HOMEWARD BOUND one of Harper’s Bazaar’s Top Books To Read in October

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Harper’s Bazaar has included HOMEWARD BOUND in its list of the Top 13 books to read in October. I’m going to start posting takes and outtakes — along with chapter-by-chapter playlists, videos and more shiny playthings — from the book in the next few days. But first, HB: “You can almost hear the melodic anthems Simon created through Carlin’s exhaustively researched, deeply-felt prose.”


Please kill me: Life, rebirth and death in “Mad Men”

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There are two Don Drapers in this painting and the one we see front and center is not what you’d call shocked to see his doppleganger. He’s annoyed. If only because he knows exactly what this other him is after, and he wants no part of it. To the Draper we k now, DD-2 is yesterday’s news. A pain in the ass. And yet he keeps coming back; the bad penny our Draper can’t ever kill off for good.

Right there in visual shorthand we can see the essence of the entire series: Birth, death, rebirth, reinvention, devolution, death, subsequent rebirth and on and on. The show’s central action — life and work in an advertising agency at the height of America’s modern era — plays out the theme in flashy, often hilarious metaphor. Products are invented, branded, then intertwined with the world’s shared subconscious. Only to be redesigned, rebranded and reinserted into the culture to do precisely the same thing as always, only for different reasons. Cigarettes that were once a sturdy symbol of American tradition awake one day as devil-may-care rebels. The utilitarian slide projector becomes a carousel jingling merrily through childhood, youth, love and family.

Meanwhile, the show’s central characters careen through the same renovations, only freighted with pesky existential quandaries. Who are we, really? What made us this way? Can we ever change? Does the past always determine the future, or can we determine our own identities and fates?

As Americans we believe wholeheartedly in both the possibility and redemptive power of personal reinvention. A cowboy can become a lawyer, and vice-versa. The daughter of junk-peddling, Yiddish-speaking immigrant Jews in Newark, NJ can reemerge in Santa Barbara, Calif. with a PhD in English literature, a prep school accent and a wee button nose. Or, as per “Mad Men,” a tragically  mistreated midwestern foot solider  named Dick Whitman can pull the dog tags off of a dead Lt. Don Draper and resurrect them both as a feverishly ambitious and naturally brilliant ad man in New York City.

As the series’ sixth season opened markers for the coming action clattered in all directions. Vacationing in Hawaii Draper met a vision of his younger self and accidentally traded their identical lighters. Roger Sterling, the feckless/unflappable  inheritor of the old Sterling, Cooper firm feels increasingly out of place in its new SCDP incarnation, then loses his mother and goes quickly berserk. “This is my funeral!” he howls minutes into her memorial service, by way of kicking all of his guests out of his mother’s palatially old-world apartment. For all his experimentation with LSD and psychotherapy, Roger exists entirely in the old world of inherited glory and power. He remains dry-eyed for his mother, but when his shoeshine man turns up dead the site of the man’s shine kit triggers a flood of tears.

Elsewhere, Draper’s ex Betty chases after her daughter’s runaway friend, a violin prodigy who sells her instrument to escape to the hippier climes of California. Unable to follow, the strawberry blonde Betty heads to the hairdresser and comes home with licorice black hair.

Even more tellingly, the doorman at the building where Draper lives with his new wife has only just survived a near-fatal heart attack; an event Don witnessed, much to his horror. Only now Jonesy is back at work, seemingly the same as always. Only Draper is convinced that he saw the man fade to black, briefly, in mid-infarction. Jonesy doesn’t want to talk about it, but a thoroughly lit Draper insists he tell all: What’d you see when you were dead? What was there? Jonesy grimaces. “I guess there was a light.” Just back from a dreamy vacation in Hawaii Draper persists. “Was it like hot, tropical sunshine? Did you hear the ocean?” Jonesy won’t say, but when Draper presents a new ad concept to his clients at the Hawaiian resort where he’d vacationed the picture shows a businessman’s abandoned suit, shirt and shoes, his footsteps vanishing into the sea: “The Stepping Off Point,” reads the copy. The clients, sensing the suicidal implications of the image, aren’t pleased.


"Mad Men" #6: The TImes, They Are A'Changin'.

The beautiful thing about this show — its interwoven layers of social and personal analysis; of literal and metaphorical storytelling; of drama and comedy — splattered anew when poor old Guy McKendrick’s foot ran afoul of the John Deere rider mower.

Most immediately you saw the geyser of blood. Heard the cries of shock and horror, and felt the gruesome impact of bodily harm, right there in vivid early ’60s color. But the picture contained even more for you to think about. The collision of the new world (a rider mower, the very picture of modern American suburban ease) with the smartly-shod foot of the British empire. The crumbling, once again, of a man’s best laid plans. The pull of the future and the fraying of the past. And maybe, just maybe, the foreshadowing of some other, shockingly gruesome public event.

Plus, it was strangely, darkly hilarious.

“Jesus, it looks like Iwo Jima out there,” Roger Sterling shrugged later as the custodian wiped gore off the office window. Sacrifices made, life goes on. “Somewhere in this industry this has happened before.”

Follow the jump for more….

I’ve read some “MM” deconstructions positing that the show’s most literal story — the mystery of Don Draper and the struggles of his family and contemporaries as they move through their days — was somehow discrete from its larger, social context. I disagree: no one’s life happens in a vaccuum. The lives we experience, the decisions we make, are both affected by, reflect and, to an extent, create our times. So when a death-haunted, baby-jangled Sally Draper hurls her new Barbie doll (a gift, Betty tells her, from her baby brother) out of her window (and then shrieks in horror when it turns up again) it’s impossible for me to separate her personal travails from the fact that a 1963 grade schooler will be 1969’s high schooler: a feminist-era Baby Boomer whose sense of Barbie-style sex roles will be little short of horror.

Same deal with the machinations at Sterling, Cooper, where the colonial Brits have come to wield their power. Their first move: to send Lane off to Bombay — the very seat of the old empire, now in its death throes — to make room for the charming, empty MacKendrick. (“I know everything about you!” he assueres everyone, reflexively). A new authority flow chart deletes Roger Sterling (the personification of Sterling, Cooper’s ongoing self-rule) and elevates no one but Harry Crane, whose savvy for the TV industry is nearly as enticing as his absence of guts and gumption. A perfect puppet figure, in other words.

But best-laid plans go awry everywhere you look: Bert’s promise to Draper that he would be elevated to some overarching London/NYC authority; Joan’s husband, Greg’s plan to become chief surgery resident, thus elevating Joan from having to work and assume the pampered life of the cared-for, at-home wife; and on and on; the ascension of the increasingly feckless Cosgrove.

Then the celebratory party begins and out comes Cosgrove’s rider mower. . .

Don Draper, however, has been summoned to visit Conrad Hilton, who turns out to be the self-made Connie he’d met at Roger’s country club party a few episodes back. Now Hilton clearly wants to offer his self-made friend some massive piece of opportunity, but Draper settles for a “shot at your business.” Hilton is at first disappointed that his new friend doesn’t shoot the moon when given the chance, but Don’s quiet confidence in taking things more slowly ultimately impresses him.

Hilton is an old-fashioned American empire builder. He recognizes common sense when he sees it. What he can’t see is the future beyond his generation, beyond his kids’ generation: The new, media-created royalty that will eventually make his own empire seem just as ridiculous as the Brits. The Hiltons won’t always have Conrad. But Paris is on the way.

The credits played out over Bob Dylan’s “Song to Woody.” A salute to yesterday’s folk hero from the chief folkie of the day, self-made in Woody’s image, but soon to shed that persona for a thin, wild mercury of his own devising.