Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Good Lord Bird

James McBride
The Good Lord Bird

Riverhead, 2013

The novel is written as a memoir of Henry Shackleford which was found in the middle of the XX century. It told the story of the only Negro survivor of the Battle of Harpers Ferry in 1859.
The story begins four years before the battle, when Henry and his devout father lived in a small town in Kansas. In the barber shop, where the father of 12 -year-old Henry worked, comes abolitionist John Brown. There he clashes with local slaveholder, after which Henry’s father is killed, and Brown takes the boy with him. Because of baggy clothes, more like rags, Brown takes Henry for a girl, because all colored look the same for a white man. Kidnapped Henry decided not to cross Brown, and so the next four years of his life he will impersonate a girl, wearing women's clothes and responding to the name Henrietta. «But the Old Man heard Pa say “Henry ain’t a,” and took it to be “Henrietta,” which is how the Old Man’s mind worked. Whatever he believed, he believed. It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.» Henry gets the nickname Little Onion after him eating lucky mascot in the form of dried onion, belonging to Brown.

Brown and his army of 12 people have been known throughout America, although they are nothing special. They are starving, stealing from Pro Slavers food, weapons and horses, freeing chaoticly blacks from slavery against the will of the blacks. Brown's army includes his sons and a few sorry-looking farmers.

Brown himself is very devout man, and has a habit to to pray to God at the wrong time. He eats almost nothing, literally eating the holy spirit, can not sleep for days and naps right on the horse, but prays countless times a day, even when «using the privy». But Brown is willing to tolerate infidelity, if a person opposes slavery. But if someone says to the Old Man's face that he is pro slavery, the Old Man could kill him right on the spot.

Starting reading this novel, I was afraid that I would not understand it. American history, though short, has its key moments and niceties. My fears were vain: the book, albeit based on real historical events, leaves room for fiction, and in the course of reading the overall picture becomes clear.

Despite the seriousness of these events and their impact on American history, the novel is largely farcical, almost without a single positive character. Historical figures appear in a burlesque manner, and fictional protagonists stand out with stupidity, ignorance, greed, cowardice and duplicity. The narrator Onion spares no one, himself included, with his mordant comments. Douglas here is a womanizer and a lush, Tubman is Generale, Brown is a crazy preacher, con man, arrogant rogue. Americans certainly imagined their heroes not like this.

Since the book is a memoir written by already a mature man, Henry had time to think about everything that it happened, evaluate the actions and deeds of the Old Man and his army. Narrative voice here are both naive (12 -year-old child) and cynical (older man).

Largely because of Henry’s voice this is such a funny book. There are enough monets to laugh out loud, from Onion’s comments to dialogues between simple uneducated blacks. One of the funniest scenes is about a federal agent when Onion warns Old Man about a possible approximation of an agent: "Captain! I smell bear!" All because Brown told the boy that an agent smells of bear, because «uses bear grease to oil his hair».

Mocking everyone, Henry is not building no illusions about himself and the entire Negro race. For several years Henry wore dresses because he was afraid to be a man. Like any other black person he was taught to lie and cheat, being smarter than white masters for a few positions, and Henry lied and cheated.

History is devoid of logic, this book teaches us. In the history there are no straight lines, on the contrary, history is full of curves. Disappointing truth about the Negro race is expressed in the words of the narrator: if not whites, Negroes would never fight for their freedom. Blacks would rather run than go with a weapon on their master. «Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.»

The Good Lord Bird is written on «black» English, but not in its extreme form when you not so much reading as decrypting the written. Memoirs are written by semi-literate man who never learned to speak and write by all the rules.

The novel can be characterized with its slightly distorted title , - good lord novel.

Friday, November 22, 2013

River Girl

Charles Williams
River Girl

Gold Medal, 1951

A part of Forgotten Friday Books

Jack Marshall is a deputy sheriff in a small town. The judge's son, the young Jack is in good standing with the citizens, especially those who run the dens and brothels. Sheriff and Jack allow homes of sins exist and prosper, but for taking a bribe that Jack accurately collects every month. An active member of the Christian organization wants to close all brothels, at the same time sending crooked cops to jail.

But the problems with the grand jury for the deputy sheriff go to the background when the meets a beautiful woman with a funny haircut, living in a small house on the river bank with a suspicious husband. Jack and "river girl" by the name of Doris fall in love, and Jack starts to come in the evening to the river to see Doris. Lovers are going to run away together when her Doris’ husband, Shevlin, finds them in his house. In the struggle Jack kills Shevlin and comes up with a plan to cover up the murder and escape with Doris away.

It is not hard to guess that everything goes completely wrong, not as Jack has planned. In noir a perfect murder does not happen. River Girl is one of those noirs, which are written in the first person, and where the reader's own throat starts to feel a noose on his neck, tightening.

Williams treats the reader gently. The reader sympathizes with the protagonist, despite the fact that the protagonist is a real bastard. Sympathy for Jack covers the fact that he was cheating on his wife, without batting an eye, kills an unarmed man, takes bribes and has no qualms.

The novel, however, is not without drawbacks. It suffers from a large volume, and the motives of the characters are sometimes not clear. If the reader is willing to forgive the author the plot holes, he will receive a tense novel.

I had problems with a few episodes. When Jack kills Shevlin, who is an escaped convict, living in the swamp, he could not have any plans to cover up. The disappearance of practically an unknown man from the backwoods would have noticed no one, especially since Shevlin is constantly on the run, changing the place of residence. And the representative of the law Marshall would had to think about it before he acted rashly.

Later in the book for Jack another woman falls, Dinah, the sheriff's mistress, which saw in Jack «excitement». But at that time Jack was exhausted with problems, always worried because of the murder and the grand jury, and at first sight to have seen something exciting in him would be doubtful.

But it is my grumbling. In fact, River Girl is a classic of noir.

Soon to be reprinted by Stark House Press

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Inside Straight

Ray Banks
Inside Straight

Blasted Heath, 2013

Graham Ellis for a certain offense is transferred from one Manchester’s casino to another one. It is filled with incompetent dealers and lousy managers. Ellis, one might say, is sent to rescue the wretched casino, because he is a responsible, experienced, focused, or at least he thinks so of himself. On day shifts Ellis nearly dies of boredom, until the night manager is attacked and badly beaten. Ellis then is transferred to work at night, where the activity is larger and responsibility too. But for Ellis the show isn’t over. Local crime boss, which is accountable for several casino robberies (though the police can not hang any of them on to him), speaks with Ellis, praising his skills, and then makes an offer he can not refuse.

Ray Banks himself once worked in a casino, so don’t doubt the authenticity of casino detail here. Was Banks the best pit boss at the time, now is not important, but much more important how the author controls his character. Ellis says several times – to himself and out aloud, that he is a professional and master of his craft:

«If I was best pit boss at the Palace - and I was, without question - then I was certainly the best pit boss at the Riverside.»

«I was a good pit boss. I was the best they had.»

«I'm the best pit boss they've got.»

But with the small details we make a true image of the narrator, who, perhaps, is the best in the casino, but as a person he is still an asshole. Banks is an asshole, too, because he forces the reader to root for the main character, despite - with each chapter more and more - the deformity of Ellis’ soul.

Inside Straight is a remarkably old-fashioned by today's standards thing. If the background is "updated" up to the present, then the rest - from the protagonist’s squeamishness to the ending – is vintage, but not covered in dust.

Those familiar with the works of Banks invariably will recognize the essence of the main character, which is almost the same in all the books of this writer. This is a short-tempered, somewhat naive, lad, faint-hearted, but good in the heart. Ellis of this novel in addition is a geek, recording TV shows on the VCR and collecting the figurines and posters.

Only in one scene Banks loses control of his character: a teetotal Ellis gets drunk and calls a colleague, and it is likely that Ellis would have felt that he was drunk, but Banks misses it.

Thrilling novel without a single superfluous word.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A House in Naples

Peter Rabe
A House in Naples

Gold Medal, 1956

Charley and Joe are two American deserters that during World War II escaped from the army. They remained in Italy, have engaged in the transportation of goods from the black market and generally well settled there. Only Joe, though stupid one, made homself new documents, and Charley didn’t. So when the police stopped his truck, Charlie fled, but with a wound and the face now known to all carabinieri. Now, if he is caught, he will go staright to prison (or noose), and Charley urgently needs to get new documents.

Rabe with each novel increasingly shows his passion for travel. In his first novel, the action took place in the United States, in the second Italy flashed somewhere in the background, the half of the action of the third has been placed in Germany, and the fourth is purely Italian. The protagonist is always a crook, smart and savvy to a degree, but again, short-tempered and jealous. Rabe gave his character an unusual habit: he does not drink, but all the time sucks aspirin.

All elements of the previous work of the writer are again present, but A House in Naples is a more private story. This novel is a kind of rural noir, as Rabe understands it.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Drowning Pool

John Ross Macdonald
The Drowning Pool

Knopf, 1950

In the second Lew Archer novel LA private detective is hired by a mysterious woman from a small town. She is married to an actor, a mama's boy, who lives with his family in his mother's house and is dependent on monthly handouts from her. The woman asks Archer to find the author of the blackmailing letter. Blackmailer gently hinted that he was aware of the woman’s affair. The woman is afraid that the letters, originally addressed to her husband, will continue and will get into the hands of either the husband or her mother-in-law. Archer takes two hundred dollars from the client and begins to investigate. Very quickly in the case of blackmail the first corpse appears.

The Drowning Pool is a short entertaining book, in which Archer cracks jokes, wealthy families do not have peace and friendship, and young girls hang on the detective one ager another. This novel can serve as an excellent textbook on the topic «Noir vs PI novel». Closer to the finale one femme fatale kills her husband and asks Archer to destroy the evidence and run with her to Mexico. Whether this book was noir, Archer would have done it without a doubt. But thinking over in his head the possible consequences (including the most unpleasant, the electric chair), the PI refuses this dubious future, and that is what makes the book a PI novel.

Among the curious moments worth mentioning here is Archer’s literary knowledge. He does not know who Dylan Thomas is («... father likes his poetry and I tried to read some of it but I couldn't understand it. It's awfully difficult and symbolic, like Dylan Thomas." The name rang no bell.») , but calls a gambler loser Dostoevsky - «"Stick around, "I told the young Dostoevsky.» Apparently, Archer is more fond of Russian literature than of British.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

All the Birds, Singing

Evie Wyld
All the Birds, Singing

Jonathan Cape, 2013

Jake Whyte, a fit young woman, lives alone with her dog Dog on a farm on one of the British Isles and breeds the sheep. Jake finds the first lamb torn to pieces, and then the second. Who mercilessly kills animals is not clear. Jake suspects foxes, violent adolescents, although it is also possible that behind the killings is some mysterious beast.

Jake lives on her farm as a recluse, not socializing with the locals: does not go to the pub, does not make friends easily, rarely asking for help from Don, a neighbor, who sold her the farm. Therefore, when the sheep begin to disappear, the woman has no one to turn to for help. She goes to the police station, but a policeman does not take her complaint seriously and instead of searching for sheepkillers offers Jake start dating.

This story line that takes place in the present, is developing quite quickly and in a straight chronology. But of Jake’s past we learn gradually, from the chapters of the narrator’s past in Australia, and these chapters are arranged in reverse order, from the adult years before moving to the island to the children's age.

From the chapters of the past, we learn why Jake has scars on her body, why she is sleeping next to a shotgun, why she avoids men at the pub, and why she ran away from her life on the green continent.

All the Birds, Singing is as if in the film «Memento» the main character was replaced by a woman and added some mystique. It’s a very poignant book, which uniquely blends brutality with kind-heartedness. The main character finds a wounded pigeon with a label and calls the owner, but in the excitement she turns kills a pigeon. Jake takes care of sheep and ensures that shearing sheep is not hurt, but she shoots the sheep, when it seems that this is creature in the bushes. She loves her dog, but during the escape she accidentally runs over her kidnapper’s dog.

Jake herself is an unusually fragile person, but with a crack inside. She swears, knows how to shoot a gun, able to fight men back, but blushes when she suddenly blurts out his feelings to Lloyd.
On these joints the entire novel is built. If we take the structure of the book, it can be seen more clearly. The present plot line goes from terrible to more humane, the past plot line - from innocence and simplicity to the horror and deception. In this case, it seems that violence accompanies Jake always and everywhere, wherever it may be, in Australia or Britain.

In this violence lies uncompromising attitude of Evie Wyld. Her novel is an honest portrait of a flawed heroine trying to survive in the tough world. But salvation does not come. Though something strange and inexplicable is coming. You can not escape from the demons, if these demons are inside you.

The novel is written in the first person and in present tense. Chapters about the past are not flashbacks. The heroine does not recall anything, she doesn’t tell her story: the past itself erupts into the present. With every return to the past the narrator experiences physical violence, and the reader simply can not remain indifferent to this terrifying story .

The appearance of a man in the life of the main character makes this book more optimistic, no matter how it may seem. You can exorcize the ghosts of the past, you just can not do it alone. Then the birds will sing.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Lower River

Paul Theroux
The Lower River

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

62-year-old owner of a menswear store in a small town in Massachusetts Ellis Hock's wife gives him a new phone. Gadget unexpectedly for a new owner restores old deleted emails, and among them are plenty off different kinds of love letters to ladies with whom Hock acquainted in the store and then exchanged e-mails. The wife and the husband have a scandal, go to the family counsellor but that leads nowhere, on the contrary, only worsens the situation, and the couple has a divorce. The only daughter asks for her share, and the shop owner is forced to sell his business.

Thinking over all his years of marriage, Hock finds that he hasn’t seen happiness in his life, not experienced love, doesn’t like vacations. The only time he was happy in his life was before marriage. More than forty years ago, young Hock for the four years lived in Africa as a part of Peace Corps, in a small village in Malawi. There, he was helpful and happy. He built a school, taught children English, helped local residents organize a clinic, has become a sort of mythical figure among locals, because he was the only white, mzungu, and the only one who was not afraid of snakes and could tame them. After the divorce, Hock helps a woman with python, which she has found, and feels that he has not lost his ability. This episode with the snake becomes a push to ensure the return to Malawi for a few weeks, to help local people, remember the past, recover from the stressful divorce.

Theroux, who wrote more than one guide, this time has turned to fiction about the harsh Africa. At the beginning of the novel Africa is a paradise that can bring back the past, to give strength, to help find yourself. But more and more it becomes obvious – to the protagonist and to the reader - there is no paradise on earth. Hock himself comes to the conclusion that we doesn’t need to go to Mars to find than different than usual earthly life – «Malabo was more distant than Mars».

Hopes and dreams of the protagonist rapidly break down, but he still has some time living a mirage. It's not easy to break the ideal of the past. The same mirage clouded his vision, only by this carelessness and irresponsibility of Hock can be explained. He could prepare for the trip, learn more about the state of affairs in Africa, to ensure himself, but he did not - he was blinded by the chance to feel happy again.

Life in the village of Malabo in The Lower River appears in all its ugliness. Theroux masterfully conveys the sounds, smells, customs, traditions, motifs of locals. The novel is essentially written in three languages: pure English, pidgin English and the language of Sena, the local dialect. Theroux in detail paints a loss of Hock’s strength, his exhaustion. The heat, the mosquitoes, malaria, dehydration, poor diet, lack of sleep, the most important - stress - Hock in one scene thinks he would be able to recover his health, but food and rest would not be enough, it would take a break from thinking about survival and escape. This novel is not about a Rambo, surviving in the jungle, who breaks a palm with his hand, but about the old confused man.

And yet, for all the time of his captivity Hock never dreams of quick and easy death as a deliverance. It is only a few times he thinks that now they would kill him or he will die in an accident, but with each failed attempt his will to live doesn’t reduce. He wants to live - but in freedom.

«I don't exist, Hock thought. No one knows I'm here, no one knows me, no one cares, and were this flimsy canoe to turn over, or be flipped by a hippo, no one would ever find me; no one would know I died. The world would continue to turn without me, my death would be unnoticed, would make no difference, because I am no one, no more than meat.»

Africa in the novel is a very strange place. Laziness, greed, stupidity destroyed the continent. Even more frightening is that at home the protagonist faced with the same. The difference is that in the U.S. he was home, but a stranger there.

This Theroux novel is an addictive thing. It is not that it is a page-turner, but the book is literally mesmerizing - its style, the atmosphere, the characters, the sense of impending doom. Not that I had read a lot of novels about Africa, but this one is probably the best.