Archive for July, 2010

Man and Novel Go Haywire

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

A college professor, with a lovely wife and fine young son, begins an affair with a mysterious woman. Particularly mysterious for a bucolic Midwestern university. Virtually half of the book tells this story from his point of view (albeit in the third person). Then all of a sudden, it’s the mysterious woman’s story. A story that leaps from snow covered hills and dew frosted fields to sun splashed beaches, political unrest, and voodoo. It then returns to being the teacher’s story and reaches a rather abrupt end, which to me, seemed as if the publisher ran out of paper. But one of the nice things about novels is that they don’t have to follow convention to be engrossing. And that’s exactly what Bay of Souls is.

The author is Robert Stone, a contemporary of what’s often referred to as the “beat generation” of writers and poets; Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy. Writers who defined the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s with prose often fueled by drugs, alcohol, and whatever else happened to be available. Bay of Souls is one of Stone’s latter works, having been published in 2003.

There are both similarities and differences to earlier novels Stone hemmed. A couple of which were made into movies. The film WUSA with Paul Newman, was a political potboiler Stone hated. Who’ll Stop The Rain, based on the author’s novel Dog Soldiers, was a riveting tale of post Viet Nam drug smuggling and West Coast waywardness. It starred Nick Nolte and the author felt it was much truer to his original. Though he loathed the movie’s title which he said “some moron must have come up with.”

Bay of Souls lulls you into a false sense of familiarity. As the tale of Michael Ahearn, the professor, unspools slowly, you feel you are reading another story of middle-aged angst. A story well told. We totally believe his love for his wife and family, his sedate acceptance of his cloistered university life, and his eventual attraction to the darkly intriguing Lara Purcell. Infidelity, it’s allure and it’s recriminations, are rendered with painful honesty. But we’re jolted out of our preconceptions when the narrative jumps to an island in the Caribbean where a junta is being overthrown, cashes of cocaine are being sought, and ritualistic voodoo is being employed to save some souls and recover others. Ahearn, possessed by his lust (and perhaps love) for Lara, leads him into a world so foreign to his own as to risk not just his sanity, but his life itself. The requisite amount of adventure, danger and precarious situations are delivered compellingly.

Up to a point, we believe we know how the story is going to end. How all such stories should end. But surprise, this one doesn’t end that way. And even though the ending is a bit like falling off a cliff, you take its truth with you long after you’ve closed the cover for the final time.

Robert Stone was a great lover, as are so many, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He admits to having read it at least three times. Perhaps somewhere in that immortal novel were the seeds of Stone’s protagonist, Michael Ahearn, in Bay of Souls. Stone says that his life would have “probably been lousy” had he not become a writer Certainly the lives of readers like The Fiction Fortune Hunter have been made far less lousy by the talents of Robert Stone’s storytelling.

Letter To A Uniquely American Novelist

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

I recently ran across a letter I once wrote, to the writer I enjoy reading the most. I decided to post it here, in the hope it will spur anyone who reads it, to seek out his work. Believe me, you’ll be the better for it. I did a post back in November of 2009 on one of his novels. Not sure how many folks read it. Maybe more will read this and look for his novels wherever they buy their books.

Letter to Pete Dexter

Dear Pete,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you Pete. Having read all your novels as well as Paper Trails, I certainly feel like we’re on a first-name basis. Which can only be attributed to your skill as a writer. A scribe who turns readers into friends. That’s not an easy thing to do.

I also hope this letter makes its way to you. I assume that some unknown person, in a place far removed from your home, goes through your mail to make sure the envelopes aren’t filled with anthrax, court summons or screaming diatribes about how politically incorrect you can often be.

This letter is none of the above. It’s more in the form of what (centuries ago) used to be called a mash note. Don’t worry. I’m no groupie or stalker or smitten convict writing from a jail cell in Huntsville. I’m just a real fan of yours. And I thought it might be nice to hear from someone who reads your books and is better for it.

You may or may not care what readers actually think of your work as long as they plunk down the twenty-plus bucks or so for a hardback edition. But your writing makes me believe you probably are a person who is not totally opposed to a compliment now and then. And that’s certainly what I intend this letter to be.

I’ll do my best not to ramble too much, though having just finished Spooner, I have to believe you’re not completely put off by a bit of meandering now and then. It was, in a word, wonderful. You made me feel as if your were in the same room with me, spinning a yarn I was eager to hear more and more of. I had not read reviews of the novel prior to getting into it, but being familiar with all your other work, I soon began to see a pattern of Spooner’s trek through life as being rather similar to your own. Frankly, it put me off a bit at first. Simply because I had the feeling that I knew what the ending would be. Spooner can’t die because Pete isn’t dead. I assumed Calmer would pass on as life is like that. And I was both tickled and moved by the way you brought his story full circle.

I didn’t read your books in the order in which you wrote them, having discovered you somewhat later in my particular span of years. I picked up Train in a London airport on my way back to the states. Read the whole thing in one eight-hour flight. Why did I pick it up? I was attracted to the Palm Tree on the cover. Having just suffered through London’s typically gloomy weather. Anyway, after reading it and really enjoying it (being a lifelong Raymond Chandler fan, I tend to read a lot of books that take place in L A), I was determined to learn more about this Dexter fellow and see if he had written anything else of substance. So, over the next few years, I wound up reading your books in this order:

Paris Trout
God’s Pocket
The Paperboy
Paper Trails
Brotherly Love

I guess if you held a gun to my head and made me pick a favorite (which is the only way I would), I would pick Paris Trout. No doubt because I too grew up in a small town in the South just after the war and could certainly relate (sometimes unfortunately) to many of the characters. But the thing I want you to know, and I guess the real reason I’m writing this letter is to tell you what they have all meant to me. The ones I’ve bought brand new and the one’s I’ve run across in used-book stores.

As they used to say in the old ads, I’ve laughed and I’ve cried. But more than that, I’ve shaken my head in agreement, I’ve seen my relatives, my friends, my enemies, and most of all people and places I’ll never forget. You have brightened my days, warmed my nights and increased my pleasure at just being alive by sharing the things you’ve written with me. And if I feel this way, think of all the thousands of others who feel similarly but who’ve never taken the time to let you know.

I hope you take some pleasure in knowing there are people all around the world– who have enjoyed being in it a little bit more– because of the time they were allowed to spend with your words.

Thanks for everything you’ve written and will write. Rest assured you’ll have at least one sure sale. I don’t know if you care to know anything about me beyond my love of your work. But if you do, you can find out more about me and read more about what I’ve said in regard to you and other authors in the blog on my website:

All the best to you and Mrs. Dexter.


Joe Kilgore

P S: I read aloud some of your columns from Paper Trails to my wife, Mrs. Kilgore.
We laughed so much we wept. And almost wet ourselves. You’re responsible.

More Fun Than Murder Ought To Be

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

Mist dampens street lamps shrouded in fog. Horses’ hooves clack atop cobblestones. Gentlemen in top hats and capes emerge from the theatre and hail hansom cabs with their silver-tipped walking sticks. It’s London circa 1840, and you’re in for an articulate whodunit with a brilliant detective and his devoted companion. But the surprise is…it’s not Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. It’s a new duo that inhabits this sterling homage to the pair, and begins a new series to delight readers hopefully for centuries to come. It’s the novel entitled Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas.

Before you can say “the game’s afoot” (which I’ve always wanted to say), you’re whisked into the utterly captivating world of intrepid inquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn. While historically, stylistically and intellectually sharing a literary allusion to Holmes and Watson, physically they counter them. Barker, the detective, is a large man, broad-shouldered and imposing with a prominent mustache. While Llewelyn, the assistant is thin-of-frame, and because of recent misfortune, somewhat frail. But though they lack a mirror image of the more famous sleuths, they share the same passion for uncovering clues, unmasking criminals, and discovering exactly who is behind foul and dastardly deeds.

The deed that sets things off in Some Danger Involved is particularly dastardly. It’s the crucifixion of a young Talmudic scholar in the Jewish ghetto. And it just might portend a coming pogrom. While interviewing the victim’s acquaintances, questioning the local anti-semites, and dining frequently at Barker’s favorite Chinese restaurant, the probative pair find themselves bouncing between the seamy underside and the beau monde of London society.

Thomas does an excellent job of interweaving the unfolding mystery with Barker’s on-the-job mentoring of his new assistant, Llewelyn. In fact, half the fun of this Victorian tale is the teacher-pupil interplay between the two protagonists. From shooting to sleuthing to interrogation, Llewelyn proves a quick learner. But he’s always a number of footfalls behind his wily employer.

The author also catches just the right tone in his use of style and language. Llewelyn is the narrator of the tale and though circumstances have conspired to place him firmly in the commoner’s que, his interrupted Oxford education provides the perfect platform for exhilaratingly articulate prose.

Like all truly good mysteries, cold trails, dead ends, and red herrings abound. But Will Thomas has interspersed his chapters with enough potential suspects, near-death experiences, and derring-do to keep you tuning page after page. Your reward is not only a ripping read, but a bonafide surprise ending that you definitely won’t see coming.

If, like The Fiction Fortune Hunter, you bemoan the lack of great old school writing that whisks you away to a time when the size of the hero’s intellect was far more important than the caliber of his gun, book passage on this most enjoyable voyage. But be warned. There’s some danger involved.