Flotsam

Crossing the Sierra Madre with Bronte: what Jon Frankel is reading

Occasionally we ask our writers what they’ve been reading. Jon Frankel is the author, most recently, of The Man Who Can’t Die, published by Whiskey Tit in September 2016. He will be reading with other Whiskey Tit authors at Space Gallery in Portland, Maine, November 16. Here’s what Jon’s been reading…

This month I’m reading books that are both research and pleasure. It doesn’t always work out that way. In progress is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. The Kennedy clan is of perennial interest to me and have figured in both research and pleasure reading for decades. It’s hard to say which comes first but for now my reason for reading the book is that I am writing about a multi-generational political family of great wealth and power, 500 years in the future.

I have read books by and about the Vanderbilts and other robber barons, The Age of Innocence, Central European novels of decline and a pounds of other tomes in the hopes that I’ll internalize the procession of outrageous mansions, stock swindles, bizarre affairs, lobotomies, acts of foolish heroism etc. Nothing epitomizes these thing more than the Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds and Goodwin is a light but effective narrator of events. As I write Joe Jr. is about to explode over the English Channel in a B42 stripped of equipment and turned into a giant kamikaze bomb. The Kennedys and airplanes is an entire subject to itself: Joe Jr., Kick, and John Jr. all met their ends in planes and Teddy, who walked away from everything that normally kills a Kennedy, survived a plane crash in 1964, flying in bad weather at night from DC to Springfield, MA. The pilot and one passenger died, and Kennedy was hospitalized and in a brace for broken vertebrae for months. I just can’t get enough of these guys. It’s not so much that they are the stuff of myth– it is that of course – but that the reality itself is so compelling.

I just finished the kind of book I devour with burning eyes and a dry throat, God’s Middle Finger, Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, by Richard Grant. Grant is an English travel writer, a grand thing to be, and he sets off for dangerous situations, ill-prepared, with tremendous cynicism, self-irony and energy.

He wants to explore the Sierra Madre region of Mexico, a region of wild mountains, forests and canyons cut off from the rest of Mexico, with a long tradition of hiding outlaws and bandits and a culture based on an insane overdevelopment of Macho Honor. Since the 1980s the drug business has defined life for the ranchers, farmers and peasants there. The army and police are concerned exclusively with stealing drugs or extorting money and many are employed by the narcos as enforcers.

Scattered in the area are Mormons, various indigenous groups, 3rd generation exiles from the US, well-meaning development people, and eccentrics. The violence is mind boggling as is the beauty. There are touristed areas, but Grant is determined to visit villages notorious for murder, following in the footsteps of the great explorer anthropologist Carl Lumholtz. And this is the true danger of a book like this: Carl Lumholtz spent 5 years traveling the Sierra Madre and living among the Tarahumara, an indigenous people who have survived despite extremely brutal circumstances, and wrote a two volume book about it called Unknown Mexico. Grant infects the reader, or at least the susceptible reader with a desire to read these books, if not to set off immediately for the Sierra Madre. Unknown Mexico is not out-of-print, but even the Oxford paperback is expensive and the original edition, gorgeous, and HEAVY (one is sitting on my desk right now, and it is the heaviest book for its size I have ever held), sells for about $350.

It is very hard to resist reading these volumes. Grant travels by horse, with mules on narrow mountain passes, in pickup trucks and jeeps. The automotive figures heavily in the book, as do heroin, cocaine, beer, bootleg tequila, weed, AK47s. There are times when it reads like Blood Meridian minus the baroque prose. The book reinforces stereotypes about Mexican violence I suppose, but it doesn’t portray the entire nation and all of its people in this way. Many of the people he meets are appalled by the violence of the Sierra Madre and attribute it to a localized and virulent form of machismo that fused with the drug business. The book is hilarious, self-deprecatory, charming, and brilliantly written.

At the Ithaca Friends of the Library Book Sale in October I was fortunate to find two editions of Emily Bronte’s poems. One is a complete poems, and the other is edited by Helen Brown who discovered that they actually are the poems Bronte wrote as part of her Gondal saga. The Bronte children famously created the land of Angria, a fantasy they wove out of a handful of toy soldiers given to them by their father. Emily and her sister Anne separated themselves from this ‘game’ to create their own fantasy world, that of Gondal, two islands located in the Pacific Ocean. The poems are extraordinary, the work of a young genius. There is both a wild romanticism and austerity to them. Charlotte reading some of the poems published an edition in Emily’s lifetime. It was not until the 20th century that scholars were able to put together an authoritative edition, and it was this edition that Brown studied. Emily Bronte’s verse is wayward as one would expect, with rhyme schemes dropping in and out and stanzas of varying length. They are death haunted, strange and beautiful.

I’m also reading two works in manuscript. One is a novel by a Russian woman I know who lives in Leipzig, Germany and write in English. I’m editing this manuscript and it is really exciting, as it tells the story of a Ukrainian Jewish family during the period of steep Soviet decline, 1976-1980. Extremely funny, brutal, and emotionally nuanced it combines grotesque satire, broad humor, and realistic family drama.

The other is a novella by a friend who is a blogger and lives in Toulouse, France. It is a post-apocalyptic future tale about a drug addict who loses his wife and children through his own diligent fuck ups and sets out across a lifeless zone of demons to discover the mythical Golden Temple. I’m almost done and really loving it. The author, Daurade, has a blog at lawsofsilence.com.

Buy The Man Who Can’t Die, or read Jon’s blogh at lastbender.com.

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