Monday, April 29, 2013

Daniel Palmer's Cathartic Torture Epic

Daniel Palmer, Stolen

Web app writer John Bodine and his wife, Ruby, have a promising future. His game is an unmitigated success, and she’s a straight-A student. But Ruby is diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, and John’s cut-rate insurance doesn’t cover her treatment. So John, in an act of complete desperation, steals a prosperous player’s insurance details. Only after Ruby shows improvement does John discover: he’s identity-thefted a psychopath.

In his third novel, Daniel Palmer creates a psychological thriller that feels completely plausible, yet pushes the limits of human tolerance. He puts his characters through changes that threaten to break their souls, yet stays grounded in real-world needs and fears, so we believe this could be happening somewhere, right now. This back-and-forth creates tension that compels readers to persevere through some of the most cringe-inducing scenes I’ve read in years.

Early on, John strives to be Machiavellian, yet remains essentially trusting, unprepared for the fallout when Elliot Uretsky phones, demanding payback for his stolen identity. Uretsky demands that John, a game programmer, participate in a new game, which Uretsky calls Criminal. If John doesn’t commit the crimes Uretsky demands, bodies will fall. So John does what we would do, and calls Uretsky’s bluff. Only Uretsky isn’t bluffing.

Palmer keeps his protagonists pinched in a torturer’s grip, forced to commit increasingly heinous crimes, knowing the penalty for refusal is far worse. Yet John and Ruby aren’t helpless victims. The crimes Uretsky forces them to commit show them undiscovered reservoirs of strength. John and Ruby progress from passively resisting Uretsky’s demands, to openly defying him, to actively fighting back. The transformation is remarkable, but also plausible.

The story unfolds gradually, with a careful eye for detail. Palmer crafts his characters, and their relationships, in such a way that they feel fully rounded. We want to celebrate their triumphs, which seem few and far between. More important, as a psycho tortures Palmer’s protagonists, inventing increasingly elaborate crimes for them to endure, we suffer the tortures with them, and share their palpable relief when they reach the far end.

But don’t mistake this gradual progression for slowness. Palmer offsets his careful pace with brisk prose, broken into short chapters which culminate in jarring, cinematic revelations. John and Ruby’s story appears slow because John, our first-person narrator, feels compelled to share his psychological schism and rebirth. But he never bogs down or loses sight of us, the audience, waiting with bated breath for the next unpleasant discovery.

Uretsky, the villain, has a downright demonic nature, blending Hannibal Lecter and the Joker. He has created a game which he demands John and Ruby play, with its own inscrutable rules he makes them follow. Yet he’s scrupulous about those rules himself, even when it costs him the advantage. That doesn’t mean he makes himself vulnerable: he dances up to the knife’s edge of the rules, daring his victims to follow along.

Daniel Palmer had a successful career in digital marketing, before coming to writing in mid-life. But that doesn’t mean he started cold. His father, Michael Palmer, MD, has published sixteen bestselling medical thrillers. Like his father, Daniel Palmer has rooted his thriller in his field of professional training, mining the labyrinthine corridors of cyberspace for their stunning untapped potential.

But Palmer doesn’t stop with the obvious. His entire story forces audiences to ask themselves what crimes they would commit to prevent an even worse crime. Would you rob a business to stop a serial killer? Start a fire? Sell your body? And once you’ve crossed those boundaries, how do you stop when the person holding your soul hostage demands something even worse? Do we even have such a thing as a bottom limit?

Palmer’s frank willingness to torture his characters opens a well within his readers, as we wonder whether we could withstand such treatment. We know human character reveals itself not in what we say we’d do in some hypothetical situation, but in what we actually do when our own irons are in the fire. As John and Ruby plunge further into Uretsky’s maelstrom of criminal demands, they also find profound strength.

Readers reach the end, with John and Ruby, wrung out, stretched past our limits, yet purged and renewed. Because Palmer does so well compelling us into his story, we, like John, feel reborn, right up to the moment we may just lose everything. And while we may escape the torture, we know we will never resume the status quo ante. Nothing will ever be the same again.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Americans, African Americans, and the Long Road Home

Emily Raboteau, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora

Like Barack Obama or Bob Marley, Emily Raboteau was born the child of two races, in a society that tries to force everybody into prepared categories. Who could blame her for feeling alienated, especially when encountering cultures where race confers insidership. Like countless African Americans before, Raboteau went in search of the mythic black homeland. The quest forced her to confront the ways she didn’t know she already knew the answer.

Raboteau’s memoir of the struggle with Zion proves the adage that only the completely personal is truly universal. As she visits various places that exert the call of “home,” she does not pretend to speak for one race; with her quintessentially American mixed heritage, she cannot speak for such sweeping categories. Rather, she shares one person’s individual struggle with a lofty ideal that turns slippery when she faces it in motion.

Her struggle begins with a trip to Israel in her early twenties. Growing up in racially mixed Manhattan, Raboteau’s best friend was a Jewish girl who shared her experience as a minority in America. When Tamar relocated to the Holy Land after college, assumed Israeli citizenship, and wrote glowing letters back to the states, it appeared she had achieved her people’s ancient dream of reclaiming the homeland. Raboteau had to see this for herself.

But instead of finding her friend living in peace, Raboteau discovers Tamar has become part of the power establishment in her adoptive homeland. Tamar says, with her mouth, that she opposes state oppression of Palestinians, but such statements don’t lead her to return the apartment in her old Arab neighborhood that she has requisitioned. Israel, to Raboteau’s eyes, mimics the lopsided power dynamics Jews sought to flee throughout history.

This initiates in Raboteau a search for “home,” a place she has never known. Growing up rootless in a succession of American cities, she has never known what it means to say: “Here. I have found my destination.” As Wendell Berry puts it, she has never been very intentional about her relationship with place. She has never known the peace of saying: “This far I go, and no further.” Most Americans share this rootlessness, but blacks, historically marginal and still outsiders, know it most acutely.

Many African Americans idealize Jamaica, the black island republic and Bob Marley’s homeland, as a model of black nationalism. But the Rastafaris she meets reject that this place is their home. They long for Ethiopia, which they believe the Bible calls the true messianic homeland, calling Jamaica the land of slavery. And far from establishing world peace, Rastafaris repeatedly show themselves capable of the same shatteringly blunt bigotry they claim to have survived.

Perhaps, like Marcus Garvey, Raboteau can find home in Africa. But in both Ethiopia and Ghana, she finds the same mix of exaltation and humiliation that America, Israel, and Jamaica offered. At one moment, Raboteau may discover vibrant culture untrammeled by Western consumerism. But the next, she may see some flash of ugliness, as African Americans show the same colonial attitudes they claim to reject, or Africans demonstrate shocking tribal intolerance.

Back in America, newly married and pregnant, an unplanned trip to the “Black Belt of the South” provides Raboteau the insight she previously sought overseas. Walking the same route across the Edmund Pettis Bridge that Dr. King walked, sitting down to worship in King’s church, or gathering for dinner with kinfolk displaced by Hurricane Katrina, she witnesses moments of unadvertised hope. She sees strangers being the people. She starts to feel home.

I can tell you Raboteau’s conclusion right now, that Zion is not a place, but that we make Zion every day, every moment, in the way we speak to others, and share burdens, and make ourselves a people together. I can tell you that, and you can contemplate it as a fortune cookie bromide. But without knowing Raboteau’s context, without her journey of discovery, the real meaning of Zion will prove as elusive to you as it did, at first, for her.

Raboteau’s struggle reflects that shared by most African Americans. But it is not a race-specific quest. Most of us, either directly or through our ancestors, came from somewhere else, have been somehow displaced, and have known the feeling of alienation in the land where we were born. Raboteau writes for all of us. If we have ever wondered at the concept of home, and we have, Raboteau is a kindred spirit. Her walk is our walk. And her final discovery is ours.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Frontier at the Ends of Civilization

Irisa Nyira (Stephanie Leonidas)
and Joshua Nolan (Grant Bowler)
When Nolan, the jaded scavenging veteran at the heart of the new Syfy series Defiance, strides from the Lawkeeper’s office early in the pilot episode, seasoned viewers will recognize the streetscape. With storefronts built of reclaimed materials and stacked cargo compartments, it distinctly resembles the Eavesdown Docks from Joss Whedon’s Firefly. And for good reason, since both shows shows channel the same American frontier mythology.

Frederick Jackson Turner’s seminal 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” identified the idea of frontier as the defining trait of American society. Crossing the invisible line from society to wilderness allows individuals to shrug off confining Euro-American stipulations of hierarchy, subjection, religion, and money. But Turner lamented that the closing of the American frontier, according to the 1890 census, marked the end of American pioneer fervor.

Firefly, like Star Trek before that, rejects that closing by moving the frontier line off Earth’s surface. New experiences and dynamic individualism remain for us to discover “out there.” But Defiance alters that tack, suggesting that the movement of new species into our domain can open new frontiers where we are; the American pioneer ethos can be reinvested where we are. We need only destroy existing civilization to get there.

Defiance’s frontier myth doesn’t need unpacked; creator Rockne O’Bannon splashes it across the screen in vibrant CGI Technicolor. Nolan’s swagger, the city’s ad hoc justice, and the contrast between settled urbanity and the vibrant Badlands, all bespeak classic cowboy heroes like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. This essentially American ethos (enacted here, ironically, by an aggressively international cast) creates a fusion of past greatness with future promise.

Amanda Rosewater (Julie Benz)
and Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene)
This creates a world where people are judged by their actions, not their language. Nolan’s adoptive daughter, Irisa, repeats some variant of the statement that “promises are shtako” in the first two episodes, first at Nolan, then at people generally. (Shtako, like Frak, is Syfy’s attempt to get vulgarity past the censors.) Though she speaks for herself, Irisa represents the morality of a society in which present reality trumps either past laurels or future intent.

Action is defined by a code that enforces standards without recourse to external motivations. Though appointed Lawkeeper at the end of the pilot, Nolan shows less interest in law than in justice, especially retributive justice. Though he tempers that in the second episode, when distributing righteous payback to a fugitive could doom the entire city, he still sees categorizes vengeance as “do[ing] right by your dead child.”

Nolan and Irisa’s stance puts them at odds with Mayor Amanda, who advocates order. It’s impossible to miss the fact that the Mayor, enforcer of order and the social contract, is a woman. Owen Wister, author of the classic Western The Virginian, described civilization as innately feminizing. Not for nothing does Wister’s novel conclude with the Virginian’s marriage to, and by implication his conquest of, the (female) civilizing schoolteacher from Back East.

To its credit, Defiance doesn’t seem aimed at such blatant sexism, though it uses gender as a metaphor for social morality. The tension between Nolan and Amanda, representing vigorous male action versus contemplative female deliberation, has not at this writing turned sexual, though we know it will. It plays the same symbolic role here that the tension between rough-n-ready Mal Reynolds and elegant Inara did in Firefly.

Datak Tarr (Tony Curran)
But law and justice remain beholden to power. Human miner Rafe McCawley and alien financier Datak Tarr use money to sway Mayor Amanda, and McCawley manages to buy justice from Nolan. Casting Native actor Graham Greene, famed as Kicking Bird from Dances With Wolves, as McCawley is a masterstroke. It demonstrates, without words, how the frontier upends power structures. In episode two, McCawley growls, “Predicting the future’s a sucker’s game.” And how. Men like McCawley don’t predict the future, they make it.

Near the end of the pilot, Irisa muses to her journal about the gap between “the wild, open spaces where the weak are afraid to go” and cities, with “all the people jostling for space, sucking up the air.” She could not have summed up science fiction better. From Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury to Mal Reynolds and Han Solo, science fiction has always dreamed of crossing the frontier. But they, and Nolan, demand we ask: how will we know when we’ve found the fight worth having?

Defiance makes a good contrast to this season’s other sci-fi spectacular, Revolution. Where the latter says social collapse will hasten anarchy, violence, and a Caucasian type of dystopia, Defiance has another vision. It sees collapse as opportunity, and survivors as pioneers, not victims. Like the difference between Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” and Reagan’s “Morning In America,” one seems more innately, viscerally American. Defiance is a mythology of hope.

For commentary on Revolution, see:
The End of Everything Ain't What It Used To Be

Monday, April 22, 2013

Self-Sanctification in a Forgotten Sci-Fi Classic

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 14
Jerry J. Davis, Travels

Over a century ago, Émile Durkheim wrote that “Religion contains in itself from the very beginning...all the elements...which have given rise to the various manifestations of collective life.” By this Durkheim meant that religion strives first to bind a people or body of believers; God is a secondary concern, which some religions elide altogether. Modern society builds quasi-religious rituals around “secular” items like State, Flag, and National Heroes.

One important thread running through Jerry J. Davis’ underappreciated first novel asks: what happens when those secular icons become so sanctified that they become objects of worship? What happens when “the establishment” becomes so sure of its own rightness that it creates God in its own image? What recourse do ordinary citizens have when the powerful become givers of salvation and eternal life?

In a near-future dystopian world blighted by the aftereffects of war technologies, society drifts listlessly in search of purpose. Automation finds ever-increasing ways to strip work of meaning, while sex (or anyway procreation) is strictly controlled, and a fractured, I-oriented society lacks binding principles. Only the media produces meaning—though that’s hardly better, since individuals window-shop for prepackaged purpose.

If this sounds like Philip K. Dick, you’re not wrong. Dick and Davis share overlapping concerns, but where Dick’s best work concerns itself with how we define humanity individually, Davis seems more interested in how we become human together. In particular, while individuals try in distinct ways to form that most basic social unit, the family, powerful interests engineer society to ensure the masses cannot form communities, which could topple the pyramid.

Dodd Corley struggles to forget the war, but wakes with nightmares, especially when his army buddy Danny Marauder reappears. Seems Danny has joined the revolutionaries, and wants Dodd’s help overthrowing the Travels network, a hypnotic TV broadcast with unprecedented reach and influence. Trouble is, Dodd’s girlfriend Sheila now lives on his couch, addicted to Travels, gradually vanishing into its ceaseless, seductive images.

Across town, Dodd’s friend Toby watches Jesus TV all day. The corporate interests have published a syncretic portmanteau Bible, with one overwhelming creed: “Shut up and don’t make waves.” Toby is so obedient that he fails to notice his daughter is pregnant—and rather than accept the mandatory abortion, she flees to the insurgents, who would rather band together and make enough waves to overturn a damaged boat.

Though only some of Davis’ storylines involve anything we might call “faith,” the intersecting stories return to what we could easily call “religion.” This may involve the ritualized ways in which people gather to watch Travels; or the rites and observances of the state, parodied by the insurgents’ counter-rites; or the ceremonies preceding and following an egregiously self-serving Second Coming. Davis crafts a chillingly plausible vision of secular religion without God.

But unlike early civilizations, whose rites bound adherents against great unknowns like nature and death, Davis’ technological society hosts feuding religions with separate means of sanctifying arrogance and appetite. These quasi-religions bind believers as a people, but do not require them to be for the people. Religion, in this world, consists of loosely bound individuals, not a nation.

One recalls Phil Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, where the dominant religion, Mercerism, involves individual solitude. No church gatherings for Dick. Davis, by contrast, seems intensely interested in the ways people congregate, or fail to do so. God is only invited to some of these gatherings.

Historically, holy reformers come into environments where religion already exists, and demand the religion serve some higher calling; they do not invent religions cold. From Jeremiah, the Buddha, and Jesus, through Calvin and Luther, to the present, reformers demand that an already extant religion must be made to serve a purpose. This underlies Davis’ writing, in the form of his proxy character, Dodd.

Davis culminates in a conflagration that, at first glance, resembles a bloody rejection of post-faith religion. Yet examined from another angle, Davis’ paroxysmal climax, when his twining storylines collide with cataclysmic force, approaches a return to more primal religion. When the heroes band together to confront the forces enslaving the people, it reflects the sacred frenzy of Euripides’ Bacchae.

I don’t know if Davis deliberately wrote his first novel as a view of secular religion and the risks of self-sanctification. But whether he purposefully includes these themes, this novel makes a fascinating look at the rites comprising technological society. And it makes a grim warning: we face the same threats. We must be the people, together.

Friday, April 19, 2013

I Remember a Thing Called Journalism

Spokespeople announced Wednesday that they had possible security footage of suspects dropping what might have been the Boston Marathon bomb. Some outlets reported the sparse facts, but exuberant CNN reporters rushed to announce that police had arrested... somebody. (As of this writing, no arrests have been made.) To their credit, they quickly walked that report back. But not quickly enough to stem inevitable, and richly deserved, criticism.

Then it got weird. After initial reports of CNN’s hasty stew, other news outlets reported on those secondary reports. embarassed itself by reporting on the reports of CNN’s wrong report, following a two-paragraph article with no less than seventeen screen-grabs of other people’s Twitter cynicism. This circularity became very “meta,” less like reportage than like somebody’s plagiarized semiotics dissertation.

Police representatives have praised advances in digital technology for opening new investigative opportunities in this crisis. From CCTV security cameras to news footage to camcorders on smartphones, they must surely have thousands of hours of footage on a single explosion. No herky-jerky Zapruder film for these investigators. But the digital technology clarifying the event for police only serves to cloud it for everybody else.

Uncountable websites, blogs, streaming news feeds, cable channels, Twitter, Reddit, and other sources barrage us daily with news on this and other tragedies, creating content far faster than they uncover information. The same news gets repackaged, tranched, examined through partisan lenses, and resold as though such handling makes it fresh. While Boston, and the nation, strive to savvy this new tragedy, “news” outlets relentlessly pick at the scabs.

In our digital age, the 24-hour news cycle has permitted audiences to wallow in a constant welter of information. But it has also created the demand for content to fill that time, regardless of whether new information has entered the cycle. Watching Fox News and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews compete yesterday to outshine each other in naked xenophobic nationalism, audiences couldn’t help realize how intellectually and morally vacant our media has become.

Meanwhile, American newspapers continue their slow collapse. Outlets like Forbes and Newsweek, once the gold standard of solid reportage, have become tawdry blog platforms, and if the print editions still exist, they are mere shells of their former glory. Journalism critics call on surviving newspapers to salvage themselves by becoming “hyperlocal,” in essence surrendering national coverage to the websites and cable channels now covering Boston so poorly.

I say: No! No, American newspapers, do not butcher the mainstays of journalism that once made America the bastion of informed democracy! We as a nation do not long for cheaper, shorter, less detailed coverage of events. We do not complain that our news coverage is insufficiently patronizing, or fear that reporters show us too much respect. We do not want TV editorialists and the interwebs setting the tone in this country. We do not!

The tedious all-day Boston coverage, in which incremental advances get mistaken for the recovery of the Rosetta Stone, demonstrate why we still need old-fashioned journalism. As Neil Postman reported nearly thirty years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death, television does its best work disseminating lowbrow content. It does an overwhelmingly poor job spreading high art or in-depth reportage. The Web goes even further.

We have known since at least the 1960s that TV news doesn’t covering news well. Transcripts of the evening network news wouldn’t fill half a page in most urban newspapers. Though websites have more content, they don’t encourage deep reading. According to Wired magazine and the New England Journal of Medicine, research indicates people reading online seldom finish an article (even this one), and retain little once they click away.

In fairness, newspapers, with their hours-long lead times and fixed formats, cannot compete with TV or the Internet on breaking spot news. Sudden sweeping developments can happen at any hour, and newspapers can only rush out so many editions per day. But we must not mistake breaking news, important as it is, for actual journalism. That would be like mistaking a first draft, jotted on loose-leaf paper, for the the hit song it eventually becomes.

We once depended on journalists to unpack complex relationships, eavesdrop on backroom log-rolling sessions, and generally tease truth out of raw data. Now, “reporters” barrage us with vast quantities of undifferentiated information, letting us draw conclusions for which we’re largely unqualified. If you feel more confused than enlightened by the coverage in Boston, you’re not alone. We know more about current events than ever, while we understand far, far less.

On a related topic:
Breaking News—Media Wastes Nation's Time With Worthless Fake Story

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Confronting Future Water Shortages at the Source

David Lewis Feldman, Water

We have grown accustomed to space-based photographs of Planet Earth that glimmer blue with abundant surface water. But as UC Irvine professor David Lewis Feldman reminds us, most of that water is unfit for human consumption. Though we’re not in immediate risk of running out of clean, drinkable water, not everybody has equal access to the chemical that comprises three-quarters of the human body.

Even if you dismiss global climate change, best evidence indicates that our world will face increasing struggles over potable water access in coming years. Concentrating populations, industrial and agricultural runoff, and the simple need to drink and bathe will tax Earth’s freshwater supplies, and technology may not keep up. According to Feldman, throughout history, this has been the rule of water access, not the exception.

Professor Feldman compiles the live issues defining the problems which currently define water conflicts, and others which will define the future. He also also compiles the counterclaims, giving readers a comprehensive overview of the entire debate, and the tools to make informed decisions. If we hope to participate in this debate, which will define much of the 21st century, Feldman’s book puts necessary tools in our hands.

In the past, human populations developed around abundant surface freshwater. Cities like London, New York, and Tokyo arose because the rivers moving through the territory constantly replenished the water supply. But in the 20th century, technology allowed such mass movement of water that cities arose in areas that could not support them naturally, or existing cities exceeded Nature’s ability to replenish the water supply.

Drinkable water problems have compounded in the last century with new water uses. Feldman spends many pages talking about industrial water uses: it requires hundreds of gallons of water, say, to refine one barrel of oil. More interesting to me as a Plains dweller, though, is the rise of irrigation agriculture. Land once reserved for climate-specific crops is now watered from deep-rock aquifers which won’t get replenished for millennia.

This highlights one of the major themes which runs through Feldman’s explanation: we lack a reliable, enforceable definition of fair use. Conflicting values, border tensions, and unequal power distributions make peaceful resolutions of water conflicts difficult (though Feldman rejects the word “impossible). Feldman describes conflicts in regions like South Asia and East Africa which embody the conflicts which will only become more common soon.

Private water utilities came under intense fire in the 1990’s when forced privatization priced rural peasants and urban poor out of the water South American water market. Yet Feldman reminds us that much of Europe has highly regarded private water utilities. And public utilities are hardly better, often cash-strapped and unable to plan for population expansion, needed upgrades, or even routine maintenance.

Nearly one-fifth of Earth’s clean, drinkable surface water exists in Canada and Siberia—areas manifestly unfit for large-scale habitation. But any attempts to move that water to current population centers will inflict massive energy costs, mostly in fossil fuels, likely amplifying climate change risks. We can say the same about proposed solutions like wastewater reclamation and desalination, which remain more idealistic than practical.

In sum, 21st century water issues resist pat solutions and TV-friendly sound bites. We are entering a time when potable water access will define global geopolitical hotspots, economic development, and environmental peril. Feldman carefully lays out what real risks we likely face, exploring both sides of each issue, giving us the tools we need to understand and participate in this complex but necessary debate.

This book does not make light reading. Professor Feldman’s prose brims with data, requiring constant high attention, and suffers from complex Yoda-like academese that means most readers will need to hit key paragraphs two or three times before we savvy the entire point. Some people will find this writing intimidating. But anybody who gives up for that reason is only stealing from themselves.

Earth’s resource debates deserve this kind of sober, informed treatment. We who drink water must know what resource challenges our shared future holds, and how our individual choices influence humanity. Professor Feldman’s information-dense, thoroughly sourced book permits us to see the indirect effects of our choices, and plan for future generations.

Britain’s Polity Books is pushing a series on upcoming resource debates, of which this is only one volume. Others include Food, Oil, Timber, and Coltan. If this book represents the entire series, we finally have the tools many socially conscious people have sought to understand debates that will shape our globe in coming years.

Monday, April 15, 2013

London Calling—Paul Cornell Calling Back

Paul Cornell, London Falling

When an invisible assailant kills a criminal kingpin inside the police nick, four London coppers get tasked to arrest a supernatural suspect. When their digging uncovers connections to an urban legend surrounding one of London’s rougher football clubs, they realize they’ve uncovered a serial crime going back a century. But when they touch a mysterious artifact, and become infected with The Sight, mere murder starts to seem like small beer.

Paul Cornell made his chops writing Doctor Who, and you can tell from this, his first non-franchise novel to appear in America. It has a similar “hidden reality” texture that Whovians will recognize, in which seemingly abstract events conceal a cryptic history underlying one of Earth’s major cities. But unlike the crafty, experienced Doctor, he deploys heroes here who are as adrift in their massively complex milieu as his readers.

These plainclothes coppers uncover a serial killer whose Brothers Grimm operation is matched in gruesomeness only by the damage she has done herself. But rather than a city eager to bring her in, they find London so bespelled by its own passions that a child murderer can hide in plain sight. And the underworld (in every sense of the word) has been so lawless, for so long, that they practically turn into Wild West marshals overnight.

Cornell incorporates a procedural bent not much used in American urban fantasy. Where novelists like Jim Butcher or Melissa Olson favor off-the-grid solo heroes, Cornell’s protagonists work within a government hierarchy, against a largely lawless underworld. Early on, his heroic quartet establish that they are not interested in justice; they intend to enforce the law. Even if it means they must bend the letter of the law to do so.

This gives his heroes a Fantastic Four quality, probing the margins of law and ethics to pursue an enemy who doesn’t share their compunctions. They can see magic, but they cannot control it, especially as they see the toll it takes on their enemies, who have become self-involved and subhuman. Throughout, they must fight the temptation to become as depraved as the supernatural degenerates they swear to bring to justice.

As with many of Cornell’s works, themes of religion and supernaturalism permeate his story. Believing in magic and witchcraft opens the door to something larger than human experience. Though DCI Quill barks early, “We don’t do theology,” they struggle with issues of Hell, transcendence, and eternal consequence. What does supernaturalism imply in a largely agnostic nation? (In interviews, Cornell calls himself a mildly observant Anglican.)

Cornell’s heroes establish early that the enemy they fight, and the Sight they use to fight it, is very London-specific. This villain could exist nowhere else, and their ability to fight derives from the city and its people. Thus, even for Anglophiles, this book assumes a distinctly British character. When DCI Quill lays into his subordinates in distinctive London idiom, you can practically hear him speaking in Jeremy Clarkson’s voice.

Fans of British television will recognize Cornell’s storytelling style: episodic, with shifting viewpoints and great personal angst. His story proceeds through an alternation of long, sometimes talky exposition, followed by sudden revelations designed to propel audiences into the next episode. We can practically hear the intertitle music. Nobody should feel surprised that, in his acknowledgments, Cornell admits he first conceived this story for TV.

This television quality translates well into Cornell’s prose style. His characters waste little time on introspection, proceeding through the tactile nature of the crime and their world. They reveal themselves through their words and actions, revealing their inner thoughts only as the investigation requires. Not for them the gradual intellectualism of Tolkien or Lewis; these heroes have a job to do, and no time for melodrama.

More cerebral fantasy devotees may not care for Cornell’s storytelling. Exposition centers on what characters see, hear, and do. Soul-searching bores him. He creates the kind of earthy, grounded, laconic characters familiar from classic British crime dramas like The Bill and Z-Cars, not the musing visionaries favored in current paperback fantasy. Cornell picks his audience in the way he tells his story.

But if that audience includes you, Cornell’s active narration and spare, muscular style may make a nice change. Like Rowling before her, Cornell may reawaken a love of reading in audiences grown numb on television. Having written both TV and novels, his storytelling feels almost bilingual that way. He sets the stage for an interesting series in this book; we’ll see if he keeps that momentum going.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Did You Fall For a Crime Down Under?

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Season One

The Honorable Phryne Fisher doesn’t care what you think; she will run wild, have romances, and investigate murders if she wants. She has the gumption other flapper-era women lack, and a keen eye for detail. She also doesn’t mind crossing the infinitely forgiving Inspector Jack Robinson. What she lacks, though, is the ability to outrun the ghosts she wants to silence with her “lady detective” work.

This Australian TV series, based on Kerry Greenwood’s novels, harkens back to an earlier time in television history. This doesn’t just mean its lush Jazz Age stylings and design. It also eschews rambling subplots, slow mounting exposition, and Hill Street Blues busyness. It has the kind of unadorned straight-arrow narrative and period stylings that keep audiences returning to Miss Marple and Upstairs, Downstairs.

Essie Davis
Phryne (“FRY-knee”) Fisher was born poor in colonial Melbourne, served in the ambulance corps in World War I, and bounced around paris with Hemingway and Picasso. But with all the wartime deaths, a title skipped several cousins, and the poor colonial girl becomes a Lady. Now she’s back in Melbourne as a freelance detective, mixing a little G’day into her CSI stew, in the waning days Roaring Twenties.

Essie Davis, best known to world audiences for a supporting role in the Matrix sequels, plays Miss Fisher as a woman who has to keep her happy mask permanently fixed. Her smile seems stretched a little too wide, as though if she forgets for a minute, she’ll start crying—and she does, at times. In ways, she seems the very emblem of the 1920s, cash-strapped but profligate, trying to dance wartime memories away.

Nathan Page as Inspector Robinson wants to be her opposite number, all button-down suits and legal procedure. Page’s high, knife-sharp cheekbones give Inspector Robinson a hungry look, and his unsmiling, puppy-eyed demeanor cracks occasionally, just enough to permit glimpses of his own damaged history. The story doesn’t even pretend Miss Fisher and Jack Robinson won’t eventually end up together. It respects us too much for that.

Davis and Page, the billed stars, headline a remarkable cast combining relative unknowns with Australian stars. Miranda Otto, who played Eowyn in LotR, appears in the first episode, but she’s probably the only star international audiences will recognize. This leaves us free to enjoy the characters as they are, unencumbered by prior expectations their respective CV’s bring along.

Nathan Page
The set design and cinematography have a very retro look. Not just in their attempt to recreate Melbourne in 1928, but also in how the directors and designers work around limited resources. Careful re-dressing and camera angles allow the same cobblestone alley to represent several different streets. Rolling smoke and limited light allow small sets to look larger. When in doubt, reshoot the added footage from the opposite angle.

Combining these Hitchcock-like techniques with spirited performances in which the actors tacitly acknowledge the cheesiness, the show manages the same wonder we remember from Dark Shadows or the original Doctor Who: being cheap without looking cheap. Even on those occasions when we can see sets wobble, the actors persevere with such cheeky aplomb that we can’t help wanting to follow along.

Australia remains, for Northern Hemisphere audiences, the other side of the world. Despite Reagan-era flirtation with Crocodile Dundee and “Do You Come From a Land Down Under,” we remain unaware of the land; Australian actors like Hugo Weaving and Hayden Christensen leave the country and suppress their accents to find high-paying work. We just don’t know much about the Antipodes.

This series shows a side of Australia not much known to outsiders. The colonial situation gives the story a distinct texture: Australians have their own accent and culture, but still spend pounds and fly the Union Jack. Revolutionary Leninist sentiment abuts against Crumbling Empire gentility, shocking poverty against remarkable wealth. Miss Fisher, born poor and accidentally rich, repeatedly finds herself at the nexus.

The murders almost don’t matter. As in Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, the body exists to hook audiences into the protagonist’s display of considerable acumen. But Miss Fisher and Inspector Robinson don’t completely exclude Dashiell Hammett-esque grit; their investigations frequently take them down sooty alleys or expose the seamy underside of apparent colonial glamour.

Miss Fisher’s retinue seems like a cooling blast from the past, when detectives didn’t need to cuss, and “good guys” still existed. This show has murder, but little blood; afterglow, but no graphic sex. It will speak to audiences who remember when TV reflected our aspirations, not our failures.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What Are Reviewers For?

Roger Ebert
On the one hand, I should send Doug Saint Carter a thank-you note. His wheezy stereotyped race rant which I reviewed last week, and his equally stereotyped e-mail response, drummed up the biggest business on my site in four months. People who visited to see Saint Carter come publically unravelled stayed to read other reviews and commentaries I’ve written. I may have even sold a few books.

On the other hand, Saint Carter is just the latest author to contact me personally, all but demanding I write positive reviews for their books. Authors have accused me of being a “Bible thumper” for challenging secularist tracts, and of teaching the world there is no God for getting insufficiently giddy over limp Christian self-regard. I can’t win. It’s enough to make a man wonder what I do this for.

When I started reviewing for the university paper, I set myself one goal: help students, with limited time and money, decide which books deserved them. This carried within it the secondary goals of encouraging people to read more, be more informed and entertained, and participate in society’s larger conversations. I don’t know whether I succeeded, because I don’t know how many people read the paper.

My reviewing gold standard, the late Roger Ebert, once wrote that he saw his job as to reward good movies and steer audiences away from bad ones. This makes sense. Good films should have the reward of high returns, and if we can turn to a trusted voice to help coalesce our opinions, why not? As a book reviewer, especially for nonfiction, I see my job as separating good and bad ideas.

George Orwell
But I also take it one step further. Like other famous critics, including Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, Matthew Arnold, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I attempt to ask: is this idea even worth having? Will society be improved by this idea’s widespread dissemination? Does this idea improve the larger context, or does it, like Saint Carter’s book, simply keep bad beliefs alive past their sell-by date?

Joe Cordrey sent me three e-mails after I reviewed his first book. He has self-published three poetry collections, one per year, and as of this writing he has no positive Amazon reviews. Nevertheless, he angrily declared, “You aren't fooling me. You're about keeping the stupid where they are, while claiming you are trying to help them. I'm about trying to lift them up to where I am.” That last is all too probably true.

Erotica novelist Delilah Devlin specifically urged fans to wolfpack my review of her first stab at urban fantasy. Though she’s since removed the statement from her blog, at the time she wrote, “I’m sure he didn’t come to this book without his own prejudices.” As though she thinks some reader exists out there, consuming each book in a complete vacuum, absolutely independent of anything they’ve read before.

These writers, and others who have argued vehemently with my reviews, share an apparent assumption that reviewers, especially those like me who don’t get paid for our efforts, should just shut up and praise their work. After all, they sent me a free book. Surely I owe them a review worthy of the effort they believe they’ve put forth. How dare I submarine their book sales with my mealy-mouthed opinion?

But I need a higher standard than my audience. If anybody takes my reviews seriously, they need me to anticipate their concerns. If an erotica novel fails to stimulate my mind or fire my loins, I know others will have the same problem. If I can spot holes in a racist argument big enough to pass a Volkswagen through, anybody who buys the book on my recommendation will see them too.

Matthew Arnold
Susan Elia MacNeal has earned my respect for how she handled my critical review. She left a Facebook comment thanking me for my forthrightness; she has offered to connect me in with her agent, apparently considering me a potential protégé. Not only am I flattered by her attention and praise, I stand amazed at her professionalism and grace. Other authors should emulate her.

I write reviews because I adore books and authors. In today’s media-saturated society, good books deserve a champion who loves them as much as their authors. But the converse also holds. Somebody must clear unworthy books from the road, so we can find the worthy ones. I do not write reviews to make authors feel good about themselves. I write for readers. I hope I succeed at that.

Reviews referenced in this essay:
  1.  Pity the White Man In America Today
  2.  Poetry First, and Then the Flood
  3.  Wizards and Nipples and Ghosts, Oh My!
  4. A Cautionary Tale in How to Write Historical 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Catholic School As War Zone: John Patrick Shanley on Slippery Belief

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 13
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt: A Parable

In his preface to his Pulitzer-winning play, John Patrick Shanley writes: “We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict.” Deep down, we know what he means. Schoolteachers cannot hug students for fear of liability lawsuits. Hired firebrands analyze television sitcoms for covert political import. Distrust of church, government, and pop culture leave individuals feeling radically adrift.

In an America shaken by President Kennedy’s assassination, a Bronx priest tries to keep his newly integrated Catholic school on course. But Sister Aloysius notices the attention Father Flynn pays one beleaguered boy and wonders. So two nuns undertake a forbidden investigation, determined that right trumps hierarchy. If only the truth proved as easy to grasp as the sisters’ fervor; but each new revelation only compounds their doubts.

Doubt is set in 1964, a time when Americans liked to claim Oswald’s rifle had stolen our national innocence. Yet as a people, we still had innate trust in forms of authority, including the Church. Secular leaders joined professional religious in the effort to sweep clerical sex abuse under the rug. In such an environment, a nun openly challenging her priest’s sexual mores, upsetting the mandatory hierarchy, required profound depth of faith.

But “truth” is slippery. Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius begin an intricate dance around the balance of power, one in which facts take no part. Shanley’s characters shift suddenly, and our loyalties shift with them—Father Flynn seems like a predator one moment, an avuncular schoolteacher beleaguered by harpies the next. Sister Aloysius goes from dirty rumor-monger to champion of the afflicted, and back, so fast that we almost cannot see it.

Shanley, a Catholic school graduate himself, openly admires the candor nuns and priests demonstrate in their devotion to schoolchildren. Yet this candor has a dark side: in caring for children, we must remain vigilant against all threats, even ourselves. This bleak duality is further compounded by Catholic hierarchy, in which directives begin up the chain, and everyone lower, whether professional religious or ordinary laypeople, is expected to obey.

If these exigencies aren’t enough, the mother whose boy gets caught in this conflict seems willing to make horse-trades. She wants her son to remain in Catholic school because “he has a better chance of getting into a good high school. And that would mean an opportunity at college.” Back when few black men had a chance for higher education, and thus economic prosperity, the stray rumor seems a small price to pay.

This “real world” we hear so much about harbors great moral compromise. If we pursue one moral principle at all cost, we risk violating another. And if we judge people by one category of transgression, we strip some portion of their humanity. Yet we must draw the line somewhere. We cannot permit all things, nor forbid them, so we find ourselves performing moral contortions just to remain afloat.

In this environment, we find ourselves clinging to the one character most like ourselves. Sister James, a novice who still believes God sorts everything out, contends between two charismatic leaders, each of whom, considered alone, makes a persuasive case. She has no landmarks to guide her steps; the novitiate has even taken her name. This unfolding case proves a stark education in the moral vagaries of following God’s call.

In the final scene, Sister Aloysius says: “In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God.” Having kicked over one moral code to defend another, she ultimately leaves us with the question: is vindication the same as justice? Is my white lie less wrong than your gaping moral chasm? Even in the final scenes, Shanley refuses to give us easy answers, and we exit this play as darkly confused as when we entered.

Shanley himself directed a big-screen adaptation of this play in 2008. Though beautifully designed and acted by an all-star cast, its realistic sets and army of extras loses some of the play’s muscular austerity. With few sets and only four actors, the play reflects the relative isolation each character feels. Even the boy at the nexus of the controversy never appears onstage, heightening our dislocation and lending urgency to the mystery.

This parable highlights the risks of winning, the perils of defending a creed beyond the point of reason. Because it doesn’t wrap up neatly, it stays with us long after we exit the theatre. Sister Aloysius’ doubts become our doubts. And like her, we wonder if we can ever believe again.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Pity the White Man in America Today

Doug Saint Carter, Black Americans In The 21st Century: Integrating Or Segregating

From the first page of this book, and on nearly every page thereafter, Doug Saint Carter states his position on contemporary American race relations in undisguised language. Blacks, he says, bear the guilt for continuing racial inequality. I can do no better than to quote him directly: “Whites aren’t the ones setting the negative racial tone in this country.”

Everything Saint Carter says from that point will sound familiar to most Americans, because it’s the same argument used in anti-feminism, anti-unionism, and anti-anti-racism: you’ve won already. Stop fighting. The burden lies with “you people” now, not me. This argument feels as insubstantial regarding race as it does regarding any other current issue.

Saint Carter eerily channels a certain subset of political discourse. Some people want to appear liberal-minded and inclusive, but don’t want to change themselves to achieve that goal. So they pitch an argument in which “the other” bears responsibility for all future redress. We’ve all met people like this.

Early on, it becomes clear that Saint Carter harbors personal motivations in this debate. Regional black leaders came down on him for a very infelicitously titled book about a black rock star. A city-sponsored forum on racial harmony turned into an exercise in futility. His stray attempts at bridge-building got him excoriated by civil rights activists.

I’m not so ignorant that I don’t realize black Americans have some bad seeds, or that some African American leaders keep old wounds open for their own purposes. But Saint Carter goes further, charging that individual leaders represent the entire race. His language blatantly addresses blacks as an interchangeable mass of seething race resentment and bigotry.

A point-for-point refutation of Saint Carter’s thesis exceeds the purview of a book review. Just trying to keep his shopworn arguments in mind gets tiring. For instance, his remedy for the fact that one-fifth of black American men will spend part of their adulthood behind bars? Don’t get in trouble. Really. He says that.

Never mind that sociology, criminology, and good old common sense agree this isn’t enough. Poverty breeds crime, and crime breeds poverty. Impoverished, crime-wracked neighborhoods need systemic outside intervention to break the circle. Not my problem, Saint Carter says; blacks won the Civil Rights struggle, so the larger interracial society owes them nothing more.

Saint Carter bluntly dismisses anything which contradicts his arguments. Rampant voter disenfranchisement, well documented in every presidential election since at least 1996? Doesn’t exist. Race bias in government and legal policy? Doesn’t exist. Housing and labor discrimination? Doesn’t exist, or completely explainable by other factors. Note, he cites no sources; he just asserts.

To his credit, Saint Carter admits some white bigotry still exists. But he asserts that white supremacists and casual racism are mere outliers, not representative of the entire race. If a black leader says something inflammatory, though, it’s proof of race-wide bias. Witness as I turn to a randomly selected page (120) and find this gem of tolerance:
Blacks, especially spokespeople like the late Ms. [Jackie] Brown, seem entirely oblivious to the possibility that they could play a positive part in improving race relations.
Holy schnikes, he actually says that. And not just there; nearly every page includes a sweeping, totalizing statement about black Americans. Though he disavows racialist motivations, he almost reflexively makes statements that treat whites as differentiated individuals, and African Americans as a block. We have a name for that attitude.

I also grow frustrated by Saint Carter’s insistence that he can’t be racist, because he digs Jackie Wilson. Whoopee. I love blues and Afro-pop. I also have to live with the reality that I stood silent when a white co-worker called a black co-worker a nigger to his face. African Americans are human beings, not consumable culture, and deserve better.

Christian activist Shane Claiborne notes that, in attempting to reconcile rich and poor, the preponderance of effort must always come from the rich. The poor cannot shop in rich malls, worship in rich churches, or buy into rich neighborhoods. Asking the powerless to take more than tiny steps makes no sense. If we consider socioeconomic realities, we already know this.

But Saint Carter says: I’ve done enough. The battle is over, every wrong is now righted, and I shouldn’t have to invest any more. This argument has existed at least since I started following politics in the 1980’s, and it rings as hollow now as then. Doug Saint Carter makes a good cautionary tale, but not in the way he thinks he does.

CODA: about two hours after I posted this review to, lightly edited for their puritanical language standards, I received the following e-mail from the author:
Dear Kevin,

Good God man, are you filled with hate or what? You come across as jealous that you weren't mentioned in my book. You're in it, just not by name.

You and your attitude is what the book is all about. Where is your interest in improving race relations? It doesn't exist. Please, show me something that indicates there is the slightest interest on the part of any American blacks to change their negative racial attitude. There is none.

You misquoted many things I said. All I'm asking for from Americans when it come to improving race relations is fairness, understanding and common sense. You fail on all counts.

You are just proving to me how on target my book really is. You are the epitome of a black individual that continues to maintain an ongoing, never ending grudge culture towards whites.

Kevin, please explain to me how blacks are not the most narcissistic, the most selfish, the most angry, the most divisive and the most violent ethnic population in America. And you put me down? Read carefully, your ethnic population has only two modes of operation when it come to race relations, One is, blame, shame and complain, the only other one is self celebration. there is no middle ground. These are observations, you can't deny with honesty. Where Is Love.

Doug Saint Carter
I won't attempt to rebut every point the author makes in this e-mail, because I have the same problems with it that I have with his book. But notice, Saint Carter refers to me as black. Go to the top of this page and check my profile photo; you'll notice I'm distinctly white. Saint Carter believes two sweeping generalizations that make his merely weird premise turn dangerous:
  1. All black people disagree with him, and
  2. All people who disagree with him are black.
Throughout this book, Saint Carter describes organized African American responses to race controversy as "divide, separate, and group." Plainly he considers this bad. Yet in his mind he has so thoroughly divided, separated, and grouped the interracial American population that he cannot imagine anybody disagreeing with him unless their skin is brown. He is the thing he calls us to fear.

My problem is not that Saint Carter believes this. People may believe whatever they want. My problem is that Saint Carter's sweeping, blunt beliefs may represent more than just himself. Recent studies from Pew and Gallup suggest American race relations are as bad now as they've been since the early 1970's. This book, if taken seriously, will only make things worse.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What Does Coming of Age Smell Like?

Margot Berwin, Scent of Darkness: A Novel

Margot Berwin has made a name in Magic Realism, a subgenre seldom given its due in Anglophonic literature. In her second book, she demonstrates remarkable facility with sensory description and lush detail, traversing the interstitial places where reality and dream collide. She shows less fluency with the reality that humans, with human motivations, populate her story, so they often seem beholden to their narration.

Evangeline Lennon’s grandmother Louise, her North Star, is a perfumer. When Louise bequeaths plain Eva a phial of scent, she pens a warning: “Don’t remove the crystal stopper, Evangeline, unless you want everything in your life to change.” Who could resist? Suddenly men want her, women linger near her, and everyone thinks they own a piece of her. She becomes the beauty she always imagined. But she can’t turn it off.

We could read this novel as a parable, a dark fairy tale of misplaced desire. Scarcely a woman yet, Eva finds herself torn between stolid, loyal medical student Gabriel and heady, dangerous painter Michael (the names’ Biblical import bears mention, but nothing more). Evangeline loves both men, but only one loves her, while the other would consume her. This sets the scene for a Manichaean struggle over life and meaning.

Studious but undistinguished Eva’s story moves from quiet upstate New York to New Orleans’ Caribbean steam—an obvious but apt choice. Surrounded by history and mysticism, Eva’s scent begins transforming everybody around her. Alone in a strange city while the man who loves her is out, preparing for their future together, Evangeline’s eye wanders in directions that could destroy her. Love turns to jealousy, lust into possessiveness.

If this sounds like a gripping dark fantasy about what it means to be a woman in today’s society, you’re right. I read this book in one heady Saturday. The forces shattering Evangeline seem magical, larger than life, but represent the choice between passion and stability that all women her age must make. But Eva and her love triangle become so enrapt in their metaphoric significance that they stop being human.

As Evangeline’s story unspools first across weeks, then eventually months, moving from the Northeast to the Deep South, I couldn’t help wondering: how does she pay for groceries? It’s not just that she doesn’t work, and seems to spend numberless days first in her late grandmother’s cottage, then in a N’awlins walk-up. Rather, she doesn’t take any responsibility for her life. Eva is completely desirable, yet completely passive.

Nearly the entire story takes place in the summer and fall after Eva graduates high school. Not for nothing do we expect youth to attend college, or find work, or something. At that age, we expect them to undertake the hard journey of finding their adult roles. But Eva drifts listlessly through the Big Easy, a vessel empty of ambition or identity, seeking the right man to fill her up.

Evangeline absolutely resists introspection. She bounces through loves, seeks advice from aging mystics, and makes fleeting friendships, into all of which she invests great significance. But not once does she stop to ask: what do I want from my own life? She doesn’t even fit the bill for an unreliable narrator, because self-deception would imply some level of creativity, initiative, and identity. I know no word for Evangeline but “passenger.”

But as a passenger, Eva has a wonderful vessel in this story. Even as I got frustrated with her, I became ever more enthralled by her intricate sensory descriptions. Raised in Brooklyn’s beige tedium, a small Adirondack town and the French Quarter so overwhelm her that she cannot stop describing things. Her attention to detail brings her setting to life like a baby first discovering her larger world.

At one moment, I inhale Eva’s opulent milieu, wanting to share it with her. At the next, I want to grasp her lapels, give her a good shake, and demand she do something, anything, to seize her own destiny. Even her first tentative steps in that direction, only twenty pages from the end, feel limp. She doesn’t so much take control as choose which outside influences she will submit to.

I cannot tell readers to skip this book. I would be denying readers the pleasure of Berwin’s subtle textures and surprisingly nuanced allegory. But know going in: Evangeline willfully makes herself hard to love. She builds barriers between herself and her audience. You will reap this novel’s rich rewards only after an investment of strength to scale Evangeline’s high, wide walls.

Monday, April 1, 2013

A Great Day To Be Alive

Darrell Scott, Live in Concert
The Listening Room (Masonic Hall), Hastings, NE
Friday, 29 March, 2013

Darrell Scott
It was impossible to miss all the longish grey locks spilling from under men’s Stetsons in the audience that night. An act like Darrell Scott attracts a certain audience, mostly older (pushing forty, I was roughly at the median age) and more discerning. Sure some men had paunches, and some women had jowls, but I couldn’t see one unattractive person in the crowd. Spirited music attracts spirited people.

The Talbott Brothers opened the show and set the evening’s tone. Actual brothers named Talbott, from Imperial, Nebraska, their physical look mimicked The Lumineers—not coincidental, I’m sure. But their tight sibling harmony and intricate twin finger-picking sonically resembled Nickel Creek, with ventures into John Hiatt and Pinetop Perkins. They played only six songs, but had the audience on its feet. Watch this space; I suspect we’ll hear more from this duo in the future.

But we’d come to hear Darrell Scott. Some of us had heard him on, or seen him play before; he has a long history with The Listening Room. Others probably only knew him at a few degrees’ remove. Though he’s netted Grammy nominations, it’s always as a songwriter. Brad Paisley, Faith Hill, Travis Tritt, the Dixie Chicks, and Kathy Mattea have all cut his songs. He may be the most successful Nashville songwriter you’ve never heard of.

And that’s a shame, because he came onstage unaccompanied, one man with his guitar, and proceeded to blow everyone away. I blush to admit, I don’t know Scott’s corpus that well, and while I enjoyed the first song, including his lightning-fast finger-picking, I couldn’t sing along, or quote the title. But I was too wrapped up in the spectacle unfolding before me to notice that I didn’t know this song. I certainly knew his second: “It’s a Great Day to Be Alive.”

It’s not often you hear an unaccompanied folkie on an acoustic guitar compared to Jimi Hendrix, but the comparison is apt. Not the Monterey Pop Jimi who smashed his guitar, but the Band of Gypsies Jimi, a seasoned artist whose absolute mastery of his instrument dwarfed his humble milieu. Though Scott held the stage alone, you never would have known, as his fingers flew over the fretboard with such intricacy that he sounded like three instrumentalists at once.

The Talbott Brothers
Scott has that remarkable facility, which no rocker but maybe Jeff Beck has now, to keep his thumb over the two lowest strings, giving himself the potent bass boom entire bands strive to emulate. His fingers stay in motion, never pausing even as he trades jokes with the audience, or launches into an improvisational bridge that covers the whole fretboard. Watching his hands, I realized: Darrell Scott doesn’t just know how to play guitar. He knows how to play his audience.

And he never let up. Even switching to piano for several songs, including “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” he maintained constant momentum, the consummate showman. I never knew he played piano, and he admits it isn’t his strongest instrument. But he has a Vince Guaraldi-like jazz quality, with an aggressive left hand bolstering close harmony with his voice. He doesn’t improvise on the piano, but then, he doesn’t need to.

Though known for Nashville hits, songs like “Long Time Gone” and “Hank Williams’ Ghost” trumpet Scott’s distaste for the current industry. It’s a distaste his audience plainly shares, as they applaud rousingly when Scott describes his sound as “real country: pre-Toby, pre-video, pre-mechanical bull.” Those of us who grew up listening to country before Garth Brooks emasculated the genre know exactly what he means. That’s what drew us here tonight.

The Listening Room’s current home, the Masonic Hall, has a good honky-tonk vibe, putting the artist front and center while keeping him close enough to banter with the audience. During his second set, Scott gave us permission to request songs, and my neighbors shouted titles I didn’t recognize: “East of Gary,” “Crooked Road.” Scott happily complied, rattling off closet classics from a fifteen-year recording career. If you need me, I’ll be browsing iTunes.

For his encore, Scott sat at the piano, which he admitted he does because he needs the rest, and crooned “Satisfied Mind.” I wouldn’t have chosen that as my encore: not only is it downbeat, Scott didn’t even write it. But that’s why I’m not the star. This slow semi-spiritual proved a perfect capstone for a perfect night. Tonight’s magic word is not “energy,” but “character.” That’s what makes Scott real, and what Nashville lacks.