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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 28, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


The Slammer, Manliness, and a bunch of books

How did I go so many years without knowing about the one-dollar local newspaper called The Slammer?

Or maybe it's not all that local. It calls itself the "Alamance, Forsyth, Guilford, and Randolph edition," so maybe there are a whole bunch of these throughout the country.

It would be reassuring to know that at least some of the people pictured therein were not local. But I have a sneaking suspicion that, except for a couple of national "feature" articles, every one of these people is a local volunteer.

Here's the concept: They print mug shots.

You know, the pictures taken by the police when you're arrested and brought in to the lockup. They include your name and what you were charged with.

Now, these people didn't volunteer to appear in The Slammer. They simply volunteered to get themselves arrested, whereupon they were photographed. The photographs are then part of the public record and can be used without permission.

I think it goes without saying that few people are really at their best by the time they get to the picture-taking stage of an arrest.

Given that many of them are arrested for offenses related to alcohol or drugs, they were already somewhat under the weather before the process started. Which explains the very tired-looking hair and the heavy-lidded eyes. All they really want to do is go somewhere and sleep it off.

And guess what? They are in one of the very best places to sleep it off! Or at least, so it seemed with Otis on The Andy Griffith Show.

Also, these are not happy people. So the expressions that aren't sleepy are glum or angry. Though a couple of them look startled and there are a few that had the happy thought of giving the camera their biggest grin.

This strategy is only good if you have all your teeth.

And even then, when you have a guy who was arrested for indecent liberties with a minor, it really doesn't work in his favor to have a mug shot with a big happy smile. Contrition, that's what we're looking for.

The worst thing about the pictures is that a significant portion of them are green. I suspect that one of the cameras used by the police puts a greenish tinge on everybody, but it's most noticeable on the skin of black people, who are turned by the camera into aliens.

So far, though, the Supreme Court has not required the police to take attractive photos for mug shots. Maybe the police deliberately fudged the mug-shot cameras so that people who are charged with crimes will look even worse than regular civilians do in our passport and drivers license photos.

The tabloid is divided into various departments: Recent Arrests, Sex Offenders, DWIs, Wanted, Domestic Violence (all men), Deadbeat Parents (all men), Fight Club! (presumably people arrested for fighting), Mature Menaces (people who look middle-aged or plumb worn out in their pictures), and Senior Center (people who are certified elderly).

Then there's Slammer Salon (people with extravagant hair or beards), Smiles and Tears (the grinners and the weepers), Kiddie Korner (people who look very young -- though I'm sure they can't actually be under 18 or the pictures wouldn't have been released), and Sex Crimes.

Most of the pictures run with their name and what they were charged with at booking. But some come with comments -- sarcastic comments, mostly funny ones. Still, most of the pictures speak for themselves, and there's a train-wreck kind of fascination with the faces and what they're charged with.

This person was charged with "false pretenses"? But who would ever believe anything that was said by someone with that face?

Perhaps you noticed that there are both Sex Crimes and Sex Offenders in that list. That's because the Sex Offenders department runs pictures of people on the state registry of sex offenders, regardless of when they were convicted of a crime. Usually it involves offenses against minors, rape, or exposure, and these listing include the home addresses of the offenders.

Sex Crimes, on the other hand, consists of recent arrests, and the majority of them were women who were picked up for soliciting (though a few men were, too).

Here's where I don't understand my fellow men: How drunk, high, lonely, or desperate would you have to be before any of these women started looking good to you?

The irony is that while the females arrested for prostitution looked awful, the men arrested for prostitution looked downright spiffy and manly. I think we have to conclude that homosexual men have higher standards than heterosexual men when it comes to paying for it.

Or else the photographer gave the male prostitutes a chance to clean up. Favoritism? You decide.

In the Wanted section there were only two photos, and both came with messages from the editors to the fugitives. "Ms. _____ was charged with a DWI in Durham County, and then she decided that she wasn't going to show up for court. ______, next time call a cab, call a friend, or just walk. You are a grown woman and you know what you need to do!"

It's almost as if the editor were this fugitive's stern uncle.

And the men arrested for domestic violence -- did they all have to work so hard to look like they came from central casting? I mean, every doggone one of them looked like he got up every morning and dressed and arranged his hair and beard to look as much like a wife-beater as possible.

My favorite section, though, was the Senior Center. First there was a helpful note, telling us that the elderly are not only the least likely group to commit crimes (after, I'm willing to bet, infants and toddlers), they are also the least likely to be victims of crime, regardless of how much folklore there is designed to scare old people and make them feel helpless.

Well, these folks certainly weren't helpless. There were two DWIs, one "false pretense," an assault by a particularly ticked-off looking woman, a larceny, and my favorite: a man who was on oxygen, charged with trespass.

I conjured up a mental image of him dragging his oxygen tank along behind him as he stood in his neighbor's yard, shaking his fist. "Get out of my yard or I'm calling the cops," the neighbor says. "I'm not going anywhere until you chain up that dog and stop him from pooping on my lawn!" says the old guy on oxygen.

And he's still saying that when the police come. As they push him into the car, he yells, "You can't arrest a man on oxygen!"

And the cop says, "If you've got enough breath to yell, you've got enough breath to get arrested."

"Besides," says the cop, "what do you think we breathe down at the station? Laughing gas?"

There was also a ghoulish feature article in the centerfold of the tabloid, but the topic was too repellent for me to want to discuss any part of it here.

Did I mention that besides the one-dollar charge for the paper, they also accept advertising? Well, you'd expect ads from bail bondsmen, pawn shops, and even insurance agents. And having an ad for carpet and upholstery care from Sears makes a perverse kind of sense -- cleaning up after crime can take some serious equipment.

I'm not sure, though, that if I ran a furniture store this is the clientele I'd aim at.

Then again, I saw the ad, didn't I?

Now that I look closely at that furniture ad, I realize that it's probably a fake ad. There's no address for the store, just a phone number and a banner saying "Advertise your store with The Slammer." So when you call the phone number, it's probably an ad agent for The Slammer, not somebody to give you directions to the furniture store.

You've got to give The Slammer credit -- they provide a valuable service. It's like reading the obituaries -- you look through it sort of wondering if you'll see anybody you know. And where else am I going to find out if there's a registered sex offender living nearby? Or see pictures of depressed green people?

Say what you will, I think The Slammer is way better than the supermarket tabloids. There aren't a lot of celebrities in it, or two-headed babies, or visits from aliens (unless you count the depressed green people). In fact, almost everything in The Slammer is actually true. Not everyone pictured there is guilty, but everyone was certainly arrested, which is all the paper claims.

*

Frank Miniter is a really adventurous guy. He's run with the bulls at Pamplona, hunted everything that it's legal to shoot at, floated the Amazon, spelunked and studied karate. Which gave him a lot of credibility when he was editor of Outdoor Life.

Now he's written a book called The Ultimate Man's Survival Guide. I thought it was going to be about survival. But mostly it's about manliness.

The book begins with a long, rambling, incoherent essay about what it means to be a man. Myself, I'd go with the Y-chromosome thing, but he thinks that it's shameful that so many men don't do "manly" things. He tries to be inclusive and diverse, but the whole book screams that if you haven't willingly, deliberately, and (in my view) stupidly faced death, you aren't really a man.

OK, I buy the idea that men are supposed to be strong, protective, brave, and even self-sacrificial. (Of course, so are women -- but we'd better not go there when we're talking about manliness.)

But for me, that list comes with the tagline "when necessary" or "when appropriate."

National defense, police work, firefighting -- somebody has to do these jobs, and I honor the men (and fewer-but-just-as-honorable women) who volunteer to do it.

For the rest of us, though, it's like that guy decades ago who, when an airplane crashed into the Potomac River in the middle of winter, stayed in the water helping other people get onto the helicopters, and when they came back for him he was gone.

He didn't wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and go, "I'm a man! I need to go saving people in icy river water today!" He was probably just a guy on a business trip.

I've gone hunting. But it wasn't about being "manly." It was about shooting a deer and cleaning a deer so we could eat the meat. It was also about going out with my dad into the woods. There weren't any women with us. I guess it was a manly thing to do, but then I did it. Or rather, Dad shot the deer, so according to our bet, I had to clean it.

So now I know how to clean and dress a deer. It was fine. I wasn't sickened by it. I was and am rather proud of it. But I never had to do it again.

Does that mean I'm not manly? The fact that I don't keep tramping through woods in search of something to shoot, but instead like to go to restaurants and watch television and movies and have philosophical discussions with people who are smarter than me -- should I have my Y chromosome checked?

Here's the thing. I actually think it is good for people to know how to do the things that Miniter thinks all men should know how to do. I'm perfectly happy, though, to be with a woman who knows how to do them -- what do I care, as long as there's a smart person who has the right skills when a problem comes up?

The problem with Miniter's book is that he's a lousy process writer.

And that's a terrible thing to have to say about a man whose whole career has been writing and editing.

But as I read his disorganized, catch-as-catch-can book, the only processes that were clear to me were the things I had already done or knew how to do.

Miniter's tone suggests that he thinks he's explaining stuff to us, teaching us how to do things we've never done before. But his explanations are simply not clear. He's not very good at finding exactly the right language to help someone visualize a physical process that he's never done before.

Maybe it's just that Miniter is old and impatient. He's talking to people who really ought to already know how to do it. So he doesn't start at the beginning, he just plunges in, explaining far too few of the terms he uses, making no effort to explain things at a truly elementary level.

And through it all, there's a tone of contempt for people who actually need his book. Apparently if you don't already know how to do these things, you're really not much of a man.

Mostly the point of his stories is: The guy who knew what he was doing made it through danger alive. Anybody who didn't know would be dead. Don't you wish you knew as much as them?

So while this book is probably fun for guys who don't need it -- it will help them feel smug about how superior they are -- it's completely useless for guys who do need it.

If you are actually interested in learning the kinds of things Miniter thinks he's teaching you in The Ultimate Man's Survival Guide, I know of a better book for you. I read it many years ago and have used many of the skills that are very, very carefully and clearly taught in it.

It's the Boy Scouts Handbook: The Official Handbook for Boys. You can buy it at Amazon. It has more manliness -- of the practical variety -- on every page than there is in Miniter's whole book. It isn't smug -- it assumes you don't know a skill, and it teaches it to you from the beginning. It's clear. It works. I learned a lot from it as a kid, and much of it has stuck with me.

In fact, almost every time I understood a process in Miniter's book, it's because I had already learned it from the Boy Scouts Handbook.

*

I think Joni Mitchell was one of the greatest singer-songwriters of our time. When CDs first came out, she was the first artist whose entire catalogue I had to own on CD. My kids grew up hearing her music all the time. I even love hearing newer, younger singers cover her songs. I think American Idol desperately needs to have a Joni Mitchell week.

And her life has been an interesting one. I've read mini-biographies of her and found her intriguing. I even vaguely based a character in one of my best short stories ("Feed the Baby of Love") on her.

But as I read Michelle Mercer's Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period, it gradually dawned on me that even though I'm a devoted fan and I know all her songs backward and forward, this book was too much. It was more than I wanted to know. It was, in a word, obsessive and worshipful to such a degree that it actually made me want to go listen to Shawn Colvin or Bruce Springsteen.

*

Giles Blunt's comic thriller, No Such Creature, about a couple of con men who run up against real evil, is actually both comic and thrilling. The bad guys are really, really bad. The good guys are also kind of bad, but in a likeable-rogue kind of way. It wasn't a bestseller and you may have to work a little to find it, but it's worth the effort.

*

Do you really need me to tell you about a Michael Connelly novel? This guy is one of the best mystery writers ever, and he owns LA.

But Connelly's roots are in journalism, so when he writes a novel about a reporter who is about to get laid off as part of the desperate effort of print newspapers to stay alive, you get a real sense that he's coming home.

Like coming home for a family reunion, where you know everybody and even mostly love them but you also are aware of every wart and goiter, every skeleton in the closet -- and you know who always fights with whom, and which uncle you never leave the children with.

And because Connelly does his research, when The Scarecrow takes us into the world of computers and hacking and identity destruction and surveillance, it's all smart and believable. This is rare. Most writers -- especially screenwriters -- make idiotic mistakes in dealing with computers and what they can and can't do and how they work. But Connelly's nefarious villain is really quite plausible. Which makes him far more scary.

As with most mystery-thrillers, the climax has the hero in a fight to the death. Only it's not a fight, really. It involves a method of murder I've never seen anyone use in fiction before. That's flat-out hard to do these days. But it's Michael Connelly we're talking about, so ... no surprise.

*

Elmore Leonard has earned the blurbs on his latest book, Road Dogs: "No one is Leonard's equal." "The Hottest Thriller Writer in the U.S." "The greatest crime writer of our time, perhaps ever." "Crime Fiction's greatest living practitioner."

And those quotes aren't from reviewers in obscure local weeklies. They're from the Chicago Tribune, Time magazine, the New York Times Book Review, and Washington Post Book World.

And Road Dogs takes place in prime Elmore Leonard territory. Bank robber Jack Foley, whom we first met in Out of Sight, makes a very useful friend in prison, where he's serving a thirty-year sentence, inflated because he got involved in a prison break.

The friend is Cundo Rey, a criminal who happens to be extraordinarily rich, and Rey manages to get a lawyer to spring Foley from jail. Foley's job once he's out is to go live in one of Rey's houses in Venice Beach, California, and look out for Rey's wife, Dawn Navarro, a professional (and of course fake) psychic.

Everybody's a crook. There are no good guys. What makes us like Foley is that, without making a show of it, he's nicer than the other people and mostly smarter than they are, too. But he has no problem killing when it seems like the right thing to do.

And so even though this book is a terrific read, I actually felt guilty for enjoying it. So guilty that in fact by the end I really wasn't enjoying it. I wanted the cops to come in and arrest everybody. Or shoot everybody. Fortunately, they pretty much end up all killing each other, but ...

I guess I'm getting so old that I prefer to spend my time with people I actually like and admire. I like and admire Elmore Leonard as a writer (no, we've never met), but I don't like or admire any of his characters. They're all people that I'd rather leave a party than spend time in the same room with.

Of course, most parties I'd rather leave because I don't much like parties -- too many people -- so don't go by me. The blurbs about Leonard are true. This book is first-rate. I'm completely wrong to have found it so distasteful. And besides, what kind of hypocrite am I, to recommend No Such Creature, which is every bit as full of unpleasant criminals, and then diss Road Dogs?

All I can say is, when I read No Such Creature I wasn't quite fed up yet with novels about low-life scum, and now I am. For the time being, anyway.


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