Thursday, November 28, 2013

Support your local sociopath

Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson, 1964.

As one of the writers who defines literary noir, Jim Thompson found the perfect balance of black comedy and bleak irony with this novel. If you have read his best known book The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280 is also a variation on the theme of a small-town sheriff who ends up presiding over a murderous roundup of most of the story's other characters. In the case of this book, the carnage is accompanied with a leavening dose of low comedy and a feast of sociopolical satire from the point of view of the sociopathic Nick Corey, High Sheriff of Pottsdale.

This comic tale is something that might be produced by an unholy union of Mark Twain and Jack the Ripper's mother. The sheriff juggles three women, possessed of insatiable sex drives, who are amusingly offset by his attempts to accommodate all of them without getting caught and while not missing breakfast. The passions that fuel the characters have escalated to the level of mini-religious apocalypse by novel's end. Only then do we realize Nick's comic objectivity conceals a frightening psychosis. This is also seen when as the only character with sympathetic feelings for the downtrodden Negroes, he dispatches a loyal old black servant with a shotgun practically on principle.

It is interesting to consider this work in light of the influence that Texas has had in terms of national politics over the last fifty years since it was written. We are still a killer nation and Texas, which is the evident setting of the book, epitomizes this. The annual number of gun murders in Texas (1246 in 2010) is approximately the population of the small town where this novel is set. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has nothing on the more efficient bloodbath that greets us daily from the "red" states.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Winning the Cool War

Live and Let Die, by Ian Fleming, 1955.

Despite the fact that this, the second James Bond novel, does for racism what the previous one did for misogyny, Ian Fleming achieves complete mastery over the spy thriller genre. This book revels in the exoticism of America (with its many "negroes") and Jamaica (whose waters teem with dangerous sharks, barracuda, and octopi)--and a major supervillain called Mr. Big, a black gangster with artistic sensibilities, particularly in the way he kills. Bond, like a modern knight-errant, carries the standard of the British Empire into these out of the way places, aided by his highly cultivated taste for wines, women, and weaponry.

In that the novels debuted in the 1950s, and launched the 60s version of the Bond icon epitomized by Sean Connery, we may consider Ian Fleming to have in large part invented the modern era. Not content to win the Cold War, he won the Cool War as well, replacing the anger and depression of the post-World War II heroes with wit, panache, and a sexual killer instinct.

In creating Bond, Fleming also created JFK, whose favorite writer was, of course, Fleming. Let us not underestimate this feat of imagination which has changed the course of history, providing a somewhat more gentlemanly gender stereotype which has enabled us to transition into the 21st century with our homicidal instincts shaken not stirred.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Quantum of bondage

Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming, 1953. "Bond--James Bond." This is where it all began, with Ian Fleming's first novel of the series. I read it in high school in the early 60s, along with a couple of other Bond books, loving of course the movie Bond of the era, Sean Connery. Now I return to it having seen and enjoyed the splendid recent entries in the movie series starring Daniel Craig, among them Casino Royale, finally.

Encountering the original Bond in book form is a bit of a shocker, really. He's a stone killer and a sexual beast, chiseled out of Cold War sensibilities and gender stereotypes. Completely politically incorrect. There is considerable power in this persona: huge, coiling energy that is capable of anything. In this sense of latent brutality, Daniel Craig is perhaps a more convincing Bond even than Connery. (Still, Connery has that quintessential core of Bonditude that cannot be denied.)

I was taken aback by the strength of the novel. Fleming's prose is not pretty, but it is authoritatively rough-hewn and terse--not, however, lacking in English flair. I enjoyed Fleming's daring in devoting a good large piece of the book to the description of one card game. I didn't recall the movie allowing such a large block of time to covering the incident. Fleming makes it work. He also goes on for an age about the torture administered to Bond's genitals while he is tied to a chair. The recent movie amply documents that extended pummeling in excruciating fashion. But to turn to Bond's tender side, so to speak, Fleming also shows James as tentative and vulnerable around Vesper Lynd, the "Bond girl" of this book. Before we even have a handle on Bond as a recurring series character, we already see his range of emotion--his ambivalence about women and ability to get his heart broken.

I love the last line of the book: "Yes, dammit, I said 'was'. The bitch is dead now." What a dash of cold water! James nearly lost his testicles trying to save Vesper--and he was betrayed. Something has died here for this newly minted double-0 agent: his last illusions about being able to rely on anything else in life beyond his resilient body and  keen mind and finely honed instincts. As for women--"the bitch is dead now." THE END. That's pretty powerful.

We know of course the women are going to come back, though, again and again, like Ursula Andress in the first Bond film, Dr. No, emerging in her iconic white bikini like Venus from the foam, fetchingly carrying her conch shells. But that's another book for another time. I'll read or reread all of these eventually. They have tied me to the chair!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sharper than a serpent's tooth

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847. This is one of those books I read in college and probably would not have given another thought to in this life, except that I saw a bit of the recent film adaptation with Reese Witherspoon and became interested to go back and understand more about the background and characters. Now that I have reread the novel, I will return to the movie and see what I think of it. (I doubt from what I have seen so far that it will stand a chance against the classic that inspired it.)

There are two features that really mark Vanity Fair as a work worthy of preservation down the ages, I think. First, Becky Sharp is a fantastic character. She has the extraordinary ability to please people, flatter them, make them fall in love with her, men and women alike. What that means is you too, reader, will be pleased. Unfortunately, like all the others, you will be betrayed. The charisma-dripping Miss Sharp turns out to have nothing on her mind but herself and living in the style to which she has become accustomed, usually at your expense. The amazing feat of characterization here is that at least for the first half of the novel, we are pulling for Becky, even though we know she is a bad 'un, and only when everyone else has finally abandoned her do we also reluctantly set our carriages off in the opposite direction from her. Thackeray got us to love her in spite of ourselves, and finally to taste the bitter ashes of our own foolishness for doing so.

The second salient feature of this book, for me, is the incredibly intrusive narrator, who defines the disillusioned, ironic stance while imposing his view of things on us every other moment. Despite this, we would probably never have any interest in this story if not for the personality of the storyteller, who is so outrageously funny, so piquant yet nonchalant, a self-declared puppet-master for the characters who are trotted out before us, yet without a lot of love for any of them (oh, perhaps Becky, bad as she is) that we are compelled to turn the page.

"Vanity Fair" sees the world as a theatre for people's vanity, and one by one they are defeated by their own attachment to money, beauty, fame, and the eternal comfort of feeling that they are better than somebody else. Some things, unfortunately, have not changed much since 1847.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Under the lash

Whip Hand, by Charles Willeford, Gold Medal Books, 1961. Published under the moniker of W. Franklin Sanders, this early effort by Willeford has never been reprinted but is available now in ebook form. If you want a copy of the first edition, be prepared to shell out a $350 for a collectible copy, a mere 100,000% increase over the original price. This is what we should have been investing our money in in high school.

As lurid as the cover makes the novel seem, this is a serious experiment in multiple narration. You think you're reading flippin' Faulkner when the voice of Junior, comes in. He's just your garden variety psychopath from Oklahoma, doing what he knows best to do when he comes to a strange land like Texas, which is to kill people.

As for the babe with the whip, she's really quite demure and gets all mushy when her big cop boyfriend barges into her mansion with the crook who kidnapped her little sister. Yeah, she can wield that whip, all right, but only because her old man taught her how to use it for self-defense. And she only uses it on Junior, providing the one moment of restraint in the novel.

If you understand the genre, you'll recognize this as a hidden treasure.

In a dark place

Nothing More than Murder, by Jim Thompson, 1949. Here's a novel about a movie theater proprietor in the 1940s, a troubled marriage, and a scheme to murder a woman and make it look like an accident. It's noirish as all hell, and dark as the hearts of those who scheme in the darkened theaters of this book.

This is a typically great Thompson novel, with several features that give it a lot more depth than you might expect in a story like this. First, the intricate, cut-throat machinations behind the movie theater business in the 40s is very esoteric and replete with specific lingo (a glossary is provided). Secondly, the notion of narratorial unreliability is used here to good effect to mislead the reader as to what is going to happen; and certain details of plot are only given in flashback to further warp the timeline. What seems like a simple story quickly becomes quite complex. The third is that this is as much a mystery of psychology and character as it is of plot, and the story in the end turns out rather differently from where we thought it was going. As the narrator's schemes and his self-confidence unravel, his carefully planned reality runs off its course like a film that has run off its spool.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Catch a falling horse

Pegasus Descending, by James Lee Burke. Simon & Schuster, 2006. The repetitiveness inherent in a long series of books, as in the case of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux stories, may not necessarily be attributed to a lack of creativity. Pegasus Descending, the fifteenth in the series set in southern Louisiana, is not unlike the others in that we have a the usual lineup of Dave, the tough but good-hearted cop, his manic hard-living sidekick Clete, and his badass lesbian sheriff boss Helen.

In some of the books Dave falls off the wagon as he struggles with his inner demons while old blues tunes run through his head; other times his wife of the moment gets tragically killed; almost always one of the incredibly unsavory bad guys gets destroyed by Dave in a barroom brawl; Helen barely restrains herself (or maybe not) from punching out someone who makes a crude comment about her sexuality; Clete consumes a record amount of beer and crashes up some thug's property in his Caddy. It doesn't matter if we've seen all this before. Variations on a theme: bring it on.

I'm not sure what the title means. It's on the t-shirt of a girl who dies. Burke's titles are always poetically resonant with the unuttered meanings that lie in the swampy, murky background of the books. This one makes us think of the glory that has fallen, and that can mean a lot of things. Often enough he seems to be writing about America and the sadness that we all carry here, and the sense that like passengers on the Titanic, we're going down.

There are always new wrinkles. In this book Clete gets a love interest, a woman much younger than himself. Good one. Bring it, James Lee.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Land of bilk and money

Sideswipe, by Charles Willeford, St. Martin's, 1987.
I wanted to try a Charles Willeford novel so I grabbed this one at random. It's part of a series featuring police detective Hoke Moseley, and Miami is his beat. Boy, does Willeford make this locale his own. Willeford's Florida is a sun-drenched paradise with a very shady underbelly. The overlit detritus of modern life is celebrated by an obsessive attention to detail, the author layering his paragraphs with enough brand names and references to the trashy texture of subdivision life in all its glorious mundanity to litter a parallel universe. For long stretches, the story inches forward while tension builds slowly, then explodes with unanticipated violence.

Reading a novel like this is like attending a master class in professional fiction writing. Plot is subservient to delicious character and atmospheric details; the reader is not dependent upon the engine of events to generate pleasure in reading. The dialogue rings of authenticity. The writing seems effortless. Laconically, Willeford beguiles us through his short narrative and dares us not to steam-open his next missive from that peninsular desert of strip malls, motels, and fast food.