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Brief Lives

As I announced last week, I have a new book out, Brief Lives, available here, both as a ebook and a print on demand paperback. Brief Lives is a collection of 32 short stories, many of them quite short, only a few pages, but some of them run on for a dozen or more. An “Afterwords” includes (usually) brief descriptions of how the stories came to be written. I ran the first10 last week and I’ll run 10 more today, with the remaining 12 the week after. Enjoy!

Go here to check out my other books—Vorak of Kolnap, Author! Author!, Sherlock Holmes and the Hapsburg Tiara and Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Vorak and Author! Author! are both ebook/print on demand paperbacks, while the Holmes books are dead tree only—well, pretty much. Sherlock Holmes and the Hapsburg Tiara is also available in a complete audio version, ably recorded by noted British actor Simon Vance.

In addition to all this pay to read stuff, I have a complete freebie, Three Bullets, an exercise in fan fiction, recreating Rex Stout’s renowned fat detective, Nero Wolfe, available as an ebook only. Again, enjoy!

Brief Lives—the story behind the stories

Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner?
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” is a rowdy, rather jejune piece that I wrote in the early Eighties. The jokes about the future of the British Labour Party will go over the head of anyone who doesn’t remember that the party had split in half, between the socialists and the reformers, allowing Margaret Thatcher to kick both their arses.

Life Is a Game of Inches
“Life Is a Game of Inches” is a story that changed my life—not as much as I would have wished, but substantially. As they say, you can’t complain

Back in the day, when I was an unpublished writer, like untold thousands of unpublished writers, I had a clever idea. If I could just sell scripts for two sitcoms a year, or maybe even just one, I’d have enough cash to live on for an entire year, and I could devote all the rest of my time to writing “for myself.”

Naturally, I was a complete failure at this, but I did keep my eyes open, to learn more about scriptwriting and when I saw an article in the New Yorker by well-known scriptwriter John Gregory Donne, “Don Simpson was outrageous, erratic, and a great producer,” I read it. I didn’t know who Simpson was, but I thought if I read the article I might learn something about writing scripts.

I didn’t. Donne talked in a vague way about a script he and his more famous wife Joan Didion had worked on for Simpson that never went anywhere, and, the more I read, the less the article seemed to go anywhere. John and Joan never made a picture with Simpson, didn’t know much about him, and I was wondering why Donne had even written the article when suddenly, at the end of the piece—after poor Donny was dead, actually—it seems that the script that Johnnie and Joanie had tried to sell him, well, they had sold it to someone else, and now it had been made into a movie. I felt a bit had, feeling that Donne had somehow talked the New Yorker into paying him to plug his own movie, and it somehow moved me to verse—free verse, at least, the only kind I can write—in the form of the following poem:

Death of a Thug
(Lines inspired by “Don Simpson was outrageous, erratic, and a great producer,” by John Gregory Donne, the New Yorker, Feb. 5, 1996, p. 26.)
Donny died big; he went down hard
The madams mourned and the pushers paused
When the big guy bought it
You had to know Donny
He gave great memo
“Your plotpoints suck!” he told me
And it was true. I was soft, and Donny punished me.
Donny cut to the bone:
“You got the bucks, you get the fucks
So don’t fuck with my bucks.”
We all lost a little when Donny died
But Joanie and me the most. We cried.
Yes. We cried, all the way to the bank
Because we knew this was our last opportunity
To cash in on the big guy before his eyes fell out of their sockets
And because our latest picture, Up Close & Personal,
starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer,
Is opening soon
At a theatre near you.

Well, that was pretty much that. I continued to get nowhere, of course, trying to sell scripts to Hollywood, and continued to get nowhere trying to place the novels and short stories I was writing. Two years later, I was in a bookstore in Union Station when I saw High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Indulgence, by Charles Fleming. I remembered Donny’s name, so I picked up the book and started reading. I liked what I read, so I bought a copy. High Concept is in fact an excellent book, and I learned an awful lot about poor Donny, whose massive success in Hollywood as a creator of fantasies—he co-produced such films as Flash Dance and Top Gun—only encouraged him to try to make his life a Hollywood fantasy. Basically, he wanted to become a tall Tom Cruise. Simpson ended up more or less eating himself to death—his weight ballooned at the same time as he was compulsively pigging out on diet pills.

One thing that Simpson at least considered before he died was something I never would have imagined—penis extension surgery. This gave me an idea for a short story—“Life Is a Game of Inches.” After a few rejections, the story was accepted by Reed Magazine, published at San Jose State University in California.

When “Life Is a Game of Inches” was published, I was publishing about one short story a year, in little magazines like Reed and Willow Springs, averaging about one acceptance per two hundred rejections. I was having no luck getting an agent, and I was wondering if I ever would. Then in early 2002 I got a letter from an agent whom I had never heard of, saying that he had read “Life Is a Game of Inches” and asking if I would like for him to be my agent. About a month later, he had gotten me a contract to publish Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra and to write a second Holmes novel.

Unfortunately, the reviews and sales for the Holmes books were less than spectacular. I parted ways with both my agent and my publisher, which is why I am self-publishing on the web. But, believe me, it is nice to be able to tell people that you are a published novelist. So I owe John Gregory Donne, and Don Simpson, and Charles Fleming, a debt of gratitude.

Stan the Man
“Stan the Man” is a story about the Fifties, looking back on them, as a time when people had dreams that seemed as if they would never come true, but then they did come true, though not always as people expected. The title refers, not to Stan Musial, but to Stan Getz, the tenor saxophonist, whose album, “Hamp & Getz,” which aligned him with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, figures in the story.

Air Boat Operator
Once I went to a party and a couple of young men at the party told funny stories about air boats and air boat operators in the Florida keys. I stored this information away in my head and a couple of years later I decided—why, I don’t know—to write a story about a personality collapsing in on itself. And for some reason I decided that air boat operator might be an appropriate occupation for such a personality. “Air Boat Operator” is one of eight of my stories to have been published, in the North Atlantic Review. I received a single copy of the magazine as “payment,” which I loaned to my mother. She was so offended by the story that she threw out my copy.

Michael and the Book
“Michael and the Book” is scarcely more than reportage—recollections of my own struggles with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. I can say that I understood about a third of it, which puts me ahead of most people. Still, I’m far from a Hegel guy. All great philosophers make mistakes, but Hegel’s hatred of empirical science—his contempt for “modernism,” in general—was pathological, and corrupted his work. To my mind, he has had a very negative effect on European thought, but he remains remarkably influential to this day. I would blame Marx on Marx rather than on Hegel, but I suppose that a system of thought claiming to be able to justify every aspect of contemporary culture can be modified to justify rejection of every aspect of contemporary culture. “Michael and the Book” first appeared in A Summer’s Reading.

Men Are Dogs
I got the idea for “Men Are Dogs” in an odd way. I used to work in a small office with two young women named Molly and Shannon. One morning I entered the front room of the office and started to take my coat off. As I did so I could hear Molly in the next room, telling Shannon about one of her girl friends, who had just discovered that her fiancé had gotten another woman present. As I entered the next room, Shannon turned to me and said sharply “Men are D-O-G-S.” I thought to myself “Well, I’ve got the title, and the first paragraph and the last paragraph. All I need is something to go in the middle.” “Men Are Dogs” is the result.

Sisterhood Is Powerful
“Sisterhood Is Powerful” is another short story that came about in an odd way. I was walking through the downtown DC mall formerly known as “The Shops” when I encountered one of the unhappiest-looking families I’ve ever seen. The wife was wearing something ridiculously frilly—and, sadly, she was really a little too plump for anything seriously frilly—while the husband was wearing a blue blazer and a pair of spectacularly yellow pants. The son—about ten—was also wearing a blue blazer. The daughter, about three, was also wearing something frilly, but fortunately was young enough to get away with it. The husband looked desperately unhappy, and the wife, not much better.

All in all, they looked like the Brooks Brothers family from Hell. The yellow pants in particular stuck in my mind, and, anyway, who can resist making fun of WASPs, even though I basically am one? “Sisterhood Is Powerful” is the result.

Drugstore Annie
“Drugstore Annie,” now that I’ve had a chance to look at it, is yet another whack at that unoffending minority, WASPs. I guess I’ve never been able to pass up an easy target. The story first appeared in Kiosk.

Body of a Woman
“Body of a Woman” is quasi-autobiographical, except that my mom was never fat, and my parents never divorced, and in fact both of them lived well into their eighties. Also I did not grow up in Baltimore, nor did we summer in Cape Cod, or anywhere else, nor did I go to Williams.

No Ordinary Shit
“No Ordinary Shit” is a very brief sketch, reflecting my underwhelmment at David Mamet’s regular guy dialogue, on display in “Buffalo Nickel.”

Pseudo New Yorker

Legal humor here. All cartoons here. and here

“Just think of this little sweetheart as eighteen feet of soul, tightly wound.”

“Yeah, I could play “Rock-a-bye My Baby With a Dixie Melody,” but why the hell would I want to?”

“I don’t play ‘oom-pah, oom-pah, oom-pah’. I play ooooouuuuuummmmmmpoooooowwwwwwwww!”

“I can’t break a glass, but I can definitely break your heart.”

“‘Carnival in Venice’? Now I think you’re just fucking with me.”

“Yeah, I can definitely do ‘Bolero’, but after ten minutes you’ll both be naked, so maybe we should save that for the after-party.”

“Uh-huh. I probably would be insulted if you asked for ‘Tubby the Tuba’.”

“Well, I’m sorry, Ms., but if you want karaoke tuba you’ll just have to go across the street.”

“No shit! I’m a Jimmy Morrison freak too! You want the extended version of “Light My Fire” or “The End”?

“Can I handle ‘The Man That Got Away’? I can if you can.”

The time the U.S. blew up an airliner and lied its ass off trying to cover it up

A serious hat tip to Slate’s Fred Kaplan for refreshing our memory of an unsavory episode from America’s recent past, in July 1988, when a missile launched from the USS Vincennes blew up an Iranian airliner flying a regularly scheduled flight, killing all 290 on board. Fred, in his account, uses a slightly less inflammatory headline—“The time the United States blew up a passenger plane—and tried to cover it up”—but Fred and I are definitely on the same page. Here’s some of what Fred has to say:

As the Boston Globe’s defense correspondent at the time, I reported on the Vincennes shoot-down, and I have gone back over my clips, chronicling the official lies and misstatements as they unraveled. Here’s the truly dismaying part of the story. On Aug. 19, 1988, nearly seven weeks after the event, the Pentagon issued a 53-page report on the incident. Though the text didn’t say so directly, it found that nearly all the initial details about the shoot-down—the “facts” that senior officials cited to put all the blame on Iran Air’s pilot—were wrong. And yet the August report still concluded that the captain and all the other Vincennes’s officers acted properly.

For example, on July 3, at the first Pentagon press conference on the incident, Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Iranian plane had been flying at 9,000 feet and descending at a “high speed” of 450 knots, “headed directly” for the Vincennes. In fact, however, the Aug. 19 report—written by Rear Adm. William Fogarty of U.S. Central Command—concluded (from computer tapes found inside the ship’s combat information center) that the plane was “ascending through 12,000 feet” at the much slower speed of 380 knots. “At no time” did the Airbus “actually descend in altitude,” the report stated.

When I pointed out this discrepancy at the press conference where the report was handed out, Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci waved me away and said, “It’s really questionable whether a different reading would have affected the judgment” to shoot down the plane. (I still find this astonishing).

So do I. But there’s more, supplied by Kenneth Pollack’s The Persian Puzzle, describing the frequently embarrassing history of U.S-Iranian relations. Kenneth tells us a few things that Fred left out. Among other things, U.S. ships operating in the Persian Gulf at the time had orders not to enter Iranian waters unless attacked. The Vincennes’s captain, Will Rogers III, managed to get around that little technicality by having a plane from his ship buzz an Iranian vessel, which promptly fired a few warning shots. The Vincennes was under attack! Well, sort of, and if it wasn’t, Captain Rogers was damned well going to pretend that it was!

Moving the Vincennes into Iranian waters placed the ship under the Iranian airliner’s flight path. The Vincennes knew about the flight, but the plane was 20 minutes late, and the Vincennes crew apparently hadn’t had much training with their new radar equipment and, and, well, you know, the fog of war and all that. Anyway, if the Iranians hadn’t flown their plane in front of our missile, none of this would have happened.

Fred notes that “Adm. George B. Crist, head of U.S. Central Command, issued a ‘non-punitive letter of censure’ to the ship’s anti–air warfare officer, but Secretary of Defense Carlucci withdrew the letter. Not only that, but two years later, Capt. Rogers was issued the Legion of Merit ‘for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service” as the Vincennes’ commander’.”

Fred also notes that both President Ronald “They call me Mr. Classy” Reagan and President George “They call me Mr. Prissy” Bush refused to compensate the victims’ families, leaving that embarrassing job to Bill Clinton, a damn sissy/Democrat, to whom such ballless behavior comes naturally.

James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide, Part 19


This is the 19th episode of “James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide,” a rambling consideration of Thurber’s works, examining his life and work in some detail. Generally, these appear every Friday. The links to the first part and the most recent part are given below. Part 19 discusses the genesis of Thurber’s one and only Broadway play .


PART 18 

Both Thurber biographers are embarrassed by Thurber’s early, and not so early, effusions on sport. “Thurber’s lingering adolescent, sentimental worship of the athletes of his day continually trapped him into maudlin reporting,” Harrison Kinney says scornfully. At age 28, Thurber wrote a piece for the Columbus Dispatch recalling an epic football game of his youth, pitting “East” (his high school) against “North”:

The hush that fell in the week before the North game, working up to rallies and songs and speeches and proud boasts, with a great undercurrent of unmentionable fear, made life worth living in a painful, bittersweet sort of way. It was the terrible, keen enjoyment of a man dicing for his life. Nerves are never strung so high, hearts never break so often or with such a sad whanging note as when one is in his teens and high school.

On the day of the game the orange and black of East blazed out defiantly against the sullen, more impressive maroon and gold of North. There was something unbreakable, masterful, ineluctable in maroon and gold, something gay and brave as youth, and as finely futile, in orange and black.

One can wonder, from the vantage point of the second decade of the twenty-first century, how in hell Jim Thurber got “ineluctable” past tough Gus Kuehner, his editor at the Dispatch. And one can also remark that Thurber tended to write like a bottom. One of the highlights of his days writing for the Riviera edition of the French edition of the Chicago Tribune was his coverage of a celebrated tennis match between the American Helen Wills and the French woman Suzanne Lenglen in 1926, a match that the 20-year-old Wills lost. Thurber portrayed it as a morality play, with Wills as the high-strung artist, doomed to go down before the “ineluctable” Lenglen. In fact, Wills, known to less excitable sports writers as “Little Miss Poker Face,” was pretty damn ineluctable herself, winning 31 Grand Slam titles, the same number as Lenglen.1

When Thurber was at Ohio State, however, he actually had the chance to identify with the winning side, thanks to “Chic” Harley, an outstanding athlete who was two years behind Thurber at Sullivant. It was Harley who first led Ohio State to football glory, and Thurber reveled in it. While working at the Dispatch, he wrote a poem that looked back on Chic’s triumphs, titled “When Chic Harley Got Away,” published to coincide with the dedication of the university’s new football stadium. In The Thurber Album, Thurber manages to work in a casual reference to Chic in almost every piece, though, for whatever reason, he never attempted a portrait of the great man himself.

But Thurber’s fascination with the athlete’s swagger was definitely two-faced. He hated them for being “better” than he was. He greatly admired Professor Taylor, who introduced him to Henry James, for not kowtowing to the athletes. Most professors seated the athletes in a special, “don’t call on these boys” section, but Professor Taylor did not. In one of his most famous pieces, “University Days,” Thurber recalls the agony and hypocrisy involved in pretending that college athletes were actually capable of doing college work. According to Kinney, the hapless “Bolenciecwcz”—“he was not dumber than an ox but he was not smarter than one either”—was actually based on Chic himself, who apparently was not much for book-larning, but Thurber rather ignobly chose to make fun of a Slav instead of admitting that an “American” could be stupid. Americans were “innocently” nativist2 back in those days, and the fact that young men with names like “Bolenciecwcz” were playing college football was considered intensely amusing by “real” Americans, because of course anyone with a funny name must be stupid.

Like many other authors, Thurber thought it important to prove that being a writer did not mean that one was a “pussycat” (his word). The fact that is second wife had been actively courted by a former college football player before marrying him was a point of some satisfaction to him, and it seems he felt like re-enacting his triumph on the stage. Surprisingly, it was the far more commercially minded Nugent who came up with the idea of adding a “message” to the play. (He also came up with the title.)

Actually writing the play, and seeing it through tryouts before bringing it to Broadway itself,3 was an exhausting process, but The Male Animal proved to be a sold hit, which surely must have been extremely satisfying to Thurber, who, for the rest of his life, dreamed of coming up with another one, something he never quite accomplished, unless you count A Thurber Carnival, which ran for close to a year in 1960, with Thurber playing himself in one sketch for 88 performances.

Back in the seventies, I was lucky enough to see a not-bad undergraduate production of The Male Animal at the University of Maryland. The film version, which Nugent directed, and which stars Henry Fonda as the non-pussycat English professor Tommy Turner, is a pretty good approximation of the play itself. But despite this praise, one has to say that the play is little more than a period piece, an example of eat your cake and have it too liberalism, proudly defending the right of free speech but not actually saying anything.

  1. Lenglen, six years older than Wills, had her career interrupted by World War I, and probably would have won more. She only played Wills once, avoiding a rematch on the advice of her father (or so says Wikipedia). 

  2. Word can’t spell “nativist,” which surprises me. They’re not exactly scarce. 

  3. In the old days, Broadway shows would receive tryouts along the East Coast—typically in New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, before daring to face the first night crowd in the Big Apple. 

Alan Vanneman, not a reliable guide to Eastern Europe

OK, I’m not. In my last foray east of the Elbe, I hoped/opined that Vladimir Putin’s muscle-flexing re “break-away” Ukraine was just that. Little did I know that Vlad would pull a Bush (or an Obama) and decide that war is fun. Like them both, he’s discovered that the ultima ratio regnum1 is chockfull of unintended and unpleasant consequences.

I suspected that Putin’s “big win,” achieved by annexing the Crimean Peninsula, which had, after all, been a part of Russia for almost two hundred years (and never a part of Ukraine2), would turn out a net loser for Russia, but Putin’s grotesquely stupid decision to provide Ukrainian separatists with sophisticated weaponry has come back to bite him in the ass with stunning promptness and severity. All of “civilized Europe” is shaking its head at this renewed outbreak of Russian barbarism and brutality.

Putin probably would like to believe that he doesn’t “need” Europe—at least, not as much as Europe needs him. But he just made one jug-eared black kid’s job a whole lot easier.

Of course, there will be plenty of people who will demand that Obama “do something”—even though those spoilsports, the American people, are still pretty allergic to that boots on the ground stuff. But who can pay attention to the GOP’s *manufactured” crises—like Benghazi and the IRS “scandals”—when there’s real shit happening?

  1. Short for “war is the last argument of kings”. Louis XIV had these words cast on the muzzles of his cannon. “I have been too fond of war,” he said on his death bed, after having wasted millions of francs, and millions of French lives, in the fruitless pursuit of gloire. 

  2. Catherine the Great “obtained” it from the Ottoman Empire in the late eighteenth century. 

Brief Lives

I have a new book out, Brief Lives, available here, both as a ebook and a print on demand paperback. Brief Lives is a collection of 32 short stories, many of them quite short, only a few pages, but some of them run on for a dozen or more. An “Afterwords” includes (usually) brief descriptions of how the stories came to be written. I’ll run 10 of them today, 10 next week, and the remaining 12 the week after. Enjoy!

Go here to check out my other books—Vorak of Kolnap, Author! Author!, Sherlock Holmes and the Hapsburg Tiara and Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Vorak and Author! Author! are both ebook/print on demand paperbacks, while the Holmes books are dead tree only—well, pretty much. Sherlock Holmes and the Hapsburg Tiara is also available in a complete audio version, ably recorded by noted British actor Simon Vance.

In addition to all this pay to read stuff, I have a complete freebie, Three Bullets, an exercise in fan fiction, recreating Rex Stout’s renowned fat detective, Nero Wolfe, available as an ebook only. Again, enjoy!

Brief Lives—the story behind the stories

Living in the Year of Our Lord 1959 AD
This was the first short story of mine to be published, in Willow Springs. It was based, quite heavily, on a man who lived up the street from us when I was a boy. In real life, he wasn’t quite as lovable as I’ve made him out to be, which is often the case with alcoholics. Do yourself a favor, dude, and lay off the booze.

Fucking Amadeus
I had a very negative reaction to the film Amadeus. Ten years after seeing it, I was still pissed off enough to write this little story.

The Bounty of the Lord is Inexhaustible
Making fun of evangelicals is even easier than making fun of WASPs. I guess my only defense is that I don’t do it very often.

Boy on the Water
My grandfather, Allen Vanneman, worked on the construction of the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River. U.S. Route 1 runs across the top of the dam. My dad was born and grew up in Port Deposit, a small town on the Susquehanna. One night I was driving across the Conowingo and I thought about my father and I wrote this story.

Waking Up Christmas
“Waking Up Christmas” came about as the result of a story someone else wrote, which we read in my writing alma mater, the Northwest Fiction Writers Group. The story involved a family that ran a Christmas store, a family that, behind the tinsel and mistletoe, suffered the usual disfunctions. Anyway, I was quite taken by several long descriptions of the store itself, and I exclaimed “I bet you could write a whole story on that,” which, I’m afraid, someone thought was ridiculous.

Thus goaded, I paid a visit to a Christmas store in Union Station, which may or may not be still in existence, checked it out, rearranged things in my mind quite a bit, and came up with “Waking Up Christmas.” There isn’t much here for the little ones, but I’m not that much of a Scrooge in person. I like Christmas, a lot, but sometimes getting into the spirit, and staying there, can be a bitch.

“Layover” began as an attempt to write commercial fiction, something I’ve never been able to do. After I finished my first Sherlock Holmes novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, I spent quite a bit of time looking for a publisher, with no success. It occurred to me that if I published a short story in one of the two monthly mystery magazines on the market, Alfred Hitchcock and *Ellery Queen, selling my novel might be easier.

I bought a couple of copies of the magazines and read them, to see what they were printing. I was surprised to discover that the stories were not at all fierce and bloody, as I had expected. It appears that the readers of both Alfred and Ellery were gentle souls who did not much like the rough, dog-eat-dog world of global capitalism in which they found themselves and liked stories that would take them away from all of that.

I wrote a story of that sort, hoping it would sell, and sent it off. I collected two rejections and sat down to write another. The night before I had had a dream based, in dream-like fashion, on a trip I had taken once to Cabo San Lucas, a resort town on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. Once I started in on the story, I forgot that it was supposed to be “commercial,” and I enjoyed the experience so much of letting the publishers be damned that I wrote the story to suit myself and no one else, which is pretty much the way I’ve always written. After all, I already have a day job. Of course, writing to suit yourself is a pretty good way of ensuring that you’ll always have a day job, which is how things have worked out for me.

Anyway, I had a good time writing “Layover.” There’s a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo in the story, mumbo-jumbo that is, alas, entirely inaccurate, according to a member of the Northwest Fiction Writers Group, who happened to be a member of the faculty of the Catholic University School of Law. But—and this is what’s important—he told me that the story was so exciting that he didn’t care that all of my “facts” were erroneous.

There at the New Yorker
“There at the New Yorker is scarcely even a sketch, let alone a short story. Like so many unpublished writers, I have sort of a thing about the New Yorker, and this piece is little more than a brief release of bile.

The Truth About Henry Kissinger
“The Truth About Henry Kissinger” was prompted by the “aggressive” coverage of Henry by a number of liberal Jewish journalists back in the Vietnam era and after. I wasn’t a fan of Kissinger, but I didn’t think of him as completely evil. I came to the conclusion that these angry journalists resented Kissinger because they expected all Jews to be liberals, and Kissinger obviously wasn’t.

At the time that I wrote the story, what I really disliked about Kissinger was his constant lying about his record in order to ingratiate himself with the moralizing Reaganites who had seized control of the Republican Party. Since that time, Kissinger’s reputation has continued to darken, most recently due to the revelation that as Secretary of State he rescinded a planned warning by the State Department to General Pinochet’s authoritarian regime in Chile not to engage in assassination. A few days after Kissinger’s action, former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier was murdered with a car bomb at Sheridan Circle in Washington, DC, a few blocks from my apartment. Which leads one to believe that Henry Kissinger was/is almost as bad as Christopher Hitchens says he is, and perhaps as bad as my nameless narrator says he is as well.

The Meaning of Life
“The Meaning of Life” is hardly even a sketch, hardly more than a diatribe. But my bar is low, and “Meaning” leaped over.

In the Kingdom of the Girls
“In the Kingdom of the Girls” has the tri-partite, thesis/antithesis/synthesis pattern of the classic short story, and even has the standard “important” last sentence. It’s so classic that I almost blush to think of it. But there’s a reason why classic forms last. They work, and I hope this one does.

I was inspired to write this story by two things. At my twentieth high-school reunion, one of my classmates, who worked for the CIA, encouraged me to apply. The thought that the CIA might actually give me a job struck me as a little amazing, and I stored it away. Some years later, on my real job, not with the CIA, I paid a visit to a fairly fancy girls school outside of Baltimore. I was the tallest person on campus, which can be a refreshing experience. This story was written so long ago that Arianna Huffington was still a conservative. I had enjoyed her book on Picasso, written prior to her marriage to Mr. Huffington, a book that enraged “professional” art critics by pointing out what a shit Pablo was to women. Men are so touchy.

Pseudo New Yorker

Legal humor here. All cartoons here. or here

“Is that a gay thing?”

“As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind changing yours. Of course, I’d have to give you a good spanking first.”

“Nice quads! But the gluts could do with some work!”

“Oh, you know, the usual—excessive use of precious nicknames, a Chablis habit that I just couldn’t seem to handle, and something about use of an eyeliner manufactured from three or more endangered species. What are you in for?”

“Hey! Not many of those in a pound! Am I right?”

“I’ll bet someone’s up for a juicy-juice!”

“If you’re an eremite where’s your style?”

“Why? What happens when we get to the top?”

“Yeah, this is my life too. Kids!”

“You look like you’re cross-training for the Hunger Games.”

James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide, Part 18


This is the 18th episode of “James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide,” a rambling consideration of Thurber’s works, examining his life and work in some detail. Generally, these appear every Friday. The links to the first part and the most recent part are given below. Part 18 discusses Thurber’s career as the Thirties drew to a close.


PART 17 

Thurber was on much surer, though vaguer, grounds, with The Last Flower, a salute to the imagination for once not tainted with misogyny, for the enemy here is war, the most masculine of occupations. Drawn in 1939 during the shock of the joint Nazi/Soviet invasion of Poland, The Last Flower is an apolitical protest against a world ruled by hard-nosed men of affairs, whose “realism” always seems to lead to death and disaster for humanity. The Edenic innocence of the Man, the Woman, and the Flower don’t provide much policy guidance for overcoming the men with guns, but no one, least of all an artist, should be expected to have all the answers.1

Thurber quickly abandoned his brief career as a political controversialist, which in fact offers few opportunities for “significant” humor. He was giving freer rein to his interest in fantasy in a series of brief pieces he did for the New Yorker called “Fables for Our Time”, each featuring an Aesopian moral at its conclusion. The pieces were later collected in a book, published in 1940, along with items from another series, “Famous Poems Illustrated,” wonderful caricatures designed to accompany the hopelessly square nineteenth century poems that American school kids were then expected to memorize.

Thurber’s Fables are deliberately modeled on Aesop’s Fables. Some of them are rather lazy, “wise-guy” updates of familiar stories, as in the case of “Little Red Riding Hood,” where Red disposes of the Wolf with her trusty automatic. Others are “animals acting human” stories, like “The Bear Who Could Take it or Leave it Alone,” about a bear who is confident that he only chooses to drink. The final twist occurs when, after choosing not to drink, he proves to be just as obnoxious when sober as when drunk—a drinker’s moral if ever there was one.

Thurber naturally indulged his taste for fantasy in these tales, I have rarely cared for fantasy, in part because, if anything can happen, then it really doesn’t matter what does happen. Furthermore, fantasy has a tendency to get “dark” in a hurry. Freed from the burdens of reality, writers often take the opportunity to “settle” things that in real life usually go unavenged. To my mind, fantasy and sadism often go hand in hand, and you can find both in Thurber. Perhaps the most striking is “The Owl Who Was God,” a very mordant tale. Thurber plays with the idea of bird calls becoming speech in a remarkably arch manner as the owl is quizzed by a skeptical secretary bird.

“How many claws am I holding up?” said the secretary bird. “Two,” said the owl, and that was right. “Can you give me another expression for ‘that is to say’ or ‘namely,’” said the secretary bird. “To wit,” said the owl. “Why does a lover call on his love?” asked the secretary bird. “To woo,” said the owl.

The owl’s gnomic responses, plus his great, staring eyes, which “prove” that he can see in the day as well as the dark, cause a variety of impressionable animals to worship him. Naturally, he leads his hysterical followers out into the middle of the road, where most of them, including the owl, are slaughtered by a speeding truck.

Fortunately, Fables for Our Time is not all blood and guts. It includes one of Thurber’s most famous stories, “The Unicorn in the Garden,” about a rare Thurber man who outwits his shrewish wife, allowing him, it would seem, to spend the rest of his life in a garden with a unicorn, feeding it lilies, a vaguely phallic and presumably paradisiacal fate.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” said E.B. White of James Thurber. “I knew him before fame got him, before blindness got him.” In the early forties, both fame and blindness got to Thurber. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” his most famous short story, appeared in the New Yorker in 1939, the same year that The Male Animal triumphed on Broadway. Both works would be made into feature films, The Male Animal in 1942 and “Mitty” in 1947.

Thurber’s first successes as a writer, in college and after returning home from his service in Paris with the State Department in World War I, had been for the stage, but he seems to have had an incurable lack of confidence in his ability to write anything with a sustained plot. In the late thirties he convinced his great friend and mentor, Elliot Nugent, now enjoying a substantial Hollywood career, to join with him to write a play about a subject immensely “fraught” for Thurber, the conflict between the man of action and the man of words, a subject about which they surely had words as literary gents struggling to survive in the gridiron hothouse known as Ohio State.


  1. The Last Flower is probably “denounceable” as advocating appeasement or isolation. However, Thurber was a strong anti-Nazi, and I’ve seen no evidence that he followed the “left” position that advocated against U.S. involvement (until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, that is). Like many Americans who loved France, he was horrified by the Nazi conquest of that country. 

Department of Unintentional Irony/Hypocrisy/Stupidity Department: Kyla Wazana Tompkins, not thinking importantly

You’re Anna North and you have to write an “Op-Talk” for the New York Times called “If You Read This, You Might Never Drink a Latte Again” So how the hell are you going to fill up a column with that?

If you’re smart, you’ll talk to Kyla Wazana Tompkins, a professor of English and gender and women’s studies who opines that “it’s important to think about the explosion of all of these industrialized lattes, all these frozen lattes, all the Frappuccinos, as links to a larger problem of creating cheap, high-calorie, low-nutrition food for working-class people.”

Kyla, why is it a “problem” to create “cheap, high-calorie, low-nutrition food for working-class people”? Just walk into a Seven-Eleven. Problem solved!

I guess what Kyla “means” is that it’s a problem for “capitalism” to invent cheap, bad food with which to exploit the masses, but, again, it isn’t. What capitalists are struggling with is not getting Americans to pig out, but rather to get them to pig out with their product.

A large point of Anna’s rap is that lattes really aren’t as la-dee-da as you might think. They’re actually tacky! And, thus, so are you, you pretentious, latte-sucking snob/slob!