THEMES? WE DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ THEMES! (Monthly Book Report: August through December, 2018)

The last five months of 2018 were a busy time overall but a slow reading period. I read as many books in January as I read from August to December. Still, such as they are–a pulp near-masterpiece set in the world of pro football; a couple from a pulp master (one of which was a re-read); a tantalizing book about the original October Surprise; and a WWII combat memoir by Great Britain’s last great man of letters. if there was a theme in there, I couldn’t find it.

North Dallas Forty (1973)
Peter Gent

Though it occasionally bogs down in Gent’s need to project his protagonist’s (a wide receiver on a Dallas Cowboys-style team named Phil Elliot) sensitivity, most of this goes by like a speeding bullet. Some of its more sensational aspects have long since lost their shock value but Elliot’s moral outrage and eye for both his circumstance’s patent absurdity and his own fatal attraction to it, give it enough relevance to count as a pulp classic. For all its keen insider awareness of the world it depicts, the novel a kind of detective story. Not whodunit or even “why done it,” but will the only man who has any sense of moral order even survive, let alone solve anything.?

Even if you’ve seen the excellent 1979 movie with Nick Nolte, you won’t know the answer until the very end.

And you won’t be comforted.

Dead Low Tide  (1953) and The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1975)
(John D. MacDonald)

Dead Low Tide is early MacDonald and it shows. Things that would later become hallmarks of his best writing–the eye for physical detail and physical space, the craft of his action scenes, the knack for trenchant social commentary–are all present but in nascent form. Without their full development, the story’s tragedies play more like bummers than events that might scar either the soul or the social fabric. It would rank in the lower third of the Travis McGee novels and is nowhere near as good as Cape Fear. Still a swift read, though. You can spot the talent, struggling to find a proper form.

There are no such problems with The Dreadful Lemon Sky, one of the most important pulp novels ever written.

I reviewed it a couple of years ago and mentioned its prescience in giving a full-blooded portrait of a Bill Clinton-style Southern pol on the make in the Deep South circa 1975.

But there’s much more. It’s really a layered look at the men who are always working behind the scenes to give us such lovely choices (and Clinton’s sociopathy isn’t unique among post-modern pols–it isn’t even unusual, something I don’t think would have surprised MacDonald if he had lived to see it) and the social order where such men breed.

You can take cold comfort from MacDonald dispatching his villain by having him stung to death by fire ants–the most Florida death you’ll ever find. But you can’t say we weren’t warned.

Trick or Treason: The 1980 October Surprise Mystery (1993)
Robert Parry

For those who have forgotten, or never knew, the “October Surprise” was a theory that held Vice Presidential nominee George H.W. Bush and other high ranking members of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign conducted secret meetings with Iran to ensure that American hostages would not be released before that year’s presidential election and boost Jimmy Carter’s chance for reelection.

I have a personal stake in the subject for two reasons. One is that, in the early 80s, my father sat next to a retired general at a rubber chicken dinner on the Southern Baptist missionary circuit. Without divulging anything classified, the general nonetheless strongly intimated that, at very least, Carter’s hostage rescue mission was sabotaged by forces inside the American government as part of a plot to make him a one-term president. The Intelligence Community, as it has come to be called, didn’t care much for Ronald Reagan either. Their hopes lay in Bush himself (one of their own) or Ted Kennedy (who, after Chappaquiddick, they owned outright and who did indeed mount a strong primary challenge to Carter that year).

All of which leads to my second level of personal interest–my belief that 1980 was the year said Intelligence Community fulfilled the program that had begun with John Kennedy’s assassination (whether they had anything to do with the assassination is almost irrelevant–they certainly took advantage of it to begin whittling away the power of the elected government which they held in complete contempt, then and now) and reduced all subsequent choices to their own preferences.

Which left only one question for me, as I perused Parry’s rather dry book. Did it tend to prove or disprove my theories?

I’m disappointed to say it didn’t do much of either. But since it is not so much an account of any government or campaign’s shady dealings as proof of just how difficult it is to pin down even one fact such forces don’t want you to know, it still served a purpose. It showed me how unlikely either the October Surprise or any other possible misconduct in high places will ever see the light of day.

If that’s something you need to have proved beyond all doubt, this is the book for you.

Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (1992)
George MacDonald Fraser

Though Fraser was never shy about offering his own opinion, this is really a memoir of his unit. It took me a while to sort them out, in part because Fraser has them speak in their own voices. Here’s a sample:

“We’ll all get killed”

“Fook this!”

“Whee’s smeukin’ then?”

“Booger off Forster, scrounge soomw’eers else.”

“Ahh, ye miserable, mingy Egremont twat!”

. . . .

“Idle Scotch git. Ye want us to strike the fookin’ matches, an a’?”

Having spent a few hundred pages with “Jock” MacDonald’s crew, I now long for the chance to call someone an “idle Scotch git” but I confess page after page of this took some getting used to. I wasn’t even aware of the comradery creeping up on me until near the very end, when, in one of the last British campaigns, in Burma, on a field far from Glory’s eye, Fraser made me feel the loss of men who, a moment before, were nothing more than an annoyance to either author or reader.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Knowing the creator of Flashman had a rare ability to journey through the British Empire’s mighty time and space, never losing sight of either its majesty or its absurdity, it was only to be expected that he would be a master observer of his own role in its dying breath.

…Til next time. I promise it won’t be so long.

AMERICAN TRAGEDY

WARNING: Proceed With Caution. Spiritual Speculation Ahead.

I found myself shaking hands with him. I got out of the car hastily, and after it drove away I wiped my hand on the side of my trousers. I felt dazed. He had focused a compelling personality upon me the way somebody might focus a big spotlight. He had that indefinable thing called presence, and he had it in large measure. I tried to superimpose the new image the upon the fellow I had met in Jack Omaha’s house, listlessly tying his tie after a session in Jack Omaha’s bed. That fellow’s anger had been pettish, slightly shrill. I could overlap my two images of the man. I wondered if my previous image had somehow been warped by the great blow on the back of my head when the explosion hurled me off my feet.

This man had been engaging, plausible, completely at ease. He made me feel as if it were very nice indeed to be taken into his confidence. There were dozens of things I wanted to ask him, but the chance was gone. The chance had driven away in a gleaming limousine, cool in the heat of the morning.

Yes, if he could project all that to a group, he could be elected. No sweat.

(John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974…In the character of Travis McGee, offering the best description of Bill Clinton (aka “Frederick Van Harn”) anyone has managed, in fiction or elsewhere…note the date)

“By God, there’s nothing twisted about a man liking his pussy and going after it any danged place he can find it.”

(John D. MacDonald, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, 1974… In the character of Judge Jake Schermer, Bill Clinton’s (aka Frederick Van Harn’s) most succinct apologist, in fiction or elsewhere. Note the date.)

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Mark 8:36 (KJV)

Same for a woman.

The cruelest irony of Hillary Clinton’s final defeat is that she failed because she never managed to believe in the first lesson any meaningful definition of feminism should have taught her–the value of herself. The Quaker women who–driven and consoled by the Christian conscience, rather than nagged and annoyed by it in the manner of the modernist–assembled in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, to launch the women’s rights movement, could have warned her of the cost.

Had she heeded their lessons–and those of the Methodism in which she herself was raised–she might well have become President long since.

She had all the other qualifications…and had them “in large measure.”

Instead, she chose, by all accounts with the utmost care, a different path. She chose to hitch her wagon to a rising male star and to place complete trust in his ability to drag her to the top with him.

Imagine how she felt on the day she realized she had married not only the man she thought she married (and he really was that man who “could be elected”) but also the man described–perfectly–above. Imagine how she felt, wherever she was along the journey (and it may have been as late as when she was presented with the unassailable evidence of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress), when the harsh reality became inescapable.

Imagine how she felt the day she finally realized There’s nothing he won’t do….

Imagine how she felt when she realized that the man she had wrapped all her dreams around deserved to be stung to death by fire ants, like Fred Van Harn, but that such things only happen in pulp novels, never in real life. That if her husband was the conscious-less horn dog she never quite believed he was, he was probably also the lip-biting rapist and dixie-fried racist gunrunner she never quite believed he was either. And that, even if he was none of those other things she could never again quite disbelieve, he was still a conscious-less horn dog who would go to any lengths to personally and politically humiliate her (exactly where were his legendary persuasion skills, when Hillary-Care was going down in flames?…the same place his famous “political judgment” was the day he waited for Loretta Lynch on a Phoenix tarmac?) on the biggest stages in the world.

Imagine how she felt the day she realized she had married a man who would stop at nothing to keep her from doing the one and only thing that made it worth marrying him in the first place.

I don’t mean becoming America’s first woman president, though there is that.

I mean letting her breathe. For a minute.

Imagine how she felt when she realized that Hillary Rodham had long since disappeared into Hillary Clinton who disappeared into Hillary Rodham Clinton who finally disappeared into “Hillary Clinton”–more brand than name–all for the purpose of serving evil’s endless banalities so that she could one day do the greater good her Methodist soul kept telling her would some day make it all worthwhile, only to find that, at the last possible moment, she had fallen one single grinding, humiliating, soul-killing inch short.

And that she had come short because, instead of believing in herself and marrying some small town businessman or college professor content to live in her shadow and perhaps even be in love with her, she had instead done it the old-fashioned, old-world, self-arranged political marriage way, and was now finally forced to accept the awfulness of her choice.

Now hold all that in mind and walk a mile in her shoes.

Imagine that the star you hitched yourself to finally revealed himself as the scum of the earth. This after you spent nearly half a century trying to convince yourself you could one day wipe the stains clean, only to discover that the very voters who so readily forgave him his sins abandoned you in large part because, consciously or otherwise, they managed to convince themselves you–the very first “you” that you should have held on to, the one who was never quite all the way hidden from view–should somehow have not only known better than to keep forgiving him, but than to marry him in the first place.

Imagine realizing that the old “well their sex life is their own business” trope really meant “well HIS sex life is HIS own business…but from you we expected better” all along.

Imagine that you had enough of the Methodist missionary spirit left in you to suspect they might be right.

Imagine you had long ago abandoned your own innate social conservatism for libertinism; your economic liberalism for feudalism; your wariness of radicalism for the cloak of radical chic that finally clung too far from your skin for any genuine radical to trust you, but not far enough for anyone else to believe you could any longer cast if off at will.

Not to mention trading your disdain for corruption for the pettiest, most transparent forms of influence peddling,

Imagine that, in losing one self after another, you had ended in a place where no deal was too shady, so long as it pulled you one step further up a ladder which would only be worth climbing the first rung if you made it all the way to the top.

Imagine discovering, here at the very last, that you were the toughest, smartest, best-positioned-by-history woman to achieve the thing you burned to achieve….and it turned out you had, at the very beginning, chosen the only path that would have led any place but the place you wanted to go.

Imagine that you had chosen the only path that could have led you here, where you have at last gained exactly what the Good Book said you would…

hillaryclinton1

…and where the only song left to sing, is this one.

 

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

McGee….

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

mcgee4

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)

mcgee2

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)

mcgee3

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)

beingthere1

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)

clockworkorangeimage1

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)

DISPATCHES1

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)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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)

johnfordinterviews1

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)

EMPTYCOPPERSEA1

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)

leechild1

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)

leechild3

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)

dreadfullemonsky1

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.

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)

ATANANDSANDYSILENCE

 

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)

jmacSCARLETR-- USE

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)

JMACTLAMENT

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.

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)

ODESSAFILE

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)

LONGLAVENDERLOOK2

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)

lindaronstadt2

(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)

gridimage

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)

saintsrest

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….

 

UTOPIAS, DYSTOPIAS, MYOPIAS AND A BRIEF ROUNDUP OF THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Monthly Book Report: 8/15)

Since I’ve disconnected my television satellite and I’m not currently working on any side projects, I’m starting to have more time to read. I don’t know if the trend will last, but for now, I’m making two changes to the book report.

First, when there are more than the usual three or four books, I’m going to try to put them in categories, rather than simply reviewing by strict chronology according to the date I completed them.

Second, my policy with book covers up to now has been to post a copy of the edition I read, if I can find it. Seems like the more I read, the more of a chore and/or impossibility that becomes, so, starting now, I’m just going to use the cover of the edition I like best. Based on this month’s experiment, that will probably mean lurid for the pulp, stately for the classics, and functional for everything else.

So, sticking to the announced categories…

Utopias

Well, a pastoral anyway…

The Prairie (James Fenimore Cooper, 1827)

PRARIE

And so, at long last, I fulfill a teenage promise to myself and finish the Leatherstocking Tales. This was the third written of the five, but the last chronologically for the character of Natty Bumppo. I’ve written at length elsewhere about the modern world’s odd and foolish neglect of Cooper, but I have to admit this was my least favorite of the series.

Cooper’s usual strengths, namely his unsurpassed descriptions of a wilderness Fitzgerald could evoke so swiftly and efficiently on the final page of The Great Gatsby in part because Cooper had done the heavy lifting for a century’s worth of readers in a pre-visual age, his action sequences, and his ability to wring real tragedy from melodramatic plots and a more than occasionally turgid literary style, are all present here, but severely muted.

Moving the setting from the upstate New York he knew like the back of his hand to midwestern plains he knew chiefly from the witness of others robs his descriptive passages of their authority.

Dealing with a landscape and tribal cultures he knew less than well meant he had to basically transport his stock characters into unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting skins.

With Chingachgook killed off and Natty aged out of both his heroic skill set and his appeal as a leading man (who broke a heart in The Deerslayer and had his broken in turn in The Pathfinder), the romances fail to spark.

And with the conflict between the woods and the town (or the fort) replaced by a roving fight between rootless and unsavory settlers, more unsavory Sioux, and noble Pawnees (standing in for the noble Delawares of Natty’s younger years), the great theme of civilization encroaching on the wilderness and vice versa never comes to life until the very end.

Even so, the book is hardly without worth. There’s some good comic relief from a naturalist who is Natty’s equal for stubbornness and pluck, though not for intelligence. (If classic Hollywood had taken on the story, Donald Meek could have played him perfectly).  And there’s a genuinely horrific scene, after the not-for-the-faint-of-heart fashion Cooper had mastered if not invented, in which the rude settlers are forced to punish one of their own for killing one of their own.

Plus, Natty’s long day’s journey into night is handled with grace and aplomb, a fitting end for the character, even if the series carried on until the 1840s and found its pinnacle in The Deerslayer, set first and written last, by which time Cooper knew a lot more than the thing or two that had already made him America’s first major novelist, and an undismissible guide to our national psyche, by the time this was written.

Myopias

Jake’s Thing (Kingsley Amis, 1978)

JAKESTHING

Yet another reminder that, if satirists have their uses, they also have their limits.

Based on his famous and, as the English say, spot-on preference for John MacDonald (“by any standards a better writer”) over Saul Bellow (“a human heart chap”), plus happy experiences with The Anti-Death League (a genuinely great spy novel from 1966) and Lucky Jim (his misanthropic career maker from 1954), I’ve cut Sir Kingsley a fair bit of slack over the years.

That slack has now stretched to cover The Green Man (1969), The Russian Girl (1992) and this. And unless somebody can convince me he had another Anti-Death League in him–or at least a novel which isn’t yet another variant on Lucky Jim–I’m done.

I’m done even though this had a smile on nearly every page, a laugh on more than a few and a potentially intriguing premise: “Is male menopause any sort of crisis for a misanthrope?”

Amis was a Conservative Hedonist. He practiced a style of world-weary, seen-it-all, Englishness that probably reached its peak with Lucky Jim and had evidently worn thin by the time the Sexual Revolution got up a real head of steam. Conservative Hedonism was certainly preferable to it’s Liberal counterpart. Real Hate is more bracing than Fake Love in both Art and Life. But it’s lost its sting now that the age of cultural collapse it foreshadowed has arrived in force.

Laughter’s precious, alright, but it’s not worth the supercilious slog that Amis began extracting from his readers as the price of the ticket. And, God help him, somewhere along the way he started trying to invest in character development, almost always a deadly notion for a satirist.

One can ponder “Jake Richardson,” or Kingsley Amis, and get a glimpse into why and how civilizations fail alright. It’s when enough people who might have done better, don’t.

Not saying there’s no value in being reminded.

But one reason I never got into Seinfeld or Larry David or any other recent version of the lineage Amis the Elder (his son, God help us, writes too) had picked up from H.L. Mencken (a truly corrosive misanthrope who was evidently a frustrated Hedonist, always the kind who both start this sort of thing and are bound to be the best at it), is that, at some point, very soon after you take its measure, the corrosiveness is just plain tiresome.

Life’s too short.

Oh yeah. The “thing” is impotence…or lack of desire to perform even in the face of undiminished capacity….or the male member.

One of those. Or maybe all of them.

All nice subjects for satire. This would have made a great short story, so if I do try Amis again it will probably be through that route.

I’m old enough myself to have commitment issues whenever I get ten pages into a novel and realize it’s already going in circles around a very familiar track.

Dystopias

NOTE: I usually avoid dystopian novels written by anyone but Philip K. Dick, for the same reason I usually avoid novels about psychotics written by anyone except Patricia Highsmith. If a standard exists, met over and over by the standard setter, why bother with the rest? That said, the classics of certain genres do beckon when I’m in the mood to further my education, hence, the following:

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) and Brave New World Revisited (1958)

BRAVENEWWORLD2ND

BRAVENEWWORLDREVIS

Huxley’s great insight was his recognition that the old truth about Religion and Art being incompatible with the New Age’s rising Gods (one of which is, amusingly, always called Science or, even funnier, Reason, the other of which, given that it covers everything from political boot-licking to industrial criticism, must never, ever be called anything as mundane as Journalism and therefor can never, amusingly or otherwise, be called anything at all) was reaching a new, feverish pitch, even when he knocked his original dystopia into a novel of sorts.

The world more or less survived the first go-round with Perfection. Fascism came and went. Soviet style communism was still going strong when Huxley “revisited” his own vision in the late fifties, but has come a cropper since.

We’ve found new ways to terrorize and undermine ourselves here lately.

Still, his vision was on-track in the macro sense. We’ve been fairly resistant to Big Brother, but we do love our machines and our drugs and we are using them to reshape ourselves into something already recognizable as the very subversions of “brave” and “new” that Huxley glimpsed in outline in the early thirties.

Like most dystopian novels (Dick excepted), Brave New World is a bit of a chore once the premise is established, but I’m glad I finally read it–sense of accomplishment and all–and I agree with those who insist it was a more likely vision of the future than Orwell’s.

Still, it’s less likely than the vision at the back of all the other western visions, laid down by John the Revelator after a mad dream incurred on the Isle of Patmos. Like I said. Only Philip K. Dick has got past him.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1986)

HANDMAID'STALE

…And while I was in a dystopian mood, I thought I might as well tackle this one.

It’s a little more engaging than Orwell or Huxley. There’s an approximation of a human character at the center (she narrates) and a neat twist at the end. The vision itself isn’t very complicated or compelling. It’s made up out of bits and pieces of standard dystopian rubble and glued together by the even more standard Good Liberal horror of (and complete misunderstanding of) Evangelical Christianity. Anyone who has ever attended a Wednesday night business meeting at the local First Baptist, or understands even a little bit about how the chaotic anti-structure of Protestant sects actually works, will get a wry smile out of the notion that such folks will be running the New World Order, Star Chamber fashion, any day now. (The Handmaid’s Tale is set in what is supposed to be a disturbingly near future.)

On the positive side, the book is well written and there are a lot of sound general insights. Nothing that couldn’t have been gleaned from a good captivity narrative, mind you. (I know, because I just finished a captivity narrative myself and have been studying the sources.)

What really made this a grind, though, was that the specifics, despite being oh-so-carefully rendered, simply weren’t very convincing. It read like a philosophical treatise, not something the author felt in her bones.

So a lot like Brave New World–or 1984–after all.

The book was published in the eighties. If Atwood wanted to remain contemporary a generation hence she should have put jihadis in control of her world.

Of course, if she had, she would probably be dead or in hiding now.

I have no idea whether this was a failure of imagination on her part, or a failure of nerve.

And, despite her obvious skill, no desire to investigate further.

…the Usual Suspects

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (John D. MacDonald, 1968)

theGIRLINTHEPLAINBROWN

Jesus. The first half of this is so touchy-feely I thought I’d picked up a Harlequin Romance by mistake. There are letters for God’s sake, and no sign of the usual gimlet eye, sizing up the late twentieth century, let alone any sort of adventure going on.

It picks up in the second half. But even then is seems more like a misguided attempt to imitate Ross MacDonald than anything I’d want or expect from the McGee.

Weakest of the series so far.

Dress Her In Indigo (John D. MacDonald, 1969)

DRESSHERININDIGO

I hate to say it, but the late sixties were not a good time for MacDonald/McGee. At least this time around he has the makings of a good story. even if it’s back to Mexico with not much to say that he hadn’t already said better.

There are too many twists and turns here and they don’t all make a lot of sense. When the bereaved father of a lost girl turns out to be not the out-of-shape midwestern businessman we’ve been led to believe but a stone cold torturer/murderer, the problem isn’t so much that it’s a stretch, or even that it’s a long stretch. It’s that the revelation comes as a total surprise to McGee, but not to the reader.

Believe me, I’m a pure sucker. You can have me agape with the least effort imaginable. But even I saw every twist coming, except for one very small, and genuinely unsettling one near the very end.

In short, too much sex therapy, as had become the norm (though at least this time around it’s the various fantasy women providing and McGee receiving). Too much intricate plotting (leave it to the other MacDonald, i.e. Ross, not to mention Agatha Christie, for they were good at it). Too much Meyer (I like Meyer, we all like Meyer, but McGee doesn’t need a true Watson). And yet again, no really memorable villain.

The McGee was clearly in a slump. The late sixties had thrown both him and his creator. I have fond memories of some of the books coming up so I’m looking forward to a rebound. This was a little better than the last one, but it’s also the first in the series that had me checking page numbers, which is the equivalent of checking your watch in a movie, wondering just how much longer until it’s over.

Eye of the Needle (Ken Follett, 1978)

THEEYEOFTHENEEDLE

Having finally caught up last month with The Day of the Jackal, which story I knew from the fine film version, I decided to give this one, which inspired an even better film, a try.

Turns out the movie was a solid improvement (whereas the film of Jackal just held its ground). In part, because more liberties were taken.

The book is fine, a definite page turner, but it isn’t quite as good as Jackal, which was even better than the movie it inspired.

I don’t know if Follett was attempting a spin on Forsyth or anyone else, but coincidentally or not, his central track, in a story with an otherwise rather similar structure, ran opposite.

In Jackal, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in that case a paid murderer, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of espionage) from being revealed as a sociopath until the last possible instant.

In Eye of the Needle, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in this case, a German spy loose in the England of WWII, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of unpaid murder) from being revealed as something other than a sociopath. This is where the movie was an improvement (even though most critics didn’t get it…do they ever?).

Here, the murderous spy is merely cold-blooded, a standard Nazi-oid type most of us have encountered so frequently in fiction and film we’re bound to find ourselves stifling an occasional yawn by now, now matter how skillfully he’s rendered.

The film changed a few key sequences to hint at a man who got into it for excitement and love of country but knows he has lost his soul along the way. Given that for a premise, his affair with a lonely woman makes strong dramatic and emotional sense. In the novel, it’s far more mechanical and efficient. Still compelling, mind you, but the compulsion is strictly intellectual.

The movie of Eye of the Needle leaves an echo. The novel, well done as it is, is over when it’s over.

HEROES AND VILLAINS (Book Report: 7/15)

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

onefearfulyelloweye2

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)

PALEGRAYFORGUILT

…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)

DAYOFTHEJACKAL1

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)

WATCHMAN1

Reviewed here.