Low-Budget Review: Mark Schweizer’s The Alto Wore Tweed

Just finished The Alto Wore Tweed, which is the first book in a long time to make me laugh so helplessly I couldn’t keep reading it. Hayden Koenig, who narrates the book in the first person, is the police chief of a small New England town; he is independently wealthy and was a music major in college. He now is the absurdly over-qualified organist and choir for St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, the parishioners of which (including the narrator) are very Episcopalian, which is to say, not particularly Christian — Hayden, for example, appears to perceive no connection between being an Episcopalian and being constrained by any sort of New-Testament-compliant sexual ethic. When it comes to his sense of humor, Hayden seems to partake very much of the personality of the author, and big sections of the book are shockingly terrible parodies of Raymond Chandler that somehow made me think of a combination of Jasper Fforde and Dave Barry. These are written by Hayden and provided to the choir as inserts to their choir folders, thus providing them with, shall we say, inspiration during the sermons…as I say, Hayden is highly irreverent. He is also, as befits somebody who is a shameless music snob (“I will play for whomever and whatever I want, and I would no sooner play the organ for those wacko services than I would give a recital of Christy Lane’s Greatest Hits”) no fan of recent liturgical and theological developments in the Episcopal Church, and the ongoing war between himself and the recently appointed ultra-feminist female rector is something of a mismatch (and hardly a model of Christian charity on either side).

This book is not so much a detective novel (though there is a murder, and Hayden does have to solve it, and I was happy to see that the plot turns were sufficient to keep me from guessing it before the reveal, which doesn’t happen all that often)…not so much a detective novel, as it is a farce that uses the detective novel genre as an excuse to create over-the-top situations and characters for purposes of general amusement. One has the feeling that if Terry Pratchett gone for detective fiction rather than fantasy, and also had done a better job of staying on his meds, he might well have written something like The Alto Wore Tweed. That is to say, Schweizer at least pretends to be writing realistic fiction, with which pretense Pratchitt (who after all is living in the relatively constraint-free world of magical fantasy) dispenses. But the P.G. Wodehouse / Douglas Adams / Dave Barry mindset is always lurking, and now and then Schweizer lets it come out and play in outrageously funny scenes that you know wouldn’t happen in real life but that you can’t help but feel might happen, at least as long as you’re in the village of St. Germaine…and if it did happen, you certainly would want to be there to watch the fun.

As politics has, rather sadly, become something that a great many people cannot laugh about, I think Schweizer has probably limited his audience quite a bit by mercilessly lampooning the lunatic fringe of the Far Left (though the discomfiture of the fundamentalist Southern Baptist preacher when an outdoor funeral is rudely interrupted by a floating helium-filled sex doll is at least as great as the discomfiture of the feminist rector when she accidentally inhales a couple of lungfuls of incense and forgets to turn off her wireless microphone when she flees to the restroom to worship the porcelain god — oh, sorry, goddess). That’s too bad, because everyone should laugh at himself now and then, and Schweizer’s parody of a “Wymmyn’s Liturgy” is pretty funny, as is this excerpt from his Chandler parody:

She handed me a memo. It was from the bishop all right and I was his church music commission toady. I opened the memo and gave it the once-over. Another PCD — Politically Correct Directive.

“Beginning immediately,” the memo said, “all new music compositions must contain a minimum of 50% ‘nonwhite’ notes. (Also, in keeping within the national and diocesan guidelines, all whole and half notes will be known as ‘pigmentally impoverished.’)

As church musicians, we must also be aware that, although albino-genetic recessive notes tend to move faster and jump higher than pigmentally impoverished notes, we must not perpetuate this stereotype. Pigmentally impoverished notes must be allowed to achieve their true and full potential, and not be held back by any of the ‘so called’ traditional composers. By the same token, notes-of-color must be allowed to proceed at their own pace.”

I had heard it all before, but now the bishop was taking it up a notch.

Now this will probably mortally offend some readers, which is a shame, because they are likely to miss Hayden’s ad-lib Thanksgiving prayer, offered — as his girlfriend reminds him when the subject later arises, in front of said girlfriend’s relatives:

Thank you God for dairy products including cheese and this, the 26th day of November, we thank you especially for Roquefort, Brie and all the many varieties of cheddar. Thank you God for turkeys who willingly gave their lives that we might celebrate your bounty. Thank you God for grain from which we get our bread and beer. Thank you God for all your many vegetables, especially Raymond Burr. And thank you God for hamsters and all the little things that make our life worth living. Amen.

Raymond Burr? As Hayden explains in defending himself, “He was the only vegetable I could think of on the spur of the moment.”

The Social Justice Warrior may well be enraged by the Wymmyn’s Conference and Hayden/Schwiezer’s brutal treatment thereof; but it would be a shame if the SJW were to hurl the book across the room and miss out on the dueling Nativity scenes destined to enter into St. Germaine holiday lore, or (a couple of books further along in the series) the equally savage and hilarious treatment of the Iron Mike Men’s Retreat, or (returning to the present book) the tragic chain of events that causes one fundamentalist Christian to think that the Rapture is taking place. (This scene may well drive Baptists away as efficiently as the Wymmyn’s Liturgy exorcises SJW’s from the Schweizer Readers’ Club; it pushes the boundaries of humor in much the same way that Monty Python were wont to do.) The truth is that Schweizer is Haley Joel Osment’s first cousin once removed or something, only Schweizer sees ridiculous people — and has a high old time writing them into his novel so that he can turn the Ridiculous up to eleven.

At any rate, if you are a Social Justice Warrior type who thinks that These Things Are Serious, or if you are a fundamentalist Christian who is made highly uncomfortable by books with recurring sex doll motifs, or if you are a real live actual New Testament Christian who is still sad about having been driven out of the Episcopal Church lest you share by association in its mortal sin and therefore will find that the casually pagan hedonism of the main characters and the lunatic diocesan politics reopen old wounds, then I guess you should take this as a “trigger warning” and avoid the book. But then I myself…well, I admit that nobody would ever confuse me with an SJW. (I have checked my privilege and it appears to be in good working order.) But I am an evangelical Christian who does not approve of the use of sex dolls, who found my last few years in the Episcopal Church to be theologically frustrating, and who in particular found the politics of Diocesan Convention to border on the intolerable…and yet I personally laughed until I cried.

So, except for persons covered in the above trigger warning: highly, highly recommended, if you like Monty Python, Douglas Adams, P. G. Wodehouse, Dave Barry, and the recently-and-all-to-lamentably late Terry Pratchett. And I am given to understand, from the readership statistics, that many women like the series too.

On Babies Arriving “Early”

My kids’ generation grew up in a society that is very blasé about premarital sex and pregnancy, and that may not get the point of the scare quotes in the following line from one of the best obituaries ever written:

He met his future wife, Maureen (Moe) Belisle Malcolm, after months at sea, crab fishing. He found her in his bed and decided to keep her. Their daughter Melissa was born “early” six months later.

A great obituary — but I particularly like the observation of this commenter: “Dad always said the first one can come anytime. The rest take nine months.”

By the way, I have always linked rather than copied, out of respect for copyright — but now I go back and read old blogposts from six or seven years ago and none of the links work! I’ve lost the jokes! So from now on I will copy the material I like into the post so that I know it will stay permanently.

Obituary – March 25
Donald Alexander Malcolm Jr.

Captain Donald Alexander Malcolm Jr., 60, died Feb. 28, 2015, nestled in the bosom of his family, while smoking, drinking whiskey and telling lies. He died from complications resulting from being stubborn, refusing to go to the doctor, and raising hell for six decades. Stomach cancer also played a minor role in his demise.

Don cherished family above all else, and was a beloved husband, father and grandfather. He met his future wife, Maureen (Moe) Belisle Malcolm, after months at sea, crab fishing. He found her in his bed and decided to keep her. Their daughter Melissa was born “early” six months later. They decided to have a boy a couple years later, and ended up with another daughter, Megan. He taught his girls how to hold their liquor, filet a fish and change a tire. He took pride in his daughters, but his greatest joy in life was the birth of his grandson Marley, a child to whom he could impart all of his wisdom that his daughters ignored.

After spending his formative years in Kirkland, Wash. with a fishing pole in hand, Don decided his life’s calling was to yell at deckhands on commercial fishing boats in Alaska. As a strapping young man of 19, he moved to Dutch Harbor to fulfill this dream. Over the next 40 years, Don was a boat cook, mechanic, deckhand, captain and boat owner. Although Don worked nearly every fishery in the Pacific Northwest at one time or another, his main hunting ground was the Bering Sea. He cut his teeth crabbing; kept his family fed by longlining halibut and black cod; then retired as a salmon gillnetter in Southeast Alaska.

Don had a life-time love affair with Patsy Cline, Rainier beer, iceberg lettuce salads and the History Channel (which allowed him to call his wife and daughters everyday in order to relay the latest WWII facts he learned). He excelled at attempting home improvement projects, outsmarting rabbits, annoying the women in his life and reading every book he could get his hands on. He thought everyone could, and should, live on a strict diet of salmon, canned peas and rice pilaf, and took extreme pride in the fact that he had a freezer stocked full of wild game and seafood. His life goal was to beat his wife at Scrabble, and although he never succeeded, his dream lives on in the family he left behind.

Don is survived not only by his wife, daughters and grandson, but by his father, Donald Malcolm Sr; brothers Howard and Mike Malcolm; sisters Lisa Shumaker, Nicki White, Melinda Borg and Patsi Solano.

He also has many nieces, nephews, aunts and cousins who love him dearly, and deckhands who knew him. He will be having an extended family reunion with his mother, Winifred Thorton; foster parents Marvel and Dutch Roth, brothers Larry and Steve Malcolm, sister Doodie Cake, and other assorted family and friends who died too young.

And Now I Am an Official SFF Fan

Just found out that if you join the World Science Fiction Society with a “supporting” membership, you can’t go to their convention…but you can vote on the Hugo Awards. Oh, so, big whoop, right? Like your vote will make a difference. Ah, but here’s the thing: THEY SEND YOU COPIES OF ALL THE NOMINATED BOOKS AND STORIES, for, like, FREE (that is, nothing additional on top of the $40). So I signed up.

I used to read a lot of science fiction when I was a kid, but life got busy and, frankly, science fiction fell down the priority list. But some of the most imaginative and insightful fiction ever produced has been science fiction / fantasy — Ursula Le Guin, for example, is one of my very favorites, and in particular it’s hard for me to think of any short story other than perhaps “The Lottery” that has hit me at so deep and fundamental a gut-level as “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” A Canticle for Liebowitz is unlike anything else ever written. Tolkien is of course sui generis and you hardly feel he should count, except that if you write the most influential and profound work of fiction of your century you ALWAYS get to count. And then a lot of stuff, like John Ringo and Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, is just fun, and has the added benefit of being a pleasure that I can share with kids (Kai loved the Troy Rising series and when the next one comes out we’ll have to buy two copies because neither of us is going to be willing to wait for the other one to go first).

Anyway, I’m going to read the Hugo nominations this year and see whether the current crop of authors are worthy heirs of the giants of my youth.

I seriously doubt that I will vote. But I will read.

From Over the Top, a genuinely remarkable first-hand view of the trenches in World War I

I don’t know that “enjoying” is the right word to use when reading this book. But it is a remarkable book, and a remarkable incarnation of the psychology of men in war, each coping with the unspeakable in his own way. Here’s one passage (among many) that particularly struck me.

Near our gun, right across the parapet, could be seen the body of a German lieutenant, the head and arms of which were hanging into our trench. [One of the author’s fellow-soldiers] used to sit and carry on a one-sided conversation with this officer, used to argue and point out why Germany was in the wrong. During all of this monologue, I never heard him say anything out of the way, anything that would have hurt the officer’s feelings had he been alive. He was square all right, wouldn’t even take advantage of a dead man in an argument. — Over the Top, chapter XXI.

Would-Be Criminal of the Day, with musings that ultimately turn serious

There’s a pretty funny story in here but you have to wade through some background first.

As some of you know, I have rather severe back problems and need regular, very-deep-tissue massage therapy to keep from getting to where I can’t bend over far enough to tie my own shoes. When I was in China getting married, Helen took me to get worked on by a blind masseur (the Chinese are a very practical people), and that guy was unbelievable. And also one of her uncles owns a bathhouse/massage/whatever-you-call-those-glass-vacuum-bottle-things place…at any rate, I came back to Houston and went looking for blind Chinese masseurs, of which there turn out to be approximately zero in Houston. There are, however, a lot of Chinese women who do massage. And some of them actually do massage with the hot stones and/or the walking back and forth and jumping up and down on your back — great stuff, makes an incredible difference. Unfortunately, though, a lot of “Asian massage” places (in Houston, at least) are basically brothels, and I have had the rather embarrassing experience a couple of times of having to explain hastily that I actually wanted a massage, and, um, nothing else. But I have found a couple of places with really top-notch, respectable masseuses who do a fabulous job and also give me a chance to practice Chinese; they may go back to China occasionally but never at the same time so I can always get worked on when I need it. And they like me a lot…because I am actually there for a massage.

See, it kind of sucks to be a Chinese masseuse in Houston, because there are so many “Asian masseuses” who are really providers of other services, that if you are a Chinese woman and you say you give massages, a lot of people simply assume that you are speaking in euphemisms and that your true profession is a rather older one. If you are a six-foot tall German lady and you say, “I am a massage therapist,” nobody assumes you do anything but massage therapy; if you are a five-foot-four Chinese girl and you say the same thing, half the men in Houston will ask how much of a tip you require for “full service.” So even the respectable girls spend half their time saying, “No, we don’t do that here” — and now you know why they like me so much.

Now to the story:

A few weeks ago, the girl who was working on my back was all upset, and she explained to me that her discombobulation was due to the fact that 公安 — the police — had shown up at the shop she manages (there are three or four other Chinese girls who work there, and they are nice people and decent masseuses, but I have real back problems and they just don’t do as good a job as Meili does). “He was in his uniform and with his gun and I was very scared,” she said. “I was saying, ‘No, no, I am a real massage person, I have a license, I only do massage….” Meanwhile I’m thinking, “In uniform?? Don’t they usually go to suspect establishments undercover?” And then she went on to say that the policeman had explained that he was obliged to respond to a complaint. It seems that she had had a customer who demanded more than a massage, and when she refused, he got furious and felt cheated — and he called the police to complain!!

Yes, that’s right — this genius called the police to complain, “Arrest that woman! She refused to engage in prostitution with me!”

Okay, I thought that was hilarious. But it did some temporary damage to our friendship when I burst out laughing, because SHE didn’t think it was funny at ALL. So I tried to compose myself, as difficult as it was; but then I told the story to everybody I met for the next few days because I still thought it was hilarious.

Now, though, I’m not so sure. Because the last time I was there, I got there just as Meili was finishing up with another customer, and she came straight out of that room and in to work on me. But just as she started to climb up on the table (she does the walking-on-the-back thing), there was a commotion in the waiting room, and one of the other ladies knocked on the door, calling for Meili (who also is the best English-speaker in the house) to come help. Meili went out to the waiting room, and there ensued what was clearly an ugly argument with an angry customer, who got louder and louder and angrier and angrier, to the point where I actually got up and put my pants on in case I had to go outside and help (a nice big towel strategically placed preserves one’s decency fine when one is lying still face down on a table and somebody is walking back and forth on your back, but I didn’t think it would do me much good in a physical altercation). But fortunately, just as I was reaching for the door handle, I hear him stomp to the door, slamming it violently on his way out.

A couple of minutes later Meili came back in, apologizing to me (!) for the disruption. “What was that about?” I asked, though I had my suspicions. “Well,” she said, trying to make light of it (though she was clearly still shaken), “he’s a Middle Eastern guy, you know? And they…” She stopped and didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then continued: “He wanted…” she stopped again, then made a universally recognized up-and-down motion with her hand. I nodded my comprehension. “But I told him I don’t do that, and I had already given him a whole hour’s massage. But then he got mad and said he would not pay me if I didn’t do it, but I said, ‘Then don’t pay me.’ And he said he knows people in the police force and he will get me into trouble if I don’t do it, but I still wouldn’t do it. But he finally left.”

She was still pretty shaken up, so I told her to just hang onto my money, and that I would go have some coffee and do some more work and come back later, a suggestion to which she eagerly and gratefully agreed. And I left, thinking to myself, “You know, when that policeman came and knocked on their door last month…come to think of it, I don’t think, actually, that was very funny at all.”

But there was one other thing I thought about. I said, at the beginning, that it’s a bummer to be a Chinese woman in Houston who is highly skilled at massage therapy, because so many people assume, since you are Asian, that it isn’t really massage that you’re skilled at. At the same time, it struck me forcibly that the first thing she had said when trying to explain what happened was, “Well, he’s a Middle Eastern guy, you know?” One of the finest men I know is Tunisian, and another is Palestinian, and I have a terrible time imagining either Naj or Nidal ever treating a woman like that. But in Houston, a whole bunch of the Asian women who advertise themselves as doing “massage” are really prostitutes; and there an awful lot of Arab men who treat Western or Asian women as if they were all whores. And people are people, and we generalize from experience. And that means that Meili will always have to deal with men who assume that she’s a prostitute, and it means that any Middle Eastern man who deals with Meili will have to get past her automatic expectation that he will be a jerk. There’s a whole lot of wisdom in the old Yiddish phrase, a “shanda fur die goyim,” meaning, “The kind of Jew who actually behaves the way Jew-haters say we all behave, and then we all get hated as a result.” By all means encourage people not to be racist…but you need to be a realist. If you don’t want people to get nervous around young black men, congratulations; but let’s start with a simple fact: you can harangue people all you want about how they shouldn’t be racist, but as long as young black men in actual real life commit violent crimes at five times the rate of any other demographic, you’re wasting your breath. And as long as half the “Asian massage spas” in Houston are actually human-trafficking-populated brothels, Meili is going to have to keep telling one new customer after another, “No, no, I don’t do that.”

Ordering Coffee at the Starbucks Drive-Through

BARISTA (over drive-through speaker): What can I get for you today?

ME: A venti whole-milk latte, please.

BARISTA (cheerfully): OK, a grande mocha frappucino, and what else?

Silence ensues for a couple of seconds while I try to process what just happened. Finally…

ME: No, I want a VEN..TI…WHOLE…MILK…LATTE.

BARISTA (still cheerfully): OK, a grande whole milk latte.

ME: A VEN…TI…whole milke latte.

BARISTA: Oh, a VENTI whole milk latte.

ME (in relief): Yes, that’s right, thanks.

BARISTA: And can we get you anything else besides the two drinks?