Archive for the ‘Fiction Fortune Hunter’ Category

Measuring Immeasurable Loss

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

A dying old man writes a letter to his stepdaughter. For whatever reason, he has decided she should know more about him than she currently does. What she learns is highly unlikely to endear him to her. But perhaps what she learns will give her a much broader perspective of the world and those inhabitants of it who just happen to be Russian. Such is the literary construct that frames the 2006 novel, House of Meetings by Martin Amis.

The old man is a well-off capitalist from Chicago who has gone back to mother Russia to die. There, he was a soldier in World War II, a gulag inmate after the war, and a profiteer and industrialist before immigrating to America and marrying the young woman’s mother. His return to his homeland is done both to help him come full circle and to inject him with the necessary infusions of sights, sounds, smells and memories that enable him to lay his soul bare.

He is, by his own admission, a rapist and a murderer. A particularly violent man when violence was called for. He freely confesses to being part of the Russian army that raped its way across Germany and Eastern Europe. Though he seems to take some solace in his inability to understand his fellow soldiers who killed their particular rape victims. And while he tells his sobering tale, he shows little, if any, signs of shame or regret for his particular offenses. Life is too big to apologize for. Things even out in the long run.

The majority of his story concerns his post-war years in the gulag where he was sentenced for making some ill-considered remarks about the government. Those were the days, in Russia, where Joseph Stalin and his communist regime were overseeing barbarism that dwarfed even that of Hitler. Stalin and his cronies literally planned, initiated and orchestrated the starvation of their own citizens. They created a virtual slave labor force of supposedly political criminals, malcontents and undesirables to mine from the earth those minerals that were necessary to provide the sustenance for the state to survive. Treachery and deceit were the underpinnings they used to hold up the socialist scaffolding. Students turned in teachers for saying positive things about the West. Neighbors turned in neighbors for keeping more than the government allotment of food those neighbors grew themselves. Sons and daughters turned in fathers and mothers to increase their own rations. Over 20 million died of starvation or depravation in forced labor camps.

It is within the above environment, that the old man recounts his years of loss. Loss of freedom is but the beginning. Loss of pride follows quickly. Loss of humanity is on its heels. Eventually, loss of essence closes in. He and his brother spend years both together and apart in the camps. The old man turns to cruelty and violence to survive. His brother refuses to. But eventually, when both are finally released, which one is the survivor and which is the walking dead?

The House of Meetings referred to in the title, is actually the chalet on the edge of one camp where conjugal visits are allowed. Within those walls, one brother has a reunion with the woman who is loved by both. A reunion that will haunt all three for the rest of their lives.

Martin Amis is one of England’s leading literary lights. As are most excellent authors, he is both loved and hated. Loved for the insights into humanity and the lack of it that make up the world. Hated for the way he refuses to lower his literary skills simply to make things “easier” for the reader. Prick up your ears and your vocabulary if you want to enjoy what Amis has to offer. There’s a lot of it. From early novels that won him acclaim, such as Money, London Fields, The Information; to later novels that often sparked derision, Night Train, Yellow Dog, The House of Meetings. He’s an author The Fiction Fortune Hunter often seeks out. Perhaps you should too.

Making Noxious Behavior Engrossing

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Perhaps HRF Keating put it best when he said, “The great merit of the novels of Jim Thompson is that they are completely without good taste.” I would echo those sentiments. There is very little to look up to in a Thompson novel or story. But there’s a hell of a lot to like. Not the least of which is the man’s way with words. On occasion, he equaled Raymond’s Chandler’s ability to stop you cold with a descriptive phrase. Such as Thompson’s “She had on a mucklededung-colored coat–the way it was screaming Sears-Roebuck they should have paid her to wear it.” But he had no desire to equal Chandler in finely nuanced sophistication. He was more than happy to serve up all the sad squalor of human degradation that’s part and parcel of a number of America’s social levels. In fact, I believe he felt most at home when rubbing elbows (or throwing them) with denizens of blighted neighborhoods, sordid cities and nihilistic hamlets.

Jim Thompson wrote like his life depended on it. Because it often did. During his lifetime he published a lot, but was paid little for it. And he often squandered much of what he made on extended benders. Born in the Anadarko, Oklahoma jailhouse and raised in small towns throughout Oklahoma, Texas and the South, Thompson got to know the working people of the world up close and personal. You learn a lot about people being a bellhop in shady hotels. And you learn a lot about labor and hard-earned wages serving time as an oil field roughneck and roustabout. Of course, you also learn about blowing off steam and the consequences of over indulgence in sex, alcohol and mayhem. Not always in that order. Thompson had a lifelong battle with alcoholism. It frequently cost him jobs, familial peace and more. But unlike many, he managed to stave off its ultimate effect until the age of 71. His, for his time, was a relatively long life, that he probably wished was shorter.

Between the late 1940’s and the early 1970’s, Jim Thompson wrote nearly 30 novels. Yes, for the math majors among you, that’s about one novel a year. But it was during a time when there were no graphic novels, no video games, no personal computers, very little football on TV, and thankfully, no reality TV at all. So people, the kind of people who didn’t go in much for the symphony or opera or even the legitimate theatre, turned to “paperbacks” for a lot of their entertainment. And Thompson was more than happy to serve up all the “reality fiction” any reader could stomach. Of course, every now and then he would dose it with a lethal injection of horror, fantasy and the supernatural. Just enough to keep the reader on his toes. You’d be going along, thinking you were reading an interestingly written, but rather ordinary thriller, when all of a sudden you’d come upon a big heaping bowl of bizarre. Surrealism wove its way in and out of Thompson novels like an uninvited relative.

Take for instance Savage Night. A novel that for seven-eights of its length appears to be a vivid story of a syndicate hit man embroiled in a troubled assignment. It has the usual cast of Thompson characters: the hero, who looks like a punk kid, but who, in reality, is really a tuberculoid adult living on borrowed time; a slutty landlady with more curves that Lombard Street in San Francisco; her alcoholic husband who has squealed on the mob and is in constant fear of losing what is left of his life; an aging baker who may or may not be on the bad guy’s payroll; and Ruthie, a freakishly deformed college girl who could wind up being the most dangerous one of all. The story unfolds in a rather straightforward way until it gets near the eventual climax where it could be said the book literally devours itself. Readers just may find that a writer named Stephen King, owes a bit of his inspiration and success to Jim Thompson.

A number of movies were made from Jim Thompson original scripts or were based on his novels. The Getaway was made twice. With Steve McQueen in the 70’s and Alec Baldwin in the 90’s. The Killer Inside Me (Thompson’s most successful book) was made twice. With Stacy Keach in the 70’s and this year, 2010, a version with Casey Affleck in the lead role. The Grifters (which garnered four Oscar nominations) was based on a Thompson novel. As was After Dark My Sweet. And there were lots more. Including two scripts for the famous director Stanley Kubrick. But virtually all of the acclaim for Jim Thompson’s work came after his death. Not unlike many characters in his novels, he may have gotten the last laugh, but he wasn’t around to enjoy it.

A wonderful biography of Thompson was written in 1995 by Robert Polito and it garnered both the National Book Critics Award and the Edgar Award for best critical biography. Polito appropriately titled it Savage Art. For those who love true stories about black coffee, unfiltered cigarettes and the guys who wrote stories about them, it’s well worth reading.

Jim Thompson’s last years were spent in a small apartment in Hollywood. He used to dine frequently at the famous Musso & Frank Grill. When he became so sick he couldn’t write anymore, he decided he need not eat anymore either. Thompson literally starved himself to death. In addition to his formidable body of work, (intense and gritty as anything you’re ever likely to read), The Fiction Fortune Hunter believes he should also be remembered for a rather remarkable quote. Jim Thompson said, “There are 32 ways to write a story and I’ve used every one of them. But there is only one plot…things are not what they seem.”

Mythic Prose By A Modern Melville

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

This post is inspired by a recent trip to the movies. I saw an excellent film. Faithful, in almost every way, to the novel it was based on. Intense. Harrowing. Profound. Shattering. Yet hopeful. The movie I saw was The Road. And for all it’s attributes, its good intentions, its loyalty to its source, etc., it couldn’t compete with its printed forefather. The visceral power that grips you on every page of that book is an experience every reader should have. I read it in two sittings on an airplane. One, going to my destination. The other, returning from it. On the second, I couldn’t hold back the tears. Hopefully my seat-mate wasn’t overly embarrassed. I was too locked-in to the final pages to notice, or for that matter, to care.

Rather than going into the plot, what little there is, of Cormac McCarthy’s post apocalyptic story of one man’s attempt to remain human when there seems little to no reason to do so, I’d like to simply add my feeble praise to all those who have waxed much more eloquently than I about it’s author. Reading a Cormac McCarthy novel is always a grand adventure. Some of which can be unimaginably fulfilling while one or two can be stultifying. But whatever adventure you have with McCarthy, you’ll be better off for it. His range as a novelist is particularly impressive. A couple of years ago he had a big hit with what some would consider a garden-variety thriller, No Country For Old Men. And while some assumed McCarthy was simply slumming between “big novels”, the Coen Brothers turned his book into an Oscar winner for Best Picture. Prior to that, a long and memorable list of novels unfolded. There was the west Texas trilogy of times past and present. Written by the way, in the order of: first book (the mid life of his characters), second book (the beginning of their story), third book, (their eventual end). Their titles, in the order in which they were written: All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain. Of the three to date, All The Pretty Horses, has been the biggest hit (and was also turned into a movie), my favorite though is Cities of the Plain. The story of two aging cowboys unable and unwilling to change with the times and subject to the harsh fate that often awaits men of honor.

The Road won McCarthy the Pulitzer Prize, All The Pretty Horses and No Country For Old Men made him a household literary name (if that’s remotely possible), but the novel that many consider to be his best, still waits to be discovered by the public at large. Blood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness In The West, was listed by TIME Magazine, among others, as one of the top three novels in the last half century. At its simplest, It’s an uber-violent tale of bounty hunters taking scalps and creating mayhem along the Southwestern border with Mexico. At its grandest, it’s a tale that rivals Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for capturing time and place and men of mythic proportion.

I would however, be remiss if I did not add one laborious adventure I personally had with one of McCarthy’s novels. Suttree, chronicles a short period of time in one man’s life over a seemingly never ending number of pages in which virtually nothing of consequence actually happens. Life on the river is played out at a pace that makes watching paint dry feel like a thrill ride. It’s been said that it took McCarthy over twenty years to write Suttree. It may take some, just as long to read it. But, be that as it may, you’re only hurting yourself if you don’t become acquainted with the writing of Cormac McCarthy. You may need to keep one of those e-dictionaries nearby, for he’s extremely fond of using a word or two, now and then, that hasn’t actually been seen in print for the last couple of centuries, but you’ll revel in the presence of literature with a capitol L. The Fiction Fortune Hunter has. And hopefully, will continue to do so.

A Stand-up Guy In A Shady Town

Friday, January 1st, 2010

I wanted to start 2010 by writing about one of my favorite authors. An author who took a pulpy category and turned it into a home for both the man on the street and the man in the library. His genius was an ability to fulfill the reader who was only after a quick thrill while simultaneously engaging the reader who appreciates precisely paced prose laced with wile, wit and wisdom. The New Yorker said of him that he “wrote as if pain hurt and life mattered.” Paul Auster said “he invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.” Joyce Carol Oates has said of him, “his prose rises to heights of unselfconscious eloquence, and we realize with a jolt of excitement that we are in the presence of not a mere action tale teller, but a stylist, a writer with a vision.” Ross Macdonald may have captured the essence of him when he said, “he wrote like a slumming angel and invested the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a romantic presence.”

I write (it will be obvious to many of you now) of Raymond Chandler. Recognized by virtually all fictionistas as the ultimate writer of the detective story. But it would be criminal to categorize Chandler as merely a “crime writer.” Even though that’s essentially what he wrote of in classic novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The Lady In The Lake, The Little Sister, The High Window, and more. For while the plots of his novels and stories are hip deep in private eyes, shady characters, deadly molls and dastardly deeds, they also abound with irony, honor, ennui, pathos, and acts of unselfish humanity.

My favorite Chandler book is one that spurs debate among critics and fans alike. The Long Goodbye was written later in Chandler’s career. Published in the early 1950s, it was decades after his triumphs listed in the preceding paragraph. While many view it as his crossover from category fiction (the basic crime novel) to mainstream contemporary literature, there are those who feel it is not quite up to his early work. I, for one, am in the camp of the former rather than the latter. I find it just as engrossing as anything Chandler wrote earlier and even more rich with moral quandaries and elusive questions of treachery, friendship and ambiguity. The exceptional Chandlerisms are still there. Such as “the girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back” and “I drove back to Hollywood feeling like a short length of chewed string” and “it was so quiet that you almost heard the temperature drop as you came in the door.” But also there is a sadness that permeates the pages and infuses each bon mot with a tinge of regret.

Chandler’s wife (a good deal older than he) was dying of cancer as he penned The Long Goodbye. No doubt the title and the heart of the story itself were wrapped up in his musings about her. Like many writers, Chandler both benefited from and battled alcoholism for much of his life. He was an English-born American who came to understand and write about this country in ways that are still making writers envious to this day. Chances are he will continue to do so for centuries to come.

In 1973, The Long Goodbye was made into a movie directed by Robert Altman. Chandler’s detective was played by Elliot Gould. It’s a fine movie, steeped in the aura of the 1970s, not the 1950s in which the book was written. Gould’s was sort of a “new-age” take on the private dick that Humphrey Bogart had immortalized in the film made of The Big Sleep in 1946. Altman’s Long Goodbye is as much the director’s take on that particular decade as it is an homage to Raymond’s Chandler’s Los Angeles. But it’s well worth seeing and enjoying. Be aware however, liberties have been taken with the story. Particularly the ending.

Detective-story fan or not, find and read some Raymond Chandler. He’s in all the libraries and virtually all the book stores (the good ones anyway) have him listed in either mysteries, thrillers or classics. His work was a bit of all three. Yes, his creation, Philip Marlowe, became the private eye almost all others after him were meant to emulate. Yet none really did. Because no other author, including The Fiction Fortune Hunter, had the skill and style and humanity of Marlowe’s creator, Raymond Chandler.

How the west was written

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

You don’t find many people reading western novels these days. Once a staple of paperbacks and magazines, the western seems to have faded with the setting sun. Damn shame, if you ask me. You didn’t, I know. But that’s never stopped me from giving my opinion. Looked on by the literati as simplistic and reactionary, the western used to grab the public pulse though, when this nation was a lot more innocent than it is now. Loss of innocence, both in people and in nations, is unavoidable I guess. Most of us tend to outgrow the heroes and legends of the past. But frankly, I’m not sure we’re the better for it. Sure, we’re more sophisticated and urbane and witty as hell. With that trinity though also comes cynicism and an inability to have our pulse beat faster and our blood boil hotter and our hearts soar like they once did when the calvary rode to the rescue or the hangman was cheated by an impossible rifle shot or a fight to the death was played out on the top of a moving freight car.

I set aside my cynicism a few weeks back on a rainy Sunday afternoon and stretched out with a red-dot special I found in the book store for the princely sum of one dollar. The novel was HONDO by Louis L’Amour. For those of you too young to know who Louis L’Amour is, well, lets put it this way. He is, to the western, a bit like Shakespeare is to the play. Louis (pronounced Louie) was born on the rough plains of North Dakota somewhere around a hundred years ago. He spent his early years, like most boys his age, working on a farm and playing cowboys and indians in the barn whenever he got the chance. Learning to read early, he tore through the old west dime novels like Sherman marching through Georgia. Then, when he was fifteen, he decided he had enough formal education to last him a while so he took off for the west he had read so much about. Knocking around in Arizona and New Mexico, he became more and more steeped in western lore. And he began to write his own short stores. Many were done on late nights with nothing to do when he was in the Merchant Marine. Then World War II came along and Louie wound up in the thick of it. Afterwards, he went back to writing about the west and finally in the late 1950’s, he started getting paid regularly to turn out two or three western novels a year. By the time he was done, over 200 novels had been cranked out and Louie L’Mour was America’s storyteller. Late in his long life, he received the Medal of Freedom Award from President Ronald Reagan (a bit of a western fan himself) for Louie’s literary contributions. But I digress.

Another person who read HONDO a little over half a century ago, was mega movie star, John Wayne. He pronounced it the best western he had ever read and proceeded to purchase the screen rights. The movie that came out of it was unfortunately right in the middle of the 3-D craze and substituted a good bit of intricate camera work for storytelling. But the tale was still interesting enough to make a simple story come roaring to life. A loner, Hondo, and his mangy cur of a dog, come across a young woman and her small son holding down a ramshackle house and a few livestock on the razor’s edge of Apache territory. She tells Hondo that her husband’s coming back anytime now. But the longer he stays to rejuvenate himself and buy a horse from her, the more it becomes obvious to him that the mother and son have been abandoned. And as you might expect, Apache raiding parties are on the prowl. What follows, in something less than 200 pages, is not just a story of frontier survival, but an honest and unsentimental examination of the way love grows between a man and a woman, a coming of age story of a boy who desperately needs a father, and a mediation on the drifter who finds what he didn’t know he was looking for.

Tight as the raw hyde stretched across a medicine man’s drum, HONDO is a novel you’ll feel better about for having read. And getting back in touch with that little kid in you who can still thrill to adventure, is not an altogether bad thing either. The Fiction Fortune Hunter encourages you to go west young man. We used to do it all the time. Why not do it again? While you can still find great wester novels like HONDO.

Larger than life…and death

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

A man writes a novel. He can’t get it published. Despondent, he takes his own life. Afterward, his mother takes the novel to a famous novelist and forces him to read it. Against his will, he falls under its spell. With the author’s help, the novel gets published. And wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

A movie plot, you think? No. The unvarnished truth. Which is often indeed stranger than fiction.

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the most bizarre, yet insanely intelligent tragicomedies of all time. The book’s hero is like none you have ever come across before. Ignatius Reilly, a grotesquely obese slob, prone to room-clearing flatulence, frequent masturbatory interludes, and even more frequent invective-spewed diatribes is one of fiction’s only characters who out-Falstaffs Falstaff. He spends most of his time locked in his room writing feverishly on over-sized notepads. Suffice it to say, Ignatius has a lot to say about everyone. And it’s virtually all bad. He rails against Protestants, Catholics, homosexuals, heterosexuals, psychoanalysts and more. He waxes profound on modernity’s intrusion into virtually everything. He takes no quarter and gives none.
Locked in his room, of course. When his mother forces him to get out and go to work, he embarks on a series of jobs that all end in what can only be described as hilarious tragedy. To detail the specifics of his travails would be to deprive readers of surprise after surprise. Take the Fiction Fortune Hunter’s word for it. What can go wrong will go spectacularly wrong.

Toole sets his fantastic fable on the streets and in the out-of-the-way neighborhoods of New Orleans. All pre-Katrina of course. Toole was a resident of the Big Easy himself, and one definitely has to wonder how much of Ignatius’s wanderings coincide with the author’s own life and times. He graduated from Tulane and went on to get a master’s degree from Columbia. But, after a stint in the army,
(he was drafted, of course) he returned to New Orleans and penned his oversized comic novel while roaming the French Quarter and living with his parents. In 1960, Simon and Shuster came close to publishing his book, but at the last minute decided against it. Depressed that his novel would never find its way into print, Toole quit his teaching job at Dominican College and began to spend more and more time with alcohol and various denizens of the crescent city. In 1969, while returning from a trip to the West Coast, he stopped near Biloxi, Mississippi and ran a garden hose from his car’s exhaust pipe into his window. A suicide note was left on the dash board addressed to his parents. His mother never divulged the contents.

One of the joys of reading novels is that they sometimes introduce us to characters we’d never meet (and often never want to meet) in our own lives. Most of us would rather not meet Ignatius Reilly in real life. But spending time with him between the pages of John Kennedy Tool’s A Confederacy of Dunces is something you will remember, and perhaps treasure, the rest of your days. For all who have ever thought of themselves as “different” from the rest of the teeming gaggle, I point you toward Toole’s choice of a quote that begins his prizewinning novel. It’s from Jonathan Swift:

“When a true genius appears in the world,
you may know him by this sign, that the
dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

Life imitating art imitating life, etc.

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Here’s a review I did of Pete Dexter’s novel Spooner about a year ago. The paperback edition has recently been published. If you missed the hardcover, get the paperback. Any thing Pete Dexter writes is worth reading. And believe me, Spooner is a trip you’ll be glad you’ve taken.

Spooner, the most recent novel from Pete Dexter, is about life. Okay, I know what you’re saying, all novels are about life in one way or another. But Spooner is so full of life that it may well redefine what most readers think, when they think about novels about life. If that doesn’t seem to make sense, keep in mind that life often doesn’t make sense either. The author freely admits that a number of incidents in his life are used as jumping-off points for this novel’s collected incidents. If you’re a reader of Dexter’s work, you, like me, will realize that before he tells you so in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. But believe me, it doesn’t make any difference one way or the other. You’ll be enthralled with Spooner.

On the surface, its a story about one boy’s lifelong quest to understand and appreciate his stepfather. And perhaps more importantly, to be understood and appreciated by him. From a rural upbringing in the South to a suburban adolescence in the midwest to young adulthood in Philadelphia to middle-age and beyond in the Northwest, its a story that, like life, winds its way slowly and meanderingly through family ties from which none of us are immune.

Dexter’s easy way with words (easy to read, not to write) convince you that he’s in the room spinning his yarn with a pitch perfect down-home accent. His ability to take you from a quiet bucolic setting one moment, followed by a horrific incident the next, followed by a sense of love and warmth and understanding after that, is a high-wire walk not to be missed.

The protagonist of Spooner, a lad by the same name who seems a few cards shy of a deck, is an unpredictable bundle of trouble. He doesn’t try to be. It just seems to come naturally. His long-suffering mother, smarter sister and (eventually) smarter brothers all seem to live their lives more or less successfully, without anywhere near the mayhem that follows Spooner around like an unshakable storm cloud. Luckily, Spooner has Calmer, a stepfather on which all male parents should be modeled after. Not perfect to be sure. As in life, none of us are. But the kind of rock even the stormiest sea can’t seem to shake. Through each phase of his life, Spooner seems to find a unique way to screw up. And Calmer is always there, whether physically present or not, to help set Spooner straight and get him back on whatever bizarre path he’s set for himself.

It would be buzz-killing to go into any detail about the many wondrous things that happen to Spooner, and for that matter, Calmer, in Dexter’s 459 pages. It is in fact, a bit like a slow high turning page after page and being surprised, shocked, saddened, brought to tears in one chapter and giggling like a schoolgirl in others. The wonder of Pete Dexter’s mind, his eye for detail and insight into the workings of the human heart are about as pleasurable as reading can possibly be.

No one turns a phrase quite as surgically as Dexter. Charming one moment, jarring as a left hook the next. And no one else could have lived the life (even though it’s fiction of course) or written so lovingly about it, as Pete Dexter does in Spooner. Get it. Read it. Don’t worry about how long it takes. It’s the kind of treat you can put down and come back to again and again and still get the feeling you’re tasting it for the first time. The Fiction Fortune Hunter recommends anything you can find by this exceptional novelist. I plan to keep reading him until he quits writing. Lets hope that won’t be for a long, long time.

It’s a Greene world after all

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

This post is in praise of Graham Greene. Many consider him the foremost novelist of the 20th century. They are probably correct. His literate, insightful “entertainments”, as he often referred to them, present snapshots of the world circa 1930 to 1990. Many of Greene’s most memorable novels take place in what has often been described at Greeneland, some backwater in a third world country filled with deceit, treachery, lost love and/or lost illusions.

A listing of his more popular novels reads like a panoply of the last century. The Heart Of The Matter (Africa), The Ugly American (Southeast Asia), The Comedians (Haiti), The Power And The Glory (Mexico) The Burnt Out Case (Congo) The Human Factor and The End of The Affair (London). Our Man In Havana (Cuba). These are only some parts of the world that Greene passed through and chronicled in fiction ranging from nobility to cowardice to most of the other behaviors in between. His screen story of The Third Man (Vienna) still stands as one of the most beloved movies of the postwar period. That war being WW II.

Green could write pulp with the best of them. The famous Alan Ladd vehicle This Gun For Hire was based on a Graham Green novel. He was no stranger to satire and comedy, Monsignor Quixote, though his much of his power had left him by the time of that penning. And certainly intrigue was always part of the equation in novels like The Honorary Consul and The Human Factor.

But Green was at his best when wrestling with the inner demons that plagued men’s souls at the same time they were having to deal with love, lust, boredom, honor, bravery and the complex nature of humanity itself.

Born and raised in England he came to personify the aristocratic British type. All silver tongue, poison pen and pitch perfect diction. He didn’t care too much for America or Americans. The rise of the USA seemed to parallel the decline of the British Empire and while he viewed the latter with seemingly detached indifference, one can’t help but wonder if the countries change in fortunes skewed his view of the former’s ascendency.

Rapier wit, an incredible ear for dry, droll dialogue and a relentless honesty regarding guilt and all its attendant emotions enabled him to cut to the bone with his prose and his stories of all too human beings in all too inhuman circumstances.

Some bookstores still have Graham Greene sections, though not enough. Regardless of whether he was writing in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s 60’s 70’s or 80’s, his stories are as involving and illuminating today as any thing you’re likely to read from this century.

Make a point of becoming acquainted with Graham Greene and his marvelous novels, if you’re not already. If you are, I need not encourage you to revisit them from time to time. The Fiction Fortune hunter certainly does, and always to my benefit.

For an exceedingly thorough and engaging biography of Graham Greene, read The Enemy Within by Michael Shelden. It frequently reads like one of Greene’s “entertainments.”

Lowry’s Mexican Masterpiece

Monday, October 19th, 2009

Sooner or later, if you have anything to say about literature and/or novels, you have to say something about Under The Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s magnum opus to alcohol. I tend to fall decidedly on the side of pretty damn fabulous. It doesn’t really matter that it took Lowry over eleven years to write it and get it published. It doesn’t matter that there were multiple versions of the novel over those years finally culminating in publication in 1947. Coincidentally, or perhaps profoundly, the year of the Fiction Fortune Hunter’s birth. What matters is that it exists and continues to intrigue and inspire writers and readers to this day.

On a visit to Mexico by Lowry and his first wife in 1936, an incident occurs. While riding on a bus through remote areas, the bus comes upon a man on the side of the road. He is apparently dying. Even as they were advised by the driver not to get involved, they witness another man stealing the dying man’s money. This was to be the
event that took root in Lowry’s mind and found full flower eleven years later as Under The Volcano.

On the surface, the novel is simply twenty-four hours in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a British Consul living in Mexico who has resigned his position to devote himself full time to drinking. While a plot does ensue, involving his divorced wife who returns to Mexico to try to rekindle their relationship, and a visit by Firmin’s brother who’s at odds with himself about not being in Spain and fighting for the Loyalists, the real struggle for the life and death and sole of Geoffrey Firmin goes on inside his own mind and voluminous bottles of liquor. There are those who would have you believe that the entire novel is simply one of Firmin’s alcohol-soaked hallucinations and that his wife, his brother and everything that goes on are simply figments of his imagination. Still others insist that though the story is rife with hallucinatory episodes, what happens actually happens. It is perhaps one of the hallmarks of great literature that it can still spark such debate some sixty plus years after its debut.

Malcolm Lowry knew of what he wrote. He was certainly no stranger to strong drink. In the mid thirties he entered Bellevue Hospital in New York after an alcohol induced breakdown. He was also a world traveller, serving as a deck hand, he voyaged to the Far East and also made visits to America and Germany. English by birth, after stints to Hollywood to try a bit of screenwriting, Mexico to engage in other pursuits, and British Columbia where Volcano was actually finished, he eventually returned to England and died at the age of 48 due to what the coroner recorded as “death by misadventure.” Alcohol and sleeping pills being intricately involved.

While he managed to produce a few other books during his lifetime, none came close to the majesty of Under The Volcano. Many consider it one of the foremost novels of the 20th century. And yes, I would have to be counted among those. The legendary director, John Huston, made a film of Under The Volcano in 1984. Not surprisingly, it spurred similar polarity of opinion as to its worth. Some proclaiming it one of Huston’s best and certainly a tour-de-force performance by Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin. Still others deemed it unwatchable.

With a vocabulary the size of the Volcano and the country that Lowry lovingly evokes, he certainly created something unforgettable. Do yourself a favor and set aside some time to walk where Lowry walked (perhaps without the Mescal). The journey will stay with you forever.

Simply The Best

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

I’m deviating a bit from my format in this post. Rather than discussing one book in particular, I’d like to praise everything ever written by Pete Dexter. To paraphrase the laconic football coach Bum Phillips, who was speaking about running-back Earl Campbell at the time, “if Pete Dexter isn’t America’s best living novelist, it sure as hell doesn’t take long to call the role.”

I was first introduced to Dexter’s writing on a flight back from London to the U. S. I needed a book to read on the way home. I picked up Train, for no better reason that I particularly liked the dust jacket. By the time I arrived, I had finished the book and started a quest to find other works by Pete Dexter. Train is a hard-as-nails bit of noir that pulls you in and takes you with it as it explores the everyday savagery that passes for behavior in some parts of our beloved country. A devastatingly brutal attack at the beginning of the book sets the stage for a more languid and protracted tale that winds its way through the Hollywood hills. The characters are tightly drawn and real. The prose is both pointed and poignant. When last I heard, the movie rights were being kicked around.

Dexter was born in Michigan but moved to Georgia as a child after his farther’s death. He was a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and some of his best, often laugh-out-loud, columns were published in 2007 in a book called Paper Trails. The combination of warmth, truth, laughter and tears found there make for wonderful reading.

Dexter’s most critically acclaimed book was published in 1988 and won him the National Book Award for Fiction. The book is titled Paris Trout, and chronicles the story of a hateful racist in the post World War II South. Unflinching in its portrait of a man most of wish had never existed, it still finds hope and renewal in at least some of the characters who come in contact with him and inhabit an environment it has taken more than decades to demystify. Paris Trout was turned into a motion picture with Dennis Hopper in the title role and joined by Ed Harris and Barbara Hershey. The movie is good. Dexter wrote the screenplay. But the book is infinitely better and was extremely well deserving of all the praise it garnered.

The Pete Dexter work that has probably reached the most people, is Deadwood. He wrote the book that was later turned into the HBO mini series. The story of wild times in the Dakota territory is as vibrant on the page as it is on screen because of Dexter’s innate ability to cut the lean from the fat and get to the heart of truth no matter how ugly or ribald.

Other great Pete Dexter reads are; God’s Pocket, a story of survival in a rough and tumble Eastern neighborhood, The Paperboy, which won the 1996 Literary Award, PEN Center USA, Brotherly Love, about betrayal and retribution in a mob family whose destiny is unavoidable, and the recently published Spooner, which I’ve yet to read, but I will.

If you’re a reader, you owe it to yourself to get acquainted with Pete Dexter. You’ll find a lot of yourself there as well as people you’ve known and thankfully, people you’ve never known. But count on the fact that most of them will be unforgettable.