Become What You Are

Tropper everythingCriticizing Jonathan Tropper for representing one specific worldview is sort of like criticizing The Ramones for not using a string section.  Yet that’s usually what I hear when criticism is levied against him: his stories are too white, too male, too thirtysomething anxious.  If there’s any discussion about whether or not he deals with those things well, it’s often tinged with condescension about the perspectives he’s not representing.  Which, I have to say, makes little sense to me.  Just because Tropper writes from (and about) the perspective of an approaching-middle-age white dude doesn’t mean he’s discounting the struggles of anyone else in the world.  It’s criticism of omission; rather than engaging with where he has or hasn’t succeeded, it’s condemnation based on what he hasn’t tried to do at all because it wouldn’t be appropriate for the stories he’s telling.

I mean, look: it’s clearly important we keep our own struggles in perspective.  At no point do I believe that my anxiety at getting older can hold a candle to the mind-numbing terror felt by people experiencing ethnic genocide – or even people who simply struggle day to day to make ends meet.  But it’s my anxiety, and no matter how much I try to empathize with others, I still have to come home and deal with my own head.  So as soon as we start saying, “Well, this novel is inferior because the main character’s problems are relatively small potatoes compared to what other people in the world are dealing with,” we’re just competing in the Olympics of Misery, where the person with the saddest story wins and everyone else loses, seeing their own personal struggles diminished in the process.  I’d like to think I can enjoy Tropper and Richard Wright, thank you very much, and that just because I identify with the travails of schlubby white guys, that doesn’t mean I’m ignoring the plight of women and minorities.  And, I should add, just because one author chooses to write about schlubby white guys doesn’t mean other people’s struggles are automatically minimized.  I’m not sure where this notion came from that every work of art has to be the United Nations, but here we are.

I say all this because Everything Changes, the fifth of Tropper’s books I’ve read, is just as funny and truthful as the other four, even if it does continue to plow a similar furrow as the others.  This time around, Zack, a – you guessed it – thirtysomething white guy, is stuck in a job he hates, engaged to a woman he adores but doesn’t love, and secretly pines for the widow of his best friend.   On the same day his estranged father shows up on his doorstep after fifteen years, Zack sees blood in his urine and is faced with the prospect of a cancer diagnosis.  He uses the convergence of all these events – health, father, shitty job, engagement party – to make some drastic changes in his life, only he does so in the most passive way possible: by generally doing nothing, choosing instead to let his disengagement take care of things on its own.

There are a lot of the usual Tropperisms his fans will recognize and new readers will enjoy.  First and foremost, we get self-aware, smart-alecky dialogue spoken by well-drawn characters that verge on the realistic without quite making the jump to people we’d be likely to meet in everyday life.  In addition to Zack there’s his well-read punk-rock brother Matt; his other brother, the mentally impaired Peter; his self-sacrificing mother Lela; Norm, the wayward, Viagra-popping father; Jed, a self-made millionaire who’d rather stay home and watch TV; Hope, the too-perfect fiancée; and Tamara, the widow to whom Zack would rather be engaged.

And like Tropper’s other novels, this one does feature some sequences that verge on sitcom territory – a punchup at the engagement party, a disastrous encounter with a groupie, a golf course confrontation with a doctor – but the hallmark of Tropper’s work is the way he’s able to weave threads of genuine insight into a tapestry of broad comedy.  Zack has this realization in the book’s final third:

This is what happens.  You piss blood one day and it somehow makes you think that maybe your life isn’t taking shape the way it’s meant to and, at thirty-two years old, if you’re going to be making any changes, you had best make them come quick.  So you give it a whirl, and it’s like trying to make a ninety-degree turn in a speeding boat, and the whole thing just flips over, and you’re submerged in the frigid, churning waters, bobbing roughly in your own broken wake.  And no matter which way you turn your desperate gaze, there’s absolutely no land in sight, which is strange, because you didn’t think you’d gone out that far to begin with.

Is the sensation of feeling lost in the way Zack feels lost only the province of characters like him – the thirty-year-old middle-class white dudes?   I’d argue not, and it feels to me like anyone getting hung up on the demographics of Tropper’s protagonists are ignoring – maybe willfully – the universality of his work.  We all wrestle with family dynamics, we all feel ambivalence about the people we love, we all – at one time or another – find work boring and life unsatisfying.  Are these seismic struggles, the kind that change lives in an instant?  Of course not.  But they are the kind that leave hairline fractures in the foundation, the ones that accumulate over time and, if not remedied, can reduce lives to rubble.

Current listening:

Beautiful carry

The Beautiful South – Carry on up the Charts: The Best of The Beautiful South (1995)

Deliver Us from Evil

last-exitI immediately get suspicious whenever a book or a movie or a TV show is lauded as an accurate depiction of anything.  This comes from years of seeing the frequently overwhelming grind of the teaching profession inaccurately compared to schmaltzy, saccharine hooey like Dead Poets Society or Freedom Writers or Mr. Holland’s Opus.  They’re all undeniably effective as drama, but they might as well feature a classroom full of unicorns for how realistically they depict the classroom.  And when we take these movies as reflections of real life, it makes sense that the public wants to know why their school and their teachers can’t just snap their fingers and solve all the problems of the world in less than 120 minutes.  If I had a screenwriter penning all the dialogue in my class each day, I’d look pretty awesome, too, and each class would feature a stirring montage backed by sweeping orchestration.  This is one reason why Alexander Payne’s Election is the most accurate version of high school ever committed to celluloid (thanks due, of course, to the Tom Perotta novel on which it’s based).  Payne isn’t afraid to admit that teachers can be both well-intentioned and petty, inspiring and manipulative.  I knew lots of teachers like Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister, and in some of my worst moments I can even relate to him.

I knew the hype surrounding Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, first published in 1964, and my reality radar was already pinging.  The cover blurbs attest to its verisimilitude, promising it to be a depiction of “the fierce, primal rage seething in America’s cities.”  I love it when a book shows me things I’ve never seen – and this sheltered, Ohio-born coward certainly isn’t on a first-name basis with the mean streets of New York City – but once again I wondered: Just how realistic should I consider Selby’s version of Brooklyn to be?

After reading it, I’m still not sure.  There’s no doubting its power, that’s for sure.  It’s a gut punch of a book, half a dozen loosely-connected stories that feature a collection of profoundly unlikable characters doing generally horrible things to each other.  They hang out at the local diner, they get into fights, and – oh yeah – they beat their wives, over and over and over again.  There’s an argument to be made that Selby’s book is unrepentantly anti-woman, but the problem I have with that characterization is that the men doing the beating are clearly meant to be seen as despicable lowlifes.  Their behavior isn’t punished, but it certainly isn’t valorized, and at no point do we (or at least did I) ever feel that we’re meant to admire Vinnie or Mike or Abe or any of the mob who brutally beat and gang-rape Tralala in one of the book’s centerpiece stories.

And then there’s Harry.  The main character in “Strike,” he’s simultaneously the most unlikable and most sympathetic of characters.  A union worker who basically does nothing but cause problems for management, he’s tasked with organizing and running a months-long strike.  At the start, there’s no way to like Harry.  He’s lazy, he’s verbally and physically abusive toward his wife, and he is, above all, chronically angry.  Once the strike starts he looks like every recent Fox News union caricature: barely working and abusing his privileges by charging the union for food and drink after hours.  He buys friendship from the neighborhood ne’er-do-wells, inviting them to enjoy the free food while tiresomely regaling them with stories of all the (not very) difficult work he’s doing.

I know, I know: “He’s also sympathetic, you say?”  He is (and spoiler alert ahead).  During one of these evenings with the local guys, Harry becomes infatuated with Georgette, a neighborhood drag queen.  He doesn’t question the realization that he’s a closeted homosexual, and that this likely has everything to do with his animosity toward his wife.  He experiences a few moments of reservation at Mary’s, a Brooklyn gay bar, but as soon as he overcomes these he ardently pursues a series of relationships with an assortment of drag queens.  It’s in these moments that Harry is truly, finally, happy.  Content, even.  And in this way,despite all its misogynistic undercurrents, Last Exit to Brooklyn is also decidedly pro-gay.  If anything, the drag queens are the most positive characters in the book, standing out in stark contrast to the bullies and creeps that populate the stories.

It is, I have to admit, a little concerning how Selby undercuts this progressive stance by later equating homosexuality with pedophilia at the end of “Strike.”  I know we’re supposed to see Harry as a broken man, one thoroughly beyond redemption, and I also try to remember that we now know more about homosexuality than Selby did in 1964, including the fact that there’s no link between homosexuality and pedophilia.   And of course we also see Harry get his comeuppance at the end of the story.  But it’s hard to know how to feel.

And that pretty much sums up my opinion of Last Exit to Brooklyn as a whole.  Is all the hype about its supposed reality accurate?  Do I read this as an accurate reflection of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/early 1960s, with Selby simply acting as a reporter?  Is the misogyny and brutality (which I have to admit occasionally reads as pretty cartoony) just Selby telling it like it was?  In either case, I’m not sure I can recommend the book.  If it’s just stylized awfulness, it doesn’t really work as satisfying fiction, and if it’s truly a realistic depiction of Brooklyn life, it’s almost too disturbing to contemplate.


Current listening:

XTC oranges

XTC – Oranges & Lemons (1989)

Navigating the Void

Ian blackI’m going to begin my review of Ian Rankin’s masterful Black and Blue by doing something I’ve tried to refrain from doing lately: bitching about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  For the uninitiated – in other words, readers of my reviews who don’t know what I’m up to in my life off the computer – my problems with the CCSS aren’t some Glenn Beckian, “Obama’s a secret Muslim so let’s cancel AP US History” goofabout.  Nope: my problems with it are manifold, very real, and based in the twenty years I’ve spent in the classroom as, first, a high school English teacher and, currently, a teacher educator.  I’m not going to bore you to tears by illustrating all of them here, but what I am going to do is touch on how Rankin’s Rebus mystery series, and this book in particular, do a bang-up job of putting the lie to a couple of the CCSS’ central tenets.

This is the eighth novel to feature Detective Inspector John Rebus and the fourth one I’ve read since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project, but this is actually the first time I’ve written one of these lengthy reviews on one of them.  So, to catch you up before I plunge headfirst into the CCSS mire, D.I. Rebus is a rumpled alcoholic loner who’s largely been a failure in his personal life because of his tendency to obsess over the cases he’s assigned.  The series takes place in and around Edinburgh, Scotland, and, rather than emulate the largely dopey tendency of American mystery series to feature a killer of the week in each book (see Sandford, Patterson, Deaver, et. al.), Rankin’s series is deeply Scottish and is concerned more centrally with mysteries that plumb the depths of British identity.  Rankin is, for my money, the best mystery writer working today (even better than my beloved Mo Hayder).

What does any of this have to do with the CCSS?  Two things, which I’ll take in turn – and I promise I’ll be talking about Black and Blue soon.

David Coleman, the architect of the English Language Arts standards and self-acknowledged unqualified non-teacher, is on record as believing students shouldn’t be encouraged to bring their prior knowledge to bear on a text, focusing instead only on what they can learn from “the four corners of the page.”  The most asinine example of this is his series of lessons on teaching the Gettysburg Address, which he believes should be done without sharing the cultural and historical context surrounding the delivery of Lincoln’s most famous speech.  At this point I invite you to think of a time when you haven’t  brought your prior knowledge and experience with you when you read.  Is it even possible?  When I read I’m constantly holding the text up against what I already know about the world, drawing on that prior knowledge as a way of illuminating the story (or essay or article or whatever).  It seems even more important for younger, less confident readers to see this as a viable strategy.  If nothing else, it lets them know what gaps in their understanding they need to fill.  If they’re not engaging in this sort of metacognitive thought, it’s unlikely they’ll get what they need from whatever it is they’re reading.

Which brings me back to Ian Rankin.  His Rebus series is not especially well-known in the States.  You can find a smattering of his stuff at your local Barnes & Noble, but he’s not exactly a name up there in recognition with John Patterson (which I’d argue isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that’s an essay for another time).  I chalk up a lot of this anonymity to a lack of cultural knowledge.  As I mentioned earlier, Rankin’s series is inextricably linked to its Scottish setting and characters, and he doesn’t really hold the reader’s hand.  If you pick up one of his books and don’t have at least a passing familiarity with Scotland, British government, the geography and economy of the U.K., Scots slang, etc., etc., you’re going to have a tough go of it.  In other words, if you don’t have the requisite prior knowledge to draw on, the four corners of the page aren’t going to do much to help you out.  Because I’m an unrepentant (and nerdy – oh so nerdy) Anglophile, I’ve got a decent understanding of what I need to make sense of the story, and part of the fun of it (for me, at least) is putting that understanding into play.  It’s crucial to my enjoyment of the series, just as I’m sure the prior knowledge you bring to your favorite genres is crucial to your own.  But David Coleman says it’s not important.  And in that he’s dead wrong.

The second way Black and Blue has some important things to tell us about the deficiencies of the CCSS deals with the way the standards enforce faulty distinctions in text types.  In the great middle school dance that is the CCSS, “informational texts” are the 7th grade boys huddled on one side of the gymnasium and “literary texts” are the girls arrayed on the other side.  If we’re to believe the CCSS, these two groups never touch and never dance – they’re kept artificially apart, probably by David Coleman and a yardstick.  The implication in the standards is that we read literary texts for enjoyment (and also for evisceration, as we examine them for all manner of things adored by teachers and hated by students) and informational texts to learn things.  While I wholeheartedly agree that we should resist the urge to overemphasize efferent readings of texts meant to be read aesthetically, the notion that we don’t learn anything from literary texts is laughable.

Black and Blue illustrates this perfectly.  At the start of the eighth book in the series, Rebus has been drummed out of his previous post because he annoyed the wrong people in Book 7.  Now he’s officially trying to figure out who killed an oil refinery worker and unofficially trying to solve a series of murders that look remarkably like the work of Bible John, a killer operating in the late 1960s.  At the same time, Rebus himself becomes the focus of an internal affairs investigation, thanks to some question marks that exist from a case he and his mentor solved early in his career.  As with all of Rankin’s previous books, it’s intense, nail-biting stuff, twisty-turny and darkly funny.  By this point Rebus practically leaps off the page, a flawed cop who seems all too real, and it’s to Rankin’s credit that he paints both the murder investigations and the internal affairs chess match with the same intensity.  But here’s the thing: Even while I found myself dragged into Rebus’ struggles with alcohol and authority and enjoying Rankin’s way with hard-boiled dialogue, I learned at least three things:

Bible John was a real killer, operating in Glasgow in 1969.  He murdered three women before dropping completely off the radar.

Aberdeen, Scotland became known as the “Oil Capital of Europe” in the mid-1970s, and refineries in the North Sea are still active.

The Shetland Islands have more in common with Scandinavia than with Scotland.  They’re also really windy.

The above bullets are just snapshots of the first three things that came to mind, and there’s more I picked up about each of them than I cared to include here (especially about the lives of workers on oil rigs).  But all of them illustrate the fallacy of keeping informational and literary texts at arm’s length.  We can learn things about the world from novels and short stories and poetry (I know more about 19th Century sailing vessels than I ever wanted to know, thanks to Dan Simmons’ horror novel, The Terror), and we can appreciate the grace and craft of well-written nonfiction (see the beginning of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for a prime example).

And this is maybe the perfect encapsulation of my problems with the CCSS: they’re too limiting.  They enforce artificial boxes that reduce the study of English Language Arts to categories and formulas and easily assessed terminology.  Rather than help students see the intricate web of relationships that bind history and literature and culture and film and the sciences and art, we compartmentalize all of it and warn students that we should never mix the contents of these boxes we’ve created for them.  It’s a mistake that nevertheless reinforces the questionable CCSS promise of “College and Career Readiness.”  Existing in the world goes beyond just being college and career ready; it’s learning how to navigate the very real complexities that connect each minute of the day to the text.

And, oh yeah– Black and Blue gets 4 out of 5 stars.


Current listening:


R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992)

A Storm Is Coming

peace 1980


‘It’s a big black bloody world full of a million black and bloody hells, and when those hells collide it’s time for us to sit up and take fucking notice.’

Falling roughly halfway through David Peace’s brutal 1980, there’s perhaps no better quote to sum up the worldview on full display in his Red Riding Quartet and especially in this book, the third in that series.  I’ve never been one to need relatable – or even likable – characters.  While that’s certainly nice when it happens, I’m primarily a tourist when I read: show me something I’ve never seen before, force me to interact with people I don’t meet on a daily basis, corner me in a situation where I have to grapple with moral and ethical implications I’ve never considered.  How boring must it be to need to identify with everything you read?  In this respect – taking us on a journey we’ve never taken with people we’ve (thankfully) never met – the book undoubtedly succeeds.

Even though Peace’s series takes place in the North of England, a location with which I’m more than passingly acquainted, there’s no way not to feel out of your element as you read it.  Set primarily in Manchester, Leeds, and Wakefield, 1980 is the most focused, stripped-down of the series so far.  It focuses on Peter Hunter, a cop who’s tapped to lead a special squad investigating the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who, at the start of the book, has murdered thirteen women – mainly prostitutes – over five years.  Hunter’s brief is to catch the Ripper, but if he’s also able to uncover negligence or malfeasance in prior police investigations, so much the better.

1980 is different from the previous two books in that the Ripper case is central to the plot and more than just a backdrop, but Peace’s eye is still trained on corruption: corruption of the press, of the police, of the clergy, of the penal system, of married couples and the lies they tell one another.  No one escapes.  As in his other books, Peace is stingy with detail, preferring instead to emphasize rhythm and repetition over rich passages of description.  We’re given the bare minimum of what we need to make sense of the story, coming to the case of the Yorkshire Ripper with just as much knowledge as Hunter and his team.  Thematically and stylistically it’s a claustrophobic experience, one that won’t be to everyone’s liking.  For me, though, steeped in a love of Vonnegut, Ellroy, and McCarthy, Peace’s staccato riffing is catnip.

New Year’s Eve, 1980:

Dawn or dusk, it’s all fucked up –

The End of the World –

Fucked up and running –

Running from Dewsbury Police Station –

Dewsbury Police Station –

Modern lies amongst the black –

Crowds gathering –

Posters out:

The Ripper is a coward –


Hang him!

The homemade nooses, the studded wristbands –

The skinheads and their mums, the mohicans and their nans.

Running to the car park up the road from the police station, puddles of rain water and motor oil underfoot –

The car park already full –

Journalists, TV crews, the word spread –

Birds overhead, screaming –

Rain, pouring –

The clouds black above us, the hills darker still –

Hills of hard houses, bleak times –

Warehouse eyes, mill stares –

Unlocking the door, running –

Engine running, running scared

The North after the bomb –

Murder and lies, lies and murder –


Unlike Chuck Palahniuk, for whom this sort of thing often feels like a gimmick, Peace uses it purposefully, often to emphasize forward momentum, as in this passage near the book’s climax:

I park under the dark arches with the water and the rats –

Out of the car, coat up –

Running up through the arches, past the Scarborough –

Into the Griffin –

Ringing the bell, waiting –

Fuck it

Snatching the key from behind the desk –

Into the lift –

Pressing 7 –

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Out of the lift –

Down the corridor –

Tripping –

On the dark stair, we miss our step

Room 77 –

Key in the door –

Into the room –

Checking my watch, radio on, picking up the phone, getting a dialling tone, pulling the numbers round –

Ringing, ringing –


‘Peter? Where are you?’

The book doesn’t read this way throughout.  Peace employs it strategically, and uses it to reinforce both Hunter’s single-mindedness and the book’s hermetic worldview.

None of this is to say the book isn’t without light.  Hunter is a compelling character: a driven cop, a loyal husband, a man who nimbly walks the line between Right and Wrong.  We want him to succeed, to catch the Ripper, to end the killer’s reign of terror.  But Peace gives us just enough light to make it more powerful when he snuffs it out.  Hunter is dealt two devastating blows in the book’s final third, and it’s been a while since I felt such a discomfiting, vice-like churning in my gut.  I was physically disturbed to the point where I had to put the book down and walk away from it for a bit.  For someone as desensitized as me, that’s some serious shit.

And then there’s the ending, which I can’t give away.  Some will view it as an easy, nihilistic out.  For me, though, it’s the perfect précis for what Peace has been trying to tell us all along, and which I mentioned earlier: no one escapes.  It’s a bleak, uncompromising perspective, but in a world where we too often try to sugarcoat things, 1980 is, for me at least, a welcome reminder of just how dangerous the world can be.


Current listening:

Spiritualized pure

Spiritualized – Pure Phase (1995)

Become What You Are

dead manAuthors are like musicians in one important way.  Some bands emerge on the scene fully formed, delivering a debut that appears to encapsulate everything great they would eventually accomplish.  Think Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division or Oasis’ Definitely Maybe or Entertainment! by Gang of Four. These albums land with a seismic impact that heralds the arrival of An Important Voice,™ one that the rest of us mortals should do well to notice.

Other bands?  Their first albums resemble the toddler taking his first wobbly steps.  The potential for great things is clearly there, but the talent still needs some time to incubate.  The best contemporary example of this is probably Radiohead’s 1993 debut, Pablo Honey.  There was nothing on that album – not even the juggernaut of “Creep” – to indicate that within four years they’d transform into one of the most influential bands of all time.

Some authors follow similar trajectories, either delivering a powerhouse of a debut or stumbling about for a book or two before hitting their stride.  As a huge fan of author Jonathan Maberry, it’s obvious from Dead Man’s Song that early in his career he was more Radiohead than Gang of Four: lots of promise but still lacking in execution.  I first discovered him through 2009’s Patient Zero, the first of his books to feature Joe Ledger, the leader of a secret government agency devoted to tackling paranormal threats.  This series remains hugely satisfying – action-packed, dark in tone, and featuring some deliciously hard-boiled dialogue from Ledger and his team.

I recently backtracked to the beginning of Maberry’s fiction career (he started as a writer of non-fiction books about martial arts) and picked up Ghost Road Blues, the first novel in the Pine Deep Trilogy.  It was, as I wrote a couple months ago in my lazy one-sentence review, “the sound of one of my favorite horror writers still finding his voice.”  That book held great promise, detailing an epic supernatural struggle in the haunted town of Pine Deep, PA (more on that in a second), but also featuring some clunky description and plotting, as well as, most surprisingly, some unforgivably cheeseball dialogue.

If there’s one thing the Great Bookshelf Deprivation Project ensures, it’s that I’ll continue reading series that might not initially grab me.  Also, Maberry has engendered enough goodwill from the Ledger series for me to give Pine Deep another shot.  Sadly, Dead Man’s Song, the second book in the trilogy, only adds to the impression that Maberry still hadn’t figured out who he was as a writer.

The fault isn’t in the premise.  In Ghost Road Blues we’re introduced to the town of Pine Deep, which was the site of a gruesome series of murders in the 1970s.  The details of that backstory are too circuitous to go into here except to say that it involves a murderous German named Ubel Griswold and an African-American hippie (called the Bone Man by the local children) who was framed for the murders and lynched by the racist townspeople.  Fast-forward to the present day and the grown survivors of that tragedy – ex-cop Malcolm Crow, his girlfriend Val, and town mayor Terry – become involved in another series of senseless killings when a trio of fugitives arrives in Pine Deep.  As it turns out, the leader of the gang, Karl Ruger, is working in the service of Griswold, who (but of course) isn’t just any garden-variety murderous German but a murderous German who may or may not be an immortal source of evil (and therefore responsible for both Hitler and Justin Bieber).  Ruger teams up with some of the Bone Man’s grown killers to enact a plot whose desired outcome still hasn’t been revealed by the end of the second book.  Crow, Val, and Terry are the only thing standing between Ruger and total domination of Pine Deep, and they’re aided in this by the ghostly form of the Bone Man, who acts as a sort of mystical protector.  At the end of the book, Crow seems to have killed Ruger and everything appears to be hunky dory, despite the trail of carnage that preceded their final confrontation and Ruger’s warning to Crow: “Ubel Griswold sends his regards.”

Dead Man’s Song picks up almost immediately after the closing pages of Ghost Road Blues, and maybe the most frustrating thing about the book is how little progress is made in it.  The bad guys kill some people, the good guys worry about who the bad guys will kill next, we learn some more about why the bad guys are killing people – it involves vampires and werewolves – but in terms of momentum the book is largely an exercise in stasis.  Which is weird because, I mean, stuff happens. Life and death, fate of the free world hanging in the balance stuff.  But at the end of 500 pages everyone is pretty much at the exact same place they were at the beginning.  And that’s sort of weird when I consider how Maberry’s Joe Ledger series is a careening beast, with a race against the clock almost always the default setting.

So there’s that problem.

There’s also the issue of some tremendously stilted dialogue, pitched to be clever but reading like conversations that have never actually been spoken anywhere on the planet. Witty banter is tough to pull off.  Carl Hiaasen can do it.  Denis Johnson can do it.  Elmore Leonard can do it (and was probably the best at it).  The Jonathan Maberry of Dead Man’s Song can’t (although the Jonathan Maberry of Patient Zero can).  Many of the exchanges between characters had me alternately rolling my eyes or sighing, such as this one between Crow and Terry:

‘Crow, for God’s sake, stop looking at me like I have two heads.  If I’m going crazy, then I’m going crazy.  Don’t worry, once Halloween is over I’m planning on checking myself into a hospital for a nice long stay, and when I get out – providing they don’t throw away the key – I’m taking Sarah and the kids to Jamaica for the rest of the winter.  No crops, blighted or otherwise.  And no Halloween.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’ Crow cleared his throat again.

‘And stop clearing your goddamn throat.’

‘Well, dude, cut me a break.  My best friend is going crackers on me and I have no freaking clue about what to say or what to do.’

Terry looked at him and for a moment a smile softened the worry lines on his face. ‘Being my best friend is doing a lot, believe me.’

‘Pardon me while I say nothing during the awkward pause that has to follow that kind of statement.’

Terry threw a small pillow at him; Crow ducked.

It’s all just so very precious and cutesy, and cumulatively it’s hard to take seriously.  And, as much as I hate to do it, let’s talk love scenes for a minute.  If ever one has been written that works, I’ve yet to discover it.  And Maberry certainly hasn’t mastered the craft.  While it’s tempting to share one of the most explicit passages in a multi-page howler of a scene between Crow and Val that I think is meant to pass as the calm before the storm at the book’s climax, here’s a less explicit scene that’s no less silly for all its detail:

After a while, once her skin has soaked up the richness of the water, Crow slipped one hand into a terrycloth mitten. Wetting it, he fetched a bar of scented wheat-and-lavender soap and worked up a good lather; then he helped her to stand up in the tub.  Water sluiced down the lovely length of her, and pausing once in a while to kiss her glistening hide, he used the luxurious soap and the gentle roughness of the mitten to wash every inch of her glorious skin.  He was diligent in his thoroughness, and then with a large bath ladle he poured water over her to rinse away the soap.  He drained most of the water from the tub as he did so and quickly refilled it so that when he helped her down again, she lay in fresh water and that sloshed around her.

It’s just.  Blerg.

Maybe I’m handicapped by knowing how good Maberry would get in a couple more years, but I’m really conflicted by this series.  It’s not unreadable, but if I had encountered the Pine Deep trilogy first, it’s doubtful I would’ve stuck around for Joe Ledger.  One book to go.  Here’s hoping Maberry brings it home in a way that redeems the first two episodes.


Current listening:

Joanna weird

Joanna Gruesome – Weird Sister (2013)