Archive for January, 2011

Unapologetically Sordid. Funny Too.

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

One of the guilty pleasures of reading noir is that you’re sure to find plenty of lives that are decidedly more horrendous than yours. It’s comforting to know that things could be a hell of a lot worse than they already are. With each turn of the page a release valve emits just enough trouble, chaos, and angst to keep you chewing up chapter after chapter. And if you’re really lucky, you engage with an author that frequently keeps you smirking silently or giggling out loud.

You’ll find all of the above and more in Victor Gischler’s novel, The Deputy. It’s a nonstop monologue from one of literature’s more lovable losers. At least that’s the way you think of him for quite a while. What else would you think of a peace officer who shows up for a murder investigation in sweatpants and is unable to clip his sidearm on because “the gun was too heavy, (it) kept pulling the waistband down past my ass-crack.”

Sartorial shortcomings are just the beginning of Billy, The Deputy’s, often self-inflicted wounds. He makes bad decisions. Not just in his job, but in his life as well. He’s a failed musician who has been taken on (part-time) by the police department in a tiny town in Oklahoma that makes nowhere look big. He lives in a trailer with his wife and baby son and seems in no particular hurry to advance his station in life. He’s having an illicit affair with a high school goth who keeps him coming back for more, in grave peril not only to his marriage but his life as well. (The teenager lives with her violent truck-driving stepfather.) And he manages to lose the dead body he’s been assigned to watch. Which starts an avalanche of onrushing peril unequaled in the annals of paperback pulp.

But here’s the thing. You can’t help but like the guy. Victor Gischler, the author, has done such a good job of showing you the better angels of Billy’s character, that you wind up rooting for him like a four touchdown underdog in a non-conference sleeper. Even though he’s having an affair, he loves his wife. Even though he’s a bone fide slacker, he wants to do right by his son. Even though he screws up time after time, he never stops trying to make everything right.

Events, as they usually do in these sorts of stories, start to go from bad to worse. After losing the aforementioned body, there’s a shoot-out and an axe murder in Billy’s trailer, while he’s holding his infant son. There’s a beating, a car chase, an accident, a shooting, an 18-wheeler plowing into a motel room, another shooting, a house being burned down, another shooting at a drive-in movie, an assault on a police station followed by (you guessed it) another shooting, there’s hand-to-hand combat, a gun duel in the street (which actually qualifies as another shooting), there’s beating, choking, (I can’t actually remember if there’s stabbing), but, to top it all off, yes, say it with me, there’s another shooting. Oh, and I neglected to mention, it all happens in one night.

Through it all, Gischler keeps you rooting for Billy via perfect pace and ribald references such as: “The inside of Luke’s truck smelled like stale beer and armpit.” And, “I went through the screen door and found myself in a hot, stuffy room, stacks of books, magazines, and newspapers surrounding an old overstuffed armchair. The place smelled like fried bologna and Ben Gay.” And “There was something in a Tupperware bowl that might have been meatloaf, but I decided not to risk it.”

I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what happens in the end, and to whom. But suffice it to say you’ll probably rip-read this baby in one sitting. Not because it’s short, but rather because it’s too damn good to put down.

Victor Gischler writes novels, comic books (or the more politically correct, graphic novels, I guess I should say) movie scripts, video games and more. Along with teaching English. Pretty awesome dude. Check him out when you can. The Fiction Fortune Hunter did. And I’m the better for it.

Beyond Survival To Transcendence

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

James Dickey is perhaps best known for his novel (that became a highly respected and successful movie) Deliverance. The huge commercial success of Dickey’s story of four modern men who find themselves in a primitive test of survival, has overshadowed much of the writer’s other accomplishments. And while Deliverance certainly deserves its place in the minds and hearts of all those exposed to the book or film, I would make the case that it was only the beginning of the big questions the author explores in his last novel.

To The White Sea, published in 1993 (four years before the author’s death) is a searing exercise in self-examination that exceeds Deliverance in explorations of manhood, survival, even existence itself. As well as being an epic prose poem to wilderness. Not just the wilderness of mountains, plains, seas and forests. But also the wilderness of the soul.

The story line of To The White Sea is relatively straightforward. In World War II, a B-29 bomber gets shot down over Japan. Only the tail-gunner survives. Parachuting safely into the outskirts of Tokyo, he is only hours ahead of the fire-bombing that is about to come from the rest of his squadron. The remainder of “the plot” concerns itself with his struggle to survive. But to assume that Dickey’s novel is merely an adventure yarn, is a mistake of inestimable proportion.

James Dickey tells his story via the first-person narrative of the survivor, Muldrow. A man, we readers, only think we know at the beginning of the tale. Short in stature, we learn early on that he’s tall in skills. Raised in the Alaskan wilderness, Muldrow is expert in the ways of the wild. Hunting, escape and evasion, survival in harsh climates, plus the thinking, planning, and intuitiveness these skills require, are all part and parcel of Muldrow’s makeup that serve him well when he finds himself alone in Japan. A single man among a literal nation of enemies. But far larger questions loom on the horizon (for Muldrow and readers) than physical and practical ones.

It’s not that the physical tests aren’t severe. By turns Muldrow is forced to exist in sewer pipes, experience the white phosphorus horror of firebombs and their aftermath, endure the fear and terror of being caught and tortured, and more. But it’s the mental and moral tests that are perhaps the most challenging. What exactly will an individual do to survive? What is acceptable behavior, even in war? Is anything and everything justified when your life is at stake? And to whom do you have to justify it? Muldrow doesn’t ask himself these questions. We readers ask them as we’re exposed to the pages that unfold before us.

As he struggles to make his way from one end of Japan to the other, we share Muldrow’s memories and longings of the snow covered plains and forests of his Alaska home. The idyllic life in his mind juxtaposed with the horrific life he is forced to live on the run, provide dueling counterpoints that keep readers leaning one way, then the other in regard to whether the fleeing man is doing what any of us would do, or has passed beyond the bounds of humanity. Dickey has fashioned a strange fantasia. Both lyrical in its beauty and terrifying in its brutality. In the end we are even forced to question existence itself. What becomes of us when we have transcended virtually everything around us? Have we ascended to a higher order, or descended to depths we dare not fathom?

To The White Sea is a mighty work that’s as big and audacious as James Dickey was himself. The Fiction Fortune Hunter found it unforgettable. Perhaps you will too.

Mind Games Gone Terribly Wrong

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

As scary places go, the mind might just be the scariest. Particularly if the mind you’re occupying at the moment is the one inside the skull of Dennis Cleg, the psychotic protagonist of Patrick McGrath’s novel, Spider.

On top of being frightening, it’s also chaotic, confused, and particularly unreliable. But none of that makes it any less compelling.

Cleg, or Spider, as he prefers to be called, is a mental patient who has been released to a half-way house in 1957 London. He tells you right up front that he often becomes “uncoupled”. Meaning he loses his grip on what he’s doing at the moment. Whatever that might be. Walking, talking, etc. He also tells you that his long-term memory is vastly superior to his short-term memory. In other words, while he has a devil of a time telling you what he did yesterday, he can easily remember virtually everything that happened in his childhood. And it’s those childhood memories that form the core of Spider’s story.

Author Patrick McGrath has fashioned a devastatingly moving tale of insanity from the inside out. As Spider tells his story, we emphasize with his harsh upbringing in a particularly poverty pocked neighborhood in London’s East End. We feel the childhood terrors Spider is forced to endure at the hands of his brutish lout of a father. We sympathize with his frail and loving mother. We agonize over the traumatic event that precipitates Spider’s descent into madness. But…we also begin to question whether or not we’re really hearing the true story. Truth is often hard to find. In Spider’s mind, it may be impossible to locate.

Ambiguity is ever present in Spider’s tale of woe. How much is real and how much is imagined? In real life, the author’s father oversaw mental patients. No doubt their frequent inability to separate fantasy from reality had a permanent effect on McGrath. He’s certainly put it to marvelous use in this spellbinding tale of schizophrenia.

Of the many things that Spider says, of the many ways he draws you deeper and deeper into his disturbed existence, perhaps none is more heartbreaking than when he shares the tragic line:
To be awake is to be available to torment, and this is the full complete meaning of life.

Spider is at once a mesmerizing thriller, an intricate case study, and an intensely horrifying peek at what might cause many to intone, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Written over twenty years ago, about an era some sixty years gone now, it still feels as frighteningly relevant as waking up in a cold sweat.

A movie was made of Spider in 2002. It starred Ralph Fiennes who was exceptional in the title role. But as good as the film was, it doesn’t quite equal the lyrical literary unraveling of the web that Patrick McGrath takes you through in his disturbingly real novel.

If you’re like the Fiction Fortune Hunter, and every now and then, you actually enjoy being a bit creeped out, pull this Spider off the shelves. You won’t soon forget it.