About Phil Wernig

I wrote "The Hitchhikers" (Celestial Arts, 1972) and "Liquid Avenue" (iUniverse, 2014). I've been active on Amazon.com, reviewing books, movies, and television titles since 2007. I was one of the principals of Aardvarque Enterprises, Inc. (1969 - 1972), appearing under the pseudonyms Bent Malling, Denver Lang, and Alan Ashley-Pitt.

Quick ‘Tones

Jazz may be the closest thing we have to a universal language. In its variety of instruments, its profusion of forms, and its embrace of influences, it owns a global musical lexicon and a glittering treasury of artifacts.

All of these facets are on display in Live at the Quick (2002), a concert documentary of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at the Quick Center For the Arts in Fairfield, Connecticut.

The ensemble features the core Flecktones group: Bela Fleck, the world’s most accomplished banjo player on acoustic and electric synth banjos and guitar; Victor Lemonte Wooten on fretted and fretless basses; Jeff Coffin on tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones, clarinet, and flute; and Future Man, a percussionist who invented the synth-ax drumitar, an instrument that produces pre-recorded electronic percussive effects that he plays along with a traditional drum kit.

Andy Narell plays steel pans and keyboards; Paul Hanson brings on the bassoon; Paul McCandless handles oboe, English horn, soprano and sopranino saxes, and penny whistle; Sandip Burman works the tabla; and Congar ol’Ondar, a Mongolian Tuvan throat singer, resplendent in native costume, sings in transcendent style.

Bela says, “I heard the banjo when I was about eight or nine years old. I fell in love with it, just the sound of it… But growing up in New York City, I was also hearing everything that was happening in the Sixties. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell – those were some of my favorites – all the bands, Chick Corea and jazz, classical music. I just loved it all. And so I’ve tried to play those musics on the banjo and find ways to make it fit… Through the years I’ve run into people that play strange instruments in strange ways…”

“Here’s a guy,” Andy Narell observes, “who took the banjo out of the bluegrass band and is doing something totally different with it. And the band is kind of full of people like that who are doing something different with their instrument.”

“I might be a good guy to call to play the oboe and the English horn,” Paul McCandless notes, “because there aren’t that many guys who improvise and are comfortable in sort of an extemporaneous style on those instruments.”

Jeff Coffin asserts, “I think Bela is an amazing leader of a group that he professes not to lead in some ways.”

“As a leader of a band, I’m a leader among equals.” Bela explains, “It’s not like I can tell anybody, ‘Hey, now I want you to do this.’ It’s not like that. I mean, everything has to be arrived at… in a way where everybody feels good about it. There’s a lot of input. Everybody does their own thing. I don’t really tell people what to play. Unless I have to. Like unless it’s a pressure situation and I feel like I have the solution. That’s another part of my life, that’s producing the records or being the traffic cop in a big situation like this. It’s stressful, but it’s very rewarding when it all comes out good.”

The Quick performance reprises tunes from the Flecktones’ Outbound album (2000) and other numbers, with guest performers accumulating song by song as the set progresses. The video is intercut with interviews of Bela and the band members.

1. intro – “That Old Thing” (woodwind unison with Coffin, Hanson, and McCandless)

2. “Earth Jam” (introducing Wooten, Future Man, and Fleck)

3. “Lover’s Leap” (adding Narell)

4. “Zona Mona”

5. “Ovombo Summit” (solo by Future Man playing synth-ax with the left hand, drums and cymbals with the right)

Bela: “When I was in Newgrass Revival and in the bluegrass world, I learned from Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, and Sam Bush and Stewart Duncan and Vassar Clements. Everything they played I tried to figure out how to play. In the Flecktones I try to figure out what Victor’s playing… I try to learn the rhythms that Future Man is playing. I try to learn the saxophone language – the jazz language that Jeff plays in his solos… It just starts to all creep in. And so, even though my heroes… Chick Coreas and the Charlie Parkers… I probably studied them more. The truth is I probably learned more from the people I play with.”

6. “Hall of Mirrors” (Sandip Burman appears)

7. “Scratch and Sniff” (deploying synthesizers on Hanson’s bassoon and Coffin’s tenor sax)

8. “Amazing Grace” (solo by Wooten in bouncy blues style, melody expressed in overtone harmonics)

9. “Big Country” (full band)

Bela: “Big Country” is one of those tunes that just sort of arrived in my head – done – in my mind. And what I do when that happens is I call myself. I call my machine at home. And I sing the melody. And I can’t, I’m not, I shouldn’t be singing in the first place. But it’s just the only thing I can do since the melody’s gonna be gone; in another minute it’ll be gone. That’s the nature of composition… the inspiration factor. And then there’s the craft. How do you take that inspired moment and how do you make it into something that’s complete and makes sense all the way through?”

10. “Alash Khem” (Alash River Song”) (solo by Cogar ol’Ondar)

Bela: “Ondar would have to be one of those things that just fell into our lap. It was just a perfect fit from the first time. And audiences, their minds are blown when they hear a guy get up there and sing three notes at one time. You know they’ve never heard that before.”

That includes your reviewer, who feared, on first hearing Congar, that he was having an auditory hallucination.

11. “A Moment So Close” (featuring vocals by Future Man and Ondar)

12. “Prelude From Violin Partita No. 3” by J.S. Bach (Fleck, acoustic banjo solo)

Bela: “So we always change things around… We don’t even write the set list ’til right before we go on stage. Never play the same show twice in a row. We do all these things to try and trick ourselves into being spontaneous… And it happened. It works a lot of the time.”

13. “Hoe Down” (from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo ballet, with full band, featuring a blues raga break with Fleck and Burman trading measures on banjo and tabla)

14. encore – “Ah shu Dekio” (Congar ol’Ondar on morinchur and vocals with full band)

The Live at the Quick video was directed by Marc Smerling for Notorious Pictures. A Live at the Quick CD was also released in 2002.

There is no better way to enjoy music than to be there with the musicians while they make it. Since we cannot always be with world class performers where they work, we can be grateful for the medium that transports them to us. At our leisure we can hear and see Bela Fleck coaxing the contrapuntal intricacies of Bach from the banjo, Congar ol’Ondar conjuring a trio from his throat, and countless other priceless coins from the inexhaustible mint of concerts on film.

 

(Review posted on Amazon.com, May 8, 2017)

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Passions on the Half Shell

Raw emotions keep the kettle aboil in Broadchurch (2013), a sixteen-episode series set in the small tourist-friendly seaside town of the title on the southern coast of England. The double case whodunit observes all the formal conventions of the mystery genre: the helpless victim, the shock of the affected parties, the dogged efforts of the detectives, the suspicious behavior of  likely culprits, the enigmatic clues, the red herrings dragged across the trail. What distinguishes Broadchurch among the proliferate, often intricately clever, species of murder mysteries is the emphasis on character over plot, and the searing portrayals of emotional distress in all concerned, the investigators as well as the investigated.

Police procedure, forensic science, and legal conundrums are crucial to the proceedings but take a back seat to the foreground anguish, outrage, grief, indignation, lust, hysteria, rancor, remorse, mistrust, guilt, and see-saw relations among the characters. The web is complex and deep; every strand plucked reverberates the whole.

An eleven year-old boy is found dead, lying face down on the beach. The town constabulary has been assigned Alec Hardy (David Tennant), a new chief inspector with a damaged reputation to repair. His detective sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), lifelong resident of the town, had expected promotion but instead must work with the taxing, abrasive new boss. Many of the possible suspects cannot or will not account for their movements. The local press has an eager young reporter willing to compromise journalistic integrity to win his spurs, while a heartless professional from a London daily has been dispatched to steal the story. Commercial interests worry that the paparazzi might scare off the tourist trade.

A past unsolved case haunts Inspector Hardy, the murder of a young girl and disappearance of her baby sitter that was allegedly botched when the detective carelessly allowed critical evidence to be stolen. Both cases devour him and drag in reluctant Detective Sergeant Miller.

Local inhabitants in the simmering town of 15,000 know each other painfully well. Their concourse lends itself to undigested jealousies, long-tended grudges, and half-hidden secrets. Their intimacies and loyalties are threatened and tested by the murder investigation. Coincidences and cross purposes abound.

There is, for example, a personal rivalry between headstrong defense attorney Sharon Bishop (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and arrogant prosecutor Jocelyn Knight (Charlotte Rampling), her former mentor. Reverend Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill), himself not beyond the reach of the investigation, treads carefully among thorny issues presented by his parishioners while his offers of spiritual solace fall on stony ground.

Chris Chibnall created the series for Kudos Film and Television. The Wessex location, with its restless sea, its towering cliffs, and its claustrophobic village, provides visual tension to the accumulating suspense. Sweeping panoramas of verdant fields and sparkling waters in the bay promise that life endures in spite of human agonies.

Sparks fly, passions flame, and fevers never cool in this gripping, intoxicating series.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, March 29, 2017)

The Three Fathers of Bela Fleck

In the summer of 2010 the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, home of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, commissioned Bela Fleck to compose a concert piece for banjo and orchestra. “How To Write A Banjo Concerto” (2011) is the intimate documentary film that follows Fleck step by step as he brings the project to fruition.

Since Nashville is also the home of the Grand Ole Opry, a splendid platform for banjo artistry, it was fitting that the world’s first composition for banjo and orchestra should be entrusted to Nashville resident Bela Fleck, the world’s primo virtuoso of this instrument.

Tony Trischka, Bela’s banjo teacher, said of him, “In a very short amount of time he sort of ‘osmosed’ everything I could show him.”

Zakir Hussain, who co-wrote the orchestral “The Melody of Rhythm” with Bela, noted, “To have the double duty of composer and soloist must be a daunting experience.”

Although he was raised in a musical family and studied at New York’s The High School of Music and Art, Bela does not read or write traditional musical notation, but banjo tablature, a skeletal shorthand that indicates note placement with staff lines representing the five strings. To compose a concerto for orchestral instruments, Fleck employed Sibelius, a software program that translates tablature into notation.

The circumstances of his upbringing underpinned his motivation for the concerto project. When he was very young, Fleck’s father, a professor of music, “flew the coop”, leaving Bela to be reared in New York City by his step-father Joe Paladino, a concert cellist.

“I’m not just a banjo player trying to write a concerto,” he says. “I’m Bela Anton Leos trying to write a concerto. Bela Bartok, Anton Webern, and Leos Janacek. The person who gave me all those names disappeared after I was born. I think that’s why this whole project is so important to me. Because of my father.”

When Trischka wondered aloud whether it might be time for Fleck to meet his father, Bela agreed. At the University of Maryland, “Some of the students were waiting in line at his father’s desk… Bela got in the line. When it was his turn, he said, ‘Hi. It’s Bela. I’m your son.’ It was a pretty intense moment.”

Early on in the project Bela makes it very clear to his wife Abigail Washburn, a singer, songwriter, and banjo player in her own right, that this concerto must necessarily be his own composition, arising from his own imagination, bearing his personal stamp. He was determined to divorce his concerto from the bluegrass music traditionally associated with the banjo, even to the extent of side-stepping the key of G Major.

“My banjo is tuned to G Major. That gives it that classic bluegrass sound. Mostly I avoid that sound intentionally.” Although he admits, “(G Major is) inevitable from the point of view that it’s a banjo concerto.”

To insulate himself against distractions, Fleck made two writing journeys, to Cannon Beach in Tillamook, Oregon during October 2010 and to Tecate, Mexico in January 2011.

Fleck found that daily runs along the shoreline and forest trails while listening to classical composers on his iPod stimulated his creative process.

“Right now Bela Bartok is in heavy rotation. I’ve never listened to him before now.” Fleck discovered that the music of Bartok (1881 – 1945), who fled his native Hungary to New York City in the 1930s to escape Nazi oppression, is “wild and complicated and tense.” Bela reads a Bartok biography, “The Naked Face of Genius”, that describes the composer strolling same streets where Fleck grew up.

Bela was averse to collaboration, but he did solicit advice.

“The first concerto I saw that was written and performed by a living human being was by Edgar Meyer. He’s my entree into this world, and without Edgar I wouldn’t be doing any of this stuff.”

Bela’s Nashville neighbor Edgar is a virtuoso double bass player and composer trained in the classical tradition. With impeccable gravity about music, Meyer can be counted on never to spare anyone’s feelings. In the short film “Obstinato”, about their 2004 “Music For Two” tour, Bela jokes, “I met Edgar in 1982. We were best friends from ’84 to ’86.”

There is feedback from Meyer and others who have performed with Fleck, including Chick Corea, Future Man, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, Marcus Roberts, Julian Lage, Greg Liszt, Steve Martin, and Earl Scruggs.

Bela complains, “Everybody hates the ending except…” (Flecktones percussionist) Future Man: “It’s pulling, pulling, pulling… Man, that’s the hippest classical ending ever!”

At the Schermerhorn Center, Bela requests consultations with Nashville Symphony Orchestra principals.

“When I go play with an orchestra, I really don’t develop the kind of friendships or direct contact that I have worth most of the musicians I play with.”

“It’s kind of unorthodox, but I asked them if there was a way I could go meet the principal musicians of each section, get explanations of what their instrument does, what they love about their instrument, and what I might think about in writing for their instrument.”

“With an orchestra you’ve got people sitting sixty feet from each other. There’s no possible way they can hear each other.”

Sam Bacco (Percussion Principal), on orchestral timing: “Great conducers really help. The speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound.”

Leslie Norton (Horn Principal) points out, “You’ve been driving the Jaguar… Really, this is an aircraft carrier. Nothing’s gonna turn on a dime.”

The third of Bela Fleck’s fathers, the man who provided his “first exposure to banjo”, was Earl Scruggs with his rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”, the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies television series.

“Every time he played the banjo time would stop for me.” And, “Every time he played a song, he played it differently.” It would not be hyperbole to state that every player who has taken up the banjo since Earl Scruggs walked on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945 has been influenced by Earl and his Scruggs licks.

“Without him I would never play the banjo, so I’ve dedicated my concert piece, the concerto, to him. And I think he’s coming to the show.”

One might think Bela Fleck’s place in the pantheon of banjo players past and present would relieve him of performance anxiety. It does not.

Having been asked to bring his banjo to an interview, he remarks wistfully, “They always want my banjo. I’m not good enough without the banjo. I’m like nobody without the banjo.”

Rehearsals with the orchestra are occasions of stress: “I am sucking,” he moans. “I want to kill myself.”

“It feels like the nightmare where I walk around in public with no clothes on.”

The day before the Nashville premiere, he laments, “I’m trying think about what to stress about now, where to put my stress energy.” He itemizes his worries:

1. Premiere of the concerto, sold out performance

2. Live worldwide telecast

3. Concert is being recorded for a CD release

4. Filming it for a documentary

5. Playing a 36-minute piece from memory – with a brand new cadenza

6. Peers, family, and friends will attend – and possibly Earl Scruggs as well

The premiere performance at Schermerhorn Center on September 22, 2011, conducted by Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero, presented in excerpts in the film, is a seamless success. The audience acclaims it with a standing ovation.

Best of all, Earl Scruggs does indeed attend. After the concert he tells Bela, “You had it all in your lap.”

“Well, I was petrified.”

Scruggs concludes, “Nobody else knew it but you.”

The documentary closes with a relaxed celebration brunch on the back porch of the Fleck residence with an infectious jam (“Come and Stay With Me”) featuring Abigail and Bela, Sam Bush, Future Man, Rayna Gellart, Jeff Keith, Kai Welsh, Jun Iwasaki, Brittany Haas, Lauren Rioux, and Bryn Davies.

“How To Write A Banjo Concerto” was directed by Bela’s half-brother Sascha Paladino. Fleck’s comments not expressed in the dialog are scrolled in white letters superimposed on the screen.

“The Imposter Concerto” was released on CD in 2013 accompanied by a three-movement piece for banjo and string quartet called “Night Flight Over Water” with Bela and Brooklyn Rider.

Earl Scruggs passed away on March 12, 2012.

Joe Paladino died on August 13, 2013.

Bela avows, “Abigail is easily the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” With the birth of their son Juno in May 2013, Bela Fleck is now himself a father.

(Review posted on Amazon.com on March 7, 2017)

Witless Platitudes

I.   Bad luck doesn’t happen to dead people.

II.  If you don’t know where you are going, you are lost.

III. When life hands you lemons, throw them at annoying children.

IV. Birds poop on cars for a reason.

V. The watermelon never falls far from the tree.

VI. It is better to lend someone your hand than your wallet.

VII. Love is Nature’s way of reminding you that you are not that good at sex.

VIII. When you fart in church, light a candle, and blame your neighbor.

IX. Wisdom is best when it is remembered.

X.  Always tip the hangman.

Let It Rain

The Burden of Gratitude: The Chronicles of Bayboro Correctional Facility II (2014, Treadmill Books LLC) presents the novelette of the title, four short stories, and a story excerpt by Bela Abel. This work is the second in a Chronicles trilogy.

The author informs us in his Foreward that he did not compose the events depicted in the tales; he “witnessed” them. They are fictionalized accounts and the words that convey them flowed from “some ethereal pre-existence”. Bela Abel’s tales are not so much about incarceration as they are about the consequences that confinement imposes on the psyche.

“Imprisonment is a kind of salutary impairment. It might be useful in the short run, but with longer times it carries nothing but harm.”

The stories are rock ribbed with particulars of prison life: cell dimensions, daily routines, lockdowns, prisoner transport, hospital and exercise facilities, bunk assignments, chow, work duties, jail currency (packs of tobacco; bags of instant coffee.) The look and feel of iron bars imbedded in concrete, encircling fences, coils of razor wire, guard towers, and tantalizing glimpses of ordinary life carried on outside the prison walls emphasize the enforced claustrophobia of state-ordained confinement and the perils of interaction among men who can escape neither their surroundings nor each other.

“Prison existence is like living on a tectonic fault line… there is so much built-up pressure there.”

  1. Mama’s Loving Boy

Jason Falk, inmate librarian for more than ten years of the Bayboro Correctional Facility law library, acts as informal counselor for convicts under the impression that they may have a legal dodge to escape their sentences. Falk is a patient listener, but he has no happy answers for any of them.

Falk meets Whittie Alders, a young white man who claims he had sex with his mother, then killed her. Alders is neither bright nor communicative, so Falk, fascinated with his story, ploddingly teases narrative fragments from him. Eventually, Whittie’s disconsolate situation infects Falk with despair. He flees from the library, only to encounter an old black man, weeping. Upon inquiry, the man reports having learned that his mother has just died only two months before his release, after waiting 35 years.

Whittie is empty of remorse for his matricide. The weeping convict, having served his sentence, will have nothing but remorse to accompany his freedom.

2. The Mystery of Butt-Naked Chief Big Hawk

Chief Big Hawk stands naked, planted on a central corridor with his arms crossed over his chest, oblivious to the congress of inmates passing to and fro, “…above this crowd, solid and still like a rock island midstream in an overflowing mountain river,” calmly staring into the distance.

Abel etches the Chief with lithic figures. “His skin is reddish like those famous rocks in southern Utah.” “He has sharp features as if his face was hewn from those southwestern rocks with a rough chisel.”

Mark, obsessed with curiosity but lacking the temerity to approach the Chief, consults with fellow inmates. He apologizes, “I am just trying to understand something that seems strange to me.”

Aubrey Stokes, Bayboro’s oldest inmate, warns him. “Your curiosity will undo you! The rule of survival in prison is: mind your own business and don’t meddle with something that you do not understand!”

Ollie Lavender opines that the Chief is homosexual. Professor Loon tells Mark that the Chief is a Medicine Man and he is therefore not bound by the Adamic taboos against nudity observed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Mark’s cellmate Devon believes that the Chief is offering his penis as a landing limb for “Woggyboos.”

Chief Big Hawk proves to be very approachable. He fashions a clay pipe and shares the “calumet filled with Chief’s magic tobacco.” The Chief satisfies Mark’s curiosity with an object lesson about vessels (pipes/bodies) and the spirits (smoke/soul) they contain. Mark learns, in the same way that Carlos Castaneda did in his studies of Native Americans, that “The world was infinite and beautiful and there were no fences which could contain us forever.”

3. The Price of Freedom

Jorge Sanchez, an attendant at the Bayboro Fort Zoo and Natural History Museum, happens to be an ex-convict who served 7 years at the Bayboro Correctional Facility for “receiving stolen property.” He was never even suspected for his 42 successful bank robberies whose swag he invested prudently, depositing accrued dividends in offshore accounts now worth $7 million. He plans to use his “mazuma” for retirement on the Mediterranean island of Formentera.

In this poignant inversion fable, enriched with clever correspondence between liberty and finance, Jorge finds his sympathies engaged by Antipous, an orangutan from Borneo. A zoo is, after all, an animal jail whose inmates are 100% innocent. Jorge ponders, “Is being a hominid a crime?” He resolves to spend part of his fortune to liberate Antipous.

Freeing a great ape and returning him to his natural habitat is a daunting and expensive proposition, and Jorge prepares for it with all the meticulous care that made him a prosperous bank robber. The elaborate caper is complicated, well-crafted, suspenseful, and grips our attention as tightly as the totemic Morgan silver dollar Antipous always clutches in his fist.

4. Full Moon, Blue Room, Blue Angel

Fulmar Lapp Clerjaud, a 37-year inmate of Bayboro, lies dying of lung cancer in the Blue Room, a hospice within the prison hospital. His last anxious wish is for one final cigarette.

He gazes through a window at the Moon, so bereft of energy that he feels its tidal effect on the fluids in his own body. He contrasts the purity, serenity, and eternity of the Moon with corporal corruption and decay, excrescences and odors, and ephemeral human concerns.

Fulmar attempts a desperate trade of his valuable Blue Angel watch with a correctional officer for a pack of smokes; he is ripped off. In terminal despair, he is visited by Lady Indigo, another “blue angel” who grants him a final wish.

5. The Burden of Gratitude

In a book called The Parables of Old Damascus Montgomery Lee Bobo reads the story of Agneus, a merchant of Aleppo, encumbered by a “death debt” he owes a shepherd who saved his life.

Bobo is an inmate at Bayboro Correctional who has managed to get himself into hock with Red, a procurer of items not customarily available behind bars at exorbitant prices enforced by the brutal Moe.

“In prison, majority clings to its ilk.” Bobo would like to do his time with as little social intercourse as possible, but crosses swords with two gay inmates. He assaults one over a misunderstanding in the shower. The other saves his life when he takes a beating from Moe. Now Bobo has a “death debt” of his own.

The Age of Manaclethnos, a book loaned him by Aubrey Stokes, teaches Bobo that the old era of iron shackles has been superseded by the “felicitous enthrallment” of masters enslaving people by means of economic dependence, social stricture, and legal conformity. Observing untamed nature from the prison yard, he notices flocks of geese diverting their migration path to avoid flying over the prison, the mating dance of bumblebees beyond the fences, and the unimpeded flight of sparrows through coils of concertina razor wire.

Bela Abel’s fables are constructions of wry juxtapositions, sharp ironies, and empathetic warmth executed in supple language that encompasses both scientific precision and organic imagery. He is a superb storyteller with a masterful grasp of pace and evocative characterizations. Deeply respectful of nature and bemused by our human delusion that we somehow exist apart from it, he observes: Homo sapiens is “a cloud of intelligent locusts, universal consumers, and destroyers.”

Fortunately, for the sake of all other life forms on the planet: “Rain… With equal indifference, the rain washes away the footprints left by good men and thugs. Nature does not care about our daily struggles and the infrequent right things which we do… Rain does not care.”

(Review posted on Amazon.com, November 16, 2016)

Quang Duc

On the morning of June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a 66 year-old Buddhist monk, seated himself in the lotus position at an intersection in downtown Saigon, had a fellow monk drench him with gasoline, and set himself ablaze.

Quang’s’s self-immolation was photographed by Malcolm Browne, chief of Saigon’s Associated Press bureau. Within days the grim, astonishing photo was published on the front page of newspapers and periodicals around the world.

When I saw the photo on the cover of U.S. News and World Report, it changed my life.

It changed my life. What do I mean by that?

Sometimes events redirect our lives: obtaining one’s driver’s license; meeting one’s soulmate; receiving one’s summons to serve in the armed forces.

Other life altering occasions may be recognitions, profound realizations from which there can be no retreat. From that instant forward innocence is lost, perspective has shifted, and every succeeding moment must take the new understanding into account.

The image of Quang Duc’s horrific suicide seared me. It was almost as if I had pushed my face into the inferno he had made of his body. Seeing the photo, I understood this: Quang had chosen this terrible form of death as a protest, an intractable statement that principles and beliefs he cherished absolutely, concepts that forged meaning and purpose for his life, had been violated beyond reconciliation. His anguish was addressed to everyone in the world. It was addressed to me.

I was at that time two months shy of my sixteenth birthday. With regard to foreign affairs, I had so far lived inflated with ignorance, an oblivious blimp floating among the clouds, beyond contact with the contentious world below. My appreciation of American history and international relations was the product of an elementary school education whose purpose was to transmit rudimentary skills requisite for employment in an industrial society and to foster virtuous attitudes toward family, church, and country.

I was aware that the United States was involved in a military conflict with a nation in Asia called Vietnam for reasons that had something to do with protecting that country from a “Communist takeover.” I knew nothing at all about Vietnam, its history, its culture, its people, or what our national stake might be in its future. I had seen a panel show on television the previous summer in which an Australian journalist had displayed a map of “Indochina”, explained the “Domino Theory”, and warned that the Diem (he pronounced the name “Ziem”) regime was unstable and in need of economic and military aid from the U.S.A.

Throughout my childhood in the 1950s I had absorbed the axiom that Communism and Soviet Russia were the greatest peril on earth – to America, to freedom, to truth, to religion, to capitalism, and to right thinking. They had “the Bomb” and they intended to use it on us. In school we had performed “duck and cover” air raid drills and at home we heard frequently broadcast CONELRAD alerts on the radio. The “Reds”, we were told, had erected an “Iron Curtain” in Eastern Europe, had conquered China, and were making daily inroads into Africa.

In the late 1940s there had been a “Red Scare” here in America. Someone had “lost China.” There were Communists in the State Department, in Hollywood, maybe even living right next door to me. The Rosenbergs were executed for giving them atomic secrets; there had been an “Alger Hiss” case, and a House Committee on UnAmerican Activities that summoned movie stars to identify any people they worked with who might be Communist agents participating in a seditious scheme of world domination.

Our soldiers had fought them in Korea. Now we had to sweep them out of Vietnam. There was no middle ground, no room for compromise. It was Them or Us. We were Good and they were Evil.

All these things contributed to a pervasive atmosphere of cultural unease about foreign governments. Who else could we trust other than our own leaders, their wisdom and experience tempered by Constitutional guarantees, universal good will, and an American history of selfless support for the well being of all nations who had not declared themselves to be our enemies?

In Redondo Beach, the seaside suburb of Los Angeles where I lived, the threats and disturbances of international affairs felt remote, a distant clatter of jeopardy that had never disrupted my own life. It seemed impossible that Russian tanks could roll down Pacific Coast Highway as they had done in Hungary in 1956. There was no reason to imagine that Soviet battleships would drop anchor off Palos Verdes peninsula to bombard our homes, hospitals, schools, and churches. Apart from the ruthless homegrown Reds that J. Edgar Hoover had warned about in Masters of Deceit, and who the John Birch Society assured us were holding meetings in clammy cellars in every small town in America, the most imminent danger was from the air. Guided missiles from Moscow could rain down on us at any moment. After all, the Russians already had Sputnik orbiting the Earth, no doubt spying on our every move from 300 miles over our heads.

Closer to home, there had been a revolution in Cuba in 1959. Ragged jungle fighters in olive drab fatigues, organized by a bearded man named Castro, had stormed Havana, overthrown the Batista government, and set up a Communist state. We were so perturbed about it, we would not allow anyone to buy or sell products from Cuba. Shockingly, the new Kennedy administration had botched an armed intervention called the Bay of Pigs in 1961. We didn’t lose wars. Did we?

In the dozens of movies I had seen about World War II and Korea, we always won. Tough, brave men played by Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, Robert Mitchum, or Audie Murphy always outsmarted the Germans or foiled the Japanese because we were more courageous, more ingenious, more determined. God was on our side. We were the Good Guys. Weren’t we?

Everybody loved America. Why shouldn’t they? We had given the world Mickey Mouse and Charlie Chaplin. We invented cars and airplanes, movies and television. We exported corn and Coca-Cola, cigarettes and Chevrolets, walnuts and Salk vaccine. We had saved Europe in two World Wars.

In October 1962 the prospect of nuclear war with Russia suddenly became immediate. Americans clustered around TV sets to hear President Kennedy inform us that the Russians had installed missiles with atomic warheads in Cuba. Daring Premier Khrushchev to retaliate, Kennedy had ordered a naval blockade to stop Soviet ships approaching the island.

The crisis was resolved. Kennedy was lionized for his resolute behavior and credited for his bold success. The episode provoked anxious whispers about the practice of “brinksmanship” with nuclear weapons that put all of modern civilization at catastrophic risk should there be an occasion when cooler heads did not prevail.

In June 1963 I basked in blissful certainty. Other countries might be reckless, trigger happy, and self-aggrandizing, but at least America and its leaders were beyond reproach. Our motives as a nation, our hopes as a people, our thrust as a culture were steeped in peace and aimed at prosperity. Our best and brightest people were in charge. We were the Good Guys.

The suicide of Quang Duc abruptly challenged my equanimity. His death was not an act of rage that made victims of innocent bystanders. It was a calculated performance of deepest conviction.I did not know what a Buddhist monk believed or why those beliefs required such a drastic and terrible demonstration. The one thing that was undeniable about it – the great realization that changed my life – was that Quang Duc held beliefs in opposition to those of my country that he was willing to die for.

Whatever Quang’s beliefs might be, they deserved my respect. Which of my beliefs was I willing to burn myself to death for?

That thought led to another. Was it possible that the United States was backing the wrong side in Vietnam? Could the leaders of my country be wrong?

It was the first time that idea had ever entered my head. Could America be wrong?

Why was it up to us to stop a “Communist takeover” in any other country than our own? We were not at war with Vietnam. I trusted that our government, making the decision to send military “advisors” there, had access to facts not generally known to the public, at least not to me. Surely there was sound reasoning in Washington that warranted the effort. We did not make problems; we solved them. Didn’t we?

Having tugged on that thread, it could never be sewn back into the tapestry. What exactly were our aims in Vietnam? Who decided that this was our fight? Could they have been mistaken? Worse, were we being deceived by those leaders in whom we had invested out trust?

Fifty months later, when I received my draft notice from the Selective Service Board, I was drawn reluctantly into the conflict. I had become opposed to the war. Regardless of my attitudes toward Vietnam or warfare itself, I was compelled to accept military service.

By 1967, when I entered the U.S. Army, the Vietnam War had divided the nation as bitterly as the American Civil War. In response to widespread protest against the war, a popular bumper sticker in red, white, and blue declared “My Country – Right or Wrong”.

Displayed as an unequivocal statement of patriotism, the sentiment instead proclaimed a defiant abdication of moral responsibility. A “Country” is not a thing that stands apart from the people who inhabit it. A “Country” is not a geographic necessity, an accretion of historical occurrences, or a declaration of idealistic notions. A “Country” is an aggregation of living human beings whose present behavior may be informed by the past but cannot be bound to it. A “Country”cannot always be “right” any more than a person can always be “right”. When our “Country” is wrong, acquiescence does not serve our conscience. The past does not stamp its endorsement on the present. Patriotism requires the courage to admit when we are wrong.

Under a democratic form of government, we select our leaders to make decisions on our behalf. What they decide is an expression of our collective will. What they do, they do with our approval. We are responsible for their actions.

As citizens of a democratic nation, it is crucial that we have access to facts in order to assess the actions of our elected officials. We are obligated to question their decisions, to understand what they are doing in our name, and to judge whether those actions square with our sense of what is right. We cannot be governed in secrecy. We must never tolerate mendacity or the occlusion of truth.

Quang Duc’s moral outrage was not directed against America, but against rulers in Vietnam that the United States had selected, supported, and supplied without public discussion or approval. His death – his statement – was therefore meant for us, for me, as well as for the Diem regime.

The publication by the New York Times in 1971 of the secret “Pentagon Papers” exposed the extent to to which the American public had been duped by its leaders. The successive administrations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had never disclosed the political, economic, and military aid first provided to maintain French colonial domination, and then later to encourage Diem to suppress dissent by his critics, his brutal persecution of Buddhists, and his seizure of Vietnamese resources to fashion an imperial dynasty for his family.

The government of the United States made all of its citizens complicit in creating and sustaining a pointless civil war in Vietnam. Had there been any substance to the vague and flimsy justification that we made war to prevent a “Communist takeover”, why were we the only country that thought so? Was it worth over 50,000 American lives, uncountable hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian lives, and hundreds of billions of dollars?

Was it worth the fissure of trust between the American people and their government?

Thank you, Quang Duc, for changing my life, for calling on me to awaken, to demand of my leaders that they act with the fullest sense of responsibility, empathy, compassion, and right. That is what the United States stands for.

Doesn’t it?

 

Life Slices

Carol is annoyed that only she can hear the bananas ringing in the produce section at Wal-Mart. She always picks up because sometimes the calls are coming from Jupiter.

She lives in her van that she also uses for her pizza delivery job. Her wages are less than minimum. The tips are sometimes good, sometimes not. Carol supplements her income selling the customers blow jobs at $10 a pop.

Her probation officer is an emotional wreck in a crumbling marriage. Her court-appointed psychiatrist is indifferent, merely prescribing tiny white pills to stabilize her moods. Carol is bipolar, given to cutting, despondency, insecurity, dreamy disjunction from her surroundings, unable and unwilling to fashion a future for herself. She drifts from moment to moment, incident to incident, coupled to her desolate past, overwhelmed by her dreary present.

Christmas Carol Madison is bananas.

Carol is in awe of Jordan, her pizza shop Adonis, a young achiever destined for importance. She is spitefully resentful of Sabrina, Jordan’s too-perfect girlfriend. As she comes to know them, she finds that under their attractive peels they too are bananas.

The tiny white pills help. Carol’s life had been “a butterfly going back to being a caterpillar”, “Kafka’s Metamorphosis in reverse.”

Inspired by an unexpected friendship she develops with Sabrina, Carol decides to take control of her life cycle. Why should she not shed her cocoon and become a butterfly? After all, she “reads a ton”, her favorite, the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. She believes that many celebrated writers – “Tolstoy, Philip K. Dick, Hemingway, Lovecraft, Kerouac, Ezra Pound” – were bananas. She downplays her nose and lip piercings with makeup, upgrades her wardrobe, swaps her pizza delivery job for a gig at Boston Stoker, a cigar and espresso cafe across the street from Wright State University, where she enrolls to study literature. She nurtures hope of having an apartment, perhaps even a boyfriend, a family.

Carol narrates her story as it unfolds with digressive passages that revisit the squalid life she has survived. She describes the loneliness her prostitute mother imposed on her, the drab Dayton, Ohio Rust Belt decay that surrounds her, the meager supplies she gets by on, and why she has a parole officer and a court-appointed psychiatrist.

She ruminates incessantly; her fascinations overflow the lip like spilled espresso: why her mother bequeathed her the whimsical name “Christmas Carol”, how the universe works, why we have wars, how coffee came to Europe, the vocal range of an operatic baritone, who really invented pizza, why all Catholic churches smell alike.

Carol’s odyssey runs along endless Interstates: I-71 over the Jeremiah Morrow Bridge,  I-75, I-80, I-40 through the deserts of the Southwest where “huge outcroppings of wind-scarred rock rise into red sky and cliffs drop right off the highway.”

In Banana Sandwich Steve Bargdill serves us a compelling, page-pushing story in carefully-crafted language that both embraces the gritty, smelly, palpably impoverished world Carol inhabits and vaults into sublime arias of starry desert nights (“the coyote’s howl climbs up your spine”), skeletal abandoned structures (“empty parking lots, grass growing up between the cracks in the pavement, low hanging power lines that you could reach out and touch with your fingertips”), sumptuous desserts (chocolate raspberry balsamic truffles, cinnamon raisin bread pudding, chocolate pear torte), arresting fragrances (“lingering incense, flowers, oil, beeswax candles”), and incidental flora (wild chamomile, trillium, Virginia bluebells, white valerian). Vivid evocations of landscape, buildings, store and car interiors, meals and sexual encounters ride shotgun with Carol’s recollections.

The assonance in the title Banana Sandwich is alluring, a come-hither invitation to bathe in physical sensations. Bargdill delivers a powerful tale, a tasty pizza with all the toppings, splendidly enriched by appetizing chunks of anecdotal history and piquant drippings of atmosphere. The plot devours our attention and drives like hunger to a satisfying conclusion.

Banana Sandwich is delicious –  a spicy, savory feast. We want very much to order another helping.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, May 21, 2016)