Sunday, July 5, 2009

Chiefs by Stuart Woods

The one calling card of civilization is murder. For as long as human beings have lived in communal groups, villages, towns, cities, urban areas, they have killed each other for varying reasons, and the nature of those crimes tells us much about the culture and lives of those involved.

For the past 25 years, Stuart Woods has made a very good living pumping out entertaining murder mysteries, but his career began with "Chiefs," a novel revolving around a series of unsolved murders spanning forty years in a small town in Georgia. I am not a regular reader of Woods' work, and I became familiar with "Chiefs" first as a three-part miniseries that aired in the eighties starring Charlton Heston, Wayne Rogers, Brad Davis and Billy Dee Williams, among others.

In the early 20s, the small milltown of Delano sprouts up southwest of Atlanta and anoints Will Henry Lee, a farmer wiped out by the boil wievel, as its first police chief. Lee is honest, dependable, a fatherly figure who gradually grows into the job of small-town lawman. But he is haunted when the nude, tortured body of a teenage boy turns up at the bottom of a ravine. Over time, Lee begins to believe that young runaways are disappearing somewhere in his town, murdered by someone who sits in the town's church pews and frequents its shops.

The story later leaps forward into the 40s, following Lee's son Billy, an up and coming politician, and Sonny Butts, the returning war hero who becomes police chief. Sonny is a classic Southern thug cop, a closeted Klansman who extorts money and beats confessions out of innocent people. But he latches onto the missing boys as a way of saving his job. The book ends with Tucker Watts, the town's first black chief, who looks for a solution to the case even as he battles the state's racist law enforcement apparatus.

Briefly stated, this is not Faulkner or O'Connor. "Chiefs" is a page-turner, and it is unabashed in its status as an entertaining story, not social comment. The characters have some complexity, just enough to keep the reader hooked. No one is overly repugnant except the villains, the scoundrels are kept interesting, the heroes are suitably and predictably heroic. But Woods isn't just interested in a nice beach read here. He manages to work in an engaging story of the growth of a small Southern town and the inexorable pull of history. Deep into the book, the town's ancient banker, Hugh Holmes, observes:

"I never thought I'd be afraid of change - not change I could control. That's what bothers me. This thing has begun to control us, instead of we it. It's the first time in my life I've had the feeling of having to run to keep up."

C. Vann Woodward and W.J. Cash, among others, have observed that the idea of the South as an unchanging monolith, a preserve of tradition and order, is a lie. The traditions that Southerners cling to are often less than a generation old, or merely shadows of former traditions that are themselves built on previous ones. Holmes represents the Southerner who appeared at the turn of the last century, bent on rebuilding the South's material wealth and influence. Those dreams, eventually, helped drag the South into modern America just as much as Martin Luther King Jr. In the end, the lust for money killed segregation just as much as the courts, as when Delano hires Tucker Watts in hopes of attracting Northern industry. It was the genius of King, though, to realize that it would take something beyond law and order or money to change the soul of a nation.

But order is much of what "Chiefs" is about. The town's mysterious murderer is actually revealed early in the book, but it is the path to ending his spree that makes the journey interesting. The killer himself seeks a kind of order, imposing it on victims who have no idea what he seeks or what kind of impulses he longs to satisfy. The police chiefs who people the story seek order by their own definitions, honest and dishonest. Murder, the ultimate crime, comes to define their lives and give its own order.

In the end, Holmes is heart broken at the prospect that the town he has nurtured for half a century will become "a synonym for perversion and death," but similar realizations happen to many of the characters in "Chiefs." It is this touch, frustrated hopes and ambitions, which gives the novel a heft it might not otherwise carry. Its people are sometimes denied the ends they wish, and instead have to find meaning in what is left. The world it sketches out may be an idealized fiction, but it is not that far from the worlds we create and cling to in order to survive in the real world.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Michael Jackson: The Pain Is Thunder

By now, the image has been touched and retouched so much that it seems hard to remember where it began.

For me, the past week has been a rediscovery of sorts, as I suddenly had my teenage years resurrected before my eyes with the death of Michael Jackson. Words are not sufficient to describe the absolute saturation of his image in the early 80s. No star - not even Elvis or the Beatles - ever had the same kind of domination displayed for two or three years over the pop music world. Their reach may have been greater, but the very nature of technology dictates that Michael Jackson's accomplishment ran deeper and more vividly for its time. History, as it always does, will judge who had the greater impact.

His was the first cassette I ever bought with my own money. When he and his brothers came to Birmingham, Alabama to rehearse for their world tour, it seemed inconceivable to my friends and I that he wasn't coming to all of our homes to speak to us. Even now, 25 years later, I can remember the half-second he waved to a crowd waiting hours to see him emerge from the top of a hotel portico near a busy interstate. It didn't last very long, though, the wave or his fame. Within a few months, his star was overtaken by others who some would argue outstriped him in creativity and popularity. (It's worth recalling that when Michael Jackson had a son, he named him "Prince.") But little did we realize that the central image of his life and career was contained in his most ambitious artistic project - the 15-minute music video for Thriller.

It's important to remember the circumstances of the work. At the time Michael Jackson sank more than $1 million into the video, he was a former child star who had made the unheard of leap into adult longevity. He had more or less shed the image he entered the public conscience with - a smiling, soulful prodigy - and replaced it with a mature, hip, accomplished performer. No one remembered ABC by the time he finished his first moonwalk across the stage of the Apollo Theater. He was, at that time, an R&B crossover performer who stunned with his dance moves and had showed himself a shrewd showman with limitless ambition. His two videos had finally broken a color barrier on MTV. His album had probably peaked by this time, as his record company judged when he went to them looking for money to make the video.

From the moment he finished the video for Thriller, he officially crossed the threshold into phenomenon, the album going on to regain its footing and hold its position at the top of the Billboard album charts for the better part of a year. He convinced millions to buy VCRs so they could watch the Thriller video on videocassette. He brought the nation to a standstill one evening when he burned his hair filming a Pepsi commercial. When he penned a song with Lionel Richie for Ethiopian relief, a who's who of American popular music turned out to sing the lyrics. And he had begun, what now seems inevitable, his long slide from maturity back into a stunted, artificially prolonged childhood before succumbing to the perversity of stardom.

But the video itself begins with Michael in vintage clothes that recall a idyllic, pseudo-50s background - the high school boy in the car that runs out of gas, just as he's got the good-looking girl with him. We sense his innocence even as we laugh at his less-than-honorable intentions. He takes the opportunity in the moonlight to tell her he wants her to be his girl. Then he breaks the news to her - he's not like other guys, in that weird falsetto of his. She protests that this explains her love for him, but she doesn't understand. When the moon emerges from the clouds, he suddenly begins to transform into a monster that will hunt her down.

But wait! All of this is an illusion. Suddenly, we're watching Michael on a screen, and he's in the audience, just like us. And he's singing! By now, we are too because we know the words. But the danger isn't over. Other monsters are now surrounding them, and about to devour them, when suddenly, Michael is one of them. He's some kind of monster though. You can't take your eyes off him. Then, at the chorus that's been held for our anticipation, he turns to reveal he's Michael again, singing with a vengeance, just before he and his zombie horde once again chase the heroine - and us - into an abandoned house were it seems that this is really the end...

But wait again! It's Michael. "What's the problem?" he asks. "I'll take you home," he reassures, in that falsetto again, just light enough to tickle the spine, as they walk out. And Michael turns to the camera, and we realize that maybe just a little of the monster still lies within him. Only this time, he's smiling. Maybe it's a joke, maybe it's not, but he's enjoying it, and funny thing, so are we. It's the sort of scene - Hollywood kitsch meets Freud - that permeates every page of, say, West's "The Day of the Locust."

Thriller was a turning point, in more ways than one. The early arc of Michael Jackson's mature career is marked by a string of generally positive, upbeat anthems, stretching from his time with the Jacksons to the height of his popularity - Can You Feel It?, We Are the World, Man in The Mirror, Heal the World. Even his album titles with the Jacksons and on his own reflect this - Destiny, Triumph, Victory, Thriller, Bad, Dangerous, HIStory - one word titles with pretentions of forces beyond commerce and art to life and death. But from the moment he was accused of child molestation in the nineties, Jackson's artistic world became a much darker, more defiant place, a retreat he stubbornly fled to from which to pass judgment on those who judged him - Leave Me Alone, Scream, Invincible. His songs then frequently gave the voice of a man who felt threatened by his fame, betrayed by those he thought had loved him, alone.

The speed with which the media world that craved every lurid story about him has suddenly taken to celebrating his life and work would probably shock him, were he still alive to marvel at it. The ability of the public to forgive him for what he might have done is yet another example of the power of entertainment, obscuring the facts and replacing them with fantasy. In some ways, he understood this. He may not have wanted this kind of ending, but I believe he expected it, just as he might have expected his music would obscure the unanswered questions of his life, at least for the time being. A month ago, his work presented embarassing problems and nagging questions. Now, it inspires awe.

It's interesting that when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the prohibition against fashioning a graven image is one of the first. Yet we obviously didn't pay much attention, because in several thousand years' time we've managed to migrate from setting up stones and golden calves to anointing various odd personalities to virtual godhood based on their ability to perform a very narrow set of skills - sing and dance, pretend to be others, throw, catch or hit a ball, or promise us endless miracles from behind a podium or in front of a seal. We invest a multitude emotions in them, and it breaks our collective hearts when we learn, as we inevitably do, that they are just like us. In every case, these people either never sought the level of fame they achieve, or quickly try any way they can to divest themselves of it and reclaim some measure of themselves when they sense their own destruction approaching.

Only Christ, personally, calls on the individual to take on His guise, learn by His example, follow His lead. His call is personal, and individual, and it is the kind of call that no sane man would make unless he could pull it off. All of our heroes tend to be crushed under the weight of our adulation, our dreams too great a burden for their backs. Our dreams tend to claim victims, both us and those we give them to. Jesus is the only one who emerges from the wreckage and shows us our dreams for what they are.

The image of Michael Jackson, of course, never remained static during his life. His skin color, face, maturity, safety, all seemed beyond definition. But which image is it that he leaves us with? The innocent boy who becomes a monster? The canny performer who emerges from the audience, singing his song before bending the monsters who surround us all to his own rhythm? Or perhaps it is the smiling figure who will take you home, smiling because he knows a secret that you may or may not find out, but a secret powerful enough to keep you coming back for more.