Sunday, August 9, 2015


How can any thinking person not read Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman?

Now that I have read the book, I believe that: 1) Harper Lee wrote every word of it; 2) no one coerced her into having it published; and 3) she did so to help us, like Scout, lose our innocence. I believe I have. And it hurts.

For what we get in Lee’s other novel is a true portrait of the South during the 1950s. Also, an unvarnished look at the conscience of Southern liberals. This is the South as it was, not as we might wish it had been.

In Watchman, Atticus Finch, the hero of a novel that has become a sacred text, is unmasked by his own daughter as a flawed human being. Scout’s loss of innocence about her father mirrors our own, while forcing the reader to reconsider everything we ever believed about To Kill A Mockingbird.

I’m relieved to say that, for me at least, Harper Lee’s masterpiece survives unscathed. I’ve always wanted to believe that a white lawyer in small-town Alabama in 1936 would take on the whole white world to defend a black man charged with raping a white woman, even though I never truly understood where Atticus got the courage to do so. In an odd way, I find Atticus’ stand in Mockingbird even more noble now that I know his whole soul, not just a part of it.

Even after all the spoilers from the opinion makers, this reader was stunned to discover that sixteen years later Atticus Finch has become a member of the Maycomb County white citizens council. We learn that the county’s most respectable men are members, whether or not they subscribe to the vile racial epithets spewed at meetings.

Even worse, though, is that Scout’s beloved, perfect father once was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Only to find out who his enemies were, we’re told, but what a fall was there.

Far more damning, alas, is Atticus’s current blaming of the NAACP and the Supreme Court for fighting Southern bigotry. It is truly nauseating to hear Atticus and Scout agreeing that the nebulous doctrine of state’s rights justifies segregation and all the evils attendant upon it.

After a soul-wrenching struggle with her conscience, Scout still loves her father, despite his flaws, for he is otherwise an exemplary man. But we understand why Calpurnia, the African American woman Scout loves as a substitute mother, now distances herself from Scout and the whole white world.

Once again, at the end of her long life when orthodoxy cannot reach her, Harper Lee has blistered our souls with her honesty about America's ongoing struggle with racism.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Kathleen Driskell’s Next Door To The Dead (University Press of Kentucky)
          Living next door to a grave yard, as Driskell does in a converted country church just outside Louisville, is a good way to glean insights into Kentucky’s historical culture. While many poems in this volume are profound ruminations, some of the shorter ones are delightfully pithy.
          One “Epitaph,” for example, reads, “He Never Killed a Man That Didn’t Need Killing.” Another is for Dave, who chased a bear into a cave, “oh, bless his heart,” meaning poor Dave “really wasn’t all that smart.”
          In “The Death of the Snake Handler,” a dying preacher has the snake’s head cut off “to show the snake / that in the end, he was but a worm.” But the snake gets the last word: “then surrender please, / only a worm was needed / to bring you to your knees.”

          And then, for the more profound among us, there’s the slim sea trout swimming just beneath the surface of the Irish Sea, who from the cliff above appears to be twisting in church glass as if “newly buried, / not yet admitted.” It makes one wonder: What God looks down from on high waiting to digest the dead?

Monday, August 3, 2015


Kathleen Driskell’s Next Door To The Dead (University Press of Kentucky)
          Living next door to a grave yard, as Driskell does in a converted country church just outside Louisville, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Those who believe in ghosts, for instance, or have a morbid fear of the unknown might shy away. Not Driskell. No sir, she relishes the opportunity to mingle with those in the hereafter.
          In the title poem, the poet’s persona thinks of “next door” as if it was a place to borrow sugar, an egg, or a green thread. When she tells her husband she’s going to walk next door, he understands that she’s gone to visit their “nearest neighbors” in the cemetery, like Mrs. Luck (1818-1898).
          Less amusing are the living who visit the grave yard late one night to “hoot, howl, chest-bump, bellow, stagger, and weave through the stones.” And when one intruder topples Aleta Shallcross’s headstone while riding it like a surfboard, the poet’s husband confronts them. And in the “prickling moments” that follow, she waits to see if they will fly or fight.
More on Kathleen Driskell’s new poems next time.

A bit of grave humor from Kathleen Driskell

Kathleen Driskell’s Next Door To The Dead (University Press of Kentucky)
          Driskell’s poetry in this volume is not limited to the grave yard next door to her home in a converted country church just outside Louisville. And sometimes it’s downright light-hearted.
          “Love Poetry,” for instance, tells the story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti burying some of his best love poems along with the body of his adored young wife. Years later, having not made copies, the poet hires “two scruff-bearded men with shovels” to dig the poems back up. While digging, the men surprise themselves with thoughts of their own loves. One hums a hymn while the other barks at the sky. The poem concludes: “While all must know the lesson / that life must go on, a few had learned / so will love, and, others / had learned, so much art.”
          Driskell writes an “Epitaph For Colonel Sanders” (whose body we all know is buried in Cave Hill), who was so smart “to retail each spicy secret!” Driskell’s poems also can be biting (no pun intended), as in the one for the Colonel’s wife, Claudia, whose all too brief inscription “reads as if they’d said, ‘fuck it, let’s just throw her bones into this old bucket.’”
          More on new poems by Kathleen Driskell (center below) next time.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Kathleen Driskell’s Next Door To The Dead (University Press of Kentucky)
          In the famous final paragraph of James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” snow was falling “upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
          “The Dead,” of course, is prose but poetic prose, and in it the quiet calm of snow covers both the dead and the living. In poet Kathleen Driskell’s new collection, Next Door To The Dead, we again find ourselves in a cemetery, the one next door to Driskell’s home in a converted country church just outside Louisville.
          But instead of snow in the “sleet and darkening day,” it is buzzards among the 112 tombstones in her poem, “In Praise.” A “dark congregation” roost in the bare branches … in worn-shine coats … pallbearers … [a] greasy black prayer-circle.” And instead of lamenting the paralysis of the dead and the living, here the poet praises death, reserving her “highest praise” for the “dark angel” who squats atop the monument of a mother of six, “all dead and lain before she.”
          Like Joyce, Driskell in these 80 pages explores death, the meeting point between life and death, and the process of remembering the dead—which would probably be impossible not to do if you were a poet who lived next door to a cemetery. And like Joyce, Driskell is a story-teller, one whose lines are both accessible and filled with intensely vivid imagery. This poem, “In Praise,” is ironic, rather than ghoulish, for it expresses her gratitude for a perhaps less than tender mercythe removal of road-kill (a dead doe) which has been lying in a culvert for a week and is finally being lifted into the “grave weeping sky” by the buzzards.

          More on Kathleen Driskell’s new poems next time.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Adios, Raylin

I’m mourning the passing of one of my all-time favorite television programs, Justified, which ended its six-year run last night. Why? Because I’ll miss the writing, the charismatic stars and supporting cast, the Harlan County setting, and, again, the writing. The show was based on a slender Elmore Leonard short story called “Fire In the Hole.” Now you may ask, as did I, how do you get six years of quality TV out of one short story? Well, it helps to have Elmore Leonard around as producer and consultant for the first five years. I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t name any of the TV script writers who accomplished this feat.

(Not nearly as amazing a feat, though, as what Alexander McCall Smith does on a regular basis: crank out four novels a year, including one series, Love Over Scotland,  that’s serially published—an episode per week while it’s being written—in the Edinburgh Scotsman. As far as I know, nobody’s done that since Dostoevsky or Dickens. There are 10 books in the series so far. My wife and I got to meet Mr. McCall Smith before he spoke at the Louisville Free Public Library recently. He told us he writes every day, including while on tour. His talk was incredible; he’s easily the most entertaining, quick-witted, and brilliant speaker I’ve ever heard.)

My affection for Justified must begin with Raylin Givens, the Deputy U.S. Marshall in Leonard’s original short story, who dug coal with one Boyd Crowder, the biggest outlaw in Appalachia, or at least Harlan County. Givens is played by Timothy Oliphant, who played a similar character in Deadwood, a Western series on HBO that was possibly the most profane TV program ever. Oliphant further develops Raylin Givens so that he combines ironic humor, fearlessness, and the ability to shoot fast and straight. 

In Justified, Oliphant is a Harlan County boy, who as a lawman has found a legal path out of that economically struggling region, while his contemporaries like Boyd Crowder must turn to a life of crime to survive. Boyd is Raylin’s nemesis. They grew up together, dug coal together, and were once friends. But now they are on opposite sides. Walton Goggins, who plays Crowder, also was a similar character in a previous show, The Shield crime series, though in his case I suspect he’s just playing another version of Walton Goggins. In both “Justified” and “The Shield,” I almost always rooted for Goggins’ character no matter how many despicable acts he committed because he was just so darn likeable.

Putting Goggins and Olyphant in opposition to each other was just pure genius casting. Although Raylin is the hero, he often faces temptation. And Boyd, while the kingpin of Harlan County, continues to try and go straight right up to the very end (albeit through murder and $10 million in ill-gotten gains). And what we thought would be the ending last night was a classic, with Raylin and Boyd pitted against each other in an Old West shootout. But Boyd refuses to draw.

The story leaps forward four years. Raylin has finally gotten out of Harlan to Florida, where he'd hoped to be reunited with his wife Winona and his little girl. But being a tale inspired by Elmore Leonard, we know that everyone cannot live happily ever after. So Winona has a new husband and Raylin only gets to see his daughter occasionally.

When Ava is spotted in California, Raylin goes to bring her in. But she doesn't have the stolen $10 million and is living hand-to-mouth. Once he puts her back in prison again, she is sure to be murdered by Boyd, whom she shot to escape. Whatever Raylin’s original intentions were, once he sees that Ava has a child, he lets her off the hook. In fact, Raylin goes so far as to visit Boyd in prison for the sole purpose of convincing him that Ava is dead. But wily Boyd, once again a jailhouse preacher, is suspicious of Raylin's motives.

“Miami’s a long way from Kentucky, Raylin,” Boyd says. “Now is that the only reason you come?”

“Well,” Raylin replies, “If I was to put all the rest of this nonsense aside for just a moment …”

He doesn’t get to finish the statement. Boyd finishes it for him: “Because we dug coal together.”

This is an homage to the short story’s ending, which is how much the creators of the show cherished Dutch Leonard, who died last year after serving as a producer and consultant. But does Boyd believe Raylin? Or does he want to believe Raylin so much that he wills himself to, so he won’t have to murder Ava, whom he still loves? We’ll never know. But when the show ended with a black screen, a big fat tear leaked out of my eye and slid down my cheek. I felt sad about it the rest of the night.

Which brings us to Harlan, by all accounts a very tough and perhaps misunderstood place. Mountain people almost always are misunderstood by others. Given the unflattering portrayals of some residents as mean hillbillies (as opposed to “The Beverly Hillbillies”), it would be understandable if they objected. But apparently that hasn’t happened. Maybe the people of Harlan are fatalistic about such a depiction by now. Or maybe they just think the show is funny, too. I, for one, am laughing with them, not at them.

I think Joelle Carter is wonderful as Ava Crowder, a woman to be reckoned with. Ava has more pluck, moxie, and depth than any of the other characters in the show. She is earthy and seductive, too, but what I like most about her is that she is real in a way that nobody else is. Seldom has a TV character been saddled with so many unlikely situations, yet managed to make every single one seem completely plausible.

Which brings us back to the writing. Elmore Leonard made a career out of portraying hard-ass Kentuckians who've been transplanted into the Detroit auto industry after WWII. Leonard knows such people well, which I believe is how he makes Raylin believable. He is fearless, good-hearted, insightful. The best of Harlan, you might say. I read Leonard's novels both for amusement and to learn about writing. While I can’t say I agree with everything Elmore says about writing, it’s his work itself that speaks loudest. Leonard teaches us how to write by example. The Justified script-writers probably consider him as the world’s greatest bullpen coach, the old master who can teach you not only how to throw a split-fingered fastball but a decent spitter, too.

Experience and wisdom are inextricably linked. When I was a kid, I was contemptuous of soap operas. Actually, I still am. However, now that I’m retired, and have time on my hands, I understand so much better why women watched them. They were lonely because their duties prevented them from having human contact. So they turned to TV.

My days now are largely spent in solitude. Most of my friends have scattered, or died. My neighbors in the city keep to themselves, as do we all in a contemporary America where people are shooting one another all the time. Or so it seems. Who can blame us for shrinking from human contact? That leaves the virtual world of the internet, computer games, and television.

I watch a lot of television, so it’s good that we live in a golden age of TV. There are more high-quality shows that ever before. Think The Good Wife, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, Downton Abbey and all the other incredible PBS British imports. The list just goes on and on. And if you don’t factor in the cost of a cable subscription and a DVR, they’re free.

Unlike most of the movies nowadays, lots of TV shows are aimed at my generation, the aging baby boomers. I know this because of the arthritis medicine and Viagra commercials that support many of my favorite shows (not Justified, though, interestingly enough, which seemed aimed at a younger FX audience.). I watch more and more. They’ve invented a term for it now, “binge-watching.” When my daughter insisted that I needed to see Breaking Bad, and I overcame my initial skepticism about a show featuring a school teacher who also is a meth dealer, I proceeded to gulp down all five seasons’ worth of programs like chocolate Easter bunnies in about a week. That’s 65 hours worth of TV.

Back to Justified. While I wait hoping the stars and writers will find some new worthy vehicles for their talents, my consolation is that two new shows—Better Call Sol and Battle Creek, both from the creator of Breaking Bad, still come to see me every week. They’re my new best friends.