Category Archives: Fiction

Agostino by Alberto Moravia

Alberto Morovia’s novella Agostino follows one summer in the life of a young boy who goes on holiday to the Tuscan coast with his widowed mother. At 13, Agostino is no longer a small child, but he’s not yet a man; he’s in that awkward in-between phase when children ‘wake’ up to the adult world, its rules, its inconsistencies, and its hypocrisies. It’s a phase with Agostino, not locked out of the adult world, as much as if he’s looking through a window trying to understand what he sees.

In the early days of summer, Agostino and his mother used to go out to sea every morning on a small rowboat typical of the Mediterranean beaches known as a pattino. At first she brought a boatman along with them, but Agostino gave such clear signs of annoyance at the man’s presence that the oars were turned over to him. He rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early-morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy.

Agostino wants to be the man in his mother’s life, and for most of the time, he has that role, but his mother “a big and beautiful woman still in her prime,” gets a lot of attention wherever she goes. Agostino, proud of his mother, and also possessive, feels that they are “onstage before an audience of hundreds of watchful eyes.” Alone on the boat, his mother will sunbathe naked, and Agostino takes his role of protector very seriously–never invading his mother’s privacy as she strips.

agostinoOf course, all this idyllic time must come to an end, and the change begins when a man begins a relationship with Agostino’s mother. Literally and symbolically he’s “a shadow [who] obstructed the sunlight shining down on” Agostino.  Over the course of a few days, Agostino, humiliated and sulky, witnesses changes in his mother’s personality as she flirts and shows a sort of helplessness that was previously entirely absent. Agostino notes this side of his mother that he’s never seen before, and in his turn, he begins to show new behaviours too. He resents what he sees as his mother’s betrayal, but at the same time, her relationship with the man has stirred Agostino’s developing sexuality; he’s confused by all these conflicting feelings, and then he becomes involved with a gang of local boys.

Agostino is not a typical coming-of-age novel. Agostino’s on the brink of the adult world and his experiences that summer open a window into troubling and confusing adult sexuality. Agostino sees things which he doesn’t understand, and when he becomes involved with the local boys, he’s introduced to a far more dangerous world. Author Alberto Moravia creates a languor in this story that contradicts the turbulence under the surface, and the many scenes of the ocean or the river juxtapose that languor and serenity to the unspoken dangers of sexual relationships.

For a moment Agostino felt happy as he swam while the cold powerful stream tugged at his legs, and he forgot every hurt and every wrong. The boys were swimming in all directions, their heads and arms breaking through the smooth green surface. Their voices echoed clearly in the still air. Through the glass transparency of the water, their bodies looked like white offshoots of plants that, rising to the surface from the darkness below, moved whichever way the current took them.

Agostino steps away from his mother’s love and protection, and feeling neglected, he enters the much harsher, cruel world of the local boys who all hang around the lifeguard Sero, a brutal individual who surrounds himself with the boys and creates a marginally criminal enterprise. Used to worshipping his mother, Agostino now discovers how women rate in this world of bottom-feeder males, and the company of these rough, poor children only complicates his feelings for his mother as he’s torn between protecting her image and showing the boys that he’s just like them.

While sexuality, emerging or hidden is a major force in the book, class also plays a role. Agostino, as a holidaymaker with leisure time, is clearly from a different class than the local children, and he falls back on this difference for security and power whenever he has the chance, so that we see how money spares Agostino from raw experience and simultaneously allows him bragging rights to experiences and conditions the poor children envy. In one very clever scene, Agostino has the opportunity to play a power card through a different role to another boy whose circumstances mirror Agostino’s privilege.

Morovia emphasizes the sensual and it’s no coincidence that sexual encounters occur on boats as they rock gently on the tranquil sea. This is a seemingly simple story that resonates with a sort of brutal truth. We all have to grow up and we can usually point to pivotal moments when childhood was stripped away. Agostino begins with a proud boy with complex feelings about his mother and ends with a troubled teen who understands that the treacherous  world of adult sexuality awaits him.

“But the intensity of his filial vanity and the turmoil of his infatuation would linger for many years to come.”

Translated by Michael F. Moore

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Never Coming Back by Tim Weaver

You don’t hear much about whole families going missing like that. Like … not together, and definitely not down in south Devon. That place is so safe. It’s like a theme park.”

I decided to read Tim Weaver’s novel, Never Coming Back, without knowing that it is number 4 in a series (Chasing the Dead, Dead Tracks, Vanished). Never Coming Back is this British author’s American debut, and for reasons that I don’t understand, the 4th in the David Raker series is the first to see the U.S market. Actually I’m really glad that I didn’t know about the other three novels, as I wouldn’t have picked up number 4, and that would have been a mistake.

Yes, there’s a backstory to the book, to David Raker’s past life and exactly why he has chosen to be a PI who specializes in missing persons cases. That back story is covered here–covered very well, I’ll add, so crime writers could do themselves a favour and read this to see how the author plays catch-up for those readers who’ve missed earlier books or need a reminder. The back story is always a problem in a series. How much do you include? How much repeat ground do you cover? Reading Never Coming Back made me want to read the 3 backlist novels, but I never felt confused about the plot or characters.

never coming backNever Coming Back finds David Raker in Devon, in the house he inherited from his parents, recuperating from savage wounds and an abandoned relationship. He’s not alone as he shares his house in an uneasy cohabitation arrangement with former Met copper Healy, freshly fired from the force. Raker acknowledges that he has “the same kind of ghosts as Healy,” but that Healy, who’s floundering around “full of anger and resentment and bitterness,” isn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life. A body washes up on the shore and amidst the fallout, Healy decides policing is what he does best, and Raker is contacted by Emily, an old girlfriend, for help locating her sister, brother-in-law and their two children who vanished without trace several months previously. How can four people vanish without a trace? There were a few reported sightings, but the case became cold fast. Perhaps even too fast…

Here’s Emily describing the family’s mysterious disappearance, and the house as she found it, “like a museum,” a “snapshot of time.”

“Their cars were still on the drive, the lights were on in the house, so I rang the doorbell, five, six, seven times.”

A pause.

 [...]

“I walked through to the kitchen and the dinner was still cooking.”

“It had just been left like that?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “I remember it vividly. The potatoes were still cooking even though there was no water left in the pan. The pork steaks were burned to a crisp. Vegetables were half prepared, just left on the chopping board. It was like the four of them had downed tools and walked out of the house. There was nothing out of place.”

She turned her coffee mug, lost in thought for a moment. “In fact, the opposite really. Everything was in place. Even the table was set: cutlery laid out, drinks prepared.”

“Did it look like they’d left in a hurry?”

She shook her head, but in her eyes I saw a flicker of hesitation as if she’d remembered something but wasn’t sure whether it was even worth bringing up.

“Emily?”

“The milk,” she said.

“Milk?”

“The fridge had been left ajar. This big four-pinter was lying on the floor, and all the milk had poured out of it, across the linoleum, but that was it.”

The novel goes back and forth in time with the back story concerning the disappearance and the present with Raker investigating the cold case. There’s a little awkwardness to this at first, but this disappears as the plot swings forward. On the down side, there were a couple of clues …  the noise of inconsistency, that Raker should have investigated but didn’t. These things, because they were neglected or failed to sound alarm bells, allowed the plot to move forward in a specific direction, so I’d fault the novel there. Now either Raker needs to go back to PI school or I’ve been reading too many crime novels. Take your pick.

But… those complaints aside, Never Coming Back is a riveting story. I read the book in two sittings and deeply resented any interruptions. In spite of its minor faults, this is a moody, dark, atmospheric novel, packed with incredibly suspenseful, descriptive scenes.  Suspense wrapped with dread kept me turning the pages. The author shows terrific skill in building scenes through description: a deserted country house, the steely cold secrets of the indifferent ocean, and the eerie remains of Miln Cross, a coastal village swept into the sea –we know that bad things happened in these places, and there’s the feeling that we are not just reading safely at home–instead we accompany Raker to these places where the suspense, violence and sense of impending doom are tangible. Noise and silence play important roles in this book, and while those two elements are literal, they are also figurative: the noise of clues in an otherwise ordinary domestic scene and the silence of the missing:

I ignored him, ignored the sound of the water stirring on the lake, something gliding across its glassy surface. The rain had eased off, but there was the whistle of a soft breeze, like air traveling through the neck of a bottle. And behind it all was the sea, its noise smothered by the whispering reeds

And another evocative passage:

As I got to the first of the houses, the whine of the wind seemed to fade away into a gentle whisper, a strange disconcerting sound like voices–deep within the roots of the buildings–talking to one another. There was a sudden stillness to the village, its street protected from the breeze coming in off the water, even from the sound of the sea itself: there was no roar from the waves anymore, just a soft slosh as they grabbed and shoved at the plateau the village rose out from. When I paused for a moment at the open window of the first building, it hit home. Miln Cross was a graveyard, its hushed silence the same as every place I’d ever been where people had been taken before they were ready. In those places there was always a residue, a feeling that echoed through it.

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Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri

The Secret In their Eyes , a crime novel from Argentinean author Eduardo Sacheri, was made into an excellent film. I saw the 2009 film first–and I suspect that the film’s success prompted the book’s translation into English. The Secret in their Eyes is the story of Benjamin, an Argentinean clerk who formerly worked in an office which investigated crime, and now in retirement, Benjamin begins writing the story of a decades-old crime that haunts him still. The film version featured one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darin as the sensitive, troubled Benjamin, and I mention Darin as I also imagined him playing Fernando,  one of the characters in Papers in the Wind, the second novel by Sacheri to be translated into English.

While The Secret In Their Eyes is a crime novel which delves into Argentina’s Dirty War, the novel also is partly about the friendship between two men.  Papers in the Wind explores the friendship between four men and what happens when one of them dies of pancreatic cancer, but the novel is not just about friendship; it’s also about letting go of one’s dreams and accepting middle-aged reality & regrets.

papers in the windWhen Mono dies of cancer, he leaves behind a daughter, Guadalupe who lives with Mono’s bitter, angry ex-wife, Lourdes. Mono didn’t have much of a legacy to pass on, but he did ‘invest’ in a soccer player, Pittilanga, a young man whose transfer was purchased by Mono with his severance pay of 300,000 pesos. According to the advice Mono received from a possibly questionable source,  Pittilanga was supposed to be a promising player, and Mono, once a soccer hopeful himself, expected to see a big return on his investment when one of the top teams purchased Pittilanga’s transfer. But now Mono is dead, and Pittilanga is still on a team “out in the sticks,” and due to his continued poor performance–not exactly helped by his weight gain–he’ll probably soon be booted even off of this  bottom-rung team. Then it’s back to his village and a dead-end job for the rest of his life.

Mono died with “practically nothing in the bank,” and Mono’s brother, teacher Fernando, feels obligated to recoup Mono’s investment in Pittilanga with the plan to use the money for Guadalupe’s future. He asks Mono’s childhood friends, serial failed businessman Ruso, and materialistic lawyer, Mauricio to help. Ruso, who shared Mono’s enthusiasm for the soccer player scheme in the first place, is only too happy to be involved, but Mauricio sees it as a lost cause and offers minimal help.

While the plot concerns the friends’ efforts to recoup and sell Pittilanga as a promising young soccer player, most of the novel delves into the relationships between these four very different men. The chapters alternate between past and present, so the story begins with Mono’s funeral, and then moves forward to the problem with Pittilanga. Every other chapter then traces the back story of how Mono decided to take his severance pay, how he dealt with his diagnosis & the series of failed cancer treatments. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of the book. At first these chapters have some sort of point–there’s one good segment when Mono meets an oncologist whose treatment of his patient is so inhumane Mono’s friends almost cause a riot, but the merits of these short chapters quickly fade as Mono’s options whittle down, and we begin to follow his death with pointless chapters such as this:

Hey, Fer …”

“What Mono.”

“I asked you a question.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

I asked you if you don’t console me because I asked you not to, or because you think I’m done for.”

“And?”

“the truth.”

“of course.”

“Both.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

This is about half of one of those backstory chapters, and when these chapters begin to replay the last times Fernando and Mono spent together, during Mono’s treatments and end stage, some of the conversation is relevant, but most of it isn’t, and I do not understand the constant appearance of the “..”.  This would have been a better novel with the back story just cut back to Mono’s purchase of Pittilanga’s transfer, the diagnosis and aftermath. As written, we move forward with one chapter and then move back into these chapters of private moments between Fernando and his brother. The constant  “…” felt like someone had censored the more sensitive exchanges.

The novel’s strength comes from its characterizations. Ruso and Mono have a symbiotic relationship; they are both dreamers, and their enthusiasm feeds off of each other. When Mono comes up with this scheme to buy a soccer player’s transfer, eternal optimist Ruso, with a long history of failed business ventures, is all for it. Fernando understands that part of Mono’s dream includes memories of his brother’s thwarted desires to become a world-class soccer player; there’s “an element of revenge, of outstanding debt.” Also well conveyed is the character of Mauricio. Fernando doesn’t particularly like Mauricio, and while Fernando recognizes that Mono wanted to involved himself in the world of soccer any way possible, he lacks the insight to see that some of his dislike of Mauricio is based on the lawyer’s material success. These men grew up in the same neighbourhood, but their lives all took different paths, and Fernando sometimes ponders just how much their characters say about their success or failure. Ruso, who holds playstation tournaments with his employees during business hours at the car wash, seems oblivious to the idea of money and success. Obsessive Fernando, however, often knocks his own status and mulls over exactly why Mauricio is so successful. There’s a buried resentment and envy there that Fernando doesn’t recognize and which is layered with antagonism.

But what of the women in the story? Mauricio has a high-maintenance wife, Mariel, whose good looks are due in no small part to her pampered life style and the wonders of plastic surgery. Mono’s “testy” ex, Lourdes, seethes with resentment and hate for her ex–dead or not, and Ruso’s long-suffering wife, Mónica, is driven to desperate pleas when her husband’s feckless ways threaten to bring the roof down on their heads.

Fernando thanks him and thinks, as always, that Ruso is a real case. Since they finished high school he has set up an infinite number of businesses, all on his own, all preceded by fantastic predictions of “this is a surefire business” and “I’m going to wear out my shoes walking to the bank.” And all them buried, sooner or later, in debts and failure. Fernando and Mono talked about the issue, more than once. Because Ruso’s surefire knack for missing he mark in his investments seemed forced, as if he were intentionally avoiding success. Mono claimed that Ruso’s problem was questions of timing: all the businesses that he thought up were sound, but two years before Ruso  got involved with them. By the time Ruso considered them, and put all his hopes and his shrinking pesos into them, they were on their way out. Fernando , for his part, didn’t know whether to be sorry about the fact that Ruso, when he left high school, had been able to count on a modest fortune his father and grandfather had amassed in their leather workshop in Móron. On the one hand, that money had financed only failure after failure. On the other, it still allowed Ruso, his wife, and his daughters to eat every day.

 Translated by Mara Faye Lethem. Review copy.

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God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster

Epistolary novels were tremendously popular in the 18th century, and now we’re seeing an emergence of the e-pistolary–a novel told exclusively though e-mails. In the case of Alyson Foster’s novel, God is an Astronaut, the e-mails are one-sided; they’re written  over the course of a few months from married Botany professor, Jessica Frobisher to her “favorite colleague” and fellow professor Arthur Danielson, who is on sabbatical in the “wilds north of Winnipeg.” Jessica pours her private thoughts into the e-mails to Arthur while she shares a lot less with her emotionally distant husband, Liam, the senior engineer for Spaceco, a shuttle company with a long waiting list of commercial passengers who want to travel into space.

astronautJessica, or Jess as she prefers to be called, begins writing e-mails to Arthur a few days after the explosion of the Spaceco shuttle Titan which resulted in the deaths of the two crew members and four passengers. With reporters camped out in the driveway, and Liam travelling back and forth to Arizona to the Spaceco launch site, Jess is left to her own devices. The shuttle explosion heralds disaster for Jess’s marriage–a marriage already in trouble and locked into a “passive-aggressive standoff.” Jess admits “we have no shortage of skeletons in our marital closets–the predictable collection of festering specimens, the things that go bump in the night, etc.” She begins an e-mail exchange with Arthur, and also begins long-delayed work on a greenhouse.  While the physical labour of digging trenches is a satisfying distraction, the e-mails to Arthur reveal Jess’s private, candid thoughts. Liam is entrenched in the details of the shuttle explosion and the subsequent media storm, and for Jess, under scrutiny from the neighbours and colleagues, the e-mails to Arthur seem to be the one way she can express her real feelings and moral concerns about the shuttle explosion. Troubled and yet trying to hold her life and home together for her two children, Jess admits to Arthur: “There’s something about trying to sum up your own take on a terrible truth.”

While Liam tells Jess not to speak to reporters camped outside (“the CNN crew had some sort of miniature grill out, and they were barbecuing what appeared to be breakfast sausages,”) she is required to show solidarity with her husband and other Spaceco executives and wives. Spaceco hires a pushy crisis consultant who orders Jess to dress a certain way for the press conference:

she finally settled on the least objectionable outfit she could find, that green silk suit I wear once a year when I’m presenting at a conference, the one you said makes me look like a woman playing a politician in a mini-series.

Much to Jess’s annoyance, Liam invites filmmaker Theo Lacroix and his latest wife Elle back to Michigan in order to make a documentary film about Spaceco. Lacroix has a habit to popping up at the most inconvenient moments with his camera, and Jess finds that Lacroix’s presence in her home is unsettling. How much does he see and understand? Here’s Jess explaining to Arthur her exchange with Lecroix after telling him that she retained her maiden name:

But he didn’t seem offended. “Ah,” he said, “A woman after my own heart. I wouldn’t allow any of my wives to take my name. ‘Get your own,’ I said.”

He bent down, picked up my ergonomic shovel, and inspected it. “Besides you never know when you might have to change it back. And then there will be all that bureaucratic nonsense and—” he waved his hand dismissively. “It is all very tiresome. When it comes to marriage, most people are very … What is the correct word? Unrealistic. It is better to be prepared.”

It was impossible to tell, Arthur, whether he was bullshitting me or not. “That’s a great philosophy,” I said. “I bet all your wives really loved it.”

“They understood. Some of them sooner than others.” Lacroix flicked a piece of dirt from the sleeve of his sweater. “They were smart women,” he said. “And beautiful.” He sighed with a touch of what I assumed was nostalgia.

 Jess’s voice is engaging, lightly humorous in tone and very real, but the e-mails occasionally do not sound like e-mails at all. Ok, so perhaps not everyone knocks off short e-mails, and perhaps some of us wax poetic, but sometimes the writing here is just too good to be a believable e-mail.  Conversely, there are also times when the e-mails seem to be a false construction:

I shut the laptop. I left the bathrobe in a puddle on the kitchen tile. Still half naked, I walked through the living room and up to the bedroom.

At other times, Jess is describing a dramatic event, and divides it into several long e-mails, and again, this felt a little false. I read some reviews in which people expressed frustration that the e-mails were just one-sided. Actually I liked that aspect of the novel because I had to read between the lines, and also pay close attention to the subject header topic which was the best way to gauge Arthur’s response. Plus on a deeper level, just what is Arthur to Jess? A colleague or something more? Over time, of course, we learn the truth which was easy to guess almost from the first e-mail, but even when the truth is finally revealed, it’s clear that Arthur served many purposes for Jess, and here he is as a sounding board as Jess rides out the greatest crisis of her life.

I particularly liked the way in which Jess is shown avoiding dealing with reality through the distraction of her greenhouse, and at one point she even describes the space beyond the dining room designated for the new greenhouse as “an escape hatch.” Liam disapproves of the project, mumbling about their “sasquatch-size carbon footprint,” which is hypocritical given what he does for a living, and there’s the sense that he disapproves of a great deal to do with Jess. Perhaps she finally begins construction of her greenhouse, not only as a meaningful distraction, but as a type of defiance. After all, she buys many exotic, delicate plants with the plan that they will defy the Michigan winter in this superb construction and, as Lecroix, points out, with her “ruthless gardening.”  God is an Astronaut, a light read,  is well-written and engaging. Author Alyson Foster captures that period of disintegration in a marriage when both partners are aware that the relationship is pathological, but neither chooses to acknowledge the problems. Yet.

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Fairyland by Sumner Locke Elliott

“Some people, he thought, and I am one of them, are servitors without knowing it, and go through their lives implementing other people’s fates.”

Author Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991) is best remembered for Careful, He Might Hear You, the story of an orphaned Australian boy who becomes the subject of a custody battle between his two aunts.   Fairyland is acknowledged as “largely autobiographical,” and if there’s any doubt about that, just re-read the introduction after reading the book, and you’ll find that significant signposts match. The introduction written by Dennis Altman includes a short biography of the author, who like his fictional creation Seaton Daly, moved to New York. Fairyland, published the year before the author’s death is his “coming out novel.” The story follows the life of its homosexual protagonist from early childhood through to adulthood, and Altman states that “remains one of the most striking records we have of camp life, as it was then referred to, in Sydney of the 1930s and 40s.”

Australian Seaton Daly grows up in post WWI Sydney under the baggage of a particular myth concerning his parents. His father is a fallen WWI hero, and his mother, a valiant war widow wrote “Australia’s most sacred patriotic song, Just a Little Soldier Woman.”  The truth about this myth, when it arrives, serves as a stunning revelation, but then almost everyone in Seaton’s sphere seems to have constructed myths, in one form or another, about their lives.  While a child, Seaton understands that he’s attracted to members of his own sex, and although he’s not confused about his sexuality, he is constantly and repeatedly confused by other significant people he meets in his life. Part of this can be explained, of course, by the fact that during the period in question, homosexuality was illegal and many of the homosexual men Seaton meets have created surface heterosexual lives. But this cannot fully explain Seaton’s confusion as he missteps repeatedly, sometimes with painful results, throughout the novel. Various characters, including Seaton’s mother, cherry pick their pasts and their present, creating a version of life that they can accept and deal with while other characters exhibit a strange duality of behaviours.  This effectively creates a subtext of schizophrenia, a “fairy tale” that rends Sydney society with pretense on the surface and reality behind closed doors, and Sumner Locke Elliott makes it quite clear that this is a troubling facet of Sydney society that our hero, Seaton Daly, never quite comes to terms with.

FairylandSince this is a novel that encompasses Seaton’s childhood and on through several decades, the plot includes the most significant people and events in Seaton’s life. Orphaned and then brought up by Essie, Seaton initially is sent to the expensive private Prince Albert Day School courtesy of Essie’s eccentric wealthy employer. Essie is Miss Dalgarno’s “loving servant,” who “once in  great while” is granted a day off.

Essie, his cousin on his father’s side, cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed, baked, stewed, peeled, polished, got up at six in the morning and often wasn’t in her bed until after eleven. At times Essie looked fagged out and so pale she might not have seen sunlight in months, which was not far from the truth. Once in a great while Miss Dalgarno awarded her a day off, and she and Seaton went to the pictures at the Crystal Palace or Hoyts in Double Bay. Not that Miss Dalgarno was draconian–it was merely that nothing occurred to her until there was a dramatic confrontation. Not until you fainted across the vacuum cleaner did it occur to her that you might be overworked.

There, as the poorest child in the school, unwanted by Miss Peel, the school owner, a heavily powdered “ageless virgin,” he makes one single friend, Hilary, a serious little girl with the ethereal goodness of Jane Eyre‘s Helen Burns. Hilary is one of the few people Seaton meets who has a calm, sincere, cohesive core. There are no games, no misunderstandings, just acceptance of one child of another. It’s a short, significant relationship; “He would remember her in years to come somewhat like a river.” 

Still in childhood, Seaton moves from Point Piper, the affluent area of Sydney to the “unenviable workingman’s suburb” of Arncliffe with a view of Botany Bay, and there he sees the wild swings of class levels within Sydney society.

There was only one barefaced word for Arncliffe–common. It was the common denominator. It was the omnipresent Monday morning washing on every clothesline in every similar backyard, the unadventurousness of hydrangea and cosmos and lantana, the pretentiousness of plaster storks holding up bird-baths. It was the waxed fruit on the dining room table and the wedding photographs arranged on the piano and people’s never used hand embroidered guest towels as pious as their teetotalism. It was the dull nasal voices expecting nothing new, the men all wearing collarless shirts but showing the collar stud at the adam’s apple, the women in curlers and carpet slippers wet-mopping the veranda tiles “of a Saturday morning,” the plaintive twangy voices of the children. It was hearing for better or worse the steely pianolas playing “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” and knowing that the Sunday roast with two vegetables was as certain as birth, marriage, and death and that there was nothing else to look forward to and, worse, their unheeding of their dreadfulness of not caring. It was the common bond of their common-place assurances that held them together, and although at twelve years of age he was not yet able to digest the significance of this, he had become quietly aware, perhaps ashamed, of his knowledge of growing secret antlers, possibly wings. That among these people he was a changeling.

But not even to Essie, not even in a whisper or a dream, did he ever voice it. “I am different.”

While Seaton has various homosexual relationships, he also has several significant relationships with women. Cousin Essie is one of those, and Hilary, of course, but then there’s also the darkly neurotic Gin, and Betty Jollivet who “burned with an incandescence.” But there’s also Seaton’s mother, a woman who remains a mystery until Seaton, in maturity, can finally understand her behaviour.

Not until he was a grown man, and it became necessary for him to go through Her papers before he left the country forever, did he discover what it was that She was composing behind that shut door as blank as her face; when he discovered the dozens of patriotic stories and poems she had written for long-ago defunct magazines with names like Digger and Battalion Bulletin. Reading them he was flushed with outraged pity for Her and shame for his priggish parsimoniousness toward Her. They were, patently, all about herself and they had titles like “The Little Subaltern” and “Doing Her Duty” and the heroines were always slips of girls standing bravely up to  Cruel Huns behind the lines and rescued by big gentle lieutenants who took their tiny hands into their great paws and gazed into their liquid eyes. He now was able to see Her against the background of Armageddon that She had created for herself after his father was killed and that for Her the war which had brutally taken from Her the source and reason for Her living had been adjusted or rather She had rearranged it into a singular compassionate glory.

The book conveys the difficulties of negotiating homosexual life in the 30s and 40s “knowing that just the shadow of a wrong move could bring on catastrophe,” as Seaton walks through the minefields of hidden sexual orientation and becomes a bookbinder working for a lustful, married, pretentious bookseller, joins the Drury Lane Players, works as a copy writer and eventually lands in radio. Along the way Seaton has various disorienting, hilarious sexual encounters; he is always the prey and is targeted by the pompous, predatory actor Byron Hall,  and Seaton’s employer, the lascivious Mrs. Dick. She’s  “on a strange sort of antiquated anti-queer crusade” and has a convenient arrangement with her accommodating, apron-sporting spouse, Minty Milton Dick who found his wife “working in a fish-and-chips place and took a girlish fancy to her and more or less adopted her and made her over into the lady he would have liked to be .”

Other memorable relationships include Seaton’s slow, teasing courtship of an opportunistic young man who works in the men’s department of a clothing shop, and unexpected, surreal wartime passion. All of these relationships–with both men and women, sexual and non-sexual, underscore the schizophrenia of Sydney society–a world in which no one is quite what they appear to be. Optimistic, life-affirming, generous, full of wonderful characters and amusing in tone, this is the story of a man who yearns to live a one-stranded life, a life without the schizophrenia of deception. His dream is to live in America, “that land of cars and movie stars and night baseball, where, according to some recent survey, somebody was fatally shot every eight minutes.”

Highly recommended.

From ANZ LitLovers Litblog, here’s Lisa’s review

Review copy

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Filed under Elliott Sumner Locke, Fiction

The House at Number 10 by Dorothy Johnston

“In small and large ways, Sophie felt herself adjusting, and wanted only space and quiet, the unremarkable continuance of days.”

With the finer weather, prostitutes are now appearing in the dozens. Well they are, at least, whenever I look out of the window. Most of them seem to live in the cut-rate motel down the street, and at about 11 in the morning, the early birds appear in the motel parking lot–some stroll a block or two until they are picked up and whisked away in cars. The returns, which occur thirty to forty minutes later are always interesting–the cars don’t seem to stop; they just slow down. The prostitute steps out, sometimes a bit wobbly on outrageously high heels, and the car speeds away. The drivers can’t seem to get away fast enough, and as for the prostitutes, they never look back but stalk away. The space between these two, the prostitute and her client grows, and there’s the sense of contempt, a disavowal of what just happened in the air.  

All these observations ran through my head as I read Australian author Dorothy Johnston’s novel The House at Number 10–a book recommended to me by Gummie over at Whispering Gums. The story takes place in Canberra with legalization of prostitution looming and concerns a young woman named Sophie who has just been abandoned by her self-absorbed husband, Andrew after six years of marriage. He left “not for another woman, but a floating open-ended freedom.” When he offers her the old marital home, she refuses, “thinking of him floating through these rooms designed for a family on his raft of girls.” This motif of space, literal and figurative occurs frequently throughout this quiet, subtle novel–literally, in the way we define space through architecture, and figuratively through Architecture of the Self.

the house at number 10Sophie joins Elise and Kirsten working in a bordello owned and operated by a man named Marshall, who seems to find his role hip, and cutting-edge rather than exploitive. Marshall has a long-term relationship with Elise, a woman whose prickly nature keeps everyone at a distance. The third woman in the bordello is world-weary, chain-smoking Kirsten who schools Sophie, in her trial period, about sticking to limits with johns: a strict thirty minute rule (which Sophie learns to enforce), and the mandatory use of condoms.

With no clear time demarcations, the story manages to convey a pervasive sense of drifting,”this pressure of suspended animation”--not only Andrew is floating on his figurative raft. Similarly Elise’s space within the bordello, between customers is spent stretching and meditating on her yoga mat while Kirsten chain smokes in a large armchair which faces the window. Sophie cast adrift from her former life and role as a wife, initially nervous about becoming a prostitute, but fueled by curiosity, adapts to her new employment. She gathers a few regulars, tosses away the occasional offering of flowers but keeps the chocolates, and learns how to control the sexual encounters.  Although Sophie has made a very deliberate choice to become a sex worker, there’s the sense that her life is in a holding pattern, and when she leaves the “house at number 10,”  she sheds the experiences like an extra skin.

The motif of architecture is cleverly weaved into the novel; Marshall and Elise want to make the bordello a little smarter, more welcoming to customers, and they employ Sophie’s friend, Ann, an architect to draw blueprints modifying the small house in suburban Canberra. Similarly, the garden, a blank space is ear-marked for renovation. Meanwhile Sophie, who finds herself without the clear lines of her marriage to Andrew, must arrive at some point of self-knowledge in order to redefine herself. Working as a prostitute doesn’t encourage Sophie to redefine herself or her new life, as once she steps inside the house at number 10, she becomes the fetish object for the men that she encounters as they define her for their own needs. Again there’s the sense that Sophie is drifting along through life, and that having survived the detonation of her marriage, she has yet to select her new course, her new design. Andrew has the gall to produce pamphlets for university courses, telling her, a woman he’s abandoned in order to begin a life, “you should go back to study.”  No small amount of patronage and guilt there. Sophie doesn’t tell him where to stuff his pamphlets but instead, perhaps due in part to the way in which she’s learned to simulate feelings, she even manages a ‘thank-you’ when Andrew takes umbrage at her lack of gratitude.

It takes a crisis for Sophie, the mother of a small  daughter, to take control of her life, stop drifting and make some decisions.

I’m not a writer, but as a reader, writing about prostitution is a tough subject as we bring our assumptions, fantasies and prejudices to the subject. The prostitutes in this Canberra suburb with their regular customers are a different breed from the streetwalkers I see daily. Elise, Kirsten, and Sophie’s lives seem positively tame compared to the bottom-feeders of the prostitution world. The novel doesn’t dwell on the sexual encounters–rather the plot emphasizes how Sophie copes with various situations, and how she manages the men who come to her for sex.

We learn that Sophie is drawn to prostitution by the “enticement of making some fast money behind her ex-husband’s back,” revenge and at one time thinks that it ‘serves him right.’ But the transition from abandoned wife to prostitute occurs so swiftly that while this may be explained by numbness and a desire for revenge, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Sophie as a character. But the author doesn’t shy away from this aspect of the novel, and at one point, grabby Marshall shares my thoughts when he tells Sophie  that she doesn’t “look the part.

Particularly interesting is how the author uses the motifs of design of space and the design of the self. Do we design our spaces or do they define us? All of these characters inhabit their own spaces in the world, Andrew, his “raft of girls,” Elise her yoga mat, and Kirsten sequesters the ancient armchair. The encounters between prostitutes and their clients, although intimate, remain fundamentally business like; the psyches of these women are inviolate and impenetrable. In these cases, physical intimacy heralds the terrifying gap of the emotional void, a vast empty space between two people, breached only by money. A simple transaction, and yet immensely complex. The bordello, like a cheap motel, is functional, but blank, bland and anonymous. Sophie finds that the “walls and the curtains of the side room would not give her away. … The homely, unfashionable room, with its few simple props, became her silent ally.”

Sophie felt the pressure of suspended animation in herself as well, as her nights spent at the house increased in number, as she sought her level and her place there, as the past before Andover Street began to slip behind her, not only into another time frame, but another life as well.

The House at Number 10 is a thought-provoking, provocative read for its topic and what’s not overtly stated–is Sophie’s decision to become a prostitute, for example, a reaction to her earlier sexual exclusivity? Prostitution is, for Sophie, a means to designing a new Architecture of the Self. Through becoming the “Sophie of the Kingston house,” she learns what she is capable of.

 Sophie knew her face was a blank. Sometimes, clients, when she turned to face them, willing them to get off the bed, get dressed, had a look of apology, sometimes they even apologized in words, and this she could not bear. The ones who became quickly, simply, self-sufficient, wanting nothing more from her ever now the agreed exchange had been completed–these ones Sophie recognized, though she did not respect them. They answered her desire for clean lines of division, endings that were neat.

 

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The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (Part II)

Following from Part 1

The Lorimer sisters forced to earn their own living or accept the charity of relatives opt for the former and open their photography shop with painfully high hopes.

Think of all the dull ways by which women, ladies, are generally reduced to earning their living! But a business–that is so different. It is progressive; a creature capable of growth; the very qualities in which women’s work is dreadfully lacking.

This speech is made by Gertrude to her sister, Lucy, and at this point the photography shop is still in the planning stages. We could say that Gertrude is optimistic, but with Lucy and Phyllis , there’s a more romanticized view which becomes contagious:

“And I,” cried Phyllis, her great eyes shining, “I would walk up and down outside, like that man in the High Street, who tells me every day what a beautiful picture I should make!”

“Our photographs would be so good and our manners so charming that our fame would travel from one end of the earth to the other!” added Lucy, with a sudden abandonment of her grave and didactic manner.

“We would take afternoon tea in the studio on Sunday, to which everybody would flock; duchesses, cabinet ministers, and Mr. Irving. We should become the fashion, make colossal fortunes, and ultimately marry dukes!” finished off Gertrude.

The Romance of a Shop is faulted for its ending–the wrap-up of the fates of our 4 sisters. Would I fault the novel?… Yes, but I’m not the only one, and this criticism is addressed in the intro which includes a comment from author Deborah Epstein Nord (Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City) who argues that the last chapters revert to “a shoddy Pride and Prejudice with all four sisters searching for an appropriate mate.” Also quoted is Deborah Parsons’ argument  (Streetwalking the Metropolis; Women, the City and Modernity) that “Levy backs down from the implied female radicalism” with a conventional conclusion for the sisters. The author of the Broadview edition, Susan David Bernstein addresses those criticisms with her interpretation of the conclusion.

The Romance of a shopI was initially disappointed by the novel’s conclusion as the plot slid into romance, new and old as well adding the looming threat of a slippery seducer. Still, I think that Levy might well be adding realism here by creating characters who opt for marriage as the practical choice, and in the quote above, we see that clearly marriage is in the minds of these sisters. Levy planted the seed for the reader to see very early in the novel, so should we be so surprised when that is what occurs?  There’s another later moment when Gertrude, left to her own melancholy thoughts, admits that in all likelihood, at least a couple of her sisters will marry and move on. We could even argue, as noted in the earlier quote, that the sisters see their photography business as paving the way for an introduction into the best of society and a way of making them more desirable and eligible.  For this reader, a far worse flaw than the conventional ending was the drama involving Lucy. It seemed contrived solely for the element of suspense.

The Broadview edition clocks in at 278 pages, but the novel itself is about half that. This is an instance when I would have preferred one of those Victorian triple-deckers as The Romance of a Shop is thin on character development. Sister Fanny, for example, is barely glimpsed except as a housekeeping figure, and added scenes of the sisters actually at work, instead of the recounted details, would have enhanced the plot.  Gertrude is the most interesting sister, and the scenes that yield her thoughts, and the scenes involving Gertrude and Mr. Darrell are the most interesting in the book. Mr. Darrell wants Phyllis to sit as a model for a painting. He dislikes Gertrude and sees her as a frumpy “dragon-sister to be got round.”  Here’s a stunning moment between Gertrude and Darrell:

She glanced up as she spoke, and met, almost with open defiance, the heavy grey eyes of the man opposite. From these she perceived the irony to have faded; she read nothing there but a cold dislike.

It was an old, old story the fierce yet silent opposition between these two people; an inevitable antipathy; a strife of type and type, of class and class, rather than of individuals: the strife of a woman who demands respect, with the man who refuses to grant it.

Amy Levy “modeled the Lorimers on her friends the Black sisters,“(Clementina Black was a suffragette, author and a trade union organizer who fought for equal pay for women). At one point, Levy slips in the statement that customers “seemed to think the sex of the photographers a ground for greater cheapness in the photographs.” There’s an authenticity here in the attention paid to detail to the lodgings, and the glimpse of the professional woman’s perspective in London of the times is unique.

Another fascinating aspect of the novel is the vulnerability of these sisters now that they are running a shop. Most of their old friends drop them, and Aunt Caroline is scandalized by their behaviour. Their work forces them out into the world; they have to mingle, and sometimes go alone to studios owned and operated by men.

We have taken life up from a different standpoint, begun it on different bases. We are poor people, and we are learning to find out the pleasures of the poor, to approach happiness from another side. We have none of the conventional social opportunities for instance, but are we therefore to sacrifice all social enjoyment? … we have our living to earn, no less than our lives to live, and in neither case can we afford to be the slaves of custom. Our friends must trust us or leave us; must rely on our self-respect and your judgment. Convention apart, are not judgment and self-respect what we most rely on in our relations with people, under any circumstances whatever?

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The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (Part I)

The Romance of a Shop … this wonderful title accompanied by a beautiful cover and an intriguing synopsis persuaded me to buy this book written by Amy Levy (1861-1889), an author I’d never heard of before. I read a marvelous Broadview edition which includes a short bio of the author who committed suicide at age 27, various collected articles on several aspects of Victorian society, poetry and a short story by Levy and 19th century reviews ofThe Romance of a Shop. This is a book about the “New Woman,” a topic also covered in George Gissing’s splendid novel, The Odd Women, a simply fantastic novel that made my best-of list in 2013. Amy Levy’s novel won’t be making the 2014 list for reasons I’ll explain, but this was an interesting book which convinced me to read the author’s other novel Rueben Sachs.

The Romance of a shopGissing’s The Odd Women concerns six sisters left destitute following the death of their father. We see how they are forced into menial employment as governesses of families just above their social sphere, and in these positions, they’re overworked and underpaid. One sister works in a shop and it’s a work-till-you-drop sort of situation which she bails from at the first opportunity. She lands in a miserable marriage that’s just another type of drudgery–even if it is gilded around the edges. The Odd Women is a bold novel which addresses sexual desire, the disparity between male and female sexual freedom, the practicality of ‘free unions’  in a society rife with gender inequality, and the power balance in marriage. The book questions whether or not women can thrive as wives, or if a career as a single woman is a preferable and healthier choice. As a result, the female characters in Gissing’s masterpiece are faced with tough choices. Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop isn’t as bold or as subversive a novel as The Odd Women. The informative introduction from Susan David Bernstein describes Levy’s novel as important: “borderland fiction, inscribing a space between traditional and progressive representations of women.”

There are four Lorimer sisters in The Romance of a Shop, and the novel opens following the death of their father, a London photographer.  With all bills settled, and the furniture sold, they are left with just 500 pounds between them. Fanny, the eldest daughter at thirty, is the result of Mr. Lorimer’s first marriage, and thanks to a legacy from her mother she has just 50 pounds a year to live on which she is happy to share with her 3 half sisters. In Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street, fifty pounds  a year bought a life in a garret for Edwin Reardon.

Relatives propose breaking up the four girls and sending two of them out to live with an uncle in India while the remaining two have been offered a home with the family friends, the Devonshires.  The four young women want to remain together and 23-year-old Gertrude, the most interesting of the sisters, and by no coincidence, the most intelligent, proposes that they move and open their own photography studio. It’s a bold plan, and while Lucy is solidly behind the plan, Fanny, who is the dullest of the bunch is appalled. Here’s Gertrude making her argument:

“No, I have another plan to propose to you all. There is one thing, at least, that we can all do.”

“We can all make photographs, except Fan,” said Phyllis, in a doubtful voice.

“Exactly!” cried Gertrude, growing excited, and walking across to the middle of the room: “we can make photographs! We have had this studio, with every proper arrangement for light and other things, so that we are not mere amateurs. Why not turn to account the only thing we can do, and start as professional photographers? We should all keep together. It would be a risk, but if we failed we should be very little worse off than before. I know what Lucy thinks of it, already. What have you others to say to it?”

“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that–to open a shop?” cried Fanny aghast.

Levy positions her argument of ideals vs reality by creating the wonderfully ironic title. There’s nothing romantic at all about running a shop, but there are lots of grim realities–bill-paying, attracting customers, competition, long hours, and above all, a future that, if one is successful, brings only more of the same. Is there romance here? Yes, the first whiff of romance is seen in the sisters’ collective imagination of becoming pioneers, independent women pursuing careers instead of marriage. Fanny, the oldest and the most conventional sister is, according to Lucy, “behind the age.” And this is true in more ways than one–not only is Fanny appalled by the behaviour of her sisters who have decided to be independent career women, but she’s also left behind in the terms of her own life. Years before, Fanny had a suitor but he had no money and sailed off to Australia to make his fortune. Gertrude and Lucy are the pragmatists, and 17 year-old Phyllis, the family beauty, is impractical, frivolous and romantic. There’s lots of flurry and excitement as the sisters make their plans, and the fact that this is a decision made from necessity and desperation is shoved aside until the business opens…..

More in part II 

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The Professor and the Siren by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Sicilian author Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) is most famous for his only novel The Leopard, published posthumously. I have an unread copy of The Leopard on the shelf–bought primarily thanks to the film version from director Luchini Visconti.

The Professor and the Siren, a slim volume of 69 pages from New York Review of Books, contains three stories: Joy and the Law, a short morality tale concerning an impoverished accountant, married with three children and saddled with debt, who receives a 15lb panettone at Christmas for being the most “deserving man” at work. The story reminded me of the wisdom of Alfred Doolittle from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion–a large gift of charity (10 pounds in the case of Alfred Doolittle) makes a man “prudent, like; and then goodbye to happiness.” Alfred Doolittle understands that with a smaller gift of 5 pounds he can spend every penny with a clear conscience, but 10 pounds brings responsibilities. In the case of di Lampedusa’s accountant, he would have been better off if he hadn’t been selected as the recipient of the huge panettone.

the professor and the sirenThe third story, Three Blind Kittens, was originally intended to be the first chapter in a ‘follow-up’  to The Leopard. This story concerns the Ibba family, and the current head of the family, Don Batassano has just bought another piece of property from the Prince of Salina (the Salina family is the focus of The Leopard & the lawyer brokering the deal is the son of the man who worked for “Old Prince Fabrizio“). Don Batassano has a map with all the Ibba family land coloured in yellow, and he looks forward eagerly to his latest acquisition increasing those yellow bits. Batassano is an unpleasant man, careless of a peasant child and brutal to his own horse. Gradually we learn just how the Ibba family expanded their properties in unpleasant ways:

an epic tale of cunning, of lack of scruples, of defiance of laws, of implacability and also luck, daring as well.

Don Batassano’s father was illiterate  but “seduced the deaf-mute daughter of a local bourgeois, a minor landowner only slightly poorer than he was, and with the dowry obtained by means of the extorted marriage had doubled his own assests.” Thanks to loan-sharking, stealing, land-grabbing, and even murder the Ibba family fortunes rose.  The entrance of Garibaldi into the  political scene sealed the triumph of the Ibba family.

We see the unpleasant Ibba family at home, at dinner, with grossly obese Lady Laura in full bloom, an impressive figure “of lard alluringly fresh and firm.” Local noblemen from the oldest families, including the current Prince of Salina gather and bemoan the rise of the vulgar Ibba family, speculating as to the legendary (and exaggerated) vastness of the Ibba family fortune:

The castle of lies was extremely fragile, but so beautiful–made up of women’s thighs, obscene acts without names, great painters, and one 1,000 lire bills–that no one wanted to blow on it and make it fall.

The gem here is the title story, The Professor and the Siren, a story that blends myth with a love story. In this tale, set in 1938, a young man who finds himself unexpectedly womanless due to his own carelessness meets an idiosyncratic elderly professor at a corner café.

It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors. These vain apparitions played checkers or dominoes, submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers. They never raised their voices, afraid that any immoderate sound might upset the fragile fabric of their presence. It was, in short, a most satisfactory Limbo.

It’s in this café that our narrator, Paolo Corbera di Salina, “the sole surviving specimen” of the once noble family meets the elderly professor, a difficult man who initially keeps his distance, and treats Paolo badly. Over time, the two men develop a relationship of sorts, and the crusty professor expounds at length on his various pessimistic theories, but on the subject of women, the professor’s beliefs are even bleaker:

In, fifty, sixty years, perhaps much sooner, they will all die; so they are already diseased. And wretched as well. Some elegance they’ve got, composed of trinkets, stolen sweaters, and sweet talk picked up at the movies. Some generosity too, fishing for greasy banknotes in their lover’s pockets rather than presenting him, as others do, with pink pearls and branches of coral. This is what happens when one goes in for those little monstrosities with painted faces. And were you all not disgusted–they as much as you, you as much as they–to kiss and cuddle your future carcasses between evil-smelling sheets?

A strange statement, but then again, this is an elderly confirmed bachelor offering advice on the subject of women to a man 50 years younger. Underneath the professor’s advice, however, is a strange love story which took place in 1887 … .

It’s in The Professor and the Siren that the author’s talent seems to break loose–Joy and the Law is a pleasant little tale, Three Blind Kittens is a wonderful glimpse of shifting class structure in Italy, along with the resentments and unexpressed envy of the aristocrats who are unable to stop the decimation of their own historic privileges, but The Professor and the Siren is exquisite. It’s beautifully written, and di Lampedusa seems to be at once deeply in love with his subject, but also unleashed by his rich, vivid descriptions in a tale in which the author’s use of luscious language is matched by its exotic subject. Under the story’s sensual mystery of myth and passion, the story asks the question: is it better to have experienced a moment of such intensity that the rest of one’s life pales in comparison, or is it better never to have known ecstasy then measured against a lifetime of mediocrity? The answer … well that’s up to you.

Translated by Stephen Twilley.

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Cold in July by Joe R. Lansdale

“I needed, as they say in California, some space. Or as we say in Texas, I wanted to be left the hell alone.”

Cold in July is a novel from American crime author Joe R. Lansdale’s backlist. Its release is in conjunction with the film version which features Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. After reading the novel, I don’t need to read the cast list to see who plays which role; it’s easy to guess.

The book’s premise is simple: Richard Dane lives with his wife and small son on the outskirts of the small East Texas town of Laborde. One night Richard’s wife, Ann wakes up after hearing the sounds of someone breaking into their home. Dane grabs his .38 and in an act of self-defense, kills the armed burglar. This should be the end of the matter, and local police Lt. Price reassures a troubled Dane that he had no choice but to shoot. The man is identified as Freddy Russel, a small time crook with a history of incarceration. Dane’s house is cleaned, and the remnants of the crime are washed away, but Dane is troubled, in spite of the fact he knows he had no choice but to kill the burglar.

Trouble begins when Freddy’s violent father, Ben, just released from Hunstville comes looking for revenge….

cold in julyLansdale’s crime novels frequently place the individual on a lonely path, seeking justice, vigilante style, without the aid of legal channels. The individual, outside of the boundaries of the law for various reasons then rounds up loyal friends, people he can trust, and then with a team in place, the action begins. It’s a throw-back to the Western idea of the posse, and Lansdale novels seem to tap into monumental archetypes. That scenario emerges here as Dane learns that he cannot trust the police, and seeking the truth, he forms an uneasy alliance with Ben Russel, an ex-con whose explosive temper is fueled by guilt.  They join with unorthodox PI Jim Bob Luke and a speedy investigation takes them right to the Dixie Mafia.

On the down side, there’s the sentimentality of saving the home and hearth which some readers may not mind, but the main issue is that there are just too many implausibilities which occur simply to move the plot along (the phone book? really?…) . I can’t give the examples I’d like to give as that would reveal too much of the plot, but I can add that one of the first implausible points that annoyed me was Dane as the owner of a marginal frame shop with two full-time employees in a town of 40,000. This just hit me the wrong way. He lives too well, doesn’t worry much about money (orders new locks, windows, a paint job & a couch without blinking), and then leaves the work to two employees as he takes off to pursue his investigation with a PI he hires for $300 a day.

But that brings me to the best part of the book–the character of the PI, Jim Bob Luke, a man who drives a blood-red Cadillac named the Red Bitch:

About two-thirty an ancient blood-red Cadillac about the size of a submarine pulled up directly in front of the door to Russel’s room. There were baby shoes hanging off the mirror along with a big-yellow, foam-rubber dice, and on the windshield was a homemade sticker that had six stick-figure humans and three dogs drawn on it and there was an X through each of them. The car had curb feelers and they were still wobbling violently when the driver got out and slammed the door and stretched.  

The entrance of the seeming laid-back Jim-Bob to the book added a lot of zest. He’s a well-developed character, always fully into his role, and that includes some racist comments.  He looks like a “washed-up country and Western singer,” complete with a “worn straw hat with a couple of anemic feathers on it.”  Here’s some dialogue to give a sense of the book’s style:

Jim Bob ordered steak and baked potato and all the trimmings, and when he took his first bite of steak he waved the waitress over and told her, “Honey, take this cow on back and finish killing it. Set the little buddy on fire for about three more minutes and then bring it back to me.”

While Jim Bob waited on the steak, he and Russel talked about old times, and laughed. Ann and I felt a little limp, as if we had gone to the wrong party.

When Jim Bob’s steak came back he thanked the waitress and ordered a Lone Star Light. “Got to watch my girlish figure,” and he went at his food with gusto, saying “Brain food.”

“Then you better eat plenty of it,” Ann said.

I looked at her. Russel looked at her. Jim Bob looked at her and laughed. “Ain’t that the damned truth,” he said. “Pass that salad dressing. The one that looks like someone threw up in the bottle.”

I’m a long-time fan of Lansdale, but this is not his best book. IMO the Leonard & Hap series is the best of Lansdale. That and Bubba Ho Tep, of course.

Review copy/own a copy.

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