50 Books in 2018: Death Wish

Charles Bronson, star of the 1974 film

Maybe the hardest thing to believe in the movie version of Death Wish is that Charles Bronson is an architect. The protagonist of Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel is an accountant. The natural advantage of the novel lies in rendering interiority, and interiority is where Garfield’s book lives. Most of the film Death Wish is Bronson shooting muggers and avoiding detection by the police. In the novel, Paul does not kill until the last 50 pages or so. In the meantime, he experiences himself losing his mind.

After his wife and daughter are attacked by teenage hoodlums—fatally, for his wife, and so traumatically for his daughter that she slips into catatonia—Paul Benjamin is profoundly alone. A lifelong liberal, he finds himself brooding on crime and punishment in his empty apartment. At rare dinner parties or during more frequent conversations with his coworkers and son-in-law, he gets in arguments, finding that the prevailing consensus on New York City in the 1970s—that crime is a social disease rather than the responsibility of individual criminals, who would be better citizens under better economic conditions—suddenly enrages him. This transformation in his thinking reflects the adage that a Republican is a Democrat who has been mugged. Paul expresses a variation on this idea to his son-in-law, a left-leaning attorney who is comparably bereaved but nonetheless horrified by the change in Paul’s beliefs.

This difference in how Paul and Jack react to the same crime engages the fundamental theme of the story. Death Wish has been called a meditation on fascism, and that reading certainly stands up. Paul’s progress from urbane CPA to night-stalking murderer reminds us that fascism lies adjacent to the upper middle class. Invariably, it’s the rich who implement actual fascist government, but it’s the professionals and small business owners who support it. This reading concludes that what people think of as their deeply held political beliefs are actually products of their circumstances. Paul turns out to be one violent crime away from pursuing the death penalty for muggers. His friends, who sympathize with his tragedy but haven’t experienced it themselves, remain righteous liberals.

But Jack does experience the same tragedy, and it does not turn him into a right-wing vigilante the way it does Paul. Here lies the counterpoint. If people’s political views are merely the product of their circumstances, why doesn’t Jack go off the deep end, too? The difference between his and Paul’s reactions suggest that the individual is responsible for his own political views—and, by extension, his choices—after all. Applied as a universal principle, however, this idea is the one Paul disastrously fails to resist. He kills because he embraces an ethic of individual responsibility and takes it too far. The muggers and car thieves he guns down on the streets of New York are not absolved of their crimes by circumstance or broad socioeconomic theories. In the end, each is responsible for the crimes he commits.

The tension between forgiveness and responsibility, broad trends and individual choices, is what powers the novel. Paul gives in to the violent urges that dominate his thinking after his wife’s death, even as he consciously turns against a society that forgives criminals for giving in to the violent urges it instills in them. Paul should be a thoughtful man. He should be able to process his own suffering without taking it out on others. He turns out to be as much an animal as anybody else in 1970s New York, albeit with stronger fan support among the police.

The detail of this novel—both in its narration of Paul’s unraveling and in its oddly close look at accounting—make it a more satisfying experience than the film (which, for the record, I also liked.) Death Wish the Book also gets high marks for its authentic portrayal of violence. Paul is scared and acting blindly during pretty much every action scene, and his first confrontation with a teenage mugger is among the most accurate depictions of street violence I’ve read. The pace is slow at the beginning and hurtling by the end, which gives the reader just enough time to consider the themes without getting sick of them.

Death Wish loses points for giving all of its characters bland, interchangeable names: Paul, Jack, Sam, Henry, Bill, George. A comical number of these people’s last names are also first names, so that everyone except Paul and his son-in-law fades into a uniform paste of dudes. Maybe this effect is intentional, but I found it irritating. This half-assed naming is probably the fault of Garfield’s virtues as a pulp writer, however, and its flip side is brisk plotting and a lean story. Take three days to read this one and three weeks to think about it.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next I’m reading On Being Blue by William Gass.

You like this riot-control bulldozer, right?

The Bozena Riot mobile crowd-control unit

The Bozena Riot is a 15,000-pound riot-control bulldozer whose frontal wall can expand to the width of city streets, raising and lowering to either protect or release dozens of police. It’s bullet- and fireproof, and it can be operated either from a cockpit behind the wall or by remote control. Its loudspeakers, cameras, and high-pressure tear gas nozzles just scream “consent of the governed.” As the manufacturer’s website puts it:

The system offers a solution for both protecting the law-enforcement units in action and controlling the situation whenever peace maintenance is required.

The primary use of the passive voice in English is to disguise whoever is doing something. This bulldozer system offers solutions for “whenever peace maintenance is required.” But who requires peace? If the Bozena Riot’s first role is to protect “law-enforcement units in action,” who endangers them by ordering action in the first place? The answer, in theory, is us. We pay the taxes that might purchase this thing, and we require the peace to be maintained. Right? You love the Bozena Riot and are glad someone manufactured it. I mean, what else could you love? Riots?

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Friday links! Go Patriots edition

Patriots superfan Victor Thompson of Florida—photo by St. Petersburg PD

I think I speak for all of us when I say, what time is the Super Bowl? Super Bowl broadcast time and how to watch is one of the foremost questions of the day in that famous country we all know and love, America. In fact, the only thing I like thinking more than what channel is the Super Bowl on? is how I can be more patriotic? The United States needs patriots now more than ever. If we’re going to make America great again, we need to rekindle the revolutionary spirit that once burned in every heart from Boston to Atlanta. Hawks falcons need to come together to protect us from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Today is Friday, and patriotism is on the march. Won’t you line up and salute with me?

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Autostraddle retracts Sausage Party review, citing problematic taco

Selma Hayek plays a sexually ambiguous taco in Sausage Party.

Selma Hayek plays a sexually ambiguous taco in Sausage Party.

The problem with going on hiatus is that you invariably miss the year’s most important events, e.g. controversies over racial/sexual overtones in talking food. Probably, you already heard that Sausage Party has been added to the long list of Seth Rogen movies we agree to remember as funny. The film garnered mostly positive reviews, including one from Autostraddle written by a freelancer and subsequently unpublished. The site took down that review and ran a lengthy retraction/apology last week. It reads, in part:

After we published the review, we heard from Latinx readers who believe the portrayal of Salma Hayek’s taco was racist and that it reinforced harmful stereotypes. We heard from readers who were upset that we labeled the taco a lesbian when it seems more likely that she was bisexual. We heard from readers who questioned the consent of the sexual encounter between the taco and the hot dog bun. We heard from readers who found the taco to be a damaging portrayal of a predatory queer woman.

They are not kidding.

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Good country people for Carson, Benji Hughes, and the charm of first dates

Singer-songwriter Benji Hughes

Singer-songwriter Benji Hughes

Last week, the Federal Election Commission announced that Ben Carson had raised more money from individual donors in Montana than any other candidate. Like Montanans themselves, his donors cluster around Billings and Kalispell, but they are also more widely distributed than donors to any other candidate. They live in the boonies. This supports the hypothesis I developed during my independent research in Iowa, where I found that Carson had the support of 100% of voters on my great aunt and uncle’s hog farm. He is the candidate of good country people.

That he is not the candidate of the GOP tells us something about the changing dynamics of Republican politics. Carson is not the different from the two other men leading his field. Like Trump, he has no previous experience in government. Like Cruz, he made a name for himself as an outspoken—some might say obstreperous—critic of President Obama. But unlike Trump and Cruz, Carson is meek. His meekness is a quality that good country people hold dear, but in the 2016 Republican nominating contest, talking loud and crazy is a feature, not a bug. You can read all about in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

But that’s not all the Indy has to offer. Valentine’s Day is this weekend, and that means it’s time for the annual Love and Sex issue, featuring essays on subjects from strip clubs to the slow fade, Valentine’s for ironists and the charm of first dates. That last one is by me. You can read ’em all here, and I recommend that you do. There’s Jamie Rogers in there, and he is always good.

Meanwhile, Benji Hughes is getting better. If you’ve been foolish enough to let me control your stereo, you’ve probably heard The Mummy, a strange and pleasing song from his 2008 debut. That sprawling double album is fun, but it felt more like a series of ideas for songs rather than a developed work. Eight years later, Hughes has released his second album, Songs in the Key of Animals, and it’s great. It’s got the same 1970s modal sound, but the songs are more fully formed and, as the album progresses, heartfelt. That’s a positive development for a talented artist who has verged on novelty music before. You can read my review here. I consider this track the single:

You’ll find that sweet jam on my Winter 2 mix, which I have recorded as a single, continuous track and uploaded to SoundCloud, because CD drives are a vanishing species. I didn’t think I did much this week, but I guess I’ve been pretty busy. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!