Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained by August Kleinzahler

I bought this book nearly two years ago, on the recommendation of my friend Doug.

Cutty, One Rock has four parts in this edition (three in the original). Generally, the book deals with Kleinzahler’s background–family, hometown and neighborhood–in a Mob-rough New Jersey; it deals with place, relationships with people, and eventually with art. His parents live a middle-to-upper-middle class life, concerned somewhat with appearances; his mother is devoted to Shakespeare. The back of the book calls them “both cultivated and deranged,” which I think is apt. Early in the book, these parents figure as central influences, central characters in the child’s upbringing, but stay tuned for another important family member to come later in the book.

The adult Kleinzahler is an expatriate Jerseyite living in California’s Bay Area, and the differences between these two places, the baggage he carries between them, is another central feature. Here he is describing the “swagger, a bluff air of menace that many of the males wear”:

Once, after leaving a restaurant in North Beach, here in San Francisco, I gave a panhandler a dollar, a middle-aged black guy with some amusing riff or other.

“Thanks, Jersey,” he said, to the great amusement of my companions.

“How did you know I was from Jersey?” I asked.

“Are you kidding?” he said.

The narrator does substantial traveling beyond these two points, east and west, and these other locations and the nature of travel itself offer another recurring thread. The essay “East/West Variations” opens:

There’s a window, thirty-six hours or so, not even, when traveling by air between places, places where you’ve lived for a long time. After you’ve landed and into the next day, perhaps the evening–then you begin to lose it. It goes very quickly, decaying like a tone in the air. But for a while, inside that window, you’re hyperawake.

He goes on to describe this “window,” which I couldn’t help but conflate with the window you look out of when traveling by air–which I was doing, as it happens, while reading this book. He concludes on the next page that “places are conditions of mind.” By the end of this wide-ranging essay (which catalogs several romantic interests and his hard-nosed mother’s reactions to these women), we deal directly with a parent’s mortality. It’s a hell of an undertaking, and I’m not sure I followed him everywhere he tried to take me, but I appreciate the ambitious handling of place and people, and their intersection.

Part three tackles the subject of poetry, and poets. Kleinzahler is a poet; but he’s a rough-and-tumble Jersey poet, with no patience for poetry readings or academia. He writes a particularly scathing send-up of Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems; a profile of Allen Ginsberg (reminding me, not for the first time, of Joseph Mitchell); and a lovely elegy of Thom Gunn. The Keillor criticism, “No Antonin Artaud with the Flapjacks, Please,” is clever, and the Ginsberg profile is incisive; but I love Kleinzahler’s voice best when he writes with love, as he does of Gunn.

Kleinzahler is derisive toward intellectuals,

particularly university intellectuals, [who] indulge in pissing contests over how much they’ve read, quoting at length by heart and so on. No wonder they have no friend off-campus. Thom could more than hold his own if sucked into one or another of these contests, but it wasn’t his sport.

And it’s not Kleinzahler’s sport, either, but I do want to point out that he had me noting (and in some cases looking up) terms like diabase, tibouchina, carillon, cloaca, tatterdemalion (great fun, that one), superannuated, and–very happily–sprezzatura, which I remember from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, in which McPhee expresses a sense of total consternation at this untranslatable and mysterious term. So there, Kleinzahler.

While there are many fine essays here–like “The Bus,” about public transportation, class in cities, and the invisible weirdness of strip centers–this book held two exceptional highlights for me. One was the essay, in part two, “The Zam Zam Room.” It offers a profile of a bar, a dark and smoky bar with a characterful bartender/owner who professionally throws people out.

When David Letterman came to town to do a week of shows, his advance people phoned Bruno to see if he would throw Letterman out of the bar on the show. “No, I’m sorry, thank you,” Bruno said over the phone. “Who’s David Letterman?” he asked us. “I don’t know this person. Why do these people bother me? He must be some New York person.”

Perfect descriptions of place, local culture, and especially a singular personality, make for an essay I love–but if it’s also set in a bar, I’m really sold.

The finest thing in these pages, though, is part four. Where the first three parts contain three to four essays apiece, this is a single essay, which shares the book’s title, “Cutty, One Rock.” That’s what Kleinzahler’s older brother always ordered when he went out, which he did, just about all night and every night until he died young and tragic. I heard echoes and rhymes of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” loud and clear throughout. This deeply loving study of a loved brother, its close attention and reluctant acknowledgement of flaws, its worship–because the narrator was the much younger brother, always looking up–is so good it hurts. That’s them on the front cover.

This book is worth reading from cover to cover, but that final section really blew me apart. Booze; sense of place; difficult families and unbeautiful homes. Also, memoirs by poets. Good stuff. Thanks, Doug.


Rating: 8 dry martinis.

The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman

A loving daughter’s memoir of her father portrays the literary mind of Clifton Fadiman through his passionate oenophilia.

Before Anne Fadiman was known for The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down and At Large and At Small, she was an “oakling,” withering (according to an adage she quotes) in the shadow of an oak. Her father, Clifton Fadiman, enjoyed a long, successful career as a reader, book reviewer and wordsmith. He worked for Simon & Schuster, the New Yorker and the radio quiz show Information Please, and produced numerous collections of essays, criticism and anecdotes, children’s literature, translations and anthologies. Most of all, however, he loved wine.

Fadiman’s The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a beautifully composed memoir of her father’s life, viewed through the lens of his oenophilia. She recalls discovering his essay “Brief History of a Love Affair” at age 10, and being disappointed that it did not describe love for a woman. She should not have been surprised, as even at that age she knew the names of the Premier Cru Bordeaux and which were the Great Years (capitalized as such). Clifton’s passion for wine was prodigious, and it was his daughter’s shame and consternation that her palate never came to appreciate any of its forms. This memoir is in part the story of that struggle–her repeated attempts to love wine, and all the fine bottles wasted on her. Near the end, she embarks on a study of taste buds, supertasters and the possible scientific explanation for her (as she feels it) failure to live up to a legacy.

While she does not shrink from Clifton’s flaws–a condescending attitude toward women, profound insecurity–this portrait is deeply loving. Fadiman seeks to reveal a complex and multi-talented man, and to celebrate his contributions to literature. She also seeks contact with a father she clearly misses. Upon discovering the careful handwritten record of his wine purchases: “He liked thinking about a bottle waiting for decades in a hushed, dark place until a hand reached in, and the corkscrew did its work, and the wine came to life again, a life that had deepened while it bided its time. Opening the Cellar Book was like that.” She calls it “the most serious book he ever wrote, the most heartfelt, the most honest.” Finding him again in his Cellar Book, as well as in his copious writings, brings Fadiman great pleasure, and will edify and entertain readers. Along the way, she touches upon a century of U.S. cultural history, to which her father contributed.

Fadiman’s prose is clear and precise, and while not overtly poetic, perfectly composed as to rhythm and sound. As in her past work, she writes with equal skill of her own memories, family history, science and the finer points of wine appreciation (which she knows by heart and inheritance, if not by personal experience). The Wine Lover’s Daughter is a beautiful remembrance and a loving and well-deserved tribute to a literary figure–and to the joy of imbibing.


This review originally ran in the October 26, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 papillae.

Bonus:

I had a moment of joyful recognition when I discovered on page 5 that Anne’s father Clifton Fadiman was the author of the children’s book Wally the Wordworm which I remember enjoying as a child.

My review of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was one of three brief pieces I sent in to Shelf Awareness when I applied to write for them. The beloved editor who hired me there has retired, but she is still reading and reviewing, and she changed my life in wonderful ways, as did Anne Fadiman’s writings.

Circles and synchronicity, friends.


Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World by Tim Sultan

A vividly portrayed Brooklyn bar serves as vehicle in a young man’s ode to his friend.

sunnys nights

Tim Sultan wandered by accident through the door beneath the sign that read simply “Bar,” in the derelict neighborhood of mid-1990s Red Hook in Brooklyn, N.Y. Charmed by the proprietor, Antonio Raffaele “Sunny” Balzano, Sultan become a bar regular, then a bartender, and eventually left his Manhattan high-rise job to devote himself to the bar–or, more accurately, to Sunny himself. Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World is an appreciation of that man.

Sunny’s bar is “on the edge of the world” because Red Hook is both a point on what Sunny calls the Mississippi-Hudson River (because of the Hudson’s role in his youth, which he recalls in parallel to the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn), and an outlier in the consciousness of greater Brooklyn. Sultan explores the history of the neighborhood as well as of Sunny and his bar, a family affair for generations. The result is both memoir and biography, alternating between the protagonists’ years of friendship and their separate pasts: Sultan grew up in West Africa and Germany while Sunny’s childhood was confined to Red Hook. Also an artist in diverse media, Sunny is wildly charismatic, with endless stories that unfailingly hold his audience spellbound; this is the real story of the bar. As Sunny and Sultan share histories, escapades (including a near-drowning in the Mississippi-Hudson) and hospital visits, old Red Hook wise guys (some still bending an elbow at Sunny’s), poets, lovers, musicians and artists make for a colorful, eclectic and winning tale–like Sunny himself.


This review originally ran in the March 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 Bathtubs.

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

tender barI loved this one.

The Tender Bar is a memoir of one man’s life in a bar. JR was a little boy surrounded by women and girls: he lived with his mother, grandmother, aunt and four girl cousins (and a grandfather, uncle and a boy cousin, but still). He felt drawn to men: in his hindsight telling, he felt the lack of a father, and sought male attentions and teachings, and a model for becoming a man. He found this in his uncle, but even more so, in the hallowed space just 142 steps away, where his uncle tended bar.

This is both a bildungsroman and the story of a bar. By some extension, it is thirdly the story of a place: Manhasset, Long Island, a town historically fixated on drinking and comfortable, sociable places to do it in. We see JR’s childhood – deeply chaotic and troubled in his home life, but bolstered by a beloved and mostly stable (if chaotic in their own way) group of men from the bar. We see him grow up, learn about himself and the world, and experiment with concepts of what he owes to his world and what he’ll do with himself. There is always the bar, at the center of these concepts. Eventually, JR becomes an adult, and the bar ages alongside him. Losses come with age, culminating in the losses of September 11, 2001, which were widespread for a town that commuted into the City and into the World Trade Centers.

I loved many things about this book. I loved the format, which begins with some (presumably research-based) backstory about Manhasset, and with some musings on bars and life. (See my book beginning.) I loved Moehringer’s tone: of immense and frequent humor, often self-deprecating, but also of sober reckoning. He made me laugh out loud until I had to put the book down and hold my belly. I liked the perspective he took, the places where his adult’s wisdom did and did not inform his telling of the child’s experience. I felt drawn to the family, the bar community, and JR’s difficulties with differences in class (when he goes off, of all places, to Yale) and geography (moving at one point to Arizona, where his accent stands out). Despite being totally foreign to me, the Manhasset setting made sense, came alive in this telling. (And not for the first time: Manhasset is the model for the setting of The Great Gatsby.) And of course as much as anything I loved this bar: I loved his love for the bar, and sympathized with it, and I loved the place itself. I recognize and feel affection for a place with playfully rude, unhurried service, a divey atmosphere but with professional cocktail construction. It is a literary place, named Dickens in Moehring’s youth and later changed to Publicans but keeping its nod to culture, song and theatre, and especially words. JR tried for years to write about the place while in the place – the concept that the reader knows would eventually become The Tender Bar.

In this place he meets men (and some women) from all walks of life, professors and police officers and bookies and poets and more. He compares the bar to the Iliad (sure to either win my heart or offend me; here, the former):

In fact the bar and the poem complemented each other, like companion pieces. Each smacked of ageless verities about men.

And he goes on to identify the Ajax, the Hector, the Achilles he finds in Publicans.

I’m sure I give the impression that this is a book seeped in testosterone, and that’s not untrue, but it’s more nuanced than that. For years, JR looked for men to teach him what it meant to be a man. It was something of an obsession for this mostly-fatherless boy (although one wonders how much of that is inserted in hindsight). There are women in the story, too, of course: a girl cousin, a girlfriend, female friends, but centrally his mother, from whom he learns a lot. In the end, he acknowledges that she did a better job of many of the virtues he looked to men for, than did the men he found.

He offers nuggets about writing. As attributed to a priest he meets in the bar car of the train from the City back to Manhasset:

Do you know why God invented writers? Because He loves a good story. And He doesn’t give a damn about words. Words are the curtain we’ve hung between Him and our true selves. Try not to think about the words. Don’t strain for the perfect sentence. There’s no such thing. Writing is guesswork. Every sentence is an educated guess, the reader’s as much as yours. Think about that the next time you curl a piece of paper into your typewriter.

I could spend all day on this quotation alone, some of which I’d take issue with – I think words are very important, and I think the perfect sentence is to be sought – but there’s a lot to ponder and a lot of wisdom there.

I feel like I’ve gotten to know JR Moehringer by reading his story, and I like him. I acknowledge his flaws but would be his friend. That’s a fine outcome for a memoir, I think. This was an excellent book, in its stories, its characters, its format, the details of its writing, and its emotional tone. It’s a little like The Liars’ Club in its best parts: funny, self-deprecating, sad, beautiful, brave, honorable, ironic. I raise my glass.


Rating: 9 pet mice.

book beginnings on Friday: The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

It felt like a great and happy luxury to take time out of my professional reading to read this book just for me. (Actually it is referenced as a standard by a book I was hired to read, and you will see that one come up later. But I already had this one on my desk. So it counts.) I was struck immediately by the opening lines: how perfect.

tender bar

We went there for everything we needed. We went there when we were thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn’t know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went there when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.

There is, of course, a certain special bar that I think of, where I have gone when happy and when sad. Miss y’all.

Just a few paragraphs later, another piece of profundity:

While I fear that we’re drawn to what abandons us, and to what seems most likely to abandon us, in the end I believe we’re defined by what embraces us.

I think this will be a good one, friends.

hemingWay of the Day: on the menu

My favorite bar has an every-Tuesday-night event called Imperial Andy’s Historical Cocktail Tuesday. Andy is my friendly British bartender. He finds a historical event coinciding with each Tuesday’s date, makes up four themed cocktails to go with it, and produces a one-off menu telling the story. I have long wanted to be a part of one. Many months ago I used the book my mother gave me (for Christmas?), A Reader’s Book of Days, to find a Hemingway event: July 8, which fell on a Tuesday in 2014, was the day (night) he was injured in WWI, which led to his meeting the nurse he fell in love with, who would jilt him, who would be the model for the novel A Farewell to Arms for which he is so well known. This event would also be a big part of his self-myth. I’ve had my short write-up of this historical event and its significance waiting since maybe January for July to come along so I could cue Andy to do a cocktail list for it. Obviously the possibilities are endless! Well, I ended up having an un-reschedule-able appointment on that Tuesday evening; I was pretty disappointed. But the week before, I dropped my piece of writing off with Andy anyway. He’s become a great friend. I said hey, if you use this, would you just save me a copy of the menu please? He said he would push the historical event back a week if I could make the following Tuesday! Which I could.

On Tuesday, July 15, I walked into the bar and he had his menu ready for me – but it stated the date of Hemingway’s injury as July 15! I said, you didn’t even acknowledge your rewriting of history! Won’t somebody call you on this?? He said, Julia, there’s only one customer I know who would call me on this, and I think I’m safe from that person tonight. Why? It’s YOU, Julia. Oh. Okay. (I’ve made a note to check every Tuesday’s historical event for accuracy from now on.)

I enjoyed the drinks. And while we talked over drinks, we somehow came around to the concept of the green man. I told him Kingsnorth’s story as I remembered it offhand from an article my father sent me some months back (Andy being logically at least a little interested as a historical cocktail man as well as a Brit), and I sent him the link to the article too. And then, just on a whim, I looked up the date of the Battle of Hastings: October 14, 1066. Guess what day of the week October 14 falls on this year. You got it. That will be another Imperial Andy’s Historical Cocktail Tuesday. Too bad that’s not the week my father was planning to be in town… maybe he can reschedule.

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did not finish: Shadows in the Vineyard by Maximillian Potter

shadowsFull title, Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine. Briefly: I was excited about the concept of this book. History; true crime; alcohol!; and a strangely-spooky-but-real tale of apparent insanity, set in a vineyard, of all places. I recognized in this book the spirit of The Inheritor’s Powder and The Remedy, among others. (I may also have a burgeoning interest in amateur botany, based upon A Garden of Marvels, The Drunken Botanist, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.) Additionally, the author is an accomplished journalist, which I thought promising.

But where the concept hooked me, the text failed. I found a profusion of sentence fragments. And sometimes this works, for dramatic effect – although I think it still works best in limited dosages, because for gosh sake, sentence fragments are the breaking of a grammatical rule and should be used sparingly and with respect for the rule being broken. (I still recall Mrs. Smith, my sophomore and junior year English teacher, and her lecture about Hemingway’s use of the passive tense, wherein Cohn “was married by the first girl who was nice to him.” She taught us that you have to be a Hemingway-caliber writer before you get to go messing about with the passive tense like that.) And Potter has a tendency to tell his reader what character thought, felt, did or said in rather distant history, which I found off-putting and untrustworthy in a journalist. As intriguing as his story looked from afar, I found it insufficient to keep me on board through these difficulties. Oh, and there were rather too many references to God in the opening pages for my personal taste; if these were going to be drawn together and made relevant to the story, it didn’t happen in time for this reader.

Better luck next time.

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