Hannah, age nine, sits on the sofa with her folded legs drawn in, the remnants of a sandwich assembled on a bright melamine plate on the table behind her, rings of condensation off her water bottle progressing across the table’s surface.She fits her chin in the bridge of her joined knees, and if she’s blinked in the last hour I’ve missed it. For days Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” has been streaming in back-to-back episodes in my living room.I’d queued the first episode of Book One for some quick research and within minutes Hannah emerged from the recesses of the house, trudging across the living room rug and toward the siren call of a child’s voice:“Water.Earth.Fire.Air.Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony.Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them.”As the sofa cushion reclaimed its shape after I stood and walked away, Hannah’s fingers crawled over to the remote.Then she took over.Or, rather, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” took over.

You don’t like “The Doors” as much as you think you do. Jim Morrison was outrageously gorgeous, I grant you. His nipples are about the most perfect things God ever created. You know that picture where he’s all Christ-like, arms outstretched, pleading to be strung up like the original man on the cross with his quintet of bursting wounds that Thursday (or Wednesday or Friday, however you do your crucifictional math) long ago? Yes, he’s a perfect specimen in many ways, but I’m fed up to the ears with people giving that ultimately maudlin and bloated old sot more credit than he deserves. That’s why we stole from him. That’s why. And we were drug addicts.

It’s different now, but back then, we’d have to jaunt over to France to get our tourist visas back in effect. These trips were often fraught with more rigmarole than art-gazing at the Louvre or posing as “The Thinker” in front of “The Thinker” or whatever it is people do in Paris. On our first train ride into the Gare du Nord, I was beset by an explosive gastro-intestinal ailment that saw my friend James and I running for what we thought was our lives down the train tracks leading out from the station into what looked like scorched earth. Where is Paris? What’s around it? If you ever discharge the contents of your bowels all over the wall of the completely foreign bathroom facilities at the Gare du Nord and have to run for your life, you’ll see what I mean. James and I sat at the train station for hours, as James was convinced that the train station was probably the best place to score hash. He had a preternatural ability to find drugs, so I trusted him. Furthermore, I couldn’t travel more than a few steps without running furiously to the WC.

“Number one or number two?” asked the large, black bathroom attendant. She had a nobility to her, even dressed as some kind of European translation of how an antebellum servant might have appeared.

“Number two,” I said sheepishly. The woman gave me a single sheet of single ply toilet paper and I entered the, faute de mieux, restroom. This restroom consisted of a vertical wall of porcelain, at the bottom of which was a small drain, giving one the idea that the French shit in impossibly small portions. I dropped my pants and tried to be quiet and discreet and French about the whole affair. Snake eyes. My bowels roared with a thunderclap and I soiled the entirety of the porcelain, managing to befoul the adjacent wall as well. Humiliating. I discarded the piece of toilet paper, hiked up my pants and walked gingerly back to where James was looking for an Algerian named Carlos who had promised to come back with a chunk of hashish.

“James, I just shit all over the place.”

“Like in the terminal? What are you saying?”

“No, I made it to the bathroom, but I exploded all over the wall.”

“Serves the French right. Where is this goddamned Algerian?”

“I didn’t wipe.”

“Solid. Don’t stand so close to me. Hey, that reminds me. What’s a Frenchman’s favorite expression?”

“I don’t know James.”

“C’mon guess.”

“I don’t know. I give up.”

“Exactly.” James laughed his laugh and I was marginally appalled at this half-assed joke. James stewed around as I sat nervously, fetidly.

“Hey look, dude. When you find Carlos the Algerian, I’ll be hovering around the bathroom, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I’ll find you.” I repeated my performance in two other bathrooms in the Gare du Nord. I went back to find James. He was gone. I had to go again. I went back to the scene of my original crime against decency and was asked again by the noble Frenchwoman, “Number one or number two?” I thought about how terrible it was that even in Europe, they stick the black people by the toilet. Have you ever seen a white bathroom attendant? I haven’t either. I ruminated on this for a moment, my liberal leanings seeping out like so much shit, I thought to give her a life-changing tip. I didn’t know what that was. I had little money. When does a tip become life-changing? You hear about it. Some waitress gets a $20,000 tip from some greasy old man and it’s off to the races, probably. Off to lose it all at the races. As I was barraged with this charge of magnanimity, a look of recognition came over the bathroom attendant’s face. Then a look of ferocity. Then this:

“Putain! Fucking American you shit all over the toilet and you don’t clean it. You shit all over like a fucking animal. You shit all over my house!” My house? That can’t be right. I felt terribly. I don’t know why I tried to speak back in French. Maybe let her know I wasn’t THE shitty, shitting American.

Mon Dieu manquez Je suis désolée, je ne sais pas comment les choses fonctionnent en France, je suis comme un idiot. Puis je vous aider à quelque chose? Tu dois croire que je ne voulais pas le faire. C’est mon estomac. Il n’y a rien de personnel à propos de cette merde. Je suis désolé!”

“Tuez-le!” she shouted, and began to run at me. Both stomach ailments and fear pulsing through me, I ran shittily away, toward a train platform that looked empty, followed by the bathroom attendant and a cadre of her fellows.

“James! James! James!” I ran screaming through the Gare du Nord. I made some distance from the angry bathroom attendant horde (to the French’s credit, all the other bathroom attendants chasing me were white, something that made me feel a little better in real-time and in retrospect). I jumped off of the platform and onto the track toward nothingness, toward away from Paris, away from the Gare du Nord. As he always did for me, James appeared by my side, running with me out into nothingness. No questions, no nothing. This time he ran with me, not away from me. He looked back to see what in the smash was happening and at the sight of a half-dozen antebellum servants shaking their fists and running toward us had divined what happened. He began to laugh and fell on the train tracks in paroxysms of joy. For, what greater joy is there than laughing at the laughable shortcomings and peccadilloes of your friends? Admit it. There is nothing more pleasing. Nothing more tender.

With Carlos the Algerian nowhere to be found, my pants soiled beyond recognition and a credit card, I insisted we take a taxi and find a hostel, somewhere we could regroup.

“We’re not taking any cocksucking taxi, T”

“I’ll pay for it, James. Come the hell on. I’m covered in shit.”

“Just walk it off, man.”

“Walk it off? I don’t have a sprained ankle, dickhead. I need a shower.”

“No taxis. I have an idea.”

“You’re going to dump me in the Seine? Man, I need soap!”

“No, I know where we can get some weed. Not hash, man. Trees!”

“Fuck trees, James. Can’t you smell me?”

“I don’t know. All of Paris smells like shit. People will just think you’re a dog, or stepped in dog shit. See? You just did.” I had.

“What’s the plan, dope fiend?”

“Where is that cemetery, the famous one?”

“Père Lachaise?”

“Is that where Jim Morrison is buried?”

“Yes.”

“Alright, peep this, playboy. I read in the guidebook that greasy hippies leave joints and acid and all sorts of shit on his grave. I know how you hate The Doors and I could care less.”

“Mother, I want to fuck you?”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s from ‘The End.’”

“Anyway, how far away are we from it?”

“I have no idea.”

“We’re taking the bus.” James rifled through our guide book and discovered some bus route that would allegedly deposit us at the cemetery. By some stretch of fortune, we got on the bus and made our way to the famous resting place. James was kind enough to let me borrow his bottle of “Cool Water” cologne, which I sprayed all over my pants. I now smelled like Cool Water and shit, but it was better than nothing and the bus passengers didn’t seem to mind. But then, even in France, how do you confront somebody covered in feces? Some people in the world are just left alone.

We bought a site map at the entrance off the Boulevard de Menilmontant.

“Jesus, there’s some famous dead motherfuckers up in here.”

“Yep,” I added, a little tentative about robbing Jim Morrison’s post-mortem drug cache. We walked along the southeast side of the cemetery and found Morrison’s grave. It was covered in flowers, graffiti, torn pieces of paper with Morrison-esque poems written on them; some had actual song lyrics printed on them. And, as promised, there were, in front of his bust, at least a dozen joints and sundry other items of drug paraphernalia to ostensibly keep Jim loaded during the afterlife. There was also a full handle of Jack Daniel’s, which appealed to me. Who knew how long these joints had been there? When did it last rain? Whiskey you can count on. My interest was piqued. The problem was, along with all the dead rock stars’ booty were about a half-dozen worshipers, all lathered in patchouli and the requisite Guatemalan/Tibetan neo-hippie attire, sun dresses, he-sarongs, and of course, some prick with a didgeridoo, and a retinue of confused people singing the words to ‘The Crystal Ship’ along with the bizarre tempo produced by this horrible “instrument.” The didgeridoo is, in and of itself, perfectly fine, but when put into the hands of a young American on some kind of hallucinogen sporting those nauseating white person dreadlocks is unforgivably offensive. Non-aboriginal people who play the didgeridoo are fit for nothing more than violent extinction. Also, it’s hard to run with a didgeridoo.

James and I assessed the situation. “One, two, three, four….oh, come the hell on, T. It doesn’t matter how many of them there are. You grab the Jack Daniel’s because I know you’ve been eyeing it and I’ll scoop up all the joints and whatever other shit I can fit in my hands. Then we run north.”

“Why north?”

“That just seems like something people say before a heist. Besides, we don’t have a safe house or a, uh…”

“Home base,” I ventured.

“No, something more gangster, but fuck it. Are you ready?” James asked.

“Which way is north?”

“Aw, man. Just follow me.”

“What if we get split up?”

“T, you’re acting like a bitch right now. If we get split up, we’ll meet at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, how’s that? How do you say Eiffel Tower in French?”

“Tour Eiffel.”

“Ok, then.” I knew James would be the first to make the dash toward the loot, so I tried to dart toward Morrison’s headstone first. James and I then crashed into each other violently, both of us falling on top of his grave.

“Hey, man…be peaceful!” shouted an American.

“Oye…tranquilo, colegas!” a Spaniard.

“Faites gaffe!” a Frenchwoman. Then an indecipherable squeal of admonitions, as James scooped up everything non-alcoholic and I, everything else. I got up first and ran to what I thought was north. I carried a 1.75 liter bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a few airline bottles of rum, brandy and maybe gin, which I dropped as I ran into Frederic Chopin. I wasn’t sure if I’d been followed, but by the time I reached Apollinaire, then turned toward Marcel Proust, I saw I was being chased only by a portly security guard. I guess he was on liquor patrol, but I wasn’t too worried because he looked as if he were flagging after I made a sharp right and hid next to a bush and Isadora Duncan. I figured James had been pursued by the druggies and that was okay. James was fast and agile. I imagined him driving toward the exit and toward the Tour Eiffel like Kobe Bryant driving through stoned defenders—a total mismatch. Of course, James was extremely tall—a drawback in France, and at Père Lachaise. I took a long draw from the bottle of Jack Daniel’s behind Oscar Wilde and rested for a brief moment, when I saw James playing fugitive pinball between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein and Edith Piaf, his unmistakable big, reddish coif running back and forth in shortened bursts. I thought to advise him to run toward Molière, but in retrospect I think that may have just been the desire to be the first person to utter the phrase “Run toward Molière!” at least since the 17th century.

There had been too much violence during our stay in Spain, in Europe. I did not want James to punch a hippie and neither did I. Not to mention, there was at least one security gendarme hot on my trail. Who knows what would have happened had I shouted “Run toward Molière!” but I didn’t and instead I took my shitty pants off, rhino charged the group of hippies and whipped them with my crappy Levi’s, again and again. The young man with the didgeridoo (who was brandishing it like a primitive lightsaber) dropped it and it broke into pieces. I heard a whistle from behind us (there are always whistles going off in France) and looked at James. He, too, put his head down now that the most threatening weapon had broken (aside from my pants, which I spun around my head like a helicopter.

James and I finally made it out an entrance onto the Rue de Bagnolet. We were now both covered in filth, but at least I had abandoned my pants and now ran down the streets of Paris in sandals and boxers given to me by my mother that featured sumo wrestlers in various attack poses. We ran aimlessly, laughing, panting. We came across a Métro station, Alexandre Dumas. So many famous dead. We jumped on and headed back to what James insisted was west.

“This takes us to the Arc de Triomphe, if we take it to the end of the line” James said.

“Then let’s,” I said. I passed James the bottle of whiskey and he took a long draw.

“We have joints, too, but I’m not going to fuck with that on the Métro.” Sometimes you never know if things have gone colossally wrong, or right. We traveled along the 2 Line in grinning silence.

The cold air from the Métro air conditioning felt good on my naked legs.


New Yorker cover

The New Yorker continues the full court press of it’s ’20 under 40′ list; I guess that makes sense, if you’re going to try to define a literary generation you should probably publish its members in your magazine.

In “The Young Painters,” a piece of fiction appearing in The New YorkerMs. Krauss delivers a powerful story about the provenance of a painting.   The story comes across as a confession, of sorts, like a person might tell a judge after harboring the awful truth for years, and when it all comes out, it does so with great force.  The story turns to the severely morbid almost immediately when we learn that the people who created the painting were children, and they met with a gruesome end at the hands of their deranged mother, but I’ll let you sniff that part of the story out yourself.

I’m not sure if story is a part of Great House, her third novel, which will be published this fall, or if it’s a stand alone story.  If we take the Franzen school of thought, at least from The New Yorker’s point of view, then this work of fiction from Ms. Krauss is a slice of her new novel.  After reading this story, I’d like to read the novel, if the two are connected in some way, and I’d like to read it right now.  There is a smoky quality to the language here, it reminds me of stories that I once heard at a dinner party on New Year’s Eve in Rome, shared with a small group, revealed to everyone like lost treasure, and hard to forget.  At the same time, there is a modern feel (I don’t mean “modern” in the Frank Llyod Wright sense of the word, more “contemporary”) to our narrator, like she’s going through some form of crisis, a kind of awakening, or perhaps a realization that as a writer, there are at least three sides to each story.  At the same time this woman is miserable at having to deal with realities which come with writing a novel about her own father, and how she doesn’t know the difference between being a storyteller, and a person in her own stories, or life.

The story our narrator hears is told to her while she’s at the home of the dancer, and later on we find out that the story in question is reworked by our narrator and published in a “prominent” magazine.  It’s no accident that The Young Painters has been published, and I can almost see around the next corner, where this story might be going, or where Ms. Krauss wants me to think its going.  Either way, our narrator and Ms. Krauss are in on the trick, or somehow I was fooled, which happens to me quite often.  I’ll admit it, Ms. Krauss, you got me.

-JR


They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew. The book was a simple thing about four weeks in the city we grew up in and for the most part was an accurate portrayal. It was labeled fiction but only a few details had been altered and our names weren’t changed and there was nothing in it that hadn’t happened. For example, there actually had been a screening of a snuff film in that bedroom in Malibu on a January afternoon, and yes, I had walked out onto the deck overlooking the Pacific where the author tried to console me, assuring me that the screams of the children being tortured were faked, but he was smiling as he said this and I had to turn away. Other examples: my girlfriend had in fact run over a coyote in the canyons below Mulholland, and a Christmas Eve dinner at Chasen’s with my family that I had casually complained about to the author was faithfully rendered. And a twelve-year-old girl really had been gang-raped–I was in that room in West Hollywood with the writer, who in the book noted just a vague reluctance on my part and failed to accurately describe how I had actually felt that night–the desire, the shock, how afraid I was of the writer, a blond and isolated boy whom the girl I was dating had halfway fallen in love with.  But the writer would never fully return her love because he was too lost in his own passivity to make the connection she needed from him, and so she had turned to me, but by then it was too late, and because the writer resented that she had turned to me I became the handsome and dazed narrator, incapable of love or kindness. That’s how I became the damaged party boy who wandered through the wreckage, blood streaming from his nose, asking questions that never required answers. That’s how I became the boy who never understood how anything worked. That’s how I became the boy who wouldn’t save a friend. That’s how I became the boy who couldn’t love the girl.

The biggest problem I’ve always had with Western philosophy, especially in the wake of the neo-Platonic Humanism that fueled the Renaissance, is contempt for crowds. Pericles’ famous comment about “hoi polloi,” hailing the masses as the fount of Athenian greatness, has somehow been transmogrified into a symbol of contempt for crowds and crowd behavior by Western intellects. I’ll none of that¹. Crowds, like individuals, are capable of intelligence, and of stupidity.  Yet bigotry against crowds seems a common affliction of modern intellectuals, especially progressive ones.

In Greek mythology, the Gorgon is a terrifying creature, so ugly it turns those who look upon it to stone. “Gorgon,” in fact, is derived from the Greek word gorgós, which in English means “dreadful.” Synonyms for “dreadful” include: horrible, terrible, awful, frightful, and appalling…among others.

It’s easy to find references to Greek mythology in modern life. The Oedipus complex as described by Sigmund Freud. Terms like “Achilles heel” and “Herculean task.” The concept of Pandora’s Box. Even an ancient sea creature, the Kraken, has recently been released as a powerful, 94-proof, dark-colored elixir that brings out the fun in certain social situations where writers are involved.

But the Gorgon to which I’m referring, the dreadful monster that for years frightened anyone who dared look up on it, was the golf swing of my long-time friend, Brian Weir. In 1996, when I was first introduced to its complete form, all my own muscles seized up, and I could no longer properly hit the ball…almost as if I had turned to stone. Brian lives in southern California, far away from Oklahoma, so twice a year for a decade the two of us met on golf vacations, enjoying the artistry of many picturesque courses, even if our own games didn’t quite measure up to the beauty of the locations.

On each of these trips I would bring along a video camera to document the experience, footage that never failed to amuse us later. Over time I developed a sizable library of squirrely shots and pushed putts and missed opportunities, but mainly these recordings languished away in magnetic tape obscurity, only emerging when the two of us met again to relive the glory.

Then, in 2005, I saw in ad in Golf Digest, a golf publication that reaches an estimated six million readers per month.

“Do you have the World’s Worst Swing?” asked the ad. “Or know someone who does? If so, make a video and send it to us. You could win six free lessons from Dean Reinmuth, one the top golf instructors in the country.”

The contest was also sponsored by the Golf Channel, which planned to film and broadcast six free lessons awarded to the “winner.” And that’s when an idea occurred to me, an idea that is and probably always will be the best practical joke it’s possible for me to play on anyone.

Until that time I’d dabbled in linear video editing, like hooking VCRs together with cables, but I’d never edited on a computer. I purchased a Windows-based software app and taught myself how to use it over a period of days, painstakingly capturing hours of analog footage in real time. I assembled a collection of the best (or rather, worst) shots, often laughing so hard that I had to stop and compose myself. Then I purchased a microphone and attempted to record voiceover for my two-minute, eighteen-second video. This consumed even more hours, not because I couldn’t figure out what to say, but because I couldn’t go ten seconds without laughing again.

I completed the video two days before the deadline. I watched it again and again and again, supremely confident that, upon viewing, the selection committee at Golf Digest and the Golf Channel would immediately select Brian as the winner. But I also guessed there would be thousands of other submissions, and the chances of them even watching the video were small. Not to mention I was forced to overnight the DVD just to get it there on time.

Then I waited. Every day I would think about the video, and what might happen if my plan worked. To understand the true significance of the joke, you have to know Brian. We met at Texas A&M University. He was a member of the Corps of Cadets, and was commissioned into the military directly after graduation. He served the Air Force for several years, attended Army Ranger school, and reached the rank of Major. He went on to serve local law enforcement in Southern California and is now a sergeant. He is a tough, proud man who does not respond well to ridicule. Of course, we always joke around with each other, but those are private matters. This joke, if it was realized, would be played out on a national scale. Every time I thought about it, it made me laugh.

About two weeks after I mailed the disc, I received a phone call. I looked down and saw it was Brian. I answered, trying to hold my expectations in check. But Brian and I don’t speak on the phone often, and I got that feeling, you know the one.

“What the hell did you do?” were the first words out of his mouth.

“What do you mean?”

“Some chick just called me. She said she works for the Golf Channel. Apparently I’ve been chosen as one of ten semifinalists for a contest to find the World’s Worst Golf Swing. And then she gave me the link to a video. A video you made. She laughed at me, man.”

So did I. I couldn’t help it. Someone had actually watched the video! They even put it on the Internet!

“They’re going to call back and interview me in a couple of days,” he said. “You’re an asshole.”

I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe.

“I hope you know paybacks are a bitch,” was his answer.

But after the interview, Brian’s position changed. Apparently he’d impressed them over the phone. Had made everyone laugh. “I’d be on television,” he said. “They’d buy me a new set of clubs. I would get lessons from this famous dude. Did you know he used to coach Phil Mickelson?”

Readers and viewers were asked to visit a web site, check out the videos, and vote on their favorites. Or they could watch a special episode of “Golf Channel Academy” and call in their votes. Brian explained how they were going to include some of the submitted footage on the show. I salivated at the thought of a scene from my video being shown on national television. At the time, the Golf Channel boasted more than sixty million subscribers. I told everyone I knew to watch it. So did Brian.

My DVR was ready. If only a few seconds of my footage was shown, I’d be happy. So imagine my astonishment when “Golf Channel Academy” opened with my video, with no introduction and no voice over (other than my own) for almost two minutes. I was floored. I was ecstatic. After the video, Kelly Tilghman remarked, “The guy who did that voice over deserves an Emmy.”

Hahahahahahaha!!!!11 I said to anyone who would listen. The only thing better than this would be if Brian actually won the contest.

A few weeks later, a crew from Golf Digest visited Brian in California, and I flew out to watch. They brought a high speed camera to capture his swing. This is the camera used to make those fold-out, frame-by-frame pictures of golf professionals. Only the most notable golfers in the world get this treatment. Brian was asked to hit into a net, and the photographer pointed out a patch where the net had been repaired.

“We filmed Retief Goosen last week,” he said. Goosen is one of the best players in the world and has won two U.S. Open Championships. “He hit the ball so hard it tore the net.”

By now Brian was basking in the glow of his possible upcoming fame. He swung as hard as he could. He hit the ground so far behind the ball that the club bounced over the ball. A complete whiff. And the impact with the ground sent a chunk of sod into the net, where it stuck, coincidentally, on the patch created by Retief Goosen.

“Let’s see Retief do that,” Brian remarked.

Every day this was just getting better.

Finally, the day of the selection show arrived. The field of contestants had been narrowed to three, and the Golf Channel planned to announce the winner on the air. All three swings were terrible, but Brian and I couldn’t imagine the others would win. He is a born entertainer. I think he could do standup if he put his mind to it. The combination of my video editing and his comedy couldn’t be beat. Golf Channel invited us both to Orlando, and we managed to play Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s famous Florida course. We made friends with the other nominees. But would Brian win? Would it really happen?

It did.

Brian’s six lessons were filmed outside of San Diego, shown nationally on the Golf Channel, and I was invited to be on the final show with him. He was awarded a new set of clubs. He was recognized in airports, in restaurants, and especially on the golf course. His game improved dramatically.

And his swing, frame-by-frame, was featured in the pages of Golf Digest. Twice.

A few years later, after it was all over, Brian told me he was getting married again. In Hawaii. He’d sent me the raw footage from the various Golf Channel episodes, and I kept meaning to make a compilation video for him, but I never got around to it. So, as a surprise, I put together a new video, with old footage and new, and called ahead to the hotel. I set it to music and arranged for it to be shown at a reception before the ceremony.

One more final jab, you know?

As I said before, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to play a better practical joke on someone. It’s one thing to poke fun at your buddy’s golf swing in private, but to bring it to the attention of a national audience…that was sublime.

If you’d like, you can view the original video and the encore presentation below. The second link is on Facebook, so if you can’t see it, send me a friend request and I’ll hook you up. I’ve also included links to a few pictures.

But be careful. Watch these videos at your peril. His old swing could easily turn yours to stone.

World’s Worst Swing Submission Video

World’s Worst Swing Encore

Golf Digest Table of Contents

Golf Digest foldout

Brian and Richard on set



DH: For a long time I avoided reading David Mitchell, even as I marveled at the combination of ecstatic reviews and heavy midlist sales that Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas received. Strong novels, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet is one, throw off their own forceful karma, even at a distance. DM’s readers seemed like they were part of a cult: a brainy, literary version of Star Trekkers perhaps, and I didn’t feel like joining.

But I had enough of short fiction for awhile. My appetite was growing for long novels and long poems, for more extended vision, more marathon reads.

The Thousand Autumns approaches 500 pages in a beautifully produced volume. My compliments to its designer, whose name I couldn’t find on my galley…but you know who you are…you’re great. The Thousand is one of those yarns that calls out for a few illustrations within the text. These are very apt and I greatly enjoyed them. But my geek meter went up just a few notches when I saw them. Guy read, guy read, guy read.

The first nine pages blew me away. They function as a sort of an overture and by the time I reached page five, I was reading with my mouth open. This was the most intense descriptive writing that I have read for a long time. Our hero Jacob, is Dutch, and there is something of the great Dutch naturalist draftsmen in DM’s prose. When you see a Dutch drawing of tall grasses by the shore, you can tell if is there is a wind. DM’s writing is in your face. It’s that up close with the facts.

This is a historical novel that takes place in an “exotic” locale. The turn of the century from 18th to 19th at Dejima, an artificial island off the harbor of Nagasaki. This fortress of commerce is designed so that the Shogun’s government can keep its Dutch traders in their own ghetto but still have the advantage of doing business with them. You get the idea if you can imagine that we put Goldman Sachs employees on Governor’s Island in NY harbor and told them that they weren’t allowed to leave.

The turn-of-the-century setting mimics our own with its axial shifting of power: the declining Dutch are threatened by the rising power of England who they fear are about to supplant them on Dejima. The Dutch seem old-fashioned, like they are playing the last century’s game while the English are confident and armed with superior 19th century hardware.

Jacob’s best friend, a doctor on Dejima, plays the harpsichord. Jacob softens him up by plying him with fresh scores of Scarlatti sonatas. This is a small point but I’m a classical music lover so I get it. The doctor’s taste is retrograde. If he was up-to-date he would own a pianoforte. And he would be playing Haydn and Mozart, not Scarlatti. If his taste was advanced, he would be playing Beethoven. This Dutch colony is Jurassic, primed to be swept away in the new century. I found the analogy I was drawing to our own time a little disturbing, as I think DM intends.

Jacob makes his way in the Dejima fishbowl of merchant piranhas who think they are sharks. I loved the way his boss entraps him. Jacob, you earnest and very Protestant young man, you’re not going to fall for that? Times have changed but shady business practices are still funny if you can see them coming.

The most interesting feature of this novel for me is what I’d call “the displacement of intimacy.” Jacob’s love interests are removed from his sight once the relationship becomes serious. This sort of reminded me of that Twilight film series where a peck on the cheek counts as a daring erotic move. Whatever happened to fucking the shit out of each other, I don’t know. Maybe the young middle class don’t do that anymore in novels.

But this displacement is critical to the significance of The Thousand and its large scale. It allows DM to introduce new settings and new casts of characters, novellas within the larger novel. These spin-offs are part of the genius of this story and they are completely delectable. This is an adventure story to satisfy your deepest cravings to be a boy (or girl) again. And Christians rejoice! There’s a great fictional hero for you in our dear Jacob, immersed in a semi-feudal civilization where owning a psalter can get you imprisoned. He doesn’t give it up.

DH

My American friends.

Imagine, if you will, waking tomorrow to find that Hillary Clinton had suddenly replaced Barack Obama as President of the United States. Imagine that, while you slept, a gaggle of shadowy Democrat powerbrokers, spooked by poor polling and under pressure from the powerful energy corporations, had executed a swift and brutal coup. Try to imagine a still-popular leader, a man swept to power on a wave of optimism and desire for change, denied the chance to contest another election – or even complete his first term – by men whose names you barely know.

Fortunately, you don’t have to. Under your system of government, the above scenario could never happen. The worst that could occur is Obama falling under a bus and old man Biden getting the job – a risk that you knew you were taking when you elected him (and one which likely scared a significant number away from the McCain/Palin ticket). The same is not true in Australia.

As you may know, last week Kevin Rudd was deposed as leader of the Australian Labor Party and replaced with his former deputy, Julia Gillard. Under the conventions of our Parliament, the leader of the party with the majority in the House of Representatives is appointed Prime Minister, and hence Australia now has a new head of Government – with no input from the electorate.

Although Australian voters have not technically been disenfranchised by this shift, as we do not directly elect a PM, the reality is that our political parties sell themselves on their leaders (indeed, Rudd himself took ‘presidential politics’ in this country to new heights with his successfully cheesy ‘Kevin 07’ campaign). Australians have a reasonable expectation that their Prime Minister comes as advertised. To be fair, Gillard acknowledged as such in her first press conference after taking the helm, promising an election within months and assuring us that she would not assume official residence in Canberra until having faced the electorate.

As far as I am aware, this sensational and unprecedented turn of events was anticipated by precisely no-one outside of the inner sanctum of the ALP. With no forewarning, our media scrambled, somewhat comically, to get across the biggest political story in a generation. The first wave of reaction, unsurprisingly, focused on the novelty. Australia suddenly had its first female Prime Minister. This was, unquestionably, a Good Thing.

As political journalists started to wipe the spittle from their chins and recover from the initial blindsiding, the second wave of reaction began – putting together the story of How It Came To This. No-one in the press gallery, none of the people paid to make sense of what goes on in Canberra wanted to admit that this really didn’t make sense. So, very quickly, a narrative was collectively cobbled together about how Rudd was the architect of his own demise. How he had engendered resentment in his party with his autocratic style, how he had failed to engage with the electorate, how his backdowns and mishandling of key policies had left voters disenchanted. One particular genius attributed, with great confidence, the origins of Rudd’s poll slide to the release of a children’s book he co-authored in January.

 

Ok, so there were probably better things he could be doing.

 

Practically all accounts of Rudd’s downfall painted the picture of a steady downward trajectory over the last six months or so, punctuated with failure after backflip, to the point where the man had now become irrevocably unelectable. Replacing him, most pundits told us, was a dramatic but understandable move in this context. It was a bold – nay, admirable gamble by the ALP to play themselves back into the game before an imminent election.

Now it is nearly a week after the event. And as our short-attention span media begins to move on to more pressing questions such as ‘DO ASTRONAUTS HAVE SEX IN SPACE???’, I find myself disturbed about the absence of five certain words in all the coverage I have read. Those words are: THE, HAPPENED, JUST, WHAT and FUCK (not necessarily in that order).

The general lack of anger, worry or fear about the way this change of leadership has occurred is staggering. Not since the infamous Dismissal in 1975 have Australians experienced such a dramatic political shift, and evidently we have yet to grasp the frightening precedent which has been set.

The fall of Kevin Rudd is in no way convincingly explained by the kind of anemic reporting described above. Yes, Rudd made a significant error when he decided to shelve an Emissions Trading Scheme after describing climate change as ‘the greatest moral challenge of our generation.’ It is true that the Prime Minister had had a generally uninspiring year, and had lost ground to Opposition leader Tony Abbott in the polls. But to make the claim, as Gillard has done and as lazy journalists have been quick to parrot, that Rudd’s leadership was terminal – that the ALP faced defeat at ballot box – is almost outlandish.

No Australian Federal Government has failed to win a second term since the Great Depression.

It is well-founded political wisdom in Australia that it is very difficult to unseat an incumbent Federal government. Before Rudd led the ALP to victory in 2007, power had changed hands only five times since the Second World War. Prime Ministers routinely find themselves behind in the polls prior to an election and still prevailing. In Kevin Rudd’s case, he wasn’t even behind. For an incumbent government to lose an election in Australia after only one term is unthinkable, at least in the absence of a colossal economic crisis – and guess which country is one of only two credited with successfully deflecting the GFC?

No first-term Labor Prime Minister has been denied the chance to fight an election since 1945.

– and in that case Frank Forde was only in office for eight days following the death of his predecessor. It is flabbergasting that a man who ousted the seemingly invincible former Prime Minister John Howard with a tremendously successful election campaign, a man who at one time had the highest ever approval ratings for a PM, a man who had already seen off two Opposition leaders in two years and led Australia almost unscathed through the world’s worst financial crisis in a century had not earned sufficient political capital with his party to lead them to another election.

So, what did Rudd really do wrong? What happened to blow so many commonly accepted conventions of Australian politics out of the water?

Simple, really. Kevin Rudd got on the wrong side of big business. Some very big business. Namely, the massive (largely foreign owned) mining corporations that effectively run the states of Western Australia and Queensland. You see, a few months ago Rudd unveiled plans for a new ‘super profits’ tax on the mining sector, one which would see a few more of the squillions of dollars being made from our collective natural resources going back to the Australian people at large. Predictably, this wasn’t popular with the miners, who began a well-funded, utterly disingenuous (but effective) scare campaign, claiming that the proposed tax would close mines, endanger investment and put thousands out of work. And this is where Rudd made his fatal mistake.

He believed he could negotiate in good faith with the mining companies behind closed doors, and that his party would back him. He believed that a low-key advertising campaign, wherein a man calmly explains the nature of the new tax, would resonate with the public. He failed to hear alarm bells going off as several large trade unions – the traditional power base of the ALP and still wielding immense influence within the party – began to panic, and pulled their support from him.

This was a coup born of gutlessness, and an utter waste of a talented, driven and essentially ethical Prime Minster who deserved the chance to do better. What could have been a long, brave Labor dynasty has, by any measure, been shortened and diminished. I fear that Julia Gillard, via her own complicity in setting this precedent, will be constantly looking over her shoulder rather than looking ahead, as a great leader should.