Saturday, January 28, 2017

Arsenic and Old Lace

Another year, another set of great live local theater coming up. To kick off 2017, The Empty Space chose Arsenic and Old Lace, Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 smash hit black comedy.

The play is most familiar today in the form of a movie starring Cary Grant. I’ll confess, I have never seen the movie version, even though we own it. This was my first experience. My wife and I also took our older daughters, the younger of which is our macabre child. (She tends to rate plays by the body counts, rather than the laughs. So, Hamlet? Good. Romeo and Juliet? Meh. Too much kissing.) She laughed the whole way through, and afterward opined that she needed a window seat. That was definitely a wicked glint in her eye.

So, for those who, like me, are not familiar with the plot, Mortimer, a young movie critic, lives with his benignly insane brother Teddy (who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt) and his two prim and proper aunts, Abby and Martha. To the outside world, they are two sweet spinsters, hospitable enough to welcome even those with differing political views, and appropriately horrified at the very idea of theater. (The opening scene with the minister, where they talk about how much Mortimer hates the theater, because he writes such negative reviews is quite amusing.)

But it turns out that the aunts have a secret. Mortimer, looking for some papers, opens the window seat, and discovers a dead body. He assumes that Teddy, in a fit of insanity, killed him. But when he tells the aunts, they sweetly inform him that they know all about it. In fact, they killed him - poisoned him with tainted elderberry wine. The dissonance between Mortimer’s shock and horror and the aunt’s cheery explanation of just how many they have killed already is what drives much of the play. Well, until Mortimer’s black sheep brother Jonathan - malevolent and homicidal himself - shows up with a plastic surgeon accomplice (patterned after the real life mob doctor Joseph P. Moran). And a dead body of his own, which the aunts are not about to let be buried with the rest.

A running joke in the play is that Jonathan has had his face altered to hide his identity - and now he looks like Boris Karloff, as everyone is quick to point out. Naturally, the part was in fact played by Boris Karloff both on stage and in the film.

And all poor Mortimer wanted was to marry Elaine, the sexually ravenous daughter of the minister. He can’t explain this to Elaine, and his family just wants him to forget about it and pretend all this is normal. Which for them, it is, I suppose. 

 Evelyn Torres as Elaine

It is easy to forget sometimes just how sharp and naughty comedy was in the 1930s and 40s. Elaine is definitely not the ideal virginal girl of the 1950s stereotype - she makes some witty references to the choir loft - and she is pretty hot and bothered until she ends up puzzled at Mortimer’s sudden change toward her. Evelyn Torres plays the part of Elaine in this production. I don’t think I have seen her in anything else, but she had electric stage presence in this limited part. She is involved behind the scenes at TES, according to her bio. 

 Barbara Gagnon (Aunt Abby) and Julie Gaines (Aunt Martha)

I thought the casting for the aunts was excellent. Barbara Gagnon (Abby) and Julie Gaines (Martha) are veteran actors who have been in a number of productions around town. I think this is the first one I have seen where they had lead parts, and they were outstanding. The sweet innocence, deadpanned without the slightest self consciousness, as if murdering lonely old men was much the same as planning the potluck at the church picnic. 

 Ryan Lee as Mortimer Brewster

I want to give special mention, however, to Ryan Lee, as Mortimer. Last year, he was Tom in The Glass Menagerie, and did a fine job in that role. Mortimer is both the straight man in a comedy and a man placed in a world so surreal he cannot find his bearings. He must be funny without knowing that he is funny, and exaggerated yet realistic. Lee pulls this off with aplomb. From that first big scene when he discovers the body, walking away several steps before it registers, his face and gestures are expressive, bringing his own inner struggle against his fear he too is going insane to the surface. Lee is quite young, a student at the local junior college, but he shows a lot of skill and promise.

I am clearly not Mortimer, as I had a grand evening at the theater. I am a big fan of the local art scene, and The Empty Space is well worth supporting. This show runs through Saturday, February 11, 2017. for reservations and information.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Big Thirst by Charles Fishman

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This book was (as I discovered afterward) last year’s selection for “One Book, One Bakersfield,” our local event series which includes forums and speakers and stuff in addition to a single book everyone reads at the same time. This was started 15 years ago, with To Kill A Mockingbird, which is the only one I actually participated in. The problem was, I had kids, and events were harder to go to, and I kind of forgot about it. I did read a few of the books afterward, such as The House On Mango Street

The Big Thirst was likely chosen because California just went through two years of historically unprecedented drought, and my section of California is still considered in severe drought despite the rains this year. California’s San Joaquin Valley is a fascinating place for many reasons, but many of these reasons mean a complicated water situation any time we have a below-average year.

While The Big Thirst doesn’t mention Bakersfield, it does address a number of issues which affect us. In fact, other places that are examined have been forced to deal with the same problems, and these can be lessons for us.

First and foremost, naturally, is Australia, which went through an extended and horrific drought they call The Big Dry. As in, rivers stopped flowing, reservoirs dried up, and extreme measures had to be taken to keep water flowing for basic needs. As I’ll mention later, it was the Australian experience that led to a proposal near the end of the book by one of Australia’s foremost voices in water policy, water economist Mike Young that makes great sense as an approach to scarcity.

First of all, Fishman makes a great point: on our planet, water isn’t going away. (I mean, a few billion years from now, it probably will, but we will be gone one way or another by then…) Water isn’t created or destroyed, it just becomes more or less available to us and at different costs. Technology means that we can clean water beyond what we need for drinking (and to the point where it becomes toxic because it leaches minerals out of us - it’s a fascinating story in this book), although the cost may not be low in every case. We have an abundance of water, but it is not always where we need it, in the purity we need it, or at the price we wish to pay.

The overarching point here is that we cannot “run out of water” the way we can run out of petroleum. But we can fail to utilize it in a sensible and sustainable way. There isn’t some impossible “water crisis” facing us, but in certain places, and in certain ways, we will need to adjust how we use water. This is a very hopeful tone set in this book for this reason. The technology, knowledge, and ability exist already. We just need to make good decisions.

One very encouraging note about this is that the United States uses less water now than it did in 1980, when I was a kid. Not just less per capita - a lot less per capita - but less in actual total amount, despite a population increase of 70 million, and a doubling of the inflation adjusted GDP. Since industry and agriculture use far more water than individuals for their personal needs, this means we are producing far more using much less.

I’ll just hit the highlights of the specific stories in this book. One that is particularly amazing is that of Las Vegas. I’ve been through Vegas dozens of times (on the way to the National Parks in Utah) and it is obvious that it is in the middle of a desert. In the middle of a desert which stretches a hundred miles or more in every direction. And yet, it is an oasis. It is fed by the waters of the Colorado River, stored in Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam. Nearly every drop of water that Las Vegas uses comes from rain and snow in the mountains to the east, as far away as the Rockies. Las Vegas also shares this water with numerous farms in the Imperial Valley in California downstream - an incredibly fertile area in the middle of another vast desert. (For those who care, Vegas is in the Mojave Desert, while the Imperial Valley is in the Sonoran Desert. The two come together in Joshua Tree National Park.) So, when an extended drought lowered the level in the lake to the point where the pipes that feed Vegas might suck air, it was time for major changes. I won’t get into the details, but a combination of regulation, incentives to reduce use, grey water recycling, and hard-headed bargaining, Vegas made a major turnaround in usage. Also, Patricia Mulroy is a badass. (Read the book if you like strong, intelligent women.)

The tale of how Atlanta nearly ran out of water is also fascinating for a couple of reasons. First is that a lot of the issues which bedevil California turned up then. Namely, when there isn’t enough water, the fights get vicious between the different interests. For example, there will be the claims that we can and should destroy the environment before other uses (urban and agriculture) should have to cut back. In the case of Atlanta, this was rivers and oyster beds on the Gulf of Mexico. And, despite the rhetoric, killing a river and a fishery would actually have negative economic results. To people of another state, though, so whatever, right? The second issue intrigued me as well. Atlanta could have had access to a tremendous amount of water from a particular lake and dam. When it was built in the 1950s, Atlanta was asked to contribute a paltry one million dollars to the construction. (A laughably low percentage of the cost.) The city counsel declined, believing they had enough water. They failed to anticipate the growth that Atlanta would undergo over the next six decades.

A court eventually apportioned the water, ruling that Atlanta had waived any right to the water, and a mad scramble took place to secure other water rights. (Moral of the story: don’t be cheap!)  

Australia takes up a solid portion of the book. Fishman examines the effect of the Big Dry on a number of communities, from small towns on the edge of the Outback to major cities on the river to rice farmers in the large valleys.

The main thing that impressed me about this section is the way that reality has the ability to clarify things. All the political bullcrap and infighting eventually goes away when the water is actually gone. When it can no longer be denied that there isn’t enough for everyone to have what they want.

We have not yet reached that point here in California, unfortunately. There has been just enough water for the political yelling to continue. I hate to bag on one particular group, but, like nearly everywhere that has mixed water use, agriculture uses that vast bulk of the available water in the Central Valley. There has been a lot of dishonest propaganda about the environmental use of water (most of which is in rivers which do not and never have connected to the water grid here) in an effort to abolish environmental flows in the Sacramento River Delta. The problem is, if we have bad drought years, even if we dried up every river (instead of merely most) to feed the farms, there still wouldn’t be enough.

Here is the satellite image of winter snowpack for a below normal but typical year, 2013 (bottom) versus the historical drought year of 2014 (top). 

After 2014 and 2015 and the nearly total lack of rain, the trees started dying in the Sierra Nevada. Mind you, these are mostly a few hundred to a few thousand years old. The evidence from biologists via tree rings and other sources shows that this is a rather unprecedented event, at least over the last thousand or so years. It’s a big deal.

I bring this up not just because of the ag versus environment debate, but because a significant percentage of the local farmers were not just voting for Trump. They were raising literal shrines to him on their properties (one we saw in December had hundreds of flags, YUGE lettering, and religious wording.) I swear, some of these people literally seemed to believe he could bring rain. It was worship level fawning, not like typical political partisanship. I guess they believe that he could either change the weather, or tell the other people with rights to the water in California to go f__k themselves.

For now, the decisions can be put off, because we are having a decent year for snow. But if Vegas and Australia are any indication, the issue probably will return with a vengeance. If climate change is happening, and climates certainly have changed in the past (the Petrified Forest used to be a real forest…), water may not be available to grow food in the desert. Things will have to change. Fortunately, like the rest of the United States economy, agriculture has done a lot to grow more with less water. Here in the Valley, just during the 19 years I have lived here, crops have changed. We have less rice and less cotton (both thirsty) and more almonds (moderately thirsty, but lucrative for the water use) and wine grapes (less thirsty). Eventually, adjustments will be made by necessity.

There is one section which is much more depressing, and that is the story of India. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways, India has grown and improved. But it has unquestionably gone backwards from the Colonial days in terms of water. What was left of the British systems has fallen into disrepair, and very, very few - even of the wealthy - have reliable, always on water. The problem, as usual, is a lack of will, not a lack of technology or even money. Fishman does a great job of putting his finger on the problem.

Basically, water systems, like most infrastructure, require belief in a public sector. They require putting aside individuality for the common good. Everyone pays. Everyone contributes to maintenance. The rich pay more because they can afford more. Everyone gets what they need, but not necessarily as much as they want.

Fishman draws an interesting analogy between Indian water systems and failed public school systems in some United States cities. In both cases, reform and improvement is greatly hampered because the rich have opted out of the system altogether. In India, the wealthy can simply hire a water truck rather than come together to build a functional system. In the US, the wealthy go to private schools, or richer districts, and leave the poor to rot. The poor in both instances lack the political power and time to make the needed changes. They, after all, don’t have money or time to spare, and are trying to survive. The reason this is particularly depressing right now is that my former political party, the GOP, appears to have abandoned any pretense of believing in a public sector or the public good. Privatize and monetize everything, from education to libraries to roads. We can see from around the world how this works. The rich get what they want, and everyone else is left with far less. But more than that, even the poor in Western countries have better water than the rich in India. Because when we have a functioning public sector, everyone benefits. The cost is ultimately lower for cooperative, cost sharing systems than for individual solutions. Once, we agreed about that here in the US. Our Interstate Highway system is one example, our aging public transit in some cities is another. I fear that we have lost that vision for the common good, and have devolved into a hyper individualistic culture, where we worry more that someone “undeserving” gets something than that our society as a whole will suffer.

One more thing on this topic. The most heartbreaking part of the story about India is that for a huge portion of the population, water is only available at a significant distance. For these people, they will typically need to personally fetch their water using buckets or other containers at a distance of a mile or more each way. This requires, as you might imagine, several trips per day for a family. These burdens fall predominantly on women and girls, who often cannot obtain an education due to the need to devote many hours out of the day fetching water. Likewise, employment is difficult when one must wait for hours for an erratic water truck to show up. The economic impact is devastating on the poor, and is one of the greatest challenges in India in increasing female literacy.

It is for this reason that water is a significant human rights issue even apart from the loss of life due to contaminated water.

One more issue occupies the space between optimism and pessimism: recycled water.

Obviously, all water is recycled. We don’t make more of it, and it has been on earth for at least 4 billion years by current estimates. Every drop we drink has probably been peed by thousands of organisms in its history. But there is a psychological objection to the idea of drinking water that comes from sewage, no matter how filtered it is.

To a degree, I find this amusing. I am a backpacker and hiker. Even in the pristine Sierra Nevada, we don’t drink the water directly. Why not? Because animals pee and poop in it. I carry a filter with me to get out the nasty stuff. (Particularly the cute but dangerous Giardia lamblia.) And it doesn’t matter much where your water comes from. If it is surface water, fish, birds, and animals poop and pee in it. If it is ground water, it is animal pee that has soaked through sand. Let’s be realistic about this.

So the real question isn’t “where did the water come from” but “how pure is it?” If we take the bad stuff out, then we can drink it. And this goes for less visible (and less thought about) stuff like naturally occurring arsenic. (It naturally occurs in the rocks around here, so if you use well water, you might have to filter it for arsenic.)

Vegas has embraced water recycling. Treated water is used to water vegetation. But it is also further cleaned, and pumped back to Lake Mead, where it goes right back into the supply. Toilet to tap indeed.

But despite this, there is usually heated political opposition to recycling. Just an example here in Bakersfield. We do not have a discharge to the ocean. We treat our sewage and return it to the groundwater. Likewise for our storm runoff - except we don’t treat that. We divert it directly to settlement sumps every few blocks. So actually, our sewage water is cleaner when it enters the ground than the oily road runoff. People seem fine with the idea of this. After all, 100 feet or so of sand and soil is magical voodoo, making the water psychologically pure again. But extensive filtration above ground isn’t magical enough to erase the yuck factor. Go figure.

In the end, I believe that in most areas, water recycling will eventually take hold. It makes both economic and common sense. It many places, it may eventually be the only way to sustain habitation and agriculture. So we will do it. But some will complain, and buy their expensive bottled waters (which actually don’t have the same purity testing in many cases as tap water…)

Fishman’s writing style varies according to his topic. He understands the poetry and the symbolism of water, and he takes the time to talk about this too. The book has extensive endnotes, and does appear to be thoroughly sourced. Fishman relies substantially on his sources for each section, combining the narratives of people involved with expert information. I think he does a good job of remaining objective while still furthering the overall idea that we need to be more thoughtful and careful about our water.

I want to end with the proposal made by Mike Young for water allocation because I think it makes a lot of sense, combines the best of the public sector and the private sector for resolving disputes.

Fishman first talks about the “first glass” principle. This is the idea that everyone needs access to the minimum quantity of water for basic existence. Water to drink, cook, bathe, and safely eliminate waste. This is the “first glass” so to speak. For Mike Young - and Fishman and many others who think about water - this “first glass” needs to be priority, and it needs to be affordable to even the most destitute.

For Young, there are therefore two non-negotiable water uses which get priority over all else: the “first glass” for everyone, and the water needed for environmental sustainability. After all, a dead river hurts everyone, a dead estuary hurts everyone, and dead fisheries do the same. So under Young’s proposal, we first determine and set aside these first.

The rest of the water available each year is then divided into two categories. “High Security” water is water that is likely to be available every year, even in a drought. “Low Security” water is that which is only available in good years. Those who have rights to “High Security” water get their water first before any “Low Security” water rights holders get theirs.

Young proposes that both High and Low Security water be priced on the market. That way, users can decide how much they are willing to pay. High Security water would thus fetch higher prices from those to whom the guarantee of availability is important. And users could decide how much they are willing to pay to guarantee that they will (almost) always get their water. The Low Security water would naturally be priced lower, as it would be less likely to show up any given year. Thus, a farmer (or factory, or golf course, or casino) could make an economic decision about how much water to purchase, and at what price and security level.

I found this proposal (which is probably explained better in the book) to be persuasive. We must meet basic human needs, and we can’t take a short term view of environmental needs. But one of our current problems is that water is so inexpensive for most of us that we don’t need to be mindful of our use.

The Big Thirst is by no means an exhaustive tome on water issues. Rather, it is a thoughtful look at water and its use. Academics and professionals will want works with substantive numbers and so on. This book succeeds in making us think about how we use water, and better understand the real issues behind the overheated political rhetoric.


I read it before I started blogging, so I can’t link a review. However, a great companion work to this book is The Big Necessity by Rose George, which takes a similar look at sewage systems. It’s much more fun (if every bit as gross) than it sounds.


Personal History:

I grew up in Los Angeles (specifically, the eastern San Fernando Valley) in the 1980s and early 1990s. Round about 1989, I believe, Southern California had another major drought, and LA put in place significant water restrictions. Well, not exactly restrictions other than the usual landscape restrictions. (Water only 3 days a week, and not during the heat of the day, etc.) But the price of water went way up if you exceeded your limits. So we changed to low flow showerheads, and recycled our clothes washing water for our plants.

I never got out of the habit of using low flow showerheads - I actually like the inexpensive ones that make a mist of sorts rather than drops.

Unfortunately, I can’t easily recycle grey water in my current house, as the drain for the clothes washer would have to be re-routed through a bunch of walls.

Still, it wasn’t that hard to conserve the last few years. I have let my lawns be a little less green, but have kept the trees happy with targeted watering. It’s a lifestyle that I think will need to be adopted by more of us in the West given growing populations.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Oregon Caves National Monument

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

One of my earliest and favorite vacation memories is from 1984, when we went houseboating on Lake Shasta. While many things were fun, I particularly remember touring Shasta Caverns. I believe it was the first cave I had been in, and it was marvelous. When I revisited the cave later with the kids, it was smaller than I remembered it - although still beautiful.

I never have lost my love for caves. If I find myself in the vicinity of one, I want to go see it. If memory serves, I have been in Shasta, Black Chasm, Moaning, California Cavern, Boyden, Crystal, and Packsaddle here in California, Grand Canyon in Arizona, Natural Bridge in Texas, Tuckaleechee in Tennessee, and now Oregon Caves National Monument.

Oregon Caves is notable for being a fairly wet cave, more like an eastern cave than the sort we get here in California, which may have drips but not usually streams. It also has some crazy stairs, interesting geological formations, and what I consider the most beautiful single room of any cave I have been in.

The geological scale of time that caves represent is always fascinating. Our lifetimes are puffs of vapor compared to the life of a cave, and the larger formations patiently grow over time measured in tens of millennia.

The Monument is rather out in the middle of nowhere, in southwestern Oregon. Fortunately, this means it isn’t all that crowded.

We didn’t do it, but they do a candlelight tour, using vintage-style lanterns. That sounds rather fun.

We only had an afternoon to explore, as we visited while traveling between Redwood National Park and Crater Lake. Had we had more time, we could have done a longer hike. There are miles of trails in the Monument, which sits on the flank of a fairly large mountain. There are mountain lakes which look intriguing, either as a strenuous day hike, or as a backpack.

There is no camping inside the monument, but there is a National Forest campground just outside which appears to be fairly empty during the week, at least. We stayed at a private campground since we needed to do laundry, but if you don’t mind boondocking, the forest campground is beautiful.

The Paradise Lost room, the single most amazing cave room I have been in. Pictures do not do it justice.

A formation called "Cat Stuck in a Chimney."

One of my favorite shots from inside the cave.

 There are a whole lot of stairs in this cave, so they give a warning about heart conditions, etc.

 These millipedes were pretty common in the forest.

There is a lot more to the monument than just the cave. Less than a mile of hiking takes you to this viewpoint to the west.

 Me with a bunch of goofy children.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Brian's Winter by Gary Paulsen

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This book is the third of five in the Hatchet series, the original of which was Gary Paulsen’s breakout work. I listened to Hatchet when I was a teen, then read it to my kids. Later, we also discovered that Paulsen is a delightful humor writer as well.

Previous reviews of books in the Hatchet series:

Reviews of other Paulsen books:

When Paulsen wrote Hatchet, he wrote a self contained story. It has a beginning, and resolves at the end. But readers apparently wanted to hear more. So Paulsen wrote The River, which continues the story, with Brian returning to the scene of the plane crash with someone studying survival techniques. 

But readers apparently wanted something different. Or at least more. They wanted to know how the story would have gone had Brian not been rescued, but had spent the winter stranded in the wilderness. In the introduction to Brian’s Winter, Paulsen notes that he received hundreds of letters to this effect. So he went back and wrote an alternative scenario. 

Brian’s Winter is very much in the vein of Hatchet, naturally. Brian must overcome new obstacles and face new challenges. But the basic facts are the same. He must survive. In order to survive, he must continually find food. He must protect himself from the elements and from dangers posed by animals that would love to eat him.

Paulsen writes from experience. While he never had a catastrophe like Brian, he did spend a lot of time in the wilderness, and tested the techniques he writes about. Because of this, the books have a very realistic feel to them. To the degree that I am familiar with the topics, I can confirm that Paulsen is scrupulously devoted to accuracy. He does not exaggerate. He does not get the details wrong.

But the real charm of these books is the storytelling. Paulsen always tells a good story, whether it is realistic or humorous. His characters are memorable, human, and match their ages well. Paulsen doesn’t shy away from discomfort either, whether it is Brian’s nausea after he kills an animal for food, or the social discomfort the hapless Kevin (in Vote and Flat Broke) experiences when his plans go awry. But Paulsen is always hopeful. Brian will survive - and learn from his difficulties. Kevin will grow up a bit. And Reed will unfailingly find the zombie poop.

I found Brian’s Winter to be every bit as enjoyable as the original. There are two more in the series, which I am sure we will eventually get to during our travels.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

McSorley's Wonderful Saloon by Joseph Mitchell

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

A decade or so ago, there was a big scandal in journalism when it came to light that New York Times writer Jayson Blair had fabricated quotes and people and even travel in his stories. A few years before that, a similar incident involving The New Republic’s Stephen Glass caused a stir. In both cases, the problem wasn’t just the fabrication, but the presenting of what was essentially fiction as if it were fact.

Despite the pearl clutching over the supposedly dismal state of ethics in our modern world, these sorts of scandals are nothing new. In fact, there are many known cases of similar cheating throughout the history of journalism. I also strongly suspect that there are many, many more that will never come to light, simply because it was much easier to invent sources before ease of travel and the internet made fact checking possible.

Joseph Mitchell is one of those cases from the past that did get caught. A writer for The New Yorker for most of his career, Mitchell was known for his long-form profiles of people and interesting places and traditions in New York City. Alas, it turned out that a few of his articles suffered from a certain lack of truthfulness. In particular, Old Mr. Flood was, as he confessed, not about a real person, but an amalgam of several people he knew. That said, most of Mitchell’s writing was actually truthful, but he succumbed to the temptation to embellish.

McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon was Mitchell’s first book, and was a collection of fiction and non-fiction works originally published in The New Yorker during the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is difficult to find the original work these days, as it is out of print. However, an expanded edition of it is available in Up In The Old Hotel, which collects most of Mitchell’s works, including Old Mr. Flood. This is the version that I read. I didn’t read the other books in this book, just McSorley’s.

There are a total of 20 non-fiction articles and 7 short stories in this book, and they cover a fascinating range of topics. The title article is about an old-school saloon in The Bowery, with a colorful history and interesting traditions. Other subjects include Joe Gould, a bohemian writer who may or may not have ever written anything, child prodigy Philippa Schuyler, New York’s Gypsy population, a terrapin farm in Georgia, clam fishing off of Long Island, a man devoted to the abolition of swearing, the Deaf Club, Beefsteak parties, and a host of other eccentrics.

The fictional stories can be grouped into two parts. The first is a set of four which share the theme of alcohol and alcoholism. The second consists of three humorous works set in the South.

It’s impossible to cover all the ground which Mitchell does in this book, so I’ll just hit a few highlights. Mitchell’s writing is evocative. He really draws out the earthy feeling of the places he writes about. The grime and and poverty is apparent, but neither glorified nor disdained. Even his less sympathetic subjects are treated with dignity and respect. Mitchell also tries to avoid making judgments, preferring to let his subjects talk, and allowing the reader to draw conclusions. He is able to see the nuances and complexities inherent in humanity.

In the introduction (written in 1992), Mitchell notes that he sees a graveyard humor in the stories now that he has gone back and re-read them. I agree with this assessment, and approve.

Just to mention a few things, the title story is intriguing. McSorley’s still exists, but it has changed. In 1970, for example, it was forced to allow women inside. When Mitchell wrote about it in 1940, it was still steadfastly resisting gender integration. In 2011, a much more serious indignity befell the tavern: the health department insisted it get rid of its resident cat. On the other hand, the memorabilia on the walls dates back to 1911. The history is pretty impressive. e.e. cummings wrote a poem about it, Abraham Lincoln (and Grant and T. R. too) patronized it, Woodie Guthrie and Hunter S. Thompson were also among its visitors. 

Particularly interesting to me is that the tavern stayed open during Prohibition. It was never raided, probably because it was a favorite of several Tammany Hall politicians and police officials.

According to regulars, Bill McSorley (son of the original founder) used to close the bar when he got tired in the evening, and if people were slow to finish their drinks, he would say, “Now see here, gents! I’m under no obligoddamnation to stand here all night while you hold on to them drinks.”

That, I must say, is an impressive and hilarious use of profanity.

In the article about Calypso singers, he quotes a lyric that sounded rather familiar:

If you want to be happy and live a king’s life,
Never make a pretty woman your wife.
That’s from a logical point of view,
Always love a woman uglier than you.

The lyrics are slightly different in the Jimmy Soul version from 1963, but it is the same song.

One last bit to mention: one of the short stories is a fictional account of a small town KKK. Set in a small town in North Carolina (given the name of Stonewall, and supposedly in Black Ankle County, which is actually a town), this story, “The Downfall of Fascism In Black Ankle County,” it was written in 1939, when Hitler and Il Duce were in the news, but the war hadn’t yet broken out. Certainly the horrors of the holocaust were still in the future. The story itself is set in the 20s, when the Klan had its renaissance.

Anyway, in this story, where it is a given that all of the kids in town have seen The Birth of a Nation (pretty much propaganda for the KKK - and not to be confused with the modern movie of the same name), a failed salesman and a puritanical fanatic team up to found a local chapter of the KKK. Because this is a humorous story, the saga ends badly and embarrassingly.

But what happens in between is interesting. The teaming up of someone under economic stress with a prude is no accident, and is pretty typical for racist organizations then and now.

And how interesting is this? Mitchell’s narrator (who may be a stand-in for himself) quotes a KKK tract which explains what the KKK stands for:

“The Ku Klux Klan stands on a platform of 100-per-cent Americanism, white supremacy in the South, deportation of aliens, purity of womanhood, and eradication of the chain store.”

Hey, it doesn’t take much tweaking to make this fit the election of 2016. Actually, just about anyone who has explored the rhetoric of the KKK in the past (and present) didn’t have to look it up. We already knew that a certain candidate was openly adopting the KKK platform and rhetoric.

You can see the elements here. Gender roles and female purity. Kick out the immigrants. Make it harder for African Americans to vote. America first. Tariffs. No globalization.

It gets better, too. These small-time KKK guys in the story did the usual of burning crosses in front of black churches, but they also had other targets. A blacksmith who had a reputation for profanity. A mentally disabled woman who had illegitimate children. A Jewish merchant. A black businessman.

Basically, they went after those who couldn’t defend themselves. The whole caper came to an end, finally, when they targeted a local moonshiner who competed with one of their own. When someone finally fought back (however incompetently - these are not brilliant bootleggers…) they packed it in. Because the KKK is about bullying those who have less power, and always has been.

For the most part, Mitchell is content in the non-fiction works to just report, not comment. People who are quoted sometimes say horrid, racist things. In this story, which is fictional, but realistic in its details, he takes more of a side, against fascism, against the KKK, and against racism.

This whole book is interesting, with a panoply of great characters, most of them real people.

A final note, Mitchell’s life took an interesting turn later. One of the subjects of this collection, the eccentric Joe Gould, was revisited by Mitchell 20 years later. In that profile (which I haven’t read), apparently Mitchell concluded that Gould suffered from writer’s block, and had never written the work he claimed to be working on.

Mitchell himself would go on to develop writer’s block too, and didn’t write anything of note after the early 1960s. However, he would still faithfully go to his office at the New Yorker - for the next few decades. For whatever reason, that magazine kept him on despite his lack of production. Definitely a peculiar ending to a distinguished yet flawed career.