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Christmas in the Information Age

Today is Black Friday, when the annual Christmas shopping season begins with bargain-hunters duking it out over some Chinese-made gewgaw or another in the store aisles, and as usual we’ll pass on the ritual. This is expected to be the first Christmas when on-line sales surpass those in the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores that you have to drive to and walk into and then interact with other people, but we’ll also take a pass on that.
As much as we resent all the current stores on the east and west sides of town for driving away Gateway Sporting Goods and Reader’s Bookstore and all the other locally-owned retailers who used to transform downtown Wichita, Kansas, into a winter wonderland during our youth, we don’t want to see them driven away by the computer or other newfangled device you’re using to read this. That would leave a lot of empty buildings, and a lot of unemployed shop clerks, and what with the drones Amazon is already using and the driverless trucks that Google is threatening to unleash it’s hard to see what space-filling businesses and jobs the new economy might offer them.
Such potentially dire economic consequences aside, the technological tectonic shift that’s expected to occur this Christmas season has a cultural effect we also don’t care for. Although today’s stores lack the personal touch of the mom-and-pop operations we so fondly recall, there’s still something to be said for driving to a store and walking into it and interacting with other people. The drive takes you past places that evoke fond memories and gives you a chance to hear the local radio, and if you don’t get hit by a car the walk across the parking lot is healthful, and maybe it’s just a Wichita thing but we find that most of our interactions with other people are generally quite pleasant and often have a very salutary effect on our mood.
Somehow, despite the crass commercialism and creeping secularism of this modern age, people always seem to become more pleasant to interact with the closer it gets to Christmas. Lay off the Black Friday sales or the Cyber Monday bargains, hunt down some fascinating shop some local oddball opened, and it might just instill some Christmas spirit. We also suggest you call your far-away family rather than texting them, and meet face-to-face if at all possible, and gratefully accept any invitations you might receive to a holiday party, and except for your daily visits here spend less time looking at some sort of screen.
There’s no fending off progress, even when it goes too far, but we’ll be damned before we go along with it.

— Bud Norman

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“This Town Is Nowhere,” On Sale Now

There’s probably bigger news out there somewhere, but around here the big story of the day is that “This Town Is Nowhere” is at long last on sale.
“This Town Is Nowhere” is a novel of our own creation, and we rather like it, so we feel entitled to a certain pride of authorship and another day off from our usual snide analysis of the news. It’s only an e-publication, available through Amazon and Kindle, and we remain steadfast Luddites who have never resorted to such newfangled gimmickry for literature, but there’s still a certain satisfaction in having put such an old-fashioned yarn somewhere out there on the new frontiers of technology.
It’s an odd piece of work, we will concede. After a compelling Old West prologue that has little to do with the subsequent plot, the novel opens on on the first day of the 1972-’73 school year at a second rate junior high in the middle of the country, where a fellow who had briefly been a popular rock ‘n’ roll guitar player in the ’50s is now grouchily teaching math, one of his typically stupid students is daydreaming significantly, and the guitar-playing math teacher’s brother, who had briefly been the singing star of the band, is still rockin’ and rollin’ out on the lost highway of American music. The typically stupid student awkwardly becomes a protege to the former brother, falls under the even more dubious influence of the latter, and between the two he gets wised up a bit as the brothers plod along toward their own disparate fates. Such a scant plot fills a couple hundred typewritten pages, and who knows how many electronic tablet pages, by meandering off on topics ranging from the jargon of public educators and the corresponding breakdown of the public education system to the frustrations of adolescence and the frustrations of middle to the unique combination of the Devil’s music and God’s music that has made American music such a troublesome and essential part of our national character, with some thoughts about our national character in general thrown in.
The structure is peculiar, too. An otherwise straightforward chronology and omniscient narration is occasionally interrupted by long monologues recalling preceding events, and some events are re-told from the perspectives of different characters. There are segments that seem short stories apart from the rest of the plot, others that are historical essays full of allusions to largely forgotten blues or country musicians and geo-political events, and others that sound like those chords tossed into a medley to get from one song to the next.
Our first novel, “The Things That Are Caesar’s,” which is still available on good paper, as God intended, also through Amazon, that all-important entity, was about similarly sleazy characters but focused on religion and politics and the occasional collisions of the two. It didn’t sell a lot but was well reviewed and earned us some invitations from local book clubs that had thought it was quite thoughtful and amusing, and we rather liked that one as well. Several enthusiastic readers described it as very “cinematic,” and it does sometimes remind of us those great cynical Preston Sturges movies from the ’30s and ’40s.. This one is more about the broader culture, with occasional digressions on how the decline of the culture has preceded a decline in politics, although of course God figures in it again. It’s a bit more literary, to the extent that any movie adaptation would be harder to come up with, but at our age and with the movies they’re making these days we don’t think that’s such a bad thing..
Lest “This Town Is Nowhere” sound a bit too highly literary, be assured there’s also plenty of violence and foul language and sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The title and a basic premise for the story came to us many decades ago, when we were immersed in rockabilly records and chain-reading the works of Jim Thompson, the great Okie dime novelist and literary darling of all the fancy French critics, and we like to think that some of the bawdier scenes might recall his brilliance. There’s a certain P.G. Wodehouse affectation in some of the narration, and we owe much to the onomatopoeia and other descriptive language of the great Tom Wolfe for the musical interludes, and the basic idea of the old man and the boy is probably due to too much Robertson Davies, and there’s no way any real American can avoid the Mark Twain thing, but the story is set in the ’70s and the middle of the country so there’s no escaping a certain roughness in the story. Most of it comes from stories we’ve been told by white kids and black kids, including one ghetto-smooth fellow we met in D.C. one summer who smoked his first marijuana cigarette at the invitation of Cab Calloway, one of the all-time greats and the original “Reefer Man,” and a long-haired psychedelic guitar-player of our acquaintance who started playing bluegrass gospel to get off drugs and was quite accomplished in both styles of music, and wizened old folks in the country and our idiot peers in the suburbs, or what we’ve read of the epic battles between Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Phil and Don Eberly and all the feuding siblings of musical history, or the incredibly cool Louis Prima’s even cooler brother staying home in New Orleans and never getting famous, or the great rockabilly bass-thumper Ray Campi teaching at a southern California junior high, or remarkable fellow who we once witnessed cleaning up a teenaged companion’s vomit off the floor of a bar just to avoid a fight, or ¬†our own embarrassing encounters with real life along the lost highway. All in all, we think it’s a story about American music that could be true.
Though often bleak, we think a certain humor and hopefulness comes through the tale. In inflation-adjusted terms the story is for sale at about the same affordable price that Jim Thompson used to ask, and we’re not embarrassed to ask the same. There’s bigger news out there somewhere, but we’ll spend today on “This Town Is Nowhere.”

— Bud Norman