Monday, June 05, 2006

G-d's Country

We got back from God’s Country earlier this evening, all wrung out & exhausted. A weird week, alternating between great fun & pretty deep depression. The weather at least was nice: tho it started out with South Florida-style basting heat, after a long rainy day midweek it turned perfect – cool nights and mornings, moderately warm & clear days. We may a few forays into the world, notably to the excellent Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and the self-consciously pomo Opryland Hotel, which aims to simulate various outdoor environments under its vast glass domes (there’s a “Delta” room which wants to be something like a micro-New Orleans), all the while revelling in the artificiality of the process. Nothing like walking through a rainforest in air-conditioned comfort.

“Opryland,” of course, is a name that evokes the Grand Ole Opry, the locus classicus of Nashville’s country music. For a long time – at least thru my own youth – there was a real Opryland, a country-music based theme park in Northwest Nashville. I must have visited it a dozen times growing up: it had all the usual ferris wheels, flume rides, and roller coasters, but it also had a half-dozen theaters, where variously-themed country music shows (not to mention soft pop and jazz) were more or less constantly being presented.

The Opryland Hotel was established in synergy with the theme park and with the Grand Ole Opry (which had relocated from the classic Ryman auditorium to a venue between the two), but eventually outgrew the relationship; the Hotel, that is, is the largest non-casino hotel in the country, while Opryland itself was but a modest amusement park. Perhaps more crucially, the Hotel was what passes in the South – and pretty much everywhere else – as a catholically interesting place to visit or to stay (you can marvel at it as the Victorians did the Crystal Palace or you can spend your time analyzing its postmodern cultural significance), while to really enjoy Opryland you had to either be 13 years old or really dig country music.

Opryland (the park) shut down about a decade ago; the site is now occupied by Opry Mills, one of the ubiquitous giant mall-things (cf. Potomac Mills in Northern Virginia, or Sawgrass Mills a few miles from Culture Industry Headquarters). The only evident connection to the Opry tradition in the mall – which is mostly populated by the familiar gothic mall-rats and tired tourist shoppers – is that one of the major “anchor” stores is a fantastically large Gibson guitar showroom.
Read a lot in the cool evenings: some poetry (mostly very good) – Liz Waldner’s wonderfully playful A Point Is That Which Has No Part, Lance Phillips’s exceedingly oblique Cur aliquid vidi, and Tom Raworth’s Clean & Well Lit: Selected Poems 1987-1995; am I alone in becoming more and more convinced that Raworth’s unit of composition is the line, and that his lines are as percussive as those of any poet working?

I also dipped into the ancient science fiction on my shelves, much of it inherited from my father. I have no idea why I never got around to reading Walter E. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz before now: an excellent book. A. E. Van Vogt’s Slan, which is universally hailed as one of the classics of old school SF, left me cold. The first half struck me as a fascinating allegory of pre-war European anti-Semitism; the second half fell swiftly into a Tom Swiftian mode of fantastic technology – unbreakable steel, disintegrating beams, etc.

Two Gerald Kersh paperbacks from the 1950s drew me, tho it was evident as soon as I’d covered a few pages that their American marketing as science fiction was a hoax: the man was a cold-blooded English thriller writer, no more or less. The stories in On an Odd Note are reminiscent of Wilkie Collins, Chesterton, & RLS, & never less than readable, even when eminently disposable. The Secret Masters (UK title The Great Wash), on the other hand, is a compulsively readable thriller in the mode of John Buchan, and pretty much as good as any of the 15 or 20 Buchan novels I’ve read. Hard to know why Kersh isn’t better known.

A weird moment: turning over the last page of the brittle, yellowed 1958 Ballantine paperback of On an Odd Note, I find in blue fountain pen, in my father’s youthful handwriting, “Read 6/19/58.” Almost half a century ago.

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