Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ross Thomas on race



My theory is that we either ought to give the niggers their rights—not just lip service, but every blasted right there is from voting to fornicating, that we ought to make them have all these rights and enforce their right to them by law, and I mean tough, FBI-attracting law, until every man jack of them is just as equal as you middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I said either and I mean it. Either we give them the right to marry your daughter, if you got one, and fix it so that they’ll not only have the same social and educational rights that you have, but the same economic rights—the same ways and means that you’ve got to the pursuit of happiness out there in one of those fine suburban developments instead of in a slum. And then they’ll be just like you white folks with all your sound moral values, your Christian virtue, and your treasured togetherness. ’Course, they might lose something along the way, something like a culture, but that ain’t nothing. Now I say either we do that for them—make ’em just like everybody else—or, by God, we ought to drive ’em down in the ground like tent pegs!

- from The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas


I'm afraid Americans have chosen the latter.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Somebody Owes Me Money





Donald Westlake
Somebody Owes Me Money

Random House, 1969

Part of Forgotten Books Friday

NYC hack Chet Conway gets a tip from a shady underworld character to bet on a pony that should bring good money to Chet. Young cabbie, who happens to be an obsessive gambler, places a bet, the horse wins, Chet, happy as a horse (if horses could experience happiness) and almost $1000 richer, goes to his bookie’s apartment to get his winnings. The bookie is killed, the widow is screaming murder, and Chet suddenly is not sure who does he get paid from. And all bets are off.

In the beginning of the novel there has been a snow collapse in NYC. We survived a pretty intense snow collapse in last year’s October. It was two meters of snow in two days. And though NYC of the 60s is not small town Russia of 2010s, let me tell you that all that running around and racing through the streets as it happens in the novel is close to impossible. Not less impossible is also running around in summer clothes only. Why would Westlake need to create this collapse for his book? Argh, so much for realism in fiction.

Though it is considered as a comic caper, Westlake used a couple of new approaches more suitable for his serious enterprises. His Mafia-type characters started to have Italian names (and that is before Slayground; Westlake was there before Stark), their speech became closer to life. I think in this book mobsters for the first time for Westlake spoke with Brooklyn accent.

Once again the theme of corruption in the police reoccurred here, as it constantly were in Westlake’s previous books. This time it’s not some patrolman, but a homicide dick. One would begin to doubt if police in the US ever held a non-crooked cop. Still, I was skeptical, while reading, that a homicide cop would be bought (yes, history has seen some examples), and this cop would be bought by this particular family. Homicide detectives work in pairs, and it’s doubtful that Golderman could be useful to Mafia in this case.

I myself have similar attitude to police. Every cop personally whom I knew and know, are honest and hard-working man. I enjoyed working with cops, while I worked in paper, I enjoyed learning from them how their work is done. My school history teacher after some years in school quit, and had gone on to be in investigator, analogues to D.A. investigator in the US. While he was a teacher, he had been very friendly with me, we were always joking with each other, always messing and kidding around. I even supplied him with VHS cassettes, me, 13-year-old kid. Then he became sort of a cop, and died very early from a heart attack. Was he a bad man? Absolutely no.

Yet the whole police system, as always any system, is rotten to the core. Good people, evil system. And I don’t have any single reason to like this system.

That being said, I found it difficult to believe that Chet would go to Golderman for help, being on the run from the mob. Mob first rule is never talk to police. Chet, going to police, signed his death warrant (only that the cop was bought, and no one cared). Slippery plot move.

Another thing that made me wonder is Chet’s age. He’s 29, roughly my age, he’s a cabbie in NYC, and probably I am applying modern realities on New York of the 60s, but how many young men today in NYC work as hacks? Westlake clearly stated Chet’s age, yet for me the protagonist does seem older, maybe early 40s. His habits, his world view, his character features, they all scream at you: older!!! The protagonist’s occupations was also a useful plot feature.

I found this novel not in the least funny. I liked it fine, mostly because of the usual set-up of Westlake’s gangster stories, where the protagonist first talks to all other parties involved, and then gathers them in one room to reveal whodunit.

There were a couple of moments that made me smile (particularly the scene in Goldman’s house), but that is all. In fact, I laughed more reading Westlake’s serious works.

I liked Somebody Owes Me Money fine, but I’ve read better Westlake.

Friday, December 26, 2014

best non-fiction books 2014



Time to wrap up the year. Only two categories this year, fiction and non-fiction, with comics and poetry absent. In no particular order.

Sibilant Fricative, by Adam Roberts
Mass Incarceration on Trial, by Jonathan Simon
Violins of Hope, by James Grymes
My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff
The Getaway Car, by Donald Westlake

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The New Jim Crow





Michelle Alexander
The New Jim Crow

The New Press, 2012

Every once in a while comes a book that says some things obvious to everyone out loud. Sometimes even obvious things should be said out loud. But the thing with this books is that everything written inside it is not obvious and said out loud these things will open someone’s eyes.

Indeed, The New Jim Crow starts with the premise that sounds more like a conspiracy theory than a solid social theory written by a legal scholar and civil rights lawyer. Inside America exists caste system, where an undercaste is black and brown people of America. Instead of slavery and racial segregation, Americans now have a caste system, that is quite legal. Instead of Jim Crow, America now has New Jim Crow.

Living outside of US, I can only judge the American social system by that information US media supplies us. Imagery presented by media mostly shows a safe and comfortable life for whites and not so rosy life for blacks. But, as media hastens to explain, it is only so because blacks themselves chose this life, chose criminal path. Til this day we read and watch “horror stories” about black men, their drug usage and their violence.

Yet this image has no similarities with the image of America presented in this book. If even for Americans it will be a shock to learn about the real state of things, then what about us, on the other side of the pond? It seems like everything starts with the image. No matter how things stand, the only that matters is how they are presented. Michelle Alexander, step by step, paints a bleak picture. After the WWII African Americans, it seemed, received their freedom and civil rights, finally. Yet it was only a start, a beginning of the end. In the new era where an image dominates it was very important to create needed image. After that, this image will start working without additional efforts. People holding power in a matter of decades created that image, of a black man who is a threat, who is an animal, who is a merely life form, not a proper human being. With racism successfully remained in the past (or so they said), it was only with the new image government could control the masses and win the minds of those who were in doubt.

And the image has been sold, successfully. African Americans remained the same, yet he was labeled a criminal. Not only labeled, first he (as the author focuses on males on her book) was made a criminal, then labeled, as an animal, and then excluded from society.

Alexander explains on all the levels how the government succeeded. First the courts, then public image, then war on drugs, then mass incarceration, then ghettos, then total exclusion from American society, discarded as trash. The author makes strong arguments, especially on war on drugs and legal system, and it is difficult to imagine one who would not be persuaded by these arguments. It is always easier to control a large layer of people when this group of people are rounded up and sent to ghettos or, worse, to prisons.

When a large part of African Americans is in prisons or in ghettos stripped of basic rights and privileges, how could we say that USA is a democratic society? When governments makes its own citizens mere life forms, how can we say that it is a democracy? Democracy is based on equality for all, not for those chosen selectively.

The New Jim Crow is a truly eye-opening book. It changes your views on today’s America and African Americans.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mass Incarceration on Trial





Jonathan Simon
Mass Incarceration on Trial

The New Press, 2014

America worries about its citizens. America wants to reduce crime, separating those who have comitted crime from those who are victims or can become victims. The method of the separation the US have chosen is imprisonment everyone who poses even a slightest threat to society.

Mass incarceration has become panacea for all crime related illnesses in America. Prisons lose their rehabilitation status, turning into human warehouses storing people as objects that have lost all their value for the government.

Jonathan Simon in his study of mass incarceration writes that the society and then government views on crime and crime prevention toward incapacitation changed their views on prisons significantly only recently. On an example of California, Simon shows how a state with moderately small amount of prisons during only two decades had made a big step forward to a prison state, where “more than twenty new prisons [were built] during 1980s and 1990s”. The state abandoned all rehabilitation programs for prisoners, adapted new harsh sentensing laws, made parole impossible, with the only solution in mind – incarceration. The newly builded prisons couldn’t catch up with the number of newly convicted, who received long sentences even for smaller crimes. It had led to overcrowding in prisons, that itself had become the source of another issue for prison inmates. The conditions of their imprisonment worsened. While the official theory was that prisons are safe for those who are unsafe to society, in real life prisoners suffered from absence of elemental medical treatment. The prisons became places of torture tucked away from our eyes.

Examining new trial cases, regarding mass incarceration and prisons conditions unfeat for any human, especially those who suffer from mental and chronic illnesses, Simon find the reasons as to why California and the rest of America found this brutal and most unhuman way to treat persons who were found guilty of comitting a crime. I avoided in the previous sentence the notion that state found a new way to prevent crime by building new prisons. In this book Simon (and he’s not the first) argues that it’s been established already that there is no direct relevance between crime rate and incarceration rate.

Thus we should regard the reasons that caused and started mass incarceration across USA. In one of the strongest arguments Simon explains how society viewed an ordinary criminal, the two most common types being black violent revolutioner and white serial killer hunting in suburbs. It seemed there were no other way to be saved from crime, other than to place every person who committed any crime possible in prison for the longest term possible. Simon convincingly argues that it is the government itself who sold the society this idea about incorrigable criminals, and then after society in fear changed its views toward the need of a harsher punishment, the government simply used society’s approval of mass incarceration.

Building prisons is the simplest way out, also being not the cheapest one. Mass incarceration requires minimum brain work, as prisoners are treated as things that are needed to be placed inside cells, and then forget about them, for life if possible. Rehabilitation, working with people, treating human beings with dignity they’re entitled to, this is a hard work. Government “treat(s) members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded”. For a few decades government was focused on the materialistic side of the problem, being interested in contruction, safety inside of prisons for prison officials, supermax blocks and whole prisons.

Simon slightly touches one, as it seems for me, important point: the new prisons were considered as safe places for work of prison officials in the first place, and only in the second as a safe place for prisoners. Prison officials viewed prisoners as dangerous species, animals who deserved to be treated as such. Therefore all in prisons was made so that prison officials could feel and work safely inside prison walls.

While completely forgotten and deprived of decent medical treatment and opportunities for education, communication and rehabilitation, prisoners struggled all these years. The prison population grew, the average age of prisoners raised, the suicide rate among prisoners high as ever, and only recent litigation cases drew attention of media and social scientists to the issue of total incapacitation.

Simon delves into three most important cases, where whole population of several Califotnia prisons demanded the right to medical treatment and human conditions in prisons. During these cases, it was found that mass incarceration leads to a violation of Eighth Amendment. The Brown vs. Plaza court’s recommendations on reducing prison population is only a start. The three cases examined in this book initiated the end of mass incarceration. The government still fights this decision, yet there were some progress already made.

Mass Incarceration on Trial is a superb study of American penal system, its issues and the possible ways to solve them. It a book for prison freaks and for those who studies law.

Tigerman





Nick Harkaway
Tigerman

William Heinemann, 2014

“ON THE STEPS of the old mission house, the Sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican.”

The Sergeant himself is on his way to become a local Batman, who as one would have guessed from the title, will be called Tigerman. The boy will remain the boy, though the Sergeant will find a name for him closer to the end of the novel. As a pair, the Sergeant and the boy fight evil of a undefined type, since the source of evil is often uncleared, as it often is if it’s a matter of global politics where good and evil not easily recognizable. As just local people, and on the island of Mancreu everyone is local and alien from somewhere else, the Sergeant and the boy are hardly in need of names. They remain symbols, of a wanderer, wounded and faithful to the Crown, being an army vet, semi-retired, and of a child in need of a proper parent, or so it seems.

The heroes are introduced at the beginning, and the place also plays a significant role in the book. Mancreu has no proper government, being a former colony in post-colonial time when it already doesn’t matter who governs whom. “In theory, of course, the British presence here had been withdrawn three years ago, claims of sovereignty having been yielded to the NATO and Allied Protection Force on Mancreu, NatProMan.” The Sergeant serves here a role of an observer, and there is nothing really to observe, except to keep your routine, eat, talk with the boy. The Sergeant is in position when he just needs to do nothing until the island is liquidated, and the rumors going from the start of the novel have it that the island will be eventually destroyed. There will come Leaving time, and one just ups and goes home.

The official reason for destroying Mancreu is its dangerousness to the rest of the world. The island has mutant bacteria somewhere around it, and it needs being stopped from potential future spreading. While the island is still functioning (and no one asks locals whether they want their home demolished), it remains a strange and lawless place, where shady deals are going. And soon the Sergeant finds himself first in the role of a country detective, and then of Tigerman.

It can seem that the fantastic element of Tigerman masks behind not so fantastic theory about dangerous island. This element is obscured by the rest not so fantastic stuff. In fact, Tigerman reads like a work of fantastic genre. Superhero fights and mysterious women, known only by name legendary villain are all part of the atmosphere, and this unforgettable atmosphere makes it read like an adventerous novel with fantastic elements inside. It is enormously entertaining, remaining thoughtful and heartbreaking. Bat(Tiger)man on an aboriginal island saves the world, with a touch of international intrigue, what else do you need?

It is not all BANG and BING, though. Harkaway is pretty realistic in depicting so called Third World problems. And the tension between a grown man imagining himself as a father and a boy in need to be fathered and their shyness about their thoughts and emotions on that create careful examinations of human feelings. The novel asks, are adult and child equal in their bond, or is it always unbalanced relationship? Who manipulates whom?

Prepare yourself for a wild ride. It’s one of the most poignant SF books I’ve read in years.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Dog Stars





Peter Heller
The Dog Stars

Headline Review, 2012

Hig, a pilot and the hero of this novel, lives in an abandoned hangar with his beloved dog Jasper and dangerous companion Bangley. Nine years ago, a fever of unknown origin wiped out almost the entire population of the planet, yet leaving some alive who carry now the disease called just The Blood. After losing to epidemic fever wife Melissa and an unborn child, Hig left the city in Colorado and moved to the hills, where all this time he’s been fighting for survival.

Together with Bangley they equipped the perimeter - a small piece of land, which became their refuge. On their land Hig and Bangley have built an observation tower, have armed to the teeth (for that is responsible mostly Bangley, an ex-SEAL, in his spare time working on his weapon arsenal) and now they defend themselves from time to time wandering on their territory strangers. Hig makes rounds on his old plane “a 1956 Cessna 182, really a beaut”, watching the area from the sky, searching for strangers, as well as game and possible supplies, while Bangley watches the perimeter that at any moment could be invaded by "guests". Jasper serves as a night alarm, sleeping side by side with his master. The dog is old, has been with Hig before the fever, but still not in a bad shape.

Heller, who before this book has written about the adventures and travelings around the globe, debuted with a novel. The author immediately went on the genre territory, namely the post-apocalyptic science fiction, certainly causing with that the displeasure and open envy among SF writers. Because science fiction writers don’t write so well. Some do, of course, but it's a small percentage. Let any publishing house throw «The Dog Stars» to its science fiction imprint, and other novels of this genre will look poor, gray and dull, at least stylistically.

And it is not the fault of SF writers that they write that bad, it is Heller’s fault (or achievement) that he writes that well. In building fantastic entourage he, on the contrary, is not too skilled. The novel’s premise is familiar even to those who have not read fiction at all. Heller does not invent the wheel, just takes those wheels that have already been invented, and just put them on his bike, as it is convenient to him. Heller is not particularly interested to play in virologist: there was an epidemic (big deal!), almost the entire population died out (so what?), someone got infected and become a carrier of a strange plague (who cares?), a global warming started - what now, contrary to logic, to make a hero to get behind the microscope and make him study different science fields at once? In conclusion, the author of the novel makes a few vague allusions to the origin of the disease, by the time that's already not important.

What’s important is, Heller has written a book that reads in one breath, you do not want to close it, you beg the author to tell something else, some small detail from the protagonist’s past. The Dog Stars is the imposition of a skillful adventure about the survival out of civilization on a modernist style with the elements of post-apocalyptic fiction and men’s fiction about the search for love. And it makes no sense to look for where one layer ends and the other begins, as they lapped each other.

Depopulating the planet using a fantastic element, Heller makes a perfect background for his drama - the natural world, where people seem to have already become superfluous, but still clinging to existence. For nine years Hig lived only by relying on a fading memory, and almost extinguished hope. Why does one needs a life if the world around you died? Just for the sake of life itself? Having made his hero a pilot of the aircraft, Heller drew an allegory between Hig and birds, but of that sort that is bad with flying: Hig is attached to his piece of land, which gives him at least some security, and missions only tease his imagination and are part of self-defense. The hero can fly, but can not fly away - no place and no need.

As an extraordinary traveler, Heller with unprecedented skill transfers his knowledge of nature and on a page. It's one thing to conquer the rivers and peaks, and the other to describe it as if you the reader plunge into nature, too. To do this you need experience - even if you're a stylist's number one, sitting on a chair somewhere in a residential area of Chicago, you can’t imagine and can not describe all that so authentically as it does Heller.

If Heller’s spirit is closer to Jack London, the style is closer to the experimental prose. The novel is written as a stream of consciousness, where past and present merge, and mangled vocabulary, poeticized in some places. The storyteller prior to the epidemic wrote prose and poetry, perhaps, hence originates the style of The Dog Stars. Remained essentially without writing (the only example in the book is the scene where Hig writes a warning to farmers), Hig initially focuses on spoken language, which has its own laws.

The Dog Stars deserves the highest praise.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Ice Cream Man





Katri Lipson
The Ice Cream Man

AmazonCrossing, 2014

Before us is a fine example of European metaliterature which playing with the themes of human identity and WWII.

The book begins with the shooting of the film in the postwar years in the Czech Republic, where a man and a woman during the German occupation are fleeing the country, but their train is canceled because of the explosion on the bridge, and they are forced to stay in a small village (on the outskirts of a city).

An unnamed actress plays Esther Vorszda and an actor Martin Jelinek plays her husband, Thomas Vorszda. In fact, Esther and Thomas are not the husband and wife to each other, they were forced to create their new identities to not draw attention by the Nazis. They made up their new biographies, and who these two are actually remains unknown.

The shooting happens on location, besides an unnamed actress and Martin a very limited number of actors and movie crew participates in the filmong, including the owner of the house, who gave a pair of fugitives a roof, and a one-legged man who appears closer to the film ending.

In the second part, the author presents us with the film’s plot, which is, perhaps, not a film, but a real story that happened. Thomas and Esther, the people hiding behind these names, come by taxi to the train station, where from they have to take the train and leave. The train is canceled, Thomas decides to stay and wait, the taxi driver is sent back, and Thomas and Esther drag their large suitcases on themselves. Thomas negotiates with a widow, Madame Nemcova, to stay with her for a month.

While the English-language authors chew the last bones of war stories and suck the remaining tissue while looking for suitable candidates for their war melodramas, European writers set themselves more sophisticated and complex tasks, seeking first of all new approaches to the form, not the content.

A Finland native, Lipson tries to destroy all canons of war melodrama as weel as family saga stretching from World War II. The plot of the film that is laid in the basis of the book is fairly standard, even on the contrary, devoid of frills. Two fugitive hiding from persecution live in a widow’s house, then the man disappears (in another meta-layer there is a hint of the reason for his disappearance - he did not run away, but went for the forged documents, and was killed), and the woman is left alone, then becomes the wife out hopelessness to a decent man, whom she doesn’t love.
Thу story is very touching, and if it is only that, a touching, simple sketch of the past. On this layer, let’s call it a narrative layer, Lipson puts two more. The first chapter makes it clear to us that behind the masks of Esther and Thomas the actors are hiding, we assume it. We watch their play, know that it seems to be unreal, the director makes it grim. This layer is adjacent to another, pseudo-actor-ish: Thomas and Esther behind the masks are the real people who have to become actors, to reluctant fictional husband and wife. The price of an error will not be a verbal abuse of the director, but death. Accordingly, never knowing for sure what is in front of us, just a movie or reality, we see how these actors play two strangers who play two people who are close to each other, husband and wife.

A reader accustomed to easy, straight narrive may not like such complexness. What's next is a little easier, though again you need to keep in mind that the events may be real, but it may be some rehearsal to a shooting. Lipson extremely quickly replaces generations, time from post-war changes to post-Soviet, and then gets to the present day. Jan’s plot line sheds some light (actually only obscures which is the same thing) on Esther’s past. Lipson again throws us between layers: Jan could be Esther’s son, and could be the son of the actress who played Esther.

In any case, it does not matter when the film moves to our days, where the final major focus is on the granddaughter of Esther Gunilla, a strange creature either going crazy, or by inheritance becoming an actress.

Our memory casts doubt on the past, it is what Lipson wants to say. Something hiding inside us is transmitted from generation to generation. And yet there is a gap between generations, judging by the structure of The Ice Cream Man. The book is as if glued together from two different novels, and the final cut is a little bit rough. Two parts - the life of Esther and the life of Jan and his daughter - have only a few points of intersection. The thread of the past is lost somewhere in the middle. Both parts are original and charming, they do not have enough sequence between them.

The novel is beautifully translated into English, its prose is elegant and devoid of Britanisms which often spoil the historical novels. Lipson surprises with her book and her courage in fighting cliches.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Rough Cut





Ed Gorman
Rough Cut

St. Martin’s Press, 1985

Michael Ketchum is a partner in a small advertising agency. Michael seems to be the only one who really works there, not only looking after the artistic side of the business, but also taking part in the creative process. The other advertisers, starting with Michael’s partner Denny Harris, are preoccupied by different activities: looking for mistresses on the side, stabbing each other in the back, scheming, drinking during working hours, at best, doing nothing.

Michael suspects that his partner Harris keeps the biggest client wife's named Clay Traynor as a mistress. If this secret will emerge, Traynor is likely to stop working with Michael’s firm, and the firm simply will go bankrupt. Michael hires a sleaze private detective to gather evidence on Harris. With photos from a private detective Michael goes to his partner to confront him and put pressure on him. In the Harris’ house the corpse of his partner greets Michael. Michael, scared, doesn’t report crime to the police, and soon someone kills another agency employee and another. Michael must find the killer before Michael will be the next.

After Rough Cut Gorman will write a few dozen books, but in 1985 this will be his debut. The circle of the novel's characters are only employees of an advertising agency, and the action rarely spreads beyond the office and apartment of the protagonist. This makes the mystery local, and the atmosphere stuffy. Everyone is a suspect, and the suspects die one by one. Could the killer be a secretary? The agency employs envious cowards and careerists that even secretaries are not to be excluded.

The intrigue expertly is stretched until the very end, and I can assure you, you will not guess who is a killer.

I also quite enjoyed the novel because of the presence of a bad private detective. If usually private detective is a knight on a white horse, a hard man, walking down the mean streets, and in these cases invariably P.I. is a main protagonist, in this book the private detective Stokes is an aahole, blackmailer and sissy, and not the main character either. I have not seen such disgusting private investigator in a long time.

Gorman’s prose is another pleasant surprise, not rough cut at all, the refined product.

«After my divorce, and before I felt much like falling in love again, I spent many evenings alone in my bachelor apartment feasting on Stouffer's frozen dinners and using self-pity the way other people used drugs. I also got into the habit of approximating a sensory-deprivation tank by sitting in the bathtub, throwing back several gins, and coming dangerously close to dozing off in the hot water.

Which is where I was three-and-a-half hours after somebody knocked me out at Denny Harris's house.»


This is conscious, adult, men's prose, surprisingly assured for the detective genre. Rough Cut is a pleasant debut.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Donnybrook





Frank Bill
Donnybrook

William Heinemann, 2013

«Donnybrook was a three-day bare-knuckles tournament, held once a year every August. Run by the sadistic and rich-as-fuck Bellmont McGill on a thousand-acre plot out in the sticks. Twenty fighters entered a fence-wire ring. Fought till one man was left standing. Hordes of onlookers-men and women who used drugs and booze, wagered and grilled food-watched the fighting. Two fights Friday. Four Saturday. The six winners fought Sunday for one hundred grand.»

At this tournament on a remote farm, sooner or later the protagonists of the debut novel by Frank Bill will gather to settle things. Someone will come as a fighter, someone as an onlooker, and someone will come here for other reasons.

The main characters of the novel are the fighters, in the sense that they are ready to defend what is theirs and fight for what had been taken away from them. Coincidentally, four of these characters are also bare-knuckles fighters that can compete for the top prize. Jarhead robbed a gun shop to get money for the fee for the tournament, and only wants to feed his family with the money won («I's hungry, Dada») and to cure an ill back of his wife. Angus and his sister Liz before the tournament won’t divide rightfully cooked drugs and will scatter in different directions, Liz in the company of another fighter named Ned, they as a team will sell meth during the tournament. Deputy Sheriff Whalen rushes for Donnybrook to get revenge. A Chinese named Fu will look at the tournament for the people who owe money to his boss.

Each character has its own motivation, everyone arrives at Donnybrook as to some place where the dreames come true, and by the start of the tournament there will be several lives taken by each main character. Personality of these characters should represent the greatest interest to us, because the tournament itself is crumpled, fistfishts remain in the background, and - spoilers - because of general chaos the tournament will be disrupted, and all that remains of it will become a great slaughter.

Actually, the events preceding the tournament, which reveal the nature of the violent people of Southern Indiana, are the best part of the novel. The closer to the finale, the more boring the novel becomes, despite the seemingly appealing knuckle fights. The problem of the book is just that it becomes non-stop action, and that in itself becomes too much and makes too little sense. With each chapter the heroes’ teeth, heads, kidneys and thighs are kicked in, but they ignore all that, and they like zombies crawl to Donnybrook as if there human flesh awaits them. Instead of a play of characters we get a play of rifles and fists, and dialogues’s semantic sense decreases rapidly («Spit and hollered," Fucking-fuck-fuck-fucker! "»). When everyone is fighting with everyone - it's tiring.

In his short stories from his debut collection Frank Bill saw some big picture. Bill created the mythology of his native land. In those stories were mundane wisdom of a person for whom violence was a form of existence. In Donnybrook the author as if destroys his own mythology. No wisdom here but only a scuffle. All is solved by a gun, there is no difference who you are.

Bill makes no attempt to get to the causes of criminal life in Southern Indiana. One of the characters, Purcell, makes superficial conclusions:

«He was honing an edge. Thinking about what he'd read in the newspaper earlier in the day, about wage cuts and unemployment. How companies across the U.S. were in a slump. Some were sinking while others tried to do more with less. The American way had expired, been lost somewhere. Now it seemed to work in the US just meant you were a number trying to make big numbers for the men above you. And if you could not do it, there was another number that could.»

Ragged style suits the lifestyle of characters:

«A deafening blast erupted from the .30-30's barrel. Half the officer's face opened. He stutter-stepped backward, fell out the doorway. His body spread out like a puppy-soiled rug on the porch, wet and spotted.»


Only the style, too, becomes stale in the second half, turning into a parody of itself:

«Fu sat in the Jeep's passenger seat meditating on needles puncturing skin. Tethered bodies. Inhales and exhales of pleading. Breaking a man's will. Loyalty.»

The first half of the novel, one that recalls the best Bill stories claims the real depth, and the second one is smeared with action bordering on self-parody. Perhaps the best is to re-read Bill’s short story collection.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Anarchaos





Curt Clark
Anarchaos

Ace Books, 1967

The narrator of this story, that is placed in the unidentified future, Rolf Malone, is released from the prison on the Earth and he is on his way to another planet called Anarchaos where the events of the novel will take place. There, on Anarchaos, the narrator’s brother Gar Malone worked, and before his death he has written to Rolf to come to Anarchaos. Now Gar has died under suspicious circumstances, and Rolf is eager for some answers, for instance, whom his brother worked for and how exectly his brother died.

Right after his arrival on Anarchaos, Rolf is warned that Anarchaos and its habitants are dangerous, and it will be better for his health if he goes back to Earth. These words only fuel the protagonist’s need for answers: he checks his luggage at the station and hails the taxi to get to the town where the corporation his brother worked for is situated. During the drive, feeling that the taxi man sooner or later will kill him, Rolf strikes first, killing the driver and makes his way to the corporation tower alone.

There representatives of the one of the largest corporations on the planet greet Rolf, tell him that his brother was killed during an ambush when Gar was on a survey, and while Gar was killed, his guard survived, and he’s the only one who can provide some answers to Rolf.

Rolf goes to the shack where this guard lives, and there someone ambushes them, killing the guard who hasn’t had time to tell anything about Gar and wounding Rolf. Malone starts his trip to hell.
I have read this novel not to remind myself what state SF had been in during 60s. Curt Clark is a pen name of Donald Westlake, and Anarchaos is his the only SF novel, and I am slowly grinding through Westlake’s entire catalogue.

First, let me say that I hugely enjoyed it. It’s a good novel, perhaps not as good as 361, with which they share more than a few similarities, still it’s quite powerful piece of writing.
That’s said, I wouldn’t say that Anarchaos is truly SF novel, it is a thriller dressed in science fiction clothes. But first things first.

Anarchaos is one of the future Earth colonies, where a few generations of colonists had already changed. On every colony there are embassys of the Union Comission, United Nations-like Earth organization, only unlike its earth counterpart not interfering with colonists activities. Every colony can choose any of the existing government systems and live under this system. Anarchaos colonists remenbered “an obscure Rus¬sian nihilist named Mikhail Bakunin” and his writings, and made his theoretic ideas real on Anarchaos. Therefore the colony dove deep into anarchy, smoothly flowing into chaos. The only anarchy-free places became embassys of the UC.

The planet itself has a few differences with the Earth: Anarchaos doesn’t spin, so there is not a change of day and night there, one part of the planet is Sahara-hot under the sun called Hell, another is dark and cold. The development level on the planet is primitive, early to mid XX century only with scyscrappers.

All that we learn from the first chapters, as part of that Malone tells himself, and another part is a lecture of one of the UC man. Westlake does his infodumping straight away, and not in a subtle way, so for the rest of the story we won’t be distracted from the main plot. Infodumping like this looks too inelegantly, and trick with a lecture is too straightforward.

But does the colony structure play an important role in the book? It does, though not important one. How inventive is Westlake SF writer? Nearly not as much as Westlake the writer per se. We see a distant colony, almost like the Earth, we see people populating this planet, and they are as human as we can be. We see cars, horses, guns, explosives, earth army titles – Westlake just describes Earth. What language do colonists speak? English? Not even without any dialects? Well, there is a bigger difference between accents and dialects between US states than between Earth and Anarchaos. What is that, laziness in the worldbuilding or Westlake’s ignorance? Possibly none of that. He just writes a crime story where a place plays little, very insignificant role.

What I want to say is we can easily imagine a Latin American or African country instead of Anarchaos, and almost nothing will change. An American arrives to Guatemala, to a mineral plant, where his brother died. An American is fed and clothed in the embassy and then goes to the plant. Some thugs from the jungle kidnaps him, he becomes a slave, then he escapes, then he’s soon captured by some General (there are plenty of generals in military states), then he kills a general from this plant, and then another General from another plant. It’ll be the same story. It is a very small bridge between Anarchaos and chaotic republic somewhere on Earth. Blow up a few embassys in African country and there will be chaos (as if there isn’t now).

It should be said, though, that for some plot turns it is important that the action takes place on another planet.

It is a good adventure story, where the premise borrowed from 361, and the middle probably straight from a Grofield novel, where Grofield is in his Lemons-Never-Lie-mode. As SF, the story lacks focus on otherworldliness and scientific details. The only thing from the future here is flights between planets. The rest come from the 60s: paper geographical maps, primitive calculating machines, guns, knives, food. The novel should have been called not Anarchaos, but Archaic-aos, the novel is dated.

As a novel of ideas Anarchaos is far from dated, and it reads as a novel of ideas just fine. Anarchaos could have been called an adventure story with ideas, if that hasn’t been an oxymoron, like Tarzan with brains.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Leftovers





Tom Perrotta
The Leftovers

St. Martin's Press, 2011

Three years before the events described in the novel, a mysterious phenomenon occurs that is similar to the Rapture, to use a biblical term. Millions of people in an instant just disappear from the face of the earth. Among them are not only faithful Christians, but people of all religions and of various moral behavior. Some take the disappearance for the real Rapture, meaning that those who remain on the earth are judged as unworthy of heavenly life, while others believe that the phenomenon only had common features with the predicted phenomenon from the Bible, but the real Rapture it is not.

After The Sudden Departure, as it is called by some, the government announces the state of emergency, shuts down schools and other institutions, the people mourn the missing, and those who had seen their loved ones disappear, are called The Witnesses.

Grief can last for years across the country, and gradually the United States return to normal. The consequences of a global phenomenon in a small town of Mapleton, New York, are described in the novel. In the center of the story is one family in which oddly enough no one has disappeared. The patriarch of the Garvey family, Kevin, was a successful businessman at the time of the Rapture-like phenomenon, his wife Laurie was a housewife, and two children were students - the eldest son Tom in college and daughter Jill in high school.

From chapter to chapter, we move from one family member to another. The global phenomenon has splot split the family, and every family member in their own way is trying to find his/her place in almost new world.

Tom Perrotta has used in his book sci-fi device, and, like many mainstream writers treated to a fantastic device and its properties with disrespect and disdain.

Placing in the base of the story a phenomenon of religious matter, Perrotta surprisingly spends very little time answering the proper questions of religion. Perrotta chose an interesting approach to a global phenomenon: not giving a full explanation of the departure, the author left his world and the characters in it to the freedom of interpretation. Characters had all prerequisites for a full discussion of the phenomenon, similar to that described in the Bible. Perrotta does not even take the side of the supporters of the biblical version, nor on the side of the rationalists, he generally rejects any discussion of the origin of the departure. The most important thing for Perotta was make something so erase as many people from the face of the Earth as possible, while the reason for this disappearance was of the minor importance. So, instead of the Rapture in the book it could have been any epidemic or meteor rain. Not a word was said about the research scientists, nor the statement of high rank religious people (Pope, Orthodox Patriarch etc), respectively, we do not know about the socio-economic implications of global disappearance of countless people. What impact it does on demography, economics, world politics - it seems like nothing has changed.

And even if you convince yourself that Perrotta was interested not in the phenomenon itself, but in what was after, the picture still looks fragile. After such religiocentric phenomenon we see three options for the development of the world in terms of religion. Among all the official representatives of the Catholic Church we see only one priest, highly pissed at the world and God, bringing risen to the path of revenge. The priest began to argue that God took the sinners and betrayed those who truly believed. Is this priest representative? Probably not, but we do not find others, and it is hard to say whether all priests were so bitter that have fallen to the level of gossipers and blackmailers, or just this one turned out rotten.

Two other religious paths are the religious groups, early on quite different with dissimilar structure, and by the finale, we see the corruption and lies within both these newly formed cults.
Church of Holy Wayne is a typical example of the American sects, they usually do not even need a reason for existence. They were there, and Perotta just uses the template of the structure and motives of the already existing sects. Other religious groups, The Guilty Remnant, at first seems like an original idea, with their spying and remaining silent. Perrotta does not develop the theme: the cult was created as if by itself, its structure remains opaque, it does not set any goals, and all that we see is the work of lower-level sectarian and their recruitment methods. By the final sectarian motives become clear: to gather the property and finances of sectarians, choose the most persistent, testing their strength on the ability to kill.
While staying at the dorm Laurie and Meg relate only to those down-to-earth conversations, completely ignoring the issues of religion and faith. Both women chose to stay withing the cult not as a possible way to salvation, but as an opportunity to fence from the world. You can put into question the motives of the two women as they both have not lost the loved ones during the departure. Their families remain on the Earth, and Laurie, if act by logic, should have by all means hold her family together, to support her husband and children, to consider herself lucky that an unknown cataclysm did not violate the integrity of their family.

Perrotta on the contrary is as if blaming Kevin that he hasn’t joined the Guilty Remnant, and sympathizes with and endorses the choice of Laurie.

Novels of ideas too are often elevated and distant from reality. It is a pity that Perrotta could not squeeze in «The Leftovers» any resonable ideas, focusing on daily life of the characters. With the same success, the book could have been written about 9/11: before us is a soap opera about a family where everyone is struggling with the pain and despair in his own way. I do not know whether Perrotta conceived the novel as the basis for the HBO series or rights have been sold after the book was published, but The Leftovers reads as a TV series on paper. It has quite diverse storylines to please everyone, here is enough melodrama and sex (heterosexual and lesbian), there is sufficient amount of details so that the novel had meat on the bones. The problem lies in the fact that Perrotta as if from the very beginning knows how it ends, and simply writes scenes, separate episodes for the show, and he does so without a flame in the heart. Worn style completely denies the story of some colours. Dialog is like a mix between the utterance of banal wisdoms and everyday chitchat. Simply put, the novel lacks some spark, not in the least a stylistic one. For the realist Perrotta is too boring and pat, as a writer with the ideas he lacks his own ideas.

The Leftovers justifies its title: the tastiest pieces have already been eaten, what’s left is the leftovers.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Narrow Road to the Deep North





Richard Flanagan
The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Chatto & Windus, 2014

In the center of the novel is an Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans, who during World War II was captured by the Japanese and among other prisoners of war built the Thai-Burma Railway, also known as the Road of Death.

The novel skips across continents and time layers, but the main events can be divided into three groups: the life of Evans before the war in Melbourne, Japanese camp and the post-war period, when Evans even received a certain notoriety.

Dorrigo was the youngest in a family of seven children. He soon lost touch with his brothers and sisters, every member of the family went on their path. He grew up in Tasmania, but later moved to the mainland, to Melbourne, where the six-foot tall Evans enters the university. Dorrigo shows no special abilities to medicine, but still graduates from the university. Since the beginning of the war he was a surgeon being moved to a military camp in Adelaide, where Evans goes through training. Evans marries, has a lover called Amy on the side and flies to Singapore to fight on the side of the Allies.

Evans in Singapore meets with other soldiers from his unit, and when Singapore surrenders to the Japanese army, the Australians are captured. Evans and his colleagues formes a special unit of prisoners, which includes only the Australians. His unit is sent to the construction work, namely for building of the Thai-Burma railway, which will run from Thailand to Burma.

In his novel Richard Flanagan is trying to lay on paper using artistic methods the story of Australians who were stationed at the Japanese POW camp. Perhaps the main problem of the novel is that it is too artistic. Flanagan has a lush style, he now and then inserts a quote from poetry, tends to bold descriptions and refuses to use quotation marks for dialogue. Such stylistic brightness, sometimes even with a touch of poetry, perfectly matches the life of the main character in the civilian world. Dorrigo Evans loves books and women more than anything else. Women like him, and he fascinates them. Evans is bursting with feelings. Despite his obvious sins (Evans does not even cheat on his wife, he acts as if he does not notice her, at least most of his life he did not notice her), Evans is a likeable hero. He is persistent, passionate, honest man of not too many words, and he is understood without words, by both men and women. He seems not to be blamed for his sins. He's like this by nature. Especially because in the novel his wife Ella is a pale shadow, not full-blooded person, and how we can sympathize with her that her husband is a womanizer?

The protagonist’s soul wanderings is the most intriguing part of the book. Whom he will choose and what happened to Evans after the war, these questions claws at us most of all. Colorful prose of Flanagan comes over already colorful with passion "civilian" part of the plot. But for the life in the camp are Flanagan’s colors are not so suitable. Too unnatural it looks, like a circus, not a camp for prisoners of war. Indeed, Flanagan doesn’t know a sense of proportion. Evans and his friends in the camp act like clowns, tirelessly repeat Britanisms «mate» and «rightio», Nakamura tells long tales about the wisdom of the emperor, as if sitting with friends and colleagues drinking tea, and in general it is not like a camp at all, but Chinese, or rather Japanese, circus. Flanagan goes over the top with paints: if everything is so colorful, it may be that all the prisoners do well in the camp? Maybe they were there on vacation and not with their bones the Road was built? The main hero has a horrible diarrhea, but the author depicts.

«He raised a crumbling canvas flap and Dorrigo Evans followed him through the flared nostril of the tent into a stench, redolent of anchovy paste and shit, so astringent it burnt in their mouths. The slimy red flame of a kerosene lantern seemed to Dorrigo Evans to make the blackness leap and twist in a strange, vaporous dance, as if the cholera bacillus was a creature within whose bowels they lived and moved. At the far end of the shelter, a particularly wretched-looking skeleton sat up and smiled.»

A friend of the protagonist is drowning in a pit of waste and Flanagan again uses colorful prose. Thus, this style fails to convey the monotony, the horror and darkness of life in captivity.
In general, Flanagan’s book entertains more than makes us to think. Among the interesting thoughts there is one that the author touches upon in the chapters written from the point of view of the Japanese officers and guards. One of the guards says that it turned out like that: the Japanese, who had committed crimes against the Allies, white people, were sentenced to death and declared war criminals. But at the same time, the Japanese, who bullied and killed other Asians, weren’t even touched. It turns out that the racial-class division was under any conditions and at all times, whether it was war or peacetime.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North stirs the heart, but only at the beginning and at the end. The middle part on life on POW camp is a failure.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing





Eimear McBride
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Galley Beggar Press, 2013

The nameless narrator of this convulsing story begins at age two when her brother went to the surgery to remove a brain tumor. The narrator wakes up in the hospital, he sees her bloodied older brother, tries to tell her mother not let her brother be touched.

A close relationship with her brother largely determines a way of life of the girl from the title, from age two to 20 years. The narrator and her brother were born in a Catholic family, about the father it’s known only from the words of the mother that he had died, their mother is pious and cruel as a Christian woman can be cruel, asking ffrom her children humility before God. As a result, there are the constant punishment, beatings, prayers, blind adherence to the precepts of religion.

The brother after surgery eventually becomes retarded, and with a limp. The surgery for the time being saves him from the consequences of the tumor.

The mother rears her daughter and her brother in the severity and the Catholic faith, even though they both do not know the prayers and do not believe in God at all. Children’s grandfather blames her for bad parenting. She did not even thanked her father for sending money when the boy was ill. Only sometimes the mother shows love for her daughter, for example, comforting the girl after she had a nightmare.

The brother, because of his illness, remains largely untouchable (part of the story is written with the frequent use of "you" as a way of addressing to her brother), the narrator gets all the beatings. Until school time girl remains as if in the shadow of her brother, and during school years the narrator is formed, gradually becoming a separate person and not an appendage of the ill brother.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is anything but convenient, comfortable reading. Moreover, this book is as far as possible from comfortable reading. Hard to imagine a person who in the evening, drinking a mug of tea, rushes to the chair, to enthusiastically read even 10 pages of this novel.

The reason of the caused discomfort lies in form and in content. Stylistically, McBride does not use commas in his novel, and sentences are written so chaotic and convulsive, it will take a long time to find the novel’s rhythm. Even after forty pages there is no adaptation. Each page literally you take by assault. Literally every paragraph requires slow rereading.

McBride uses a narrative technique called stream of consciousness. Streams can be different, coherent and not. This is far from the connectivity and directness. Thoughts of the heroine (and almost everything that happens, happens inside the head of the narrator, the external description is given a minimal amount of text) rush to and fro, stumble, catch up and overtake each other. The heroine seemed to stutter in her mind, sometimes swallowing sentences or pieces of sentences.

Keeping it in mind, the book though doesn’t read as a burden. It reads slowly, but if you really read it, then you catches every word in it. The novel forces the reader to work, with eyes, brain and heart, and if you try to get away from this job, you will not be able to read even a dozen pages. «A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing» is of those books, after which it actually can be said that reading is a hard work.

The story in this book is quite linear (one might even say conservative, as style is experimental). It’s an Irish story of growing up, amid domestic problems, strictly with Catholicism plus heightened sensuality. Again, the reader will not find solace in the story of the lonely girl with the terminally ill brother, a cruel mother and pervert uncle. Realism of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a sharp object penetrating the skin. Reading such prose hurts, not reading probably is even harder.

McBride’s talent lays in that her novel is not an experiment for the sake of the experiment, while reading you are gritting your teeth and congratulating yourself: I'm smart, if I’m reading such intricate prose, - and dreaming for the book to end quickly. This book is a fully formed, finished thing.