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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 22, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Unread Books, Mosley and McGill, Casablanca

When I was young, I finished every book I started, or felt guilty about it for months.

It's not as if I felt I owed the author something, and had failed to pay what was due. I didn't think about the author at all. It was the characters I was letting down -- and that included nonfiction as well as fiction. If I didn't finish a history, I had somehow harmed the people whose story I was now choosing to ignore.

I wish I could tell you that this attitude faded by the time I was an iconoclastic teenager, but I didn't clast any icons at that age. My guilt over not-finishing a book continued until my early fifties. That was when I realized that the ever-growing pile of books by my bed was rather like an archaeological site. The lower strata were older, and everything at the bottom had been dead for a long, long time.

When, once every couple of years, I became ambitious and decided to go through those books, I could still see why I had decided to buy each book, but I now began to understand that when I found a dog-ear or a bookjacket flap on, say, page 40 or even 20, it meant that I had given this book a fair chance.

Then it had to compete on its own merits. When I wanted to read, I reached for another book instead. I didn't hate the neglected book. Rather it was someone whose acquaintance I had made, but with whom I had nothing to converse about. I was a fickle friend, I always thought, faithless and snobbish. Oh, this book wasn't good enough, I would tell myself sarcastically.

Or, just as likely, I'd think that I wasn't good enough for this book. It was beyond me, above me; my mind no longer hungered for whatever golden gifts this book was meant to give me.

But no, no, I realized in my early fifties. I was not going to live forever, and even though I believe that everything we learn and remember comes with us after death, I had to conclude that any book that I had flapped or dog-eared and then left untouched for -- check the copyright date -- six years or four years or even one year was clearly not a book that I regarded with urgency.

It was not a book that I had to put into my head so that I could take it with me to that desert island we call death. It was perfectly all right for me to say, "I tried you out, O Book, and then discovered I could do without your company for years on end. My purchase of your pages and your covers and your contents was not a marriage, it wasn't even a tryst, it was a single lunch date, and after that I never asked you out again because I forgot that you even existed.

So all those archaeological discoveries from the lower strata of my bedside reading stack were boxed and bagged, and when Ed McKay Bookstore stopped taking my books (my tastes were too eclectic; they only wanted former bestsellers, apparently), I'd give them to Goodwill, where they would doubtless be assembled into books-by-the-yard and sold to a decorator who would use them only for some kind of library-themed design.

Nobody would ever reach up and take them down from the shelf; the most that could happen would be someone scanning the titles, and with some of the books I had bought with so much hope, that casual title-scanner would say, "Someone actually published a book that weird?"

And I don't even feel guilty consigning those books to such a fate because I'm the guy who does take those decor-only books down and looks at them and reads a few pages, thinking: This book was written with the full ardor of an author who had something to say. The author said it. Someone bought it and either read it or didn't. If they didn't read it, this did not cause the author to die, nor did it mean the author's work was wasted.

Because, if you'll pardon my foray into nonce theology, all these discarded and unread and sometimes unreadable books will become the reading matter throughout eternity of souls consigned to heaven and hell. The same books, the same reading list, the same card catalog in both places. But the people in heaven will read even the most dreadful books thinking, Look at how these writers poured out their hearts, and wrote from the pain of their lives; and look how they hoped for love, hoped that someone would admire them, hoped that someone would take their story into their hearts and hold it there, forever changed.

And in hell, they'll read the same book, but utterly without compassion. They'll say, If drivel like this could get published, why didn't I write for a living? It would have been easier than anything I actually got paid for.

This latter attitude is, of course, the natural perspective of the critic, which is why all critics will end up in hell. I say this as a critic myself. Seeya there.

*

So here's a book that almost ended up on that bedside pile -- but electronically rather than physically. Back in April of 2016, when Walter Mosley's new Leonid McGill novel, And Sometimes I Wonder About You, was published, I bought it immediately -- but this time I bought it on Kindle instead of holding out for an audiobook version.

I don't remember why, and after a while it stopped coming to the front when I opened my Kindle app on my phone or bedside tablet. Other purchases had moved to the front, and I read many of them. Or used them, anyway -- for instead, I just listened to Brandon Sanderson's Way of Kings and Words of Radiance for the third time, and I bought the Kindle copies of the books just so I could look up the spellings of many names and words.

The narrator, you see, didn't make it clear whether the ubiquitous semi-magical creatures in the story were "spren" or "sprin." In some American dialects there is no distinction between short e and short i.

That's why people from those dialect areas have to say "inkpen" -- because when they say "pen" it could as easily be "pin." The narrator of Sanderson's series muddied that distinction and I had to know. I also had to know how to spell many, many names -- because I have some plan of teaching a class in reading and writing fantasy, so I would have to talk knowledgably about characters whose names I had never seen written down.

But I finished listening, and removed the Sanderson books from the tablet by my bed, and while I was at it, removed a bunch of other Kindle books that I had already read or listened to and ...

There was Walter Mosley's And Sometimes I Wonder about You.

You have to understand that there is no chance whatsoever that I will ever find a Walter Mosley book at the bottom of my reading stack and decide that it has failed some kind of evolutionary struggle to be read. The failure in such a case is always mine.

And then I realized why I hadn't read it immediately, when I first bought it more than a year ago. I knew that whenever I start reading a Walter Mosley book I don't put it down until I've finished it.

Now that I started reading it I did put it down. Once. Enough for one night of brief sleep and then a day of sleepy-slogging through whatever tasks I tried to perform. Then I fell into bed and finished it because when you read a novel by Walter Mosley, you end up caught inside the lives of his characters.

Leonid McGill is not a person who has lived a decent life. He first killed a man when he was fourteen years old. He was defending his own life but it was unlikely that policemen and prosecutors would have believed him. He was surviving on the street because his father, a socialist revolutionary who gave his sons Russian names, had abandoned the family, and then Leonid's mother died.

Eventually Leonid McGill found one of the strangest careers in all of crime and mystery fiction: He was hired by criminal bigwigs to plant evidence and set up convincing circumstances that would frame somebody else for the bigwig's crime. When the police and prosecutors put that frame-up target in jail for the crime, they stopped trying to solve it, and the bigwig could relax.

They paid McGill fairly well. But just like the hitman in the movie Mr. Right, he developed a conscience. He stopped framing people, and instead used his skills in the semi-legitimate field of private investigation.

He was still self-protective. He didn't go to the police and confess to all the frameups and get all those people out of jail (and himself in). Mostly the people he had framed were deserving of such punishment -- for different crimes. But some of them didn't deserve anything like that, so McGill would try to make things better for them. Help them get jobs when they got out of jail. Take care of their families. Often they had no idea that somebody was helping them; if they did know, they never knew why McGill took an interest in them. He wasn't a confessing kind of guy.

That's all backstory. In And Sometimes I Wonder about You, McGill is approached by a homeless guy named Hiram Stent. Stent was a man who had once made good money at a good job, but the company he worked for moved its operations out west and Stent, assuming that he could easily find a job, decided not to move his family there.

Then he didn't find a job. Eventually his wife left him, the kids moved after all.

But now Stent had been offered a ridiculous amount of money to find a young woman who was supposed to be a cousin of his, so she could inherit a pile of money, and Stent would be paid a percentage of it.

If this is sounding kind of like an email offer from a Nigerian prince, that's what McGill thought, too. So he declined to take Stent's case.

The next day, Stent is found murdered. And a much better-dressed man comes to McGill and makes a similar offer. McGill immediately assumes that this second guy was Stent's murderer, and so McGill takes on Stent as a posthumous, unpaying client. Because he takes responsibility for the man's death.

I can't possibly lead you through any of the twists and turns of this plot. Suffice it to say that McGill has the physical skills to put down several people in the story whose goal is to harm someone McGill cares for -- including himself. He also has the insouciance to talk his way into the presence of people who do not generally accept meetings with middle-aged black private eyes. He makes offers that people can't refuse -- without even putting horses' heads in their beds.

But the heart of the story -- the heart of Walter Mosley's life's work -- is, in a word, the heart. Leonid McGill was damaged in many ways by his father's desertion of the family, so when his father shows up in this story, everything that he loved about his father and everything he hated comes flooding back. McGill's dad is still a charmer, and he is able to bring McGill's suicidal wife back from the brink and bring to her lips the smiles that McGill had lost the knack of producing.

Meanwhile, McGill is terrified by a truly perilous situation his son Twill has gotten himself into -- all for noble motives, just as so often happens to McGill. And a police detective who is grimly determined to see McGill go to jail for his crimes is drawn into the moral tangle of McGill's investigations, forced to become McGill's temporary ally.

Multiple cases and storylines entwine until McGill sees how a person from one case might provide the solution to another. The ending of the book is both believable and satisfying.

And McGill's search for love provides the final wrapup, not because he finds a love that will last, but because he reconciles himself to the fact that apparently, in his life at least, love doesn't last. But it doesn't have to.

This is a beautiful book that moved me both intellectually and emotionally. It was also exciting, so that I found myself stabbing the screen repeatedly when the app responded sluggishly or couldn't interpret my sleepy late-night hand motions.

Don't put it off for a year the way I did. If you're heading for the beach, go ahead and take that long and tedious Grisham book, but also include in your beach bag Walter Mosley's much thinner and infinitely more entertaining novel And Sometimes I Wonder about You.

It doesn't matter whether you've read any other McGill books, because Mosley tells you everything you need to know to understand all the characters and relationships.

I first heard of Walter Mosley because in 1992, when the media were beginning to fall in love with Bill Clinton, they reported that he considered Mosley his favorite writer. Even though my loathing for Bill Clinton, born of his smarminess, insincerity, vanity, and stupidity, drove me away from news programs because I might see his sickening face -- I still took that book recommendation from him; and back in the '90s I read or listened to everything Mosley had written up to that time.

I even met Mosley at a science fiction convention in ... Philadelphia? He was charming and generous to this foolish fannish sci-fi writer and even gave me his private email address. I never used that address because I never had anything to say or ask that I thought was worthy of a place in his email inbox. Still haven't.

But I can tell you about his work. And even if you feel about me the way I felt and feel about Bill Clinton, do as I did and take the recommendation anyway. Because Walter Mosley's mystery novels won't let you down.

*

Sometimes the big food companies notice the competition from small competitors and come up with really good products to compete with them. Nabisco Good Thins were a recent result, and I have to say, at least one of the flavors is a real hit in my house: The Potato One.

It's thin, it's light, and it tastes like potato. In fact, it's a better potato chip. It may come in a box and sell itself like a cracker, but it's a potato chip, and it's compulsively edible.

I also like The Rice One -- better than a lot of the rice crackers I've found over the years.

I haven't seen the sweet potato, veggie blend, beet, or white cheddar Good Thins, but I'll get around to them. And because it's Nabisco, you don't have to search for them in exotic health food stores. These crackers are in regular grocery stores, right next to the Wheat Thins. Worth a try, in my opinion.

*

I have a list of favorite movies, but it doesn't overlap with most other people's lists. I have a fairly low opinion of Citizen Kane, for example -- I see it as the triumph of Orson Welles's self-promotion over his clumsiness and vanity as a filmmaker. The Philadelphia Story is charming -- good writing, good cast -- but it's also evil and filled with hate for everything I admire in other human beings.

So it should be no surprise that while I don't hate Casablanca, I don't adore it the way some people do. Quotations from the movie don't leap from my mouth, mostly because I haven't seen it that often. I haven't watched it multiple times because I didn't care all that much about it. When it happens to show up on my TV screen, I switch away to find something more interesting.

If I were going to look for an in-depth book about a classic movie, I'd be much more likely to hope for a book about Far from the Madding Crowd or The Accountant, because those movies mean far more to me.

But publishers aren't stupid. When they pay money to publish a book about a movie, more than half a century after the movie was first released, it has to be a movie with a large and dedicated following.

Which is why the book I'm going to tell you about is We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie, by Noah Isenberg.

I agree -- Casablanca is at least in contention for the title of "Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie." (But only among people who didn't grow up on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and West Side Story.)

Until now, the gold standard for books about filmmaking was Frank Capra's autobiography, The Name above the Title. I read that in my teens -- because my older sister kept reading passages aloud until I had to read the whole book. It's a great book by one of the best film directors who ever lived.

I was shocked when I saw that Amazon hasn't yet brought it out as an ebook, and Audible offers no recording of it. This is a classic, a book that anyone who loves film should read.

Then there was the fiction book by Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run? I read it when I was first getting into the film biz, and let me tell you, every word of that novel is a faithful depiction about how Hollywood worked -- and works. There is a Kindle edition of Schulberg's book.

I think that even though it has a more dispassionate, sometimes even scholarly tone and thoroughness, We'll Always Have Casablanca deserves to be read as a serious exploration of how a classic movie got made.

Isenberg's research was thorough and the story he tells is completely believable. Because Casablanca is that rare thing: A film without an author.

Oh, no, not really. It began as a play, and even though it was never produced, much or most of the dialogue in the movie comes from that play. So the playwriting team are surely the authors of the film.

Except that in true Hollywood fashion, executives and producers kept passing the script to other writers in order for them to make it better in some way or another. And many of these writers have claimed to be the real author of the movie -- or at least they claim to have "saved" it.

The truth is much more complicated, and I loved every minute of snaking through all the machinations, power struggles, panicked demands for rewrites, political fears ...

Because it's easy to forget that Casablanca was filmed and released before we knew who would win World War II. The original play, in fact, was written before the U.S. entered the war, and there were real fears that a story so openly anti-Nazi might attract the wrath of the U.S. government, which at that time was still trying to appear more or less neutral.

As for the myth that Ronald Reagan was once in line to play the Humphrey Bogart role -- that was never true. It was the custom, when a studio acquired rights to a property, to put out the names of actors that the studio was trying to tout and build up.

So the press release -- written by someone who had never read the script and who had no information about or authority over casting -- dropped in the names of Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan because they, too, were hot properties. Nobody actually working on the film ever considered either of them for the part.

The book has a few missteps. Because the author's premise was to cover the way that Casablanca has influenced our culture after its release, he wastes our time and his with a repulsively detailed description of a porn movie that ripped off the name and situations of Casablanca. This had nothing to do with Casablanca's cultural influence, because pornsters did that to every movie that made money, while the audience for the porn didn't care about or remember whatever passed for a storyline.

Apart from that one bad decision, the book is a good one, and if you want to know how "collaboration" works in filmmaking, it could be a textbook. Because by the end, I fully understood that any time a very good movie results from the Hollywood food processor, it's partly because a few genuinely talented people cared enough to make it better than it needed to be, and then it's just dumb luck that the idiots whose main contribution to Hollywood is to wreck everything they touch didn't get their hands on it long enough to do terminal damage.

Since I don't care that much about Casablanca, I'm fully qualified to make this statement: It doesn't matter whether you have seen Casablanca ten times, once, or never. This will still be an enjoyable book about filmmaking, in the early 1940s and today.


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