Skip to main content

John Hiatt's 'Beneath This Rough Exterior'

Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Beneath This Gruff Exterior, the new album by John Hiatt and a new John Hiatt tribute album, The Songs of John Hiatt.


Other segments from the episode on May 19, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 19, 2003: Interview with Chris Cooper; Review of Hohn Hiatt's “Beneath This Rough Exterior;” Review of two new mystery novels “Soul Circus” and "Dogs of Riga…


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Chris Cooper discusses his acting career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Chris Cooper, won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe this year for
his role in "Adaptation" as an eccentric who collects rare orchids in the
swamps of Florida. He made his first movie, the John Sayles film "Matewan,"
in 1987, but it wasn't until his role as a sheriff in Sayles' 1996 film "Lone
Star" that Cooper started getting attention. He broke through to an even
larger audience in "American Beauty," portraying an emotionally repressed and
abusive father.

Next Sunday you can see Cooper in the HBO adaptation of the William Trevor
novel "My House in Umbria." Maggie Smith plays a popular romance novelist
living in Italy who's taking a train to Milan for a shopping trip when a
terrorist bomb explodes. Only Smith and three other passengers survive. When
they leave the hospital, they continue their recuperation at Smith's house in
Umbria, where each of them undergoes a major change.

One of the survivors is an eight-year-old girl whose mother was killed in the
bomb blast. Smith would like to take care of the girl, but her uncle, a
professor of entomology from Pennsylvania, played by Chris Cooper, comes to
Umbria to take the girl back with him. Smith thinks he's too rigid and
unemotional to be a good parent.

Here's a scene from "My House in Umbria." Cooper has just arrived at the
villa. Smith and the other guests are asking him about his life in the

(Soundbite of "My House in Umbria")

Unidentified Man: What is your field?

Mr. CHRIS COOPER: (As Tom Riversmith) I study the carpenter ant.

Unidentified Woman: Carpenter ant?

Mr. COOPER: The red carpenter ant, Camponotus ferrugineus.

Unidentified Man: I don't think I know the carpenter ant. Our paths haven't
crossed with it, really.

Mr. COOPER: The interdependency of carpenter-ant colonies reveals behavior
that's remarkably similar to human beings.

Unidentified Man: Really.

Ms. MAGGIE SMITH: (As Emily Delahunty) I imagined his home in Virginsville,
Pennsylvania. The local police would have told them about the bomb, and Amy
and the train. There would have been much discussion that night--what to do
with the child; should she come and live with them; what alternatives were
there. Having no children themselves, it was clearly a difficult situation.

Unidentified Woman: Does Francine share your interest in the red carpenter

Mr. COOPER: No, her field is entirely different. Her specialty is the
Camponotus pennsylvanicus, the black carpenter ant.

Unidentified Woman: The--oh.

GROSS: Did you read the William Trevor novel that the movie's based on?

Mr. COOPER: Sure; mm-hmm.

GROSS: Let me actually read something from the novel that describes your
character, and this is from the point of view of the main character.

She says: `He had a way of looking at you intently when he spoke while giving
the impression that he didn't see you. Beneath the scrutiny, I felt foolish,
the way you do with some people.'

So there's this kind of like condescending quality that Trevor's describing
there. Are there details like that that you picked up on from reading the

Mr. COOPER: Yeah, sure, and I hope I incorporated them into the character.
And much of what I had to work on was not so much the dialogue, it was his
presence, his internal thoughts, his internal feelings about this new
environment that he was placed in. That's why I say a man who was very jarred
being taken out of the--being a university man, he's brought to another
country that he's not been to before, dealing with people he's never met
before, and that condescension in some respects is maybe an insecurity on his

GROSS: What was it like working with Maggie Smith? She's an actor from a
different country and a different generation.

Mr. COOPER: Well, I've had a lot of luck in my career, and working with
Maggie Smith is one of the best rewards I've had working. I think I was cast,
or knew I was cast maybe a month and a half before we went over to Italy, and
as usually happens, I'm as big fan and can be as starstruck as anybody. But
knowing that I was going to work with Maggie, I was initially quite
intimidated, and shortly before I went to Italy I did a sort of a
retrospective of her work, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," "The Lonely--the
last thing--Life of Judith Hearne." And that last piece of work that I just
mentioned seems so flawless. And I actually became a little physically sick
watching the film because it was such a sad, sad character, but it just
reinforced the idea that I really had to put in my best work to stay up with
such a powerful, wonderful actress.

GROSS: I find it interesting that you felt you had to research Maggie Smith,
that you were so thorough, that you did a little film retrospective of her
work. Why did you want to do that, and do you feel that it actually helped
you in performing with her? Were there things you were able to pick up on
watching those performances?

Mr. COOPER: Yeah, honestly. I mean, it's to get over the shock. I mean,
I've grown up watching these people. I just finished working with Meryl
Streep; I've worked with Robert Duvall, worked with Robert De Niro, and these
are the best people in the business. And I have no problem saying it's an
intimidating situation to know you're going to be working with those people,
and I think it's a good tool to take a look at their previous work and kind of
work to find their groove and to align yourself with that.

GROSS: You got an Academy Award for your role in "Adaptation."

Mr. COOPER: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So the character you're playing, John Laroche, is the orchid thief.
He's somebody who, you know, spends a lot of times in swamps looking for rare
orchids, he has a very colorful and mysterious past in which he's done his
share of exaggerating and lying and has had some--he's been a real loser in a
lot of ways, but he's obsessive and gifted at the same time. And, you know,
the Meryl Streep character in the movie's trying to figure out what to make of
him. What was the audition like? How did you play this character in the

Mr. COOPER: Well, it is very interesting and it's very different from any
other audition experience ever had. What struck me about the Laroche
character and reading the script that was very, very unusual--usually you read
a script and you're given a rough road map of the character's emotional life
and so on and so forth.

What was peculiar about this character was for each scene I couldn't find a
way to nail down his emotional life or how he would react to the person in
that scene. I thought it was wide open to interpretation. I thought he could
be many things in the scene. So when Spike Jonze and I met, I kind of went
out on a limb right from the beginning, and more or less pleaded with Spike to
give me the opportunity to show him a variety of possibilities in the scene.

For instance, there's a scene where Meryl Streep and I initially meet. Now
she being, you know, the New York journalist and he being the--for a lack of
better words--a Florida, working-class redneck, I felt he could have any
number of ways of dealing with Susan Orlean on their first meeting, such as he
could be terribly intimidated that here's this journalist from New York and
what must she think of this Florida redneck. Another take would be she's
lucky because of his intelligence--we know he's a very smart guy, self-taught,
self-educated--the approach that she's lucky to have my time.

So I asked Spike to allow me to do any number of readings, and as it turned
out, the audition went for about an hour and a half. We did four or five
variations per scene, and I think we worked on about five or six scenes for
that audition.

GROSS: So you gave different interpretations of the scene during the actual
shoot of the film?

Mr. COOPER: Yeah. That's what we stumbled on in the audition and we liked
the idea of that, or Spike did, and we continued that through the shooting of
the film. I've never done so much improvisation when we shot the film, and
that turned out to be a lot of fun. We made a lot of discoveries, a lot of
failures, but they were just as much a learning experience as when we really
succeeded and discovered stuff in the improvs.

GROSS: So what take surprised you the most when you actually saw the cut
version of the film?

Mr. COOPER: Probably--there was a scene where Susan Orlean and I are driving
in the truck at night, and he was becoming a little philosophical about why
people spent time around him, and he began to realize that these people who
spent time around him were probably very lonely, and that did play into Susan
Orlean's life at that time. She was thinking over her relationship with her
husband. She was not passionate about anything, and that turned out to be a
very, very touching, good choice.

GROSS: Let's hear that scene that you just mentioned in the truck with Meryl
Streep. And this is my guest Chris Cooper with Meryl Streep in a scene from

(Soundbite of "Adaptation")

Mr. COOPER: (As John Laroche) So I got married and me and my beautiful new
wife--and now ex-wife, the bitch--opened up a nursery. People started coming
out the woodwork to ask me stuff, admire my plants, admire me. I think some
people were really spending time with me because they were lonely.

(Soundbite of song playing on the radio)

Mr. COOPER: And you know why I like plants?

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Susan Orlean) Uh-uh.

Mr. COOPER: Because they're so mutable. Adaptation's a profound process.
It means you figure out how to thrive in the world.

Ms. STREEP: Yeah. But it's easier for plants. I mean, they have no memory;
you know, they just move on to whatever's next. With a person, now,
adapting's almost shameful. It's like running away.

GROSS: Now for your role in "Adaptation" you had to do prosthetics for your
mouth because the character has missing teeth, which is a part of his
biographical story. Is this the first time you had to do the whole prosthetic
thing for a role and go through the hours, you know, of fitting it on and
gluing it on before each day's shooting?

Mr. COOPER: Yeah, certainly the mouthpiece. I mean, it was just a very
expensive set of Halloween teeth that fit very securely over my teeth, and you
did have to make extra space in the mouth cavity to, you know, work around
those new set of teeth. But I think I've done three other characters who were
burn victims that involved quite of lot of, you know, exterior prosthetic work
around the face, but that was the first time I ever had to use the mouthpiece
and it did take some real getting used to.

I had several pair a month and a half to work with, and, you know, I'd walk
around the house with them and just talk with my wife and talk with my son's
caregiver and talk with my son, and they just had to put up with it. But I
got very used to it, very comfortable.

GROSS: I know your son has cerebral palsy. Did he get why you were wearing
this thing or why you looked so weird all of a sudden?

Mr. COOPER: Yeah, yeah, he does. His best vision is sort of to the side, and
I would get these very side-looking expressions of, `Oh, Dad, you're doing it
again,' you know. And he had little giggles here and there. But he puts up
with it. It's very normal around the house.

GROSS: My guest is Chris Cooper. He stars with Maggie Smith in the HBO
adaptation of the William Trevor novel "My House in Umbria." It premieres
Sunday. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Cooper. He's starring in
the new HBO adaptation of the William Trevor novel "My House in Umbria." He's
starring with Maggie Smith. He recently won an Academy Award for his role in

Let's talk about your role in "American Beauty." And in this you played a
very repressed, very homophobic former Marine who's in a constant state of
anger and defensiveness. I'm going to play a short scene. In this scene
you've just beaten up your son to teach him a lesson.

(Soundbite of "American Beauty")

Mr. COOPER: (As Colonel Fitts): This is for your own good, boy. You have
no respect for other people's things and for authority.

"RICKY": Sir, I'm sorry.

Mr. COOPER: You can't just go around doing whatever you feel like. You
can't! There are rules in life.

"RICKY": Yes, sir.

Mr. COOPER: You need structure. You need discipline.

"RICKY": Discipline. Yes, sir. Thank you for trying to teach me. Don't
give up on me, Dad.

Mr. COOPER: Oh, Ricky. You stay out of there.

GROSS: Chris Cooper, what's your take on this character?

Mr. COOPER: In working with Sam Mendes and Alan Ball, we had the luxury of
two weeks roundtable discussion and reading before we got into production,
which is very, very unusual. And everybody, everybody in the cast and the
directors and writer, had the opportunity to talk about their family life. So
we had developed a pretty intricate background for this character, and this
goes back all the way to his time in Vietnam.

And this man was a homosexual, had a lover at base camp, and we created this
scenario of him losing his lover to a firefight and that being his first
lover. And after he lost his lover, it's just the idea that he shut down; it
was such a shock, he shut down, became a lifer in the Marines. As he tells
his son, you need structure and discipline. And he's saying this because in
Colonel Fitts' head that's what, quote, "saved" him. He was a man who spent
his life denying who and what he was, and went as far as to marry and have
kids. And now when we open the film this is a man who I pictured as retired,
off the base, out of his element; he's in a new neighborhood, he's lost, and
that's where we begin in the film.

GROSS: Now it's funny, you know, in "American Beauty" the Kevin Spacey
character seems to be starring in an existential comedy; Annette Bening seems
to be starring in a comedy. You seem to be starring in a tragedy. You seem
to be starring in a much more darker, serious film than other aspects. And I
don't mean that as a criticism, because that's one of the things that makes
the movie so good is that it's balancing these different story lines and
different tones, but the tones really are different.

Mr. COOPER: People had said that very thing a number of times. They had
said it was as if you were in another film, as if Colonel Fitts was in another
film, and I don't have a problem with that. And I'm sure if it didn't work
for Sam when we were shooting it he would have redirected me. Perhaps he had
in mind that balance of working away from so many of the comic elements. I've
never talked to Sam about that, but I think he was satisfied with what we came
up with.

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, I think it's a great performance. What impact did
"American Beauty" have on your career?

Mr. COOPER: You know, I live in Massachusetts and I have to plead ignorance.
I have no idea. I think it did begin to bring a little recognition to the
actor, to me. You know, I don't live in LA. I don't, you know, hear the buzz
of what's going on. I mean, I certainly did get a sense at home that people
enjoyed the character; people reacted very strongly to it, and I'm sure it was
a bit of a help in the career.

GROSS: Chris Cooper stars with Maggie Smith in the HBO adaptation of the
novel "My House in Umbria." It premieres Sunday. Cooper will be back in the
second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, after Chris Cooper talks about his father's cattle ranch,
Ken Tucker reviews John Hiatt's new CD, and Maureen Corrigan reviews two new

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with actor Chris Cooper.
He's starring with Maggie Smith in the HBO adaptation of the William Trevor
novel "My House in Umbria." It premieres Sunday. Cooper won an Academy Award
and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of an eccentric orchid collector in the
film adaptation. He played a repressed ex-Marine in "American Beauty" and
starred as the sheriff in "Lone Star."

You grew up in Kansas City.

Mr. COOPER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And your father was a doctor. And I think the family also had a
cattle ranch...

Mr. COOPER: Yes.

GROSS: ...that wasn't your home, but you were there summers. So how did that
work that there was a cattle ranch that your family owned, but it's not where
you lived?

Mr. COOPER: We lived in the city, in Kansas City, Missouri, and the cattle
ranch was in Kansas City, Kansas. And we had a hired hand who looked over the
cattle, and he was also a security guard at Leavenworth prison, so he carried
two jobs. And it was during the winter months--in some respects, it's not
that difficult. You just need to keep shelter for the cattle and you need to
feed them, and they're pretty much on their own throughout the winter. And
then in summertime, there is haying, and in the spring, there is calving
season. And there's a lot of barbed wire fence to put up or repair. So I
would spend springs and summers out there and weekends throughout the year.

GROSS: Everything I know about cattle I learned as a child by watching
"Rawhide," the TV series about the cattle drivers that gave Clint Eastwood his
start. And I realize that's about the cattle drive, which is the next step
after the cattle ranch. Did you watch "Rawhide" when you were a kid?

Mr. COOPER: I watched "Rawhide" on occasion. I was more of a "Rifleman"...

GROSS: Oh, that was a great show, too.

Mr. COOPER: ...person, myself.


Mr. COOPER: Yeah. No, we did that. We had...

GROSS: They didn't teach you as much about cattle.

Mr. COOPER: Yeah, but we had the cattle drive. When the mommas are ready to
drop their calves, you have to keep an eye on them. And then six months
later, when the calves--they call them six-month heifers--that's when you
start to wean them from their mommas. And that's another roundup, to separate
the cows from the calves. And then at that time you also do the castrating
and the vaccinating and the tattooing, which is an ear identification number
for the cattle.

GROSS: Did you like that work?

Mr. COOPER: I loved it. I loved it. At that time it was either acting or
ranching. And they are obviously two extremes, but I just loved the life
there. And it was a very pleasant way to live, I thought.

GROSS: So your father was a doctor, and he owned a cattle ranch. What did he
think about you trying to become an actor? Did he prefer that you become, you
know, a doctor/lawyer-type of professional?

Mr. COOPER: Well, Dad, knowing his own profession, he never pushed my being a
doctor. His hours were ungodly going from hospital rounds in the morning to
the office. Then he was one of the last doctors to do house calls. And then
he would be called at 2 or 3:00 in the morning for emergencies. And I saw the
toll that it sort of took on my mother's and father's relationship, that they
were in love with each other until the day he died. It was not an easy life.
He was a very dedicated man. However, when I mentioned that I was interested
in being an actor, he really thought that was about the silliest thing a
person could do for a living. And then once I started getting work, he did
become very, very supportive, and I think he had a touch of pride in seeing
some of the early work.

GROSS: You told one interviewer that you got into trouble in your late teens,
something to do with petty theft, and you said, `It frightened me.' What
happened, and what was frightening about it?

Mr. COOPER: Well, I won't get too particular, but it was primarily the
friends that I had grown up with, in their teens, were getting just a little
too much out of hand. And I felt it was time to separate myself from them one
summer, I think, when I was 16 or 17. And I thought and thought about, `What
am I going to do? What am I going to do as an excuse to get away from these
guys?' And the answer came in my giving my time to what they call a local
resident theater across the Kansas-Missouri line in Kansas. It was called the
Barn Player's Theater.

And I offered my time for whatever they needed to sweep the theater or be a
set changer and stand in the wings, watch the actors. And after each scene,
you go on stage in a blackout and change the set. And from there, I worked my
way up into the shop and built sets. And then I went to another resident
theater, a better theater, became shop foreman, built sets at that theater
and, just out of necessity for one reason or another, began to do little
walk-ons at that theater.

GROSS: Now you said that when you wanted to get away from these other
teen-agers when you were growing up, who were getting into trouble and you
thought they'd gone too far, you needed an excuse to explain your separation
from them, and that's how you got into theater. Why did you need an excuse?

Mr. COOPER: Oh, just, I think, it was the peer pressure, and we were so
close. I mean, we had grown up from grade school. And this is another fellow
that I spent time out at his farm, spent long weekends. We were blood
brothers. And I just didn't find it in myself verbally to explain to him that
what was happening was just--I couldn't be a part of it. So I just moved on.

GROSS: Now you ended up taking dance lessons, and this is something else
you've been quoted as saying. You said, `Probably the best thing that ever
happened to me was taking dance. Because I made a total fool of myself
every day in front of a classroom of women, it helped to break through the
shyness that I'd always had.' Why did you take dance in the first place?

Mr. COOPER: Well, I thought it was a great way of building your experience in
the theater in every aspect. I remember when I was in college--and I also had
this desire to act--at the same time, being the street person, I had an
extreme shyness, and I was irritated with it. I was angry at myself because
I couldn't express myself. I was shy around people, devastatingly shy around
women. And you have these talks with yourself about how to break through

And the adjoining women's college to the University of Missouri was Stephens
College, and they had a better dance department than what was offered at the
university. So I took East Indian dancing there, jazz and ballet. And there
were maybe three or four other men in a class of 35 or 40 women. And I
maintain it was just wonderful to just fall on your face every day in front of
these women. And they were very sweet and kind and supportive. And I think I
did make a little bit of a breakthrough.

GROSS: You didn't start making movies until you were--What?--35, and John
Sayles cast you in the lead of "Matewan," which is about a coal miner strike
in West Virginia.

Mr. COOPER: Right.

GROSS: Are there things that you learned making your first movie with John
Sayles and, also, doing "Lone Star" with John Sayles? That's the movie I
first really noticed you in, "Lone Star." I thought, `Wow, this is somebody
to keep an eye on.'

Mr. COOPER: Yeah. Well, early on in shooting "Matewan," that being the first
film, I was over the moon, you know, just being involved. For a first film,
there could be nothing better than working with James Earl Jones and David
Strathairn and some of the other actors. What I did learn early on was to
really conserve energy. I was looking over the shoulder of John and Haskell
Wexler, the cinematographer, and in scenes that I was not even involved with,
I was just watching other actors work, watching the crew at work, the
technicians, trying to get an understanding of lights and lenses, every aspect
of filmmaking. And I was burning myself out, you know, for the scenes that I
had to do. So, truly, that was an outstanding lesson--was to do your work and
leave the rest of the work to the other cast and crew and save your energy
'cause there's a lot more work to come up.

GROSS: Well, the next big role that you're in is in "Seabiscuit," the movie
based on the best-selling book about the racehorse. Tell us a little bit
about your role in that.

Mr. COOPER: The character is Tom Smith, and he's a bit of a mystery man.
There's not very much information about him. But he was one of the last of
the cowboys at the turn of the century. He would rope and break and sell
mustangs for a living. And once the cowboy era came to an end, they were out
of work. And so what did they do to make a living? That's when the idea
of--What do you call it?--those dude ranches. When the dude ranches came into
existence, cowboys would work there, or they could work at Wild West shows.
And that's, indeed, what Tom Smith did. Then he moved on to farrier work.
That's, you know, working with horses. And he did a bit of horse training at
Mexican race tracks, but a man who, I think, probably felt more comfortable
and spent more time with animals than he did human beings.

GROSS: So although the Western era on TV and in the movies is over, your
cattle ranch experience is actually paying off again.

Mr. COOPER: Again, yeah. Sure did.

GROSS: Well, Chris Cooper, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. COOPER: Oh, very welcome. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Chris Cooper stars with Maggie Smith in the HBO adaptation of the
novel "My House in Umbria." It premieres Sunday.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews John Hiatt's new CD. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: "Beneath This Gruff Exterior" and "It'll Come To You: The
Songs of John Hiatt"

John Hiatt has just released a new album called "Beneath This Gruff
Exterior." At the same time, there's a tribute album to him called "It'll
Come To You: The Songs of John Hiatt" featuring singers ranging from Willie
Nelson to Nick Lowe. Rock critic Ken Tucker thinks these dual releases
provide a good time to assess Hiatt's career.

(Soundbite of "The Nagging Dark")

Mr. JOHN HIATT: (Singing) How fast you gonna run away, away from this one?
Anywhere but here you want to disappear into the next great life, where
everything's right. It's always somewhere else you're gonna fix yourself
once shame and guilt have made their mark. Well, you can't run away from the
nagging dark. You carry it everywhere in your heart. It finishes everything
that you start. You can't run away from the nagging dark.

KEN TUCKER reporting:

You might call "Beneath This Gruff Exterior" a concept album. Remember
concept albums? The 50-something Hiatt does. His latest is one long
meditation on how middle age tempts you with complacency, and, refreshingly,
he concludes that rather than raging against the dying light, he's writing
songs about how giving in to the guttering flame into, as he calls it in the
song I just played, "The Nagging Dark."

(Soundbite of "The Nagging Dark")

Mr. HIATT: (Singing) Ward Bond was a sidekick to Rowdy Yates. Drove that
wagon train out West right along this interstate across the high Plains of
Kansas to the Colorado line. He spent a lot of sleepless nights around the
campfire. They had mountains on their minds. But those high Plains people,
they're different somehow. You spend your life leaning into a hard wind, I
guess you're less likely to take a bow. All these stories buried out here,
they're calling me. Like the earthquakes in California, like the hills back
in Tennessee, I've got to circle back...

TUCKER: Throughout this album, Hiatt composes a lot of catchy guitar rock
with virtually nothing to say beyond, `Life, hey, it passes quickly, huh?' I
can help him out on the first two lines of that song. The Western character,
Rowdy Yates, that he dimly recalls as maybe having been Ward Bond's sidekick
was--sorry, John--actually Clint Eastwood's character on the old TV show

Hiatt first emerged in the late '70s as a would-be American version of Elvis
Costello, vehement lyrically, peevish on stage, making the most of a permanent
croak of a voice. He never became a big star. He spent some time in
Nashville cranking out country songs for others, and he wrote a few good ones
in that genre, like "Paper Thin" covered on his tribute album by alternative
country's answer to George and Tammy, Buddy and Julie Miller.

Mr. BUDDY MILLER and Ms. JULIE MILLER: (In unison) (Singing) I was gonna get
up off of that bar stool just as soon as I could figure it out. Why, I was
overlooked at the car pool. Stood up at the dance with no twist and shout.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) When you're burning with your last desire and every
memory haunts you, you...

Mr. MILLER and Ms. MILLER: (In unison) (Singing) ...write it down in alcohol
fire 'cause that's the only thing that wants you when you're paper thin.

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Yeah, read all about it. And you were out of luck when
luck was doing all right

Mr. MILLER and Ms. MILLER: (In unison) (Singing) Now you're paper thin.

TUCKER: Hiatt's best, if most tenuous, talent is the way he can reduce grand
statements of emotion to human scale when he gets it right, as he did for
Bonnie Raitt's hit "Thing Called Love;" the B.B. King-Eric Clapton tune
"Riding With The King" a couple of years ago and these pieces of gloriously
redeemed schlock by Linda Ronstadt.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LINDA RONSTADT: (Singing) Could have been the kiss of my life. Could
have been the death of me. Could have been that I was just too scared to wait
around and see. I could have been a guardian angel. I could have been the
wicked one. Like the buttons on our shirts, what else did we leave undone?
When we...

TUCKER: Me, I prefer my John Hiatt a little more small scale. Thus my
favorite cut on "It'll Come To You: The Songs of John Hiatt" maybe this one
sung by Nick Lowe.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NICK LOWE: (Singing) From my humble point of view...

Unidentified Backup Vocalists: (Singing) ...she don't love nobody.

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) Nothing borrowed, nothing blue.

Unidentified Backup Vocalists: (Singing) She don't love nobody.

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) Behind the green, I write this text.

Unidentified Backup Vocalists: (In unison) (Singing) She don't love nobody.

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) A heart no kiss could resurrect.

Unidentified Backup Vocalists: (In unison) (Singing) She don't love nobody.

Mr. LOWE: (Singing) All her life she's been taught to hold on tight.
`There's your man.' He'll make her his wife.

Mr. LOWE and Unidentified Backup Vocalists: (In unison) (Singing) But she's
not interested in anything her mother said.

TUCKER: You might think it's premature to issue a tribute album for a guy
who's still putting out pretty lively product. But given his latest lyrics
assertion that he'd rather sit around than run for the office of stardom, it's
probably timed just right. John Hiatt is an excellent also-ran who slowed to
a comfortable stroll.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
John Hiatt's new CD, "This Gruff Exterior," and the tribute album called,
"It'll Come To You: The Songs of John Hiatt."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews two new mysteries. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: "Soul Circus" and "Dogs of Riga"

In the mood to read some good mysteries? Book critic Maureen Corrigan is on
the case.


In 1945, the critic Edmund Wilson published a now-classic essay in The New
Yorker magazine called "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?" As that title
indicates, Wilson took a specific swipe at the novels of Agatha Christie. But
he also denounced detective fiction in general, which he said, `turned readers
into suspense-addicted opium smokers.' Wilson's kind of prejudice has eroded,
but there's still the lingering sense that mysteries are guilty until proven
innocent of being junk. Personally, I don't get it. Some of the most
ambitious social criticism, strongest narratives and most memorable characters
I've ever encountered have been encased in the form of detective stories.

Two of the finest practitioners of the genre have recently published new
novels. Maybe Agatha Christie wasn't darkly poetic enough to persuade Edmund
Wilson of the value of her novels, but these two literary tough guys could
wipe that high-art sneer right off his face.

George P. Pelecanos' latest novel, "Soul Circus," may be his best yet. But
then I've been declaring that cliche judgment about a lot of his novels ever
since I've been reading him. "Soul Circus" is the third book to feature Derek
Strange, a black 50ish former cop who owns a detective agency, Strange
Investigations, in the Petworth section of Washington, DC. It's a
neighborhood of barbershops, funeral parlors and butcher shops that still sell
lunches. Pelecanos, as always, vividly evokes this landscape and the rhythms
of incidental talk that go with it. You'll just have to trust me or not on
that last point because quoting any of the dialogue from this novel in my
white girl voice would make it laughable. Speaking of white people, Strange's
partner is named Terry Quinn, and he's a white ex-cop with attitude problems,
but he's working on them.

Business is booming for Strange and Quinn. Strange is hired to do the legwork
for the defense team of a gang leader accused of murder. Meanwhile, a
low-life comes in off the street and hires Quinn to find an old girlfriend.
Both jobs horrifically backfire. "Soul Circus" grapples with some of the big
questions: the American racial divide, the existence of a God who would allow
harm to children; the transient nature of life. They're all on board here.
What's so brilliant about "Soul Circus" in particular and Pelecanos' novels in
general is that these questions are raised, not only in contemplative
passages, but also in the raw scenes of violence.

In the space of a couple of paragraphs here, four gang members suddenly die in
bloody, balletic sequence. And you find yourself reeling from the waste of
their stupid lives, the point of it all. Ditto for the ending of this superb
novel, which shoves readers into an unwanted audience with the awful silence
at the center of things. Strange Investigations, indeed.

A world away from the mean streets of DC, Inspector Kurt Wallander has been
hard at work in Ystad, Sweden. Wallander is the antihero of nine ingenious
detective novels by the internationally celebrated writer Henning Mankell.
The Wallander novels are being erratically translated into English and
published out of order by The New Press. But no matter. Like Raymond
Chandler's Philip Marlowe books, they're stand-alone miracles.

The most recent Wallander novel to appear is the second called the "Dogs of
Riga," translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. Two corpses in a
lifeboat wash up on shore of a Swedish beach. The dead men turn out to be
Latvian hoodlums, and Wallander works with a visiting Latvian police detective
to solve their murders. When that likeable Latvian detective returns home and
is himself murdered, Wallander travels to Riga and descends to the bottom of a
corruption cesspool so deep, it makes Edgar Allan Poe's notorious "Maelstrom"
look like a mere puddle.

The Swedes have a gift for gloomy, introspective detective fiction. Think of
the classic Inspector Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Surely part
of their inspiration comes from their miserable climate. It's always about to
snow in the Wallander books, and half of his police colleagues always seem to
be at home with the flu. Wallander himself is prone to morose metaphysical
speculations. He's 42, divorced, semi-estranged from his adult daughter and
responsible for the care of his demented elderly father. In this novel,
Wallander experiences heart palpitations. Lying in his hospital bed,
Wallander, we're told, felt that his whole life was characterized by a sense
of desolation that he simply couldn't shake off. How could the kind of pain
he'd just been feeling be caused by loneliness? He couldn't come up with any
solution that didn't immediately fill him with doubt.

Any Edmund Wilson acolytes who still dismiss all mysteries as mere whodunnits
should think about that last statement of Wallander's. That last line speaks
to the quest for answers that informs all great detective fiction, a quest the
genre is smart enough to recognize as doomed.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed new mysteries by George Pelecanos and Henning Mankell.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, Dr. Lynn Amowitz, senior medical researcher
with Physicians for Human Rights. She'll talk about her trip through Iraq,
where she assessed conditions in hospitals and visited mass grave sites. She
just returned from Iraq. I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue