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Booked Up

Prime Green: a Memoir of the 60s. By Robert Stone. Harper. 2008.

Robert Stone may be the best 60s novelist to survive the 60s. His friend Ken Kesey probably had the most talent of that generation of young fiction writers and, in Sometimes a Great Notion, an snarling unchained beast of a book about the disintegration of a logging family in dark, rain-sotted coastal Oregon, produced the best novel of the 1960s. Then Kesey’s life became a novel and he stopped writing fiction for a decade. Stone was with Kesey for much of that ride, from Stanford to the Acid Tests to the glorious bus ride across America, with Neal Cassady at the wheel of Furthur, to those weird weeks on the lam in coastal Mexico. But unlike Kesey, Stone kept writing fiction, churning out one fine novel after another: A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise, among them. Prime Green is remarkable for its concision. Stone shrink-wraps his life down to a digestible 275 pages. The best scenes in the book don’t involve protests, ingesting drugs or tantric sex, though there are fine passages on all three of those signal pursuits. Instead, I was captivated by Stone’s description of a trip to Antarctica in the 1950s while he was serving in the Merchant Marines, his descriptions of New Orleans in the early 1960s, which make a nice complement to Bob Dylan’s wonderful evocation of the Crescent City in Chronicles, and his unnerving description of undergoing a brain operation that resembled trepanation (the bill was picked up by his prof Wallace Stegner).  There’s not an ounce of nostalgia in Stone’s book. Perhaps that’s why the 60s really seem to come to life in its pages.

Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks. By Oakley Hall. Penguin. 2004.

The scene is San Francisco, 1891. A package is delivered to Phoebe Hearst’s mansion on Russian Hill. The envelope contains a nude photograph of her son Willie Hearst’s newest lover engaged in an act of sexual gymnastics. Accompanying the photograph is a blackmail letter. To deal with this matter, Phoebe Hearst contracts the services of Willie’s star reporter, Ambrose Bierce. Thus begins Oakley Hall’s brilliantly wicked novel Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks. This is the fourth installment of in his ongoing series of witty and erudite mysteries involving the caustic Bierce, author the Devil’s Dictionary and the harrowing Civil War stories “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chickamauga”. But the real subject of the novel is San Francisco itself, as the Gilded Age begins to tarnish. Hall plunges headlong into the rotten heart of the city: the ongoing trade in human flesh, mostly Chinese, to work in the beds of the rich and in the sweatshops of the City’s tycoons.  The One-Eyed Jacks of the title refers to a sex club run by British yachtsmen anchored across the bay in Sausalito—apparently some things haven’t changed much in the last century. Hall is one of the best writers you’ve probably never read. He’s had a cult following since the 1950s, when he published Warlock, that strange and ornately written novel about vigilante justice that inspired writers as varied as Elmore Leonard, Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy (see Blood Meridian). Hall is in his 80s now, but his writing is as fresh and vivid as ever.

Thrillcraft: the Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation. Ed. by George Wuerthner. Chelsea Green. 2007.

A few weeks ago, I was exploring a range of grassy dunes near Nestucca National Wildlife Refuge on the Oregon coast, binoculars in hand, searching for shorebirds: dunlins, plovers, sanderlings. I settled on the crest of a dune to watch a white-tailed kite hover above the tidal marsh. Suddenly the sand around me exploded, as two ATV’s topped the dune behind me, and cratered a few yards from my face, then screeched off in a blue pall of hydorcarbons. I was nearly squished into gristle and jelly like Frank O’Hara. Next time I’m packing pungee sticks. Doug Peacock calls ORVing the Moronic Sport. True enough. But it’s also a coward’s sport. If the ORV crowd had real guts, they’d be out on the highways of America, riding Harleys without helmets, engaging in bracing vehicular combat with the long haul truckers—the nation’s most self-regulating recreational pursuit. Finally, the inexhaustible George Wuerthner has documented an encyclopedia of the abuses of these infernal machines. Thrillcraft is a lushly produced book of photographs and short essays exposing in gory detail the mangling of our public lands from Cape Hatteras to the Mojave. Every picture tells a crime.

The Narrow Road to the Interior. By Matsuo Basho, translated by Sam Hamill. Shambala. 2000.

Basho: a short poet with a short name who wrote the most precise (and complex) short poems ever written in any language, poems that expand with each reading. Basho, by the way, was the poet’s street name. It translates as Banana. Here’s the haiku that I selected as the epigraph for my new book, Born Under a Bad Sky:

Summer grasses
All that remain
Of mighty soldiers’
Imperial dreams

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, will be published this spring. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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