Facing the Music by Clay Eals (2006. ECW. ISBN 976-1-55022-732-1)
I want you to close your eyes. It’s 1977. You’re in a college ballroom on the campus of a medium-sized public university. The house lights are low. You are sitting on the floor cross-legged next to the girl you want to marry. There are maybe 100 other students and faculty sitting on the floor or in folding chairs arrayed in a circle around a microphone stand. A short, slightly rotund, long-haired Jewish boy from Chicago steps from shadow into light and confidently plants himself in front of the microphone. An acoustic guitar hanging from a strap will remain unplayed throughout the first song. The singer, his brown eyes clear and bright, begins an a Capella lament:
Oh my name is Penny Evans and my age is twenty-one
A young widow in the war that’s being fought in Viet Nam
And I have two infant daughters and I do the best I can
Now they say the war is over, but I think it’s just begun.
If you can visualize the scene and hear Goodman’s voice, then you will understand how that concert remains, for me, along with seeing Bruce Springstreen perform live, on of the favorite musical moments of my life. “The Ballad of Penny Evans” was born of genius: a man singing in the voice of a war widow about the loss of her husband and what remains. And yet, unlike some other great songs written during the 1970s, it’s a song that very few folks know or appreciate. I’ve heard it performed publicly just twice in the thirty-three years since Goodman’s untimely death in 1984. Once in an Irish pub in St. Paul by a local dude simply making music and once, in my own voice, as I stood scared as a school girl in front of a live audience as the MC for Law Law Palooza at the Clyde Iron facility in Duluth raising money to provide free lawyers for the indigent. I’m pretty sure the dude in St. Paul hit the mark. Not so sure about me. But that’s the impact seeing Goodman one time, long ago, had on me. I bring all of this up as an introduction to my review of Clay Eals’s massive (778 page) biography of the singer/songwriter who wrote not only “Penny Evans” but some other very, very notable tunes, including “The City of New Orleans” (recorded by Arlo Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson, to name a few), and “You Never Even Called Me by my Name” (a country hit for David Allen Coe). In between these well known songs, Steve Goodman penned such classics as “California Promises”, “The 20th Century is Almost Over”, and a host of others. But despite a great storyteller’s voice, mastery of the acoustic guitar, a wicked sense of humor, and a knack for creating memorable lyrics, Goodman never achieved universal acclaim. That’s the story Eals so painfully tells, along with Stevie’s 15 year-plus battle with leukemia, his roller-coaster marriage to Nancy, and his doting affection for his three young daughters. And, despite a misstep or two (sometimes bordering on redundancy) Eals manages to keep the life story of this beloved but obscure genius in focus throughout this massive read. The question I have to ask myself as I consider how to rate this book, how to fairly evaluate the over 1,000 interviews Eals conducted (with musical legends such as John Prine and Mary Stuart and Jackson Browne, and non-musical folks such as Hillary Clinton (who attended high school with Steve)) and mountains of newspaper and other written references that the author consulted to create a complete life of a man who died underappreciated by the general public, is this: Would anyone other than a devoted Steve Goodman fan or a Chicagoan want to read this tome? I think the answer is an unqualified “yes”. Here’s why.
First, Goodman was an Everyman, a Midwestern boy raised in a suburban, middle class neighborhood whose dad was a war veteran from the Greatest Generation, and whose Mom encouraged his career through its ups and downs, who, upon learning of his fatal cancer diagnosis just out of high school, was determined to “make it big”. He tried, like so many of us in the arts have, through sheer will of effort and personality and ability, to convince The Man (i.e., record company executives) and the public of his worth, wanting the brass ring so badly that, as Eals points out, he even moved his family to California in the misguided belief that being closer to the record producers would give him his “big break.” Instead, we learn that, as Steve’s studio career tanked (he was axed by both Buddah and Asylum), live audiences, from those who saw him on the “Austin City Limits” stage to fans attending over 200 Steve Martin concerts, loved him. Having only seen Goodman once, and having been enthralled with his story ever since, I can attest that, just like The Boss never leaves a stage without expending the last drop of sweat from his body, Steve Goodman was cut from the same cloth. When he performed live, he was “all in”. So it seems to me that anyone with any sort of unfulfilled aspiration, whether it be in music, writing, the arts, or some other endeavor, will appreciate the painstaking narrative created by the author to depict Goodman’s slender successes and luminous failures.
And then there is this: I’ve read many other memoirs and biographies of musicians, from Woody Guthrie to Neil Young to Dave Crosby to Springsteen and Clapton. I’ve found them all fascinating looks at how musicians find success, hit the wall at some point in their careers, and then recover. But none of those books tear back the curtain so we are there, in the moment, both on stage and in the offices of the record company executives making deals, like this compilation does. In addition, Eals takes great care to memorialize the songwriting process, both Goodman as a solitary bard scribbling away on his own, or during the collaborative chaos Goodman engaged in while penning masterpieces with John Prine, Mike Smith, Jimmy Buffet, and a host of others. The depth and complexity the author ascribes to the process of songwriting is something to behold and, by itself, makes this biography a worthy read.
In the end, the book is long-winded but beautifully written. The language is direct, concise, and never flowery or cumbersome. And, I sort of get why Eals wanted to include everything in this book. I did the same thing in my biography of my late uncle, State Rep. Willard Munger (Mr. Environment: The Willard Munger Story). I knew, as Eals did, that no one else was going to pen a biography of his subject, at least not one that would conclusively document the life of someone so iconic yet so underappreciated. And so, Eals, left in anything that was revealing about Goodman’s life and creative process. In the end, I think that’s a definite plus. The world can now understand the background, struggles, and brilliance of the man who wrote, what Johnny Cash once called, “The best damn train song ever written…”.
4 and 1/2 stars out of 5. 5 stars if you are a Steve Goodman fan. It is a must read for you if you’re in that category!
The Koran Interpreted (translated by A. J. Arberry) (1996. Touchstone. ISBN 9780684825076)
As with my reading of The Book of Mormon, this is a review of the literary merit of one of mankind’s most beloved scriptural texts, The Koran. It is not my attempt to critique or disassemble the theology of Islam: I will leave that to the scholars. I am just an average, ordinary American, raised Christian amongst other Christians and a smattering of Jews and nonbelievers, who is trying to understand the basic tenets of a faith that underpins many of the lives, cultures, and social orders of the latest immigrants to the United States. So take what I observe and write here in the spirit in which it is written: as a critic of the language, writing, and structure of The Koran, not as a criticism of The Book’s core beliefs.
First, the repetition. Gehenna, a Biblical valley that appears in Hebrew scripture, is referenced, by one account, more than 70 times in The Koran. I gave up counting how many times the terms “chastisement” (as in “the unbelievers will suffer a great chastisement”) and “punishment” appear within the suras (chapters) of the book. This constant refrain of salvation and damnation, the repetitiveness of the text, may well, when read aloud in a mosque or recited by heart at prayer, reinforce the central themes of the second largest religion in the world. (One source has Christianity as the largest at 33% with Islam second at 21% of the world’s population; USA Today predicts that by 2070, Islam will supplant Christianity as the world’s largest faith community.) But when read as a complete text, from beginning to end, this consistency becomes redundant. I found this repetitiveness reminiscent of the overly repeated refrains found in The Book of Mormon, though, to be fair, The Messenger’s collection of revelations and scripture precedes Joseph Smith’s discovery by 1,200 years, making The Koran a likely source of inspiration for the Mormon prophet’s revelations. One thing that sets The Koran apart from Smith’s retelling of the contents of the golden plates is the language. Whereas Smith, an uneducated and illiterate religious searcher, relied upon a tone and tenor that was pedestrian and ordinary in its prose, The Messenger’s presentation of the Eternal Book is, despite also coming from an oral tradition, far more polished and, in some suras, reaches the poetry of The Bible:
Hast thou seen him who lies to the Doom? That is he who repulses the orphan and urges not the feeding of the needy. So woe to those that pray and are heedless of their prayers, to those who make display and refuse charity.
This is not an easy text to read. And I am certain that if I was privileged to hear the verses and suras recited in their original Arabic, there would be a flow, a magic to the words that transcends even the best English translation of this compilation of revelations from the Divine. But even in English, The Book displays moments of linguistic clarity and beauty; and, departing from my initial premise (that I would not delve into theology) much of what radical Islam is preaching and acting upon (jihad being raised against children, women, the old, and the infirm in the name of God) is nowhere to be found in this book. Certainly, just as with Judaism and Christianity, there are facets of a faith that come from customs and practices created over millennia of observance, some of which may support suicide bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, and the murder of noncombatants or captured combatants. But I did not, in my time with The Koran, find those practices ingrained in the spiritual message of this book. As a Christian, I may be troubled that The Messenger defines Christ not as God embodied on Earth, but as a mortal prophet akin to Moses and Noah. In addition, there is a theme of evangelism to the text; the need to convert unbelievers to The Book that mirrors Paul’s exhortations to conversion in the New Testament. But The Koran incorporates both Jews and Christians into a larger, monotheistic framework of faith, considering those religious bodies to also be People of the Book. Perhaps the world would be a better, calmer place if Jews and Christians extended the same courtesy to Muslims.
Reading The Koran was not easy but it was enlightening and, given the world we live in, essential for non-Muslims to at least attempt.
4 stars out of 5. The book is, as indicated, rated for literary merit, not its spiritual content.
“Rene’,” I called out across the kitchen, “I think the microwave is dead.”
The appliance was installed 17 years ago when we built our new house along the banks of the wild and scenic Cloquet River. Our contractor installed the under-the-counter, over-the-stove model that served us well for nearly two decades. But, after repeated attempts to resurrect the dawdling unit, I came to the unfortunate conclusion (unfortunate because who wants to spend extra money just before Christmas on an appliance?) that the life source of the microwave had indeed given up the ghost. After reaching this fatal conclusion, Rene’ and I trundled off to Home Depot to check out new microwaves.
Now, I won’t lie. Home Depot is my kind of store. Generally speaking, if I can’t buy it at Menard’s, Home Depot, Walmart, Dick’s, or a bookstore, I detest shopping. So when my wife and I stood staring at the plethora of shiny, black and stainless steel compact ovens hanging from fake cabinetry at Home Depot, I wasn’t all that miffed about having to shop.
“Can I help you?”
The store was quiet and the clerk who stood behind us had plenty of time to tend to our needs. We talked wattage. We talked warranty. And then, because the new unit was going to have to fit above the range and below cabinetry, we talked size. Now, understand, I had, in my best “Tim the Tool Man” fashion, measured the dimensions of the space the new microwave would occupy. I hadn’t brought the ruler with me to check whether the GE would actually fit where we wanted it to fit but when I asked about the unit’s size, I heard nothing but reassurance.
“They’re all standard. Just take down the old unit, remove the wall bracket, install the new wall bracket, hang it, and you should be go to go!”
I was skeptical that my meager carpentry skills would allow me to get the thing mounted and operable but the clerk was very reassuring.
“Not a problem. We do offer installation but we’d have to charge shipping and delivery as well.”
“I’d guess around two-fifty.”
The price tag of the microwave was two-fifty. I was looking at either attempting the job myself or paying two kids in blue jeans with body art and piercings an amount equal to the cost of the new unit to drill a few holes, mount a bracket, and tighten down a half dozen bolts.
“Whatdathink?” I asked my wife. (I’m not sure I officially involved her in the discussion. But for sake of blameworthiness, I’ll include her response, real or imagined.)
“I think you can do it.”
Later that afternoon, I called my son Matt to come over and help. He was occupied with the kids so I decided to begin the process of removing the old microwave without him. After pulling the range and oven away from the wall, I stood on a step stool, opened the upper cupboard, unplugged the dead microwave, and loosened the screws holding the unit. When the screws were mostly free, I asked Rene’ to hold the unit while I completed the task. Then, easy peasy, I tilted the microwave away from the wall and removed it from its wall bracket. I took a look at the existing bracket and the rear of the new unit. Just as the store clerk had warned, the new stove wouldn’t fit on the old bracket. I needed to remove the old bracket and install the new one so the bracket’s metal tabs lined up with slots in the back of the microwave. As I began to remove the existing bracket, I noticed the first major issue with my “do-it-yourself” approach.
“What about the contractor?”
“When his guys mounted the microwave, they stripped two of the lag bolts holding the bracket. I can’t use a wrench or a vise grips to get them out.”
I stared at the offending bolts, the heads stripped and useless. A solution made itself apparent. A half hour later, after cutting the bracket away from the ruined bolts with a tin snips, repeatedly bending and twisting the metal until it came free, the old bracket lay in a crumpled heap on new snow outside our back door. I measured the new bracket, found the studs in the wall, and had it mounted in a matter of minutes.
“Help me set the new microwave on the new bracket,” I asked Rene’. Matt still hadn’t shown but the GE wasn’t all that heavy. The two of us easily lifted it in place.
“What about the clerk?”
“One size fits all. Bullshit. The new microwave is too tall for the opening between the tile backsplash and the bottom of the cabinet.”
“We’ll have to take the microwave down, remove the new bracket, and chip out at least two rows of tile.”
My wife’s eyes grew wide. She’s the craftsman in the house. She had, without a word of it to me, gone out and bought the tiles, the grout, and whatever else she needed, and installed a backsplash of small, metallic tiles around the kitchen cabinetry. It was a masterful job, one that I could never have replicated. And now, here I was, suggesting I was going to take a hammer and chisel to her masterpiece.
“Ah, maybe I should do that.”
I shook my head. We set the new microwave on the hardwood floor. “No, I’ve got this.”
After a half hour of steady diligence, I managed to remove two rows of tile without damage. Matt arrived as I was re-hanging the new bracket. “Help me set the microwave on this bracket,” I said. We did. The unit fit snugly between the cabinet and the backsplash. But there was another problem. In my OCD zeal to toss out the extraneous, I’d tossed the template needed to drill holes for the two bolts running from the cabinet into the top of the microwave. The old holes in the base of the cabinet didn’t line up with the holes in the new unit and without the template, I’d have to resort to guessing. I slid on my boots and wandered out to the garbage can. I dug and dug and dug but couldn’t come up with the template.
“Shit,” I muttered as I stomped snow off my boots, slid them off, and padded back into the kitchen.
“What’s wrong?” Matt asked.
“Nothing. Let’s see if we can line up the bolts with the microwave.”
After a couple of false starts, with Matt holding the microwave and the tabs of the new bracket holding the unit in place, I managed to get one lag bolt locked in place. “Damn it,” I yelped, my four year old grandson Adrien within earshot, “this second bolt just won’t line up.”
I’ll spare you the back and forth that took place over the next hour as I drilled the hole larger, as Matt raised the unit up, as the bolt refused to take, as more colorful words were expressed by Grandpa. At one point, Matt climbed the step stool and tried to adjust the unit so the bolt met up with the hole in the unit. No one noticed Matt was standing on the stove top while he worked. After additional moments of futility, I removed and inspected the second bolt. “This $#@! thing is stripped!” I said. We took the unit down off the bracket. I walked out of the house, into the garage, found a hacksaw, and cut off the last 1/4″ of the bolt. I was pretty darn upset by this point. But I was still, despite time wasted, money ahead.
I won’t sugar coat it. That’s what came out of my mouth when I mounted the step stool and Matt pushed the unit back on the bracket, holding it in place, and I placed my foot on the top of our stove for more leverage. My foot met the ceramic top of our range. Glass gave way under foot.
There’s more. Oh, much more. But I managed to pull it together enough to get the bolt in place. The microwave was solid, sturdy, and looked pretty damn good hanging beneath the cabinet. But the old stove? Home Depot was happy to sell me a new one.
Tonight (12/14) I’ll be at the Ely Public Library from 4-6 talking about and reading from Boomtown, my latest novel. Set in Ely, Grand Marais, and the Babbitt area, Boomtown explores the present-day controversy surrounding copper/nickel mining in the context of a fictional accident/murder. Should be warm conversation on a cold night! Books available at the event for purchase through Piragis’ Bookstore. Hope to see all my friends from Ely in attendance!
First, if you’re interested in how and why I write, there’s a nice interview up on Ed Newman’s blog. The link is: http://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com/. Then, if you are looking for some places to shop for nice holiday gifts, my schedule this week includes the following:
On 12/08 from 4-6, I’ll be at the Aurora Public Library with other regional authors signing and selling my books. Here’s a link: http://aurorapubliclibrarymn.blogspot.com/.
Then, on Saturday, 12/10, I’ll be at the beautiful Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis (a National Historic building: A visit is well worth the effort!) from 12-4:00pm for their Joulu celebration. Here’s more info: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/holiday-christmas-buffet-12-2-pm-at-joulu-magical-finnish-christmas-tickets-28643986936.
Stay warm and see you at event near you!
Listener in the Snow by Tim Jollymore (2013. Finns Way Books. 978-0-9914763-0-5)
Readers who enjoy Louise Erdich’s or Linda LeGarde Grover’s or Sherman Alexey’s brand of native mysticism wrapped within a fictional tale will enjoy this new novel by Cloquet, Minnesota native Tim Jollymore. Interwoven stories of the first-person narrator, Tatty, a mixed race Mi’Maq whose wife Mary is of Ojibwe lineage, and three legendary trips north from Tatty’s home in the States; first, for his father’s funeral; second, to bring his mother home to die in Canada; and third, to northern Minnesota to assist Mary in the birthing of her young cousin’s twin girls, all intersect in ways that are strange, enlightening, frightening, and legendary. Jollymore is a skilled storyteller and wordsmith, though, from time to time, the eloquence of his prose might, at least in this reader’s humble opinion, slow down the intensity of the action driving the plot. Still, there are so many well crafted passages and scenes throughout this flight of fancy intermixed with adventure and emotive recollection that one hardly notices the interruption of the storyline. Here’s an example one of Jollymore’s better pieces of narrative:
After the expansive, dazzling snow burning under the cloudless sky, the inside of the cabin was close and nearly black. The fireplace flame, whose smoke I had seen from above, was the first thing to reveal itself to my sun-glazed eyes. Then appeared the fainter glows of the windows, where drifts had been partially flung back by Danny’s shovel-work. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a white-draped bassinet standing away from the fireplace. Over this hovered a tiny silhouetted figure signing words I could not make out.
There are many memorable characters inhabiting Jollymore’s fictional story; from the enigmatically strong and defiant Mary, to the reclusive Tiny, to the aging, inherently wise Granny-the old woman who helps Tatty understand the visions he is plagued by. Each one is well crafted and unique. One criticism of the book would be that, for a work this polished, I found a few typos and/or missing words. These are rare occurrences, to be sure, and something my own work, also being self-published, has suffered from as well. There is also something unsettling about the climatic scene involving Roscoe and the ice flow. I won’t spoil the ending for you because this is a book that, if you have an interest in Native American fiction, you should read: Perhaps as a member of a book club to spawn discussion regarding the storytelling, the accuracy of the tale’s depiction of Native American life in the 21st century, and a host of other topics. Despite these minor flaws, I found the characters and the story memorable and well worth the time.
4 stars out of 5. A good novel for a book club to pick up, read, and discuss.
Islam for Dummies by Professor Malcolm Clark (2003. Wiley. ISBN 978-0-764-55503-9)
Though I’ve been a Christian my whole life, I like many modern men and women, still search and seek for answers. Answers to the questions: “Why are we here?” and “Is this all there is?” and other philosophical/religious queries. So, I’ve not only read the Bible multiple times trying to understand the roots and underpinnings of my own faith, but I’ve read The Book of Moron cover to cover (there’s a review in the Archives section of this blog) and last year, I began to study and read The Koran. With The Book of Mormon, I took up my quest to make it through the text not so much because I wished to understand the faith behind the faces of Mitt Romney, Glen Beck, and Marie Osmond, but more as research for my novel about polygamy, Laman’s River. On the other hand, my study of The Koran is fueled by a desire to understand why religious zealots across the world, but most predominantly in the birthplace of all three major monotheistic branches of faith-the Middle East-deign to blow themselves and innocent men, women, and children to oblivion, all in the name of Allah. I wasn’t finding the answer to my question reading the text of The Koran and so, I thought maybe Professor Clark’s tutorial could assist my research.
Like all “Dummies” texts, this book is very straight forward, well organized, and written at about the high school level, all of which I found refreshing. The one major drawback to my copy of the book (ordered through The Bookstore at Fitger’s) is that much has happened in the world regarding conflicts within and involving the Moslems since 2003, the year my copy was published. My edition of the book ends not long after the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq on the heels of 9/11/2000. So there is nothing in the book dealing with the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the more recent bombings, attacks, and conflicts within and without Islam. Still, Clark’s effort does give the reader a basic primer in the faith, people, culture, and history of Islam. I obtained, by spending my time with this book, a basic understanding of the religion and an appreciation, I think, that we, the West, have underestimated the import of Islam on the world. I am nearly through my reading of The Koran and, having now gained a better framework for reading the text through Professor Clark’s work, I may have to re-read Mohammad’s message to his people to gain a fuller understanding of how it is connected to today’s events.
What I came away with after racing through Islam for Dummies is an appreciation for the variety of branches of this faith along with a comprehension that the conflicts between peoples who adhere to Islam, such as the Iraqis and the Iranians, have much to do with their views of Islam and The Prophet, causing religious disagreement and discord not unlike the debates that rage between Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainstream Protestants in Christianity. The difference may be that, in large part, because the Christian faith is centuries older than Islam, Christianity may have, through the Reformation, heresy trials, and various purges, completed its own period of conflict and unrest and human tragedy whereas Islam remains in that transitional phase, sorting out the message handed down by God through his Messenger. Perhaps, as Catholics and Lutherans have finally put up the sword, so too will Sunni and Shi’a come to a place of peaceful co-existence, and also come to a place of quiet and calm with respect to the non-Moslem world as well. One can only hope.
4 stars out of 5. A bit dated but a valuable resource.
11/19 @ Duluth Congregational Church; Get Great Stuff Arts and Crafts Show. 10-3pm. Signed books available for your holiday gift giving. Readings by Mark and other local authors. Free and open to the public.
11/21 @ Duluth Public Library; Building a Novel from A-Z. 6-7:30pm. Mark will lead an exploration and discussion of fiction writing, editing, publishing, and marketing. Free and open to the public. Signed books available for purchase.
See you there. Many more events coming up in December!
Picture this. I’m twenty years old. My mom and I are fighting over the ’67 Wagoneer my dad gave me as a high school graduation present. The Jeep was, until Dad bought himself a new Pontiac, the family car. Thing is, despite Mom’s schedule of hair appointments, tennis outings, bridge matches, and volunteer activities, she and I are expected to “share” the Jeep. Me being the eldest—six years older than my brother Dave, eleven years older than my sister Annie—I don’t share very well. Ditto for Mom. So when the daily ruckus over who’s going drive the rattling, wheezing, cantankerous Jeep gets to be too much, I decide to buy my own wheels. Problem is, I’m working as a janitor at General Cleaning for four bucks an hour (buffing the tile floors of the First American National Bank) and paying my own way through UMD. So I don’t have cash to spend on a car. That’s how I end up with a broken down, rust infected 1963 Chrysler 300; the best car I can afford.
Despite the fact that I’m not a native son—I was born in St. Paul and moved to Duluth before kindergarten—my formative years were spent here, in the hilliest town east of San Francisco. Having attended Piedmont Elementary, Lincoln Junior, Denfeld High, and UMD, I consider myself to be a Duluthian. Like others who share that label, I learned at an early age to negotiate the steeps of this place regardless of weather. In fact, I took my driver’s test in a blizzard. Those of you who hale from more geographically sedate places, well, be honest: You don’t brave driving to or in Duluth when there’s snow in the forecast. Non-Duluthians just don’t buy that Duluthians can safely navigate our town’s perilous streets in winter. And yet, I’m living proof that we do.
Back to the Chrysler. I bought that car from my buddy Shane. Shane managed to amass a small personal fortune before he began college. Part of Shane’s wealth was automotive. Before his twenty-first birthday, the kid owned two Caddies, a Plymouth, and the Chrysler 300. He wanted fifty bucks for the Chrysler. I got it for half-price: complete with a busted power steering pump, an inoperable driver’s door, suspect brakes, and four bald tires.
A Saturday in January. I’m making a beer run across the old Arrowhead Bridge between Duluth and Superior before meeting up with my pal Larry. The drinking age in Minnesota and Wisconsin is 18 but in Superior, just across the St. Louis River from Duluth, you can buy Buckhorn for three bucks a case and get sixty-five cents back for the returnable bottles. I’m heading down 24th Avenue West in the Chrysler, thoughts of sipping cold beer on my mind. Just to be clear: I haven’t had a lick of anything stronger than milk to drink before driving.
The road conditions on Piedmont Avenue are snowy but manageable even for a rear-wheel-drive iron sled with bad tires. But as the hill steepens towards the Big Lake, as I get closer to Five Corners—a messy intersection that disappeared when the DOT gave us Mondale Drive—the snow turns to rain, which, because it’s below freezing, becomes ice. As I approach a stop sign, I tap the brakes. Nothing. I look to the left. I look to the right. There are no other cars entering the intersection as I slide onto 24th Avenue West. I take my foot off the gas. Doesn’t matter: gravity urges the car downhill. I pump the brakes. Still nothing. The old sedan, the heater roaring to keep ice off the windshield, the broken springs squeaking with each pothole, picks up speed. At 10th Street, I try the brakes again. The car does a complete one-eighty. I’m now looking uphill, back towards where I came from and the Chrysler shows no signs of slowing down. The only saving grace to my situation is that, unlike the idiot behind the wheel of my car, no one else is stupid enough to be on the road. The Chrysler leaps and plunges like a bucking bronco as it enters and exits plateaus announcing intersecting streets. I have my shoulder harness locked in but I’m pretty sure it won’t do me a lick of good if the Chrysler collides with a semi-truck at the bottom of the hill.
In my youth, it wasn’t uncommon for grain trucks to take shortcuts to the grain elevators located on Duluth’s waterfront. Every year, local television stations ran clips documenting the destruction wrought by runaway tractor-trailers full of corn or wheat or oats that lost their brakes on Duluth’s hills and ended up in the living rooms of unsuspecting citizens.
That’s gonna be me, I think, my gloved hands gripping tightly to a steering wheel that offers no solace. I’ll end up crashing into Rikala’s front porch, I fret, visualizing a friend’s home in line with my accelerating trajectory.
At the intersection of 24th Avenue West and 8th Street, I brake again. A rear tire catches pavement. The Chrysler whips around and faces downhill. The car continues to slide until, near 5th Street, I’m able to slam the passenger’s side front tire into the curb and stop the car.
That summer, I give the Chrysler away. The following winter, a snowstorm buries Duluth. Even with places to go and people to see, I have my pride. I don’t borrow the Jeep from Mom despite the fact it has four-wheel drive. Instead, I carry my skis to the top of Piedmont Avenue, slide ski boots into bindings, secure safety straps, and push off. I glide towards Lake Superior, making occasional turns to control my speed, until there’s no more hill to ski. On the flats, I pole and skate to West Duluth. I arrive at a familiar front yard. Larry, dressed in a snowmobile suit and helmet, is sitting on the seat of an idling Ski-Doo waiting for me. I release my bindings, hop on the rumbling yellow machine, and wrap my arms around my friend. Larry hits the gas. The snow machine floats around drift-encased cars and trucks. A mile later, we roar onto the Arrowhead Bridge. We pass the bridge’s toll station without slowing. There’s no one on duty but I know this: We wouldn’t have stopped to pay the toll even if the tollbooth had been manned.
(An edited version of this essay was read on KAXE’s The Great Northern Radio Show before a live audience at the Lincoln Park Middle School in Duluth on 11/12/2016.)
(c) Mark Munger 2016
Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (2012. Vintage Anchor (Canada). ISBN978-0-7710-5704-5)
I was in Thunder Bay, Ontario this summer for a Finnish festival. I was riding around with my host, Ron Harpel, and stopped in at Chapter’s, the Canadian equivalent of Barnes and Noble, looking for a book to read. My intention was to buy Circus at the Edge of the Earth by my friend and internationally known Thunder Bay author, Charlie Wilkins. But alas, the largest bookstore chain in Canada did not have a single Wilkins title in stock, much less his first memoir. I settled for Such a Long Journey even though I’d not heard of the book’s author, Rohinton Mistry, because of the back jacket blurbs. I wasn’t disappointed.
The novel is well written in a style that reminds me, due to its reliance on mysticism and ritual, of Native American fiction (think Erdrich or Alexie or Grover). Mistry sometimes wanders a bit off the beaten path, tossing in asides and “howevers” that distract from the overarching plot but, in the end, the clarity of the author’s storytelling brings the plot back into view. Throughout the effort, Mistry carefully and adeptly gives us snippets of Indian culture, history, and Zoroastrian practices (the main character, Gustaf Noble, is of that religious minority; learn more at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoroastrianism) so that, as we are entertained by the fictional story, we learn a bit about one of the largest nations on earth and one of it’s least examined religions. Here’s a snippet that portrays living in a mosquito infested slum and the protagonist’s constant battle to keep his family safe from pestilence and vermin:
“Perfect, said Gustav, clearing the dining-table. He placed the round shallow dish under the bulb and filled it with water. When the surface grew still, the light bulb’s reflection steadied and shone brightly, tantalizingly, under water. Then the mosquitoes started to dive in. One by one, abandoning the real bulb, they plunged unswervingly suicidal in their attempts to reach the aqueous, insubstantial light. Somehow it was a greater attraction than the one hanging from the ceiling.”
My only criticism of this novel is that, as concise and crisp as the writing is, I was ready for more revelatory prose surrounding Prime Minister Gandhi (Indira) and the alleged corruption in her administration which is an almost unspoken accusation behind much of the action and plot involving Gustav and other characters, major and minor, in the book. Then too, the friction between Noble and his eldest child, Sohrab, while eventually resolved, could have used a bit more time on the stage. But over all, this is a good, good read. Not, as proclaimed, on the jacket, a great novel but one that surely whets the appetite to read more Mistrys (pun intended!).
4 stars out of 5.