Friday, May 4, 2012

Summer porch reading, laughing as if it mattered, spawning a throwback, and the peculiar twisty behavior of intentions

I'm not altogether sure where these thoughts are coming from. Maybe it's just that it's a nice Friday morning leading into what's supposed to be a beautiful summery weekend here. Or maybe it's because I just went through and did a cleanup on Raisethe Gipper! because it was downloading badly for some people, discovered the conversion process had done some other damage, and in the course of undoing the other damage, had to re-read it, and discovered I had done somewhat more of what I intended than I thought I had. It might be Lisa Bloom's interesting piece about getting a twelve-year-old boy to read.

One part of the reflection was a kind of combined wistful thought: I got hooked on short political comic novels at around the age of 12 or so—Mad Magazine age, I guess you would say—along with half a dozen other genres and subcategories that brought me an immense amount of pleasure. That's because at 12 I was reading around a book a day, yet somehow was also doing quite a lot of sports (at which I was no good at all), Boy Scouts (fairly good, made Eagle a couple years later), and more extracurriculars than you could shake a stick at. (In fact I was Vice President of the Seventh Grade Stick Shaking Club). I was cutting occasional lawns and spading gardens for money, and yet I also spent hours just hanging out with friends.

Now, part of that was that the public schools in the 1970s were at the near-nadir of asking students to do anything – the old standards of "any teacher who wants to can pile on as much work as they want and flunk your dumb butt if you don't do it" had fallen and the new standards of "you will become an expert at filling out forms so the school can continue to receive federal funding" had not been set up. My parents were blessedly strict about television—it didn't come on until the dinner dishes were washed—and the public library was still an excellent place for hiding from bullies, because it was still mainly a place where people read or checked out books, and most of the bullies were about as eager to go into a book-oriented place as a vampire is to the Garlic Festival.

One reason I could have a book a day habit was that most of the genres and flavors I learned to like then were short books. The science fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s seldom ran more than 80,000 words or so to a novel. I was a great fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan and Barsoom, of course, but also Pellucidar and Venus), I was one of those odd boys who preferred Andre Norton to Robert Heinlein in the juvenile department (but I read most of both of them just to make sure), and so forth. The New Wave was just hitting and because the librarians in our small town thought sf was still "children's literature," the same shelves also harbored dirty books that the librarian would let me check out.

But there were so many other things, in so many other genres, most of them short. P.G. Wodehouse, Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels, Glendon Swarthout, Leslie Charteris's The Saint stories, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries, Nicholas Freeling's Inspector Van der Valk, Philip Wylie's Crunch and Des, and Max Shulman.

Max Shulman wrote funny. It's pretty hard to read ten pages of him without laughing out loud a couple of times; he had that knack. (And pure text is one of the hardest ways to make people laugh).

Nostalgic types will probably remember that he created the character of Dobie Gillis, out of which came a much-loved TV series, and I'm not sure but that may have been my pathway to find him. By junior high, anyway, I knew I could depend on Shulman to make me laugh, and that's how I happened to snaffle up Rally Round the Flag, Boys! one day.

I don't think I can possibly explain what Rally Round the Flag, Boys! was about any better than Sheila O'Malley does. Read what she says, and resolve to someday read that book (you can get one used with the change you have left over from buying mine, of course).

Now, the sweetness of that introduction to political cynicism did not lie in my contemplating politics from some remote, innocent idyll. The little college town where I lived in the Midwest was not idyllic and innocent at the time (or ever, really, you can get some idea from Tales of the Madman Underground too). It was the heart and soul and guts of Nixon country, demographically, but it was also a college town full of liberal professors. The big antiwar demonstrations had begun, there had been the police riot that was the 1968 Democratic convention, and Kent State and Jackson State hadn't happened yet but were in the wind. Local politics was shot through with the usual scandals, the John Birchers had a good-sized booth at the county fair, and mutterings about taxes and corruption were as endemic as ever. People were angry, and even a very out-of-it kid could pick that up.

Yet for me, Rally Round the Flag, Boys! triggered a reading spree of short funny political novels (including eventually sneaking a read of my mother's copy of Our Gang). You could gobble one down in a weekend afternoon if there wasn't a lawn to mow or a neighborhood softball or football game to play, or even in a long homeworkless evening.

It was a trip to absurdity, but absurdity where you could laugh and ride along; no, it did not seem likely that a country about the size of Monaco would accidentally defeat the USA in a war (while trying to lose to get reconstruction money), as in The Mouse that Roared, or that the hot flashpoint in the Cold War would be a rock in the Caribbean the size of a city block, as in And to my nephew Albert I leave the island what I won off Fatty Hagan in a poker game.  But when you're at that reading-obsessively stage of kidhood, one thing you're trying to do is make a little more sense out of the world, and all of a sudden perspective breaks on you when you contemplate that the inhabitants of a small town near Bridgeport, Connecticut may strongly want to defend the United States with atom-bomb-attracting missiles, but may object to having them in their town, and will do their damnedest not to see their own inconsistency, just like anyone else. You start to see that the logic of "the nation with the biggest bomb rules the world" is a little cracked and strange when that nation is Grand Fenwick, and that the principle of fighting to keep every bit of real estate out of Soviet hands (and bearing any burden and paying any price) sounds a bit cracked when it's half of Foul Rock, which used to be good only for nude sunbathing and now (that it is occupied by American Marines and Soviet paratroopers) not even that.

And the laughter reinforced some other thoughts and feelings that were part of my growing up in a surprisingly Norman Rockwellish/Booth Tarkingtonian kind of place. Our next door neighbors, and the kids my brother and I played with a lot, were fundamentalists; both sets of parents simply told their kids "We don't believe that nonsense they believe in the other house, but you will never, never disrespect anyone there for it." Some of my father's cronies were university faculty who were much more liberal than he was; others were the old-style guns-and-conspiracy Birchers; politics was one thing, family cookouts, kids playing with each other, watching your neighbors' house while they were away, that was something else.

It was possible to laugh because in a deep sense, it was a game of thinking about what would be best, rather than about who won. Or just as likely it was possible to think about what would be best because there was time to sit on a comfortable porch and read something just to laugh. The satire was often pretty mean—the bumblers and knaves that populate high office in those books are brutal caricatures—and yet the plot of those books often turned around ordinary life. Indeed one conspicuous feature was that the authors seemed to go out of their way to include sympathetic characters with whom they disagreed; the comedy arose from reasonable, well-meaning people being pulled into unreasonable, malevolent purposes, at least until the end, when ordinary life, true love, common sense, and all that stuff would trump all the silly politics in the middle.

It's hard to imagine books like that in our world anymore. Who's going to sit still to be told that the other side is crazy but there are good people there? Or that your own side is seldom more embarrassing than when it is right? It's the sort of thing that could lead to having a beer with a Republican and spending the whole time talking about baseball, or putting your focus into a safe neighborhood playground for the kids and working together with people who don't share your views on abortion, gun control, or the war.

Well, all right, let's skip the sarcasm. I miss living in a culture like that. Where'd it go?

I think the most likely answer is that we have come to value our stuff too much and our time too little. In those days most businesses, most of the time, just tried to stay in business another year, and ambition meant being in charge and being comfortable, not living like an Italian Renaissance prince without the grace, or a Roman emperor without the restraint. My college textbook on labor economics showed the famous "backward bent" or S-curve for labor supply—up to a point, higher wages get more people to work, but beyond that point, they'd rather have time off —which is now thought to be rather quaint and empirically disproven. The new economic gospel is: People want money to buy stuff. If wages are low they'll work long hours to get stuff, and if wages go up, they'll add more hours to get even more stuff. Every trot around the treadmill gets you another toy and the objective is to drop dead off the treadmill into the biggest pile of toys.

And humane politics, whether right or left, is about people, and people take time, and toys don't.  It takes time to step back far enough to see absurdity, not just as something to fling at the other side, but as something that gets into it whenever politics, people, and power are knitted together. It takes time to realize that the skid mark on they back of your neighbor's boxers is not unlike the yellow stain around the fly of your own. * It takes time to get from absurdity to humor, to laugh at the laughable not because your laughter will sting it into fighting you, but because really, the natural response to, say, Rush Limbaugh, for a sane, self-confident person with time on his hands, is "My, what big teeth you have, grandma."

In that time-valuing environment, most politics was amateur: people reading papers, talking, discussing what might be best, and ideas gradually percolating into politicians who tried to embody them. It was liberal in the sense of "suited to freedom" (like liberal arts in college, another thing no one has time or money for anymore); time to play, share, and discuss, between amateurs (i.e. people who loved the game).

But in our present environment, nobody's a political amateur, kibitzing over the heads of the pros, anymore. Our political discourse gets simplified into something that doesn't take much time (because we need our time to get our stuff to huddle with inside). So we very efficiently learn to shout yay us, boo bad them, and stay with the side, which the political pros like us to do (it makes us easier to handle) and which takes minimum time and effort. It takes less time and it defends the most stuff. Tell the neighbor who disagrees that he's a fool or a traitor and it'll save time; eventually you can acquire all your opinions from your team, absorb them via drive time radio, and never have to interact with the other side except in short, angry barks, nor consider whether the position you are advocating is your own or the one it's your job to have for your side.

So I suppose Raise the Gipper! is not only a throwback, but a hopeless one at that; it's a good laugh for a mostly-idle afternoon on a back porch, in a world where people use that afternoon to take a second job so they can get an HDTV that they'll never have time to watch. It's intended to poke fun at the Republican nominating process, which paraded before us, as Dr. Bayle Brazenydol explains in Chapter 2, "the sorriest collection of stuffed shirts, empty suits, self‑gratulatory ignorami, and outright wig‑flipped ding‑dongs in the history of the Republic," and to suggest that in the dire straits of having to run with Romney, the 'pubs might resort to the Dark Arts and raise rancid, rotten Ronald Reagan as their zombie candidate.

But it also sort of tries to understand them, if only because the joke is better that way. The main conservative character in the book, Joe Loinaudroit, is a Tea Party guy who honestly believes it all, and not for ignoble reasons; he's just mugged by the consequences of some intentions run amok, and he's finding that his own reasonable and civil approach to the world gets him trampled by the real foamers on his side, and doesn't quite know what to do about that. Zombie Reagan does occasionally eat somebody's head, but he also has a perspective on his old party that is somewhere at the intersection of Rue Rueful and Disgusted Drive, and in a certain odd sense, he is a better candidate than most of the field would be. There's wickedness and folly in plenty but also love and a basis for tolerance; the book may make you snicker at your Tea Party co-worker or neighbor, but it surely won't steer you to hate him (and if s/he reads the book, s/he might find bits of it funny because of little shocks of recognition, even if s/he doesn't like the whole message, or is not the sort of person who would ever write s/he with reference to him/herself).

All right, so  Raise the Gipper! is a throwback.  Perhaps that is what the public will do with it. But I'm still glad I threw it out there. Not so much for what it says (though I am happy enough with that), but for what it is: a fairly civil** political laugh.

I know of nine people who have read it so far, mostly reviewers and critics who have been assigned to it (and have sent me little notes growing out of that assignment, which is how I know they read it). Raise the Gipper! has been downloaded many more times than that, which means it's on some people's to-read stack for this weekend, or some weekend this summer. If I might venture a suggestion...maybe take your tablet reader, laptop, or whatever out to sit in a cool lounge chair under a tree, with something cold to drink? Or on the patio of a friendly place where they won't chase you away if you nurse a couple beers, an iced tea, or coffee all afternoon? Just be cautious in case I did manage to be funny somewhere—as we used to say when I was twelve, "No nosies, you're out in public." And maybe, while you're out in public, you could smile at a neighbor you don't agree with. It will make them wonder what you are up to.

*Back away from that metaphor slowly and do not attempt to extend it.

**Some conservatives will feel I was unfair or uncivil or both. I will cheer them up later by calling them at three in the morning and telling them knock knock jokes, and if that doesn't work, I'll fart. They paid for laughter and by gum they're going to get it.