The comparison with Catch-22 is warranted by the farcical outsized overdrawn dizzying exertions of a cast of warriors we observe together while out of combat and hoping to stay that way. Fug yes; now fuck yes. Yossarian’s days on ground, forlorn and scheming, between the always extended number of bombing runs over Germany he must total up for one war takes him about as far away as the heroic showcased star spangled bannering of Billy Lynn’s crew of Iraq War infantry during the halftime show, before Beyonce, at Cowboy stadium for the annual Dallas Thanksgiving Day Game, sixty years after Dresden, even as America’s Team, stoic executers— Landry of stone face, Staubach of the Navy sacrifice gone, has decayed. Like a Mission Accomplished or an Errand in the Wilderness. Did I say comparison? The template is there as well. Ben Fountain, a combat veteran of Iraq, if not of the rumble with Beyonce’s roadies and a near, quite innocently hot secret romantic tumble with a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader makes his nod to Joseph Heller— this love and theft— perfectly evident in the gut of the book. Billy’s sister— “what do you mean they are sending you back tomorrow!!??” She takes the lead and plays right up close to the “Catch” as she endeavors to keep her bro— he’s a 19 year old west Texas hill kid, home now, thank you very much. Billy does take some long walks — from the Cowboy’s owner and his flak-catchers, the stink of oilmen and their wives (think of Fountain thinking of Wolfe first then Mailer here) in a skybox hell to the half-time show to Hollywood producer pitches— the film version of the 3 minute iPhone captured attempt to save his platoon mate- KIA- and the White House meet and greet in between to wheels up 0500 back to country. Or maybe not.. read the book. My sense is that Billy Lynn’s walks, over a brief time— a flash in the field of fire… the three minute video a life time in comparison brought him the distance of Melville’s scribe Bartleby ready to take it all on in his own terms: “I would prefer not to.” We can’t be sure if Billy returns, gets on the plane, and following Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried and all the rest, as Fountain must, war stories are always true and never true.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga in the mid 1980s I spent all my time around and a lot of time in the ocean. Big waves and coral reef everywhere, sandy open beaches not so much. Swimming, snorkeling, all day with great care— that coral is sharp! Surfing? No, not in Tonga! Well one evening at the local hotel pub a couple of Yanks roll in and buy a welcome round of Foster’s for me and my mates from the fish market. “Where do we catch the good surf out here?” one guy asks. None of the Tongans had anything to say on this question— not quite a “Charlie Don’t Surf” Robert Duval moment but It was clearly up to me to set these footloose surfer dudes straight about the recreational possibilities of these islands. Half way to going native by this time in my two year service, I adopted the Tongan way (anga fakatonga) of never telling a stranger a direct negative— instead you play, dissemble, send them to someone else to be denied. “See that guy over there,” I point, “he has a taxi, and can get you to the airport. Then you can catch a flight to Fiji for your surf vacation!” By my reckoning of dates this encounter was not with Barbarian Days author William Finnegan, who passed through Tonga a several years earlier in search of the waves, and was not denied! No, Bill and his bud, found their way to the oddball of the Tongan archipelago ‘Eua island and it’s mixed coastline of cliffs, lagoons, and white sand beaches. The only one of the 100 odd islands that has a regular population of sea birds. Check a map.. Tonga is out there! It was not the best surf stop in this particular two years away from his California and Hawaii home bases, but it sure adds a good chapter to his and the book too! Finnegan has been turning out top notch stuff as a staff writer on the covering conflict and other intense matters around the globe beat at NewYorker for going on 30 years. This is his back story, his core, his soul story. From the youngest age, we meet Bill, whose priority was, as successfully demonstrated in Tonga, finding the right waves. And becoming a writer of considerable talents. Patient, observant, honest, critical, loving. A real gem of a book.
His self-appointed title of ironic prominence, goes against character, the “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau very generously shares credit with the small fraternity— Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Jon Landau— who authored the very first rock-crit manifestos and reviews of a new thing called “albums.” In the immediate wake of this group’s original work sprang hundreds of underground and alternative small zines and others of mass circulation and Album Oriented Rock format FM stations and helped make “rock” the critical/intellectual, cultural/political, and commercial/corporate behemoth unmatched in artistic enterprise since the Medici’s promoted a deep bench of Florentine talent . Of Jan Wenner, on whom he layers none of the praise reserved for actual writers, he says distantly but admirably that “by 2000 Rolling Stone was the largest left leaning mass circulation magazine in the United States, financing no holds barred investigative journalism with hide-bound music coverage.” Music coverage, lots and lots of it, over four decades of listening to albums 10-12 hours per day and writing at least a little about each of them—the web archive is monstrous— and the Village Voice paid him a decent living until the 1990s when Rupert Murdoch bought the Voice.
Beautifully drawn portraits of his friendships with Ellen Willis and Greil Marcus are a feature of the book. To them he cedes the big vision thing, the longer term, longer form anguish and rewards of writing the rock scene aesthetic as “pop” yes, but in a world historic fashion. Shakespeare was low brow once too— remember Huck and friends by the riverside playing for bits?
Christgau the memoirist’s New York City, like Patti Smith’s in Just Kids and Pete Hamill’s in A Drinking Life comes to life as a dynamic, but anchored, timeless character of it’s own. Great read. The Ellen Willis Reader a recent collection edited by the late cultural critics daughter Nona, Christgau’s god daughter, is moved up on my list! Ellen’s 8,000 word “Dylan” was an effort that she and RC lived together with, they shared a few late 60s “summers of love” together before the essay found a home in the underground sheet “Cheetah” (1967).
Victor Serge just earned a place with just a few others on my hypothetical list of answers to “If you could have lunch (or go drinking) with any historical figure who would it be?” His memoir is a guide through the Russian Revolution like no other. Up close and personal Serge gives us the good and the bad that he experienced with Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. Even closer and more complex are his relations with another big three—Kamenev, Zinoviev, and Bukharin. Krupskaya and Kollontai and Luxemburg a trio of revolutionary women circulate in his world as well. Americans John Reed, Emma Goldman, and Big Bill Haywood are on his list of people to visit with in his role with the Comintern in Paris and in Moscow. The treasure that the memoir represents has little to do with his sketches and analysis of these extremely well known figures. Instead it is his many more sketches of the dozens of men and women revolutionaries he worked so closely with all around Europe, in prison, in war, in hunger, in glory, in dreams from 1905 to the show trials and purges of Stalin’s Soviet Union of the early 1930s. Nearly all the people he brings to life in the memoir are eventually lost to him, presumed executed or exiled. He also presumes all of them to be without a single regret, like himself, the revolution was to be lived to be criticized but not to be defeated. Political theory and the differences between anarchists, the Social Revolutionaries, and Mensheviks are handled very generously.. they are all revolutionaries to anarchist oriented Serge. And he declares all understood the necessity for Lenin’s Bolshevik’s to take and hold power in ruthless fashion toward all opposition during the time of the Civil War until stable 1920s and NEP. The smashing of the Krondstadt Rising of unpaid striking sailors by Trotsky is a common discussion debate point among contemporary history nerds and between the various left sects. Serge was on the scene and saw no choice but to take decisive action against the strikers. Like Trotsky his life ends in Mexico where he wrote many novels, history, and the memoir. What a life! What a view into a history!