Monday, September 22, 2014


I've encountered the name Frith three times recently. Is that strange? Probably not! The butler's name in REBECCA is Frith. Then Megan Abbott was staying in a hotel on Frith Street or Frith Road in London. I was curious about the address because I was going to check out my handy GAZETTEER OF BRITISH GHOSTS to find any nearby ghosts for her convenience. Unfortunately I am ill-instructed in the use of a gazetteer and ignorant of the geography of London. (Megan did say on twitter that was visiting Stirling, Scotland, where reside "TWO famous ghosts: the Green Lady & the Pink Lady [unrelated].") Then I was reading in Jonathon Green's history of slang - THE VULGAR TONGUE it's called - about Mary Frith (pictured), also known as "Moll Cutpurse," a 17th-century high-end fence of jewelry and such. She also specialized "in stealing and returning shopbooks and account ledgers that had specific value only to business owners." She dressed like a man and scandalously frequented tobacco houses! In fact she once suffered official public punishment for dressing like a man. A letter-writer reported to a friend, "she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but yt is since doubted she was maudelin druncke, beeing discovered to have tipled of three quarts of sacke before she came to her penaunce." Who wouldn't? There was a play written about her in 1611, THE ROARING GIRLE, and she "even appeared on stage at the Fortune Playhouse. She was dressed as a man and closed the evening's performance with a jig." A great typo in this edition says that she died in 1859, which would have made her 275. I've noticed a few other typos so far. Get it together, Oxford University Press! Ha ha, that jaunty admonition was supposed to be the end of this "post," but it strikes me as I type this that the name Frith may not have been a coincidence in the novel REBECCA. The late Rebecca is often praised and just as often decried for seeming like a man, and our nameless narrator offers to to be more like a boy for her husband (!), and I think there is at least one other woman in the book who is described explicitly as boyish, hmm, not to mention Maxim's sister and Mrs. Danvers. And Lee Durkee told me that there was an aspect of Du Maurier's personality that she referred to as "the boy in the box," recently mentioned also by Carrie Frye in an interesting essay, ("click" here). Gee, as long as I'm typing I should mention that I also read in Green about the 16th-century cross-dressing taphouse girl "Long Meg," who hung out with famous poets, the king's jester, and "the Spanish Knight, Sir James of Castille." She "delighted to assume man's apparel and at last went to the wars with King Henry and returned wedded to a soldier, and set up a public house at Islington." I've also learned more about the bookseller Richard Head, who turns out to have been an important collector of criminal lingo. Green is as baffled as I am by John Aubrey's claim that Head "could transform himself into any shape," though it's a fitting thought here.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bad Dreams

THE EASTER PARADE was good. It didn't make me cry despite Megan Abbott's prediction but I finished most of it in one sitting that ended late last night and afterwards it gave me a long series of nightmares in which I was sorting shoeboxes full of yellowed papers in a dingy apartment under tragic circumstances.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Locked Book of Private Information

I was just sitting here thinking how boring and useless it would be if I "blogged" about what I read last night when another storm came up and we lost the satellite signal again, and then I thought, "I'll do it!" At first I was reading Jonathon Green's history of slang but it was too, uh, scholarly to read in a storm. Well, there was one good part where the French poet Villon was "implicated in a murder" and had to "henceforth scrape a living singing in taverns." But pretty soon we were back to statistics and the word "lexis" was in there a lot. So I switched over to THE EASTER PARADE by Richard Yates, which Megan Abbott gave me back when she lived in town and I knew it probably wouldn't be good for reading in a storm, I mean, I think Megan GUARANTEED it was going to make me cry, and the first words of the book are "Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life" - ha! And the part I was on involved one of the sisters having her braces adjusted by the orthodontist. Hardly storm material! And it was then that I recalled my trusty GAZETTEER OF BRITISH GHOSTS, barely picked through. I read about Borley Rectory, surely the most famously haunted house in England. "In the 1900s Borley Rectory, as a haunted house, had everything," the author assures us. Ha ha! And here's a mysterious and poignant fragment: "Marianne who has lived a strange and unhappy life now resides in Canada..." That's almost a Lydia Davis story, that fragment. Then we come upon "a typed manuscript with pasted-in photographs, cuttings, booklets, posters, tracings and plans that became known as 'The Locked Book of Private Information' after Price acquired it, had it bound in morocco and fitted it with a Bramah lock." Yes, yes, this was more like it. What else do you need to know? There is a giant striped spider I can see out our front window - a spider so large you can see it from the sidewalk in front of our house - and a torrent of rain off the roof was really bashing its web. The web held up! The spider ran up a slender thread for the safety of the front porch, and I mean ran, that spider was really booking it, as I think we used to say when I was a kid, is that what we said? Booking it? I have a used copy of Green's massive three-volume DICTIONARY OF SLANG coming, so I'll let you know.

Jerry Epiphany #2

Just before an ADVENTURE TIME meeting the other day I was conversing with my twitter friend Brian about a talk show Jerry Lewis had in the 80s, cashing in on his role from THE KING OF COMEDY. He told Suzanne Somers (pictured) she had "pizzazz," or so I remembered.
I thought Kent Osborne's brother Mark had introduced that clip to me on a privately circulated VHS tape of oddities, but Kent didn't remember that. During the meeting he found Jerry's talk show on youtube and watched it and started cringing. Meanwhile, although (because?) from my end of the video conference I could only hear the audio and see the reactive cringing, I was cringing FOR Kent, or for Jerry, I couldn't tell which, they were inseparable. And I had an epiphany. All of my epiphanies are about Jerry Lewis. Yes, as I've observed, Jerry anticipated Andy Kaufman, and now that I think about it, Jerry's first act, when he was little more than a kid, was lip-syncing to records, mirroring exactly the first performance by Andy Kaufman on the first episode of Saturday Night Live. (Tony Clifton = Buddy Love?) As J. Hoberman observed, Jerry "both depicts and manifests inadvertent disclosure." So he can razor in on the phoniness of show biz satirically while living without qualms the actual life of a show biz phony. That old Fitzgerald thing about the rare ability to hold two opposed ideas in your mind at the same time, blah blah blah. Or as Megan Abbott said in an interview I did with her, "the unconscious and conscious are always this close... I’m putting my fingers together very closely... just this close always and always brushing up against each other constantly. And so we often are thrown into ourselves in ways that are alarming and we often have to see things about ourselves because we can’t completely hide from the unconscious." Jerry's 80s talk show was not art (was it?) but it crystalizes what Manohla Dargis said about Jerry disturbing "all those nice people in all their fancy clothes." Meaning us! So why, for me, Jerry is more powerful an artist than, say, the comedy team (how they'd probably chafe at that old-fashioned term) Tim and Eric, or any other contemporary practitioner of "anti-comedy" (I guess we call it) is that Jerry is doing what they do, but HONESTLY and not ironically. At heart it's helpless and noble. That was the epiphany.
I watched a documentary about Divine, who on some basic level was as non-ironic as Jerry Lewis. For Jerry Lewis and Divine, show biz is a joyous religion in the service of a dark god, ha ha, how dramatic. Jerry Lewis is the father of Divine. There are minor similarities too: each, while young, created an overwhelming and brilliant persona that became a kind of consuming trap. Patterns of paternal fracture and rapprochement. I don't know. Maybe Jerry (who cross-dresses kind of touchingly - like late-period Divine - in THREE ON A COUCH) has a drag queen's instinct (lip-syncing!) for novelty, exaggeration, nostalgia, luxury, disguise and self-creation. And like Divine maybe he's suspicious of (guilty about?) revering some of those things and so turns them on their head. It occurs to me that Jerry has spent most of his life in a form of drag - like Pee Wee Herman! why can't I stop typing? - and maybe like Paul Reubens's some of Jerry's "bad" behavior can be attributed to the emotional violence required to break out of its strictures. Drag as freedom, drag as constraint. Can we call Suzanne Somers hunched over on roller skates a kind of enforced "drag"? Maybe I should think this out. But I don't think I shall. Somebody else on twitter was complaining that he can't watch Jerry because Jerry is "needy." All performers are needy. The glorious thing about Jerry and Divine is that they don't cover it up. They revel in it and they make us face it. Now we're all super smart and in on the big joke. Only when we watch them are our reactions are visceral and true.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Chuck Dean

McNeil responded with the compelling insight that if Flavor Flav is Jerry Lewis, Chuck D is Dean Martin, the cool partner who gives his more flamboyant friend space for crazy antics but remains unaffected.

For McNeil Only

This one is just for McNeil. The rest of you (there are two of you, I think) can skip it. But I happened to find out by accident that Jerry Lewis and Public Enemy were going to be on THE TONIGHT SHOW last night. I contacted McNeil right away. He loves Jerry Lewis and Public Enemy. But I found that McNeil was going to be unable to watch the show. So he asked me to file a report. Here is that report. Jerry entered, looking frail but game, as the Roots played him on with the Beastie Boys hit "Hey Ladies" - the significance of which to Jerry we have remarked upon before. When he arrived at his seat he noticed to his apparent consternation that his necktie was hanging out of his jacket. "WAAAAAH! I thought it was my tongue," said Jerry, which got a big laugh. Then he appeared to tuck his necktie into his pants... on purpose? I couldn't tell. Of course, the great thing about Jerry is that so often YOU JUST CAN'T TELL. Maybe tucking your necktie into your pants is an old show biz trick. Jimmy Fallon started reciting scenes from THE NUTTY PROFESSOR to Jerry Lewis, which was nicely intended, but odd. I will paraphrase from memory. Jimmy Fallon was like, "And you go to the gym and lift weights but then you drop the weights without letting go of them and they stretch out your arms like six feet long. But it's not over. Because then you're in bed that night and your feet are itching and a hand comes out and scratches your foot, and it's your hand because your arms were stretched out really long." It reminded me of that old SNL sketch with Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney. Jerry took it well. Well, no, at some point he cut off Jimmy Fallon's rambling by handing him what was apparently a shocking and obscene note. I don't know what happened there. It was mysterious. Then Jimmy Fallon started describing a scene from THE ERRAND BOY, the famous pantomime to music behind the executive's desk. They showed a clip of it and Jerry said, "When I write, I think in terms of music," which is something Barry Hannah used to say, more or less. Then Jimmy Fallon tried to get him to do a bit in which he and Jerry Lewis would "talk" to each other by lip-syncing to the instrumental music of the Roots. Jerry was confused at first. I suppose he was thinking about how dumb the idea was, how many weeks it had taken him to conceive, design, rehearse, shoot and edit that ERRAND BOY set piece, but he went ahead and tried. You could see the wheels turning and it was nice. The Roots played some music and Jimmy Fallon flapped his gums but Jerry introduced some hand gestures to good effect and really tried to engage with Jimmy Fallon... to push the bit into going somewhere. It didn't. Then Jerry told a dirty joke about a parrot. Public Enemy came out and did their song "Public Enemy #1." I half expected Flavor Flav to give a shout-out to Jerry Lewis in his introductory verse. He didn't, but I see some similarities there, especially in verbal mannerisms, but some of the physicality too. I'm not suggesting direct influence, of course, just expressionistic instincts in common. Think of Flavor Flav's "Cold Lamping": "We got Magnum Brown, Shooshki Palooshki/ Supercalafragahestikalagoothki/ You could put that in your don't know what you said book/ Took-look-yuk-duk-wuk." More Jerryish lyrics would be tough to find. Especially "Shooshki Palooshki." Or "You're eating dirt because you like eating dirt from the graveyard/ You put gravy on it." Can't you just hear Jerry yelling "You put GRAVY on it!"? And when Flavor raps about "chocolate, strawberry, sarsaparilla" who can help but recall Jerry's rhapsody on strawberry milkshakes from THE COLGATE COMEDY HOUR? What? Everybody? Okay.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Roughage For the Hawk

I am so embarrassed I didn't know about owls spitting out mouse bones and such in pellet form. It's pretty basic owl stuff, I guess! I just glanced at a wikipedia article about it so now I'm an expert. "It is therefore advisable to sterilize pellets in a microwave oven before study," is one sentence from the wikipedia article. There is also something about feeding roughage to a hawk.

Free Owl

Speaking of Laura Lippman, she just tweeted about a book review and I "clicked" on it, and the reviewer quotes the book (HOW TO BUILD A GIRL by Caitlin Moran): "I reckon Nick Cave emits a pellet from his mouth, like an owl." First of all: OWLS EMIT PELLETS FROM THEIR MOUTHS? Just one more thing I didn't know about owls. ("Click" here to read something I didn't know about wolverines.) Secondly, now I don't even have to buy the book to know there is an owl in it. Nothing against buying the book! It looks good!

Armadillos of the Mind

I was up at Ace Atkins's office the other eve and we were sitting in some rocking chairs on his balcony overlooking the town square when he told me he had watched only the first 10 minutes of THREE ON A COUCH (pictured) before turning it off, which naturally distressed me, but I stayed and drank some whiskey anyway. And Ace did say that I should ask THREE ON A COUCH costar Mary Ann Mobley about Jerry Lewis next time she was in town. And I said, "She comes here?"... "She's FROM here!" Ace replied. Later I got up and acted out one of Adam Muto's "Tall Penguin" comics, perfect for acting out on a balcony. ("Click" here to see why. And "click" here to see another one that I once tweeted at Neko Case and she favorited it or retweeted it or something, who can remember, those were heady times.) Ace and I talked about the Robert B. Parker novel SMALL VICES which Laura Lippman recommended the last time I saw her, and Ace had a copy in his office and he loaned it to me so I've been reading it and in the very first paragraph our narrator Spenser compares a woman to an armadillo and on page 109 another woman looks "like she swallowed an armadillo" and I don't know what to say about that, I guess Robert B. Parker had armadillos on his mind when he was writing that book.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Quote-Unquote Ghost

I suppose it is no surprise that the GAZETTEER OF BRITISH GHOSTS has an owl in it. I was browsing through it and came across a story from Bournemouth of "Twenty-eight-year-old secretary Margaret Best" who was "repeatedly tucked into bed by a 'ghost' for over nine months in 1964." Ha ha, what do you suppose is up with those quotation marks? Anyhow, one special feature of the GAZETTEER is that the author Mr. Underwood suggests a nice hotel near each ghostly site, in case you want to visit. Here he recommends the Fircroft Hotel on Owls Road.

Life Member of the Vampire Research Society

Poking around the old "internet," I discover that Peter Underwood, author of A GAZETTEER OF BRITISH GHOSTS, is still alive and very busy with his various ghost clubs. He's a "Life Member" of the "Vampire Research Society" too! And he cuts quite a dashing figure, I must say, as you can see here. Plus his "web" site has a blurb from Arthur Conan Doyle's daughter. She calls Mr. Underwood "The Sherlock Holmes of Psychical Research," ha ha! Pretty good.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Words and Pictures

Dropped by Square Books last night with a snoot full only to discover a hole in my recommendation shelf, which I filled with Céline. I don't think I would have added him under other circumstances. Not a nice man! But that style of his beat me into hysterical submission after only 300 pages or so. Anyway, the recommendation shelf is an ever changing kaleidoscope of literary wonders, ha ha, I'm supposed to be a writer. THE FEVER by Megan Abbott used to be next to that John Wayne bio, so that the Duke was looking askance at the unfortunate girl having some sort of feverish episode on the cover of THE FEVER. Various Megan Abbott books have been spotted on the recommendation shelf from its earliest days. That Lynda Barry book and WUTHERING HEIGHTS are the closest things to permanent fixtures, I guess. You'll note the recent arrival of Seo Kim's masterpiece CAT PERSON. Hey! Remember some years ago when I hosted the first ever "graphic novel" panel at the Oxford Conference for the Book? Come March, I'll be doing another panel with people who write with pictures as well as words. Seo Kim, Kent Osborne, and Natasha Allegri will be coming to town to discuss their work with me. I'll remind you!