Friday, February 19, 2021

The Tentmaker by Clay Reynolds

 


G ILBERT HOOLEY HAD long since given up the habit of carrying a timepiece. Nothing much happened in his life that required precise timing, and the rhythms of the community had long ago taken shape around routines governed by circumstance rather than time of day. On another account, remembering to wind a pocket watch twice a day required the kind of systemized responsibility that Hooley always tried to avoid. For more than a year, he had reckoned the time by the position of the sun or moon, or, if the weather was cloudy, by the brightness of ambient light.

Gilbert Hooley stands at the center of our novel. Is he our hero, or simply a man to whom things happen?

It is no spoiler to say that essentially the novel is the story of a man whose wagon breaks down and he simply decides to stay put. Gradually things happen around him. Much as a single grain of sand irritates the oyster until it produces a pearl, Hooley’s indolence, marked by similar incessant irritation allows things to accrete around his aggravated center.

This portion of the story is shambling and low-key, but absolutely delightful. Calls to mind the episode “Brown” from the vastly underrated television series “The Westerner.”

Hooley’s frustrations are so trivial and yet beautifully written we feel his impotence to succeed at even avoiding success.

There is a twin narrative. It follows a band of repulsive outlaws that could easily be found in a work by S. Craig Zahler. These interludes are blunt and tinged with extreme cruelty.

The tales do mix. The ending might have a series of deus ex machina coincidences at its core, but by this time the reader has enjoyed these twin tales and Hooley’s eternal bewilderment and we simply bask in the author having a good time with his curtain closing.

A superior novel.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Cosgrove Report by G.J.A. O’Toole

 


We have a mighty intriguing volume here, consider the full title.

The Cosgrove Report: Being the Private Inquiry of a Pinkerton Detective into the Death of President Lincoln.

The conceit of the premise is a recently discovered memoir ala the technique of most recent Sherlock Holmes pastiches that reveals the exploits and investigations of Pinkerton Detective Nicholas Cosgrove.

Here’s the trick of the premise. The year is 1868. Our Pinkerton agent is tasked with hunting down one John Wilkes Booth.

Those familiar with history are more than aware that Booth died by gunfire after a long manhunt for having assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

History tells us Booth has been dead for two years before our tale commences.

Along the way we learn much about the assassination, the dealings of numerous co-conspirators involved in the wider plot—all of which is true, by the way, and, for the sake of the novel [this is not a spoiler] John Wilkes Booth did not die in that barn.

If one considers only that information, the novel is good rousing speculative fun.

But, if one were to also consider just who the author is, the story becomes all the more intriguing.

G.J.A. O’Toole was a former employee of the C.I.A., a Pulitzer Prize nominee and the author of Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and EspionageHonorable Treachery, a history of American intelligence.

The man knows his history and he knows the sub rosa machinations behind the scenes of history.

With the author’s bona fides before us one can’t help but wonder while reading, “How much of this is true? How much is invention?” And maybe, just maybe, “Is fiction this author’s way of safely telling a tale?”

Whether read as rousing tale or as eyebrow arching food for thought, I enjoyed the hell out of this one.

Recreational Reading as A Laboratory for Honor by Mark Hatmaker

 


I warn, not a word about tactics or strategical play here. No fodder for the brawn-only warrior.

Now, my thinking Warriors, those who favor Codes of Bushido, the “Cowboy Code,” the ethics of Warrior societies the world over [“Mabitsiar’u Puha” in my case], this is the deep-thinking, soul-searching Warrior I address.

The Warrior who sees all aspects of life as a laboratory of applied focus on the betterment of the self. The unity of forging into one blade the physical, the cognitive, and the all-encompassing world of honor.

Let us make a case for reading choices [fiction or non-fiction], viewing choices, etc. being the modern self-chosen “tribe” of influencers.

Pre-Modern world we existed in smaller bands whether nomadic or a village in stasis where we had an actual tribe. These small bands seldom exceeded more than 200 people in a lifetime of experience. [The Dunbar Number places that number at around 150.]

Within our associations, not all were peachy of course, just like now we had ranges of behavior, temperament, and ability, but that which was worthy of being emulated was well-known and easily recognizable.

These small populations contributed to making codes of conduct and standards of emulation easier. We had fewer fragmentary influences and this quicker association of the desired abilities/behaviors was the order of the day.

Think of today’s elite military cadre or those with extended frontline military experience. These small but intense societies often forge bonds and habits tighter than those that can be formed in casual but even longer-term associations.  Behaviors that persevere.

Think of the contrast of those who spent 90 days alongside one another at an FOB in Afghanistan and those of co-workers you share a break room with daily for 3 years. Likely the smaller but intense tribe is the stronger of the two, no matter how much you like all the folks staring at their phones around the microwave in the breakroom.

With the advent of technology and easy mobility the human animal has far exceeded the Dunbar Number in possible associations. With social media tech we can literally connect with anyone else in the world who has an Internet connection.

On one hand, this is manna, on the other the diverse and diffuse associations coupled with the human propensity to “keep it small” [The Dunbar Number again] we may know far more than our past tribal ancestors, but we may also likely be less deeply connected despite the surfeit of digital connection.

Also, being less deeply connected means we are likely to lack spring-water pure exemplars that we personally know for the formation of our own honor societies.

More Connection—Diffused and Varied Influence

This is not to say that we do not have honorable people in our own lives. I merely state that we may be so diffused and digressive in our habits that the honor/integrity influences do not adhere as strictly, strongly, perseveringly as they may were we to swim more deeply and more often in those waters with the actual exemplars and like cadre.

This is likely why many report feelings of being adrift or a bit unmoored.

This is a bit perplexing in a world of connectivity that more report feeling lonely where infinite connection is possible.

Without the possibility of regressing to former “social load,” and embracing pie-in-the-sky “back to nature” movements, what is one to do?

With no clear-cut tribe or emulatory icons seemingly available, the next best thing seems to be choosing our own exemplars from the vast icons of the past.

These exemplars can be real or fictional.

We can literally, choose from literature, exemplars we would gladly follow were they not fictional.

We may not be able to go on an extended voyage with an actual exemplar but…

Within a novel we spend extended time with characters who are running a laboratory of experiments before our eyes. Showing us possible behaviors. Displaying lessons and conduct we wish to imitate, emulate, or aspire to.

We also see pitfalls that we may learn to avoid in our own lives. Behaviors that repel on a visceral level. Via negativa instruction.

Recreational Literature

This theory of “literature as human laboratory” sees deep reading as recreational in the true meaning of the word. We seek to recreate our own worlds, our own make-up via the fictional tribe with whom we have chosen to spend time with.

The Self-Chosen Hazards of Recreational Literature

If we deem what we do with our “downtime” as formative, whether we intend it to be or not, then we must embrace the fact that our choices likely will inform our world view and in some cases our behavior. [Qanon anyone?]

If we desire a tribe of influencing betters, we may seek that tribe without in the actual world, and inside the interior of our skulls by choosing laboratory experiments that suit our aims.

Literary scholar, F.L. Lucas on the subject.

Much our criticism, obsessed with pleasure-values and blind to influence-values, seems to me frivolously irresponsible towards the vital effects of books in making their readers saner or sillier, more balanced or more unbalanced, more civilized or more barbarian.”

If you see any merit in the influence of the “recreational” aspect of our choices, we are wise to ask ourselves with each book we crack, each show we binge, each link we click is this making me saner or sillier?

More balanced or more unbalanced?

More civilized or more barbarian?

And for those who think that our recreational choices have little to no effect on our own cognitive interiors or behavioral displays, I offer this anecdote of an unnamed homicide detective who related that one of the first things he liked to do was look at what books were on a victim’s or suspect’s nightstand.

I want to see what someone reads when they don’t have to. Gives me a handle on them.

If the world could peek at our nightstands, our Kindles, our browsing histories, what tale would it tell of our characters?

And for those who have serious doubts about the influences of recreational sources I ask a couple of hypotheticals.

Your grown child is set to marry someone of whom you’ve not made up your mind. You are visiting them for diner. On their nightstand would you rather perhaps see an old Michael Crichton novel, a book of Kantian ethics, maybe a Bible?

Or..

A well-thumbed copy of Mein Kampf, a biography of Ted Bundy, and a suspect book of bondage confessions?

Admittedly, these are not deal-breakers. My library is chockful of suspect titles. I have a tattered pamphlet on breaking necks by an Old West hangman, several unpublished memoirs of turn of the last century mob enforcers and sundry nefarious things.

Now, some of you know me for my day job and are not surprised at those shelf-items, and assume, “Ah, it’s research.” But if you didn’t know me, and found no leavening volumes like Plutarch and an entire run of Seneca also on those shelves, would you not have a value judgment?

So, saner or sillier?

Balanced or more unbalanced?

Civilized or more barbarian?

I close here. The post-script is merely a handful of quotes I excerpted from some of my more recent recreational reading. A few dribs and drabs from the imaginary tribe-members I chose to spend time with and learn from recently.

POST-SCRIPT

Perfect sangfroid. Exceptional address. Etiquette, Seward had once told Jamison, was all that mattered. Ideologies waxed and waned, religions developed and eroded, political parties rose and fell from power. Only courtesy remained one of the few things valued by all civilized men.”- All Through the Night by Connie Brockway

His mother had once told him that though he’d find many kinds of people in the world, each could be sorted into those who help and those who hurt. ‘I don’t tell you this to make you suspicious of others,’ she said, ‘but so you might steel yourself against hurt. The hurt others inflict on you, but also the hurt you might inflict on others. You must always be the one who helps.’”—rode Thomas Fox Averill

One lesson which I have learned in my roaming life, my friends, is never to call anything a misfortune until you have seen the end of it. Is not every hour a fresh point of view?” The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard by Arthur Conan Doyle

 

When a brave man has done his utmost, and has failed, he shows his breeding by the manner in which he accepts his defeat.” Ibid

“The guts to beat down every obstacle in the way, not ever counting the cost, so’s to have some of the damn little happiness and peace granted to man in the span of his days. You think that doesn’t take courage? Most of us drift because that’s easiest....If a little of what’s happy comes our way we’ll take it, but we won’t work for it. Most of us don’t know what we want to make us happy; that’s part of the reason we sit tight, hoping whatever it is will show. And selfish. Strange partners, maybe, but there they are, courage and selfishness. I like people who know what they want, right off. I like you, but you don’t know what you want any more, do you?” A Time in the Sun Jane Barry

How good it seemed to all of us to be out thus in the freedom of the night and the sea—not least to the great noble-headed hound sitting up on his haunches, keen and watchful by the steersman's side. What a strange waste of a life so short to be sleeping there on the land, when one might be out and away on such business as ours!-  Pieces of Eight  Richard Le Gallienne

Son, it’s no good to go back where you already been. It ain’t the same. Other people own it, and it ain’t yours no more.”—James Lee Burke Two for Texas

 

Others think much less about us than we believe or fear, because they are almost always thinking about themselves.“—Gabrielle Burton, Impatient With Desire

We don’t judge a man by the blood he was borned with. We measure him by the blood he’s got in his veins now, ‘cause we figure he made it whatever it is—good or bad.”-Caddo Cameron “Gunman’s Christmas”

 

Words may be but a mask upon our thoughts; deeds are ever the expression of them.”-Rafael Sabatini, Captain Blood

Adversity had taught him to prize benefits however slight and to confront perils however overwhelming.”-Ibid

A way would present itself. He was watching, and would miss no chance. "And if no chance should offer?" she asked him. "Why then I will make one," he answered, lightly almost. "I have been making them all my life, and it would be odd if I should have lost the trick of it on my life's most important occasion."-Ibid

For every bastard that runs out on you in a fix, there’s three good men who won’t.”-Steve Frazee He Rode Alone

May we choose our tribes well.

All the best, Amigos!

[Excerpted from The Frontier Stoic by Yours Truly.]

Story Spotlight: “The Test” by Rex Beach

  “ Out on the trail, nature equalizes the work to a great extent, and no man can shirk unduly, but in camp, inside the cramped confines of ...