Victim of Circumstance

225px-ElanorrigbybookDouglas Coupland is one of those authors I think I’m supposed to really like, but with whom I’ve never quite clicked.  I know he does the kinda snarky, sorta postmodernist literary fiction that’s usually my cup o’ tea, but for some reason he’s never joined the ranks of those authors whose work I regularly seek out.  My first encounter with Coupland’s work was his first – and best known – novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. I read this in the late 1990s, at the point when I was entering my late 20s and not feeling much affinity with the generation that was supposed to define me.  I was (am?) an Xer, but the book itself – despite being about my people – didn’t do much for me.  A quick look at my bookshelf tells me that I also read Shampoo Planet, about which I remember exactly nothing.  My first exposure to Coupland’s work actually came before either of these books, listening to half of Microserfs in audiobook form on a road trip to rock climb in Yosemite National Park.  I have fond memories of that drive, but it’s highly likely the book may not have had much to do with it.

All the hype on Coupland’s work tells me we should be literary BFFs.  But here we are, with 2004’s Eleanor Rigby being only the third of his books I’ve read in twenty years.  And the hell of it is, even after reading this generally pleasant book, I’m no closer to figuring out just what I think of him.  The book is completely, resolutely fine.  I liked it.  It was a fast read.  I laughed out loud once or twice.  But I never fully engaged with the story in the way that makes a difference to a reader.

The thing is, though, I should have.  Liz Dunn, the book’s protagonist, suffers from the kind of loneliness that should have resonated with me in a big way.  I’ve written elsewhere in these reviews about struggling with anxiety and depression throughout much of my life, and there was a time in my late 20s and early 30s when I felt a sort of unrelenting loneliness, even though I had good friends and a satisfying career.  The really remarkable thing is how accurately Coupland – via Liz – pins down that specific feeling:

One of my big problems is time sickness.  When I feel lonely, I assume that the mood will never pass – that I’ll feel lonely and bad for the rest of my life, which means that I’ve wrecked both the present and the future.  And if I look back on my past, I wreck that too, by concentrating on all the things I did wrong.  The brutal thing about time sickness is that naming it is no cure.

I know that feeling exactly, the constant looking back and looking forward and dwelling on the present and being dissatisfied with all of it. (For me specifically there’s also a lot of what the late, great David Foster Wallace admitted to in a Rolling Stone interview, where he claimed to never have had a genuine human interaction because he was so plagued with social anxiety that he constantly stood one step outside himself, evaluating how his interactions with other people were going instead of just experiencing them.  But that’s a story for another therapy session.)  But somehow, despite the feeling that I knew Liz, her story was entertaining without really hitting home.

And again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it should have. Because at the point where Liz’s loneliness seems to be transitioning into despondence, she receives an unexpected visitor: the son she gave up for adoption after a drunken fling in Italy at the age of 16 resulted in an unplanned pregnancy.  Jeremy is now 20, has multiple sclerosis, and needs a place to stay.  Liz takes him in without hesitation, and the act of becoming both a mother and a caregiver gives her purpose and meaning.  Remarkably, Coupland manages to do this without ever dipping into schmaltz or sentimentality, at least partially because Jeremy himself is such an irrepressible figure.  Rather than allowing himself to be a mopey victim of his debilitating condition, Jeremy gets a job as a salesman at a mattress store, gleefully selling its customers on “sleep systems” they don’t really need.  I found it impossible to dislike Jeremy and equally improbable not to root for Liz as she haltingly emerged from her shell.  It’s really, really good stuff.

All of this plays out breezily, even after Coupland fast-forwards seven years and Liz finds herself arrested in Germany on suspicions of terrorism, which involves a plot twist whose intricacies I won’t reveal here.  The fact that I found myself willingly entertaining these plot contortions (which also include a meteorite crash, Jeremy’s occasional bouts with prophetic visions, and flashbacks to Liz’s days in Italy) is a credit to the thoughtful way Coupland balances humor and pathos, and the sensitivity he pays to each of his characters – even Liz’s diminutive boss Liam (aka, The Dwarf to Whom I Report).

But as I say, this book never clicked with me in the way I thought it should.  I’m not sure what to chalk it up to, but I suspect it might have to do with this simple truth: I’m not lonely anymore.  I can remember those feelings, but at a remove, like a photograph that’s started to fade in the sun.  And because I don’t remember them fondly, Liz’s struggles carry perhaps just a bit too much verisimilitude for comfort, even though I found much in the book to otherwise enjoy.

Which leaves me pretty much where I started: I still don’t know what to make of Douglas Coupland.  Perhaps it’s enough to say that I’m willing to try another of his books to see if that’s the one to make a difference.

*****

Current listening:

Stone turns

The Stone Roses – Turns Into Stone (1992)

Fragments of a Former Moon

Clive coldheartWhile I appreciate a good epic as much as the next movie nerd, I’ve always sort of felt like there are few good reasons for a director to take more than 120 minutes to tell a story.  I’m thinking here of people like Judd Apatow (whom I love) and Michael Bay (whom I don’t).  As much as I like Funny People, 146 minutes is about 30 too many, and anyone who has the patience for a 150-minute Transformers movie has a greater tolerance for watching cars fall from the sky than I do.  Ditto Peter Jackson’s three Hobbit movies, which are entertaining enough but seem to exist for little reason other than finding new and inventive ways to feature CGI orc slaughter.  It’s okay in moderation, but nine hours’ worth?

Of course there are exceptions.  For my tastes, three hours of Quentin Tarantino is rarely enough, and a sun-blasted epic like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West earns every second of its 165-minute running time.  I also admit to a soft spot for admittedly self-indulgent monsters like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.  Sure, they could be trimmed, but when what we’re seeing is so good, who’s complaining?  The point is: If you can’t tell your story in two hours, you’d better have a damn good reason for taking up more time.

The same holds true for novels.  Give me 400 pages or less, and I’m yours for the duration, usually without question.  The higher above 400 you go, the more pushback you’re going to get.  600 or more pages and it needs to be a cracking good story that moves, or it better be something that justifies the length, something that needs to be woven in an epic tapestry.  I usually don’t mind an 800-page Stephen King novel because I know the kind of momentum he gathers – it’s going to be a quick read regardless of length.  And it’s folly to think a novel as rich as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas can be told in anything less than 500 pages.  Both authors earn the length through style and content.  And that’s really the key with both movies and books: I’m giving you my time, so earn it.

Therein lies the problem with Clive Barker’s 800-page Coldheart Canyon, a book seemingly tailor-made for the expression spinning its wheels.  It’s intermittently fascinating, but it’s also tedious, long-winded, and masturbatory, with lengthy sequences that could be excised without losing much of anything other than bulk.

And that really pains me.

When I name the authors who were influential to my development as a reader (and writer), I immediately name the usual suspects: King, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury.  But Clive Barker would absolutely be a little further down the list.  His short story cycle The Books of Blood was hugely important to me in high school.  Its graphic depiction of violence and frank handling of sexuality was new to me, and the way Barker suffused each of the stories – even the most sensational ones – with a sense of creeping dread haunted my waking and sleeping moments alike.  And I don’t remember many of the details of his lengthy novels Imajica, Weaveworld, and The Great and Secret Show, but I devoured them whole, regardless of length.  The latter book made an especially big impression, so much so that I remember reading it aloud to my college girlfriend, savoring again the chance to immerse myself in its story and characters.

But I knew Coldheart Canyon was going to be trouble from the get-go.  It begins with a lengthy prologue where Zeffer, an actress’ assistant, buys a tiled room from an alcoholic Romanian priest in the 1920s.  The room is important, the tiles are important, the actress is important, the assistant is important, and, yes, foreshadowing – but the execution is soporific.  It’s a meandering start that features none of the atmosphere I always appreciated in Barker’s work, and the effect I think he’s after with this section – to set the stage for the gruesome details to come – is dulled because the sequence itself doesn’t really work.  It’s hard to build tension with fifty pages of tedium.

Fast-forward seventyish years, and we’re introduced to Todd Pickett, an actor of the pretty but vacuous variety; an empty head who’s nonetheless on top of the world thanks to starring in a series of popular action movies where things blow up real good.  He’s at the point in his career where his looks are starting to fade, his career is starting to falter, and insecurity is setting in.  At this especially susceptible point, Todd is told by his manager and a Hollywood producer that he could benefit from a little plastic surgery.  This procedure goes horribly wrong, and he’s ferreted away to heal in a dilapidated mansion in a hidden canyon in the Hollywood Hills.

In this house in the titular canyon, Todd meets the actress from the 1920s prologue who has miraculously been kept young by the tiled room shipped back from Romania and installed in the mansion.  As it turns out, though (because this is a Clive Barker book), the actress and the tiled room and the mansion all harbor a secret that proves to be disastrous to Todd (hint: it rhymes with “Rates of Bell”).

There’s a good novel in here, but Barker buries it in byzantine digressions: passages on Todd’s career and the destructive nature of Hollywood; a long section on the death of his dog; the introduction to the president of Todd’s fan club (who comes to play a major role in the story); some late-book chapters focusing on an ex-cop writing a book; and more gratuitous sex scenes between the dead and the living than you can shake a tumescent stick at.  I experienced a moment of pure despondence at the point when the book seemed to be at a climax yet still had 200 pages to go.  This isn’t something I’m accustomed to feeling with Barker’s work, which I always recalled as being streamlined and relentless.  Coldheart Canyon, by contrast, seemed like a flabby houseguest who overstayed his welcome by a week and a half.

It’s not a total loss.  The central conceit – basically a tiled mosaic that comes to life to possess and obsess the living – is certainly cool (especially once Barker reveals the mosaic’s specific history), and there are haunting passages galore, especially the sections that focus on the half-animal/half-human creatures that dwell in the mansion’s overgrown garden.  But man: Coldheart Canyon is unnecessarily long and unpleasantly loquacious.  After twenty years of not reading Barker, this was an unfortunate way to get reacquainted.

*****

Current listening:

Algiers st

Algiers – Self-titled (2015)

Adventures in Dementia

sleeeping-while-drinking-coffee

Once again, time and workload and life and laziness conspired against me.  While my personal interest in writing these reviews has never entirely abandoned me, the end of April and all of May and – okay – early June saw me besieged by end-of-the-semester grading, pre-Writing Project Summer Institute planning (and the start of that institute last week), and a general malaise that always strikes in the lull between semesters.  So: lots of reading, little writing.  Here’s another of my by now patented omnibus reviews, where I reduce hundreds of pages of prose to one- or two-sentence critiques.

Before I do that, though, it’s worth mentioning that it’s now been nine months since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In that time I’ve read 70 books, which leaves me with roughly 90 to go.  At the six-month point I predicted I’d be finished around June 2016.  I’m still on target to meet that, assuming I don’t get further bogged down in Clive Barker’s tedious Coldheart Canyon (but more on that in a day or two).

Ian Rankin – Set in Darkness. The 11th John Rebus book, this one is set during the founding of the new Scottish parliament and centers on the confluence of three seemingly unrelated events: the discovery of a body in a walled-up fireplace, a homeless man’s suicide, and the murder of a promising young politician.  Typically gritty and awesome.

Jonathan Maberry – Bad Moon Rising. The best of a mediocre trilogy, this conclusion to the saga of an ancient evil residing in a Pennsylvania town isn’t great, but it is the first indication of how good Maberry would become with his subsequent Joe Ledger series.

David Peace – Nineteen-Eighty-ThreeA typically pitch-black conclusion to Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, this book sees a resolution to the Yorkshire Ripper case, told in bravura fashion from three different narrators.  Not for the faint of heart.

Elmore Leonard – Glitz. One of my favorite Leonard novels, it’s got all his usual tropes: dumb tough guys, smart ladies, dialogue that crackles, and a flawed protagonist that can’t get out of his own way.  Breezy and fun.

Ian Rankin – The Falls. More of a straightforward mystery than we’re used to from Rankin, the 12th John Rebus book has the curmudgeonly detective investigating a series of murders with connections to Scottish history.

Will Self – Cock and Bull. Frequent readers of Self’s work will know what to expect.  This pair of novellas is ballsy (literally), telling, first, the story of a woman who spontaneously grows a penis, and later, the story of a rugby player who grows a vagina behind his knee.

Jonathan Tropper – How to Talk to a Widower. I love Tropper, but I can see now how his schtick has grown thin.  It’s not a bad book, but after six tales of aimless thirtysomething dudes who can’t get their shit together, it’s like, I get it.

Elmore Leonard – Pronto. The first (I think) of Leonard’s novels to feature U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, this one started strong, staggered in the middle (as the characters improbably head to an Italian villa), and finished with some of Leonard’s characteristically sly violence.

Irvine Welsh – The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. The most bizarre of Welsh’s books (which is saying something), this high-spirited riff on Oscar Wilde somehow manages to combine the grime of Trainspotting with the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sherman Alexie – Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories. A predictably powerful collection of short stories that should be required reading for everyone.

Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men. Rather than decline into staleness, the 13th of Rankin’s John Rebus mysteries switches things up by transporting Rebus to Scotland’s police training college and embroiling him in a mystery featuring dirty cops and duplicitous gangsters.

Current listening:

Teardrop kilimanjaro

The Teardrop Explodes – Kilimanjaro (1980)

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)

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)

Adventures in Solitude

Jennifer lookThere was a weird period of time in college where I decided self-disclosure was the way to go.  I was heavily into angst at the time, mainlining The Smiths and Oscar Wilde and caught up in the notion that because I saw myself as different from my peers this was somehow worth advertising.  Talking loudly and at length about feeling melancholy and unloved was a way for me to wreathe myself in superiority, to assert that even though I was a student at a largely white, fairly affluent Midwestern college, I was different from my peers.  Better.

What a self-involved little twerp I was.

My thinking – or whatever passed for it as a 20-year-old dude – was that by revealing anything that I thought was worth knowing about myself (a fairly specious line of reasoning all by itself) I’d be projecting my true self, which would be irresistible to all the 20-year-old ladies who adored Michael Stipe and really appreciated honesty.  I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but it was probably my version of Campbell Scott’s character in Singles, who hits on Kyra Sedgwick’s character by claiming he doesn’t have an act, and what she sees is what she gets.  Her response, though, is the only truthful line in the scene: “I think that a) you have an act, and b) not having an act is your act.”

“Honesty” was my act, and I put it in quotes here purposefully.  My honesty wasn’t any more honest than anyone else’s.  I was supposed to be soulful because I could recite Morrissey lyrics and deep because I openly admitted to reservoirs of self-loathing, as though that made me dashing instead of pathetic.  But it was an affectation, a way of drawing attention to myself.  I mean, not totally.  I’ve wrestled with issues of anxiety and depression since at least junior high, but adopting “woe is me” as a lifestyle choice was just another way of wearing a Joy Division t-shirt without having to do the laundry.

I couldn’t help but think of all this as I read Look at Me, Jennifer Egan’s powerhouse of a novel about several characters all wrestling with conceptions of identity, how much to reveal, and how to be appreciated for who they (think they) really are.  It’s a dense, multi-layered text that reads as breezily as a beach mystery and a book that manages to say Real Things about 21st Century life without preaching.  It initially seems to be centered on one character, Charlotte, a past-her-prime fashion model who suffers through a horrific car accident that destroys her face and then multiple reconstructive surgeries to rebuild it.  She comes out the other side not looking like her old self – people she knows look right past her in restaurants and need to be re-introduced to her at parties – and while the book started promisingly, I wasn’t sure Egan could sustain my interest in Charlotte for 500+ pages.

But then Egan begins to weave in threads from other characters, deftly connecting them in ways that were both unexpected and inevitable (but no less satisfying for it).  In addition to Charlotte the Model (CTM), Egan takes up the question of personal identity in a variety of ways and with a range of characters (in both New York City, where CTM currently lives, and Rockford, IL, where she was born and raised) that never seems forced:

  • Charlotte – This second Charlotte is the 16-year-old daughter of CTM’s childhood best friend.  Bookish and shy, she falls in love with a much older man as a reaction to her superficial friends and as a way of feeling important to someone worldly.
  • Moose – The uncle of Charlotte II, Moose is a disgraced Yale professor now teaching (and seeking redemption) at a college in Rockford.  He begins holding private lessons with Charlotte II to help her see the world the way he sees it.
  • Michael West – A high school math teacher with a secret.  To say more – other than the fact that it deals with the core of what it means to be American – would be to spoil one of the book’s great pleasures.
  • Anthony Halliday – An alcoholic private detective who begins a dalliance with CTM in the course of investigating the disappearance of Z., one of CTM’s New York friends.

All five of these characters present a different way of unpacking the book’s title, and Egan probably could have given us a satisfying book just based on their lives.  But she introduces more characters halfway through the novel and very nearly flirts with obsolescence in the process when she brings Thomas and his plan for a website that documents the lives of Real People™ into the mix.

(Details of the site, for those who are interested: As Thomas describes it, it’ll launch with a handful of Ordinary People – the normal folks, like us – and a handful of Extraordinary People –models, actors, captains of industry – at its core.  They’ll provide text-based journal entries where they relate the details of their day, but then eventually photos, music, streaming video, and filmed reenactments of key events from the person’s life will be incorporated into each individual page.  The idea is to gradually expand the database and in the process bring the world closer together.  From the site we learn about and develop empathy for the people whose lives we can now access 24 hours a day, and by extension we develop the same empathy for people like them we meet on a daily basis.  It’s social media as altruism, before social media as we know it existed.)

Keep in mind that Look at Me was written in 1999 (and published in 2001), pre-MySpace, pre-Facebook, pre-everything else we now know about the pervasiveness of social media.  There’s the risk that Thomas’ site and his proposal to make CTM a cornerstone of this new venture will look quaint and archaic in our current culture.  But somehow it doesn’t, which speaks to just how prescient Egan was, both in devising the concept for the site and for anticipating the still-thorny question of just how much we present of ourselves online is authentic and how much is fabricated for effect.  Much of the second half of the book is focused on that question as Egan peels back the layers of each of the main characters, gradually revealing whatever lies at the core.

As always, when I dwell too much on the details of plot I feel like I fail to sell the book’s quality.  Put simply, Look at Me is a rich, resonant book, especially for anyone who’s wrestled with the question of who they really are and how they reconcile present with past – which, I imagine, is most of us.  In the context of how I began this review – considering identity and how we choose to present it to the world – it perhaps makes the most sense to close with the passage that hit closest to home and which speaks most profoundly to how I think of myself now in relation to the person I was.  I might not be the 20-year-old drip I used to be, but when I think in terms of what people expected of me when I was younger, I feel like I’ve got a long way to go.  And the clock is ticking.

When Moose imagined himself as a child, he pictured a boy watching him across a doorway, through a screen, and a bubble of sorrow would break in his chest, as if he were seeing someone who had died or vanished inexplicably, a milk carton child, as if some vital connection between himself and that boy had been lost.  And despite all that Moose knew he was achieving now or trying to achieve, still he felt – inexplicably – that he had failed to fulfill the promise of that little boy, and was being visited by his unhappy ghost.

*****

Current listening:

Ryan gold

Ryan Adams – Gold (2001)

Through the Knowledge of Those Who Observe Us

don pointFull disclosure: I often start writing these reviews while I’m still reading the book.  I am, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, unforgivably lazy about writing.  I enjoy the process on some level, and it’s kinda fun when I experience one of those rare moments where I return to something I’ve written and think, “Hey, that’s not entirely horrible.” But the truth of it is that there are always other things I’d rather be doing, and none of them require as much effort as sitting down to crank out (optimistically, when it comes to these reviews) 1,000 words or so.  I’ve found the only significant way I can generate some momentum and enthusiasm for the act of writing these recent posts is to begin composing them before I sit down to type.  This gives me direction and purpose, and it prevents the paralysis I occasionally feel when faced with blank screen and blinking cursor.  So there are times when I know by the midpoint of a book what angle I’m going to take, or, in the case of something like Andy Weir’s The Martian, I can tell the book is irredeemably stupid and I’m not at risk of having my negative review ruined by an abnormally high-quality closing chapter.  In those cases I might have already written the opening paragraph or two before I actually finish the last page of the book.

But there are also, I have to admit, times when I begin mentally composing the review before I’ve even started reading the book.  Such was the case with Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, which I knew was next in line following Elmore Leonard’s Gold Coast.  These things I also knew:

  • I’m a huge fan of Leonard, and it seemed unlikely I’d be writing him a negative review.
  • I used to love DeLillo, but his recent works have left me cold, especially The Body Artist, which I read a mere three months ago but about whose plot I remember absolutely nothing.
  • I’ve never written a combo review before.  Wouldn’t it be swell if I wrote a single review linking these two books, specifically focusing on the degree to which Leonard’s early genre fiction was superior to DeLillo’s recent highbrow fiction?

I worked my way through Gold Coast with this framework in mind, already picturing the way I was going to assert my populist preference.  And then the following two things happened:

1) Gold Coast wasn’t very good.

2) Point Omega was fantastic.

So back to the drawing board and a single review of Point Omega, a short book of palpable melancholy that somehow manages to simultaneously be about three specific people and everyone in the world.

It’s a book where summary is almost beside the point.  I’ll try anyway.  Elster, one of the architects of the second Iraq War, is in a cabin in the middle of the Arizona desert with Finley, a documentarian who’s trying to convince Elster to allow him to make a Fog of War-style movie with Elster as the focal point, telling his story against a blank wall, no questions, no stock footage, just one man talking and telling his side of the run-up to the war.  Elster’s daughter Jessie shows up, then she disappears.  The men look for her.  They go home.  This is bookended by two short scenes that take place at the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition where Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been slowed down to last 24 hours.  And that’s it.

Taken at face value, its another of DeLillo’s exercises in minimalism (see also Falling Man and Cosmopolis, neither of which I enjoyed as much as his early works like White Noise and Libra), but as I mentioned earlier there’s a deep core of melancholy at Point Omega’s center, not just in the stark desert setting or Elster’s near-catatonia when Jessie disappears.  It suffuses everything, and to that end it’s a book that needs to be experienced more than explained.

“Oh ha ha, Rob,” you’re saying.  “Experienced more than explained.  What the hell does that mean?”  Well, if I can get even more pretentious for a second, the action in Point Omega isn’t in the action.  Hikes in the desert, Jessie’s arrival, the search after she’s gone – these are almost irrelevant.  The action is in the spaces between this movement, in passages of relative inaction, when we get dialogue like this, from Elster, reflecting on his approach toward the Iraq War:

‘Haiku means nothing beyond what it is.  A pond in summer, a leaf in the wind.  It’s human consciousness located in nature.  It’s the answer to everything in a set number of lines, a prescribed syllable count.  I wanted a haiku war,’ he said. ‘I wanted a war in three lines.  This was not a matter of force levels or logistics.  What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things.  This is the soul of haiku.  Bare everything to plain sight.  See what’s there.  Things in war are transient.  See what’s there and then be prepared to watch it disappear.’

Can I say with any authority what Point Omega is about?  Not really.  But as many problems as I have with latter-day DeLillo, there’s one thing about his most recent books that I like quite a bit: their sparseness makes them literary Rorschach tests, open to a range of interpretations.  Here’s how I made sense of it.  During one conversation, Elster describes the omega point as the time at which we “leap out of our biology” and into something else. With that in mind, Point Omega seems to be about the power of loss to jolt us out of one reality and into another.  Those times when we are most present, most alive, because we’ve had to watch the things we love fade away.

*****

Current listening:

Courtney sometimes

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

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)

A Last Act of Desperate Men

Raymond trouble

It took me a few years living in Georgia to realize just how much California is in my bones.  I grew up a Midwesterner but then spent 14 crucial years – 1995-2009, or age 22 to 36 – on the West Coast.  I never made a conscious decision to self-identify as a Californian, but after living in the Atlanta area for a couple years I suddenly realized just how much my time in California had shaped my personality.  And now, even though I’ve been in the South for nearly six years, no author takes me back to Los Angeles like Raymond Chandler.  When he writes, “There was a desert wind blowing that night.  It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch,” I immediately think, I know that wind! Even though he’s writing about 1930’s L.A., I read his work and immediately return to late-night Santa Barbara streets, driving home after a show, the marine layer rolling in to slick my arm hanging out the open window and ghost a hazy nimbus around the amber streetlights.  The state still haunts me, but under Chandler’s influence it’s not an unwelcome possession.

Although I feel pretty firmly that Elmore Leonard is the undisputed master of crime fiction and, more narrowly, James Ellroy has cornered the market on a certain adrenalized, bare-knuckle strain of Los Angeles noir, it’s impossible not to see Chandler as the Rosetta Stone of the modern detective story, with Leonard and Ellroy and Rankin and Lehane and Hiaasen all tracing their lineage back to Chandler’s pitch-black tales of Philip Marlowe and the street-smart broads with whom he associates.

It’s been a long time since I last read Chandler – probably fifteen years or more since I closed The Long Goodbye – and the first paragraph of the title story in Trouble Is My Business is just like sinking into a warm bath.

Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit.  Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color.  She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon’s tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella.  She said: ‘I need a man.’

For my money there’s nothing not to like about that passage, and the rest of the four stories in this collection are just as razor-sharp.  If I’m going to be honest, though, the actual plot mechanics are almost beside the point.  Chandler admits as much in a forward to the collection, where he says there’s no such thing as a classic mystery story because the only thing that really matters is the denouement, where everything is revealed, and everything that comes before is just process to get to the conclusion.  So to that end  – and I’ll come back to the kinda sorta problematic denouement theory in a sec – the stories in this collection are composed of more or less interchangeable parts:

  • Private eye Philip Marlowe as the world-weary narrator
  • A con involving money (two stories) or pearls (two stories)
  • A brassy dame with a gun
  • A scene where Marlowe gets hit in the back of the head with a sap
  • Two wise-cracking bad guys, one of whom might be garrulous and charismatic, the other taciturn and sullen, and only one of them will be a good shot
  • The mastermind of the con who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is
  • A Los Angeles cop who reluctantly lets Marlowe go about his business
  • One or more scenes involving scotch or rye, which may or may not be set in a bar
  • Rapid-fire exchanges of dialogue where Marlowe says things like, “Some days I feel like playing smooth and some days I feel like playing it like a waffle iron.”

None of this is criticism, mind you.  The reason Chandler is so good is that he mixes and matches all these pieces and manages to put them together in novel and exciting ways each time.  In one story it’s about a guy who cheats a local mob boss out of $20,000; in another, Marlowe tracks some missing pearls to the Pacific Northwest.  Even though we recognize the parts, the thrill is in seeing how Chandler repurposes them from story to story.  Everything in this collection crackles with electricity.

Everything, that is, except for the denouement Chandler references, the part of the story he views as most vital to its success.  This is the only thing in Trouble Is My Business that feels antiquated: the scene where all the principal players are gathered in one room and Marlowe explains the nuts and bolts of everything that’s come before.  It’s a variation on what Roger Ebert called The Fallacy of the Talking Killer.  You know that tired scene from movies – where the bad guy has the good guy trapped and all he has to do is kill him but he spends five minutes explaining why he’s so bad and then the good guy escapes.  It’s kind of the same thing here, where Marlowe has to explain the contortions of the plot so we’ll see everything the way he sees it.  It’s a scene that I don’t really see in modern crime fiction, and in these stories it’s always necessary (Chandler is big on convoluted plots), but it also grinds the story to a halt.

But again, I don’t really mean this as criticism.  It’s an early hallmark of the genre Chandler essentially invented (yes yes, I know – Poe, Doyle, Christie, etc., etc. I’m talking contemporary crime fiction here), and by pointing it out I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading what is an unequivocally delightful collection of stories.  It’s one of those rare occasions where I don’t mind substance taking a back seat to style.  Chandler’s not going to make me ponder the meaning of the universe, but he will dazzle me with sheer inventiveness of craft.  And of course take me back to California, where gravel roads disappear “around a shoulder of scrub oak and manzanita” and “plumes of pampas grass flare on the side of the hill, like jets of water.”

I wasn’t born in California, but reading Chandler is like going home.

*****

Current listening:

Red ocean

Red House Painters – Ocean Beach (1995)

You Know You Can’t Go Back

Banks lostRussell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a very, very good book that’s very, very hard to like.  Actually, I take that back.  It’s easy to like if you’re a reader who accepts that protagonists can be flawed, possibly beyond redemption.  If you’re a fan of Banks, you know to expect this.  This is, after all, the same guy who’s made a career of trafficking in problematic characters – from militant abolitionist John Brown (Cloudsplitter) to an opportunistic lawyer and incestuous father (The Sweet Hereafter) to a perpetually angry drunk (Affliction).  So when it becomes clear that the main character in Lost Memory of Skin is a convicted sex offender, your attitude will largely depend on how familiar you are with Banks’ work.  And even if you’re very familiar, like I am, it’s still going to be one of the most uncomfortable reading experiences you’re likely to have.

The Kid is the book’s anchor, the sex offender we meet in the opening chapter, newly released from prison and nervously going to the public library (a forbidden location) to access the Internet (a forbidden activity) to verify for himself his presence on the National Sex Offender Registry.  He’s scared away when his photo pops up on the screen and the librarian recognizes him, and he flees to the Causeway, an area beneath an overpass where local sex offenders have pitched tents and built shanties because it’s one of only three places in the county where they won’t be within 2,500 feet of children.  One afternoon he meets the Professor, a morbidly obese academic from the local university who wants to interview the Kid for a research project.  It’s the Professor’s hypothesis that sex offenders have only been led to offend because they don’t feel in control of any other aspect of their lives, and they can therefore be redeemed by having some measure of control and success – jobs and responsibilities – that give them the confidence they need to no longer assert their control by preying on the young.  Lost Memory of Skin is primarily about the relationship that develops between the Kid and the Professor – friends would be overstating things – and how what begins as a simple interview project develops into a weirdly symbiotic partnership.

The question throughout the book – the problem that the whole thing hinges on – is if the Kid is beyond redemption.  Banks wisely withholds the nature of his crime for a while, but I can’t do that here and still talk about what I think is a central theme of the book.  So …

HERE BE SPOILERS

Banks makes the Kid more a pitiable character than a reprehensible one, but rather than making things easy on himself this opens up a moral gray area that’s far more satisfying than if the Kid were an obvious bad guy.  He’s painted as a neglected child, cared for by a single mother more concerned with finding a man than taking care of her only child.  The Kid has no friends and no girlfriend, and almost by accident he stumbles across online pornography.  He quickly becomes obsessed, probably addicted, and rather than attempt to forge meaningful relationships with his peers, simply drifts around in a fog of online videos and masturbation.  He enlists in the Army but finds himself just as friendless there.  In a misguided attempt to force camaraderie on the rest of his platoon, the Kid buys a bunch of pornographic DVDs to hand out, but is busted during inspection and discharged.  Back in his mother’s home, he returns to the Internet, and that’s where things get tricky.

The Kid strikes up an online correspondence with a teenage girl.  She initially claims to be 18, then admits she’s 14.  This begins as an innocent conversation about the Kid’s pet iguana, Iggy, but it slowly escalates over a period of weeks and ultimately becomes more explicit.  Eventually the Kid schedules a rendezvous at her home, shows up with a backpack full of beer, porn, and condoms, and is busted by the police in what is clearly a sting to catch sexual predators.

And here’s where Banks has been very canny with what I think is meant to be criticism of these kinds of operations, as well as sex offender laws in general.  The escalation to explicitness that I mentioned earlier is initiated and facilitated entirely by the girl, with the Kid playing along only when the girl prompts him.  It’s never made clear if there ever was a girl or if the online conversations were with the police all along, so if you’re reading it the way I’m reading it, there’s an argument to be made that the Kid is the real victim in this situation, manipulated into a potential crime by police who preyed on a lonely, depressed individual.  Of course the Kid should have never gone to her house (again, assuming there’s a her at all), should have known the difference between right and wrong, should have steered clear altogether.  Of course it’s disgusting behavior.  But I keep being drawn back to the issue of manipulation.  If it was a police operation all along, and the Kid was only going to “her” house because he had been goaded into it by law enforcement, is the Kid really guilty of anything?  He certainly never commits a sexual act.  As the conversation plays out, he never even propositions the girl.  He’s guilty of being a skeezy dude who shows up at a teenage girl’s house with beer and porn, and that’s about it.  Gross, yes, but is it worthy of the penalty, which is six months in jail, ten years with a GPS bracelet on his ankle, and a lifetime of stigmatization on the Sex Offender Registry?

I don’t know.  Even as I typed some of those sentences it felt indefensible.  He went.  He had designs.  Surely that counts for something.  And I think that’s where the Kid is sort of an ingenious creation.  He doesn’t give the reader an easy way out, and he also allows us to ask tough questions about some of our country’s legal practices.

FOR THE SPOILER-AVERSE, IT IS NOW SAFE TO READ AGAIN

Also on Banks’ radar are the restrictions placed on the sex offenders in Calusa County (Banks never says Florida by name, but he’s not kidding anyone).  They can’t be within 2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds, libraries – anywhere there’s likely to be children.  That leaves them with their shantytown under the Causeway, the international terminal at the airport, and the Penzacola Swamp (a stand-in for the Everglades).  This restriction lasts for ten years.  Do you see the problem with this situation?  How easy is it to get a job when your address is the swamp?  How likely are you to gain meaningful employment when you’re living in a tent under the highway?  In this situation the sex offenders are released straight from prison and into ten years of homelessness, which, let’s face it, after ten years will likely exist into perpetuity.  I’m all for making sure offenders pay their debt to society – and in many cases they deserve all they get and more, especially when small children are the victims – but the book makes us ask if this lifetime penalty is appropriate for lesser offenders.  Does the Kid deserve his life sentence, based solely on the circumstances?  Is he beyond redemption?  Banks gives us a definitive answer at the end, but the beauty of this ugly book is that it leaves room for dissent.

There’s more – much, much more – to say.  It’s not an easy read.  The Kid is not an easy character to like, nor is the Professor (whom I haven’t really discussed at all, but about whom I could easily write another thousand words).  But if you want to read something that will make you ask important questions about our society, the importance of community, and the possibility of redemption, Lost Memory of Skin is worth the discomfort.

*****

Current listening:

Idlewild remote

Idlewild – The Remote Part (2002)

View from a Shaky Ladder

BookshelfSix months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves.  A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read.  The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace.  So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey.  No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.

Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top.  I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on.  You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.

And it is fun.  Of course it is.  I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures.  So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression?  Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.

Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September.  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book.  David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.

Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot.  Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it.  But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.  Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.

Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read.  Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.

Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically  mean-spirited collection of sketches.  The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty.  I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.

A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction.  It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations.  It’s a classic.  Totally.  But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.

A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument.  The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting.  It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love.  And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it.  That review will be coming along in a day or two.

So: six months and 48 books down.  I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date.  Call it June 2016.  Place your bets now.

*****

Current listening:

Fall this

The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)