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)

Don’t Let Me Bring You Down

Subtitle this one,Elmore gold “The Time One of My Favorite Authors Wrote a Book I Didn’t Like Very Much.”

It happens.  R.E.M. gives us Around the Sun, Quentin Tarantino writes and directs Death Proof,  Michael Fassbender appears in Jonah Hex.  Even our most reliable artists stumble from time to time – it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise – and with any luck, they recover. That’s largely how I feel about Gold Coast, a book that seems to have something on its mind but doesn’t execute very well.

The problem (and I’ll try to keep this short) is that in this book Leonard fails where he usually succeeds: his characters are, as the French would say, total merde.  The book revolves around a spectacularly uninteresting trio consisting of widow Karen, cowboy-hat-wearing villain Roland, and wannabe good guy Maguire.  And that’s unfortunate, because Gold Coast actually sports a killer premise. Karen’s ultra-possessive, mobbed-up husband Frank dies and leave her his estate in trust: a monthly payment of $20,000 which will eventually total $4 million.  The catch is that his possessiveness stays behind to haunt her.  If Karen dates anyone else – ever – she forfeits the money, and Frank facilitates the deal from beyond the grave by arranging for Roland to tap her phones and scare off any would-be suitors.  This is where Maguire, a petty thief who decided to go straight by working at a low-rent Sea World knock-off, enters the picture.  He falls for Karen – and she for him, sorta – and, after Karen learns of Frank’s scheme, the two of them cook up a plan by which they can get Roland out of the picture.

It’s good, right?  I mean, I don’t pretend to have enough legal savvy to know if Frank’s deal is plausible, but Leonard sells it.  After the first couple chapters I was prepared for a typically entertaining ride from the master of this sort of thing.  But, as I mentioned above, the three main characters are just … dull.  Where Leonard’s characters are usually sharply and incisively drawn, here we get broad strokes that are supposed to pass for personality.  Roland is a backwoods hick who wears a blue suit; Maguire is brash and idealistic; and Karen is, well, sort of a blank slate.  In her defense (and Leonard’s, by extension), we learn at the very end of Gold Coast that that’s very much by design.  But the problem is that the revelation in question (which I obviously won’t spoil here) doesn’t turn the book on its head like it should, so Karen just sort of remains a void.  It’s unclear, then, why these two men are fighting over her other than the fact that she’s a 44-year-old woman with the body of a 25-year-old.  On one hand that reveals some troubling gender politics; on the other hand, it’s not totally implausible that that would be enough for some men to drop everything and take up fisticuffs.

Without well-defined characters on which to hang his trademark dialogue, Leonard’s plot spins its wheels aimlessly.  Things gradually become more and more convoluted to the point where the book’s relatively scant 218 pages actually felt too long.  I usually breeze through Leonard’s stuff in a day or two; this one I struggled with.  As I’ve written in multiple reviews, I don’t need to relate to characters to enjoy a book, but I do need characters.  To crib shamelessly from Luigi PirandelloGold Coast is a story in search of three characters.

I know enough of Elmore Leonard’s career to know he recovers from this uncharacteristic lull (when Gold Coast was published, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch were still out of there on the horizon ten or more years in the future), but this is easily the first of his books I can’t enthusiastically recommend.

*****

Current listening:

Radiohead bends

Radiohead – The Bends (1995)