New from the Archives: Do Not Go Gentle Into This Good ‘Night’

March 31, 2002 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs

Everybody in Chicago is reading it and, theoretically, everyone will soon be discussing it with the same sense of purpose with which they discussed To Kill a Mockingbird. Me, I had a hard time going with the One Book One Chicago program and getting myself to read Night, Elie Wiesel’s slim but weighty Holocaust novel.

That was partly because the subject matter stabs at my Jewish psyche and stokes the guilt I feel over distancing myself from my ethnic roots, but also because, as much of a pop culture maven as I am, my internal authentimeter resists the notion of dialing up this monstrous tragedy as a citywide entertainment event or mass homework assignment or Oprah book extravaganza.

You don’t have to read me chapter and verse about the need to keep memories of the Holocaust alive or to create memories for those in need of them. At a time when anti-Semitism is back on the front burner, not only in predictable places such as the Middle East and Germany, but also in France and Spain, and in revelations that Richard Nixon and Billy Graham traded ugly putdowns of Jews, I fully understand and appreciate the impulse to honor the victims by taking pains to remember them.

I just don’t put much stock in this kind of grand gesture any more than I put much stock in the love-in the Oscars staged last week for African-American artists. It would be nice if raising consciousnesses about Jews and Blacks led to pervasive changes in people’s attitudes and responses toward them. And of course, a certain amount of this good stuff does seep into people’s heads. But you and I know how easy it is for this culture to return to business as usual, especially where the profit margin is concerned.

Actually, I fear that far from making people’s souls shiver and minds boggle, fictional treatments of the Holocaust have come to make it easier to confront. Repeated in films and high-minded T V dramas, concentration camp images have become so familiar as to become almost toss-offable. The horrors are reduced to docu-drama formula, the outlandish becomes mundane.

For all their claims on realism, emotional and other, movies ranging from Steven Spielberg’s neatly composed “Schindler’s List” to Roberto Benigni’s Patch Adams-ish “Life is Beautiful” carefully avoid hard truth, messy truth, truth that can’t be sentimentalized or buffed to an uplifting finish. They are less interested in nuance than landing on the correct emotional keys, like Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia stepping out in “Big.”

Literature can take you to the hellish places that exist beyond the most nightmarish visuals. Though Night is not a great novel, it gets to you with its eerie calm, its refusal to dally over its unthinkable sights and sounds, its withheld screams. Told from the autobiographical viewpoint of Wiesel beginning at age 12, it absorbs the shocks to his system the way a crate of eggs can absorb a shock and leave the shells undamaged. But I have to think that when it was published in 1960, before tales of Nazism became more codified and we became more exposed to Holocaust confessions, the novel had a more powerful and profound effect.

As much as I liked it, I shook it off in a way I couldn’t shake off Leslie Epstein’s 1979 King of the Jews, a comic – yes, comic – as well as tragic take on life in a Polish ghetto under the Nazis starring a rascally Jewish power broker named Trumpelman. Here was a book that avoided the standard telling and paid the price: critics attacked it for not treating the Holocaust with proper sobriety. Epstein answered them by explaining how the jokes in King of the Jews were taken from real life – how a man in the Warsaw ghetto named Ringelbaum wrote down the jokes that the Jews were telling and buried them in milk cans.

The idea of dark or even light comedy in a story about the Holocaust might be unthinkable for Spielberg (though not to Lina Wertmuller, whose “Seven Beauties” took a deadpan absurdist look at life in a concentration camp). But laughter can be as crucial to survival in the same way that music can be. Employed by an artist, it can pull you past all the received information you’ve built up about an unspeakable chapter like the Holocaust and make you gaze upon it through fresh eyes.

My late shrink impressed upon me the usefulness of denial, how it can be a good thing for the mind not to be encumbered by shattering events, and how it’s through denial that people are able to get past grievous personal losses. “…a kind of psychic shutter closes around your heart,” Epstein said in an interview a few years ago, describing how his emotions shut down during his research for King of the Jews. For him that shutter enabled him to point a lens at the most wrenching moments, for himself as well as his readers.

I thought of my shrink and Epstein during the Oscarcast when, during a montage of documentary clips, the image of a woman getting her hair shorn for the concentration camp appeared on the screen. For that brief moment, unprepared for the jolt, my defenses gave way and the pain of history flew through me, getting to me in a way that even “Shoah” couldn’t. I knew what I was getting into when I sat before Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary about the Holocaust. I was geared up. With the Oscar moment, I was unguarded, ripe for the emotional taking.

More often than not, it’s not the extended moment, the orchestrated emotion, the manufactured event that gets to you. It’s the moment that leaps out at you when you least expect it, when life flashes before your eyes and then, in an instant, returns control of your consciousness to you.

I would never suggest that there’s such a thing as overexposure to the Holocaust via films and plays and book discussions and even that idiot exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York that includes concentration camps made out of Lego sets and Calvin Klein ads juxtaposed with fascist- inspired images. But catching up to the enormity of this tragedy sometimes means slowing down, pulling back and letting the truth hit you where the sun of popular culture don’t shine.

New from the Archives: Election’s End Jolts Loyal Viewers

December 19, 2000 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs |

People say they’re glad the election is over, and a week after the Supremes stopped the really big show, there certainly are reasons to share that sentiment. At the very least, we don’t have to contend with those hooting demonstrators who did their best to reduce one of the most gripping episodes in American history to the level of pro wrestling.

But for those who became addicted to the TV coverage of Gore vs. Bush, adjusting to its loss has not been easy. Having submerged ourselves in the ultimate maxi-series – at home, at work, at the health club, in our unsettled dreams – many of us experienced a case of the bends in returning to the surface of business as usual.

Here was the perfect vehicle for the browser era. Sifting through the verbiage for signs that the good guys might win (and you know who you were), we clicked from CNN to MSNBC to lowly Fox News, from “Hardball” to Larry King to “Nightline,” from Tallahassee, Fla., to Washington, D.C., to the land now forever known as Miami-Dade. There was never a time of day or night when we couldn’t get an instant infusion of ripe speculation or reportage – which however warmed-over or non-“breaking” – was headline material in downloading the amazing moment we were living through.

It’s not surprising that many more people were interested in the post-election than the alleged main event: It had much better characters. While George W. Bush and Al Gore did their best to render their personalities null and void – appropriately disappearing for long stretches during the most crucial turns of Election 2000 – their supporting cast carved their names into history.

In attorneys David Boies and Barry Richard, you had a pair of brilliantly understated, camera-savvy pros who could teach “The Practice” a few things about lawyerly charisma. Boies was a master at defusing tense moments with his reflexive smile and down-to-earth delivery. Out of court, the extravagantly coiffed Richard was no less magnetic with his steely demeanor and dryly amused manner.

You also had a great femme fatale in Katherine Harris, a seasoned character-assassin-for-hire in James Baker, a punch-weary corner man in William Daley and a prime-time sermonizer in Joseph Lieberman. Comic relief was provided by Palm Beach County Judge Charles Burton, who in testifying before Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls, lightly made fun of his recounting exploits as he demonstrated how he had held up ballots to the light (“I think you’ve seen this before”). By covering his cutthroat intentions with Southern civility, Sauls was an update of Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob.

And then, among the media, there were such memorable players as David Cardwell, CNN’s affable, Pillsbury-doughy Florida election specialist, who seemed permanently affixed to his outdoor backdrop; Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, who made not being able to get in a word edgewise on MSNBC’s nightly panels sexy with her perfectly pursed lips, and CNN’s Austin, Texas, correspondent Candy Crowley, a cross between Kathy Bates and Mama Cass with her severe, statuesque presence.

It was difficult not to play Hollywood casting director with these characters. How about Holly Hunter as Harris? Dennis Quaid or Sam Elliott as Richard? Madeleine Stowe as Vanden Heuvel? The late John Candy as Cardwell? And, of course, Larry King as Larry King? But no movie could do justice to this story with all its improbable twists, turns and bombshells and its ability to keep us on the edge of our seat for more than a month.

For all its entertainment value, this epic was educational. If TV’s wall-to-wall coverage of the O.J. Simpson case and all-Monica-all-the-time spree left us with a guilty conscience for indulging it, Election 2000 left us with a heightened understanding of politics, the judiciary and the electoral process. The rare access it gave us to Supreme Court hearings was invaluable, even if the justices’ woozy split decision may not have inspired confidence.

But all that was then. What do we do now that the party is over? Develop an interest in Court TV? Sign up for civics courses? Immerse ourselves in an Internet retrospective? Send away for a highlight tape of the saga – or hope one will be given away free with a subscription to Time or Newsweek?

Not since “Lonesome Dove” ended has TV left us in this bad a lurch. Bush likely will help ease the loss by providing abundant material for Letterman and Leno. But as much as it may benefit the country, all this unity stuff is bound to be a drag. On second thought, maybe we should bring back the demonstrators. As obnoxious as they were when history was on the line, they’d be great fun as mud wrestlers now that normal reality is sinking in.

New from the Archives: Comedy Duos Are Overdue

December 1, 2002 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs

Show biz dysfunction notwithstanding – heck, show biz dysfunction standing – CBS’ “Martin and Lewis” was at least as much fun as a trip to the wax museum. If you didn’t feel a pang of hunger for the glory days of the comedy duo while watching it, you’re either still licking your psychic wounds over the mid-’50s breakup of Dino and Jerry – after the dissolution of the Beatles, it remains the most painful pop cultural split ever – or you’re too young to remember when two could tango to the tune of standup.

In recent years, except for the magic act of Penn and Teller and the wholesome revue of Al and Tipper Gore (speaking of wax), there has been a dearth of laughsome twosomes. But in the wake of Martin and Lewis (and, of course, Abbott and Costello), we had Wayne and Shuster (67 times on Ed Sullivan!), Rowan and Martin (before “Laugh-In,” they starred in a Western!), Allen and Rossi (the former boasting the most riotous white-guy Afro this side of Steven Wright) and Stiller and Meara (Jewish hubby and Catholic wife – there’s a concept!).

And let us not leave out the great Bob and Ray, who were to zany sketch comedy what Marconi was to party lines, or forget how the popular music scene was dotted less rewardingly by (ouch!) the twin pianos of Ferrante & Teicher, crooners Sandler & Young and folk-rockers Chad and Jeremy and Peter and Gordon. Back then, two was not the loneliest number you could ever do.

Allen and Rossi

What was great about many of these comic pairings was their lively potential for less-than-copacetic chemistry. Everytime you watched short, squat and sweaty Marty Allen (“Hello Dere!”) do that pinched-toe dance while smooth and handsome Steve Rossi sang straight (and not so impressively), you could visualize Allen stomping on his partner’s toes and Rossi decking his clownish sidekick for upstaging him. Never mind what their official histories tell you: You just knew that Dick Martin wanted to ruffle Dan Rowan’s cocktail hour sophistication and Rowan wanted to wipe that google-eyed grin off his buddy’s face.

In comedy, neurosis rules. Comedians want to “kill” each other as much as the audience. Just ask Jerry Lewis (effectively played by Sean Hayes in the CBS film). For all his expressions of love for the womanizing Dean Martin (Jeremy Northam, in a bolder, more inspired turn that captured the man’s unfathomable undercurrents), he did anything it took to steal attention from him, whether it meant mugging during one of his songs or bending over backstage with manufactured stomach pain. But to succeed, a duo has to perform as one, with clockwork precision, so that every gesture and inflection pays off. When you get three or four minutes on Sullivan to do your thing, you can’t miss a beat. (Question: Did Senor Wences and his talking hand count as a duo?)

With this format just begging to be dusted off for a new generation, I can’t figure out why no up-and-comers have had the genius to lay claim to it. How many cookie-cut standups can be trotted out on the stage of Zanies before someone figures they can rock the house with a doubles act?

Why is it that standups aren’t seizing on the buddy formula when it’s throwing down heavy box office returns at the movies (witness the various combinations and permutations of Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, who in “I Spy” drags Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte’s opposite in “48 Hrs.,” back into the fray).

When you’re struggling to get by as a solo, I suppose, it doesn’t make sense to halve your paydays by taking on a partner. At last look, sitcoms were making individual comics very rich: Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Tim Allen and Ray Romano for beginners. And it’s not as though variety shows are about to spring back onto the tube to usher in any new trends. The late-night talk shows are a comic’s only real shot at wide exposure.

Rowan and Martin

Beyond the economic factors, though, is the basic me-me-me-ness of standup, as reflected in Seinfeld’s need to go back to the drawing board before the documentary cameras and expose his difficulties in putting together a new routine. Comedy is damned hard, he tells us in “Comedian.” (To which I might say, if I were being a jerk, no, being held in Guantanamo not knowing when or if you’re getting released or what you’re being held for – that’s hard.) So duo comedy is twice as tough, right? Not with two minds beating as one!

It can be argued that Martin and Lewis enjoyed greater personal triumphs after their breakup than they did as the wildly popular team that gave us such films as “Pardners” (Dean Martin is Slim Mosely Jr. and Slim Mosely, Sr.; Jerry Lewis is Wade Kingsley Jr. and Wade Kingsley, Sr.). Jerry starred in his own hit movies, flowered as an auteur, conquered the French and roped in millions for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. To the great surprise of many people, Dino not only didn’t sink, he swam as a movie star, crooner, chainsmoking lounge king and TV host, doing as much for Italian-American pride as Tony Soprano has done for Italian-American anger.

But you can also advance the notion that their parting of ways never stopped haunting them. Dino ended up in a state of private misery, detached from his own life. Jerry, who ended up taking on Ed McMahon as his sidekick (no problem with egos clashing there), has had a troubled personal life as well. Could be their falling out had nothing to do with their subsequent troubles – maybe their psychic screws were just waiting to loosen, and their instabilitiy as individuals was what produced their special chemistry. However you want to pop-psychoanalyze them, just as John and Paul in their solo careers never matched their efforts as Beatles, Lewis and Martin on their own never created the excitement – the pandemonium – that they did when they were joined at the hip. When they were hip enough to dance to each other’s song.

(apologies to the NYT)

BY THE BOOK

Lloyd Sachs Sticks up for his Kindle

Cliff Wirth

April 6, 2020

“I also have a weakness for stories about survivors of plane crashes, so ‘Dear Edward’ was right up my alley,” says the pop culture writer and book reviewer, whose most recent book is “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit.”

What books are on your nightstand?

This question always bugs me, because it ignores the Kindle factor. But, sticking to hard copies: Robert Forsters’ Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens; David Joy’s When These Mountains Burn; Zeruya Shalev’s Pain; Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal; Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table;

What’s the last great book you read?

My recent discovery of the Oxford Mississippian Michael Farris Smith left me in a state of exultation. His current novel, Blackwood, is a dark, penetrating, sometimes overwhelming masterpiece about the impossibility of reconciling with the past. It’s also a stark warning not to go near kudzu vines if your life depends on it.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

Years ago, Warren Zevon strongly recommended Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers. I took it out of the library and put it on my reading list – which is where it stayed for a year, three years, 10 years… I was thrilled when the Chicago Public Library declared an amnesty on overdue – or, in this case, stolen – books. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I have started it!

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

No and nothing.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Since my wife left a hot iron on a Barcalounger I got for cheap many years ago, I haven’t had a good place to read in the house. (I know, I know: I could buy a new one!) And I tend to fall asleep reading in bed. I’ve always fared best on getaways and vacations, best on a canvas chair facing a lake. I hear cruises (remember them) were really good for that too.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

I’ve raved in print about two or three books over the years that I was sure would get a lot of attention, only to see them fall off the zeitgeist and never be heard from again. I was knocked out by the eerie atmosphere and lyrical despair of The Broken Ones, a 2011 doomsday thriller by Australian screenwriter and poet Stephen Irwin. But as far as I can tell, I’m the only person outside Brisbane who is aware of its existence.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Deep breath: Walter Mosley, Lorrie Moore, Greil Marcus, Roger Angell, Rachel Kushner, Michael Chabon, Attica Locke, Jennifer Egan, George Pelecanos, Gary Giddins, Paul Auster, A.B. Yehoshua, Scott Spencer, Michael Koryta, George Sanders, Manohla Dargis, I can’t go on I can’t go on.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

Only one, The Merck Manual. When I was a kid, I looked up every last symptom I had in my dentist father’s desk copy. I was sure I had tapeworm! I have a revised edition from about 20 years ago that I grabbed at a book sale, but I haven’t looked at it in at least three weeks.

What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?

I’m not an easy touch in this regard, but Stanley Elkin never fails to make me LOL. I found The Living End, which I recently re-read, even funnier the second time around than the first.

The last book you read that made you cry?

Aharon Appelfeld’s The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. The stealthiest inducer of tears, Appelfeld wrote about the Holocaust, which he survived as a child, without directly referring to it. Your emotions rise up from the deepest depths, as if from beneath the floorboards of consciousness.

How do you organize your books?

Inconsistently. One shelving unit is dedicated to crime fiction, grouped by author, but I’ve got mysteries scattered all over the house. I have all of Philip Roth’s books together – it’s my personal Monument Park – and Ian McEwen’s and Ann Beattie’s and William Trevor’s. But other favorite authors are upstairs and down, inside and in the garage.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

I’m not easy to gift when it comes to books. G-d bless friends and family members who try! My choice would be Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, even if I did make it known to my sister-in-law that I wanted it and even if I haven’t read it yet.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

From Ann Napolitano’s Dear Edward: When a plane is flying too slowly, “a synthesized human voice. . . repeatedly calls out, “Stall!” in English, followed by a loud and intentionally annoying sound called a cricket.”

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Overcoming odds and/or obstacles, by a character or group of characters or a community. Or tragically failing to overcome same.  

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

Crime fiction comes first. I also have a weakness for stories about survivors of plane crashes, so Dear Edward was right up my alley. I don’t avoid science fiction or romance novels, but I don’t read them either.

Who’s your favorite fictional couple?

Tony Hill and Carol Jordan in Val McDermid’s Wire in the Blood mysteries. The TV series was pretty, pretty good as well.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

Horn of the Moon Cook Book. I certainly was surprised. I’m going to ask my wife to re-file it.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was an active reader from an early age, gobbling up the Hardy Boys, baseball biographies and the works of William Pene du Bois. The strange mystique of those books, including The Twenty-One Balloons, really captured me.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Franz Kafka, Elaine May and Philip Roth, even though he’s never very happy with me in my dreams.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I’ve started John le Carre’s The Honorable Schoolboy two or three times and for some reason am unable to get into it. It’s a father and son novel; maybe that has something to do with it.

What do you plan to read next?

My big toe has been hurting, so maybe The Merck Manual. If not, Lily King’s Writers and Lovers,  which important people in my life say they love.

Review of “The Black Cage” by Jack Fredrickson

Here is my review of Fredrickson’s new mystery. Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 11, 2020.

“If most crime novels cut sharp, crooked paths to their resolution, this one moves slowly, as if finding its way through a fog. There are no sudden breakthroughs to provide excitement; revelations arrive via the local line, not the express.”

Review of “Purgatory Bay” by Bryan Gruley

Here is my review of the latest wild thriller by Chicago writer Gruley. Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, Jan. 28, 2019.

“Even by Gruley’s irrepressible standards, Purgatory Bay is pretty loopy – a monster movie dressed up as crime fiction.”

Back and running

Still a few tweaks to make, and we’re having movers over to haul all of the T Bone Burnett book and tour stuff to its own menu page. But LloydSachs.com is back. Hope you like it.

“[Sachs’] Critical Point of View Stands Out as Good as Burnett’s Musical History” – Critics At Large Blogger John Corcelli

Elvis Costello and T Bone Burnett (right) at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica, California, 1984. (Photo: Sherry Rayn Barnett)