One of the best reads for me the last few years was Scott Muskin’s debut novel, The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama’s Boy and Scholar, and the story below is my attempt to make sense of the 2009 book and its author, whose work has gained him some measure of noteriety. Expectantly awaiting his next novel.
Author Scott Muskin – What’s a Nice Jewish Boy Like You Doing Writing About All this Mishigas?
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Jewish Press
Omaha native Scott Muskin’s well-received first novel, The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama’s Boy and Scholar, tells a funny, enlightened, inconvenient journey of self-discovery taken by the title’s protagonist-narrator. This satirical adventure leaves Hank scarred, liberated and, better-late-than-never, wised-up.
The novel was the inaugural (2007) winner of the Parthenon Prize for Fiction, a national competition to boost unknown authors.The Prize, which honored Annunciations out of more than 350 submissions, netted Muskin $8,000, plus a full, traditional book publishing contract. The final judge was author Tony Earley (Jim the Boy). Muskin will be in Omaha for a 1 p.m. Bookworm signing on April 18.
Annunciations was released this winter by Hooded Friar Press, a Nashville, Tenn.-based literary house that describes itself as “dedicated to publishing high-quality books by new authors.” Muskin’s clearly arrived as a new voice deserving attention.
He’s the son of Omahans Linda and Alan Muskin, members of Beth El Synagogue. His mother was a Millard Public Schools teacher. His father owned Youngtown, a chain of stores selling children’s furniture, toys, assundries. Alan’s father and Scott’s grandfather, Stuart Muskin, co-founded Youngtown, originally a Kiddie-Cut-Rate. The father character in Annunciations is a toy merchant from Omaha whose two boys, Hank and Carlton, were raised there. Most of the book’s set in Minneapolis, where Muskin and his wife Andrea Bidelman live in a 1920s stucco faux-Tudor home near Lake Nokomis. Muskin’s anchored the fiction in a reality he knows.
His story’s a modern, urban walkabout for a middle-class, secular American Jew who’s somehow managed to graduate college, start a career and marry without ever really finding himself or figuring out what he needs. Much less how to get it. His dysfunctional family is a case study. Smart, charming Hank’s schlepped through life, failing to hold himself accountable, letting old wounds fester, ignoring the very things that fill him with unresolved anger, unanswered questions, unfulfilled desires, unmitigated regret. An academic and free spirit by nature, he’s more attuned to Emily Dickinson arcania than to real life emotions and actions.
“Hank expected more of himself. He had larger dreams, of living a more passionate life,” Muskin said by way of analysis in a phone interview from his home in the Twin Cities. “When he starts to act on those, that’s when the trouble starts. Be careful what you wish for — that’s what’s driving the plot of the novel.”
Hank, a smart-alleck nebish who cops a superior attitude, is long overdue a comeuppance and he gets a doozy. Along the way, the putz learns to be a mensch.
Well-meaning in that lackadaisical way men are, Hank’s flippant defiance mucks up the works whether dealing with his estranged wife Carol Ann, distant father Daniel, troubled brother Carlton or the memory of his dead mother. Morally weak Hank acts out with his sister-in-law June and promptly runs away from his problems. Like an addict who believes the world revolves around him and conspires against him, Hank’s submerged in a bathos of ego, lust, self-pity, resentment and entitlement. A saving grace is his humor, which can cut through the clutter of his myopic vision.
It’s a witty and poignant exploration of the self-centered male psyche in identity crisis. Hank represents a type of male many women are familiar with — the kind who require a rude awakening to grow up. His stumbling, guilt-ridden initiation into adulthood rings true. Especially resonant is his strained relationship with his father and brother, who represent aspects of himself and his past he’d rather forget.
“I think one of the central dynamics of the book is that tension between silence and the unspoken energy in a family or in a relationship and the ways that that silence ends up finding voice,” said Muskin. “It’s not like it’s not there. It’s just being said in different ways. A lot of the interactions between the characters are animated by the ways it’s being unsaid. It does come out sometimes quite messily.”
Like most first novels Annunciations is personal. Muskin wrote it, in part, as a catharsis for the rough patch he went through around the time he started it.
“Well, I was getting divorced at the time or I was just divorced,” he said, thus the book is on one level “a working out of some of those things.”
The drama. Life happens.
“And I then found this voice to fictionalize it, which is a must. You’ve got to fictionalize it,” he said, otherwise it’s a self-indulgent rant. “I’m into real people and the real struggles they go through. Flaws and idiosyncratic obsessions — everyone’s got them. Shining a light on people who take a hard look at those things in themselves I find fascinating.”
Muskin found in Hank a literary avatar.
“I’m a quite biographical writer in terms of being able to find the emotional core of a situation if I’ve been through it or somehow been there. I then turn it or filter it through the prism of the character, and that’s important because then it forces you to think about the character’s perspective on things. You create three dimensionalites just by doing that — the interaction of the author, the character and the reader. It’s a way of getting closer to the universal.”
How close is Scott to Hank and vice versa?
“There’s a lot of similarities between me and Hank,” said his creator, “but there’s also a lot of differences, and the differences were more generative and healthier for the novel then were our similarities.”
For example, Muskin has a sister, not a brother, and the two of them get on fine. Finding the right voice for his protagonist let Muskin examine sibling rivalry.
“The book really took shape when I stumbled upon this voice,” he said. “I had been reading Richard Ford’s Independence Day and I remember thinking, ‘This is the kind of voice I want — a narrator who’s introspective but sardonic, thoughtful but sharp-witted, sharp-tongued. In essence, complex and likable and not likable.’ That’s the protagonist I wanted. I tried to steal that voice for a short story, not very successfully. Only when I put it into my own context did it begin to take shape.”
Short story writing was Muskin’s literary form of choice at the time. He’d had success placing pieces in literary journals and magazines. A collection by him was a finalist for the 2005 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. While his stories earned him admiration and praise and some were published individually, he said “no one was terribly interested” in publishing them as a collection.
A mentor of his in graduate school at the University of Minnesota first suggested his talents might best lay in novel writing.
“One of my teachers, Julie Schumacher, pushed me. She said, ‘You ought to write a novel. You seem like a natural for it,’ and I took that to heart, and I finally hit upon a voice that I felt could sustain the novel for the reader.”
So, what did Schumacher see that made her nudge him along the novelist’s path?
“She said that I was writing longish short stories anyway. It’s not uncommon for me working on a short story to generate 60 pages,” Muskin noted, “and that’s kind of a tough road to hoe because long short stories have less of a chance of getting published in magazines and things.”
Besides, he was already creating fiction from real life, lending it “a richness and complexity of character relationships, particularly family relationships, which are a lot of times the bread and butter of novels.” Except, he said, “I was expounding more than evoking.” It left him unsure if he was up to penning a fully-realized novel.
“I know a lot of writers who say, ‘My first novel’s still in a drawer,’ and I was terrified of that happening. It’s a terrifying endeavor to spend so much time on something and to not know what you have until you share it with a trusted reader. I wanted to make sure it was not puerile and jejune because first novels tend to be personal and you’re working out a lot of your own bullshit. I was certainly doing that, but I was hoping I was doing other things, too, to achieve like a universality.”
It was the fall of 2003 when Muskin delved into the project.
“I spent a month and a half in upstate New York at an arts colony. I did a lot of writing there. I just started writing and it sort of all spilled out. And I might have thought this would be a short story (to begin with) but as soon as I realized I was onto something I wanted to keep going with it.”
The novel’s development, which proceeded at different arts colonies, entailed a search.
“I started fumbling around for a narrative archetype to hang a story onto. I read a lot of Greek and Roman mythology and they’re just so great for giving evocative narratives where the grand passions are on display, and that’s what I felt I had in Hank — a grand passion he was trying to express.”
The evolutionary process of writing meant Muskin was open to literary influences and to reconfiguring plot lines, characters, et cetera. “I had envisioned the Carlton character as a friend whose domestic life Hank was going to be jealous of,” he said, “but once I realized Carlton wasn’t a friend but a brother that’s when I felt I had the triangulation I needed.”
The triptych of two brothers in conflict with each other and with their dissatisfied traveling salesman father hints at Death of a Salesman.
“That is definitely one of the archetypes,” said Muskin. “That Willie Loman character weighs heavily in this book, from the dad’s point of view. After all, he is a traveling salesman who’s not connected to his sons. His boys are competitive. And he has a favorite son. I’d be stupid to say I’m going to ignore” the parallels to that part of the Arthur Miller play, added Muskin, who said he took great pains to not make Daniel Meyerson “a postcard character” that’s a pale imitation of Loman.
Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March was another model of sorts. Muskin used an excerpt from the Nobel Prize-winner’s novel to set out the theme of Annunciations: “In any true life you must go and be exposed outside the small circle that encompasses two or three heads in the same history of love. Try and stay, though, inside. See how long you can.” The quotation from Augie is used by Muskin as an epigraph, along with a quote from an unpublished Emily Dickinson poem: “A single thrill can end a life or open it forever.”
For Muskin, it became important “to keep” Annunciations “true to” the Bellows observation that a life “encompassing the same circle of love” poses complications by the proximity of that love. “That was pretty powerful for me,” said Muskin, who was inspired to “have a novel where we have only four or five characters and they’re all related to one another — strong ties that you can’t really do without, and that Hank tries to do without. It generated the plot for me that Hank would stray from his marriage with his sister-in-law. It all kind of folds in on itself.”
The author doesn’t conceal his appreciation for Bellows. “I’m a big fan,” said Muskin, who enjoys how dense Augie is “with voice…thought patterns. Bellows gets into the micro-micro of this character’s life.” Muskin said when he employed a similar approach in looking at the minutiae of Hank’s life “things really took off.”
Muskin’s style has also been compared to that of Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth.
Unlike many writers who come to their craft through reading Muskin flipped the script by having his early passion for writing spark his later reading habit.
“I always wrote, but I didn’t always read,” he said. “Maybe it’s a boy thing — the opposite of girls stereotypically always involved in a book. I can’t really say it wasn’t because books weren’t around, but I didn’t really dive in until later in life.”
“Key teachers were very important,” he said in recognizing his talent. “In 1st grade I wrote a poem about trees that my teacher actually accused me of plagiarizing. I was mortally offended. We worked it all out. I remember my parents and her having several conversations about how creative I was with language.”
Encouragement continued through elementary school (Columbian), junior high (Horace Mann) and high school (Burke). He earned his bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College (Iowa) and his master’s from Minnesota. He’s well-ensconced up north by now but he admits he gets verklempt being away from family in Nebraska.
It was never in the cards for him to take over for his dad at Youngtown, which Scott helped the father close out. Writing was always in the young man’s future.
Freelance copywriting jobs permit Muskin’s literary pursuits. A stable income’s more important now that he and his wife are parents to a baby girl, Campbell. Around the gigs that pay the bills he toils on literary projects from the home office he built in his spacious garage, which looks out onto a garden.
“I’m working on several short stories,” he said. “They’re in the drawer phase right now because I’m not sure what I have. I’m working on a new novel. I just got a grant to do some research for it in Spain. It’s about a grandfather-grandson relationship. They’re both at a crossroads in life. The grandfather’s a larger-than-life character. They’re going to have adventures — I’m just not sure what yet. It’s also going to cover the grandfather’s Sephardic Jewish experience. It’s something I don’t know much about. I just starting getting into this. It’ll examine this sense of dislocation and loss — of being a minority within a minority.”
Never one to maintain a rigid writing schedule, Muskin said, “I’m a firm believer that life should be lived. There can’t be one without the other. It’s a balance thing.”
Writer, Wanderer, Waitress: Author Colleen Reilly Follows Her Father’s Footsteps with Her Published Books
The late Bob Reilly was a mentor of mine. The former public relations-advertising executive taught journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for several years. He was a husband, father, and grandfather of a large Irish Catholic family. He was a raconteur. He was an encourager. But most of all, he was a writer. He published scores of articles and books. One of his books, The Fighting Prince of Donegal, was optioned by Disney and made into a feature film whose script he helped write. At least two of his children became writers, Hugh and Colleen, and here I profile the latter. Colleen is, as the main title or headline, a writer, wanderer, and sometime waitress who, much like her father Bob did, lives a full life that somehow also leaves room for insatiable reading and writing.
Writer, Wanderer, Waitress: Author Colleen Reilly Follows Her Father’s Footsteps with Her Published Books
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the City Weekly
Independence is something Colleen Reilly cherishes. Long marching to the beat of a distant drummer, this twice-married mother of two has chafed at conformity from the time she was a young woman, when she left behind the security of her large Irish Catholic family for a new life overseas.
A daughter of Omaha author and former UNO professor Robert Reilly, she’s followed in her father’s footsteps to become both a writer and teacher, but has also journeyed far afield from her family, faith and homeland. She first left the States in 1968 to attend college in Ireland, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and where she met her first husband. She returned to the U.S. only long enough to receive her master’s in English lit and give birth to her first child. Hungry to see more of the world and to make a fresh start for themselves, in 1973 she, then-husband Pat and son Declan moved lock-stock-and-barrel to New Zealand, which she called home for 20 years.
Down Under, she enjoyed her status as an American expatriate abroad. Hailing from a family of artists, actors, writers and attorneys, she forged a career as an American literature professor (at Victoria University of Wellington) before heeding her birthright and taking pen in hand. She wrote criticism for newspapers and eventually authored two novels and a book of short stories, all of which were published.
When home beckoned to her, she returned to America in 1994, resettling in the South with her second husband, Pearce, an over-the-road truck driver. Once here, she again chose an unconventional path by eschewing the comfortable life of an academic to work instead as a waitress and as a semi driver alongside her mate. “I don’t think Dad likes to hear this, but I am prouder of learning to drive a big truck than I am of my books or my degrees or anything else because it was so out of character and so far from my upbringing,” she said. “It was a huge challenge. I’ve heard so many women say, ‘I’ve always wanted to drive a truck.’ My mother is one of them. And I did it, and I’m so proud of that.”
Unlike teaching, which she enjoyed but felt shackled by, waiting tables and hauling freight have provided enough freedom for her to pursue her two passions — reading and writing. Then in 1998, spurred by a desire to be by her aging and ailing parents (Her father endured a quadruple bypass and her mother developed Alzheimer’s), this prodigal daughter finally came back to Omaha, where she and Pearce now live in “a cottage” of a house in Benson, mere blocks from where she grew up. While he continues driving an 18-wheeler, she writes at home during the day and waits tables at Trovato’s at night. As her agent searches for a publisher for her latest novel, Reilly’s sense of wanderlust keeps her dreaming of traveling to distant lands and of one day returning to New Zealand, where she and Pearce keep a home.
Reilly first felt the call to adventure at 17, when she went off to attend University College Dublin. The Emerald Isle is a special place for her Irish Catholic clan (She is one of 10 brothers and sisters.). Her father is a devotee of Irish literature and has written articles and books relating to various aspects of Irish heritage and lore. Colleen came to Ireland a “young naive American” and left a little older and wiser. It was 1968 and her mod apparel and liberal views were not accepted. Then there was the fallout from the Vietnam War.
“There was some holding me accountable.” Hardly an Ugly American, she was in fact an anti-war sympathizer. In between her studies, she tramped across the countryside. “Every holiday I had I’d go somewhere in Ireland. I don’t think there’s any corner of Ireland I haven’t seen. It’s a beautiful country. I miss it. I miss the talk. I don’t mean talking with people, but the eavesdropping talk of just sitting in a pub and just listening to these people’s amazing verbal facility.”
She also made forays into London and Paris, but regrets not seeing more of Europe when she had the chance. She has since traveled with Pearce to Morocco, Belize and other far-flung spots.
Aside from her travels, her major exploration has been an intellectual one. From early childhood on, reading has consumed her. She did dabble in writing, even winning a national scholastic poetry contest at 16 while a student at Marian High School, but it was reading not writing that sustained her and that continues sustaining her. “Reading is my real passion,” she said. “I still think of myself more as a reader than a writer. I can’t imagine not reading. It’s my great joy. I probably read five novels a week. I’m a great haunter of the new book shelves in the library and of second-hand book stores. If I bought new all the books I read, we’d be bankrupt.” She estimates her book collection numbers in the thousands.
By her late teens she got hooked on Russian literature. Her experience in The Old Country introduced in her a love for the great Irish writers. Then, while working on her M.A. at UNO she steeped herself in American literature and discovered the book that continues to stir her most deeply — Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick. “I just fell in love with that book. I’ve probably read it now 18 times, both to teach it and just for pleasure.” For her, Melville’s epic yet intimate fiction delivers everything she seeks in a book.
“The ideas. The passion and the compassion. The way he gives us both Ishmael and Ahab, two extreme American types, and lets you choose and makes you realize there’s heroism in each. And also the poetry of his language. In this 600-page novel you can take a paragraph and see the alliteration there that you would normally ascribe to poetry, not fiction, especially not in a 600-page fiction. It’s everything. It’s the beauty of the language, the beauty of his exploration of the ideas. Everything.”
Upon completing her M.A. in landlocked Nebraska Reilly followed an Ishmael-like hankering to be by the sea again. She wanted to return to Ireland while her then husband, Pat Cox, wanted to stay in America. So, they compromised and headed with their infant son Declan for New Zealand, which owing to Cox’s English citizenship granted all three permanent residency with minimal red-tape. For their home, they chose the sea-side capitol, Wellington, and never looked back.
“It’s on the southern tip of the north island,” she said. “It’s a beautiful hilly city surrounded by the sea. People say it looks a lot like San Francisco.” The place still exerts a powerful pull on her. It’s where her second son, Eoin, was born and where both her boys, now adults, still live. It’s where her best friends reside. Where she blossomed as a writer. And where she met her second husband, Pearce Carey, a fellow reading enthusiast.
“I miss my kids so much. I only get back to see them once a year. I miss them. I miss my friends. I miss the sea. We still keep a home in New Zealand where we will one day retire to. I would like to be back there by the time I’m 55, which is three years from now. I definitely intend to live out my old age there. I love New Zealanders. I love their humor. Their humor, like Australian humor, is a great distance from tragedy. They have a great sense of irony and fun. There’s just none of the self-pity and none of the victim mentality and none of the get-even mentality we have.”
Words carry more than the usual import for Reilly, who early on felt the expectations of her writer-father to display a like appreciation for and prowess with language. The pressure to write, as much self-imposed as anything, weighed heavily on her.
“Being Dad’s daughter there was this desire to please him and a feeling I should write. That made it difficult for me,” she said. However, she long ago overcame any timidity about him reading her work and now routinely trusts him to give uncensored feedback. Unlike her father, who writes every day, she struggles maintaining even the semblance of a strict schedule. “I still don’t write regularly. I’m constantly beating myself up for that. I just don’t have that kind of discipline. I’ll sometimes go two years before writing anything or I’ll get two chapters into something and then not finish it. When I am writing it’s never for more than three hours at a time. I’ll find anything to keep me away from it.”
After winning that youth poetry contest at 16 Reilly did not write again, save for academic papers, until almost 31. She only resumed it in the fallout of a personal crisis. “I did have a nervous breakdown. By that I mean all the defenses that had worked no longer worked, so I had to make new ones.”
Although she said there was nothing specific to trigger the breakdown, she had been in “a passionless marriage” that ended in divorce and that left her with two young kids to raise alone. And that’s when she sought comfort in the one thing that had always given her solace — words. “I remember talking with my best friend, Margaret, in the middle of all my crying and this stuff you do and saying, ‘I have to write,’ and her saying, like a typical New Zealander, ‘Yeah, so why don’t you? What’s the big deal?’” With such help, Reilly pulled herself together and got on with the business of living and writing. The fruits of her early work were a novella and several short stories, which were published in a collection of her short fiction.
Her short stories, along with the novels that followed, focus on loneliness and alienation, apt subjects for an introspective expatriate estranged from the religion she was raised in and separated so long from the family she grew up in.
“The theme of loneliness comes up again and again and again,” she said. “Different kinds of loneliness. Sometimes it’s a romantic loneliness. Sometimes it’s spiritual. Sometimes it’s social. But it’s all about…how not to be lonely, if one cannot be lonely, especially if you haven’t got the consolation of a religious belief, which I don’t have, and if you haven’t got the consolation of some great meaning to life, which I don’t have.”
The separation she’s felt in her own life reverberates in her work. Her first novel, Christine (Allen & Unwin, 1988), is set in Omaha and Maine and offers a protagonist isolated from family and other ties by venturing far from home in an attempt to live alone in a seaside town. The title character is obsessed with the idea of a twin brother, whose life begins to assume a greater reality than the world around her. Once ‘cured,’ there is the question of how much Christine has given up in the process. Although Reilly completed Christine before starting her second novel, The Deputy Head (Allen & Unwin, 1986), the latter novel was published first. The Deputy Head concerns an uptight New Zealand high school principal and his rigid Anglophile views of and stagnant relationships with women.
Her latest novel, For Caroline, is the first she is trying to find an American publisher for and she expects its provocative take on abused women will make it a hard sell.
“It’s about an 80-year-old man and this obsession he has with this girl-into-a-woman named Caroline, which starts when she is an infant. It’s not a sexual thing. It’s a protective thing. He wants to protect her from the abusive men she’s attracted to. It’s written from his point of view and describes 50-odd years of protecting her. He blames mothers and specifically her mother for giving their daughters such low self-esteem that they will be attracted to abusive men. The first sentence of the book is, ‘All mothers hate their daughters…’ It’s politically-incorrect in that he believes the advice given to abused women is ridiculous. That instead of working things out it just should be, Get angry and get out. I’ll be surprised if I get a publisher, because it’s virtually saying the opposite of what’s being told women.”
While awaiting word on her novel’s publication prospects, she seeks a publisher for a piece she’s written on the hazards of waitressing, something she’s had seven years of experience doing. Beyond the occasional bad customer, she, like many an artist, has found a certain bliss in waiting tables.
“I really like it. I like the freedom more than anything, especially compared with teaching. When you’re a teacher, you never check out. You never leave the job. With waitressing, you clock in and you clock out. It’s the mental freedom you have. That’s the way writers should live.”
Teaching is something she’s considered resuming but always balks at after calculating she “can make twice as much waiting tables — and without the headaches. Besides, there’s all sorts of ways I feel like I’m still a teacher here with all the young people I work with. Granted, I’m more a teacher in life than in literature, but so what? I always have Pearce or Dad to discuss literature with.”
- Short Story Writer James Reed, At Work in the Literary Fields of the Imagination (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
LEOADAMBIGA.WORDPRESS.COM Seeking Sponsors and Collaborators: I Write About People, Their Passions and Their Magnificent Obsessions
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Bobby Bridger has been performing his epic ballads about the American West for decades now, but it’s only in the last few years he’s cemented his status as a serious historian and interpreter of that subject matter with his book, Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West. His fresh take on the controversial William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, and the real life adventures and PR machinations that went into making him and his Wild West show worldwide sensations makes clear that more than a century before the Internet Cody imprinted his legend into the collective consciousness and we’re still impacted by it it today in popular culture depictions of the West.
His other books include A Ballad of the West, Bridger, and his latest, Where the Tall Grass Grows, Becoming Indigenous and the Mythological Legacy of the American West.
Buffalo Bill’s Coming Out Party Courtesy Author-Balladeer Bobby Bridger
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Bullwhacker, pony express rider, cavalry scout, buffalo hunter. Actor, impresario, hotelier, town-builder. Dreamer, schemer, dodger, master of ballyhoo. Devoted son, doting brother, grieving father, absent husband. These were the many faces of William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, the man behind the legendary Wild West Show. An expert at reinventing himself, he straddled the frontier and the stage, using his real-life adventures as the basis for his theatrics.
Early on, Cody developed an acute sense of the gallant visage he struck — with flowing, shoulder-length hair sweeping out from under his wide-brimmed hat and fine physique pressed into his buckskin and tan regalia – and spent the rest of his life polishing that image. A showman at heart, he brandished his trick riding and crack shooting long before performing in arenas or under tents, often pitting his talents against others in wagered contests. By the time he launched his Wild West in Nebraska in 1883, he was already famous as Buffalo Bill owing to purple-prose dime novels and stilted melodramas extolling his bravery as a warrior, his expertise as a horseman and his skill with a rifle. Realizing the potential of Buffalo Bill as a brand name, he systematically exploited his image in the nascent media-show business realm.
A man both of his times and ahead of his times, Buffalo Bill is the mercurial subject of a new book — Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull: Inventing the Wild West, published last fall by the University of Texas Press – by singer, composer and playwright Bobby Bridger. A Cody aficionado, Bridger splits his time between Houston, TX and Cody, Wyo, the town founded by William F. himself and the home of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, where Bridger is poet-balladeer in residence.
For 40 years now Bridger has steeped himself in Western lore, carving a niche as a folkloric interpreter of the mountain men, settlers, Plains Indians and Westerners whose lives he chronicles in expressive song and verse. Based on years of research, Bridger’s three-part epic A Ballad of the West is an ambitious and visionary consideration of American frontier history and myth. Bridger has recorded Ballad of the West on CD and performs its sections - Seekers of theFleece, Lakota and Pahaska -in one-man shows. Pahaska, the Lakota name – meaning Long Hair – given Cody by the Sioux, is an ode to Buffalo Bill that is equal parts concert, drama and poetry recitation.
Bridger, outfitted in buckskins and beads, a Martin guitar slung over one shoulder, and salty hair flowing out from under his Stetson, will perform Pahaska, unplugged, in a 7 p.m. show on February 23 at the Omaha Healing Arts Center, 1216 Howard Street, as part of a promotional tour for his book.
That Bridger has made Cody such a major focus of his work is no surprise given how Buffalo Bill represented the virtues of the Plainsman in his own time and still symbolizes the Westerner of our collective imagination today. Generous to a fault, a gullible speculator and a glad-handed, two-fisted, hail fellow-well met imbiber, Cody earned millions from the Wild West he created and headlined in but died in debt and despair after years of failed business enterprises and declining health. His only son died young. His acrimonious marriage to a woman he rarely saw ended in divorce. In a life full of improbable feats and reversals of fortune, he became both legend and myth in his own time, thanks largely to his own image-making machinery.
An example of just how complex a man he was and of how controversial he remains is his relationship with Indians. Growing up fast on the Iowa and Kansas prairie – he saw his father killed at 11 and his mother die before he was 17 – he was a childhood playmate of Indians only to become their sworn blood enemy as a young adult in the service of his country.
“Much like in the Civil War (when Cody scouted for the Seventh Kansas Cavalry), Cody found himself in the Indian Wars fighting (as a scout) against men he had known since boyhood. Men who were his dear friends and often his blood brothers,” Bridger said.
With the Indian uprisings quelled, Cody befriended Indians, then being displaced on reservations, by employing them in his Wild West, where he portrayed them as fierce, wild natives now tamed.
The apparent hypocrisy of Cody’s treatment of Indians, at once benevolent and stereotypical, can be explained, Bridger said, not only by Cody’s commercial instincts but by his sincere desire to heal a divided America. Cody and the Indians shared a warrior’s code he said, regarding each other as brothers under the skin. In programs and promotions for the Wild West, Cody went to great lengths in describing how “former enemies, now friends” had “buried the hatchet” and co-existed harmoniously as a single troupe.
In the Wild West, Bridger said, Cody wasn’t so much “exploiting” as “reconciling Indians” to their rightful place as Native Americans and co-creators of the Wild West. He said Cody, whose advocacy for Indians was by all accounts enlightened, saw himself in the role of protector and preserver of their culture otherwise being “dismantled” back on the reservation. Indeed, Cody enlisted into the Wild West many of the religious, political, social and military elders of the Lakota and Oglala Sioux, including Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, who were seen by U.S. government officials and Christian crusaders as mere troublemakers but treated by Cody as wise and dignified leaders of tribal nations.
Part rodeo, history lesson and carnival, Cody’s Wild West was inspired by a failed Western exposition mounted by renowned painter George Catlin and by the major circuses of the era. Besides being a rollicking, rip-snorting good time that attracted hordes of paying customers, the Wild West was conceived by Cody, Bridger said, as a kind of living history exposition meant to immortalize the most popular or colorful facets of the Old West even as they were fading into history.
For Cody, it was not a show.
“He was insulted when someone called it a show,” Bridger said. “He considered himself a meticulous historical reenactor. What Cody was doing was essentially bringing dripping wet from the battlefield the participants and then restaging it in an arena before thousands of people. And what he was doing in that role, as my poem Winter on the Boards, Summer in the Saddle says, was literally presenting living mythology and parading it before people because he knew it was vanishing.
“And I think that motivation came from the fact that he saw with the explosion and astonishing success of the dime novels that people came to view him as the person responsible for destroying the Native cultures and buffalo herds, and I think he could not bear to be remembered that way and that had a great deal to do with the creation of the Wild West.”
By the end, Cody’s Wild West, which went through many incarnations, was more sideshow spectacular than exhibition, even touring its last few years with circuses, and a weary, besotted Cody was more caricature than hero. But that was long after the Wild West’s heyday, when the widely touring extravaganza played before monarchs, heads of state and countless throngs of commoners, young and old alike, who thrilled to breathtaking demonstrations of horsemanship and marksmanship most had only read or dreamt about.
At its peak the Wild West, which played 30 years, was an enormous production numbering 600 cast and crew members, hundreds of horses and dozens of buffalo. Among the featured attractions were live, full-scale reenactments of: an attack on the Deadwood Stage; a bison hunt; a train robbery; famous battles; and a raid on a burning cabin. Special features were added on certain tours, such as a restaging of Custer’s Last Stand. Other staples included trick riding and shooting displays.
Much of Bridger’s book and ballad examine the amazing journey that Cody took in transforming himself from dashing Plainsman to consummate Performer. As Bridger said, “You have to understand his life from another point of view to understand this” compulsion he had to perform.
“Every major transition in his early life had to do with horses, whether he was learning fancy riding as a boy or serving as a Pony Express Rider or breaking ground as a scout. He literally rode horses onto the public stage. And when he entered the theater with its proscenium stage, where he couldn’t have a horse, he promptly went to the arena. He had to show people what a good rider he was. He was a show-off. He loved it. He absolutely loved it.”
In a life intersecting virtually every American epoch of the 19th century – from the great trek made by settlers to the tragic Plains Indian Wars to the laying of the transcontinental railroad to the Civil War to the near extermination of buffalo and Native Americans to the gentrification of the West – Cody was an active participant in both the building of an empire and the vanishing of a frontier.
In his book Bridger suggests Cody shared a destiny with the Indians, whose way of life was lost as America emerged from the wilderness, but who found a friend in Cody and a refuge in his Wild West. When considering how Cody was present at the convergence of so many transforming events, one wonders if a higher power might not have been at work. “
He was there, as a boy, at the very confluence of one of the largest migrations the world has ever known,” said Bridger, referring to the young Cody’s interaction with pioneers on the Plains. “He was perched right on the fence between, if you will, the frontier or the unknown and what was then known as civilization or Western European culture. And so he spent his entire life in between those great forces, right at the edge of it, and basically surfed it right to the pinnacle.”
Cody was also influenced by the trailblazers he crossed paths with.
“Sitting at the feet of Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and Wild Bill Hickcock, Cody learned first-hand about flamboyant costumes and about exaggerations based on truth,” Bridger said. “All those things became his personality. He just absorbed all of that. So, what you had in him was a repository of everything from the fur trade forward.”
Perhaps more than any other figure, Cody embodied the quintessential Man of the West. By his early 20s he’d participated in every conceivable aspect of frontier life - from trapping and hunting to prospecting for gold to escorting bullwhacker and wagon trains to being a Pony Express Rider to driving a stage to fighting Indians. He was the real thing. The genuine article. A bona fide Knight of the Plains. If he’d stopped there, his place in history would have been secure. But, seeing an opportunity to make a dollar from his derring-do, Cody embarked on a path that blurred the lines between reality and fiction.
His destiny was cast in July of 1876 when, mere weeks after Custer and his Seventh Cavalry met disaster at Little Big Horn, he led a squad of soldiers and scouts in a retaliatory charge on a band of Cheyenne. When, in a close-quarters skirmish he killed Yellow Hand and proclaimed he’d taken “the first scalp for Custer,” a rallying cry was born for a nation galvanized by the high drama on the Plains. Cody parlayed that fame via dime novels and dramatic plays embroidering his exploits and, later, via Wild West shows recreating and further embellishing his by then already brocaded deeds.
Along the way, Cody imprinted on the world the very conventions of the West dramatists have used ever since to portray it. In the process, he elevated himself from legend into myth, fashioning the West of the Imagination as a time and place of romantic dimensions and mythic proportions.
Whenever a figure becomes as inflated as Cody, detractors are sure to follow. Debunking Buffalo Bill became a popular pastime around the Jazz Age and picked up steam again in the 1960s and ‘70s, when works like Arthur Kopit’s play Indians and Robert Altman’s film Buffalo Bill and the Indians depicted him as a vain, right-wing opportunist and racist who, like that era’s John Wayne, was discounted as a stooge of the military-industrial complex in fighting an unjust guerrilla war.
While Cody’s role in the Indian Wars is undeniable, Bridger said any comparison with The Duke is wrong.
“The difference here is that Buffalo Bill was a legitimate hero who became the first star whereas John Wayne was a star who became a kind of illegitimate hero.” When Bridger first began examining Cody’s life he was prepared “not to like him. I was a product of the ‘60s and really viewed him very much in the Kopit vein — as a handsome, perhaps not-so-smart matinee idol and drunken blow hard who made up all this stuff and was manipulated by the government and military to do their bidding.”
Needless to say, Bridger’s opinion changed over time. “Now, having been seriously involved in researching his life since 1970, I have this great respect for him, and the more I dig into William F. Cody’s life the more I like him.”
If you accept Bridger’s notion that Cody became the world’s first true superstar, then it seems silly he should be denigrated, as he is by revisionists, for indulging his celebrity and always being on-stage. After all, what star has not reveled in his or her own fame?
If Cody can be criticized for anything, and the sins attributed to him are legion, from helping extinguish Plains Indians cultures to wiping-out the once vast bison herds to exploiting Native Americans in his Wild West, it is how he allowed his image to ultimately consume him. You could say his run-away ego set the model for how future self-absorbed icons should act, which is to say he embraced excess in his life, in his work and in his mythology. But in defense of Cody it cannot be emphasized enough that the kind of fame he achieved was a new phenomenon for his era and he responded to it without the benefit of any real precedent to call on. All in all, he did as well as anyone in that position could do.
“Before him, people were either famous or infamous and the famous were royalty and the infamous were mass murderers and military leaders and whatever,” Bridger said. “He was the first person to make a living being famous. That whole system of celebrity was created with him.”
Cody’s genius for self-promotion was also something new. He shamelessly courted attention with the press and admirers, always exploring new venues, adding new attractions and looking for new angles to cash in on. Near the end, his instincts betrayed him when, hoping to make a splash in the new medium of motion pictures, he produced a silent film in the Pine Ridge area that had Lakotas reenact the Wounded Knee Massacre.
“That’s an indication of how desperate he’d become to deal with his financial problems and to reinvent himself once more,” Bridger said. On the whole, he said, Cody was a visionary. “He gave everyone in modern show business a template for how to do it. If he didn’t do anything but just that, for everyone from Tom Mix forward, he’d be an important figure.”
Cynics, Bridger said, discount the charitable acts attributed to Cody, whether giving away free Wild West tickets to orphans, bootblacks and newsies or making time for old cronies and drinking buddies at his North Platte, Neb. ranch, by asserting he only did these things so they would “sing Buffalo Bill’s praises.” Bridger said this sniping is misguided. “Yes, he was a showman and, yes, he was very calculated about his promotions, but he was also an orphan boy who loved kids and understood their needs. He was always giving back. That’s the way I prefer to see him.” A famous soft-touch, Cody was also forever sinking money into cockeyed ventures, from hotels to mines, that cost him dearly.
The reason debunkers have a field day with Cody, Bridger said, is his contradictory nature. “You know, it’s funny, but you can say just about anything about him and answer, Yes, he was.” Upon Cody’s death in 1917, newspaperman Gene Fowler wrote: “Indiscreet, prodigal, as temperamental as a diva, pompous yet somehow naive, vain but generous…Cody lived with the world at his feet and died with it on his shoulders. He was subject to suspicious whims and distorted perspectives, yet the sharpers who swindled him the oftenest he trusted the most.”
Bridger sees a reappraisal underway.
“Since 1995 there’s been an average of two books a year coming out on Cody and all of them present a very positive perspective.” Even Lakota philosopher Vine DeLoria has kind things to say about him, noting how Cody sheltered Indian “chiefs from undue pressure and persecution by the government” by retaining them in the Wild West and how, “instead of degrading the Indians and classifying them as primitive savages, Cody elevated them to a status of equality.”
In the end, Bridger contends, Cody will be vindicated. “He will eventually be recognized for the wonderful things he gave us. He gave us our romantic template for a very long time, and it was a good one. As my friend Paul Fees of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center says, ‘We’re beginning to pull the man out of the myth.’”
Bridger will sign copies of his book at 2 p.m. on February 23 at the Barnes and Noble in Oak View Mall.
To find out more about Bridger and his work, check out his web site at www.bbridger.com.
Being Jack Moskovitz, Grizzled Former Civil Servant and DJ, Now Actor and Fiction Author, Still Waiting to be Discovered
Writer Jack Moskovitz is like the comic strip character with a dark cloud over him wherever he goes, always seemingly in a blue mood no matter the situation. I first laid eyes on him as he kvetched from his writer panelist perch at the Omaha Lit Fest. He looked and sounded like a character from gritty crime or hard-boiled fiction. I sought out some of his own work as an author, and not surprisingly his short fiction reads on the page much like the man reads in life. That is to say it’s thick with gloomy irony but make not mistake about it, the man can write. The following profile I did of Jack for the Jewish Press takes an unvarnished look at the man and his peccadillos and idiosyncrancies, moods and laments.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Jack Moskovitz long ago concluded his writing, like his acting or DJing, wouldn’t put him on Easy Street. That’s OK, you tell him. The mere fact you do write and write well is something to be proud of. He points out he’s only published by small vanity presses. That his book sells and royalty checks amount to little or nothing. Not important, you explain. Talent is talent, and you’ve got it, Jack. Thanks, he says, before launching into a riff about still being an obscure author after 60 years and how he’s destined to remain unknown.
Like the world-weary souls who schlep through his hard-boiled fiction, the Omaha native takes a cynic’s view of life. He reminds you of Rodney Dangerfield with his deadpan “I don’t get no respect” gripes and self-deprecating cracks about “my hunched back, my wide feminine hips and my flabby body.” The retired civil servant bends your ear about supposed failures and slights — unpublished manuscripts, lost parts and so on. He doesn’t mention his well-reviewed novellas, short stories and plays or that he’s been an invited reader and panelist at the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. He does acknowledge the event’s founder/director, renowned author Timothy Schaffert (Devils in the Sugar Shop), “has been in my corner.”
Instead of enjoying his inclusion among Omaha’s literati, Jack talks about “not being in their class.” “I’m the kind of guy that’s whistling in the dark and I’ve always been that way,” he said. “Just like I thought I could have a career as a writer just because I loved to write. But it’s like a steer wanting to sire off-spring: the desire might be there but because of certain limitations the steer can’t.”
“Every time I feel sorry for myself it comes out in my writing,” he said.
He also takes a bleak view of his work as a character actor in local community theater, this despite working with some of Omaha’s finest players and directors since the mid-1950s. He still bristles with resentment over the late Charles Jones’s refusal to cast him at the Omaha Community Playhouse. But as recently as last spring he played four parts — a judge, a reporter, a physicist and a tourist — in the Playhouse’s Give ‘Em Hell Harry, one of dozens of plays he’s acted in there and on other stages. As soon as Harry closed he went into rehearsals for the Blue Barn Theatre’s Six Degrees of Separation, in which he did a funny turn as a doorman.
He’s had on-screen bits as well, including as “featured atmosphere” in Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth and a scene-stealing cameo as a cross-dressing grandfather in Jeremy Lerman’s Nebraska Supersonic. But to hear Moskovitz tell it his film work doesn’t amount to much. He says the same thing about his decades-long career in radio, a field that saw him work as an announcer-DJ for stations in Omaha and Lincoln. He was good enough to work for some of this market’s top call letters — KOIL, WOW — yet he ruminates over lost chances.
Acerbic and neurotic in an Oscar Levant sort of way, Moskovitz, 72, compulsively sells himself short and finds a dark cloud in every silver lining. He speculates his depressive nature is “in-born, and all it takes is just a little push.” He suggests he’s never really gotten over losing his father as a teenager. The death, he says, devastated his mother, who “had a complete physical collapse” and depended on Jack to help her out. When she passed, the last semblance of family went with her, as he and his two brothers suffered a falling out that never mended.
“The dissolution of a family is exactly what happened,” he said. “I went through four years of depression, which writing helped alleviate to a degree.”
In truth, he said, the fissures in his family were always present. He felt apart, not just from them but from society. “I am estranged from just about every unit or community I tried to be part of. I’m always on the outside,” he said. “There’s a panoramic photograph from a family picnic back in the late 1940s and, stage right, who’s this guy standing all by himself? Me.”
His radio work offered a sanctuary. “Radio was kind of like the glue that held everything together. It got me out of the house,” he said.
It’s only after you spend some time with him you understand his bitter jags are just Jack being Jack. He kvetches not so much to wallow in self-pity or elicit sympathy, as to frame the world for his sardonic stories. His terse style is inspired by pulp fiction and its tradition of gritty action and gloomy sensibilities. His titles, The Tuxedo Square Job and Feast of the Purple Beast, are in keeping with the genre. Jack himself is the model for his cranky, Guy Noirish protagonists. Like him, they’re wise-cracking figures with a chip on their shoulder and a thankless task to perform.
His hand-to-mouth characters are habitues of flophouses, dive bars, diners, after- hours joints and dead-end jobs, all of which he’s familiar with from personal experience. Once a heavy drinker, he knows the despair of the bottle. He’s had his share of women, too, and therefore is on intimate terms with the emptiness of one night stands and the loneliness of mornings after. The hard road he’s traveled has given him insight into what it means to hustle, scrape by and see dreams fade away.
That’s not to say Jack or his work is all dour. Indeed, he and his characters engage in the kind of witty, edgy repartee Dorothy Parker and her vicious set went in for, only his verbal sparring matches unfold at the corner cafe, not the Algonquin. In the last decade he’s found a measure of calm with his companion Johnnie Mae Hawkins, a voracious reader like him. She’s also a writer. Besides their shared love of words, the two are fellow travelers in another way — as outsiders.
He’s Jewish, she’s African-American. He confronted anti-Semitism here, she endured racism down South, where the Arkansas native was of the last generation to pick cotton in the fields. She sharecropped alongside her folks, doing backbreaking labor unfit for man or beast. Based on her recollections of those times he wrote a poignant poem called The Voiding Tree.
Late in life these two seemingly disparate people found each other as kindred spirits do and they’re not about to let each other go now.
“The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting her,” he said. “She’s a very sweet-natured woman. Very understanding, very considerate, very helpful, even in my writing. Dependable, loyal. You know, everything I never found in a woman.”
His recent books feature the dedication: “To Johnnie Mae Hawkins, who likes thrift shops, kittens, and me.”
Until she came along, he admits his taste in women left much to be desired. “They weren’t the kind of women you brought home to mother,” he said. “In my glory days it was the beginning of the sexual revolution where you locked your valuables in your car and carried just enough money for the night. It was just like Frank Sinatra sang, ‘Strangers in the Night,’ and still strangers the next day.”
One relationship, with an actress, ended badly. “I fell for her. I really fell for her,” he said. But then he learned her declarations of “I love you, I need you” were mere lines she practiced on him in order to seduce the man she was really after. “It was just really bad melodrama…bad soap opera.”
After years of abusing alcohol, he long ago cleaned up his act.
“I haven’t had a drink in, what is it, 45-50 years. I was getting to the point where I was looking forward to losing myself in…things like Screwdrivers and Vodka Collins. I used to drink when I was really feeling kind of happy, but then I found myself drinking more when I wasn’t happy, which was most of the time. That’s when I stopped. I changed jobs and dropped the lady I was seeing at the time and kind of got some other things taken care of. I just had no more need for it. “
Growing up, he often felt things spinning out of control and the solitary pursuits of reading-writing-acting were escapes into worlds of his own dominion.
“When you’re the only Jews in a Catholic neighborhood, that’s really tough,” he said. “Back then, there wasn’t this liberal bent. These blue collar guys living here didn’t have any use for Jews or any minorities. If you weren’t Catholic, forget about it. If you were Protestant, that was almost as bad as being a Jew. So it was very unpleasant…the Jew bashing.
“When you have the insularity of a family you get a sense of security, even though you know when you walk out the door somebody’s going to throw something at you. In fact, a good day for me…was not having hard objects hurled at me. A good day was when all that was hurled at me was invective.‘Jew boy.’ Geez, I don’t know how the hell I survived that, but I did.”
The sense of injury Moskovitz carries around with him was exacerbated when he saw his father, a restaurant fixture sales manager, get demoted and take a pay cut.
“We were in a helluva fix,” Jack said.
His father later partnered with others to start their own supply house, but soon thereafter Bert Moskovitz fell ill. “The cancer got him,” is how Jack puts it. Rabbi Myer Kripke officiated at his father’s and mother’s funerals at old Beth El Synagogue, just as he did at Jack and his brothers’ bar mitzvahs.
Jack was 14 when his father died and to help make ends meet he went to work for one grocery store after another, cleaning, stocking, bagging, delivering, whatever needed doing. His mother worked at Hayden’s Department Store.
With few friends, Jack slipped increasingly into his interior life. He’s never married. He has no kids. “It’s been a lonely life,” he said. His imagination was fired by the stories that transfixed him on radio, the stage, in the movies and in books.
Moskovitz was fated to be a writer when, as a child, he steeped himself in the “beautiful library” his immigrant grandparents kept at home. The library contained the complete works of Dickens, O Henry, Sir Walter Scott, et cetera. There were full-length play scripts. He read it all.
“That’s where I would do my reading,” he said. “It was something I looked forward to doing.”
His creative side was nurtured by his mother, who played violin “beautifully,” he said. She’d trained on the instrument and could read music. He still has her violin and the original case for it and displays them on the dining room table. Also, his older brother, Mayer, brought him to plays. Jack adored musical theater. Mere blocks from where he grew up was the original Omaha Community Playhouse site at 40th and Davenport, where he saw many productions
But, always, there were books. Piles of books surround he and Johnnie Mae today.
As a young man he devoured coming-of-age classics like the Signet edition of Catcher in the Rye and the Studs Lonigan trilogy and he found his niche in the spare, masculine style of Ernest Hemingway, Mickey Spillane, James Jones, Leon Uris, Richard Prather, John MacDonald, Vin Packer and others. His work betrays the influence, too, of realists Raymond Carver, John Fante and Charles Bukowski.
“They all wrote in a fast-paced, very terse style and each word was carefully chosen,” he said. “It whips along.”
He strives for the same efficiency of language.
“I write the flabby prose on the first draft and then I go take each sentence and try to telescope it. I weed out chunks.”
He began writing stories and plays way back at Saunders Elementary School, just up the block from the stucco house he grew up in and occupies today in the Cathedral neighborhood. His love for theater sparked his interest in writing. Cast as the lead in a school play, he heeded the ham in him when a castmate got a bad case of stage fright and missed her cue and he covered for her by ad-libbing. That’s when he fell for acting and got it in his head that maybe he could craft his own dramas. “That’s what I started doing,” he said.
As a boy he began sending out his work, even play scripts, to publishers, once getting a reply from the famed play publishing company, Samuel French. “I got back what I thought was a personal letter from Mr. French himself and, of course, it was your standard rejection slip,” he said.
He was serious enough about acting that he began auditioning at the Playhouse right out of high school and soon landed a role in its production of Secret Service, which was part of Omaha’s centennial celebration. He averaged about a play a year at the OCP until Charles Jones arrived in the ‘70s.
Jack also went to the west coast with the idea of trying to break into Hollywood. He had the cockeyed notion of being “the Semitic Troy Donahue,” but was dissuaded by family friend, Lynn Stalmaster, already a casting director scion, who warned him of the struggles and heartbreak ahead. Jack appreciated the straight talk. “What a mensch he was,” he said.
Even with the intoxicating scent of Jasmine in the air, all that gorgeous sun, the ubiquitous palm trees, meeting stars and limited prospects back home, Jack heeded the advice. He’s not sorry he did.
“I’ve never looked back,” he said.
With “no marketable skills,” he returned to doing “stoop labor,” content to act and write on the side. Besides the Jewish grocers he worked for, he was a grunt in an appliance warehouse and washed and bused dishes at a restaurant. When he worked at Shaver’s market on 40th Street, between Dodge and Farnam, he hit upon an after-work routine to indulge his passions for good eats and good stories.
“I’d get me a bowl of chili and I’d buy a Gold Medal paperback for 25 cents. I was reading Westerns written by Vin Parker. They were real hard-boiled, lusty, action-packed plots that Gold Medal was famous for. Then I’d go across the street to the Admiral Theater and see whatever was on there. Then I’d walk over to the West Dodge Pharmacy and get me a Lime Ricky at the soda fountain.”
Another favorite pastime was sitting in front of the radio to hear the world come into his home. He and his old brother Mayer loved listening to network radio broadcasts like The Shadow, The Bell Telephone Hour and Stella Dallas. They were so crazy about radio they wormed their way into the studios at KFAB and WOW as audience members for live shows whose formats ran the gamut from quiz to music.
He said it was heady stuff for a boy with a flair for the dramatic. “Wow, this is kind of fun,” Jack recalls thinking. “The announcers would be personalities. What kind of clinched it for me was when I met a neighbor who was in radio. That’s when I thought, Maybe I ought to try radio, too.”
By 1956, at age 21, he was on the air in Denison, Iowa, learning the ropes for no pay at tiny KDSN. A year later he got his first paying on-air gig at KLMS in Lincoln. Then he went over to the capitol city’s KLIN. When he lived in Lincoln he stayed at the Sam Lawrence Hotel, a low rent roomer that often shows up in his stories. He and his radio cronies bent a few at after-hours hangouts like Hamp’s.
One night he was going to help a KLIN staffer celebrate the birth of his first child when an urgent phone call came in. Moskovitz said the new father took the call, “turned to me, and said, ‘Jack, there’s not going to be any celebration tonight. We’ve got a triple homicide.’ Well, that was the beginning of the Starkweather spree.” Moskovitz covered the morning police briefings from the start of the manhunt to the suspects’ capture and arrest.
This was the start of his itinerant, he’d call it checkered, radio career — from the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll and DJ’s spinning records on turntables to the age of talk radio and automation. He worked for KOIL and at WOW with such local legends as Ray Olson, Dale Munson, Ray Stevens and Jim Murphy. What he lacked in the “basso profundo” voice department of his colleagues, he made up for with personality.
He did stints at KOWH, KEMO, KBON and KCRO, “a holy station where four people worked and nobody got along. Can you imagine that? It wasn’t very brotherhoodish, that’s for sure.” His last radio job was with “easy listening” KESY in 1989.
In the ‘60s he pulled an Army Reserves hitch. He also worked a year as a reporter-photographer for the Council Bluffs Nonpareil.
As much as radio and the theater fascinated him, his true heart was in writing.
By the time he graduated from Central High School, where he appeared in some plays, he disciplined himself to write every day. It’s a practice and ritual he follows to this day. Now that he’s retired, it’s no problem applying himself to his craft. But when he worked steady, it was tough.
“It was hard working some of these crappy jobs I had and then coming home and trying to get the energy to sit down and write something that was possibly commercial,” he said. “As tired as I was, I turned out some stuff…”
His last regular job was working for “the fed” as a Grade 3 clerk-typist at Douglas County Veterans Hospital, OSHA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He wasn’t crazy about the work, “but by God I liked the security, that paycheck, the benefits,” he said. A back problem forced him to take early retirement in 1985.
Moskovitz was in good company when it came to toiling at a 9 to 5 job and still maintaining a writing life. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Garland, Neb. held an insurance post for decades while churning out his award-winning verses.
Jack doesn’t go to a job anymore, but old habits are hard to break and so he still bangs out copy on his Olivetti typewriter. He prefers it to chancing his work on a computer, which he professes to be “illiterate” at. Call him old school or old fashioned, he doesn’t mind. Another example of how he and Johnnie Mae lead a simple life, is their lack of a car. They walk or ride the bus most everywhere.
Unlike his brothers, who graduated college to become professionals, Jack went his own way, did his own thing. He studied radio broadcasting at then-Omaha University, but didn’t get a degree. As the family’s black sheep, he said, he felt his brothers’ contempt for squandering a life to pursue this writing dream. When you hear enough disparaging remarks, he said, “you get to kind of believe it.”
Where his brothers may have had the edge in book smarts, Jack has native intelligence. His instinct for thinking on his feet goes back to childhood, like the time he saved the school play by ad-libbing when his co-star went AWOL.
Fast forward five decades to Jack at the Playhouse. The actor was on stage one night in Over the River when he once again found himself playing for time. Unbeknownst to him, a fellow actor banged his head against a heavy picture frame back stage. “I throw a cue for him to enter and he staggers on stage, holding his eye,” Jack recalls. “I could tell something was wrong. I said, ‘Are you alright?’ and he said, ‘Yeah…no, and then he walks off. I said to the actress playing my wife, ‘Ida, go see what’s wrong with him,’ and she went off and so did the other two actors on stage, and I’m standing there by myself.”
Seizing the moment, a resourceful Jack filled the silence the best way he knew how — by talking. The audience thought his improv was part of the show.
“In the story I’m supposed to be learning to play the mandolin and I’m standing there with this out-of-tune mandolin I wouldn’t know how to play even it was in tune,” he said. “So I start ad-libbing, telling a few jokes. Like, ‘Why does it take two actors to change a light bulb? One to do the work, one to point and say, Hey, that should be me up there.’ Or, ‘The hottest day of the year this old rummy staggers into a bar and says, Whaddya got that’s tall and cold? The bartender says, Have you met my wife?’ You know, doing these little Henny Youngman routines.
“Then I started singing show tunes of the 1920s and ‘30s. ‘42nd Street, ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’… I did that because in always auditioning for musicals at the Playhouse and never even getting picked for the chorus, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a chance to sing there again.”
What gives him the moxie to make up bits out of thin air? “The same chuztpah that got me interested in theater at Saunders when I was 10,” he said. Moments like these, he said, give him “such a sense of empowerment, because I’m controlling this thing.” Much like the mastery of events reading and writing provides.
Words have always offered solace for the turmoil inside him. “After all these emotional setbacks — the deaths, the betrayals, the antipathy, and so on — what I would do just to get away from the house is walk down to the library.” Alone with his prose, he found peace. Writing and DJing gave him a satisfaction he misses.
“It really heightened my life. It provided the toots and whistles for an otherwise monotone existence.”
He talks about this being the end of the line. About his window of opportunity having passed. How he’s done putting himself through the “pain” of rejection. “I’ve pretty much given up any possibility of getting anything produced or published. I took the pledge to quite wasting my life on that,” he said. But he still plugs away. Only last year he finished a new novel, Brothers and Sisters. It’s with a publisher now. He’s even learning to write Haiku. He still scans the trades seeking outlets for his work. He also continues to audition and win parts in plays. If a radio gig were offered tomorrow, he’d jump at it. If a publisher called, he’d dance a jig.
When the phone rings at his place, his sense of anticipation is palpable. He interrupts a conversation with a guest — “Hang on a minute” — to ask Johnnie Mae, “Is that a call from a publisher?” He’s ever hopeful his writing will find an appreciative audience. Having a major publisher discover his work would be his legacy, which is much on his mind given he’s the last of the Moskovitz line. He’s already achieved a legacy of sorts. Several volumes of his work are carried by the Omaha Public Library.
Do Jack a favor and check his work out. You won’t be disappointed. And he’ll be glad you cared enough to read some of what he’ll leave behind.
- Author Rachel Shukert, A Nice Jewish Girl Gone Wild and Other Regrettable Stories (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Short Story Writer James Reed, At Work in the Literary Fields of the Imagination (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Many Worlds of Science Fiction Author Robert Reed (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Worth of Things Explored by Sean Doolittle in his New Crime Novel ‘The Cleanup’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Rachel Shukert’s Anything But a Travel Agent’s Recommended Guide to a European Grand Tour (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- When Safe Isn’t Safe at All, Author Sean Doolittle Spins a Home Security Cautionary Tale (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Louder Than a Bomb Omaha: Stand, Deliver and Be Heard (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
For Omaha metro residents, the promotion below is a heads-up regarding a presentation I am making about freelance writing. It’s free and hopefully not boring. The presentation is open to anyone. It’s part of the ongoing North Omaha Summer Arts Festival. The fest’s website address is at the bottom of this post. Check it out.
North Omaha Summer Arts 2011 presents:
A Journey in Freelance Writing
Veteran journalist and author Leo Adam Biga uses his own 27-year career to talk about what life as a freelance writer can look like.
Wednesday, August 10, 6-8pm
Call 402.455.7015 Mon thru Fri, 9am – 4pm for registration
This class is free of charge
Topics to be covered include:
•real life experience
•learning your craft
•on the job education/training
•finding a niche
•writing about your interests
•just doing it
•daring to risk different fields & styles of writing
•building a client base
•managing multiple projects
•is there any money in this?
As a contributing writer to newspapers and magazines, he’s had thousands of articles published on a vast array of subjects, many of them arts, culture, sports, and history related. Other clients include for-profit corporations, nonprofit institutions, individuals, and families.
At Church Of the Resurrection
3004 Belvedere Boulevard
Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey’
Another Omaha native writer enjoying breakout success is Carleen Brice, whose first two novels have done very well. This is the first of a few articles I’ve written about Carleen and her work. My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared shortly after her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey, announced her as a major new voice to be reckoned with, and she soon proved that debut novel was no fluke with Children of the Waters. More recently, the superb Lifetime Movies adaptation of Orange Mint, which goes under the title Sins of the Mother, won NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding TV Movie and for Jill Scott in the lead role of Nona. Now. Brice’s sequel to Orange Mint, which she calls It Might As Well Be Spring, is due out this summer, and she’s at work on yet another novel, Calling Every Good Wish Home. I feel a personal investment in Carleen because her late grandfather, Billy Melton, was a vital source and good friend. He always spoke with great pride about her accomplishments. Go to my Billy Melton category to check out some of the stories I wrote about him and his various passions and adventures.
You can find my other Carleen Brice articles, including one about that Lifetime adaptation, by clicking on her name in the category roll to the right. I expect I’ll be adding more pieces about her as her career continues going gangbusters. Billy’s smiling somewhere.
Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey‘
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Denver author Carleen Brice, an Omaha native who left here after graduating Central High School in the 1980s, is getting raves for her first novel, Orange Mint and Honey (One World Ballantine Books, 2008). It follows three nonfiction books and numerous newspaper-magazine essays-articles that earlier established her as a wry observer of the African American experience and the larger human condition.
Now Brice is returning as an invited author at this weekend’s (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. That makes it sound like she hasn’t been back in awhile, which isn’t so, but now she’s riding the momentum of her novel being an Essence Magazine Recommended Read and a Target Bookmarked Breakout pick.
She’ll appear on a Saturday noon panel at the Bemis about music as an influence on writing. That’s apt as music’s a family legacy Brice inherited “by osmosis” from her beloved late grandfather, Billy Melton, or “Papa,” whose best friend was the late jazz musician and her surrogate uncle, Preston Love Sr. Her jazz-blues bassist husband, Dirk, jammed with Preston at Papa and grandmama Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary. Papa’s vast music collection led Brice to jazz singer Nina Simone. In Orange Mint Simone’s presence appears to the embittered, traumatized daughter, Shay, as a guide to find healing with her recovering alcoholic mother, Nona.
Shay, portrayed as a fan of classic jazz-blues, gets involved with a younger man she works with at a Denver music store. He schools her on contemporary artists.
Then consider Brice often uses music when writing to evoke moods she wants to convey. There’s plenty of mood swings in Orange Mint. The strained mother-daughter story is infused with pain and humor. Forgiveness walks a rocky road. The messy reconciliation between two strong wills rings true. The relationship is fiction but draws on the dynamic Brice had with her own mom. Just as Nona bore Shay as a teen, Brice’s late mother bore her at 15. Like Nona, her mom was a pistol. Unlike Nona, she was no alcoholic. Brice’s folks divorced when she was young.
“We had kind of the typical mother-daughter, love-hate so-close-that-we-drove-each-other-insane kind of relationship,” Brice said by phone. “We were more like sisters. What it’s like to have a young mom that you sort of sometimes feel like you’re raising her instead of she’s raising you comes out in the book.”
Brice’s novel never devolves into melodrama or soap opera. It satisfies and surprises in ways only a gifted writer and old soul can deliver. The book’s being adapted by a producer for a Lifetime Television movie and one hopes it’s treated with the care and sophistication it deserves. On her blog, The Pajama Gardener, a compendium of Brice’s musings about working in the earth and writing, activities she sees parallels in, the author votes for Angela Bassett to play Nona.
Nona’s passion for gardening reflects the kinds of creative, expressive outlet many black women have sought in lieu of limited opportunities for careers in the arts.
Orange Mint confirms the promise Brice has long exhibited as a storyteller.
Her first book dealt with African Americans and the grieving process and her next offered affirmations for people of color. More recently, she edited Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number (Souvenir Press, 2003), a collection of writings by black female authors, including icons Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Niki Givoanni and Maya Angelau, that Brice put together on the subject of black women navigating mid-life. Brice contributed two pieces of her own to that well-reviewed compilation. One comments on the unrealistic expectations black women like herself face when young and how, in middle age, she’s attempted to free herself and her expressive soul from the bondage of myth.
Just don’t mistake those projects for advice column fodder. They’re much more than that. Brice writes with an eloquence and depth that put her on the same plane as the literary lionesses she shares the pages with in Age Ain’t Nothing. It’s only fitting that Brice, who grew up reading many of the very authors she’s now immortalized with, should be recognized as a serious new African American voice.
Early on she evidenced a love for the written word. “My mom liked to read,” she said, “so when I was really little I learned the joy of reading and storytelling, and I think that’s what led me to want to be a writer. I used to tell stories to other kids. I’d just make things up. I wrote my grandmother Martha stories. When I was in high school I studied creative writing. In college I studied journalism. Most of my job jobs involved writing. So it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”
Brice no longer works a day job. She writes every day, a discipline she credits Dirk with inspiring in her. “Kind of like building my chops as a writer,” she said. “When not laying down “the bones” or “the heart” of her stories, she interacts with a literary community via book clubs, readers’ circles, writers’ groups.
She’s in-progress on a new novel, Children of the Waters, due out next July. It explores issues of race, identity and what really makes a family, she said. The story explores what happens when a pair of biracial sisters raised in separate families — one white, the other black — find each other as adults.
The author is musing with the idea of continuing Nona’s story in a future project.
Brice is among that vast exodus of blacks who’ve left this place over the years to realize their dreams elsewhere. But like many of these expatriates she’s never really left. She has lots of family and friends here. A contingent even came to Orange Mint’s release party in Denver. They’re a tight bunch and they’ll be representing at Lit Fest. They’ll have a good time, too, she said, as her “larger-than-life” family knows how to party — another legacy of sweet, ebullient Papa.
His music, she said, speaks through her.
The Sept. 19-20 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest is its usual eclectic self, with a mish-mash of events that address diverse literary themes, some with more than a wink of the eye. The BIG theme this year is Plagiarism, Fraud & Other Literary Inspiration. Fest events take place at some of Omaha’s coolest venues, including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the RNG Gallery, Slowdown, Aromas Coffee House and the Omaha Public Library’s W. Dale Clark branch.
Some of Omaha’s and America’s hottest writers converge for readings, panel discussions and other litnik activities. Brice fits the bill to a tee. Think of the fest as a progressive mixer for readers, authors and artists engaging in a literary salon experience — Omaha-style. A scene where laidback meets high brow. For a complete schedule visitwww.omahalitfest.com.
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Omaha is home to many fine novelists and I have the opportunity to sit down and talk writing with some of them from time and time. One of these is Sean Doolittle, a crime novelist of the first rank and a man who leaves all pretensions at the door. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the first piece I did on Sean and his work, and the second will soon be posted on this site as well. If you’re looking for a good summer read that engages your mind and your adrenalin then I highly recommend his intelligent page-turners.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Sean Doolittle has you join him in the very booth at the very Omaha watering hole, the Homy Inn, where the violent denouement of his new novel The Cleanup (Dell) unfolds. Just as you slide in, he mentions you’re about to sit where Gwen, the wan victim in his tale of ever escalating misdeeds, nearly loses her life. The fact he looks a bit like the towering Red Dragon character in the film Manhunter gives you pause. Within minutes he reveals the same disarming tone of his classic crime fiction, which sardonically, not gravely, lets characters stew in their own juices.
In The Cleanup the Omaha-based author has his cop protagonist Matthew Worth discover a murder and rather than call it in, clean it up, which throws into motion, ala Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, a cascade of unforeseen results that keep forcing Worth’s hand, raising the stakes each time. Things get complicated when it turns out the corpse was a mule in an illicit racket short a quarter million bucks. The question becomes how far will Worth go to cover his and the murderer’s tracks and how far will those after Worth’s neck or the loot, or both, go to get answers?
“I really like stories where the plot is dictated by the choices the characters make. It’s a continual reaction against cause and effect. That feels to me the way life is,” said Doolittle, whose previous novels Dirt, Burn, both set in L.A., and Rain Dogs elicited warm words from some of crime fiction’s top names. The Cleanup, due out October 31, is getting similar raves. His agent is in negotiations over a potential feature film deal. Unlike many crime authors, Doolittle’s “been lucky” to avoid pressure by editors/publishers to do a series or sequel. His are stand-alone books.
The new novel grew out of a short story, Worth, Doolittle wrote years ago that ended where The Cleanup begins. The character of Worth, a burned out cop reduced to supermarket patrol seeks to redeem himself, gnawed at him.
“I like the idea of this character really trying to do maybe the wrong thing for the right reasons,” he said. “He’s driven to do it. In a dream sort of state, he keeps going. There’s definitely a point of no return in a situation like that where once you step far enough over the line, you have to keep going and keep going. The impulsive action quickly becomes unreturnable. No matter how much he tries to dig himself out he just keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper and deeper. To me, it’s more intriguing than a mystery per se, where you’ve got some clues and you’re trying to piece together a puzzle of who-did-what.
“I’m much more interested in the way people respond to circumstances, what that leads them to do and how those actions compound on each other…There’s really not any sort of mystery in The Cleanup, except wondering how it’s all going to play out for the characters. There are little surprises along the way.”
As a nod to classic noir, Doolittle has Worth cross the line for the sake of a woman (Gwen) who, while not quite a femme fatale, draws the cop into a dark place where his one rash act has dangerous consequences in a kind of domino effect.
“In a way, we’re looking at this character of Worth on the day he did something he might not have done on any other day. It ends up changing his life,” Doolittle said of his disaffected hero, who in the course of the story moves from apathy to conviction. “He comes from a long line of police officers and so he goes into that profession as sort of a family trade. But he doesn’t have the temperament for it. He’s not cut out for it. He’s a laughing stock in the department.
“Here’s this guy who became a police officer for this sort of civic minded idea of being useful to the world and found much more self worth in the simple act of bagging people’s groceries than he ever had in the frustrating job of being a cop. In wanting to save her (Gwen) she represents what he wanted to do in becoming a police officer in the first place. This temporary savior complex that overcomes him has lots of levels in it that he puts all together in Gwen.”
What Worth doesn’t know is that his quest to find self-worth in helping Gwen out of a jam is really about saving himself. But, as Doolittle said, his redemption comes “at a fairly high cost by the time it’s all over.”
Although long “drawn to kind of darker stuff,” Doolittle’s not sure why and feels the reasons for it may be best left unexamined.
“It’s the sort of thing where you don’t really want to solve that mystery because it is your fuel and once you learn the secret maybe you lose the fuel,” he said. “The old chestnut is good drama is based on conflict and I think crime novels provide a very visceral, bottom line conflict you can start with and work from. I like what you can do within the general framework of a crime novel or a noir novel in terms of exploring human behavior. I think the way people respond to extreme pressure or in extraordinary circumstances is an interesting dramatic place to play around.”
He recalls the first story he wrote, for a school class exercise, was in the hard-boiled, first-person vein of a P.I. narrator. A kind of, “I was sitting in my office when…” tease. Strangely, he’d not yet read any crime fiction, “but I must have osmosed that sort of iconic story through my skin or something,” he said. “I don’t know if I caught pastiches on television…You just pick that stuff up everywhere.”
Among his earliest influences was Stephen King. That led him to Robert Bloch (Psycho). Then about the same time he was exposed to the neo-noir of Quentin Tarantino’s films and the breezy mayhem of Elmore Leonard’s novels, which led to old masters like Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Philip Chandler and James M. Cain. “I kind of started like a lot of people do,” he said, “by finding somebody in the mainstream and then reading my way back into the margins from there.”
Born and raised just outside Lincoln, Neb., Doolittle began as a journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but switched to English under the tutelage of Gerald Shapiro and Judith Slater. As an undergrad his first “pro fiction,” a short story, sold and paid “real money.” He intended on an academic career teaching college English and writing, but after getting his master’s, he said, “I decided what I really wanted to do was write fiction. I got a regular job and just kept on writing.”
Married now with two young children, he still holds down a regular office gig, writing technical manuals for First Data Resources, but he hopes his books will catch on enough to “relieve the need for that day job.”
He credits his wife Jessica for cutting him slack over the odd writer’s life he leads. “When I’m in the middle of a book it’s not just that I’m physically away at the computer typing, when I’m walking around the house my head is somewhere else,” he said. “It’s very difficult to explain, even to a very supportive spouse…that sitting in a chair staring into space is working. You know, there are tough weeks when everybody’s had long days and any human being would lose their patience. With The Cleanup I was very much behind deadline and the end of that book got very tense. I was really having to lock myself away…to try to finish the book. Jessica was very understanding but by the end it was clear that something had to give.”
In his acknowledgements he thanks his mother for coming to the rescue in “the perfect storm” of deadlines, travel commitments and family illnesses that hit all at once. “Everything just fell apart,” he said. “Without my mother I don’t know how we would have gotten through that.”
Where Rain Dogs was set in Valentine, Neb. and The Cleanup in Omaha, the book he’s working on now is set in a fictional Iowa college town. For this as yet untitled “suburban thriller” he doesn’t want the distraction of adhering to a specific place but instead an Anytown USA readers can project their own experiences onto.
Just as he doesn’t like showing his work until he has a finished piece in hand, he dislikes talking about a book still in embryo. “The idea is kind of fragile for a period of time,” he said, “and you can really crush an idea by talking about it too much.” It’s why he’s reluctant to say much about a big screen adaptation of The Cleanup other than there’s “pretty strong interest” from “a fairly well known writer-director. It’s the first book that’s drawn interest prepublication. Things look fairly promising for a deal, but everything in Hollywood is talk until something happens.”
Doolittle may have left Omaha and environs for his new work but he plans to revisit Nebraska again in his fiction. “I’ve really enjoyed writing the last couple of books closer to home and I want to continue to work around this area.” Besides, it’s so much fun to track blood lettings in the very places one haunts.
- Author Nesbø: I am attracted to dark side (cnn.com)
- Writers Tip #61: Advice From Elmore Leonard (worddreams.wordpress.com)
- A Killer Vision of a Corrupt Society (online.wsj.com)
- With His New Novel, ‘The Coffins of Little Hope,’ Timothy Schaffert’s Back Delighting in the Curiosities of American Gothic (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Crime fiction for summer (salon.com)
- Lit Fest Brings Author Carleen Brice Back Home Flush with the Success of Her First Novel, ‘Orange Mint and Honey’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
I am consistently amazed at the talent surrounding me. Until I saw an item about Robert Reed in the local daily I had no idea that one of the preeminent science fiction authors of his time was from Omaha and still lived in the area – 50 miles away in Lincoln, Neb. I promptly sought out his work and was blown away by his gift, and soon thereafter arranged an interview with him. The resulting story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared in the wake of Reed having won the Holy Grail of his profession, the Hugo Award, for his novella A Billion Eves. My very short piece hardly does the prolific justice to Reed, whose work is included in countless Best Of collections and anthologies, which is why I pine to do another story about him, hopefully one of some length. He is up for another major prize by the way, as a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award for his novella, Dead Man‘s Run.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha native Robert Reed’s 2007 Hugo Award-winning novella A Billion Eves imagines devices called “rippers” that punch holes in the fabric of the space-time continuum. People and places get propelled from one world to some infinity of alternate worlds. The prospect of man playing God in new edens plentiful with women proves a Pandora’s Box of male fantasy run amok. The Fathers of these frontiers may be false prophets.
Eves is a cautionary tale about staking claims in facsimile worlds that may have short life spans and be susceptible to human contamination. Better to begin with a clean slate, suggests Reed, a prolific science fiction author. Speculative musings about the fallout of using quantum mechanics as an instrument of Manifest Destiny consume Reed. He has great fun, too, with the divergent creation stories bound to be promulgated in such Instant Ready, up-for-grabs universes. Whose account of “In the beginning…” you believe depends on who you are within the tribe. History, we’re reminded, is the prerogative of the historian.
Reed, who lives in Lincoln, Neb. with his wife Leslie and their daughter Jessie, has largely survived on his writing earnings since 1987. There’ve been lean times when he’s lived off savings. But it’s never been so tight he’s thought of going back on the line at Mapes Industries in Lincoln, where he did the human automaton thing to support his habit. His fertile imagination and solid craft have paid off. His work has been called grim for envisioning horrific end-of-world scenarios and dire consequences of human folly.
“I’m astonished how little fright I have of my own imagination,” he said. “It really does baffle me that I don’t get more scared because I’m capable of thinking up things that are so awful. On any given day I can imagine the worst.”
He’s heeded the dark side of his imagination since childhood. Already an avid reader as a kid, he tried writing a novel at 12 or 13 — filling spiral notebooks with violent monsters conjured from somewhere deep within. Playing with his buddies in a wooded area near his childhood home he’d concoct elaborate tales of creatures. At home he’d devise intricate maps of water worlds, drawing on his interest in biology, and create fantastic universes out of his head.
“I just don’t perceive things quite as other people do,” he said.
Years passed between his first stab at writing fiction and his taking it up again at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He’d stopped writing in the interim, but he never stopped reading and imagining. Ideas filled him.
“I would say, yes, they were working on me for years and years,” he said of all the stirrings that pricked at him.
It’s perhaps why when he did resume writing tales poured out of him. They’ve kept coming, too. He’s up to 160 stories and 11 novels. When someone finds the success Reed has — published in all the major SF anthologies and nominated for the field’s top prizes — one asks why he isn’t a household name?
“I’m pleased by my following, what there is of it, but science fiction is really a rather tiny business compared with its giant cousin, which is fantasy,” he said.
Then there’s the fact that while some Reed works have been optioned by filmmakers, none have made it to the screen. He doesn’t much seem to care. He doesn’t do book tours and he attends few SF conventions. And, unlike most successful SF writers whose work is tenaciously grounded in some consistent vision of the future, Reed is apt to apply entirely new suppositions from story to story.
“It doesn’t help build a fan base doing that. There’s many ways in which I’ve separated myself from the rest of the business and from my readers,” he said, adding one advantage to being an outsider is — “I think I often come up with fresh perspectives on old storylines.”
It’s true this avid long distance runner prefers to stay apart from the pack, but then there’s his big, loud web site, www.robertreedwriter.com, that two huge fans created and maintain. Reed said he doesn’t feel he would have won the coveted Hugo without the site’s props. A Billion Eves, which appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, can be read there. A complete bibliography of his work is available online.
- NPR’s New Poll: “Best Science Fiction, Fantasy Books? You Tell Us” (underwordsblog.com)
- The Joy of Alt Fiction (paulcornell.com)
- The sword is mightier than the laser gun – or is it? from Stargazer’s World (stargazersworld.com)
What Happens to a Dream Deferred? John Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’
It’s only in the last few years I finally saw both a stage production and a television production of the classic play A Raisin in the Sun, and while I found each impressive, the thing that really turned me onto the work was reading Lorraine Hansberry’s famous work. Its intensity and truth burn on the page. After reading the play I knew I had to see a performance of it, and that motivation is what led me to write the following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com). When I was still in the good graces of Omaha’s Beasley Theater’s I watched part of a rehearsal there and then saw a performance of the play in its entirety. Not too far removed from that experience I caught the TV version with Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald, and Sean Combs. The themes of Raisin resonate with me on many levels, but it is its dramatic interpretation of the Langston Hughes line, “What happens to a dream deferred?” within the context of a man and family struggling to get their small piece of the American Dream that deeply affects and disturbs me.
Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier from the 1961 film adaptation of Hansberry’s play
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
After its 1959 opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York, A Raisin in the Sun was the talk of Broadway and the play’s 28-year-old author, the late Lorraine Hansberry, was the toast of the theater world. Hansberry became the first black whose work was honored with the New York Drama Critics Circle’s best play award.
The Youngers, a poor, aspiring black Chicago tenement family, are the prism through which she looks at the experience of oppression in segregated USA. Her modern story of assimilationist pressures and deferred dreams offers a realistic slice of black life unseen till then. The politically-aware Hansberry, who studied under W.E.B. DuBois and wrote for Paul Roberson’s Freedom magazine, took the play’s title from a Langston Hughes poem that asks: “What happens to a dream deferred. Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore…Or does it explode?”
Lena is the stalwart, widowed matriarch holding her family intact. Ruth, the eldest daughter, is the beleaguered wife of Walter, a bitter chauffeur striving to move up in the world. Beneatha, Ruth’s younger sister, is a collegian who rejects God and embraces Africa. Her hopeful beau, George Murchison, is the bourgeois American counterpoint to her sweet-on admirer, Joseph Asagai, a politically-minded Nigerian.
When the prospects of a fat insurance check threaten tearing the family apart, Lena acts rashly and buys a house in a restricted white neighborhood. Then, just as Walter’s dreams of owning a business are crushed, the alarmed residents offer the Youngers a buy-out. What Walter will do next is at the crux of the family crisis.
With its successful Broadway revival in 2003-04, Raisin proves its themes are still relevant today and that’s one reason why the John Beasley Theater is staging it now through October 10. While not revolutionary, Raisin reveals some hard truths.
“What we have for the first time with Hansberry in the ‘50s is a dignified, realistic portrayal of the complexities of black life,” said poet and essayist Robert Chrisman, chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and founding editor of The Black Scholar. “With Walter, you have the young black man who wants his chance. Mama (Lena) represents the stolid, powerful, tenacious will of black people to keep on keeping on. She is the moral center of the play. These are all realistic, engaging portraitures of black people. You don’t have any stereotyped servants. I think dignity is key in Raisin because it’s finally to assert his fundamental human dignity Walter turns down the buy out.”
For Chrisman, “the single strongest theme in Raisin is the tenet that if you have your dignity, you have the potential for everything and if you do not maintain and courageously uphold your dignity and freedom as a human being, you have nothing. And I think all of that was new in the portraiture of blacks in white theater. What preceded it up to the 1950s was usually something based on the minstrel-entertainment genre — the shuffling chauffeur, the maid, the bell hop, the clown. In black theater you had legitimate efforts at portraying blacks, but I think it’s with Hansberry you get the breakthrough. She sets the stage for the subsequent work of August Wilson and Charles Fuller, who deal with issues of generations, dreams and career aspirations and frustrations. In a way, she did for modern black drama the same thing that Richard Wright did for the modern black novel.”
Directing the Beasley production is UNO dramatics arts professor Doug Paterson, who said the play “became the springboard for black theater” in the latter half of the 20th century. “Black theater exploded in all kinds of directions,” he said. He added that the militant dramatists who followed Hansberry, such as Amiri Baraka, were critical of her “drawing room kind of drama” when they “felt what was necessary was to be bold…different…experimental.” However, Chrisman reminds, “Baraka was writing at the cusp of the ‘60s and the movement of this more militant vision forward. I think what Hansberry is saying is that whether Walter goes down as a freedom rider or starts a riot is immaterial. Asserting his dignity is what matters.”
Although it stops short of radical redresses to racism and inequality, her work is full of red hot anger and indignation. Paterson said, “She revealed so much. She anticipated sort of everything that happened in civil rights, black power and integration.” He said the original production was also influential in terms of the contributions to American theater and film that its cast and crew have made. Among the lead actors, Sydney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Ivan Dixon and Louis Gossett are household names. Douglas Turner Ward is a co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Theater. Lonne Elder III is a major playwright. Director Lloyd Richards is perhaps Broadway’s most acclaimed dramatic interpreter. “It’s an extraordinary play for what it did historically. That’s why we study it,” said Paterson, who’s taught it for years. “I always wanted to give it a shot” directorially.
Chrisman well recalls the impact of the 1961 film version, whose adaptation Hansberry wrote. “There was a tremendous surge of pride and dignity in audiences,” especially black audiences, at the time. The concerns of Raisin, he said, still reverberate today. “I think in some ways it’s still very contemporary because you still have the same kind of interest in the African experience that Beneatha had in young folks today. And you still have, perhaps even more desperately, the need of the young black man to start a business of his own.”
The play ends with the Youngers deciding to move where they’ll clearly be unwelcome, but it doesn’t show the struggle of blacks living in a white enclave organized to oust them. As Chrisman said, “There should be a sequel to it, because it ends on the affirmative note…You could have another play that shows the ostracism, harassment, graffiti, coldness and so on that have been reported by first-generation integrating blacks.” And that’s ironic, as the playwright’s own family underwent that very trial by fire when she was a young girl. Her educated parents were social activists in Chicago and when their move into a white section met with resistance, they fought the injustice all the way to the Supreme Court.
For her next play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry disappointed some by telling a Jewish story. She died of cancer, at age 34, the day that play closed on Broadway. Other works were posthumously adapted into books and plays by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff, a writer and composer. In 1973, Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg adapted her first play into the Tony-winning musical Raisin.
- Philip Rose, ‘Raisin’ and ‘Purlie’ Producer, Dies at 89 (nytimes.com)
- Anthony Chisholm is in the House at the John Beasley Theater in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Hansberry Project honors Regina Taylor (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Alicia Keys helping produce a Broadway play (ctv.ca)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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