Heart of the Great Alone

Edan californiaI blame Stephen Colbert.

Edan Lepucki’s California is best known as the book Colbert championed a year ago when he was embroiled in his feud with Amazon.  His goal?  Give it the Colbert Bump by encouraging his viewers to pre-order it from any bookseller other than Amazon.  I accepted the challenge and, respecting Colbert as one of our smartest voices, was looking forward to an equally smart novel about life after the apocalypse.

What I got instead was an underwhelming read that promises much but delivers on almost none of it.

Another part of the problem, I admit, may be me.  There’s a distinctly T.C. Boyle-ian feel to Lepucki’s story of a married couple attempting to find community in the ruins of the Golden State, but anyone who tries to write like T.C. Boyle who isn’t actually named T.C. Boyle is going to come up short.  Boyle does this thing where he sets characters on a collision course that usually ends in violence.  As a reader you can’t initially see the course, but Boyle somehow manages to imbue his stories with a sense of creeping dread – which in all my reading is unique to him – that increases until the inevitable explosion.  His books are wonderfully discomfiting, and I could sense Lepucki going for something similar here.  Problem is, Lepucki is no Boyle.

But California has promise.  Taking place in an unspecified near-future, the United States as we know it has ceased to exist.  There are references to a central government, but cataclysmic storms, a shortage of natural resources, and domestic terrorism have caused those who can afford it to split into protected Communities where they try to recreate the old world (for horror movie fans, think Fiddler’s Green in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead).  For those who can’t afford this refuge, they have to make do as best they can living off the land: scrounging, foraging, living without electricity or running water, and perpetually guarding themselves from marauding bands of Pirates.  Enter Cal and Frida, a married couple living a fairly idyllic life in Northern California.  They have routines, they have friends (Bo, Sally, and their two children, who live nearby), and they trade with August, an enigmatic salesman who runs routes between Communities and the survivors in the wilderness.

But then there’s a convergence of events that kicks the plot into gear.  First, Frida suspects she’s pregnant, and she has to consider how she and Cal will raise a child with no stable resources.  Second, Bo reveals to Cal that near their home – within two days’ hike – are huge spikes rising out of the ground which he thinks form a protective boundary for a group of survivors.  And third, when Cal visits Bo and Sally’s home one day, he finds them all dead – poisoned – in an apparent group suicide.  Frida and Cal make the decision to head for the Spikes, to see if there really is a community thriving in the wilderness, and, of course, to see if they’ll offer them, and their unborn child, refuge.

The problem at this point is that Lepucki gets more plates spinning than she can handle.  Running parallel to these passages about life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland are flashbacks to Cal and Frida in their early 20s and their interactions with Frida’s brother Micah.  A prominent figure in a political action group called, natch, The Group, Micah blew himself up years ago in a crowded shopping mall as a political statement.  Without giving too much away, when Frida and Cal discover that there are, in fact, survivors beyond the Spikes (they call their community The Land, and, oh yeah, the Spikes are actually called The Forms – Lepucki is way into these bland titles) they also discover that they’re not as done with Micah as they thought.

This is where I see Lepucki trying to pull a Boyle: the Land follows the policy of “containment” – not allowing any new residents into their settlement – so Frida and Cal are told there will eventually be a vote deciding whether or not they can stay.  The couple tries to ingratiate themselves with the residents while keeping Frida’s pregnancy a secret and, in the process, learning about the Land’s profoundly (and violently) checkered past.  It’s clear – or at least it seems clear – that this won’t end well, but the whole thing ultimately makes like a rapidly deflating balloon, ending in a soggy non-ending that I think is supposed to be profound but reads more like Lepucki wasn’t sure how to wrap things up.  California is just so busy that there’s no center for a reader to cling to.  Is it a romance?  A post-apocalyptic survival tale?  A political satire?  A meditation on the importance of family?  It tries to do everything, which means it sort of ends up doing nothing.

And that’s really too bad.  Lepucki’s post-apocalypse world-building is vivid and believable, and what I found especially effective is the way she describes the end of that world as an inevitability rooted in things we already see happening in this world (powerful storms, water shortages, income inequality).  There’s also a sly sense of humor at play – when Frida first meets Sally’s son, the young boy is wearing a t-shirt, clearly scavenged from the ruins, bearing the words “Official Pussy Inspector” – and there’s no denying the queasy relatability of some of the political sloganeering.  But it just never really adds up to much.  The tension builds and builds to the vote deciding Frida and Cal’s fate, but just when we expect there to be an explosion we get a damp squib instead.

Lepucki is obviously one to watch, but California is still a well-intentioned miss.

*****

Current listening:

Gang entertainment

Gang of Four – Entertainment! (1979)

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Beneath the City of Dreams

Stephen justIt was Cujo that got me hooked on Stephen King, but it was the stories that ensured I stuck around for the long haul.  At the time I got into him, 1986, his bibliography was a lot less intimidating than it is now, and it represented most of the books we consider to be his classics (Carrie, Pet Sematary, The Shining, Christine, The Stand, and so on).  But alongside those canonical horror novels were four collections of absolutely first-rate short fiction: Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, Different Seasons, and The Bachman Books (four early novellas written under a pseudonym).  While we rightfully consider the novels to be the basis for King’s reputation, there’s just no way to discount the quality of those short stories and novellas, and if I’m going to be honest, it’s mostly those works that have stuck with me the longest.  And because I think we unavoidably associate King with the movies that have been adapted from his work, just consider this list, all of which came from those four seminal collections, as evidence of the embarrassment of riches coming in the early part of his career:

There are certainly many other stories from these collections that resonated with me, but the one that haunted me the most came from The Bachman Books.  “The Long Walk” told a horrifying story (that presaged our current reality television/elimination game show fixation, now that I think about it) about 100 boys who are selected by lottery to walk south from Maine, keeping their speed above 4 mph.  If they fall below that speed, they receive a warning.  On their third warning they’re eliminated from the walk in a way I won’t reveal here.  The last boy left in the race wins.  I read and reread “The Long Walk” many times in junior high and high school, and it’s one I can still remember vividly and which I still hold out hope will one day be adapted into a film.

All of which is to say I have a long, pleasurable history with King’s short fiction, and I always look forward to cracking open a new collection of his stories.  Just After Sunset is a generally high-quality collection, although the opener –Willa,” a story of the afterlife – is the weakest of the bunch, which made me a little nervous as I considered the 500 pages still to go.  Props to King who, in his liner notes at the end of the book, as much as admits that it’s not very good but says he gave it pride of place because it’s the first short story he wrote after a fallow period.  After that rough start, it’s pretty smooth sailing the rest of the way.  As I’ve done with previous reviews of collections, what follows are some mini reviews of a few standouts.

“The Gingerbread Girl.” I’ve always found King to be at his best when he doesn’t overcomplicate things.  He can be his own worst enemy sometimes, turning a relatively straightforward tale of horror into a convoluted web of occult and/or extraterrestrial silliness.  There’s none of that here.  It’s a lean and mean tale of survival, with the title character (a woman whose child has died and whose marriage is falling apart) struggling to escape from a killer.  Bare bones, and all the better for it.

Rest Stop.” One of King’s long-standing fascinations is the duality between author and pseudonym (most famously explored in his novel The Dark Half), and he explores it again here in another brutal, no-nonsense thriller.  John Dykstra, a successful crime author who writes under the pen name Rich Hardin, makes a late-night stop at a rest area where he overhears a man abusing his wife in the restroom.  Feeling impotent as himself, Dykstra decides he can use his alter ego for purposes other than publishing books.  King at his darkly funny best.

“The Things They Left Behind.” A melancholy story wherein King struggles to come to grips with 9/11.  Scott Staley worked in an office in the Twin Towers, but decided to call in sick on that horrifying day.  A year later, knickknacks from his co-workers’ cubicles start showing up in his home.  It’s a story about survivor’s guilt and respecting the memory of the departed, and it uses the supernatural to tell us necessary things about living in the here and now.

The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates.” An ineffably sad little story about a woman who periodically receives phone calls from her recently deceased husband.

“Mute.” Maybe the darkest story of the bunch, a salesman named Monette picks up a deaf-mute hitchhiker and proceeds to while away the long drive by telling the man (whom he thinks is sleeping and couldn’t hear him even if he was awake) about his cheating, embezzling wife.  King being King, this encounter has bloody consequences, and it’s framed in a clever way, with Monette relating the encounter to a priest in a confession booth, then periodically flashing back to the drive itself.

“A Very Tight Place.” I’d actually read this story years before when it first appeared in a volume of McSweeney’s.  It’s a scatological, excretory hoot, and not for anyone suffering from squeamishness about bodily functions and/or Port-O-Potties and/or claustrophobia.  What lengths would you go to to escape from one of those cubicles after it’s fallen over and the door blocked?  Reading this story will tell you what one man does.  It’s not for the faint of heart, which means it’s awesome.

This collection doesn’t scale the same heights as Night Shift or Skeleton Crew, but the degree to which King can still crank this stuff out and have it be any good is, at the risk of hyperbole, awe-inspiring.  Most of us would be lucky to see one story through to fruition, where King makes it seem as easy as breathing.  The guy continues to be a treasure.

*****

Current listening:

Dead beelzebubba

The Dead Milkmen – Beelzebubba (1988)

Tired Angles Make New Shapes

Elmore catBalancing the tension between cynicism and romanticism has sort of been the story of my life.  My default position is to be skeptical and automatically assume the worst.  Most of the time I figure the world (globally, locally, personally) is teetering on the brink of some catastrophe, and it’s not unusual for me to assume that I play a major role in the disaster (literal or metaphorical) to come.  I often can’t escape my tendency to question the motives of others, but because self-loathing is the bedrock on which my personality is built, I always figure it’s because of something I’ve done.  And when the concerns are bigger than me or are things in which I don’t play a direct role … well, in those cases the glass is never empty enough.

That would be a horrible, horrible way to live if I didn’t also feel a strong undercurrent of optimism and joy.  It’s in the way I’m uplifted by music and books and film, in my unwavering belief in the importance of education, and in the way I can be moved to tears by simple acts of kindness and commercials about neglected animals.  And of course I feel it every single day because I happen to be married to a woman whose generosity, enthusiasm, and good humor knows no bounds.  And this is why, as much as I respond to art that is, as Nigel Tufnel would say, none more black, I really connect with work that manages to be both bleak and hopeful.

I figured this out as I was reading Elmore Leonard’s Cat Chaser.  In past reviews I’ve focused on Leonard’s whip-smart dialogue and strategic use of violence, the long cons and borderline nihilism, but what I’d never actually realized until reading Cat Chaser – a satisfyingly straightforward book that’s as much romance as crime novel – is that all his male protagonists are love-struck doofuses who are, above all else, unrepentant romantics.  His main characters are often men, but careful readers will notice that his women are where it’s at.  The men are the actors, but they’re usually acting at the explicit or implicit behest of the women they’ve gone goofy for.

In all Leonard’s books I’ve read – a dozen or so at this point – this is no more obvious than it is in Cat Chaser.  Moran runs a down-on-its-luck hotel in Miami, Florida, and he connects – and connects in a big way – with Mary, the wife of Andres, a deposed Dominican general who’s remade himself as an American gangster.  Most of the first half of the book is the story of how Moran and Mary meet, quickly fall in love, and realize she needs to extricate herself from her hugely unsatisfying marriage.  Running parallel with the central love story is a typically Leonardian con: Jiggs Scully, a small-time enforcer and debt collector who’s worked for Andres in the past, tries to talk Moran into swiping the money he knows Andres must have squirreled away in case his Dominican past catches up to him and he needs to flee.

The most fascinating thing about the way the story plays out is how Leonard manages to paint Moran as both protagonist and bystander.  He ostensibly agrees to Scully’s plan, but he’s never particularly interested in it, and he definitely doesn’t want to get in trouble.  He mainly wants to help Mary get out of her marriage – and to that end, his biggest role in the heist is to make sure his relationship with Mary isn’t collateral damage in Scully’s plot to get rich quick.  As a result, most of the crime elements in Cat Chaser – minus an absolutely virtuoso scene at the book’s climax – take place without Moran.  Scully tries to manipulate Andres into fleeing by sabotaging and vandalizing his mansion – actions he wants Andres to read as increasingly violent political statements perpetrated by Dominican immigrants with an ax to grind.  When Andres flees, or so the story goes, Scully will be there to catch him.

Despite all that, Leonard keeps the focus firmly on Moran and Mary, and this gives the danger presented by Scully’s plan real emotional heft.  This couldn’t have been accomplished without the lengthy section in the book’s first half where Moran and Mary fall in love in the Dominican Republic, and this of course is further testament to Leonard’s craft.  He trusts his readers to understand that without any emotional stakes in play the danger to Moran is strictly physical.  It’s the emotional danger that sticks.

In the end, Moran makes a sacrifice that’s somehow satisfying, frustrating, and hopeful, all at the same time. That’s no easy feat.  And I now see that it’s Leonard’s facility for this kind of thing that keeps this cynical romantic coming back for more.

(A word about that title.  As with many of Leonard’s other books, the title Cat Chaser is more stylistic than meaningful.  At the beginning of the bookMoran travels to the Dominican Republic.  He saw combat there as a Marine in the 1960s, and was given the nickname “Cat Chaser” by Luci Palma, a 16-year-old female sniper he tangled with.  Moran had always felt a connection with Palma, and his trip to the Domincan Republic was initially to track down Palma.  He found Mary instead, and the rest is literary history.)

*****

Current listening:

Ryley primrose

Ryley Walker – Primrose Green (2015)

Darkness of the Dream

Harbach artIf you were to sum up the major trends in my life, the one that would probably dominate is my history as a professional appreciator.  I’ve been continually enriched by a wide range of entertainments without having the talent or drive to actually succeed at any of them.  I’m a music fan who had exactly enough patience to learn how to pluck out “Ode to Joy” on the guitar before giving up in frustration.  I’m a film buff who – at age 22 upon moving to California – gave himself ten years to become a professional writer/director, then proceeded to write two screenplays before deciding it was too much work to secure an agent.  I’m a voracious reader, and I’ve detailed elsewhere on this blog how poorly it goes when I try writing anything of any merit of my own.  Dig a little more deeply into my failure to engage with any of these passions in a real way, and you’ll quickly learn that the bedrock of all of them is a lack of confidence.  I don’t have – have never had – the faith in my own ability that allows me to get to the point where sheer determination takes over to complement whatever negligible natural talent I possess.  When toeing the start line, my default position is that I’m going to lose the race – which of course makes running it sort of pointless.

All of this is why I found Henry Skrimshander, the protagonist of Chad Harbach’s beautiful novel The Art of Fielding, such a frustrating, confounding,  and somehow wonderful creation.  Henry plays the position of shortstop for the Westish College Harpooners with uncanny grace and agility, and this comes not just from a deep reservoir of natural talent, but from years of studying both the game of baseball and the greatest-ever shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez.  He’s not the best in the game when he starts his Westish career, but under the tutelage of his teammate Mike Schwartz, Henry eventually grinds his way to be the best, working out obsessively, shoring up his weaknesses, living and breathing the sport.  By his junior year Henry is tipped to be an early pick in that year’s major-league draft, and he’s accomplished all of it by working hard and somehow making it look effortless.

Until one day he makes an errant throw which nearly kills his teammate (and roommate) Owen.  What follows is a startlingly rapid downward spiral, as Henry begins to engage in the kind of over-thinking usually do – second-guessing himself and making bad throw after bad throw in game after game until his major league prospects, once as broad and limitless as a desert horizon, have contracted to the size of a pinprick.

RedsAt this point, it’s worth mentioning that while The Art of Fielding appeals to me on a psychological level – I watched with mounting horror as Henry made one bad decision after another, recognizing in him the same thought process that often gets me in trouble – I was also willing to buy into it as a longtime baseball fan.  The Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series when I was a senior in high school – sweeping the heavy favorite Oakland A’s after being the first team to go wire-to-wire during the regular season –  and the sight of Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Glenn Braggs, and the rest of the team celebrating at the end of Game 4 cemented in me a love of the game that’s withstood some pretty lean years.  Baseball has always stood apart for me as fundamentally different from other pro sports, and although I’d never much considered why, I think Harbach captures it here:

Schwartz thought of it as Homeric – not a scrum but a series of isolated contests.  Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball.  You couldn’t storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football.  You stood and waited and tried to still your mind.  When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was.  What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?

So this book had already checked two important boxes for me – anxiety and baseball – but Harbach does something else pretty remarkable: he keeps the focus on Henry and his mental anguish while also using his catastrophic throw to set a series of events in motion involving a cast of other characters.  There’s Schwartz, who beats everyone in obsessive behavior and who doesn’t have a life without Westish sports and doesn’t know what else to do with his life; Owen, the recipient of Henry’s throw; Westish President Guert Affenlight, who, at 60 years old, finds himself falling for Owen; and Pella, Guert’s daughter, a 24-year-old divorcée who’s returned to Westish because she has nowhere else to go.

Readers attuned to nuances in behavior will, I think, see that what Harbach cautions us against is the tendency to overthink.  It’s when Henry acts automatically that he excels on the field; as soon as his brain enters the picture, he flounders.  The same can be said for Schwartz and Affenlight and Pella – they’re all, to one degree or another and to their detriment – unable to get out of their own heads.  I don’t think Harbach is making the argument that we should always follow our hearts.  But I do think there’s a pretty clear case to be made that we have to know when to let go – that it’s only by acting instinctively in the service of our passions that we’ll achieve our full potential.

*****

Current listening:

Who sell

The Who – The Who Sell Out (1967)

One Big Unhappy Family

Grecian blackIn an earlier review I wrote about that disappointing moment when you realize an author you really like has written something that isn’t all that good.  I made the comparison to other arts, mentioning in passing R.E.M.’s 2004 turd of an album, Around the Sun.  And that pains me, because if I had to choose a favorite band, R.E.M. would be it.  They’ve soundtracked my life pretty consistently from the time Green was released when I was but a wee lad in high school, and in that time it felt  like they maintained a remarkably high degree of quality control.  Through the stylistic diversions, the superstardom, the loss of drummer Bill Berry to a brain aneurysm – there really weren’t any flat-out misses in their discography.  Until Around the Sun, which really has nothing to commend it, especially not the guest rap by Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest.  Where I’ve internalized their other albums to the point where they almost feel like part of my DNA, I couldn’t hum a single melody from Around the Sun if you pointed a gun at my head.  Anyway, Gold Coast was Elmore Leonard’s Around the Sun – boring, uninspired, and an uncharacteristic bellyflop in an otherwise graceful career.

Just as this analogy carries over from music to books, so too does the sophomore slump.  You probably know what I’m talking about: a musician crafts a high-water mark of a debut album and then follows it up with something that, more often than not, isn’t terrible, just pedestrian.  The best recent example is probably The Stone Roses’ Second Coming, an album which isn’t half bad, but I guess that’s the point of the sophomore slump.  When you release an album that defines a period in time the way their self-titled debut did for England in the early 90s, “isn’t half bad” just doesn’t cut it.

But hey – it’s hard to compete with your own legacy when you close your first album with this mini-masterpiece:

The saying goes something like, “Bands have a lifetime to create their first album, and a year to create their second.”  The implication being that the pressure to create a brilliant follow-up in a much more constrained timeline can cripple the artistic process (even though with the Roses the slump in question came from taking too much time between Albums 1 and 2).  I imagine the same can be said of Alex Grecian, a graphic novel writer whose debut novel The Yard came bursting out of the gate to awards and best-selling accolades.  And it’s quite good.  I wouldn’t bestow Instant Classic status on it or anything, but it’s a complicated, densely-plotted historical mystery about the birth of Scotland Yard in the time immediately following Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror.

Coming a year after The Yard, Grecian’s follow-up, The Black Country, features the same core cast of characters and does almost nothing right.  This time around, Inspector Walter Day and Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith are called to England’s coal-mining Midlands (the “Black Country” of the title) to assist with the search for a missing family.  They’re cast almost immediately into a not-at-all-compelling mystery involving a missing eye, a couple of unpleasant children, an errant ornithologist, and a “mysterious” stranger whose identity is supposed to be a big secret but which is telegraphed to the reader straightaway.

The whole affair just comes off as rushed and sloppy, with a bunch of stuff happening that’s supposed to be – I think – ominous and creepy, but which never coheres into anything memorable.  Day and Hammersmith search the woods.  They’re drugged by the local innkeeper.  Flashbacks to a prison in Georgia.  Day’s wife visits and then leaves without anything happening.  People get sick.  It snows.  And then the resolution for the whole thing hinges on a laboriously- and tediously-described earthquake.  Where The Yard was a twisty-turny thriller with clever narrative feints, here it seems like Grecian just threw a bunch of garbage at the wall to see what would stick.  It doesn’t speak well of a novel when I could just as easily have summarized it by saying, “A bunch of stuff happens and none of it matters.”

Grecian also made the questionable stylistic choice to incorporate some lengthy sections of dialogue that are apparently meant to highlight the characters’ rapid-fire, whip-smart conversations. The problem is the characters are neither rapid-fire nor whip-smart.  Cormac McCarthy can do this kind of thing.  So can Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy.  Denis Johnson, too, and Kurt Vonnegut was arguably the master at it.  But not Grecian.  Note to writers: Don’t draw attention to what your characters are saying if you can’t make it sound interesting.

So: a terrific first novel followed by a disastrous second.  It troubles me that there’s a third which I will undoubtedly read because I’m A) a glutton for punishment, B) immensely forgiving, C) eternally optimistic, or D) some unholy combination of the above.  I’d like to think Grecian can return to form, but with only two books to judge by, it’s unclear which book is actually most representative of what he’s able to do.

*****

Current listening:

Erasure chorus

Erasure – Chorus (1991)

Something Like a Storm

Ian deadAs a high school teacher, there were many times a student’s behavior would become crystal clear after meeting his parents.  I’d run into problems with work ethic or attitude or whatever, and I’d think, “What’s the deal with this kid?”  Then I’d meet Mom and/or Dad in a parent conference and immediately realize, “Oh, of course that’s why he [fill in the blank].”  It would be some sort of weird mirror image, where son’s classroom surliness was reflected in dad’s obvious displeasure at coming to school for a meeting.

Even so, I never felt this was a question of genetics as much as it was learned behavior.  The nature vs. nurture question has always felt sort of beside the point.  I mean, it’s obvious to me that while some personality traits are clearly handed down from parent to child (case in point, I have my dad’s social awkwardness and my mom’s passive-aggressiveness – a winning combo!), much of the way we act day-to-day has everything to do with the way we were taught – explicitly or implicitly, by parents and other sources – to make our way in the world.  I was taught by my parents to be civil and to err on the side of kindness, and  those are two lessons that have served me well.  As I grew older, I was able to extrapolate that into an understanding that I should appreciate diversity, keep an open mind, and, above all else, try to remember that not everyone sees the world the way I do.  I don’t think I won any kind of genetic lottery; I just know my parents and the way they tried to raise my brother and me.

Some people aren’t so lucky.  In one of my other blog experiments, I wrote a review of Werner Herzog’s death penalty documentary, Into the Abyss.  It’s an important movie for lots of reasons, but in this review I staked out why I’m against the death penalty, across the board.  The biggest reason is this: Even though I absolutely believe we have free will and are wholly responsible for the decisions we make, some people are less capable of making informed decisions thanks to damage that occurred to them in their youth.  At some point it feels like we have to admit that some people’s capacity to make the right decision has been fundamentally weakened by forces out of their control.  Childhood abuse and neglect.  Parents whose own moral compasses are completely out of whack.  Homelessness.  Drug and alcohol abuse.  Kids whose parents are just straight-up garden-variety assholes.  Can we really hold everyone to the same standard of decision-making?

Ian Rankin explores this issue for the first time in the tenth book starring Detective Inspector John Rebus. As with most of the books in this series, Dead Souls focuses on two cases that initially seem unrelated but which eventually intertwine in ways that are compelling and inevitable, and in this case both of them touch on the question of how much a criminal’s past is to blame for his present.  The more obvious example is Darren Rough, a convicted pedophile (who himself was a victim of sexual abuse as a child living in an orphanage) who served his jail sentence and has now been set free.  When Rebus discovers that Rough has been assigned an apartment with a view of a children’s playground, he “outs” Rough to the other tenants with disastrous consequences.

The other case – the focal point of the novel – involves Cary Oakes, a serial killer born in Scotland, imprisoned in the States, and released to his native country on a technicality.  In the course of Rebus’ investigation – what does Oakes have planned now that he’s back in Scotland? – the detective learns how the killer’s sense of morality may have been warped beyond repair by external factors over which he had no control.

Rankin being Rankin, there are a panoply of other features with which Rebus has to contend: a third case involving the missing adult son of two of Rebus’ childhood friends; a fling with an old high school flame; thinly-veiled criticism of the 1% (fifteen years before it was popular); the fallout from his daughter’s near-death experience in the previous book; the responsibility of the media not to turn killers into celebrities; and so on.  It’s a little busy.  But somehow Rankin keeps all the plates spinning, even while he attempts to explore larger issues of morality.

It feels a little overdue for Rebus to suddenly stumble across the realization that – hey! – maybe people’s lousy childhoods have an irrevocable effect on their adult lives.  But when the results are this good, better late, as they say, than never.

*****

Current listening:

David end

David Kilgour and The Heavy 8’s – End Times Undone (2014)

What Passes for Silence

Mom & me“Can you open the sliding door?  I want to hear the rain.”

It was less than a week before my mom died, roughly an hour before my dad said, “The cancer is calling the shots now,” two hours before she told all of us, “I hate to be a quitter, but it hurts so much,” and this was the last thing she’d ever ask me to do.  She was in my parents’ bedroom at the condo in Hilliard, her hospital bed slightly elevated so she could watch the Game Show Network.  I had been there for a couple hours, chatting with her when she was awake and bringing her a root beer popsicle – the only food she could keep down – when she asked for one.

I thought she had drifted off again – she was asleep more than awake now – but as I tiptoed out of the room she murmured her request to my back.

“Sure thing, Mom,” I said, and as I turned she gave me a thumbs up.  I slid the glass door along its track, and as I did so a faint breeze ruffled the sheer curtain on its way into the room.

The rain pattered on the stones outside, and beyond that I could hear it whispering in the tall grass across the road. “That sounds nice,” she said, and closed her eyes.

We always had that in common, a love of rain.  My dad preferred the house to be hermetically sealed, the A/C cranked so low it reddened the tip of your nose.  But Mom and me?  As soon as it started to rain we’d throw the windows open so we could hear it, quicksilver drill bits hissing their way into the grass.

Soon after, she called us into the bedroom to say her goodbyes while she could.  She apologized that she wouldn’t be at my wedding in August and encouraged my brother and me to take care of our dad.  She apologized, as I said earlier, for being a quitter, as though finally succumbing to cancer after a fifteen-year struggle was something to be ashamed of.  We tried to keep it light, which is what my family does, but there was no escaping the gravity of the conversation.  The soundtrack to all of this was the rain, still falling in sheets.

It was a while after she died before I could enjoy that sound again.  It took me back to that moment, one of the last times she was lucid, and it hurt too much.  But now?  The house is quiet, the windows open.  The rain beats down on the woods in an ebb and flow that’s not unlike the crash of waves.  Stray raindrops ping on the downspout, and off in the distance there’s a hint of thunder, a rumble just at the edge of sound, enough for the dog to prick up her ears where she sleeps.  It’s somehow painful and peaceful at the same time.

It’s four years since Mom’s death, and I can finally start to appreciate this lingering grief as part of a process that continues.  And, better still, I now know that the sound of rain doesn’t have to be a memory of her last days.  Instead, it’s a reminder of this simple, special thing we shared, which returns me – always and ever – home.