The Treetops (2nd draft): Chapter 2, Mason and the Heaters

The Treetops all stayed silent as the train pulled into the Grayson Street station, where they had planned to disembark.  As the train slowed to a stop, the metallic click of its trucks colliding with the track sounded like gunshots to some, and they all had flashes of the bloody dawn this evening could bring.  Would the morning sun fall on a field peppered with bodies, or discarded weapons?  Would the summit be symbolized by a fully felt handshake, or a knife in the stomach?  Nothing makes you dread things going wrong more than considering what could be if things went right.

Big D was chuffed, or full of a bubbly, exorbitant cheer.  His head bobbed and his grin widened.  He stretched his lips as tight as he could, imagining his cheeks caught by fishhooks.  This was a habit of his, and he performed it whether or not he was undergoing any emotional strain, but this time he felt as though his blood were on fire.

The Treetops, D felt, mostly regarded him as a bit of a patsy.  He was without a doubt invaluable in a fight, and not one to be shook by the introduction of police sirens, but he was unlikely to be included in any planning or debate.  Though he was not really as dumb as many of his cohorts considered him, he thought it was valuable to play the doofus, for comic relief and overall group togetherness.  On this day however, though Simon had opened the door for a session of “Big D is stupider than. . .”, no one seemed to be in the mood.  A pallid silence lay like a body over The Treetops.

Max would just as well have stayed on the train, he didn’t want to attend the speech; he didn’t want to see such a beautiful dream melt.  It was spelled out in his mind’s eye, the headline splattered in blood on the asphalt: “NORWOOD PARK MASSACRE, FULL STORY ON PAGE 13.”  It would be the lead story, he imagined, for at least one day.

He grinned, as he could predict what Simon might say if he shared with him his vision of a nightmare headline: “No way we’d make it above the fold, a Norwood Park massacre would be on page 2 of the metro section, no doubt.”  Simon would grin while Max’s face drooped, knowing the truth of these words, and that nothing would matter anyway.

They all would be forgotten, Art knew, in the grand scheme of things.  Though legends and memorials did exist in the gangster world, the world they occupied, he didn’t take them seriously.  Everything was legend in the gangster world; vague, confusing, preposterous legend.  Did the founders of Hi Rize, which held a tenuous truce with War Helmet, the Gents, and the Rosies over the entire Southern half of the city, really all spend their entire childhoods on the 68th floor of the Spencer-Hasting’s homes Southwestern Campus?  No, of course not, but that’s what everyone said.

Art was the Treetops’ official historian, but it was mostly because he had the best imagination, and he could describe the most interesting ways for things to have happened.  Little Bit, the firebrand of a dwarf who’d recently become one of The Treetops biggest earners, had been killed accidentally by a civilian minivan three weeks previous, but thanks to Art, the Treetops rank and file believed the pigs had murdered him on purpose.

Only Art, Max and Simon knew the truth about Little Bit, as well as a host of other truths they held in the strictest confidence, and this served best to make them all wary.  They knew that underneath the sectarian posturing and greedy logistics of what it was to be a gangster, every heart beat the same, and all were prone to stupid wanton wrath.  So far, Max had been the only one to give his concerns public voice, but he was far from the only Treetop concerned.

Simon was scared just like Max, but he told himself he wasn’t.  Smiling wide, he hopped the turnstile on his way to the exit stairs, turning his body sideways and rolling over the top of it.  On the other side, he landed on his heels facing Art.  “Do you feel the air?  It’s electric.”

“Shut up,” Art pushed past Simon, rolling his eyes.

“Let’s put our war faces on,” Max bellowed as bellicose as he could, acting the leader again.  He jogged a few yards ahead of the others, turning in his last steps to look the Treetops in the eyes.  “This isn’t a fucking joke.  We gotta realize, um, this is dangerous.  This isn’t a thing we’re just gonna walk away from, um, unchanged, I mean, this is gonna change everything.”

Simon could tell that Max wanted silence, and he obliged at least for the moment.  His pure human instinct was to push back and show Max that authority in any form was a stupid dream, but it was easy to see Max floundering, and Simon wasn’t cruel or vindictive.  What mattered most to Simon was freedom, and he believed that whatever the cost, all people should be free all the time.  He realized however that open rebellion would not help at the moment, so he let Max say his piece.

Max’s voice was sober.  “I see them say in movies to keep your head on a swivel, and I think that describes it well.  Just be aware.  Don’t get snuck up on.”

After a pause, Simon interjected again, sputtering with laughter.  “Everybody heard Max, stay frosty and don’t get captured.”

Max laughed, looking at the ground, “Fuck you Simon.”

“If you are captured the agency will disavow—“

Max grabbed a fistful of Simon’s hair and pulled down.  “Shut up,” Max hissed into Simon’s ear, in no mood for nonsense.

Simon relented, lowering his head and raising his hand in the air as a sign of conciliation.  “Sorry man, just keeping’ everyone’s spirits up.”

“Whatever man,” Max responded, humorless and dry.  “Just fucking watch yourself, right?”  With his mouth open and his hands apart, slowly shaking his head, Simon returned the offense Max had given him.

“Ladies, please,” Art interjected from behind Max and Simon, “Pull out your tampons, man, we’re all friends.”  Roly and Big D started guffawing and slapping their thighs, saying “oh shit” under their breath while laughing.

Standing near the turnstiles of the Grayson Street station, The Treetops stared into each other’s faces and forced laughter as best they could.  They were all scared, but they couldn’t let it show, especially to themselves.

Chuckling and glad-handing, the Treetops struck out on to the sidewalk, claiming the staircase leading up into the station as their own.  Max, Art and Simon sat on the bottom stair, watching Big D and Roly jut out to look for Mason, whom they’d known since they were little, and who was meant to be the Treetops’ guide.

Mason was head of a mid-sized city gang, the Heaters, and he’d proposed squiring the Treetops to the summit.  At first, this had made Max and Simon nervous, they didn’t trust Mason.  “Why do we need a guide?”  Simon had asked aggressively, furrowing his brow.

“We don’t need a guide,” Roly submitted aggressively.  “But me and D grew up with Mason, we know him, he gives us an in, we won’t have to prove ourselves.”

“Maybe I wanna prove myself,” said Simon, staring out the window at a fixed point.

They both looked at Max, indicating that he would break the tie.  Opening his mouth, keeping silent, Max considered the problem, what should they do?

Before Max could come up with an answer, Art, who normally stayed silent as decisions were being made, proffered his analysis.  “We don’t need to prove ourselves.  If someone steps to us we’ll smash ’em and take what’s theirs.”

The Treetops waited for Mason at the bottom of the Grayson Street station stairs.  Simon clicked his tongue and whistled, trying to seem bored.  He raised up and started to wander, looping around, swinging his legs and sighing.  His eyes drifted upwards into the starless night. “”So-oo-ooo,” he inhaled sharply before smoothly resuming his speech, “Which of us isn’t gonna make it?”

Art and Max glared in response, being sure not to make a sound and remaining as still as possible.

Just as it had countless times previously, this tactic fell short, and Simon continued.  “I won’t make it, the funny one never survives.”

Max quivered silently with anger, and probably would have said something, but Art beat him to it.  ”You’re not the funny one,” Art was annoyed, he sneered and spat on the sidewalk.  “You’re the annoying one, the crowd cheers when you catch it in the face.”

Simon was energized that he’d drawn a mocking spirit from Art, “Five bucks says you die first.”

A loud, strong, steady voice cut the air.  “If you’re right it’s worth way more than five bucks,” Mason clucked and came out of the alley just as the Treetops walked by.  Mason had twenty or thirty mute soldiers trailing behind him as he emerged from an alley.  “If he dies first you can take his shoes.”

“No one’s gonna die,” Max spoke quick and angry.  “I’m sick of this shit, no one’s gonna die.”  Max’s skin, or the fluid under his skin, boiled and gas was released as steam seeping from his ears.

Mason, feeling the strength of having a large, silent servant class en masse behind him, cackled as he spoke.  “His shoes are worth at least five bucks.”

Max was famous for his anger, but like a clown, it was often used as a stupid parlor trick.  He erupted in blustery profanities from nowhere on a regular basis.  Many of his eruptions were saved on VHS tapes and tucked away behind rotting drywall, only occasionally to be unearthed by Max when he was drunk and at an informal viewing party.  All of the Treetops had attended these viewing parties, where people would cheer and throw things.

Many of the other gang’s leaders, particularly Mason, often looked at the Treetops as a joke, though they could fight, everyone knew.  There was no organized authority that stood watch over these fights, fights just happened, and seeped into the topsoil.  Many upstart gangs big and small had stuck their toes in Evergreen, and been penalized.

If you deal in Evergreen, a Treetop’s gonna spot ya and flip a dove, which was only their way of calling Simon, Max or Art.  At that point, whichever leader of the Treetops would make a call and get the rest of SAC in after them, which is what they called throwing bricks and rocks at any interlopers.  These colorful sayings and turns-of-phrase had become street speak in the Treetop’s section of Evergreen Estates, and were exemplary of the Treetops’ attitude.

They fought a lot, ran some light protection schemes, small-to-mid level larceny.  They stayed away from drugs, even beating up gang members for selling anything without permission in a neighborhood they occupied.  They’d once attempted to eliminate the drug dealers completely, but now they simply taxed and regulated the drug trade in the areas they control.  Drugs were like a tidal wave, they rotted neighborhoods from the inside out, and there was no fighting against them.  The Treetops ran Evergreen with a stiff tax on any dealers they came across, which was the Treetops’ chief source of income.

As soon as Mason made himself known by stepping into the streetlight, Big D emerged from the darkness and gripped his forearms.  Big D and Mason touched foreheads before falling into riotous laughter, slapping each other on the shoulder and swearing.  They hugged and cackled, speaking of that one time last year when Mason had run into that one girl they remembered from back in the day, the one with the huge titties, and she was wearing like a business outfit or some shit, and she acted like she didn’t even see him, but who cares cause she was a bitch anyway.  When they’d been in the same grade school back in Evergreen, they’d been very close, running in the same crew and always having each other’s back.

“Mason!  This is the guy I told you about, he runs the Heaters.”  Big D held his arm out towards Mason, giving him a formal introduction.

Big D jogged up and clasped Mason’s hand, holding it to his breast and gripping it tightly.  “Mason, these are the Treetops.”  He then introduced every member in attendance, indicating them by holding his hand out towards each in turn.  “Max, Art, and Simon.”

The Treetops’ leadership remained seated, each holding out their hands for Mason to shake, which he did.  After Mason shook their hands, Max, Art and Simon each stood up, putting themselves at his eye level and nodding slightly.

The most notable thing about Mason was his hat; a huge, ostentatious neon orange top hat, speckled with a green felt boa wrapped around its brim.  Behind him were four lieutenants of the Heaters, wearing plainly colored stetsons, each of which had with him two soldiers wearing bowlers.  Simon blurted an observation: “You guys should be the Hatters.”

Roly yanked on Simon’s hand and lowered his voice to rasp out a whisper.  “Shut up, they know, they don’t like to talk about it.”

Simon cackled, knowing full well of the bear he was poking.  ”I know, I’m just sayin, they’re all wearing hats, and hatters is pretty close to,–”

Roly pushed Simon’s shoulders, “they know, they know, shut up.”

Art and Max could both see the writing on the wall, and they each tried to grab Simon before he could do it, but they were too late.  Simon laughed loudly, coughing as he spoke his observation.  “Oh shit!  The name of your gang is a typo!”

It took both Roly and Big D to hold Mason back.  “Our name is not a typo!  It was a typo, but it’s ours now.”

Simon could see the situation was more serious than he’d considered and tried to backtrack.  “Okay, it’s your name now, begging your pardon, I meant no offense, sorry.”

Mason sighed and threw his right hand out in front of him, indicating that he let the insult roll off his back.

Simon, never one to leave well enough alone, continued.  “Level with me, though, the name’s a typo, right?”

Mason flared once again, but this time Roly was right next to him and whispered something to him, calming him instantly.  Mason finally admitted it, “Yes, the Heaters were supposed to be the Hatters.”

Art guffawed and slapped Mason’s right shoulder with his left hand, causing Mason to sneer.

After a few silent, calming breaths, Mason called out, “Right, let’s go!”  The Heaters and the Treetops began to make their way across the Teddy.

The Treetops (2nd draft): Chapter 2, Mason and the Heaters

Poem: Inscrutable Wisdom

Dream of having nothing at all, and think

what you’d be, fossilized snot bubble, skipping light

curmudgeon complaining, casting darts on the lawn in formation

spelling “THAT’S IT” or “THIS IS IT” just to fuck with people

in the morning

on their day off, they can’t read it

at first as they haven’t the angle, it takes time

to understand the meaning

of a disappointing slime leaking, it’s nothing.

 

at all dummy, this is nothing just like everything.

But people loved it, they went crazy

chanting intricately in column formations

and shit, assuming it’s a warning, filling a hole

with wishes written down and set

aflame, until a pit of ashes in its place

raked by an elderly Chinese man

wondering what the words had meant

becomes the sole symbol, showing that shadow

obscures nothing of note, and mystery is wanting

not finding a solution, the search itself is.

 

Poem: Inscrutable Wisdom

The Treetops (2nd draft) Chapter 1

“Caius said no weapons right?”  Big D croaked as he lifted himself over the seats of the M train, pressing his hands and feet on the stabilizing rails.  He was watching Max balance a chef’s knife on his knee with the point down and the tip of the handle resting against his forehead.  The very tall, stick-thin gangster hoisted himself over Max, staring daggers down.  D’s question might have seemed like a threat, given their relative sizes and positions in the train car, but Max, the far smaller of the two, held all the power.

Max was annoyed,  “Yeah,” he began, taking the knife by its handle and casually tossing it from his right to his left hand and back again.  “I’m a stash it.”  He silenced Big D’s concern with a flick of the wrist.

Overpowered, Big D ignored the slight Max had given with his somewhat cavalier response.  He knew that he had no power, because he wasn’t even an official Treetop yet.

Both Big D and his brother Roly had joined the Treetops only two years previous.  Every member of the Treetops had to procure their own uniform, and Big D’s uniform wasn’t even finished.  D still had to find and steal shoes, but size 24’s were few and far between.

The Treetop’s uniform was cheap, that was its operative characteristic.  The Treetops came from the far Southeast suburbs, a place where incomes were very often subsidized by nickels earned recycling cans.  Their uniform was just a dark T shirt and jeans, often sheared at the knees with a knife or a broken bottle.  These uniforms were scavenged from fences and clotheslines, stolen from citizens and fished out of dumpsters, as they could not be paid for.

Big D had yet to find and steal shoes gigantic enough for his feet, so he’d had to buy them.  Since he wasn’t able to steal his shoes, he was technically a prospective Treetop, and on a lower social rung than the others.

Simon, one of the founders of the Treetops on the same train, saw that Big D needed to be reminded of his station.  “Fresh kicks, D, you rollin’ large, moneybags?” Simon purred with a sick grin on his face.  This was, for Big D, a joke he’d heard since he’d begun initiation proceedings, and he was growing tired of it.  His eyes flared and his lips spread apart showing his teeth.

Noticing the aggression growing, Max held a bare palm up above everyone, said “Not now,” and that was the end of it.  Max was the most senior members of The Treetops, and also quite smart, so he held a position of expertise and authority.  Max knew it was pointless to squabble, as the gang needed to stay calm.  He knew rash action could lead to disastrous consequences.  The Treetops’ destination was possibly now already drowned in bloodshed.  They were heading to a speech, the audience of which was to be made up of representative groups from gangs all over the city.  They all knew that this would create a tinder box of blades and egos.

It seemed that the impossible had happened.  It seemed that Caius really had brought everyone together.  It was rumored that he was very near to granting an immediate and retroactive amnesty to all on behalf of all.  As he put it in his weekly radio hour, which was broadcast on a low frequency unknown to the police, “All beef will be squashed and put to bed.”  It was fantasy, it was a fever dream.  Many including Max wanted to believe that Caius could usher in an era of peace, but considered it a virtual impossibility.

This speech was meant to be some sort of coronation, or state-of-the union, or list of commands.  If it was a coronation or a state of the union, many gangs would chaff under any kind of leadership.  The Nomads, for one, didn’t even have an official territory, they lived by their wits wherever they found themselves, and would surely refuse bearing allegiance to anyone.

If the speech became a list of commands, there was no telling how many would die.  Whatever happened, Caius would be killed, Max reasoned, very likely.

Max considered himself a student of human moves, of the way people at all times kept their eyes open for ways to gain personal advantage.  Just as it was in the straight world, in gangster society war was big business, and economics seemed to demand boodshed. Max knew that the peace Caius promised was a dream.  Beyond this pessimism Max reserved for the obsession with money, everyone knew the danger of the event they were nearing.

Bad blood ran too deep and too many gang leaders were agents of chaos to make a lasting peace feasible.  Threats had flown freely for many years, and gang backlogs were full of debts to collect and wrongs to revenge.

Despite all the bad blood, the speech was happening.  The morning of Caius’ speech, Max, Art, and Simon had all received messages in letters slid under their front doors inviting them to a “rebel summit.”  By that time, the grapevine had been alive with talk of Caius for months, and these invitations told everyone where and when they could see him; midnight, Norwood Park.

After much debate, the Treetops had decided to send a small running crew.  The running crew consisted of Max, Art and Simon, the most senior of the Treetops, as well as Roly and Big D, brothers who seemed like they were from a fairy tale.  Big D was tall and skinny, Roly was short and fat.  Big D was dumb and trusting, Roly was clever and spiteful.  Both of them could fight, and in defense of one another they were unstoppable.

The fact was that the Treetops’ crew was minuscule compared to some of the others.  Many of the other gangs certainly would come in force, and likely outnumber The Treetops by five or six times.  To reach Norwood Park, The Treetops needed to take the subway all the way from Evergreen, the southeastern suburb they called their ‘hood.  This meant that if they had a crew of twenty or thirty, they would very likely draw stares from the Pigs, so they kept the crew as small as they could.

Every gang and every gang member had the same mortal enemy, the Pigs.  They were all the same; liars and cheats, thieves and pushers, same as they said of the gangs.  The thing the gangs really hated about the Pigs was not the deception in their words or the evil in their deeds, it was their self-righteous swagger.  They walked their beats as if the neighborhoods belonged to them, but Caius had foretold of the day fast approaching when the Pigs would know what true power is and find themselves wanting.

Caius had risen to be a prominent figure in the world of the criminal underground through “The Bulletin,” his weekly radio show on 123.7 AM, a low-wattage independent radio station he ran out of his headquarters.  All the gangs including The Treetops were avid listeners, as Caius’s brash anti-authoritarian take on lifestyle and philosophy appealed to them.  “We must lay low on a day-to-day basis,” Caius said regularly, “but our time will come.”

Within each neighborhood, every gang had created a unique network of alleys, shortcuts, side streets and backdoors to avoid the Pigs.  Caius had told them, if every gang’s network were connected, the Pigs could never find them.  Caius sketched a plan with his words, that if a member of a gang had too much heat on him anywhere in the city, there could be a stash house on every block, and they would all be communal.  He encouraged all to imagine a future war, one where the gangs could unite, recognizing that they all had the same true enemy.

Caius called it paradise, utopia, and more than anyone else had before, he made people believe in it.  Caius, the revered one, he could make everything like it should be.

Roly sat across from Max and shrank his voice to a low growl.  His eyes were still and locked in to Max’s, holding them tight.  “So what do you think?  I’ve never met Caius, I don’t even know what he looks like, so why am I gonna listen to this guy?”  Roly’d heard the same rhetoric everyone had, and he knew that many were praying for the dawning of a new era, with some even counting on it.

“Everyone I’ve talked to who’s heard him speak in person says it’s like nothin’ else.”  Max rolled his eyes and opened his mouth wide, as if the top part of his head was falling away from his face.  “I don’t know, he might just be smooth, all I know is everybody’s gonna be there, and whatta you wanna be left behind?”  As he finished his question, Max closed his mouth and looked into Roly’s eyes.

“All I’m saying is we’re leaving our territory, that’s all.”  Roly’s face quivered.  He looked scared, which made Max nervous, as Roly wasn’t the type to be easily shook.

Simon giggled, “You scared?”

Roly’s eyes narrowed and and he tightened his lips, “No.”

Max interrupted, “Everybody listen up.  I know this isn’t ideal, we’re gonna be exposed.  But I think we can smash anyone, and if we can’t they’ll know us when we’re gone, and they’ll know where we come from.”  He looked over the Treetops as he spoke, and it gave him no confidence.

Simon blew contempt through his lips, “Yeah our names will be on official documents at the morgue.”

Max normally enjoyed Simon’s gallows humor, but he wasn’t in the mood.  “The morgue?”  Max stared at Simon, trying to show him rage, but it came across like terror.  At Simon’s jape, Art guffawed, but it was more in agreement than mirth.

Spurred on by the show of support, Simon continued.  “Yeah this is about to get blown up, man.  Caius said no weapons, but whatta they gonna do, check?  Fuckin’ forget it, this’ll be a free-for-all, I ain’t scared though.”

“So it’s agreed, we pack blades at least,” Max raised the point of his butcher knife to be parallel with his line of sight.  “Got mine,” Max grinned.

Big D seemed to be getting frustrated, but he wouldn’t dare try to tell Max anything, he’d learned his lesson.  He just tried to change the topic and shift focus from Max, “None of us have heard Caius in person, though.  So what—what if they’re right and he is the one?”D finished his statement with a trailing off voice, as if attempting to seem mystic, or like he knew some securet the others didn’t.  However, Simon was listening, and he couldn’t stand for what seemed like soupy-eyed optimism.

“What if who’s right?  The one!?”  Simon spoke quick and loud, loud enough so that everyone could hear his voice break.  “Caius’s head of the Eastside Forty-Niners, what if he wants everyone to be a Forty-Niner?  I’m not a fuckin Forty-Niner, I’m a Treetop.”  Simon hadn’t put his fear of the summit in such stark terms before, and he he put a colloquial capper on it for good measure: “I’m-a stay a Treetop, too.”

As Simon spoke, Max eyed him suspiciously.  His chin dropped, leaving him slack-jawed, portraying a knowing gloom.  “You holdin’ anything that shoots, Simon?”

Big D rushed Simon and held him by the collar, “I swear to god, if you fuck this up I’m gonna kill you.”

Simon laughed as he slid a snub-nosed .38 out of his pocket and threw it on the ground.  He sat back as far as he could and held his hands in the air.  “Fuck me man, fine, I’m not carryin’ anything.  I was gonna stash it before we got there, jesus.”

Roly looked at the gun for a few seconds considering, then pulled out his own and put it on the ground next to Simon’s.  “I believe in Caius, I think there’s too much money at stake for anyone to fuck this up.  So, we don’t wanna get caught with nuthin’.  Stash all pistols in the same place.”

“Money?”  Art said, his voice laced with a mocking suspicion, “There’s money?”  At the mention of money, Art’s ears picked up and his tail wagged.  Art had been standing on a seat near the door between train cars, but as he spoke he lowered himself to the floor and stood in front of the others.

Roly knew that Art’s blood ran green, “Well if Caius brings us together, the way everybody’s saying, we can make real money.”

Big D hated when gang members talked about money.  “This is fuck all all about money, this is about finding a way to live.”

Art rolled his eyes and stretched over a couple of seats on the train, laying still as he pretended to snore.  Max seemed to shrink in his seat, pulling his feet close to him and wrapping his arms around his knees.

They were all frightened, this was new, heading to a speech.  Workers and administrators and servants went to speeches; gangsters didn’t go to speeches.

The Treetops (2nd draft) Chapter 1

Poem: Box the Turtle

I am invincible,

at a starter pistol I tuck my head and hunker,

I’m scared of nothing,

I can’t even hear the footsteps of my enemies,

but they’re out there,

from here I can sense foolish and lame vitreous,

they can’t cut me,

I sense the fear behind their bulky sunglasses,

they’re just jealous,

from outside my walls they smell smoking meats,

they must be cold,

likely their fingers bleed clawing at bare brick,

I would let them in,

then they’d see blank journals and empty bottles,

and know the truth,

that behind the curtain there is nothing at all.

Poem: Box the Turtle

Review: In a Valley of Violence

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Director: Ti West

Writer: Ti West

Actors: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga

 

In its own harsh, uncompromising manner, In a Valley of Violence scoffs in the face of well-wrought western tropes, and comes away with a delightfully intense bloodbath.  I can say unreservedly that I am a fan of westerns, from the meticulous Italian chaos of Sergio Corbucci’s Companñeros to the somber philosophy of Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, I love the western genre.  As is obvious from the opening titles which closely imitate the opening credits of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, director Ti West (The House of the Devil) loves it too.  His love of  westerns is most obviously displayed by his eagerness to subvert the genre’s tropes, which he does here by injecting characters with weakness, stupidity, and more than a little comedy.  This comedy most often comes from the committed and somewhat silly performance of a masterful John Travolta (Swordfish, Battlefield Earth, Scientology), who portrays tobacco chewing bravado while his character becomes a strange alternate protagonist.

The story’s central hero is Paul, Ethan Hawkes’ mysterious drifter traveling alone with a dog.  Paul and his strangely intelligent companion, Addie, are linked via an almost supernatural connection.  These travel companions make an ill-fated pit stop in Denton, a town terrorized by the son of the local sheriff (James Ransome), who practices wanton cruelty with impunity.  This character, Deputy Gilly Martin is perturbed when newcomer Paul (Ethan Hawke), fails to respond quickly to his inquiries.  This simple perceived slight leads to a chain reaction of escalations, culminating in a climactic death that is both ludicrous and metaphorically perfect.  The unstoppable expansion and eruption of violence is so reasonless, yet so inevitable, that In a Valley of Violence could be said to make a permanently timely statement about the ease and cost of killing.

These are pretty heavy issues, however, and they might weigh down a movie as violent as this one, but it is saved by the aforementioned Mr. Travolta, playing the sweetest Marshal ever.  Travolta’s character is kind, reasonable, merciful, and hilarious.  Marshal Clyde Martin (Travolta) has one fatal flaw, however, his love for his son.  As terrible as Gilly had become, he was still the Marshal’s son, and family trumps everything.  I think that this, in many ways, is the central conceit of In the Valley of Violence.  That even the most positive emotional reflexes, like a father’s love for his son or a drifter’s love of his dog, can lead to copious bloodshed.

Westerns can be intense, savage, and unapologetically brutal, but they can also be funny, touching, and philosophical.  In the Valley of Violence can do all of these things, but it is one thing above all, a kick-ass western.  The music is dramatic and propulsive; shrieking with energetic violins that sound like stabbing.  The performances are all exemplary, particularly Taissa Farmiga, who brings a mad spirit to the role of Mary-Anne, charming with every nervous giggle.  This is a western of surprising depth and fantastic production, but what really leaves an impression is the sheer fun of it.

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Review: In a Valley of Violence

Poem: Dusty

I’ve never been real, I realized

too late, soul sucked, plastered flat,

surveying that this isn’t a game

anymore over and again, eyes on the horizon

thrust over, into and through, hear the birds

shriek of desperation, each call vital

audible survival, haunting hopelessness, for some

know doubt, starving in winter dusk

on a tree branch, desperate, looking without

seeing for hours, miles and ages.

 

Now to acquaint myself

with the truth, I will seize all the records

of those that came before, much may be

tattered bloody, waving lightly, wafting

breezy, whispering war

over candlelight, dim dusky deep dwellers,

loving the musk, drinking blood straight

from the source, of suffering springs a new

hope, so warrantless.

 

It seems, so anyway I am waking up

tomorrow again, next factorial stepladder

struggle of days, until it becomes life

which is death, always, we know this

don’t we?

Poem: Dusty

Poetry: Snaps

The Ticket and the Lecture were an experimental

dance-pop

poetry duo from Statin Island, and they twisted

around the made-up minds

of the tea-cup Uberclass, intellectualizing thought

itself while calling it illusion, and they fucked

everything up the trail painted gray, so to speak

jumbly non-rhymes aplenty flowed

like breath seeping, through the air-brush

daytime taverns called shit

like Twisty’s and Fidget’s, stupid nonsense

like most of it always is

in the country, except the fields

I guess but who cares?

 

Because ain’t shit

out there anyway, wandering aimless

dummies down a path to doom, whichever

direction they end

up heading, smashers hypostitize

from centuries abstract, crushing cream puff

pillowcase pieces of shit, in the city too

as all and sundry are hollow, saying and meaning

nothing at all at any time

anyway so shit, might as well

go to McMulligan’s China Bistro and Tavern

at the bottom of the sea, drink the day

away like a shot, just write your name

in the sand with a stream, cadmium downgraded

from the gin, plumb death infinite, because depth

is too hard to make flow, though a reality.

Poetry: Snaps