HIGHBROW, LOWBROW (Monthly Book Report: 12/1/17)

The past month’s completed books include a western, a thriller and F. Scott Fitzgerald. A theme? Who knows…

 

 

 

 

 

Tender is the Night (1934)
F. Scott Fitzgerald

“It sounds like nonsense to me.”

“Maybe it is, Dick. But, we’re a rich person’s clinic–we don’t use the word nonsense.” 

Tender is the Night was Fitzgerald’s fourth and last completed novel. The literati now argue whether it’s a greater work than The Great Gatsby and the best I can say after finally catching up with it is that it’s a legitimate argument.

And while I can’t agree with those  (Ross Macdonald was one) who believe Fitzgerald’s best work was a step upward and onward from Henry James, his care with language was similar and his ear for the just-right phrase was sufficiently honed by this time to make his subsequent rapid demise a genuine tragedy of letters. Except for Nabokov–American only by accident–no “serious” American writer has shown similar facility with the language since.

The plot of Tender is the Night concerns a semi-autobiographical tale of a Fitzgerald stand-in, Dick Diver, become enamored of, then saddled with, a damaged beauty, Nicole Diver, who is a stand-in for the writer’s dazzling, troubled wife, Zelda. I suppose there’s fun to be had drawing parallels between the real-life Fitzgeralds and the fictional Divers. But that aspect didn’t interest me much. This isn’t a novel whose interest needs to be limited to the personal. Fitzgerald covered a narrow range, but within that range he was filled with penetrating insights. He’s worth reading not least because he had a fair bit to say about those who accrue power–and a great deal to say (much of it heartbreaking, but a good bit more bracingly cynical) about those who either stand by or are shoved aside by the people who will ultimately decide the fates of those less predatory.

That was not an insignificant well of knowledge for a writer to deepen and freshen in the 1930s….or now.

A beautiful book. I wonder if the same qualities that allowed him to write it, prevented him from living long enough or well enough to finish another.

The Eagle Has Landed (1975)
Jack Higgins

Higgins was one of several pen names adopted by Henry Patterson. It happened to be the one he was using when this novel made his name and he was stuck with it ever afterward.

I’m not exactly sure how many copies have ever shifted under “Jack Higgins” that wouldn’t have done the same under “Henry Patterson” but it’s sort of appropo, both in its mundanity and its duplicity, that a man whose Big Idea (the one every super-successful pulp writer needs to permanently hook whatever name he’s using into the Public’s grasping maw), involves an assassination attempt on Winston Churchill by a compromised man whose embattled sense of integrity ends up costing him success, should write under a pseudonym that isn’t even catchy.

That said, it’s damn effective. Given that you know his protagonist isn’t going to succeed–and that, unlike Frederick Forsyth’s “Jackal” or Ken Follett’s “Needle,” he isn’t going to be revealed as a sociopath, even though he’s on the darkest mission imaginable–Higgins’ ability to keep the finger turning the pages is near miraculous.

The Nazis hardly lost their usefulness to pulp writers in the decades since, but this, Follett’s Eye of the Needle, Alistair MacLean’s The Guns of Navarone, and the similar-themed books by Len Deighton were the peak of the form. I’m glad I read it and Higgins’ is certainly a good enough writer that I’ll look for a chance to explore his work further. I keep hoping I’ll find one who hit it out of the park more than a time or two.

The Quick and the Dead (1973)
Louis L’Amour

Stranger: “They figure to kill you Mister.”
Settler: “What?”
Stranger: “They’ve seen your woman.”

Westerns were a big part of my youthful reading and I’ve revisited the genre here and there in the years since, but I haven’t read any L’Amour in decades. I found a stack of his books at a sale table in my little town’s fall festival antique show. At a dollar a pop, I figured what could it hurt?

I don’t know about the rest, but this, the first I read, was a nice little surprise. L’Amour and the other western pulp masters have never been embraced by the illuminati the way the crime writers have. And this very typical fare isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind. But if you have any feel for the genre, it’s a fine way to pass a weekend. L’Amour didn’t get to be the form’s all time bestseller by failing to understand its virtues. Those lines above set the story’s stage.

It doesn’t need anything grander, because L’Amour has a clear sense of what’s at stake besides mere survival:

Too proud to live in genteel poverty they had chosen to go west. They had no desire to seek gold, for to them wealth lay in ownership of land and in its cultivation. They wished to find a green valley where they could sink roots and live out their lives.

Now they were alone, and until now she had not realized what loneliness meant, nor what it meant to live in an ordered, law-abiding community. There had been occasional thefts, and she could remember a murder once, some years before, but the law had been there, and public opinion, with its protective shield of what was accepted and what was not.

There had been so many restraints, legal and social, between them and the savagery that lay innate in so many people. Out here the bars were down. There was no such restraint…not yet.

They’ll live in their green valley when eight men have been killed or run off. Not before. Then they’ll be free to impose the restraints of civilization which the Great Thinkers of the decade L’Amour was writing in were so engaged in casting off.

It’s that and the perfect placement of that  “and public opinion” that gets you.

I’ll be reading more L’Amour. (For the record, this was made into a superb TV movie with Sam Elliot as the Stranger, Tom Conti as the Settler, and a lovely turn by the ever-underestimated Kate Capshaw as the woman the bad men have seen. Not to be mistaken for the Sharon Stone campfest of the same name, it can be viewed or downloaded here).

GETTIN’ BUSY IN HERE (Quarterly Book Report: January through March, 2015)

Okay, I might have to go back to monthly reports. Suddenly I have time to read again…Meanwhile, a quarter’s worth of grab-bag:

Breakheart Pass (Alistair MacLean–1974)

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By the seventies, MacLean was transferring his well-honed thriller formula to more and more exotic settings with (according to a consensus of those who plowed through his later novels at least) less and less success. This “western” version is a pretty good one, though. It’s not The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare by any means, but it moves along crisply and builds some real tension and surprise along the way. What you’d expect from an expert romanticist who was tired but not yet quite worn out.

A Game For the Living (Patricia Highsmith–1958)

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A bit of a tease–rather like A Tremor of Forgery, the only other Highsmith I’ve read that lacked a distinctly American flavor. Even the Ripley novels, with their European settings, feel like a coming to terms with Highsmith’s homeland but here, the flavor and setting are strictly Mexico.

Still, she knew the place well, and, if you read a line like this, early on…

“Theodore did not want to get into a discussion of the Catholic versus the Protestant conscience or, what was worse, the Catholic conscience versus Ramon’s idea of ‘Existentialist’s conscience,’ which was no conscience at all to Ramon. Just because he did not torture himself, as Ramon did, for having an affair out of wedlock!”

…you might expect a narrative where souls are at stake, if not lives. But it turns out she doesn’t drum up much interest in either. Maybe she needed America and Americans more than she thought.

Anyway the novel is best when it’s searching for the soul of its setting.

“The police arrived, two ordinary policeman in uniform, and in a somewhat bored manner went over the house and listed the items Theodore said were missing and their value. Theodore knew he would never see them again. One almost never saw stolen things again in Mexico, and the POLICIA accepted robberies–little house robberies like this–with a resigned shrug. It was no doubt their conviction that people with so much money ought to be robbed now and then, that it did no harm and did the poor possibly some good. And Theodore, too, felt rather the same way.”

The POLICIA do, of course, investigate a little further than Theodore expects, but only because a murder is involved. As with all her novels, nothing much happens. Even murder feels ordinary. Unlike most of her novels, in this one, the nothingness behind the central murder never quite materializes into that moment of existential dread which was her specialty. What you do get a philosophy of life, which I suspect is pretty close to the author’s own unique combination of not-quite-nihilism and not-quite-not-nihilism:

“If the earth became a hunk of metal, or disintegrated and vanished in particles too small for scientists’ eyes or even their microscopes to find, wasn’t there some beauty in that, beauty in the idea, if nothing else? It seemed quite as beautiful as three billion sweating or freezing human beings creeping around on a globe.”

Highsmith’s basic idea was that murder lay in the hearts of practically everyone–perhaps more deeply in the hearts of the mundane spirits than in anyone else. Since neither of her main characters here ever seems remotely capable of murder and since no one else is developed enough for the reader to have an interest, the dread never comes.

The Dark Lady is always interesting and I always approach her with extra care, but this time she didn’t leave a mark.

Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of The Mamas & The Papas (Matthew Greenwald–2002)

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First let me say (and I doubt this was the author’s fault), that this is the most incompetently produced book I’ve ever seen from a reputedly professional publisher. Spelling errors, grammatical glitches and/or malapropisms abound on nearly every page.

That being said, you should still read it if you have any interest in the group or their times. It’s not like there’s a really serious study out there and hearing this basic history in the words of the people who made it is fascinating…not least because you know you can’t trust a single one of them as far as you can throw one of those mountains you can supposedly see from the ocean California is supposed to slide into some day.

If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Sharyn McCrumb–1990)

PRETTYPEGGY

The first McCrumb I’ve read. The mystery/thriller part is standard enough, but the book is immensely valuable for its quietly effective and realistic depiction of small-town America in general and Appalachia in particular, a people and region who are rarely well-served by either fiction or life. On nearly every page you can find a little gem like this:

“Jeff McCullough found out a lot of things just because people stopped him in the street and asked about them, thinking that the local newspaperman would know more about it than they did.”

That’s the life of a small town journalist in thirty-three words and McCrumb offers up a town full of the same.

Naturally, when it came time for somebody to use this general setting for one of those “realistic” television shows that give the intelligentsia such a thrill, they picked Elmore Leonard, who couldn’t tell it from Detroit or Miami, to set the agenda.

Of course they did.

Growing Up Patton (Benjamin Patton with Jennifer Scruby–2012)

GROWINGUPPATTON

Multi-generational memoir from the grandson of the legendary WWII general and son of his highly successful namesake (also a general who served with distinction in Viet Nam). Benjamin Patton picked a different path and became a documentary filmmaker, a journey which led him to, among other things, develop a program where soldiers with PTSD (the kind his grandfather once famously slapped) document their experiences.

It’s not a “gotcha” memoir by any means, though. Rather the opposite. The grandson writes from a perspective of understanding what was valuable about his family’s military tradition and the enormous service both his father and grandfather rendered. Hence, along with stories of the many individuals they impacted, there are reams of good advice from both men, none of which is likely to be heeded by anyone conducting our present or future wars. Too bad. We’ll probably need to relearn the lessons they taught if we ever have to win one again. And we probably won’t.

For all that, the best anecdote, concerning the elder Patton, comes early on and confirms everything his admirers and critics ever dreamed or dreaded about him:

“Once when he was rehearsing his young daughter for a horse show, he berated her constantly, criticizing and cussing her, finding everything wrong, her posture, the way she handled her horse, her method of taking the jumps. He finally shouted in anger, ‘Get off that goddamn horse and let me show you how to do it.’ Meekly she climbed down, a chubby twelve-year-old, and he took her place. Resplendent and supremely self-confident in his horsemanship, he prepared to jump. As he spurred toward the obstacle, she was heard to say, ‘Dear God, please let that son of a bitch break his neck.'”

Such is love.

Garnethill (Denise Mina–1998)

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A highly praised, 400-page snigger at the expense of rape, incest and abuse victims. It’s dressed up as empathy of course, complete with an improbably off-the-cuff revenge fanstasy and wrapped in a whodunit plot so transparent even I (notoriously bad at the game) guessed who the baddie was. The edition I bought has, as an addenda, a featured interview with the author, who reveals that she loves Glasgow (her adopted home and the novel’s setting) for its poverty and crime. Keeps it real and all.

Let me say that, having just finished her novel, I was not surprised. She does have one moment of honesty at the end of the book when the wee adorable lassies she has so fervently wished us to love and cherish throughout turn out, not as surprisingly as I suspect Mina intended, to be what they would call “pricks.”

In Glasgow slang that’s now apparently the worst thing you can call a woman. Bet you won’t need three guesses to know the worst thing you can call a man. (Hint, it starts with a c.) Ha ha ha. If this really is modern Scotland, I’m glad my ancestors got out.

[NOTE: Besides all that, I finished a Kennedy assassination book which I’m planning to review for BWW shortly. And I’m still pondering how to handle Devin McKinney’s book on the Beatles but I’ll definitely address it further in one venue or the other…I’ll also probably do a separate post on Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues, which I’m currently reading and is certainly worth some extra attention…Til then.]