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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.