Amy Rigby, “Girl to City”

My review of Amy Rigby’s Girl to City for the New York Journal of Books is posted here.

Attica Locke, “Heaven, My Home”

My review of Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke, for the New York Journal of Books, is posted here.

Adrian McKinty, “The Chain”

The Chain will tie you in knots. It’s tense from the first few paragraphs. The premise is chilling. The jeopardy is real; it’s jeopardy on steroids. So your daughter has been kidnapped? The only way to ensure her release is to pay a big ransom, even though it’s not really about the money, and successfully kidnap another child. Got it? Good. No cops. No reporters. “Those are deal-breakers.” You better get moving (pronto!) and also know that every move you make (every breath you take) will be monitored. The chain must not be broken. The chain will not be broken. Yeah, you’re a victim. Get over it. Very soon you’ll be a criminal. It’s the only way out.

Adrian McKinty’s diabolical premise is told in brisk, punchy fashion. The setting is Plum Island, north of Boston, and nearby towns. It’s a week past Halloween. The latest link in the chain is Rachel Klein, divorced mother of Kylie. Kylie is thirteen. Kylie gets kidnapped in the opening moments of The Chain. She’s waiting at her bus stop and drops her phone when a man in a ski mask points a gun at her chest.

What would you do if you were Rachel? McKinty makes us feel every one of Rachel’s panicked reactions as she follows the instructions to keep her daughter alive. There are burner phones to buy, search engines to download, corners of the dark web to explore, and twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of Bitcoin to buy and transfer. What’s Bitcoin? What’s the dark web? If that’s not enough, this high-stakes emergency means Rachel must skip the scheduled appointment with her oncologist, who has seen a problem in her blood work.

For the first half The Chain we flip back and forth both Rachel and Kylie, who proves resilient and wily in captivity. Rachel needs to identify a target, quickly come up with a plan for a kidnapping, and pull it off. And of course Rachel’s success depends on the parents of her kidnap victim following the same wicked instructions Rachel is expected to follow. When it’s clear those parents have decided to go improv, Rachel and brother-in-law Pete (a Marine Corps vet with substance abuse issues) need to step in and, well, make adjustments.

McKinty piles jeopardy on jeopardy. Nothing, naturally, goes smoothly. McKinty goes from short staccato bursts of tension to lyrical scene-setting. And, along the way, he slips in references to Camus, H.P. Lovecraft, Schopenauer, and Urusala Le Guin (“Tombs of Atuan”). And, much later on in The Chain (in a second section that explains the roots of the terrible scheme) there’s a reference Sarah Bakewell and The Existentialist Café, among others. As fast a pace as The Chain sets, McKinty leaves behind breadcrumbs for a larger point about choices, life in focus, and human capability in dire circumstances.

If Bakewell is a clue, there’s this relevant quote from The Existentialist Café as Bakewell contemplates the messages of Jean-Paul Sartre: “Nothing stops us but our own free choosing. If we want to survive, we have to decide to live.”

From the moment The Chain starts, you will feel that your own free choosing is very much at stake. And, like Rachel, even with death very close at hand, you will feel very much alive (but try to tell yourself they’re only words on a page).

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Previously reviewed:

Rain Dogs

 

Rob Hart, “The Warehouse”

In “The Unstoppable Machine,” in the Oct. 21 (2019) edition of The New Yorker, reporter Charles Duhigg looks behind the scenes of the mammoth operation that is Amazon. The article recounts worrisome stories of the rugged working conditions, details the company’s cold and ruthless approach to competition, takes us inside the highly driven corporate culture (“spinning flywheels”) and paints a portrait of founder Jeff Bezos’ quirky style and endless ambition.

Read it. You might think twice the next time a driver drops an item on your doorstep. The arrival of that next package might prod a very different image in your head of all systems and people it took to fulfill your personal shopping needs. The work environment sounds especially inhuman. More than 100,000 people work in Amazon fulfillment centers, we learn, and every movement is tracked and evaluated. Falling behind? You could be reprimanded. “Many employees carry handheld scanners that deliver a constant stream of instructions, such as a countdown clock detailing how many seconds remain until the next item must be plucked from a shelf. Workers can walk more than fifteen miles a day, and their breaks, including trips to the bathroom, are brief and closely measured.” The measurements alone can lead to warnings—or terminations.

Of course, Amazon is about much more than shopping. The New Yorker points out that the company collected $26 billion last year from its Web-services division, which has little to do with selling things to consumers, and $14 billion from subscription services such as Amazon Prime or Kindle Unlimited. “No other tech company does as many unrelated things, on such a scale, as Amazon.,” writes Duhigg.

In The Warehouse, Rob Hart takes the Amazon monster, jacks it up, peers a year or twenty into the future (or is it a month?), and tells a big-sweep cautionary tale about corporate greed and the inhumanity of such data-driven, mechanized mega-corporations looking to squeeze every ounce of profit they can out of every worker bee. Yes, heavy on tech and heavy on human energy. (If you think it’s robots grabbing your orders off the Amazon warehouse shelves, read that New Yorker story.) In Hart’s world, Amazon is “the Cloud.” The landscape outside its corporate-run worker villages is bleak and useless. For many reasons, including a series of mass shootings, regular old retail shops have been wiped out. Getting a job with the Cloud means security (and cramped quarters) and a dependable future (even if every bathroom break is monitored). The Cloud is Borg-like. You will assimilate. Algorithms pick your shirt color. Your shirt color determines your function.

Into the Cloud come Paxton and Zinnia. Paxton is a former prison guard, whose invention was snatched up by the Cloud. Zinnia, we soon learn, is working to infiltrate the Cloud and, well, we’re not told everything—at least not right away. All we know at the beginning is that Zinnia has tried hacking the Cloud from the outside, but it’s impossible, “like trying to scratch through a concrete wall with a fingernail.” To do what she needs to do, she’s got to go along and get along. And get inside. But Zinnia’s job as a “picker” reads every bit as much like reporting from the piece by Duhigg as she tries to keep her new employer happy by hustling—and making sure her all-knowing watch remains happy.

“With each item, Zinnia’s feet ached a little more. Soon her shoulders joined in, creaking in the joints, muscles throbbing. She stopped a few times along the wall or in a quiet corner, so she could loosen or tighten her boots, looking for a sweet spot that would keep them from ripping apart her feet. But the yellow bar was relentless. If she stopped long enough she cold watch the slow creep of it. Once or twice, when she really hoofed it, it turned green, but only ever for a moment.”

Yes, continuous feedback. The world-building in The Warehouse is thorough. Hart doesn’t rush our introduction to the Cloud and it pays off. As Paxton and Zinnia immerse themselves in the vast interior spaces, we also see dark underbellies such as drug abuse and unchecked (and brutal) sexual harassment. The Cloud, by no means, is a cure for what ails the workplace.

We get observations along the way from Bezos-esque Gibson Wells, the most powerful man in the world, who is touring Cloud facilities around the country and reflecting on his decisions and his life, now that he’s dying from pancreatic cancer. Wells tells us how he developed the employee rating system—and why.  Wells tells us about his all-American approach to employee dismissals. (“Point is, a job has to be something you earn. It’s not something that’s just going to get handed to you. That’s the American imperative: strive for greatness.”) And he confides in us, at least to a point, about his thoughts for who will succeed him. We are offered the scary proposition of a corporation regulating itself (or not) simply through appropriating government functions. (See any newspaper today for Amazon’s failed bid to win the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI cloud—yes, cloud—contract.) Wells may see a few issues here and there, but believes he has given the world a gift.

Paxton and Zinnia bump into each other at first, bump into each other again, and are soon a thing—though we know more about Zinnia’s true motives than does the ex-prison guard, at least at first. Zinnia uncovers a dark secret about the facility’s, um, nutritional sources. Paxton starts to notice some peculiar potential security breaches. Gibson Wells makes his way to the warehouse facility where Paxton and Zinnia toil and Zinnia pulls the trigger on a plan to carry through on her undercover mission, and the big finish is full of cinematic flourishes.

Written in a matter-of-fact style (the true thriller elements pick up only toward the end), The Warehouse offers a thoughtful look at the future we’re building (each order helps!) on the backs of others.

Is The Warehouse a bleak dystopian warning, much like the books it references (The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451)? Or is The Warehouse a prescient extrapolation of what exists today? Either way, it’s an engrossing story that, unfortunately for us all, is based on a whole lot of truth.

Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, “The MVP Machine”

On the surface, the game of baseball is perfection. It’s the sheer beauty of the way the game is structured around athletes who are attempting to do two of the hardest things in sports.

  1. Pitch a ball past a major league batter.
  2. Hit a ball hurled by a major league pitcher.

Baseball is conflict. Pitcher versus hitter at least 54 times per game.

If you want to dig deep into the current state of Major League Baseball—and how players today are working to get better at those two very difficult skills—check out The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists are Using Data to Build Better Players by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik.

It’s long. (Hey, there’s no rush here; this is baseball.) It’s detailed. It savors data. It splashes around in the muddy, mucky detail with glee. It pokes its investigation-minded nose behind the scenes of the latest training techniques. The book takes us up close and personal with players who are consumed with improvement. Trevor Bauer (clubhouse pariah and all) is Exhibit A on the individual player level, with many other players in supporting roles. The Houston Astros are submitted as powerful evidence on the team level, with other teams in supporting roles.

The MVP Machine gives us all hope—that so-so careers can be transformed through hard work, willingness to learn, and ability to adapt to new coaching and fresh ideas.

Oh, and some fancy new analytical gear doesn’t hurt, such as the Edgertronic cameras, TrackMan, Statcast, Blast sensors, Rapsodo, KinaTrak, and the K-Vest along with (and this is key) smart baseball coaches to analyze the data and suggest tiny adjustments in a pitcher’s arm slot or a batter’s swing motion that can transform average players into potential Hall of Fame players.

That’s the best thing about The MVP Machine—every dollop of data is coupled with a three-dimensional portrait of the human experience. It’s a mashup of Sports Illustrated and Scientific American; the data doesn’t weigh things down, though it wouldn’t hurt to be down with your OBP and know that WAR is not just an endless thing in Afghanistan.

More than anything, The MVP Machine is about getting better. “Veterans who’ve looked lost are reclaiming careers, while an emerging generation of information-friendly players is seeking out from the get-go, fueling a youth movement in the majors and contributing to a constantly increasing level of play,” write Lindbergh and Sawchik. The age of steroids, says Seattle Mariners director of player development Andy McKay, has been replaced with a craving for “new information.”

That’s the essence of this book—the players and coaches who find new ways to develop data, take it seriously, make adjustments, and get better through improved swing mechanics, pitch grips, and other adjustments that (usually) require additional insights from a sideline guru like Brian Bannister or Dick Latta. The adjustments might also involve the intricacies of Laminar Flow (you just wait) and designing a new pitch.

The underlying theme is intensity. Focus. Belief. Grit. Determination–all that good old apple pie stuff. Why take the winter off when you can pitch even more (hello, Trevor Bauer) than you do during the regular season? Bauer, whose innate athleticism is measured as subpar, has reached the ranks of elite pitchers through hard work, intensely practicing the right skills, recording and analyzing every practice, and thinking hard about the results.

In other words, as Lindbergh and Sawchik point out, it’s not just the 10,000-hour rule—the idea that the sheer volume of practice will lead to improvement. “No strategy matters at all in skill development unless it’s your passion,” says Kyle Boddy, the guy who built his own biomechanics lab (called Driveline) from scratch. “He’s not that athletically gifted, but he’s nearly unbreakable when it comes to volume. That’s a blessing and a curse … He doesn’t belong in the big leagues but he’s there because he’s delusional.” (Bauer reveres Elon Musk so there you go; the detailed list of Bauer-related topics in the index takes up nearly a page on its own.)

Believe me when I say I’m only skimming the surface of The MVP Machine. But the bottom line is player improvement. What will baseball look like next year? Or next decade? The strikeout rate has climbed for 13 straight seasons. Where does that lead? Will the game remain entertaining? As the writers point out, “it won’t matter how good players get if fewer people want to watch them.”

The game’s rules, after all, are artificial. They evolve. (Once upon a time, batters could request pitchers throw the ball to a certain spot.) Lindbergh and Sawchik offer up some interesting suggestions for how to restore the essential hitter-pitcher conflict at the heart of the entire game.

Q & A #78 – Beau L’Amour, “Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Volume 2”

What’s it like to be a writer and have an imagination that won’t turn off?

Look no further than Louis L’Amour.

Ninety-one novels. Nearly four hundred short stories, articles, screenplays, and poems—in addition to hundreds of unfinished works that Louis L’Amour left behind when he died in 1988.

That’s a jaw-dropping output for any writer and if you only think “Western” when you see the L’Amour name, you’d be mistaken. His interests spanned the waterfront. Crime fiction. High adventure. Historical romance. Science fiction. And even stories with a healthy dose of mysticism or spiritual adventure.

Following my recent move to southwestern Colorado (the vibrant little town of Mancos, 25 miles west of Durango), my writer pal Chuck Greaves invited me to lunch with Louis L’Amour’s son Beau. A day or two later, a package arrived on my doorstep with copies of Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Vol. 1 (published in 2017), Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Vol. 2 (coming out next month), and the full-length novel No Traveller Returns, also published under the Lost Treasures banner.

Far below is a review of Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Vol. 2. Suffice it to say that Louis L’Amour fans will enjoy devouring these stories—even in their incomplete (but not always) state—and admiring the active imagination that conjured them up.

But, wait, there’s more. Throughout Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Beau L’Amour has added extended, thoughtful commentary on each entry. And both volumes come with lengthy, and distinctly different, introductions along with photos of Louis L’Amour throughout the years. The elder L’Amour is occasionally pictured not writing.

Beau’s thoughtful approach to the Lost Treasures project is easily seen in the answers he sent back after I emailed him a few questions.

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Question: When you first considered pursuing the Lost Treasures project, was it a tough call? On one hand, there was the opportunity to bring these pieces out into the light. On the other hand, given the sheer volume and fragmentary nature of some of the works, there would be a whole lot of work going through them and adding all the commentary, too. Or was it a no-brainer given your father’s talent, his huge fan base, and his wide-ranging interests?

Beau L’Amour: Just to unpack some terminology: the Lost Treasures project has three parts.  First, there’s two books of story fragments, notes and a few complete, previously unpublished, short stories and treatments.  Those are titled Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Volume 1, and Volume 2.  Volume 2 is coming out this November.

Second, there are over 30 of the classic and long-published Louis L’Amour novels and short story collections to which I have added a Lost Treasures Postscript. In these I try to tell the story behind the story, how or why they were written, and sometimes details about a subsequent movie adaptation.

Third, is No Traveller Returns, my father’s first novel, which I have completed so that his fans can finally read what was the final piece of his “Yondering” series. This was an early sequence of stories that functioned as a snapshot of the world of merchant seamen, hobos, soldiers of fortune and drifting men and women that he inhabited in the 1920s and ’30s. These stories are very different  from his later work in their greater focus on the nuances of atmosphere, character, and theme. There were about five stages of dad’s career, this was Louis version 1.0.

There were a lot of aspects to the decision to compile and publish Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures. A writer’s estate has to occasionally revive the confidence of both booksellers and publishers, so it’s good to have a big project or two hidden away that can be brought out just when they have started to wonder if you have anything left. Clearly, book sales have a lot to do with anything we do. Some fans seem kind of surprised by this, but we are in business and the only way to stay in business is to make money. It takes a lot of effort to keep a writer who passed away 30 years ago fresh and popular. If you rely on a publisher to do all the work, or even knowing how to do it all, you are kidding yourself. Then there is fan service, many want to know everything they can, want to own every piece of writing they can find.  This project is unique in that it is the only effort I know of to package this complete a selection of a writer’s “papers” with the works that they relate to. There is also our hope that some of these efforts will allow us to acquire new fans, that someone who came to the Lost Treasures series because it illuminates the interior life of a writer, or discusses the history of publishing in the 20th century, will become a Louis L’Amour fan and buy other books.

Finally and most important, Lost Treasures tells a story I wanted to tell. Dad made two attempts to break away from writing westerns. The first time out he tried to make a clean break. This was in the late 1950s and he was completely unsuccessful. The second time, in the 1970s, he had a complex and careful plan, one that is a bit breathtaking in its ambition, especially given his age. What he tried to do, and the material he hoped to write in other genres, and how he was eventually able to succeed in selling The Walking Drum (a historical novel set in 12 century Europe), Last of the Breed (a cold war thriller), and Haunted Mesa (piece of “Weird West” Science Fiction) is ultimately what Lost Treasures is about. It’s kind of a random access portal to that story, given that that the details are spread out over many books, but the really interesting details can only be appreciated by a person who has just read the story that the notes pertain to. Being able to package them in those novels or with those stories was an amazing opportunity.

Question: On that point, can you give us an idea of the raw material you worked with? Typed manuscripts? What was the process of getting these stories ready to edit? Your description of the burgeoning mess of books and papers makes this all sound like it must have been daunting to begin the excavation process. How hard was it to find all these bits and pieces? There must have been a lot of labor involved.

Beau L’Amour: When my father died he left behind all sorts of randomly filed documents. Beyond that there were dozens of hip-high piles of loose paper mixed with books, artifacts like Rolliflex cameras and Arabian daggers, and newspaper clippings he thought might someday be interesting. I started by sorting all that into about six categories just to make some sense of it. Then I dived into each category individually. Eventually there was a huge pile of “unknown” manuscripts and another of notes. Over many years I sorted them all into order. Through research or my own memories, I identified what was related to which project and then filed it all away. The vast majority of the finished or nearly finished stories that we discovered I polished up and published between 1990 and 2005. I had a lot of help in all of this. A list of those people can be found in the Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Volume 1 and 2 acknowledgments.

Once the project started I assessed each element like this: 1) If it was finished I automatically considered including it. There are a couple of complete short stories as well as a number of film and publishing treatments In Lost Treasures Volume One and Two. 2) The more lengthy something was, the more likely I was to include it. Lost Treasures Volume Two contains one fragment that runs an amazing 17 chapters while another one runs 10. 3) It should “get somewhere.” Although many of these pieces are unfinished, I gravitated to fragments that felt like they had arrived at or gone on beyond some sort of turning point or act break. 4) It was needed to help tell the story I was trying to tell about how Dad worked or what he was trying to do with his career.

Once the selection of a fragment was made I would pull together the different drafts and figure out what I was dealing with.  Often there would be a number of drafts, some distinctly different than others.  I would combine the drafts that were most similar to one another into a single version that include most of the important elements.  Then I would place the drafts that were different enough to be interesting in the most entertaining or easily understood order … this was not necessarily the order in which they were written. After doing that I would dive into Dad’s notes and correspondence, my memories, and his journals, to write a commentary section that would explain what he was up to, how he expected to finish the story, and where the idea originated. I try to keep these as succinct as possible, I’m not the subject here, my father’s work is.

I do the same thing in the Lost Treasures Postscripts included with his well known novels.  Each is different: The Postscript to Down the Long Hills is all about a sequel he was planning, including some manuscript pages he had written and various notes.  The Postscript to Callaghen covers our doing research on the forts along California’s “Desert Road.” And while the Last of the Breed postscript deals extensively with the novel’s inspiration and a missing piece, or chapter, that I discovered in all those papers mentioned above, it also discusses the fate of both movie and comic book adaptations.

Question: Of all the pieces in Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and add No Traveller Returns, too—which one do you think your father most wanted to see published in his lifetime? And why?

Beau L’Amour: There are two unfinished adventure novels, one in Lost Treasures Volume 1 titled “Journey to Aksu” and the other in Volume Two titled “Ben Mallory.”  Both deal with China and Tibet and both have interesting mystical elements.  Dad had spent a short time in China in the 1920s and always wanted to “return” through the medium of writing about the country.  He also was highly critical of China’s imperialist domination of Tibet and supportive of the plight of the Tibetans.  Similarly, and somewhat presciently, he was also concerned as to the future fate of the Gologs and the Turkic speaking peoples of Xinjaing … today we know one of the larger groups as the Uighurs.  He wrote two short stories about 20th century China and these issues, “Beyond the Great Snow Mountains” and “May There be a Road,” as well as starting these two novels.

Question: Can you give us a few thoughts about what it was like to grow up in your father’s storytelling world? The sheer volume of pieces he left behind is stunning, let alone his prodigious output of published works. Did he discuss what he was working on with you or anyone? Your marvelous description in the introduction of Vol. 1 makes it clear he was incredibly dedicated—and his output and discipline are certainly legendary. How did this home environment of words and stories affect you?

Beau L’Amour: Dad discussed his own work more than I initially remembered.  Working on Lost Treasures both brought back a great number of memories or reminded me that I was quite aware of the travails of his writing career even when I was a child.  We grew up surrounded with stories.  Dad read to my sister and me every morning at the breakfast table or on trips in the car.  This was nearly always material he was interested in rather than material intended for kids. I have very clear memories of him reading Thor Heyerdahl’s book on the Kon-Tiki Expedition.

Our house contained thousands of books, to the point where after a decade or so we had to move to a bigger house just to have room to get around. There is a great list that covers much of what he read over the course of more than fifty years on the Lost Treasures website. (Follow this link.)

Sometimes things got a bit odd—there were lots of stories told about my father, many of them he told himself.  Were they true?  Were they merely extensions of his imagination or stories he was working on?  When you live in a household this dedicated to storytelling these are the sort of questions you have to ask, and often that you find you can’t answer. I’m reminded of the character of Ernest Hemingway in Alan Rudolf’s wonderful film “The Moderns.”  He absentmindedly calls his friends by the wrong names and when they remind him who they really are, he waves them away and goes back to scribbling in his notebook saying something like, “Just something I’m working on …”

Question: Your favorite story—or TV or movie treatment—within these two volumes? Is there one that you think holds the most promise for being finished as a concept?

Beau L’Amour: I like certain aspects of “The Golden Tapestry” (Vol. 1).  It’s a bit like a classic Alfred Hitchcock movie. Set in Istanbul in the early 1960s, the protagonist is a fixer and con man who stumbles into a thriller or caper plot. I’m not a fan of treasure hunt stories, unless the treasure is somehow something more than money, but I love the general set up and the characters.

Journey to Aksu (Vol. 1), mentioned above, appeals to me because I’m fascinated by China’s “Warlord Era” of roughly 1911—1945.  This story has all the elements of classic 1930s adventure fiction: The hero is a cynical soldier of fortune who has become the pawn of a corrupt general.  Much of the action takes place along the southern Silk Road in one of the most remote areas of the world and there is a lost city that holds a secret so dark that no one who finds it is ever allowed to leave.

The most intriguing, but problematic, of the stories I’d love to finish is “Samsara” (Vol. 1) which deals with a group of reincarnated men and women who have some slight ability to remember their past lives. Dad tried to start it in four different settings and eras. One version takes place in a “time before time” and possibly relates to a sort of Graham Hancock-like high prehistoric civilization that these reincarnated characters might have once belonged to.  Another follows a soldier of Alexander the Great.  A third is a TV Treatment about an antique dealer in Beverly Hills who can access his past lives. In the last, a young wanderer based very closely on my father, and using many incidents from his life, is recognized as one of the reincarnated and directed toward a mysterious repository of archives that this group has created for itself in central Asia.  It’s a story that ends up being weirdly connected to the previously mentioned “Journey to Aksu.”  “Samsara” would be a very difficult story to tell.  It was clear from the pieces left behind that it lacks concrete goals for its characters and a coherent conflict but it was a very, very, interesting premise.

All that said, I have no plans to expand these stories at this time.  I’m not dead set against it but I have to admit, I like their unfinished form.  It a bit like a movie trailer. When you see a trailer your expectation of the film is all about its potential rather than what the actual film is going to be about. You are living in anticipation. It could be the best movie ever.  You won’t know until you see it.  It’s a bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, both completely alive and totally dead, until you look in the box.  Unfinished, the stories live in your imagination in a way they don’t once the rubber meets the storytelling road.

Question: At one point, you quote one of your father’s journals: “People wonder how I write so much … I wonder why I write so little.” Can you even wrap your head around that concept…how could he have possibly produced more and, down deep, what do you think drove him so hard?

Beau L’Amour: Dad really couldn’t have done more and still lived a happy life.  He was going flat out and enjoying his kids and the opportunities the fame he had finally achieved brought him.  But the attitude in that quote shows how  driven he always was to get back to it.  He wasn’t obsessive, he was about one slight degree this side of obsessive.  Very likely some of the things that motivated him were growing up in a house with two intense and successful older siblings.

His eldest brother was the foreign desk editor for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, a military intelligence officer, and the secretary to a US ambassador to China.  His eldest sister was an author, librarian, and high school principal before she took an administrative position at Stanford Research Institute, a think tank that advised on subjects as eclectic as mind control for the US Military, air pollution, automated check processing, and where to locate Disneyland.

Both of those siblings went from what passed as a middle class childhood in the late 19th and early 20th century rather seamlessly into adulthood.  In Dad’s case that middle class lifestyle broke down when he was in his early teens and he spent a couple of decades in poverty. He didn’t get the opportunities or the education that they did but he could see how helpful that education had been so he was driven to make up for it by working hard and educating himself. It is important to remember that Dad only broke out into serious success in the early to mid 1970s. He was pushing 70 years old and he died at 80. His story is one of a great deal of hard work and not such a long time to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Most importantly, and probably the least understood aspect of Dad’s dedication to work, was that he had taught himself to write directly out of his unconscious.  Unlike many authors who struggle to create he was able to put himself in a certain creative frame of mind and just let the stories pour out.

The downside of working like this is that the unconscious doesn’t like opening up and if you get out of practice, if you lose your discipline, your abilities become harder and harder to access. He was, rightly, afraid to let even a day go by.  After a short time the struggle to regain what had once been easy could become extraordinarily difficult.

Question: What are you working on now?

Beau L’Amour: I am finishing the last of the Lost Treasures Postscripts.  I’ll probably be doing that into next year. I’m also doing some fairly technical work:  Starting in the 1980s we did a series of L’Amour audio books that were dramatized like Radio Dramas.  We did about 60 titles in this style with a cast that varied between 5 and 25, sound effects and musical score.  The last one we did was The Diamond of Jeru in 2015.  Needless to say, between the 1980s and the 2010s we learned a great deal about how to produce these shows.  One of the things I’m doing now is working with Paul O’Dell, our webmaster and computer handyman, to go back and reedit and remix a couple of our old productions to try to bring them up to a more modern standard.

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Beau L’Amour’s website is here.

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REVIEW:

In his comments following Louis L’Amour’s brisk sci-fi story fragment “The Freeze,” son Beau L’Amour notes the tale may have been inspired by the discovery in Siberia of “The Berezovka Mammoth,” which was found with grass in its teeth and mouth. The discovery suggested that the mammoth had been caught in a flash freeze. Louis L’Amour turned quick scrap of inspiration into the opening of a science fiction novel with a man in deep jeopardy. Right at the beginning of “The Freeze,” our protagonist is “setting in for a miserable night.” The conditions are wicked. The sense of peril is obvious. It’ signature Louis L’amour.

“The Freeze” feels like a sketch. It’s full of ellipses. “The sun … how long since I clearly saw the sun?” “It was ten degrees below zero that morning but bright and cold … and then it happened.” This tincture of L’Amour prose is less than four pages long. And yet we’re instantly caught up in the plight of this cold, cold man and his will to survive.

In the same comments about “The Freeze,” Beau quotes from a 1986 journal entry by his father. “People wonder how I write so much. I wonder why I write so little. People suggest stories when my brain is loaded with stories … and (I) would be telling them by the roadside if not for this typewriter.” L’Amour goes on to describe the nugget idea of “The Freeze” and then laments, “Good story there, may never find time to write it.”

He didn’t.

Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Vol. 2 is a deep-dive into some of the unpublished manuscripts, screenplays, short stories, and film treatments left behind by this non-stop story machine. (It’s the followup to Vol. 1, which I’ve only scanned.) Beau L’Amour’s lengthy introduction to Vol. 2, a separate but companion effort to his introduction for Vol. 1, along with his detailed notes (six pages of thoughts and background for the opening chapters of Ben Mallory, for instance) make this project an invaluable gift to L’Amour fans.

The anthology is a fascinating smorgasbord and reveals the broad range of Louis L’Amour’s relentless interests—two beginnings for an epic historical novel (“The Bastard of Brignogan”) about a one-handed man taking on a castle (and about much more); the beginning of a western (“Mac Ross”) with a creepy atmosphere; a complete adventure story (“The Quest for the Bear”) about a group of downed airmen and a deadly—and legendary—bear; the beginning of an early frontier novel (“Kills Bear”) among settlers and Indians in the northwest; and the opening seventeen chapters of the adventure novel Ben Mallory about the changing political landscape in China.  And so on.

L’Amour’s easy-breezy style never varies. The writing is built for roadside storytelling or campfire sit-arounds. The emphasis is on story and mood, often led by a character channeling his inner Jack Reacher or Indiana Jones (“The Jade Eaters”) many decades before either character existed. No matter how far L’Amour’s eye roams, however, rugged landscapes are in abundance.

In Ben Mallory, for instance, the presence of an unusual mammal is the sole clue that we’re in Asia; it could easily be the U.S. frontier: “Among the icy peaks and across the alpine uplands there was silence. Only the soft hoof-falls of horse and yak, only the creek of saddle-leather and occasionally the moan of the wind. Mallory rode ahead, his rifle at hand. Occasionally he looked back. There was nothing.”

Later: “Mallory moved out a little farther from camp. The moon was rising and the shoulder of the mountain lay in vast tilted ledges, grass-covered except here and there where they were exposed…great smooth almost polished white ledges, shining in the light.” The wild, wild west is a universal thing.

The most fascinating entry here might be L’Amour’s ambitious treatment for a movie called “The Jade Eaters.” Beau L’Amour tells us it the introduction that it went into development—in fact, Universal Studios is thanked for permission to publish it. The version in Lost Treasures may be an early version, but it is a breathtaking story of adventure, jungle exploration, and a hidden civilization that may have discovered eternal youth. (“Ben! This is it!! Remember what we heard about the jade? That people who drank powdered might live forever? Well, they are apparently doing it!”)

Yes, as Beau L’Amour has stated, reading these stories is an exercise in frustration—especially since the majority of these end abruptly. Devouring these stories triggers a recurring case of readus interruptus. But each volume has 21 entries in addition to all of Beau L’Amour’s commentary, which includes Beau’s personal observations from his youth and family life along with his best analysis, if he’s not sure, of when in his father’s career a piece might have been written.

“This is the story of the debris, the chaff, the waste heat that a writer produces,” he wrote in the introduction to Vol. 1. “The stuff that never makes it to the editor’s desk. The stack of pages never graced by a final ‘The End.’”

Many of the stories may not deliver that satisfying sense of finality we all crave, but Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasurers offer ample proof of a writer could find a spark in a stray nugget and let his writing brain light up. It’s a remarkable thing to behold.

##

Previously reviewed: No Traveller Returns

David Abrams, “Fobbit”

As relevant as right this minute, Fobbit rocks from start to finish. Written with an easy energy and a dry, wicked humor, Fobbit is an Iraqicized Catch-22. It’s that good. Maybe better.

Fobbit is light on its feet, all too accessible, and piercing in its humor and horror.

First published in 2012, there’s nothing about Fobbit that feels dated. I have a searing hunch the scenes are being replayed in Afghanistan right this minute.

The opening sucks you right in.

“They were Fobbits because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow. Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center. They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazard of Baghdad’s bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph.”

We quickly meet the ‘Fobbitiest’ of these marshmallows. He is Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr., the heart of soul of this novel. “With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle, he was the poster child for the stay-back-stay-safe soldier. The smell of something sweet radiated off his skin—as if he bathed in gingerbread.”

Gooding works in public relations. His job is to tell stories. His job is to tell a carefully managed version of the blood and mayhem out there beyond the marbled palace wall of the FOB, which once served as the home for Saddam Hussein. His job is to turn sucking chest wounds and dismemberments “into something palatable.”

Even better? “Something patriotic.” The war is being managed, for public consumption, through storytelling.

Fobbit, as others have pointed out, is a book consumed with words, tone, and getting the message right. Layers of bureaucracy, and grueling scrutiny, go into every syllable released to the big wide world, even if journalists beat them to the facts on the scene. Abrams, who served for twenty years in the U.S. Army and who was deployed to Iraq as part of a public relations team in 2005, takes us inside the surreal FOB bubble, where the soldiers can almost pretend they are home, with internet connections, entertainment, good food, air conditioning and occasional hookups (if you’re not opposed to a porta potty setting). And he takes us outside, too, to the war around Baghdad, the land of “Lose-Lose,” through the eyes of several other central characters including the forthright Lt. Col. Vic Duret, the poser Capt. Abe Shrinkle, and the bumbling Lt. Col. Eustace “Stacie” Harkleroad. (Shrinkle and Harkleroad, in particular, are surname choices worthy of Vonnegut or Dickens and demonstrate Abrams’ fine touch.)

This brilliant novel folds in diary entries, letters home, detailed press releases and telephone calls. Every exchange comes across like an opportunity alter—mostly, cushion—the harsh reality. Nobody gets hurt. Everything is okay. Fables, lies, tall tales. Sanitize, pasteurize, tone it down.

However, the war is very real. It’s out there. No matter the relative creature comforts inside the FOB cocoon, people die. Soldiers. Civilians. Terrorists. Superior officers, too. It’s no joke, however, when it comes time to deciding the name of the official 2,000th fatality. Abrams milks this benchmark moment for all the delicious irony he can squeeze out of it.

Harkleroad “prayed to God that Number Two Thousand wouldn’t be just another bland, run-of-the-mill death—blah-blah patrol struck an IED in the neighborhood of blah-blah, killing Private Joe Blah-Blah.”

When the death of the 2,000th doesn’t meet the necessary standards for glory, well, it’s yet another opportunity for “dexterously glossing over” the facts. The death in question hits particularly close to home, but the emotional fallout is about as deep as the PR problem (er, opportunity). Perhaps the word exercise, managing the story itself, provides what’s needed the most: denial about the random brutality of war.

Fobbit is satire, but how much of this novel is really a stretch? We hope the answer is “most” as we suspect the real answer might be “none.” And that’s the most frightening thing of all.

(Final note: I listened to Fobbit on audio and the narration by David Drummond was terrific. Highly recommended.)

 

Doug Glanville, “The Game From Where I Stand”

Doug Glanville’s The Game From Where I Stand offers a winning combination—a likable narrator and a mountain of colorful details about life off the field and inside the game of baseball.

Minor leagues. Opening days. Glove selection. Coaches. Stress. Anxiety. Relationships. Autographs. Game preparation. Contracts. Money. Retirement. Winter ball. Dealing with reporters. Spring training. Hitting. Traveling. I’m hard-pressed to think of a subject Glanville doesn’t cover and he does it all with an appealing style. What does it feel like to be a professional baseball player? Glanville puts the reader solidly in one player’s cleats.

Glanville, who has written columns for The New York Times and other outlets, comes across as likable and easy-going. Glanville played in the majors from 1996 to 2004, primarily with the Philadelphia Phillies. He also also had two stints with the Chicago Cubs and one year with the Texas Rangers. This book was published in 2010 and, well, my only wish is for a more current account that includes how a player views the heavy-duty use of analytics in the game today.

What Glanville does explore, however, seems relatively timeless—particularly the kinds of attitudes ball players develop in order to survive. Glanville did not take being a major leaguer for granted. He played worried. He played with the daily concern that either performance or injury might lead to being demoted or traded. “One team’s trash is another’s treasure,” writes Glanville “I can say I have been both, and either way you slice it, you can’t help but feel like property, even if only for a moment.”

Glanville thanks Jimmy Rollins, who was his protégé, for a poignant piece of advice: Do it afraid. “A healthy amount of fear can lead to great results, to people pushing themselves to the brink of their capabilities … Yes, baseball players are afraid. A player’s career is always a blink in a stare. I retired at the ripe old age of thirty-four following a season of sunflower seeds and only 162 at bats. I had been a starter the year before. In this game, change happens fast.”

Coming up behind every major leaguer is a new crop of players who are younger, faster, stranger (and don’t cost as much). “There is a tipping point in a player’s career where he goes from chasing the dream to running from a nightmare. At that point, ambition is replaced by anxiety; passion is replaced with survival. It is a downhill run, and it spares no one.”

Glanville makes it clear that being a major league baseball player requires living inside a bubble. Glanville is particularly blunt here about the focus and dedication required—as well as the fallout from that level of commitment. “No one keeps statistics for DFP (Depressed Former Players) or DAR (Divorces After Retirement), but I assure you they are plentiful … Behind the bluster and bravado, they are as uncertain and fragile as any other human beings.”

That’s the over-arching flavor of this account, a real human being living a life inside the game. Glanville’s details are terrific—like seeing Randy Johnson eating breakfast at iHOP or his warm-hearted tales from playing winter ball in Puerto Rico—and his reactions at every turn seem genuine. He’s not afraid to reveal how he misplayed a ball that could have kept a no-hitter intact, for instance, and he gives a thoughtful analysis of the whole Steve Bartman alleged interference debacle (Glanville was with the Cubs at the time).

Unlike so many others, Glanville did not become another DFP or DAR stat. He had a level head and open eyes about every phase of the game—and the same thing applied when it came time for Glanville to plan his post-career life (which from all accounts has been successful both in broadcasting and business). Like baseball itself, this book is very much about the game and, of course, it’s about everything else, too. Baseball is life.