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


Frank Bill

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.