Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Report: White Tiger on Snow Mountain

In describing a university student in “North American Post-Modern Culture” who was researching a thesis on “cultural and literary ‘Marginalism,’” the narrator writes:  “In a move that her professors found brilliant for one so young, and that had earned her a grant to travel to New York, she had evolved past the early postmodern fascination with footnotes to focus her research on acknowledgments pages.”

The short story collection White Tiger on Snow Mountain, by David Gordon, has many of these sharp and witty critiques of the academic and public intellectual discourse today.

Of course there’s a lot of broader humor as well.  In the story from which the above was taken, “All This Time,”  the joke, and plot, is enhanced and advanced knowing that the student was intending to focus on a particular writer, not coincidentally named David Gordon, who she presumed was long ago deceased.  “She seemed disturbed by the news,” he writes of her reaction to his not being dead.  And to the flesh and blood subject standing before her she says: “This could be a problem for my research.” 

My favorite story in the collection, “Matinee,” is basically about two boys going to the movies (and having one boy's sister go along, all three juvenile delinquents ditching school), but is much more.  (It helps to know that Mr. Gordon’s resume includes writing pornography for living, so there is a  hilarious and not infrequent use of indelicate sexual repartee and description.)

The two boys have their own backstory going at the beginning of the piece, both being at the age of sexual mania, one kid a fairly grounded young man with straight-laced parents, the other kid untamed and from a totally wildass family---and it’s his sister who is with them, and she’s crazy, too.  Their world comprises the first half of the story, which is very funny, and very nasty.

But it is the second half of the story that lights up the scoreboard for me, when the trio arrives at the Earl Theater, one of the glamorous, ornate, almost mythical single-screen movie palaces that became anomalies in the 1960’s and 1970’s as big city downtown’s deteriorated and multiplexes in suburban malls proliferated.  (During that time Los Angeles had a wealth of the magnificent (and near magnificent) theaters on Broadway between Second Street and Eighth Street:  the Orpheum, the Roxie, the Globe, the Cameo, the Palace,  the State, the Tower, et al.) 

I’ve not read a better homage to these theaters than in this story, exemplified by the Earl and spoken by Mr. Gordon’s narrator.  He begins by declaring “The Earl is a ruined temple…”  and then goes on to write almost reverentially about “entering the great cave of the theater, with its balding plush seats and the shifting curtain marked with the masks of joy and pain…the Earl is the best place in the world to see a movie.”

He describes the audience, fewer than two dozen patron-philosopher-critics scattered around the auditorium, there for a variety of reasons---sleeping, drinking, to get out of the cold---and gives plenty of examples of the vocal interplay, among themselves as well as remarks directed toward the screen depending on what was happening in the movie at the time. 

The scene in the Earl lasts for several pages and is unerring in capturing the atmosphere of the fading movie house.  I’d call “Matinee” a period piece, and a valuable historical document of that era, as well as a well-told story about the crazy excitement of youth in general.  The story ends with these two sentences:  “Everything is still possible.  You have not yet begun to live.” 

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