"One of my favourite Australian writers of his generation, David Free has the rare gift of writing critical prose with a creative dimension. Whether talking about high culture, popular culture or both at once, he is the master of the line of argument that makes you hungry for what happens next. Such a knack for turning the process of thought into a dramatic narrative is given to few, but he not only has it, he seems determined to develop it to the limit. His plain, natural but invariably melodic style combines appreciation and judgment in an addictive blend, the appreciation deep and wide-ranging, the judgment precise and sane. His powers of illustration leave most poets and novelists sounding short of skill, and how they leave most other critics sounding it would be impolite for me to mention. Enough to say that he is many furrows ahead in his field." — Clive James
Contact: freenetmail[at]yahoo.com
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Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Podcast

To mark the 60th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, I'm releasing a longform podcast this year, entitled Ghosts of Dallas, that will tell the epic story of Kennedy conspiracism. 

Why is it that more than half the American population has always believed there was a conspiracy behind Kennedy's death? Who were the pioneers who made JFK denialism into an industry? How did six decades of myth-making about Kennedy's murder set the scene for the conspiratorial presidency of Donald J. Trump? And why did Jack Ruby bring his favourite sausage dog along on the morning he shot Lee Harvey Oswald?

Episodes 1-12 are available now wherever you get your podcasts.


Friday, February 16, 2024

Capote and The Swans

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, February 17, 2024

When Truman Capote died in 1984, his arch rival Gore Vidal called his death “a wise career move.” Unkind as that suggestion was, it hasn’t turned out to be untrue. Capote’s career was indeed at a low ebb when he died at the age of 59. He hadn’t produced a full-length prose work since In Cold Blood (1966). Mainly he had spent the last third of his life destroying himself with drink and drugs. 

Since his death, things have taken a positive turn for Capote. He has published a series of posthumous works, including the lost novel Summer Crossing (2005). He has been the subject of three major screen productions. Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for playing him in Capote (2005). Some said that Toby Jones made an even more convincing Capote in Infamous (2006). 

Now we have Feud: Capote vs. The Swans (Binge), in which Tom Hollander brilliantly becomes Capote at all phases of his career, from glittering wunderkind to bloviating old wreck. Feud has put Capote back in the headlines. Suddenly he’s the talk of the town again. Gore Vidal must be spinning in his grave.

What other American author has been portrayed on screen three times? But Capote was always a one-off: the story of his life is as extraordinary as anything he wrote himself. At his peak, he was the most celebrated writer in America. Norman Mailer, who wasn’t known for heaping praise on his contemporaries, called Capote “a ballsy little guy” and “the best writer of my generation”.  

The ballsy little guy had humble origins. An only child, Capote was unwanted by his father and mother. When he was 6, his mother left him to be raised by a houseful of her elderly cousins in rural Alabama. 
Apart from the Bible, there were few books in the house. As a reader and then a writer, Capote was largely self-taught; his favourite childhood toys were his dictionary and typewriter. By a remarkable coincidence, the young Capote lived right next door to the young Harper Lee, future author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The two became fast friends; Lee later helped Capote do the legwork for In Cold Blood.

Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published in 1948, when he was 23. It caused a sensation, partly because of the brooding photo of the boyish author on the back cover. Capote was a striking figure. He stood at just 5 feet 3 inches, or 160cm. His head looked too big for his body. He spoke in a voice so high-pitched that – as Vidal quipped – it could be understood only by dogs. 

Right from the start, Capote made not the slightest attempt to conceal his sexuality. Considering the era he grew up in, this policy was astoundingly courageous. In the 1970s, when the novelist Jacqueline Susann went on TV and implied he was gay, Capote was unfazed. “Big news!” he said.

Capote’s career as an author of pure fiction peaked with the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). When Audrey Hepburn was cast to play Holly Golightly in the movie, Capote was peeved. He had wanted Marilyn Monroe.

After Tiffany’s, Capote felt an itch to turn from fiction to the documenting of American fact. In 1959, his eye was caught by a newspaper story about a brutal unsolved murder in Kansas. He set out to chronicle the crime from all angles, using all the tools of a novelist. He even claimed to have invented a new form: the non-fiction novel. 

But writing about reality had its challenges. When Capote went to Kansas to start the book, his story had nothing more than a beginning. If it was going to have a middle and end, he would have to wait until reality supplied them. 

He soon found himself saddled with ethical and emotional problems, too. After the two murderers were captured and convicted, Capote spent hundreds of hours interviewing them on death row. He formed an especially intense bond with one of them, the diminutive, poetry-writing Perry Smith. 

This put Capote in an agonising position. Clearly, his book couldn’t be finished and published until “the boys”, as he called them, were executed. On the human level, he dreaded that outcome. But as a writer, he couldn’t help wishing that the denouement of his story would hurry up and happen. 

Smith and his partner in crime, Dick Hickock, were hanged in 1965. In Cold Blood appeared the following January. Immediately hailed as a masterpiece, it earned its author $2 million by the end of the year. Capote celebrated by throwing a lavish masked ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Among his 500 guests were Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

By the end of 1966, there was no doubt that Capote had made it. The flamboyant outsider from Alabama had become an insider. To prove it, he’d become an intimate friend of New York’s most prominent socialites: Babe Paley, wife of the CBS boss Bill Paley; Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Kennedy; the elegant trend-setter Slim Keith. Capote called these women his “swans”; he told them his most outrageous secrets, and they told him theirs. 

But how was he going to follow In Cold Blood? Capote began telling the world that his next book would be his masterpiece: the American answer to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Entitled Answered Prayers, it would be a dark comedy about American high society – a world that Capote seemed ideally qualified to describe from the inside.

Capote signed his first contract for Answered Prayers in 1966. Before writing a line of the book, he sold the movie rights for $350,000 – an outrageous sum at the time. He was contracted to deliver the novel on January 1, 1968. Too busy living the high life to meet that deadline, he negotiated the first of many revised contracts, which featured ever-larger advances and ever-later delivery dates. 

By 1975, Capote’s work on Answered Prayers had ground to a halt. After writing a handful of chapters, he’d become lost in the fog of his addictions. People were starting to wonder if he was still a writer. To prove that he was, he took the drastic step of letting Esquire magazine publish four chapters from his work in progress. 

It was a remarkably self-destructive move. Capote’s supposed masterwork turned out to be little more than a hotchpotch of ugly, mean-spirited gossip about thinly disguised real-life figures. Among those easily identified figures were his swans. Stories they’d told him in confidence were plastered all over the text. When a friend warned him that the swans could hardly fail to notice this,  Capote said, “Nah, they’re too dumb.”

He wound up paying for that callous miscalculation. His cherished swans understood what he’d done, all right. Feeling betrayed and hurt, they shut him out of their glamorous lives. 

Capote was shattered. Whether he wrote another word of Answered Prayers afterwards remains a mystery. He assured interviewers that the book was still happening. “Just wait till they see the rest of it,” he said. Some of his friends later swore that Capote had read them other completed chapters of the work. But when his files were searched after his death, no other parts of the novel were found. 

What happened to the rest of the book? For a while, it was rumoured that Capote had stashed the finished work in a safe-deposit box somewhere. Another theory had it that he’d destroyed the manuscript before his death. Others believed that Capote never wrote any more of the book than the fragments published by Esquire, which posthumously reappeared in book form as Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel.

Another mystery is psychological. What made Capote betray his swans, and why was he so stunned when they reacted in the normal human way? The best theory is that it had something to do with his mother – “the single worst person in my life,” as Capote called her. When she dumped him in Alabama with his elderly aunts, the young Capote seems to have decided that he would never be rejected again. From then on, he would always get his rejections in first.

In Feud, Capote’s mother appears to him as a garishly dolled-up ghost, played by Jessica Lange. The show is full of juicy roles for fine actresses: Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Demi Moore. At one point Chloe Sevigny, playing the socialite C. Z. Guest, blasts Capote for his failure to heed the laws of ordinary human decency. 

“What about civility?” she asks him. “Respect for people one loves?” Answered Prayers may well be a work of art, she says. “But it seems too high a price to pay.”

That last point looks stronger when you consider that Capote paid the price without delivering the goods. By the time he wrote Answered Prayers, his literary judgment was fried. Much as he wanted to show the world he was still an artist, he could no longer do it by producing a work of art. The best he could do was make the kind of ruthless, self-destructive gesture that dedicated artists are known to make. 

Capote was already pushing it when he set out to emulate Proust. The idea that he could do it while self-medicated to the eyeballs was a fantasy. Instead of writing a cool satire about American materialism and excess, he became a casualty of those very forces. The title of his doomed book came from a maxim attributed to St Teresa: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” Capote began by imagining that his title referred to the answered prayers of his swans. By the end, it also referred to his own.

Friday, February 2, 2024

The Australian Open

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, February 3, 2024.

We seem to have two New Year’s Days in Australia. The first one – the one that happens on January 1 – is harmless, because it doesn’t really signal a return to the yearly slog. There are fireworks on TV, the calendar flips over, then the summer party resumes. 

For me, the real New Year doesn’t begin until the Australian Open ends. Straddling the last two full weeks of January, the Open is the great watershed event. When it begins, the silly season is still in full swing. The air is still thick with barbecue smells and far-fetched resolutions. By the time the tennis ends, there’s no denying the carnival is over. It’s time to get back to real life. 

This week I’ve been walking around with a tennis hangover – the post-Open blues. I’ve still got an after-image of centre court branded on the back of my eyelids. I’m still hearing phantom tennis sounds. The squeak of rubber soles on hardcourt, the slap of ball against net tape. The sound of Jim Courier getting all hushed and grave in the commentary box (“This is some tough sledding for Stefanos”) before exploding with approval on a big point (“Oh, that is clutch!”).

I’m also still hearing the ads. At the Australian Open, a change of ends lasts for just one minute. Advertisers have a limited chance to get into your head. Borrowing an approach from the field of enhanced interrogation, they assail you with the same insufferable ad over and over, as if they can infuriate you into parting with your cash. 

Last year it was the fantastically annoying ANZ ads (“You make me feel like financing”). This year it was Andre Agassi for Uber One. “You know what is disappointing?” Agassi kept saying. “Not having a mullet and mullets are back.”

Even after four hundred viewings, I never quite made up my mind about Andre’s mesmerisingly naff line-reading. Was it so bad it was good? Or was it just bad? Why did he say “and” instead of “when”? Did he botch the line or was it written that way? Did the ad’s makers know it would play thirty times a night for fifteen nights straight? If so, why didn’t they politely ask Andre for one more take?

But these are quibbles. The star of the show was tennis, which is surely the greatest spectator sport ever devised. Like a cross between boxing and chess, it’s a supreme test of both body and mind. The key to the game’s magic lies in its scoring system. No match is over until it’s over. The biggest lead can melt into defeat if you lose your nerve.

Out on the court, the players engage in a struggle that feels like a metaphor for life itself. Work hard in the small moments and the big moments – the clutch moments – will come. Seize those moments and glory will be yours.

But it won’t last forever. Time comes for everyone in the end. This year it came for Novak Djokovic, the most formidable player in history. Going into the tournament, he hadn’t lost a match at Melbourne Park since 2018. This year he meekly succumbed in the semis to 22-year-old Jannik Sinner, who went on to win the final. Watching the 36-year-old Joker run out of answers, you felt the sun setting on an era. 

No other game reveals the personality, or the character, the way tennis does. The distinction between those terms is important. Martin Amis once said that in tennis, “personality” has effectively become a synonym for another word – one that starts with “a” and ends with “hole.” He also observed that the game’s all-time greats – Rosewall, Ashe, Navratilova – didn’t need “personality” because they had character.

Among the current Aussie players, Alex de Minaur has the winningest blend of character and talent. Like Ash Barty and Dylan Alcott, the Demon comes across as an exemplary human being – a paragon of pluck, energy, and commitment. 

This year he was stopped in the fourth round by the flame-haired Russian Andrey Rublev. Even as his dream unravelled in the fifth set, the Demon continued to applaud Rublev’s canonball winners in the time-honoured way, by clapping the heel of his spare hand against his strings.

Meanwhile, up the other end, Rublev was being a personality. With a hairstyle like the top of a Bunsen burner, Rublev ranted in Cyrillic after every bad shot. This would have been easier to take if he was losing, as opposed to crushing the Demon’s dream. But I’d be lying if I said that Rublev’s anger-management struggles were not, in themselves, deeply fun to watch.

By historical standards – by the standards of McEnroe and Connors – Rublev is a poor excuse for a tennis bad boy. But tennis misbehaviour is a dying art these days. The Australian Open did away with line judges in 2021. Since then the line calls have been fully computerised. 

As a result, today’s tantrum-chuckers have precious little material to work with. You can’t argue with a computer. A modern hothead like Rublev has nothing to rage against except his own shot selection. 

This is why I’m calling for the Australian Open to scrap the computers and bring back human line judges. Gripping as this year’s tournament was, something vital was missing from it. Tennis has robbed itself of the crackle of suspense – the tasty danger that a bad line call, real or imagined, might trigger a spectacular psychological meltdown at any moment. 

Purists will say that’s a good thing. But I freely admit that I’m not a purist. I watch tennis for the theatre as well as the skill. I appreciate a good drop volley, but I also like watching cheesed-off adults behave appallingly under controlled conditions. 

I’m also a sucker for quality sports commentary. The best line of the tournament was uttered by Peter “Salty” Psaltis, during an epic five-setter between Alexander Zverev and Cameron Norrie. As the final tie-break began, Salty dug deep for the clutch phrase, and delivered the line that said it all. He said, “I just feel sorry for people who don’t have sport in their lives.” 

Friday, December 15, 2023

Rate and Review

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, December 16, 2023

David, we’d like to hear from you. How did we go? Please take a moment to share your experience. On a scale of 0 (not at all) to 10 (extremely) how likely are you to recommend us to your family, friends and colleagues? 

How annoying is the internet’s insatiable lust for feedback? I ask this rhetorically. I’m not inviting you to answer on a scale of 1 (mildly irritating) to 10 (a clear sign that our civilisation is going down the tubes). There’s not much you can do these days, from going to the doctor to buying a whipper snipper, that you won’t be asked to rate and review afterwards. And if you get the whipper snipper delivered, expect a separate email from Australia Post inviting you to rate and review your “delivery experience.”

Even as a professional critic, I find it tricky to compose a telling review of a postal delivery. Don’t get me wrong, I like my postie, and I like it when she puts a parcel on my doorstep. But exactly how many stars out of 10 should I give her for doing that? 

Anything less than a 10 would imply, falsely and harshly, that she could somehow have delivered the parcel better. But if the accurate placement of a package on a doorstep rates a 10, what would a 4 be? Leaving the package a metre shy of the porch, partly concealed in a hedge? And what ungodly act of postal dereliction would warrant a 1? 

Also, I hate to break this to the marketing people at Australia Post, but even if I feel that a given letter or parcel has been delivered impeccably, that doesn’t mean I will be urging my “family and friends” to get things mailed to them too. The topic of postal efficiency rarely crops up in my day-to-day conversations, and I don’t want to be the guy who keeps raising it.

Recently, I bought some Old Spice deodorant from a prominent online retailer. I would hesitate to call this an “experience,” let alone an experience I want to commemorate or “share”. But if you saw my email Inbox, you’d think my whole life revolved around armpit hygiene. Was the deodorant as described? Did it arrive promptly? David, we’re still awaiting your feedback on the Old Spice experience. Based on your recent purchases, we have a recommendation for you: more Old Spice! 

When I buy something, that generally means I like it. If the item is not as described – if it’s a box of nails instead of a stick of deodorant – the vendor can safely assume they’ll be hearing from me. Otherwise, paying for something and then getting it doesn’t strike me as an experience that calls for comment or celebration. Even in kindergarten, you had to do something a bit more spectacular than that to earn five gold stars. 

Anyway, the giving of the stars is just the beginning, in the field of online criticism. Next you’ll be asked to describe “your most important reasons” for giving that many stars. Suddenly you have to come up with an original work of prose: 150 words, for free, on the merits of a bag of dried orange peel. 

A few weeks ago I went to the football. The next day I got an email grilling me about every conceivable aspect of my game-day experience, including the half-time promotions. On a scale of 1 to 7, how “satisfied” was I with the experience of watching a couple of random contestants from the crowd trying to catch bombs in a giant novelty KFC bucket? 

I was also (and I’m not making this up) invited to rate the “spirit and desire to win” of the home team, and the level of “enthusiasm and elation when tries were scored.” Here I sternly selected the “prefer not to answer” option. I like player elation as much as the next person, but I want it to be organic. I don’t want footballers getting hauled over the coals because I’ve given them 1 out of 7 for enthusiasm. 

I want my views to matter, but I don’t want them to matter that much. Some things can’t be quantified on a numerical scale – things like team spirit, and the smell of Old Spice, and watching a sunset with a friend, family member or colleague. Prefer not to answer? It’s more that I would prefer not to be asked in the first place.