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.

MARKING TIME (Monthly Book Report: 2/16)

The Affair (Lee Child, 2011)

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I kind of liked the Tom Cruise movie based on Child’s Jack Reacher character and I saw a couple of the books cheap in a thrift store so I decided to give the series a go. This is the sixteenth entry (the series began in 1997), but, serendipitously, it’s told in flashback, so the action takes place a few months before the action of the series’ first novel. In other words, I wasn’t as far out of the loop as I might have been.

Good pulp always has it’s finger on the pulse of the future and Child has apparently decided that the only way ahead is to trust in our superheroes, who, along with the usual manly virtues, must combine the qualities of Superman, Super-Sleuth and Sociopath in about equal measure.

In other words, we’re doomed.

Skillfully done (laying aside the usual caveats about a book set in the south by a writer who doesn’t have much feel for the region), but I can’t help wondering if Child actually knows how creepy his hero is.

Maybe if I read further….

(NOTE: Child is a professed admirer of John MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and comparing the two can make you appreciate just how hard it is to bring a touch of something more than craft to such endeavors.)

Personal (Lee Child, 2014)

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Verdict’s in:

We’re still doomed.

Child still doesn’t know how creepy his hero is.

Those matters being respectively obvious and unresolved, all that’s left is the plot, which is meh. Up a notch for no sex therapy.

The Dreadful Lemon Sky (John D. MacDonald, 1974)

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After Child, a return to the McGee was refreshing, though this is just above middling.

The jabs at the march of profit-driven history flow sharp and terse: “I found a shopping center and found that they had left some giant oaks in the parking lot. This runs counter to the sworn oath of all shopping center developers. One must never deprive thy project of even one parking slot.”

There’s more than that of usual, but I confess I still admire McGee in action to McGee contemplating his navel. Unfortunately the balance favors the latter here, at least until the very end, when death is all around and leaves a genuine pall.

And the character sketches are among the sharpest in the entire series, including an eerily perfect template for Bill Clinton, if Bill Clinton had never made it out of Arkansas…or Florida.

SLIM PICKINGS (Monthly Book Report: 1/16)

Slow month on the reading front. I’m finishing up LOA’s second volume of Women Crime Writers for BWW. The only other book I finished was  a so-so thriller. Still, the show must go on:

The Afghan (Frederick Forsyth, 2006)

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The fourth of Forsyth’s thrillers I’ve read, the third in recent months, and it’s pretty clear that, while his books are reliably entertaining, The Day of the Jackal was his one-off masterpiece. So many years later, the formula remains basically the same and the coiled spring plotting is intact, along with the ability to deliver reams of inside information about the security state (and the state of the security state) in a compact, almost breezy, form.

But the cost of being trusted with all that information–with not revealing it too soon–comes at a price to the imagination and, ultimately, to the soul. One the one hand, his steely lack of sentimentality is admirable. Only it seems to have come at the usual cost: an inability to go below any human surface. I was moved by the fate of his hero. But it would have been nice to know him as more than a set of superficial details and a reliable cipher of the security state in which Forsyth so clearly and devoutly believes.

Naivete is never charming in a man who really should know better.

That said, it was a good read for airports. I’ll certainly keep that in mind if I start flying more than once a decade.

HIT MAN LIT (Monthly Book Report: December, 2015)

Travel and some modest health issues definitely cut into the reading time in December. But at least when you only finish one book it isn’t hard to stick with a theme!

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter (Malcolm Mackay, 2013)

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This is the first volume in what is called “The Glasgow Trilogy.” Glasgow is evidently a very hip setting for modern crime fiction and this is certainly a long step up from Denise Mina’s dismal Garnethill, which I reviewed here.

That doesn’t make it any great shakes, nor, absent a sense of humor, is it as entertaining as Lawrence Block’s Hit Me, which I reviewed here.

Still, I found it an easy enough ride. Mackay has a nice, crisp style and, if he does strive for the usual bit of unwarranted empathy for his sociopaths, at least he doesn’t want us to bleed all over them.

I’ll definitely give the rest of the trilogy a try, albeit with appropriately lowered expectations.

EURO PO-MO: MORE FUN THAN ANY ONE MAN SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO HAVE (Monthly Book Report: November, 2015)

Most of my reading for this month was for my next BWW review, which should be up in a day or two. I did squeeze in one novella.

The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (Peter Handke, 1970)

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Purely representative paragraph:

“He read the movie ad posted on the milk stand; the other posters under it were tattered. Bloch walked on and saw a boy who had hiccups standing in a farmyard. He saw wasps flying around in an orchard. At a wayside crucifix there were rotting flowers in tin cans. In the grass next to the street lay empty cigarette boxes. Next to the closed windows he saw hooks dangling from the shutters. As he walked by an open window, he smelled something decayed. At the tavern the landlady told him that somebody in the house had died yesterday.”

Morally neutral, hyper-descriptive writing, then, devoted to the wanderings of a sociopath and sufficiently plotless as to make the order in which the pages are read irrelevant.

This isn’t really my sort of thing. If it’s yours, then ninety pages probably won’t feel like nine hundred.

To each his own. Just please don’t get the idea that the text is anywhere near as exciting as that cover.

(This was included in a three volume set Three by Peter Handke, which I purchased because several reasonably reliable sources recommended its second entry,  Short Letter, Long Farewell, which has something to do with John Ford. Let’s just say I’m not looking forward to that one as much as I was before I started reading this one.)

JUST THE McGEE (Monthly Book Report: October, 2015)

…and, for last month, nothing but the McGee:

A Tan and Sandy Silence (John D. MacDonald, 1971)

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By now, the various working parts of the series were well-oiled bits of machinery: McGee the social critic; McGee the adventurer; McGee the Lothario-with-a-conscience. Commerce aside (as it never quite can be in popular pulp) the series is best when the second element is preeminent, there’s a healthy dose of the first, and the third is kept in check. Throughout the late sixties, MacDonald had real trouble holding the right balance, as if he couldn’t quite let go of wanting the series to be something more than high-end entertainment. (Oddly enough, he found what he was looking for when he got back to basics-with-a-twist–see the last entry below.)

Beginning with the previous book and continuing here, he found himself mostly back on stride. There’s still a little flab. But it picks up speed as it goes along and, by the time everything is coming to a head, McGee can toss off maxims like, “Tourists are invisible, except to the man trying to sell them something,” without slowing down, even while a girl is buried up to her neck on a hidden beach and the tide is rolling in.

A fourth element–McGee being gnawed by new doubts as he ages (doubts that both lead into and emanate from a scene where he is watching that tide while trussed and bound)–also makes its presence felt more strongly than before, though not so it distracts too much. All in all a strong entry, nearly on a par with the early years.

The Scarlet Ruse (John D. MacDonald, 1973)

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Better still and continuing the momentum. Here the basic adventure and the usual elements are underpinned by the threat of McGee and his little houseboat community losing their slips at Bahia Mar due to a local ordinance. It all works out in the end, but the subplot adds an extra layer of melancholy to a story that is bound to have some extra resonance for those of us who grew up in the Florida MacDonald knew so well.

The plot is strong–a stamp collection pilfered from the bank vault of a mobster who doesn’t yet know it’s missing, unless by chance he stole it himself–and McGee finds himself pitted against not one but two formidable villains who are also pitted against each other. There’s real danger and, in the end, and real damage to the hero both physically and psychically.

But having grown up across the Indian River from the Kennedy Space Center at the Space Age’s highest tide, my own favorite passage, which distills why these books are always going to be worth reading, was this one:

So I told her about the radio tape years ago, made in Lauderdale, and broadcast only once before NASA came galloping in, all sweaty, and confiscated it. The interviewer had asked one of those good and tough-minded and free-thinking men of the early days of space orbiting how he felt as the rocket was taking off. Maybe it was because he had heard the question too many times. He answered it with a question. “How would you feel, taking off, sitting up there on top of fifty thousand parts, knowing that every one of them had been let to the lowest bidder?”

“Grissom?” she asked. I nodded.

(For those who weren’t there or don’t recall, Gus Grissom was one of those who burned to death on top of a pile of those lowest-bidder parts. Future historians, pondering American decline, could do worse than focus on that moment as a tipping point. Those presently inclined to blame it all on the hippies could do worse than to focus on it in the here and now, when it might just possibly still not be too late to change course.)

The Turquoise Lament (John D. MacDonald, 1973)

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And coming off three straight strong entries, MacDonald raises his game to its highest pitch, with the best book in the series to date and a novel that could stand on its own even if you entered knowing nothing whatsoever of Travis McGee, his friend Meyer, the Busted Flush, or the State of America, circa 1973, though all of those elements are turned to good advantage here.

The basic story floats free of the series in some respects, but also culminates MacDonald/McGee’s trending pessimism and creeping self-doubt. McGee, already at full-blown mid-life crisis, answers a call from a much younger woman who once had a serious school-girl crush on him. She’s either going crazy or her husband wants to kill her. She wants him to find out which.

Not normally in the McGee’s line of business, but her late father once saved his life so he takes it on as repayment of the debt.

And, perhaps because he’s started out too close to the situation, he proceeds to get exactly everything wrong, with consequences that lead step-by-stop to both a crisis of faith and a deftly intertwined, hair-raising climax that pits McGee against one of his most terrifying and amoral villains.

The elements that sometimes make the books drag a bit are kept to a minimum and the sex-therapy is replaced by a genuine love story punctuated with the kind of sour-sex, hardcore, nail-anything-that-moves release you would expect from a McGee type in the real world, absent the need to set sexually liberated hearts aflutter (and I don’t just mean the women).

He survives it all in the end. Even the love story. And I look forward to the final decade of the series knowing this basically means he can survive anything–even being the protagonist of a novel the Bellow/Updike types would have killed to have their names on , if they’d only had the contacts.

And I can’t close this without quoting my favorite zinger of the series so far:

The medical industry is never ready for inquiry. They never used to like to answer questions. Now they have the excuse they could be sued. They overwork the excuse.

Doctors and lawyers, lined up perfectly to fit my life experience.

I’ll be real surprised if it gets any better than that.