Dr Dolan’s Summer Reading Guide
By John Dolan
Balance. That’s the key to any good summer reading list. I remember how Gore and Truman used to tease each other, on those long afternoons at my little summer place near Nantucket, with competitions to see who could compose the perfect booklist for a lazy day in the hammock—alone or otherwise!
While making a sizable dent in my stock of Tanqueray and tonic, Truman would opine that the perfect summer list should be “...as light as a Montmartre souffle, as breezy as a Cape Cod afternoon, and as insolent as an Andalusian gazpacho.” In honor of departed friends, I’ve composed this humble picnic for the lazy summer reader.
Our appetizer is redolent of the chapparal and red dirt of Redding, California, the sizzling tip of the Central Valley. In this hardworking lumber town, back in the wellmeaning Jimmy Carter years, a humble millworker had a dream...and he made that dream come true. Like Kevin Costner, he heard the voices telling him, “If you build it, she will come.” So he invested hundreds of hours and gallons of sweat building his dream: a soundproof, well-hidden do-it-yourself torture chamber and dungeon, right in the basement of his modest home. All that was lacking was the girl of his dreams. And then, cruising the offramps on I-5 one day with his accommodating zombie wife and their flaxen-haired daughters, he found her: nineteen-year-old Colleen Stan. Colleen may not have been beautiful in the anorexic, twitchy, demanding manner of the time, but to those of us with an eye for the true, inner beauty of the born slavegirl, Colleen was well worth the risk of a kidnapping charge. She had that certain something that says, “Take me home, put my head in a soundproofed wooden box, stretch me on a rack, tie me to the rafters and flog me til I bleed water...and I’ll love you for it!”
He did; and she did. It’s so rare in these cynical, self-seeking times that one sees true love, love in its most ancient, profound form: the love of the slave-girl for the man who keeps her in a secret compartment under his bed for years at a time, releasing her only long enough to play with her in the romper room he constructed down in the basement. Colleen blossomed under this old-fashioned courtship into a girl I’d still kill for (just give me the address! Please!) She and her master, with the grumpy cooperation of his bloodless wife and goblin daughters, loved a lifetime in their few years. The ending was sad—he’s doing 305 years to life in Folsom, and she was forced to become a fat, lonely self-seeker by the California authorities—but for a little while, two people—well, six if you count the wife and kids—managed to make our deepest, oldest dreams come true—right there in the heart of Mordor, where all the deepest, beigest smog of the beigeocracy is pumped into the atmosphere to be shipped around the world. Doomed lovers, we salute you.
Romance is all very well, but the awakened palate demands something more substantial to follow. And what better than heaped Chinese corpses steaming in the snow? This striking blend of East and West, cold and hot, kim chee and napalm-fried hamburger, offers something to please every taste.
I have always considered Korea a very underrated war, and am glad to see it finally coming into its own. Of all its battles, Chosin is unquestionably the most satisfying. What a glorious serving of carnage we have here, all but ignored by the fools who know only what Spielberg feeds them—D-Day! That utter culinary carnage cliche! That Big Mac of battles! No, my discerning friends, it is not the tired armies of post-Stalingrad Germany which delight the palate, but rather the fresh battalions of the Mao, their piquant Eastern flavors blending with the Yankee pot roast of the inimitable Douglas MacArthur. After Inchon, MacArthur drove the US forces north, determined to conquer all of Korea—and if his tanks happened to drive a few miles too far, into Manchuria, so much the better! He split his forces, like every overconfident commander since the Cro-Mags started braining the Neanderthals...and thus was born this great story. The US Army swept northwest in the middle of the Korean winter, pedal to the medal, with no thought of defense. The other wing of MacArthur’s force, the Marines, advanced more slowly and carefully. So, when a million screaming, bugle-blowing frostbitten Chinese popped up out of the snow, the two wings reacted differently: the Army screamed like Don Knotts, made a quick u-turn, and bugged out, leaving wounded, supplies, and any strays behind. The Marines, by contrast, actually fought. And fought rather well. So did the Chinese. An admirable army, Mao’s PLA. A million of them lay low, without fires, dying, losing feet and hands to frostbite, in order to gain complete surprise. Then, when the orders came, they charged the better-armed and clothed Americans and died in rows, in piles, in hordes. And those were the lucky ones; the less fit simply died where they waited, unable to make it through the Siberian winter nights long enough to join the surprise attack. Admirable too the Marines, who held their lines and killed dozens for every man they lost. They retreated with glory, like Xenophon, through much bigger but poorly equipped Chinese, and gained the coast, took ship and came home...and nobody wanted to hear about it. America wasn’t in the mood. Tom Brokaw’s damned Greatest Generation was still telling its war stories and didn’t want the competition. There are no movies for them, only the grumbles of bitter vets like Portis, inserting the Marines’ forgotten stand into his every grumpy novel. Well, maybe he and his friends can have their chance to embarrass themselves in public now, like the WW II vets who’ve scrambled for the chance to cry on camera at every battlefield from Guam to Normandy. Or perhaps they’ll get really lucky, and no one will even give them the chance. And those old men in Arkansas and Hunan can die decently, in stoic silence.
Our dessert is far sweeter than its grim title and the ominous names associated with it might suggest. It’s a taste of old San Francisco, back in the days when the real San Francisco treat wasn’t Rice-a-Roni but pure opium, available on every corner, and so cheap you could buy a pipeful of the stuff for less than the price of a pack of cigarettes. Whole blocks smelled of opium; you could catch the whiff of bliss before you even entered Chinatown. I don’t know about you, but I’m drooling just telling you. Now that, folks, is a dessert!
But first a few urgent disclaimers. For one thing: this isn’t THAT Jack Black. I’m told there’s some kewl entertainer sleazing around the US these days calling himself Jack Black. Well, we’re talking about a totally unrelated Jack Black here. This one, the author of this long-forgotten book, was a thief, bum, and opium addict who roamed the western US in the early twentieth century. He wrote the story of his life, which would no doubt be long forgotten except that Burroughs, who had a pretty decent sense of loyalty, named it his favorite book. It’s been revived by these...sigh!...these, uh, “anarchists”—yes, yes, little circles with an A in the middle—who run something called AK Press. OK, so that part is pretty embarrassing. And—might as well get it all out in the open—that’s nothing compared to the imbecilic Afterword by one Michael Disend. I would like to meet this Michael Disend someday. I would like to break his left arm. Then his right arm. Then drag him to a vise and place his fingers into it, one after the other, and tighten until each finger looks like ravioli which broke apart while boiling. Then, and only then, I would like to sit Mister Disend down and have a serious talk with him about why he should not write any more.
But enough grumbling! You Can’t Win is good drug porn and good anti-MacCaffrey propaganda too. Black talks about pulling a burglary, then heading to the nearest “hop” (opium) joint to puff away his nerves. Lying there, floating above the bed...utter silence, perfect warmth, no fear. And these places were EVERYWHERE! If you landed in a new town in, say, the wilds of Idaho, all you had to do was check out the nearest Chinese laundry to be directed to a hop joint. One of the nicest aspects of Black’s tale is his love for the Chinese, whom he calls “honest, charitable, frugal”...and let’s not forget their superb taste in drugs!
And it’s all vanished now, all that world, forgotten. They pretend drugs started with the hippies. No, that was the beginning of the end. We starve, brothers. This feast has been a dream only. We return to the cubicle now, where there are neither slavegirls, nor gore, nor even the solace of opium. We are sitting in a cell, brothers, pasting together this feast from cut magazine pages. We starve, and smile, and grovel.