Al Hooper

Truth in fiction


Lardner: Heroes
of the written word

THE LARDERS: My Family Remembered (reviewed 2016)

Ring Lardner is not widely remembered today, but in the first half of the last century he was legendary for his unique writing style and irreverent newspaper and magazine coverage of America’s new religion.

Which was, and still is, football and baseball and the rest of the modern sports pantheon.

Along the way Ring Sr. fathered four sons, and two of them grew up to write even better than he did.

Son No. 3 was Ring Lardner Jr., the author of “THE LARDNERS: My Family Remembered.” Published in 1976, this is one of many literary treasures made available to collectors today by, for which this bibliophile is fervently grateful.

The first half of the book features Ring Sr., and for readers unfamiliar with the 1920s to 1950s icon, it might be considered overly detailed. But the author himself is a fine pro who never wrote a bad sentence, and his family history mirrors America’s history of the time.

First, the cast:
Eldest son John Lardner is still revered as the best American sportswriter of any period (Newsweek, True Magazine etc.).
James, next in line, volunteered to fight Generalissimo Franco’s fascists in Spain. He died doing it.
Youngest son Dan was killed in battle during the Allied liberation of occupied Europe in 1944.

After the war Ring Jr., who had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s – a perfectly legal affiliation – became one of the Hollywood Ten who declined to answer questions posed by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.

Until then he’d been a highly successful screenwriter. But when he told the witch-hunt committee, “I could answer your questions but I’d hate myself in the morning,” he went to prison for it.

Other writers similarly victimized included Dalton Trumbo and the great Dashiell Hammett. Hammett’s health was destroyed in prison. But Trumbo and Ring Jr., when they got out, got right back to writing screenplays … under assumed names.

Ring Lardner Jr. went on to win two Academy Awards for his memorable screenplays. Meanwhile the politically bent House committee members disappeared without a trace.

On one level “THE LARDNERS” serves as a case study of one of the more shameful periods in our history. It’s also a testament to those who survived their government’s persecution to achieve lasting art.

The one, the only…
Mordecai Richler

MORDECAI: The Life & Times (reviewed 2013)

Mordecai Richler should be famous. More famous than he is, that is. His contemporaries were Philip Roth and Joseph Heller and Saul Bellow and John Updike. Canadian author Mordecai Richler was better than any of them.

When he died in 2001 at age 70, he left behind a clutch of brilliant novels and several volumes of pithy essays on subjects guaranteed to outrage the parochial minded.

Which was okay by Mordecai. He disdained insular thinkers – like, for instance, the heavy-breathing French-Canadian nationalists in his native Quebec. Between his more important writing assignments, he took time to denounce the absurdity of that province’s repressive French language laws, which are an offense to anyone who believes in free speech.

Quebec secessionists bristled. They fulminated. They organized boycotts and lynch mobs, culturally speaking. Richler responded by returning to his typewriter and starting work on his next artistic tour de force.

In “MORDECAI: His Life & Times,” biographer Charles Foran presents Richler in full-throated charge. Warts and all, like they say.

Foran himself is a superb writer – the author of several books including two novels. His “novelization” of Richler’s values and attitudes enriches the biography by humanizing its subject on every page.

Writing was Richler’s life. But he was a man of many parts, and biographer Foran captures them all:

– Mordecai Richler wrote beautiful sentences. He published 10 novels of dazzling scope and hilarious wit. You won’t find two admirers who rate his novels in exactly the same order. This would be mine:
“Joshua, Then and Now.” “St. Urbain’s Horseman.” “Barney’s Version.” “Solomon Gursky Was Here.” “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.” “Cocksure.”
(Scratch the earlier novels: “The Acrobats” and “The Incomparable Atuk” and “Son of a Smaller Hero.” In later years Richler tried to keep them from being reprinted as the detritus of his learner phase.)

His literary milieu was a Jewish subsection of Montreal. But his canvas expanded from there to New York and London and Paris and Madrid and Africa and even to the great Canadian North. Montreal was simply a starting point. His themes were universal.

– He could be a tough interview. He endured the prescribed tours to promote a book, but he didn’t enjoy them. He would lapse into sullen silence if he perceived that the interviewer was an unread drone.
I happened to see one of his TV talk show appearances in Vancouver for “Solomon Gursky Was Here.” Richler came on the set and sat down and grumped, “I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
Interviewer: “Uh … what do you mean?”
Richler: “Everybody knows that people who watch daytime TV don’t read books.”
Interviewer: “Uh … well, there is that.”

– Even the cover of “MORDECAI” is iconic. It shows him squinting at us through a haze of cigarette fumes. Richler smoked. Heavily. All his life. It’s what killed him.
It was the only cliché that dared show its face in his presence. But it was one too many …
 • • •
Charles Foran nails all these quirks and feats in the 737 pages of his bio. Mr. Foran is nothing if not inclusive.

To a fault, some might say. All literary biographies are overwritten, because the people who write them love their subject. And there’s so much material available – the subject is a walking paper trail. He writes copious letters to his friends and his friends write back. There are the published interviews. Public appearances. Family archives.

No detail goes undiscovered. Or unreported.

Some readers may find Foran’s devotion to Richler’s day-to-day activities a tad overmuch. Exhausting, even. Couldn’t he have summarized just a little? Fair question.

On balance, though, it’s a price worth paying to share the life and times of a novelist whose works rank with the best of the 20
th Century.

For the love of
Dorothy Parker

DOROTHY PARKER: In Her Own Words (reviewed 2013)

Dorothy Parker never wrote her autobiography for reasons that she made eminently clear. Chief among them: “Rather than write my life story I would cut my throat with a dull knife.”

There are several contradictions in Dorothy Parker’s detached view of her life (she died in 1967 at age 74).

She liked to say she was “a small Jewish girl trying to get along in the big city,” but as a young woman she was an extraordinary presence in the cultural life of New York and beyond. Her play reviews for the
New Yorker are quoted and re-quoted ad infinitum:

• – “Ah, I said to myself, for I love a responsive audience. It’s one of those plays.”
• – “Scratch an actor and you’ll find an actress.”
• – “The play `The House Beautiful’ is the play lousy.”
• – Of a stage performance by Katherine Hepburn she wrote: “Miss Hepburn took care to keep away from one of the supporting actresses in case she caught acting from her.”

Her incisive wit earned her a place among the literary icons who made up the Algonquin Round Table, where her longtime friend Robert Benchley presided over many a hilarious lunch. And Dorothy could be counted on to prop up her side of the table. Not for nothing were they called the Roaring Twenties.

She once complained, “I hate the office. It cuts into my social life.” Asked if she was enjoying a party, she said, “One more drink and I’ll be under the host.” Someone else asked her, “Are you Dorothy Parker?” She replied, “Yes. Do you mind?”

Of course it wasn’t all fun and acerbic wit, and author/editor Barry Day has done a superb job in this biography of assembling Dorothy Parker’s many personal and professional misfires.

In the end, appropriately enough, her best epitaph was written by herself. She had just survived an unrequited love affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald when she arrived at a party where the host informed her that the guests were engaged in a game called “Ducking For Apples.”

Dorothy said wanly, “Change one consonant in that sentence and you’ve got the story of my life.”

She should have liked herself more. All these years later she continues to delight the literate generations that followed. If that’s not posterity, then my dictionary is in error.

Over Time: Deford’s
take is just like him

OVER TIME by Frank Deford (reviewed 2012)

When sportswriter/author/broadcaster
Frank Deford published his memoirs in 2012, his fans were ready and waiting. Salivating, even.

Included were people who tune in to his weekly sports sermons on NPR Radio, and those who know him from his perceptive articles in
Sports Illustrated and other national magazines. There are also some published books with his name on them.

Frank Deford knows words. Lots of words. And while he writes about sports, he sees them whole – warts, hypocrisies and all.

In one passage in
Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter, he astutely points out that an obsession with sports reveals a flaw of either character or culture, or perhaps both. His point is that couch jocks need to get a life. Watching or even playing sports should be an add-on, not a holy mission.

In today’s sports media there are relatively few practitioners who echo Deford’s sentiments. Most TV sports commentators are more earnest about the games they report on than war correspondents. (Parenthetically, too many of the commentators get by on nine-word vocabularies, which pretty much eliminates anything like nuanced analysis.)

While Deford doesn’t denigrate their sporting heroes, he does humanize them.

He sees the star athletes of the day – any day – as life-sized, not demigods. Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain, Mickey Mantle, basketball politico Bill Bradley … Deford knew these wunderkinds in their prime and over time. He watched them flourish, mature and fade from their central identities. And quite often, that’s when they became most interesting.

In turn, the athletes he dealt with came to appreciate him. They knew they could talk frankly with Deford and he wouldn’t hit them with any cheap shots in print. Just the truth of their past and present. And he usually got it right.

What Deford brings to the table is perspective. If the TV sports commentators want to learn a new word, there’s one that might come in handy:

Never mind. It’s more than two syllables.

Hot or not, it’s nice
to be able to read it

THE HOT BODY by Michael Avallone (reviewed 2012)

One of the benefits of having in your life is its ability to connect you with lost treasures. Or
almost treasures. Or, for that matter, any book from your past that’s out of print and off your shelves. (You lent it to someone 30 years ago and never got it back. Welcome to the club, fellow loser.) can remedy all that. Its network of booksellers across the country considers those literary treasures priceless, too.

Well, if not priceless, they’re yours for a nominal fee. Which brings us to
The Hot Body by Michael Avallone.

You’ve never heard of Michael Avallone? Nobody has anymore. But once … once! … his hard-nosed mysteries were a staple of pocketbook publishing.

The Hot Body came out in 1973. I read it sometime around then. I remembered it fondly, especially as the years passed and the comic-book gruel launched by Mickey Spillane and Ian Fleming ruined the genre for any reader post-12 years of age.

And now the bad news: Michael Avallone was pretty much a hack, too.

I enjoyed
The Hot Body as a Cold War period piece (the designated fiends are Castro’s Cuban regime), and people who approach Avallone on that basis will get their money’s worth. Literary historians, take note.

But the prose is no less mechanical and contrived than that of the present-day practitioners who foist their implausible superheroes on a gullible readership. Cartoon plots and characters are still cartoons, regardless of the era. Just don’t call the stuff literature.

So … did I get my money’s worth from this 40-year-old relic of a paranoid past?

Absolutely. The late Lillian Hellman came up with just the right word to explain the pleasure of reading an old favorite on two different levels: pentimento.

Definition: a visible trace of an earlier painting beneath a layer or layers of paint on a canvas.

The Hot Body. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Them Western hills
are still there, podner

TOWN TAMER by Frank Gruber (reviewed 2012)

Tracking down a hardcover copy of Town Tamer by Frank Gruber was an exhilarating experience that I’m happy to share with anyone who enjoys good reading.

Gruber was an outstanding author of history-based Western novels in the 1950s and `60s. His direct, no-nonsense style was reminiscent of Hemingway on his good days.

Town Tamer had been one of my favorite Gruber novels, based as it is on the legend of Wyatt Earp, and it stands up beautifully.

Unfortunately, when Louis Lamour came along to publish a new Western every other month, he took control of the genre and blew away some fine writers through sheer volume. Frank Gruber was among the casualties.

Today relatively few readers remember Gruber, and publishers have no interest in re-publishing his novels. My copy of
Town Tamer is a library discard, and is so marked.
I'm grateful that a discerning bookseller rescued it from the trash bin until I came along to claim it.

My thanks to Amazon – and to used-book dealers across the country. Working in tandem, they enable particular readers like me to bypass the glut of assembly-line books-of-the-month, and get our hands on the books we really want.

A time when we valued our friends

THE COMMANDOS by Elliott Arnold (reviewed 2012)

First Comes Courage by Elliott Arnold was first published under the title of The Commandos in 1943. Reading this fine novel again, I was struck by inclusiveness of the Allied cause in the struggle against Nazi domination.

Poles, Danes and various other nationalities contributed enormously to the war effort after fleeing their countries before the Nazi onslaught.

Then a curious thing happened. World War II ended and Britain, France and the U.S.A. immediately went back to myopic revisionism, attributing any successes in the war to their own "special" efforts and resources, human and otherwise.

In the process the contributions and sacrifices of citizens from these other countries were wiped from memory and even, in most cases, from the history books.

First Comes Courage redresses this national myopia retroactively. It is a reminder of a better time when we acknowledged the bravery and commitment of our allies.

Of course the novel also succeeds as a wartime thriller, with a compelling love story at its center. I was delighted to locate it through, and the seller was as good as his word: I received a fine book in good condition.

Mystery! Suspense!McGivern lives on

SUMMITT (published 1982) (Reviewed 2012)

There were two distinct stages in the career of crime novelist William P. McGivern.

In the beginning he wrote fast-paced suspense novels that earned him instant acclaim from readers and Hollywood film producers alike (
The Big Heat, Night of the Juggler etc.). Later he went uptown, so to speak, and penned more recondite tomes such as Summitt, published the year he died in 1982.

McGivern came out of World War II with an unflinching belief in man’s capacity for evil. In
Summitt, the evil encountered by his protagonist is both pervasive and elusive.

Harry Selby journeys to Summitt City to learn more about the father he never met. His questions trigger a series of grave consequences. His half-brother mysteriously disappears. His daughter is brutally raped. But Harry Selby persists, and the trail leads to stunning revelations about secret military experiments in mind and memory control – shielded from interlopers by the legal and military authorities complicit in the conspiracy.

The McGivern oeuvre that most critics acclaim as his finest work consists of three such late-period novels:
Summitt, Caprifoil, and Soldiers of `44. Are they my favorites, too? Uh … not so much.

In an early interview McGivern cited his main influences as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. And McGivern’s first-stage crime novels (like
The Big Heat and Night Extra and Savage Streets) reflect Hemingway’s fierce dedication to clarity, directness and economy of words.

Summitt, on the other hand, goes on for nearly 500 pages. Rather too long for a suspense novel, in this enthusiast’s view. The Big Heat runs 189 pages. Just about right.

Still, I was delighted when
Summitt arrived at my door via one of’s network of collectible bookstore partners. Until then I didn’t own a copy. There are one or two other McGivern titles I must add to my shelves as well, and I know exactly where to look.

Still reading paperbound books, y’say? That’s me. Love that texture! Love that tradition! Love those collectible bookstores!

Make no mistake: They do God’s work.


Westerns are dead
… but only briefly

WESTERN UNION (released 1941) (reviewed 2014)

Time was when a Hollywood film had a shelf life of nine months. That’s how long it took a film title to work its way down the food chain from first-run release to your lowly neighborhood theater.

Not a single Hollywood functionary in the 1930s and `40s thought in terms of posterity. Oh sure, an occasional film would be cleaned up for re-release (a money-maker like “Gone With the Wind,” for example). But mostly it was a matter of one and done.

Then came VHS and DVD, and today’s wondrous new methods for restoring and preserving past film treasures. Which came out looking as good as they’d ever looked in theaters. And so a good film finally achieved the same level of permanence as a good book.

Enter “Western Union,” circa 1941. Culled from a Zane Grey novel, the 20
th Century Fox film was shot in genuine awe-inspiring Technicolor, not in the putrid shades of color so prevalent today.

Its cast features Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger and Virginia Gilmore, who at the time was the most beautiful maiden on the planet. It’s important to list Robert Young first in the credits because this is NOT your standard Randolph Scott oater.

“Western Union” is character driven – unusual for a Western in any era. It has historical implications, purporting to show the challenges facing the crews that braved Indian attacks and other impediments to unite a nation with an unbroken strand of telegraph wire.

Robert Young is a tenderfoot who falls for the girl. Randy Scott is a roamer with a troubled past who falls for the girl. Dean Jagger is the girl’s brother striving to keep peace between them as the telegraph builders come under savage Indian attack.

Or are the attackers Indians? Someone better find out, pardner. Sounds formulaic? It’s not – no more so than any film or novel whose characters come with honest human motivations.

A bonus for the discerning viewer is the vastly underrated Barton McLane as the chief skulldugger. McLane was the best villain Hollywood ever produced, and he managed it without resorting to any of the garish torture methods favored by our present-day fiends. (Does the Johnny Depp-utized “Lone Ranger” fiasco strike a chord?)

Randolph Scott continued to crank out oaters for 25 years. He never approached this level of plausible engagement again.

Robert Young segued over to a TV family sitcom as a kindly father who told his kids what they needed to know. This was before Google.

Virginia Gilmore might have become a household word based on her gentle wit and other attractions. Instead she married Yul Brynner. Some consolation prize.

Meanwhile “Western Union” lives on … gonna get that telegraph line built one of these days, pardner.

Once upon a time
there was plausibility

MANPOWER (released 1942) (reviewed 2012)

Classic film enthusiasts face a dilemma when trying to evaluate a Hollywood product from the 1930s and `40s by what we solemnly call “today’s standards.”

Sure, George Raft, Marlene Dietrich and Edward G. Robinson are showcased in the flick. And yes, they were icons in their day. But was the movie any good?

Manpower, released in 1942, was a product of its time. It concerns a love triangle set against a backdrop of hard-nosed men dedicated to repairing downed or damaged power lines.

Except for those leaping and sparking power lines, the plot has been done about 12 thousand times in novels and films. So don’t look for originality in

What you get is a well-restored black-and-white DVD very much in the style of the day. Every guy over 14 during that period wanted to look and act like George Raft. Every girl spent hours with a hand mirror and eyebrow-tweezers trying to bring out her latent Marlene Dietrich.

On set, according to historians of kitsch, there was plenty going on as well. Raft and Eddie G. became rivals for Marlene’s affections (at least
they took the plot seriously) and on two occasions broke into fistfights. Real ones, without benefit of stunt men.

Edward G. Robinson, an art collector and learned man away from the set, never quite forgave Raft. In Robinson’s autobiography he commented on his co-star’s boorish behavior and the fact that Raft, some years later, had told him: “No hard feelings, Eddie. Things happen. All is forgiven.”

Commented Robinson, “How generous of him. He nails me with a sucker punch on set – not once but twice – and then he forgives me. I’d just as soon he didn’t bother.”

The ravishing Miss Dietrich, meanwhile, went on collecting male trophies at every pit stop throughout her life. And none of
them complained – at least not for the record.

Manpower does have a decisive advantage over the bulk of today’s film products in one respect.

Namely, it’s not a comic book. There are no tedious car chases or blow-`em-ups or computer-generated holocausts. Nobody in the cast leaps tall buildings in a single bound, or even tries to.

Of course the plot has shortcomings, including an unarguable triteness. But at least it tells a story about people. Real people. Recognizable people.

Comic books were popular back then too, of course. But by age 12 most kids had quit reading them. They found the books and movies designed for grownups more interesting.

But then those folks hadn’t been properly programmed. Today’s filmmakers are committed to making childishness a permanent condition.

Films have a history
that keeps on giving

ROSE MARIE (released 1936) (reviewed 2013)

Not long ago Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers spoke about a team outing to see
Lincoln. Kobe is a bright fellow whose basketball exploits have earned him the right to be identified by first name only, but he was taken aback by his teammates’ reaction to the film.

Some of them didn’t know who Abe Lincoln was. And several were surprised when the U.S. president, circa the 1961-65 Civil War, was killed at the end of the movie.

I cite this anecdote to suggest that history is not a strong suit among modern generations. Some of today’s filmgoers may have heard of Nelson Eddie and Jeanette MacDonald, who dominated romantic musicals in the 1930s, but don’t ask which of the duo’s movies they’ve seen. Unless, that is, you’re into blank stares.

The best of the Eddy-MacDonald genre was
Rose Marie. Granted, it’s a subjective judgment, but that’s why I’m here.

Rose Marie, filmed in black-and-white in 1936, was the second of three MGM adaptations of the 1924 Broadway musical. In it Nelson Eddy of the Royal Canadian Mountain Police is assigned to bring in a fugitive (James Stewart in an early role) who turns out to be the kid brother of stage prima donna Jeanette MacDonald.

Love ensues for the Mountie and the prima donna. As do unforgettable renditions of the melodies “Rose Marie” and “Indian Love Call,” which became a signature song for both performers throughout their careers.

As a welcome bonus,
Rose Marie doesn’t contain a single car chase or fiery explosion or mutilated corpse. Finding a movie devoid of those “entertainments” anymore is not easy, but they’re well worth seeking out.

Restoration of the film for DVD is above average. It has fuzzy portions early on but reproduces very well after that.

And by then you’ll have suspended any critical niggling to fully partake of the show. And you’ll be listening to “Indian Love Call” in memory for several days or weeks after that.


Enter Lalo Schifrin: he’s
worth a thousand pictures

ENTER THE DRAGON (recorded 1972) (reviewed 2012)

Among those who know about such things, Lalo Schifrin is legendary for his distinctive and unforgettable film and TV soundtracks.

If you don’t know about such things, you might consider taking a course. The great composer/conductor’s work is worth it.

Lalo Schifrin’s film and TV scores are unique and dynamic and exhilarating. He is equally comfortable in front of a symphony orchestra or a jazz ensemble. And his soundtracks make every scene in every movie he scores better than even the screenwriter and director thought it could be.

Enter the Dragon is one of his most enduring soundtracks.

Released decades ago (1972), the film itself is a favorite of Bruce Lee aficionados. Tragically, the martial arts actor died of a cerebral edema a few weeks before its release. But even Lee’s most adoring fans concede that it is Schifrin’s driving soundtrack that elevates a routine James Bondian plot into a cult classic.

Lalo Schifrin was born in Argentina in 1932. At age 20 he attended the famous Paris Conservatoire and studied with Charles Koechlin, a devotee of Maurice Ravel.

At night, after class, Lalo played jazz piano in the Paris clubs. In time he developed his own band and his own beat and sound, and word got around.

In 1968 Hollywood director Don Siegel took a chance on the no-name composer for his new film. It was a low-budget vehicle called
Coogan’s Bluff, featuring a fugitive from spaghetti Westerns in the lead role. Fellow named Clint Eastwood.

The film was an unexpected hit and so was Eastwood. And so was Lalo Schifrin.

Soon he was scoring some of TV’s most popular series, including the rousing tracks for
Mission Impossible and Mannix. Schifrin’s themes and scores were as popular as the long-running series themselves, and they eventually outlived their source productions by many decades.

Meanwhile Schifrin had earned a permanent place on the speed dials of Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel.

He became their security blanket, scoring the entire Dirty Harry canon among other projects. Some of those projects were second-rate or worse, but Schifrin’s tracks provided them with their one best shot at respectability.

Since then Lalo Schifrin has scored more than a hundred films and TV series. But the pounding rhythms of
Enter the Dragon continue to rank it near the top of his most memorable and enduring soundtracks.

• • •

Getting to own the CD isn’t easy. The Enter the Dragon soundtrack has been out of print for years.

Enter Its far-flung network of collectible book and record outlets is a priceless resource for every collector with specific and enduring tastes.

The process isn’t complicated. You click on “Search” and hope something good will happen. And amazingly, it nearly always does.

And when that timeless treasure arrives – well, you know the feeling. Nothing else quite like it.