Saturday, November 22, 2008


Hoisting crossed digits, my wife made the sign of the T. After an agony of hanging chads in 2000, followed by eight bellicose years of W and what seemed this fall like an endless number of recycled speeches, ads, editorials, debates, wrangles, cheap shots, and dirty tricks, she called for a time out. We'd already lost two elections and the inspirational Hilary had gone down in flames. Would the same fate confront the inspirational Barack? It was too awful to contemplate. We decided to leave the country for a couple of weeks of R&R and return refreshed to vote on November 4th. But where to go to escape American politics? "Denmark!" we shouted in unison. A country loaded with hearty monosyllabic ex-Vikings and obsessed (refreshingly) with herring and H.C. Andersen. Besides, we'd never been there. It was worth a try.

Early the next morning and thoroughly exhausted, we landed in a chill welcoming drizzle dragging our tails (i.e. suitcases) behind us. The sign over the exit said "Kobenhavn." Turning to one of the tallest, blondest, best-looking cops I'd ever seen, I smiled ingratiatingly, asked where to get a taxi. She showed me the exit. "Tak," I thanked her. She ran her tongue over the inside of her mouth as if searching for a word, a cavity. Grabbing my arm, my wife yanked me out the door.

There were a half dozen taxis queued up outside, five of them taken. The sixth was ours. The driver--an Oxonian, from his accent--tossed our suitcases into the boot of his Mercedes and we were off. He drove like the wind. Talked non-stop. The first thing he asked was, "Where are you going?" The second was, "Do you think he'll win?" We told him we hoped so. And then came his third question, which sounded in my ears like an ominous Puccini chord foreshadowing doom, "Do you think he'll survive?
"Of course he'll survive," I shot back. "Didn't you see Clint Eastwood in Line of Fire?" He hadn't, but he liked Eastwood. Later, when he pulled up in front of our hotel and I paid him with a couple of Danish bills that featured Isak Dinesen's picture (which bore only the vaguest resemblance to Meryl Streep in Out of Africa), he gave me my change and said, ""You'll like this place."
Shaking my hand, he admitted that he too hoped Obama would win.

The lobby of our hotel, a large one, was almost deserted at that early hour of the morning. There didn't even seem to be a front desk. That was because it was designed by the legendary Danish architect-designer Arne Jacobsen, the lobby sprinkled with his "Egg" and "Swan" chairs and his Scandinavian Airlines desks that resembled lily pads. Popping out from behind her pad, an even larger and more attractive looking young woman than the Air Terminal cop came hurrying over to us and suggested we pull up an Egg and sit down.

Her name was Wylde. ("Like the English writer," she said, but pronounced it "Vil-da.") She was Norwegian. And Wylde couldn't have been nicer. The room she found for us on the 15th floor, which wasn't supposed to be ready for occupancy until the afternoon but apparently was, provided a superb view of the city. Across the street, the Main Train Station and the Tivoli--a combination amusement park, music hall, and elaborate nineteenth-century pleasure garden owned by Carlsberg, the Danish beer company. And just down the block the bustling Radhuspladsen (the Town Hall Square). Though all of Denmark has a population smaller than New York City, about one million of it seemed to pass daily in review on the wide boulevard below our windows traveling on foot, in cars, or peddling their bicycles arm in arm.

During our first few days at the hotel, no one mentioned McCain or Obama, let alone their running mates or Joe the Plumber, which was restful. The Danish newspapers, however, were full of them, and that was only the ones in English. Not to mention the London Times, the Guardian, and the International Herald Tribune. I tried not to glance at the lobby newsstand on our way out.... We were busy tracking down the latest wrinkles in Danish design. At least that's what we thought when we entered the Dansk Design Centre on H.C. Andersen Blvd., the five-storey building conceived as a "window to the world" of Danish design by the architect-designer Henning Larsen. His most recent building the spectacular new Operaen, which was completed three years ago at a cost of more than 500 million, is one of the most expensive opera houses anywhere.

Larsen's Design Centre with its smoked-glass exterior opened in 2000. My initial impression of the uncomfortable way it sat in its cramped urban setting was not promising. But what really disappointed me was how little there was of Danish design on exhibit. Not that there wasn't much to see of interest. On the Main floor, the principal show was a traveling Finnish exhibition, singular for its wit. How can you knock a large pair of red felt slippers with another smaller pair placed on its instep and pointing in the opposite direction, arranged adorably for father and daughter locomotion? Not to mention the grim rack of "Parkas for Lonely People," somber black jackets with broad Velcro straps. The accompanying video revealed the jackets in action. A solitary glum-looking figure dressed in black is approached by an identically garbed fellow who accidentally becomes Velcroed to the first. Then another, and another, and.... Before long the improbable scene is a writhing mass of arms and legs that resembles a throbbing complex hydrocarbon compound undergoing conversion. And I haven't even mentioned yet the waterfall sink, the bookcase-garden room separator, or the tiny indoor grill for urban living-room picnics (at about 12 inches in width ideally suited for baby lamb chops the size of lollipops).

Upstairs was the Nordic Food Show, downstairs in a remote narrow hallway (adjacent to the rest rooms) the "Icons of 20th-century Design." Among the icons the Centre selected as worthy of inclusion were Olivetti and Selectric typewriters, the Barbie doll, the Apple computer, the Eames and Rietveld chairs, Windows 95, and the Danish designed Lego. Before leaving, we dropped in on the Centre's cafe for a snack. The menu was heavy on sorrebrod (open-faced sandwiches) with fish, chicken, cheese, etc. The cafe manager, a gregarious Tunisian young man eager to promote his gourmet cuisine influenced by Claus Meyer--popular Danish TV chef and food enthusiast--lauded his excellent and socially responsible "Fair Trade Coffee." We thought his enthusiasm justified. He confided that as foodies go, the Danes had been slow in catching up but the local restaurant Noma had recently received its second star from the French Michelin Guide. Food-wise, he said, coming from a Francophone country gave him a certain advantage. We wished him well.

Our time in Denmark went by with a mind-boggling swiftness. Though I like the work of Gauguin and Caillebotte, the museum show of the latter's work at Ordrupgaard was minor and disappointing, as was that of the Gauguin paintings from the stormy period of his nine-year marriage to the Danish Mette Sofie Gad at the Glyptotek. The couple did, however, have five healthy children together. Gauguin spent only one winter in Denmark with his wife and in-laws, which was apparently enough for him. Following their breakup, he left for the tropical Marquesas Islands, where he was to paint many of his major works. Today there are apparently more than fifty descendants of the artist living in Denmark. Unfortunately, he failed to leave behind an equal number of first-rate paintings.

In retrospect, there were two especially memorable evenings of our stay.The first was a Royal Danish Opera performance of Handel's Partenope presented at the old opera house on the square called Kongens Nytorv. Our taxi driver, a large grizzled man with glasses who resembled a retired sea captain, held his steering wheel as if it were the helm of a fishing trawler. He asked if we'd seen the new Opera House, in fact offered to shut off his meter and show it to us if we had the time. It was clearly an act of civic pride. How could we say no? On the way over, he told us about Maersk Mckinney Moeller, the Danish shipping tycoon and one of the wealthiest men in the country (second only to Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen of Lego fame) who had put up the money for the new Operaen. "Over there," he said. From the edge of the canal, he pointed across the harbor to Henning Larsen's nine-storey high building, a blazing birthday cake enhanced by its dramatic site and brilliant reflection on the water. It was definitely worth a detour.
And what of its predecessor? Despite its creaking floors, and cranky seats, the old Opera House could still put on a great show, and the night we were there--the last of its current run of a modern-dress version of Partenope--it most certainly did. Its original instrument orchestra, Concerto Copenhagen, led by Lars Ulrik Mortensen was outstanding. As for the two counter-tenors, Andreas Scholl as Arsace, and Christopher Dumaux as Arminde, they complemented one another elegantly both in their drollery and pathos. I've seen Partenope before but never has the character of Ormonte seemed so effective in ordering the action, a tribute no doubt to its director Francisco Negrin as well as Palle Knudsen who played the role. This Ormonte, with his commanding baritone, proved an ideal majordomo. It was as a conjurer, however, that I felt he added a wonderful dark note to Ormonte that enriched Handel's comedy enormously. Whether magically moving walls, or sending them crashing to the ground, or sliding down a rope from a mezzanine box to the orchestra below as effortlessly as Errol Flynn, he was a riveting theatrical presence in an exciting musical production. The appropriately appreciative audience brought the conductor and cast back repeatedly with thunderous applause, hating to see the night end.

Our farewell dinner party with Danish friends was equally special. Our host gave us detailed written instructions for finding his house which was in Charlottenlund--a costal suburb north of Copenhagen in the area known as the "Danish Riviera." He said, "Take a taxi." His directions--in Danish--were for the driver. We decided to take a train, have a lttle adventure. But the adventure came when we took a taxi from the train station and gave the driver our directions. Punching in the address on his GPS, he said confidently, "No problem." He knew exactly where he was going, but it soon became obvious that he was facing a challenge beyond his mettle. He grew sullen, almost desperate as the road narrowed, became increasingly dark. Stopping the car repeatedly, he got out to look for a house number, a light on the other side of a fence, a lurking jogger who knew the neighborhood. We tried futilely to keep up his spirits. We had failed to notice his gloomy Hamlet-like Elsinorean streak before. Things seemed to take a turn for the better when we came to a dead-end that turned out to be a cul-de-sac with five children in riding gear sitting in the shadows in front of a riding stable watching us. Doubtless waiting to be picked up by parents. No, they couldn't talk to strangers. It was only later over dinner that we learned the street our host lived on was divided in two by a barricade to thwart kidnappers. His neighbor on the far side of the wall was the super-rich Maersk Moeller.

The guests all spoke fluent English, the conversation was lively, the champagne excellent, and the dinner delicious. It was a very good evening. It wasn't long before I discovered that another guest--one of Denmark's leading lawyers, according to our host--also had a connection with UCLA. He'd been a post-graduate student in the UCLA Law School in the 1980s when I was teaching in the English Department. His field at the time was Energy. He was amazed at the amount of specialized relevant material the Law Library contained in his subject. And excited by some of the new data-based electronic technology that was available to him there. And truly astonished at the accessibility of his professors. He imagined that Barack Obama probably felt somewhat similar when he first arrived at Harvard Law. He wanted to know everything I knew about Barak, and above all if I thought he had a chance to be president.
"Gladly!" I said. "But first," picking up the bottle of wine in front of us on the table, "how about another glass or two for the road?"

After a long day that had begun at 5 A.M. and included a bumpy nine-hour return flight to the U.S., the two of us were exhausted. With any luck, I told myself, we'll find our suitcases and zip through Customs without any hassles. As for the suitcases, they turned out to be no problem. They had more ribbons and flags than a used-car lot. Next I told my wife, "If they ask you, make clear that the only foreign edibles we brought back were the two packages of salmiak licorice in my shoulder bag for our neurologist friend with strange tastes." (I remembered him telling me that Danes don't call it the Devil's munchies for nothing.) "I'm afraid when Customs spots the granular white stuff on top, they'll think the ammonium chloride is cocaine. And once they start to go through our suitcases it can take forever."
"Right," she said, "and no political chitchat. Remember who's still the President. The wrong answer and we could end up in Guantanamo."
Of all the Inspectors lined up to handle the frazzled returning Americans, one distant saturnine chap I noticed had clearly singled us out for attention. In fact, he began to beckon to us. I told the Customs official directing our line that we'd wait for the next available agent.
"Over there." She pointed to her pal crooking his finger in our direction.
Reluctantly, I handed over our two passports. He snatched them up like the jaws of death.
"So," he said, "you've been to Denmark. Have a good time?"
"Very," said my wife.
"Good, good."
It was all quite innocent. He seemed genuinely pleased. Maybe I had misjudged the fellow. He wanted to know if we had come home November 3rd in order to be able to vote tomorrow.
I said, "We can't wait."
He chuckled. "Had enough, eh?"
There was something that hinted at entrapment in the way he said it. Perhaps I'd been too enthusiastic. Was this a time to wear my vote on my sleeve? The awful paranoiac changes during the past eight years had taken their toll on me.
"You don't have to answer that," my wife broke in.
He laughed. "You're both voting for Obama, aren't you?"
"Let me tell you something," I said unequivocally, " one way or the other it's time for a change."
Apparently he thought so too. "Welcome home!" he congratulated us, and stamping our passports waved us through.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


On 2 October 1996 the French appointed Mark di Suvero a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and gave him a medal. But the sculpt0r had to wait for it. Although Mr. di Suvero came all the way from the United States, he arrived right on time at the Ministry of Culture on the rue de Valois, where such things are done. The Minister, on the other hand, was still closeted in his mirrored, cream-colored, gilded office at the far end of the hall and was late.

BY 11:25 A.M., the large well-dressed crowd in the elegant Salon de la Ministère was getting restless. Even the wonderful perfume the women were wearing, which initially seemed so festive, was beginning to lose its allure. Seated up front with Mr. di Suvero were some of the other medal recipients, including two distinguished gray-haired gentlemen who looked somewhat alike--the Anglo-American painter R.B. Kitaj and the Swiss art dealer Jan Krugier--in handsome dark blue suits. As for Mr. di Suvero, he wore a neat red flannel shirt, blue dungarees, and sneakers, and seemed no less at home than anybody else there, a sort of Benjamin Franklin at the court of Louis XVI. Another medal winner, the English sculptor Anthony Caro, whose work has been compared to Mr. di Suvero's and whom he particularly looked forward to seeing, was unable to attend.

At the side of the room, the television cameramen had wearied of taking preliminary shots of the medalists and guests. Even Korean TV News seemed by now to have enough footage of the seated Madame Ra Hee Kong in her stunning ceremonial kimona. Madame Kong, the director of the Samsung art collection, was also to be honored by the French government. Her husband is the owner of the Samsung Corporation.

Unable to sit still any longer, Mr. di Suvero pushed himself up with the aid of his metal crutch and headed for the French doors that opened out on the balcony. His crutch is a memento of a bone-crushing, back-breaking, freight elevator accident that he suffered in 1960 while working as a mover. Stepping onto the balcony, he walked past the small group of guests who had come out for a breath of fresh air. Mr. di Suvero stood off to one side by himself looking down at the neatly-ordered gardens of the Palais-Royal with their fountains and sculpture. Though motionless, he radiated energy, his long gray hair blowing in the wind. When told that the minister was on his way, he raced back to the reception, his aluminum crutch flashing in the sunlight.

Monsieur Douste-Blazy, the French Minister of Culture under President Chirac, looked no more like a culture minister than a cardiologist, which he also is. With his thin face, high cheek bones and wavy hair, he gave the appearance of an affable young movie star. After apologizing for his lateness, he got down to the business at hand, dispensing medals and embraces with a smooth, production-line efficiency.

When it was Mr. di Suvero's turn, he clambered up on the platform and, leaning on his crutch, stood with his head bowed listening to the minister's prepared praise as if taking his medicine. Then the minister's dour assistant wrapped a medal around his neck, the minister kissed him lustily on both cheeks, and it was all over. But the sculptor was apparently not ready to leave just yet. He had prepared a few words of thank you in French for the occasion. Despite his obvious discomfort, he delivered them well. The audience applauded.

Mr. di Suvero was one of the first to leave. As he bolted down the steps of the ministry, taking them two at a time in his haste to get out of there, I stopped him on the landing to offer my congratulations. He thanked me. I mentioned the first time I had seen his work in 1964 at the Dwan Gallery in Westwood near UCLA, a huge shaggy balanced beam as big as a telephone pole-- with old tires dangling from steel wires tied to it--that barely cleared the immaculate white walls of the gallery as it moved, an anarchic-looking force not easily contained beneath that pristine dome.

He nodded with pleasure, recalling that show. Then he threw me a challenge. "But did you see my Peace Tower two years later?" An enormous sixty-foot structure, he had built it while still wheelchair bound as his passionate contribution to an artists' protest against the war in Vietnam. It was flanked by walls of pictures, each two-feet square, donated by artists from all over the country. But it was the tower itself that dominated the scene, a giant among inchlings.

"On Sunset," I said. "How could I forget? You couldn't miss it."

He smiled, waved. "Got to go," he called, and rushed out of the building.


Saturday, May 10, 2008


Room 1517 at the Criminal Courts Building, 100 Centre Street. I hadn't been there in four years and wasn't eager to repeat the experience. My summons read May 1, 2008, 8:45 A.M. So why was I fifteen minutes early? Velocity is my addiction. My credo: punctuality the courtesy of kings. Besides, they suggested arriving early for screening to avoid the crowd. Good advice. The only ones there at the moment were two spotless, no-nonsense officers eager to be of service. Co-ed pros, they bombarded my shoulder bag and Borges's Ficciones with x-rays, simultaneously frisking and whisking me on my way to the elevators in a matter of seconds. Clearly an improvement on my previous experience of long lines and surly gatekeepers as snappish as Cerberus. A good omen. I had heard that Judge Judith (i.e., New York State Chief Justice Judith Kaye) had worked wonders in jury reform since my last visit.

Upstairs on the 15th floor there were already thirty-one people in the jurors' bullpen. Catatonic early-morning faces, downcast eyes. They were reading newspapers, listening to iPods, snoozing--a silent majority of the sixty summoned for our jury pool. Waiting for something to happen. The one thing they weren't doing was watching the two TV monitors up front on which Ed Bradley (of CBS's "Sixty Minutes") was introducing them to the justice system and trial by jury. The same thing he was doing four years ago. The difference now being that in the interim he had died of leukemia. It took some of the steam out of his message.

First time I heard Ed's lecture the atmosphere in the room was electric. Every eye riveted on the screen. It was as if the tight-lipped martinet then in charge had warned us that it would be followed by a pop quiz. For 2008, I'd recommend a new upgraded video starring Wolf Blitzer. Fortunately the tight-lipped martinet had been replaced by Larry, a real human being--a mensch--doing a tough job. "I try to be helpful," he said, and he was.

In the past, exemptions from jury duty were not hard to come by, actually a snap if you happened to belong to any one of twenty-six professions:e.g., lawyers, doctors, judges, cops, optometrists, undertakers, ministers, podiatrists, and voluntary fire folks. More than one million New Yorkers excluded, but that changed with Judge Judith. In an attempt to achieve more representative jury pools, eventually all automatic occupational disqualifications were eliminated. Raising the jurors' fee from $15 to $40 per diem and improving court facilities (humble additions such as toilet paper and liquid soap in the bathrooms, public telephones that work in the halls) and improved services didn't hurt either. Now on a wall in 1517 there was even a sign announcing Wi-Fi Access--gladdening the hearts of laptoppers.

A rush of late jurors was stopped at the door. Larry was introducing Herbert J. Adlerberg, a recently retired state supreme court justice. His former legal partner Jerry Sheindlin, I subsequently learned, was married (twice in fact) to another Judge Judy--this one Judith Sheindlin from TVland. Adlerberg was a rather tall, stiff, white haired, avuncular chap, who in his spare time played the banjo. "Retirement is obligatory on the court at 70," he told us. That didn't seem to apply to jurors, or I would have left then and there. Frankly, Herb looked impressively fit, and I'm sure could have soldiered on for at least a year or two more. He didn't add a great deal to our legal knowledge, however, other than assure us that, "This is where the action is." I liked the get-up-and-go sound of that. Goodness knows, there hadn't been much action the last time I was here.

Larry then put all our names into a large medieval Teutonic helmet, cranked it around several times, and began calling out the winners. I was number 7. It wasn't my lucky number. We were going up to 1602, Judge Wetzel's court. "A good guy," said Larry. "He's the best." But under no circumstances were we to enter his courtroom without permission. I felt as tempted to peek as Bluebeard's wife. What the hell was going on in there?

Upstairs, we gathered in the hallway and waited for the door to 1602 to open. After an hour we were sprawled out on the floor, sitting on windowsills, propped up against walls and nervously crepitating. At one point a helpful young man with spiky hair and glasses asked a neat elderly gentleman wandering the halls whether he was looking for 1602. He stopped, stuttered "you-you-you," and took a deep breath. "You," he yelled, "you take care of your biz. and I take care of my biz. Got it?" Needless to say, we were all feeling a little tense by then. Another half hour went by before the door cracked open and a celestial voice directed us to return to the fifteenth floor.

According to Larry, another judge was working on a case that should be ready for us that afternoon. He suggested we go out for lunch and come back at 2 P.M. I had worked up quite an appetite by then. Torpor does that to me.

Chinatown! I loved the movie, and here was the real thing. Men in the park playing a board game with strange calligraphic symbols on their beige wooden checkers. Kibitzers surrounding them, arms folded, a Chinese chorus shaking their heads with foreboding. On the other side of the park, I recalled the last time I was here there was a Funeral Home with a service going on that you could see through the open door. Men dancing in circles with white ribbons. Lined up on the curb a dozen limousines, the first one a catafalque for flowers. Attendants frantically cramming funeral wreaths onto the back of it. The Funeral Home was still there, but had been done over. Its front door resembled a bank vault.

Wending my way through the narrow busy streets, I peered into the store windows. Pink delicate duck feet, squid floating in its own ink, pig stomach linings. In fruit and veggie stalls, odd tortured Laocoön stalks. People eyed me from doorways. A small man with a cigarette hanging from his lips muttered he had something to sell. A backboard sign in a nearby narrow shop widow said turkey and muenster cheese sandwiches. "Perfect," I thought. The Chinese guy behind the counter had long sideburns and arms covered with tattooed dragons, but he made a good sandwich.

I sat in the back enjoying it. Strangely the only people in the cafe at that hour were the three guys carrying on near the front window. The big red-faced excited one was worked up about something but in Chinese, so I paid no attention. It was a nice change from 1517. In fact I barely noticed anything at first when my table started to tremble. Imagining a subway passing somewhere beneath the building. But then on his way back from the toilet, the creep banged into my table again and grinned. Refusing to acknowledge what had just happened, I slowly finished my sandwich down to the last scrap and only then headed for the door. The three of them zeroed in on me like a firing squad. Turning to the young Chinese woman behind the cash register, I said, "Good sandwich."
She nodded. "Yank you."

By the time we were all back from lunch, I learned that Judge Wetzel had resolved two cases that morning. With our passive help, I assumed. Apparently that's the way the plea bargaining system works. Many defendants need the imminence of a trial and the pressure of facing a courtroom, a jury, to focus their attention. Even nothing more than our heavy breathing outside 1602 seemed to have been enough to speed the legal process along.

Larry announced that he'd let us know by 3 o'clock if there was a third case ready and/or another judge in the building. There wasn't. For the sixty of us, the resolution of the two cases on May 1st had cost the city $2, 400.

Our second day began one hour later than the first which already was an improvement. By 10:15 A.M. there had been no call for pool jurors and we still had no assignment. Larry said, "The judges are doing paper work. Take a short break, but don't forget to sign out."

I decided not to go anywhere. I was making great progress with my reading through "Part I. The Garden of Forking Paths." Only occasionally slowed by a skirling yet luminous sentence such as : "What is certain is that the gray man kissed the mud, climbed up the bank without pushing aside (probably, without feeling) the blades which were lacerating his flesh, and crawled, nauseated and bloodstained, up to the circular enclosure crowned with a stone tiger or horse, which sometimes was the color of flame and now was that of ashes." Or the distracting animated noisy conversation across the aisle, between the self-important young man
(a lawyer, he claimed) and two interested women, of which I could only catch such brief loud snatches as "Wow! You said that? Good for you," and "Oh my god!" and "Yes, yes, yes, yesss!" accompanied by excited bursts of gleeful orgasmic laughter. I had no idea what they were talking about and didn't really care.

It was noon before I knew it, and Larry was back to tell us that there was another case almost ready to go. We could go out to lunch now but had to return at 2:00 P.M. Down the hall was a small room that jurors who had brought their lunch could use. No need to go hunting all over Chinatown for a decent place to eat. There was plenty of room right here. Only two people with laptops inside. The woman softly chewing something and clicking away. The thin hatchet-faced man muttering under his breath and, from time to time, chuckling as if he wanted desperately to tell you what was so funny. A burly cop glanced in as he went by, and then making a sharp u-turn came back. I thought he was going to have lunch with us. But he just stood there, staring at this guy for maybe five minutes as if he were going to slap the cuffs on him for muttering. Then he turned to me, as I munched my provolone, and asked, "What time is it?" I pointed to the clock and kept chomping. It was hard to mind your own business in this neighborhood.

I had come to the last story in my book and my favorite. "The South" is the tale of Juan Dahlman, secretary of a municipal library on Calle Córdoba in Buenos Aires. Profoundly a city man, but one with a longing for the South and all it represents to an Argentinian. In Juan's code, the blood of his maternal grandfather, Francisco Flores, a soldier killed on the frontier by a lance from Catriel Indians mingled with that of Johannes Dahlman, a German minister of the Evangelical Church. In the end, Juan Dahlman chooses "the line represented by his romantic ancestor, his ancestor of the romantic death." A death outside a bar in a knife fight against a thug with a Chinese look under the Southern sky.

I was savoring this tale when the rest of the pool returned to 1517, buzzing about Uma Thurman and the stalker. They had been waiting almost an hour for her to come out of the courthouse, along with a host of Thurman groupies, TV reporters, and cameramen. John Slattery from WCBS had given someone his autograph. But it was almost 2 o'clock, and they couldn't wait any longer. The red hot center, I thought, amused. Maybe Judge Adlerberg was right.

Finally, there was no case for us that afternoon either. Larry seemed a little embarrassed when he made his announcement. The best he could do was offer us a shot at the big case coming up on Monday. A double murder. "You've probably read about it. It's going to last three weeks. We'll probably need 165. Anybody interested in hanging around for that pool?" It was all he could offer us in addition to another $2,400. Larry handed out a letter that was our proof of service. "Keep it in a safe place," he advised. "You don't have to serve again for six years." A teacher asked if she could come back on Monday. She said jury duty was a lot easier than being a New York City high school teacher. But for Borges or me, I don't know. I don't know how easy it'd be to judge the deaths some people choose.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


There Will Be Blood. How I hated that title when told not to miss it. More like a warning to a first-year medical student than a film. But I went anyhow, and was rewarded with a few really great opening sequences of movie making. A solitary silver miner down a bleak sunless shaft in the California hills pick-pick-picking away at the walls for ore until falling, breaking a leg, he struggles mightily to drag himself to the surface. The drama of his plight captured vividly by cinematographer Robert Elswit. Elswit won an Oscar for this one. Though in that same year (2007), he did equally distinguished camera work on Michael Clayton. For example, the memorable scene with Arthur Edens--ace litigator of Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen, gone bonkers after six years defending the manufacturer of a toxic pesticide--walking down Broadway, a haunted expression on his face, totally lost in the dazzling lights of corporate America.

In Blood, Daniel Plainview (the prospector), goes from silver to oil, and the thrilling scene in which he brings in his first gusher and his son H.W. is injured--the oil turning into an inferno of flame--is riveting. But what makes the action truly spectacular is the compelling music (an uneasy mob of muttering strings that breaks into a deafening dissonant wail) by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead who composed an "unearthly, beautiful score," according to Alex Ross of the New Yorker.

James Newton Howard who wrote the music for Michael Clayton was nominated for an academy award. His score for the legal thriller struck me as no better than C+. So where was Greenwood? Declared hors concours, by the judges, he wasn't even in the running for an Oscar because too much of his music wasn't made specifically for Paul Thomas Anderson's powerful movie. The irony in this case--not unknown in Hollywoodland--is that his Bartokian ostinatos and Pendereckian glissandos fit Anderson's flick like a glove. And so it goes...

Then comes the acting. And the winners in the best acting category for 2007 were Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), and Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose). The best supporting actors were Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), and Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton). In all four of these roles, the characters they play are under enormous stress. Day-Lewis handles this sort of situation as if it's in his bones. Remember his first Oscar-winning tour-de-force role as the palsied Christy Brown in My Left Foot. And as Plainview, he makes obsession seem as natural to him as his limp.

For her part as Edith Piaf, Cotillard, an attractive woman, underwent a major facial downgrade good enough to win the Best Makeup Oscar for La Vie En Rose, and for her singing she had the recorded benefit of Piaf's actual voice. It wasn't the excellent lip synching that made her raised-in-a-brothel performance as the brash, hard-living, alcohol and drug abusing little sparrow so persuasive, nor her death at 47 so moving. The woman can act, too! In addition to Cotillard's Best Actress Oscar, the French actress made a clean sweep of the Golden Globe, Caesar, and BAFTA awards as well.

Though very different, the psychopathic tight-lipped sinister killer played by Javier Bardem and the successful, socially-adept corporate lawyer of Tilda Swinton are remarkably similar in at least one way--their absolute ruthlessness. In effect, both are exterminators. They'll stop at nothing to achieve their ends. The difference between the two is that hitman Bardem handles his murders personally, and Swinton's Karen Crowder hires the diabolical pro Mr. Verne. For Karen, the elimination of Arthur and attempted murder of Clayton are means to an end, not something she does primarily either for pleasure or profit. Nevertheless, she doesn't hesitate. Or only just long enough to lay out the chic outfit she'll wear to tell the Board of U-North of her sudden recommendation to settle the class-action suit against them, a case that has gone on almost as long as Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

If you're looking for bravura performances, I'd have to agree with the two actors the Academy chose for their major acting award. On the other hand, there was George Clooney. The understated , carefully nuanced, oppressed, unsmiling, damaged character he creates in Michael Clayton is utterly perfect for the role. Though in no way as flashy as Day-Lewis's Plainview, it's a sharply-etched portrait of a good man who goes glumly--almost monochromatically-- through life cleaning up other people's messes. Why? Probably because his boss thinks he's good at it and that's what he gets paid for. But Clayton himself feels he's a failure--as a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a businessman, and a lawyer. Even as a fixer he has his doubts.

Rarely does Clayton get exercised about anything. Until he's sent to Milwaukee to get his colleague out of police custody after an out-of-control Arthur during a routine deposition has stripped off his clothes. "You promised me," Clayton tells Arthur. "You want to go off your medication, fine. But you call me first." Clayton becomes as angry as if he's talking to someone completely rational. That's his first mistake. His second is in trusting his sick friend once again. In a frenzy when Arthur refuses to open his locked hotel door, Clayton kicks it in and discovers that he's fled.

What's so astonishing about Clooney's performance is not these rare emotional blowups. Rather it's how well he listens to the other characters and can, without a word, convey what's on his mind. Actually that's what makes the final slow fade-out of Michael Clayton in close up on the back seat of a taxi so memorable. Frankly, I don't think there are too many actors who could handle it as well.

* * *

Monday, March 3, 2008

MICHAEL GOLDBERG (December 24, 1924-December 30, 2007)

A Memorial was held for the artist on March 1, 2008 at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. There were tributes by members of the family and friends:

Gerald Jay Goldberg
Lynda Benglis (read by the artist's wife, Lynn Umlauf)
Phong Bui
Janet Coleman
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
Klaus Kertess
Luke Matthiessen
Ellen Phelan
Lucio Pozzi
David Shapiro
Larry Osgood
Phil Schrager

In addition, a video entitled Michael Goldberg--Bowery Studio Days (1998-2000) by Bill Page Productions was played. The event was supported by The Poetry Project and Knoedler & Company.

* * *

The following remarks were made by his brother:

There were three boys in the Goldberg family. Mike was the eldest, I came next, and Alan was youngest. Every five years another one of us showed up as punctually as cicadas. We were a noisy, high-pitched, lively crew living at the top of our lungs. Spaced far enough apart to be, vis-à-vis each other, slightly exotic, and not so near that we'd step on each other's toes. Then one day at the end of 2007, December 30th to be exact at 5 A.M.--my birthday, actually--the phone rang, and I discovered I was the only one of us left.

So I thought I'd like to share with you, his friends, gathered here to celebrate Mike, a few private snaps of him--real or imagined--from the family album that I've collected over the years. The first is undated, but must be from 1925 or so. A baby carriage with a very young-looking woman in front of our first-floor apartment on Hull Avenue in the Bronx. It's hot, summer, the middle of the night, and our mom has taken her new unhappy baby outside because in that stifling apartment he was having trouble breathing. Soon she'll learn that her baby has asthma.

Next, a photo of a 4th grade class sitting on the front steps of the local elementary school. In the middle of the group, there's Mike dressed up as Uncle Sam in a wonderful red, white, and blue top hat. The costume handmade by our mom. Staring at the camera, the white-bearded 8-year-old Mike has a no-nonsense look on his thin face.

Mike was a good student. A good kid. A board-eraser monitor. Soon he had, as they picturesquely called it back then, "skipped" a grade or two and was already in high school. He attended Townsend Harris, one of those public high schools requiring an entrance exam that New York has always had for its "best and brightest." A major difference between it and the others, however, was that Townsend Harris students completed four years in three. When Mike graduated high school, he was unusually young and it was the beginning of that ominous summer of 1939 with war clouds gathering in Europe.

The transition between high school and college for Mike was not as smooth as his parents had hoped. Somehow City College didn't seem to hold much interest for him. Whether it was his gradual discovery of the attractions of Manhattan or clothes or girls or jazz or art, or all of the above, his appearances in his classes became as rare as hummingbirds. When notified , his parents were not amused. They had suspected something, and one day they caught him in flagrante. He was wearing a zoot suit. Not quite the purple sort with black polkadots that Cab Calloway used to wear at the Cotton Club in the 1940s, but the same padded shoulders, long hip-hugging jacket, draped pants pegged at the ankles, and topping it all off the wide-brimmed porkpie hat redolent of those worn in the bullring by picadors. Whatever else his new suit might have said about the jazz culture, which teenage Mike found almost as fascinating as the music, it was an attention-grabbing style, a wild statement of assertiveness in dress announcing: HEY WORLD, I'M HERE!

Mike was only eighteen when in April of 1943 he tried to enlist in the army. His mother wasn't worried. Given his asthma, she had little doubt the army would ever take her youngster. Surprisingly it did. Even more surprising to the family was that Mike was never bothered by asthma again. In fact, he seemed to flourish in the military. There were cards and pictures of Mike in camouflage fatigues from strange romantic places like Champaign, Illinois and Karachi, India.

A fragment from one of those 65-year-old letters to my parents--this one written in brown ink on ecru stationery worthy of Brideshead Revisited--surfaced for me recently, and I'd like to share the end of it with you. Mike had recently learned that a good friend of his--an Air Force bombardier--had been shot down over Germany. "Your news," the young soldier writes, "that Lenny might possibly be a prisoner of war is a very bright hope--I'll pray that he is. I can imagine the tortures his mother must be going through; but here's a thought not only for her but for you also--True we're young, but in the short years of our lives we've had a good deal of fun, seen quite a bit, and have had all the care and comfort loving parents could provide--this is a war to the death and if some of us don't come back at least we've known good things....Of course I want to return and I'll do all in my power to insure my return, but Christ!, this is war and anything can happen--God! That's morbid!

All my love..."

One day at the end of 1943, which just happened to coincide with my fourteenth birthday, Mike suddenly appeared in our Bronx doorway blooming in full paratrooper fig, his khaki trousers tucked into his boots, his boots gleaming like mirrors, his overseas cap cocked at a jaunty angle, a crooked smile on his lips. He had a present for me. The Jazz Record Book by Charles Edward Smith, New York, 1943. The inscription read, "On your fourteenth birthday, from your everloving brother." I was thrilled. At fourteen, I was a clarinet player in love with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw. Mike wanted me to check out what was available in Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Barney Bigard, and Pee Wee Russell. Cool, but there were two things that troubled me about the inscription. It was addressed "To Gerald," with a formality I found hard to recognize, and the second was that it was signed by someone named "Micky."

That was the first time I had ever heard of Micky. My brother's name was Sylvan. Perhaps a parental longing for the pastoral in an urban setting. As in "The mossy fountains and the sylvan shades/The dreams of Pindus, and Aonian maids." Whatever it was, my brother apparently had made the same discovery that Samuel Clemens and Pablo Ruiz Blasco and Yitroch Loiza Grossberg had made. His parents, in labeling him Sylvan Irwin, had given him the wrong name. But I didn't realize until then that he was seriously looking around for a new one. Or even that you could.

Following a brief period after he returned from the war when he flirted with the Waspy name Michael Stuart, he decided that Michael worked well with Goldberg too. It was also a trochee, so the downbeat was strong, and he could live with it. In fact he did, all the rest of his a jazz beat.

Mike's Bowery studio was filled with jazz. The picture of Charlie Parker signed "Prez" near the stairs, his huge record collection against the walls. Whether in his style working improvisationally against painterly conventions, which Ken Johnson in a review nicely likens to a young jazz musician's approach to an old standard, or in his subject matter in the paintings he did born out of his enthusiasm for such stride pianists as Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and James P. Johnson, jazz music was close to the bone of Mike's art. On that Friday, July 17th, 1959, "The Day Lady Died," when he had been grieving all day over Billy's death, Mike told his friend Frank O'Hara, "I've been playing her records all afternoon."

On Mike's 83rd birthday, December 24th, 2007, Nancy and I arrived with an armful of flowers for what turned out to be the most bittersweet birthday party that I've ever been to. Lynda Benglis had brought flowers, too, but she had to leave. We were the only guests. Mike was sitting in a wheelchair, his head shaved to the scalp. I kept telling myself Yul Brynner, Telly Sevales, Patrick Stewart, but I couldn't feel it. He seemed so different from the rosy feisty way he had looked in the hospital a few weeks earlier, even after they had chopped off his toes. Even while in intensive care I could hear him thinking: "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

But here, too, the flame was still burning and Mike quickly began to cheer up. John Coltrane and tight-lipped Miles were grooving "So What?" in the background to a cool easy beat. There was no room for self-pity. Mike was making plans. He was telling us how he was going to handle his teaching from a wheelchair at SVA, how he had already gotten started on a new painting. Covering his work table were the oil sticks he was now using, big as the cigars he once smoked and thicker than a handful of robustos. Full of life. And Mike was pouring champagne. A bottle of Bollingers that had been highly recommended by his dealer. We toasted him on his birthday.
"Should you be drinking that?" I asked
"Only a sip." He swirled it around in his mouth professionally as if that made it okay. He looked worried. "I don't know. I think it's a little off. What do you think?"
A tad, I thought, though I wasn't about to make a fuss. But the truth is Mike enjoyed making a fuss, one way or the other, about the things he felt mattered. "I'm going to call him," he abruptly announced, wheeling around his chair and picking up the phone. Lynn said, "He's not going to be there at this hour, Mike. They're closed by now."

As it turned out, they were closed. Mike felt much better when Lynn took the lobsters out of the bag and held them aloft. Armor-plated crustaceans, they were enormous and irrepressibly frisky. I could see them getting loose and rumbling across the studio floor trying to make a break for it. Reminded of Annie Hall, we all laughed. It was a great dinner...but Mike couldn't stay to the end. I knew he was in trouble because Mike would never leave a party early--especially when it was for him. Lynn helped him upstairs (patient, dependable, and rock steady as she had been throughout the recent bad patches) and Mike went up bitching all the way.

When Lynn came back down, she smiled as if she had just remembered something. "You know, sometimes..." she said, pointing to the table full of oil sticks, "sometimes when Mike was down here working with those I could hear him from upstairs, and it sounded like he was playing the drums." Nancy and I thought that was just right. Mike had always longed to play an instrument. And whether he painted with a brush or a stick, in the end he did play...and brilliantly.


Sunday, February 3, 2008


October 29, 1986

Dear Mr Gol/d\berg,

In the July 1986 issue of Art in America you reviewed my most recent novel, What's Bred in the Bone, and I am obliged to you for the many kind things you say about it. The article has just come into my hands, as I have been away for several weeks, and there is a passage in it which interests me very much and I would be grateful if you could throw some light on it.

You speak of the letter that Papini published in Libro Nero in 1952 and say that it is `generally discredited' and later on speak of Papini's `barefaced bogus statements,' and suggest that I have been gullible in my use of the letter.

I assure you I took a great deal of trouble to investigate the matter of the letter, which first came to my notice in the writing of a well known English art critic who had accepted it as authentic. As the letter seemed a curious confession on Picasso's part, I made further enquiries and could find no evidence that Picasso had ever refuted the letter, or that Papini was other than a respectable interviewer and editor--to say nothing of his substantial reputation as a philosopher. I am curious, therefore, about the certainty with which you dismiss the letter and would be glad to hear from you with references which discredit it, other than the natural distaste of the art world for such a strange confession. I think that you have been unfair to me in omitting to mention that in my novel, directly following the letter, follows a conversation in which an art critic says about the letter very much what you have said yourself--but I understand, of course, that reviewers are obliged to read very rapidly.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Robertson Davies

* * *

11 December 1986

Dear Mr Davies,

Your letter suggests that you are a careful man, but even a careful man, on occasion, may omit the d in Goldberg in a first draft.

I, too, occasionally nod. I simply assumed that your date of 1952 for the first appearance of the Il Libro Nero "interview" was accurate, but there are some who claim it's November 5th, 1951. This, of course, is pedantic nitpicking. What I can tell you about the Papini material is that it was generally discredited even at the time it first appeared (witness the enclosed [not included here] which I happened to run across at New York's Museum of Modern Art library the other day: it's from the periodical Arts, published in Paris, in the issue of 19 June 1952, no. 364, p. 9. You'll note from the text that Arts is hardly a left-wing rag whitewashing one of its pinko pals. Given the year of the publication--1951-1952--the politics of Papini are as potentially suggestive as the art politics involved). I think, by and large, Pierre Cabanne's statement on the Papini affair (vid. Le Siècle de Picasso, vol. 2, pp.202-3) represents the considered position of recent Picasso scholarship.

No, I don't believe that I was unfair to you in not mentioning Ross's statements in his conversation with Francis. (I certainly hope I wasn't.) As I recall, Ross tacitly accepts Papini's Picasso as genuine and argues extenuating circumstances, the artist down in the dumps. While I'm sure that even Picasso had his bad days (many of them according to Olivier, Sabartès, Gilot, Penrose, et al.), I don't believe that makes this relevant or the interview genuine. Perhaps your awareness of other possible interpretations of the "interview" would be
more persuasive (vis-a-vis modern art) if your (and our) sympathy wasn't so squarely with Francis as opposed to that solipsistic and obnoxiously ambitious smoothie.

The key problem that I find with the Papini business, however, is not its validity or lack of it (which we can leave to art historians) but the melodramatic way in which it's used. That Francis (hardly a bumpkin in aesthetic matters) would take Papini at face value and instantly, out of a sense of betrayal, give up his quest to become a modern painter is to me unconvincing. All he would have to do (though, of course, this is more time-consuming fictionally speaking) is look at Picasso's work and stop thinking of him as THE MASTER. Had he studied the man's art half as hard as he did that of Harry Furniss he could hardly have dismissed him as a cynical quack, an Iberian money-making machine. In any event, would you yourself care one whit less for Lear (assuming you have a partiality for beards) if some "respectable editor" turned up an interview with Bill in which he called himself nothing more than a public entertainer compared to those heavyweights Holinshed, Spenser, and Higgins?

As I said in my Art in America review, I did indeed enjoy the cornucopic pleasures of your novel, which I read very very slowly. That, alas, is the way I write, too; otherwise this note would have reached you much sooner.

Happy holidays!


Gerald Jay Goldberg

* * *

These letters are in Gerald Jay Goldberg's UCLA archive.

Saturday, February 2, 2008


Centaurs, griffins, gorgons, and sphinxes are not for the timid. They're interesting, of course, but if you're looking for ordinary zoo critters you're bound to be disappointed. What's Bred in the Bone, the latest novel by the Canadian writer Robertson Davies, is like one of those weird mythical beasts. A peculiar amalgam of mystery story, family saga, espionage adventure and portrait of the artist, Davies's novel is sure to bring a taxonomical fusspot howling to his knees, but it just might amuse the casual impurist....

It is [the hero, Francis Chegwidden Cornish's] life in art that helps to baste the book together and hold the various parts in place. Early on there are clear indications that young Cornish may well have the right stuff because, like so many other artist-heroes in fiction, he is miserable in school, lousy at games. And like them, too, he's clever--"always top of his class in French," and "good in Latin and Greek." As if to confirm his artistic calling, Francis suddenly comes down with a serious illness, and like his countless fictional counterparts plagued by pneumonia or brain fever or TB, he is bedridden for weeks. If Francis's "wound," as Edmund Wilson might have termed it, has arrived, can his "bow" be far behind?

Sure enough, the boy loved to draw. The scene at the back of Devinney's Furniture and Undertaking Parlours in which he is furiously sketching as his friend, Zadok, goes about his business of embalming the body of Old McAlister is memorable. Zadok shows himself to be an artist of sorts. When young Francis tentatively suggests that he might be one, too, and hands over his sketchbook, his friend exclaims, "By the Powers of Old are, dear boy, and no mistake." Francis's apprenticeship includes copying old master drawings at Oxford's Ashmolean Museum and a summer in Paris studying oil painting under Othon Friesz at La Grande Chaumière, where he learns to paint fat on lean, warm on cold. But then the rebarbative Saraceni sums up Francis's talent as "substantial, but not first-rate," and invites him to Rome to study restoration. Accepting the Master's harsh judgment without question, the pusillanimous Francis takes him up on his offer.

While in most Kunstlerromanen the author is satisfied to limit his hero's role in art--thus narrowing the focus and heightening credibility--Davies characteristically opts for plenitude. Not only is Cornish a painter and restorer in this novel, but a celebrated connoisseur and collector and generous patron of art as well. All of these multiple strings to his bow are tied to the plot, though occasionally at some risk to plausibility. Take, for example, the case of the unmasking of Letzpfennig.

Summoned to the Netherlands to probe the legitimacy of a newly discovered painting attributed to Hubertus Van Eyck (The Harrowing of Hell), Saracini perversely chooses to send Cornish instead of going himself. That the Dutch judge at the Hague should predict that of all the internationally renowned art experts gathered there to authenticate the work, the opinion of Saraceni's untried assistant "will doubtless prove decisive," is to heighten drama at the expense of good sense. The situation becomes still more embarrassing when Francis zips open his briefcase and whips out his "Little Jiffy Bernard Berenson Art Expert Set"--a pair of binoculars, a large magnifying glass, and one medium-size brush. As events turn out, his connoisseurship has less to do with iconography than zoology and the timely intervention of the supernatural.

The Van Eyck faker--a troubled soul appropriately named Letzpfennig--admits his fraud. Even though exposed, he gloats over his achievement, for he has shown that a modern artist can create work as accomplished as the old masters. Francis offers further proof when two of his own paintings pass anonymously into art history as the work of a 16th-century Gothic genius dubbed by the critics as "The Alchemical Master." The question that Davies poses here is: Can great art actually be created when the artist is mimicking an esthetic more appropriate to an earlier age than his own--400 years earlier in this instance? Francis's daimon claims that it can, insisting that his charge has "forged nothing. He has painted an original picture in a highly individual style, and if any connoisseur misdates it, the more fool he."

While thus recognizing the talent of living artists, Davies views modernist art (and, no doubt, modernist fiction as well) as suspect. His is the simple fusty notion that modern art is a private language based upon a subjective inner vision rather than on mythology or religion, the well-understood languages of the past. "Raw gobbets of the psyche displayed on canvas," Saraceni labels it, in one of those many pompous pronouncements that suggest he may have been sniffing turps too long.

There are some perhaps who would agree with Cornish that the division between art and crime is as "thin as a cigarette paper," but few serious minds can still hold the shopworn idea that modern artists, yes even the most famous of them, are trying to slip one over on us. Look what happens in the novel. No sooner does Francis attempt to become a contemporary painter by turning to Picasso for inspiration than Picasso betrays him. Davies employs the generally discredited Giovanni Papini Libro Nero interview of 1952 in which Picasso allegedly dismisses himself as nothing more than "a public entertainer," a modern trickster compared to the great artists of the past. Cornish, seeking to achieve consolation and exaltation in his work, reads this and weeps, and grinds his brushes into toothpicks. That he should accept Papini's barefaced bogus statements as gospel calls into question not only his knowledge of Picasso but of modern art as well.

The pleasures of What's Bred in the Bone are many: the complexity of the principal characters, the broad two-continent canvas, the knowing details. Anyone familiar with the earlier Deptford Trilogy of Davies will find here, too, a similar variety of curious information ranging from the finesses of astrology to those of embalming. Best of all are the wonderfully bizarre comic scenes. Davies is a master of the goofy grotesque. One is not likely soon to forget Francis's Auntie scalped by a Great Horned Owl that has mistaken her hat's black and white plumes for a skunk, or the powerful series of lectures on purity--sexual and otherwise--delivered to the boys in Francis's class by the astonishing Dr. Upper, a hilarious scene that culminates in the Doctor producing "after some rummaging, his own penis as an example of the adult member in its full splendour."

Of course in a multifaceted monster such as this there are bound to be a few inconsistencies, incredible coincidences, red herrings, and other extravagances. Perhaps like Walt Whitman, who also hung a handsome beard, Davies may claim to contain multitudes. An author who can pack four suicides into one novel--even if one of them may only be murder--is not to be taken lightly. That more isn't less in Davies's new novel is a credit to the breadth of his artistry rather than to his crotchety notion of art.

* * *

GJG's complete review appeared in Art in America (July 1986).

Tuesday, January 22, 2008



Imagine a turkey in the Oval Office. It's called November, which recently opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. Starring Nathan Lane who looks presidential, even sounds presidential if you recall Nixon's obscenity-laced Watergate tapes. And, of course, being Nathan Lane he's funny too! An everyman president called Charlie Smith with a pinched smile, a trapped restless manner, and an unsettling splutter when excited, which is almost all the time. How come, Charlie? Maybe it's because the news he gets about his chances of winning a second term, or having a longed-for presidential library, or even just putting together enough cash to live on when he's finally booted out of the White House, arrives like telegrams from the poor house. No wonder he's constantly telling these desperate non-stop old and musty gags that smell of mothballs. But Lane tells them well, and you almost feel sorry for the poor angst-ridden bastard stuck in the OO for 1 hour and 35 minutes with these awful one-liners.

The writer is David Mamet. So you might think perhaps that the gray electric vision of the author of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross had changed over the years to a still darker, more intense Becket hue. No such luck, alas! There's nothing like an idea rattling around in this president's head. But what he does have are schemes galore. Threatening the National Association of Turkey By-Products to turn America against turkey, he refuses to pardon the annual Thanksgiving bird unless the money is right. "Let them eat pork," he rants. "Let them eat cod!" The man might even stoop to broccoli for enough giblets. Unutterably corrupt, he deplores his job as providing "too little opportunity for theft." He's a prez for whom everything has a price, whether it's casino licenses for Native Americans or a pork industry "piggy plane" for deporting aliens.

Fact is there are no characters in November, only stick figures that no one gives a damn about but are easy to laugh at. President Smith tells us that he can't even remember the last country he invaded, and the audience howls. Satire is made of sterner stuff. All sitcoms need is a laugh track. When Nathan Lane first agreed to play the part, Mamet told him , "I can't wait to get into the rehearsal room--I've got a million ideas for gags." But David Mamet is no Mel Brooks. (Any more than Nathan Lane is Jack Kennedy.) So what? He used to have language--though you'd never know it from this turkey. Besides there's more to comedy than The Producers, more to drama than "entertainment," and much more to Mamet than November.