Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 29, 2010

Stylin’ With the Old Familiar Gang

Sorry to’ve missed posting a blog on Monday. It happens. Things have been busy around here. I know, you’ve gotten used to it now. After a sterling first six months, there’s been a bit of slack. One entire week disappeared completely. Well, I was in Orlando. That’s reason enough for one’s brain cells to melt into tiny black dot of tar and wash into the Okefenokee. Busy? Yes. Naturally, I wrote a song about it: “You post 16 blogs/And whaddyou get?/A whole bunch a’ spam/And then you get on a jet./Saint Francis don’t you call me/Cause I can’t post./I’m worn to a frazzle/And as pale as a ghost. I could go on, but I’ll spare you. (St. Francis is the patron of writers, if you go for that sort of thing).

This happens from March through June every year. It’s the busiest time of the year, but it’s also the best time, work-wise, because I can get completely immersed in the sort of work I got into this business to do. You got a sense of it from some of those “Behind the Scenes” articles, if you’ve been following regularly. On the other hand, it’s the worst time of the year, personal life-wise. It’s tough on the personal life. I only have to work like that for a few months, and it’s hard enough, but if that’s your job, month after month, on the road, it takes a terrible toll on real life. I salute the indomitable Counselor, for being supportive of this annual exodus of not just my physical being but my mental one from the good ol’ day-to-day.

After 25 years of working with people who make their living producing shows on the road, I still wonder that any of them sustain any sort of family life. Aside from minor things like paying bills, the load for everything falls on the person left at home, from laundry and dishes and irritating telemarketing calls and oil changes and taking out the trash to dismissing the Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock on the door. Whatever pattern of roles has evolved in any household falls apart, and, for that time, only one person has to do everything. The nightly phone calls are little consolation. The person on the road is engaged in stimulating work, surrounded by longtime associates at the top of their game, while at home it’s, well, not really home; it’s drudgery. Yeah, great. Glad the show is going well. Uh, I paid the electric bill on time and the washer isn’t working right and my right tire looks low. When did you say you’d be back? Did you mail the mortgage payment the day you left? What?

Yes, it’s a lot harder on the partner left at home. Ask anyone who travels for a living, and you’ll get the same answer. Aside from the energizing atmosphere and the non-stop terror of dealing with endless last-minute changes, in the midst of it all I get to go onstage and, for one night, live an incredible realization of the life of the performing musician as part of the Global Jam. (If you missed the Global Jam articles, look in the “categories” widget over on the right under “Music.”)

One thing that does take a beating during this period is reading. Proust is sitting on the bedside table, only 200 pages short of the conclusion, wanly offering encouraging words like, “Avant!” and “Vite! Vite!” Sorry, no brain cells to spare. Instead, year after year, time and again, this is when in the few moments between sinking into bed and falling asleep to dream classic dreams of being in school and confronting exams for classes I’ve never taken, I fall back upon the Old Reliables. I re-read. Rereading, you may know, has a certain tarnish associated with it, unless one is a professor teaching Shakespeare or Milton or Hopkins for the 5th consecutive year, and needing a fresh perspective. In scholarly circles, one reading should, by god, do it. Dante? Oh yes, read it in the original Italian during graduate school. The Elizabethan poets? Certainly! Mastered them during my freshman year. Kant? Oh yes: that sabbatical year, you know?

Well, I do re-read. Sometimes to extremes, but, by golly, it’s comforting. There is something a lot easier about treading a path already made than breaking new ground, after all. Old standbys of mine are Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, anything by Thomas Pynchon, Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Lucky Jim, and stuff from my long ago reading past like Catch-22 or 1984 or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. For a while this year I settled on P.G. Wodehouse and Jeeves, but now, it’s Anthony Burgess. I’ve always kept my worn copy of Earthly Powers out on the shelf, and I’ve been reading it between bouts of terror concerning deadlines and deliverables for the past couple of weeks.

If you know Burgess from one book, you know A Clockwork Orange. Heck, I’d probably read that again if I still owned a copy, although there’s something not-quite-right about reading a book from which one can recite long passages: what’s the point? (Therefore, I’ve been putting Sun Also Rises and Fear and Loathing aside for a time until they’re a bit less too-familiar.)

If you’ve read A Clockwork Orange and nothing else by Burgess, you already know certain things about his writing that make Earthly Powers a compelling book to which to return. Powerful narrative, always full of the unexpected, vivid characters, both like and unlike real people you might recognize and, more than anything else, language. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess more or less invented a language, an argot, spoken by the disaffected, alienated Alex, the teenaged protagonist. Comprised of a mix of Russian, English, German and other words, Burgess’ language in the book more or less took on George Orwell’s vision in 1984 and framed it in a more extreme, violent and personal world.

In Earthly Powers, Burgess pulls off some of the same linguistic legerdemain. His protagonist is a well-educated elderly British writer who, through an extremely clever framing story gives us his (supposed) biography, while pulling out just about every linguistic trick Burgess had in his kit. As I’ve been re-reading, I’ve been wondering what it is about Earthly Powers that puts it on the shortlist of books I return to when I want something satisfying, reassuring and, yes, nurturing, while the world of work batters away at the barricades.

Great story? Check. Accomplished and lauded author retells story of his life that spans WWI, travels across Asia, involvement in screenwriting in Hollywood in ’30s, intrigue in Nazi Germany, all under the auspices of finding justification for the elevation to sainthood of his sister’s brother-in-law, the Pope, via certain miracles he performed. Along the way, we encounter Joyce, Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, Cary Grant, Rilke, Hesse, Pope Pius XII and Aldous Huxley.

Language? Check. Burgess is a master. Commentator on Joyce, and commanding several languages, Burgess had a sweeping command of many languages, and his narrator tells the story in English, Italian, French, German, Malay and Latin, as well as transliterated remembrances of those conversations, for example, giving us an English version of a conversation with an Italian speaking German, with the appropriate idiosyncratic touches.

Ultimately, it’s style. That’s what I think brings me back. Riddley Walker talking in his post-apocalyptic English, or Lucky Jim using the effete English of academe at the same time that he abhors it, Hemingway making us believe that people really speak the way that he imagined they ought to speak and Hunter Thompson’s out-of-this world narrator’s unforgettable rap. I never get tired of it. I have to read it again. And again.

© 2012 Brad Nixon


  1. sweeeeeet! i’ve been thinking about doing a re-read myself, all this new stuff, and yet…


  2. The one who remains at home does have the tough end of the bargain – well done. And there is that bit of glamour on the road. Well, maybe it’s low level glamour or maybe that is just not the right word, but that’s what I’m calling it.

    Thanks for the reading recommendations too; I always enjoy them. I’d say starting with Catch-22 and the book report which earned an “A” from Miss Schuring – as I recall she considered that a step above another report on the next Hardy Boy’s book. So, Proust, still on the back-burner here, but Earthly Powers, I am convinced. Thanks again.


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