The Place Makes Everyone a Gambler

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 Alice Bolin on Joan Didion and Los Angeles

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I sat by Echo Park Lake and read Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play It as It Lays twice. You have to be a special kind of depressive to read this book more than once, especially more than once back to back. It follows Maria Wyeth, actress and model of minimal success and wife to an up-and-coming movie director, as her life falls apart. Her young daughter, Kate, suffers from a mysterious mental illness and is institutionalized. Maria files for divorce. She gets an abortion. She becomes, in her agent’s words, “a slightly suicidal situation.”

Although Play It as It Lays has achieved classic status—it was on Time’s List of the 100 Best Novels—many readers find Maria unbearably dramatic, self-centered, messy, and babyish. I think it takes a personality with both a tendency towards old-fashioned melodrama and a ruthless, sad/beautiful, cinematic nihilism to pick up what Play It as It Lays is putting down.

I sat on a crumbling stone bench set into the greenery surrounding the lake, and dead birds of paradise got tangled in my hair. It was lovely: ducks hung out in the shallows and the statue of Lady of the Lake laid her shadow in the water. But as I observed the men pushing ice cream carts, the families, dogs, and joggers circle the lake, it was as if every vision concealed a dark edge, a poison that floated imperceptibly in the daylight. Toddlers almost pitched themselves into the water when their parents looked away. A man threw a tennis ball into the lake and his little dog swam out to retrieve it over and over again. Every time it looked to me like the dog was faltering, she had gotten too tired, she might drown right there near the fountain.

At one point in Play It as It Lays Maria takes in the action in the town square of a small beach community. She watches “some boys in ragged Levi jackets and dark goggles… passing a joint with furtive daring;” “an old man [who] coughed soundlessly, spit phlegm that seemed to hang in the heavy air;” “a woman in a nurse’s uniform [wheeling] a bundled neuter figure silently past the hedges of dead camellias.” Maria fantasizes about calling her lover Les Goodwin, and in making contact, undoing her dread. “Maybe she would hear his voice and the silence would break,” Didion writes, “the woman in the nurse’s uniform would speak to her charge and the boys would get on their Harleys and roar off.”

The discrete images Maria observes carry ominous weight because of her loneliness. Her anxiety is evidence of the secret patterns, connections, and implications that a mind accrues when it only talks to itself. “Her mind was a blank tape,” Didion writes of Maria, “imprinted daily with snatches of things overheard, fragments of dealers’ patter, the beginnings of jokes and odd lines of song lyrics.” Her life becomes inseparable from her dreams: images and figures and words and sounds collected, recombined, and imbued with sinister meaning.

Throughout Play It as It Lays, Maria dreams of her dead mother, a shadowy “syndicate” hiding bodies in the plumbing of her house, fetuses floating in the East River, and children filing into a gas chamber. Waking and dreaming, she is preoccupied with rattlesnakes, and her pregnancy and the aftermath of her abortion are dark and strange as a nightmare. Shortly after I moved into my new apartment in Los Angeles, I opened my laptop in the morning and tiny grease ants started crawling out of the cracks in the keyboard. Sometimes dream symbolism collides with waking life by coincidence, but sometimes it is a bad sign.

Didion’s experimentation with dream structure in Play It as It Lays may have something to do with her suspicion of the unity, linearity, and cause and effect of traditional narrative. Didion is one of the essential essayists of the twentieth century, and all great nonfiction writers examine how the consistency we expect from storytelling is incompatible with the contradictions and competing truths of real life. I think of Janet Malcolm, the only contemporary nonfiction writer who rivals Didion for pure intelligence and readability. Over her eleven books, Malcolm has considered the way narrative is created in psychology, journalism, and biography—the artificial order each lays over real life. Malcolm writes in The Journalist and the Murderer:

As every work of fiction draws on life, so every work of nonfiction draws on art. As the novelist must curb his imagination in order to keep his text grounded in the common experience of man (dreams exemplify the uncurbed imagination—thus their uninterestingness to everyone but their author), so the journalist must temper his literal-mindedness with the narrative devices of imaginative literature.

In this way, Didion walks a careful line in Play It as It Lays. She can’t avoid all the traditional conventions of the novel form, and she can’t ignore the mandates of fact. But she must find a way to shape a novel that reflects that archipelago of an industry that is “entertainment,” and Los Angeles, a city whose unifying characteristic is its disjointedness.

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Play It as It Lays begins with Maria compulsively and aimlessly driving L.A.’s freeway system. “She drove it as a riverman runs a river,” Didion writes, and when Maria is not driving, she fantasizes about it:

Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly.

This practice indicates Maria’s absolute idleness—her husband and daughter have both been taken away from her, so she has nothing to occupy her time or her thoughts. But she is also seeking emptiness. Driving is a meditative activity, the mind and the body working in unison, moving in response to stimuli—the road, the lane, the signs and signals, the other drivers—without conscious thought: the flow of the fugitive act. “Sometimes at night the dread would overtake her,” Didion writes, “bathe her in sweat, flood her mind with sharp flash images… but she never thought about that on the freeway.”

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Mean Mr. Custer

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Martin Fritz Huber on Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star

The Spring 2014 issue of The Paris Review includes an interview with the American writer Evan S. Connell, who died in early 2013. This posthumous nod may inspire renewed interest in Connell, whom contemporary readers will know primarily, if at all, for his fictional portraits of a mid-twentieth century Kansas City couple, Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969). As Mark Oppenheimer wrote in The Believer in February 2005, the Bridge novels are terse sketches of bourgeois repression, each rendered in a series of vignettes where, as Oppenheimer has it, nothing much really happens. Ironically, Connell’s most financially successful title, his ‘Surprise Best Seller,’[1] Son of the Morning Star (1984), was a non-fictional account of General George Armstrong Custer in which a whole lot happens and whose swashbuckling protagonist is about as unrepressed as a latter-day Caligua. In the wake of Connell’s death, Son of the Morning Star hasn’t yet had the revival it deserves, though given the enduring Custer myth, this may only be a matter of time.

Evan S. Connell started out writing fiction. Once he began reading Custer biographies and first-hand accounts from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, he saw that historians would often leave out entertaining, if tangential, aspects of the story, as if to include the peripheral eccentricities of characters would be to undermine a book’s academic value. This, Connell felt, made for painfully banal reading. In his words, “a lot of historians, if they find something funny, don’t put it in. They think it all has to be serious, and their books are so deadly dull.”[2] Atoning for the mistakes of its predecessors, Son of the Morning Star abounds with bizarre marginalia that a more “serious” historian might omit, much of it imparted in the deadpan style typical of Connell’s novels. Take, for instance, the following detail regarding the frenzied alcoholic binges of Captain Frederick Benteen, who commanded a battalion of the 7th Calvary under Custer at the time of the Little Bighorn:

The cause of these drinking bouts seems to be related to his wife, Catherine, who was not very strong and who did not belong on a frontier. He called her Kate or Kittie, logical diminutives. He also called her Pinkie and Goose, names that might be simply affectionate or could have originated during some private moment. However, he very often referred to her as Frabbie, Frabbel, Frabbelina, and at least once as Frabbelina of Gay Street—which is, to say the least, uncommon. (33)

Connell has a knack for picking up on this sort of information.

Yet he doesn’t marshal it into a typical, chronological biography. Nor does Son of the Morning Star attempt to impose any clear narrative structure on the events surrounding the cataclysmic Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, which would turn old “Iron Butt” (one of several Custer aliases Connell favors) into a “national totem.”[3] There are no numbered chapters, only untitled sections demarcated by the image of Custer’s personal guidon: a swallow-tailed flag bearing crossed white sabers. The tone is conversational. A tangent about, say, the time in the spring of 1864 when Custer sent his mustache to his wife Elizabeth in the mail, will suddenly be cut off by an abrupt “Anyway,” or “In any event,” as if the author has caught himself rambling. It is as though, faced with the glut of information from historical societies, military records, personal correspondence, and oral testimony from both Native American and U.S. Army sources, Connell decided the best approach would be to present a constellation of tenuously linked anecdotes. One could be forgiven for assuming that such an approach would result in a spectacularly tedious book, but in fact it accounts for a larger part of its charm.

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Jazz in San Francisco: Danny Grewen

To celebrate this month’s music issue, we’re posting a piece written by Joseph Bien-Kahn on San Francisco Jazz trombonist, Danny Grewen.

Even dressed up, Danny Grewen is a little disheveled—in a pinstriped suit, a polyester button-down with the collar open, and a fedora he’s still all herks and jerks. Grewen is lugging around a taped-up trombone and a messenger bag open and overflowing with tape recorders, loose wires, and microphones when I interview him. He has a head of curly black hair and boyish good looks that clearly serve him well. But the thing that strikes you most about Grewen are his hands—they are strong and calloused and cracked; the hands of a blue-collared worker. The stereotype of the coddled artist continues to persist, but in today’s San Francisco, if you want to play jazz and pay rent, you have to work.

I met Grewen at Trouble Coffee in the Outer Sunset. Every once in a while he’d say something too sharp and a little too dark when talking about the city, and then burst out into untended laughter. He talks the way he moves, quick spurts with long breaths, a mischievous grin peeking out of his stubbly jaw. He kept his bag over his shoulder and recorded the interview on an ancient tape recorder he’d found at the corner of 45th and Kirkham for his own records. Grewen’s well loved in the neighborhood—at the coffee shop and later at the Flanahan’s Pub a few blocks down, everybody knew his name. But because of a jump in rent, he’ll soon be forced to move.

It hardly needs restating that San Francisco’s rents are rising at an alarming rate. According to a November 2013 article in the New York Times, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is a staggering $3,250, the highest price in the nation. Only 14 percent of homes are accessible to middle-class buyers.

The city is changing which is what cities do. But it means it’s becoming harder and harder to be a musician in San Francisco, especially a jazz trombonist. It’s nearly impossible for Grewen—who grew up in the Richmond, San Francisco’s sleepy northwestern district by the beach, with his mom (also a musician), and attended the School of the Arts—to stay. Now he’s crashing on couches, looking for something affordable in the most expensive renters’ market in the nation.

He left the city once, briefly, to play jazz on cruise ships—“Well, that’s not really jazz is it?”—but has spent the last fifteen years gigging around San Francisco. It’s been a long time since music was lucrative here, but Grewen has made a fine living playing jazz trombone. But now, at 36, his steady gigs are disappearing. He says the jazz scene was “happening” in the late 90s, right when he came back to the city: “Bruno’s was a great club. It’s still there, but if you remember what it was like, it was a beautiful place. There was even two bands going in one night—one in one room and then that one would stop and the band would start in the other room.” Bruno’s no longer hosts jazz performances, according to its website: “Every week, we present a brilliant line up of entertainment featuring a collection of the Bay Area’s finest DJ’s spinning an eclectic mix of party jams and dance music.” If you want to run a club in San Francisco, hip-hop and house music are the way to go. Jazz just doesn’t fill a room in today’s city music scene. Grewen says he doesn’t want people to go see jazz because it’s something they ought to do—he wishes people would get excited about it again. He doesn’t think it should feel “like your supporting a relative that’s down on their luck or something; it’s fun music.”

Grewen told me he’s seen a lot of San Francisco’s jazz musicians move away—some to the East Bay and many to New Orleans. The problem is, when a city becomes too expensive for musicians, it changes its character. The success of eccentrics like Grewen was one of things that gave San Francisco its flavor. “You want to try to hold onto the things that made great cities great,” Randall Kline, the founder and executive artistic director of SFJazz, explained. “What was great about this city, San Francisco, was this whole creative class—people who lived here who were not just musicians, there were tons of artists, actors, it was just a vibrant scene. Now there’s a lot less of that per capita then there was.”

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