Corduroy Books

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Tag: The Wire

Rap as Social Policy, Plus Immigration

by Weston Cutter

Decoded by Jay-Z

The easy sell for this—that it’s a necessary purchase for those of us who don’t usually get through 24 hours without the occasional hova loop dominating gray-matter space—doesn’t do this great book justice. Wait, let’s back up: I assume everyone knows Jay-Z. Subject of a really profound 2001 profile regarding corporate rap, husband to Beyonce, maybe the single most accessible rapper in the history of the art, etc. For those of us in the late-20′s/early-30′s demographic, we might have different associations regarding Jay-Z than those held by younger folks: if you (like me) remember him mostly for his “Can I Get A…” or “Big Pimpin,” his public self in the last while—marraige, less aggressive rap (or certainly less misogynist)—can strike odd. Don’t get me wrong: I love Jay-Z’s old stuff—I’d be happy to nerd out and be the dorky academic who talks at length about how “Big Pimpin” is doing more interesting metric stuff than all the poetry published in the last two years—it’s just that this guy who promised “not for nothing, never happen, I’ll be forever macking” is now, well, a liar.

That schism is actually one of the reasons this book is so valuable and great: Jay-Z does a tremendously satisfying job of squaring his various selves, and, in doing so, putting in some serious miles of thought and consideration about contemporary urban social issues. No more than a handful of pages ever pass without him ever mentioning his former life as a drug dealer; likewise, no more than a handful of pages ever pass without him mentioning why and how be became a drug dealer. Which means, aside from being a gorgeous art book (there’s tons of photography, and the pages are thick like a coffee table book), Jay-Z’s Decoded is a phenomenal, first-person account of failed social inner-city social policies from the last quarter of the 20th century.

I’m not saying this book’s got to be read that way—if you like the guy’s stuff, get the book, if only to read the footnoted lyrics he includes in each chapter. But this is not just some vanity project of a book by a world-famous rapper detailing stories of his money and his parties or whatever: this is a serious book that seriously considers black male inner-city life in America, that seriously considers the work of Basquiat (and Jay-Z’s analysis of the work, and his appreciation and understanding for it, is great to read, even if it’s funny to note how offhandedly he mention that he owns some of the artist’s work [the book's cover, as an aside, is a Warhol print]), that seriously considers not just the drug hustle, but how and why it got to be exactly what it is (it’s easy to read statistics in a newspaper about the disproportionate numbers of blacks locked up vs. whites, harsher sentences for crack than powdered cocaine, etc; those same stats take on a different life when presented by someone who was there, in them, a could-have-been-one-of-them).

And those lyrics Jay-Z footnotes and explains? Here’s what’s so awesome about them and that process: in trying to disentangle info and influences, Jay-Z actually proves, through his own lyrics, how inextricably tied rap is to the culture that birthed it (or, at least, how inextricably Jay-Z’s rap is tied to his own culture). In lots of ways, the book feels like a magic knot of a trick: all these aspects of the man and his music are interconnected, and there’s no way to understand one aspect without bearing in mind several other aspects simultaneously. You don’t have to care about Jay-Z, or rap, that’s fine, but unless you’re insane or heartless or worse, you should care about the conditions in inner cities, and there are a handful of exceptional books that shine stark, clarifying light onto those stories, and Jay-Z’s Decoded is one of the best them. (Also: this book should be necessary reading for anyone who watched The Wire, and certainly for anyone who loves Richard Price’s novels, particularly Clockers).


Speaking of Social issues: Helen Thorpe’s Just Like Us is the single-best book on immigration policy I’ve read. What’s so fantastic about Just Like Us is that Thorpe has taken this hairy, complex issue—illegal immigration, specifically regarding hispanic immigrants—and has, instead of offering some tract or wonkish overview, addressed policy by addressing the stories of those effected by the policies in question. And what stories? Those of four high school girls in Denver.

Lest you believe that more intense or moving stories could be found by focusing on immigrants in Texas or Arizona, the stories of these four young women are as riveting as anything anyone could possibly drum up. Two of the young women are illegal immigrants—they were born elsewhere and brought across the border illegally—and two are legal. For those of us with little to no experience of how massively shadow-casting those terms are, and the shocking ways in which such tags shape identity, Just Like Us is less eye-opener than perception destroyer (for instance: one cannot get a driver’s license without a birth certificate; one can’t buy a plane ticket without some form of ID; day-to-day aspects that those of us born in the US so take for granted are complex, terrifying ordeals for these people).

Compounding the flat-out riveting aspect of this story is that Thorpe’s husband was, in the period she’s writing of (as he still presently is), mayor of Denver—Thorpe literally had as insider-ish a seat as possible. What Thorpe’s biographic stake in the story precludes is Just Like Us mimicking that most perfect of life-story-as-policy-portrait masterpiece, Random Family by LeBlanc. I’ll fess up to wanting Just Like Us to be more like Random Family, simply because, like anyone who’s read it, I long for more writing like LeBlanc’s (plus this book’s almost asking for comparison–look at the covers of each book). However, Thorpe’s vivid, personal telling of these lives, and the policies that so sharply and massively affect them, is phenomenal, refreshing, and illuminating. I’d expect most of us don’t have 100% clear notions of exactly what should be done regarding immigration in this country—I at least am not 100% clear. This book, in the best ways, complicates the issue for me, and thankfully drags the issue from the realm of the theoretical. This is a riveting, necessary book.

Novels, Pairs of

by Weston Cutter

Lorraine Adams’s The Room and The Chair is a fantastic, rewarding book which offers that rarest of luxuries and treats: you, as a reader, are treated with respect, and are assumed (demanded, really, if yr gonna hang on to the narrative’s wild-ride threads) to be smart enough to keep up.

Keep up with what? With a newspaper, with the defense department, with war. The Room and the Chair, in ways that should satisfy the folks who bemoan the fact that fiction rarely tries hard to engage with the world (that’s not actually fair: far more often it’s said about poetry which, for the record, let’s just all see how Bob Hicok’s new one, Words for Empty and Words for Full, gets reviewed, given that it’s got a whole section on the 4/16 shooting at VTech [Hicok teaches there, and did during the shooting as well]), is elbows-deep in Real World matters, and the novel satisfies the same sort of ached-for jones one might have for the sort of fantastic, investigative journalism that’ve made newspapers worth reading for so long (the sort of journalism [in this case not investigative] which, let the record show, Adams used to do—she quit the Washington Post in 2001, but, before she left, wrote stunningly rich things like this).

The questions the book raises and wrestles with have to do not with the relatively binary notion of security vs. civil liberties, but are deeper-ordered, more shaping. They’re actually hard to talk about, the questions the book raises, because they’re too involved and they take Adams almost 300 pages to wade through. To give a single, book-driving example: what sort of agency should those who plan wars have over those who actually do the fighting in the wars? It’s an astonishingly thorny question to even approach, mentally; it’s a testament not just to her writing prowess but to her skill as a thinker that Adams can so adroitly address the question, and from such a smattering of ways.

(If that individual Q sounds dull, swap it out for: are there various levels of ‘security’? For instance, in the book’s early pages, there’s a story of how some homeland security agency is keeping tabs on the White House…valid? Freakish and terrifying? It’s a mega-question, and, in ways, a meta-question).

For the record, too: The Wire is gonna be brought up a bunch in reviews about this book, and the association is there to be made for at least two good and large reasons. First: like the best TV show ever made, The Room and the Chair doesn’t judge, doesn’t find easy routes away from thorniness, and provides incredible satisfaction for those ready to be a partner in the narrative work (meaning: this isn’t just a sit-back-and-let-someone-supply-you-with-ah-hahs book, though there are some). Maybe just as important, though, is that Adams has, apparently, taken up with Richard Price—he of the phenomenal Clockers, of Lush Life and, of course, he of (with Pelecanos and David Simon and etc.) The Wire. Get this book and devour it: you’ll be hard-pressed to find as satisfying a narrative meal this year.

(interviews with Adams here, here, here and here; her Largehearted Boy book notes here)

Then Came the Evening by Brian Hart

This got small mention in the New Yorker a couple weeks back (in the books in brief section), and I suppose Hart’s debut doesn’t need a full-on Woods treatment in that august publication’s pages, but still: the book’s phenomenal, and it should be a cheering and nice development to know the New Yorker‘s keeping tabs on writers who’ll soon be making big names.

Because, rest assured, Brian Hart will be: Then Came the Evening is the story of Bandy Dorner, his ex-wife Iona, and his son Tracy. I’m trying to think of what I can say that’ll make you want to read the story more than just adamantly saying Read It! How about this: Bandy shoots someone in the book’s first dozen pages, and that gunshot’s echo resonates through the rest of the book. Or how about: Bandy’s son Tracy doesn’t even meet his own father till he, Tracy, is old enough to live on his own, and he first meets his dad in prison (as a visitor, not as a prisoner). Or how about: the story that these three enact and live has everything to do with trying to find ways to make use of the past, of trying to take something good and valuable from what’s back behind, over shoulders and part of old stories.

Any one of these reasons could be enough to compell you to pick up Hart’s debut, plus there are other bits—particularly Wilhelm, Bandy’s old neighbor, and a kindly old avuncular figure who takes Tracy under his guff wing—that make the thing worth diving head-long into. Still, the strongest reason to pick up Hart’s book is, in fact, not the story, but Hart’s writing.

I haven’t yet seen any reviews of this book, so maybe I’m guessing wrong, but there are going to be, in reviews, mentions of Cormac McCarthy, and maybe Sam Shepard. Hart’s got the sort of contemporary terse masculinity down like science, and he uses it well (if sometimes the comma-less sentences get a bit tiring, just in an I’ve-seen-this-before way). Still, and however: that style, the cleaved and attenuated McCarthy thing, is easy as hell to make tin through a bad impression, and I’m happy to report Hart’s style, while clearly coming from a certain lineage, is its own power, its own thing. Open at random for sentences like “They looked like different models of the same man, both tan and short, thick around the middle.” or “He thought of Iona and used the well-worn memories of her to guide him through the haze of the landscape. He followed her home.”

All of which is just to say: the story itself in Then Came the Evening would be worth it just for the story’s sake; it’s a dynamite read, though, and necessary, because, in this novel, you’ll find a novelist we should all, with luck and hope, be reading for years to come. Get in on it now: Brian Hart’s moment is even now, already, coming.

Pelecanos, The Wire, and the Crime-slash-Literary

by Weston Cutter

            What’s funny is that there’s a decent chance you’ve watched more George Pelecanos writing than you’ve ever read (the guy was one of the writers for The Wire). And if you have watched The Wire, you know the series’s arc is as thick and rich and inbent as any novel (ar, at least, as any novel by Dennis Lehane, Richard Price or Pelecanos, ¾ of the show’s writers)(David Simon, the show’s creator, is the fourth, and his The Corner looks awesome, and I’m sure it’s great, I just haven’t gotten to it).

            Which is why reading Pelecanos (or Price, or Lehane) causes, post-Wire, a sort of strange sensation, maybe like watching your favorite baseball player playing for a new team. Pelecanos’ new novel, The Way Home, is just crazily good in all the satisfying ways you want from a crime/mystery novel (the cover blurb, at least on the ARC, correctly points out that the trio of Lehan/Price/Pelecanos are pushing “the boundaries of crime writing into literary territory.”).

            What’s coolest about this book—and the reason it’s pushing boundaries—is because it’s equally fun and engaging to read as a what-comes-next crime/mystery book and as a redemption/character-driven literary work. At the work’s center is Christopher Flynn, a kid who got into trouble as a juvenile, spends time locked up (here’s the automatic idle Q: when you read Price, Lehane, and Pelecanos, do you automatically picture sort of similar places [juvenile detention facilities, for instance] for each of them?), and, eventually, is back in the world, attempting to make his way and working for his dad’s carpet installation company.

            And Christopher’s relationship to his dad is what makes this story such a monumentally good read: these are real, complete, complex characters, Christopher and his dad (who, initially-confusingly, is often just called Flynn in the narration, so there’s a headscratching element at the start). More than just complex and complete characters, their relationship is amazingly real and about as true-feeling as any relationship you’re likely to find, crime fiction or literary fiction or whatever. It’s (of course) vital that the plot device (it’s a bag of money; I suppose it’s safe to mention that) shows up while Christopher’s working for his father; it’s equally important that Christopher’s working with an old friend of his from the juvenile detention facility when thing’s start moving.

            As in The Wire and his other books, Pelecanos’ The Way Home features messy one-good-vs-another-good moral stuff at work, and while it’d be easy to say the book’s focus is on something maybe reducible to ‘redemption,’ it’s actually more complext than that: what the book’s heart beats for and toward is how we square things, how we view things, and how we try to negotiate the dicey boundary between past and present (and it really does feel like it’s about we when you read the book—it’s hard not to feel resolutely [and, at times, frustratedly and unhappily] wound tight in the heads of the characters [even though it's not first-person]). It’s a great, great read, and it’s going to officially be the Summer Reading Season pretty soon: make The Way Home yr required mystery/crime/literary read.

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