CRIME AND ESPIONAGE OF COURSE….THE RETURN OF THE BOOK REPORT (3/17 through 10/17)

Sorry for the delays folks. Eye trouble (minor but annoying); time-time-time; working on my own book; the need to, for the first time in years, monitor what’s left of Politics. Etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, the book report is back. I’ve only read eight books in the eight months it’s been gone. Two will be handled at some point in other venues. The remaining six are all crime or spy novels of one sort or another. It’s been that kind of year.

March through June:

Cop Hater (Ed McBain, 1956)

Ed McBain was the pen name Evan Hunter (of The Blackboard Jungle and Last Summer fame) used for his “87th Precinct” police procedurals. Eventually there were more than fifty. Having never read one, I decided to start with his first.

It’s solid. A good basis for a series. Hunter/McBain liked to pat himself on the back a bit for having policemen–the only people actually authorized to investigate crimes– catch criminals (especially murderers) without the help of private eyes and such. The romance of realism.

Of course, the best private eye fiction doesn’t generally involve solving murders but trying–and most often failing–to prevent them. If a murder to two gets solved along the way, that’s okay, too, as long as it gets smoothly incorporated into the larger narrative.

Then again, a lot of private eye fiction isn’t very good and I think what McBain/Hunter meant was that if you were going to have a lengthy series based entirely on pursuing criminals (as opposed to say, family secrets), then only a cop made sense. Especially if Erle Stanley Gardner had already wrapped up the Fighting Defense Attorney market. He was right in that, and his leap to the next level was in realizing that the idea of a genius operating inside a police department had already been done as well as could be (see below)….but no one had written a series focusing on an entire department. That was his ah-hah moment. Once he perfected the formula it made him millions. The story of Cop Hater is pretty humdrum. But the sharp writing was there from the beginning:

The heat had persisted all day long, a heavy yellow blanket that smothered the city in its wooly grip. Carella did not like the heat. He had never liked summer, even as a kid, and now that he was an adult and a cop, the only memorable characteristic summer seemed to have was that is made dead bodies stink quicker.

I’d change “all day long” to “all day,” but otherwise that’s haiku-perfect. Much more of the book is merely swift and serviceable…And I doubt, at a book a month (the series ran past fifty, more than Sam Spade, The Continental Op, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, and Easy Rawlins combined), he ever made the leap to higher ground for more than a page here and there.

But I’ll be interested in finding out at some point.

World enough and time please.

July/August:

Maigret’s First Case (Georges Simenon, 1949)

Speaking of geniuses working within the system…

I’ve read half a dozen Maigret novels over the years, always with guarded pleasure: Expert writing, a little chilly around the heart.

The chill breaks here. Maigret had debuted, in print, in 1931. By 1949, he and Simenon were world-wide institutions. But this “first” case is set in an earlier time. Much earlier. 1913 to be exact, a year that was, in some ways, closer to 1813 than 1931, and closer to 1318 than 1949.

Simenon remembered that lost world and he lets the reader see and feel what he remembers. The series as a whole worked on many levels–I really do hope I live long enough to read all seventy-six novels–many of which I’m sure have stronger stories. But here the principal value is painterly, as Maigret hurries or marches or strolls through the streets of a lost Paris and Simenon’s inimitable eye catches a telling detail around every corner at every speed.

And, as the young inspector deals with France’s pre-Great War class system, his creator is not above suggesting–ever so subtly–that such systems are bound to fail.

Hardly prescient in 1949, but certainly worth remembering in any year in a world where Franco-level hubris seems almost quaint.

Hostage: London (Geoffrey Household, 1977)

Household was a former British Intelligence officer (WWII) and nearing eighty when he published Hostage: London. He was most famous as the author of Rogue Male. (Big game hunter stalks Hitler for sport but does not kill him, with terrible consequences for much more than the World. Fritz Lang turned it into Manhunt, a film that caught the small scale, insidious evil of the Nazi state and deepened and personalized it in a manner seldom seen in the forties or since–I haven’t read the book so I can only speculate how much of the inspiration derived from the novel). But he hadn’t lost his fastball. After Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima (likely unmatchable) this is the best novel I’ve read about the inner workings of a terror cell. Since the modern stakes of nuclear holocaust were barely imaginable in the days of James and Joseph Conrad, this is almost bound to have an air of implausibility, meaning I’m not sure even those writers could have done more with this than Household does. Anyone contemplating blowing up a nuclear device in a major city is truly psyhcopathic. So the only option left to Household is to have his inside man wrestle with a split conscience as he realizes the full implications of his comrades going a bridge too far. Of course he can’t accept the carnage and must turn on them….But what about the cause he still believes in?

The map by which the protagonist slips into madness is skillfully drawn. There are no wasted words.

No real lessons for our time either, Thank God, except this: If someone wants it badly enough, it will happen. And the line between wanting the very worst just badly enough–and not quite enough–is being daily tested somewhere.

The parting gift of a man who, having been born in 1900, when James and Conrad still walked the earth, had, perhaps. lived too long and seen too much.

Highly recommended for those happy few who need no comfort.

September/October:

XPD  (Len Deighton, 1981)

Skilled. Deighton was always skilled. 1981 was just about the last moment when the old “What If Churchill secretly met with Hitler to negotiate a truce and what if the modern world found him out!” premise could be taken with at least a grain of far-fetched credibility.

Maybe England really would have fallen apart! Within those limits Deighton sustains a certain tension and keeps a complicated story moving without let it sink in too deep or run completely off the rails. But there’s now attached a kind of poignance I’m not sure he intended. He seems to have still believed, as late as 1981, that there would always be an England.

We know better now.

The Player on the Other Side (Ellery Queen, 1963)

“Ellery Queen” was a pseudonym deployed by two New York cousins, David Nathan and Emanuel Lepofsky, who wrote “professionally” under the names Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, respectively.

Got that?

The Player on the Other Side was a comeback novel, after the pair had dried up in the late fifties (whether writer’s block or that other old bugaboo, “creative differences” was to blame may have been unclear, even to them). Apparently the writer’s block part was a legitimate problem, because Science Fiction ace, Theodore Sturgeon (pictured below the cousins above), was called in to ghost-write, with how much supervision from the cousins, one can only guess.

The result?

A very fine whodunit–exemplary of the form, especially coming so late in the game. I read it in my early teens and hadn’t revisited since (or any Queen for probably twenty-five years or more). It’s still highly engaging and even has some haunted qualities in the early scenes. It ran out of steam at the very end, mostly because, by then, the revealing of the murderer wasn’t really surprising, even to someone like me, who always makes a point of not guessing. But the ride was still enjoyable and I envy at least some aspects of an age where the quality of pulp writing was better than anything we can expect from “literary” magazines today.

Breakout (Richard Stark, 2002)

I wrote about Richard Stark (a nom de plume for pulp genius Donald Westlake) in the last book report. Long story short, I put a lot of effort into reading Stark/Westlake’s Parker novels in order….and missed one!

Well, now I’ve read it and all I said about Stark/Westlake/Parker previously still stands. This one had a neat and memorable premise. Parker gets caught and sent to a holding prison somewhere in the midwest. Facing life in prison if he’s extradited to California, he rounds up a couple of confederates and makes a break. One of the confederates has a job (breaking into a jewelry warehouse, but that hardly matters) lined up and his price for helping Parker and one of his cellmates make the break is they have to help him with the robbery.

if you know Stark/Westlake/Parker, you know things will not run smooth. Suffice it say that Parker keeps jumping from fire to frying pan and back again. Really a kind of transitional novel between running storylines, but it more than holds it pace and place.

Now I just gotta decide if I want to spring for those last three in the new editions! In any case, one more check mark on the “done” side of the Life List, with much fun had by all!

THE END OF RICHARD STARK (Monthly Book Report: 2/17)

Last month’s reviewable reading consisted entirely of the final three novels in “Richard Stark’s” Parker series. He’s the crit-illuminati‘s favorite psychopath (Parker, not Stark), but don’t let that deter you. The final books, like the rest of the series, make for compulsive reading and–unlike most psycho-lit–say not a little about this “modern” world we’ve made.

Nobody Runs Forever (2004), Ask the Parrot (2006) and Dirty Money (2008) Richard Stark

Richard Stark was one of several noms de plume adopted by pulp genius Donald Westlake. Under his own name, Westlake wrote mostly comic caper novels, a sub-genre he defined for the ages (I especially recommend his Dortmunder series, but they’re all good). Occasionally, he went darker, but the Stark persona–especially the twenty-four novels, published between 1962 and 2008, featuring a man known only as Parker–was the main outlet for Westlake’s blackest pitch.

To grasp the unlikelihood of man having written the Dortmunder series and the Parker series you need to imagine that P.G. Wodehouse and Jim Thompson were the same guy. Only if P.G. Wodehouse had wicked plotting skills and Jim Thomson were bleaker.

To review any single volume in the Parker series would require a re-read of the entire set (something I might be amenable in the future if there’s world enough and time). Even then, it might be an exercise in futility. The Parker novels are engines of pure momentum: the darkest pulp energy reduced to the purest elements of speed, efficiency and insularity in a world that looks just enough like the real one to keep the reader from resting on any ideas he might be harboring about pure escapism.

This being the case, I’ll stick to generalizing for now.

For starters, these last three books (Westlake passed away in 2008, by all accounts, and some sort of miracle, as sane as any other clown in our parade) are up to the rest of the series. There’s a baseline–quite high, and not just for pulp–below which the Parker books never fall. These last three are probably somewhere in the middle. Well above the baseline, not quite up to the series’ highest points.

The key to Westlake (writing as Stark, himself, or anyone else) is scalpel like skill with both language (syntax, description, action) and plotting (swift, sure, complex). You read even one or two of his books, and that becomes a clear given.

The key to Parker is that Westlake makes no attempt whatever to “explain” him. He just is. You sail through 24 books, waiting for him to break character and demonstrate some human trait beyond will to power and the survival instinct. Now that I’ve finished the series (caveat below) I can say with complete confidence that the wait is in vain.

And it’s that quality which will keep the character relevant to modern life for as along as it takes Paradise to arrive.

To wit, from Ask the Parrot:

They walked around the building, and there was really nothing at all anymore to say what it had originally been, no platforms, no railbed, no rotting luggage carts. The place might have started, long before, as a temple in the jungle.

If the Parker series had/has a message it’s just this: In a moral landscape that is rapidly reverting to the jungle from which it took thousands of years to emerge, a man like Parker, who operates best as a killing machine, incapable of remorse or reflection, will be king.

Highly recommended for those who enjoy pondering Black Holes.

(An aside: I’m finishing the series now because, back in 2008-2011, the University of Chicago Press put out most of the series in a nice set of uniform paperbacks. They released them three at a time, every few months and I hoovered them up as they came out, thinking I would end up with a uniform and complete set. To my surprise and no small disappointment (I wait years for publishers to put out “complete” sets of authors, series, etc., because there’s a nice, satisfying, civilized feeling to complete sets–you can look at them on your shelf sometimes and almost believe the world isn’t really falling apart), they did not publish the last four. So in January, I finally bit the bullet and ordered these last three in hardback from another publisher. Naturally, the U. of Chicago Press has just announced that they will be releasing the final Parker books in August, 2017. Of course they are. And I forgot that they stopped four books short of the finale, not three, so I accidentally skipped book #21 and will have to read it out of order. Of course I will!)

THE JTP AND GIVING UP ON THE PLAME GAME (Monthly Book Report: 12/16)

For December, I finished two more books in the Josephine Tey Project (all re-reads) and decided to abandon my effort at continuing Valerie Plame Wilson’s memoir. Thoughts on all and sundry below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brat Farrar (Josephine Tey, 1950)

An ingenious idea, put at the service of Tey’s darkened post-War sensibility. A young man is lured into impersonating an heir–the long-thought-dead twin of the present heir. The twist is that the impersonator is riven by an uneasy conscience and the twin whose fortune he has usurped may or may not be a sociopath.

The dichotomy unfolds only gradually. The first strong impression of the usurper is unsettling:

And Brat, walking down the street, was shocked to find himself exhilarated He had expected to be nervous and a little ashamed. And it had not been in the least like that. It had been one of the most exciting things he had ever done. A wonderful tight-rope sort of thing. He had sat there and lied and not even been conscious that he was lying.

Clearly, he’s at risk for sociopathy himself. It’s the “shocked” and “expected” more than the “ashamed” that leave a path for escape without tipping whether he’ll take it.

After that, it’s not merely lives that are stake, but souls.

The book is told almost entirely from the usurper’s perspective and it holds its secrets until the very end.

As happened with her previous book, The Franchise Affair, Tey seemed unable to bring herself to plunge all the way back in to the darkness and pity that made Miss Pym Disposes her finest hour.

The result is something like what Patricia Highsmith might have been if Highsmith had been constrained by civilization. This might be the difference between a very good writer and a great one, but it is hard, from this distance, to fault anyone for an excess of decency–let alone someone who could make the language sing as gently and beautifully as Josephine Tey.

Superb, then…as far as it goes.

To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey, 1951)

By now Tey had settled into her great post-war theme: Yet again, a stranger is inserted into a bucolic setting and becomes a disturbance in the force. Tey’s great trick–and, in her hands, it’s more than that–was to keep the reader guessing about who the real force-disturber is. Often as not, the stranger is a catalyst only in so far as his/her presence reveals what was hiding in sight all along. Even if one considers that no more than a trick, it was no easy one, especially since, in this instance, she folds it back into a procedural.

This was the first true Alan Grant novel since 1936 (he had made a cameo in The Franchise Affair). As ever, the intervening war left a mark, but this is clearly an attempt to get back to old fashioned crime solving.

And in Tey’s procedural world, before or after the war, the mark of civilization is that crimes are solved by the persistence of decent men of reasonably high intelligence–men like Alan Grant–rather than by the individual genius of a Holmes or a Poirot. She understood that when there are too few of the former, the latter will be left hanging just like the rest of us.

Again, what is missing is the sense of dread. Somehow you know things will work out right and they do. So, in lieu of any great suspense, we’re left with Tey’s keen eye for post-war social carnage. For instance:

“Yes, according to Silas country existence is one cesspool of rape, murder, incest, abortion, and suicide, and perhaps Silas thinks that it is time that Salcott St. Mary lived up to his idea of it.”

One suspect casting aspersions on another, of course, but is anyone surprised to find that Silas is a novelist of the modernist-realism school? Or that either suspect is capable of anything?

There’s just enough of that to keep this going, though the trend was clearly towards safety and away from the spark of genius that had briefly flowered in the shadow of the war’s own grim reality.

Fair Game (Valerie Plame Wilson)

Speaking of shadows and grim reality…

I picked this up a few years back after I saw the 2010 movie based on it. I had hoped to learn a little more about Ms. Plame and dig deeper into the film’s reasonably convincing portrayal of the police state now lurking within.

After several tries at engaging it, I’m giving up on page 58. Stick with the movie. It’s not so much that Plame Wilson writes like a CIA analyst–that I was prepared to accept. But just enough of the book is redacted to make it both a literary slog and a dysfunctional narrative of either the author’s personal life, or her not insignificant role in a series of world-altering events.

(NOTE: Spoilers ahead for Fair Game and The Interpreter…don’t read any further if you’re planning to see either movie.)

The movie has its problems, mostly a cop-out “up the people” ending, which is probably an accurate reflection of how Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, really see the world (who is ever more naive than low level intelligence agents with a streak of personal decency?), but is also a denial of every dark, rat-infested corner the rest of the film was meant to fumigate.

Still, it’s worth seeing for its nicely understated performances by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. I recommend it especially in tandem with 2005’s The Interpreter, a similar you-should-probably-see-it-once flick Penn did with Nicole Kidman.

The cop-out in that one was that, having gone to some lengths to make every other outcome less than feasible, Hollywood couldn’t bring itself to have Kidman shoot a black guy in the head, even if that black guy was a film version of Robert Mugabe.

I wonder if “Hollywood” will be so sanguine a generation from now?

By then, the Neo-Nazis now rising in Europe will have produced their own inevitable Mugabes. They’ll have been aided in part by the presence of so many monsters in Africa, who have created a flood of refugees no mere continent can absorb in the old way of liberal democracies run–and serviced–by the personally decent, even if men were angels.

Did I mention I’m looking forward to a Happy New Year?

RIDE ON JOSEPHINE (Monthly Book Report: 11/16)

All mystery this month. I’ll be reviewing a book of interviews with Ross MacDonald for BWW shortly. Meanwhile I reached the half-way mark in my Josephine Tey Re-read Project, finishing A Shilling for Candles and The Franchise Affair….two novels as different as the pre- and post-war years in which they were published..

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A Shilling For Candles (Josephine Tey, 1936)

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The date is telling. This is an old-fashioned, stiff upper lip, “there will always be an England” style mystery, about as conventional as Tey got. It was her second novel, following on The Man in the Queue from the previous decade (she made her bones as a playwright in between). I won’t say the future isn’t felt here–that WWII isn’t right around the corner–but it’s felt as something to be held a arm’s length.

Again, Tey rides with Inspector Alan Grant and, again, she attaches her mystery to Show Biz. The theater in Queue, the cinema here. As always, the character bits are sharp-edged and beautifully compressed. On her movie star victim (found drowned on the beach of a private hideaway in the novel’s opening sequence):

Nor yet when, tiring of song-and-dance pictures, her ambition had reached out to drama; her rocket had shot to the stars under its own power, it would seem. This could only mean one of two things: that she had remained virgin until her marriage at twenty-six (a state of affairs which Grant, who had a larger experience of life than of psychology textbooks, found quite possible) or that her favor was given only when her heart (or her fancy, according to whether you are sentimentalist or cynic) was touched. Four years ago Lord Edward Champneis (pronounced Chins), old Bude’s fifth son, had met her in Hollywood, and in a month they were married. She was at that time shooting her first straight film, and it was generally agreed that she had “done well for herself” in her marriage. Two years later Lord Edward as “Christine Clay’s husband.”

That single paragraph is powerfully redolent of Tey’s style–one she would go on to perfect at even higher levels after civilization managed to survive the storm clouds gathering deep in the book’s background. The fundamental natures of Show Biz, Hollywood, Scotland Yard, the British national character, and most of the insights you need into three principal players (including the one who’s death has set the story in motion) are all delivered in a single, short stroke. There’s never a moment when you are not aware that you are in the hands of a first rate writer.

The only letdown is the mystery itself, which–despite the lively presence of a tomboy who would have provided a plum role for Hayley Mills if anyone had been smart enough to make a film of this thirty ears later (no one could play her half so well now…thus has England gone)–is along pretty conventional lines. Not only do I not remember who the culprit finally was, a mere two weeks later, I don’t care that I don’t remember.

It would have been easy to guess, from the evidence of her first two novels, that Tey would go on being an acute practitioner of the Agatha Christie school.

Then the war came.

The Franchise Affair (Josephine Tey, 1948)

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This was Tey’s second post-war novel. While it’s not as disturbing or haunting as Miss Pym Disposes (it turns on the dread of failed reputations, unfairly tarnished, rather than the tragedy of a casual murder which punishes everyone but its perpetrator), it is very much in line with her new tone.

No aspect of “civilization” can be taken for granted.

This time the girl who might have been played by Hayley Mills a generation later (again, if someone in either Hollywood or the British Film Industry been the least bit on the ball), is a budding sociopath. A Lolita type arrived just a hair too early for the modernist eye to fall on her and give her a definitive shape (and yes, Stanley Kubrick wanted Mills for his film version of Nabokov’s novel…of course he did). She’s chilling enough, even in the background. I suspect, however, that writing Miss Pym, had taken something out of Tey, a less worldly and accomplished writer, in the same manner that Under Western Eyes took something out of Conrad, and Bend Sinister took something out of Nabokov. The dread builds nicely through the first two thirds of the book and then just sort of disperses, leaving a very nicely drawn middle age love story in its place.

Even there, Tey could be accused of pulling her punch. Not only does the monstrous child not rise to the level of murderer (casual or otherwise), or at least get away with her mischief, but the love story is reconciled on the last page, when it would have been far more poignant and realistic for it to remain broken.

It’s almost as if–perhaps wondering for the first time if there really would always be an England–the Scotswoman who had been born Elizabeth MacKintosh, could not bear to face the cold reality.

For that, she can certainly be forgiven.

[NOTE: The Franchise Affair, along with two subsequent Tey novels, Brat Farrar and The Daughter of Time, both of which I’ll be reviewing in due time, are routinely listed among the greatest crime novels ever written. Why Miss Pym Disposes, her greatest work, does not make these lists is….a mystery. Anyway, the ending reminded me a great deal, in both tone and incident, of the ending of the great Powell-Pressburger film from a few years earlier, I Know Where I’m Going. Somehow it worked better there. Given Tey’s interest in the cinema, I wonder if she was perhaps influenced by that film’s happy glow. One could see how. It starred Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey and it’s worth any effort to track it down.]

HISTORY AND MYSTERY (Monthly Book Report: 9/16 and 10/16)

I’m still trying to get back to full speed on my reading. Maybe next month! In the meantime, after a blank September, I did manage to finish a couple in October. First up is Mark Perry’s superb history Conceived In Liberty, a look at nineteenth-century America through the prism of dual biographies of the opposing commanders at Little Round Top. Next is Josephine Tey’s first mystery novel The Man in the Queue, a well-made whodunit that points the way towards a brilliant, unconventional career in crime fiction.

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Conceived In Liberty: Joshua Chamberlain, William Oates, and the American Civil War
(Mark Perry, 1997)

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Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (b. September, 1828) was a Bowdoin College professor of classics, fluent in ten languages and destined to become the school’s president. William Oates (b. November, 1835) was an Alabama roustabout who left a farm-boy life to adventure in the west before coming home and turning to the law and local politics. Both men were destined to become governors of their home states. Like hundreds of other volunteer officers in the Civil War, each fought and commanded honorably and well for their respective sides. Lacking West Point credentials, each man had limits placed on his military advancement and might have reasonably expected to be forgotten by history except for a twist of fate which found them faced off against each other in the most famous engagement of the most famous battle in American history.

On July 2, 1863, the men of Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, forming the extreme left of the Union line established the day before, fought the men of Oates’s 15th Alabama on a rock-strewn forest floor near the summit of a hill called Little Round Top.

The Maine men, under a “no retreat” order, were aware that the ground they stood on had to be defended at all costs. The Alabama men were equally aware that the ground had to be taken at all costs. Their respective positions prohibited any chance of reinforcements for either side.

The result was some of the fiercest close-order combat ever fought, with the two lines exchanging volley after volley of single shot musket fire at the distance of a couple of first downs and finally engaging in desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Oates tried a series of straightforward assaults mingled with repeated attempts to flank the hill. Chamberlain countered accordingly, with each side’s manpower and ammunition dwindling through the long afternoon.

When the smoke finally cleared, Chamberlain’s men held. In all likelihood, they saved the Union army at Gettysburg and, with it, the American Experiment.

The fight itself has been memorably depicted in numerous other historical accounts, in Michael Shaara’s brilliant novel, The Killer Angels, and in Ron Maxwell’s superb battle film, Gettysburg.

There’s a good description of it here, too. But Perry is after a larger narrative, one that weaves the lives of his two protagonists in and around the forward march of the nineteenth century America Chamberlain and Oates both so ably and memorably represented.

It’s a tall task and Perry is up to it.

He merges his biographies and battle accounts with not just useful histories of abolitionism and Reconstruction but the other burning issues of the century: women’s rights, temperance, the death penalty, the meaning of citizenship for freed slaves and much more. The writing is fluid and organic, enabling Perry to build a narrative that captures the romance of our bloodiest conflict–the one that had to be fought before any other issue could be fully confronted or the direction of our Experiment determined–without selling the tragedy and terror short.

Even more admirably, Perry takes a layered approach which never lets the reader forget that, then, as now, the world did not run in a straight line.

Chamberlain was much more the romantic, Oates the hard-headed realist, though neither was easily pigeon-holed.

Oates, a strict segregationist was nonetheless the first Confederate officer to argue forcefully and publicly for slaves to be given emancipation if they would agree to fight for the South, insisting, “If we don’t free them, the Union will.” Chamberlain, an ardent abolitionist and pre-war intimate of Harriet Beecher Stowe, nonetheless argued against full citizenship for freedmen after his war heroism elevated him to the governorship of Maine. Perry does a commendable job of placing both men in the full context of their times, stressing their contradictions without obscuring their very real (and, in Chamberlain’s case, history-altering) merits.

Highly recommended in any event, but especially urgent and poignant in this year when the cracks in our foundation are once more staring us in the face.

The Man In the Queue
(Josephine Tey, 1929)

themaninthequeue2“Josephine Tey” was the nom de plume Elizabeth MacKintosh adopted for her crime novels after she dropped “Gordon Daviot.”

Irrespective of name or genre, she was one of the twentieth century’s most interesting novelists.

After revisiting her devastating Miss Pym Disposes a few months back, I’ve decided to start re-reading her in order (there are only six more).

The Man in the Queue is, for her, atypical. It’s the only one of her novels that hues anywhere close to formula, having her Scotland Yard detective, Alan Grant, chase clues to the murder of an unidentified man, committed in theater queue.

Even here, Tey isn’t quite satisfied with the conventions. Among other devices, she narrates in gender neutral first person, from the perspective of an unnamed friend of Inspector Grant’s, who disappears for such long intervals that his/her occasional reassertion of “I” amounts to what, in theater or film, would be called breaking the fourth wall.

If it’s formula–nothing is done with the plot that Agatha Christie couldn’t have delivered at least as well– it’s satisfying formula. And more or less adhering to it leaves Tey room for side-trips into interesting places. The Scottish moors and London streets have been rendered many times, before and since (though never better), but who else has got so far inside the broken field running bound to dominate the mind of a Yard man who is no Sherlock Holmes but merely a dogged detective, prone to a flash of inspiration now and again, who knows his job?

Why had the man hidden his identity? Was it perhaps mere accident? Nothing but the tailor’s name had been obliterated from his clothes, and the maker’s name had been left on the tie–surely a most obvious place if one had been deliberately eliminating identification marks. But if it were a mere accident that eliminated the tailor’s name, how account for the scantiness of the man’s belongings? Small change, a handkerchief and a revolver. Not even a watch. It spoke loudly of intended suicide. Perhaps the man was broke. He didn’t look it, but that was no criterion. Grant had known many paupers who looked like millionaires, and beggars with large bank balances. Had the man, at the end of his resources, decided to end it rather than sink slowly into the gutter? Had the visit to the theatre with his last few shillings been merely a snapping of fingers in the face of the gods who had defeated him? Was it merely the final irony that the dagger had anticipated  his own revolver by an hour or two? But if he were broke, why had he not gone to the friend for money?–the friend who was so free with his bank-notes? Or had he? and the friend had refused it? Was it conscience, after all, that had prompted that anonymous twenty-five pounds? If he decided to accept the presence of the revolver and the absence of clues as evidence of attempted suicide, then the murder resolved itself into the outcome of a quarrel–probably between two members of a race gang. Perhaps the Levantine had shared in the dead man’s downfall and had held the dead man responsible. That was the most reasonable explanation. And it fitted all the circumstances. The man was interested in racing–probably a bookmaker–he was found without watch or money and evidently prepared for suicide; the Levantine was heard to demand something which the dead man either could not or would not give, and the Levantine had stabbed him. The friend who had refused him help in life–probably tired of pulling him out of tight places–had been seized with such a fit of remorse on learning of the man’s end that he had provided lavishly, if anonymously, for his burial. Pure theory but it fitted–almost!

There’s more, but it’s that “almost”–a standard device used here to punctuate a very non-standard stream of consciousness (which, in turn, is too diffuse to be the norm for the usual detective fiction, too linear–too much like a keen mind navigating a sea of confusion and too much a replication of the conscious mind at the expense of the subconscious–to impress the literati, who really do believe such things are simple)–that keeps us on our toes.

Combine that with a writer who could capture, in stark outline, an entire milieu of cultural, familial and psychological assumptions with a swift aside…

“I’m so glad you didn’t wait Agnes,” Mr. Logan said, in a tone which clearly said, I think you might have waited. 

…and it becomes obvious, even as early as a first novel written in 1929, that the web of convention she so ably replicated here, could never have held her.

SPOOKS, REAL AND IMAGINED (Monthly Book Report, 8/16)

This month’s offerings are both from the world of pitch-black secret ops: a re-read of Kingsley Amis’s fantastic sixties-era spy novel, The Anti-Death League, and, Compromised, Terry Reed’s account (with John Cummings) of his days triangulating between the gun-running, money-laundering and dope-dealing elements of the eighties’-era CIA and the multi-generational power struggle for political control of the U.S. government that ensued, the effects of which linger on.

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Compromised: Clinton, Bush and the CIA (Terry Reed and John Cummings, 1995)

“There’s a lot goin’ on here besides patriotism.”

(C.I.A./D.E.A. operative, Barry Seal, shortly before his murder, which occurred right after a judge “misguidedly” ordered him kept in plain sight, where his enemies could find him.)

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Terry Reed was a mid-level CIA asset in the eighties who, through a combination of misguided self-will, cruel luck and the peculiar brand of stupidity that often strikes intelligent people in the name of patriotism, got his ass caught in a muddy sling during the “Iran-Contra” phase of American decline-and-fall. This is his story, told with co-author John Cummings (a veteran journalist who had cut his teeth covering the mob), so, of course, you have to discount some inevitably self-serving elements.

That said, a book like this isn’t really about what’s “true.” In the real spook world Reed and Cummings describe, in sometimes excruciating detail, truth is a commodity and “facts” are the most uncertain things of all. It depends on who’s telling the tale and all that. The real issue is whether any given story is credible. Not, did it happen just this way, but could it have happened pretty much this way.

On that level, I found Reed’s account credible to the point of mind-numbing obviousness.

It’s not an easy read. Neither Reed nor Cummings seems to have possessed any knack for story-telling and a good editor could have probably cut two hundred turgid pages out of this nearly seven-hundred-page affair. And, of course, this is hardly a book that will be worth the slog for anyone who carries even a single drop of water for any member of the Bush or Clinton families.

For the rest of us, this is chilling stuff

Compromised‘s very mundanity makes the book’s tales of the Security State’s kudzu-like growth and rapacity in the go-go eighties all the more throat-grabbing. Get deep enough inside something so very much like the most reasonable assumptions behind the otherwise inexplicable rise (and rise, and rise) of the Bush Empire in Texas, the Clinton Empire in neighboring Arkansas, and the Security State everywhere, and you don’t know whether to gag or just stop breathing. The condemnation is thorough-going. If this thing had any style I might have just slipped into a bathtub about half-way through and opened a vein.

To put it in shorthand: This is as close a look as we’ll ever likely have at the exact machinations used by the sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating, Bush and Clinton cabals, to turn Texas and Arkansas into full-fledged Banana Republics, on the way to doing the same for the good old U.S. of A.

The point man running the game in between what, at that point, were the Vice President’s office in Washington D.C. and the governor’s mansion in Little Rock, Arkansas (then home ground for a secret base training Nicaraguan rebels), was a wide-eyed, gung-ho C.I.A. operative who Reed knew in his operational days as John Cathey. His real name, of course, turned out to be Oliver North, the modern era’s Edward Lansdale.

This was a fact Reed discovered about the same time everyone else did, long after he had gotten an up-close-and-personal look at how the Clintons and Bushes each thought they had used the C.I.A. to get dirt on the other, only to discover that the Security State, of which the C.I.A. was/is only the most visible tip, had used their own mendacity (which, in Clinton’s case, had included the incredibly stupid move of skimming from the C.I.A.s cash-laundering operation embedded in his state’s banking system) to get a vice grip on them in turn.

Wild-eyed notions to be sure.

But, knowing what we know now, nothing in this book–a virtual, organic sequel to both Alfred McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (better, as it happens, than McCoy’s own update, The Politics of Heroin), and The Quiet American, Graham Greene’s fictionalized account of Lansdale’s early career in Southeast Asia–seems the least bit outlandish. If it does no other service, it certainly debunks the old notion that “wild-eyed” conspiracy theories are just that because, in the land of the free, there’s NO WAY you could ever hush a thing like that up!

If you believe that, Compromised should be mandatory reading.

That being the case, the appropriate response to the shrill phrase “this country,” so prominent in any political season, and nauseatingly so in this one, is affirmed yet again by this tale of days supposedly gone by.

What country?

The Anti-Death League (Kingsley Amis, 1966)

He was handed the transcript of a wireless message announcing Jaggers’ arrival by helicopter at the exact moment when the machine could be heard taking off from the meadow. No further information was given.

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I know I swore off Sir Kingsley a while back on the basis of life being too short to spend any more time with his world-weary nihilism, even if he still made me laugh.

But I wanted to re-read this, after a quarter-century plus, to confirm or deny my suspicion of its atypicality.

Consider my suspicion confirmed. Perhaps the cover of genre was good for him.

In The Anti-Death League, Amis pulled off the impossible and applied his trademark acerbic wit to a genuinely riveting, even moving, spy novel. Spy novels rivet and move–when they do–by casting small men (they seem to always be men) as improbable movers and shakers in large events that sweep over them and leave them, and us, scarred by the experience. There probably haven’t been more than ten really good ones, all, so far as I know, by Brits or adopted Brits (like Joseph Conrad and Henry James, whose heart-stopping The Princess Casamassima qualifies directly, even if you don’t accept the proposition that all his best novels qualify indirectly).

I have no idea what prompted Amis the Elder to adopt, for the length of this one novel, the view that human beings might be a source of something other than misery and crapulence, but the evidence that he managed it is on every page. In addition to an engrossing spy-narrative (rare in itself), he manages a fine love story and a real philosophical treatise on the nature of God and the Universe, all so beautifully interwoven that you can forgive a bit of awkwardness in dove-tailing his several plots and even his inability to keep nature from taking its course on a thud of a last page where he can’t help killing a dog, of all things, to prove how meaningless it all is here, among the humans he had, for once, so fiercely and painstakingly evoked.

SUFFER THE CHILDREN (Monthly Book Report: 6/16 and 7/16)

NOTE: I didn’t finish any books in June, hence the combo…Upon receiving a sensible reader recommendation I’m making a small change to the usual formula and will henceforth be listing the books reviewed at the top of the post. I’m also going to include snapshots of the authors when they are available. It’s all part of my  learning curve.

Reviewed this month: Virginia Hamilton’s The House of Dies Drear; Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes; Charles Portis’s True Grit. A so-so ghost story with some interesting sociological elements and two of the best post-war novels written in the English language. Common theme: Youth observed or remembered.

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The House of Dies Drear (Virginia Hamilton, 1968)

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This one has a fine premise: a black professor moves his southern family to a mysterious, possibly haunted, Ohio farmhouse that was once a key station on the Underground Railroad. The story is told in plain-speak, mostly from the perspective of the professor’s teenage son, Thomas Small.

Unfortunately, it’s far too languid in tone and pedestrian in style to work as either a crime novel (it won the Edgar’s juvenile award for its year) or a ghost story. The requisite tension simply never ratchets.

What it does do well is catch the rhythm of bourgeoisie black family life in a period of massive upheaval. The period goes unmentioned anywhere except the copyright page but some of the tension of the age creeps into the atmosphere anyway, especially in the first third. That the denouement of the actual ghost story which makes up the book’s final third turns out to consist of mundane plotting told at a lumbering pace is therefore all the more disappointing.

Miss Pym Disposes (Josephine Tey, 1948)

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“But do you have to know the human structure in such detail?” asked Lucy.

“On Tuesday morning we do,” said the Thomas who slept. “After that we can forget it for the rest of our lives.”

Middle-aged spinster and lady authoress, Lucy Pym, comes to visit an English girls’ school at the invitation of its devoted headmistress, who once did Lucy a kindness in their own school days. What could be more English than that?

It starts as a comedy of manners in the classic style and ends as a lacerating psychological horror story, as if tracing a long arc from Jane Austen to the yet-to-be-published Patricia Highsmith. Even on a re-read it’s hard to catch Tey devising this nightmare, as opposed to observing it. The final horror feels close, almost unbearably claustrophobic, much like Conrad’s achievement in Under Western Eyes or Nabokov’s in Bend Sinister.

But those were novels about the long reach of terror states, and, if anything, Miss Pym Disposes is rendered more devastating by its bucolic setting and miniaturist’s attention to detail.

There isn’t even a dead body until very near the end. By the time it arrives, off-hand observations like “The use of a book so tiny that a mapping pen had been necessary in order to make the entries legible could have only one explanation.” have accumulated subtly and thoroughly enough to build a mountain of dread, which grows, word-by-word, until, with the last page, it falls on both the reader and the world Tey has so delicately constructed with horrific, shattering force.

Not simply one of the finest crime novels ever written, but as good a post-war English language novel as I’ve read. So good it’s even a match for…

True Grit (Charles Portis, 1968)

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The only novels I’ve re-read more than a time or two in adulthood are the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and this one. That covers a fair range of concerns if not style–if anything links them it’s a tendency to elide everything that isn’t necessary.

As I’ve grown older, I find I appreciate this quality in more than fiction. Time grows short.

The basic story of True Grit is now familiar to millions of people who have seen either of the two good movies made from it. (I wrote about some of the reasons film-goers who haven’t read the book might be missing something here.)

In the Arkansas of the late 1920s, an aging spinster named Mattie Ross, sets out an account of the great adventure of her youth: a trip by her fourteen-year-old self into Indian Territory (present day Eastern Oklahoma), in the company of U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn, and a Texas Ranger named Labeouf, to avenge her father’s murder.

Many have noted the book’s miracles of economy and tone. I second those notations. It manages to make the plain, realistic voice of a tight-fisted Presbyterian old maid sing in every line, including first and last sentences unlikely to ever be bettered.

Many have also suggested Mattie herself bears some resemblance to both Huck Finn (through age and geography) and Captain Ahab (through temperament).

I’ll let others hash that out and just say that Mattie would probably have had little use for either and would have understood that neither character’s creator was likely any more enamored of her than she of them.

Like all truly great fictional characters, she stands alone.

That doesn’t mean Portis wasn’t drawing on deep wells.

He said in later years that Mattie’s voice came from his time as a stringer on Little Rock’s principal paper. As the youngster in the building he was put in charge of editing the reports sent in by various rural county representatives who were invariably older women of something near Mattie’s vintage with their own ideas about what ought to be in a newspaper. He was repeatedly forced, by “journalistic standards,” to cut out all the good stuff. But he retained the memory of their clear styles and no doubt prickly insights. Mattie was his homage.

The mastery of that voice alone might have secured the book a high place. But it stands even taller because, beneath the voice, Portis sensed a previously concealed connection between two sturdy American archetypes: The Spitfire and The Frontier Spinster.

The former had been granted a long, proud tradition by the time True Grit was being written. The nineteenth century’s models, Judith Hutter and Jo March, had given way to Scarlet O’Hara and Scout Finch in the twentieth.

The latter had been routinely ridiculed (as spinsters have been everywhere through most of human history) and never been treated with anything like the dignity or force Portis discovered in Mattie (let us not say “created”–in life, she had always had it).

There were reasons why

If the crit-illuminati have had a far more complicated relationship with Mattie Ross than with Huck or Ahab or pretty much anyone else, it’s because her stinging, arch-conservative, Christian voice can’t help reminding them (or us) which character represents the rock upon which civilizations are built. Seen from this side of the great cultural divide (a divide that was opening wide even as Portis was writing), it can get very confusing trying to decide whether we should be laughing with her or at her.

And by the time you get around to deciding, she might have broken your heart.

You might have realized in that split-second delay, that, having granted her this one moment in fiction, we’ve cast her, and her memory, aside in the world, having sold ourselves on the notion that it is no longer necessary to produce people who will ride into the Choctaw Nation in the dead of winter to kill the bad men.

More’s the pity?

We’ll find out soon enough.

McGEE AND THE MODERNS (Monthly Book Report: 5/16)

McGee….

Free Fall In Crimson (John D. MacDonald,1981)

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As I mentioned when I began reviewing the Travis McGee series last year, I had read most or all of the books, in rather random order, in my early to mid-twenties. Along with the series debut, The Deep Blue Good-by, this was the one that left the strongest impression on my fading memory.

If I live to be eighty and decide to revisit the series again, that will probably still be the case. I’m not sure where the best McGee novels should place on a highbrow literary scale. But if you wanted to trace the rot that was developing in apple pie America’s Ship of Fools from the early sixties to the early eighties, you couldn’t find a better guide than the series as a whole. And if you wanted to define the series in shorthand, the first book and this one, third from last, would get the job well and bitterly done.

The early part of the tale finds McGee wandering about a bit. A little self-conscious brooding here, a little sex therapy to help him get over his latest dead girlfriend there. The story kicks into gear when a character called Preach puts his hand on McGee’s shoulder and explains exactly what McGee is going to do with the half of the biker bar he just inherited from an old army buddy. From there, it gradually picks up speed and, by the end, it’s roaring like a hell-bound freight train, one that smashes straight into the world of MacDonald’s fantasy ego (McGee), inflicting enormous, perhaps irreparable psychic damage on his not-so-fantasy ego (McGee’s erstwhile, egg-head pal, Meyer) along the way.

This all comes after one of the author’s most convincing and frightening psychopaths–a man who makes Preach look like a kindergarten teacher–has left a string of dead bodies at McGee’s not-so-purely psychic doorway.

As a closing down of whatever spirit of hope and optimism the sixties and seventies had represented in the “real” world (whilst McGee and his creator were going about their brooding, bloody business), Free Fall In Crimson is chilling far beyond its underlying monsters-hiding-in-the-basement foundation. As a return to the primitive–a reminder of how thin civilization’s margin really is–the scene where McGee arises from playing dead, just in time to wave at his mad dog biker antagonist ascending to the heavens in a hot air balloon, is a pulp version of Hawkeye spotting Magua disappearing into the primeval Appalachian mist. Barbarism, it seems, always lives to fight another day, no matter how often or skillfully its champions are snuffed.

And really, what truer message could we have asked any novel to deliver straight from the black heart of 1981, the inaugural year of our steady march to Hell?

Cinnamon Skin (John D. MacDonald, 1982)

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The end was fast approaching for both McGee and his creator and there was a great deal of business that needed attending. After some stumbling about in the seventies, the author’s hand is once more swift and sure. The bitterness remains, and cauterizes. Here’s a gimlet eye cast on his future, our present:

Soon the bosses of the microcomputer revolution will sell us preprogrammed units for each household which will provide entertainment, print-out news, purvey mail-order goods, pay bills, balance accounts, keep track of expenses, and compute taxes. But by then the future managers will be over on the far side of the thickets, dealing with bubble memories, machines that design machines, projects so esoteric our pedestrian minds cannot comprehend them. It will be the biggest revolution of all, bugger than the wheel, bigger than Franklin’s kite, bigger than paper towels.

Beyond the usual laments for our lost civilization, though, and even beyond the usual crime story (a good one, involving the death of a spiritually numbed Meyer’s niece) is an attempt to bring Meyer himself back to life. And when does life return? When he’s up to bitching about it, of course, in his long-winded, professorial way:

Meyer studied the question and finally said, “It’s energy without a productive outlet, I think. Most of these Mohawk cities are dying, have been for years: Albany, Troy, Amsterdam, Utica, Syracuse, Rome. And so they made an industry out of government. State office buildings in the decaying downtowns. A proliferation of committees, surveys, advisory boards, commissions, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, road departments, health care groups…thousands upon thousands of people making a reasonably good living working for city, county, state and federal governments in these dwindling cities, passing the same tax dollars back and forth. I think that man, by instinct, is productive. He wants to make something, a stone ax, a bigger cave, better arrows, whatever. But these bright and energetic men know in their hearts they are not making anything. They use every connection, every contact, every device, to stay within reach of public monies. Working within an abstraction is just not a totally honorable way of life. Hence the air of jumpy joy, the backslaps ringing too loudly, compliments too extravagant, toasts too ornate, marriages too brief, lawsuits too long-drawn, obligatory forms too complex and too long. Their city has gone state, and as the light wanes, they dance.”

To which McGee answers:

“I’ve missed your impromptu lectures.”

So you know Meyer will be alright, will recover from the spiritual wounds inflicted on him at the end of the previous novel. Whether he’ll also survive the novel’s final journey deep into a Mexican jungle, which climaxes with one of the series’ best dark hearted denouements, is another question, satisfactorily answered all around.

Docked a small notch for yet another of McGee’s semi-serious affairs, which rarely served as anything more than filler anyway, but here amounts to an outright needless distraction.

The Lonely Silver Rain (John D. MacDonald, 1985)

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A good, almost great, ending to a fine series. The story itself is one of MacDonald’s best, and meanest, a nice, sharp survey of the honest mistakes that could blow up in somebody’s face in the heydey of Miami’s cocaine cowboy culture run amok. The danger, to McGee and others, is palpable, brought close enough to make the reader sweat and leaving no one inside the story unscarred.

A lost daughter shows up at the end. Too close to the end to make much of an impression, actually. I imagine MacDonald had plans for her in future volumes. If so, they were ended by his sudden passing. We’ll never know if he would have put the final scar on McGee’s soul by killing her off.

Underneath all that, however, there’s a final parting shot, an aside, fifty pages from the end, that seems to exist for no purpose except to remind the future it would see nothing new:

I walked to the hotel and bought a morning paper…The murders looked ordinary. A Haitian had drowned his crippled sister in a bathtub. A drunk passed out in his own driveway and his wife ran over him with a Ford station wagon–seven or eight times. A naked secretarial trainee had shoved an ice pick into her supervisor. A crazy had burst into the bus terminal at a full gallop, firing at random blacked with a .22 target pistol, killed one, slight wounded four. A thirteen-year-old girl had shot a fourteen-year-old boy to death in a dispute about whose turn it was to ride a bicycle. Everyday stuff.

Yes it is. Quaint even. What we can now think of as the good old days.

I don’t think either McGee or his creator would be surprised.

And the moderns…

Being There (Jerzy Kosinski, 1970)

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By request (though I’ve been meaning to get around to it for a few decades…sometimes I just need a little nudge).

Is there such a thing as careful satire?

Kosinski seemed determined to explore the possibility here (I haven’t read anything else by him so I can’t say if it’s typical). He seems committed to keeping the world occupied by his clueless central character on a perfectly–and I do mean perfectly–even keel. Of course it all has an air of faint plausibility:

Facing the cameras with their unsensing triple lenses pointed at him like snouts, Chance became only an image for millions of real people. They would never know how real he was, since his thinking could not be televised.

That’s both sharp and somewhat poignant. More of that kind of thing might have left the book on the cutting edge all these years later, but there really isn’t enough of it for that. Since the plot isn’t much, even Kosinski’s clean, nicely pruned style, adding not one single unnecessary detail, can’t move this along as swiftly as his best ideas deserve. I didn’t have any trouble reading it straight through, and I’m glad I finally did, but, on nearly every page, I couldn’t help feeling that yes, this is true enough, but the world has moved on. A novel of its very peculiar moment, I’d say, that hasn’t quite transcended it.

A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962)

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A man of letters imagining his British world gone to hell a heartbeat before the outbreak of Beatlemania. God only knows what he thought of that. (He must have written those thoughts down, somewhere. He was a man who wrote everything down. But I’d hardly trust his words on the subject, whatever they were.)

At this distance, Burgess’s Joycean experiments with language (which could get pretty tiresome even when Joyce was deploying them) seem mostly lifeless, unnecessary and not a little annoying, too often completely devoid of either wit enough or horror enough to justify the reader’s labor, let alone the author’s. Better, I think, to have confined his vision to straight pulp. Then he might have produced something along the lines of Evan Hunter’s Last Summer, which, albeit having the advantage of being written at the end of the tumultuous decade the books bracketed instead of the beginning, is still a far better and more prescient take on the societal breakdowns that took root in the 1960s, right next to all the inspirational idealism.

I mean what if a passage like this (a prelude to listening to the classical music that seems to calm the savage beast)…

Then I tooth-cleaned and clicked, cleaning out the old rot with my yahzick or tongue, then I went into my own little room or den, easing off my platties as I did so.

…read like this?

Then I brushed and clicked my teeth, cleaned out the old rot with my tongue. Then I went into my own little room and eased off my feet.

I mean, droog still resonates, along with horrorshow (can’t get more modern than that!) and O my brothers. But yahzick and platties , and what felt like a hundred more, sound more like poor man’s Alice in Wonderland than the language of modernity’s breakdown, which, as Burgess makes clear in his introduction to this 1986 edition, he didn’t believe in anyway. Worse than that, they break the rhythm, which, as a result, rarely gets going and, when it does, is soon snuffed out by too much more of the same.

Burgess did have hold of something frightening, i.e. a bit of the future. But fuzzying up the language amounted to a mask, a dispersal of dread rather than an intensification. I can only wonder what he was really afraid of.

(Note: In the introduction, Burgess gives profuse thanks to the publishers of the 1986 edition for restoring his original last chapter, which his original American publisher and the famous film version had both excluded. They did him no favor. The re-added chapter gives this dystopian  novel  the one thing no dystopian novel can bear: a happy ending. Better to have ended it a chapter sooner, with the novel’s only really chilling sequence and a genuine sense of doom and despair lingering over the enterprise. Instead we get all that numbness…and then hopefulness.)

Dispatches (Michael Herr, 1977)

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Next to this–another one that’s been on my shelf for decades, waiting–Being There and A Clockwork Orange barely exist. Herr was a reporter, not a novelist, but this is one modern, and modernist, classic that doesn’t merely live up to its own pretentious hype but trashes it.

For starters, Herr possessed a quality that is rare for a novelist, let alone a reporter, let alone a historian, let alone a “new journalist”: He had a way with words.

That way might range from scalpel-like reductions of complex experience (“Flying over jungle was almost pure pleasure, doing it on foot was nearly all pain.”–it’s the “almost” and the “nearly” that sell the twinned experiences as both singular human events and found poetry), to long, dreamlike passages that remain eerily precise, so that the writer is never dreaming alone.

This, a keen reportorial eye, and a sense of the absurd honed at places like Hue and Khe Sanh allow Herr to achieve a rare instance of someone reaching modernism’s long assumed goal, a place (or is it the place?) where madness and discipline walk hand in hand.

Our little adventure in Viet Nam was already in the Deep Doo Doo phase by the time Herr got there in 1967. Like Pop Time, War Time moved faster then, back on the other side of the divide that opened up and swallowed us a couple of years after Herr finally published this in 1977.

Nearly every page brings heartbreak and rage, often inseparable. Not so much because of then (though there is that) as because of now. I don’t know of any book that speaks so directly and eloquently to our refusal to learn anything at all except the one lesson that has remained inescapable–that when embarking on our current quarter-century-and-counting adventure in the Middle East, for which Nam turned out to be a dry run, we can have–hell, have had–a thousand phases, and they must never, ever include Deep Doo Doo.

Herr gets to that and every other phase of the original nightmare, though, and gives us sharp character sketches of all the players, from the headiest brass to the lowliest grunt. Every one of those characters is still recognizable. No amount of doo doo can cover the resemblances. They’re too striking.

I mean, who does not recognize this man?

…a hale, heartless CIA performer. (Robert “Blowtorch” Komer, chief of COORDS, spook anagram for Other War, pacification, another word for war. If William Blake had “reported” to him that he’d seen angels in the trees, Komer would have tried to talk him out of it. Failing there, he’d have ordered defoliation.)

You think he’s not in a drone room somewhere right now, wearing another name and another face, having the time of his life?

Not after reading this book you won’t.

I’ve read a lot of books about Viet Nam. This and H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty (a bare bones collection of the dry-hump memos passing and passing and passing between State, The White House and DOD in the mid-sixties) are the only two I’d deem essential.

That’s because both, in their very different ways, operate from the same implicit assumption. No question of war and peace ever rises to the level of a moral debate when the object is not victory or defeat but something–anything–else. And it’s entirely possible that, way down underneath where the lingering ghosts of conscience are stored, our current overlords will keep the current war–now in its twenty-fifth year with no end in sight–going on forever simply to affirm a rigid principle.

No more Dispatches!

LONERS (Monthly Book Report: 4/16)

The Green Ripper (John D. MacDonald,1979)

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After a couple of mildly disappointing entries bracketing a four-year break, this was at least a partial return to form for the Travis McGee series. The love of McGee’s life, hanging on at the end of the previous book, is swiftly dispatched here and, of course, it turns out to be by nefarious means, though, in a somewhat unusual twist, it isn’t because she’s hanging around with McGee.

The book then turns into a somewhat standard revenge plot, with McGee going hard and mean after the perpetrators. It all takes a while to get going, but, once it does, MacDonald’s real strengths are back on full display.

To wit, McGee in self-analysis mode:

“If you are in a line of work where a bad guess can get you a pair of broken elbows, you tend to become a quick study.”

McGee on the sclerosis of modernity:

“They were not going to try to sell me anything. They did not have the twinkle, the up-front affability. They were not here to enforce one of the idiot rules of the bureaucracy that grows like high-speed cancer. They did not have that look of fatuous satisfaction and autocratic, patronizing indifference of fellows who come to tell you that you forgot to file Form Z-2324, as amended. Or to tell you that you can’t cut down your pine tree without enlisting the services of an approved, accredited, licensed tree surgeon. They looked important. As if they had come to buy the marina and put up a research institute.”

McGee to the gravedigger who responds to his reading Emily Dickinson over his dead girl’s ashes by asking if it’s ‘one of those religiions?’:

“Sort of.”

On being taken alive and held captive by the cult that was ultimately responsible for his girl’s murder:

“There was a cook in the camp. Even a slight taste of wine in the stew. Boiled onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes. And a lot of it. After my dinner I read a religious comic book. All about Samson yanking down that temple. Samson looked like Burt Reynolds. Delilah looked like Liz Taylor. The temple looked like the Chase Bank.”

On becoming an accepted member of the cult and being taken to task for his unacceptably bourgeoisie outlook by an intense young woman who insists “You have no right of approval or disapproval over anything I do or think or am” which most explicitly includes her commitment to murdering hundreds of people whenever and wherever the cult is ready to give the order:

“I’m just trying to understand is all.”

And the answer:

 “Don’t try. Just accept.”

On the other female cult member, the one who is sent to sleep with him:

“Poor little assassin. She had gone out into the world with an empty head, and somebody had crammed a single frightful idea into it, dressed up with a lot of important-sounding rhetoric. She couldn’t know the frightfulness of the idea because she had nothing by which to measure it.”

On the bleak aftermath of killing twelve people–none of whom actually carried out his girl’s murder and only one of whom had anything to do with it at all–and the emptiness of knowing the monsters who were really responsible are forever out of reach unless the information he’s been able to subsequently supply to the bureaucracy he despises ultimately allows it to impose a justice he will never hear about one way or the other:

“There was no great moment of my saying, ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka!’ It just slowly came clear, like the mist rising on a mountain morning. There was a black, deep, dreadful ravine separating me from all my previous days.”

In other words he had 1979 as the year of no turning back all pegged to hell. There’s value in remembering that in these days when we have government-funded studies of indeterminate length and cost to tell us all the very same things.

John Ford: Interviews (Gerald Peary, Ed. 2001)

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Ford was a notoriously cranky and unreliable interview subject. The cantankerousness and obfuscation are on full display here, in a collection of interviews (often spiced with impressionistic addenda from the journalists conducting them) that range from 1920 to 1973.

What else is on display? Just what you might expect: Nuggets of sharp insight into the business and art of film-making and the vicissitudes of human history and human nature that gleam from nearly every page, the most significant of which is probably this, from 1936:

“After all,” Ford said, sitting back, “you’ve got to tell your story through the people who portray it. You can have a weak, utterly bad script–and a good cast will turn it into a good picture. I’ve thwarted more than one handicap of that kind with the aid of two or three really fine actors.

“With the exception of the stars who are signed for parts by the studios in advance, I insist on choosing names for myself. And I spend more time on that task than any other.”

I haven’t kept up the category as I should, but there’s a reason, after much consideration, that I created a category here called “John Ford’s People.” Alone in Hollywood, and nearly alone in the world, Ford, the hard-bitten, isolate “picture maker,” placed his entire emphasis on human beings and, most specifically, human limits. He comes back to this, again and again and from every conceivable angle, throughout this volume covering fifty years of foolish, repetitive questions, for which it turns out he had far more time and patience than the false narrative he was forever mocking has allowed.

“Do you never laugh?” one of the questioners asks, in 1966.

“Yes, I laugh all the time. But inside.”

This little volume is the sound of John Ford laughing inside. Highly recommended for those who “get it.” Even more highly recommended for those who don’t.

SHORT AND SWEET (Monthly Book Report: March, 2016)

The Empty Copper Sea (John D. MacDonald,1978)

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Here, MacDonald returned to his hero, Travis McGee, after a four year break. Sometimes authors take a break from a series because they’ve run out of ideas. Sometimes they return with a fresh perspective and renewed energy.

That didn’t exactly happen here.

I said in last month’s review of 1974’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky that I preferred McGee in action to McGee contemplating his navel. There the balance was a bit off. Here, there’s barely any action at all. There’s a client, a problem and a love story. The client barely registers. The problem is a good one, but it’s treated with too much side-eye, too little direct involvement (for either McGee or the reader), to ever grab hold. The love story therefore takes center stage, but it takes too long in arriving and isn’t quite convincing enough or marvelous enough or sensual enough to be compelling all on its own.

That doesn’t mean the book is a complete waste to time. MacDonald had, if anything, become an even more acute social observer as the years went by and one can learn a lot about the suffocating power of modern bureaucracy by spending time with even the least interesting entries in this series.

And when the action–and the horror–finally do arrive, they are chilling enough.

Still, a thriller shouldn’t wait for the final twenty pages to become thrilling. The series has four books to run. I hope this is an anomaly.