Malcolm Jones

Stories by Malcolm Jones

  • Arts Extra: Books: Mitchell Remembered

    Whenever I am feeling overworked or put-upon or whenever I just need a kick in the pants, I walk over to the bookshelf and pull down my battered copy of "My Ears Are Bent" by Joseph Mitchell, and I reread the following passage in which he describes a reporter's day on a New York daily newspaper in the 1930s."In a newspaper office no day is typical, but I will describe one day no more incoherent than a hundred others. When I came in one morning at 9 I was assigned to find and interview an Italian bricklayer who resembled the Prince of Wales; someone telephoned that he had been offered a job in Hollywood. I tracked him to the cellar of a matzoth bakery on the East Side, where he was repairing an oven. I got into a fight with the man who ran the bakery; he thought I was an inspector from the Health Department. I finally got to the bricklayer and he would not talk much about himself but kept saying, 'I'm afraid I get sued.' I went back to my office and wrote that story and then I was...
  • Whitehead Hammers Out A Hit

    About 90 pages into "John Henry Days," Colson Whitehead tips his hand: this is going to be a big--as in epic--novel. Up to this point, we know this is a book about a 1996 West Virginia folk festival celebrating a new stamp in the Postal Service's "Folk Hero" series. We know we're going back and forth between the mythic story of John Henry's digging a tunnel through a mountain in 1872 and the modern story, which is all about press agentry and spin and a black freelance journalist named J. Sutter who's struggling to beat the record for the most consecutive days on the freebie junketeering gravy train. Whitehead ("The Intuitionist") wants us to see that while the tunnel killed John Henry, it made him immortal. But it's the all-devouring maw of pop culture that's destroying J. Sutter's soul. ...
  • Notes From The Underground

    Haruki Murakami has brought flowers to the Kasumigaseki subway station. Located in the heart of Tokyo's government district, this is one of the city's busiest stations. But what strikes a Westerner accustomed to the jostling chaos of American subways is the almost surreal orderliness of the place. People queue up at appointed places. Trains arrive at precisely scheduled times a few minutes apart. Uniformed attendants are posted throughout the gleaming, well-lit station--a dependable oasis of rational order in the hectic urban whirlwind that is modern Tokyo. So you can imagine the terror that broke out on March 20, 1995, when members of Aum Shinrikyo, an extremist religious cult, uncorked enough deadly sarin gas in the subway system to injure 5,000 people and kill 12. Two of the dead were station attendants at Kasumigaseki, and it is in their memory that Murakami has brought flowers. "The anniversary was last week," he says apologetically, "but I want to honor them." ...
  • Arts Extra: Bedtime Stories

    I keep promising myself that I'll give up Raymond Chandler. But every time I think I'm on the wagon for good, I'll be standing in front of the bookshelf, looking around for a chair so I can reach that unthumbed copy of Proust, and my hand will just sort of reach out on its own and pull down "The Little Sister" or "The Long Goodbye," and there I'll be, back in 1940s Los Angeles with Philip Marlowe in his dusty office, waiting for Orfamay Quest or Terry Lennox to come through the door for about the 45th time. ...
  • Arts Extra:Being Robert Mitchum

    I remember the first time I saw a picture of Robert Mitchum. I don't know exactly how old I was, but old enough to read, because I was already wasting a lot of time poring over the ads for movies in the local paper. This took a lot longer than it might have, since the medium-size Southern city where I lived had only three movie theaters. But it had at least that many drive-ins, too, and the drive-ins changed their fare a couple of times a week and showed at least two movies every night. ...
  • Homework From Hogwarts: Harry Potter Returns

    J. K. Rowling sounded a mite pious recently when she announced the two new books she wrote to raise money for Britain's Comic Relief, a charity aiding children in developing countries. "You should buy these books because they will save lives," she announced loftily. Then again, she couldn't very well say, "Buy 'em because I'm talented." "Quidditch Through the Ages" and "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" are purported texts from the library at Hogwarts, the school for wizards attended by Harry Potter. Unlike all the other Harry tie-in merchandise, which just isn't much fun, these amusing, imaginative little paperbacks (Scholastic) are required reading for all Potter fans.
  • Neck And Neck With Glory

    It is almost impossible for anyone who didn't live through it to comprehend the world Laura Hillenbrand describes so vividly in "Seabiscuit," her fascinating account of the greatest Cinderella story in the history of horse racing. Before World War II thoroughbred racing captured the American public's imagination with such ferocity that it was not unheard-of for 40 million people to tune in a race on the radio. In 1938, at the height of his fame, Seabiscuit garnered more column inches in the newspapers than either Roosevelt or Hitler. And yet today you would be hard pressed to find anyone under 50 who had a clue what all the fuss was about. ...
  • All Starch, No Cheese

    It sounds like the plot of a made-for-TV movie: psychologist Tom Seymour jumps in the river to save a suicide from drowning. The rescued party turns out to be Danny Miller, a convicted murderer, out on parole. And as anyone familiar with how these stories work will guess, it was Seymour's testimony that provided the tipping point in Miller's trial. One more thing: when he was tried, Miller was only 10 years old, and accused of killing an old woman, a charge he adamantly denied. So, is it mere coincidence that the two encounter each other this way? Is Miller stalking the psychologist? If "Border Crossing" were your average melodrama, such questions would be answered straightaway. But Pat Barker, author of the acclaimed World War I "Regeneration" trilogy, is not a simple writer. When it comes to narrative cliches, she's like a kid with a chemistry set and a mad glint in her eye. Right when you think you know where things are heading, she'll twist things in a completely different...
  • Emerald In The Rough

    Irish author Nuala O'Faolain gets flustered when you ask her age--she'll admit to "late 50s." She worries about growing old alone. "Until I got Molly," her sheepdog, "I had no idea how to grow old. She's a genuine alternative to the loving-spouse route." And, of course, she worries about her looks. Pondering her upcoming U.S. book tour to promote her first novel, "My Dream of You," she frets, "I'll age 10 years and still not lose any weight." But the woman's got guts. It's her idea to take the reporter along to her appointment for a color job at a Manhattan hairdresser. "Let's face it," she says airily. "The lady's got gray hair."It's this same disarming, almost goofy combination of vulnerability, self-doubt and canny shrewdness that distinguish-es her books, first her 1998 best-selling memoir, "Are You Somebody?" and now this novel. Both books feature middle-aged women as their protagonists. And both are full of brilliant writing and heartbreaking insight. When Kathleen, the...
  • Mean Street Makeover

    Crime novelist Dennis Lehane is totally awed by fellow fiction writers who do research. Just don't ask him to imitate them. "When I write a book, I'll call around and ask about stuff I think I may have gotten wrong. My brother-in-law's a cop, and I ask him a lot of stupid questions. But then I read guys like Mike Connelly and think, damn, this guy really did his homework." Chuckling, he adds, "Then there's me over here going, um, yeah, that floats."Lehane is laughing, but he's not kidding. It's his stories he obsesses over, not facts. So when he gives you a windshield tour of working-class Dorchester, the Boston neighborhood that supplies the turf of his six crime novels (not to mention the turf of his own childhood), the 35-year-old author makes it clear that the Dorchester in his books is not on any map. "This isn't sociology," he says. "That's not a writer's job. You try to do a representation of a feeling, the character of a place."Nobody does that better than he does. He's got...
  • Dark Tale

    Four years after publishing "Underworld," his huge--and hugely ambitious--novel about cold-war America, Don DeLillo delivers "The Body Artist," a novel so slim that its 124 pages could be one of "Underworld's" chapters. But length aside, there's nothing slight about this unsettling tale of a woman contending with the fact of her husband's suicide. In this book nothing is certain, and almost every sentence amends or rewrites the one before: "He was staring at her. He seemed to be staring, but probably wasn't." The world goes all wobbly in this book, just as it does whenever we come face to face with mortality.DeLillo makes sure we never find our footing. After spending 20 pages on a couple breakfasting in a rented summer cottage, he gut-punches us with an obituary--his way of telling us that the man we just met over breakfast has killed himself. The rest of the story belongs to Lauren, the wife, a performance artist who shape-shifts into other characters. Alone in the vacation house,...
  • When E Stands For Eek

    If you want a progress report on the current fortunes of the e-book, you could do no better than the International eBook Awards, which were announced Oct. 20 at the Frankfurt Book Fair. And the winners were--drumroll, please--on second thought, hold that drumroll. Because it turns out the winners were just regular paper-and-ink, hardbound books. Which, yes, come in an e-book format, too. That's how they qualified for the awards. But there's nothing particularly e-bookish about either David Maraniss's "When Pride Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi" or E. M. Schorb's novel "Paradise Square." Upset by the high pulp content of the contest, at least one of the contest judges vocalized his dismay: Stewart Brand, who is also the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, called the whole affair "somewhere between a joke and a debacle."Dick Brass tried to put a good face on it by saying that the purpose of the awards was to gain attention for e-books--and in that, at least, they succeeded. Brass...
  • Tom Wolfe, Ace Reporter

    In the only article written expressly for his new nonfiction collection--his first since 1976--Tom Wolfe decries the lazy, navel-gazing ways of contemporary novelists in a piece called "My Three Stooges." The trio in question--Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving--all slammed Wolfe's latest novel, "A Man in Full." Wolfe claims he's merely calling them stooges in the theatrical sense of a "straight man who feeds lines to the lead actor in a play." But in fact, he doesn't seem very interested in attacking his critics (a slur here and there, nothing serious). Instead, he uses their criticism as an excuse to reopen his attack on modern literature's inbred estheticism. For years--decades!--Wolfe has been quarreling with America's literary establishment (read: novelists who don't write exhaustively researched realist fiction like his). And the more he carries on, the more you suspect that his gripe isn't with certain kinds of fiction writers but with fiction writers generally....
  • Defrosting A Lost Tale Of Daring On The Arctic Ic

    Just what the world needs: another book about an arctic disaster. That's the way author and editor David Roberts felt four years ago when a French publisher urged him to seek out a 1914 account, "In the Land of White Death" by Valerian Albanov. Roberts was skeptical. "I'd never heard of this book, and I know the polar literature pretty well," says the author of "The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest." Jon Krakauer felt the same way when his old friend (and old college prof and climbing buddy) Roberts started dogging him to read it, too. "I just thought, 'Oh yeah, one more f---ing thing I have to read'," says the author of "Into Thin Air." That is the last even vaguely negative word you will hear Roberts or Krakauer say about "In the Land of White Death," a book that, once they read it, both agreed was an undiscovered classic and a masterpiece.After Krakauer read Albanov's slim book at one sitting, he couldn't sleep, and he wound up e-mailing his publishers at 3 a.m.,...
  • Pullman's Progress

    Synopsis doesn't do Philip Pullman justice. His best-known books, a trilogy called "His Dark Materials," are classified as fantasy and sold as fiction for young-adult readers. Like "Harry Potter" creator J. K. Rowling, this author invents a world filled with strange divinations and wordplays. In "His Dark Materials," there are tiny creatures called Gallivespians and horrible monsters called cliffghasts. There are instruments and devices with weird names like alethiometer and intention craft. The hero and heroine are 12-year-olds on a quest to save the world. Only they don't know it. And on top of all that, the author is working out an argument with organized religion that goes all the way back to the Fall and the Garden of Eden. In short, Pullman is quite possibly a genius, but he is certainly tough to sell.Try pushing his novels on teenagers, and they roll their eyes and complain that those books look long, and the print's too small and the covers make them look like little-kids'...
  • Bobby Socks, Hard Knocks

    When "The Liars' Club" appeared in 1995, it left no doubt that Mary Karr could flat-out write. Her memoir of growing up in an east Texas oil town told tales of sexual abuse and near death at the hands of her own mother. It was also sidesplittingly funny and so ably crafted that it won the hearts of critics and readers alike, spending 59 weeks on the best-seller list. The one question everyone had upon finishing her story was, could she do it again? "Cherry," the eagerly awaited sequel, lays that question to rest once and for all. In some ways, it's a better book. "The Liars' Club" dwelt on the oddities of a--by any yardstick--bizarre childhood. "Cherry," opening with little Mary on the cusp of adolescence, explores the terrors of sex, drugs and rock and roll familiar to every teen. It never lacks for those trademark Karr details, but it's about all of us.The person who most seriously doubted she would ever pull it off was Karr herself. "I probably threw away 500 pages before I...
  • Mr. Relativity's Last Road Trip

    How's this for an urban legend? Dr. Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performs the autopsy on Albert Einstein, removes the Nobel laureate's brain and takes it home and keeps it, pickled in a jar, for 40 years. Then he decides--he's 84 now--that he wants to meet Einstein's granddaughter. This means motoring from New Jersey to California with the brain sloshing around in a plastic container stowed in the trunk. And here's the weirdest thing about this tale: it's all true. Luckily for journalist Michael Paterniti, who'd tracked Harvey down, he just happened to be there when Harvey needed a chauffeur on that trip. He's there in Lawrence, Kans., to witness Harvey's reunion with his old acquaintance, author William Burroughs. He accompanies Harvey on a museum tour at Los Alamos. And at every stoplight, Paterniti has to fight the urge to scream, "We have Einstein's brain in the trunk!"Paterniti spends a lot of time pondering the riddle of Einstein--why do we like our geniuses part nutty...
  • Why Harry's Hot

    With The Sweep Of A Wand, 'Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire,' The Fourth Book In J.K. Rowling's Magical Series Is The Fastest-Selling Title--Of Any Kind--In History. Behind The Frenzy And The More Enduring Question Of What Makes A Classic.
  • The Return Of Harry Potter!

    Months before its official debut on July 8, J. K. Rowling's fourth Harry Potter novel had become the biggest publishing phenomenon since--ever. There has never been a bigger first printing (3.8 million in this country alone). Nor a book that's sold faster in preorders (as of midnight, July 1, there had been 282,650 orders at Amazon.com, where it's been the No. 1 best seller for 16 of the last 21 weeks). Equally amazing, Rowling's publishers have so far managed to keep the contents of the year's most desired book almost completely under wraps. The title, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," slipped out a week ago. One lucky 8-year-old girl managed to acquire a stray copy from her local bookstore. And Rowling, who has staunchly supported the veil of secrecy around the book because she wanted it to come as a surprise to her readers, did let slip to the London Times what a lot of young fans have been whispering about for months: at least one important character will die in the new...
  • A Loony Look At Going Nuts

    It's terrible to wish someone would get sick. On the other hand, when the someone is Jim Knipfel and writes so perceptively and comically about his own ailments -- first the gradual blindness of retinitis pigmentosa in "Slackjaw" and now mental illness -- well, you can't help being tempted.In the late '80s, Knipfel was studying philosophy at the University of Minnesota and trying repeatedly -- and lamely -- to kill himself: "Four years of philosophy might make you want to kill yourself," he says, "but it's not nearly enough to help you go through with it." However, when an overdose of pills landed him in the hospital, he suddenly found himself a guest of the state in a locked ward. There, aside from his 10-minute weekly visits with a bored shrink, he had nothing to do but read French semioticist Jacques Lacan and watch his fellow patients. One rode an exercise bike all day. One constantly wept. Others at least looked sane, like Chaim, who tended to end "sentences with increasingly...
  • A Swell Book About A Good Boy

    In the finest scene in this dazzling first novel about boyhood, the Depression-era town of Aliceville, N.C., gets electricity. It happens on Christmas Eve, and the 10-year-old title character gets dragged out of bed by his bachelor uncles to watch it happen. Jim hasn't got a clue why they're all standing in the middle of the road at midnight. He thinks his uncles might be drunk, because one of them keeps shouting, "Let there be light!" Then suddenly there is light -- in the uncles' houses, all over town. Everyone is delighted but also a little terrified. So, in a perfect comic moment, when someone asks the uncle who was demanding light to ask for something else, he just looks down and mutters, "I better not."The little miracle in this scene is how author Tony Earley balances the genuine wonder at electrification with the slow realization that while something has been won, so something is lost. "The uncles' electric lights drew fragile boundaries around their houses; around those...
  • A Top Showman

    Theatrical impresario David Merrick virtually invented the modern musical with shows like "Hello, Dolly!" and "42nd Street." He also made hits of such serious dramas as "Look Back in Anger" and "Marat/Sade." But Merrick, who died last week at 88, was perhaps his own best production: a Barnum-like showman whose promotions were often more memorable than the plays they advertised. When one of his shows got lame reviews, he found New Yorkers with the same names as the theater critics and ran their raves in his ads.
  • Black On Black

    When photography came to America, Jules Lion met the boat. The first successful photographic process was only a year old in 1840 when Lion opened his daguerreotype studio in New Orleans. That made him the first African-American photographer. But the thing that sets the African-American photographic tradition apart is not its length or its numerous geniuses. It's the point of view, the unique perspective that photographers like James VanDerZee brought to his celebratory pictures of Harlem high life, or that 19th-century photographer J. P. Ball demonstrated when he produced a triptych of a freed slave in Montana who is posed for his portrait, then photographed being hanged for murder and lastly shown in his coffin. The difference was not about access, it was about attitude. Any photographer--black or white--could have walked down a Harlem street in 1964 and taken a picture of an ebullient Malcolm X walking with Muhammad Ali after Ali won the heavyweight title. But white photographers...
  • Dark Tale, Bright Future

    Jeffrey Lent's first novel, "In the Fall," opens with a scene out of a fairy tale, or a ghost story: in the middle of the night, a boy spies on his father, who is burying coffee cans in the woods behind their home. The boy doesn't know what's in the cans, and the scene is full of secrets and mystery, and it hooks you powerfully. Right from the start of this engrossing family saga, you know that you're in the hands of a storyteller who knows just where he's going. And that, says the 41-year-old Lent, is exactly how he felt while he was writing. Yes, there were years of apprenticeship and abandoned manuscripts and crummy day jobs leading up to this book, but none of that sweat and frustration shows. This time around--and he's still not sure why--everything came together. "I wrote it in 18 months," he says, "and I had to write 40 or 50 pages to know for sure. But, yes, right from the start, I knew I had it."A lot of people in publishing agree with him, and they're coughing up the kind...
  • Smart Book, Dumb Guy

    Ted Swenson, burned-out middle-aged novelist, creative-writing teacher and the protagonist of Francine Prose's viperish new novel, tells his students that a good writer can kindle a reader's sympathy for the direst murderer, the slimiest sexual predator. By that standard, Prose is sublime. Chronicling Swenson's bumbling affair with one of his students, this wizardly novelist ("Guided Tours of Hell," "Bigfoot Dreams") satirizes writing workshops, midlife crises, campus politics and politically correct witch hunting. Every character is etched in acid--the campus librarian is "a tall, upright tea cosy of a woman." But her best creations are Swenson, the adulterer whose lies ultimately deceive only himself, and his multiply pierced, spike-haired paramour, Angela Argo, the writing student from hell. "Is the devil ever a woman?" one of Swenson's students asks him early in the novel, and the question echoes to the final page.The template for this brittle tale is the classic 1930 film "The...
  • A Spooky But Literary 'Blair Witch Project'

    Explore Los Angeles with Mark Z. Danielewski as your tour guide, and the line between fact and fantasy quickly vanishes. Cruise Hollywood Memorial Cemetery and you have to find Peter Lorre's grave. Motor into the Hollywood Hills and he'll show you the tower house where Elliott Gould lost his cat in "The Long Goodbye." You have to wonder, is this big, strapping 34-year-old with hair the color of blue M&M's a serious literary man or the child of a postliterate visual culture? Choose both. The son of a documentary—and avant-garde—film maker, Danielewski has also spent the last 10 years crafting his first novel, "House of Leaves," one of the most ambitious, complicated and eagerly anticipated literary debuts of the year. So let's talk books for a minute. What's it like to be a writer who lives in Los Angeles? "It's great," Danielewski says with a big grin. "It's totally lonely.Danielewski admits that he knows a few other writers and artists, but when he insists that he likes the...
  • Still Steely

    For most of the '70s Steely Dan surfed the top of the rock charts with a string of hits as musically peppy as they were lyrically weird. It sounded like easy listening--but the joke was on anyone lulled by the melodies, because the lyrics were talking about all kinds of unsavory stuff, from murder to drug dealers. Most every song this band wrote before it broke up in 1979 was clever, finely crafted and more than a little sinister--like icicles dipped in acid.From the sound of things on their first album in 21 years, those two decades off didn't do much for their mood. Musically the setup is still the same. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen write, produce and perform their material, fleshing out the sound with topnotch studio musicians. You couldn't ask for a better-sounding album--and they know it. In the first cut they sing "Check out the work itself/A mixture of elegance and function." Of course, this might not be Steely Dan talking. With these guys you never know, since their songs...
  • 'Beowulf' Brawling

    Harry Potter, it turns out, is not invincible after all, although it did take a 1,300-year-old Scandinavian legend tag-teaming with a Nobel Prize-winning poet to deal the fictional wizard his comeuppance. When the jury of England's prestigious Whitbread Prize convened last month to pick the book of the year, a rancorous 5-4 vote went against J. K. Rowling's third Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." The dark-horse winner was "Beowulf," the Old English epic poem newly translated by the poet Seamus Heaney.The Whitbread jury made the right call. Harry's adventures make great reading, no matter how old you are, but "Beowulf," the longest Anglo-Saxon poem in existence, simply outclasses the boy. And as rendered by Heaney, the bardic saga of a Danish prince's epic battles with the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother and a 50-foot dragon is as vivid as a tabloid headline and as visceral as a nightmare.Heaney's own poetic vernacular--muscular language so rich with the...
  • Odd Outing

    Allan Bloom is proving to be as controversial dead as he was alive. In 1987 Bloom detonated a cultural bomb when he published the surprise best seller "The Closing of the American Mind." In that cranky diatribe against cultural permissiveness, Bloom emerged as the conservative movement's poster boy for traditionalism. At the same time, we now find out from his close friend Saul Bellow, Bloom was also dying of AIDS.In Nobel Prize winner Bellow's new novel, "Ravelstein" (due out in April), the title character is Bloom in all but name--a popular Chicago professor, a legendary big spender--who lives in a swank apartment building where the "lobby was paneled in mahogany. The elevators were like confession boxes." And Ravelstein, like Bloom, is gay. Is it fair to out the dead? Bellow admitted in an interview last week that Bloom probably wouldn't have been happy having his homosexuality publicized. But Bloom wanted a frank memoir from his friend. As Andrew Sullivan, a New York Times...
  • An American Eye

    Walker Evans's pictures of Southern main streets, tenant farmers, Saratoga in the rain, subway riders, rundown barbershops and peeling billboard posters supply most of our defining images of the Depression. For some of us, they have come to define how a photograph should look, period. Not coincidentally the man behind those photographs was a study in contradiction--the first tip that maybe those pictures aren't as simple as they seem. Although he was a thoroughgoing modernist and a devoted Francophile, he did more than almost anyone to dignify vernacular American art and architecture with his photographs. He was a dandy whose idea of heaven was a pair of handmade shoes, but he is most famous for his penetrating photographs of Depression-era sharecroppers. He was restless all his life, moving from one style to the next, mastering that and then moving on to something else. The miracle is that out of this seemingly aimless artistic nomadism came images of such defining clarity that the...