Monday, 18 July 2011

The Difference by Charles Willeford

The Canongate Crime Classics series was something I invested in a few years back, with authors like Boris Vian (I Spit on Your Graves), Chester Himes (Cotton Comes to Harlem) and John Franklin Bardin making up some of the most intensely readable and enjoyable crime writers of their times. Charles Willeford has a couple of spots on the list, with Shark Infested Custard the other title represented, and having read that and Miami Blues, a Hoke Mosely novel, I can endorse Elmore Leonard's assertion that "No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford." However, The Difference is not a crime novel in the sense that a bookstore might classify it. It lacks a detective, and our protagonist is certainly not on the right side of whatever law existed at the turn on the 20th century in Arizona. What we have here would be better described as a western, but might unfairly be judged on such a label.

A quick plot summary for those curious about such things: a young man is swindled out of his inheritance and seeks retribution and justice whilst coming of age. But all is not as it seems. Johnny Shaw is a grasping, devious git, with little concept of honour and quite willing to shoot a man in the back. Willeford has exposed the myth of the noble cowpoke as just that - a myth - and this is what makes this such a great, if quick, read. Shaw enjoys watching his skin harden as he makes the transformation from wronged citizen to outlaw, taking pleasure in the killing of his enemies and, in the denouement, creating his own legend as lethal hired gun. That he doesn't succeed in killing all those who "wronged" him is not down to lack of desire or ability, rather disgust that they are not worth killing in the end.

Willeford's pen has created a character who, although sympathetic to start with, by the end of the novel is not truly worthy of sympathy. Lacking mercy, honour and morals, Shaw is nonetheless an intriguing character, and this is Willeford's triumph.

The In-Betweeners

Travis McGee visits Naples, Florida
Not everything I read makes it onto the pages of this blog. Indeed, of some books it pains me to say I may well be slightly embarrassed to admit having read them, being slightly superior and a somewhat jaded critic of the popular milieu. However, what sort of chronicler of intertextual flow would I be if I were to omit those texts that fill the void between the titles carefully chosen by me to illustrate what an esoteric and highly educated reader I am?

Therefore, I've chosen to humble myself by exposing those little items of brain candy that I occassionally treat myself to, behind closed doors of course. Those shavings of Occam's Razor I call, The In-Betweeners.

I'm not sure why I relegate John D MacDonald to the also-reads, seeing as he is quickly becoming my favourite pulp author. Or maybe I just answered that question. Nonetheless, Bright Orange for the Shroud is number six in the adventures of boat bum and knight errant Travis McGee. This one snuck in between chapters of Tony Judt's call to action during my recent trip to Jersey, as it's hard to concentrate when you're attempting to read whilst your 9 month old is busy chucking himself off the bed head first. I should point out that the narrative is often quite sophisticated, but the plot is easy to follow when you dip in and out. You may find small details that jar, given that the book is set before the Vietnam war / police action / invasion so this is conspicuous by its absence, but otherwise, the series so far hasn't dated that badly. If you're looking for something to chew on for a little while without burning the servos of your mind, then I can't think of another writer who so reliably entertains.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Backlist - Storage Stories by Jim Bob

Storage Stories by Jim Bob
As I go, I'm attempting to catch up on those that have gone before, unfortunately in no particular order, but those for which I would feel bad if they were left out. Some, including Ismail Kadare, David Mitchell and Michel Houellebecq are already consigned to the mists of time, but I am confident I can still reach back and grab at a few key titles.

One such is this unusual offering from former Carter USM front man Jim Bob. Truth be told, it probably wouldn't have had the effect it did were it not for two things: 1) My mate Rob was a bit loony about Sheriff Fatman and whenever we went to the City Arms in Cardiff for a few whiskys, it invariably made its way on to the rather excellent jukebox in there. I guess Jim Bob simply inveigled his way into my brain thanks to alcohol and good company. 2) I read it whilst my wife was in labour and so had been awake for 72 hours by the time I finished it. This rather profound experience, coupled with the surreality of life in Jim Bob's mind meant that long after I'd finished Storage Stories I was fishing passages out of my memory obsessively, like food trapped between teeth and irritating the gums.

What we have here is a series of connected stories based around a storage facility in London, staffed by a strikingly Mr Jim Bob-esque character, and where we meet such soul-tenderising -people like Carl, bearded battery-licker and a man dangerously obsessed with performing surgery on himself. Carl's story and eventual resolution made me weep (inside of course...) but the pathos and humour with which it's told is startlingly adept, considering, and after reading it feels a bit like someone gave you the illusion of free will when in fact your reaction was pre-determined to begin with. In fact, even flipping through it now, ten months later, I find myself remembering, fondly, large cuddly understated parts which caused my tired brain to over-heat a little.

I guess that if you love Carter and all things Jim Bob, you'll not need my advice to go out and buy a copy (you can get signed copies from his website), but if before now you'd not given a tinker's cuss for this struggling artist, then you might be surprised to learn that this song-smith can also write prose, and write it well.

The Helmet of Horror by Victor Pelevin

Many years ago (okay, more like 6, but who's counting?) I began a crusade to be the biggest and best contributor to the Waterstone's website booksellers' reviews pages. Before my marriage and subsequent name change, I got to be a top 25 reviewer (and it was chuffin' easy - ironically, the competition was limper than the divisional manager's handshake) with reviews of my favourite authors, stuff I'd read at university, and so on. Is there a point here? Only a very inane one, and a tenuous link to this blog it is. I was perusing my work yesterday after coming to a standstill on the thorny issue of what to read next. Despite the piles of things arranged carefully in order of importance, I hate to be confined to what I said I would do a few days / weeks / years ago (hence the near constant state of irritation my wife finds herself in) so I was fishing for inspiration. Thankfully, I came on this old review of "The Sacred Book of the Werewolf" by Pelevin:
'Much like Will Self, old Victor makes me come over all funny. Tales of zen artistry, of minimalist beauty and chuffin' great werewolves (and other anthropomorphic goodies) are liberally laced with acerbic Russian wit and wisdom, and this is no exception. In fact, it's exceptional. Again, when I look to my literary firmament, Pelevin and Self are having a tea party and are using the Big Dipper to fish more mescalin ampules from the freezer. I love this guy!' 
I have an old but cherished proof copy from 2005 of Pelevin's shot at the Canongate re-tellings of classical mythology. In his version of Theseus and the Minotaur, the narrative follows a series of exchanges in a chat room between 8 people ostensibly trapped in a labyrinth who have access only to a computer terminal in their cells by which to communicate with one another. Following the first posting by Ariadne on the thread (ho ho! Pelevin vascillates between puns and cerebral punches), these 8 people, perhaps representing aspects of a single person, debate the verisimillitude of the world and of one's perceptions thereof, and bandy about possible avenues of escape.
Just who is the minotaur? Where is Theseus? What of the dwarves with hats and the occipital braids? And what exactly is the Helmet of Horror? All will not exactly be revealed (for who can reveal such essential truths when existence is just the reflection in Tarkovsky's Mirror?) but Pelevin goes quite a way to positing workable theories, albeit cribbed from his undoubtedly encyclopaedic knowledge of classical and modern philosophy, liberally sprinkled with wit both sophisticated and vulgar.
There's no-one quite like Pelevin, so it's difficult to find a yardstick by which to measure what he does. Maybe it's enough to say that the furrow he plows is his own (or in this case, borrowed from Borges) and that one can only marvel at its course with no hope of repeating it. There are so many great lines in this book that it would be difficult to pick just one as an example, so instead, here is the quote with which the book opens:
I shall construct a labyrinth in which I can lose myself. together with anyone who tries to find me...

Monday, 11 July 2011

A Day and a Night and a Day by Glen Duncan

Augustus Rose has come to a small island in Scotland to die. Being the only one-eyed black American pensioner on the island, he quite naturally generates a number of questions posed in absentia, having exposed a vein of gentle racism and insatiable curiosity in his new neighbours. Still, he doesn't care, or so he tells himself, and whilst his narrative continues, despite his wishes, on the island where he now lives in a ruined croft, the gaps in his history are slowly filled through the plucking of the many integrated strands of his other lives.

To tell more would be to risk spoilers and such like, but it is sufficient to say that being a half-Italian, half-Black American growing up in a country where such effrontery is barely tolerated by the keepers of the peace let alone the morass of a hostile public ashamed of that which does not confirm it's own beliefs, means that Augustus' life was never going to be straightforward. However, Duncan never treads the boards of self-pity, and Rose is never guilty of wallowing in the cruel fate of his own foreignness. Indeed, such is Duncan's outrageously overlooked brilliance that the novel never risks slipping into dull literary daguerreotype. In fact, on reflection, the novel is quite conventional in form, but stands so far above the level of most of the tired literary franchises shamelessly cranked out by middle-of-the-road publishers in search of the next Richard'n'Judy category winner that I feel quite elated to have found him, read this book and been able to convey to you just how moved I am by his prowess. Forgive me for skirting perilously close to a spoiler, but as Rose is undergoing grievous torture (for what, I can't say) there is a thread of conversation, broken by unconsciousness and by narrative intervention, between Rose and his interrogator which, if extracted and knitted together would be the most damning indictment of modern life short of a bilious religious assault. Duncan offers praxis as the motivation for the world's weary inertia, and yet the novel's spiritual desert offers the oasis of unmotivated goodness - the message of hope is allowed to slip in unannounced.

I can endorse Glen Duncan slipping off the yoke of Simon & Schuster for the relative freedom of Canongate - a publisher more inclined to champion great British writing - for his new novel, "The Last Werewolf", as S&S did fuck-all to push this novel to the forefront of the consumer window. I know, as an informed consumer who saw nothing to support the release of "A Day..." Duncan deserves wider readership and much greater acclaim for his unnerving and unflinching evisceration of what it is to think and to act, and for pulling the tarpaulin off the huge gulf between the two. After seeing a review I wrote for "I, Lucifer" in a bookshop in Nottingham, an editor from Canongate found me at work and called me to say thanks for being engaged with literature to the extent that I go out and tell people about great writing. After telling me about Duncan's new book which they were publishing, he sent me a huge care-parcel of free Canongate stuff for which I never really got to thank him. Now I don't do this for remuneration (although it helps, thanks!), but even a not-at-all altruistic gesture such as this reassures me that I can make a difference. Therefore I urge you to read at least one Glen Duncan book this year, and if you start here, maybe when you're done you'll come find me and say thanks.

A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley

I guess it shouldn't, but it does still surprise me just how many books that I pick up, read through avidly and enjoy thoroughly only to discover a Kurt Vonnegut quote on the back. Maybe it says something about how my tastes track his, or how what I enjoy reading is shaped by the glut of Vonnegut I read during my formative reading phase. It's also equally probable that, when struggling for someone to slap a cast-iron guarantee on the back of their latest publication, the unscrupulous editor would habitually turn to a man with few qualms about attaching his singular surname to future American classics in return for some cigarette money. Just how I got to this strange confluence of literary hero and American deadbeat in the form of Frederick Exley is a fairly odd journey, but one worth recording for posterity.

A number of years ago, in a former life as a bookseller, I picked up a book by a group of Cambridge scholars intent on myth-busting in professional football (soccer); it's great, if academic. In it, Andersson et al mention Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper's great book called "Why England Lose", itself worthy of perusal by anyone interested in the statistical analysis of football, but informed by Michael Lewis' seminal work "Moneyball". Still with me? Anyway, Lewis makes a point of mentioning Fred Exley, quite in what context I can't recall off hand, but with sufficient emphasis to make me jump on to Amazon and buy a cheap used hardback copy. As with most impulse purchases, it sat on the shelf waiting for my quickly flagging interest to be peaked once more by something unrelated. It wasn't. Nonetheless, like the good Taurean boy that I am, I eventually felt sufficiently obligated to read it, given that I'd bought it in such a frenzy.

Ok, so enough with the procrastination. I guess you've noticed I do this when I'm anxious about committing my thoughts to "paper" on a book about which I feel strongly. And I do feel strongly about Fred Exley. To give him some background for those unfamiliar, and I suspect there are lots of those, this book reputedly arrived out of the ether. Friends and family were stunned to learn that this semi-autobiographical work had been poured forth from the head of such an introvert, an occasional resident of mental institutions, and a blue-collar drunk, as Fred (all of the above),  had shown no previous talent for writing. It would seem he wrung it out of himself during a stay at a drying-out clinic, and in a sense it could be seen as a step to recovery, except for the fact that he shows no remorse for the path chosen, and is only genuinely sorry for his own defeats and losses along the way, not for those whose paths he crosses. It matters not, however, for what emerges, regardless of the motivation behind it, is a tale of the corruption of the  American Dream to rival the most twisted Tom Waits lyric. In the pantheon of Classic American literature, this book (and only this book from Exley, whose other attempts are derivative and repetetive) can sit comfortably with Salinger, Farina and Brautigan, and my own rather random objections to Kerouac aside, wipes the floor with On The Road. Forgive me if I confuse the author with the character, but it would be juvenile to think that they are not one and the same. There are moments of epiphanic beauty, of crushing black lethargy, of trampled humanity and uplifting Humanism, as Exley unsparingly critiques his own beliefs and acknowledges the cruel indifference of unthinking habit. He tracks his life against that of his father, a local hero thanks to his sporting prowess and a community leader despite his own bellicose dypsomania, and of famous NY Giants running back Frank Gifford, with whom the protagonist insists on maintaining a tenuous connection as erstwhile College peers. And whilst living life vicariously through Gifford's on-field exploits, Exley's alter-ego pushes deeper into the sordid underbelly of the intellectual malaise that constitutes his own existence, constantly looking for sanctuary from the onslaught of America, a country and an ideal with which he identifies and against which he rails.

I love this book. It is devastating, wonderful and by far the most valid and valuable book I've read this year. What thought processes it starts! It lacks closure, resolution, the happy ending of Hollywood, and yet makes me profoundly happy. If you would consider yourself a fan of American writing, make some space for Fred on your shelf with Hemingway and Hawthorne. He'll be right at home.