The King of Fools: Frédéric Dard (1952)

“Poor Ivanhoe,” she sighed. “You have no idea what fools heroes can be.”

In Frédéric Dard’s novel of nightmarish obsession, The King of Fools, Jean-Marie Valaise is on a solo holiday in Juan-les-Pins. It was a holiday he’d intended to take with his long-term girlfriend, the elegant, self-contained and uber self controlled Denise:

I should have been with Denise. but we had broken off just two days before leaving, on some petty pretext. For a moment, I had considered cancelling my trip, but then decided the Côte d’Azur would be a timely distraction, and left anyway. I regretted it now. Holiday resorts are best approached in a happy frame of mind, or they can seem more depressing than all the rest. Truth be told, my sorrow was not acute. Rather, I experienced a feeling of intense disenchantment that left me weak and vulnerable. I felt the nagging torment of physical regret too. With Denise, the act of love had been easy, and reassuring. 

One day, Jean-Marie sees a woman getting into his car. The incident turns out to have been a mistake, but the woman, who didn’t leave a wholly favorable impression, left a bag with a thousand francs inside. That night, Jean-Marie spots the woman at a local casino. She seems, for this second meeting, to be almost a totally different person, elegant, beautiful and cultured. Jean-Marie, normally a cautious man when it comes to money, throws discretion to the winds, gambles and loses, but no matter, soon he’s chatting and half in love with Marjorie Faulks, the Englishwoman he met earlier that day.

King of Fools

Jean-Marie meets Marjorie a third time when she invites herself into his hotel room while he’s in the shower. While Jean-Marie’s awkwardness is smooched over by Marjorie, still the incident seems bizarre. She breaks the news that she’s married, but Jean-Marie, who’s decided that Marjorie is bitterly unhappy, pulls her in his arms for a kiss. They part, but promise to write….

Denise shortly shows up at the resort and quickly sniffs out Jean-Marie’s mood. After all they’ve been together for years, and they have a strong commitment to each other as friends but not as lovers. They break up a couple of times every year, and yet always get back together. Jean-Marie’s feelings for Marjorie are different: it’s intense, an obsession he can’t control.

After a letter from Marjorie, Jean-Marie dashes off to Scotland where he sinks into an abyss of deception, but not before Denise warns him that he thinks he’s some sort of hero leaving to ‘rescue’ Marjorie, and that it will end badly.

While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the character of Marjorie (she’s a cipher), I was convinced that Jean-Marie, a man whose passions up to this moment had been tepid and controlled, could totally lose it on holiday. Passion unexpectedly overwhelms him; it’s a new feeling, and although there are plenty of warning signs, he doesn’t pay attention. Jean-Marie’s life, a life in which passion takes a back seat to common sense, is completely derailed when he meets Marjorie. This largely happens because his guard is down, and Marjorie has a sly way of trespassing without seeming to do so.

Most of the action takes place in a dreary Edinburgh, with the weather matching the atmosphere of the novel. There’s a large cat-and-mouse section, and Jean-Marie’s life descends into an almost surreal kind of hell, with the novel’s great, ironic twist, in common with many titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, arriving at the end.

For those interested, here’s a list of Dard books read so far in order of preference

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage

Crush

The King of Fools

Review copy

Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Advertisements

9 Comments

Filed under Dard Frédéric, Fiction

Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

“A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.”

Fay Weldon’s book Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen takes the epistolary form from the author to her niece, Alice. I knew with the glorious combo of Jane Austen and Fay Weldon, two authors (and women) I admire, I couldn’t go wrong. And I was correct; this is delightful, humorous read, and yes while it’s about Jane Austen, the book is about a lot more than that. Weldon gives us her take on what it means to be a writer, what is means to be a reader, as well as sundry tips to Alice, poor girl, who seems, seen through this one-sided correspondence, to be a bit overwhelmed by … life. And who better to set this young woman straight than her Aunt Fay?

letters to alice

The 16 letters from Aunt Fay (inspired by letters written by Austen to her niece) appear to have started with 18-year-old Alice having a crisis. She’s at university and finds Jane Austen “boring, petty and irrelevant.” Not only does Fay Weldon urge Alice to continue reading, separating entertainment from enlightenment, but argues for the importance of reading literature as perhaps the one thing that can save in us in this life. And thus begins a marvellous description of The City of Invention:

Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore. 

Let us look around the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant, and this prime building site released for younger talent: but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries, and build as others may they can never achieve the same grandeur. 

Fay Weldon argues that “books can be dangerous,” and there’s the example of Alice’s mother who suffered “an overdose of Georgette Heyer” which led to her marriage to Alice’s father. There’s friction between Fay, her sister and brother-in-law, and disapproval of Aunt Fay’s relationship with Alice seeps through the pages. Over the course of the letters, we see slivers of this disapproval as well as extremely witty glimpses of Alice’s life as she converts her love affair with a married professor into writing a book.

Who reads Arnold Bennett now, or Sinclair Lewis? But perhaps soon, with any luck, they’ll be rediscovered. ‘How interesting,’ people will say, pushing open the creaking doors. ‘How remarkable! Don’t you feel the atmosphere here? So familiar, so true: the amazing masquerading as the ordinary? Why haven’t we been here for so long?’ And Bennett, Lewis, or whoever, will be rediscovered, and the houses of his imagination be renovated, restored, and hinges oiled so that doors open easily, and the builder, the writer, takes his rightful place again in the great alternative hierarchy. 

Using Jane Austen as an example, the author also discusses the importance of audience, and argues that while “the life and personality of writers” are not “particularly pertinent to their work,” that writers cannot be separated from “the times” in which they live. Of course, Jane Austen is a wonderful example of that argument. Some of the letters contain some fascinating information about marriage and birth rates during Austen’s lifetime, and just the few succinct statistics really hammer home societal expectations that Austen faced.

The letters also discuss the modern writer’s life as compared to that of Austen. Whereas a modern, published writer may attend book readings and be prepared to “have your own view on everything” it wasn’t so for Austen:

Jane Austen and her contemporaries, of course, did none of this. They saved their public and their private energies for writing. They were not sent in to bat by their publishers in the interest of increased sales, nor did they feel obliged to present themselves upon public platforms as living vindication of their right to make up stories which others are expected to read.

This book of letters is typical Fay Weldon fare: lots of energy, lots of opinions (and some of those opinions are most definitely and refreshingly not PC), and bucketloads of wit. This is a delightful read for fans of Austen, fans of Weldon or those who are considering writing, which is, as Weldon argues “not a profession, it is an activity, an essential amateur occupation. It is what you do when you are not living.”

14 Comments

Filed under Non Fiction, Weldon, Fay

Death of a Busybody: George Bellairs

“She was a perfect vessel of wrath.”

It’s a wonder that some people make it to old age, and in the case of village busybody, the highly unpleasant Miss Tither, who is 50, it’s a miracle she’s made it this far. When Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs (Harold Blundell 1902-1985) begins, the wonderfully named local vicar Rev. Ethelred Claplady has just woken up and is breathing in the fresh country air. On one side of the house the air is fragrant, but on the other side … there’s the stench of the cesspool being cleaned by the vicar’s handyman. Just then the vicar spies village busybody, Miss Tither haranguing Haxley, the local atheist in a country lane. While she’s the self-appointed moral guardian of the village of Hilary Magna, she’s mainly obsessed with “sexual” sin.

Miss Tither, “rather long in the tooth,” as the Squire described her, was about fifty years of age and had sufficient means to pay for domestic help which released her to poke her nose into the affairs of everyone for miles around. She was scorned and snubbed by most, but carried on her secret investigations and remedial campaigns against sin and vice with abhorrent fortitude. The village quailed in fear of her. Husbands, raising their hands or voices against their wives, paused at the thought of her. Scolding wives pitched their nagging in a lower key, lest Miss Tither should be in the offing. The lecherous, adulterous, drunken and blasphemous elements of the population held her in greater fear than the parson and looked carefully over their shoulders lest she be in their tracks.

Since the title of the book gives away the murder here, author George Bellairs wisely doesn’t waste time with much in the way of preliminaries. Within a few pages, Miss Tither is dead, bludgeoned and stuffed into the cesspool. The vicar sounds the alarm and word spreads through the village.

“Ethel Tither’s bin found strangled in the vicarage.” “Miss Tither’s bin found shot in vicar’s orchard.” “Owld Tither’s bin done-in. They say the vicar’s done it.” 

While Miss Tither had a great number of enemies, her behaviour has been consistent for years. Why is she murdered now? Is her death connected to the arrival of her missionary cousin? What are the latest juicy scandals brewing in the village?

death of a busybody

This is a well-paced tale, a police procedural which is made lively by the colourful personalities of some of the characters. It’s the small touches here, the best and worst of village life, that make this a humorous read, so the murder happens as the police are alerted about a lost Pomeranian. While I didn’t feel as though I got to know the series character, Chief Inspector Littlejohn well, I liked the detail of Littlejohn buying and then sending his wife two pounds of fudge. PC Harriwinckle’s domestic life, which is mainly seen around the table, adds to the tale.  As the investigation continues and dips into various lives, tertiary characters appear as wholly developed. Such is the case of former school teacher Miss Satchell, who now owns and operates a successful tea-room, and Mr Titmuss (who develops an interesting relationship with Sergeant Cromwell).

The book also includes prejudices of the day with the locals seen (and described) as smelly–so much so the coroner has an unpleasant time at the inquest. And there’s a scene of hunting which culminates in the local bobby bludgeoning a rabbit wounded by a huntsman who’s a notorious bad shot.

Review copy

5 Comments

Filed under Bellairs George, Fiction

The Locals: Jonathan Dee

“There was no earthly specimen more out of touch with reality than a New Yorker. People who lived on an island and paid a million dollars for a bedroom.”

The Locals from Jonathan Dee is a remarkable novel which captures American life in the decade following 9-11: the shock, the aftermath, economic stagnation, the real estate boom and subsequent bust. All of this is seen through a handful of characters who live in Howland, a town in the Southern Berkshires of Massachusetts.  Regular readers know that I groan at appearances of 9-11 in novels, but here, in The Locals, Jonathan Dee hits just the right note.

The novel begins on 9-11 with a rather nasty narrator, a lab worker, who subsequently drops out of the novel. He’s on his way to see a lawyer to seek recompense from an investor who fleeced him of over 200K. Also in New York that day is contractor Mark Firth, who has traveled from Howland to see the same lawyer, for the same reason.  This early section sets the scene for the stratification, the money and class divides–of American society–a theme that lies at the heart of the novel.

the locals

Mark Firth returns home to Howland, only to find that he’s welcomed like a surviving hero. And this is one of the things I loved about this novel-the way Dee captures the 9-11 feeling in the country. For a brief moment, everyone in the country seemed to come together in collective grief.

Everybody was all frightened, but really that was just a way of trying to make the whole thing more about themselves, which it wasn’t. Either you were actually there when it happened or it was something you watched on TV, period. But whenever something major happens it’s like everybody wants their little piece of the suffering. People had no idea what was coming next. That’s true I guess–when something as fucked up as that happens, something you weren’t even imagining, it wakes up your imagination pretty good–but still, they were just overdoing it, I’m sorry. Get over yourselves. You weren’t there, it didn’t happen to you . 

Mark returns home to face a bleak future. Contracting work has dried up, and as for getting his stolen money back, there’s not much hope of that. Mark’s wife Karen, who hasn’t forgiven him for losing all their savings to a con man, temporarily puts her grievances on hold in light of 9-11, and, as she sees it, her husband’s close call with terrorism.

When billionaire Philip Hadi decides to make his summer Howland home his permanent residence, things begin to improve for Mark. Hadi, who has left New York following 9-11, is obsessed with making his house ‘safe.’ He hires Mark for various security jobs, and then settles into the town taking up local politics. After a comment from Hadi, Mark decides to stop building and improving houses, and instead begins picking up houses at auction and then flipping them for profit. He’s joined in this venture by his brother Gerry.

Most of the novel is concerned with Mark’s family and that includes his aging parents who haven’t saved enough for retirement, Mark’s single sister, vice principal Candace, and Mark’s brother, Gerry, whose work at a real estate company comes to an abrupt end following a corrosive affair with a married coworker.

Hadi’s presence in town begins to sharply divide residents. Hadi, who takes up political office, begins to suck up the town’s deficit , but that comes at a cost, and Gerry in particular, who has extreme libertarian views, sees Hadi’s generosity as what it is–a benevolent dictatorship. Using the anonymity of his blog, Gerry tries to flail citizens into action, but most people are far too happy taking Hadi’s handouts to complain or question Hadi’s decisions.

As the plot continues, Mark’s daughter, Haley, who serves as the battleground for her parents’ toxic marriage, grows up in a new America–an America in which the one-percent live in their own stratosphere while city budgets face shortfalls, small businesses fold, libraries close and homes across America fall into foreclosure at unprecedented rates. Howland has its year-round residents, the locals, who, in many cases, depend on income from the wealthy second home residents. Some of the businesses that spring up for the wealthy are totally inaccessible to the average local: the phenomenally expensive yoga retreat centre that’s booked up for almost a year in advance:

Rich people who led lives full of manufactured stress. Women who worked harder than they needed to, or women who didn’t work at all. Their hyper-refined problems expanded to fill the shape of expensive solutions.

Or the pretentious destination restaurant that serves 16 or 17 course meals, so expensive that the locals who can scrape up the money can come for a “special occasion.” Diners are given a booklet and a “small pencil, in case they want to record, for memory’s sake any details or impressions.”

Mark Firth tries to rise in American society in the shadow of Hadi, and we see Hadi, a man who has no emotional investment in the community, try to transform Howland into a personal fiefdom. In spite of the fact that Hadi is a prominent figure in the plot, his motives remain cloudy. The wealth he drops into Howland improves life, but there’s a cost that some of the locals are unwilling to pay. Hadi states that “democracy doesn’t really work anymore,” and then consciously or unconsciously proves he’s right.  The novel takes the town of Howland as its crucible and asks some important moral questions about the sustainability and future of American society. This is a story that begins in collective grief, purpose and cooperation and ends in divisiveness and an unsettling, uncertain future

Review copy.

12 Comments

Filed under Dee Jonathan, Fiction

Get Well Soon: Marie-Sabine Roger

“Maybe if you spend all day hanging out with crackpots you end up a little cracked yourself.”

In Get Well Soon, a novel from Marie-Sabine Roger, Jean-Pierre, a widower in his late 60s finds himself in hospital. He has no memory of what he was doing out late at night, and no memory of how he managed to land in the Seine. Luckily, Camille, a rent boy, loitering under the bridge, heard the splash as Jean-Pierre fell in, and although he couldn’t swim, he managed to hook the drowning man with a boat hook and reel him in. When Jean-Pierre wakes up in the hospital, he has a number of injuries, including a broken pelvis.

Get well soon

Forced to stay in bed, “zonked out by various drugs,” Jean-Pierre reminisces about his life, his career in the merchant navy, his marriage, his youth and friendships. There’s a lot that is pleasant to remember, and a lot he’d rather not think about. The latter includes his relationship with his wife–a woman he neglected for 31 years while he sailed the world in the merchant navy.  Now stuck in bed with nothing much to do, he decides to write his memoirs on his laptop, and the laptop acts as a beacon to a sulky teen who hangs about hoping to update her Facebook account.

I’ve always found it a strange idea, writing memoirs. There’s something pathetic about it. Like writing your own funeral eulogy, because you’re already bitching that if you want something done properly, do it yourself. Before exiting the building you polish what you can, dust off everything and sweep the cat shit under the rug. 

One of Jean-Pierre’s visitors is his brother Hervé and his sister-in-law, Claudine, a couple who:

don’t have much in common any more. Like a couple of knackered old dray horses, they’re pulling in different directions. He suffers from irritable bowel syndrome because she makes his life shit. She suffers from migraine because he does her head in. 

Another one of Jean-Pierre’s frequent visitors is policeman Maxime, who initially visits because he’s investigating how Jean-Pierre fell in the Seine, but after a while, Maxime’s visits cannot no longer be excused by policework. He visits Jean-Pierre for another, unspoken reason. The nursing aides like Maxime and his “brooding good looks,” and Jean-Pierre speculates that “when he leaves, they probably follow him down the corridor like a shoal of cod.”

Get Well Soon, a tale that argues that it’s never too late to change and learn from our mistakes is, in some ways, rather predictable, but the delightful story still manages to hold some surprises and insights. The novel works mainly because the narrator is a crusty (not idealized), intelligent widower who eschews company, and now, forced into bed rest and forced to form some relationships, he learns that life still has a lot to offer.  He mulls over his childhood and the incongruous nature of a hospital stay where staff either talk over you or address Jean-Pierre with a question such as ‘how are we today’ and whether or not he has passed wind. This short light, optimistic novel could so easily have been saccharine but it isn’t. Recommended.

Translated by Frank Wynne

Review copy

15 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Roger Marie Sabine

Happy Birthday, Turk!: Jakob Arjouni

If you’re looking for a humourous, low-rent PI story, then you can’t go wrong with Jakob Arjouni’s Kemal Kayankaya series. There’s a total of five books, and sadly there won’t be any more as author Jakob Arjouni died, aged 48, of pancreatic cancer, in 2013.

Happy Birthday, Turk!

More Beer

One Man, One Murder

Kismet

Brother Kemal

Humour and crime fiction can be an uneasy blend, and if the humour is misplaced, the reader can be left feeling a little queasy, but Arjouni hits just the right mix of crime and dark sardonic humour. Kemal Kayankaya, a Turkish immigrant, in common with other great fictional PIs, doesn’t seek to impress. Personally, he’s a trainwreck, but he’s the type of character who inspires affection, simply because he’s a flawed human being with no pretense of being anything else.

Happy Birthday Turk

It’s Kemal Kayankaya’s birthday, and he wakes up in his apartment, shakes off a hangover from his early (pathetic) celebration the night before, and begins his day with a beer and a cigarette. Hardly the Breakfast of Champions, but Kemal shuffles off to work.  Once in his office, he looks out of his window and “kept an eye out for wealthy, good-looking female clients.” His wish only comes partly true when a Turkish woman arrives at Kemal’s office and hires him to discover who knifed her husband in the back outside of a brothel. The case takes Kemal to Frankfurt’s sordid red light district near the railway station.

Bright juicy neon and posters depicting two-hundred-pound bosoms, orgiastically grunting women, and glowing pink mountains of pink buttocks covered the facades of buildings on both sides of the street. In front of the purple plush curtains of various clubs stood men with pale and rancid faces, urging the passing throng to pay a visit to their establishments. Small but powerful loudspeakers transmitted groans resembling those of slaughtered animals, enhanced by luke-warm disco noise into the street. In groups of three of four, horny farm boys from the surrounding countryside jostled their way down the street, mouths and eyes open wide; retirees peered into the flaking entrance halls, licking the drool out of their wrinkles. Married men cast wary glances up and down the street before emerging from the pink swinging doors of a “Love Inn” and hurrying off. I stood there a while and smoked a cigarette. 

Kemal’s investigation bounces between the red light district, the murdered man’s mostly hostile family, and the local cop shop. Humour makes this book a light, entertaining and pleasant read. We see incidents of racism which Kemal (and the author) use to show the depth of human folly.  At one point Kemal’s foot touches a beer can on the street, and the can makes contact with someone’s leg:

“Now wait a minute!” The leg’s fat owner stopped and executed a cumbersome turn to face me. “Let me tell you something.”

I gave him a smile.

“Oh I see! No speaka da lingo, eh?”

He turned to establish eye contact with his three companions. They stood there with big grins on their porcine mugs. 

“This Germany! This no Turkey! Here beer cans go in garbage. And Turk fellow drive garbage truck!”

This was accompanied by loud appreciative whinnies. Their potbellies wobbled like jelly. 

The red light district is seedy. Prostitution is a business which involves a high degree of fantasy, but here the fantasy is stripped away, and we see the reality of an industry in which the women work hard, and end up as hard and leathery as Milly, an aging, former prostitute who now runs a bar/brothel that promises “Fun till 4 AM.”  Kemal is perfectly comfortable and confident there as he watches how the “tanned pimps in white sports coats were entertaining their present and future employees with tales of high adventure.”

Highly recommended for those who like foreign crime with lots of humour and without the gore.

Translated by Anshelm Hollo

7 Comments

Filed under Arjouni Jakob, Fiction

The Party: Elizabeth Day

Elizabeth Day’s novel, The Party, a critical look at male friendship, envy, jealousy and class differences, begins with the police interrogation of author and journalist Martin Gilmour. Gilmour and his wife Lucy were invited to attend the 40th birthday of Ben Fitzmaurice. The party takes place at the Fitzmaurices’ (golden boy Ben, and his elegant wife, Serena) second, country home, a renovated 17th century monastery (the monks have been thrown out). As with all things Fitzmaurice, the party is completely overboard with lavish, wonderfully described amounts of drink and food. All the important people are there but Martin, who has known Ben since boarding school, is disgruntled at not being invited as an overnight guest to Ben’s home, and instead, he and Lucy are lodged in a rather shabby, uncomfortable hotel, with Martin bitter in the knowledge that his friendship with Ben is slipping.

The rich do parties better than the rest of us. It’s not just the money or the every catered-for whim or the superior quality of the alcohol and food. It’s a certain unquantifiable atmosphere that comes from other people’s excitement. We are turned on by wealth, us lesser mortals. We don’t want to be and yet we are. 

We are jealous, yes. Internally, we decry the excessive, absurd, narcissistic scale of a party like Ben Fitzmaurice’s fortieth. But other people’s money has a narcotic quality. It makes you high. It makes you forget your misgivings. You feel privileged, somehow exceptional to have been invited, as though the tiniest fleck of gold leaf from a giant glittering statue has smudged off on you and you can kid yourself you belong. That you are, for a single night, indubitably, One of Them

The novel goes back and forth in time, switching between Martin and Lucy, who as it turns out, sometime after the party is now staying at some sort of psychiatric centre. While what happened at the party seems to bear crucial weight on the present, in truth, what happened between Ben and Martin decades earlier lies at the heart of this story.

The Party

The Party explores the corrosive taint proximity of the filthy rich can have on a middle-class lad. Martin’s envy of Ben reaches pathological levels as he seeks to become invited into Ben’s inner circle. And yet, even though Martin achieves admission to Ben’s coterie, he’s never quite good enough, never quite makes the grade.

The novel’s premise, unfortunately, isn’t new, and while Martin is described “as if his surface changed colour to melt into the environment, A chameleon,” neither he, nor Ben are terribly interesting characters. Serena is one of those pencil-thin, aloof bitchy women, and I would have liked to have seen more of her.  Arguably the most interesting character here is Lucy, whose marriage to Martin is deeply rooted in denial, even as she valiantly tries to counterbalance Martin’s toxic need to ‘belong.’ Martin describes her as “my pliant, adoring little wife,” rather as one might describe a pet dog, and yet Martin fails to see that while he finds Lucy useful and tolerates her (trotting along at his heels ready to defend him at every turn) his relationship with Ben mirrors his relationship with Lucy.  Whereas Martin is lured into Ben’s orbit by a desire to belong (and something else I can’t mention), Lucy is lured to Martin by his “unavailability.”  Lucy is much more complicated than she’s given credit for; the Fitzmaurices and Martin underestimate her capacity for love, sacrifice and devotion. While the Fitzmaurices soar on social status and the flow of money, things coveted by Martin, Lucy rises above these obsessions and comes across as genuine, rare, yet sadly undervalued by all.

review copy

6 Comments

Filed under Day Elizabeth, Fiction

Hard Feelings: Jason Starr

“I ordered a Scotch and soda. I put the glass up to my lips and paused, asking myself, Do you really want to do this? Myself said, You bet.”

Hard Feelings follows its first person narrator, Richie Segal as his life slides out-of-control. Richie is a salesman, once a top salesman of computer networks, but when the book opens, he’s in a slump. Sales call after sales call lead to bleak days at work, and to Richie’s boss hinting about termination. Something’s off with Richie. Perhaps it’s the alcohol. Perhaps it’s the pressure. Or perhaps it’s because he catches a glimpse of Michael Rudnick, an old neighbour from Brooklyn. ….

Richie and his wife, Paula, are a childless New York couple who live paycheck to paycheck. Their short evenings after work are composed of selecting which takeout to order, watching TV and walking the dog. It’s a daily grind, with the possibility of children and life in the suburbs the rewards at the end of the rainbow. Tensions exist between Richie and Paula, and at first it isn’t quite clear why Paula doesn’t want children. Perhaps it’s because her career is on the rise and she makes more money than Richie, or perhaps she’s having an affair. Richie, as our unreliable narrator, never quite tells the entire story. ….

Hard feelings

Richie’s sighting of Rudnick coincides with his career and marriage slump. Soon, he can’t stop thinking about Rudnick and how Rudnick molested him years earlier. Rudnick is now a successful lawyer, but Richie, reeling from bad memories mixed with booze, wants to make Rudnick pay.  Obsessed with Rudnick, suspicious that Paula is cheating on him, Richie’s life spirals out of control.

Richie Segal is a typical Jason Starr protagonist, a working man who’s pressured to breaking point by bills, work and relationships. The author creates a believable character, an ordinary working stiff who suddenly finds he can’t cope with life and only violence seems to let off pressure. As an unreliable narrator, at first we just get slivers of problems between reality and life as Richie sees it, but these moments become more obvious as the narrative continues.

Finally, my new workstation was ready. I organized myself and got to work as quickly as possible. I was so embroiled in what I was doing I almost forgot that I was sitting in a cubicle, until Joe from Marketing came over to me and said, “This really sucks, man.” Joe was a nice guy and I knew he meant well, but I still felt patronized. To everyone in the office I was a big joke now. They were probably whispering about me in the bathroom and by the water cooler: “Did you hear what happened to Richie Segal? He got kicked out of his office today.” Jackie, a young secretary, passed by and said “Hi, Richard.” When I had an office, she used to say “hello, Richard.” But now that I was a fellow cubicle worker she obviously felt comfortable and informal enough around me to say “Hi.” 

With Richie as the narrator, the story, of course, is filtered through his perception. So at times Richie doesn’t understand what his wife, Paula’s problem is or why the dog, Otis, cowers when Richie comes through the door. It’s a very human tendency to tell a story from our own slant, but this sort of character is Jason Starr’s specialty. Starr is not a stylist but his strength lies in getting into the heads of his male protagonists and following their twisted thoughts to the bitter end.

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Starr Jason

Hoodoo Harry: Joe R. Lansdale

Joe Lansdale’s novella Hoodoo Harry is one in the entry of Bibliomysteries (“a series of short tales about deadly books by top mystery authors”). Hoodoo Harry features Lansdale’s much-loved fictional duo Hap and Leonard, and since it’s a short trip with these two, I’d recommend it for fans rather than newbies.

For those unfamiliar with Hap and Leonard, they live in East Texas, outside of mainstream culture by scraping a living at menial jobs as field hands or day laborers. Later in the series, they work at a detective agency run by Hap’s girlfriend, Brett. Hap and Leonard’s close friendship substitutes for other familial relationships, and while these two men are the best of friends, especially during humorous bantering sessions, they seem like an old married couple. Hap Collins is white, Leonard Pine is gay, black, a Vietnam vet. Digging back in Hap and Leonard history, Hap, who was a member of the counter-culture, refused to go to Vietnam, and served time. The two men operate as a team, with Hap as our narrator, so the novels clearly lean towards the Hap side of things. Hap is often troubled about acts of violence that take place while Leonard isn’t troubled by moral questions.

Hoodoo Harry

In Hoodoo Harry, Hap and Leonard are on a fishing trip when a bookmobile barrels towards them:

As we came over the hill. the trees crowding in on us from both sides, we saw there was a blue bus coming down the road, straddling the middle line. Leonard made with an evasive maneuver, but by this point the trees on the right side were gone, and there was a shallow creek visible, one that fed into the private lake where we had been fishing. There was no other place to go. 

Hap and Leonard survive the accident, but the driver of the bookmobile van doesn’t. Turns out the driver, am orphaned boy named James, had been “couch surfing,” and picking up odd jobs in Nesbit–a town with an ugly history. Hap and Leonard are troubled by James’s death, and although his death was caused by a horrendous accident, they feel responsible. The fact that James was covered with cigarette burns and had clearly been tortured before his death indicates that he was running, terrified from some awful fate. And then there’s a question about the bookmobile. It disappeared 15 years ago along with its driver, Harriet Hoodalay, otherwise known as Hoodoo Harry. This was a cold case until the perfectly preserved missing bookmobile plows into Hap and Leonard.

Where has the bookmobile been for the last 15 years? Where is Hoodoo Harry and why was a runaway child at the wheel of a vehicle he couldn’t handle?

Anyone familiar with Hap and Leonard, who typically take on the cases of the disenfranchised, can guess that these unlikely best friends will investigate the case and find the answers. Race issues, as always, float to the top of the tale. Hap and Leonard operate in East Texas and Nesbit is one of those out-of-the-way unpleasant little towns where everyone appears to know everything about all the mostly unsavory residents.

The tale also includes Lansdale’s signature style and that is occasionally crude. It goes with the territory:

When I came to, I was lying on the ground on my side by the edge of the creek. I was dizzy and felt like I’d been swallowed by a snake and shit down a hole. My throat was raw, and I knew I had most likely puked a batch of creek water. 

For Lansdale fans, this tale is a short, fun trip, but it’s probably not the best place to start if you’re new to the Hap/Leonard team

Review copy

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lansdale Joe R

The Blinds: Adam Sternbergh

“Everything that happened to you before you got here has either been forgotten or is better off forgotten.”

Adam Sternbergh’s book The Blinds is set in a remote bleached-out, dusty town called Caesura– a fenced area in Kettle County, Texas, “the third least populous county” in America. Caesura, a secret facility created by the Justice Department and maintained by the murky Fell Corporation, does not exist on any map or census, but its existence is the subject of internet speculation–“chatter of secret government camps and black helicopters, mind experiments and covert crackdowns.” The town is set inside a perimeter fence. There’s no hospital, no school, but then only one child lives there. There’s a rundown-trailer for the sheriff, a structure that serves as a bar, and a small library for those who can muster the energy to read. The town is run on a cash-less basis, but there’s a commissary, which has groceries delivered once a week, and a laundromat. There’s no internet, no phones, and only two cars–the sheriff’s pickup and another in case of emergencies.  The residents can leave if they want, but they do so at their own peril. It’s well known that a woman left with her son some years ago, and it didn’t end well.

The Blinds

So who lives in this sunbleached hellhole? Who are the residents of Caesura or the Blinds as it is otherwise known?

She looks over the surrounding blocks of homes with their identical cinderblock bungalows, each with the same slightly elevated wooden porch, the same scrubby patch of modest yard. Some people here maintain the pretense of giving a shit, planting flowers, mowing grass, keeping their porches swept clean, while others let it all grow wild and just wait for whatever’s coming next. 

The residents are a blend of career criminals, the worst sort of scum–hired killers, serial killers, epic child molesters and even a few ‘innocents’ as they are called who were offered a way out for certain testimony. Instead of going into the Witness Protection programme, they disappeared, with new names, into Caesura, but only after having their memories wiped by The Fell Corporation. Over the years, and Caesura’s been in existence for eight years now, the memory wipe has been perfected.

He remembers something vaguely, as a kid, with his dad, in a dusty basement, with small windows, and the sound of tools clattering, but that’s where his memory gets ragged. Orson’s case, the doctors told him before he entered the town, was a deep dive; the relevant memories required something like a root canal for his brain. Plus he was one of the early ones, the original eight, back before they’d perfected the precision of the technique. Some of the newer people, they remember almost everything–childhoods, first crushes, wives, kids–except for the part of their lives they chose to forget.  With Orson, they scoured most of his memories, just to be sure.

So here you have a town full of vicious killers whose memories of their past mis-deeds have been wiped away. What can possibly go wrong?

That’s what happens when you wipe out a big chunk of a person’s memories: Fear breeds in the empty space that’s left behind.

Caesura, with its community of memory wiped villains has run smoothly for the past eight years, but cracks begin to appear. One resident commits suicide, and while the act itself isn’t a shocker, it’s the fact that a gun was used that is unsettling since “theoretically at least,” Sheriff Cooper is the only one who is supposed to have a gun. Then Cooper’s long-term deputy left in a hurry after the suicide, and he’s been replaced by Dawes, a woman who begins digging into loose ends. ….

Sheriff Cooper, the story’s anti-hero, is laid back and laconic, a style which causes him to project a lazy mind, but in reality he has the perfect temperament to run this hellhole. His temperament also matches the plot which unfolds layer upon layer.

Now he stands at a remove from the body in question, studying the scene with the weary air of a man who’s returned from  particularly tedious errand to find that his car’s been keyed.

To say more about the plot would ruin this book for others. I’ll add that Sternbergh’s style meshes perfectly with this dark tale that is creative and yet also oddly possible at the same time. The Blinds has to be one of the most unusual, interesting and creative books I’ve read this year. There are a couple of loose ends at the end of the story, but that’s relatively minor. It’s not often I come across a book and find myself thinking ‘this is really different,’ but Sternbergh created something new and plausible here.

Someone…. please… option this book for a television series

Review copy

16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sternbergh Adam