|Cover of The Man Who Sued God
A thing that is slightly oppressive as one moves into one’s eighties is the evidence of frequent memory loss. Oddly enough, when I mention this to people --- people of 45 or 50, or even younger --- they always say the same thing, “Oh, yes, that happens to me too.” I am never sure if they are just trying to reassure me, or whether it really does happen to everyone, which, if true would not be really surprising, because it seems to be a fact of modern life that we now have more information than the human mind can cope with.
A couple of aspects of memory loss that have become persistent for me only in the last few years are first, an inability to remember something I read or watched only yesterday, and secondly, when picking up a book to choose, a difficulty in remembering whether or not I have read it before. None of these afflicted me in earlier years, and I was surprised a few months ago to find, as I laboured through a new book, that something about it was vaguely familiar, and, as I read on, became so familiar that finally I remembered having read it before. A few years ago I would have spotted that in the first sentence.
Thus it is that I find it hard to remember titles, even of writers many of whose works I have read, such as John LeCarré, James Lee Burke, Ian McEwan, even my beloved P.G. Wodehouse. It happens more and more frequently that I arrive home with a new book, only to discover I have already read it.
Eventually, these traits became so commonplace for me that I have reverted to a habit I had a few years ago, which is to make notes of every book I read, every movie I see, so that, in an extremity, I can refer to the notes and refresh my memory that way.
I have also found myself falling into unprecedented confusion about detail: for example, visiting Toronto over the holidays, my son and I watched three movies. I remembered the last one I had seen, but as for the two earlier ones, their titles had completely vanished from my mind, along with their themes, and even the members of their casts. When he reminded me of the title The Man Who Sued God --- a striking enough title, for God’s sake --- I began to describe the plot to an acquaintance, only to find that the story I was telling was actually that of a film called Find Me Guilty. The common thing between the two movies was that they both had long court scenes as the centrepiece of the action. The third film was one called Harlem Nights, starring such black comedians as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Redd Fox, and some others. Halfway through, as the story about a nightclub during prohibition days unfolded, I said to my son, “What’s this got to do with Robert Johnson (the great black folk singer of earlier years)?” He said, “No, the story of Robert Johnson was the film we didn’t choose.” Another memory confusion.
It is probably worth mentioning in passing that The Man Who Sued God was about the wonderful Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, playing a boatowner in Australia whose boat is sunk during a storm that gave the insurance companies licence to say it was an Act of God, and therefore, not covered. Connolly’s character, a persistent mischief-maker, decided that his best recourse was to sue God, a course he followed with such elegance and vivacity that the churches finally agreed to settle a sum of $150,000 on him against the loss of his boat plus another $200,000 for his trouble and inconvenience, the only rider being that the deal must remain secret.
Connolly thereafter took legal advice and entered a class-action suit for half a billion dollars, representing all the thousands of people who had been cheated by the “act of God” excuse over the years. At this point the tone of the movie changed, became more serious, as a genuine debate broke out about where God was to be found, how he could be held accountable, and finally, whether or not he actually exists. The clergymen, representing their established churches, were forced into a position in which they would have had to argue that God did not exist if they were to win their cause. I liked this film a lot, another good one from the Aussies.
The other courtroom drama, also based on the apparently frivolous fact that it was about an accused mobster, one of 20 charged with mob activities under the RICO act, who decided to represent himself. This film also took on more serious tone as the mobster, persuasively played by Vin Diesel, began to ask serious questions of the witnesses whom his mob brothers, outraged by his unorthodoxy, put up to denigrate him and call his honesty into question. This developed into an interesting examination of a man under pressure, a man without any significant education, a crook who freely admitted his culpability for a wide variety of crimes, but in whom an unaccustomed path slowly seemed to be settling in his mind --- a path of decency and honour.
This was apparently based on a real-life occurrence. After the longest trial in U.S. history, the jury found all 21 accused innocent --- so all went free except the barrack-room lawyer, who was already serving a life sentence for other crimes.
A footnote recorded that he was released after seven years, and took up a quiet, and apparently crime-free life in the suburbs of somewhere like New Jersey. But not before having been greeted on his return from the court to prison by his fellow prisoners as a hero for his part --- no doubt significant --- in helping to obtain freedom for all the accused, whose confidence he was proud never to have betrayed, even under the most intense provocation.
I started out, somehow or other, to write about a book I have just read, but it will have to wait for next time.