Thursday, March 29, 2018

Snatched by the Letter of the Law

My roly-poly teacher, Miss Florence Suitor, appeared ancient, as all adults do to a first grader.

Just before recess, she introduced a new rule: do not run in the hall.

I was obedient, even though the hall was long. It ran from the restroom through the length of the building all the way to a short flight of stairs that led outdoors.

So I walked circumspectly down the long long hall. When I reached the end, I ran up the stairs and outdoors.

Wooops! Big Mistake!

"Didn't I tell you not to run in the hall?"

I sat out recess in the classroom where I learned that, under Miss Suitor's law, "hall" didn't really mean "hall," it meant "hall and stairs."

This caused me to be suspicious of adult language, especially when I learned that Miss Suitor never had one. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Who Killed That Teamster Jimmy Hoffa?

No one knows, not even the FBI folks who have sniffed down dozens of felonious paths. 

The first thug to fess up was Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran, so called because his towering stature and blond hair set him apart from all the short swarthy Italian gangsters who hung out around Hoffa.

When Frank confessed, he received such good publicity that a dozen other thugs owned up to killing Hoffa, too, muddying the already murky water. 

What's a writer to do, pen a chapter with a dozen different hypotheses?

I picked up "I Heard You Paint Houses," Frank's confession, and read it straight through. "Painting Houses" meant "hiring to kill," Frank's specialty. He'd whacked off a few gents for short Hoffa, and the two "Mutt & Jeff" guys became friends.

Their friendship inspired legendary Mafia boss Russell "McGee" Bufalino to choose Frank to paint Hoffa's house. McGee preferred to use close friends as assassins. They roused less suspicion.

Frank, of course, could have refused McGee but that, in turn, would have been The Irishman's death sentence.

What a set-up!

As a former English teacher, I know a good story when I read one. So I chose Frank as the killer in my memoir That Punk Jimmy Hoffa.

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese chose Frank, too. Scorsese's now directing a movie of Frank Sheeran's life titled "The Irishman." It features Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. Should be out in 2019.

What do they say about extraordinary minds? Something about running in the same passage to the sea?

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Irish O’Coffeys

Irish blood ran in my dad's veins, that I knew for a fact.

I heard him brag about his granddaddy who left Gallway county in Ireland when the potato famine hit, who came to New York City an orphan at age 11, who stayed to fight dozens of Civil War battles, marry and sire nine kids, all male but one.

After boasting about his granddaddy, Dad would pull out a whole stack of Irish records which he'd play and sing for me and my sisters. We joined in on the choruses.

We sang about shillelaghs, about Clancy lowering the boom, about Molly Malone, and especially about who threw those overalls in Mrs. Murphy's chowder?

When we ran out of steam, we turned to slow tunes: Danny Boy, Glocca Morra, the summer's last rose, and the little bit of heaven that fell from the sky to become Ireland.

On St. Paddy's Day, Dad slipped out to join the guys for coffee, scissors in hand. He came home bragging that he cut off the necktie of any man who didn't wear green.

My half-German mother didn't say much. Dad's shenanigans washed over her like water.

I was in college when I realized that Dad's Irish father had married an English woman. Which made Dad only half-Irish. And me only a quarter Irish.

Nevertheless, I gave him a genuine Irish shillelagh for his birthday.

And on Saint Paddy's Day, now that I'm 80, I forget my mixed heritage. With Dad in mind, I pin on my shamrock and my brooch that reads: "Very Irish but hardly GREEN." And I march up and down the street to the well-rehearsed tune of Mrs. Murphy's chowder.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Portnoy's Complaint

I wrote Marcella, a novel whose main character had a proclivity to stimulate her genitals with her hands. I knew I shouldn't write about sex so candidly, but I couldn't stop. 

Not surprisingly, my book's frank sexual theme made it controversial. By the time Charterhouse published my book in 1973, eleven publishers had turned it down. My agent said women in the publishing houses usually argued for it, the men against it. Sometimes fights erupted.

Later I discovered that Marcella had impacted world literature by being the first novel written in English that used female autoeroticism as a major theme. Autoeroticism? I rushed to the dictionary. Auto: self. Eroticism: Eros, love. Oh, I get it. Fancy language for masturbation.

This autoeroticism had a gender. Lucky Marcella, to be female. Being male would have earned her no kudos. Philip Roth had already collected those accolades for his Portnoy's Complaint, published in 1969.

Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is often hilarious. The main character, Portnoy, masturbates in a variety of ways: he squirts into a sock, an empty milk bottle, a baseball mitt and, famously, a piece of raw liver, which his mother later serves for dinner.

But don't jump to the conclusion that Portnoy's Complaint is a book about masturbation. It's not.  It's a book about entanglement, especially with parents.

Similarly, Marcella is not just about autoeroticism, either. It's real focus is sexual abuse, and the double message delivered to her by her Methodist Church.