Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut (1979)

The most embarrassing thing to me about this autobiography, surely, is its unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man. I have been in a lot of trouble over the years, but that was all accidental. Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind. Shame on me. (p.178)

This is Vonnegut’s ninth novel, published 27 years after his first, Player Piano (1952).

A hell of a lot had happened in those years – most of the 1950s, the entire 1960s and most of the 1970s – sex and drugs and rock and roll, the swinging sixties, hippies, glam rock, prog rock, punk – the Vietnam War with all its student protests segueing into the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement morphing into the Black Panthers and Black Power, the entire Space Age from Sputnik through the moon landings to the Space Shuttle, the oil crisis, Watergate and the discrediting of the American presidency.

Reading Vonnegut’s novels in sequence is like following him and his country on an enormous bender, and then waking up dazed and incredibly hungover the morning after.

A return to sobriety

That’s how reading Jailbird feels (at first, anyway). In comparison with the freaky experimentalism of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and of his most fragmented and experimental novel, Breakfast of Champions (1973) which comes complete with Vonnegut’s own illustrations – and unlike the knackered sci-fi of the dystopian novel Slapstick (1976), Jailbird seems like a return to sobriety and convention.

For example, unlike those three novels whose texts are split up into fragmented sections and paragraphs by asterisks or arrows, garnished with illustrations, packed with digressions, including the author’s speculations about his own characters – Jailbird is visually a return to convention, the prose arranged without gimmicks into consecutive paragraphs, themselves grouped into 23 normal-length chapters (unlike the page or half-page-long chapters of its predecessors). Jailbird looks like a normal book.

The long preface

And it does indeed turn out to be a much more conventional read, in tone, mood and style. This is signalled by the thirty-page preface.

Vonnegut hadn’t been shy of writing prefaces to his novels which, as the 60s turned into the 70s, had contained more and more personal, almost intimate, information (for example, about his mother’s suicide and his own depression).

In striking contrast to the ‘letting it all hang out’ approach of those introductions, the introduction to 1979’s Jailbird is strikingly serious and earnest. In tones close to that of a history book or journalistic feature, it recounts the story of the Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre, in which, in 1894, peaceful and mostly female protesters outside an iron works which had laid off their menfolk for rejecting a pay cut, were shot down by freelance ‘security men’ brought in from outside the state.

The link to the rest of the book is that one of the sons of the brutal Scottish immigrant who owned the iron works – Daniel McCone – who was, therefore, responsible for the massacre, is Alexander Hamilton McCone. Well-meaning and well educated Alexander had tried to intervene to break up the protest but is forced to watch the massacre take place, nonetheless.

This results in him withdrawing to live as a traumatised recluse cut off from society, from even his own wife and daughter, by an extreme stammer. His only company is a young boy, the son of the McCone family’s cook and chauffeur Walter F. Starbuck. In return for keeping him company, Alexander promises to send the lad to Harvard when he grows up.

And Jailbird turns out to be the story of Walter F. Starbuck’s life, as told by himself.

First person memoir

In this respect it is like the first-person memoirs which make up Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle and Slapstick. In all of these an ageing man (66 at the time of writing, p.47) looks back over his life from a current situation in which it is drawing to an end. Use of this retrospective point of view means the narrative can jump around from scene to scene, can set up expectations of the future, can signpost major incidents coming up numerous times before actually getting round to describing them.

And it leaves the narrator free to lard the text with his own comments, thoughts and interpretations, something Vonnegut was very inclined to do in those earlier books.

So this memoir or biography is being written by by Walter F. Starbuck.

Right on the first page he gives us the straightforward chronology of his life (just as he did the life of Billy Pilgrim on page one of Slaughterhouse-Five). He was born in 1913, went to Harvard in 1931, got his first government job in 1938. In 1945 he was sent to Germany ‘to oversee the feeding and housing of the American, British, French, and Russian delegations to the War Crimes Trials’ (p.51) and ends up spending four years in Germany.

In 1946 he married a Jewish translator he met in Germany and quickly had a son from whom he is estranged. In 1953 he was sacked from the federal government and ended up helping his wife with her interior decoration company throughout the 1960s. In 1970 he was offered a job in the Nixon White House, and in 1975 tried and convicted of involvement in the Watergate conspiracies, followed by early release from prison in 1977.

Somewhere in the blurbs for the book it says that this is Vonnegut’s Watergate novel but that is wildly misleading. That makes you think you’re going to be taken into the labyrinthine complexities of the Watergate conspiracies, meet the various bad guys in the Nixon administration, maybe there will be some thriller-style suspense and uncovering of new evidence.

Imagine how thrilling and exciting a write like Robert Harris would make a thriller about Watergate.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Jailbird is neither thrilling nor exciting, it is weird and – the temptation is to say ‘surreal’, but really it is nonsensical in the Edward Lear sense of putting nonsensical, non-sequitur and bizarre ideas together to see what effect they give.

RAMJAC Corps

Thus throughout the book we keep hearing that almost any company you can think of is being bought up by the huge and anonymous RAMJAC Corporation. It is only at the end of the book that we realise RAMJAC is run by one of Starbuck’s old girlfriends, in fact one of the only four women he’s ever loved, Mary Kathleen O’Looney. She lives as a bag lady on the streets of New York, wearing enormous black trainers in which she keeps all her legal documentation, and carrying six stuffed filthy bags around. She stinks, her hair is falling out and she is physically disgusting as Starbuck discovers the day after he is released from prison and a friend hails him in the street.

O’Looney hears his name, grabs hold of his hand, refuses to let go, and takes him down into her secret hideaway in a disused train station beneath Manhattan (to be precise, an abandoned locomotive repair shop beneath Grand Central Station). She reveals that she is the CEO of RAMJAC Corp and sends instructions by mail to the lawyer who administers her wishes under the pseudonym of Mrs Jack Graham. These are verified by including fingerprints of all her fingers and thumbs. This means that criminals who have learned about this system, try to kidnap her and cut off her hands in order to use the fingerprints to steal her money. This is not as paranoid as it sounds: one time she was staying in a hotel suite in Nicaragua waited on only by Mormons, the only people she trusts. She met a woman whose husband had just died of amoebic dysentry and put her up in her rooms, while she (Mary) went to make arrangements to ship the body home.

When she came back the Mormon had been murdered – and both her hands cut off and stolen (p.217).

In the couple of days after being released from prison Starbuck receives kindly treatment from a number of people – a prison guard, the chauffeur who brings him into Manhattan, a waiter at a restaurant, the owner of a deep fat frying joint, and so on.

Chatting to the disgusting, half-bald, filthy O’Looney he mentions their names only to have her straightaway write a letter to her executive lawyer, Arpad Leen, instructing that these eight people (including Starbuck himself) be immediately made Vice Presidents of various divisions of RAMJAC Corps, and that’s how the book ends, with a party attended by this random selection of eight guys who now find themselves executives in a massive American corporation.

Starbuck himself ends up as Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, along with Clyde Carter the prison guard, Cleveland Lawes the limousine driver, Dr Israel Edel the night clerk at the Arapahoe Hotel, Frank Ubriaco owner of the Coffee Shop who once deep-fat-fried his own hand when his expensive watch fell off into the fryer and on impulse he reached in to get it – all Vice presidents of one bit or another of the multinational corporation.

Hopefully, this summary of the RAMJAC/O’Looney thread of the novel shows you that this is not a book about Watergate, nor a thriller, nor really a conventional novel at all.

Satire or ridicule?

And it’s not really a satire on corporate America. A satire usually aims to undermine its target by making accurate, insightful hits on it. Inventing the idea that the most powerful corporation in America is run by a baglady hiding out in a derelict station under Manhattan isn’t really satirising corporate America, it is ridiculing it. This book – maybe all Vonnegut’s books – are less satires than ridicules.

In his view the whole world is so absurd and nonsensical that ridiculing it is the only rational response – including ridiculing the very idea of being a writer and writing novels (which is why I think I like Breakfast of Champions best of the seven novels I’ve read). There is no subtlety or insight to it.

I will say further, as an officer of an enormous international conglomerate, that nobody who is doing well in this economy ever even wonders what is really going on.
We are chimpanzees. We are orangutans. (p.123)

This is not satire. It is the despairing ridicule of a man who has given up trying to understand.

Watergate

The Watergate theme, such as it is, is limited to the following. Starbuck tells us that back in the 1950s he was called on to testify about communists in government. Before the famous House Un-American Activities Committee Starbuck lists a number of colleagues who he knows were communists in the 1930s buthave changed their views and present no threat to the American people. Among these he mistakenly includes a colleague named Leland Clewes. Clewes in fact had never been a communist and tries to clear his name.

Starbuck explains that the young assistant to Senator Joe McCarthy, one Richard Milhous Nixon, then spends two years hounding and investigating Clewes and eventually getting him convicted and sent to jail. This drew Nixon into the public eye. In a roundabout way, then, Starbuck takes the blame for having made Nixon’s career. This is why, a long time later, Starbuck finds himself offered a job at the Nixon White House. Nixon one day remembered his name, asked his aides what Starbuck was doing, wondered if he’d accept a lowly job.

This nothing job is ‘President’s special advisor on youth affairs’ (p.46). Starbuck was given a windowless room in the basement of the White House (‘a sub-basement in the Executive Office Building’), from where he churned out some 200 reports over five years about youth activities, none of which were ever read by anyone. Salary: $36,000 pa.

Starbuck’s sole connection with any of the Watergate conspiracy was twofold. Throughout his time there he could hear people stomping about upstairs. One day he coughed loudly and immediately there was a rumpus down the stairs and a couple of senior staffers burst in demanding to know whether he’d been listening in on their conversations. They then tested the soundproofing, with one of them shouting and swearing upstairs, while another one stood in Starbuck’s office until he was satisfied that even shouting didn’t travel through the floorboards and he could never have heard anything.

And then, in 1975, when police came to search the White House, some of the guilty staffers came rushing downstairs with several crates packed with cash. These were illegal donations to Nixon’s re-election campaign, which they thought they could stash in Starbuck’s out-of-the-way office. But the cops searched even down here, found it, arrested Starbuck, and that was what he was tried and convicted and sent to gaol for, conspiracy to hide, defraud, illegal contributions etc.

So you see, the book offers little or no insight into Watergate or Nixon, or the intricacies of the conspiracy (there is one scene where Starbuck attends a meeting of the entire cabinet, seated far away, the lowest of the low, and chain smoking so much that Nixon makes a joke about him – that is Starbuck’s one and only encounter and anecdote about Nixon pp.61-62. He takes the opportunity to name a number of the men around the table who would end up in prison. But it isn’t an insight or exploration or explanation of the Nixon White House. It is one joke and a list of names).

It’s more as if Starbuck is an innocent bystander, an inoffensive drone right on the periphery of the administration who gets sent to prison because the bad guys stashed some hot money in his office and he was too dutiful to reveal their names. This could have been the basis of a comedy if the rest of the book wasn’t so weird and nonsensical, and about so much else.

Ruth

For example, there is much more about is wife Ruth, her history, how they met and their life together, than there is about politics. Jewish, Ruth had been hidden for the first part of the war, but then discovered and sent to a concentration camp which she survived to be liberated by the Americans and Starbuck met her only hours after they had been requisitioned by an American army unit which needed a translator at a checkpoint. Starbuck himself requisitioned her, took her to a good hotel, fed her up, and employed her as a translator for his work with the War Trials. He takes ten or so pages to describe their work in some detail, to paint a picture of her earnest pessimism, and the determination with which she sets up an interior design company once they return to American in 1949.

Kilgore Trout

Trout was, by this stage, a well known recurrent figure in Vonnegut’s fiction, maybe his most eminent creation, having appeared in Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five. In Champions he is one of the two major protagonists and we learn a lot about his life. He is definitely a ‘real person’. So it comes as a surprise in Jailbird to learn that Trout is in fact one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves his two year sentence, in fact the only ‘lifer’ in the Federal Minimum Security Adult Correctional Facility near Finletter Air Force Base, Georgia. His real name is Dr Robert Fender and he has a doctorate is in veterinary science. While in prison, Fender also writes science fiction novels under another pseudonym, Frank X. Barlow (p.67).

I have seen the way Trout’s character changes in different novels as an example of Vonnegut’s use of ‘unreliable narrators’, but I think it’s far bigger than that. If we agree that Vonnegut’s strategy goes far beyond ‘satire’ into the realm I’ve described as ‘ridicule’, then Jailbird‘s revealing that Kilgore Trout in fact doesn’t exist, is another example of Vonnegut’s full-spectrum ridiculing of all stable and sensible ideas about fiction. It is an example of his ‘nonsense’ approach to fiction.

One strategy Vonnegut retains from earlier books, especially Breakfast of Champions, is that the narrator summarises entire novels or stories by Trout. The result is that, instead of having to read an entire trout novel, you can simply read the narrator’s one or two-page summary which are much zippier, funnier or wackier.

There are other echoes of earlier techniques as well. You know I said that Jailbird looks more conventional in the sense that the prose is arranged into consecutive paragraphs and the chapters are a sensible length (unlike all three of his previous novels). Yes, but he redeploys the catchphrase. In Slaughterhouse many paragraphs or anecdotes ended with the phrase ‘So it goes’. Here it is ‘And so on’. Similarly, it doesn’t happen often, but every now and then Vonnegut just inserts a one-word paragraph saying ‘Peace’. Just to remind us that the same wacky nonsensicalist of the earlier experimental books is still there, lurking.

And the spirit of the nonsensicalist emerges more and more as the book progresses. There is an extended description of the night in 1931 he took the ‘Yankee clock heiress’ Sarah Wyatt to dinner at the swanky Hotel Arapahoe in Manhattan. Partly because he remembers it all when, having just been released from prison in 1977, Starbuck returns to the same hotel to see it much reduced, shabby and dingy and half boarded up. In fact, the receptionist tells him, the entire area where the restaurant used to be has been converted into a porn movie cinema which specialises in gay porn, many of the movies climaxing with scenes of anal fisting, something which, unsurprisingly, shocks and horrifies the narrator (p.130).

When he expresses an opinion, Starbuck just sounds dazed at what his country has come to.

Mary Kathleen O’Looney wasn’t the only shopping-bag lady in the United States of America. There were tens of thousands of them in major cities throughout the country. Ragged regiments of them had been produced accidentally, and to imaginable purpose, by the great engine of the economy. Another part of the machine was spitting out unrepentant murderers ten years old, and dope fiends, and child batterers and many other bad things. People claimed to be investigating. Unspecified repairs were to be made at some future time. (p.151)

Sacco and Vanzetti

He’s obviously been thinking, or reading, about the celebrated case of the Italian-born American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti who were controversially convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during the April 15, 1920 armed robbery of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts. They were both executed in the electric chair just after midnight on August 23, 1927.

Vonnegut refers to them in the preface to the book, and the preface ends with a quote from Nicola Sacco writing to his 13-year-old son Dante, a quote which went on to be turned into a song, and rallying cry for the Socialist cause in America.

Help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because they are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.

Towards the end of the book, the narrative stops altogether while Vonnegut gives an extended summary of the events surrounding the supposed crimes, trial and execution of the pair. This chimes with the fact that Starbuck, although a Harvard man, was himself a student activist, and an actual member of the communist party.

This is par for the course in Vonnegut’s novels all of which contain large chunks of random subject matter thrown in from all sides. It’s part of what makes them surprisingly chewy and dense.

But it’s difficult to reconcile this apparent earnestness about Sacco and Vanzetti and the anarchist / socialist cause – the totally straight description of the 1894 Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre (fictional, although based on similar worker killings which took place around that time), and descriptions of Starbuck’s own student activism (it was while editing a communist student paper at Harvard that he first met the beautiful and idealistic Mary Kathleen O’Toole) — with the helpless nonsensicality of the main plot i.e. the way a ruined baglady turns out to be running the largest corporation in America. It doesn’t cohere. It’a as if they’re from different worlds – the serious, and the utterly nonsensical.

The nonsense is entertaining and sometimes funny but the trouble is it makes all his ‘serious’ criticisms of America or war or capitalism tremendously easy to ignore, take with a pinch of salt, and dismiss.

Epilogue

In the epilogue Starbuck describes how, soon after being made Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, he goes to see Mary Kathleen O’Looney in her secret base under grand Central Station and discovers her in a very poor way. In fact she dies in his arms. The epilogue then describes how Starbuck disposes of her body secretly and doesn’t tell anyone. RAMJAC Corporation continues for another two years before the discovery of its CEO’s demise is finally made. At which point Starbuck is taken to court once again, and convicted of not reporting her death, fraud etc.

The book ends with a party given for him by all the other vice-presidents, which has the effect of tying up any loose strands of the ‘plot’, before he is scheduled to be sent back to the slammer. And that is the story of this inveterate jailbird.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr (1976)

This is a really weird story, a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife.

The main story (pp.15-170) is narrated by the two-metre tall man, christened Wilbur Rockefeller Swain but now known as Dr Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain.

It is a morbid and depressing story. Swain is just coming up to his 101st birthday. He lives amid the ruins of New York. The rest of America has been depopulated by Albanian Flu (p.33), but New York had a special plague of its own, known as the Green Plague. Now it is almost empty, with only Swain and a handful or relatives and friends living in the overgrown ruins. To survivors on the mainland it is known only as ‘the Island of Death’.

So Slapstick is a post-apocalypse story.

As so often in fictional memoirs, two timelines run in parallel 1. The ‘present’ in which the narrator wakes up and potters round and we are introduced to the main characteristics of the post-apocalyptic world. Thus Swain starts each chapter with a bit of gossip about his current companions, his emaciated though pregnant grand-daughter Melody, and her husband Isidore, or about their best friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa who keeps a farm worked by ‘slaves’.

Before 2. returning to a conventional chronological account which begins with the birth of him and his twin sister, follows them through their early life, and on to the series of events which led up to the disaster.

Vonnegut uses Vonnegutian tricks such as:

  • The entire text is broken up into very short sections, sometimes a few paragraphs, but sometimes just a few words, all divided by three asterisks in the centre of the page, creating the sense that the whole book is made of fragments glued together, a suitable feel, maybe, for post-apocalyptic fragments.
  • And just as the catchphrase ‘So it goes’ appeared on every page of Slaughterhouse-Five and ‘And so on’ capped every anecdote in Breakfast of Champions, so almost every bit of prose which tells a significant story or anecdote in this book is capped with ‘Hi ho’. At one point the narrator says he must go back through the book and delete all the ‘Hi ho’s’. Which he follows with another Hi ho. Hi ho. I think it is safe to say this use of ironically off-hand taglines has become a mannerism.

From his birth up to the age of 15, Wilbur and his twin sister, Eliza Mellon Swain, pretend to be drooling idiots. In fact they are geniuses, especially if they physically touch their heads together. When they do this they share a joint super-intelligence. But for 15 years all they do is pretend to be retards, and are locked by their parents in their posh Boston home. (They are from a super-rich family.)

This is every bit as weird as it sounds. On their fifteenth birthdays, they overhear their parents discussing sending them to separate homes and so make the startling announcement that they are not brain damaged but the reverse – hyper-intelligent and articulate young people.

This shocks their parents even more, who promptly call in a high-powered women psychiatrist who, vindictively knowing the damage it will cause them, recommends they be separated, declaring Wilbur is the clever one and Eliza is the defect.

So Wilbur is packed off to medical school and becomes a successful pediatrician, while Eliza goes to rot in a home for the mentally defective.

Cut to about ten years later when Wilbur is confronted by Eliza, who has been sprung from the home by a money-grabbing lawyer on the news that their parents have died. She is a wreck, distraught and determined on revenge as she confronts him at his grand mansion. But the moment they actually make physical contact, the old telepathic communication is revived and they have a five-day long orgy during which they tie up all the servants.

Maybe this whole plotline is intended as satirical but it comes over as a kind of poor man’s Philip K. Dick, with its dwelling on identity and reality, and sick obsession with a dead sibling (both Dick and Vonnegut had dead sisters).

Meanwhile, in the background of the story, we learn that oil has been running low, and that American science and technology has stagnated. The sky has turned yellow because of gases released by underarm deodorants. The Chinese are making all kinds of new discoveries. The West is collapsing. Americans are becoming more lonely.

Eliza takes her cut of Swain’s estate and goes to Macchu Picchu. Why? Because it

was then becoming a haven for rich people and their parasites, people fleeing social reforms and economic declines, not just in America, but in all parts of the world. (p.93)

An absurdist theme which runs through the book is that the Chinese, as part of their transformation into top economic power in the world, undertake a programme of miniaturising human beings. There are so many of them, they can only survive if they get smaller.

Thus it is that a lot later in the book, Swain is visited by the Chinese ambassador who is only a few inches tall (the size of Wilbur’s thumb, p.101). Piling absurdity on absurdity, he is named Fu Manchu. He asks Swain to take him to the family mausoleum in which are hidden the various writings Swain and Eliza did when their heads were together and they were a super-genius. Swain doesn’t understand why, but some of these writings are of immense importance to the Chinese – now the leading scientific and technological country in the world.

A second major idea has to do with gravity. When Swain describes life in post-apocalyptic America, he has dropped hints about there being a problem with gravity, that it varies from day to day like the weather, with some days of heavy gravity, some of light. This is, apparently, caused by scientific experiments by the Chinese, though by this stage nobody in America understands what or how or has the power to stop it.

The first time gravity changes is on the day Swain picks up a telegram at his local post office which tells him that Eliza is dead, crushed under an avalanche on Mars (p.106). Mars? Yes she had tipped off the Chinese about the secret documents hidden in the mausoleum and, as a reward, was transported to the new Chinese colony on Mars. Ill-fatedly, as it turns out.

As he walks out onto the steps outside his local post office, gravity changes – for just a minute or so it is doubled, quintupled, and Wilbur falls through the wooden steps he’s standing on, people fall through ladders, chairs, and flimsy flooring. Bridges and tall buildings collapse, elevators plummet to the ground and so on.

The Gravity Shift only lasts a minute or so but undermines the confidence of Americans even more than the failing oil supply and yellow sky.

It is against this backdrop of America’s economic, scientific and political decline, that Swain runs for president on a platform of radically reorganising society. He decides the problem with Americans is they are lonely and isolated. He comes up with a scheme whereby all Americans will be given new middle names by computer. The number of names will be calculated so that each new ‘family’ has about 10,000 members. I.e. if something happens to you there will be 9,999 other ‘family members’ you can call on.

He runs for senator, then president, on the slogan of ‘Lonesome no more’ – which is the sub-title of this book (p.112).

It is hard not to think that this plotline – the satire on American loneliness – is a separate short story or plot idea which Vonnegut has bolted onto the weird story of two twin giants who are cruelly separated. Chucking in Chinese miniaturisation, and the notion that the Earth’s gravity can be played with, as additional sweeties.

By this stage we learn that, because of the end of oil and technology, America has collapsed as a political entity. There are no more printing presses, no more radio or TV – because there is no more fuel (p.117). it has been replaced by warlords which control territories like Michigan or Dakota – hence the King of Michigan, the Great Lake pirates, and other satirical names the narrator casually mentions in passing.

(In a satirical touch, the only way to power the computer which doles out new middle names to the population of America, is by systematically burning all the paper archives in the White House and Congress.)

(In another satirical touch he throws in the fact that the new religion which the general crisis gives rise to is the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped.)

Also, by this stage, Wilbur tells us he has become addicted to some kind of tranquiliser named tri-benzo-Deportamil, which helps him to cope with all the ups and downs of his life with equanimity.

Vonnegut devotes an extensive passage to describing his happiness at visiting a lodge of his own ‘family’, the Daffodils, in Indiana, how kind and welcoming they are. And to explaining how his successful family plan meshes or overlaps with the numerous small wars which the King of Michigan and so on are fighting against each other.

In fact there is a satirical scene where Swain is summoned by the grandiose young King of Michigan who wishes him to solemnly sign a document reversing the famous Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and handing over rule of what was then the vast territory in the centre of the USA over the king. Fine, thinks Swain, and signs.

Epilogue

At this point the memoir written by Wilbur Swain comes to an abrupt end. It is succeeded by an epilogue tying up loose ends.

This takes the story from the meeting with the King of Michigan to his death.

Swain had been contacted by a woman who had discovered a way of contacting the dead. An old farmer arranged a bucket and antique pipe in just such a way atop a defunct particle accelerator (no more electricity; hadn’t worked for years) and, to his surprise, began hearing voices out of the pipe.

Swain, still nominally president although now with few if any powers over a disintegrated country, is told about this and invited to try it. He manages to get through to his sister Eliza, who tells him the afterlife is dreadful. Swain can hear a babble of people coughing, shouting and farting in the background. Eliza says the afterlife is like a badly managed Turkey Farm. She begs him to die and join her. The device for communicating with the dead is known as ‘the Hooligan’ after the name of the farmer who accidentally created it. (p.160-164)

Convinced that she needs his help, and in a hurry to die, Swain persuades the pilot of the helicopter (Captain Bernard O’Hare – sharp-eyed Vonnegut readers might remember that Bernard O’Hare plays an important role in his 1962 novel Mother Night) which flew him to the Daffodil reunion in Indiana (and is himself a member of the Daffodil family) to fly him to Manhattan, long since known as ‘the Island of Death’ because of the mysterious epidemic which wiped out almost its entire population.

Hovering over the empty, overgrown avenues, Swain climbs down a rope ladder and onto the balcony of the Empire State Building, whose staircase he proceeds to walk down. But instead of quickly dying, in the ruined lobby of the building Swain is kidnapped by some ‘Raspberries’ a really primitive clan of humans who live by eating nuts, and berries and whatever they can forage.

As it happens these people have unwittingly stumbled on an antidote to the Green Death, namely fish from the rivers either side of Manhattan which are so polluted that some of the rare chemicals in them act as antidotes.

Now the narrator now tells us that the flu which killed everyone was caused by an invasion of microscopic Martians, whose invasion was repelled by antibodies in the systems of the survivors (p.163). While the Green Death was caused by microscopic Chinese floating through the air who were peace-loving but were invariably fatal to normal-sized human who inhaled or ingested them (p.164).

Swain proceeds to live on derelict Manhattan for a very, very long time. Back around the time when he used the Hooligan and sold Louisiana to the King of Michigan, his last few pills of tri-benzo-Deportamil ran out and he went mental. He had to be tied down for five days in the farmhouse, but managed – in the impossible way characteristic of this narrative – to have sex and impregnate the wife of the old farmer.

She had a son.

He had a daughter, who was packed off to join the seraglio of the King of Michigan who was, by this time, a disgusting old man.  She managed to escape and set off East towards New York to try and track down the mythical grandfather her dad had told her about. Her name is Melody Oriole-2. She was helped along the odyssey by strangers who gave her a baby pram, a candlestick, a compass and an umbrella. And one who rowed her across to the Island of Death.

And that’s how Swain was reunited with his grand-daughter and came to be chatting about her at the start of the book’s 49 chapters. He has his drunken 102nd birthday, organised for him by his old friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, and drops dead.

Thoughts

It’s a short book (170 pages) but with enough ideas in it to blow anyone’s mind.

Whether any of them – plausible, fantastical, surreal, satirical – are any good, was hard to tell. I was so dazed by the relentless nonsensicality of much of the narrative that it was difficult to take a view. Is it a farrago of rubbish, which a summary of the plot might lead you to think? Or, as a friend of mine who’s a Vonnegut fan thinks, one of his best books?

I couldn’t work out if the four or five hours it took me to read it were time well spent or not.

I think it feels to me like a last hurrah of the absurdist approach, and typographical experimentation, which took off in Slaughterhouse-Five. But then Cat’s Cradle also has an end-of-the-world, post-apocalyptic setting. In fact, both books consist of the memoir of one of the few people who survived the end of the world.

And when I saw how his next novel, Jailbird, reverts to a much more conventional layout and prose style, and realistic subject matter, this adds to the sense that Slapstick is like the fagged-out hangover of the absurdist approach which characterised its three predecessors.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

The Hard Way by Lee Child (2006)

‘Very tall, heavily built, like a real brawler. He’s in his late thirties or early forties. Short fair hair, blue eyes.’ (Patti Joseph’s description of Reacher, p.91)

You remember the way episodes of Friends were titled ‘The one with…’ and then specified the core element of that week’s show. You can do the same with the 22 Jack Reacher novels. This is the one where Jack is hired to solve a kidnapping, which turns out to be much more complicated than it seems, and takes him from the streets of New York to a farm in Norfolk.

The café He is sitting in a café in New York when he sees a guy cross the street, get into a Merc and drive off. Nothing special in that. Next morning he’s at the same café when he’s approached by a tough-looking man and persuaded to come with him to meet his boss, Mr Lane. Turns out Mr Lane’s wife has been kidnapped, the kidnappers demanded a million in cash to be left in a car at that location. Lane agreed, had one of his people fill a bag with a million, put it in the boot of the car and drive it to the arranged drop zone. This was the car which Reacher had watched the kidnapper cross the street, get into and drive away. Without knowing it or intending to be, Reacher is a key witness.

The mercenaries Reacher tells them what he knows. ‘Them’? Yes, Lane runs a group of mercenaries (‘a private military corporation’, p.450) tough ex-Army, ex-Marines, U.S. Navy SEALs, British SAS etc. In fact, Reacher analyses their plight so logically and compellingly that Lane hires him on the spot to be a consultant to help manage the situation.

But there is, of course, more to the situation than meets the eye. It takes about 450 pages for Reacher to nail the real story, pages during which he, as usual:

  • acquires a small circle of helpers and supporters
  • who just happen to have privileged access to FBI/Army/Homeland Security sources
  • and manages to wangle financial backing to pay for the endless taxis and trains and planes he needs to take

Not the first time Firstly, it turns out this is the second time a Lane wife has been kidnapped. His first wife, Anne, was kidnapped five years earlier and, although Lane paid the ransom, was found shot dead in New Jersey.

The Dakota Building Reacher quickly discovers that some people suspect the first kidnap was a front, a put-up job. Lane’s base is the famous Dakota Building, next to Central Park, where John Lennon lived and outside which he was shot (Yoko Ono and her bodyguards make a small appearance in the book, walking past Reacher in the lobby).

Patti Joseph Outside the building he is approached by the first wife’s sister, Patti. She is convinced the first kidnap was a sham, and that Lane had her sister murdered. As the book progresses Reacher uncovers the evidence to prove this is true. He discovers that Lane had instructed a member of his inner circle, Knight, who usually drove his wife around, to return to base and tell everyone he’d dropped her off shopping as usual – but in fact to take her out to New Jersey and shoot her. Then paid someone to fake the ransom calls.

Lane had his first wife murdered Why? The first Mrs Lane had come to realise that Lane was a psychopath, and had told him she wanted to leave him. Which hurt his ego so much he had her eliminated. Although Knight – who knew all this – was loyal to his boss, on the mercenaries’ next job – to defend the government of Burkina Faso in Africa, from rebels – Lane contrived a situation whereby he ordered Knight and his best friend among the mercenaries, Hobart, to hold a forward post against the advancing army. Lane then ordered his main force to retreat, abandoning Knight and Hobart to the African rebel soldiers. The aim was to ensure that Knight was killed and along with him the evidence of his wife’s murder. Hobart was just collateral damage.

Detective Brewer The first wife’s sister, Patti Joseph, tells Reacher all this. She has been keeping a close watch on the Dakota Building for years, photographing who goes in and out, keeping a log of the movements of all of Lane’s central circle of mercs, for years. Is that obsessive or is she onto something? She phones in her results to a NYPD detective named Brewer. When Reacher meets Brewer the latter admits that he humours Patti, partly because something might come of her efforts, mostly because she’s a pretty chick.

FBI agent Pauling Turns out that Brewer passes on Patti’s observations to a third party, Lauren Pauling, an ex-FBI agent who was part of the original FBI investigation of the kidnapping of Lane’s first wife and has felt oppressed by guilt for five years that her and her colleagues screwed up the investigation and allowed the first wife to be killed. She is still interested in the case because she hopes evidence will surface to prove that it was Lane who killed the first wife, and not the kidnappers who did it, because that would get the FBI and the cops off the hook for bungling the case.

So who is carrying out the current kidnapping, five years later, of the second Mrs Lane, Kate Lane, a tall, slender, blonde, beautiful model, and her daughter by a previous marriage, Jade (also ‘a truly beautiful child’, p.424)?

Pauling becomes Reacher’s sidekick Reacher develops a close working relationship with Pauling, now a freelance investigator. She has a useful contact in the Homeland Security administration (they always do). Pauling becomes the person Reacher bounces his theories and ideas off, and who accompanies him on his investigations around New York.

Investigations They investigate the house where the kidnapper insisted the keys to each of the cars containing ransom money be dropped through the letterbox. It turns out to be empty. After clever detective work the pair track down the apartment the kidnapper used to oversee the dropping off place for the ransoms. They then manage to locate the apartment where Kate and Jade were kept hostage – though it’s now empty.

The man who doesn’t speak For a long middle stretch of the book, based on eye-witness accounts of neighbours and people who sold the kidnapper bits of furniture, they establish his appearance (non-descript white male) but the standout fact is that he never talks. From several hints they develop the theory that the kidnapper can’t talk and from descriptions of what’s happened to other white mercenaries captures in Africa, they speculate this may be because his tongue was cut out by the rebels.

Africa They think the kidnapper was one of the two men Lane abandoned in Burkina Faso – Hobart or Knight. Using Pauling’s contacts in Homeland Security to identify people who’ve flown back from Africa recently, and then another contact with access to all kinds of security databases, they track down the apartment of Hobart’s sister, which turns out to be conveniently close to the café and to the ransom-money-dropping-off point in Downtown Manhattan.

There’s a very tense moment when they break into the shabby apartment building where Hobart’s sister lives, and climb the squeaking stairs, at pains to be silent in case the kidnapper they’re seeking hears them, and has time to harm or shoot his hostages, Kate and Jade.

Hobart So the reader is surprised and shocked when they kick open the apartment door and find …. a washed-out shabby woman, Hobart’s sister, making soup, and that Hobart himself is a limbless cripple propped up on the sofa.

It is Hobart, he was a member of Lane’s mercenary gang, he was abandoned by Lane, he was captured by the rebel African soldiers. He was held captive for five long years during which he barely survived the starvation and disease and, once a year, they brought him and other prisoners out of their cells into an arena of baying warriors, and asked whether they wanted their left hand, right hand, left foot, or right foot to be hacked off with a machete – and whether they then wanted the stump seared in boiling tar, or left to bleed out.

Which explains why Hobart is in his pitiful state, without feet or hands, a wretched withered stump of a man. Hobart is clearly not the kidnapper, or the man who rented the apartments or who Reacher saw drive away the ransom car right at the start.

But he does confirm that his fellow merc and prisoner, Knight, did carry out the execution of Lane’s first wife, under Lane’s instructions, then helped the fiction that it was a kidnap. So that part of Patti’s story is correct.

Reacher and Pauling have sex Later that night, Pauling expresses to Reacher what a vast relief it is to her, to have confirmed that it was not her professional screw-up which had led to the first wife’s death. The wife was dead before the FBI was even contacted. To celebrate, she and Reacher have his usual athletic, fighting-with-a-bear, championship sex.

She is now his lover, as well as his close associate in the investigation.

The Taylor theory The book sprinkles more dead ends and deliberate false trails for Reacher (and the reader) to work through -, but the main focus of their investigation now shifts to Taylor. This man was in Lane’s inner circle of mercenaries, and was the guy who drove Kate Lane to Bloomingdale’s on the day of the kidnapping. The assumption had been that he was killed almost immediately by someone who got into the stationary car and pointed a gun at the women, forced Taylor to drive wherever they wanted him to go and then killed him.

Child has planted this false version of events in our minds by having Reacher ask not one but two of Lane’s mercs to speculate how they think the kidnapping went down, and both think it happened like that. This version of events had also been confirmed when Pauling’s cop contact, Brewer, told her that the body of a white man had been found floating off a dock in mid-town Manhattan.

Now Pauling and Reacher revisit this story and the first thing they establish is that the ‘floater’ is not Taylor. Wrong height to begin with. Taylor is still alive.

So now Pauling and Reacher develop the theory that Kate and Jade were kidnapped by a disgruntled member of Lane’s inner circle, Taylor, the very driver entrusted with their safety. He pulled out a gun, told her and Jade to shut up, drove them to a safe house, tied them up, made the ransom phone calls and picked up the money. Taylor will have needed an associate, so Reacher and Pauling spend a lot of time thinking through who that could be.

Reacher and Lane In case I haven’t made it clear, all this time – throughout this entire process – Reacher is still nominally under contract to Lane to find the kidnappers. At that first meeting in the Dakota Building, Lane offered Reacher a payment of $25,000 to find Kate and the kidnapper. Reacher is free to go off and roam the city, make his own investigations, contact whoever he likes – but periodically he has to go back to Lane’s apartment, filled with half a dozen surly mercs, and update the boss on progress.

Thus Reacher is sitting with the others when the ransom demand phone calls come through to Len’s apartment. He sits with the others when the second call comes through asking for confirmation that Lane has the cash, and then giving details of the pickup. And then he sits in suspense with the others waiting for a confirmation call that the money has been received, and – hopefully – that Kate is going to be released.

The character of Lane and the mercs Since the kidnapper ends up calling for three separate payments, there are three of these very tense scenes. They also gives Reacher plenty of time to get to know Lane, to witness his psychotic rages, and to see the hold he has over the other mercs. These are strong, well-trained men but each of them, in fact, was a failure in the military, in various ways in need of being led, and prepared to do anything for The Boss.

When there is no call-back after the third and final payment is made, Reacher along with the others begins to fear the worst. That the kidnapper has killed the girls and fled. Child reiterates this idea again and again, having Reacher emphasise that, in his experience, the majority of kidnappings end in the murder of the victims, and that the first 24 hours are key. Every hour after that increases the likelihood of failure.

A bounty on Taylor As the truth sinks in that the girls are probably dead, Lane increases the bounty he will pay Reacher to $1 million. Since he has kept Lane informed of his investigations up to the dismissal of Knight and Hobart as suspects, Lane, Reacher, Pauling and the reader all now think the kidnapping was carried out by Taylor the driver, who faked his own death, held the women hostage in Downtown Manhattan, collected the money three times, killed them, and has now absconded.

Reacher now clicks into Revenge Mode. He knows Lane is a louse, a psychopath who probably had his first wife murdered and abandoned his men to terrible fates in Africa. So he’s not doing it for Lane. He vows to track down Taylor for the sake of the women, for Kate and Jade. In the apartment they have now identified as Taylor’s, which they found empty and abandoned, Reacher noticed one of the speed dial phone numbers was to a number in Britain. He guesses it’s of a close relative.

The novel moves to England

All this has taken about 350 pages. For the last 150 pages of the novel the setting switches to England, for 20 or so pages to London, but then on to rural Norfolk, where Pauling and Reacher track Taylor down to his sister’s farm.

We know that Child – real name James Grant – is himself English. We know that he lives in New York, so we can guess that the extremely detailed descriptions of Reacher and Pauling’s investigative walks around Downtown Manhattan reflect Child’s own detailed knowledge of the area.

It adds a different, not exactly literary but psychological element – maybe a hint of tongue-in-cheek – to the English section of the book, to know that Child is himself English, but pretending to write as an American. So every description in this section is written by an Englishman masquerading as an American writing about a fictional American trying to pretend to fit in with the local Brits.

Thus Child’s description of Reacher walking into a rural pub in Norfolk is layered with ironies, as the Englishman Child imagines what it would be like for an American like Reacher to walk into a pub, and then to try and remember his own (Reacher’s own) days in the U.S. Army when he was stationed in England. All this results in Reacher ordering ‘a pint of best’ while his New York colleague and lover, Pauling, is made to point out all the quaint quirks and oddities of English life.

(The two most notable of these are that a) all the streets are absolutely festooned with signs and painted symbols giving instructions about every element of your driving, ‘the nanny state in action’ and b) London is a vast octopus extending its tendrils into the country for miles and miles, making it impossible to get into or out of at any speed. Both true enough.)

Reacher has been promised $1 million if he can deliver Taylor to Lane. Through British police contacts Reacher and Pauling track down Taylor, confirming he took a flight from New York JFK, arrived at Heathrow and then – using a different line of investigation – establish the whereabouts of his sister.

How? Using the speed dial phone number Reacher had noticed in Taylor’s New York apartment. This locates Taylor’s sister to a farm in Norfolk. Reacher and Pauling hire a car and drive there, locate the village, and the farm, and park in the early morning with binoculars, waiting for Taylor, his sister, her husband and little girl to exit the farmhouse, which they conveniently do a few hours later.

Reacher had already alerted Lane that he has confirmed that Taylor is in England, and so Lane and his crew are en route on a transatlantic flight. Sighting and identity confirmed, Reacher and Pauling drive back to London to meet Lane and his goons in the Park Lane hotel.

Lane doesn’t just want to kill Taylor. He explains how he is going to torture him slowly to death. Reacher is revolted by the psychopath, as ever. A few seats away in the lobby of the hotel, a mother is trying to quiet down her restless squabbling kids. One of them throws an old doll at her brother, which misses and skids across the floor, hitting Reacher’s foot. He looks down at it and has a blinding revelation.

The twist

In a flash Reacher realises what has been wrong with the investigation all along. In a blinding moment he realises he has made a seismic error of judgement and that his entire understanding of the case is not only wrong, but catastrophically wrong.

Why? What vital clues have he and Pauling (and the reader) missed in the last 400 pages? What can it be which totally transforms the situation? Why does he excuse himself from Lane for a moment, walk as if to the toilets, but instead hurtle down into the underground car park, call Pauling to meet him, jump into the hire car, and then drive like a maniac all the way back to Norfolk?

What is the real secret behind the kidnapping of Kate and Jade Lane?

That would be telling. It’s an expertly constructed book with many twists and false trails, tense moments, and sudden surprises. I read it in a day. Take it on your next long train or plane trip or to read by a pool. It is gripping, intelligent and – in much of its factual research (about mercenaries, about the coup in Africa) informative.


Credit

All quotes from the 2011 paperback edition of The Hard Way by Lee Child, first published in 2006 by Bantam Press.

Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling (2007)

‘We are now launching into a wide and boundless field, puzzled with mazes and o’erspread with difficulties.’
George Washington, autumn 1779

At 680 larger-than-usual pages, this is a very long, very thorough and very heavy book.

I bought it under the misapprehension that it would explain the economic and political background to the American War of Independence, which was a mistake. Almost a Miracle is a highly detailed account of the arguments about military strategy conducted by both sides in the war, and of the actual battles fought during the war.

In this respect its focus on the nitty-gritty of military engagements large and small follows straight on from the couple of books I recently read about its immediate predecessor, the Seven Years War:

The Seven Years War (1756-63)

Put simply, the result of the Seven Years War was that the British Army and its colonial and Indian allies won Canada from the French, seizing its key city, Quebec, and expelling the French from their would-be North American empire. Thus ensuring that America would be an English-speaking nation.

Britain won because:

  1. the British government threw many more men and resources at the war than the French
  2. the British colonists far outnumbered the French, 1.2 million Brits compared to 55,000 French

But the British government, led by William Pitt, had to borrow a lot of money to pay for these military campaigns and, as soon as the Seven Years War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, lost no time in trying to recoup their money from the colonists. A range of new taxes were introduced – via the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Revenue Act – and existing taxes were collected more stringently.

The colonists didn’t like new taxes

The colonists didn’t like it. There was a long, steady rumble of complaint from the moment the new taxes were introduced in 1763 to the outbreak of war in 1775. A spectrum of dissenting opinion emerged among the colonists, from:

  • radicals like John Adams, who early grasped the need for complete independence from Britain
  • moderates, who accepted British rule but wanted the taxes lightened or lifted
  • Loyalists or so-called ‘Tories’, who accepted everything the British government demanded on the basis that they were loyal subjects of His Majesty and His Majesty’s government

Key way stations along the road to war were:

  • 1768 – the arrival of British troops in Boston, the most important port (and largest city) in the colonies, to support the collection of taxes
  • 5 March 1770 – ‘the Boston Massacre’, when an angry mob surrounded the British customs building, someone let off a shot, the soldiers panicked and killed five colonials
  • the 1773 Tea Act which aimed to promote tea from India in America and led to ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 16 December, when American patriots disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped £9,000 of East India Company tea into the Boston harbour
  • the four ‘Intolerable Acts’ passed by the British Parliament in May and June 1774, which stripped Massachusetts of self-government and judicial independence following the Boston Tea Party
  • the first Continental Congress in September 1774 when delegates were sent from all 13 colonies to the town hall in Philadelphia to discuss their response to the Intolerable Acts

Although critics of Lord North’s administration in the British Houses of Parliament fiercely criticised many of the British measures, although many British politicians spoke and wrote pamphlets in favour of greater moderation and understanding of the Americans, and although most of the American politicians were themselves conservative and favoured reconciliation with Britain – nonetheless, reading any timeline of the build-up to war gives an overwhelming sense of inevitability – of the Titanic steaming unstoppably towards the iceberg.

The two points of view were just irreconcilable:

  • The British king and his ministry thought they had spent a fortune, and lost a lot of men, defending colonists who paid only a fraction of the taxes which their cousins in Britain paid: it was time they coughed up.
  • The Americans thought victory in what they called ‘the French and Indian War’ had owed a lot to their own men and blood; they didn’t owe anyone anything. Plus, they had all grown up paying minimal taxes and so were outraged when the London government started imposing all kinds of new taxes and tolls on them and their imports.

American resentment crystallised into the expression ‘no taxes without representation’, meaning they refused to pay taxes imposed on them by a legislature 3,000 miles away, in which they had no say.

Because the outcome is so well-known, and because the extremists on both sides (especially the American patriots, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) went on to become such household names, it is most interesting to read about the moderates on both sides, those advocating for peace and compromise.

I learned that the Loyalist members of Congress got together an Olive Branch Petition to send to George III. Their belief that America could quite easily remain within the British Empire, with just a few tweaks and adjustments, have – like the rational, carefully argued opinions of so many moderates throughout history – disappeared from view.

Studying them carefully – putting yourself in their place and trying out their arguments – gives you insights into the fate of moderates in so many revolutions – the French or Russian ones, to name the big two; and by extension, helps you to understand the fate of moderates in modern political situations (America, Turkey, Britain, Iran).

The American War of Independence

This book, by its sheer length and the staggering accumulation of detail, really brings home that the American War of Independence was much longer than you tend to imagine – from first skirmishes to final peace treaty it lasted a surprising eight and a half years, from 19 April 1775 to 3 September 1783.

What should the Americans do?

I think the single most striking learning is that both sides didn’t know what to do or how to fight the war, an uncertainty which persisted right to the end.

Hostilities broke out because the British garrison in Boston was sent in April 1775 to confiscate munitions which Patriot militias had been building up in the towns and villages of Massachusetts.

Patriot spies got wind of this and set off on horseback to warn the militias, who were therefore armed and prepared by the time the 700 or so British soldiers reached the small towns of Lexington and Concord. Small engagements broke out at both places, before the British regulars were reinforced and marched together back to the safety of Boston, shot and sniped at all the way. Their blood up, the local militias rallied across Massachusetts and set up a siege of Boston. The war had, in effect, begun.

On June 14 1775 the Continental Congress voted to create the Continental Army and voted George Washington its commander-in-chief. When news of all this arrived back to London, the government sent a British Army force across the Atlantic under the command of General Howe. It was war.

But what should both sides do next? The biggest learning from the book is that both sides effectively made it up as they went along. I’m used to the Great War where the Allied aim was to defeat Germany on the Western Front, and the Second World War where the Allies demanded the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan.

In both wars there were clear ‘fronts’ where the enemies fought, with the Allies pushing the Germans back from the Western Front in the Great War, with the Allies crushing Germany from east and west in the Second War, and pushing Japan back across Pacific islands towards her homeland in the East.

But in this war, where was the American homeland? Where could a knock-out blow be delivered?

And what did the Americans aim to achieve? Was it best to meet the British Army in a head-on, traditional-style battle and defeat it? When you put it like that, you see how unlikely it was that an army made of volunteers who’d spent most of their lives working on farms, with officers and NCOs having been appointed just a few weeks earlier, would be able to defeat the well-armed, well-drilled professional Brits.

So the Americans tended to seek smaller engagements where they had the advantage of surprise and knowledge of the territory – or otherwise they just retreated.

Washington early informed Congress that his would be a war of ‘posts’ (p.136) meaning small specific engagements, and that he would adopt the withdraw-and-fight-another-day tactics of the famous Roman general, Fabius Cunctator.

But not everyone agreed with Washington, and his headquarters was always riven by factions of officers arguing fiercely about strategy. It is the merit of a military history on this scale that it makes it quite clear that the American military command was permanently rife with debates and arguments, sometimes quite bitterly, about what to do, where to strike, when to pull back.

And, as it became clear that the war wouldn’t be over by Christmas, there were fierce and partisan arguments in Congress.

Not only were there divisions about how to fight but, more importantly, where. Were there ‘key colonies’ or areas which must not be ceded to enemy at any cost – and, if so, where? Was it vital to hold Boston, or to retire if the army was imperiled? Ditto New York: should Washington’s army defend New York come what may or, again, make a tactical withdrawal in the face of superior British forces, and live to fight another day?

What should the British do?

But while the Patriot side was riven by indecision and infighting about where to defend, where to retreat, and how much of a big battle to engage in, it was, if anything worse, on the British side.

In particular, there was a fundamental division between those who thought the British should fight with no quarter, ravaging and destroying the land as they went – as the Union army was to do in the Civil War – giving the retreating army nowhere to hide and wearing down the enemy’s agricultural infrastructure, teaching them who was boss – and others who thought that the only practical policy was to fight a civilised and limited war, in order to win the hearts and minds of men who were after all, in a sense, our cousins.

This is one of the main big learnings of the book –  that the men in charge of the British war effort hesitated and prevaricated over and over again, especially General William Howe, general in command of British forces from 1775 to 1777.

At several key moments, for example when he had cornered the American Army in New York, Howe hesitated to push his advantage – and so let the Americans escape.

Great Britain’s last best chance to destroy the Continental army and crush the American rebellion occurred in September 1776, but the opportunity slipped away through a series of monumental mistakes. (p.139)

Howe had been an MP in the Commons during the build-up to war, and had voted for conciliation and compromise with the rebels. While the hawks called for a slash and burn policy, Howe appears to have thought that the Americans were misled by a handful of fanatics and that, if only they could be dealt a bloody nose, the Congress and most of the population would suddenly realise the error of their ways, put down their weapons, and accede to His Majesty’s very reasonable demands.

So although Howe defeated Washington in a series of encounters designed to drive him out of New York, he deliberately let slip a couple of sitting duck opportunities to surround and annihilate his opponent. History remembers Washington as a great general but he was fighting an opponent who was reluctant to really comprehensively defeat him.

Indecisive battles

And so both the British and the Americans hesitated among a variety of choices before embarking on anything coherent enough to be termed a ‘campaign’. What is then notable is how many of these campaigns failed – it seems to the untutored reader to have been a war of failures rather than successes.

Thus the engagements at Lexington and Concord led the Americans to besiege Boston, which sounds like a big bold thing to do. But General Howe threatened to burn the city to the ground unless he was allowed to sail away unscathed, the Americans reluctantly gave in, and Howe sailed off with all his men. Hardly a victory.

Similarly, the Americans launched a twin-pronged campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada, from the British, with Major General Richard Montgomery capturing forts up Lake Champlain while Major General Benedict Arnold led a force through the wilds of Maine, to join up in front of Quebec City.

The section describing the appalling sufferings of Arnold’s men as they hacked their way through swamp and forest, drowned in makeshift rafts on rapids, and began to starve, before finally blundering into the settled territory in Canada, is the most imaginatively gripping part of the whole book, reading like a gruesome novel of backwoods survival.

But the military point is that both the American forces were so weakened by the time they arrived and commenced the Battle of Quebec that their attack was a complete failure. Montgomery was killed and Arnold badly wounded in the assault on the city, before the survivors were forced to regroup and retrace their way back to America.

It had been ‘a calamity of epic proportions’ (p.111).

Similarly, Howe launched a great campaign to take New York City from Washington’s army ,and this involved a whole series of engagements as Washington slowly withdrew back through Long Island, then up Manhattan, and over into new Jersey. But the real story is that Howe missed several glaring opportunities to surround and exterminate Washington’s army, letting it live on.

Similarly, much is made of the Battle of Saratoga, a supposedly great victory by the Americans in October 1777. But when you read about it in as much detail as Ferling supplies, you first of all realise that it wasn’t a battle at all. British General Burgoyne had led an army down from British Canada, hoping to link up with General Howe’s army from New York, and another one coming east from Lake Ontario. Neither turned up and Ferling’s account shows how Burgoyne’s force was steadily weakened and depleted by small engagements along the way, loss of food and supplies, the necessity of leaving detachments to guard all the little forts he captured on the way south and so on and so on. So that by the time Burgoyne’s weakened force approached the American stronghold of Albany, at the northernmost point of the River Hudson, his depleted forces were perilously short of ammunition and supplies. Eventually Burgoyne’s force was surrounded by outnumbering American forces and he surrendered. There was no battle.

A lot of American mythology surrounds the Battle of Trenton, when Washington led his forces across the half-frozen River Delaware to take by surprise detachments of German mercenaries stationed in the small town of Trenton, who were outliers of Howe’s larger British Army stationed in New Jersey.

Yes, it was a daring pre-dawn raid, yes it caught the Hessians completely unprepared, and yes it led to the capture of almost all of them (22 killed, compared with just 2 dead on the American side).

But its importance was far more psychological than military. The Americans had done nothing but retreat from New York for six months. Trenton wasn’t a victory at all, it just showed that the Americans weren’t completely beaten and still had some kick left in them. Trenton stemmed the tide of defections and desertions from the Patriot army and showed sceptics at home and abroad that American troops could win something. But it didn’t gain much ground or defeat a major British force.

There is much more like this. Ferling quotes lots of contemporary eye-witness testimony to give really impactful accounts of the endless marching, of long gruelling campaigns like Arnold’s trek north or Burgoyne’s trek south, of the endless arguments at British and American HQ – which make up the majority of the text.

The suffering and hardships, the climatic extremes, the lack of food and shelter, are quite difficult to read sometimes. I was particularly struck by the way many of the Continental soldiers had no shoes or footwear of any sort. On numerous marches their fellow soldiers followed the blood from bleeding feet left in the snow or mud. In fact, the two Patriots who died at Trenton died from advanced frostbite, and thousands of American soldiers lost toes and feet due to lack of basic footwear.

Skirmishing aside, really large full-scale battles didn’t happen that often, but when they do Ferling’s accounts are appropriately gory and bloodthirsty, over and again bringing out how war amounts to the frenzied butchering and dismembering, skewering, hacking and eviscerating of human bodies.

War in the south

By 1779 and 1780 Washington was in despair because he didn’t know what to do next. Ferling makes it clear that right up to the last moments of the war, Washington was fixated, obsessed, with returning to fight a big battle for New York – despite the fact that the Americans never had enough men to retake it against Britain’s well-entrenched forces.

That or maybe another stab at taking Canada from the British – another phantasm which haunted American military minds, despite the catastrophe of the Arnold campaign.

Washington’s obsession with the north meant that he missed the region where the war was eventually won, which was in the southern states. About half way through the book Ferling switches focus from New England, New York and Pennsylvania, to the southern states of Maryland, North and South Carolina and Georgia.

This second half feels different from the first half for two reasons: the French had got involved, and there was a lot more guerrilla and partisan fighting.

France and world war

American representatives had been in Paris since before the start of the war, negotiating trade deals etc. Once conflict broke out, Ferling devotes sections to describing in detail the lengthy negotiations between American representatives and the French government, with the former trying to persuade the latter to join in and support the revolution.

Both sides had many considerations to weigh up: some Americans worried that any victory with the help of the French would mean handing over territory in North America to them – maybe they’d want Canada back, and so become a threat to the young country from the north; or maybe the French would demand the rights to Louisiana (at that point all the land along both sides of the Mississippi) and would thus block any further American expansion to the west. Risky.

Other Patriots worried that any even-handed military alliance with the French might mean that Americans would get dragged into France’s endless wars in Europe: having begun a war to get free of entanglements with Britain and her power politics on the Continent, the Americans might find themselves ending up worse off than they began.

Many on the French side weren’t that thrilled either, and the French minister who managed the war, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, was presented with a sequence of obstacles, opposition and unexpected dilemmas which Ferling presents with great clarity.

I had no idea that, once the French had overtly allied with the Americans in 1778, they again began planning for one of their many attempts to invade England, and sent privateers to board and confiscate British shipping.

In the event, massive French loans to America enabled Congress to feed and clothe and supply its armies, and the fleet France sent turned out to play a vital role in ‘victory’. The Americans couldn’t have won their ‘freedom’ if it hadn’t been for French support.

War in the South

As 1780 dawned the British were as puzzled as the Americans about what to do next. A series of events led the British to conceive of mounting a ‘Southern strategy’ and General Henry Clinton (who had succeeded the indecisive General Howe in 1778) despatched General Charles Cornwallis to raise Loyalist forces across the south.

Cornwallis did attract Loyalist forces and – as Ferling brings out throughout his book – substantial numbers of slaves defected and/or ran away from their southern plantations to join the British forces who promised them their freedom.

But it was never enough. Loyalist support was defeated at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 1780), and the British Legion, a cavalry force led by swashbuckling Banastre Tarleton, was defeated at the Battle of Cowpens (January 1781).

Cornwallis marched into North Carolina, gambling on a Loyalist uprising but it never materialised. He was shadowed by the American general Nathanael Greene, who dominates the American side of the story for this whole southern campaign and emerges (from my amateur perspective) as a much more energetic, successful and important American general than Washington, who spent all these last few years holed up in the north, vainly fantasising about recapturing New York.

It was very typical of this prolonged and indecisive war that a key engagement was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse on 15 March 1781, where Cornwallis’s army beat Greene, but suffered large casualties in the process. As in so many battles of the American War of Independence, Cornwallis held the field but the other side had won.

Because it wasn’t a war of decisive victories; it was a war of attrition where the winner was the one who could wear down the other side. This describes the American failure at Quebec and the British failure at Saratoga – and that is how the war finally ended.

British surrender

In 1781 the French arranged to send a significant fleet to the Americas. In fact it went first to the West Indies to secure French territories there, before asking its American allies where along the coastline it should be sent.

This prompted feverish debate among the Americans and their French allies about whether the French fleet should be sent to New York to revive Washington’s endless dreams of recapturing the city. But in the end it went to Virginia, partly under the influence of the French officer Lafayette, who had been fighting alongside the Americans almost from the start, and was now embedded in Greene’s southern army.

Before he left North Carolina for Virginia, Cornwallis had been receiving confused orders from his commander-in-chief, Clinton, holed up in New York. At some moments Clinton asked him to come all the way back north to help protect the city, but in other despatches ordered him to stay where he was. The one clear message that emerged from this confusion was that Cornwallis should hunker down in a coastal port and await the Royal Navy.

So Cornwallis marched to Yorktown on the Virginia coast, built outworks, prepared for a siege and awaited relief. But it never came. Instead the French fleet arrived and Nathanael Greene’s army was joined by a steady flow of Continental soldiers and militias from all across the south, who were able to block off all Cornwallis’s escape routes.

As so often during the narrative, there were several windows of opportunity when Cornwallis could have escaped the siege and fled north, or embarked at least some of his forces across the Cooper river to land east of the city.

But he had been ordered to await the Royal Navy and await them he did until it was too late, he was completely surrounded and, with food beginning to run short – giving in to reality – Cornwallis surrendered his army on 17 October 1781.

The British give up

It cannot be emphasised too much that the Americans did not win the American war of Independence through a battle. They simply surrounded a British army which had let itself be taken by a series of accidents and bad judgements, and which decided to surrender.

And the Americans couldn’t have done it without the French naval force which blockaded Yorktown, thus preventing any hopes of relieving supplies or escape.

When news of this disaster arrived back in London in late November 1781 the British government… gave up. The British still had 30,000 troops garrisoned in New York, Charleston, and Savannah, could have recruited more, and the war could have been prosecuted for another six years, if anyone had wanted to.

But enough of the ruling classes were fed up with the loss of men and money to make it untenable.

Although the vote in Britain was limited to a tiny percentage of male property owners, nonetheless Britain was a democracy of sorts, and on 27 February 1782, the House of Commons voted against further war in America by 19 votes.

The minister responsible for conducting the war, Lord Germain, was dismissed and a vote of no confidence was passed against Lord North, who had led the government throughout.

A new government led by the Whig party came to power and immediately opened negotiations for peace. So it goes.

Conclusions

I’d never read an account of the American War of Independence before. It was a real eye-opener. There was:

1. a lack of focus, as both sides racked their brains to decide what they were trying to do

2. a lack of fighting – especially in 1779 and 1780 long periods passed with no fighting at all – I think Washington didn’t see any action at all in the final two years of the war

I was really, really struck by the way that a handful of events from the first months of the war have become so mythical that even I have heard of them – Paul Revere’s Ride from Boston to warn the Patriots that the British were coming; the first shot fired at Concord which inspired Emerson’s poem:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

And the Battle of Bunker Hill outside Boston.

But all these happened within the first few months of the war. American mythology dwells on these early, idealistic, and entirely positive events, and then – the following six years of failure and stalemate, well… you hear a lot less about them.

The exception is Washington’s night-time crossing of the Delaware river, ferrying his army across to launch his surprise dawn attack on Trenton, because it was a daring, dashing undertaking and it inspired a number of heroic paintings depicting the scene.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

But it’s as if the events of those first few months have become super-iconic, overflowing with revolutionary zeal and idealism and then…. as with all wars, when it wasn’t over by Christmas and in fact dragged on for six long, gruelling years more, during which thousands of men died, thousands of citizens lives were destroyed by marauding militias or Indians, and the entire economy of America was undermined by a lack of supplies which led to galloping inflation, well… you don’t hear much about that.

Ferling’s long, detailed account shows the gruelling reality which lay behind the handful of mythical highlights which we remember.

3. Above all, there was a lack of inevitability. 

Again, I am used to the kind of war where ‘the tide turns’ and the Germans start to be defeated on the Western front or the Japanese are fought back across the Pacific, so that the conclusions of World Wars One and Two possess a grinding sense of inevitability.

But there was no decisive ‘turning point’ in this war and the end, when it comes, is oddly anti-climactic, almost an accident. Oh well. We’re surrounded. Better surrender, chaps.

This sense of contingency is heightened by the way Ferling, at all points, investigates very thoroughly all the arguments and logics underpinning everyone’s strategies. There was no inevitability to Cornwallis deciding to invade Virginia or deciding to retreat to Yorktown – in fact, historians to this day struggle to account for it.

Indeed, for the last few years of the war, there was a mounting sense that either side might sue for international arbitration. This had happened in previous wars, where mediators such as Russia or Prussia were invited to arbitrate between warring sides in European conflicts.

As 1781 dawned, all sides – American, French and British – were fed up with the war and wanted it to end somehow, but the Americans in particular lived in fear that an international peace treaty might be imposed on them, and that – as was traditional – territory would be allotted to whoever held it when the deal was signed.

This wish to hold on to territory partly explains why commander-in-chief Clinton was reluctant to leave New York, which would be a jewel in the crown if Britain was allowed to retain it, and also explains Cornwallis’s energetic attempts to clear the southern states of rebels, and to raise Loyalist forces to keep them secure.

If peace suddenly broke out, they would have been retained by the British Empire.

Ferling brings out how this nightmare scenario kept men like Washington and John Adams awake at night – the notion that after six years of sacrifice, and watching the American economy go to hell, the Patriots might end up rewarded only with the New England states, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while New York state (which extends north to the border with Canada) and the entire south would be retained by Britain.

Worse, if the French insisted on reclaiming Louisiana, the new American republic would be surrounded on all sides by enemies and barriers.

It was not to be – but it might have been – and it is one of the many pleasures of Ferling’s long and exhaustingly thorough account, that the reader develops a real sense of just how contingent and arbitrary this shattering war and, by extension, all human affairs, really are.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)

The Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17, 1775 by Howard Pyle (1897)


Related links

Other posts about American history

John Ferling’s descriptions of days in the American War of Independence

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

Days by Philip Larkin

The historian’s problem with days

Historians deal with periods of time. Since these are generally longer than a few hours, they can or have to be measured in days, days which make up weeks, months, years and sometimes centuries. Nonetheless, when it comes to recording key events (births, marriages, deaths, battles, treaties), historians, like the rest of us, tend to think of them as happening on specific days. D-Day. Independence Day. Days are what we attach meaning to. Days are where we live.

How can you distinguish and separate out all the days which make up all of human history? How can you convey the passage of time, the passage of days, how can you make it more than a colourless recitation of numbers and dates?

Take the American War of Independence. There is debate both about when the war both started and when it ended. The consensus view is that hostilities began on April 19, 1775, when British regular forces tried to arrest rebel leaders in the Massachusetts villages of Concord and Lexington. This sparked skirmishes with Patriot militiamen, which escalated into a running battle as the British soldiers were forced to retreat back to their stronghold in Boston.

And, officially, the war ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783 – although after the British lost the siege of Yorktown in October of 1781 they decided not to continue hostilities and there was no full scale fighting after that date.

So, officially, the American War of Independence lasted about eight years and five months, ‘one hundred and four blood-drenched months’ – some 3,000 days to demarcate and distinguish. How do you make the key ones stand out?

John Ferling’s feel for days

A little way into John Ferling’s long and minutely-detailed military history of the American War of Independence, I began to notice how much attention he pays to the weather and to the quality of important days.

Much of Ferling’s content is as dry and factual as any other historian’s, but he consistently slips in little descriptive phrases designed to convey the specificity of important days. He is particularly fond of the crepuscular hours – of dawn or nightfall – the hours when the world seems more pregnant with meaning and possibility than usual.

  • The brilliant midday sun stood high in the sky over Pell’s Point, transforming the bite of dawn into a comfortable fall day. (p.9)
  • First light came at 4am on this historic day. Thirty minutes later, with streaks of orange and purple visible in the eastern sky, an advance party – six companies totalling 238 men – reached Lexington Common… (p.30)
  • As darkness gathered on September 12 [1775], twenty four hours after their departure from Newburyport, the last of the eleven vessels in Arnold’s armada reached Gardinerstown, Maine, a tiny village with a shipyard some thirty miles up the Kennebec. (p.90)
  • By around 7am, with day breaking under a grey snowy sky, the battle [of Quebec] was over and the Americans who could do so were on the retreat back to the Plains of Abraham, leaving their dead and wounded behind. (p.98)
  • As the dark stain of night gathered over Long Island, Howe, together with Clinton and guided by three Loyalists, set out with half his army over a maze of back roads leading toward the Jamaica Pass eight miles away. (26 August 1776, p.133)
  • When night tightened over Brooklyn, and the black storm clouds obscured the moon, the boats, manned by two Massachusetts regiments under Colonel Glover, and consisting almost exclusively of experienced mariners, were brought across the East River. [Washington’s army flee Long Island for Manhattan after their crushing defeat on 26 August 1776, p.136]
  • As the slanting shadows of late afternoon gathered, [General Howe] decided to wait until morning before launching his frontal attack. (p.147)
  • The British reached Hackensack on November 22 [1776]. The American army had departed twenty-four hours earlier, continuing to move to the west, crossing the Passaic River into Acquackononck Landing (modern Passaic), as the pale sun of the late day glinted off the water. (p.164)
  • The crossing out of New Jersey [by the retreating American army] began immediately and continued through the sullen night under an eerie orange-yellow illumination provided by giant fires  built on the shores, making for what a Pennsylvanian militiaman thought was ‘rather the appearance of Hell than any earthly scene.’ (p.170)

Ferling’s descriptions are like paintings, aren’t they, although paintings from a later era. Ferling brings an essentially romantic sensibility to what was still a pre-Romantic, eighteenth century world.

  • To preserve secrecy [for their surprise attack on German mercenary forces at Trenton], the Americans could not stir until darkness gathered, leaving much to be accomplished in a short period before morning light streaked the eastern sky. (p.176)
  • Washington had divided his forces about three miles west of Trenton. Greene led a division along the northern road to the village. It consisted largely of veterans of the long retreat across New Jersey. Sullivan, who for the most part commanded the men that Lee had brought down from New York, proceeded along a southerly artery near the river, the frozen breath of men and horses visible in the early morning light. (p.177)
  • Time and again the Americans ambushed the British, waging time-consuming firefights before melting away to take up new positions further down the road, from which they opened up yet again on their prey. At one juncture, rebel pickets tied down the enemy for two precious hours. When the lead elements in Cornwallis’s force finally reached the [river] Assunpink, the long, sloping black shadows of late day swaddled the landscape. (p.182)
  • The last lonely streaks of daylight slanted through the leafless trees as the Continental army entered Morristown, New Jersey, on January 6. 1777. (p.204)
  • [General St Clair] ordered the withdrawal [of the American army from Fort Ticonderoga] to begin in the wee small hours of the morning, when the landscape, under a new moon, would be shrouded in sooty darkness. (p.220)
  • The surrender of 5,895 men [after the British General Burgoyne’s ill-fated march south from Canada to the river Hudson ended in total defeat] took time, more than four hours. When the last man had departed the field of surrender, [American General] Gates hosted an outdoor dinner on this sun-soft autumn afternoon for Burgoyne and his brigade and regimental commanders… When the meal was done, and the shadows of late day stretched over the idyllic fields that recently had witnessed untold agony, the British and German officers stood, stiffly said their goodbyes, mounted their horses, and rode off to join their men in the march to Boston and an uncertain future. (p.241)

Ferling is careful to give a pen portrait of each of the many military leaders who appear in these pages, the generals and brigadiers and colonels on both sides. We are told the biography and character of scores of leading military men. But it is to the weather, the light and the mood of key days, that he pays particular attention.

Sometimes his description of the light is more persuasive than his description of the people.

  • The men gathered early under a soft linen-blue sky and marched smartly to their designated spots where they stood in the delectable sunshine listening as the summary of the treaties [with new ally, France] were read out… (p.294)
  • After fighting for three hours or more in ‘weather… almost too hot to live in’, as one American soldier put it, the British abandoned their bloody charges and for two final hours, until 6pm, when the evening’s cooling shadows swaddled the bloody landscape, the battle morphed into an artillery duel. (p.306)
  • Three days later, in the pale sunshine of winter, the bulk of the British invasion force entered Richmond unopposed. (p.478)
  • About 5.30am in the last throes of the dark, starry night, [Tarleton’s cavalry] splashed across muddy Macedonia Creek to the cups of Cowpens. As they began to organise in the still, cold darkness – the temperature was in the low to mid-twenties – the first low purple of day glazed the eastern sky. (p.483)
  • Around noon on March 15, a gloriously cool day, the rebels heard, then spotted, the first column of red-clad soldiers as it emerged through a cuff of leafless trees and marched grandly up New Garden Road, awash with the soft, spring sun… (p.497)
  • Washington got all that he wanted [from the French delegates in March 1781] and at sunset on March 8, as he and Rochambeau stood shoulder to shoulder on the cold wind-swept shore watching, the [French] squadron sailed off into the gathering darkness. (p.502)

Romantic descriptions, romantic paintings

Ferling includes some 40 paintings and illustrations in the book. When I came to analyse them I realised that only four are illustrations of actual battles – a few are technical pictures of contemporary ships, but the great majority, over 30, are portraits of the many military men and political leaders on both sides – emphasising the care he takes to give portraits of all the key military leaders.

But then I noticed that, whereas the military portraits are all contemporary i.e. drawn or painted from life in the 1770s and 1780s, the battle pictures are from over a century later, painted at the height of late-Victorian realism (1898, 1903, 1898), in the style of boys’ adventure stories — almost as if the history had to wait for a sufficiently ‘manly’ painting style to develop to depict the tough heroism of those days.

Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga by artist Percy Moran (1911)

Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga by artist Percy Moran (1911)

Or as if only paintings in the late-Victorian style can match Ferling’s own romantic feel for the weather, for the mood, for the changing light, for the fogs and blazing sunshine, for the first dawns and the quick-falling nights with which his enthralling account is laced.

He rode through the afternoon and most of the following day, one of the last soldiers yet on the road home from this war. At last, as the sun hung red and low in the sky on Christmas Eve, George Washington, private citizen, emerged through the bare trees and onto the path that led to the front door of Mount Vernon. The War of Independence was truly at an end. (p.561)

Ferling has a stylish, highly descriptive, and memorable way with the days of the American War of Independence.


Related links

Other posts about American history

Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

The films of Woody Allen

Woody is 79 (b.1 December 1935), has made well over 40 films (as well as writing all those books and plays and TV scripts), and is still making them at a prodigious rate: last year Cate Blanchett won best actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine and he has two more films scheduled for release this year. Woody Allen filmography. His has been an extraordinary career, packed with amazing achievements in a range of forms – standup, TV, movies, theatre, books.

My kids bought me a big box set of Woody Allen movies, I bought a few more, and set out to watch as many as I could in chronological order:

1965 What’s New Pussycat? OK, it’s dated, and Allen wanted it removed from his oeuvre – but with loads of great scenes and with Peter Sellars and Peter O’Toole and that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Richard Burton, and Ursula Andress parachuting into a sports car, come on, it’s great! My son loved the climax at the go-kart chase. I loved Peter Sellars’ half hearted attempt to give himself a Viking suicide on the banks of the Seine until Woody turns up with a midnight feast.

‘Get a sports car!’
‘But I can’t drive.’
‘So you knock down a few people – but you’ll get the girl!’

  • 1966 What’s Up, Tiger Lily?
  • 1967 Casino Royale
  • 1969 Don’t Drink the Water
  • 1969 Take the Money and Run

1971 Bananas (Colour) A series of great sketches loosely tied round the story of chaotic nerd Fielding Melish who winds up helping guerrillas overthrow the dictator of a fictitious Latin American country. When he makes love to his girlfriend as Melish, she always says’There was something missing’. A lot later, he bumps into her on his US tour masquerading as the great Latin leader, they to go bed, he eventually reveals who he is and she says: ‘I knew there was something missing’. the film climaxes with an excruciatingly unfunny scene where they get married and go to bed and a real US boxing commentator commentates on their pantomime love-making. Amateurish, endearing. (82 minutes)

  • ‘I love leprosy, cholera, all the major infectious skin diseases.’
  • The spoof ad with the Catholic priest: ‘New Testament cigarettes. I smoke ’em. [points up to heaven] He smokes ’em.’

1972 Play It Again, Sam

1972 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) Every bit as cringeworthy as the title suggests, it’s a set of sketches cobbled together rather like Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and just as uneven. The standout sketch is the one of Gene Wilder as a serious NY doctor who… falls in love with a sheep! (86 minutes)

1973 Sleeper (Colour) Very funny comedy about Miles Monroe who wakes up from a coma to discover it’s 200 years in the future and, as a reawakened sleeper, he is wanted by the Police State which now runs America. The giant banana skin, the orgasmotron. Diane Keaton with her kooky charm (or lack of it) plays the brainwashed woman who holds absurd art parties until she sees the light and becomes an ardent revolutionary. (88 minutes)

  • Face the fact that everyone you knew has been dead for nearly 200 years.’
    ‘But they all ate organic rice!’
  • ‘Hello I’m Rex. Woof woof woof.’

1975 Love and Death (Colour) Spoof on all those Russian novelists. Diane Keaton is the woman Boris Grushenko (Allen) loves but can never attain. Starts with hilarious satire on the doltish Russian family, mutates into what must have been very expensive battle scenes with thousands of extras in costume, before becoming a bedroom farce as they try to assassinate Napoleon. Bit painful. (85 minutes)

‘You remember how to have sex, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I’ve spent a lot of time practising, when I’m alone.’

1976 The Front Long one about a 1950s cashier (Howard Prince – Woody) who is approached by one of the scriptwriters blacklisted during the McCarthy era to act as a ‘front’ through which they can continue to sell their work to the TV networks. The film is in a worthy cause – ie reviving memories of this bitter time – and the credits mention that many of the producers and actors in it themselves experienced blacklisting only 25 years earlier. But the emotional core of the piece is (presumably) meant to be the Zero Mostel character who is hounded to his death by the McCarthites. Unfortunately, Zero is, alas, a poor or very stylised actor, whose predicament evoked embarrassment rather than sympathy in this viewer. Similarly, the love interest – Andrea Marcovicci – is (presumably) meant to represent a serious strand in the film: she falls in love with Woody the writer and is inspired by his integrity to resign her job from the network – only to discover he is a fraud. Unfortunately, she is acting opposite the essentially lightweight Allen and so these scenes, also, do not gel.

One of the rare Woody movies which he didn’t write; an interesting attempt to be a dramatic actor in someone else’s script – which doesn’t really come off. And the payoff line, where Woody tells the committee to go —- themselves? In the real world you don’t get the last laugh against people like that. And certainly not in a ‘serious’ movie. The film fails to convey the real sense of fear and helplessness which the memoirs of the period reek of. (95 minutes)

1977 Annie Hall (Colour) Apotheosis of Diane Keaton and a film which wonderfully balances inventive, funny sketches (the scene on the balcony where their nervous conversation is subtitled with their real thoughts) with something a little deeper about relationships and love. In retrospect, the whiny, needy Allen character (Alvy Singer) is becoming irritating. Nausheous, as he would say. (93 minutes)

  • ‘There’s an old joke: there’s two old ladies at a resort in the Catskills and one says, Isn’t the food here disgusting? and the other says, yes and such small portions!’
  • ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t do teach; and those who can’t teach, teach gym.’
  • ‘It’s OK I’ll walk to the kerb.’
  • ‘I’m due back on planet earth now, Dwayne.’
  • ‘Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I really love.’

1978 Interiors (Colour) Brave failure. Attempt to show a WASP family disintegrating, but the acting is strangely stylised. I don’t believe the paterfamilias at all, and much if not all of the dialogue is wooden. Maybe it’s meant to be as stylised as the empty, heartlessly immaculate interiors of the big family house by the sea where the intensely unhappy drama plays out. The father has abandoned his middle-aged wife who is breaking down as a result. Their three adult daughters struggle to cope and argue spitefully with each other. A deliberate attempt by Diane Keaton, and Allen, to shake off the kooky image of Annie Hall. (99 minutes)

1979 Manhattan (Black and white) Brilliant. The idea came from wanting to film Manhattan to the music of George Gershwin and it succeeds spectacularly. OK we’re back with Allen playing the needy, whiny, self-obsessed, amoral lead character, a man with no restraint or self-discipline who cruelly manipulates his 17 year-old lover. But it looks great. Meryl Streep is powerful as the venomous, humourless lesbian ex-wife who is writing a warts-and-all account of their marriage. (96 minutes)

1980 Stardust Memories (Black and white) Brilliant. The account of a famous film director at a weekend festival dedicated to his work in a faded holiday resort. He’s whiny, needy and wildly erratic in his pursuit of multiple women, who include his neurotic wife (Charlotte Rampling), a French woman, a foxy student. Those scenes highlight the rather tiresome Allen needy narcissism. What makes the film it visionary is the portrayal of the circus freaks who populate the rest of the film, his agents, the Hollywood producers, his fans, and the characters in his persuasive nightmares. And Rampling’s performance as the neurotic wife going mad has rare power. (88 minutes)

1982 A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (Colour) Brilliant. Touching, funny, beautifully shot in upstate New York countryside. The 1910s setting is great. The house in upstate New York is wonderfully picturesque. Jose Ferrer as the pompous professor is greatly funny. The use of Mendelssohn’s music throughout is inspired, the obvious counterpart to Gershwin in Manhattan. And the Allen character – for once not too whiny-needy – is a crackpot inventor who gives the movie a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feel, a real magical realism tone to what is at core a familiar story of characters all being in love with the wrong person. It’s the first of a run of 13 movies which feature Mia Farrow, his muse in the 1980s as Keaton had been in the 1970s. (88 minutes)

1983 Zelig – disappointing. Black and white spoof documentary about fictional character Zelig, an odd patient who turns into the people he’s with ie believes he’s a doctor among doctors, becomes black among blacks, Scottish among Scots and so on. The film tries to persuade us he became a phenomenon in the 1920s and 1930s with songs and dances and movies about him. Allen persuaded Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Irving Howe and Bruno Bettelheim to take part, giving interviews as if about a real man. But the central premise isn’t strong enough to carry any of this. ‘He just wanted to fit in.’ Is that it? I was hoping it would say something about the politics or society of the time. Instead it said nothing at all and dwindled down into the love affair between Zelig and his pretty doctor, played by Mia Farrow. (79 minutes)

1984 Broadway Danny Rose (Black and white) Love the setup of a tableful of middle-aged comics who get round to reminiscing about the heroic loser agent of the title played by Allen. Manages to be dramatic and very funny as the Allen character (Broadway Danny Rose) has to go to great lengths to get the trashy mistress of his one and only decent act to attend his breakthrough singing opportunity – but his efforts draw the attention of the Mafia. It’s worth it for the scene of the party sad Danny has in his crappy apartment with his terrible acts, the blind xylophonist, the bird act with one dead parrot etc. The role of Tina Vitale, the trashy tramp tied up with the mob is, maybe, Mia Farrow’s best performance, because so unlike her usual thoughtful, timid characters. (84 minutes)

  • ‘I don’t want to badmouth the kid – but he’s a horrible, dishonest, immoral louse, and I say that with all due respect.’
  • ‘Lou you’ve got a wife!’
    ‘Yeah, but this is different – I’m in love!’
  • ‘He’s cheating with you. He has integrity. He only cheats with one woman at a time.’

1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo Mia Farrow is married to a wife-beater in some crap industrial city during the Depression, whose only solace is going to the movies. Until one day the romantic lead steps down from the screen and woos her, leading to all kinds of comic scenarios. Eventually, the actor who plays the errant character flies out from Hollywood to confront his alter ego. Good example of an Allen movie which feels like an extended sketch and runs out of steam well before its (surprisingly downbeat) ending. ‘I’m married. I’ve met a wonderful man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything.’ (82 minutes)

Some thoughts Many of these movies begin to flag about 40, 45 minutes in. I read he had trouble completing sketches for Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex and one or more of the others. It shows. So many of these films begin brightly with interesting setups and characters and the first few developments being funny or dramatic… but then run out of steam. Most of them struggle to last an hour and twenty minutes and that’s with numerous musical interludes. Take the music out and they’d be closer to an hour ten. At which point you wonder whether, with a bit of tighter editing, they’d make really punchy hour-long dramas…

1986 Hannah and Her Sisters (Colour) The first one which feels like an ensemble piece, with the dramatic plotlines shared among four or five characters, each given a fair share of development. And which features an English male actor. I remember liking this a lot in the cinema when it came out, it seemed like a breath of fresh air, tackling the real lives of realistic people. Now it feels dated. Michael Caine is not convincing as a financial advisor who develops a crush on his wife’s sister, inveigles her into an affair, and then is overcome with regret. His voiceover narrative is stifled and unnatural. Max von Sydow, who we revered in his Continental films, is wasted as Barbara Hershey’s older, artist, husband. (106 mins)

1987 Radio Days (Colour) Excellent. A reversion to comedy, a lovely memoir of childhood in Rockaway, New Jersey during the Depression in a big Jewish family full of characters and love and arguments, all neatly threaded round the theme of the radio programmes and songs they loved to listen to. The strand devoted to Dianne Wiest as ditzy Auntie Bea, always unlucky in her endless quest for a husband, is wonderful. Heart-warming. (85 minutes)

‘When I was a kid I didn’t know anything about classical music: I thought the Goldberg Variations were something Mr and Mrs Goldberg did on their wedding night.’

1987 September (Colour) Couldn’t be more unlike the above: it is shot almost exclusively inside one house in the country where Mia Farrow’s character has fled after a suicide attempt, with a would-be novelist for a lodger who she adores but who has fallen in love with her best friend, Dianne Wiest’s Steph. The film covers the long weekend when her overbearing mother, a former starlet (Elaine Strich), comes to stay with her current boyfriend. More like a Tennessee Williams drama with scenes of real intensity, and a wonderful performance by Dianne Wiest, miles away from ditzy Aunt Bea of its predecessor, showing real range and ability. The token English actor in this one is Denholm Elliott touchingly (but wildly improbably) in love with Mia Farrow. (82 minutes)

1987 King Lear – can’t get hold of.

1988 Another Woman (Colour) A wonderful study of Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) a successful philosophy professor who, through a freak of acoustics, can overhear the therapist next door from her workroom, and one particular patient (Mia Farrow) whose frank discussion of her failing marriage, worries about life etc strike an unexpected chord and, along with other revelations, lead Marion to reconsider her whole life. Not really an ensemble piece but all the other characters have real depth and development and it builds to a warm and glowing conclusion. Wonderful. Adult. Life-affirming. The token Brit is Ian Holm, more at home than Michael Caine was in this milieu, as Marion’s successful but distant cardiologist husband. (84 Minutes)

1989 New York Stories What a great idea: a story each by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody about the city that never sleeps.  What a stinker it turns out to be! The Scorsese one is sustained by Nick Nolte’s performance as a big shot, loudmouth artist, but suffers from typical Scorsese technical tricks and a whining performance by Rosanna Arquette as the tiresome Muse. The Coppola one is dire, presumably meant to be a charming tale of New York rich kids which hangs on the central performance of a 12 year-old girl who, unfortunately, proves Coppola’s gift for heroic miscasting. It was co-written with his daughter, and the music was provided by his wife. Uh-huh. Dire. The Woody Allen piece – Oedipus Wrecks – is the least bad, as Allen plays a middle-aged Jewish man harassed by his overbearing mother who, after a freak accident, becomes a vast figure in the sky telling the whole of New York about her son’s bedwetting. Genuinely funny and touching.

1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors (Colour) the tale of a successful ophthalmologist (Martin Landau), his brother the rabbi who is going blind, and his other brother, the no-goodnik who consorts with criminals. His mistress (Anjelica Huston) is threatening to tell his wife about their affair. When she threatens to also spill the beans about his embezzlements, Landau mentions his plight to his rough brother, who promptly arranges for Anjelica to be murdered. Threaded through is the comic strand of Woody as a failed arthouse documentary director, in the shadow of his super-successful brother-in-law, played by Alan Alda, sheepishly falling in love with Mia Farrow’s assistant producer. I remember liking this in the cinema. On the small screen it didn’t quite ring true. The scenes where Landau revisits his childhood home and sees himself as a child listening to the big family discussions about God and the Meaning of Life are clever and should be touching. But ultimately I didn’t believe it, any of it, didn’t believe Angelica Huston as the weepy vengeful mistress, didn’t believe Landau could seriously countenance her murder. It was too schematic, the actors felt too much like puppets being manipulated to bring out Woody’s familiar obsessions: is there a God or is it all just meaningless random suffering. There are quite a few, more sophisticated, less black-and-white, ways to look at the world… (104 minutes)

1990 Alice (Colour) Satire about an upper-class New York wife of a super-rich banker (Mia Farrow), their sterile, pampered life, and her awakening triggered by bumping into an attractive musician at her children’s prep school, this coinciding with her starting treatment with an unusual Chinese herbalist. In the end her conventional life falls to pieces and she has to confront her freedom, which she uses to become a ‘charriddy’ worker with foreign kids. Just as Mia Farrow has done in real life. (102 minutes)

Magical realism In Alice the heroine is given potions by her Chinese practitioner which make her invisible, let her see ghosts, and fly over New York. It’s undermentioned in the reviews – which always reference Woody’s gags, his Jewishness, New York, his love of jazz, the devotion to Ingmar Bergman etc – that there’s a transformative magic in many of these movies. It’s there in the earliest sketches, which are frequently fantastical or non-realist eg the scenes in Annie Hall where he talks to figures from the past. (This scene – the relived Jewish childhood – dominates Radio Days and features in even such a serious movie as Crimes and Misdemeanors.) Oedipus Wrecks is obviously light-hearted but the way his mother appears as a giant presence in the sky is magical, visionary. The entire premise of The Purple Rose of Cairo is that the characters in a film can climb down out of the movie screen, an entirely magical scenario. Zelig is magical in that Zelig changes anatomy to fit in with his contexts. And, charmingly and wonderfully, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy features not only Andrew the inventor’s flying machine but his strange device for seeing ectoplasm, for visualising ghosts and memories. In Mighty Aphrodite the Greek chorus punctuate the action, appearing in New York settings and having knock-down arguments with the Allen character, a dead man talks to him, fiction confusingly infects ‘real life’ as stories he’s written are dramatised and interact with the situations and people who inspired them. In Deconstructing Harry various characters the writer has created come to life and talk to him in a thorough interweaving of fact and fiction and, strangely, visionarily, Robin Williams’ character becomes blurred, soft, out-of-focus in real life. In Shadows and Fog Armstad the Magician drags Kleinman into the mirror before capturing the murderer in a magic cage. One character coments: ‘Everyone loves his illusions.’ ‘Loves them? They need them – like the air.’

Magical realism is a strong, wonderful, redemptive strand throughout Woody Allen’s movies.

1991 Scenes from a Mall (Colour) Poor. Woody only co-stars in this, the first film he hadn’t written, produced or directed since The Front. The screenplay is by Roger L. Simon and Paul Mazursky and directed by Mazursky, so we’re at liberty to find it much more conventional than a Woody movie. No magical realism, for example. Just a straight account of sports lawyer Woody married to relationship counsellor Bette Midler in LA, they see the kids off on a holiday, and go shopping to the mall on their 16th wedding anniversary where he confesses to having an affair – and the sheepdip hits the fan. This really isn’t funny. No laughs at all. Just a spoilt American couple behaving like fickle 12-year-olds and mistaking their callow superficiality for emotions, for life. (89 minutes)

1991 Shadows and Fog (Black and white) This is really odd. An hommage to the black and white Expressionist films of Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau, set one night in a fantasy Mitteleuropean city between the Wars – not unlike the Transylvania of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974) – all set to the lively Weimar music of Kurt Weill. A murderer is on the loose and Kleinman (Woody) is woken from a deep sleep into a Kafkaesque nightmare where mobs of humourless vigilantes at first recruit him for their unspecified plan and then, inevitably, come to suspect him and then chase him. Why? And what is the subplot about Mia Farrow and John Malkovitch as performers in the circus who split up and have various adventures on this ill-fated night? The film is trying to be three different things: a hommage to intense European movies (fail); a nightmare of antisemitic Kafkaism (some moments of real menace); but throughout it the Woody character wisecracks as if in one of his earliest slapstick efforts (occasionally funny, sure, but mostly wildly out of place, badly undermining the previous two themes.) And, surreally, the pop star Madonna appears as the vamp at the circus. Random. Unsuccessful. (85 minutes)

  • ‘Misky is a craftsman. He performs wonderful circumcisions. I’ve seen a lot of his work.’
  • ‘They found me earlier in a whorehouse.’
    ‘Well, I’m not one to knock a person’s hobbies.’

1992 Husbands and Wives (Colour) Supposedly a serious look at two couples, played by Woody as a literature professor and wife Mia Farrow, and their best friends played by Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack. JD and SP having a trial separation during which they experiment with inappropriate partners (Liam Neeson and Blythe Danner) with lots of shouting at each other, before reconciling at the end; whereas Woody and Mia genuinely split up as he flirts with one his students and she falls in love with tall, dark, handsome Liam. The affairs aren’t even about life-enhancing sex, as all the characters experience some kind of sexual problem. The whole tedious farrago appears to be an unintended advert for how emotionally incontinent a certain kind of rich, American, East Coast liberal is. If I hear one more character say, ‘I’m so confused,’ I’m going to throw a brick at the screen. With adulthood come responsibilities, duties, and lots of work. These characters in gilded cages have pretend jobs which are window-dressing for the same endless, agonised dialogues of the deaf. ‘I think I still have feelings for Michael.’ ‘I think I have feelings for you/you have feelings for me/we all have feelings for the sofa/do you still have feelings for the shower-curtain?’ I couldn’t wait for it to end. Technique: shaky handheld camera throughout, copying its introduction into TV series in the late 1980s. (108 minutes)

Mia and Woody Vast amounts have been written about the breakdown of Woody and Mia’s relationship. This timeline establishes a few facts. For some people the revelations about Woody’s behaviour expose him as a bad guy, as fundamentally immoral. I am slow to condemn the artwork because of the ‘morality’ of the artist. Whose morality? If we systematically applied the ‘moral standards’ of 2014 (whatever they are) to artists of the past, who would escape a whipping, etc? Nonetheless, for me, in a more limited way, they undermine the claim so many of the movies make to be serious analyses of morality: even in the funny early ones the narrator is agonising about what is right, what is true, what should I do? The revelations about his private life which emerged at this period introduce the fatal doubt that Woody’s entire oeuvre is not about one auteur’s quest for wisdom, insight, moral certainty or whatever – it is in fact one long demonstration of the director’s inability to understand morality. Husbands and Wives, which was received as a peak of his mature style, now looks like the latest iteration of the tiresomely repetitive, self-centred, narcissistic inability of all most of his main characters to demonstrate any backbone, sense of duty or decency. Again and again the characters screw up their lives through a basic inability to think and behave like responsible adults. Eventually it gets tiresome.

1993 Manhattan Murder Mystery Not in the box set.

1994 Bullets Over Broadway (Colour) Very funny premise. Not quite such a funny movie, in practice. – It’s the 1920s, Prohibition and gangsters. John Cusack’s nerdy, angsty playwright (now who could that be based on?) is convinced he’s written a masterpiece. To get it performed his producer taps a gangster for funding, which comes with the string that the gangster’s useless girlfriend must be in the cast. Gangster assigns bodyguard Chazz Palminteri to chaperone her. Frustrated by the endless rehearsals he has to sit through, Chazz starts offering his own suggestions. To everyone’s amazement, they turn out to be really good. Meanwhile, Cusack is seduced by legendary Broadway actress (another great performance from Dianne Wiest) who persuades him to beef up her role. As the movie hurtles towards its violent climax, Cusack realises he’s not an artist after all, he is in love with his poor girlfriend, and he wants to return to the simpler countryside where they grew up.

1994 Don’t Drink the Water TV movie.

1995 Mighty Aphrodite (Colour) Woody is married to Helena Bonham Carter. The movie opens with them arguing about whether to have a child just like Woody and Mia argue about whether to have a child in Husbands and Wives. They adopt one, but Woody’s curiosity gets the better of him. He tracks down the birth mother, who turns out to be a sweet-natured, dim call girl (Mira Sorvinho). Woody wisecracks all the way through as if in one of his early films, while everyone else has to be stone cold straight –

‘Be more like the brave Achilles!’
‘Achilles only had an Achilles Ankle, I have a whole Achilles body.’

Poor Helena is thrown away in an underdeveloped sub-plot as she has a sort of fling with the rich backer of her new art gallery. Radiant Claire Bloom apears in a couple of scenes as the mother. Only Mira brings real warmth and depth to her role and won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The magical realism/big concept is that from start to finish the movie is punctuated by a full-on Greek chorus who comment on the action, pop up in scenes in New York offices and apartments and, at key moments, burst into cheesy Broadway musical numbers. It’s sort of a good idea but, along with other elements, feels like it was made out of bits of earlier films. Comedy should be funny. This is schematic, a diagram of what should be funny but not funny in practice. And if I see one more married couple ruminating on why their marriage is no longer as passionate as the early days, or hear one more adulterous adult say, ‘I’m so confuuuused,’ I’m going to scream. (95 minutes)

1996 Everyone Says I Love You can’t get.

1997 Deconstructing Harry (Colour) American professional upper-middle class couples being unfaithful to each other. Who cares. As the content of these later films becomes more repetitive and who caresy, the casts become more and more starry: Woody Allen, Kirstie Alley, Richard Benjamin, Eric Bogosian, Billy Crystal, Judy Davis, Mariel Hemingway, Julie Kavner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Demi Moore, Elisabeth Shue, Stanley Tucci and Robin Williams appear in this one! Harry Block the eponymous hero betrays every relationship by exploiting it in his fiction. More than once it’s crossed my mind to compare Allen to American supernovelist Philip Roth: both New York/New Jersey Jews, both famous for their neurotic/angsty/Jewish characters and milieu, both trying to escape their early reputation for comedy and aspiring to European seriousness, both staggeringly prolific (Woody 40 movies; Roth 28 novels and five or six story collections) and both getting into trouble for using their real-life relationships in their work. And with both, after reading/watching a few works consecutively, you feel like saying, “Can we open a window? Can we just get some fresh air and sunlight in here?”

‘Your life is nihilism, cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm.’
‘You know in France I could run on that slogan and win!’

A lot of scenes in this film feel reheated. The main plot is Harry’s roadtrip to his old college to get honoured, just as Woody travels to a weekend festival of his films in Stardust Memories. His therapist wife Kirsty Ally rages at him during a therapy session she is running – to the comic distress of the poor patient – just like Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives leaving the room to swear down the phone at Woody, before returning to her bewildered date. His roadtrip pal dies in the car and then reappears (dead) in the prison cell:

‘Is it better being dead?’
‘Is it better being dead? Well, you don’t have to do jury service.’

Wasn’t Love and Death full of lines like that? Admittedly, not all of them worked in those early movies, but now hardly any of them do – they seem strangely adrift. Most of these actors are good, serious dramatic actors who bring depth and power to their roles but Woody drifts among them wisecracking and undermining the plausibility and credibility of their scenes. He has a duet with Elizabeth Shue where she’s saying she doesn’t love him any more and is marrying his rival; she plays it straight; he is wisecracking and kvetching all over the place: it’s jarring. It makes you not believe the characters or their dilemmas. Which makes you not care. Which makes it boring.

The scene with Billy Crystal as the Devil in Hell is like a sketch rejected from Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex. They joke about the girls they’ve had sex with: ‘Blind girls, they’re so grateful.’ Ha ha if you’re 15. It’s tired. For a few minutes you’re watching Woody Allen – a man who writes lines which sound as if they’re funny but aren’t – trade gags with Billy Crystal – a man who looks as if he’s being funny, but isn’t.

Technical experiment: there are loads of jump cuts and the deliberate repetition of key shots eg the film opens with Judy Davis stumbling out of a taxi half a dozen times between titles. Presumably this is to emphasise the fictionality, the contrived and created nature of film. (96 minutes)

  • 1998 The Impostors
  • 1999 Sweet and Lowdown
  • 2000 Company Man
  • 2000 Small Time Crook
  • 2000 Picking Up the Pieces
  • 2001 The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
  • 2002 Hollywood Ending
  • 2003 Anything Else
  • 2004 Melinda and Melinda

2005 Match Point (Colour) Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ selfish tennis coach character kills his mistress played by Scarlett Johansson. Personally, I don’t find killing pregnant women an agreeable form of entertainment. It’s set in London. What happened to the whiny New York intellectuals locked in their claustrophobic apartments? The settings are bright and shiny and the characters repellent.

  • 2006 Scoop

2007 Cassandra’s Dream (Colour) Again in London. Did Match Point signal the end of Woody movies set in America? South London brothers Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor are persuaded by rich uncle Tom Wilkinson to kill an inconvenient business associate. They carry it off, but are racked with guilt. — The script is strangely thin: in particular the dialogue is oddly baroque and stilted. I love Ewan McGregor but found him, like all the other characters, thin and unbelievable. Hundreds of better films have been made about naive young men persuaded against their better judgement to commit murder and then unable to bear the guilt. Didn’t Hitchcock milk this to death in the 1940s and 50s? (110 minutes)

2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Colour) Spain. From interviews I gather Woody thinks American no longer appreciates or understands his films. They do better in Europe and he also finds it cheaper and more interesting to film in Europe. And so the thin story of Vicky and Cristina who come to spend two months on vacation in Barcelona, ‘finding themselves’, as so may gap year students before and since have set out to do. Though the main plot is meant to be about art and the artistic temperament, the film is solidly based in a world of very expensive hotels and investment bankers and in almost every scene the characters are drinking wine or cognac from enormous wine glasses. It reeks of luxury and money. Although some characters mention their jobs no-one is shown working – it is a fantasy dreamworld where people just talk about their emotions and feelings and failed marriages and agonise over what love is. As usual. Plot: Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) fly to stay with their super-rich friends in Barcelona and are almost immediately propositioned by manly Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). He beds the aloof rational Vicky, thus throwing into jeopardy her plans to marry solid, safe investment banker, Doug. He then beds the romantic Cristina which leads to an extended affair during which Juan’s estranged wife María Elena (Penélope Cruz) returns to stay in the house after a suicide attempt. Cristina brings peace to their relationship, both artists flourish, Cristina learns how to become a talented photographer (the directionless woman’s art form par excellence cf Annie Hall) and there are threesomes and lesbian scenes. Eventually Cristina realises this chaotic lifestyle is not for her and, in a climactic scene, Juan is seducing uptight Vicky again when Maria Elena bursts in and starts firing a gun. Both girls realise the error of their ways. The Americans return to their big, rich, stable country leaving the Europeans to their rackety lives.

Like EM Foster’s young ladies returning chastened from Florence or Henry James’s Americans recoiling stung from European imbroglios or any number of well-off people dabbling in Bohemia for thrills and then returning to their secure middle-class existences, this feels like a very old story. Beautifully shot, well acted and completely insubstantial. It won Allen and Cruz a clutch of prizes, critical plaudits and has become one of Allen’s most profitable films.

  • 2009 Whatever Works
  • 2010 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

2011 Midnight in Paris (Colour) France. Another promising conceit. Owen Wilson is in Paris with his spoiled fiancée, and her corporate executive father and wife. Luxury hotels. best of everything. American money. Owen is a successful Hollywood writer but, of course, believes he has a great novel in him. He goes wandering the streets of Paris and, at midnight, a piece of magical realism occurs: a vintage car from the 1920s appears and invites him in and drives off into 1920s Paris where he goes to parties and bars and the flats of his heroes: in a daze he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Matisse, Salvador Dali and so on. It is 6th form reading list, it’s like the shelf of an undergraduate from the 1960s come to life. Except. When he meets his heroes – all Owen (the surrogate Woody figure) can talk or think about is – being unfaithful to his fiancée by falling in love with the beautiful young mistress of Picasso. He’s soooooo confuuused. Eventually he realises what was obvious to every viewer after the first few minutes – he’s not suited to his fiancée and they split up; and he meets the gorgeous young woman who owns a second-hand shop on a bridge over the Seine as it starts to rain and they walk off to start a love affair. Like a cliché of the American tourist, Allen has a check list of the artists and writers he has to ‘do’ – and here they all are, carefully chosen for their resemblance to their historic originals – but once he’s there, meeting them, er, what shall we talk about. Questions of technique, history, philosophy, art? Nope. My fiancée doesn’t understand me. I’m soooo confuuuuused.

  • 2012 To Rome with Love
  • 2013 Blue Jasmine
  • 2014 Fading Gigolo
  • 2014 Magic in the Moonlight

Personal favourites

Sleeper, Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Broadway Danny Rose, Radio Days, Another Woman.

Thanks Woody

Despite the limitations and repetitions which a sustained look at his work tends to bring out, it’s worth paying tribute to an extraordinarily varied and ambitious body of work, and one which contains so many thousands of funny lines, so many powerful scenes, so many visionary flights of fantasy, so much imagination and creativity. Thank you, Woody.

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