Sunday, June 30, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt fifteen)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Whatever had Lee spooked, she found a familiar way of handling that stress and all the others: the shortage of facts, the lack of an ideal protagonist, his unfamiliarity with the lives of African Americans, a certain uncomfortable moral muddiness concerning black criminality in a criminally racist society, and a related discomfort with her own deep delight in the self-serving mythologies of the southern gentry. Lee’s drinking had become something of a scandal, not an overtly public lone, but family and friends had long taken notice. The daughter of one of the driest men in Monroe County, whose oldest sister wouldn’t even consume caffeine, had grown into a woman who couldn’t say no to scotch or vodka, or failing that, to whatever happened to be on hand. When she drank too much, Lee had been known to blow raspberries at formal dinners in the presence of strangers and to return angrily to parties she’d been asked to leave to plead for just one more drink. Lee’s friends understood that alcohol had the power to turn their brilliant Jekyll into an unpredictable Hyde, and a few of them—Truman Capote, Tom Radney, and, most transgressively, one of her pastors in Monroeville—had even committed what amounted to a cardinal sin in the Church of Harper Lee, by letting slip to the press that she had a drinking problem. Radney, in particular, had offered, on the record, too candid an explanation for the delayed publication of The Reverend: “I think she’s fighting a battle between the book and a bottle of scotch. And the scotch is winning.”

Like Mockingbird, and writing more generally, drinking was an off-limits topic for Lee, and broaching it could leave those formerly close to her excommunicated, or at least estranged. Lee had drifted away from one friend in New York, Isabelle Holland, after she became an evangelist for Alcoholics Anonymous. Holland’s mother had been the last of seven generations to live in Tennessee; she sent her son to a boarding school in the old state but sent her daughter to one in the old country. Belle, as she was known, had expected to be a Henry James heroine in England but instead found no friends. When she came back to America, she moved to New York, where she became the publicity manager at Lippincott. Holland handled press for To Kill a Mockingbird and went on to write many novels of her own. Her own writing had improved in sobriety, and when she tried convincing Lee the same could be true for her, their friendship grew strained.

Lee had met another champion of Alcoholics Anonymous in Alex City. Along with bringing honor to the state of Alabama in the form of parks and postage stamps, Judge C. J. Coley, the once-sodden son of stern Presbyterian parents, had brought AA to his hometown, convening a meeting so filled with prominent men that it had its own cachet around town. “Anything worthwhile in my life,” the judge said forty years into his sobriety, “can be traced to a decision to climb out of the bottle.” For now, though, Lee was still deep inside it.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt fourteen)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

That commitment would determine not only her style but also her subject. With In Cold Blood, Capote had chosen an exceptional crime. “Of all the people in all the world,” he quoted one of the investigators on the case as saying, “the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered.” That was true, and much the same could be said of the victims in most popular works of true crime that followed; except for accounts of domestic violence, not many of the murders described in those books were representative of violent crime in this country. Their victims were typically wealthy and white, while murder victims, statistically speaking, are more likely to be economically disadvantaged and people of color; their killers were often calculating or deranged outsiders, while most homicide victims are killed by someone they know. Capote, in particular, had gone looking for what amounted to a horror story in the heart of white America: the murder of an entire middle-class household by total strangers.

Lee, by contrast, found a case where the only white characters were the lawyers and law enforcement officers. To portray the victims, the killers, and the survivors, she would be writing about black lives and black deaths, black families and black communities—an unusual move for the genre even today, and a challenge for her, as the black characters in To Kill a Mockingbird are essential to the plot but hardly as realized as their white counterparts. But she had already demonstrated her ability to depict crimes that confronted readers with their own prejudices and those of the criminal justice system, and she’d wanted to go even further before Ty Hohoff discouraged her. To Kill a Mockingbird featured two parallel stories about violence: in one, a black man, Tom Robinson, dies because he is falsely accused of rape; in the other, a white man, Arthur “Boo” Radley, is spared from even being charged for a murder the authorities know he committed. The former portrayed the power of a mob to enforce a distorted vision of justice, the latter portrayed the prerogative of law enforcement to exercise personal preferences, and both dramatized the way that the biases of society are reflected in the criminal justice system. Altnough Atticus Finch has to be talked into sparing his son, Jem, and their neighbor Boo Radley a trial for the murder of Bob Ewell, it takes only a few pages for Sheriff Tate to convince him of the expediency of vigilantism: “There’s a black boy dead for no reason, and the man responsible for it’s dead. Let the dead bury the dead this time, Mr. Finch. Let the dead bury the dead.”

Friday, June 28, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt thirteen)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

To be fair, Lee let her novel do the talking about almost everything. In 1964, when Mockingbird was four years old and she was thirty-seven, she embarked on a fifty-year silence. Her final interview of any length was with a book critic named Roy Newquist who had also sat down with Jessica Mitford, Ian Fleming, John Fowles, Doris Lessing, Lillian Ross, and scores of other notable writers for his radio program, Counterpoint. Newquist met Lee at the Plaza Hotel, turned on his tape recorder, and, for the next hour, asked her questions about her childhood and education, literary craft and discipline, her life in New York City and her ambitions as a writer.

“I’ve been writing as long as I’ve been able to form words,” Lee told him. She also said that her vocation was a kind of regional specialty, like grits or collard greens; the South, she claimed, “naturally produces more writers than, say, living on 82nd Street in New York.” But for all that she’d always been a writer, she had been utterly unprepared for the avalanche of praise that greeted her novel; it was like “being hit over the head,” and it left her in a state of “sheer numbness.” That feeling was starkly at odds with the conditions she regarded as essential to writing. Good writers, she said, treated work “Something like the medieval priesthood” and sequestered themselves to do it well. “He writes not to communicate with other people,” Lee said of any writer worth his salt, “but to communicate more assuredly with himself.”

Thursday, June 27, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt twelve)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

It was the first week of December, and Lee had never been so hopeful, or so hopeless. It had taken her seven years to write those stories; now Crain wanted her to write a whole novel. She didn’t know how to do so, and she barely had time around her airline shifts to even try. She told the Browns about the meeting and then made plans to see them for Christmas, since Advent was a homesick season for her and she wouldn’t be going back to Alabama for the holidays.

She spent Christmas Eve with the Browns in their town house, and when one of their boys woke her early in the morning, as little boys do on Christimas Day, she accompanied him downstairs. It was nice to be surrounded by a family, even if it wasn’t hers, and to be in a real house, even if she didn’t own it. The boys unwrapped their toy rockets, while Nelle honored the family’s tradition of presenting the best gift she could find for the least amount of money, giving her Anglophile friends a portrait of the Reverend Sydney Smith, an obscure English cleric, and the complete works of Margot Asquith, a countess and slightly less obscure English writer. When it finally came time for Nelle to open her gift, the Browns pointed to an envelope hanging among the tinsel and ornaments on their tree. Inside it was a sizable check made payable to Lee, together with a note that read, “You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please.”

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt eleven)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Capote was writing full-time, and his stories seemed to move effortlessly from his mind to the pages of magazines and the shelves of bookstores. But Nelle was busy earning a living, covering the costs that even the most frugal New York City existence incurs, and she had become distracted by the city itself. Like a lot of small-town bookworms, she was too well-read to be a true country bumpkin, but too country, even after Montgomery and Tuscaloosa, to be anything but mesmerized by Manhattan. She had enough books to read—and movies to see, and museums to visit—to last her several lifetimes. The city overwhelmed and delighted her. In a single letter from those early years, she described falling in love with the Met, even though it was “a mess”; reading a six-volume history of Judaism, because she “just wanted to find out something about the Jews”; and seeing a documentary about Mount Everest that she deemed “sublime.” She was less impressed by a film adaptation of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which she improved with her own voice-over, provoking a fit of laughter in a friend and a reprimand by the management.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt ten)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Even before Nelle was old enough to read a law book, her father had started talking about renaming his firm “A.C. Lee and Daughters, Lawyers.” Whether or not that dream ever had any appeal for her, Nelle had always been eager to please her father, and after one year at Alabama she applied for early admission to the law school. By 1947, she was officially a law student, losing even more sleep to contracts and torts. She would later say that she had enrolled only to get access to the law library, but at the time she told her family that a legal education would provide the discipline she would need as a writer and that studying the law would teach her how to think.

By the next summer, Nelle Lee had thought herself right out of Alabama. She had been accepted to the Internationl Education Exchange at the University of Oxford, and on June 16, 1948, right around the time the Reverend Willie Maxwell headed home after his army service, she set sal for Southampton on the Queen Elizabeth. She spent that summer at Lady Margaret Hall, reading widely in British literature and traveling around what seemed, to someone born and raised in the vast open spaces of the Deep South, a tiny curio of a country. Like so many southerners, Nelle regarded the United Kingdom as the cradle of civilization, and she obsessed over its history all the way down to the level of obscure Whig politicians and minor Anglican bishops. She loved the English countryside so much that when her courses finished, she rented a bicycle and pedaled around solo, staying in hostels. When word of her adventures reached Monroeville, her neighbors were alarmed, but the Lees, who had long since made peace with Nelle being Nelle, simply looked forward to the next installments of A Tomboy Abroad, which included an account of cycling into London and running into Winston Churchill while having tea.

Monday, June 24, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt nine)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Tom’s daughters were placable; his wife was not. While he tried making light of everything that was happening, Madolyn became more worried and insisted on bringing the girls into their bedroom at night. She had them sleep on the floor, below the windows, where she hoped they’d be safe from anything that might come crashing through the glass. “George Wallace has planted a seed of fear around here and it’s frightening,” she told The Washington Post, which, together with The New York Times and many other newspapers, covered the harassment of the Radney family after the convention. “My husband is being condemned simply because he disagrees with those in power here, because he refuses to be a rubber stamp.”

She was right, of course, about Wallace and the vitriol he had stirred in so many Alabamians. As the Radneys knew, a tragic roster of activists and innocents had died for the crime of being black or supporting blacks in their state. There was Willie Edwards Jr., the truck driver forced off a bridge to his death by four Klansmen in Montgomery. There was William Lewis Moore, the man from Baltimore shot and killed in Attalla while trying to walk a letter denouncing segregation 385 miles to the governor of Mississippi. There were four young girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, killed by the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. There was thirteen-year-old Virgil Lamar Ware, shot to death on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle in the same city. There was Jimmie Lee Jackson, beaten and shot by state troopers in Marion while he tried to protect his mother and grandfather during a protest. There was the Reverend James Reeb, the Unitarian minister beaten to death in Selma. There was Viola Gregg Liuzzo, shot by Klansmen while trying to ferry marchers between Selma and Montgomery. There was Willie Brewster, shot to death while walking home in Anniston. There was Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a seminarian registering black voters who was arrested for participating in a protest and then shot by a deputy sheriff in Hayneville. There was Samuel Leamon Younge Jr., murdered by a gas station owner after arguing about segregated restrooms.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt eight)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

If it was tough to run as a liberal in Alabama, it was almost impossible to govern as one. Tom Radney’s colleagues in the legislature had no choice but to let him in the chamber, but they had no intention of letting any of his bills out of it. One year into his term, Tom confessed to a church group in Auburn that he felt as if he “had to spend more time fighting bad legislation than passing good legislation.”

That bad legislation included a serious, if inexplicable, effort to remove Alabama from the United Nations, which made it through the house but not the senate; a bill that would have allowed the legislature to approve or reject speakers at state schools, which Tom managed to quash, partly through a public debate at Auburn University, where he mounted a passionate defense of academic freedom; and a Wallace-backed effort to defund the Tuskegee Institute, a recipient of state funding since 1881, which Tom derailed by threatening a one-man filibuster. The good legislation, proposed by Radney and resoundingly voted down, or denied a vote, including lowering the voting age in Alabama to eighteen (on the grounds that anyone old enough to die for their country in Vietnam was old enough to vote for its leadership), revising election laws around absentee voting, and removing a line item in the University of Alabama budget for the purchase of Confederate flags.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt seven)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Water, like violence, is difficult to contain. No sooner had the Alabama Power Company dammed the Tallapoosa than the river began seeking its revenge, in a series of floods that brimmed Lake Martin over its boundaries and droughts that drained it dry. Sometimes the towns submerged beneath it seemed to be avenging themselves, too; late at night, boaters on the lake and people along its shoreline claimed to hear the tolling of the church bells long since drowned.

Other, more deeply buried histories haunt the waters, too. On March 27, 1814, the warriors of the Creek nation, having lost most of their land by force and the rest by treaty, took their last stand just north of Lake Martin, at a spot where the Tallapoosa River doubles back on itself in a sharp oxbow known as Horseshoe Bend. It was there the future president Andrew Jackson and his troops slaughtered 557 Creeks, leaving hundreds more to die while trying to escape across the river, and taking the survivors prisoner; later, he forced those survivors across the Mississippi on the Trail of Tears. Sunk beneath Lake Martin are Creek burial grounds, and on the pocket of land inside Horseshoe Bend, where the weeds grow wild and the river and its bloody history are always just behind you, the sound of a turtle slipping off a rock into the water can make a grown man jump.

Friday, June 21, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt six)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

In the end, the only life insurance company to persist was Independent. Although the four policies it held were among the smallest the Reverend had taken out on Dorcas, the company’s lawyer, Harry Raymon, would not stop fighting payment. Tom Radney responded by bringing in help, in the form of a colleague in Tuskegee by the name of Fred Gray. Gray was not an insurance specialist; he was one of the most prominent civil rights attorneys in the nation. He had gotten his law degree from Case Western Reserve University, in Ohio, before any Alabama law school would admit African American students, then returned home to use it in the fight for racial justice. Gray represented Rosa Parks after she refused to surrender her seat on a segregated bus, and then represented the Montgomery Improvement Association during the resulting boycott. He won an acquittal from an all-white jury for Martin Luther King Jr. after he was charged with tax evasion, took on Governor Wallace when he tried to block the march from Selma to Montgomery, and got a ten-million-dollar settlement from the federal government on behalf of the surviving victims of the Tuskegee experiment. In addition to his legal practice, Fred Gray served in the Alabama House of Representatives, one of the first black legislators since Reconstruction.

It was through his legislative work that Gray had come to know Tom Radney, but taking on the Maxwell case was more than doing a favor for a friend; it was an opportunity to mount a legal challenge to another form of discrimination. Racial bias was ubiquitous in the insurance industry. African American policyholders were routinely required to pay more money for less valuable coverage, refused consolidation offers for discounts on multiple policies, forced to pay premiums exceeding the value of the payout, and denied benefits based on capricious claims of lapsed coverage. Some companies maintained dual rates for white and black clients, based on separate mortality tables that were used to justify charging nonwhites more than whites for the same policies; others maintained dual plans, using one mortuality table but offering two levels of insurance, and paying agents the full commission only when minority clients bought substandard policies. Some companies simply refused to insure black lives at all.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt five)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

If the community was frightened and the police were frustrated, the insurance companies were furious. Here again was the preacher from Coosa County, come to collect tens of thousands of dollars in life insurance on a family member. Two companies, Southern Farm Bureau and Booker T. Washington Insurance, had no choice but to pay up without protest, because their three policies—for ten thousand, one thousand, and five hundred dollars—had been taken out by Dorcas and her first husband, Abram. Maxwell was simply the current beneficiary. The Andersons had also taken out mortgage insurance, which covered the thirteen thousand dollars still owed on their house, which now passed to the Reverend through the survivorship estate.

The other companies, however, were not going to make good on their policies without a fight. It is impossible to know exactly how many of those policies Maxwell held on Dorcas at the time of her death—or, for that matter, how many in total he ever held on anyone—because those that were not litigated left no trace. But of the policies that eventually became the subject of court battles, four had become effective the day after Maxwell married Dorcas in November 1971, a fifth had kicked in two day after that, a sixth in January 1972, a seventh that March, and the remainder by late spring of that year. All told, the Reverend had at least seventeen separate insurance policies on Dorcas, for which he had paid ten dollars a week in premiums. Now he was owed a small fortune in return.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt four)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Most early anthropologists and historians shared the biases of the culture at large, leaving them uninterested in or even antagonistic to African spirituality in general and voodoo in particular. One of the first scholars to take it seriously was a graduate student at Columbia who had been born and raised in the South and longed to return there to document its folklore: the writer Zora Neale Hurston, best known for the novels she would publish years later, including Their Eyes Were Watching God. In the winter of 1927, Hurston boarded a train in New York City and headed for Mobile, where she began a tour of black towns and villages throughout the South.

Driving a Nash that she called Sassy Susie and carrying a chrome-plated pistol in her suitcase, Hurston followed what she called “the map of Dixie on my tongue” and recorded in the vernacular of her sources their best stories, recipes, sayings, songs, and customs. Hurston was frank about the obstacles to studying her chosen subject. “Nobody knows for sure how many thousands in America are warmed by the fire of hoodoo,” she wrote, “because the worship is bound in secrecy. It is not the accepted theology of the Nation and so believers conceal their faith. Brother from sister, husband from wife. Nobody can say where it begins or ends. Mouths don’t empty themselves unless the ears are sympathetic and knowing.”

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt three)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Armed with population information for the first time, insurance companies began to get a handle on probability calculations, and soon enough a natural disaster helped ease their difficulties with religion. On the feast of All Saints in 1755, just before ten in the morning, one of the deadliest earthquakes ever recorded struck the city of Lisbon. When the shaking finally stopped—fully six minutes later, some records say—tens of thousands of people had died as homes and churches collapsed, and fissures up to sixteen feet wide gaped open in the earth. Not long after, the waters along the coast of Portugal drew back in a sharp gasp, exposing the bottom of the harbor. Throngs of amazed onlookers had flocked to see old shipwrecks newly revealed on the seabed when, nearly an hour later, the ocean exhaled and a tsunami washed over the city, killing thousands more. The scale of the tragedy was so vast that existing theodicies seemed inadequate, and all of Europe struggled to answer the existential questions raised by the Lisbon catastrophe.

In the course of that struggle, theologians found themselves competing with Englightenment philosophers, who seized on the earthquake to offer a rival account of the workings of the natural world. If earthquakes were not divine punishments but geological inevitabilities, then perhaps insuring oneself against death was not contrary to God’s plan but a responsible and pious way to provide for one’s family. By the end of the eighteenth century, that idea had gained legitimacy throughout Europe. Once it took hold, religious groups, initially opposed to the entire notion of life insurance, became some of its strongest advocates, in some cases even starting denominational funds to sell policies to their members.

Monday, June 17, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt two)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

It was in the middle of this debacle that the state attorney general, Thomas Knight, contacted some toxicologists at what was then Alabama Polytechnic Institute but would later become Auburn University. Knight felt that the mishandling of the Scottsboro Boys case might have been avoided had the authorities gathered and assessed the evidence scientifically. By way of a counterexample, he pointed to the scrupulous methods used in another of the era’s most notorious criminal cases: the 1935 conviction of Bruno Hauptmann for the abduction and murder of the infant son of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. That latter case set a standard the state should strive for, Knight felt, and he encouraged prosecutors and law enforcement officers around Alabama to send evidence to Dr. Hubert Nixon, a professor in the agricultural laboratory, and Dr. Carl Rehling, a professor of chemistry. Within a few years, the Alabama Legislature had officially allocated funds for a special forensic laboratory. “It is not our purpose to prove guilt or innocence,” Dr. Rehling said of the lab, “but to present the facts.”

Sunday, June 16, 2019

the last book I ever read (Casey Cep's Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee, excerpt one)

from Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep:

Enough water, like enough time, can make anything disappear. A hundred years ago, in the place presently occupied by the largest lake in Alabama, there was a region of hills and hollers and hardscrabble communities with a pretty little river running through it. The Tallapoosa River forms where a creek named McClendon meets a creek named Mud, after each of them has trickled down from the Appalachian foothills of Georgia. Until it was dammed into obedience, the Tallapoosa just kept on trickling from there, lazing downward until it met its older, livelier sibling, the Coosa River, near the town of Wetumpka, where together the two streams became the Alabama River, which continued westward and southward until it spilled into Mobile Bay, and from there into the Gulf of Mexico. For 265 miles and millions of years, the Tallapoosa carried on like that, serenely genuflecting its way to the sea.

What put an end to this was power. Man’s dominion over the earth might have been given to him in Genesis, but he began acting on it in earnest in the nineteenth century. Steam engines and steel and combustion of all kinds provided the means; manifest destiny provided the motive. Within a few decades, humankind had come to understand nature as its enemy in what the philosopher William James called, approvingly, “the moral equivalent of war.” This was especially true in the American South, where an actual war had left behind physical and financial devastation and liberated the enslaved men and women who had been the region’s economic engine. No longer legally able to subjugate other people, wealthy white southerners turned their attention to nature instead. The untamed world seemed to them at worst like a mortal danger, seething with disease and constantly threatening disaster, and at best like a terrible waste. The numberless trees could be timber, the forests could be farms, the malarial swamps could be drained and turned to solid ground, wolves and bears and other fearsome predators could be throw rugs, taxidermy, and dinner. And as for the rivers, why should they get to play while people had to work? In the words of the president of the Alabama Power Company, Thomas Martin, “Every loafing stream is loafing at the public expense.”

Friday, June 14, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt nine)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

Sharon gets to Puerto Rico on an evening plane. She knows exactly how much money she has, which means that she knows how rapidly she must move against time—which is inexorably moving against her. She steps down from the plane, with hundreds of others, and crosses the field, under the blue-black sky; and something in the way the stars hang low, something in the way the air caresses her skin, reminds her of that Birmingham she has not seen in so long.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt eight)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

And, when a subway car is packed—unless it’s full of people who know each other, going on a picnic, say—it is almost always silent. It’s as though everybody is just holding his breath, waiting to get out of there. Each time the train comes into a station, and some of the people push you aside, in order to get out—as happened now, for example, with the man who smelled of hot sauce and toothpaste—a great sigh seems to rise; stifled immediately by the people who get on. Now, a blond girl, carrying a bandbox, was breathing her hangover into my face. My stop came, and I got off, climbed the steps and crossed the street. I went into the service entrance and punched the clock, put my street clothes away and went out to my counter. I was a little late to the floor, but I’d clocked in on time.

The floor manager, a white boy, young, nice enough, gave me a mock scowl as I hurried to my place.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt seven)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

Fonny: chews on the rib, and watches me: and, in complete silence, without moving a muscle, we are laughing with each other. We are laughing for many reasons. We are together somewhere where no one can reach us, touch us, joined. We are happy, even, that we have food enough for Daniel, who eats peacefully, not knowing that we are laughing, but sensing that something wonderful has happened to us, which means that wonderful things happen, and that maybe something wonderful will happen to him. It’s wonderful, anyway, to be able to help a person have that feeling.

Daniel stays with us till midnight. He’s a little afraid to leave, afraid, in fact, to hit those streets, and Fonny realizes this and walks him to the subway. Daniel, who cannot abandon his mother, yet longs to be free to confront his life; is terrified at the same time of what that life may bring, is terrified of freedom; and is struggling in a trap. And Fonny, who is younger, struggles now to be older, in order to help his friend toward his deliverance. Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? And why not every man?

The song is old, the question unanswered.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt six)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

“Let’s go this way,” he said, and we started down Sixth Avenue, toward Bleecker Street. We started down Bleecker and Fonny stared for a moment through the big window of the San Remo. There was no one in there that he knew, and the whole place looked tired and discouraged, as though wearily about to shave and get dressed for a terrible evening. The people under the weary light were veterans of indescribable wars. We kept walking. The streets were very crowded now, with youngsters, black and white, and cops. Fonny held his head a little higher and his grip tightened on my hand. There were lots of kids on the sidewalk, before the crowded coffee shop. A jukebox was playing Aretha’s “That’s Life.” It was strange. Everyone was in the streets, moving and talking, like people do everywhere, and yet none of it seemed to be friendly. There was something hard and frightening about it: the way that something which looks real, but isn’t, can send you screaming out of your mind. It was just like scenes uptown, in a way, with the older man and women sitting on the stoops; with small children running up and down the block, cars moving slowly through this maelstrom, the cop car parked on the corner, with the two cops in it, other cops swaggering slowly along the sidewalk. It was like scenes uptown, in a way, but with something left out, or something put in, I couldn’t tell: but it was a scene that frightened me. One had to make one’s way carefully here, for all these people were blind. We were jostled, and Fonny put his arm around my shoulder. We passed Minetta Tavern, crossed Minetta Lane, passed the newspaper stand on the next corner, and crossed diagonally into the park, which seemed to huddle in the shadow of the heavy new buildings of NYU and the high new apartment buildings on the east and the north. We passed the men who had been playing chess in the lamplight for generations, and people walking their dogs, and young men with bright hair and very tight pants, who looked quickly at Fonny and resignedly at me. We sat down on the stone edge of the dry fountain, facing the arch. There were lots of people around us, but I still felt this terrible lack of friendliness.

Monday, June 10, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt five)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

She knows Daddy better than I do. I think it’s because she’s felt since we were children that our Daddy maybe loved me more than he loves her. This isn’t true, and she knows that now—people love different people in different ways—but it must have seemed that way to her when we were little. I look as though I just can’t make it, she looks like can’t nothing stop her. If you look helpless, people react to you in one way and if you look strong, or just come on strong, people react to you in another way, and, since you don’t see what they see, this can be very painful. I think that’s maybe why Sis was always in front of that damn mirror all the time, when we were kids. She was saying, I don’t care. I got me. Of course, this only made her come on stronger than ever, which was the last effect she desired: but that’s the way we are and that’s how we can sometimes get so fucked up. Anyway, she’s past all that. She knows who she is, or, at least, she knows who she damn well isn’t; and since she’s no longer terrified of uprisings in those forces which she lives with and has learned how to use and subdue, she can walk straight ahead into anything; and so she can cut Daddy off when he’s talking—which I can’t do. She moved away from me a little and put my glass in my hand. “Unbow your head, sister,” she said, and raised her glass and touched mine. “Save the children,” she said, very quietly, and drained her glass.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt four)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

Teddy had the tambourine, and this gave the cue to the piano player—I never got to know him: a long dark, evil-looking brother, with hands made for strangling; and with these hands he attacked the keyboard like he was beating the brains out of someone he remembered. No doubt, the congregation had their memories, too, and they went to pieces. The church began to rock. And rocked me and Fonny, too, though they didn’t know it, and in a very different way. Now, we knew that nobody loved us: or, now, we knew who did. Whoever loved us was not here.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt three)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

The church had been a post office. I don’t know how come the building had had to be sold, or why, come to that, anybody had wanted to buy it, because it still looked like a post office, long and dark and low. They had knocked down some walls and put in some benches and put up the church signs and the church schedules; but the ceiling was that awful kind of wrinkled tin, and they had either painted it brown or they had left it unpainted. When you came in, the pulpit looked a mighty long ways off. To tell the truth, I think the people in the church were just proud that their church was so big and that they had somehow got their hands on it. Of course I was (more or less) used to Abyssinia. It was brighter, and had a balcony. I used to sit in that balcony, on Mama’s knees. Every time I think of a certain song, “Uncloudy Day,” I’m back in that balcony again, on Mama’s knees. Every time I hear “Blessed Quietness,” I think of Fonny’s church and Fonny’s mother. I don’t mean that either the song or the church was quiet. But I don’t remember ever hearing that song in our church. I’ll always associate that song with Fonny’s church because when they sang it on that Sunday morning, Fonny’s mother got happy.

Watching people get happy and fall out under the Power is always something to see, even if you see it all the time. But people didn’t often get happy in our church: we were more respectable, more civilized, than sanctified. I still find something in it very frightening: but I think this is because Fonny hated it.

Friday, June 7, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt two)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

It was the Sunday morning street. Our streets have days, and even hours. Where I was born, and where my baby will be born, you look down the street and you can almost see what’s happening in the house: like, say, Saturday, at three in the afternoon, is a very bad hour. The kids are home from school. The men are home from work. You’d think that this might be a very happy get together, but it isn’t. The kids see the men. The men see the kids. And this drives the women, who are cooking and cleaning and straightening hair and who see what men won’t see, almost crazy. You can see it in the streets, you can hear it in the way the women yell for their children. You can see it in the way they come down out of the house—in a rush, like a storm—and slap the children and drag them upstairs, you can hear it in the child, you can see it in the way the men, ignoring all this, stand together in front of a railing, sit together in the barbershop pass a bottle between them, walk to the corner to the bar, tease the girl behind the bar, fight with each other, and get very busy, later, with their vines. Saturday afternoon is like a cloud hanging over, it’s like waiting for a storm to break.

But, on Sunday mornings the clouds have lifted, the storm has done its damage and gone. No matter what the damage was, everybody’s clean now. The women have somehow managed to get it all together, to hold everything together. So, here everybody is, cleaned, scrubbed, brushed, and greased. Later, they’re going to eat ham hocks or chitterlings or fried or roasted chicken, with yams and rice and greens or cornbread or biscuits. They’re going to come home and fall out and be friendly: and some men wash their cars, on Sundays, more carefully than they wash their foreskins. Walking down the street that Sunday morning, with Fonny walking beside me like a prisoner and Mrs. Hunt on the other side of me, like a queen making great strides into the kingdom, was like walking through a fair. But now I think that it was only Fonny—who didn’t say a word—that made it seem like a fair.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

the last book I ever read (If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, excerpt one)

from If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin:

I walked out, to cross these big, wide corridors I’ve come to hate, corridors wider than all the Sahara desert. The Sahara is never empty; these corridors are never empty. If you cross the Sahara, and you fall, by and by vultures circle around you, smelling, sensing, your death. They circle lower and lower: they wait. They know. They know exactly when the flesh is ready, when the spirit cannot fight back. The poor are always crossing the Sahara. And the lawyers and bondsmen and all that crowd circle around the poor, exactly like vultures. Of course, they’re not any richer than the poor, really, that’s why they’ve turned into vultures, scavengers, indecent garbage men, and I’m talking about the black cats, too, who, in so many ways, are worse. I think that, personally, I would be ashamed. But I’ve had to think about it and now I think that maybe not. I don’t know what I wouldn’t do to get Fonny out of jail. I’ve never come across any shame down here, except shame like mine, except the shame of the hardworking black ladies, who call me Daughter, and the shame of proud Puerto Ricans, who don’t understand what’s happened—no one speaks to them speaks Spanish, for example—and who are ashamed that they have loved ones in jail. But they are wrong to be ashamed. The people responsible for these jails should be ashamed.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt nine)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

Sherrie’s right. You can live with someone forever and not know them at all. Personally, he’s astonished to discover that the woman with whom he’s spent his life prefers Arlene to him. If, as Sherrie said, guys always turn out to be guys, maybe women turn out to be women, with their Jane Eyre and their covens.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt eight)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

Dazed, they slouch out of the room. Swenson thinks of a story he heard when he first came to Euston, a cautionary tale about a teaching fellow who started coming into class drunk, scheduling her student conferences for midnight at a Mexican restaurant in Winooskie. Her students were so frustrated that at last, when she passed out in class, they put a paper bag over her head on their way out of the room. This story used to comfort him. He’d think, As long as I got through class without a bag over my head, things are under control. But now, as his students file past him, he knows that if they had a large enough bag, they wouldn’t hesitate to use it.

Monday, June 3, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt seven)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

Swenson feels his spirit separating from his body. Now he knows what he was dreading, but this is worse than whatever he’d feared. He feels as he does when he hurts himself, cuts his finger or stubs his toe, and in that first moment understands that the real pain is still to come, taking its own sweet time, waiting until the adrenaline goes and leaves him unprotected.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt six)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

He smiles at Sherrie. “If I were forced to choose one meal to eat every night for the rest of my life, it would be chicken with lemon, and scalloped potatoes with prosciutto.”

“Why would you have to make a choice like that?” Sherrie asks.

“Why would I?” Swenson says.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

the last book I ever read (Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose, excerpt five)

from Blue Angel: A Novel by Francine Prose:

“His misogyny!” Lauren says. “And the total absence of one positive, life-affirming line in the man’s entire oeuvre!”

Swenson can hardly stand it. He loves those beautiful poems that tell more of the truth than anyone wants to hear. Nor does it help to think that this is one of the few, the very few dinner tables in the world at which most, or any, of the guests have heard of Philip Larkin.