrious and tall maiden with glittering teeth, brilliant blue eyes, and a wondrous complexion, the smile was with her a perennial characteristic – though it was not in the least insinuative or licentious. If a teacher is in the least a man, he soon comes to imagine that his female trusts spend half their nocturnal hours masturbating to his summarily called up and glamorized image; her smile had never seem to have that kind. An abstract of guileless amiability, as though her heart were large and airy and glad, hers, rather, had always seem the smile of an innocent as yet unprepared to determine what should  penetrate that heart. A poor student, her countenance exuded remarkable intelligence; both her modish dress and fine carriage intimated ‘background’; when she finally surmised what I demanded by way of examination answers, I had thought her grades would improve. Above the smile on this day, above the lovely Grecian nose and vigorous colored cheeks were two great lipid pools of astonishingly blue tears. My first impression was that it was her time of the month, my first impulse to hurry her discreetly to the girls’ room. With an alarming suddenness, though, and accompanied immediately by an almost feverish remorse, the blood rushed to my face, I turned away from her, and my eyes fled back to the text: she was frightened to death of me.”

Yes, Exley was hung up on masculinity and is even misogynistic at times, with clearly suicidal tendencies in his compulsion to drink.  Yes, he will never measure up to his father or Frank Gifford in sports. But merely recognizing that his student “was frightened to death of me,” is a far cry from where he began.   Every step of the way, his writing, although sometimes disjointed, is lyrical, even magical at times, clearly a novel to be included in the canon of important literature of a unique American era.  And ironically, over time, this one work will endure while his father’s sports accomplishments have been forgotten and Gifford’s will merely be impressive statistics one can Google.  Sadly, Exley produced very little after this titanic novel but it is enough for one to take serious note of A Fan’s Notes. 
 
Two fans at a minor league baseball game, Bob and Jim