The Most Beautiful Woman in Puppetland

June 5th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

If you’ve always wanted to read something sentimental and sappy from a hardboiled noir mystery writer, this is your lucky day.

Barb and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary on June 1. You can check out the “before” and “after” photos above to see how much damage the years have done to me, and how Barb only gets lovelier as time lightly touches her.

I am reminded of my great grandparents and their Golden Anniversary celebration – dim and yet vivid in my memory. My great grandmother Rushing appeared to have stepped out of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” while my great grandfather was more Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster – she was staid and long-suffering, and he was a twinkle-in-the-eye reprobate.

The entire Rushing clan was gathered at their home for a big and elaborate celebration, with more food than lunch on the Road to Perdition set. At the after-dinner round of toasting, my great grandmother announced that she was divorcing my great grandfather and that he was to gather his things and leave at once. The suffering had gone on long enough, and now that she’d had her celebration for putting in her time, the old boy was sent literally packing.

He died a few years later, hit by a car as he crossed the street heading to a liquor store from the hospital where he was drying out.

I am happy to report Barb has not sent me packing, although some might say she would have the right, even if I’m not a hard-drinking reprobate. I am difficult and self-centered and a classic only child, spoiled by doting parents. She was one of seven (all girls save one), and her mother was bi-polar (not yet the diagnosis) who could make things miserable for her.

That had a lot to do why we married so young – I was twenty and she was nineteen. Her home situation was one I wanted to rescue her from, plus we were – and are – very much in love.

We’ve known each other since childhood. The story goes that we once shared a playpen while our mothers visited, but neither of us remember that. Sometimes we’re described as childhood sweethearts, which is sort of accurate. In the fifth grade, when I first noticed her resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, as I approached an age where such a resemblance was meaningful, she was my girl friend. By the sixth grade we had both moved on.

We were friends in junior high. Barb was an excellent trumpet player and I was a trumpet player, too (note the absence of an adjective before the second “trumpet,” which is what I was – second trumpet). Yes, I was second chair and she was first, and she once humiliated me (quite without malice) when I “challenged” her for her chair. Look, I knew she would wipe the floor with me, but the band director expected it of us all to go after the next chair. Somehow she did not laugh when the band director said to me, “Well, Allan, let’s stop it right there – I lost you on the second page….”

In high school, we went our separate ways – she to band, me to chorus (you had to choose). Our relationship was limited to smiles and nods in the school hallway. She was going with an older boy, a senior. I was going with nobody, not for want of trying. At my first junior-senior prom, my date ditched me. Funny story – I took the same girl to the next prom, and we laughed about winding up together again, though she (like Barb) was going with an older (college) boy.

Prom night 1966, the class had a riverboat ride after the dance – the XL’s with my pal Joe McClean played dances at both the prom and on the riverboat. My band the Daybreakers had their first gig at the after-prom party following the riverboat ride. But, like Vivian in the Antiques books, I digress. Back to the riverboat….

My date somewhere dancing with somebody else, I found Barb leaning against the railing, alone, looking out at the Mississippi gliding by in the moonlight. I think it was misting a little. I joined her and we spoke for maybe five minutes. I don’t remember anything about the conversation, but I do know she was melancholy – I believe she had broken up with her now-college-age boy friend, or anyway her mother had broken them up. We had a very nice conversation, though, and connected, and I do remember wishing she was my date (no offense meant to my actual date, who had ditched me the year before, remember). We connected, briefly, but connected.

We both wound up at Muscatine Community College. Barb’s grandparents had offered their grandchildren funding for two years at MCC, and Barb took them up on it, as did her year-older sister, Ann (very pretty, the Veronica to Barb’s Betty). I had been offered a few football scholarships and a creative writing one at Iowa Wesleyan, where I had won a high school writing competition with a piece about how it felt for us at high school on the day Kennedy was shot. But I turned those down to go to MCC, because I was having a good time with the Daybreakers and wanted to keep the band going.

Meanwhile, a lot of our mutual friends – almost all of them – had gone to college elsewhere. Barb and I were, of our extended crowd, about it. So maybe it was natural we wound up together. Our first date was not a rousing success – it was part of a chorus outing at Wild Cat Den, and Barb has always loved the Great Out of Doors, and I haven’t (and don’t). I remember sitting on a rock high above a beautiful expanse of green with the first browns of fall, saying, “You know what the first thing was that the pioneers did, when they came west?”

“No,” she said.

“They built a cabin and got the hell inside.”

I have always known how to charm beautiful women.

Somehow I got a second date with her. I’m sure I was trying to impress her, babbling about writing and music, but she has reported the moment she fell in love with me as when – in the midst of some self-important discourse – I accidentally stuck my fingers in my water glass at Bishop’s Cafeteria in Davenport, Iowa.

We quickly became that arm-in-arm couple in the school hallway who made everybody else sick. We went out on weekends and frequently were together in the evening. We cut class and went to the nearby Quad Cities to have meals and shop (this is something we still do, although it’s work we escape from, not class). Barb’s mother, who called me a “juvenile delinquent,” did her best to break us up. She dragged Barb off to Arizona when a younger sister needed a change of clime for medical reasons, and this seemed in part calculated to put an end to the Barb-and-Al thing. The trip was truncated, only a few months long (despite Barb having transferred to a Tucson college), and we got serious. Really serious.

I don’t recall, exactly, asking her to marry me. I think we both sort of knew we had to get her out of that house. My parents were very supportive but a little suffocating, as the parents of only children often are, but overall they were great. Barb’s grandparents were great, too, letting us live in their home for the first months of our marriage while they stayed in a summer cottage.

I commuted to Iowa City and the University of Iowa while Barb supported us by working at the First National Bank. She was a stellar performer there and rose to an officer’s position. When I landed the Dick Tracy strip in late ‘77, she left the job – she got a retirement party at age 28! – and went back to school…Iowa Wesleyan, where I had almost gone, though she took most of the classes through MCC.

Then Nathan Collins came along in 1982.

To talk about how Barb has grown and blossomed – in ways I never have – would take a book, not a blog entry. It’s too bad the current generation has made “amazing” and “awesome” meaningless, because Barb is both those things. I truly believe if her husband had been a brain surgeon, she would have picked that up. Though she had no strong interest in writing fiction, or even reading it, she displayed a strong story sense from the start. We always went to a lot of movies, and her analysis of them – their strengths, their weaknesses – was always spot on.

She has been, from the start, my editor. I used to work nights, and would always have a chapter waiting for her in the morning. She continues to be the reader whose reaction is both first and foremost. Back in the Ms. Tree comic book days, when Terry Beatty and I were doing the “Mike Mist” minute mysteries as a filler, I asked her to do rough drafts for me. She did. Then when Terry needed a break from drawing the strip, I asked her to try writing a Mist mystery in prose format. She did.

I remember exactly what I said to her, after reading it.

“This is good,” I said. “A little too goddamn good.”

The thing is, she’s not a natural. She has to work at it, which she does – hard and diligently. She brings her considerable smarts and her willingness to work to a craft that many say they want to master, but don’t, or can’t. Soon she began doing short stories for anthologies edited by the late, so great Marty Greenberg.

Her work was so strong, and well-received, that I encouraged her to try novel writing. We did that together, with Regeneration and Bombshell. Then, at editor Micheala Hamilton’s urging, we tried a proposal for a cozy mystery series. That neither of us read cozies did not stop us.

We’ve done thirteen Antiques novels, which makes fifteen novels. Three times the number Dashiell Hammett published, and more than that piker Raymond Chandler ever managed.

Along the fifty year way, this beautiful, brilliant woman has put up with an egocentric lout with whom you may be familiar. She runs the household, and the business, and the cozy mystery series she co-writes with me is one of the most successful things I’ve ever been associated with. Our union has also produced an incredibly gifted son, who also married a fantastic woman, resulting in the cutest, smartest grandson (Sam) in the history of man. No brag, just fact.

Who can blame me for loving Barb even more today than when I was a fresh-faced punk and she was the most beautiful woman in Puppetland (as Pee Wee Herman described Miss Yvonne)?

For those out there who hate me – and I can hear you sneering – this is what you should hate me for most: the luck, the fantastic crazy luck, that has given me fifty-two years (thus far) with this awesome, amazing woman.

I love you, baby.

* * *

Speaking of the Antiques series, here’s a lovely review of Antiques Wanted.

M.A.C.

Our Audie Murphy Film Festival

May 29th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

Killing Town, the “lost” first Mike Hammer novel, is now available on audio read by the great Dan John Miller. Read about it here. If you support this audio (and the previous Journalstone Mike Hammer release, The Will to Kill), more will follow!

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I am writing this week’s update on Memorial Day Weekend. It seems like a good time to say a few things about Audie Murphy.

First, let me share with you a part of my prep for writing the Caleb York novels for Kensington (under the Spillane & Collins byline) – essentially, how I get into the mood.

I am about to start the new Caleb, Last Stage to Hell Junction. Whenever I do a York novel, Barb and I have an appropriate western film festival, watching an “oater” each evening. For the first novel, The Legend of Caleb York (from Mickey’s screenplay, which started it all), we watched John Wayne westerns, as Mickey had written the screenplay for Wayne’s Batjac productions, though it had never been produced. My favorites, predictably, are The Searchers, Red River and Rio Bravo.

For The Big Showdown, we watched Randolph Scott, including all of his outstanding Budd Boetticher-directed westerns. For The Bloody Spur, our nightly western was a Joel McRae. And I have been gathering Audie Murphy’s westerns (and his other films) for several years now, with an eye on the festival Barb and I are beginning now.

Audie Murphy, of course, is celebrated as the most decorated American combat soldier of World War II. He received every military combat award, including the Medal of Honor, having – at age 19 – held off by himself an entire company of German soldiers for an hour, then (while wounded) leading a successful counterattack.

Murphy was a Texas boy from sharecropper stock who learned his skills with a rifle by putting food on the table for his six brothers and four sisters, after their father left their mother, who died when Audie was a teen. Murphy lied about his age to get into the U.S. Army, not long after Pearl Harbor (the Marines and Navy having turned him down).

After the war, making the cover of LIFE Magazine for his courageous service, he was taken under the wing of the great James Cagney. From the late forties until his tragic young death in 1971, Murphy was a movie star. Aside from a few A-pictures (like The Red Badge of Courage and The Unforgiven, both directed by John Huston), and several contemporary offerings, Murphy specialized in westerns, as well as a western TV series, Whispering Smith.

But his biggest success was starring as himself (a role he reluctantly accepted) in the film version of his autobiographical war account, To Hell and Back. He was a skilled horseman and a successful songwriter, his work recorded by such stars as Dean Martin, Harry Nillson, Eddy Arnold and Jimmy Dean, among many others. And, not surprisingly, he suffered from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He slept with a .45 automatic under his pillow.

Stopped for speeding, Murphy pulled over and, when the officer noticed the .45 on the seat next to the easily recognizable Audie, the cop smiled and said he was a big fan and wanted an autograph. Murphy provided it. Accosted by a gangster at a horserace, Murphy stared him down and said, “I killed sixty of you bums in Sicily – one more won’t make a difference.” The thug moved on. Many a brawny challenger who figured he’d pick a fight with Murphy was quickly and brutally dispatched by the five-foot-five war hero turned movie star.

Or so go the stories. More easily verified is Murphy’s refusal to do ads for cigarettes or liquor, not wanting to set a bad example for young people. He died in a small plane crash.

My character, Quarry, was in part inspired by Murphy. David Morell told me Rambo had the same source. And Robert Stack said his Ness portrayl was inspired by Murphy.

Around Memorial Day, and all year frankly, Audie’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery is among the most visited. He is probably remembered more for his incredible valor as a teenaged war hero than for his movie career, and while that’s understandable, I’m here to tell you he was a fine actor.

In his day – and still today – his ability to star in a film is perceived as a sort of “talking dog” thing – the dog doesn’t haven’t to say anything impressive to qualify for that distinction. My feeling is the studios (chiefly Universal) often felt they had to pair Murphy with a strong character actor – Walter Matthau, Dean Jagger, Barry Sullivan – to carry him.

But anyone at all savvy about film and film-acting can look at Murphy in almost any of his pictures and see how his instinctive, charismatic under-playing seems modern and real while many of the actors around him appear to be shouting and hamming it up. He is present in every scene, quietly reacting, watching, then delivering lines naturally and effectively.

And in scenes of violence, just who this baby-faced boy/man is always comes to the fore. He’s a killer. Real deal. Not a murderer, but a soldier who unflinchingly does what he has to. But he’s not one note: he can be boyish, he can be scary, he can be romantic, he can be funny, he can be tough as hell – as much as I like Randolph Scott (and that’s a lot), Murphy has far more colors to his palette.

We’ve been watching him for a week or so now, and not all of the movies are good – toward the mid-1960s (particularly when he’s not working at Universal), his films are programmers, bottom-bill fodder for drive-ins. But he made some fine westerns, too, and worked with such great genre directors as Don Siegel, Budd Boetticher and Jack Arnold.

My favorite, the latter director’s work, is No Name on the Bullet. Murphy is an assassin who comes to a small western town, quietly checks in at the hotel and minds his own business – only his business is killing someone while he’s in town…but who. Everyone in the community seems to have a secret worth killing for. It’s a very Quarry-like role. The quiet killer side of him is in evidence – the film is thoughtful, a sort of High Noon turned inside out, and Murphy is great. Just great.

In collecting Murphy’s films, I’ve had to order DVDs and Blu-rays from all over the world. A few are available here (including No Name on the Bullet), and there’s a nice boxed set from Turner Classic Movies – check it out.

Oddly, Murphy is considered a major star in Germany. Think about that – our decorated hero is revered by the losers, and patronized and even ignored by the winners. This is much odder than Jerry Lewis being lionized in France (though the French are right about Lewis, and they like Murphy, too, for that matter).

Salute this Texas sharecropper’s son, while Memorial Day is still in the air, won’t you? For his service to his country, by all means. But track down some of his movies. He was a real movie star, and – unlikely as it seems – a fine actor.

* * *

The forthcoming Scarface and the Untouchable is one of the ten summer books Chicago Magazine recommends.

Here’s a fine review of Killing Town.

Check out this advance look at the first issue of the Hammer four-issue comic book mini-series.

The Quarry TV series gets some love here.

Finally, here is a wonderful review of Antiques Wanted by a reviewer who really gets what Barb and I are up to.

M.A.C.

White Man’s Burdon

May 22nd, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

This past Saturday evening, Barb and I headed to Riverside, Iowa (future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk) to the casino resort there for a concert by Eric Burdon and the Animals.

The Riverside Casino and Golf Resort is a great venue that brings in major acts (within half an hour of our home!) and some of them, like this one (and the Happy Together Tour a while back), are top stars of the Baby Boomers’ youth. For example, they have Micky Dolenz and Paul Lindsay coming up on September 29. Crusin’ has appeared on the Riverside Casino’s smaller stage three times, and it’s always a thrill to get to entertain there.

The house for Burdon was packed and enthusiastic…also old. So is Burdon, at 73 a kind of wonderful train wreck, a grizzled, gifted survivor of the British Invasion. He’s a small but formidable man, and the only real Animal on stage – he’s surrounded by kids, relatively speaking, who mostly serve him well. Despite a cold that he apologized for, as it gave his voice even more gravel, he performed well, enthusiastically and long – an hour and a half, no break – giving the crowd most of his hits, the only really major omission being “It’s My Life.”

My only complaint is the current Animals line-up – the bass needs more definition, and the keyboards more balls. I wanted to rush the stage, yelling, “Let a man in!”, when the keyboard guy played piano all through “We Gotta Get Outa This Place.” His piano keyboard is a Nord, and a Nord is one of my two keyboards and a fine instrument…but right behind him was a Hammond B-3!

The Animals’ sound, in its first and most popular incarnation, was driven by organ – either Vox or Hammond, with Alan Price its famous keyboard player. Not bringing that Hammond into full, robust play was a blunder.

Okay, I realize I’m seeing that through my end of the telescope, and I don’t want to indicate the evening in Eric Burdon’s legendary presence wasn’t a wonderful thing, a real privilege. Burdon is the kind of dedicated singer who can bring brand-new passion to a song he’s sung literally hundreds and hundreds of times, every time.

Burdon is as much as anyone – and I include Mick Jagger – responsible for bringing the blues to white America (and the UK), exposing my generation to the joys and rewards of the African-American musical experience, sending us to Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, among many others. Is there a more unlikely smash hit single of the sixties than “House of the Rising Sun”?

Here’s a cool interview with Burdon done just before the Riverside appearance.

And now, because absolutely no one asked for it, here is my list of my 10 Most Influential Albums of the Sixties. These are the actual albums I listened to most, as opposed to my assembling something reflecting what I should be listing, i.e., black artists, female artists, and not just white boys (mostly British). But it was the British Invasion that sent me down a path that would have me still playing rock ‘n’ roll at 70 (thankfully not for a fulltime living).

1. Rubber Soul – the Beatles. 1965 (December). This list could be nothing but Beatles, as their albums and singles were what I listened to most. Rubber Soul is where the group blossoms into something even more special. I am in a minority, but I like least The White Album and everything that follows.

2. Along Comes the Association – The Association. 1966. Still, perhaps, their finest hour, with the possible exception of the follow-up, Renaissance. Includes “Enter the Young,” “Along Comes Mary,” “Cherish” and more. Barb and I saw them perform more often than other band of the era, the greatest vocal group that was also a fine rock band.

3. The Zombies – the Zombies. 1965. Their wonderful early material is here in this American release, including my two favorite singles of the ‘60s, “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No.” Colin Blunstone’s breathy, heart-felt singing melds with Rod Argent’s great, inspiring (to me) piano and organ – this is pure pop bliss.

4. Them Again – Them. 1966 (January). My favorite Van Morrison material almost all dates to his days fronting Them. This second album made not much of a splash in the USA, but it’s great, with “Could You, Would You,” “Call My Name” and “I Can Only Give You Everything” outstanding.

5. Animal Tracks – The Animals. 1965. Their third album (a U.S. mongrel), it features “We Gotta Get Outa This Place,” which was Muscatine High School’s senior class of ‘66 song. As a listener caught up in the pop of the Beatles, the jolt of r & b from Eric Burdon (and also Van Morrison with Them) was the start of an education.

6. It Ain’t Me Babe – the Turtles. Before “Happy Together,” the Turtles were a folk-rock band with an edge, the Byrds but not precious. This album has not only the title track but a pre-Sinatra, rocking “It Was a Very Good Year,” P.F. Sloan’s “Let Me Be,” and some nice Dylan covers. Opening for Flo and Eddie (twice) was a real career highlight for this weathered garage band rocker.

7. Midnight Ride – Paul Revere and the Raiders. 1967. This was the last album that the Raiders – a great bar band from the Pacific Northwest – actually played on, with the famous Wrecking Crew taking over after, so the group could tour and tour and tour. This was their Rubber Soul, with such great tracks as “Kicks,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and “Louie Go Home” (a sequel to “Louie Louie,” their version have been hijacked by another local band).

8. Eighteen Yellow Roses – Bobby Darin. 1963. My obsession with Bobby Darin was not entirely blotted out by the British Invasion. This album has Darin’s hit title track and a bunch of covers, including “On Broadway” and “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.” Not a major album, but I listened to it a lot. Ditto his later (1968) Bobby Darin Born Walden Robert Cassotto, a singer-songwriter effort of personal folk rock and protest material in his Bob Darin phase. My band played “Long Line Rider.”

9. Younger Than Yesterday– The Byrds. 1967. Such an influential band. I recall playing “Turn, Turn, Turn” at a frat party in Iowa City around ‘68 and the frat brothers having us play it over and over and over. Guitarist Bruce Peters of the Daybreakers had a 12-string Rickenbacker to give it the real McGuinn flavor. That track isn’t on this album, which is the “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star” LP, with such wonderful songs/performances as “Have You Seen Her Face” and “My Back Pages.” This was our late bass player Chuck Bunn’s favorite album.

10. Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys. 1966. The great American answer to the question posed by the British Invasion: which of you stateside losers can compete with us? Well, these guys. It’s possibly the best, most beautiful rock album ever written, produced and performed.

Looking at this list – which is in no particular order – I realize how much of it centers around 1966, and just before and just after. Subjectively, it suggests that the music that appeared as I came of age – if 17 or 18 is coming of age – happened to be some of the best popular music ever…or was it just the stuff (objectively speaking) that was out when I was a junior and senior in high school?

Let me mention, too, that if this list continued further, the albums from my college years – everything from the frankly poppy Monkees to the likes of Vanilla Fudge, Cream and Deep Purple – would be on it.

So. Now that you’ve read it…aren’t you glad you didn’t ask?

* * *

Barb and I thoroughly enjoyed Deadpool 2. We had discovered the first DP (so speak) movie on home video, and found it a hoot, if dark. This one isn’t quite as dark, and is even more joke-laden than the previous. There are smart people I know (like Terry Beatty) who hated the first Deadpool and are unlikely to try the second (and probably shouldn’t). But I enjoy the way the Deadpool films send up the super-hero genre while celebrating it – that it points out and revels in the absurdities of the genre (particularly the movie version of superhero comics) and still manages to be a terrific superhero movie. Deadpool 2, for all its smart-ass nastiness, even has a good heart.

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Here’s a fun, quirky review of Quarry’s Climax. I think the reviewer doesn’t quite get Quarry’s view of women (or humanity, actually), but he likes the book, which is what matters. Quarry has contempt for the entire human race, including himself, but he isn’t a dick about it.

And a nice Quarry write-up is here, in this look at post-Vietnam crime novels.

M.A.C.

Merry X-Mas?

May 15th, 2018 by Max Allan Collins

Some of our loyal readers may recall that Barb and I did three e-book novellas over the past several years, all with a Christmas theme, none available as anything but e-books.

That will change soon. I am, this very week, working on the galley proofs of Antiques Ho-Ho-Homicide (by Barbara Allan, of course), collecting those three e-books into an actual book…a mass market paperback only (no hardcover).

We’re very pleased that this book is happening. The novella form works well for Brandy and Vivian Borne, and we like all three stories. If you’ve never read an Antiques novel, this one will make a good sampler – but it won’t be out till Christmas season, of course.

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Batman: Elseworlds #3 includes Scar of the Bat, my Batman/Eliot Ness graphic novel, drawn by the great Eduardo Barreto. It comes out mid-June. Info here.

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We had the fun of having Nathan, Abby and our grandson, Sam, for Mother’s Day, dining at the lavish new Merrill Hotel in Muscatine. Sam likes to visit because “Grandpa has the best cartoons,” a wise observation for a nearly three-year-old. His favorite is “A Froggy Evening,” reflecting the great taste that has been passed down through the miracle of DNA. He also laughs at his own jokes – gee, I don’t know where he gets that.

Nate finished his latest Japanese-to-English project – the book is excellent and is some of Nate’s best work. We’ll announce it when it reaches publication.

With no nepotism in the mix, Nate’s publisher for the book is Tor, current home of Nate Heller.

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Barb and I went to Rampage, which is the very definition of a movie that we did not walk out of, though we strongly considered it. The Rock, I mean Dewayne Johnson, is very good at action tinged with humor. But the script is mostly an embarrassment – the bad guys build a homing device for the monsters they created…on top of their own building in downtown Chicago! – and some of the performances are downright painful.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is given a star entrance – I guess he’s on Walking Dead, which I don’t watch – and he’s frankly terrible, making an awful character, well, awfuler. He plays a CIA type agent with corny cowboy dialogue and a pearl-handled .45 side-draw on his belt, which has a big cowboy buckle. One of the biggest disappointments of Rampage was that his character did not die (the possibility of seeing that was an inducement not to walk out).

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One of the few reviews Killing Town has received is from Book Reporter, and it’s a nice one.

A brief but good Killing Town review can be seen here.

And another from the New York Review of Books.

M.A.C.

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