"New" Las Vegas
(Bantam Dell)For some reason, they have decided that those people who make a bundle in their lifetimes --- no matter how seedy their lifetimes --- are to be lionized. Mr. Earley's book is an excellent example. It's that very peculiar American adoration of the very, very --- probably too --- rich.
Fifty years ago, we spoke of our politicians with awe, and reverence. Twenty-five years ago, it was our religious leaders. Now, it is those who twist the tail of the system to build up a pot-of-gold. And Mr. Earley --- of the Washington Post and Robert F Kennedy Book Awards --- is here to tell us that those people who feed off your need (and my own) to enrich the casinos in Las Vegas are just as nice and accessible as home folk.
The heroes here are Bill Pennington and Bill Bennett who turned the failing Circus Circus into a money bucket. Why have they been accorded these encomiums? Because they granted the author unlimited access to write what he wished. And like most of us, soon enough he fell under the spell of those who could buy and sell you and me like that.
Who, after all, are we idolizing here? A humorless Mormon and a failed furniture salesman. Two who had the bestial hunger to sacrifice everything to be rich (they regularly appear in that pantheon of the Acme of Vulgarly Rich Americans --- the Fortune 400.)
Mr. Earley wants us to think of him as just a journalist, doing his journalistic bit, with the journalistic discipline of research and interviews and keeping notes and looking up obscure lore. Las Vegas means "the meadows." It was named by the San Pedro-Los Angeles-Salt Lake Railroad Line, which ran through it. Bugsy Siegel "did not name the Strip, nor was he the first to build there" --- the Strip was named by Jay Sarno, who was "Born in 1921 in St. Joseph, Missouri, [and] was the youngest of seven children and the one who was always a disappointment."
We know, as we read this, that Earley --- or more likely his research assistants --- did all the necessary homework. To humanize his tale, he sticks in pages here and there of on-the-spot interviews: one of the first workers to spot the fire at the old MGM Grand; an anonymous pit boss in the Luxor mourning the old days ("every once in a while, someone ended up in the desert dead," he says proudly, nostalgically); two ladies from Tennessee who decide to go topless at a hotel pool ("that's why you came over here, right --- to get a better look at our titties?")
Earley's heroes are unheroic to a fault, with a ruthlessness that should be the centerpiece of no man's soul. Yet here we have a whole book based on such items as "they had turned it from a financial fiasco losing $500,000 a month into a company whose stock was worth $300 million."
Where I come from, we called those profits obscene. And I would venture to guess this exegesis is even more so.
Thus, we have, in sum, a paean of praise to the greedy, the pushy, those who exploit others mercilessly --- the gamblers, the dealers, the chambermaids and sweepers who, we can guarantee you, in no way participate in this hot-house of make-a-buck. Carlos AmanteaThreads
(Counterpoint)Those of us who live in Southern California but outside Los Angeles don't take a journey into that vast city easily. Somehow the twelve and sixteen lane freeways, the 80 mph traffic, the air, the oppressive thought of 20,000,000 people pressing in on one --- for some of us it is just too much. We'd gladly travel to Boise or Baltimore or Buffalo rather than go 100 miles into the human bog which is "the greater L A Basin."
But when Brook's Mahabarata opened in Los Angeles for a two week run, we were there. It ran for three nights, which meant we had to live there --- morbid thought --- for three days. The city was a stinker; the play was astonishing, fun, sometimes funny, and --- most of all --- gave one a rich understanding of the culture that created it.
Brook was making movies in England when he was nineteen. He directed Measure for Measure at Stratford at age twenty-one. He filmed The Lord of the Flies and financed and filmed Meetings with Remarkable Men not soon after.
He knew know Salvador Dali, Bertold Brecht, and Jean Genet. He directed Jeanne Moreau, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier, and met with the likes of Fidel Castro and César Chávez.
For anyone who cares for theories of film and stage, Threads of Time is a guide through the evolution of the performing arts of the 20th Century, a study of the theory of drama and movies as put together by a practitioner. There are passages that are superb: meetings with Sufi dervishes, hunting for grants in Aspen, being asked to sing at a funeral in Africa:
Where did our sound come from? a strange and beautiful corale came into being, not from us but through us. It was created by the night, the forest, and the occasion. We became one with the village, we knew about death, we shared their grief.
Brook is a story teller. That's his study, for movies and plays are about telling stories that people will comprehend, will react to. When he involves us directly in this way, one could not ask for a better guide.
However, when he comes to describe the people he is working with, we have to struggle --- as he does --- with the words. He wants, for instance, to tell us how great an actor Yoshi Oida: "When he stood up, even before he moved, his body had a special lightness." The statement makes no sense. Like the rest of us, Brook is trying to put the essence of something (a flower, a miracle, an actor) into words --- even though he has been trained to show us, not tell us. To put it another way, if Brook were to make a video about his career, it would be a delight. For him to try to cram wonder between the covers of a book is useless.
Early on, Brook became a follower of Gurdjieff. He spent a great deal of time with Gurdjieff's spiritual heir, Madame de Salzmann. He tells us, "I would like to be able to draw a portrait with words of this remarkable person, but I know how inadequate this will be." He then goes on to draw a portrait of her ("open in body, feeling, and thought.") This is the hardest job for any of us: to put one we love and admire into words.
And, too, there are the missing parts of Brooks' own story. Where is the pain? Where is the loss? Where are the failures? It's consciously an upbeat book --- and I hope you will pardon me if I say it brooks no failure.
Still and all, he made the wonder of The Mahabarata happen for many of us. Here, he may only be able to make half of his life come half to life. Should we care? He has moved and changed the world of our seeing the world in wondrous ways. If for no other reason, we should honor him for that, forgive him for not being the perfect wordsmith. Elsa RobbinsCider with
(Peter Owen/Dufour Editions)
Suddenly our absent father died --- cranking his car in a Morden suburb. And with that, his death, which was also the death of hope, our Mother gave up her life. Their long separation had come to an end, and it was the coldness of that which killed her. She had raised his two families, faithfully and alone; had waited thirty-five years for his praise. And through all that time she had clung to one fantasy --- that aged and broken, at last in need, he might one day return to her. His death killed that promise, and also ended her reason. The mellow tranquillity she had latterly grown forsook her then forever. She became frail, simpleminded, and returned to her youth, to that girlhood which had never known him. She never mentioned him again, but spoke to shades, saw visions, and then she died.Lucky is the writer who has stumbled over the prose of Laurie Lee. Not only was he a modern romantic and a poet, he wrote a gem of a memoir of growing up in rural England. It appeared there as Cider with Rosie. (In the United States --- since most of us don't associate cider with getting tanked --- it was called Edge of Day.)
It's the tale of growing up poor in Slad in rural Gloucestershire with an eccentric mother, several kind and loving half-sisters, a father who never appeared, eccentric neighbors --- all part of the innocent pre-automobile life we can now only dream about. It's a country tale, recounted with a literary style that raises it miles above the thousands of let-
me- tell- you- about- my- innocent- childhood biographies that pour forth yearly from the presses.
Laurie Lee was an incurable romantic who --- once he left Gloucestershire --- travelled to Spain with his guitar in the 1930s, fell in love with Andalusia (and with several Andalusian ladies), fought in the Spanish Civil War, and returned to England where he wrote and published poetry and countless essays, finally dying at home in Slad not long ago. Cider with Rosie was published in 1959, was an instant hit, translated into eighteen languages, going through countless editions in England and in the United States, where it's probably still in print, and if it isn't, our publishers should be led out into the streets and shot en masse.
It is a wistful tale of a country town that --- even as Lee was blossoming --- was dying. This life and death of an Edwardian village, and the life and death of his slightly balmy mother, are described with care and gentle child-joy. Lee was a writer who mastered the difficult act of honoring the boundaries between warm sentiment and vulgar sentimentality.
Barbara Hooper, the writer of Cider with Laurie, met him towards the end of his life, and here fills out his tale with interviews with friends, fellow poets, the denizens of Lee's favorite pubs, the inhabitants of Stround, and appropriate scholars. One of her goals is to show us the contradictory stories he told about his days growing up in Slad and the various and different stories he (and others) concocted about his journeys, and his war-time adventures in Spain.
What a sorry, spoil-sport task she's given herself --- and us. Leafing through Cider with Laurie is about as much fun as coming down with the cholera. One suffers through page after page of Hooper's pedestrian, tedious, wooden, lifeless prose in pursuit of the obvious. It leads us to wonder --- when someone has described his life wonderfully well on his own --- why must some pickle-headed ninny come along with a literary shovel to dump the jewels of words (along with the dung) at the side of the road?
"The Stround of Laurie's secondary school days was a lively, bustling town," she tells us --- and we think, "We know that already, lady. Laurie Lee told us so." In recapping Cider for Suzie, Hooper, turning into a common scold, writes, "Some of the incidents described hover nearer to myth than history." And we think, "O shut up."
When she describes his times in the Spanish Civil War, she wants us to know that some of his peers questioned how and when and even if he served on the Loyalist side --- and we think, "All great lives are fictions."
My personal theory is that those who write about great writers should themselves be great --- or at least good --- stylists. If they presume to second-guess good writers --- they should seek some other field outside of being a common scold. Do something legitimate, for a change. Make doilies. Study astronomy, agronomy, or parsimony. Go to writing school to learn how to build a worthy declarative sentence.
For those readers who wish to read up on this deliciously eccentric wandering minstrel, you're better off with Valerie Grove's recent Laurie Lee. Which at least has the courtesy to let the author do much of the talking.--- R. P. Weise