Posts Tagged ‘novels’

Bikinis and Starbuck

March 8, 2020

Herman Melville wrote his epic novel, Moby Dick, in 1851; it was the great American novel of the 19th-century, and is still revered as a classic.

In the story, a mysterious Captain Ahab commands the whaling ship, Pequod, which sails from New England across the Atlantic, around Africa, through the Indian Ocean and beyond, ultimately far into the Pacific Ocean, in pursuit of whales.

During the voyage, the first mate, Starbuck, experiences doubts about ole Ahab’s sanity. After noticing a few weird indicators in Cap’n Ahab’s behavior, Starbuck confronts him with a few probing questions.

In Warner Brothers’ 1956 film version of the story, Starbuck (Richard Basehart) carefully raises some questions to ole Ahab (Gregory Peck) about his motives in commanding the ship. Starbuck’s inquiry reveals that Ahab is driven by an obsessive vengeance against a great white whale, Moby Dick; the whale had injured him in a previous encounter.  Ahab’s speech about the beast indicates that his stubborn, soon-to-be global pursuit of the beast is more about revenge than hunting whales for oil and profit.

Consequently, Starbuck realizes, the good ship and crew were maybe sailing into the very jaws of death, for no good reason than one man’s vengeance toward a dumb beast.

Seeing this in the movie, I was reminded of Cain, the son of biblical Adam and Eve. Cain slew his brother Abel, which turned out to be a bad precedent in our human history. I recently viewed a few of Jordan Peterson’s lectures in which he points out Cain’s tendency to blame his problems on someone else–or perhaps the world in general–instead of resolving to identify areas of his own character that might need correction.

Ahab’s obsession against a brute beast is something like Cain’s grudge against the world, instead of resolving to fix himself.

As events onboard Herman Melville’s Pequod unfold, it becomes obvious to Starbuck that Cap’n Ahab’s manic pursuit of the “dumb brute that acted out of blind instinct” is irresponsibly irrational, insofar as it eclipses the legitimate purpose of the their mission to produce whale oil for the ship’s owners and crew.

Furthermore, the mad captain’s tyranny in this obsession ultimately endangers the lives of all the crew and the very safety of the the ship itself.

The Pequod sailors are, by Ahab’s command, sailing past whales in the Indian Ocean,  neglecting to fulfill their commission as they blow farther and farther, far into the largest ocean on our planet.

During Ahab and Starbuck’s man-to-man talk, Ahab had pointed to a map location, Bikini Atoll, located near the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

PacificBiStrbk

He explained to Starbuck that he had studied the behavior of those “great solitary” whales; Ahab was sure that Moby Dick would be passing through those Bikini islands at a certain time—at the “New Moon of April.”

So it becomes obvious to Starbuck that he and Ahab and the good ship and crew were proceeding, at great peril, in a mad chase across the planet . . .

for the sake of—not oil or profit, nor any such legitimate enterprise—but rather to impose a crazy captain’s manic vengeance upon a very dangerous, dumb animal.

Ahab’s pathological character ultimately turns out to be fatal for himself and for those crewman who were with him. His disastrous OCD propels Pequod into the very jaws of death.

AhabDead

Cap’n Ahab’s deathly voyage ends in the vicinity of the Bikini islands, exactly where he had thought  he would slay the monster, Moby Dick.

Now, as to why I write about such things as this on a spring-forward Sunday afternoon, I confess . . .

I have no real reason, except to note a couple of curious, 20th-century namesake associations that popped up in Moby’s fateful wake.

Almost a century later, the US military conducted its first explosions of atom bombs at those Bikinis.

So we see that those itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie Bikinis signaled, on one hand, the demise of a mythically mad sea captain and his crew back in the day. . .

but they also hosted the end of our world’s pre-atomic age (and the beginning of God only knows what fate lies ahead . . .)

Four days after the atomic blast, we also acquired a tiny two-piece obsession, unleashed upon the world by a Paris swimsuit designer.

The other significant namesake association from Melville’s Moby Dick was Mr. Starbuck, first mate of the Pequod. In the great story, his unheeded warning to Ahab turned out to be prophetic. His was the voice of reason, although unable to sway the pathological Ahab from his diehard suicidal course.

As for the Starbuck  namesake itself, that farsighted first mate managed to froth up, later,  a quite impressive legacy in Moby’s massive wake.

Starbuck

Glass half-Full 

A Story from LSU

January 10, 2020

I grew up with LSU. My daddy went there in the late ’40’s; my mama did too.

Growing up in Baton Rouge was all about LSU, and so I moved across town to enter the University as a freshman in 1969. My freshman dorm room was in North Stadium, which was–you guessed it–Tiger Stadium. And I don’t mean Clemson Tiger.

From a south-facing window in Death Valley, I had an excellent view of Mike the Tiger’s cage. At that time, our mascot was called Mike the Third, or Mike III.

LSU always had a great football program, and it was a big deal in Baton Rouge. Back in my junior high days, my friend Johnny Lambert got me a job selling concessions at the Saturday night games in Tiger Stadium (known to our opponents as Death Valley.)

By December 1973, I had somehow managed to graduate, in spite of being a useless sometimes-PoliSci, sometimes-English major.  Very near Mike the Tiger’s cage (mentioned above), the University had built a new indoor stadium for the basketball team. My graduating class was the first to walk the aisle in the Pete Maravich Center, better known as Pete’s Palace.

Years went by. In 1975, I relocated to North Carolina, where I have lived ever since. Since that new beginning I have lived, married and raised three young’uns in the state where Press Maravich coached NCState basketball before he coached the Tiger basketball team, which included his son, incredible phenom  “Pistol” Pete.

For many, many years since leaving Louisiana, I have followed the Tigers. I have to say it has mostly been a frustrating experience.

Until now. Oh, there was a victorious flash-in-the-pan or two. We won a national championship in 2003, but had to share it with Southern Cal, because the AP writers couldn’t make up their minds, or some such. In 2007, we had another NCAA title when we beat the Buckeyes.

Before that, the way-back-in-the-day championship was in 1958, when beat that other so-called tiger team-the one from somewhere in South Carolina–the same team that we will beat this coming Monday night.

To commemorate our immanent victory, I’ll share a scene with you, from my recent novel, King of Soul, that takes place at LSU during 1969-70. This turn of events came as I was reflecting on my life, recalling those college years at LSU. The story revolves largely around what was happening to our nation during the Vietnam War.

As I mentioned above, I was an English major, which is why I spent most of my adult life banging nails, building houses in North Carolina. But I have managed to get four novels written and published out of the English major deal.

In  chapter 11 of the fourth novel, King of Soul, we find the main character, Donnie Evans conversing with Marcy Charters, while they are getting to know each other. In the scene, Donnie asks her:

           “You live in Savannah?”

“I did. Now I’m living in Baton Rouge.”

“Glad you’re here.”

“Thank you. There I was, the middle of July and I still didn’t know where to go to school.”

“Did your boyfriend want you to go to Georgia?”

“He did.”

“But you didn’t want to.”

“That’s right. I wanted something different. Or. . .some place different, and it wasn’t going to be France, and there I was sitting on a park bench in Savannah, by the waterfront. . .not knowing what was going to happen but knowing that I had to do something. This is not me, you understand. I’m usually right on top of things—“

“Sittin’ on a dock of the bay,” Donnie inserted, “watchin’ the tide roll away.”

Marcy stopped in her tracks. They were beneath the crepe myrtles now, near the entrance to the Union building. “That’s it,” she said, eyeing him surprisedly as if to say who are you and how did you get here ? “It was just like that—like Otis sang it,” she exclaimed.

“Otis Redding. I hear ya, babe.” Donnie snapped his fingers, started crooning the tune. . .”watchin’ the ships roll in, and I watch ‘em roll away again. . .” Yeah, Otis knew all about it; he was the King of Soul.”

“King of Soul? I thought  James Brown was the King of Soul.” she said.

Donnie laughed. “He might have been at one time.”

Up the stone staircase, into the palatial student Union building, breezing through high, grand hallway, and then they turned into the cafeteria line where she got salad, he got a sandwich and of course the two coffees. Then they were out in the grand dining room, sunshine streaming in through the high glass, the buzz of multi-voiced cacophonic conversation rising into the high ceiling, contributing to the wisdom of the universe, or the serendipity of Friday afternoons with someone who just transported from a crunch time decision while sitting on a dock of the bay, in some place far, far, away. . .

When they sat down, she sang:

      “I can’t do what ten people tell me, so I guess I’ll just stay the same.”

Then she spoke: “And the best way for me to do that was to come here.”

“And they just let you in? Are you so special?”

“Well, I had already been accepted, in April. But at that point, this whole LSU idea was just a kind of a lark thing.

LSUmems

Glass half-Full

The Inspiration of Harriet Tubman in 1937

April 21, 2016

In the novel, Smoke, which I published last year, a young American businessman, Philip Morrow, accompanies a refugee family through France in the year 1937. Across the border in Germany, the Nuremberg laws had established a set of dangerous restrictions promulgated by the Nazis to drive the Jews out of Germany, and to abscond their wealth.

In the story, the Eschen family has fled Munich in a hurry. Their hasty departure is provoked when their son/brother has been arrested and imprisoned at Dachau.

In this excerpt from chapter 14 of Smoke, we find the Eschens relieved to have crossed the French border into the province of Alsace. Gathered with some newfound French friends, they are sharing a meal and giving an account of their escape. Philip is inquiring about the conditions through which they fled from Munich to the border and then crossed into France. As Philip speaks, Hannah, the older sister makes mention of American woman whose daring enterprise is a benchmark of American history.

       “Harriet Tubman,” Hannah broke in.

       “Harriet who? What are you talking about?”

       “Tubman. Harriet Tubman,” the young woman repeated. “. . . an American Negro woman who escaped slavery about a hundred years ago. She went to the north, to the free states of America, where the practice of slavery had been outlawed. She started an organization for her people to escape the cotton plantations in the south, and go up to the free states in the north, where they could begin a new life.”

       “The Underground Railroad,” said Philip. “How did you know about that?” he asked, looking with surprised interest across and down the table at Hannah.

       “I’ve been reading the Encyclopedia Britannica,” she replied. “It just occurred to me that, in our predicament here, our family is like those slaves who had escaped before the American civil war. “The Negroes were, like us now, a stateless people. They had been sold into slavery in Africa, and shipped across the Atlantic in terrible ships, where they were forced to pick cotton for plantation owners for many generations, until Harriet Tubman escaped and set up secret itineraries for their escape.”

       “But you are not like Negro slaves. You are prosperous Jews,” objected Donald, gently.

       “Not any more, we’re not, Monsieur Satie,” Hannah answered. “This is the enormity of it—of the changes that the Third Reich has imposed. All that my father and mother have worked for—and our grandparents before them—has been robbed, a little bit at a time, from us!—including  my brother. And now the Nazis have built a slave camp, where they intend to concentrate us Jews—Heinrich is not the only one—and  force us into doing work to build up the wehrmacht, so Hitler can exact vengeance against us, and not only against us ‘prosperous’ Jews, but against you, too, you French people, and the British, who imposed the treaty of Versailles on Germany after the war.”

Such was a conversation might have taken place in Europe in 1937.

Looking forward forty-years, here’s a song I recorded in 1978 about yet newer manifestations of the Underground Railroad scenario:

Underground Railroad Rides Again

Smoke

The Old Men and the Young

July 25, 2015

If ghosts could speak, they would probably agree with what the old man said. Sitting on the lowered gate of his black pickup truck, Ramus was saying that old men make wars; but young men fight them.

Now while we understand there is some truth in such a statement,  we all know that it’s not really as simple as that. Nothing in this life is so easily explained, especially the thing called war.

Ramus blinked both his eyes at the same time. It was a habit he had. Some crows were making a ruckus in the nearby hickory, but he paid no attention to them.

“Consider Medgar Evers: he was a young man,” Ramus said. “He slogged his way across Europe, along with thousands of other Allied soldiers, to arrive triumphantly in Germany and then knock the hell out of the Nazi war machine. So he contributed to that great collective effort through which we won the big war. But then he came back to Mississippi and was told to go to the back of the bus.

“So, at the end of his homeward journey, Medgar entered, almost involuntarily, into another great war. It was an old war that had been started by old men. That is to say: men who we think of as old because they had lived and died long ago—men who, in centuries past, had embodied the fallacies and the limitations and atrocities of their own era. Those men had brought his ancestors to America in slave ships. It was a helluva an evil thing to do, but that’s what was happening at that time; there was shit just as bad going on over in Africa that enabled the slavetraders to do what they did, and that’s what started all this trouble we got now.

“Any trouble you find on the face of the earth is traceable to shit that happened a long time ago,” he said. “I don’t know if it ever ends. I hope one day. . .”

Behind Ramus and his truck, the morning sun was peeking up from behind distant pinetops. For whatever reason we know not what, the nearby troop of bothersome crows decided to vacate the hickory tree they’d been in, and get the hell out of dodge. Their sudden departure presented a scene of black wings flapping out against a cloudless summer sky. Ramus glanced at their disturbance, but gave it not a thought. In these mountains, their antics were as old as the hills.

The volume of Ramus’ speech, which had steadily increased in order to compete with the birds, now rescinded to a soft, summary tone. “The Mississippi man’s newfound battle—a great struggle into which he found himself caught up, by default—it eventually killed him. So he was a young man who never tasted the privilege of becoming an old man. Although he had marched with the victors in World War II, the battle that he found simmering back home was the one that put him in his grave.

“In 1963, only six months before Kennedy was killed, Medgar Evers was shot dead in his own front yard in Jackson Mississippi. He had just come from speaking to some brothers and sisters at the New Jerusalem church.”

That quiet following the crows’ departure was blissful.

“But I got to go now: places to go and people to see.” Ramus said. He slid off the tailgate, called to his old hound dog and prepared to leave. His talk about old men, young men, and old wars was put on the shelf of memory for a while.

Now in 1969, a new war, hot off the press, was being waged. But it was fast becoming an old one. Young men were dying by the thousands. Old men too, and women and children. What else is new?

VietMem2

The scene above is an excerpt from the new novel being written:

King of Soul