Book ’em and Throw Away the Cliff Notes

Infinite JestYes, I am still reading Infinite Jest … slowly but with sufficient interest that I assuredly will finish it in the near future (well, in the future, at least). As always, though, I am reading more than one book at a time: Infinite Jest sits on my kitchen table where I can read a few pages while waiting for the water to boil or when slurping down a hot bowl of ramen. For the record, I have Dos Passos on my desk in my office, Vollmann next to my bed at night, and short story collections in each of the bathrooms. I was going to say I had Ford in my van but I have to be truthful and admit to a volume of Rilke’s poetry (the van is a Toyota anyway).

Which reminds me: William T. Vollmann has published yet another
short story collection and this one, coming in at over 600 pages,
will require some dedication to read. Vollmann says this is his
last book and any further works will be output from his ghost. The
publisher suggests the answers are in the book so we all must
read it ... Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann
(just published).

But back to David Foster Wallace:

Chief Steve McGarrett of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ and Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ are useful for seeing how our North American idea of the hero changed from the B.S. 1970s era of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ to the B.S. 1980s era of ‘Hill Street Blues.’

Steve McGarrettChief Steve McGarrett is a classically modern hero of action. He acts out. It is what he does. The camera is always on him. He is hardly ever off-screen. He has just one case per week. The audience knows what the case is and also knows, by the end of Act One, who is guilty. Because the audience knows the truth before Steve McGarrett does, there is no mystery, there is only Steve McGarrett. The drama of ‘Hawaii Five-0’ is watching the hero in action, watching Steve McGarrett stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does.

Steve McGarrett is not weighed down by administrative State-Police-Chief chores, or by females, or friends, or emotions, or any sorts of conflicting demands on his attention. His field of action is bare of diverting clutter. Thus Chief Steve McGarrett single-mindedly acts to refashion a truth the audience already knows into an object of law, justice, modern heroism.

Carl FurilloIn contrast, Captain Frank Furillo is what used to be designated a ‘post’-modern hero. Viz., a hero whose virtues are suited to a more complex and corporate American era. I.e., a hero of reaction. Captain Frank Furillo does not investigate cases or single-mindedly home in. He commands a precinct. He is a bureaucrat, and his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields. In each broadcast episode of ‘Hill Street Blues,’ Captain Frank Furillo is beset by petty distractions on all sides from the very beginning of Act One. Not one but eleven complex cases, each with suspects and snitches and investigating officers and angry community leaders and victims’ families all clamoring for redress. Hundreds of tasks to delegate, egos to massage, promises to make, promises from last week to keep. Two or three cops’ domestic troubles. Payroll vouchers. Duty logs. Corruption to be tempted by and agonized over. A Police Chief who’s a political parody, a hyperactive son, an ex-wife who haunts the frosted-glass cubicle that serves as Frank Furillo’s office (whereas Steve McGarrett’s B.S. 1970s office more closely resembled the libraries of landed gentry, hushed behind two heavy doors and wainscotted in thick, tropical oak), plus a coldly attractive Public Defendress who wants to talk about did this suspect get Mirandized in Spanish and can Frank stop coming too soon he came too soon again last night maybe he should get into some kind of stress counselling. Plus all the weekly moral dilemmas and double binds his even-handed bureaucratic heroism gets Captain Frank Furillo into.

Captain Frank Furillo of ‘Hill Street Blues’ is a ‘post’-modern hero, a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration. Frank Furillo retains his sanity, composure, and superior grooming in the face of a barrage of distracting, unheroic demands that would have left Chief Steve McGarrett slumped, unkempt, and chewing his knuckle in administrative confusion.

In further contrast to Chief Steve McGarrett, Captain Frank Furillo is rarely filmed tight or full-front. He is usually one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines.

stony BurkeThis interesting observation is from Infinite Jest (where else). I sometimes hesitate supplying what might be considered “dated” examples  or allusions, but with several television stations on cable re-running the good, the bad, and the ugly classics, characters like Stoney Burke or Brett Maverick are hardly even trivia questions anymore.

Do you have any other examples of types of heroes from literature, television, movies, short-wave radio?

What are your thoughts on this?

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