The Elements of Revenge Lit.

Every art form has rules.  Some forms, like the Elizabethan sonnet, specify the number and emphasis of beats in a line and lines in a verse.  Other forms operate under dicta that (to borrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean script) function more like guidelines.  I’m not sure how formalized the rules are in Revenge Stories but I can tell you one thing about Andrew Hilbert’s Death Thing.  It has the elements of this genre down pat.

    • A Recognizable Protagonist – Gilbert is one of life’s constant complainers, a fellow the rest of us have met and now try to avoid.  He’s the self-satisfied old guy spouting opinions on every subject, and insults with every remark.  If he’s your relative, you duck him at family gatherings and wonder on the way home why and how his wife stays in their marriage. Like many retirees, Gilbert has too much time on his hands and booze in his gut but the man does have a legitimate problem: vandals have been breaking into his car.  Rather than keep his auto in the garage or take his valuables inside when he leaves, Gilbert opts to turn his car into a machine that will “teach” the criminal element to leave his stuff alone.  Of course, the lesson will teach Gilbert much more in the end. 
      • Everyone who Stays, Pays – Have you noticed something about these kind of stories? 

        The vengeance is always out of proportion to the injury and every character in the story gets clobbered, the innocent as well as the guilty.  Gilbert’s “trap” works on the vandals as planned, then it works in ways the inventor hadn’t imagined.  FYI: if you don’t like stories with gore, look elsewhere on the shelf.  But, before you put this one down unread, consider point #3.

        • Horror works well with Humor.  An audience needs to let off tension at times. That’s why the drunken porter takes the stage after Macbeth murders the King. and why there are jokes in the early part of Jaws.  Hilbert serves up a side-dish of funny in parts of the Death Thing, including a scene where Gilbert tries to teach his wife the tricks of driving a booby-trapped car.  He’s nervous, she’s oblivious and their drive-through attendant is about to learn the perils of arguing with a customer.  
          • There is a lesson behind it all.  Along with a cast of cartoonish characters, Death Thing speaks of an alienated society, where property is valued over people and no one heeds a cry for help, not even the 911 operator.  Instead, the understaffed, corruptible police advise their suspects, “anything you say or do doesn’t really matter”, (a depressing statement no one but the audience hears) and an old man eventually regrets he chose lethal action over a Neighborhood Watch.  Of course, the reader knows those choices can become one and the same in the end.  Death Thing may be a story of extremist characters and scenes but it’s within shouting distance of the truth and that may be the tale’s most disturbing point.

          Blunt, gory, funny and sometimes thought provoking, Death Thing is a book for October.

          Getting Help with Ye Olde Classics

          It’s no secret that I’m addicted to reading.  I started staring at printed pages before I learned to walk and I was pulling the meaning from them before I could tie my shoes so reading was never hard.   Want to hear a secret? Reading the Classics, those old, required plays and poems was hard for me, at first.  My eyes, trained for the fast-paced, economic sentences of the twentieth century, stopped dead at Elizabethan verse and Middle English. Now,  professors tend to look down on would-be English Majors who can’t discuss Shakespeare and Chaucer, so I had to resolve the issue.  You could say I got a lot of help.  I’d prefer to think of it as cheating.

          The Canterbury Tales

          Take enough English classes and eventually you’ll bump up against Chaucer’s famous tales.  The premise is simple.  A bunch of religious travelers meet at a pub and amuse each other through the evening by telling stories.  The problem is, they’re speaking in Middle English, which has, at best, a nodding acquaintance with our type of palaver.  As an example, I’ll give you the start of my favorite, The Miller’s Tale:

          Whilom ther was dwellynge at oxenford
          A riche gnof, that gestes heeld to bord,
          And of his craft he was a carpenter.  
          With hym ther was dwellynge a poure scoler,
          Hadde lerned art, but al his fantasye
          Was turned for to lerne astrologye,

          Now the way to get through this thicket is to remember these Tales were written to be read aloud.  They’re performance pieces.   Sound the words out and what do you get?

          There was dwelling at Oxenford
          A rich “Gnof” that boarded guests.
          He was a carpenter.
          With him was a poor student that had learned art
          but whose fantasy was to study astrology.

          That’s close enough to the modern translation to keep going.  There are only two warnings I should give about reading The Tales out loud.  First off, sounding those words out loud sounds a little funny at first so try to do this by yourself.  Second, you should know Chaucer had a bawdy sense of humor.  There are parts of the Miller’s Tale that still make me laugh out loud while I blush.  So, if you must read this to somebody, pick a friend you cannot be embarrassed around.  Now let’s get on to the next part of the lesson.

          Shakespeare (Without Tears)

          Breathes there a student so well-read
          Who never to himself has said, 
          “Why do I have to read this crap?”

          My apologies to Sir Walter Scott for stealing his rhyme scheme but we all have been bored by the Bard at some point.   Bill wrote some dandy plays, all right, but the speeches are written as verse and they’re heavy texts.  No one has short lines in Shakespeare.  Every sentence is full of allusions and metaphors (the reason other authors keep reusing his lines as their book titles) and it’s damned hard to catch all the references when they’re on the page, staring back at you.  So make it easy on yourself.  Don’t read the lines at first, listen to them.  Listen and watch someone performing them, preferably an actor with the chops to bring out the references.  Take a gander at the video below from one of Canada’s best exports ever, “Slings and Arrows” and you’ll see what I mean:
          Did you get the question in the front?  If Hamlet’s aware of the men behind the curtain, his speech is to make them believe he’s nuts (when he’s not).  If he isn’t aware of them, then our prince is dangerously depressed.  You can’t get that from reading the text but it does bring options to an actor’s performance.  Bill’s plays are performance art and a skillful production can bring out more meaning than any flat page.
          Introduce yourself to material in the format it was meant for and then go over it with your script.  You’ll be amazed how the work comes to life.   And if someone compliments you on your understanding of the classics, just smile and duck your head.  No needs to know that you had help.  That secret stays between us cheaters.

          Something Real to Fear in the Fall

          We like to scare ourselves with autumn stories.  Whether the celebration is Halloween, Guy Fawkes Day, or Dia de Los Muertos, this is the season when we remember that life is chancy and death is real.  Because these truths are frightening, most of us arrange our lives to minimize danger and invent spooky stories for fun.   It took Sebastian Junger to remind us that some folks still earn a living doing hazardous work and watch the skies of October with fear. Those who live by and on the sea never forget that hurricanes arrive with the fall. The Perfect Storm is an account of a Halloween storm that  landlubbers will never forget.
          Two dozen years have passed since a low-pressure system hit the remnants of Hurricane Grace and turned it into a sea-going cyclone.  Three people outside watching the storm were swept away by the winds and two more died when their boat sank off Staten Island.  A Coast-Guard helicopter crashed in the storm and one of the paratroopers was lost at sea but if you ask readers about that storm, they’ll tell you about the fishing ship, Andrea Gail.  They may even remember the names of her crew, because of this book.
          In recounting the last voyage of  the Andrea Gail, Junger gives readers an up-close, respectful view of the fishermen who work hard in hazardous places and the needs that drive them.  These are the people, in a service economy, who still work with their hands.  Their jobs are demanding, the workplace is hazardous, the pay uncertain and there are no 401Ks but sometimes the money is good, incredibly good.  So, to give their children and themselves the same options as other Americans, these men bet their lives on a boat, hoping they’ll pull in a line full of fish.
          While this is the center of the tale, Junger answers the other questions that occur while reading this story.  How do they build boats to stay aloft on the waves?  Was the A. G. a sea-worthy vessel?  How did fishing grow beyond a coastal industry?  Were any other vessels involved in the storm  and (sadly) what happens as somebody drowns.  The Perfect Storm researches and answers these and dozens of other related questions so the book seems sometime like either a very long well-researched article suitable for the “National Geographic” or (to its detractors) a master’s thesis with a riveting narrative line.
          The book eventually made more news than the storm that created it and the results have been put to good use.  Mr. Junger created a foundation to help the children of industrial fishermen get the education they need.  The popularity of the book and film adaptation gave birth to a spate of reality shows about people who do hazardous work, especially in the commercial fishing industry.  Technology improves some aspects of fishing. The crew of the Andrea Gail are not forgotten.
          Still, the ocean and the wind can seem bewitched in October and the list of lost mariners at the Fisherman’s Memorial in Gloucester continues to grow. As long as someone pays for work that can only be done on the water, someone else will take the job while their family waits and prays for a safe return. The Perfect Storm shows inland dwellers who “love” the sea we are lucky we don’t really know it.  Instead, we should respect those who do and keep our Halloween stories to ourselves.  Fishing families already have enough ghosts.

          Now let us Praise Banned Books

          It’s Banned Books Week again, that week cherished by bibliophiles and lovers of intellectual freedom, a time when the stupidity and bigotry of would-be censors is exposed to the light of day. Granted, a small part enjoying of BBW comes from a feeling of coalition; it’s nice to meet others who prize big ideas over small minds but the core of the celebration are the books themselves. Banned Books  are some of the best stories in the world.

          When I first heard Americans were banning books, I was a teenager and my personal library was kept on one shelf.  At the time, I was amazed that anyone in the USA endorsed censorship, especially after after WWII (why copy any policy approved of by Hitler?)  The real surprise came when I read which books folks had wanted to ban:  Alice In Wonderland?  To Kill A Mockingbird?  The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds?  Were they kidding? Almost every book on my shelf (and all of my favorites) had been a target for censorship at some point.

          I also noticed titles that were not on the list.  One of families that I baby-sat for kept a collection of paperbacks in the living room that, shall we say, were not to my taste.  Not your standard coffee table fare (although that’s where they were kept).  None of those titles were on the challenged book list.  Now, I don’t want to control anyone else’s reading material but I couldn’t understand the rationale. Why would be book-banners ignored the neighbor’s volume of “Loving Family” (if you can’t guess the plot lines, you don’t want to know) and pick on my Catcher In The Rye?

          I heard a lot of canned remarks about parental concerns and impressionable minds whenever I asked this question but campaigns against specific books still didn’t make any sense when I looked at the challenged material and the specifics of the parental concerns.  It took some thinking but I think I’ve found the real reason specific books get some folks looking for matches.  The reason isn’t sex or drugs, violence or rock-n-roll.   Books get challenged when they contain material that gets the reader to think.

          An uneducated boy and a runaway slave become the moral conscience in a story where the “civilized” humans promote racism, mob rule and a level of gullibility that should make humanity blush. At the climax of the book, the boy denies the values he’s been taught and decides to help the slave find freedom, even if it costs the kid his soul.  Turning your back on society is an outrageous idea.

          Another young man decides he won’t sell school candy and sticks to his decision even though he’s persecuted for it and his actions “disturb the universe.”  Not following the herd is a dangerous glamorous idea for any teenager to entertain.
          After years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, a downtrodden black woman discovers her own voice and value and makes a life of herself.  That concept’s downright revolutionary.  
          In a way, getting challenged has become literature’s contrary seal of approval.  It means the work is so polished and stimulating that someone fears a reader may understand it. Fear of understanding is why the censor says, “This you may not think; this you may not know.” Shirley Jackson knew this when she heard her story, “The Lottery” had been banned in South Africa.  She said the ban proved the country understood her story, an allegory that shows how evil becomes invisible when it’s incorporated into the culture.  Houston, Texas also got the point because they pulled The Lottery off of bookshelves two years ago.*  If there’s ritualized evil in Texas, they want to make sure no school child can spot it.