Artists Of The Year

Simon Peter Groebner is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.

THOMAS HARDY

by L. Adler

I read several new novels this year that I thought were wonderful but none of them lodged in my mind the way Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure did. Nor did they inspire in me the sort of fanaticism for an author that overtakes me less and less often and that I don't want to lose. The sort that makes me swear and pound the table because the author of what I'm reading is so fucking good and I'm utterly and positively and completely inadequate.

Published in 1895, Jude was roundly criticized as obscene, and in 1896 Hardy vowed never to write fiction again. He lived for 33 more years, and unfortunately, kept his promise. A century later Jude still shocks, not because it's obscene (it's tame by today's standards) but because of it's unremitting bleakness and a psychological acuity more akin to the work of Philip Roth and Mary Gaitskill than Charles Dickens. Perhaps that explains why educators assign Dickens over Hardy. I remember my high school English teacher using A Tale of Two Cities to illustrate the difference between a flat character like Lucie Manette and a round character like Sydney Carton. I didn't have the guts to ask why Dickens was considered a first-rate novelist if his books contained paper dolls. And in Hardy? In Jude the Obscure as in life, there are no flat characters. Just round and slippery and painful humanity. Read the book, skip the movie.

L. Adler is a New York writer.

MIKE LEIGH

by Amanda Ferguson

While sitting in the theater watching Leigh's Secrets & Lies, I couldn't help overhearing a couple's constant quarrel from across the aisle. Each time a funny scene rolled, the man would begin a frenzy of snorts and guffaws. The cinematic scene would quickly dissolve into something quite dismal, causing the man's companion to thwack him in the stomach and hiss, "stop laughing, asshole."

Herein lies a signature of Leigh's genius, his ability to let a situation--in this case, the black,
middle-class, serene Hortense's first meeting with her white, working-class, nervous wreck of a biological mother, Cynthia--rise and fall in natural waves between dull and eventful, tragic and charmed. Leigh has other signatures too, among them the ability to choose actors who are a joy to watch, not because they're pumped with silicone or preternaturally beautiful, but because they aren't. He has an amazing talent for telling a story without the aids of a bulky script, special effects, exotic locations or situations, and for using lighting and camera techniques with the grace of a master painter--not to flatter the characters, but to portray them honestly. Leigh holds a place on that extremely short list of filmmakers who a) don't seem to have overblown egos and b) don't make their movies for an assumed audience of shallow twits.

Amanda Ferguson is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.

HAYDEN CARRUTH

by Brad Zellar

Hayden Carruth--whose Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, Poems 1991-1995 won the this year's National Book Award for poetry--is that rare thing, a discouraging inspiration. Discouraging because at 75 he's still such a fucked-up wreck; inspiring because he's gifted with a great and unusual mind-- one still capable of setting beautiful synaptic and syntactic brush fires, and stirring from the wreckage of his life surprising bursts of gratitude and wonder, even in the throes of long-haul unhappiness.

Always a rock-solid technician, Carruth seems now to have fully absorbed and blended all his influences, affinities, and major themes. In virtually every one of these newer poems he manages a sort of anguished serenity, brief and crystalline moments of revelation and resignation in the midst of "the crisis of forever inadequately medicated pain." There are poems of remembering, poems of politics ("How can poetry be written by people who want no change?"), mortality, and love. Carruth is one of the great poets of convincingly modern, thoroughly complicated, and wholly redemptive love. "It seems a miracle," he writes. "Not mystical, nothing occult,/ just the ordinary improbability that occurs/ over and over, the stupendousness/ of life Out on the highway on the pavement wet/ with snow-melt, cars go whistling past."

A great poet who manages to grow old and retain--even expand--his or her talents is a blessing, if not entirely blessed. That Hayden Carruth is being showered with laurels in his old age is fitting and poetic justice.

Brad Zellar is a Minneapolis writer and frequent contributor to City Pages.

JONATHAN RICHMAN

by Sarah Vowell

Even though he put out a lovable new album and saw three great old ones get reissued, there were more newsworthy musicians this year than Jonathan Richman. Beck, for instance, single-filed history, technology and poetry into a kind of shit-kicking American line dance that was as charming as it was fresh. But there wasn't another artist whom I turned to more than the ever-unfashionable man all us fans call Jojo. Maybe it was the way that he can, a la Beck, cut'n'paste musical samples from Chic to Lou Reed--only he does it using his bare Fender Stratocaster and that stuffed-up voice he was born with. Maybe it was because every time I felt stark-raving awkward, I'd put on his eight-minute live version of "Ice Cream Man" just so I wasn't the only obsessed freak in the room. Maybe it was because every time I felt like I said too much I'd get out his "Amazing Grace," hear about "freedom from shame," and vow to keep talking.

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