by John Turner, Martin Denny, Greg Escalante, Charles Krafft, et al.
(Last Gasp) $29.95
William Edgar Leeteg was the inventor of black velvet painting as we know it, but don't hold that against him. Leeteg was an American original. His prolific velvet legacy of lusty island ladies helped create a post-war perception of South Pacific decadence, and influenced the image of the American male of the era.
An ambitious new book, Leeteg of Tahiti, attempts to lift the apocryphal haze surrounding the artist and shed new light on both his life and life's work. Leeteg created nearly 1,700 velvet paintings in a career cut short in 1953 by a fatal crash on a Harley Davidson, at the age of 49. His pictures would fetch up to $10,000 each -- a princely sum in those days -- and at the height of his career he would produce a painting every four days. He gained a reputation as "the American Gauguin," but steadfastly disdained the art world. "Please don't bother submitting my work to art societies or museums," he instructed his equally colorful art dealer Barney Davis, "as I hold them long-haired bastards in contempt. Leave them to plug their own darling daubers. They're just cheap four-flushers in frock coats."
The book opens with an entertaining introduction by Martin Denny, before moving to a somewhat tortured history of velvet painting. The highlight is a biographical essay by Seattle artist and raconteur Charles Krafft, whose tireless efforts to revive the Leeteg legend have been rewarded with this handsome edition. Leeteg of Tahiti is required reading for anyone interested in lowbrow art and the development of popular culture in the last half of this century. LARRY REID
HOW TO STOP TIME: HEROIN FROM A TO Z
by Ann Marlowe
(Basic Books) $24
Having only rudimentary experience with drugs and no desire to even touch heroin, I figured reading how to stop time could provide the vicarious thrill of smack without the mess of throwing up. After reading Ann Marlowe's candid drug memoir, I thought I'd give it to an ex-junkie I know and get his opinion. I thought he might enjoy the N.Y. scenery and the implied pre-grunge soundtrack. I was a little surprised when he dismissed the work with a shrug and called the author a "privileged Harvard junkie." But hey -- didn't Timothy Leary go to Harvard?
Class issues and alma maters aside, I must say the book worked for me. Marlowe has laid out her experiences in dictionary form, and her critical tone weaves through these interconnected entries. The effect is non-preachy and non-glamorizing and sometimes nearly emotionless. On many of the entries, though, Marlowe registers more feeling and is generous with her history, especially when revealing her father's incestuous relationship with his sister.
So what makes a person become a junkie? An abusive childhood? A parent's abandonment? In Marlowe's case, it seems it grew from unashamed curiosity coupled with maybe a little boredom.
The fact that Ann Marlowe is smart, from a middle-class family, has copped dope on the dirtiest streets, survived an addiction, and always had an urge to succeed makes you root for her. In entry after entry, her history and her dirty secrets, often soaked in a bitter humor, thrill with generous hyper-reality. KEVIN SAMPSELL
LOST AND FOUND
TOUCHING THE ROCK: AN EXPERIENCE OF BLINDNESS
by John M. Hull
(Vintage, 1992) Out of print
There are few sections of the bookstore I'll flee from faster than "Christian Inspiration." That's where you're likely to find this book (if you can find it at all), but Touching the Rock is not your usual sort of angel uplift. John Hull, a professor of religious education in Birmingham, England, and the author of such rousing titles as God-Talk with Young Children and School Worship: An Obituary, went permanently blind at the age of 45, and dictated a journal of what it was like to lose one's sight as an adult. Oliver Sacks -- that neuro-impresario -- got behind his book in a big way, but it eventually drifted out of print; not that blindness is any less (or more) timely than it was in 1992.
Hull is not uplifting because he struggles against mighty odds to be the same as everyone else, by snowmobiling or sculpting or whatever. He's uplifting because he pays such close attention to what it means to be different. His blindness is not something to be conquered or ignored, it's something to be studied, felt out. He's a patient literalist, and in his modest and careful way he becomes a Thoreau or, as Sacks says, "a Wittgenstein of the unseen world." In that world, where things only appear when they make noise or can be touched, the vast, silent majority of things don't exist at all. Rain gives his world dimension; snow, frighteningly, obliterates it. He watches his dreams like the movies he can no longer see, and opens his eyes in the morning to find the screen gone dark. Through all of this, he lives by a downright un-American credo: "The most important thing in life is not happiness, but meaning." If that's Christian inspiration, take me to the river. TOM NISSELY