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)

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Waiting Around for Grace

sleepy-guy-300x199261What can I say?  I got lazy.  Again.  The thought of cranking out 1,000 words every few days got to be too much for my TV- and video game-loving ass to handle,  and that’s the only excuse I have for the gap in posts between mid-December and mid-February.  I wish I could say I was doing something important – writing a book, traveling the world, solving crimes with a plucky sidekick – but I was probably watching movies and playing Far Cry 4.

And reading.  Loyal followers of this blog will notice I’ve started posting full book reviews again.  As usual, the primary motivator for this was guilt.  I’m asking my students to write and post reviews of what they’re reading this semester, so it seems just a wee bit hypocritical for me not to do the same.  Walking the walk, etc.  And even though I haven’t been posting formal reviews, the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project is still in full swing.  So, in keeping with precedent, here’s a bunch of one-sentence reviews of all the books I read in the lost months of early 2015.

Sherman Alexie – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A gritty and unforgiving short story collection set in the one corner of the United States we rarely see: a Native American Indian reservation.

Ian Rankin – The Black Book. Rankin’s Inspector Rebus digs into Edinburgh’s history of organized crime to solve a murder in the fifth compelling book in the long-running series.

Russell Banks – Trailerpark. Banks is one of my favorite authors, but this loosely-connected collection of short stories set in the titular mobile home park is an entertaining but ultimately minor work.

Michael Chabon – The Final Solution. Simultaneously clever and slight, it’s unabashed genre fiction (starring a never-explicitly-identified Sherlock Holmes) from one of America’s greatest writers.

Elmore Leonard – 52 Pick Up. One of Elmore Leonard’s first crime novels is also his best – hard-boiled tough-guy deliciousness.

Don DeLillo – The Body Artist. DeLillo wrote one of my favorite books (White Noise), but two months after reading The Body Artist, I don’t remember a single, solitary thing about it, which probably tells you all you need to know.

Jennifer Egan – The Invisible Circus. Egan’s first novel is a stunning, melancholy tour de force about the perils of delving too deeply into family history.

Ian Rankin – Mortal Causes. Rankin broadens his scope in this sixth Inspector Rebus book to take in the connection between Scotland and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Joshua Ferris – Then We Came to the End. A laugh-out-loud condemnation of modern office life, Ferris’ book is Grade-A satire.

Alex Grecian – The Yard. Depicting the birth of Scotland Yard, Grecian’s first book in this series is  a brutal murder mystery that promises great things to come.

Elmore Leonard – Mr. Majestyk. More modern noir from the master of the crime novel, it’s a testament to the badass who refuses to take shit from anyone.

Matt Haig – The Humans. An outer-space alien takes over a professor’s body to protect an intergalactic secret and in the process learns schmaltzy lessons about What it Means to be Human. ™

John Irving – A Widow for One Year.  I love Irving but struggled with this one, an epic-length treatise about family, obsession, and the writing life that takes a long time to go nowhere special.

Ian Rankin – Let it Bleed. After taking on the Troubles, Rankin investigates the corridors of power in the twisty-turny  seventh Inspector Rebus book.

Stephen King – Blaze. An early Stephen King novel (writing as Richard Bachman) that really should have stayed lost.

John Le Carré – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a brilliant spy novel – totally, unequivocally, unquestionably – but holy cow was I bored.

Elmore Leonard – Swag. The funniest of Leonard’s early-career crime novels, it sets the template for all of his subsequent novels that revolve around dim-witted tough guys.

*****

Current listening:

Cure kiss

The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)