Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories

Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories

by Carlo Rotella


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From jazz fantasy camp to running a movie studio; from a fight between an old guy and a fat guy to a fear of clowns—Carlo Rotella’s Playing in Time delivers good stories full of vivid characters, all told with the unique voice and humor that have garnered Rotella many devoted readers in the New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe, and Washington Post Magazine, among others. The two dozen essays in Playing in Time, some of which have never before been published, revolve around the themes and obsessions that have characterized Rotella’s writing from the start: boxing, music, writers, and cities. What holds them together is Rotella’s unique focus on people, craft, and what floats outside the mainstream. “Playing in time” refers to how people make beauty and meaning while working within the constraints and limits forced on them by life, and in his writing Rotella transforms the craft and beauty he so admires in others into an art of his own.

Rotella is best known for his writings on boxing, and his essays here do not disappoint. It’s a topic that he turns to for its colorful characters, compelling settings, and formidable life lessons both in and out of the ring. He gives us tales of an older boxer who keeps unretiring and a welterweight who is “about as rich and famous as a 147-pound fighter can get these days,” and a hilarious rumination on why Muhammad Ali’s phrase “I am the greatest” began appearing (in the mouth of Epeus) in translations of The Iliad around 1987. His essays on blues, crime and science fiction writers, and urban spaces are equally and deftly engaging, combining an artist’s eye for detail with a scholar’s sense of research, whether taking us to visit detective writer George Pelecanos or to dance with the proprietress of the Baby Doll Polka Club next to Midway Airport in Chicago.

Rotella’s essays are always smart, frequently funny, and consistently surprising. This collection will be welcomed by his many fans and will bring his inimitable style and approach to an even wider audience.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226729091
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/15/2012
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Carlo Rotella is the author of Good with Their Hands: Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt; October Cities: The Redevelopment of Urban Literature; and Cut Time: An Education at the Fights, the last also published by the University of Chicago Press. He writes regularly for the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post Magazine, and Boston Globe, and he is a commentator for WGBH FM in Boston.

Read an Excerpt

Playing in Time

Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 Carlo Rotella
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-72909-1

Chapter One


The Genre Artist

Jack Vance, described by his peers as "a major genius" and "the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy," has been hidden in plain sight for as long as he has been publishing—six decades and counting. Yes, he has won Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards and has been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and he received an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, but such honors only help to camouflage him as just another accomplished genre writer. So do the covers of his books, which feature the usual spacecraft, monsters, and euphonious place names: Lyonesse, Alastor, Durdane. If you had never read Vance and were browsing a bookstore's shelf, you might have no particular reason to choose one of his books instead of one next to it by A. E. van Vogt, say, or John Varley. And if you chose one of these alternatives, you would go on your way to the usual thrills with no idea that you had just missed out on encountering one of American literature's most distinctive and undervalued voices.

That's how Vance's fans see it, anyway. Among them are authors who have gained the big paydays and the fame that Vance never enjoyed. Dan Simmons, the best-selling writer of horror and fantasy, described discovering Vance as "a revelation for me, like coming to Proust or Henry James. Suddenly you're in the deep end of the pool. He gives you glimpses of entire worlds with just perfectly turned language. If he'd been born south of the border, he'd be up for a Nobel Prize." Michael Chabon, whose distinguished literary reputation allows him to employ popular formulas without being labeled a genre writer, told me, "Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don't get the credit they deserve. If 'The Last Castle' or 'The Dragon Masters' had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he's Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there's this insurmountable barrier."

The barrier has not proved insurmountable to other genre writers—like Ray Bradbury and Elmore Leonard, who have commanded critical respect while moving a lot of satisfyingly familiar product, or like H. P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler, pulp writers whose posthumous reputations rose over time until they passed the threshold of highbrow acceptance. But each of these writers, no matter how innovative or poetic, entered the literary mainstream by fully exploiting the attributes of his specialty. Vance, by contrast, has worked entirely within popular forms without paying much heed to their conventions or signature joys. His emphasis falls on the unexpected note, the odd beat. The rocket ships are just ways to get characters from one cogently imagined society to another; he prefers to tersely summarize battle scenes and other such potentially crowd-pleasing setpieces; and he takes greatest pleasure in word-music when exploring humankind's rich capacity for nastiness. For example: "As he approached the outermost fields he moved cautiously, skulking from tussock to copse, and presently found that which he sought: a peasant turning the dank soil with a mattock. Cugel crept quietly forward, struck down the loon with a gnarled root." While Vance may play by the rules of whatever genre he works in, his true genre is the Jack Vance story.

His loyal readers are fiercely passionate about him. An inspired crew of them got together in the late 1990s to assemble the Vance Integral Edition, a handsome 45-volume set of the great man's complete works in definitive editions. Led by Paul Rhoads, an American painter living in France (whose recent critical appraisal of Vance, Winged Being, compares him to Oswald Spengler and Jane Austen, among others, and anoints him the anti–Paul Auster), the VIE volunteers painstakingly compared editions and the author's drafts to restore prose corrupted by publishers. Hard-core Vancians also created Totality (, a website where you can search the VIE texts, which is how we know that he has used the word "punctilio" exactly 33 times in his published prose. It was an extraordinary display of true readerly love—a bunch of buffs giving a contemporary genre writer the Shakespearean variorum treatment on their own time.

Vance, who is 92, says that his new book—a memoir, This Is Me, Jack Vance!—will defi nitely be his last. Also arriving in bookstores this month is Songs of the Dying Earth, a collection of stories by other writers set in the far-future milieu that Vance introduced in some of his first published stories, which he wrote on a clipboard on the deck of a freighter in the South Pacific while serving in the merchant marine during World War II. The roster of contributors to the collection includes genre stars and best-selling brand names, among them Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Terry Dowling, Tanith Lee, George R. R. Martin, and Dean Koontz. It's a literary tribute album, in effect, on which reliable earners acknowledge the influence of a respectably semiobscure national treasure by covering his songs.

Right about now you might be thinking, Well, if Vance is as good as Simmons and Chabon and Rhoads say he is, and if he refused to give in to the demands of the genres in which he worked, then maybe he would have done better to try other forms that better rewarded his strengths. Isn't it a shame that he confined himself to adolescent genres in which his grown-up talents could not truly shine? But I think that question would be wrong in its assumptions: wrong about Vance, about genre, and about what "adolescent" and "grown-up" mean when we talk about literary sensibility.

* * *

When I was fourteen or so, in the late '70s, I knew an Advanced Boy, a connoisseur of all that was cooler than whatever his classmates were listening to, smoking, or reading. I was impressed with myself for having graduated from Tolkien to E. R. Eddison and Michael Moorcock. "Kid stuff," said the Advanced Boy. "Try this." He handed me a paperback copy of Vance's The Eyes of the Overworld. On the cover a giant lizardlike creature was tipping over a rowboat containing a man in regulation swords-and-sorcery attire and a buxom woman in regulation dishabille.

I can remember the exact lines on the second page that sank the hook in me for keeps, a passing exchange of dialogue between two hawkers of sorcerous curios at a bazaar:

"'I can resolve your perplexity,' said Fianosther. 'Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but fi rst I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.'

'No need,' said Cugel. 'My interest was cursory.'"

The feral, angling politesse, the marriage of high-flown language to low motives, the way Cugel's clipped phrases rounded off Fianosther's ornate ones—I felt myself seized by a writer's style in a way I had never experienced before. Vance didn't even have to describe the "captive erb." The phrase itself conjured up rows of teeth and the awful strength of a long, sinewy body surging up your leg.

Cugel soon finds himself in Smolod, a village whose inhabitants wear magical eye cusps that transform their fetid surroundings into apparent splendor. The cusps are relics of the demon Unda-Hrada's incursion from the subworld La-Er during the Cutz Wars of the Eighteenth Aeon. "I dimly recall that I inhabit a sty and devour the coarsest of food," one elder admits, "but the subjective reality is that I inhabit a glorious palace and dine on splendid viands among the princes and princesses who are my peers." It's a typical Vancian setup: a few bold conceptual strokes, ripe descriptions, and evocative names combine to fully realize a weird place that feels real—because the meatiness of his language endows it with presence, but also because every reader lives in a place sort of like it.

Cugel manages to steal a single cusp before fleeing Smolod ahead of an angry mob. It's merely the first stop on his journey across the Dying Earth, a realm of cynical wonders in which the last exemplars of human civilization go about the age-old business of lying, cheating, and stealing to satisfy base desires as the enfeebled sun falters toward final darkness.

I read the book in a kind of rapt delirium and went looking for more. In addition to picaresque fantasy, Vance has written high fantasy, science fantasy, planetary romance, extraterrestrial mystery, revenge sagas, and less-classifiable speculative adventure tales on scales ranging from the short story to the multivolume chronicle. For good measure, he wrote eleven mysteries under his given name, John Holbrook Vance, and three more under the floating pseudonym Ellery Queen. He had a brief stint early in his career as a writer for the Captain Video television series, and over the years several of his stories have been optioned, but Hollywood has not snapped up his work as it snapped up, say, Philip K. Dick's. Part of Hollywood's lack of interest in Vance can be traced, I think, to an oversimple reading of him as a baroque stylist whose writing depends mostly on language to achieve its effect, rather than on plot, character, or high-concept premise.

Vance believes that the musical fl ow of language is all-important to storytelling—"The prose should swing," he told me more than once—but some social or cultural problem always moves beneath the action, inviting the intellect to pause and consider. The Languages of Pao, for instance, develops the proposition that language can be transformed to make a people more warlike; "The Dragon Masters" pursues an analogy between genetic manipulation and aesthetic sophistication. He will also mute or undercut the action with a well-struck psychological grace note. After hunting down one by one the evil geniuses who slaughtered his family, the hero of the Demon Princes cycle becomes so subdued that his companion asks if he's all right. "Quite well," he answers in the closing lines of the fifth and final novel. "Deflated, perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. Treesong is dead. The affair is over. I am done." Deflated, perhaps. Rarely has a science-fiction hero reached the finish line with so little fanfare.

Intricate plotting is not Vance's forte, but he artfully recombines recurring elements: the rhythms of travel; the pleasures of music, strong drink, and vengeance; touchy encounters with pedants, mounte banks, violently opinionated aesthetes and zealots, louts, bigots of all stripes, and boyishly slim young women with an enigmatic habit of looking back over their shoulders. His stories sustain an anecdotal forward drive that balances his digressive pleasure in imagining a world and the hypnotic effect of his distinctive tone, which has been variously described as barbed, velvety, arch, and mandarin.

Reading Vance leaves you with a sense of formality, of having been present at an occasion when, for all the jokiness and the fun of made-up words, the serious business of literary entertainment was transacted. And it teaches a lasting lesson about the writer's craft: whatever's on the cover, you can always aim high.

* * *

It turns out that mine was a common reaction to a first encounter with Vance's prose at an impressionable age. Some of the celebrated fantasists who contributed to Songs of the Dying Earth told me similar stories.

Dan Simmons was twelve when his older brother let him read "The Dragon Masters" and he suddenly found himself in the deep end of the pool. Neil Gaiman was twelve or thirteen when he stumbled across a Dying Earth tale. "I fell in love with the prose style," Gaiman said. "It was elegant, intelligent; each word felt like it knew what it was doing. It's funny but never, ever once nudges you in the ribs."

Tanith Lee told me that in her early twenties she was "a great misfit, unhappy in my heart, and I knew I wanted to write." Her mother bought her the fi rst Dying Earth book, which invested Lee's then-mopey existence with writerly possibility. "I loved the black humor, the elegance, and I loved the sheer viciousness. And when I got to Cugel, I loved him. He was a lifeline." After we talked, she e-mailed me one of her favorite lines from Vance: "I would offer congratulations were it not for this tentacle gripping my leg."

Michael Chabon, who did not contribute to the tribute volume, was twelve or thirteen when he read "The Dragon Masters." He places Vance "in an authentic American tradition that's important and powerful but less recognized. It's not Twain-Hemingway; it's more Poe's tradition, a blend of European refinement with brawling, two-fisted frontier spirit. I picture this sailor in his blue chambray work shirt, his jeans, and a watch cap sitting on the deck of a ship in the South Pacific, imagining a million years in the future, this elaborate world going through its death throes. The prose isn't just rarefied and overripe. Vance has the narrative force, the willingness to look very coldly at violence and cruelty, to not shy away."

Chabon contrasted Vance with Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, British dons who shared a grandiose "impulse to synthesize a mythology for a culture. There's none of that in Vance. The engineer in him is always on view. They're always adventure stories, too, but they're also problem-solving puzzles. He sets up these what-ifs, like a syllogism. He has that logic-love like Poe, the Yankee engineering spirit, married to erudite love of pomp and pageantry. And he has an amazing ear and writes a beautiful sentence."

Most of these writers were adolescents when they first read Vance, who awoke in them an appreciation for the artistic possibilities of language. When applied to literature, "adolescent" does not only have to mean pedestrian prose that evokes the strong feelings of emotionally inexperienced people. "Adolescent" can also mean writing that inspires the first conscious stirrings of literary sensibility. So, yes, Vance worked exclusively in adolescent genres—if under that heading we include the transformative experience of falling in love for the first time with a beautiful sentence.

* * *

Vance lives in the Oakland hills, in a house he tore down and rebuilt over the years in idiosyncratic form. He has a reputation for reclusive crabbiness, and encounters between strangers in his stories are often instinctively truculent. (A specimen exchange between a customer and a clerk: "'Your methods are incorrect. Since I entered the chamber first, you should have dealt first with my affairs.' The clerk blinked. 'The idea, I must say, has an innocent simplicity in its favor.'") As I climbed the steep driveway on a gray afternoon last winter, a large dog barking at my approach, I tried to banish the irrational expectation that Vance and I would exchange Vancian dialogue. Me: "Why did you persist in writing hurlothrumbo romances of the footling sort favored by mooncalfs?" Him: "The question is nuncupatory. I grow weary of your importunities. Begone."

But he was gracious and regaled me with stories about his adventures in the South Seas. He sat in a rocking chair at his desk, bundled up against the chill in windbreaker and watch cap, with a blanket around his shoulders and a heater by his slippered feet. Old age has stooped and diminished him, but his deep voice still carries a rasp of authority. He spends his days at his desk, listening to mysteries on tape (he has been blind since the 1980s), talking on the phone when somebody calls, listening to or playing the traditional jazz he adores. At one point during my visit he pulled down a baritone ukulele from the rack of stringed instruments behind him and strummed it with abandon as he sang a forceful little ditty about pitching woo. He also plays—or played—harmonica, washboard, kazoo, and cornet.

Unlike many of his characters, who are forever puffing themselves up ("I am studied in four infinities and I sit as a member of the Collegium"), Vance presents himself as a down-to-earth, practical fellow. He deflected my questions about the fan letters in his file cabinets from the likes of the young Ursula K. Le Guin, the software zillionaire Paul Allen, and the game designer Gary Gygax, whose Dungeons & Dragons borrowed heavily from Vance, but he was happy to explain how he once raised a sunken houseboat using an air compressor and eight 50-gallon drums.

Vance never got rich, but he made enough to support his wife, Norma, who died last year after 61 years of marriage, and their son, John, now an engineer. They traveled often to exotic locales—Madeira, Tahiti, Cape Town, Kashmir—where they settled in cheap lodgings long enough for Vance to write another book. "We'd hole up for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months," John told me. "He had his clipboard; she had the portable typewriter. He'd write in longhand, and she'd type it up. First draft, second draft, third draft."


Excerpted from Playing in Time by CARLO ROTELLA Copyright © 2012 by Carlo Rotella. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Lefty Dizz Version

    The Genre Artist
    The Year of the Blues
    The Professor of Micropopularity
    The Saberist
    A Man of Deep Conviction
    A History of Violence
    Boxing Stories
    Mirror, Mirror
    The Prospect
    The Biggest Entertainer in Entertainment
    Shannon vs. the Russians
    After the Gloves Came Off
    The Greatest
    Champion at Twilight
    Bedtime Story
    The Elements of Providence
    Someone Else’s Chicago
    The Dogs of South Shore
    Into South Shore
    Un Clown Biologique
    The Two Jameses
    Three Landscapes, with Gamblers
    The Mouse Sled
    A Game
    Playing in Time


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