Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Ronald Reagan Murder Case

First of all, David Ossman is a great poet. I've heard a lot of poets whose work will still be read in centuries to come read their work, but Ossman's reading of his poem of fellow Firesign Peter Bergman in Turkey, called 12 Suppositions, is as good as a poem can get. Ossman has several volumes of poetry out, but to hear/see him perform these wonders, get a copy of the videotape An Autobozographical Evening, Ossman reading in Grand Rapids in 1986. The show ends with a poem Ossman wrote about the day in the place he was born, Santa Monica 1936 is even better than 12 Suppositions. It blends Ossman's obsession with Raymond Chandler and the Hollywood of his youth with amazing invocations of his parents, as real as anyone ever invoked. Ossman's first novel finds his alter ego Tirebiter in Santa Monica. It's 1945. The Axis are falling and Tirebiter's star is rising. At a party, George and his pal Ronnie Reagan discoverer a dead double of the Great Communicator, drowned in a duck suit. The duck images at the end of the Firesign album We're All Bozos on This Bus, and the evoked Hollywood of his youth. This is gonna be good. The photos in the book add a mysterious allure as well. Who are these people? Who's Peggy?
There are actual quotes from Firesign albums. Many moments of humour, though not as many as one would expect from the author of the vast treasury of humour that is the Firesign work.
Ossman is particularly skilled at evoking the placeness of LA. I came to know the Toluca Lake area where Tirebiter's self named character lives a decade after the story is set, when the valley was still filled with orange groves. His characters eat at Dupars on Ventura, a favourite of my childhood. His visit to the great Pickwick Bookstore on Hollywood evokes warm memories.
The plot, unfortunately, wanders around. Most disappointingly, the Ronald Reagan angle never gets the sort of development you'd expect from Ronnie's place in the title. The movie The Cat's Meow, about Hearst's killing an opponent on his boat, seems to have been looted for much plot in this novel. I haven't read Raymond Chandler in 30 years or so, and don't care for the mystery genre outside of Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe so I'm not the best audience for Tirebiter Mysterys. One mystery to me is how different Tirebiter's voice is from Ossman's. Ossman's solo album How Time Flys is one of the most pleasurable things you can do to your ears. It's dedicated to Ray Bradbury, who makes an appearance in the novel. That was neat. But the magesty of How Time Flys is absent in the printed work. I think Ossman's genius as a writer is when what he writes is spoken, by himself or others. I can summon Ossman/Tirebiter's voice in my head while reading George's voice telling the tale. The other characters, I can't do that, except the other Ossman characters Ben Bland, and, nastier than in the radio tales, Max Morgan, Crime Cabbie. What the women would sound like, I haven't an audio clue.
There isn't much in the way of character development in any of the Firesign plays, with the possible exception of the Tirebiter meta-character, interacting with himself in and out of chronology. In performance, the Firesign frequently offer slices of their older work with a topical update or perhaps an extended venture in a direction from what we knew and loved long ago. Times change more than characters, up until the last Firesign album Bride of Firesign.
One of the first things we learned about George from the Dwarf album he dominated was that his ex-wife was trying to kill him. Seeing George and Lillie in happier days having cocktails with their Hollywood pals, I felt a dread, the echo of sadness from the future because I knew their happiness was doomed- just from that first learning of their marital end in Dwarf. Lillie's conversion by her guru in Santa Monica or contributing to George's being blacklisted is never shown in this work. Too much George, not enough depth to those he interacts with. Tirebiter wants to say something clever when the reader would benefit from more information. Yet the book is almost devoid of poetry. It's very good on geography, and if you know the area as well as I did 40 years ago, that's fun to read. The book wants to be a page turner. There is danger aplenty, but no Nick. I guess Ossman decided he wanted to attract the mystery readers, however many they may be. I'd like to hear from someone who knows nothing of Ossman's or the Firesign's audio work, only the book. Yet people who know David's name from his relative fame with Firesign would be his most likely audience.
As I was reading this novel, I kept thinking of another Firesign's work. Phil Austin is as besotted with Raymond Chandler as Ossman, yet his Tales of the Old Detective Audio Book is far more poetic, funnier, even Chandleresque than the Reagan mystery. I would have expected the opposite. But then Austin remained in the audio realm. With no production, just him reading and a tiny bit of music, Old Detective resonates in your brain long after you listen to it. It's also most eloquent about death. People's deaths in the Reagan mystery are cartoon like, from the drowned Reagan on. And unfortunately, the surrealism, which lights all the Firesign work brighter than Tesla's most incendiary dreams, departs after dead Dutch in duck. The word is Un-learned. Ignorance swallows Grouchos' moustache. Dali throws away his paints and takes up plumbing.
"I like things which demand that you use more than one part of your brain at a time," says Ossman in Autobozographical Evening. To listen to any of Ossman's work is to get that intense intellectual work out. You can feel your brain expanding. New universes aborning. Spinache speeding to Pop Eye's muscles. Light putting on its sneakers.
To read The Ronald Reagan Murder Case, A George Tirebiter Mystery is to pick up a thin paperback. An entertainment.

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