Archive for September, 2010

Where There’s Smoke

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Admit it. Like me, you’ve probably rummaged through the bargain boxes that some bookstores put at their entrances to entice readers with incredibly low prices. It’s a smart move by retailers, as people usually have to exit the same way they entered, thereby affording the bookstore two opportunities to cash in on reader’s insatiable curiosity as well as their desire for saving money.

Well, I’m a committed dumpster (book) diver. And I got not only a great deal, but also a great read recently. I paid two dollars and twenty-five cents for a book that started life at $29.95, then went to paperback at a price of $14. I figured at two bucks and a quarter…how could I lose. And I didn’t. I won. And you will too (even if you have to pay a higher price) to read Andrew Pyper’s novel, The Wildfire Season .

Set in the great northwest woods of Canada, The Wildfire Season is a bit of a cross between a thriller, an adventure novel, a heartfelt examination of loneliness, abandonment, psychological as well as physical scarring, and reconnection. It is sometimes gripping, frequently compelling, and thoroughly entertaining. As the best novels are.

The protagonist, Miles, is a man who has walked away (make that skulked away) from the woman he loved just after she’s informed him she’s pregnant with his child. Why? That’s always the question, isn’t it? Is it because he’s cowardly? It it because he truly believes they’ll be better off without him? Or is it because he’s simply become a physical and emotional wreck who is trying to escape virtually all forms of life and its accompanying entanglements?

Miles is a firefighter. The kind who actually goes out and confronts those wildfires that we see popping up on the evening news in the late summer and early fall. He’s recently survived a near death experience in one, and been horribly burned on one side of his face and neck. Plus, he’s lost a friend to the fire. A young man he might have saved if he had done things differently. Or at least he thinks he might have. So, overcome with both guilt and self-pity, he turns to drink and withdrawal. But neither proves to be a healing balm and he simply flees.

Five years later, he is thoroughly cocooned in his isolation in a tiny town in the northwest. As the hamlet’s fire chief, his main responsibilities are overseeing a motley crew, putting out the occasional smoker, living with his dog in a ramshackle cabin, and regularly drinking to excess at the local pub. All is as well as such a monastic life can be, until one day, into the pub walks his ex-lover and his daughter.

Many novelists would be satisfied with simply exploring what happens next when Miles’s old life collides with his new one. But, to his credit, Andrew Pyper, stirs into this emotional stew, a very real impending conflagration, a wild grizzly bear hunt gone terribly wrong, and a revengeful cuckold who seems to have lost all control. You see Miles hasn’t exactly been a celibate monk since retreating to his own form of exile.

In the middle of this mix of pathos, pain and peril, we’re also treated to the point of view of the hunted bear as well as its hunters, detailed descriptions of the tactics and strategies of forest firefighting, ruminations on ghosts and the afterlife, and even a measure of mystery. Who started the fire that is the raging culmination of the novel’s exciting climax?

If, like The Fiction Fortune Hunter, you’re prone to thumbing through the titles of books-that-are-priced-to-move, keep one eye open for The Wildfire Season by Andrew Pyper. Between its covers, there’s definitely fire among the smoke.

Raising Hell And Getting Paid For It

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Most of the time, when you think of gangsters, molls, high rollers and flappers, you think of Chicago or New York. Books and movies have concentrated on those midwestern and eastern cities as bastions of criminality,
hoods, bootleggers and bad guys. Luckily, for lovers of fiction grounded in the 1920s and 30s, some novelists have ventured into the less charted waters of New Orleans, Galveston, even Midland and Odessa. One author who brings that time and those places back to life with the force of a runaway freight train is James Carlos Blake. Texas Monthly has called him “the hottest Texas writer you’ve never heard of.” Some have referred to him as “the next Cormac McCarthy.” He might just be a little, or a lot, of both.

While Blake has ventured into a number of different timeframes and locales in his novels, the one that’s the subject of this particular post is his depression era ode to small time crooks, A World of Thieves. Set in the southeast and southwest of that memorable time in the nation’s history, it tells the story of a trio of outlaws for whom knocking over filling stations, sticking up banks, and executing the old badger game is not just a living, its a way of life. Yes, the narrator of the story confesses, there are simply some folks who feel a lot more alive when stealing their money from banks, grocery stores, illegal poker games and cathouses, than from stealing it while working for insurance companies, law firms, or the government. You see the essence of Blake’s novel is that “everybody’s a thief.” Some just do their thieving within the confines of the law, others outside of it.

A World of Thieves begins with a bank heist gone bad. The wheelman, Sonny, a nineteen year old working with his two uncles, Russell and Buck, winds up killing a man and getting sent to prison. The prison isn’t the big house you see in all those James Cagney movies, it’s a chain gang in the middle of the Louisiana swamps. You’re not likely to find a more compelling reason for wanting to avoid a similar fate, than reading Blake’s tale of Sonny’s time spent wearing leg irons, being whipped, spending time in the sweatbox, and digging ditches in muck up to his privates. Odd then, you might think, when Sunny finally manages to escape, that the thing he wants to do most, is reconnect with those uncles and get back in the outlaw life. But, as Blake makes clear, neither Sonny (who’s actually quite literate and really smart) or his uncles (who definitely aren’t) have much to say about it. Thieving is simply in their nature, and one’s character (or the lack of it) is a harbinger of one’s fate.

We follow these lads, and the women that accompany them, from Louisiana into Texas, where they pick up traveling money in the gambling city of Galveston and head out for the wide open spaces and well heeled oil towns of West Texas. There, they set up a safe house in one small hamlet, and proceed to do crimes in a number of the surrounding boom towns. Such is the talent of the author, that you can’t fail to like these joke-telling, booze-swilling, women-carousing miscreants. None of them long for the good life. They believe they’re living it.

But James Carlos Blake is nothing if not a realist. And soon the reader learns that the father of the man who was killed in the initial bank job is on their trail. He is one bad dude. And in the tradition of every murderous tale from Caine and Able to Bonnie and Clyde, there’s going to be hell to pay.

If you like great fiction that rips, snorts, jolts you with violence, and foregoes the sentiment, then jump on the running board of Sonny’s Model A Ford and beat a hasty getaway to A World Of Thieves. It’s a fun-packed way to lose yourself between the pages of America’s shady past. The Fiction Fortune Hunter did. And he’s the better for it.

And if you’re not quite sure about the morality of the whole thing…well just think of it as the author did in the quote he used (from Cormac McCarthy’s Child Of God) to open his book. “All the trouble I ever was in was caused by getting caught.”

A Story We Can All Learn From

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Grand themes are often found in simple stories. Such is the case with the weighty issues confronted in the relatively compact novel, A Lesson Before Dying. The essence of the story is this; a wrongly accused man is sentenced to die in the electric chair. He does. End of story? No. Just the beginning of a monumental confrontation that still goes on in different ways today.

The place in Ernest J.Gaines’s novel, is Louisiana in the late 1940’s. The remnants of a plantation still remain. And while two world wars have come and gone, things haven’t changed very much at all in St. Raphael Parish. Blacks still go to school in the makeshift plantation church during the month’s when they aren’t picking cotton or cutting sugar cane. They live in the black section of town called the quarters. And of course, they aren’t called blacks, and certainly not African Americans. If you’re too young to have actually lived through that time, or that part of the country, it may be hard for you to accept the reality of the lives lived there by people of color. But fortunately Gaines is able to bring it back to life on each and every page.

The protagonist of the novel, Grant Wiggins, is not the man sentenced to death. He is a young black school teacher who is coerced into helping the convicted man come to grips with what is going to happen to him, and prepare himself for it. It’s not an easy preparation. Made more difficult by the fact that the young man is mentally challenged. He understands things though. He certainly understands during the trial when his defense attorney, in an attempt to avoid the death penalty, likens him to a hog. Telling the jury, you wouldn’t send a hog to the electric chair…well that’s what this boy is…a hog…you shouldn’t send him to the chair either.

Wiggins is coerced by his aunt, whom he lives with, and her best friend, the mother of the prisoner. The mother is adamant that her son go to his death like a man, not an animal. Wiggins is most reluctant because he has absolutely no idea how to help. And because, even though he’s returned to the plantation to teach after getting his university education, he longs to be somewhere else, living his own life, rather than recirculating all the humiliations and pain he grew up with. What follows is the unlikely friendship that develops between the two men, and what each comes to understand along the way.

Ernest J. Gaines perfectly portrays the way people spoke, thought and behaved in the South at that time. He tackles not just the obvious insults suffered by blacks; the segregation, the less-than-second-class citizenship, the way they always had to come to the back door of a white man’s house, the overt and frequently covert hostility that hid beneath genteel manners and soft words. He also takes a hard look at how black men often added to their own people’s plight, through irresponsibility, acceptance of victimization, even abandonment.

In the end, as in all important novels, big questions get asked. Do we want others to behave certain ways to benefit them, or ourselves? Should life be lived totally honestly? Or should honesty be sacrificed if it brings pain to others we care about? What constitutes a life well lived, freedom or service? And like all good novelists, Gaines leaves the answers to the reader.

If you want a bigger, more all encompassing look at the trials blacks have faced in America over the years, check out Gaines other renowned novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

And by the way, a first-rate film was made of A Lesson Before Dying. It starred Don Cheadle in the role of Grant Wiggins. It’s definitely worth seeing, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for reading the novel.

The Fiction Fortune Hunter says, take a stroll through the magnolia trees and the sugar cane fields and the linoleum-floored kitchens of Ernest J. Gaines simple, stirring tale. It’s a journey you won’t soon forget.