Ilan Mochari
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BlogDecember, 2008
Politically incorrect moments in literature; Rolling Stone's 100 greatest singers; the NBA's most improved players; Ursula K. Le Guin and George R. R. Martin

You know those colorful mini-books displayed near the register in any bookstore? The industry calls them “chunkies.” I learned this from Virginia Vitzthum, a friend on the inside, whose book would make an ideal holiday gift for the online dater in your life.

The chunky I’d like to write would be called 49 Politically Incorrect Moments in Literature. You could topple a titan with each citation:

  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Some of the anti-Semitic quips in Crime and Punishment (1866) come from the characters. Others, like this one, come from the third-person narrator: “His sleepy glance touched coldly on the approaching Svidrigailov, and he had that expression of long-suffering querulousness that has been stamped without exception on all Jewish faces” (486). 
  • Ernest Hemingway: In The Sun Also Rises (1926), narrator Jake Barnes refers to a “nigger drummer” as “all teeth and lips” (69). His friend Bill Gorton uses the N-word six times in one paragraph to describe a boxer (77). 
  • Philip Roth: In Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), narrator Alex Portnoy says: “Yes, the only people in the world whom it seems to me the Jews are not afraid of are the Chinese. Because, one, the way they speak English makes my father sound like Lord Chesterfield; two, the insides of their heads are just so much fried rice anyway; and three, to them we are not Jews but white – and maybe even Anglo-Saxon. Imagine! No wonder the waiters can’t intimidate us. To them we’re just some big-nosed variety of WASP!…” (90).

Another example comes from William Kennedy’s Ironweed (1983), which takes place in Albany, NY, in the 1930s. Here’s how the third-person narrator describes Saint Anthony’s Church: “It was the church where the Italians went to preserve their souls in a city where the Italians were the niggers and micks of a new day” (120). 

That sentence typifies why novelists often need nasty words. “Nigger” and “mick” succinctly convey what “black” and “Irish” cannot: the historical reality of ethnic prejudices. Moreover, the language in any novel must be true to its era and characters, heedless of derogatory connotations. Huckleberry Finn’s voice would ring false if he did not introduce Jim as “Miss Watson’s big nigger” (3).

Of course, all of the above instances are from books published before 1990. Know any contemporary examples of politically incorrect literary moments? If so, please email them to me. I’ll be sure to cite you if I ever get around to making my chunky dream a reality.

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During Thanksgiving, my family hotly debated Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. It’s an excellent list – you probably won’t get angry about the order or omissions until you leave the top 50. I was most upset to see the that the top 100 didn’t include Townes Van Zandt, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Nico, Cat Stevens, Ben Harper, or Lucinda Williams. But the list was so strong that I’m hard pressed to tell you whom I’d omit to include any of the above, other than Christina Aguilera (No. 58).  

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Fifteen games into the NBA season, I’m ready to announce my most improved players:

1. Devin Harris, G, New Jersey Nets. The Nets (8-7) are 8-3 when he plays. Take away his atrocious three-point aim (7-for-26) and Harris is shooting 76-for-148 – better than .500. His 23.5 ppg ranks seventh in the league. In previous seasons, Harris never averaged more than 16.0 ppg. Most impressive, Harris ranks second in free-throw attempts with 11.4 per game, behind only Dwight Howard. In his fifth year, Harris is yet another example of how point guards often require several seasons to develop. It’s something to keep in mind while young Mike Conley and Acie Law continue to struggle.

2. John Salmons, G, Sacramento Kings. He’s averaging 19.2 on .505 shooting. He ranks 12th in minutes per game (37.9). And he’s not just a numbers guy. To watch Salmons play is to witness perimeter prowess (.417 from three) and defensive hustle (1.2 steals per game). Salmons won’t get all-star attention because the Kings (5-14) have sucked without swingman Kevin Martin. But Salmons – who never averaged more than 13.0 per game prior to this season – belongs in the all-star conversation. He’s one of the 40 best players in the league, for my money.

3. Wilson Chandler, F, New York Knicks. Say this for Isiah Thomas: he knew how to draft. In his second season, the ultra-athletic 6-8 Chandler, 21, is averaging 14.9 ppg, more than double his rookie average (7.3 ppg). He’s shooting .453 from the field and .758 from the line, both improvements from last season (.438 and .630). He may be the only untouchable player on the rebuilding Knicks (8-8). It would not surprise me if he’s the first Knick of the D’Antoni-Walsh era to get a contract extension. Kevin Durant and Greg Oden were the big names of Chandler’s rookie class; and when all is said and done, they may be the only two players in the class who are better than Chandler.

4. Andris Biedrins, C, Golden State Warriors. His stats are up across the board. He’s shooting .539 with 15.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 1.5 blocks, and 1.2 steals. Imagine what his numbers would be if he played with either a decent point guard or a power forward who could help him with the dirty work. Alone in the paint on a lousy Warriors team (5-12) filled with shoot-first wings masquerading as teammates, Biedrins should push Yao Ming and Al Jefferson for all-star votes at center.

Honorable mentions:

Nate Robinson, G, New York Knicks

Roger Mason, G, San Antonio Spurs

Thaddeus Young, F, Philadelphia 76ers

Jeff Green, F, Oklahoma City Thunder

Spencer Hawes, C, Sacramento Kings.

 
***

Thanks again to everyone who sent congratulatory emails about the publication of “A Loss to the Stuffed Animal Kingdom” in Issue 4 of Keyhole. One such note came from John Stauffer, a college professor of mine whose latest book, Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, came out November 8. It’s already getting raves on Amazon.

And I'll finish this month's blog by linking to Wisconsin Public Radio, of all places. Their hosts recently interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin and George R. R. Martin (who both happened to win Hugo Awards in 1975). The subject is science fiction as a literature of ideas. Le Guin and Martin were not interviewed together; my holiday wish is that one day they will be.
 



Ilan Mochari is a novelist and journalist living in the Boston area. His fiction has appeared in Keyhole and been honored by
Glimmer Train. He is a former staff writer for Inc magazine, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO magazine. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

 
    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari