Poor grammar and poverty go hand-in-hand

21408675When an idiosyncratic book on English grammar becomes a bestseller in the United Kingdom, it makes one wonder who is buying it. English-as-a-second language immigrants? Schoolteachers? Students who feel their current instruction deficient? Adults who got short shrift in grammar when back in school? If so, then perhaps Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English will become a bestseller here in the colonies as well. It should. Heaven knows we need it.

Recently released here, the opinionated and delightful dip into the wonderfully complex and logical world of English grammar was an eye-opener for me. Not because I learned much I didn’t already know—I did not. But it alerted me to how good an education in the rules of grammar I got in public school in the 50’s and 60’s. And these were not well-funded schools in toney neighborhoods but, first, a rural southern Illinois grade school where farm kids came to class barefoot in September and, secondly, a working-class suburban St. Louis school district that has now lost accreditation.

My grammar education differed sharply from that received by the 18 African American students in a remedial grammar class I taught in the mid 90’s at St. Louis’ Forest Park Community College. I was stunned when I looked at the results of the first diagnostic writing assignment I had given them. All had gone through 12 years in St. Louis Public Schools, all had graduated from high school, and none—through no fault of their own—could write a grammatically correct sentence except by accident.

On the second day of class I gave them the bad news first: You have been screwed by repeated educational malpractice perpetrated by teachers and administrators who abdicated their main responsibility: to teach you the rudiments of the language you need to succeed in life. Then the good news: You have me as teacher, and I’ll correct that.

That promise was overly optimistic. After some stumbling about I obtained grade school workbooks for everyone and together we all went back to where the problem started—first grade. We worked on the parts of speech (diagramming sentences, helped, something they had never been exposed to), spelling rules and structure, verb-noun agreement, etc. By semester’s end most of them got it, and a few had turned into pretty competent writers. Three or four failed—their poor reading skills, which I couldn’t myself address, held them down. (The experience was the seed that led to my writing my new novel, Fail, a St. Louis-based mystery that dramatizes the city’s educational ills and its violent results.)

As Gwynne’s Grammar author N.M. Gwynne argues, “[G]rammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which…happiness is impossible.”

I am unsure if I agree with that syllogism, although there is ample evidence everywhere you look that suggests poor grammar and unhappiness often go hand-in-hand. If you can’t use the language correctly these days, expect some hard times.



St. Louis book signings today, Tuesday, and Saturday

3596_4049_logoFor my St. Louis-area colleagues and friends: I’ll be doing a couple book signings of my new St. Louis-based mystery FAIL this week. First, 7 pm this evening, Tuesday, Nov. 4, at The Book House, 7352 Manchester in Maplewood, and Saturday, Nov. 8, between 1 and 3 pm at STL Books, 100 W. Jefferson in Kirkwood. Both events will also feature other Blank Slate Press authors. Hope to see you there.

St. Louis Magazine interview marks launch of my new mystery novel “Fail”

photo-6 copyThis week marks the launch by Blank Slate Press of my new St. Louis-based mystery Fail, whose events coincidentally mirror those taking place there recently–the shooting of a unarmed black man by a white cop, educational failure, thousands of disaffected youth on the streets. St. Louis Magazine‘s November edition, which focuses on race issues in St. Louis, features an interview with me on Fail and my take on the city. You can read it here. A shorter version appears in the print edition.

Fail is now available in print and ebook versions at Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com and other online booksellers. For those of you in the St. Louis area, you can find it at  Left Bank Books, Main Street Books, Rose’s Bookhouse, STL Books, Subterranean Books and The Bookhouse.

Also, I will be doing book signings with other Blank Slate Press authors next week: Tuesday, November 4, at The Bookhouse, 7352 Manchester in Maplewood, 7 pm onward; and Saturday, November 8, 1 to 3 pm, at STL Books, 100 W. Jefferson in Kirkwood.



A dark and gritty mystery/morality play that gives a lesson on building suspense


TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains technical content perhaps of interest only to creative writers and may induce sleep in normal people. 

Yesterday, at the Tropic Cinema here in Key West, I saw “The Drop,” based on a story by mystery writer Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the screenplay. Dark, humorless and intense, it depicts a Brooklyn neighborhood–peopled by failed thugs, Chechen gangsters, and other damaged human goods–that most of us would never glimpse. But what interested me most as a writer—and as a mystery writer, as I have recently been reborn—was how the suspense was created.

It was not done via dramatic irony—a common plot device where the audience knows more than the characters, for example, when we understand that the murderer is hiding in the cupboard with a butcher knife as the protagonist reaches for the doorknob to fetch a spatula. Nor was it done with astounding reversals, fight scenes, car chases, or a ticking clock. Rather the film employs the slow, deliberate release of exposition, in this case, knowledge of the characters’ pasts and entwining history. Lehane’s screenplay gives out information grudgingly, at a meandering pace—holding back, holding back, and director Koskam lets the those moments breathe, so we can absorb and register the growing portent of that piecemeal information. It builds and builds, brick by brick, to construct a solid and gratifying narrative at once surprising but also with precise logic and plot causality.

And, as with good exposition in a novel, this comes obliquely, in dialogue that on the surface purports to tell us something else or answer an unrelated question. Subtext is everything here, and much of the suspense comes from reading between the lines. The actors respect that, not hamming it up or declaiming important information, but deadpanning it, just as good fiction writers do—that is, respecting the audience or reader, giving them the credit to be able to figure things out on their own without leading them by the nose. Writing good prose fiction is akin to an actor making you forget he is an actor: You want the words to disappear so the reader forgets that he or she is being manipulated by an author and falls into the dream of the story. At least that’s the way I try to do it.

By the way, “The Drop” is actor James Gandolfini’s last film, after his last supper in Rome on June 19, 2013.

You can watch the trailer here: http://www.thedrop-movie.com.


Fact mirrors fiction in St. Louis

Coincidentally and sadly, what’s going on these days in Ferguson, Missouri, mirrors some of the events of my forthcoming St. Louis mystery, Fail, including the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white cop. The book also deals with political corruption and educational malpractice that puts thousands of miseducated teen dropouts on the streets each year–not exclusive to my hometown.

FYI, below is a link to my publisher’s page for the novel, slated for an October 27 launch in St. Louis. You’ll find a précis and an excerpt if you scroll down…