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)

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Waiting Around for Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Current listening:

Cure kiss

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

The Feast and the Famine

Stephen fromI’ve written so much elsewhere about my love for Stephen King that I steadfastly refuse to do it here.  It’s not just because I’m tired of my own enthusiasm, but because From a Buick 8 is such a tepid, by-the-numbers effort that my affection starts to look a little silly.

Reading this book – and thinking about King’s longevity – I couldn’t help but think in terms of my other great pop culture loves, music and film.  At some point we have to acknowledge that artists who’ve been around for 30+ years essentially get by on their past glories, and that if we appreciate their newest efforts, it’s rare that we love them in the way we love their earlier accomplishments.  Claiming to adore a 21st Century Stephen King novel is sort of like fawning over a new Rolling Stones album: it’s good that they’re still alive, but do we really want to compare Bridges to Babylon with Exile on Main St.?  I’ll dutifully see every film Woody Allen directs, but it’s pure folly to think Magic in the Moonlight can hold a candle to Annie Hall. That isn’t to say late-career artists can’t create a winner – Dylan being Example A – but it’s rare.  And so the question becomes: At what point do we stop letting nostalgia cloud our opinion of new works from tired artists?

And that’s sort of where I am with From a Buick 8. I don’t really fault King for recycling storylines after all this time – to continue the Stones metaphor, Keith Richards only has so many riffs in him – but I’m not sure there’s any way to look at a second haunted car novel as anything but creative fatigue.  In the Afterword, King describes how the idea came to him on a drive up the Eastern seaboard and how he then filtered it through his subsequent near-fatal accident, but it doesn’t do much to make the story seem fresh.

And that story?  A group of Pennsylvania State Troopers, headed up by chief Sandy Dearborn, talks to Ned, the 18-year-old son of a colleague who was recently killed by a hit-and-run driver, about the haunted car in their storage shed.  Resembling a 1953 Buick Roadmaster…

1936-1992-buick-roadmaster-33

…the car was abandoned at a gas station by a mysterious driver and later appears to be the portal to another world.

It’s a book where, to be honest, not much happens.  The car spends the book in the shed, occasionally emitting blinding flashes of light … and, oh yeah, sucking unknowing people into its trunk and occasionally sending creatures from the other world to our own.  These arrivals look vaguely like things from our world  – a creepy bat, a creepy fish, creepy leaves – without actually being from our world, and they don’t live long once they’re here.  One of these sequences – a screaming humanoid thing arrives after an unusually violent light show – is the most effective scene in the book, a genuinely disturbing encounter that’s right in King’s wheelhouse.

But the rest of the book is more a story of how Ned’s father Curtis became obsessed with the car – or, maybe more importantly, how the car obsesses Curtis.  Structurally it’s sort of interesting, told mostly in flashback by the troopers, but their voices are largely indistinguishable (with the exception of Arky, a Michigan transplant who speaks in dem‘s and dere’s), and King’s folksy idioms seem clunkier than ever, bordering dangerously on Garrison Keillorisms.

It’s not even really a case where I can say, “Man, there’s a good story in here somewhere, but this isn’t it.”  It’s a goofy premise handled about as well as can be.  Fortunately, I’ve read a couple of King’s post-Buick 8 works, and it’s good to see that he would return, near as can be, to form.  11/22/63, especially, is close to prime King – his Match Point rather than his Scoop.

*****

Current listening:

House spy

The House of Love – A Spy in the House of Love (1990)

As Close as I Came to Being Right

biggest-loser-logo
The Biggest Loser returns tonight.  I will watch it, I will enjoy it, and I will steadfastly refuse to care that I’m not supposed to do either of those things.

I understand the impulse behind naming certain things “guilty pleasures.”  We all want to think our taste is beyond reproach, that we worship at the altar of the highbrow, and that at the very least we recognize that certain entertainments have little or no redeeming social value.  To cite something as a guilty pleasure is to position oneself as someone who knows better and in the process claim a certain moral or intellectual high ground.

It’s nonsense, of course.

When it comes to entertainment, why should we feel guilty about the things that give us pleasure? The truth (for me, anyway) is that I don’t trust people who claim to only like the “right” things. Thanks to my association with a certain music festival, I’ve come into contact with folks who claim only to like Japanese musicians who create found-sound drone collages out of kitchen appliances and the subsonic echoes of beating insect wings or six-hour black-and-white films about a Romanian peasant eating a potato.  It’s like a real-life episode of Portlandia, where  the insufferably pretentious assert their superiority by claiming never to have heard of Lost, and it always smacks of an effort to hide their insecurity by trying too hard.

I do recognize, however, that the flipside is true.  A steady diet of American Idol, Maroon 5, Nicholas Sparks, and Adam Sandler will do no one any favors, and those of us who have friends who snack incessantly on junk food should logically steer them in increasingly more substantial directions.  But taking those things in moderation – and, by necessity, recognizing their flaws – is nothing to feel guilty about.

In the interest of putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to quickly discuss three entertainments (TV, music, and book) that some people would call guilty pleasures, but for which I make absolutely no apologies.  I like what I like, and that’s really all that should matter.

I know I’m not supposed to admit to any of the things that follow.  I have a Ph.D., and therefore should spend my days surrounded by fine art, books of philosophy, and classical music.  But I have nothing hanging on my walls, I haven’t read a philosophy book since my brief fascination with Foucalt in the late 90’s, and classical music bores me to tears.

jillian-michaels-and-bob-harperTelevision – The Biggest Loser

The perennial weight loss competition works for me for a couple reasons.  The main one is that, at its best, it’s truly inspiring.  Unlike most reality shows that seem to wallow in humiliation, Biggest Loser actually tries to make a positive difference for people, introducing them to exercise and a healthy diet (in between those annoying product-placement spots for Subway and Tupperware, which assume the contestants have all been living on Mars) and encouraging viewers in need of weight loss to make a similar change.  I mean, sure, there’s humiliation here, too, as we watch horribly obese people fall off treadmills, but on balance it does far more good than harm.

It also works because the show has chosen its trainers well.  Bob Harper is the Zen, centered good cop to Jillian Michaels’ batshit, drill instructor bad cop.  When the contestants are resistant to the training, Bob employs New Age, feel-good reassurance, resorting to anger only when gentle negotiation fails.  Jillian, on the other hand, screams at them and beats them about the head and shoulders with her abs.  I’m ambivalent about the most recent addition, Dolvett Quince.  He’s sort of a combination of the other two, with a penchant both for sappy platitudes and yelling.  He’s an an inoffensive character and many of the contestants seem to like him, but I’m not sure what he offers that the show didn’t already have.

There are, of course, drawbacks that I have a harder time defending.  Most problematic for me is the way the show constantly falls into a hero/victim dichotomy.  I sort of resent the clips of Bob telling the contestants that they’re “heroes.”  I get that we live in a hyperbolic society where words are continuously dulled and diminished, but it seems especially cheap to refer to someone’s weight loss as a heroic act.  I don’t even care if the contestants are doing it to be better parents.  Losing weight to be good to your family doesn’t make you a hero.  It makes you a responsible human.

On that same point, I grow tired of how the female competitors – usually mothers – are often portrayed as victims, as though gangs of rogue Hostess executives have held them down and force-fed them Twinkies.  Numerous times throughout each season, Jillian or Bob or Dolvett will say something  like this to one of the women: “You gave everything you had to take care of your family, and you didn’t have any time to take care of yourself.”  Look: I’m sure she was busy.  No doubt.  I’m not diminishing the difficulty of raising a family.  But when the show starts, many of the women are pushing 250 pounds or more.  That doesn’t happen by accident, nor does it happen overnight.  They might not have had time to take care of themselves, but they sure as hell had time to stuff their faces.  I think this bothers me precisely because in most instances The Biggest Loser so often avoids treating the contestants like powerless victims.  The show is usually about owning up to your demons and taking control of your life.  Laying the blame for some contestants’ obesity at their families’ feet seems like a cop-out.

All of this is to say that, even with its flaws, I have no problem supporting a show that encourages its viewers to be fit, to get healthy, to make smart choices.  Where most reality shows glorify bad behavior, The Biggest Loser asks us to live up to our potential.

ColdplayMusic – Coldplay

Ever since 2005 and the band’s appearance as the “You know how I know you’re gay?” punchline from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Coldplay has been seen as the relentlessly sappy group of effeminate Brits who give romance a bad name. Among certain music fans, their name is shorthand for cheap emotion and mass-market sentiment – the Hallmark Cards of guitar rock.

It’s not a totally undeserved reputation, but I love them anyway because, left out of that larger discussion is a really important point: they write some killer melodies.  Their 2000 debut, Parachutes, is a dynamite collection of songs that’s been overshadowed by the ubiquity of hit single “Yellow,”  and its follow-up, 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, is one of my Top Ten albums of the first decade of the 21st Century.  And yeah, some of that album has been overplayed, but seriously: listen to “Clocks” with new ears and dare to tell me it’s not an amazing song.

Those first two albums went a long way toward replacing The Smiths in my lovelorn late-20’s vocabulary, and I vividly remember singing songs like “Shiver” and “The Scientist” at top volume as a balm for another broken heart.  And maybe this is why I’m drawn to Coldplay despite their detractors: at heart, I’m just as sappy and weedy as the band.

Anyway, 2005’s X & Y isn’t nearly as good as its two predecessors (although I still find “Fix You” to be almost annoyingly wonderful in its panoramic, widescreen bombast), but their last two albums, 2008’s Viva la Vida and 2011’s Mylo Xyloto, have taken the admirable tack of following stylistic tangents while still incorporating some of the most hummable melodies of recent times.  It hasn’t made them more masculine, but in our testosterone-heavy culture, I’ll take a little sensitivity anyday.

Stephen KingBooks – Stephen King

I’ve written about King so much in my other blogs that I’m a little tired of my own effusiveness.  But for the benefit of new readers: Stephen King is almost solely responsible for the reader I am today.  I think avid readers can trace moments like these, the times when we’ve read something that fundamentally alters not just our reading trajectory, but our lives.

I don’t know how I discovered it – or more importantly,why my parents let me read it – but Stephen King’s Cujo knocked me on my scrawny little 13-year-old rear.  I mean, are you kidding me? A big-ass dog ripping people to shreds, and my first encounter with the word fuck in literature?  Up to that point I was heavily into the fantasy novels of Terry Brooks and my reaction was this: “I’ve been reading about elves when I could have been reading this all along?  Ho-lee shit.”  Fortunately, this was in the late 80′s, before King had written eleventy-hundred books and started recycling plots.  The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Firestarter, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone – all fell in short order. This locust-like rampage through King’s bibliography eventually got me to Danse Macabre, wherein he describes some of his favorite authors.  And it was in that book that I first encountered Harlan Ellison, a sorta-kinda science fiction writer who continued my literary journey.  Ellison led me to Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, who eventually got me to Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy and T.C. Boyle and most of the other writers who are my favorites to this day.

But King set me on this path, and I still feel a debt of gratitude for that.  To this day I faithfully pick up his newest book whenever it’s published, but I don’t do this out of obligation or nostalgia.  King’s very popularity leads people to lump him in with (in my opinion) less-talented writers like Sparks or Grisham, but, as with Coldplay, I think this knee-jerk reaction obviates people from actually experiencing the art.  And King, for as long as he’s been doing this, still writes terrific stories with great passion.  Not every book is a winner – I grew tired of the Dark Tower series around Book 5 and still haven’t been able to finish it, and I’m still reluctant to read From a Buick 8 because I think we can all agree that two haunted car books is two too many for anyone – but I think we’d all be lucky to maintain such consistently high quality for nearly forty years.  So, y’know, struggle manfully with the new Thomas Pynchon if you like. King’s upcoming sequel to The Shining will give me more pleasure in the long run.

One final note about all of this: liking what you like and being proud of it, as I hope I’ve shown here, doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge its faults.  But it also doesn’t mean that just because it has faults that it’s not worthy of your attention.  For me, it’s more important that we have passions than that we worry overmuch what other people think of them.  And, to that end, you should feel free to make fun of me for liking any of the things I’ve written about here, just as I will make merciless fun of you for liking Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or Nickelback.  It’s only fair.

*****

Current listening:
Joy big
The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar (2011)