This Friday, at 7:00 p.m., at Pegasus Books, 2349 Shattuck Avenue, in Berkeley, I will be “in conversation” with fine artist/cartoonist Guy Colwell about the release of his collected “INNER CITY ROMANCE” commix from the 1970s.

Hope to see you.


I wrote this over six months ago. The first place I sent it turned it down. The second said it’d do it. The editor just needed the right time. I forgot about it until the other day. Since he’s been sitting on another piece of mine for over a year without finding the time for it, I figured what the hell. He won’t mind and I better do something before I forget about it all over again.

a review by Bob and Adele Levin
Forbrydelsen, the Danish television series, on which the American The Killing was based, began January 7, 2007, and ended December 17, 2011. The first season ran 20 one-hour episodes; the second and third ran 10 episodes each. In these three season,, each time with a different partner, a homicide detective, Sarah Lund, played brilliantly by Sofie Grabol, solves three brutal cases.
The Killing, on AMC, began April 3, 2011, and ended August 4, 2013. It broke Forbrydelsen’s first season into two 13-episode ones, and then added a third 12-episode season. In these three seasons, a homicide detective, Sarah Linden, played brilliantly by Mireille Enos, solves two brutal cases. Throughout her partner is Stephen Holder, played brilliantly by Joel Kinnaman. Their failure to answer the question “Who-killed-Rosie-Larsen?” (Nanna Larsen, in the original) in season one, however, outraged viewers and critics alike.
The Killings ratings never recovered, and AMC cancelled it. Enos, with World War Z in her future, and Kinnaman, with Robo Cop, seemed headed for careers in second rate films. Then Netflix announced its acquisition of the rights to a six-episode conclusion.
We had been great fans of The Killing – and greater fans of Forbrydelsen, which seemed deeper, darker, and more psychologically complex. (We had seen it on DVD, via BBC, which had shown it with English subtitles, a perfectly enjoyable experience, despite being occasionally jarred by Danish law enforcement personnel speaking of “perps” and “blokes.”)We had only recently seen the final Forbrydelsen when Netflix’s season began, so we eagerly signed up.

Though the murderers differed – and Forbrydelsen was short on native Americans – the first cases were similar and played out alongside similar tales of political corruptness. Thereafter, the crimes differed, and AMC abandoned the corruption, which the Danes maintained.[Another difference was that Lund seemed to have surveillance cameras everywhere to assist her investigations and no Miranda warnings or search warrants to slow her down. If she wanted to inspect someone’s storage locker, she just snapped the bolt.] But both series maintained a striking similarity in their central characters.
Both Lund and Linden were single mothers of a son. Both broke off an engagement and had a history of walking out on significant others. Neither had a single, sustained close friendship. Lund had a strained relationship with her mother, but Linden’s had abandoned her and she had been raised in institutions and foster homes. (Holder’s upbringing, while unclear, had primed him to become a drug addict.)
The Danish and AMC series ended similarly. Linden, over Holder’s frantic objection, kills an unresistant rapist/killer of teenage girls. Lund, over the frantic objections of her latest partner, kills an unresistant rapist/killer of teenage girls. But while the screen simply faded to black on Linden, Lund must flee Denamrk, severing all connections with her past. With that in mind, The Killing’s revival raised questions about the over-looked consequences of Linden’s act.

Linden and Holder must solve the murder of a family of four, while pitted against an ex-army officer (Joan Allen), who, frankly, seemed better suited as an adversary for Colombo. They are weighted down – indeed almost crushed – by Linden’s homicide and Holder’s participation in the earlier cover-up. Throughout, they are pursued in Javert-like fashion by Holder’s suspicious ex-partner, Reddick (Gregg Henry), and further burdened by developments in their personal lives. Holder’s girlfriend is pregnant, and Linden’s son has located her mother, interlacing the season with issues of responsibility, commitment and flight.
By episode five’s end, Reddick has put the pieces together. He has the evidence. He has set Linden and Holder against each other. In their desperation, their eyes burn holes into their faces; their flesh dies. We approached the finale expecting doom – not even Lund’s plane to Iceland hovering as an escape. But having noted one seemingly casual bit of procedural dialogue and cognizant of Forbrydelsen’s world view – though missing a supportive clue in episode six’s opening credits – we spied a narrow exit.
It took several teasing, lingering “Is-this-it?” shots – and a few year elipsis – but things resolved even better than expected. The width of our smiles set us reflecting upon endings. We do not feed upon the sugar-coated. We resent the maudlin’s manipulations. We have had it with the latest “feel good’ whatever – and the redemptive makes us retch. We have enjoyed the varieties of blackness sprung from the conclusions to “adult” cable fare, like Huff and The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and The Wire, Boss and Nurse Jackie. So Forbrydelsen’s end, in which a wonderful-but-damaged woman, trying to do good, is cast into isolation, while powers-that-be conspire to conceal evil, fit a familiar world. The Killing, by establishing and maintaining its wonderful-but-damaged duo and de-emphasizing their surround, had shifted this dynamic. Now we had two people, thwarted in their development as human beings, to concern us – their external be damned!.
To reach its sugar-coated, heart warming, even – yes! – redemptive ending, via those missing years, during which Linden and Holder unexplainedly filled the holes which had previously kept them apart, The Killing tumbled ass-over-teakettle into the improbable. But we had wanted it so much – both for this couple, with whom we literally had spent more time than any flesh-and-blood other, and for ourselves – that we happily overlooked this assault upon credulity. The newspapers of the week which saw Holder and Linden embrace, had brought us Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Yazidis, and Ebola. The phone had added a hospitalization and an outpatient course of chemo, and the mail two M.I.s, one fatal. So we felt entitled – and absolved.
Sometimes, in fiction as in life, people grow up and find love. It doesn’t erase any brutalities and machinations, but it is nice when it happens.

I just finished…

…Ron Rath’s “Serena.” By the middle, the question of who-will-kill-whom-how propels one forward. The nature descriptions are fine. The Greek chorus of Snipes’s logging crew is delightful. But it is not “Cold Mountain,” and Roth is not Cormac McCarthy as the back cover would have one believe.

I just finished…

…Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Blue Flower.” “(B)eguiling,” the back cover says, “with a mix of wit, grace and mischievous humor…” All true, plus smart, poignant and a dose of where-the-hell-did-this-come-from, which is always nice.

This writing life

My latest is up at “The Broad Street Review.” It begins

Building a brand. God, I hate that phrase. Makes one sound like a Kraft cheese. But, as Truman Capote said, “A boy’s got to pimp his book.” Or something like that.

Recently Little Free Libraries have been popping up around town. They look like duplex
birdhouses on posts, planted on people’s lawns, fronting their sidewalks. The idea is, Someone puts a book in; someone takes a book out.
Cool! I thought. I will put a book in. And not just any book, but a pristine, mint-condition The Best Ride to New York, about which, in 1978, the Sunday Times admiringly said, “What is one to say about Bob Levin’s…”; and, only two dozen years later, the Daily News lamented its being “lost… (and) forgotten.”

The link is http://broadstreetreview.com/books-movies/this-writing-life

I just finished…

…”Five Days at Memorial,” Sheri Fink’s Pulitzer-winning account of what went on at that New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina, a five star recommendation by my pal http://buddshenkin.blogspot.com/, toward whom I turn on all questions of national health policy, as well as why I should give a shit about what goes on in the Ukraine. I could have done without the last bit about the competing theories about disbursing medical care during disasters, but the account of events was compelling, the characters were well-rendered, and my thinking was bounced around quite a bit.

Two Books

This one was published on-line by “The Broad Street Review,” under the perhaps-improved, certainly catchier title “Let Us Now Praise Obscure Men” on October 19, 2009.

Two Books
InWa David Halberstam’s chapter on Grace Metalious in “The Fifties,” I learned that “Return to Peyton Place” had been doctored into publishable health by Warren Miller. When I saw that name, I did not immediately associate to “skiers” and “snow.” I thought, “The Cool World.”
Considering the impact his novel had on me, it was surprising how little I knew about its author. Miller came out of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He published nine books between 1958 and 1964. “(O)utspoken political views,” Wikipedia says, combined with a death from lung cancer in 1966, at age forty-five, to leave him “relatively unknown today.”
But “The Cool World” enshrined him within me forever. It appeared in 1959, the first person narrative of Duke Custis, fourteen-year-old War Lord of the Royal Crocodiles, a Harlem gang. I was in eleventh grade and had never – and, to this day, have not yet – read anything that, to my middle class Jewish ear, so well captured the rhythm and language of what-I-took-to-be those streets. (Just the other day, sharpening a scene for a work-in-progress, I turned to it for dialogue enhancement.) Its opening sentence – “They call him Priest because he always wear black” – with its immaculately calibrated dropped “s” – had grabbed me and the friends with whom I had shared other identity-shaping passions – from EC comics through pre-Elvis rock’n’roll – and we had grabbed it back. We were in the process, though we did not know it yet, of trying to become hip – or “hep,” as Duke would have it – to differentiate from our bland surround; and Miller’s book became a piece in the stand-apart assemblages we were effecting. It was so neat to know “shitman” as one word. It was so fulfilling to hold a piece of excellence to which most of the world was blind. With “Catcher” and “Martian Chronicles,” it was among the few books I would carry out of adolescence into adulthood. Before Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner, I had it.
Long before I thought of writing as something I could do, “The Cool World” planted a flag atop a hill. It was a means of assertion. A badge among a brotherhood. It said if you could render the distinct you would make a mark.

What do “The Hustler” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” have in common, I used to ask. No one knew. When I said they were written by the same man, they had not heard of him.
Walter Tevis was born in 1928. During the 1950s, he published short stories in “Esquire,” “Saturday Evening Post,” “Colliers,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan.” “The Hustler,” his first novel, was published in 1959. “The Man…,” his second, in 1963. He did not publish another for seventeen years.
I read “The Hustler” first as a short story in “Playboy.” If my memory is correct, I saw it as a TV drama, though no such adaptation is credited on Tevis’s web site. I read the novel more than twice. I saw the movie more than that. In 1963, when a friend and I drove cross-country after our junior year of college, there were two places we had to see in San Francisco: City Lights Books and the Market Street pool hall where, we believed, Paul Newman had played Jackie Gleason. (We were misinformed. In researching this piece, I learned those scenes were shot at Ames Pool Hall in New York City.) “The Hustler” was one of those markers by which we hoped to fight our way clear of the dreary, stultifying grind-you-down, stamp-you-out assembly line time. It pointed a way, we hoped, toward transformative, glorious, flame-burning, soul-saving deviance. To this day, when I describe my first book, I say “It’s an existential sports novel, like ‘Fat City’ or ‘The Hustler.’” I would not be more proud if I was associating myself to “Ulysses.” In about – I am guessing – 1980, I saw a flyer announcing that Tevis was reading at Cody’s Books. This was before authors’ readings were regular events in book stores. (I had been in Berkeley twelve years and don’t think I had attended any.) My recollection is the crowd was small. My sense is nearly all were there because of the David Bowie connection. When Tevis took questions, I raised my hand. I think – at least I’d like to think – I told him what “The Hustler” had meant to me. Then I asked how he had moved from its nitty-gritty realism into science fiction. He said that he was an alcoholic. “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” he said, was his rendition of what it was his life had been like on this planet.
In the next four years, Tevis published four more novels. He died of lung cancer in 1984.

Being here

My habit, after my work-out, has been one ounce of dark chocolate, which I have found a better motivator than a carrot on a stick, followed by a five-minute meditation. When the weather is good, I eat my chocolate and do my sit outside, beside the health club pool. Swimmers move through the blue, salted water. Tall palm trees sway. Recently, though, jack hammers have been blasting, not 20-feet away.
I have never been a great meditator. (That I persist, after all these years of practice, in grading my meditations, confirms my long way to go.) And the jack hammers drove me inside. Then the weather got even better.
It turned out jack hammers were not determinative. I could not tune them out. But they did not prevent my having the old familiar thoughts which keep me – or don’t – from following my breath. They did not unplug the light show, flashing yellow, red and green on the inside of my eye lids. They were just another noise.
All around us wars and plagues blast. But we can keep on doing what we do.

I just finished…

…Edward St. Aubyn’s “Lost for Words” and Janet Malcolm’s “Forty-One False Starts.”

I am a great fan of St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. This was not one.

I am a great fan of Malcolm’s anything. I had read nearly all of this before, some of it twice. My admiration only grew.

A Flag for Robert Stone

My latest piece has gone up at http://broadstreetreview.com/books-movies/a-flag-for-robert-stone
It begins:

There was a period I read his novels as soon as they came out. Hall of Mirrors. Dog Soldiers. A Flag For Sunrise. Children of Light. Outerbridge Reef. Damascus Gate.
Well, not exactly. I read the last four after Max Garden, who had bought them, finished.