Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

August 31, 2006

Truman Capote: Fake Snakes in a Car

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 11:49 am

Recently I bought a copy of %%AMAZON=0679745661 Music for Chamelons%% for a writer I like. Because I think it contains some of Capote’s best most problematic work. An almost diamond sharp stylishnes punctuated by loosey goosey intervals like his hilarious “A Day’s Work”– his account of going around to Other People’s Apartments with his cleaning woman.

Anyway before I could deliver the book to her I was struck again by the subtitle to the 80 page major work in the book: Handcarved Coffins. The subtitle still reads A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime”.

The crime, purportedly one of a series of crimes, was the murder of a husband and wife in the midwest. The murder is carried out by rattlesnakes. And not just ordinary rattlesnakes in ordinary circumstances.

On a hot morning, a “sizzler” of a day, the couple finds their car windows rolled up. “…they each entered the car through separate doors, and as soon as they were inside–wam! A tangle of rattlesnakes hit them like lightning. We found nine big rattlers inside the car. All had been injected with amphetamine;they were crazy, they bit the Robertses everywhere…their heads were huge and swollen like Halloween pumpkins painted green…”

Pretty bad. Surprizing, as Capote slyly notes before introudcing us to this crime and the investigator who is the main character in “Hand Carved Coffins”, that the case had “almost no publicity.”

Not surprizing if you realize that there WAS no such case. That this “non fiction account” was appparently spun out of whole cloth by Capote. It’s something i suspected when I first read it. It’s something I first saw pointed out in print in a piece in the TLS back in 1997 (I think),and affirmed byCapote most authoratative biographer.

And yet there it remains in the subtitle “A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime”. I still think it’s an important Capote work. Just mistitled.

Isn’t it time, since everyone seems to be more interested the difference between fiction and non fiction these days, that there be some acknowledment of the fact tht it’s fiction inthe book?

Woudn’t such an acknowledgement give the usnsupecting reader a more complex portrait of the artist, knowing that what he or she was reading was fiction masked as fact? The very fact Capote called it “nonfiction” is an interesting fact especially in the view of the approach of a second Capote film which, along with last year’s Capote explored the whole truth fiction question in a fictionalized way.

And shouldn’t Capote get some kind of credit (or blame) for having inspired or anticipated Snakes on a Plane?


August 29, 2006

Do You Know The "Official" Answer to the Question, "What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?"

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 8:19 pm

An old acquaintance who had spent seven years in a Zen monastery once told me what the monks taught him about that question made famous by J.D. Salinger as the epigraph to his collection, Nine Stories.

It’s one of those useless bits of knowledge I find a perverse pride in knowing and would like to share with you, blog visitors, because I know you are seekers of widsom, and this is a full-service blog inthat respect.

It’s something that was recalled to me when I received a copy of the new collection of Salinger essays %%AMAZON=1560258802 If You Really Want to Hear About It%%, edited by Catherine Crawford. Among the other pieces including those by Mary McCarthy, John Updike, Eudora Welty etc, there is a reprint of a piece I did some ten years ago for Esquire in which I recounted my journey to the verge of Salinger’s driveway (but not beyond) and my meditation on his Silence as not necessarily some nutty eccentricity but a courageous reproof to the publicity-industrial complex, celebrity culture and other noisily intrusive phenomena.

The piece The Catcher in the Driveway is reprinted in The Secret Parts of Fortune the collection you can click on on the left hand column, and it’s long and filled with ambivalences and I could tell you a lot more about it–and I’ll probably have more to say about it and this new essay collection. But for now I just want to impart that one bit of wisdom about one hand clapping and the surpizing exegetical apercu it prompted.

The lapsed Zen acolyte told me that when someone who had reached enlightenment was asked the koan “We know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?” he will naturally, without prompting, demonstrate his enlightenment by silently bringing one hand from his side up to the middle of his body as if it were to meet his other hand for a conventional clap.

But instead–with the other hand motionless at his side–one will only hear silence: the sound of one hand clapping. Not exactly silence but an invitation to tune into the vast soundscape of the world surrounding one, the hum of the cosmos itself.

Works for me. But the major exegetical discovery, one I was so excited about that I actually, embarassingly wrote Salinger a letter and left it in his mailbox, in which I asked him if I was onto something (no Zen modesty here). It had to do with the very opening page of his most controversial, mysterious short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, the story in Nine Stories in which Salinger’s annoying fictional guru Seymour commits suicide. l found there– so well disguised so I believe no one else had noticed–embedded on that very first page an image of the “one hand clapping” gesture.

It is there when Seymour’s ostensibly unenlightened new bride Muriel is drying her just-lacquered finger-nails, waving one hand, “her left–the wet—hand back and forth through the air” to dry her nails.

Making the sound of one hand clapping!. I see it as a suggestion that the cosmic can be found in the vulgar, the high in the low. But I would, woudn’t I?

Make of it what you will, but I just thought you should know. I dare you, no I double dare you, to make the gesture of one hand clapping yourself.

August 28, 2006

Best. Dylan. Interview. Ever.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 3:14 pm

Check out the long quote from it in Louis Menand’s essay on %%AMAZON=1932958096 Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews%% in the current (Sept.4) New Yorker

It’s the one in which the “stylish” interviewer (whose identity I won’t reveal here out of modesty) evoked from Dylan perhaps the most famous description of the sound he was seeking in the works of his greatest period, the Blonde on Blonde era. The sound Dylan described as “that thin, that wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold…It’s the sound of bells and distant railroad trains and arguments in apartment buildings and the clinking of silverware and knives and forks and …It’s water you know, water trickling down a brook. It’s light flowing through the…

Late afternooon light?, the interviewer asks.

No, it’s usually the crack of dawn. Music filters out to me in the crack of dawn.

The “jingle-jangle morning”?

Right, Dylan avers.

There’s not much to add to that, Menand says. I couldn’t agree more.

Best. Onion. Headline. Ever.

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 1:51 pm


August 27, 2006

The Saddest Holiday Inn in the World

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 3:27 pm

So I’m watching Monster’s Ball on cable and wondering why I’d resisted seeing it for so long. And I know it has something to do with my stays at what I’ve come to think of as “the saddest Holiday Inn in the world”.

The film, I’m sure you know, is set in the town attached to a Southern death-row prison. Billy Bob Thornton plays a prison guard who participates in the execution of Halle Berry’s husband. Without the two of them knowing of this fairly salient fact they enter into a highly charged affair.

Every time I’ve thought about renting it, however, it’s made me think about my two visits to Death Row in Huntsville, Texas, and my stays in the Huntsville Holiday Inn. I’d visited the Huntsville Death Row while investigating the now-notorious serial killer scam of Henry Lee Lucas. Henry was a drifter who’d killed, probably, two people, but discovered that by confessing to many more unsolved killings to the Texas Rangers he could buy himself some time, and as long as he continued confessing and “solving” unsolved murders for the Rangers he could get himself an air conditioned jail cell with premium cable tv and top notch take-out.

And even better, the more he strung out the scam the more he became a kind of star. His confessions mounted to 200, then 300, finally 600, as the Rangers flew him around the country like a serial killer rock star on tour, “taking cases”–confessing to unsolved murders–all over America. Discoursing on “serial killer psychology” to credulous shrinks, he became a kind of consolatory scapegoat figure to America. It meant there weren’t 600 uncaught vicious killers roaming the highways, looking for prey. There was just Henry. In a way he gave us a kinder gentler America.

Eventually the scam collapsed, Henry recanted his confessions, but the Rangers, embarassed to have been so badly conned, made him take the weight, the death penaalty weight, for one of the ones he clearly didn’t do. (The story is reprinted in The Secret Parts of Fortune–see left column).

In the course of interviewing Henry at Huntsville I stayed at that Holiday Inn and realized just what a strange gathering place it was.Since Texas executed the most prisoners of any state, on any given day you could find the relatives of murder victims, and the relatives of men about to be executed for those murders in close proximity. With the thin walls, virtually sleeping side by side. Cheerful!

I couldn’t sleep but it gave me time to think about the death penalty, which I’d long opposed in principle, although I think on the wrong principle, and then came to oppose on the basis of another principle.

I’d initally opposed it because of its inherent throwback barbarism etc. But in some ways I came to believe that it was not inherently barbaric, but that it was inherently unjust, inherently susceptible to irremedial injustice.

In other words I came to think that if there were a perfect way to know that a man sentenced to death was in fact guilty and not just on Death Row because–guilty or innocent–he couldn’t afford an expensive lawyer, then it could be argued that it would honor life to execute those who took it with premeditation. But there was no perfect way, no perfect justice and income inequity in a matter that might be fatal could not be shrugged off. And absent that certainty, and given that inequity between the poor and the rich’s vulnerability to lethal injection,and the inability to reverse errors, the death penalty was indefensible in practice if not in theory.


A Literary/Political Blog That Deserves More Recognition

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 1:44 pm

I’m surprized that more people aren’t talking about this blog.

It’s one of the most sophisticated, witty, thoughtful, erudite,subtle and unpredictable political/literary sites I’ve come upon. And it’s written by two twenty-something recent Dartmouth grads, Michael Weiss and Nic Duquette. Even when I disagree I’m impressed by the depth of their reading. Too many politically inclined blogs, right and left, are written as if by half-literate sports fans only interested in boosting their team and insulting the other. So many display a superficial knowledge of literature and history and what they disclose about the nature of human nature–the foundation of all political thought. So many could learn from

In fact the only thing I don’t like about the blog is it’s misleading name, since it seems to me to be the very oppposite of mere snark. Not that I have anything against mere snark–except when wise-guy-ism poses as wisdom.Maybe they should change it to Quarksmith, after the fundamental particle.

Anyway they seem to be in some sort of late August hiatus, so this would be a good time for you to check out the kind of thing they’ve been doing.

August 26, 2006

Two must-read political novels

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 8:45 pm

If you haven’t read Graham Greene’s 1965 novel set in Haiti under Duvalier, %%AMAZON=0143039199 The Comedians%%, you are missing one of Greene’s best, most chilling evocations of the brokenness of human nature that lies at the heart of political cruelty.

The good news is that there is an attractive new edition in the Penguin Classics series. The bad news is that it has a humorless introduction by Paul Theroux, a novelist who demonstrates an unseemly resentfulness of Greene’s superior talent in grating petty criticisms. Ignore them, and, submit yourself to Greene’s sinister spell.

And if you’re looking for an anatomy of the underside of American politics, you can do no bettter than Robert Stone’s haunting and prophetic first novel %%AMAZON=0395860288 A Hall of Mirrors%%.published a year before The Comedians. Set amidst damaged denizens of New Orleans’ underside, who witness the malignant growth of a fantical political movment, it makes you realize that Stone at his lapsed Catholic best is our Graham Greene. And don’t miss the riff on “the California of the mind”.

The birth of a new word: blogesthesia

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 1:43 pm

I was trying to decide what my very first post would be. After all it will inevitably seem defining, even if it isn’t meant to be. So I was running some of the possible first posts I had in mind past the photographer Nina Roberts. I should mention that THIS Nina Roberts (at is NOT the same as THIS Nina Roberts, a famous French porn star at (It can cause embarassing googling confusion). Although they are both beautiful in their own way, the Nina Roberts I was consulting (and who has taken two book jacket photos of me) is best known for her talents behind, rather than in front of, the camera.

Anyway I was telliing her about my possible initial blog posts. There was one on a new Salinger anthology, one on a “phone phreak” documentary, one on Luke Menand’s Dylan essay in The New Yorker, one that managed to plug my new book, The Shakespeare Wars. And I’ll get around to all of them. But this will be a blog about my obsessions and when I brought up another obsession of mine–Nabokov–Nina told me of a discovery she’d recently made.

A strange new Nabokovian book she’d found in one of our favorite New York City book stores, St Marks Bookshop. A book called Vladimir Nabokov:Alphabet in Colors, by Jean Holabird with a brilliant Foreword by Nabokov biographer and scholar Brian Boyd.


August 23, 2006

About this blogger…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 4:21 pm

Ron Rosenbaum was born in Manhattan and grew up in Bay Shore, Long Island. He graduated with a degree in English literature from Yale and spent a year at Yale Graduate Schoool before leaving to become a writer full time, beginning at The Village Voice and Esquire.


August 22, 2006


Filed under: Notice — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 8:57 am

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