Saturday, September 3, 2016

HADRIAN'S WALLS. Robert Draper. Knopf. 326 pp.

Special to the Sun-Sentinel

The best thing a novel can do is to reveal a heretofore-undiscovered world. Former Texas Monthly editor Robert Draper's first novel, Hadrian's Walls, does all this and more, presenting a tiny universe that crackles with conflict, contradiction and energy. It is an impressive work of entertainment and literature; with its page-turning plot and vibrant characters, it's perhaps the perfect book for summer reading.

Draper's revelatory universe is a Texas prison town; truly a microcosm of humanity. With layers of politics, personalities and perversion, the heroes and villains live on, long after the story concludes.

The tale is related as a first-person narrative by Hadrian Coleman, convicted of murder at 15, now returning to his hometown of Shepherdsville, Texas, the prison town run by his boyhood pal, Sonny Hope. From this logical point of attack, the story unfolds, with well-timed flashbacks revealing and amplifying the plot.

Texas, with its singular history and culture, is a great setting for any novel. Its larger-than-life legends illustrate, amplify and extend human foibles and heroics. But Draper wisely keeps things at the human level, allowing the action and its implications to assume their natural, albeit Texas-sized, proportions.

As the story unfolds, the author's intelligence and energy keep things moving at a remarkably steady pace. His craft and poise also serve to smooth over any soft spots in the plot, rendering them barely noticeable. For a novice novelist, this is a considerable feat, resulting in a story within which the reader becomes happily absorbed and remaining so well after its completion.

Hadrian Coleman is an Everyman; a Prodigal Son, to be sure, but also a figure of great gravity and tragedy. The childhood murder was, of course, the singular event in his life, but his existence before and after is even more defining -- and filled with archetypal characters and situations. Hadrian's father is the country veteran who can do no wrong; his best friend is the town's ne'er do well, the woman whom they both love is the unattainable goddess, and so on. Draper not only breathes life into these hoary, would-be stereotypes, but imbues them with such vibrancy and vitality that they're born again as fresh characters.

Hadrian's Wall's would make a terrific movie (Matthew McConaughey: call your agent!) or -- better yet -- a miniseries, but don't hold your breath. Instead, read this book, and just try to wait patiently for the author's next one. I certainly will.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Worse to Worst

Serious effort in the humorous series is a good effort but hardly revelatory


The Worst-Case Scenario Business Survival Guide: How to Survive the Recession, Handle Layoffs, Raise Emergency Cash, Thwart an Employee Coup, and Avoid Other Potential Disasters. David Borgenicht, Mark Joyner. Wiley. 208 pages

How about starting a new job and on the third day, you arrive at work to discover that the building is surrounded by police cars? Shocked, you wonder if the joint was robbed but soon learn from a stern cop that the company is accused of criminal activities. Or another gig where the owner ushers you into his office and asks you to accompany him to a business meeting with a competitor. On the car ride to their site, he announces that he’s going to pitch them on acquiring his company! Those are two screwy situations that yours truly encountered that may not be “worst-case” scenarios, but neither are most of the relatively typical business problems depicted in this short and amusing little book.
Previously, books in the “Worst-Case” series offered humorous and straight-faced advice for dealing with obviously over-the-top situations — how to jump from a bridge or a cliff into a river; how to survive if trapped in a lion’s cage; how to escape from a giant octopus — accompanied by retro-ish illustrations that evoked hokey how-to manuals from eras past.

It was a winning formula, apparently, as a stream of follow-ups and brand extensions appeared, including a TV special. I haven’t read every volume, but my sense is that each took a similarly light and frivolous approach to the issues, even if some weren’t very serious themselves, like surviving a zombie attack.

This new volume is VERY SERIOUS, however, and emphatically states so in both forwards by each of the authors of record. With no less than 25 “experts” weighing in with their advice, the pair, I’d guess, probably did the book’s outline and final rewrites. But this veritable Justice League Unlimited of kibitzers must’ve come up with a lot of stuff that was sliced, diced and concentrated to fit snugly into a book of just under 200 pages of text. But that’s still a lot of serious!

Regardless, the book is divided into five chapters of “emergencies”: Financial, HR, Productivity, Sales and Marketing, and Executive, with a “Basic Training” summation at the end of each chapter. The presentation is pleasant enough and the intermittent appearance of Colin Hayes’ beautifully deadpan line art will elicit a chuckle or two. The advice is solid, simple and un-surprising. If you possess a minimal amount of common sense, you’ll know this stuff cold. If you’re just starting out in the world, this might be a useful book to study or one to bequeath upon a clueless co-worker who aspires toward management. Please be careful; if you hand it to an actual manager they may be insulted — and you could be mortally wounded — or your career will be. But it’s immeasurably more constructive than any cheesy, rodent-infested pop parable or other well meaning but quintessentially vapid folderol. And if you need a stocking stuffer or a present for a holiday office gift exchange, you can pick up a copy for under 12 bucks on, which will undoubtedly aid in surviving, at the very least, that potential disaster.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Janis Joplin's Spirit Eludes Detailed Biography

SCARS OF SWEET PARADISE: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin. Alice Echols. Metropolitan Books.


The only Janis Joplin songs on the radio these days are Me and Bobby McGee, and maybe Piece Of My Heart. But her image — larger than life — endures. Alice Echols' new biography of Joplin thoroughly examines her life and image, but the result is wholly unsatisfying.

Born in 1943 and raised in claustrophobic Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin grew into an "ugly duckling" teen. A vivacious, outgoing child ostracized by her classmates, who cruelly voted her "Ugliest Man On Campus," the preternaturally bright young woman became a social outcast. Purposely cultivating an unsavory reputation, she pushed the limits of propriety and parental authority by hanging with the town's lowlifes and beatniks until she escaped to college.

A self-professed folkie who gravitated to the music of Odetta and Leadbelly, Joplin barely attended classes, devoting all of her time to nearly nonstop partying and sexual explorations. She began singing at clubs and coffeehouses and nurtured her growing talent, which was sometimes fueled by copious amounts of legal and illegal substances.

She dropped in and out of school, and attempted to live the conventional lifestyle of her parents a final time before abandoning any pretense of conformity. She explored Greenwich Village, but eventually settled in San Francisco just in time for the emergence of the hippies of Haight Ashbury.

In San Francisco, Joplin found a community that welcomed her as a kindred spirit. The burgeoning music scene was a hotbed of experimentation, socially, sexually and sometimes even musically. Bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Charlatans recognized Joplin's talent and outrageous character. She hung out — and coupled — with many of those involved. Country Joe McDonald had a relatively long-term relationship with her, and memorialized the singer in his song Janis, on his 1967 album Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die.

The Bay Area's "anything goes" attitude gave Joplin license to party even more. When she joined Big Brother and The Holding Company, a ragged hippie rock band, Joplin's astounding voice became its immediate focal point. Hailed as the Caucasian reincarnation of Bessie Smith and other black blues singers, Joplin and the band inked a typically exploitative contract with a smallish record label, quickly producing a low-fi album that was ignored by radio.

At the first (and only) Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, a now-legendary appearance by the group and its fiery vocalist attracted rabid attention from the music business. Bob Dylan's manager quickly displaced Big Brother's home-grown handler, and the rest of the band faded into the background, forever relegated to the role of Janis Joplin's first backup band. Columbia Records bought out their recording contract, and Big Brother made its real debut album under the tutelage of producer John Simon and engineer Elliot Mazer.

Though the album, dubbed Cheap Thrills, seemed like a live recording, all but one track — Ball and Chain — were cut in the studio. Simon and Mazer figured that the band's ragged playing would be more palatable if presented in a concert context, so they added fake audience tape-loops and canned applause, crafting a simulated live album.

Though the LP sold a million copies in its first month of release, Joplin was urged to abandon Big Brother by her manager, her record company and others. Subsequent musical accompaniment inarguably served her prodigious talents better. Big Brother recorded one album following her departure, before becoming a music history footnote.

Joplin's newfound celebrity and fortune enabled the acceleration of a Sybaritic lifestyle, as she made up for lost time. Her casual pansexual couplings, drug addictions, alcoholism and other passions undercut potential artistic and career growth. Echols lists many of Joplin's lovers, including Jets quarterback Joe Namath and musician Kris Kristofferson, who composed her posthumous hit, Me and Bobby McGee. But Janis felt lonely and unloved, despite the seemingly endless parade of short-term companions.

In October 1970, at the age of 27, she was found dead after an overdose of heroin, forming an immortal triumvirate of prematurely departed rock icons. Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix — Echols says Joplin had brief affairs with both — were dead within months of her.

Her enduring image as a red-hot mama and rock archetype inspired Bette Midler's film The Rose, which was originally touted as a Joplin biopic. Another Joplinesque movie is said to be under consideration, this one supposedly starring Melissa Etheridge, who says she draws inspiration from the late singer's bold life. Other women artists similarly express solidarity with Joplin's sexuality and legacy .

Echols' book is a sympathetic but nearly clinical exploration of Joplin's life. With ample research, including scores of interviews with friends, lovers and associates, it's clear that much earnest work went into this project, but the result is a scholarly tome, contrasting wildly with the subject's flamboyant life and work. The ferocious power of Janis Joplin hinted at here may be impossible to authentically convey in any non-aural medium.

Originally published on March 14, 1999 in the Sun-Sentinel