Book Notes

by Bruce Anderson, April 23, 2008

Frank Bardacke writes...

"What a splendid book The Mendocino Papers is. Haunting might be a better adjective. It reminds me of the world of Juan Rolfo where the dead and living inhabit the same small town but in this case it is a county, and when you turn the corner you could run into another Indian killer or a suicidal social worker in wool, or the Bok-Boks, or the Mickey Maoists, or Frank James. And right there in the middle are the Andersons and an argument over a Scrabble board about whether asshole is one word or two.

What are you laughing about? Julie said, I am trying to sleep.

Listen to this.

For the next edition you might like to make a correction. The last time I saw John Ross I asked him about the Panther beating as I have been telling that story for years. He told me it never happened. They got someone else sitting at the table but back then he could still run fast enough to get away. But it is true that Octavio Paz's bodyguards knocked out some of his teeth. Others were taken care of by the San Francisco Tact Squad.

Here the Indians were completely wiped out because they had the misfortune to be surrounded by missions — Santa Cruz to the north, Carmel to the south, San Juan Bautista in the East — and were ruined by the maniacal fathers' bad food and syphilis. Plus Israeli style collective punishment of entire villages after the ungrateful neophytes found out what life in the missions was like and tried to run away. Oh yes, the Catholics thought they had souls — doomed to remain in limbo until they were offered the chance to convert to Christ — and that put them a rung higher than the Protestants who thought they were no more than beasts of the forest. But it didn't offer them much protection. Cook tells the story of runaways from Carmel who were captured in the Salinas Valley. The soldiers didn't kill them right off. They waited for the priest to arrive so that he could give them final absolution.

We have one poor soul left around here as a kind of walking Ishi, our one Indian. He knows some Indian words. He goes to the local schools and does some Indian dances. He fights to protect the Indian graveyards that some construction projects uncover. He has petitioned the Great White Fathers to be officially recognized as a tribe, but so far no dice. Nonetheless, he is a good guy and every now and then he does exactly the right thing. A few years ago we had a flood which wiped out a few people and inconvenienced a bunch more. In retaliation, the local authorities attacked the river, cutting down 200-year-old trees along the banks, leaving one every hundred yards or so. They had some stupid theory about how fallen trees had caused a flood, but they were just mad at the river and mad at the bums who slept along its side. So they killed it. Well, Patrick, our Indian, came and did a ceremony in honor of the fallen river. I'll never forget it. He was the one person who could do the river justice. Thanks for the book."

Shameless self-promotion, you say? At the low end of the book business the author, who is after all only a message in a bottle in a sea of indifference, out there in an oceanic din of millions of people doing handstands and yelling, "Hey! Over here. Look at me!" So the author does what he can to get his book to people whose interest it might hold.

This author has one standard for all prose: does it hold his interest? The author wasted lots of his youth reading books that smarter people, college people, told him he had to read to be an educated person, which even as a youth wasn't his goal because he already knew that getting his ticket punched was simply a matter of showing up for four years and if he had the ticket he might get an undemanding job at a livable wage. Educated was no incentive at all. It had no meaning then and less now.

The four-year ticket-punch didn't work out either, and the author approaches his golden years with no gold but a credit card with a $7,000 limit he hopes to cash in a few minutes before the banking system collapses altogether, and his puny debt isn't found in the Bank of America's rubble until he's planted at Evergreen Cemetery, Boonville. The banks rob us all our lives and it's our duty as free Americans to rob them every chance we get! Run those cards up, America! Have a good time before it all comes apart!

If he had it to do over again the author wouldn't have bothered with the college interlude where he was compelled to read Paradise Lost and Joseph Conrad and philosophy that made his head ache and a professor who told him a poem was "a nexus of segmental phonemes." All this education got in the way of the books he really wanted to read.

But the author's own book holds his interest so he advertises it as best he can which is in his own Advertiser, the only surviving paper in America with a such a ruinous percentage of actual ads it is objectively bankrupt, as professors of journalism taking in a hundred grand a year wowing the 19-year-olds gleefully, and often, tell the author, "You're not a real newspaper anyway because you don't have a horoscope, or sex ads, or a teen page, or big front page color photos of toddlers running through sprinklers with big fluffy dogs. Those are real newspapers. You can believe what you read in them because they're objective and all their reporters and editors have taken classes from me and my friends."

Bruce Patterson's Walking Tractor also holds the author's interest, as has recently Richard Price's new novel, Lush Life, as has Rabbit Boss by Thomas Sanchez, the only book that there is that tells us what it was like to be an Indian from the time of the first white settlers eating each other at Donner Lake through the generations short of the casinos and Indians kicking other Indians out of their tribes so they don't have to split the jackpot too many ways.

There are lots of good, lively books out there, and there are interesting book stores out there selling them, one of which is Book Zoo at 6395 Telegraph, Oakland, inspired by the great Bay Area bookman, Marshall Curatolo, whose young descendants at Book Zoo were kind enough to invite the author to read last Friday night. But the author doesn't like to read at people, especially his own words which, once they're on the page, he really doesn't care to be reminded of because reading them over when it's too late is like tiny darts to the heart and brain because he sees too late how it could have been said better, maybe even much better.

So the author talks for a few introductory minutes then argues with the audience, mostly old beatniks like himself, but also a few people who look more or less normal but are probably crazy as hell, and an encouraging number of young beatniks like the ones who preside over Book Zoo because, as the author said Friday night, he's gone to Herbst readings of big time authors like V.S. Naipul who read endlessly, it seemed, from a Biswas novel everyone there had already read or they wouldn't have been there in the first place then took one question from a woman who asked, "How do you like America, Mr. Nipple?" Quite well, Naipul said, and walked off stage so fast I thought he might be considering a full sprint all the way to the airport. The author told Book Zoo that the idea of his book is that in the four hundred years since those first fatal puffs of white sail appeared off Cape Mendocino we've gone from 12,000 years of ingenious people living harmoniously with the world as they found it to Petco and, as the unaddressed catastrophes accumulate and intensify, we're unlikely to get back to the future in time to learn anything from it. Every jive hippie in the English-speaking world has been saying the same thing since 1967, not to mention more or less legitimate scholars, so the author's simple, not to say simpleminded, premise is barely worth saying other than as a palimpsest on which he scrawled these stories of subsequent experience to again make the point that we've gone from sense to insensibility in a very short period of time.

Long live Book Zoo!

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