Tag Archive for Robert Altman

How There’s a Touch of “M.A.S.H.” in My Book, BETTER OFF UNDEAD


My parents rarely took the whole family to movies. In fact, they rarely took themselves. Money was tight and with seven children covering a twelve-year span, a night at the movies was an expensive, unrealistic outing. However, I do recall a few family outings to the theater and can still name each movie: “The Immigrants” with Liv Ullman (I was too young and bored out of my mind), “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman (politically incorrect but I love it to this day), “The Godfather,” “Frenzy” (Hitchcock!), and “M.A.S.H.” And that’s it, the sum total of all the films I saw with my parents in the theater.

In particular, Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H.” stuck with me — it felt wild and irreverant — and then the popular television series further reinforced its influence on me. Without consciously thinking of the source, I borrowed a technique from the movie for my middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead.


I am thinking of the absurdist, omniscient P.A. announcements sprinkled throughout the film and, later, the series. What a brilliant device for satire and social comment. And not only that idea, but visually the way Altman fixed the camera on speaker. No reaction shots from beloved characters. We don’t even know the source of the voice who gives the announcements; it’s as if the words had fallen from the skies.


And on and on it goes. Here’s a great source for announcements from the television series. Please check it out, I’m sure you’ll find some favorites.


For my part, I believe young people experience this absurdity in a unique way each school day. Suddenly the voice blares on, interrupting whatever might be happening at any time during the day. I decided to feature the school principal in this manner. For example, the “Morning Announcements” chapter that begins on page 104:

On top of everything else, our principal was losing his mind. Maybe it was the job, I don’t know. There were days when our school felt like a madhouse — and the students weren’t the loony ones. Take today’s morning announcements for example, which began as usual with an ear-splitting buzz:

Kkccchh. “Is this on?” Kkccchh. Tap-tap, TAP-TAP. “Miss Shen? Is this thing” — whirr — “hey-ho, ouch! — What the . . . ? Good mooooorningggg, Nixon Middle School! This is your principal, Mr. Rouster!”

pa-speakersFrom my seat in the back corner of my homeroom class, I watched as everyone turned to the loudspeaker in listless silence.

The substitute teacher, Mrs. Perez, never looked up from her smartphone. Principal Rouster crowed. “All righty, then! I’ve got some good news, some bad news, and some really bad news. First, the good news! Our school recently received a large federal grant involving enormous sums of taxpayers’ money. I’m please to announce that there will be construction going on throughout the school. You may be inconvenienced by the occasional disruption.”

On cue, a series of loud noises — banging, chiseling, and the vibrating cacophony of a jackhammer — erupted out in the hallway. Next came a calamitous crash, a thud, and a muffled “Oops.”

Principal Rouster chattered on in a nasal voice, unruffled. “The bad news is that the construction will cause changes to our normal schedule. Until further notice, the cafeteria will be moved to the gymnasium. But P.E. will go on as scheduled. Just don’t confuse the meatballs with the dodgeballs! Heh-heh. The Choir Club will share a room with the Chess Club; they will both meet in the science lab. On Tuesday we’ll follow the Wednesday schedule, except for band members, who will adhere to their Thursday schedules — but only on Mondays. Lastly, the literacy center will be closed because of the asbestos problem recently brought to our attention by Janitor McConnell’s alarming rash. Get better soon, Mike!”

The girl next to me, Desiree Reynolds, muttered, “I wonder what the really bad news is.”

Principal Rouster continued, “The really bad news is that all bathroom privileges have been temporarily suspended. This should last only a few hours. In case of emergency, a temporary porta-potty has been set up in the mail hallway. I don’t have to tell you that with seven hundred students in the school, we’ll require a high level of cooperation and an almost Zen-like self-control of your bodily functions. Please avoid all liquids, and I strongly suggest that you tread lightly on today’s lunch special, the New Orleans gumbo. That stuff runs right through you.

“Thank you and happy learning!” 

I had originally intended to do more of this kind of thing throughout the book, but over time I felt it interrupted the pace of the story. I decided that a little bit would go a long way. That was my hope anyway! Here’s another quick bit, later in the book:

On Friday, the day of the “Halloween Fandango” — don’t look at me, I don’t name these things — Principal Rouster made another major announcement:

Kkkccchh. Kkkccchh. Tap-tap. TAP-TAP — SQUAAAWWWKKK. “Good afternoon, Nixon Middle School! Due to the recent discovery of toxic mold in various locations around the school, the Department of Health has temporarily shut down gymnasium B, our proposed setting for tonight’s Halloween Fandango! < snip > Not to worry! We’ve moved the dance to . . . THE PIT!”

Churlish screams, anguished cries, and wails of despair filled the room. “Not the pit, anything but the pit!” Desiree Reynolds moaned. 

“It smells like stale cheese!” groaned Arnie Chang.

“I got sick in the pit last year,” little Jessica Timmons confessed in her tiny voice, “and they still haven’t mopped it up.”



Oh, one final note of appreciation. At the end of the film, in a truly meta moment, the PA announcement is used to break through the fourth wall. It closes with this message:

“Tonight’s movie has been M*A*S*H.”


Deleted Scenes 3: Six Innings

I’ve got about 10,000 words sitting in a scrap heap, savagely cut from Six Innings during the revision process. Here’s one little scene — a conversation, really — that didn’t make the book. For two reasons: 1) It’s a scene with two adults, not a kid in sight; 2) It takes us away from the game itself, and we got to a point where we decided to be careful about how often we do that.

With any ensemble piece, confusing the reader is a constant danger. It’s much simpler with one strong character running straight through the narrative (ask Jigsaw). But that was never my intention, for better and for worse. I had Robert Altman in mind, “Nashville,” a large cast. So the game became the single thread running through the narrative, because it was the game that brought all those characters together in the first place, that point in their lives where they connected for those two hours. On a diamond.

Back to the deleted scene: I needed to write this scene, I needed to say it, and know it, but maybe I didn’t need it in the book. Who knows! When I first told people about writing Six Innings, they’d say, “Are you going to tell about how horrible some of the parents and coaches can be?”

Well, no. Not this book. But also, that’s really not been my experience. And when it comes to coaches, yes, I’m biased. I see how much time they put into a season. All on a voluntary basis, without pay, and often without thanks from parents. My overall impression is that these coaches are good men, who are present for our kids, who do their best. Are they flawed? Yup. Do they care first about their own children? Sometimes. Do I like them all? Nope. But I know a lot of these guys. The solution is always the same: Shut up and get involved. And this scene, written below, expresses one little aspect of what I know.

– – – – –

Jeff Reid snapped on the lamp on his night table. The clock read three o’clock, the wrong three o’clock. He was wide awake, climbed out of bed.

“Honey, what is it?” Naomi Reid groggily asked.

“Can’t sleep,” he explained.

Naomi Reid knew her husband. “Thinking about the game tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” he admitted.

“Turn out the light, come back to bed,” she told him. “It’s just a Little League game.”

“It’s for the championship,” he corrected his wife.

Naomi yawned, bone tired. Shut her eyes.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we won?” Jeff said.

Naomi didn’t hear, or didn’t answer.

Jeff continued talking. “I mean, not for me. For the boys. I’d love for them to have that feeling. Winners, you know?”

Naomi squinted at her husband. “For the boys?” she repeated skeptically. “Not for you?”

Jeff laughed. “Okay, for me, too. I admit it: I’ve never won anything in my life. But mostly I’d love to see those boys win. Imagine the look on Branden’s face. They’ve played so hard this year. Such good kids, you know. They deserve this.”

He paused, “I have to find a scrap of paper. I want to write down some ideas for the lineup.”

Naomi Reid, wife to this good man for eighteen long years that had rolled by like winning seasons, grumbled her assent. “Come to bed soon. You’ll need your sleep. And Jeff,” she said, “those boys are lucky to have you.”