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


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)