Fan-Tan, by Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell (Knopf, 249 pages, $23.95). Absolutely nothing one learns about Marlon Brando should really surprise anyone, especially if Eurasian women are involved, along with South China sea locations and high-handed abuses of the writerly classes. Even so, one must marvel more than a little at the very existence of this, a profane and scabrous adventure novel about a large Scottish renegade ex-con who is called "Annie" and Madame Lai Choi San, who wants his help pirating the SS Chow Fa, laden with silver.
Well, according to David Thomson's marvelous afterword, once upon a time it was the paleo-narrative of a film that Brando was going to make with Donald Cammell, the shadowy celebrant of polymorphous perversity who co-directed Mick Jagger in "Performance," one of the more lunatic cinematic expressions from a carnival cinematic era. It seems -- according to Thomson -- that Brando was making it up to Cammell after Cammell married China Kong, a former lover of Brando's whose alienated affections briefly sundered Cammell's and Brando's friendship.
The tale was Brando's idea as was the eventual rough treatment of the writer. Cammell did the writing.
Try to imagine a Robert Louis Stevenson tale as retold by Orson Welles to the denizens of the most creative bordello in Singapore or Manila. (See Chapter 8 for the sex scene, one that no doubt pleased Brando and Cammell, men who, like their protagonist Annie, "loved the recipe of dirty mixture in life.")
"Thank God for craziness" seems to be articulated credo of the climax. If ever there was a book whose very existence endorsed that spirit, it's this one.
* * *
Gather at the River, Notes from the Post-Millennial South, by Hal Crowther (Louisiana State University Press, 165 pages, $26.95). Among the more splendid troublemakers at this newspaper in the 1970's -- that Golden Era for Troublemakers -- was Hal Crowther, a TV columnist whose work was so political, so full of zestful self-regard and so riotously (and entertainingly) problematic that it was considered at the highest levels less dangerous to appoint him an art critic. Crowther even confesses to it here in this merry and hugely readable collection of essays: "It was not well known that I was once, for a very short run, an actual salaried art critic for a large Northern newspaper."
Even those of his colleagues who never knew what Crowther would do from day to day never thought this was a sentence -- about the "legions of the paranoid" in Waco -- that would fly from his fingers: "Liberals call them 'scary,' but they aren't unless you're so urban and sheltered that a few shoulder holsters set your knees to knocking." (A full irony reading of that on your nearest polygraph will have to wait.)
The fate that plucked Brother Crowther from rollicking -- and fertile -- discomfort in the Northeast and set him down in all his chortlingly eloquent belligerence in North Carolina is one of the more benevolent ever to meet a colleague. He married novelist Lee Smith and, as an adopted son of "the post-millennial South," has taken an entirely surreal place in the contemporary South's Confederacy of Savants.
These are irresistible essays, full of typically Crowtherean wayward subject matter and maverick notions articulated with the usual combative grace. In the grand literary bazaar, an old category in jazz polls fits perfectly: "talent deserving wider recognition." If there is a happier self-exile from his home region, I can't think of him.
-- Jeff Simon