Thursday, April 24, 2014


Gordon Lish

OR Books, 2014

This is the first collection of original stories by Gordon Lish in 16 years. Master of the avant-garde prose, a brilliant editor, Lish remains true to himself in a new book. The collection (quite thin, a little over 130 pages) is titled Goings: In Thirteen Sittings with a meaning. It will be hard to read it in one sitting, despite the small volume. Lish’s prose requires attention, diligence, perseverance. With each cracking of book you make an attempt, one sitting is limited to one (and sometimes even part of) story.

Stories in the book are deliberately autobiographical. For every "I" here we have an explanation in brackets (Gordon) or (Gordo). So it’s reducing the distance between the protagonist and the author.

Even autobiographical element of the stories is nominal. Detail of the past or the present becomes the catalyst to the almost missing plot, and the plot is reduced to verbal gymnastics. Reductio ad absurdum style makes the reader giddy, often causing transient amnesia: it’s hard to remember where a story began.

Avant-garde of the prose always questiones its readability, and Lish here is saved by his sense of humor. In his stylistic flourishes Lish the writer regularly makes fun of himself, Lish the old man.

«"Put it on," she said.

I put it on.

"Come closer," she said.

I did as she said, and before I could defend myself, she knocked my elbow out of the way and hooked her finger - from outside the shirt, from outside - through into the armpit.

And wiggled neck

The finger.

"What's this?" she said.

"What's what?" I said.

"This", she said.

"What?" I said, wondering but not all that assiduously, how she had managed to get her finger into my armpit from the outside.

From ouside the sirt, I mean.

"This slit," she said. She said, "What's this doing here? Not that I want for us to overlook this one on the other side over here. Are these gills? "She said. She said, "Are you actially wearing a shirt with gills?"

Well, it turned out I was.


Thus through the stylistic jungle breaks something totally, humanly simple.

Hopefully, with the next collection Gordon Lish will not wait another 16 years.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Book of You

Claire Kendal
The Book of You

Harper UK, 2014

Middle-aged woman Clarissa Bourne parted with longtime lover after unsuccessful attempts to get pregnant. Shortly after broke-up Clarissa meets at a book launch party with the author of the book Rafe Solms. Rafe asks to walk Clarissa home, she agrees and wakes in the morning in bed with Rafe, but with no memory of the events of the previous night. The protagonist of the novel is convinced that Rafe slipped something in her drink, and then raped her. Clarissa hopes that she will never see Rafe again.

However, this man begins to follow her everywhere, to the university, where Clarissa works as an administrator, to shops, to railway station, from which the heroine every day commute to work. Realizing that she deals not with the persistent suitor, but with a stalker, she takes from Help Center brochures with tips on how to behave when faced with the stalker. Remembering the incident with the theft of a bag in her childhood, when the police tried to dissuade Clarissa to press charges, the protagonist realizes that the police will not help her. Then, following the advice from the brochure, the heroine begins to ignore her stalker and starts a diary which she calls "The Book of You”, documenting in the first person all the clashes with Rafe, all his gifts and threats.

When Clarissa is selected on a jury duty in the rape case, the heroine happily agrees to leave the job for seven weeks of trial. Rafe will have less opportunity to stalk her. Trial situation is somewhat reminiscent of Clarissa’s. Young woman of dubious reputation was abducted in broad daylight, the suspects brought her to the apartment, where she was drugged and raped by several men.

This debut by British first-novelist can be labeled retro. It is not just the story, though the novel obviously belongs to a special sub-genre "woman in danger", but rather credibility. The novel’s events would have looked naturally in the thriller written by a woman in the middle '40s: the lack of friends, relatives and distrust of the police could make the heroine alone run from moderately dangerous stalker. Novels of thattime were full of suspense half mixed with sentimentalism. But the novel is published in 2014, and these cat-and-mouse game with obsessive stalker are hard to believe in. Eventually the maniac is academician and not a sadistic drug addict with two previous convictions.

Questionable credibility would be small disadvantage, if not more ambitious miscalculations from Kendal. In hernovel, she alternates between the first person (for diary entries) and third (for everything else), although this narrative choice is not justified. Third person does not give a broader view of what is happening, and diary entries are too emotional to qualify as documental for the police.

Kendal handles the plot not too confident. In the first half of the book tension builds, forcing turning pages faster and faster, but by the middle of the book the action begins to sag. The essence of Rafe’s personality becomes clear, but the author continues to write the monotonous prose. So the book would have benefited if it were a hundred pages shorter.

And if a large part of the plot is based on the coincidence, the presence of a secondary storyline, trial part, is generally unjustified. Scenes from the trial are boring, and the constant abstraction of Clarissa only gives reason to believe that the jury’s decsions are irrational since jurors are immersed in their own problems. This plotline extends novel, but adds no depth to understanding of the protagonist.

Finale is disappointing: throughout the book there are hints of some twist in the end, but it all comes down to the usual tedious and tiresome action. This only confirms Kendal’s questionable talent as a plotter. The first half of the novel is intriguing, but in the second half the novel is falling apart.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Last Policeman

Ben Winters
The Last Policeman

Quirk Books, 2012

Asteroid 2011GV1 is coming to Earth, collision is inevitable, the only thing that is not known – the area on the planet the deadly asteroid will hit. Awareness of death radically changes people's behavior. Someone immediately makes suicide, someone quits his or her job and starts working on a "Bucket List " - makes all the dreams and ideas reality, as soon as still there is time. Government stops most of its duties. Internet and mobile communications almost disappear, the use of fuel becomes a felony.

Changes affect state police as well. In the small town of Concord police departments are downsizing, and the number of detectives is minimized. Nobody sees any reasons to investigate the crimes, even the detectives. They drink coffee and discuss the impending end of the world. Most of the police service focused on patrolling the streets.

Death of an insurance agent Peter Zell initially is ruled as suicide. He is found hanging in the toilet at McDonald's, or rather «It's not even a real McDonald's. There are no more real McDonald's. The company folded in August of last year, ninety-four percent of its value having evaporated in three weeks of market panic, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of brightly colored empty storefronts. Many of these, like the one we're now standing in, on Concord's Main Street, have subsequently been transformed into pirate restaurants: owned and operated by enterprising locals like my new best friend over there, doing a bustling business in comfort food and no need to sweat the franchise fee.»

However, a detective attached to the case, Henry Palace is troubled by some discrepancies in the death of Zell. And while colleagues recommend Palace leave Zell’s death as a suicide, a young detective continues to dig up the truth.

Not being an expert on apocalyptic fiction, I can not say with certainty that this plot had not already been used in the literature in the past, but I do not think the idea is a new one. The initial premise of the novel has a direct effect on a mystery plot. Is death of Zell associated with end of the world or he had some other motives for suicide\murder? Actually a mystery plot is the meat of the novel, and apocalyptic background is an essential part and fuel of the story.

Each plot twist is invariably associated with a future disaster, suggesting that Winters is very skillful writer.

Clever mystery, a good start to the series.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No One Rides For Free

Larry Beinhart
No One Rides For Free

Open Road Media, 2012 (digital reissue)

A lawyer of a large American corporation Edgar Wood steals from his own company several million dollars, gets real prison term and to prevent his incarceration, he is an old man who are used to a life of luxury, requests immunity in exchange for testimony. Wood promises federal commision a detailed account of all dirty business of the firm and its management, and the SEC will put Wood on the witness protection program at the time of interrogation.

Wood’s snitching violates attorney-client confidentiality, and the corporation management is worried that one of them can go to prison after the Wood. Then one of the corporation’s lawyers hires a private detective Tony Cassella to find Wood and find out (preferably without breaking the law) what Wood says to the feds. Cassella quickly finds a house in the countryside, where the feds hold Wood and where Wood meets a federal investigator for questioning, but the detective fails to learn anything from Wood. Wood is gunned down outside the restaurant, presumably during a robbery. Wood’s daughter does not believe that her father's death was an accident, and again employs Cassella, that he would dig into the murder. The P.I. immediately feels that the murder was not accidental.

«No One Rides For Free» is very original fiction, offering not the most common background for a detective story. The novel is set in the world of large corporations, federal agencies and edge investigations. Edge in the sense that almost all novel the detective works on the borderline between legal and illegal methods. He's a detective with the license, but he could be someone from Ocean's 11.

Cassella is on the verge not only professionally, but also regarding everything else. He cheats on his wife and uses cocaine in large doses regularly. However, Cassella is not completely fallen character: he refuses to see his “connected” uncle and doesn’t give up in the middle, no matter how dangerous the situation is getting. He even does not condemn Edgar Wood for the fact that he turned against his friends and colleagues:

«But it could get closer to the line. I hated prisons. I understood Edgar Wood's panic. I understood every punk in the world who sold out his friends to stay on the outside. Something ached in me to play touch and go with the line that had bars on the far side. It was the same yearning ache that lurched inside me when Willie Contact offered me the cool white cocaine. It was in my testicles and lower bowels. There was a sensation, as if the devil stood behind me. When I turned to look, there was nothing there, not even my own shadow.»

One of the charms of the book is to see Cassella in action. His methods of investigation are not ordinary and quite authentic.

No One Rides For Free could be called a mixture of Andrew Vachss (well detailed criminal underworld) and Michael Collins (who is Dennis Lynds; stylistic abilities), if not for the fact that this novel was published a year later than Vachss’ debut Flood, so Vachss could not influence Beinhart.

The novel has so much audacity and anger, while Beinhart has so much talent, that the following fact seems incredible. No One Rides For Free is never mentioned in the lists of the best P.I. novels of all time. And this is enormous injustice. An absolute must-read.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fade to Blonde

Max Phillips
Fade to Blonde

Hard Case Crime, 2004

Ray Corson virtually works for free for a local building contractor, and it starts to bother him. Corson came to Hollywood as a screenwriter, but also tried himself in the ring, in front of the camera, and now doing odd jobs. When an attractive blonde finds him and asks to help her with one thing, Corson immediately quits his job, knocking out the payment from his boss.

A blonde named Rebecca LaFontaine (of course, a pseudonym) offers a small sum of money for Corson so he would help her get rid of a persistent suitor Lance Halliday, and for get rid of him the girl means to kill him. Corson is not ready to kill and offers simply to scare Halliday with more peaceful ways. Halliday owns a small film studio, engaged in the production of pornographic films, as well as on the side deals drugs. While Ray is looking for ways to approach Halliday, the dead bodies begin to pile up.

It is not difficult to guess that Phillips wrote an homage to paperback novels from the 50s. The detective hero himself came as if from noir novel (eventually Corson considers killing Halliday and solving all problems), but the novel’s plot here is purely mystery. Phillips plays by the rules, scattering hints and pieces throughout the text, but doing without trickery.

Charm of Fade to Blonde lays not only in the plot and style. The novel reads more like a book from 40s or 50s that has been forgot and only now was found. It is perfect to learn to distinguish the original from the copy. Connoisseurs of old PBO novels will find the whole scenes and the individual words that you can read here, but never could find in the paperbacks of the middle of the last century.

«"You can touch one for a dollar, "she said.


"Give me a dollar," she said, drying her back.

After a moment, I took a dollar from my pocket and handed it to her. She folded it twice and tucked it under the right strap of her suit, then swung my towel around her shoulders like a shawl. Beneath it, she lowered her left strap. She took hold of my right hand, slipped it under the towel, and placed it on her breast. It was heavy and firm. The skin was still cold and goose-pimpled, but I could feel the heat inside.»

This scene gives a particularly good idea of the differences between the two eras. I find it difficult to imagine that such an episode would find a place somewhere in the book of a detective imprint (although we can not exclude softcore publishers).

Fade to Blonde is a clever homage and strong whodunit.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Boy, Snow, Bird

Helen Oyeyemi
Boy, Snow, Bird

Picador UK, 2014

The story begins in the postwar years on Manhattan. Girl with a strange name Boy Novak lives with her father in a small house. Boy does not know anything about her mother, and her father works as a rat catcher. The basement floor of Novak’s house is laden with cages with rats that Boy’s father uses for his work.

Boy has a passion for words, has a strange attraction to mirrors, has average grades in school, all due to the fact that she grew up in a family of lone rat catcher. Boy’s father often beat her, sometimes scares her with rats.

«I did fine at school. I'm talking about the way boys reacted to me, actually, since some form of perversity caused me to spend most lessons pretending to absorb much less information than I actually did. Every now and then a teacher got suspicious about a paper I'd turned in and would keep me after school for questioning. "Has someone been. . . helping you? "I just shook my head and shuffled my chair sideways, avoiding the glare of the desk lamp the teacher invariably tried to shine into my eyes. Something about a girl like me writing an A-grade paper turns teachers into cops.»

Boy meets a young man named Charlie, but their relationships don’t work out. Unable to withstand the regular beating of her father, Boy one day gathers a few of her belongings, steals $12 from her father and runs to the bus depot, buying a ticket to a small town Flax Hill.

Helen Oyeyemi has the ability to write vigorously. The book begins as a modern fairy tale that one girl can tell another. Dates are blurred, but there are a rat catcher, abusive father, running away from home and a small town of shadow nature. The beginning already makes guess what is in front of us, realism or magic realism?

Every sentence in this book radiates energy, and sometimes sentences themselves bump into each other, the idea might pause for a paragraph, but reappear in another paragraph. Prose here really is alive, not stereotype for the words, 70 percent of modern American literature uses. It makes me happy, you’re feeling originality, otherness.

But the first half of the book has a problem not with the style, but with the narrative, with the writer’s ability to clearly tell the story. There is just not enough clarity. Narrative wobbles and it is not clear whether the author knows where she is going, or just writes in the hope that the story itself will lead somewhere. The key point of the first chapter emerges as an ax from the pond - that is, all of a sudden, without any hints from the text. One expects from the writer who writes unique prose a certain subtlety.

But the second part is written more smoothly, without wiggle of the first, and the second part offers very thinly scattered clues, trivia, internal techniques that later get together and make the overall picture. Particularly impressive is the fact that the first and second parts of the novel are completely different, as it should be when there is a narrator change. Despite the existence of racial themes, it has no effect on the style: the entire novel is written in literary English, without its "black" version. The characters discuss the color of the skin here, but it's just one of the themes of the novel. Racial theme here is one of the components of the theme of the family.

The finale of Boy, Snow, Bird is immaculate, shocking, amazing, as however you think for something unexpected, you still will be surprised. Despite the flawed beginning for such a finale you can forgive this book a lot. Overall imperfection of this book says only that great books are rarely smooth and perfect.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Dismal Science

Peter Mountford
The Dismal Science

Tin House, 2014

Vincenzo D’Orsi is a Vice-President at the World Bank and a widower. Once a year, the board of the Bank is going to Washington to discuss the Bank’s working directions, but for the most part these meetings are of a formal nature. Managers and bankers are going to share rumors, talk about their lives, just having a drink with old friends. The Bank operates almost by itself. a The meeting of the Bank falls on Thanksgiving, and Vincenzo spends holiday in the company of his daughter Leonora, who came specially from New York, where she lives after graduating from the prestigious college and working as a waitress in a cafe, and his closest - and only - friend Walter, a journalist of The Washington Post. Walter and Vincenzo know each other more than for 20 years, their friendship began with a short interview that Walter took from Vincenzo. Now both friends already are in their fifties, and they have worked at the same place all their lives.

Everything changes for Vincenzo after his meeting with Hamilton, an expert on South American direction. In Bolivia a new president was elected, and he is the opposition to the candidate backed by the Americans. Now Hamilton asks Vincenzo cut help to Bolivia, fearing that Bolivia would seek to escape from U.S. pressure. But Vincenzo refuses to fulfill the request of colleagues. Hamilton begins to threaten Vincenzo that he would lose his job, while Vincenzo in turn threatens to go with this story to the press. Communication with the press is secretly prohibited in the Bank, and both Hamilton and Vincenzo understand that it will lead to Vincenzo’s retirement.

By evening Vincenzo decides to summon his friend Walter and talks about the pressure on him. The next day, an article has been published, which also becomes a statement about Vincenzo’s resignation.

The Dismal Science is written in the third person, and its protagonist is no longer a young man, only taking first steps in the world of finance, but an experienced man with a midlife crisis, a dead wife and a troubled daughter. Vincenzo gradually reopenes his past: from gragmented memories we learn about the injury of his daughter, and then about the death of his wife. Fully spent his life on work and career, now 54-year-old protagonist realizes that he missed the family while he had it. Now the hero is trying to regain his private life, but does not know how. Amusing to read a few scenes in the novel where Vincenzo is given advice about how in today's world to date.

Mountford draws in his novel a complex character. Vincenzo is a strange, he is apparently a coward (he cares about his pension, he tells the bank lawyer to got to hell, but only after signing the contract, retaining his pension). The subject of confrontation of the world economy and the individual in the novel leads to the creation of a nontrivial intrigue: what really was the true cause of this challenge? Was it an impulse, temporary insanity, or clearly thought out move? What drives people to do making vital decisions? Can one person change the state of the world economy? The Dismal Science is a charming portrait of an egoist, and not just egois, but egoist with a midlife crisis.

Mountford particularly surprised me by the inclusion in the novel a black CIA agent (supposedly a CIA agent, because he officially doesn’t tell wether he is CIA and or another secret service), simultaneously parodying spy novels and inventing a new type of a CIA agent, who does not need a gun or a license to kill, enough to know how to intimidate.

Mountford with this book confirmed that he's a gifted writer: he writes books that are read with pleasure and long remembered.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Bibliosleuth wanted!

I stumbled upon a bibliomystery some time ago. Today I present this mystery to you.

Three years ago, before the time I’d gone heavy into book collection, I’d bought a first edition copy of The Wrong Case by James Crumley. This is his second novel, but his first crime novel, and that was the reason I’d chosen it. I paid $3: it was first edition, but without DJ. That is why it was so cheap.

The book went on to the shelf, where it remained for three years. Until the early March when I spotted on eBay a first edition of The Wrong Case (with the dust jacket) with a low starting bid. I had no luck with collecting Crumley before. Every time I tried to win or buy one of his books a book would flee from me as if I posed some threat to it. Thus, I had only two his books in first edition, and The Wrong Case – without DJ.

I’d won – surprisingly for myself – that auction for a low price. I was pleased. I even had a reason to celebrate: for the three years the book’s price has gone ridiculously high. Even without DJ you can find only a few copies of the book online, and the cost for a jacketless copy can be as high as $100. A copy in a condition like mine will cost $250-300.

So I’ve had two copies of the same book, one with a DJ and one jacketless. I wanted to compare these copies I had, and it was then when I stumbled upon a bibliomystery. These copies should have been identical: they are both first edition, first printing, first printed in the same country in the same year and published by the same publisher. But the boards are different! They are different colors, different thickness, different logos, different paper. The text is the same, but the copies are different.

Below you can find photoproofs.

As you can see, publisher’s imprints are the same. But I can’t understand why the boards look different.

Either I can’t see something obvious or there was some mix-up somewhere.