Beautiful Losers

book by Leonard Cohen
Annotation by Philip Barragan

Beautiful Losers was a truly unexpected delight. Cohen’s writing is vivid, gross, deep and most of all, surprising. I followed him into his world of love, anguish, sex and adoration of the indigenous tribes of Canada. Cohen captivates the reader seductively and slowly through extraordinary characters in an ordinary world. And through this book, it is impossible to not reflect on one’s own life and lifestyle. I couldn’t help but explore my own values and morals, and what it means to be human. This book challenged my own comfort level with my body, sex and sexuality and what it means to be loved.

Cohen’s unique and bold skill of using the indigenous character Catherine Tekakwitha (CT) to tell his own story was beautifully done. Through CT, Cohen explored passion for life, love and physical intimacy. But his exploration goes so much further. CT’s nature as a historical character provided a certain safety and distance thereby making his quest for a spiritual and sexual relationship with CT more of an intellectual exercise.

An anonymous quote describes Cohen’s writing as “incandescent in its prose.” Cohen’s prose was lyrical, honest, unpretentious, and solid. Images of everyday life were painted with brilliant colors. His radical style tore the page apart while the words drilled into my mind the images of sex and life played out in an unconventional manner.

In Chapter 17, the style of writing takes the form of an unconventional prayer. His capitalizing every word slowed down the pace of the read. I took my time to read it over and over trying to understand what Cohen meant. I am still not sure I understand but I am left with vivid and piercing images:

O God, Your Moring Is Perfect. People Are Alive In Your World. I Can Hear The Little Children In The Elevator. The Airplane Is Flying Through The Original Blue Air. Mouths Are Eating Breakfast. The Radio Is Filled With Electricity. The Trees Are Excellent. You Are Listening To The Voices Of The Faithless Who Tarry On The Bridge of Spikes…

Cohen describes CT with disturbing sexually images of a young adolescent girl as he explores the destruction of beauty through the rape of a young girl: “Magic Trees sawed with a crucifix. Murder the saplings. Bittersweet is the cunt sap of a thirteen year old.” Cohen’s writing can blindside his readers, however one has to look beyond the distressing story to see what he (possibly) could have meant. I was invested to find out what he had in store for me while on this journey.

Cohen’s casual reference to gay sex is subtle and glides in under the radar of the reader. I was surprised how the two male characters enjoyed themselves so completely without the guilt of societal conventions. The friendship of the two main male characters is complex and not easy to understand. From love to anger, sympathy to jealousy, the boundaries of what a relationship should be are specifically challenged.

The book was written in 1966, and despite being forty-three years old, it fits into today’s market for edgy and contemporary literature. The language used by Cohen is modern and the subject of the nature of love and relationships is relevant to today’s world.

Cohen’s weaving of CT’s story into the wife of the protagonist brought the story into heavy focus for me. From the fantasy CT to the actual character of Edith, the reader makes the unfortunate connection between the two. “Edith, forgive me, it was the thirteen-year-old victim I always fucked.” The protagonist’s admission of his sexual desires for the historical CT against the rape of the younger Edith blended the two characters together creating a humanized portrait of the two women. They were human, after all. Neither of the two women were “other” any longer. Cohen’s not so subtle storytelling brought this into focus.

Beautiful Losers was a surprisingly enjoyable read. The characters were motivated, engaging and unique while never following an expected path. They were written with an independent spirit and I enjoyed being surprised by the choices they made.

Cohen’s prose is acerbic and then immediately lyrical. His style is surprisingly modern with interesting characters that move the story along. Though the characters frequently blend into one voice, the dialog was natural and unusually stylized with hyphens instead of quotation marks. The language was at times abrupt and sometimes waxing poetic with beautiful and powerful words that had disconcerting effect on me. Beautiful Losers is an excellent example of stepping outside the boundaries of convention.

Leonard Cohen took a summer in Greece to write this book. Under the hot sun his precious words were burned onto the page and arranged into a curious story. Cohen’s unusual novel showed me that even in experimental writing, the narrative remains important. The reader is invested to get to the end. Cohen seemed to try and lose me throughout the book, but I had to know how the story ended. Regardless of how pretty the words may be, and unique the writing style becomes, the end of the story must have some pay-off for the reader, and Beautiful Losers almost meets that expectation.

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That Old Cape Magic

book by Richard Russo

annotation by Diane Sherlock

What a disappointment. That Old Cape Magic is not nearly as well crafted as Russo’s Straight Man, Empire Falls or Nobody’s Fool. It also lacks their heart and complexity, preferring to shorthand minor and tangential characters as uninteresting types (left wing professor, evangelical, Republican), rather than finding the telling detail. The humor, too, is off and there is way too much pop psychology about the parents’ intrusion and effect on the marriage at the center of the narrative.

The prose is workmanlike and does little to evoke a sense of place in either the Midwest, Cape Cod, or Maine. There is no lyricism here and, again, the finely observed details of, say, Nobody’s Fool are missing. The sense of place is fine, but that’s all it is. Fine. The worst of it comes with inane observations, “Fynch was a tall man, and his suit was well tailored and expensive looking. He seemed comfortable in it, as men who wear suits every day often are.” (189) Sigh. This is more of a problem if you’re familiar with the author because he’s capable of so much more.

There is a set piece late in the novel, built around an improbable event with an old man, a wheelchair and a tree. Hilarity does not ensue. It’s a piece of intended slapstick that feels like it is stuck in for comic effect. There is not the inevitable tension-building that the device of Occam’s Razor provides in Straight Man. There’s just an unfortunate accident coupled with overreactions and misunderstandings. Perhaps if Russo had honed in more on the parallels with the protagonist’s short story and his own parents or the weddings that bookend the narrative with the protagonist’s marriage, there would have been something more compelling here, but overall the narrative came across as unfocused and ineffective. In the last pages, Griffin, the main character observes, “Late middle age was a time of life when everything was predictable and yet somehow you failed to see any of it coming.” The same cannot be said of this novel: the reader will not fail to see any of it coming because That Old Cape Magic has none of its own.

Ask The Dust

book by John Fante
annotation by Tina Rubin

Charles Bukowski, in his 1979 introduction to Ask the Dust (which Fante wrote 40 years earlier), says that he knew immediately upon reading it that Fante was the influence he’d been searching for all his life. He notes the “energy and substance, the superb simplicity, of each line, one following the other,” and the directness with which Fante confronted emotion and pain.

Bukowski was right to admire Fante. From the first page of this novella, set in 1939 Los Angeles, its hero, 18-year-old Arturo Bandini, gained my empathy. A struggling writer from an Italian family in Colorado, Bandini is a noble character—albeit one with a quirky mean streak—who believes in God and wants to live up to his Catholic upbringing. He loves the little mouse, Pedro, that visits his hotel room; he tries to resist stealing milk bottles from a truck despite his hunger and poverty; and he can’t bring himself to have sex with a prostitute who picks him up because it’s wrong, even though he’s never had a woman. (In fact, he gives her most of the money his mother just sent him for food, so that she will just lie still and talk to him.) These little details wonderfully revealed character and made me care. The central conflict of the story, foreshadowed early, was Bandini’s relationship to Camilla Lopez, the Mayan waitress at the Columbia Buffet.

I was totally taken in as Fante unfolded this character study, gradually peeling off the layers through Bandini’s stuggle as a writer and his schoolboy-like efforts to win the girl. While I anticipated from the title that the story would not end well, I never would have guessed this ending—so, bravo to Fante for the element of surprise, so critical for writers to achieve.

The story is written in the first person point of view, past tense, yet Fante managed to incorporate close third and second person povs, AND present tense, AND shift back and forth among them all without missing a beat. The narrator (Bandini) addresses himself, talks himself through certain scenes, and tells the reader about this Bandini guy in a sort of stream of consciousness. I marveled at how Fante pulled this off; you’d think it would be a disaster. I’m tempted to try his technique just for practice.

The writing is terrific. It would have to be to make all that work. Here’s a moving passage when Bandini is literally running from the prostitute’s room, trying to think of an excuse for his exit (26):
A man of importance, ah yes, now I remembered, my publisher, he was getting in tonight by plane. Out at Burbank, away out at Burbank. Have to grab a cab and taxi out there, have to hurry. Goodbye, goodbye, you keep that eight bucks, you buy yourself something nice, goodbye, goodbye, running down the stairs, running away, the welcome fog in the doorway below, you keep that eight bucks, oh sweet fog I see you and I’m coming, you clean air, you wonderful world, I’m coming to you, goodbye, yelling up the stairs, I’ll see you again, you keep that eight dollars and buy yourself something nice. Eight dollars pouring out of my eyes. Oh Jesus kill me dead and ship my body home, kill me dead and make me die like a pagan fool with no priest to absolve me, no extreme unction, eight dollars, eight dollars. . . .

Fante’s use here of abbreviated run-on sentences and repetition gives a very physical sense of running down the stairs, building the momentum until the character seems to fling himself out into the foggy night, collapsing with shame.
Once Bandini has met Camilla, Fante heightened the tension, bringing out his character’s mean streak. But he also provided Bandini plenty of reflective moments that enabled me to see the similarities between the two characters and where this side of Bandini was coming from; i.e., balancing the bad with the good and maintaining that empathy that was created at the outset. He also used the contrast between Bandini’s rising career and failing romance to add tension, along with a sad, somewhat psycho woman who becomes Bandini’s first lover and the subject of his best-selling novel. The tone, too, becomes darker about halfway through the book when Bandini sends Camilla a love poem at work and, while he stands hidden outside watching her, she tears it up.

Everything about this book was instructive and engaging, but before I go on too long, I want to add that the setting—downtown Los Angeles in late 1930s—was so well done as to be a character in the book. Ask the Dust could not have been written with any other setting. Of course, being a resident of Los Angeles, I enjoyed that aspect tremendously, but it also reminded me that as writers, we can’t just stick our characters down anywhere. The setting has to be as integral to the story as the characters’ own style of speech or personality traits.

Like Bukowski, I’ll be reading more of John Fante. He may not have had the reputation of even his editor, H. L. Mencken, during his lifetime, but he certainly was a major talent, one that we can still learn from.