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).

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.

RAMBLING AROUND (Monthly Book Report: September, 2015)

No sooner do I start thinking I’m gonna read so many books I need categories every month than I get life-whammied back down to the usual number. Oh well…One thing I am doing, beginning this month, is writing off books that I know I’m not going to live long enough to finish. Hence, my lifelong habit of finishing any book I start, no matter how boring/bad/mind-numbing it may be, is going by the wayside. Details at the end.

As for what I did finish…

The Odessa File (Frederick Forsyth, 1972)

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Forsyth’s followup to The Day of the Jackal, which I liked so much last month. This, too, is efficient and fast-moving. But the little shocks to the system that accompanied the journey of the Jackal are not repeated so, while it’s highly diverting, and a solid entry in the valuable Nazis-sure-are-evil-and-we-should-never-forget sub-genre, it’s no more than that.

The Long Lavender Look (John D. MacDonald, 1970)

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Latest in the Travis McGee series I’ve been reading in order and, after a late-sixties’ slump, this is a big rebound. The first hundred plus pages move at locomotive speed, so that the inevitable slow-down for the sex therapy session (which the McGee herein actually gives a name–right there on p. 133, he calls it “bedroom therapy” leaving each of us to decide for ourselves whether such self-awareness duly compensates for routinely trying our patience), actually comes as something of a relief.

MacDonald had a wise formula for getting his man off the schneid and it amounted to this: Find some way to get him back in the swamps with the Florida crackers.

Here, among the people the author seemed to know best and trust least, the tension always ratchets. So, although 1) there’s a bit of a letdown at the very end, when McGee’s creator basically pulls some punches so his man can avoid a true, final confrontation with the book’s most terrifying villain (a good-looking swamp girl with less than no morals, cat-like cunning and man-like strength); 2) a continuation of the trend that has McGee’s “therapied” women ending up dead or mutilated or both in scenes that have begun to play more and more like mercy killings; 3)  the hero’s vaunted “humanity” is really beginning to wear paper thin, rather like Natty Bumppo’s sermons, and 4) the once piquant social commentary has been replaced by long-winded griping about what’s on television, this is still a fine entry in the series.

Beyond an early look at the speed culture which permeated rural America in the first blush of “liberation” and has long since turned into the even more frightening and nihilistic meth culture that haunts trailer parks and mountain hollows in our own time, there’s also an anecdote on cruelty in the Indian sub-continent which should provide you with something to think about the next time you want to complain about say, Christianity, or the Western world’s concept of the rule of law, there’s also a neat twist on Double Indemnity, as McGee and his soon-to-be-dead-or-mutilated lady friend find themselves having to dispose of a body they didn’t kill.

All that plus a race-along plot that emerges like an unfolding nightmare steaming from a cypress swamp.

And, to top it off, an occasional bit of ominous perfection suitable to an emerging dank climax…Let’s just say I think I’ve been to this place and was very glad to stay the hell away, swamp girl or no swamp girl:

Read the signs on the boxes. Stane, Murrity. Floyd. Garrison. Perris.

Perris was a one-story block house painted a pale, waterstained green, with a roof of white asbestos shingles. There was a gnarled and handsome oak in the front yard. There had been white board fencing, but it was rotting away. There had been river gravel in the drive, but most of it had rain-washed away. Some dead trucks and cars sat out to the side of the house, hip deep in the raw green grasses of spring. There were parts of other dead vehicles strewn around. There was a big frame building behind the house, with both overhead doors up, so that I could see into it as I turned into the drive, see a little of work-benches and hoists and tools. A dainty little baby blue Opel with a savage little snout was parked under the spreading shade of the live oak out in front, its slanting windshield splattered with the grease of the exploding bugs of high-speed travel.

So, in the rural America where harsh reality and pulp fantasy are forever merging, the message, as always, is clear: Unless you were born here, stay away.

Linda Ronstadt (Vivian Claire, 1978)

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(I found no picture of the actual cover worth printing when this was available instead)

A quickie paperback produced at the height of Ronstadt’s fame and sent to me by a loyal reader (who knows who he is, and to whom, upon recently perusing the price of this on Amazon whilst searching for a possible cover image, I now realize I may owe more than a salute…many thanks!).

I have no idea who Vivian Claire is. She evidently wrote three of these in about a year (the others were on David Bowie and Judy Collins), and then disappeared…a nom de plume perhaps?

But, whoever she was, this is a valuable book. The relationship drawn between Ronstadt’s life, personality and music isn’t particularly deep, of course, but the outline is convincing and affectionate. And, if there is hardly time to fully explore the mountain range worth of crap an exceptionally sensitive soul residing in the body of a gorgeous, massively insecure femme had to put up with in the Cocaine Cowboy L.A. of the sixties and seventies, there is certainly enough to give a flavor.

That, plus copious quotes the singer herself gave various interviewers in the early years, before exceptional fame made her even more guarded than nature had already done.

The most telling of those was this:

“The only way I got through high school was by keeping a record player going constantly in my mind.”

No thousand pages on the price inevitably exacted by industrial education systems, or why people keep shooting up schoolrooms, could ever say more.

As for those which have fallen prey to my new commitment to waste as little of my life as possible going forward:

The Grid (Philip Kerr, 1995)

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Generally engaging pulp writer attempts to imitate a novel written by a computer. Succeeds all too well.

Abandoned on page 80.

Saints Rest (Thomas Gifford, 1997)

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The word is that the “traditional” publishing industry is dying because of technology (never mind that technology had, in every single previous generation dating back several thousand years, been an incomparable boon to the same industry). Maybe we should take a closer look at the possibility that continually publishing books with no redeeming virtues whatsoever played a part?

I mean when a sentence that reads “How in the name of all that was holy had it come to this?” passes for a relief because at least it’s brief…and the author is well known…and the blurbs are copious…

Well, maybe that’s just an industry that wants to die.

The book, for what it’s worth, concerns political intrigue of the Saintly-Democrat-Defending-America-From-Evil-Republican-Fascists variety. For the opposite number you probably have to go to a religious press, but honestly I’ve never come across one of these that was any good, irrespective of viewpoint, so call this one my bad.

Abandoned on page 78.

…I also read a couple of books which I’ll be reviewing for BWW soon, so it wasn’t really all that slack a month, just a little less than I’d hoped for.

Til next time….

 

HEROES AND VILLAINS (Book Report: 7/15)

One Fearful Yellow Eye (John D. MacDonald, 1966)

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In which MacDonald/McGee catch the Literary Virus, Pulp Strain. Not the worst case I’ve seen by any means (he had a thing for Updike which, for a thriller writer, is probably not quite as bad as having a thing for Mailer) but dreary enough. The one strong element is that the monsters aren’t revealed until late, much later than usual. Keeping you in suspense about who to watch out for isn’t one of the hallmarks of the series and delaying the identity of the real villain works when not much else does. And if they’re Nazis on the run? Well, it wasn’t as tired a trope in 1966 as it is now.

The other hallmarks are here: sex therapy, don’t get too close to McGee to early in the story if you’re a female of the species because the ride isn’t gonna be worth it, sharp social insight. For once, though, the plot doesn’t really pick up any pace, not even at the end when the pulse should be pounding.

It’s possible MacDonald sensed he was foundering, because he took a whole year off before publishing….

Pale Gray for Guilt (John D. MacDonald, 1968)

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…Which is much stronger. Not quite up to the very best in the series but definitely back on track.

Forty-five pages in we get this:

“Near the cities, all the old highways of America pass businesses that have gone broke. End of the dream. The spoor of a broken marriage can be kept in a couple of cartons on a shelf in the garage. Broken lives can be tucked neatly away in graves and jails and sanitariums. But the dead business in a sub-marginal commercial strip stays right there, ugly and moldering away, the frantic advertising signs of the final convulsive effort fading and tattering over the weeds.”

On the money, of course. MacDonald rarely puts a foot wrong when he hones in on tattered dreams. But that passage isn’t just tossed in to show us how prescient McGee can be. It’s deep in the marrow of the plot, which springs from a dead business that has been subsumed by a rapacious, big-dog-eats-small-dog process which has become so familiar in the decades since that it’s become virtually impossible to think any other process could exist and which here leaves plenty of broken lives before its done.

Incidentally it’s been said about California, but it might be truer that what happens in Florida eventually happens everywhere and the twinned sociopathies of the big time businessman who stomps on small businesses with all the care and concern an elephant spends on a caterpillar underfoot and the small town cop who does the system’s bidding at the business end of the affair are each the stuff of today’s headlines, not the mention the stories that never make the papers.

Again, a strong entry and more proof that, at least in the McGee series, MacDonald did most of his really first-rate writing about the place he knew best.

The Day of the Jackal (Frederick Forsyth, 1971)

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A political thriller that is all thrills, no politics, and stronger for it. The plot is a step-by-step manual for political assassins (this concerns one targeting Charles DeGaulle) which has since inspired a few real life attempts. The tension generated is remarkable by any standard and especially so for a book where we know the famous target died in bed.

The skill displayed throughout is considerable, far more than I expected based on, The Dogs of War, which is the only other Forsyth I’d read. But the key to the technique isn’t revealed until fifty pages from the end when the Jackal, having murdered a woman he’s been using for a temporary cover with his bare hands goes about her bedroom calmly altering his physical appearance in order to assume yet another identity and you read: “The naked body on the floor he ignored.”

Up until that moment it’s been possible to believe the Jackal is simply a cool, calculating professional, different from a plumber or an accountant in degree rather than kind.

After that moment, he’s revealed as a psychopath and far more chilling for having had his soul masked under expert journalism for three hundred pages prior.

Highly recommended, even if you’ve seen Fred Zinneman’s excellent movie version numerous times and enjoyed it as much as I have.

Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee, 1957)

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Reviewed here.