Friday, September 30, 2011

Upton Sinclair, The Coal War (1976)

It occurs to me that out of all the books I've read--okay, let's qualify that: all the published works of fiction--this may well be the single least-read (and in that statement I include my dad's first novel, which at least warranted a paperback edition). The book was posthumously published in 1976, and who, I ask you, in 1976, is going to want to read a newly-published (by an academic press, no less) book about labor disputes from the teens? Hard to imagine much of anyone but Sinclair scholars (a breed that may or may not actually exist) and the odd labor historian (the normal labor historian could not be reached for comment). I only read it for dissertation purposes.

Some background: this is a sequel to Sinclair's 1917 novel King Coal, which was published in a timely fashion. That book is about the son of a coal magnate, Hal Warner, who goes to work incognito as a laborer to see what the coal mines are actually like in practice, for the workers; you will be shocked to discover that the answer is "not so pleasant." He becomes a labor activist. And that's about what happens. The Coal War continues his exploits, leading up to a fictional equivalent of the Ludlow Massacre. Originally, these two were one, but Sinclair's editor asked him to axe the second half on the basis that it wasn't very novelistic or entertaining or anything. So Sinclair reworked King Coal as suggested, making it more novelistic and planning to follow it up with the less novelistic Coal War.

His editor was totally right. The sequel wasn't published in Sinclair's lifetime, partly because interest in such labor disputes, insofar as it ever existed, was waning as the country got involved in the first World War; and partly because, um, it's kinda bad. Not that King Coal is any great shakes either, but there's really no comparison. The earlier book is a Bildungsroman of sorts. Not a great one, but it has an easily-discernible structure, and an actual dramatic arc. Whereas the later book is, indeed, hardly a novel at all: it consists mainly of an interchangeable series of scenes of outrages committed against workers.

Digression: working conditions in coal mines at the time (in Colorado and elsewhere) were truly unbelievable. You would be thrown out for breathing a word about unionization. When there was a strike, strikebreakers who spoke little or no English would be dragooned into the mines and kept as, essentially, slaves. Workers were paid by the weight of coal they mined, and you would be cheated out of a substantial percentage your earnings literally all the time. There was a law that mines had to employ a checkweighman--a guy to monitor loads of coal to make sure everyone was getting paid for what they mined--but this was never done, and miners who requested one would be thrown out. Laws regarding safety regulations were never followed, frequently resulting in horrible mine disasters for which no one was held accountable. You couldn't legally be paid in scrip redeemable at company stores, but you would be, and they would always jack up prices, because they had a complete monopoly. Bosses would regularly rob, beat, and even kill workers, and they would never ever be convicted of anything, because if anyone even went to trial, it would be before a jury hand-picked by the company. Government was entirely in said companies' pocket. In the novel, the governor of Colorado is contemptuously referred to by company operatives as "our little cowboy governor." Surely that's a little bit of artistic license on Sinclair's part, you think. Nope! The lengthy introduction--which chronicles all this stuff with extensive citations, in case you were doubting--includes a letter from a mine operative calling him exactly that. I highly recommend that inhabitants of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, and Texas take up the habit. I thought, when I first encountered it in Against the Day, that the "death special"--an armor-plated car with a mounted machine gun that was used to terrorize miners--was a flight of postmodern fancy. Again, nope! The novel and introduction both confirm it as an actual thing that the company did. I suppose that's one strategy: when your level of evil gets sufficiently cartoonish, fewer people are actually going to believe it of you. And remember, kids: these are the conditions that our brave leaders--often quite explicitly--want to return us to.

Oh, and fuck John D. Rockefeller, who had no problem with any of this, in spite of being fully goddamned aware. Oh, now you want to be a philanthropist? No, fuck you. There were thousands and thousands of people that you could have given dignified lives*. Instead, you crushed, maimed, and killed them, causing untold levels of misery. Because you wanted more more more. If you had a soul, you sold it, and it doesn't make a goddamn bit of difference how many foundations you endow (the same applies to Andrew Carnegie (seriously, I'm embarrassed to have a degree from his school) and all the rest, of course).

*I mean okay it would still have been alienated labor, but, I think it's fair to say, there are degrees.


(But remember, the rich are just naturally better than everyone else. Productive class! Job creators! Sundry other bullshit!)


So anyway, yes, conditions were terrible on an almost unfathomable level, and Sinclair definitely did his research. But the novel's just not good. It is, I regret to say, incredibly monotonous. The miners are constructed as victims and nothing but, which makes the whole thing read somewhat like a long, detailed analysis of how it's BAD BAD BAD to kick orphaned puppies. And not just labrador puppies, either. I'm talking about all kinds of puppies, from corgis to Weimaraners to Egyptian hounds and even Bichons Frises! Also dachshunds, great danes, and akitas. Do you get the picture? I can you some more breeds that it's bad to kick, if you like. No, no--no need! Message received! But there's just precious little real emotional impact. I mean okay okay, it's somewhat shocking when children who have been presences throughout both books are abruptly murdered, but that's a pretty cheap shock right there. If ever there were a novel to validate Georg Lukács' criticism that "naturalistic" writers are unable to create real, rounded characters, this is it. Part of the problem is that, aside from a few of the main ones, all the characters are closely based on real people, and thus Sinclair felt constrained from giving them any real, invented inner lives (not that he's that great at that anyway; even the wholly fictional characters ain't much--and that's kind of odd, because novels that he wrote before and after this both do a substantially better job in that regard).

It's kind of a relief, therefore, when the novel chooses to devote space to other stuff. Ol' Hal has a fiancée, Jessie Arthur, from his own social class, you see. But he meets a fiery Oirish miner's daughter in the camps, Mary Burke, and there are sparks, and oh no what should he do? This is left unresolved in King Coal, but everyone will be glad to know that here it's put to rest. But in a weirdly problematic way: Jessie doesn't know about conditions in mining camps, and she doesn't care to know; Hal's activism drives her crazy. It seems obvious all the way through that this is an extremely bad match, and finally, here, he tells her, hey, this isn't working out. Which it isn't. And she begs him and so on, but he sticks to his guns, although the situation remains slightly open. What can I do? she says. Like Jesus says, he tells her: give away your possessions and follow me. Then, he goes and suggests marriage to Mary. But she ain't so sure about this--she'd thrown herself at him in the earlier novel and been rejected, and she's not totally certain that this inter-class relationship would work. So she tells him to go and think about it for a few days. And in the interim, Jessie comes and tells him, she's done what he said, she's left her family, because she looooooves him so much etc. And then he's done; they get married. Now…leave aside the sexism inherent here--he can do this from higher principles; she can only do it from emotions--there also seems to be something a little on the reactionary side here: Hal's from a class, and he has to stay in it. The author of the introduction (fellow named John Graham, whose name is too common to be findable online) suggests that this is indicative of Hal's ambivalent allegiances; maybe that's the idea, but in practice, there's precious little that's ambivalent about them, and being married to Jessie doesn't appear to temper them in any way--though it's impossible to imagine how, in the real world, this could work out in the long term. It's just this kind of confused, anticlimactic confusion to the whole affair.

So do I recommend this book? Not really, but I do recommend the following passage, which made me laugh pretty darned hard, because I am twelve years old:

The little Welshwoman had nothing to do with the parade, so she claimed. . . . "Move on!" one of the troopers had commanded her, and she replied--somewhat indiscreetly, perhaps--"I don't have to." Whereupon he seized her, twisted her arm behind her back, and beat her with his fist. "Shame! Shame!" cried the spectators; and Mrs. David assailed him with a new and ferocious weapon, her muff. (251)

Oh, Upton.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Man can kill and man can drink and man can take a whore

You may have seen these miller lite commercials--certainly you have if you watch football and foolishly don't mute the commercials. They always involve some dude's asshole friends upbraiding him for bringing Generic-Brand Beer instead of the clearly much more awesomer miller lite. "That's the second unmanly thing you've done today," they say, and then there's a flashback to him doing some exaggerated thing that is deemed overly feminine or possibly gay.

I'm not disturbed by the ludicrous assertion that miller lite has "more taste;" that's just de rigueur. What does bother me is that I don't think I've ever seen another set of commercials that's quite so nakedly aimed at huge douchebags and no one else, and furthermore was also quite clearly made by huge douchebags.

Hey, it's a sizable demographic, no doubt. It doesn't stop me from wanting to inflict violence on the people who thought it was a good idea, though. You could say the fact that they did is just a side effect of late capitalism than one of its main depredations, but it all goes together, I think: the fact that we normalize this sort of behavior probably makes us more likely to be okay--or at least, not not-okay enough to roll out the guillotines--with bankers looting the country and whatnot.

Still, it is useful in a diagnostic sense: when watching these commercials, do you:

A. Laugh
B. Want, to whatever degree, to drink miller lite
C. Shout, "fuck you, faggot--bud lite is way better!?"

If you answered "yes" to any of these, then--and I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you this--there is a ninety percent chance that you are, in fact, a huge douchebag. I would try to come up with some helpful advice for you, but if you qualify here, you're obviously not gonna be looking for advice. You'll be composing a dubiously-spelt message questioning my masculinity and/or asserting that you could beat me in a fistfight. It's a conundrum to which medical science, thusfar, has no answer.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Duck Comics: "Birds of a Fethry"

Could you please answer me one simple question?

Why do Republicans always have to be such fucking dirtbags?

(But hey, on the bright side, on the Scale o' Vomitousness, I suppose booing a gay soldier is marginally less nauseating than cheering Perry's murder record or uninsured people dying. Great job, guys!)

I often ask myself--I've asked it on this blog from time to time--what makes wingers the way they are, and no doubt there are complex sociological reasons, but sometimes it just gets so, so tiring, and I just want them to fucking stop. So, in my faux-naïve way (to be distinguished from those many times when I'm actually naïve), I have to ask: really, people? Is it that fucking hard to be minimally decent human beings? YES. Besides which, being decent human beings doesn't piss off teh librulz effectively, so fuck it. It's probably true that I'm hyperbolizing when I call you "sociopaths," and yet you keep doing your utmost to demonstrate that I'm not by evincing no capacity whatsoever for shame. Gosh.

(Can you even conceive of the mind-bending horror that will be their convention next year? Kristallnacht for Kidz!)

There are millions of these people, and millions more who may not cheer but nonetheless don't care and they all vote and oh my are we ever fucked.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Check it out: two Schwarzenegger references in one post!

Over here, we have a helpful summation of wingers' festive 9/11 celebrations, which, as always, mainly consisted of vituperations against democrats, libruls, socialists, whatever for being insufficiently enthused about murdering a-rabs. Why, those people simply can't be reasoned with! They're barbarians! The only solution is to show them the true meaning of civilization by crushing them, seeing them driven before us, and hearing the lamentation of their women!

Unrelated: audience at gop debate cheers Perry's kill count; audience at other gop debate cheers letting the uninsured die.

Actually, come to think of it, the wingers kind of have a point with their 9/11 stuff: no, not about socialists or libruls or democrats in general, but congressional democrats and the Obama administration, at least, have shown themselves to be only too willing to talk to and "compromise" with...well, with a psychopathic death cult that can't be bargained with; can't be reasoned with; doesn't feel pity, remorse, or fear; and that absolutely will not stop, ever, until this country is dead.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Duck Comics: "Ducky Date"

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Mike Mignola & John Byrne, Hellboy: Seed of Destruction (1994)

This thing was just sorta sitting around, so I read it during the commercial breaks of the first half of the NFL season opener (and wrote this review during the commercial breaks of the second half--how's that for fast turnaround?). From The Internet™, I learn that it's in fact the first Hellboy serial, so I didn't miss any previous context or anything like that.

The idea is that, in the waning days of World War II, Occult Nazis (that's the worst kind!) summoned a demon to help them out with the war effort, but allied people got to him first, and so, fifty years later, he's a force for good. Present-day, and the guy who instigated the original project is up to his old shenanigans, trying to get Hellboy to help him out with summoning a big, Cthulhu-esque squid thing.

I feel like I don't have as much to say about this as perhaps I should. I found it to be mostly entertaining, though not that substantial (I find Robert Bloch's hyperbolic introduction a bit eyebrow-raising). Hellboy himself is an appealing enough character, and I was glad to see that he's not overly self-consciously edgy or EXTREEEME!!!! which is something you kind of expect to see from a comic about a demon-y superhero-y guy published in 1994. The fight scenes were reasonably exciting.

Still, there's not all that much to the story, really. The mystery of What's Going On is dispelled pretty early in the proceedings, and while the business with the evil dude and the demons is potentially interesting, it's not really that well-developed, and evil dude is defeated in a deus-ex-machina-ish way. I do like the fact that, even though his identity is pretty immediately obvious to anyone with the most rudimentary sort of historical awareness, it's never actually stated, which would've been on the intelligence-insulting side.

Hellboy's teammates aren't all that well-developed either, though that's something that could easily be remedied in later stories. Still, I don't think I'll be reading them unless I find them lying around--I won't say this first thing was bad or nothin', but even though it ends by setting up more to come, I'm not burning with a desire to find out what happens next, or what the deal is with Hellboy's past. I do feel a vague sort of desire--more like a velleity, really--to see the movies, but that's about all.

Still, it filled the commercial breaks.

Cancel My Subscription to the Resurrection

Every time I get another goddamn email from Barack Obama's mailing list, I hit "unsubscribe," and every time I send an incrementally more enraged "message" (ha--as if anyone possibly reads that shit) along with it. But do the emails stop? They do not. Christ--it's bad enough that I'm probably going to end up disgusting myself by voting for the fucker; now I'm also supposed to actually listen to his vapid, self-justifying bullshit? Fuck that noise.

To be fair (if "fair" is the word I'm looking for) this is far more likely a technical problem than active dickery. But is the fact that the President of the United States is unable to conduct a mailing list with the same level of technical competence we've come to expect from porn spammers really especially comforting? I submit that it is not.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Duck Comics: "Donald's Buzzin' Cousin"

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Duck Comics: "The Health Nut"

Friday, September 02, 2011

New Zombie-Oriented Chick Tract


But alas, it's only a dream--oh Jack, you shameless tease.

Actually, it turns out they're the dreaded Metaphor Zombies. You know THAT guy's a blast at parties.

Also featuring this awesome bit of theology:

I dunno...that sounds at least ghost-ish. I don't think "inability to sit on thrones" is what most people really associate with ghosts.

Another tract where I'm not wholly certain someone's not fucking with us.