A story of self and in­sight

THE LONG TAKE BY ROBIN ROBERT­SON (Pi­cador, £14.99)

Sunday Herald Life - - Books Reviews - Re­view by Todd McEwen

THE Long Take, a nar­ra­tive poem, is the story of a guy called Walker: his “name and na­ture”. He was born in Nova Sco­tia and was alive to what you might call an old-fash­ioned nat­u­ral world, out of a Robert Fla­herty film. He fought in France. Feel­ing soiled, dis­jointed, he be­lieves he can­not re­turn to the pu­rity of his home place, so he washes up in New York City, in 1946, and ex­pe­ri­ences life there in the stark chiaroscuro of new cin­ema.

In this black and white world he be­gins to write. From an is­land be­gin­ning he be­comes a sharp, cin­e­mato­graphic ob­server of ur­ban hu­man­ity – in the lat­ter half of the 20th cen­tury, what other kind is there? He hears from men how New York works: “Up there … he ges­tured at the bright/jew­elry of the tow­ers/the wasted light of pent­houses and suites/ … are all the girls and all the money.” Walker en­coun­ters some peo­ple from Hol­ly­wood and grad­u­ally ideas of it work on him and he lights out for there. Walker you could eas­ily imag­ine as the ac­tor Robert Walker: a world­weary, bat­tle-hard­ened, acutely sen­si­tive man, scarred and un­bal­anced.

Any nar­ra­tive poem about New York City re­minds you of Hart Crane’s The Bridge; Cal­i­for­nia brings to mind Robin­son Jef­fers, a writer with whom Robin Robert­son has much in com­mon. In its be­gin­ning, The Long Take re­mark­ably cap­tures lin­guis­tic styles of 1940s Amer­i­can writ­ing – Saroyan and Stein­beck. As it pro­gresses into the mid-1950s, we’re hear­ing Gins­berg and Bald­win.

You also sense the paint­ings of John Sloan and hear Joseph Mon­cure March and Les Mur­ray (whose Fredy Nep­tune is an­other shat­ter­ing nar­ra­tive of a dam­aged fight­ing man). David Jones’s In Paren­the­sis, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Week­end (to our dis­ap­point­ment, Walker is also a drinker) – you will be washed in all th­ese when you read this poem. Dust, the dust and sand nat­u­ral to Los An­ge­les, but also that raised by the con­stant, in­sane devel­op­ment and re­de­vel­op­ment of the city, is John Fante’s dust.

Walker gets a job on a news­pa­per, easy as pie. Those were the days. But ev­ery­thing in Los An­ge­les has al­ways been hap­pen­stance, in tur­moil, en­dan­gered, un­re­li­able – just like the houses and the iffy, oily soil they rest on. As­signed to the city desk, he cov­ers mur­ders. There are so many of them. Then as now, LA is a shift­ing and shift­less so­ci­ety. Dead bod­ies: “Like they’re dolls … How they’re still hold­ing on to some­thing that might save them – their purse or their news­pa­per or a dol­lar bill.” Walker is also ap­palled by the stag­ger­ing num­ber of in­di­gents – many of them ex-ser­vice­men – and on his own bat he be­gins to write ex­posés on the sub­ject.

Ad­mir­ers of Robert­son will be fa­mil­iar with his at­ten­tions

to the hu­man body and the thou­sand ways in which it can, with de­lib­er­ate evil, be in­jured or de­stroyed; some of them still wake up scream­ing re­mem­ber­ing his early poem The Flay­ing Of Marsyas. Don’t dare to think that you will be dis­ap­pointed here: Walker can’t for­get things he’s seen, done, and the things he sees, even now. He thinks he’s watch­ing a man, pur­sued by the LAPD, un­furl­ing a red hand­ker­chief; its bul­lets tak­ing him apart. An­other guy’s smile is de­scribed as cross­ing his fea­tures like a fly ex­plor­ing a wound.

Walker’s aw­ful rec­ol­lec­tions are thrown against mem­o­ries of the ever-chang­ing beauty of his birth­place and the rapid, in­creas­ingly Dan­teesque car­ni­val of wil­ful self­de­struc­tion he finds Los An­ge­les to be. Big­otry and racial vi­o­lence are an on­go­ing, fright­en­ingly nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of the war: peo­ple be­ing torn down in the same way as build­ings – build­ings that can­not be al­lowed to live out their nat­u­ral lives: “They call this progress, when it’s re­ally only greed.”

AT one point Walker gets time off from his news­pa­per to look into the plight of bums in San Fran­cisco, yet an­other kind of city for him to sur­gi­cally, mag­i­cally re­fract. He trav­els there on a bus, seated across from a woman who is eat­ing a big bag of fun­nel cake. One had hoped that a writer of Robin Robert­son’s sen­si­bil­ity, flaps of flesh and bub­bling blood not­with­stand­ing, would never have had to know about fun­nel cake. Sud­denly, we re­alise that Walker can’t han­dle his in­sights: he be­comes as bad an al­co­holic as the peo­ple he’s writ­ing about. The cor­rupt city gives up on it­self and Walker wit­nesses its de­struc­tion, ex­actly as pre­dicted by a lit­er­ate though home­less pal.

Walker’s down­fall is heart­break­ing, be­cause it’s not only his. A woman razzes him in a bar, and he replies, as Los An­ge­les, as Amer­ica, for all of us: “I know why I’m drink­ing. I just don’t know why I’m here.”

The Long Take owes much to film noir – that is its tex­ture. And this is an apt lan­guage for speak­ing about the US now. Noir was a kind of un­der­ground, semi-sanc­tioned Hol­ly­wood grum­ble about the real state of the coun­try, a sub-po­lit­i­cal lens on the chirpy, too-highly bur­nished of­fi­cial ver­sion of the new Amer­i­can life that ig­nored racism, poverty and the per­se­cu­tion of ideas.

So the poem be­comes com­pletely up to date: Robert­son has cho­sen a supremely un­com­fort­able, recog­nis­able flash­point in US his­tory, an al­most per­fect mir­ror im­age of the na­tion to­day: crude, newly un­leashed ma­te­rial am­bi­tions mix with off-the-chart lev­els of fear and para­noia.

The only dif­fer­ence is that then it was Russkies and im­mi­grants, and now, uh …

Robin Robert­son’s The Long Take, in which cen­tral char­ac­ter Walker is an al­co­holic who strug­gles with his demons, owes much to the pes­simistic, gloomy world of film noir

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