Interpreting Kurt Vonnegut’s “Long Walk to Forever”

In 1968, Kurt Vonnegut publish a short story collection entitled Welcome to The Monkey House. The most mainstream of the stories, “Long Walk to Forever,” wasn’t his favorite. In fact, he disliked the story and was afraid it would overshadow his other work in the collection.

Vonnegut wrote the story as a sort-of tribute to his relationship with Jane Cox, the woman he pursued and married after returning home from a prisoner of war camp in Dresden, Germany following World War II. The story, which is semi-autobiographical, is about a soldier who goes AWOL to convince, in his own way, a woman to abandon her fiancé and marry him.

“Long Walk to Forever” was originally published in Ladies Home Journal, which only made Vonnegut dislike the story more. In the introduction to the story in Welcome to the Monkey House, Vonnegut wrote:

“In honor of the marriage that worked I include in this collection a sickeningly slick love story from The Ladies Home Journal, God help us, entitled by them “Long Walk to Forever.’ The title I gave it, I think, was “Hell to Get Along With.”

In a New York Times review, critic Michael Levitas didn’t care much for the story either. He wrote:

“This Vonnegut is obviously a lovable fellow. Moreover, he’s right about the story, which is indeed a sickening and slick little nothing about a soldier who goes AWOL in order—How to say it?—to sweep his girl from the steps of the alter into his strong and loving arms.”

Despite the author’s and critic’s disdain for the story, several people have adapted Vonnegut’s story to create short films. It’s amazing how different the interpretations are. The first one is from filmmaker David Seininger and was made in 1996. It remains very close to Vonnegut’s actual story.

The second one comes from director Dale Watts. He moves the story to England, but otherwise makes few changes.

The third film comes from director Travis Jones. He has a much more modern, urban interpretation. He also took the unusual approach of not having any dialogue. Even so, the story still works.

Long Walk To Forever from Travis Jones on Vimeo.

Jordan Bianchi’s interpretation is another unusual one. His film has what I would call “montage dialogue” (I just made up that phrase) to tell the story. I didn’t think it was particularly effective, but you may disagree.

Finally, director Jessica Hester offers a very straight-forward, period appropriate take on Vonnegut’s story. Below is the trailer to her film. You can find the full film here.

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Deep Dive: Deadwood (Book, HBO Series, and Movie) (Part 1)

In an earlier post, I confessed my love for the HBO series, Deadwood. The series was near-perfect, in both character development and storytelling. One of the things I noted about the show in that earlier post was that almost everything about the show felt realistic. What I meant by that was that the people running Deadwood never strayed too far outside the bounds of history and believability. Many of the characters were real. They had actually lived and participated in the early days of Deadwood and the Dakota Territory.

Many years ago, I read a novel entitled Deadwood by Pete Dexter (published in 1986). Like the HBO series, Dexter’s novel was gritty and realistic. After watching the series for a second time, I re-read Dexter’s book. I liked it just as much as I did the first time (five stars on Goodreads), but I noticed differences, both big and small, between the book and the TV show.

I often wondered if David Milch and the creators of the HBO show used Dexter’s book as research or inspiration. I had the good fortune to have a Twitter conversation about this with W. Earl Brown, the actor who played Dan Dority, and is a continuing promoter of the HBO series. He was not only an actor, he also was a writer on the show, earning a Writers Guild of America Award nomination in the process.

Brown indicated that after securing his role, he purchased a copy of Dexter’s book. However, before he could read it, David Milch encouraged everyone involved with the show not to read any works of fiction related to Deadwood. Milch said he didn’t want other’s fiction to subliminally guide the work they were doing on the show. Brown commented that enough time has passed now, and he’d like to read the book.

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Fun Fact: W. Earl Brown received an MFA in Acting from The Theater School at DePaul University.

His classmates included John C. Reilly and Gillian Anderson.

***

One of the things that interests me most about Deadwood—both the show and the book—is who was real and who wasn’t. And of those characters that were real, how accurate the portrayal was compared to their real lives.

For instance, we know that Wild Bill Hickok was a real person. He was born James Butler Hickok in 1837 in Homer, Illinois, about a hundred miles west-southwest of Chicago. Since then, the town has been renamed Troy Grove. He left Illinois at the age of 18 after a getting into a fight with a man named Charles Hudson. He mistakenly thought he had killed Hudson and hightailed it to Kansas to avoid arrest.

He took on his brother’s name, “William”—presumably while running from the law—and gave himself the nickname “Wild Bill.” The reason he gave himself a nickname was because he didn’t like the nicknames others gave him. For instance, he had been called “Duck Bill” because of his long nose and protruding lips. He had also been called “Shanghai Bill” because of his height and slim build.

In March 1876, Hickok married Agnes Thatcher Lake, a circus proprietor eleven years his senior. A few months later he departed for Deadwood. He had been diagnosed with glaucoma shortly before marrying, and he was going to Deadwood for the supposed purpose of staking a gold claim.

Hickok arrived in Deadwood as part of Charlie Utter’s wagon train in July 1876. Also on that wagon train was Martha Jane Cannery, better known as Calamity Jane. Rather than working to stake a claim, Bill spent his time gambling.

On August 1, 1876, Bill was playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon No. 10. Also at the table was a man by the name of Jack McCall. Bill won a lot of money from McCall that day, and when McCall, drunk and dejected, quit the game, Bill offered him enough money to get breakfast. McCall took the money, but was insulted that Bill treated him like a charity case.

The following day, Bill was again at Nuttal & Mann’s, but his usual seat was taken, so he sat in another chair with his back to the room. He didn’t see McCall enter the bar, come up behind him, and point a gun at his head. McCall screamed, “Damn you! Take that!” and shot Bill in the back of the head, killing him instantly. At the time of his death, Bill was holding two pair, eights and aces. Since then, that hand has been known as “dead man’s hand.”

In the HBO show, they stick pretty close to the actual story, although they exaggerated the number and intensity of the interactions between Hickok and McCall. The book takes a different tact. Dexter ignored the true story and had McCall kill Hickok at the behest of someone else.

In both the book and the TV show, Bill writes a letter to his wife shortly before his death. In the letter, he writes, “Agnes Darling, if such should be we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife—Agnes—and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.” According to the book, Famous Last Words by Laura Ward, Bill, in fact, did write those words in a letter to his wife shortly before his death.

Because of this letter, and the fact that Bill uncharacteristically sat with his back to the room, some historians posit that Bill was suicidal, inviting someone to shoot him. They argue that, because of his worsening glaucoma, Bill could not stomach the thought of being dependent on others to see for him. In addition, the glaucoma took away his only two ways of making a living, shooting and playing cards.

Although the HBO series stuck to the storyline of Bill losing his eyesight, the Dexter book intimated that, in addition to failing eyesight, Bill had prostate problems and/or venereal disease, although Dexter never called it that. Instead, Bill went to a doctor for a “blood disease” that effected his urinary tract, making it difficult to urinate. The cure prescribed to him was mercury, rubbed liberally over his body. Of course, we know now that mercury causes illness, it doesn’t cure it. The treatment sounds horrible, potentially worse than the disease, but it appears that Bill didn’t suffer this fate in real life.

Little is known about Hickok’s assassin, Jack McCall. He was born in the 1850s in Kentucky, and eventually moved west to hunt buffalo. In the show, McCall was a degenerate gambler and drunk. In the book, he was a cat wrangler, working for a business that rented cats to people with rat or mouse problems. McCall was the one who rounded up the cats and delivered them to customers. In both the show and the book, McCall was mentally weak, if not brain damaged. In real life, he was cowardly, but there’s no indication he was mentally challenged.

After shooting Hickok, McCall was tried by an impromptu court in Deadwood and found not guilty. He claimed that he had shot Hickok as revenge for Hickok shooting his brother. However, records indicate that McCall did not have a brother. He left Deadwood and relocated to the Wyoming Territory, where he bragged about killing Hickok. Unfortunately for him, Wyoming authorities arrested him again, claiming that the court in Deadwood didn’t have jurisdiction. McCall was transferred to Yankton, South Dakota where he was convicted of murder. In March 1877, Wild Bill’s killer was hanged.

In the HBO show, Seth Bullock and Charlie Utter set out after McCall when he flees Deadwood following his acquittal in the first trial. However, that’s not how it happened. To be sure, Hickok and Utter were friends. At the time of Hickok’s murder, Utter was out of town. In the book, he had traveled to Cheyenne to challenge the current pony express company to a race in a bid to take over their business. Utter wins the race, but, heartbroken over Wild Bill’s death, he never does start up a delivery company.

In the HBO show, again, Utter is in Cheyenne competing for the pony express business. When he returns, after avenging Bill’s murder, he starts a delivery company.

As for Bullock, it’s unlikely he ever really met Hickok in real life. He arrived in camp on August 1, 1876 and Hickock was killed the very next day. The TV show portrayed a mutual respect and budding friendship between Bullock and Hickok before the latter’s death. In the book, Bullock and Hickok met in passing, but there was very little interaction between them.

The real Seth Bullock was an interesting guy. He was born in Canada in 1849 and moved to Montana in 1865 to live with his sister. He was elected sheriff of Louis and Clark County, Montana where he engaged in a gun battle with a horse thief named Clell Watson. Bullock took a bullet to the shoulder, but successfully apprehended the horse thief. Watson was scheduled to be hanged, but a mob showed up in support of Watson and drove away the executioner. Bullock fought off the mob with a shotgun and carried out the hanging himself. This incident is very similar to an incident portrayed in the TV show, except it happened years later in Deadwood. The book did not mention Bullock’s life before Deadwood.

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Fun Fact: While serving in the Montana Territorial Legislature, Seth Bullock helped create Yellowstone National Park

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Bullock and his friend, Sol Star, opened a hardware store in Helena, but soon decided their fortunes lie in the Black Hills of South Dakota where there was a gold rush taking place. They arrived in Deadwood in August 1876, bought a lot, and started “Star and Bullock, Auctioneers and Commission Merchants,” first in a tent, then in a building. In the book, Star and Bullock own a brick making business, but in reality, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The TV show portrayed Bullock as a reluctant sheriff. However, law enforcement was his chosen profession. And, despite all the gunplay in both the show and the book, Bullock never killed anyone as sheriff, although he did have several run-ins with Al Swearengen, the owner of the Gem Theater. Unlike in the HBO series, Bullock was not the sheriff of Deadwood, but instead was appointed the first sheriff of Lawrence County, South Dakota.

In the HBO show, Bullock married his dead brother’s wife, Martha, as an act of mercy. She and the dead Bullock had a son named William. Shortly after arriving in Deadwood, William is killed by a stampeding horse. In real life, although Bullock was married to a woman named Martha, the rest of the TV portrayal is fiction. There was no dead brother, no widow wife, and no son (at least at that time). When Martha Eccles Bullock arrived in camp, she brought with her a daughter. Subsequently, she and Seth had another daughter, and a son.

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Fun Fact: Seth Bullock and Martha Eccles Bullock were childhood sweethearts

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Bullock wasn’t just sheriff of Lawrence County. He had several business interests. In addition to Star and Bullock, Auctioneers and Commission Merchants, they also owned a cattle operation dubbed S&B Ranch Company, as well as Deadwood Flour Milling. When the building that housed their hardware business burned down in 1894, rather than rebuild, they erected the town’s first luxury hotel, called the Bullock Hotel (which is still in operation today).

Bullock met Theodore Roosevelt in 1884 and the two became fast friends. Bullock joined Grigsby’s Cowboy Regiment in 1898 to support Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. However, the war ended before Grigsby’s Cowboy Regiment could be deployed. For his efforts, Bullock earned the rank of captain. When Roosevelt became vice-president under William McKinley, Bullock was named the first forest supervisor of the Black Hills Reserve. When Roosevelt became president in 1905, Bullock participated in his friend’s inaugural parade. The new president then named Bullock U.S. Marshal for South Dakota. Bullock was one of 18 officers selected by Roosevelt to gather recruits for Roosevelt’s World War I Volunteers.

After Roosevelt’s death, Bullock created a monument to his friend on Sheep Mountain. He also led the efforts to rename the mountain “Mount Roosevelt.” Bullock died of colon cancer in 1919 and is buried near Wild Bill and Calamity Jane in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.

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Fun Fact: Seth Bullock is credited with introducing alfalfa farming to South Dakota

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Pete Dexter’s book, Deadwood, focuses primarily (although not exclusively) on Charlie Utter. He was born in 1838 in Niagara Falls, New York, and was raised in Illinois. He eventually made his way to Colorado in the 1860s where he got the nickname “Colorado Charlie.” He worked as a trapper, a guide, and a prospector, before forming his own wagon train in 1876 with his brother, Steve, and heading off for Deadwood.

Utter was known as a snappy dresser, unusual at that time, and the opposite of how he was portrayed in the HBO series. He also had the rather odd habit of bathing every day, which was included in the Dexter book. Utter insisted on sleeping under only the highest quality blankets, he was very particular about his hair, and he didn’t allow anyone—not even Wild Bill—into his tent.

Just as in the TV show, Utter started a lucrative delivery business, shuttling mail and freight between Deadwood and Cheyenne. However, his business was short lived. In early 1879, he purchased a saloon in Gayville, South Dakota When things didn’t work out the way he had hoped, he returned to Deadwood just in time to watch fire destroy the town on September 26, 1879.

After the fire, Utter returned to Colorado for a time, then went to Socorro, New Mexico, where he opened another saloon. It’s not clear when he left New Mexico, but he ended up in Panama, where he owned drugstores in Panama City and Colon. Utter went blind and was not heard from again after 1913. It is believed that he died in Panama.

In Deadwood: The Movie, Utter is killed by an assassin hired by George Hearst. Hearst wanted a parcel of land that Utter owned, but Utter refused to sell. This is fiction. While it is true that George Hearst and Charlie Utter were in Deadwood at the same time (from October 1877 to September 1879), it is unknown if their paths crossed. Dexter’s book ends with Utter in Panama, whiling away his days in the sun.

One of the main characters in the TV show was Al Swearengen. In the show, he was English-born. As a child, Al moved to Chicago with his mother, who was a prostitute. When she left town, Al was placed in an orphanage, where the head mistress rented him out to pedophiles. This was all fiction. In fact, in real life, Al was one of eight children (along with his twin brother, Lemuel) born to a Dutch-American couple in Oskaloosa, Iowa in 1845. He remained in Iowa until 1876, when he relocated to Deadwood.

Upon arriving in camp, Al started the Cricket Saloon. It was housed in a canvas and lumber building, and featured gambling and prizefights. The Cricket did great business and Al need a bigger place. So, he started the Gem Theater in a proper building. The Gem was a saloon, dance hall, and brothel, the latter of which earned Al the reputation of being a brutal pimp. He would advertise jobs in hotels–such as maids, clerks, and entertainers–to recruit women. Those that responded were given a one-way ticket to Deadwood, where they would find themselves stranded and at the mercy of Swearengen. They were given the choice of either becoming prostitutes or being left to die in the street. Those that chose to become prostitutes were physically abused to keep them in line.

Unlike the character on the TV show, the real Al was married three times. His first wife, Nettie, followed him to Deadwood, but soon divorced him, claiming spousal abuse. He married two more times with the same results.

In Dexter’s book, Swearengen is in hiding from an assailant when he asks his wife to collect his money from the bank so he can flee. Instead, his wife collects the money and she flees, both her husband and Deadwood.

In real life, Swearengen made a fortune from the Gem, earning $5000-$10,000 most nights. However, it wasn’t without its challenges. The Gem burned down in September 1879. He rebuilt, only to have his business burn down again in 1899. By that time, Swearengen had had enough of Deadwood. He relocated to Denver.

In Deadwood: The Movie, a sequel to the HBO show, Al is shown as a weakened and dying man in 1889. This wasn’t clear to me, but it appeared that he died in his room above the Gem at the end of the film, leaving the Gem Theater to Trixie, his favorite prostitute.

Swearengen is portrayed much differently in the book. Dexter makes him out to be a brutal, bi-sexual whoremonger who is shot and killed by Charlie Utter.

Of course, neither the movie nor the book are factual. In real life, Al moved to Denver in 1899. In November 1904, he was found dead in the street. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. Was it murder? He could have fallen and hit his head, but authorities at the time believed he was struck on the head by an assailant while trying to hop a train. Despite the money he made at The Gem, Swearengen died penniless.

***

Fun Fact: Much of the action in the first season of the HBO show Deadwood takes place in 1876 at

Al Swearengen’s Gem Theater. However, in real life, The Gem did not open until 1877.

***

To be continued in Part 2…

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A New Website…Sort Of

My old website was really dated. It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t update the theme or some of the plug-ins anymore because the php code was too old (I’m not really sure what that means). I’ve been looking into new WordPress themes, or maybe even a new website builder, but I haven’t found anything I like yet.

In the meantime, I’ve switched over to a new WordPress theme. It’s not really what I’m looking for, but at least it’s not outdated. And miraculously, everything transferred over to the new theme without losing any content or causing me any headaches. I consider that a victory.

Ideally, the new website will be ready by June 1, 2020, the publication goal date for my next book, The Ones That Got Away (Have you read my latest update on the book?). Realistically, I have doubts that I’ll be able to have the website done by then. I still have a lot of work to do to get the book ready for publication.

Enjoy the new theme. If you have any suggestions on a good theme or website builder I could use, let me know.

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The Latest on “The Ones That Got Away”

The book I’m currently working on, The Ones That Got Away, has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever written. Since beginning the novel, I have electronically lost the manuscript twice (once my fault, once not), I’ve moved, gotten sick, had a death in the family, and suffered from a streak of laziness that has gone on for months. All told, the writing of this book has taken more than four years so far. The good news is, I think it’s finally nearing an end.

The Ones That Got Away asks the question, how would you live your life if you were given a second chance. What would change? What would stay the same? What I’m finding is that the answers are much more complicated than I first imagined.

I’m in the home stretch of writing the book. It’s gone to the editor once, I’ve made a bunch of changes, and I continue to make changes. My plan is to have the book finished and ready for publication by June 1, 2020. As I write that date, I realize how soon it will be here. There’s still lots of work to be done, so I’d better get busy.

I’ll post more info about The Ones That Got Away as we get closer to the publication date.

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A New Cover for Driven: A Novel

My book, Driven: A Novel was published in November 2017. The story takes place in Miami in the early 1980’s, just as the drug trade in South Florida was really taking off, and becoming much more dangerous. The main character, Alex Booth, dreams of becoming a professional race car driver, but he lacks the financial wherewithal to make a go of it. That is, until he’s offered the opportunity to fund his racing by smuggling drugs.

When I originally published the novel, I wanted a cover that represented the Miami lifestyle in the early 80’s with palm trees, lot’s of neon, “Miami Vice” fonts, and, of course, a race car. The book cover choices I was given weren’t the greatest, so I went with this one:

Even early on, I wasn’t crazy about the cover, but it came closest to checking all of the boxes I wanted. Since then, I have grown more and more unhappy with the cover. So, I’ve finally done something about it. I commissioned a new cover that isn’t nearly as gaudy as the first, but still let’s the reader know a little bit about the story. I think the new cover is more subtle and understated than the original, and does a better job of representing the story the reader can expect.

And without further ado, here’s the new cover:

So, how do you like it?

Over the next week or so, I’ll be replacing the old cover with the new one on social media, as well as on both the print and ebook versions of the book. Also, in a day or two, keep an eye out for an update on my latest work in progress. And, as always, thanks for following along.

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Deep Dive: “Escape (The Pina Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes

Have you ever heard the song “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes? Everyone over the age of fifty or so has probably heard the song hundreds of times. It was a number one hit and was played incessantly on the radio in the late 1970s. If you’ve never heard the song, let me tell you about it.

The narrator of the song is tired of his relationship with his wife or girlfriend. It’s never clear if he’s married or just dating. He thinks his relationship is boring, so he scans the personal ads in the newspaper.

For younger readers, this might seem crazy, but back in the dark ages of the 1970s, there was no Match.com, eHarmony, or Tinder. If you were looking for a date, you took out a classified ad in the newspaper and hoped that someone would read it and respond. Crazy, I know. It’s amazing any of us are still alive.

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Fun Fact: Rupert Holmes was born David Goldstein on February 24, 1947

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Anyway, the guy in the song sees a personal ad that catches his eye. The ad reads:

“If you like Pina Coladas, and getting caught in the rain
If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain
If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape
I’m the love that you’ve looked for, write to me, and escape”

Who could blame a guy for falling for that kind of poetry and passion in just four lines? Our song narrator couldn’t. So, what did he do? Did he write to the Pina Colada women? No, he did not. This is one of the many things I don’t understand about the song. Maybe I just don’t remember how personal ads worked, but I thought the person posting the personal ad included a way to contact her, like a phone number or a mailbox provided by the newspaper. In her personal ad, she even says, in the last line, “write to me.”

But our songster doesn’t write to her. He places another personal ad. That seems risky, doesn’t it? How does he know the woman he is responding to would even see his ad? Talk about a long shot. I’m sorry, but color me skeptical.

Here’s what our narrator wrote in his personal ad:

“Yes, I like Pina Coladas, and getting caught in the rain
I’m not much into health food, I am into champagne
I’ve got to meet you by tomorrow noon, and cut through all this red tape
At a bar called O’Malley’s, where we’ll plan our escape”

Naturally, if the woman from the first personal ad didn’t see his personal ad, it wouldn’t be much of a song, would it? So, miracle of miracles, she sees our hero’s personal ad and shows up to O’Malley’s.

Before I move on, let me discuss O’Malley’s Bar. Have you ever heard of a high-class club called O’Malley’s? I know, this is all fictional. It didn’t really happen. But if you were going to make up a place to meet a make-believe date and you wanted to impress her, would you call it O’Malley’s? I wouldn’t. O’Malley’s sounds like a place you’d go with your mates after the rugby match, or a place that functioning alcoholics gather after work. It doesn’t sound like a swank place to take a date.

Sorry for the tangent. Back to the song.

So, our hero is waiting at O’Malley’s, and his date from the personal ad shows up. Here’s what happens:

“So I waited with high hopes, then she walked in the place
I knew her smile in an instant, I knew the curve of her face
It was my own lovely lady, and she said, ‘Oh, it’s you’
And we laughed for a moment, and I said, ‘I never knew’”

At this point, my BS meter is going nuts. Are you kidding me? They both just realized that their significant other is looking for a hook up, and they’re both fine with it? I don’t think that’s how relationships work. The relationship is so bad that they both want to cheat, but when they both get caught, they laugh it off and decide to stay together. I don’t think so.

Also, is it just the way I’m reading it, or does the wife/girlfriend sound horribly disappointed when she says “Oh, it’s you?” If I was the guy, I wouldn’t be so anxious to stay in this relationship. He should really watch his back. She doesn’t seem that into him.

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Fun Fact: “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” was the final #1 song of the 1970’s

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The song was originally called simply “Escape.” There was no mention of pina coladas. In fact, originally, pina coladas weren’t even mentioned in the song. The original lyric was, “If you like Humphrey Bogart…” That’s right. Humphrey Bogart. Not quite as romantic or tropical as pina colada, is it? After Holmes wrote the song, he decided Humphrey Bogart wasn’t the feel he was looking for. He thought substituting an alcoholic drink might be the way to go, something tropical, and pina colada was one of the first drinks that came into his head. At that point, he had never had one and wasn’t sure what was in the drink, but it fit phonetically, so he went with it.

Although “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” is the biggest hit of his career, Holmes didn’t view it that way when he wrote the song. He needed one song to finish an album, and wasn’t all that crazy about “Escape”. He just wanted to finish writing it, get it recorded, and go home.

So, while he was writing the lyrics, struggling to find a replacement word or phrase for “Humphrey Bogart,” the drummer from Holmes band got drunk. In fact, too drunk to play on the song. So, he was stuffed into a taxi and sent home, leaving Holmes to use a basic form of sampling for the drum track. It wasn’t ideal, but Holmes wasn’t too concerned. “Escape” was just a filler track so he could finish recording the album.

In a 2003 interview with SongFacts Magazine, Holmes said, “The original lyrics said, ‘If you like Humphrey Bogart and getting caught in the rain.’… As I was getting on mic I thought to myself, I’ve done so many movie references to Bogart and wide-screen cinema on my earlier albums, maybe I shouldn’t do one here. I thought, what can I substitute? Well, this woman wants an escape, like she wants to go on vacation to the islands. When you go on vacation to the islands, when you sit on the beach and someone asks you if you’d like a drink, you never order a Budweiser, you don’t have a beer. You’re on vacation, you want a drink in a hollowed-out pineapple with the flags of all nations and a parasol. If the drink is blue you’d be very happy. And a long straw. I thought, what are those escape drinks? Let’s see, there’s daiquiri, mai tai, piña colada… I wonder what a piña colada tastes like? I’ve never even had one. I thought that instead of singing, ‘If you like Humphrey Bogart,’ with the emphasis on like, I could start it a syllable earlier and go, ‘If you like piña-a coladas.’”

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Fun Fact: Holmes brother, Richard, is an opera singer

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When the album was finished, the studio decided they wanted to release “Escape” as a single. Holmes thought it was a bad idea, but didn’t fight them. The song floundered, never rising very high on the Billboard charts in the US. Then radio stations began reporting that they were being inundated with requests for “The Pina Colada Song.” Problem was, there was no song named “The Pina Colada Song”. The studio contacted Holmes and requested that the song be renamed. Holmes refused, but they came to a compromise: “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” Once the song was renamed, it shot to number one.

Since then, “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” has been featured in movies, such as Shrek, Guardians of the Galaxy, Grown Ups, and Like Father, as well as TV shows, such as Third Watch, The Goldbergs, Splitting Up Together, Living with Yourself, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Not bad for a song that was considered a throw away by its author.

Rupert Holmes is considered a bit of a one hit wonder by many people. However, that’s not only unfair, but incorrect. He had eight songs on the Billboard 100, including “Him,” that peaked at number six, and “Answering Machine,” which rose to number thirty-two. Also, before writing “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” he wrote songs for other artists, including Dolly Parton, Gene Pitney, and The Drifters. Here’s a song he wrote for The Partridge Family:

And here’s one that was included in Barbara Streisand’s hit movie, A Star is Born:

After writing “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Holmes expanded his horizons, writing a mystery novel entitled Where the Truth Lies, which won the Edgar Award and was turned into a movie starring Kevin Bacon. He also penned a play called The Mystery of Edwin Drood (later known as Drood) that won a Tony Award. He also created and wrote the American Movies Classic TV show Remember WENN.

Here is Holmes explaining the creation of “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” as well as doing the song live:

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The Best Books I Read in 2019

I’m getting a late jump on listing the best books I read in 2019. I’ve had some personal things going on over the past few months that have knocked me out of commission. I may write about those things here on the blog soon, or I may not say anything, and you’ll naturally assume the worst.

This year’s list, as in years past, contains books I read during the previous year. That does not mean that those books were published in 2019. In fact, most were not. I just happened to read them in 2019.

I ran into a bit of a problem this year when compiling my list. And the nature of the problem was very basic. That is, what is a book? That seems simple enough, but I read (listened to) many audio books during the year, and Audible recently started publishing what they call “Audible Originals.” Audible Originals are audio-only books. There is no printed version of the book available. So, are these audio books actually books?

I struggled with this question and ultimately decided not to include the audio-only books in my list. As I write this, I’m already regretting my decision. There were some very good audio-only books, including Midnight Son by James Dommeck, Jr. and The Dead Drink First by Dale Maharidge.

As in years past, I’ll begin with the tenth best book I read this year and slowly make my way to the book that was better than all the rest. The suspense will be excruciating. If you have a heart condition, please consult your doctor before reading further.

10. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – I had heard good things about Station Eleven before reading it. Unfortunately, I saw in the description of the book that the story takes place in a dystopian world following the collapse of society. I’m not really into dystopian novels. I’ve read a few and had trouble telling one from the other. Even so, I read Station Eleven and was pleasantly surprised. The story is unique, the characters are well developed, and the writer does a good job of keeping the reader engaged, not spending too much time explaining the rules of the world she has created. I’m not ready for another dystopian novel any time soon, but I’m glad I read Station Eleven.

 

9. Gone So Long: A Novel by Andre Dubus III – Andre Dubus III is one of my favorite literary writers. His book Dirty Love was terrific, and I also really liked The House of Sand and Fog. Gone So Long is the story of an ex-con—a murderer—who is trying to reconnect with the daughter he has been estranged from for forty years. After life in prison, Danny is ill-equipped to navigate his way back to his daughter, especially considering that he was convicted of murdering her mother. But that doesn’t stop him from writing to her and making the long drive to Florida to see her. His daughter is reluctant to meet with him. Even so, Danny pushes forward, determined to see her before he dies. Dubus gives a master class in character development. Each of his characters is flawed, but all too human. I enjoyed the time I spent with them.

8. The Long Flight Home by Alan HladThe Long Flight Home takes place in England during World War II and is inspired by true events. Susan lives with her grandfather, and together, they raise carrier pigeons. The British military contacts them and asks for their help delivering messages to British troops in German-occupied France. Ollie is a crop duster from Maine who is determined to join the Royal Air Force. When his plans change and he finds himself alone in England, he meets Susan, and helps her and her grandfather with the pigeons. The relationship between Susan and Ollie grows as they work together, but the fates of war are not going to make it easy for them to be together. For some reason, I can’t get enough of books that take place during World War II, and The Long Flight Home definitely fits the bill.

7. Next Year in Havana by Chanel CleetonNext Year in Havana tells the story of a family in Cuba coming to grips with their changing lives in the face of the rise of Fidel Castro. Much has been written about this time in Cuba, but one of the things I appreciate about the author was how she wove in the struggles current day Cubans—both in Cuba and the United States—have with the island nation. She captures the love/hate relationship they had and have with Cuba. Part of the book takes place in 1958, just before the revolution, and part takes place in 2017 in both Havana and Miami, as relations between the US and Cuba are starting to thaw. I’ve always been drawn to the history and culture of Cuba. Next Year in Havana did a great job of sharing the history and immersing me in the culture of our Caribbean neighbor.

6. The Cost of These Dreams by Wright Thompson – For years, Frank DeFord was recognized as the dean of long form sports writers. He was celebrated in the pages of Sports Illustrated, and his stories carried him outside of sports onto the national stage. For me, Wright Thompson is our current version of Frank DeFord. He’s a terrific writer, but he also brings a unique perspective. He has a way of taking a subject—whether profiling former Ohio State Football Coach Urban Meyer or telling the story of a round of golf he shared with his father—and turning it into more. More meaningful, more emotional, more universal. Wright grew up in the cradle of Southern writers—Oxford, Mississippi—and brings a literary eye to sports writing. In The Cost of These Dreams, Thompson shares several essays that were previously printed in ESPN the Magazine. They showcase the depth and breadth of a true artist at the top of his craft.

5. Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at LeMans by A.J. Baime – Last fall, I was very excited to see the movie Ford vs Ferrari starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale. Damon plays Carroll Shelby, a legendary racer and character, and the inspiration for my daughter’s name (Shelby). But before seeing the movie, I wanted to read the book it was based on. As much as I liked the movie (I thought it was great), I liked the book even better. Go Like Hell gets into all of the details of the story that the movie didn’t have time for. The author did a great job of introducing us to the characters and slowly building the story. Everything was in just the right place. Reading Go Like Hell was a wonderful ride.

 

4. November Road by Lou Berney – In years past, I’ve read a lot of books written by Don Winslow. I think he’s a terrific writer and I’ve enjoyed several of his books, including The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Cartel, The Dawn Patrol, and Satori. I follow Winslow on Twitter and saw that he was recommending a book by Lou Berney. I had never heard of Berney, but I trusted Winslow’s recommendation. So, I read Berney’s book, November Road, and was blown away. November Road is an extremely well-crafted mystery novel that takes place in the 1960’s with the JFK assassination as a backdrop. I also read Berney’s book The Long and Faraway Gone in 2019, and if my list was one or two books longer, Berney would have had two books on it.

 

3. The River by Peter HellerThe River is the story of two college friends who go for a long canoe and camping trip in northern Canada. Their idyllic trip is interrupted by a huge wildfire closing in on them. They’re in a rush to get off the river and out of the woods, but they are halted when they hear a couple arguing in the distance, and then come upon a man paddling the river alone. Have they just run across a murderer? Will they be able to find out before the wildfire consumes them? Heller’s writing is tremendous. The world he created is serene, yet unforgiving, and his story only slows down enough so the reader can catch their breath before plunging ahead into another conflict or adventure.

 

2. The Help by Kathryn Stockett – By now, I assume most of you have seen the movie, The Help, that was based on this book. Both the movie and the book were terrific, but of the two, I thought the book was better. Rather than talk about the story, I’d like to use The Help to briefly talk about something that has been in the news recently. The book, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, was catapulted to fame when it was selected for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. Then, it was harshly criticized throughout the media. I haven’t read the book and don’t know if it was any good, but the quality of the writing isn’t what’s being criticized. What many pundits are critical of is the fact that a white female writer wrote about a Mexican woman and her child who flee Mexico after her family is killed, being chased into the US by narcotraffickers along the way. Critics accuse Cummins of cultural appropriation, claiming that she does not have the right to create characters or storylines that aren’t part of her lived experience. In other words, she can only write about people like her and situations she has experienced. I call BS. Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help, is a privileged white woman who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi (where the story takes place), but she has never been black, never been poor, and never been a domestic worker in Jackson, working for rich white people. Yet, she created a wonderful and important book, not just from her own experiences, but from her research and imagination. The Help is a work of fiction, and the world would be a worse place without it.

1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah – You can be pretty sure that a book is good if it stays with you for weeks after reading it. It has been six months since a read The Great Alone and I still think about it often. The story is about a family from the northwest United States who moves to Alaska in 1974 after inheriting some land. The family consists of Ernt, a former POW from the Viet Nam war, his wife, Cora, and their thirteen-year-old daughter, Leni. What they find in Alaska is a beautiful, but unforgiving, land. Life is hard, made all the harder by Ernt’s frequent angry outbursts. He beats Cora when he’s angry. She makes excuses for him, never holding a grudge. Leni loves her father, but sees his dark side and does everything she can to avoid it. When a neighbor takes steps to modernize the town in order to take advantage of tourist dollars, Ernt does everything in his power to stop the inevitable. Hannah does a masterful job crafting the characters and the storyline. The Great Alone deserves to be the best book I read in 2019.

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My First Flash Fiction Story Has Been Published

I’ve been toying with writing short-short stories. This kind of writing is commonly called flash fiction and it’s usually a thousand words or fewer per story. The length varies depending on the publishing outlet. Some places restrict the word count to 100 or less, while others go as high as 1500 words.

In any case, the general length is shorter than a full-fledged short story, which presents challenges to the writer. Every word has to carry its own weight. There’s no room for superfluous language or red herring plot lines. With flash fiction, the story has to be direct and to-the-point, but the characters still have to be well developed and the plot has to be complete and logical.

I’m happy to report that my first attempt at a flash fiction story has been published. The story is “Kissing Gigi.” It was published by Flash Fiction Magazine. You can find it here.

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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Writing this book has been a lesson in patience, frustration, anger, and disappointment. It has also shown me that sometimes, good things can come from bad situations.

The book I’m talking about is The Ones That Got Away. It’s my latest novel, and I’ve been working on it, in its various iterations, for five years or more. It’s about a man who’s part of a bad marriage. After having an argument with his wife, he goes to bed in the guest room, and wakes up in his college apartment, just twenty-two years old, and ready to live his life over. All of his memories are intact. All he needs to do is decided who he’s going to share his life with in his second (and third, and fourth) chances at life.

A while back, I wrote another blog post detailing my frustration with writing the book. In a nutshell, I had written about 40% of the book before I lost it all due to a computer malfunction. The good news in that post was that the second version of that 40% I lost was better than the first. So, although it was frustrating and infuriating, at that point, things had worked out. Since then, things have just gotten more frustrating.

After writing the previous post, I’ve dealt with even more snafus. At one point, I lost two full chapters due to my own inability to save my work. Then, I lost four chapters of edits. Recreating the edits wasn’t difficult, but it was annoying to have to do it again.

In August, the manuscript was finally done, and I sent it to Sean, my editor. I was feeling good about the book until I got it back from Sean. He had cut over 17,000 words, and suggested that I add several more chapters. Man, was I disappointed. I had wanted to have the book available by October 1 (after initially missing the March 1 deadline). Now, it looks like the book won’t be available until after the new year. UGH!!!

Okay, deep breath.

Sean and I talked about the changes he suggested, and I agreed with about 90% of them. Sean suggested edits are going to make the book better. It’s going to tell a fuller story. And the writing is going to be better. So, despite my frustrations, the results are going to be worth the headaches.

As things stand now, I’m still working on Sean’s edits. I’d like to say that the book will be ready January 1, 2020, but with the holidays just around the corner, I’m setting a new publication goal date of March 1, 2020. That’s one full year after I had intended on publishing the book, but I’m convinced it’s better to delay putting out a great book than it is to quickly publish a mediocre one.

Okay, back to work.

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The Truth About Those Nasty Little Love Bugs

I took my car to the car wash today. The front of the car was covered with dead love bugs. Those nasty little critters have been swarming for the past few weeks. They can cause all kinds of problems, including clogging up car radiators, and, if you don’t wash them off soon enough, their acidic little bodies can eat away at the car’s clear coat.

Have you ever heard the story behind how love bugs came to be? The story I heard for years was that the University of Florida created the little monsters as a way of combating another type of pest. Another story I heard was that the love bugs were an experiment at UF that went wrong, and then they escaped from the laboratory to annoy people for generations.

As it turns out, neither of these stories is true. In fact, the University of Florida wasn’t even involved. I suspect the stories were started by someone from Florida State.

One of the top experts on love bugs (I wonder if it says that on his resume) is Nash Turley, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Central Florida. In this video, he tells us everything we ever wanted to know about love bugs. And if you’re like me, after watching the video, you’ll likely end up understanding love bugs better, but hating them as much as ever.

I have to go scrub my bumper now. The car wash couldn’t get the lousy little pests off of it.

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