Archive for 2004

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

13 November 2004
Categories: From the armchair

coverIn October 2004, I went on a weekend-long company trip to New Orleans. Amid the usual (and not-so-usual) team-building exercises we were given some time to explore the city on our own. While many of my compatriots headed out to Bourbon Street immediately after landing for a long evening of drinking and debauchery, I ordered an early wake-up call and hit the sack.

In the pre-dawn darkness of a rainy Saturday morning (a rain that effectively never let up for the entire weekend, as tropical storm Matthew was parked just offshore in the Gulf), I wandered out of our Canal Street hotel and hopped aboard the classic old St. Charles streetcar line.

This may rank as the highlight of a fun weekend. Being a railfan, I really enjoy riding the transit systems of the cities I visit—the cable cars of San Francisco being another recent case. And I’ve come to realise that even beyond the visual treat the outmoded hardware provides, and the operational quirks of the system (such as the fact that twice the streetcar stopped—powerless—when tree branches, soaked from several days of rain and hanging low, knocked the trolley pole off of the catenary wire), for me a big part of the experience must be the unique smells and sounds. For example, I’ll never forget the rich machine-oil aroma of the now-defunct red cars of New York’s #7 line. (I know, I know, it’s a little weird to appreciate the smell of a New York subway.) And in the case of the St. Charles streetcar, the most memorable part was the rackety pucka-pucka-pucka noise that the reciprocating compressor under the floor made as it recharged the cylinder for the air brakes—something you won’t find in the modern cars of the Canal Street line.

With time to spare before an intended eight a.m. breakfast at the Bluebird CafĂ©, I figured on riding past my stop for a while and then turning back on another car. But I overestimated the distances involved, or perhaps was having too much fun listening to the air compressor and watching its pressure gauge fluctuate, and I wound up riding right out to the end of the line. It was a surprise to say to myself “well, I’ll get out at the next stop,” step off, and find that the rails ended five feet past the car’s bluff prow. It was there that I took this photograph, a lucky shot that I really like. I like the way the colourful umbrellas brighten up a hazy shot of dark green (the cars and the surrounding foliage) and grey (the gloomy, low-hanging rain clouds), and how I managed to catch the moment where the motorman on the right, pulling on a rope, is just about to set his trolley pole against the overhead wire.

St. Charles streetcar terminus at Carrollton and Claiborne Avenues,
New Orleans, 9 October 2004. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.

After an excellent breakfast at the Bluebird (where the astute waitress suggested a perfect compromise for my indecision and brought a half-order of the huevos rancheros and a short stack of pecan pancakes) and a visit to the National D-Day Museum (which I emphatically recommend), I returned to Canal Street for the afternoon’s activities. It was then that I stumbled across the Chateau Sonesta Hotel—or more to the point, the bronze statue and plaque underneath the hotel’s front awning. It turns out the hotel is an adaptive reuse of the D. H. Holmes department store, where the opening scene of A Confederacy of Dunces takes place, and the statue is of Ignatius J. Reilly, tragic/comic antihero, as he waits for his mother beneath the Holmes clock. The nearby plaque quotes a paragraph of the book’s first page, setting the scene in order to explain the odd, rumpled subject of the bronze.

(To be honest, I have a couple of problems with this statue. One problem is that the scale is too small; Ignatius is both a larger-than-life character and is described as physically towering and massive, yet the statue is fairly diminutive, no more than about 5’8″. The other problem is the placement. Appropriately for a statue, it is prominently centered beneath the clock; yet Ignatius is, above all else, an observer from the fringes of a crowd. He is much more likely to be found lurking about off to one side, and though the book never explicitly states that, it is easily inferred.)

So I’m really talking around the subject here, which is the book A Confederacy of Dunces. Perhaps that’s because it’s a difficult book to categorize or describe. I first read it some time around my freshman year in college, and found it hilarious and endearing and perhaps more than a little subversive. In short, I loved it, and when I first built this web site I was quick to place Dunces on my all-time favourites list. Yet my recollections were becoming increasingly vague, and I had for some time been meaning to re-read the book and re-assess my opinion of it. And so, when I found myself at the site of the D.H. Holmes store, staring into a rendering of those “supercilious blue and yellow eyes,” I knew that Fortuna’s wheel had turned to the right place for me to partake of John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece once again. (During the subsequent reading several other coincidences between the book and the rest of my life arose, which reinforced my decision.)

I still find A Confederacy of Dunces to be a truly hysterical ride. Its characters are genuinely rendered and offer an intriguing snapshot of New Orleans life in the early 1960s. (Many local residents are apparently less than enthusiastic about this fact, and about the book’s popularity in general.) And the crazy interconnected upheavals that Ignatius causes to occur, often merely by his existence—all the while blaming Fortuna—are inspired and unforgettable.

This book has no comparison in modern literature. It’s a crying shame that Toole took his own life without providing us with any other examples of his genius. (The only other Toole publication, The Neon Bible, was written when he was only sixteen and while it shows vague hints of his later abilities, it is a mediocre, formative work that certainly only saw the light of day due to the brilliance of Dunces and its well-deserved Pulitzer prize. The Neon Bible is, unfortunately, both a distraction and a detraction.) But thanks to the diligence of the author’s mother who pushed the book on publishers for years, and the vision of author Walker Percy who knew a good thing when he begrudgingly read it, we are now blessed with a true American classic.

A Treatise upon Cable or Rope Traction by J. Bucknall Smith and George W. Hilton

16 October 2004
Categories: From the armchair

coverMy wife and I visited the City by the Bay in September 2004, and I had the opportunity to check out the San Francisco Cable Car Museum. It’s well worth the price of admission (which is free), not only for the many artifacts—a few vintage cars, many displays of old tools and grip assemblies, and even the memorial plaque of three guard dogs for the Haight Street Line who met with foul play in 1891—but also because the museum is located on a mezzanine within the main power house that serves all four remaining cable car lines. From the balcony one may see the humming electric motors and the giant sheaves (pulleys) that provide motive power to the cables. In dimly illuminated vaults below street level, one may also see the transfer sheaves that send the cables out to their channels along California, Hyde, Mason, and Powell streets.

In the gift shop, along with the usual t-shirts and cable-car-related tchotchkes were a number of books, including a few San Francisco entries in the extensive Images of America series. But one book had that added geek factor that made it impossible to pass up. A Treatise upon Cable or Rope Traction is a reprint of an 1887 serial by British engineer J. Bucknall Smith, edited and footnoted by cable car historian George W. Hilton. It’s a detailed engineering overview couched in effusively optimistic language, written during the brief period when cable traction appeared to be a great boon to public transportation—it had moved beyond the infancy of a newfangled technology, but was just a few short years from being eclipsed by electric self-motive power in terms of efficiency and maintenance cost.

The book’s greatest asset is its excellent collection of beautifully-rendered illustrations, fine examples of Victorian-era draughtsmanship. The text explains the diagrams in depth, so that the reader winds up with a firm grasp of cable system designs. And I found it particularly intriguing to see how many different cable car companies criss-crossed San Francisco 120 years ago, where the steep grades are uniquely suited to cable traction’s strengths. The city’s cable-car system today is the merest vestige of what once existed.

I found this book fascinating and great fun to read, but I must be honest: despite my enjoyment of it, the book worked best for me as bedtime reading—two or three pages were the most I could muster before falling fast asleep. Ah, to have sweet dreams of open-sided cars clattering up and down vertiginous hills, steel cables whining beneath the pavement, and wooden brake shoes scraping along the rails.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

24 February 2004

coverSo, having made my way through to the completion of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece (though unwilling to bide my time until the November release of the extended edition of The Return of the King), I decided to return to the source and give it a re-read.

This was only my second time through the whole thing, the first having been back during my freshman year of college (I started and never finished it in middle school… more on that later). The following will be more of a commentary on the films rather than the book, given that I utterly agree with‘s assessment of Tolkien’s supremacy: “A Christian can almost be forgiven for not reading the Bible, but there’s no salvation for a fantasy fan who hasn’t read the gospel of the genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s definitive three-book epic, The Lord of the Rings.”

By the way, my copy (seen above) is a three-volume trade paper box set, by Houghton Mifflin, a late-1970s reprint of the 1965 second edition. It has its share of typos, along with the occasional hole in the text where the imprint was under-struck or under-inked. Aside from this, though, it mainly suffers from the printer’s error that, sadly, is all too common today: a two-page map whose centerline is lost within the depths of the binding. Middle Earth geography is an important part of the story, and it helps to refer frequently to Christopher Tolkien’s maps to understand the relation of the places to each other (as well as to keep straight all the place-names that are alternately given in the common tongue, or Elvish, or even Dwarvish).

I realize now why, upon my first reading, I got lost and quit somewhere in the middle of The Two Towers: one of those towers, Orthanc (and for that matter the names of Isengard and Fangorn) is buried in the spine and cannot be seen on the map! The book linked above is a new printing in a single volume, as the author apparently intended, and thankfully has redesigned and redrawn maps that cure the two-page map problem. Even better is the leatherette-bound hardcover, a must for all Tolkien afficionadi, which includes large-format fold-out maps.

But I digress. Within, say, a hundred pages or so into The Fellowship of the Ring, one may already find substantial differences and departures between the book and the film. Even more major discrepancies turn up later. However, we’ll leave a complete list of all the myriad alterations to a more Tolkien-rabid, nitpicky fiend than this writer. For I am not bothered by the changes.

My reasoning is that Tolkien himself treated The Lord of the Rings not so much as a novel, but as a piece of deeply-researched lore. (Or, perhaps he found a copy of Bilbo’s Red Book.) He gives us the sense that he didn’t write the book so much as spend long hours poring over dusty tomes in long-forgotten libraries, piecing together the story from scraps of old tales jotted down by ancient scribes. As if the end of the Third Age actually occurred some time in the distant past, and Tolkien is an historian who followed a trail of clues to a hidden wellspring of timeworn knowledge.

Lore, of course, relies primarily on word-of-mouth transmission, a mode which inherently causes a tale to shift and mutate, to gain embellishments and suffer elisions. And different methods of telling a story have their own strengths and weaknesses, whether they be campfire tales, or minstrels’ songs—or modern-day big-budget theatrical releases.

Thus in my opinion, Peter Jackson’s alterations of The Lord of the Rings in getting the story to the big screen are justified. So what if the subtext of the Sackville-Bagginses, and Frodo’s move to Crickhollow, and the strange interlude of Tom Bombadil, and the barrow-wights, to name several early examples from Fellowship, have all been omitted from the film. Tolkien told the old tale with lots of detailed filigree of genealogy, chronology, and Elvish linguistics. Jackson has taken it and streamlined it for a different medium, taking some dramatic liberties, simplifying many of its complexities and deleting some of its digressions (though at over twelve hours for the extended trilogy, some may question his success at the latter). In much the same way, Bilbo’s thirteen-stanza nonsensical drinking song has been trimmed (according to Tolkien, anyway) to become the nursery rhyme “Hey-diddle-diddle,” with no loss of meaning or entertainment value.

(My wife complains that The Return of the King lacks in proper character exposition, and I can’t disagree, but I suspect that the extended DVD will fill in those spaces. Aragorn’s backstory was told in The Two Towers, but only on the extended DVD, not in the theater. His ascendancy to the throne is significant in ways that the theatrical Return does not show, but perhaps that’s because the theatrical Two Towers did not lay the groundwork. One hopes that Jackson will pull out all the stops in this fall’s DVD.)

Any hey, this latest adaptation could have been a helluva lot worse. Two words: Ralph. Bakshi.

Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky

4 February 2004
Categories: From the armchair

coverLately, I’ve been trying to trace the evolution in my opinion of military service, and frankly, I’m not sure how I got to where I am today.

For much of high school I wore an Army coat, bought at a secondhand store. For a while it even bore on one shoulder a 1st Infantry Division patch that I had found in sixth grade. Though I was too young to vote, I fell for Reagan’s charisma in both 1980 and 1984, not realizing how much danger his “Evil Empire” posturing would put us in.

Yet somehow I believed in the anti-military line: that all enlisted are meatheads, every officer the purchaser of a $600 hammer. Films like Oliver Stone’s Platoon didn’t help, especially considering I saw that particular movie on the day before my eighteenth birthday. I walked out of the theater with the stylized horrors of war in my head and knowing that when the sun next rose I would be compelled by law to register for “selective service,” aka the draft. I was a cynic and an anti-authoritarian, and seeing myself in the potential line of fire rankled.

I suppose that was the start of the hippie peacenik phase of my life. I actively protested the Gulf War in 1991. And being a know-it-all, I “knew” that I was right, and the entire military-industrial complex, to use a popular phrase, was wrong. I fell in with a group of similarly minded people, yet ironically, much of that supposedly “free-thinking” community—myself included—was incredibly closed-minded. I tried to migrate away from that, and those days are now just a hazy memory.

I’m not sure yet what changed my mind over the past several years. I hate to give too much credit to Robert Heinlein, as so much of his philosophy is specious at best. Yet I’ve begun to agree with his notion, as expounded in Starship Troopers, that citizenship should be predicated on military service. The soldier is the only one who knows, first-hand, the true cost of going to war, and thus knows that every effort in diplomacy is worthwhile.

For me, the closest I’ve ever come to anything quasi-military would have to be the Boy Scouts, and the Spartan Marching Band. The latter has military origins—it began as an Army cadet band and to this day includes vestigial military strictures, such as removing one’s uniform hat when entering a building—yet even that is a far, far cry from military service.

My attitude had quite definitely changed by the time of my ten-year high school reunion in 1997, when I met up with two friends and former teammates who both graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis. One was still in active duty, flying ASW missions in P-3 Orions. The other had mustered out after 6 years, having completed two master’s degrees (one during his service, one after, I believe). Both impressed me with their intelligence and success.

Nowadays, I have the utmost respect for those who serve this country, and I have more than a little regret that I didn’t consider the military to be an option when I was young enough to make a difference. I have also become a big fan of Stephen E. Ambrose’s military histories.

And now, further contributing to my positive impression of the military is Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point. Author David Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, grew up with much the same attitude as me—although in his case, his influence was quite clear: his vehemently anti-military father threatened to break his legs if he enlisted. He was reluctant, to say the least, when RS assigned him to do an article about the U.S. Military Academy, at the Academy’s invitation. But when the USMA told him that he could have full, unrestricted access to the students and the campus, Lipsky found that even several months were not enough to really get the whole story. He wound up spending four full years there, following one class from plebe year all the way to firstie year and graduation. In the process, his view of the military did a complete about-face, from scorn to near-reverence.

The tale Lipsky tells may not be indicative of West Point as a whole, and certainly there must be alumni who take exception to much of it, for he gives us a clear vision of the fact that these are normal, if exceptionally high-achieving, college students. That their attitudes run the gamut from totally “huah” to completely cynical about the military. That they indulge in all the things that virtually all post-adolescents do—drinking, drugs, sexual relations—things that are especially frowned upon in a military environment. Some pay dearly for their transgressions, and some manage to keep them under wraps.

The book is also an important snapshot of a significant period in history. For one, the Academy was struggling at the time with a number of new policies known as “The Changes,” essentially trying to find a proper balance of old-guard military training systems in an era of gender equality and political correctness. For another, the fourth year of the book begins the fall semester with the “firsties” (seniors) watching, with the rest of the world, the horror of 9/11. Suddenly these students had to face the knowledge that graduation would mean not assignment to a quiet homefront base, nor a vague peacekeeping mission, but an overseas deployment to war.

Most of all, even as he dishes some dirt, Lipsky shows us the strength of an institution that Teddy Roosevelt called the most “absolutely American” of all. All the ideals of this nation—of truth and honor, of being rewarded for hard work and taking personal responsibility for failures—are openly embraced there. Every person associated with West Point—its staff, instructors, students and graduates—should take great pride in their accomplishment, and I, as a mere civilian, am proud to know that this country has a place like the U.S. Military Academy.

Most of all, Absolutely American made me care deeply about several very real people who are serving their country today, in a time of intense trial. I would very much like to know how these soldiers are faring, folks like Whitey and Iggy, and “Huck” Finn, and the indomitable-if-dogged George Rash.