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Book Launch

November 23, 2021

We’ll be officially launching The Bourgeois Anarchist on November 30, 2021, via Zoom, at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Being a taciturn curmudgeon, I’m extremely lucky to be joined by Elizabeth (Libby) Mosier, an extraordinary writer who’s a much better conversationalist than I am. Most likely, Libby will ask intelligent questions to which I will give confused, nonsensical answers. It should be fun!

To witness this spectacle, and maybe ask questions of your own, you have to register in advance for the Zoom link. The event will be hosted by our friends at Main Point Books in Wayne, PA, which is offering signed copies of the book.

Blurred Choices

November 17, 2021

Ellen Prentiss Campbell, an award-winning fiction writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle, has kindly reviewed The Bourgeois Anarchist in Tiferet Journal. Throughout the novella, she notes, “the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, blur”–proving she firmly grasped the book’s main theme.

Though the magazine is available by subscription only, I can offer a quote from the end of the piece, summarizing her take on the 66-year-old protagonist, Susie Alioto:

Susie is an irresistible force. Readers, especially those of a certain age, aficionados of Anne Tyler’s quirky heroines, will enjoy Susie. She carries the baggage of years of living and experience with almost reckless, youthful abandon. And begins to reckon with some skeletons in her own closet and to figure out what’s next.

You can purchase the novella on Bookshop.org.

Out of My Shell

November 5, 2021

Over the past couple of months, in an attempt to promote my novella The Bourgeois Anarchist (Finishing Line Press), I’ve done three interviews with obliging bloggers. They were fun, especially when I could give a subversive answer to the questions. Here are the links, with a few selected quotes:

Hasty Book List, by Ashley Hasty:

Q: Book character I’d like to be stuck in an elevator with:

A: Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I might try, with no luck, to woo her away from Darcy. More to the point, she’d understand how to get us out of the elevator.

Q: Place I’d most like to travel:

A: Berkeley, CA, where I went to college. I’d like to connect somehow with the idealist I was then, though it’s probably impossible.

Linda’s Book Bag, by Linda Hill:

Q: What can we expect from an evening in with The Bourgeois Anarchist?

A: You’ll fall in love with Susie [the protagonist], I can almost guarantee it. She’s tremendously good-hearted, an idealist, and about ten times as tough as you’d guess from her diminutive size. And yet she gets entangled in a situation that proves almost too much for her.

The plot includes arsonists, mobsters, sleazy cops and life-threatening violence, but the real focus is Susie’s conflicting loyalties and difficult moral choices. She’s long been an anarchist, at least theoretically—she spent two decades in a militant commune—but now her principles leave her floundering in her time of need. You might say the quandary involves her head versus her heart, but her head is on both sides, and her emotions are flipping about like butterflies.

Jerry’s Circumlocution, by Jerry Harwood

Q: What does literary success look like to you?

A: Groupies! But where are they? Why don’t I have any?

——————

Okay, that’s enough silliness for one post. Check out the links if you want more.

Susie Hits the Streets

August 22, 2021

No, Susie Alioto, protagonist of The Bourgeois Anarchist, hasn’t taken to prostitution. As a lifelong, principled anarchist, she would support anyone’s freedom to choose that profession but, for herself, would eschew any hint of trading sex for capitalist compensation. In the novella, oddly, she may find herself in such a situation unwittingly. You’ll have to read the book to find out.

What I meant by the headline “hits the streets” is that the book is finally published. It’s available on capitalist Amazon, less capitalist Bookshop.org, and elsewhere. Because I’m a klutz at publicity, Susie has to get out there and shill for herself. If you see her hawking the book on a street corner, be kind and toss her a nickel.

So far I have managed to do one interview on her behalf, published today on Hasty Book List by Ashley Hasty. Though I’d rather hide under the sofa than do an interview, this one wasn’t too bad. In a sense it represents my coming out. I reveal myself as a fashion leader and also as a long-time devotee of Jane Austen. The latter, at least, may be rather shameful for a hetero male writer, but I don’t care, I’ll flaunt it.

Years ago, when I was working on my novel The Shame of What We Are, very loosely based on my own childhood, I had the teenage male protagonist reading Jane Austen. Early readers, especially female friends, told me that was implausible, so I switched his literary interest to Isaac Asimov, whom I had also read as a teen. Jane was miffed at being left out, so now in this post, and in the linked interview, I’m trying to make it up to her.

An anecdote to show the silliness of my devotion: At some point I had checked out a hardcover edition of Pride and Prejudice from my local library, and I refused to return it. When the library tried to fine me, I even perjured myself by arguing that the missing book was their mistake. I can still picture my skinny little self lying to the fearsome, and much taller, lady librarian, who loomed over me behind her Counter of Authority. There was nothing special about that edition: its cover a plain blue or green, a library binding stamped on the spine only. But I may still have it—and I won’t give it back.

After some production struggles, my novella The Bourgeois Anarchist, featuring 66-year-old militant Susie Alioto, is on track to be released this fall by Finishing Line Press. You can order the book at the publisher’s site, and it will soon be available on Amazon, Bookshop.org, and elsewhere.

Oddly, I haven’t yet boasted about what my distinguished writerly acquaintances have said about the book. I’ll make up for that right now. Here’s the advance praise that’s come in so far (and if you’d like to add to it, feel free, especially if you have a million Twitter followers):

The Bourgeois Anarchist is an engrossing tale of an aging pacifist’s struggle to live her ideals as she’s enveloped by the dangers of anarchic activism and the violence of big city capitalism.
—Alan Drew, author of Shadow Man and Gardens of Water

If you’ve ever wondered what you would do in a time of crisis … you’re doing it right now. Susie Alioto is doing her thing too … marching, banner-waving and trying to reconcile her anarchic principles with her non-violent beliefs, in an America where non-violence seems to be increasingly impossible. As tensions rise in her rapidly gentrifying district of Philadelphia, a motley crew of cops, mobsters, pacifists and pseudo-anarchists invade Susie’s quiet existence. No wonder she’s feeling dizzy. A thoroughly enjoyable, and surprisingly gentle, story of love, duty and politics.
—Orla McAlinden, author of The Accidental Wife and The Flight of the Wren

When it comes to political convictions, our younger selves are bound to judge our older selves, and harshly. The charm of this novella is the way it presents this subject with such a light touch, such generosity, and such affection for its characters.
—Simone Zelitch, author of Judenstaat, Waveland, and Louisa

It’s antifa vs artisanal coffee in this absorbing and timely Philadelphia story about the difficulties of living out one’s radical principles in the most orderly way possible.
—Elisabeth Cohen, author of The Glitch

An earlier post included an image of a poster Susie keeps on her refrigerator: a portrait of her special anarchist hero, Errico Malatesta (a real historical figure), with his most famous saying, “Impossibility never prevented anything from happening.” When I wrote the book, this poster did not actually exist, so I created it. Anyone who requests it via the Contact page can have a high-res JPEG or PDF copy for free, to post in the kitchen (to puzzle friends) or on the front door (to attract police scrutiny).

Wonderland Stories

May 3, 2021

My pandemic productivity hasn’t been great, but by chance I have three works of fiction being published this spring. My short story “Crabs,” originally in Wilderness House Literary Review, has been selected for The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia 2021, edited by Matthew M. Perez.

A new piece, “Wonderland Stories,” a four-part exploration of the way we’re always telling ourselves stories—and consequently not seeing what’s in front of our noses—has just appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal.

Finally, we’re getting closer to the pub date for my novella The Bourgeois Anarchist, which can be preordered here.

Susie Finds a Home

March 25, 2021

Some years ago, I wrote a silly novel-length mystery spoof that, thanks to the wisdom of the publishing industry, has never seen the light of day. The characters, though, have begged to come back in a more serious effort, especially Susie Alioto, a 66-year-old anarchist and single mother.

At last Susie is getting her due. Her new venue, a novella called The Bourgeois Anarchist, is coming out in July from Finishing Line Press.

After college Susie spent two decades in a radical commune, and her beliefs haven’t wavered. She marches for gun control, for Black Lives Matter, for action against climate change. She’s a leader in local groups that fight for justice and human rights.

You may wonder how the image on this post relates. Well, Susie’s special hero is the late Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta (1853–1932). For inspiration, Susie keeps this poster on the side of her refrigerator, where she communes with it every day. But her son Eric, an apolitical math nerd—named, to his chagrin, after Malatesta—thinks her politics ridiculous, especially since his mother’s current lifestyle is so middle-class. Privately he calls her the “bourgeois anarchist.”

The plot focuses on conflicts that develop when Susie gets involved with some young militants. It seems that her lifetime principles don’t match up with her intuitive sense of justice, and she faces a kind of existential crisis. The story also includes cops, capitalists, arsonists, mobsters, and a coffee shop (because we all need coffee shops). And of course there’s romance (because we all need romance). Along the way, Eric provides a skeptical perspective and some nerdy humor.

The book is now available for presale. Since my royalty rate for the life of the book depends on the presale volume, I’ll be extremely grateful to anyone who gives Susie a good home.

If you’re not sure you want to read Susie’s tale, here’s another incentive: A paperback novella is the perfect tool for domestic disagreements. When launched at your significant other, it’s big enough to show you mean business but not dangerous enough to hurt anyone. Don’t you need one today?

The original Gerry-mander: 1812 cartoon of a district in Massachusetts, a salamander-like shape that the artist named after Governor Elbridge Gerry

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) may have noticed that it’s become increasingly political over the years. Like almost all sentient Americans, I’ve been sucked into the partisan fray. Even my recent fiction, such as The Bourgeois Anarchist (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press), tends to have political themes.

In real life, I’ve become involved with the Philadelphia branch of Fair Districts PA (FDPA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, all-volunteer organization aimed at ending gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It’s a spinoff of the state’s chapter of the League of Women Voters, and like the League, it’s very polite and well-behaved, sometimes to the frustration of our more ardent activists who’d like to get up in the faces of our idiot legislators.

The mantra of FDPA goes like this: Gerrymandering—the drawing of legislative district maps to favor one party or the other—fosters the extreme partisanship we see today, which leads to gridlock in the legislature, which means no progress on dozens of major issues. Why is this true? Gerrymandering creates safe seats, that is, seats that will always be won by a particular party. A politician in a safe seat has no incentive to listen to voters in the other party or to compromise with colleagues across the aisle. The only threat to that legislator’s job is a primary, and to make sure he doesn’t face a strong primary challenge, he’ll cozy up to his party’s leaders, to the “core” voters of the party, and to the big donors. You can see why this process pushes Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left. You can also see why it discourages people from voting—if the outcome is predetermined, why bother?

By the way, if I use male pronouns to refer to our state legislators, it’s not just addiction to outdated convention. Our state’s lawmakers are overwhelming male. And white. And middle-aged. They look a lot like the U.S. Senate, which in purely aesthetic terms is not an attractive sight.

In every state, new district maps are drawn every ten years, after the Census. For the last two decades, with each set of maps, Pennsylvania has been one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. And therefore our legislature—the largest paid one in the country—does very little. It passes few bills. It takes lots of recesses. It even avoids matters that seemingly ought to be bipartisan, such as lead in drinking water. (We have 18 cities with more lead than Flint, Michigan, but that statistic can’t get the lead out of the legislature.)

Though gerrymandering has been around since 1812, it’s worse than ever because of two tools that have come into play in this century: Big Data, which allows map drawers to pinpoint the locations of each party’s voters, and inexpensive mapping software, which makes it easy to output a map that meets whatever biased criteria you input. In 2011 an obscure GOP strategist named Thomas Hofeller helped Republicans draw maps that would ensure their domination of both the Pennsylvania legislature and the state’s congressional seats. Unfortunately, they got so greedy that the state Supreme Court—after it turned Democratic in 2015—threw out the congressional maps, though the warped districts for state House and state Senate remained.

When maps are redrawn this year, Pennsylvania will face an odd situation. For the congressional maps, Republicans still have an initial advantage. Re-elected in their gerrymandered districts, they still control both houses of the state legislature, and the new maps will be drawn by their caucus leaders, presumably in secret. However, the legislation establishing the new maps has to be signed by the governor, a Democrat. Standoff? You bet. Though compromise has been anathema to both sides lately, that seems to be the only possible outcome.

For state House and state Senate maps, the process is entirely different. A five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) draws up the maps, and the governor has no say in the matter. The LRC is composed of the majority and minority leaders of both House and Senate, or their designates—that’s two Democrats and two Republicans—plus a fifth member, the chair. The fifth member can be chosen by agreement among the first four. Of course they won’t agree, and in that case the fifth member, the deciding vote, is appointed by the state Supreme Court, which is now—as noted above—dominated by Democrats. Thus we’re poised for a Democratic gerrymander, vengeance for what the Republicans did in 2011.

For years now, Fair Districts has backed legislation to stop gerrymandering by either party. So far, the majority Republicans in Harrisburg have resisted, even though their own seats will be subject to Democrats’ revenge. It seems like pure stupidity, doesn’t it? Sometimes I think it’s an Alamo mentality. These old white guys see themselves as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie defending the Alamo. The place is surrounded by Santa Anna’s troops, but will they negotiate? No way! They’ll go down in glory, six-guns blazing, coonskin caps perched jauntily on their bloodied skulls.

If Republicans are being so obstinate, what about the Democrats? Some progressive Dems do agree that redistricting ought to be fair, but many of the leaders hesitate to embrace such a radical idea. Reportedly, one Democratic lawmaker has stated, “We bought the Supreme Court [via big political contributions in the 2015 judicial elections], and now we’re going to get our money’s worth.” Another, who represents a high-poverty, mostly African American district, has told FDPA folks that he can’t afford to worry about fairness when his constituents are dying.

That last comment gave me pause. In many ways he’s right: Democratic priorities often involve a fight for life itself. Cops killing young black men. Rampant gun violence. Industries spewing deadly pollutants in minority districts. The opioid epidemic. Not to mention food insecurity in what is supposedly the richest nation on earth. Crummy education because of underfunded schools. Climate change, which will cripple us all if we don’t do something fast.

It’s very tempting, then, to say, “Let’s accept a Democratic gerrymander so we can fix these problems. Once we get that done, we can worry about ‘fairness.’”

But there’s a flaw in that reasoning. The big issues that concern Democrats don’t lend themselves to easy fixes. We can’t pass one bill, or even a dozen, that will end poverty, repair the schools, get guns off the streets, reform the police, etc. etc. These problems require long-term, sustained action, and to accomplish that we need buy-in from both parties, which is not likely until we give politicians a motive to actually do their jobs by making them accountable once more to the people at large rather than to their party leaders.

Take school funding as one example. Our Democratic governor has proposed a budget with additional money for struggling public schools like those in Philadelphia. Our Republican legislature has already dismissed the idea. With a Democratic gerrymander we’d change the balance of power in House and Senate. We’d be able to pass an education-friendly budget for the next ten years—and wouldn’t that represent long-term progress? A full decade to fix the schools! Only problem: the state will elect a new governor next year. Since PA has a habit of alternating parties in the statehouse, there’s a good chance that the next governor will be a Republican who’ll veto any Democratic initiatives. Controlling the legislature will be a hollow victory for Democrats. Moreover, as we’ve seen on a national level with Obamacare, extreme partisanship means that any substantive action by one party gets “weaponized” by the other. Can you imagine the Republican rhetoric if Democrats raise taxes to benefit public schools? You don’t have to be a high-paid political consultant to write the attack ads.

In the end, I come back to the idea of fairness on which Fair Districts was founded. The best road for progress is the high road. Or, as the adage puts it, honesty is the best policy. For the Democrats—my party, dammit—what’s most right is also most practical.

Will the Democrats listen to this complicated reasoning or opt for the easy, short-term advantage? Will Republicans realize that, instead of dying in the Alamo, they could mosey out the back door?

Stay tuned for the exciting news from the state where the USA was born.

The Morality of Ice Cream

October 6, 2020

John Stuart Mill

I was thinking today, in what context I don’t remember (maybe the context of a would-be dictator encouraging Americans to ignore a deadly virus he fostered?), about the most important subject for humanity. I decided it was moral philosophy. Because that’s, like, the guiding principle for everything we do, right? In the would-be dictator’s case, the philosophy is Me First, then Me Second. For most of the rest of us, it’s more complicated, involving our notions of responsibility to others.

It’s too complicated, really. Moral philosophy is both most important and most impossible.

Why impossible? Well, you have to start with assumptions about what’s valuable. Should our morality focus only on human beings, for example? Or also on dogs and dolphins and elephants and other intelligent life? If the latter, where do we draw the line? Are mosquitoes exempt from our care? (Remember that animals we used to assume were mindless have been shown to have sophisticated brains. I have no love for mosquitoes, but it may turn out that they’re really smart.)

Even if we focus on humanity alone, what should our morality promote and what should it avoid? To me, the only formulation that makes logical sense is the utilitarian one, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” or in Jeremy Bentham’s formulation, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” but the logicality proves bankrupt when we try to put it into practice.

To follow a utilitarian creed, we have to know what “good” or “happiness” means, which almost makes the argument tautological. But, okay, try to define this good or happy state: Do you choose freedom from hunger or freedom from tyranny? Maximum total pleasure (which would also have to be defined) or minimum suicides? Ethnic pride and dignity or less frequent war?

Even John Stuart Mill, who became the chief apostle of this philosophy, had to distinguish between “higher” and “lower” pleasures—again, it seems to me, begging the question.

And even if you could precisely define what you meant by “good” or “happiness,” how would you measure it—not just in one person but across the 7.8 billion people on Earth?

And then, if you could define it and measure it, you’d still have to be able to predict the future. That is, in order to decide whether to do something, you’d have to judge what effects that action would have—and what effects it would prevent from happening. You’d need to envision the infinite number of possible timelines emanating from your single choice. Infinitely impossible.

So, to adopt utilitarianism in daily life, we must cut that infinity down to size by making assumptions about what’s likely to have a beneficial effect on whatever portion of the population we happen to be considering. And, for me, this process often ends up more or less with the golden rule, the do-unto-others thing. Which itself is a poor guide to questions such as “Should I tell my sister that her husband is cheating on her?” and “Is it okay to give my grandkids ice cream though their mother forbade it?”

Sigh.

All this, plus laziness, explains why I haven’t actually studied much moral philosophy. It relies too much on unprovable assumptions. Plus it’s less entertaining than a good detective story.

Yet I would love to be more certain. I’d love to believe in a principle as easy to operate as the TV.

Being a person who knows little about politics and misunderstands much of that little, I feel it’s incumbent upon me to share my predictions about the upcoming U.S. election. Clearly the experts are befuddled, so the responsibility for commentary falls on us ignoramuses.

Here’s what I predict:

  • President Twitterman will survive the coronavirus. If he suffers mental impairment from the disease, no one will know the difference.
  • He’ll lose the popular vote by a large margin (though not nearly as large as he deserves).
  • He’ll lose the electoral vote by a frighteningly small margin.
  • While making lots of noise about fraud, he will ultimately retire from the fray rather than mount a coup—because, like a typical bully, he’s a coward at heart.
  • Though Biden will promise healing, outrage will continue to multiply on both sides, and some people will get killed.
  • Ultimately the deplorables, as Hillary Clinton called them, will fade from sight, skulking underground like cicada nymphs until their next chance to emerge. Which they will do, in time.