Tag Archives: California

Do Me a Favour–Drop Dead: James Hadley Chase (1976)

Again as if we were planning to drown a cat. No emotion, no nothing. Once more the cold dead finger went up my spine.”

After reading (trying to read) a couple of books which were disappointing, I knew I had to cleanse my mind with an author who would be a good safe bet–someone guaranteed to get me back on track. I have a huge stack of James Hadley Chase titles here, and he was just the antidote I needed to cure my recent reading slump. But which one to pick? Do Me a Favour–Drop Dead fit my mood…

It’s the 70s, post Vietnam, and our narrator finds himself on a Greyhound bus travelling from Sacramento to San Francisco. A former Wall Street trader who served 5 years for embezzling funds, 38-year-old Keith Devery has been out of jail for 10 months now, “living rough,” and moving from one itinerant job to another. He meets a businessman named Joe Pinner, who guessing that Devery is indigent, invites him to stop at the small coastal town of Wicksteed and even points him towards an available job as a driving instructor. Devery who has just $59 in his pocket, no job, no contacts, and no place to go, agrees. Pinner tells Devery that Wicksteed is a “friendly little town,” and that description soon appears to come true.

Devery certainly falls on his feet. His new boss, the owner of the driving school, is a man whose bank robber son was killed during a botched crime, and probably because he couldn’t help his own son keep on the straight and narrow, he’s motivated to employ Devery. Devery’s run of bad luck seems to have changed. He has a job that pays $200 a week, and rents a very pleasant room from a widow:

It had a divan bed on which I was lying, two comfortable armchairs, a small dining table with two chairs, a colour TV set and by the big picture window a small desk and chair. Facing me was a wall to wall bookcase, crammed with books. There were two wool rugs, one by the divan, the other under the desk. The flooring was polished wood blocks. There was a small, vine covered veranda that looked out onto the beach and the sea. For thirty bucks a week, the room was a steal.

You’d think Devery would be happy–a job, a good wage, and a nice place to live, but then, since this is a noir novel…..

do me a favourChase builds this fast paced, page turner with a silky smooth, yet relentless narrative. We’re inside Devery’s head, but through the author’s skill, we’re still outsiders imagining that Devery is happy and grateful for his lucky break. We’re like the suckers who help Devery, imagining that now he’ll recuperate his life and begin working hard. Think again.

My ambition was like the spots of  a leopard. Once you are landed with my kind of ambition, you were stuck with it. My ambition for big money burned inside me with the intensity of a blow-torch flame. It nagged me like a raging toothache. During those five grim years in jail I had spent hours thinking and scheming about how to get my hands on big money. […] Sooner or later, I was going to be rich. I was going to have a fine house, a Caddy, a yacht and all the other trimmings that big money buys. I was going to have all that.

Nudged by “fate’s elbow,” Devery meets the owner of a real estate company, alcoholic, overweight, bombastic Frank Marshall. Marshall has “expectations” and when his aunt finally dies, Marshall will be a millionaire. This is the big score that Devery’s been looking for.

During my stay in jail, I had shared a cell with a slick con man who liked to boast about his past swindles. He had had, according to him, a spectacular career until he had become too greedy.

“For years, buster,” he said to me, “I have traded on other people’s greed and then, goddamn it, if I didn’t get greedy myself and look where it’s landed me … ten years in a cell!”

He had expanded on the subject of greed.

“If a guy has two dollars, he will want four. If he has five thousand, he’ll want ten. This is human nature. I knew a guy who was worth five million and he nearly bust a gut turning it into seven. The human race is never satisfied. The more they have, the more they want, and if you show them how to make a fast buck without working for it, they’ll be all over you.”

Of course, you can read that quote one of two ways: Devery is thinking that he can con Marshall out of his money, but the reader picks up another vibe–Devery has just landed on his feet through a stroke of good fortune. Why risk a steady job with prospects by committing another crime? Just who is greedy here Devery’s mark, Marshall or Devery himself?

My sights were set much higher than to spend the rest of my days in a one-horse town like Wicksteed. I wanted to get into the big league where the real money was.

Hadley plays this dual possibility of exactly which character is being played by his greed, with Devery thinking he’s in the driver’s seat while we know Devery is making a huge mistake. Gradually we see exactly what sort of man Devery is and how he’s able to reflect back the image people want to see. He even picks up the town habit of labelling everything “nice.” When Devery insinuates himself into Marshall’s life, he thinks he can count on Marshall’s greed, but Devery, unknowingly has changed lanes and is headed towards his inescapable fate.

Naturally we have to have a women in the tale, so say hello to Marshall’s much younger, stone-faced, reclusive wife, Beth:

The woman who stood in the doorway gave me a jolt of surprise. Around thirty-three, she was almost as tall as myself and she was thin: too thin for my liking. I prefer women with bumps and curves. Her features were good: a long, thin nose, a big mouth and a well sculptured jaw line, Her eyes gave her unusual face its life: black glittering eyes, steady and coldly impersonal. This wasn’t a woman with whom you took liberties: strictly no fanny patting.

This is my fourth James Hadley Chase novel to date.  Chase, whose real name was René Brabazon Raymond, was British and wrote a large number of books (80-90 depending on which website you read). He wrote his first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish after reading James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and realising the market demand for gangster stories, had a remarkable career writing crime novels. Chase’s books are mostly set in America even though he only visited a couple of times.

One of the arguments that Chase wasn’t as successful in America is that he didn’t get many of the details right (and Devery’s $200 a week wage seems high for the times), and that’s certainly apparent in There’s a Hippie on the Highway–a book I couldn’t resist thanks to its title. Unfortunately, Hadley’s view of hippies was more Mansonesque than I think the average person would imagine hippies to be, so the novel was, for me, a curiosity more than anything else. A Coffin from Hong Kong was a standard PI novel for anyone interested.

Translated into French as Fais-moi plaisir… crève ! 

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The Children’s Crusade: Ann Packer

“I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of a filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.”

You can’t approach Ann Packer’s novel, The Children’s Crusade without evoking images of the 13th century and the disastrous (and possibly exaggerated) historic event in which thousands of children participated in a crusade to convert Muslims to Christianity. In Ann Packer’s novel, the crusade in the title concerns the desire of four children to try to include their mother in their lives–something that’s far more complicated than it first appears, but I want to back up a bit before going further.

The Children’s Crusade begins in 1954 when Michigan native Dr. Bill Blair, freshly discharged from the navy, discovers the wonders of Portola Valley. He buys a 3.1 acre property, begins a second residency in pediatrics at UCSF, and marries a woman he meets, Penny, when taking in a watch to be repaired. Eventually Bill and Penny have 4 children together: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James, and the children are brought up in what should be an idyllic location in an enviable home. The children's crusadeThe novel goes back and forth in time, so in alternating chapters, we see the children as they grow up and what they have become in adulthood. Robert is a doctor specializing in Geriatrics–married with children, but now middle-aged, depressed and unhappy, he can’t really understand where his life went wrong. Rebecca is a psychiatrist who specializes in pediatrics. Ryan is a teacher happily married to a French-Canadian woman, and the youngest, James, is the black sheep of the family who returns home when things go south in Oregon.

The novel’s main dilemma, wrestled with in the chapters set in the present, is what to do with the family home now that Bill Blair is deceased. The house and the land, worth millions, is currently rented to a wealthy man who wants to buy the property, tear down the original house and build a mega-mansion. It’s tempting to sell it and divide the money, but that decision also involves demolishing the myth of a happy home life and will also involve some agreement between the children and their mother, Penny Blair.

This is a profoundly sad, yet moving novel, for while dysfunctional family stories pop up like weeds, the Blair family is functional–they get by and cope even though things, under the surface, are far from normal. Bill Blair is a wonderful father, but as one of the children’s friends note, he’s more like a mother. Where does the rot in the Blair family begin? Does it begin with Bill Blair’s choice of a wife? His own mother is an excellent housekeeper, but for Penny raising four children, producing meals and cleaning the house are beyond her interests and capabilities. But since this is the 50s, it takes some decades for Penny to break out of the mold. But then what about Bill Blair–a man who cares so much about his patients that there’s very little left over at the end of the day for his wife.

As we read the narrative from each child’s perspective, the Blair family history is gradually revealed with each child assuming some sort of important role in the family’s structure. Always anxious, Robert, for example, lives to make his father proud, but James, the youngest child, becomes the one person who openly acknowledges his mother’s choices, and because he speaks while everyone else is silent, he becomes the family scapegoat and the family mouthpiece who states the things that everyone else avoids. As an adult, James cannot settle down, “a seeker who was seeking the identity of his own grail,” and yet now he returns to the scene where everything went wrong. James’s return heralds a period of discomfort and realignment for the siblings as they each confront their own history.

It’s the female characters here who are the most interesting. First there’s Penny Blair–who hated being a ‘homemaker’ but endured that role, with questionable success for decades, and then there’s her daughter, psychiatrist Rebecca, who enjoys a surprisingly supportive marriage, and who thinks she can pinpoint the moment in her life when she chose her career. She was waiting, along with her mother and siblings, for their father when he stops at the hospital to check on a patient:

I told my mother I wanted to leave, and she said we couldn’t leave, but if I promised to be quiet I could go over to the window. On the other side of the glass window people were moving quickly: doctors in white coats, nurses in caps, regular people in regular clothes. They were alone or in pairs, talking or not. I didn’t know why or how, but I knew they were different from the people in the cafeteria. And to get closer to them all I had to do was be quiet. Was this the moment when the seeds of my vocation were planted? I’ve always thought so. I wanted to be on the other side of the window, away from the sick and the worried. And to get there, I should cease talking. I should listen.

It’s interesting that James, the child who has the most problems with his mother, and the one who is the most confrontational with her, should also be the one who fails to find his way in life. Robert, Rebecca and Ryan all seem to find their vocations, and yet James, the family’s last child, is totally lost.

The Children’s Crusade argues that our characters are shaped in childhood, but there’s a deeper, more troubling question here and that is Penny’s behaviour. At what point do the considerations and desires of the individual exceed the demands of the family that a parent has committed to raise? Is Penny’s behaviour selfish? How difficult is it to be married to a man who gives everything to his patients and has little, emotionally, left to give his wife?

One of the most interesting and arguably the most difficult aspects of marriage is establishing boundaries between the entity of the couple and the individual. Packer’s tale explores the invisible boundaries between the individual, the couple  and the parent. Given that these people live very privileged material lives (the estate to be divided between the four children is worth several million) this  has the strange result of making us conclude that if these people have problems then what chance do other, less materially advantaged people have, and that thought can at once be comforting and disconcerting.

Many people have far worse childhoods than the Blair children, and those readers may find the tale underwhelming. The main dilemma of whether or not to sell the family home and carve up over 3 million is a problem most of us wouldn’t mind dealing with, yet material privilege cannot trump all other deprivations. That brings me to the other issues at play here regarding the terrible burden of Bill Blair’s dream and how his dream didn’t mesh with his wife’s desires. And here’s a quote that defines Penny’s problematic role in her family’s life when she’s found by her husband and children in her private space:

“Bill saw that the children were defining the moment as a rescue operation rather than the act of capture it actually was.”

Review copy.

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The Man Who Loved His Wife: Vera Caspary (1966)

In Vera Caspary’s wonderful autobiography The Secrets of Grown-Ups, she detailed her interesting life, her struggles and her mistakes with intelligent sensitivity and just a touch of humility. I read The Secrets of Grown-Ups after reading both Laura (the book she’s most remembered for) and Bedelia. Like Laura, Bedelia was also made into a film, but while Laura makes many of those top-film lists, the film version of Bedelia has almost faded from view. Bedelia, incidentally, a wonderfully pathological tale of a female serial killer, is the book that convinced me to read Vera Caspary’s autobiography. And this brings me to The Man Who Loved His Wife, the story of a married couple whose life together changes drastically after the husband is diagnosed with cancer.

Fletcher Strode is a virile, affluent confident married wealthy businessman, at the prime of life at age 42 when he meets and falls in love with beautiful photographer’s model, Elaine Guardino, 19 years his junior. They meet by chance in a restaurant, fall in love, and three weeks later, Strode asks his wife for a divorce. His marriage wasn’t exactly on the rocks before he met Elaine, but it’s more or less a sham marriage with his wife and daughter living in the New Jersey suburbs while Strode leads a bachelor life (with other women) in New York. Strode marries Elaine 24 hrs. after getting a divorce.

the man who loved his wifeEveryone predicts doom for Strode and his new wife. Could be that age difference or perhaps it’s the whirlwind romance, but it’s initially a very happy marriage, full of passion, sex, and money, and then 5 years later, Strode is diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Strode’s larynx is removed, and he’s told that if the disease is discovered early, and treated aggressively, chances of survival are excellent. Unfortunately, Strode doesn’t grasp the physical and more importantly the psychological impact of the surgery. With his body still whole, Strode mentally minimizes the effects of the operation:

The loss of his vocal apparatus would be compensated for by different mechanics of sound production. His voice would be stilled for a time, but when the wound was sufficiently healed, he would learn to control a different set of muscles and would be able to speak in an altered voice. Examples were quoted to him, statistics read, stories told of patients who had overcome trauma and gone on with their work, enjoyed sports, eaten heartily, and made love to women.

During the mute period after the operation, he had been eager and positive that he would soon acquire a new voice. A breezy, self-confident man entered his hospital room to tell him, hoarsely, that many of those who had suffered the same operation had been able to return to work within a few weeks. This man, who had lost his voice box several years earlier, promised that with practice and patience, Fletcher would be able to speak as well as he did. Hell, I’ll do a lot better, Fletcher told himself. Thinking of the success he had achieved in business, the money he had made, the obstacles overcome, he knew himself the better man. He was both contemptuous of and amused by those sympathetic friends who, visiting him at the hospital, shouted at him or whispered, using their lips extravagantly as though he were deaf.

I’ll show them.

After he left hospital, optimism collapsed. There were too many changes. Smell and taste returned slowly and were never as keen as they had been. He had to breathe through a hole in his neck, a wound that could never be allowed to close now that his windpipe had been removed, there was no connection between the mouth and the nose with the lungs. He had to cough, sneeze, and blow his nose through this opening. There would be no more swimming for him, nor could he step into the shower carelessly. His loud and boisterous laugh was silenced forever. Every action required adjustment. Encounters with old friends left him morbid. Strangers appalled him. Going out became a nightmare.

Ironically, this is a situation in which Strode’s money works against him. If he needed to make a living in order to put food on the table, perhaps he would have pushed himself, made the best of a bad break, and got on with his life, but his amassed fortune allows him to stop working. He lacks the patience for voice therapy, and can’t stand this new social arrangement with him the student while others–healthy, full-bodied people he despises, teach him how to make sounds.

Fury and frustration robbed him of what little voice he had acquired. When he forgot himself and tried to shout in the old, authoritative manners, he could utter nothing but a string of unintelligible sounds.

He sells all of his business concerns, leaves New York, and with Elaine, moves to California.

It doesn’t take long before Strode’s marriage becomes more and more toxic. Elaine, still in her 20s, married a vigorous, passionate, energetic man, but now he’s resentful of the healthy, has become a recluse, and has a hair-trigger temper. Sinking into depression, Strode hates his new self, and obsessed with thoughts that Elaine, still young, beautiful, and whole, will find new lovers and remarry after his death, he begins a diary in which he pours his twisted thoughts. This is a diary of his suspicions and also his darkest fantasies; it’s in this diary that he relates his version of events and also his fantasies that Elaine will make his murder look like suicide….

The novel’s premise is extraordinary and is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith for its claustrophobic toxicity. The plot captures, with intense psychological insight, this rat-trap of marital circumstance, diminished expectations, and twisted resentment. Those marriage vows include the ‘sickness and in health’ provision, yet when Elaine married Strode, he was a completely different human being able to offer her a glamorous, romantic life. We bring our character and personality to any illness and disease; some people sink to their worst selves when faced with their morality, and this is the case with Strode.

The characters in the novel are mostly unpleasant, and the secondary characters could have benefitted from a little subtlety; there’s the feeling, from certain sentences, that Caspary couldn’t stand those secondary characters even as she shows empathy for Strode’s tortured psyche.  Strode’s selfish, immature daughter from his first marriage, Cindy, and her ne’er-do-well, sly hanger-on of a husband, unemployed lawyer Don arrive in California and move in for an extended vacation.  These two characters are so vicious & superficial, they just manage to veer away from caricature. The novel’s premise is extremely clever and unfortunately the very necessary characters of Don and Cindy (& Sgt Knight) don’t match the level of the subtle, sophisticated plot. They didn’t need to be quite this overtly venal, so transparent, or in the case of Sgt. Knight, so one-dimensional, and if their characters had been toned down a notch, they would be more appropriate to this otherwise fascinating book.

 

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You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up: Richard Hallas (1938)

“And I knew there was something I had to do and something I had to wait for, and it wasn’t till I saw it that I knew.”

Richard Hallas was the pseudonym for Eric Knight (1897-1943)–the man who created the character of Lassie. I’m still trying to get my mind around that. Lassie Come Home is …well… touching and a bit weepy, but here’s You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, pure noir fiction, a superbly dark, hardscrabble tale of crime and moral corruption. Eric Knight was born in Yorkshire but emigrated to America in his teens. He was a Hollywood screenwriter, but in 1943 while a major in “the film unit of the U.S. Army Special Services,” he was killed in a plane crash. You Play the Black and Red Comes Up, published in 1938, was his only crime novel.

you play the redAlthough the book begins in an Oklahoma mining town, this is primarily a California novel. The book begins with the narrator, Dick, leaving his midnight shift to discover that his wife, Lois, has run away from the family-owned roadside diner with their child.  The tiny roadside diner is an iconic American image–a drab place of tarnished, shriveled dreams where the owners wait, hoping for customers as life passes them by. There’s a quaintness to this particular diner that’s submerged by its sad ordinariness. While Dick mentions that he’d “painted the front in blue and yellow squares like a checkerboard so that the truck-drivers on the way down to Dallas would always remember it,” we know that the diner is bigger in Dick’s mind than to the drivers who pass by on the highway. Dick immediately guesses that Lois has run off to Hollywood as she’s “crazy to get in the pictures” and has cousins living there. Perhaps we don’t blame Lois for ditching the diner and the long, lonely hours.

you play the blackDick doesn’t hesitate, he hops aboard a westbound freight, laying on the top of a box car and watching “the glow of the smelters a long way off” slowly fade as he gains distance from the town. He’s in the company of a “bunch of floaters” all headed for California and the myth that “there was a man there going to be elected Governor who would take all the money away from the millionaires and give fifty dollars a week to every man without a job.” In one town, police herd hoboes out of jail and onto the freight train beating the men with their billy sticks as they mount into a box car. The train trip becomes a hellish journey with the strong bullying the weak, the old and black.

It’s funny, when you’re in the dark you can’t get things very straight. Sometimes I knew it would be daytime, because I could see light through chinks in the boards. I tried to figure out when we’d get out, but I couldn’t tell where we were. Sometimes I’d smell desert and alkali dust, and I’d think we were in Arizona. Then we’d feel them coupling another engine and we’d be going up a mountain and we all like to froze to death because it went down to zero and only being crowded together kept us alive.

Once in California, fate, and fate plays a large role in this noir story, throws Dick into the path of eccentric, probably insane, movie director, Quentin Genter. This meeting leads to a number of twists and turns in Dick’s life, and while Dick sees Quentin as his friend, it’s apparent that Quentin is a collector of people, an expert in poison, and an arch manipulator.

Penniless and with no prospect of employment, Dick turns to crime to make an easy buck. This is another event that leads to yet another fateful meeting–this time with divorced lush Mamie and her friend Pat–women who’d “both decided to be blondes.” Mamie sticks like glue to Dick and while Dick is soon ready to move on, she may or may not have the knowledge to send him to prison. This uneasy alliance, with Dick unsure whether or not Mamie knows the truth about his criminal act, keeps him behaving, stuck with Mamie, and on edge. Are the comments she makes threatening or is he just reading this into the situation?:

Then I got to thinking she acted like she knew all about it anyhow. I kept going back over what she’d said and remembering her words. And one time it would sound sure as if she knew everything, and the next time I could prove to myself that she’d said nothing that wasn’t just an innocent remark. And that’s the way it went, back and forth, I could prove either way I wanted; things she’d done, and the next minute proving she could have done and said everything by chance.

That’s the way I sat there, not saying anything, and Mamie sitting there in her new dressing gown, brushing her hair and smiling. Then that got me to worrying whether her smiling meant she had me cornered or that it was just an innocent smile meaning she wanted to be pleasant and make up again.

That’s the way it was.  

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up is a quintessential California novel. California has always had a certain mystique and undeniable lure: from the Gold Rush to the dream of becoming a film star in Hollywood. This novel was published towards the end of the Great Depression, but that period in history is still seen in these pages–from the hoboes travelling west towards their dreams and opportunities to Dick whose poignant memories of his desperate parents become another dream to pursue for entirely different reasons. Everything that happens to our narrator once he arrives in California has a dream-like, hallucinatory quality to it, an artificiality, a movie set feel to it. Film director Quentin argues that everyone becomes crazy in California, and if he’s anything to go by, well there might be something to it. There’s a bit of a joke behind this, as I learned not long after moving to America. You can live in California and imagine that you know America. You do not. California is unlike anywhere else in this vast country. And yes, some Americans do think that California is off the deep end–an extreme place for its attitude and acceptance of beliefs rejected elsewhere in the country, so I was pleased to see that even back in the 30s, California was seen as an anomaly when compared to the rest of the country. Here’s Quentin on the subject of what happens to people when they come to California:

“It’s the climate–something in the air. You can bring men from other parts of the world who are sane. And you know what happens? At the very moment they cross those mountains.” he whispered real soft, “they go mad. Instantaneously and automatically, at the very moment they cross the mountains into California, they go insane. Everyone does. They still think they’re sane, but they’re not. Everyone in this blasted state is raving mad. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

Dick’s experiences in California begin with a hunt for his wife and child, there’s a detour to crime, and that’s when everything gains momentum. There are twists of fate: a change of fortune, love (with a possibly insane woman), and a cult (even then) but there’s also a lot of darkness and deceit. While often a noir character takes one false step that takes him deeper and deeper on the narrow path of no return, Dick’s one misstep creates ever-widening spaces of tainted relationships, hypocrisy, falsity and moral corruption. Quentin seems to be Dick’s friend but he’s a satanic figure, and if he’s a satanic figure then the novel has an allegorical quality. Told in a deceptively simple style by a narrator who accepts what happens to him, not in a naïve way, but rather after the fashion of an Everyman, You Play the Red but the Black Comes Up, a title that hints at chance, good, and bad luck concludes with a spectacular, and surprisingly moving ending. 

It was pitch-dark but I wasn’t afraid of losing my way. I knew where I had to go, and somehow it was like something would be sure to tell me how to get there.

One of my best of 2013.

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18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev

“Nine days without my wife and I score a drunk Pamela Anderson.”

Ok, so here’s the scenario:

You’re a young Bulgarian man living in California. You once wanted to be a photographer but settled for a lucrative job in the pharmaceutical industry. After your wife, Stella, dumps you, you go down to Tijuana on a bender. There in a drunken haze, you get mixed up with some thugs and through a chain of circumstance, you end up with a huge bag of marijuana. Do you:

a)  turn it in to the cops

b) have a big party and invite all your friends

c) drop it off at the Salvation Army donation box

d) try and sell it.

Well if you’re Zachary, the narrator of Bulgarian author, Zachary Karabashliev’s novel, 18% Gray, you decide, somewhat precipitously on the latter option. Of course there are a ton of problems when it comes to selling somewhere in the region of  50-70 lbs of marijuana, and since Zach knows nothing about how to sell it and has no contacts to help, he decides to drive from California to his friend Danny in New York, taking the huge bag of purloined marijuana along in the car. For anyone who’s driven across state lines, then you know that this is not the best plan in the world, but then again Zach isn’t exactly thinking straight since Stella left.

18 grayIn many ways this is a road trip novel. As Zach packs up Stella’s abandoned convertible with the marijuana and an adequate supply of indispensable Toblerone, he careens from one disaster and misadventure to another including a less-than-thrilling casual sex encounter and a clash with opportunistic car thieves as he passes through drab rural towns, stops at greasy spoon diners, isolated gas stations, and sleeps in bleak cheap hotel rooms. Along the way he buys an ancient Nikon camera and captures amazing images of the American landscape, and as he heads East, he reminisces about his past in Bulgaria, his relationship with Stella, and mulls over exactly what went wrong.

18% Gray (which is a reference to photography btw) is a fictional version of a Jim Jarmusch film. Narrator Zach combines the naiveté of the non-American adrift in the bizarre corners of the American social landscape with the sort of spot-on observations made by a foreigner who interprets the culture with a unique perspective:

At seven I’m in the car because I have to leave L.A. before the traffic really thickens. I take I-10 East. The sun is already up and glinting on the backs of the cars in front of me. I try to find a radio station that doesn’t irritate me. I know that every ten or fifteen minutes I’ll have to deal with the next attack of ads–something I have never learned to ignore after all these years in America. Most likely I never will. The locals handle this as if they have an implanted chip that switches their attention on and off during commercial breaks. Maybe this mechanism is formed in the first early years of television watching. I’m missing the “first seven” in this respect. I grew up somewhere else, with a different kind of television. There–I remember– we had similar reactions to the communist propaganda, which, just like the commercials here, kept the system going.

As Zach heads East, layers from his past are stripped away, and we learn how Zach and Stella met in Bulgaria, their exodus to America, and how they adjusted to a whole new vista of materialistic temptations.

Years ago, I was in a book shop in Santa Monica, which some of you may know is a mecca of sorts for British ex-pats like me. There while perusing the shelves, I overheard a conversation between other British ex-pats who were exchanging thoughts about living in America. One man noted that he fell into the “pitfalls” of the culture without thinking much about it. He said he’d “gone with the flow” and racked up huge debts to match a lifestyle he really couldn’t afford. Not that this behavior is exclusively American by any means, but the man’s point was that he felt adrift in a foreign culture and made bad choices which resulted in painful experiences before he found himself reevaluating just how he wanted to live in his newly-adopted culture.  This overheard conversation came back to mind as I read the novel. As an ex-pat, I appreciated 18% Gray’s fresh and insightful view of American culture as seen through a foreigner’s eyes. When Zach lands in America, all things seem possible, and then he shifts his dream, opting for material gain over every other consideration. Not so Stella. This is, in essence, the experience of ever new-comer to a foreign land. You have to decide how you will adapt, what you will adopt, and what you will absolutely reject. For some, I think, it’s easier than for others. Zach initially loses himself with his new (forged) American identity, and it’s on the symbolic journey East that Zach reconnects with the man he used to be.

I love American roads at night. The prairie outside is dark and cold. The American West. Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a part of this. But why? Is it possible that I had simply been charmed by the idea of the West, the West of absolute, raw freedom? I grew up with my grandparents’ fairy tales, with innumerable stories of our own national heroes–my mom read me to sleep every night.

I now realize that my American West was not a geographical place, but a sacred territory in my dreams. Perhaps everybody has their own Wild west. From a very young age, I knew with certainty that one day I would live in mine. I’d caress the yellow prairie grass and the wind would kiss my face. When did I lose all that? How did I manage to desecrate my West by replacing it with the plastic version of what I’ve been living in for the last few years of my life?

California, of course. The end came with California.

Review copy. Translated by Angela Rodel

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Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a film fan, and so it’s really no surprise that I’d be interested in Christine Sneed’s excellent debut novel, Little Known Factsa book I read in two sittings. Dynamic yet aging film star/director Renn Ivins is at the centre of the book and with each chapter told by various people in Renn’s life, a complex picture emerges of a talented, enormously successful, fabulously wealthy man, yet who, as ex-wife #1, Lucy states is “quite capable of rationalizing any decision he makes that involves his penis.” Through these chapters, both 1st and 3rd person narrative, we see Renn through the eyes of a range of people: his resentful, trust fund son, Will, whose bitterness towards his father hobbles his ability to move on, Renn’s daughter, Anna who’s on her last year of med. school at UCLA, a prop master who augments his income by stealing souvenirs, Renn’s two ex-wives, pediatrician Lucy and Melinda, who’s just written a tell-all memoir, Will’s girlfriend Danielle, and Renn’s girlfriend du jour, up-and-coming film star, Elise, a girl young enough to be his daughter.

little known factsBy presenting these alternate voices, author Christine Sneed not only adds multiple layers to this tale of family relationships tainted with fame, absence, and infidelity but she also infuses a thread of sympathy for her characters–no small feat since we are talking about extremely wealthy people who can more or less do what they want with their time and money. Will, for example, has a chain of pathetic attempts to work in his patchy resume, but with a posh home paid for out of his trust fund money, he has no incentive to get out of bed in the morning. Obviously, there’s no sympathy to be had from this reader for Will’s inertia dilemma, but the situation raises the question: did Renn, who felt guilty about dumping his family and moving on, do his children any favours setting them up with trust funds? It’s also, through Will, we get more than an idea of what it is like to live under the suffocating cloud of a parent’s fame.  All of his life, Will has felt insignificant next to his popular film-star father and has painfully discovered that people want to be friends with him only to get a taste of Tinsel town. Even Will’s girlfriend, Danielle secretly fancies Renn and feel “lightheaded” at the prospect of meeting this charismatic man again:

Objectively, the father, despite being twice his son’s age, is the more desirable man. Along with the money and the fame, it is his confidence, his stature, his sheer Renn Ivins-ness that draws people to him. He is his own thriving industry, a true celebrity, with his metal star already embedded in the famous sidewalk a few miles away. How many women have offered themselves to him over the years? How many women, the world over, believe themselves to be in love with him at that very moment?

Renn’s relationship with his son is already an emotional minefield when he asks Will to fly to New Orleans and take over the job of personal assistant on the set of Renn’s latest film, Bourbon at Dusk. Once at the mercy of his father’s orders and whims, Will becomes incredibly attracted to his father’s new girlfriend and leading lady, Elise, but is the attraction genuine or is it fueled by competitiveness?

With the story told by several voices, there are some time gaps in the narrative, and sometimes a chapter picks up some months later after major developments have occurred. With the multiple narratives and their varied voices, the author keeps the supple story moving in this page-turner that questions the price of fame and power. With the exception of his daughter Anna, a young woman who appears to have her life together, all the people in Renn’s life seem to suffer from knowing him, and none of Renn’s relationships are straight-forward. Renn believes in giving at least 15% of his money back to charity, and is capable of great generosity at several points in the novel, but in spite of his financial open-handedness,  Renn never really gives himself completely in a relationship. He’s not even on loan. It would be more accurate to say that he’s there for that moment, and nothing more. It’s almost as if Renn has acted in so many films, played so many roles, that there’s no centre to this man. He even keeps 2 sets of journals: one official journal to be published after his death, and the secret one called J2 in which he keeps a record of “shady things” that he’s “witnessed and done nothing about” or things he’s done he’s “regretted.” J2 is destroyed at the end of each year, and by the time Little Known Facts concludes, Renn has plenty of new material for J2.

Naturally both of Renn’s ex wives have a lot to say about him.  Lucy seems to have him pegged quite well and realizes that her marriage to Renn was doomed:

Our marriage began to exhaust me once people started to recognize him everywhere we went, after he became famous enough that paparazzi sometimes lurked outside the gate at the end of our driveway, but I was still not ready to give up. Still, it was clear that a marriage that lasts does not have the rest of the world pressing in on it; it does not have fanatics or floozies feverishly hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the principals, to touch his hand or whatever other part of him they can reach. A marriage that lasts does not feature one of the principals being paid to simulate sex on camera with someone young and very attractive, which is impossible for the other principal to get used to because this movie sex looks real and therefore it must feel real to the couple being filmed. A marriage that lasts does not have the aura of a siege, of a boat being rocked so hard I felt almost permanently ill. I knew I would lose him; I think I knew this very early on, but it wasn’t something I let myself say to anyone, and I tried never to say it to myself either.

Although Lucy realizes that her marriage was doomed by Renn’s fame, she admits to feelings of “regret or loneliness or anger over nothing that I can clearly articulate,” and still single, she compares other men unfavorably to Renn  Second wife, Melinda’s chapter is written in a pro-and con fashion–clearly the influence of years of expensive post-Renn therapy here, and it’s through this relationship that we see some heavy negatives about Renn balanced with some positive attributes. In one section, Melinda describes what Renn spends all his millions on, and that includes frequent romantic trips by private plane to his favourite restaurant in Napa. Rather hilariously, later on in the book, Renn flies Elise on that same trek–same destination, different woman. More than a bit tacky, and while Melinda reveals this small detail about her ex-, Renn seems oblivious to the fact that he is, in many ways, a predictable walking cliché. Here he is phenomenally wealthy, a man most men envy and most women drool over, and yet the reality is that he resorts to botox to fight aging, is romancing a woman young enough to be his daughter (and is any coincidence that she’s a hot new rising star?) and spends 100s of thousands on a psychic who ‘helps‘ with the major decisions in his life.

While the novel confirms rather than challenges some rather well-worn territory about wealth and fame (it sucks to be rich and famous) ultimately, Little Known Facts is a cleverly structured character study of the life of Renn Ivins: a man every male wants to be and every female wants to sleep with, and glaring exceptions to this are the family members and the exs he’s burned in the past who, of course, have an entirely different opinion of what Renn is really like. Little Known Facts could very literally mean J2–the secret journal Renn keeps as a way of expiating his sins or it could be the dirt the people in Renn’s life know about which is in stark contrast to the glitzy superstar image. The novel’s bottom line is the question: what is the cost of fame? And the author shows clearly and convincingly that it’s not just the star but their immediate circle that pays the price in the corrosive, corrupting culture of the movie biz. 

Review copy

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San Miguel by TC Boyle

“Imagine it, Minnie,” he said. “Just imagine it. Our own island–our own country–and nobody to answer to. We could pull up the drawbridges and man the battlements. I could be king. And you–you, Minnie–you could be queen.”

Although I normally steer clear of historical fiction, for T.C. Boyle, I make an exception. I never know what to expect from Boyle, and he always seems to surprise me with his subject choices. One book, The Road to Wellville includes a fictionalized account of John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of Cornflakes. Talk Talk is the story of a young deaf woman, named Dana, whose life is ruined by identity theft. Boyle has also written a number of short stories including one I can’t forget, Jubilation, the tale of a man who decides to buy a home built inside a Florida theme park. Two of T.C Boyle’s frequent themes are man’s search for the Ideal and people who are obsessed with achieving their goals, no matter the cost, and both of those themes are certainly at play in San Miguel.

 Boyle discovered the history of the tiny Channel Island, San Miguel which is located off the California coast, when he researched his last novel, When the Killing’s Done. When the Killing’s Done pits animal activists against environmentalists in a war over the future of the Channel Islands with both groups holding a passionate set of beliefs. San Miguel, the author’s fourteenth novel, concerns the history of one of the islands told through the stories of three women who lived there. San Miguel is tangentially connected to Boyle’s previous book–although the questions of environment preservation and endangered species are mostly in the consciousness of the reader but creep in right at the novel’s conclusion.

San Miguel begins on New Year’s Day 1888 with the relocation of Marantha Waters, a wealthy San Francisco woman, her adopted, willful daughter, 14-year-old Edith, Marantha’s second husband of seven years, Captain (a title earned in the Civil War) Will Waters, and Irish servant Ida. Marantha suffers from TB, and according to her husband, who’s talked her into staking this business venture with 10,000 dollars, “the last of her savings,” her health will improve with the fresh, clean “virginal” sea air.  They now own a half stake in the Pacific Wool Growing Company partnered with Mills, who moved off the island and now lives on the mainland. The Waters family will live in a “wood-frame sheepman’s place,” which Marantha has romanticized in her imagination–in spite of being warned to the contrary.

What would it be like? The rooms–how were the rooms arranged? And the views? Would Edith have a room of her own–or would she have to share with Ida. And what of the hired man, Adolph Bierson, whose face she hadn’t liked from the minute she laid eyes on him at first light that morning? And Jimmie, the boy who’d been out here looking after things these past months–where did he sleep?

The reality is painful:

It took her a moment to get her bearings, the mule kicking up clods, the boy swinging the sled in a wide arc across the yard so that it was facing back down the canyon even as he reached up for the hame of the animal’s collar and jerked it to a stop. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, some sort of quaint ivy-covered cottage out of Constable or Turner, hedges, flowerbeds, a picket fence–a sheepman’s place–but this was something else altogether. This couldn’t be it, could it?

Raising 4,000 sheep on San Miguel would be a challenge for the young, healthy and highly motivated, but for Marantha, suffering from TB and deprived of any household comforts (including an inside toilet), life is difficult and she feels “marooned” and vulnerable. When the sand isn’t blowing, the rain is pouring, and when it isn’t raining, the fog rolls in….

Edith is first seen through Marantha’s eyes, but then in the second section of the novel, she becomes a much more detailed and interesting character–the second woman to be held hostage on an isolated, desolate island, an unwilling pawn in her stepfather’s dreams of “increase, that was his theme. Increase and improvement and profit.”

The history of the second family who make a life for themselves in the 30s on San Miguel are the Lesters, and while the Waters looked to the island to solve their problems of ill-health and failure, the Lesters are a completely different scenario. They escape the deprivations of Depression America and almost avoid WWII entirely through their chosen, blissful and idyllic isolation.

Author T.C. Boyle explores many ideas in this novel–how the dreams of one man become the nightmare of his wife, and how some people thrive on isolation while others are driven nearly mad by it. The island plays a huge role in the story, and while several people throw their lives, their future prosperity, and their fate at the landscape, they die or move on, while the island remains. Dynamite is used in the building of roads that are washed away, and there’s the sense that while the humans alter the environment for their (mostly economic) purposes, the opposite is also taking place.  The history of the island certainly extends farther than its inhabitants can imagine, and the moment when Captain Waters discovers the Indian graveyard speaks volumes for the temporal moments of man versus the timelessness of the Earth.

The smell of the sea seemed to concentrate itself suddenly, the fermenting odor of all the uncountable things washed up out of the waves coming to her as powerfully as if she were standing down there amongst them. And then a gust rose up out of the canyon, knifing through her, and in the instant she turned to retreat into the house she saw it fan the dead bird’s wings till they rasped and fluttered and strove to take flight one last time.

This is a quintessential American novel with its exploration of character against the landscape, Manifest Destiny, Individualism, the quest for Utopia through isolation, and the dream of self-reliance and freedom through rugged survival. At the heart of the novel, Boyle questions our custodial responsibilities on the planet. We see how our brief lives leave traces in the landscape, and how our thoughtless decisions impact the environment. Marantha’s San Miguel of 1888, for example, is devoid of cats and run over with mice, but by the time the Lesters arrive in the 30s, the place is overrun with hundreds of cats, and we see how humans unsettle the delicate balance of nature. The novel ends on a complex and uneasy note; those who live on San Miguel lose precedence over conservation. Throughout the course of the story, wince-worthy incidents such as the slaughter of an eagle, the capture of seals for the circus, and the gleeful looting of Indian graves evoke a response that at least some societies have progressed enough to recognise the basic wrong in such casually destructive acts. Yet with T.C. Boyle, it’s not that simple, and the novel’s conclusion brings the sense that we still haven’t got it right, and perhaps we never will.

Review copy

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No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker

“I rode off the prison property with sixty-five dollars, a cheap suit (ten years out of style), a set of khakis and change of underwear in a brown parcel, and a bus ticket to Los Angeles.”

Edward Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce is a perfect example of the payoff we readers get when a writer writes what he knows. That’s the only explanation for the authenticity and pulsing desperation of this raw, visceral story about an ex-con’s failed attempt to go straight.  Edward Bunker’s life (1933-2005) was a series of institutions–beginning with foster homes, a military school, and juvenile hall, and by 1951, at age 17, Bunker was the youngest inmate at San Quentin. Paroled in his early twenties, he tried holding down jobs but eventually returned to crime. Locked up and then re-released, Bunker’s subsequent crimes were much more serious, including bank robbery. Back in prison, Bunker published his first novel, No Beast So Fierce in 1973. After that last stint in prison, Bunker did not return to crime when he was paroled in 1975, and instead he made a living as a writer and as an actor. Bunker played Mr. Blue in Tarantino’s film 1992 Reservoir Dogs, and the title of Bunker’s memoir is Mr Blue: The Memoirs of a Renegade.

No Beast So Fierce begins with Max Dembo sitting in his cell in San Quentin on his last night inside. After an eight year sentence, Max wants to go straight (“the lunchbucket routine”), but we know almost immediately that Max’s expectations are off when he complains that he wrote over 200 letters for job applications and got zero response in return. Fellow convict, Leroy tries to set him straight:

“Look here, Max,” he said, “I went through the same shit you’re going through–in your mind–until I decided not to fight destiny, and my destiny was to be a criminal and spend three-fourths of my life in prison. Maybe your destiny is different. But someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe twenty years from now when you’re fifty, you’re gonna realize that whatever you are and whatever you’ve done, it couldn’t have been very different. You’ll see that you’re required to do this in life, and when you’re at the end and everything’s totalled, you’ll have been that, whatever it is. Hope is still ahead of you–but someday it’ll be behind you.”

Since Max is out on parole, he’s required to meet his parole officer and “bête noir,” Joseph Rosenthal. Max understands his relationship with Rosenthal is crucial, but before their first meeting, Max wants to “exercise some choice, buy something,” and so he buys a twenty-five cent cigar and a half pint of vodka. Max admits to Rosenthal he’s a “little drunk.”

If he accused me of doing wrong, I knew I had a prick and could act accordingly, lying to him forever after. If he passed over it with humor or understanding, I would know that I could manipulate him. But he did neither.

So this first meeting with Rosenthal, a significant figure in Max’s subsequent downfall reveals a lot about Max’s psychology. It doesn’t take long for Max to butt heads with Rosenthal, and as Max explains to the reader:

Confrontation with authority was a game I’d played often, and I knew its unfairness.

Although Max starts out with the best of intentions of going straight, the odds are stacked against him. It’s hard to pinpoint when things go wrong, but arguably, the turning point is the minute he gets off the bus. His old friends are still involved in crime on one level or another–even Willy, who has a family, lives in poverty and works, has a sideline as a heroin dealer and uses too much of his own product. It’s crucial for Max to get a job, and he walks himself into blisters trying to find even menial employment, but no one wants to hire an ex-con. Rosenthal wants Max to move into a halfway house, and Max refuses. In possibly the book’s most poignant scene, Max, in his last honest communication with Rosenthal, begs for some understanding:

You’ve got to realize that I’m not like you. I’m too warped and tangled by too many yesterdays to be like you. This doesn’t mean I’m fated to be a menace to society. If I believed my future had to be like my past, I’d kill myself. I’m tired. I can bend enough to stay within the law, but I’m never going to be the guy who goes home to San Fernando to a wife and kids. I wish I was that guy, but I’m not.

While Max thinks that he can argue his case to Rosenthal, he also thinks he has a bargaining position for some basic freedoms:

Bend a little and I’ll bend a little. Just ask that I don’t commit any crimes, not that I live by your moral standards. If society demands that, society shouldn’t have put me in foster homes and reform schools and twisted me. And these last eight years. Shit, after that, nobody would be normal. Just understand my predicament. I don’t know anyone but ex-convicts, hustlers and prostitutes. I don’t even feel comfortable around squarejohns. I like call girls instead of nice girls, I don’t need a Freudian explanation, which wouldn’t change the fact anyway. But because I prefer going to bed with a prostitute doesn’t mean that I’m going to use an acetylene torch on a safe.

Max’s powerful argument that he’ll never be a perfectly upstanding citizen resonants with sincerity, and while we hope the best for Max as he struggles to fit in to society on the humblest level, at times, he isn’t a particularly likeable character. He’s too damaged for that, and it’s a credit to the author that Max is sympathetic in spite of his actions, his bad choices, and his predilection for violence.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the novel is the way Max treats other people. There’s a definite nod to humanity here in the times Max risks his neck to treat people with a little consideration, and as it turns out this character trait is Max’s Achilles’ heel. One example of this is when Max stumbles across another ex-con, Augie Morales, and Max risks Augie shooting up heroin in his room as Augie’s presence on the street will likely get him arrested & sent back to prison. Perhaps Max stubbornly resists abandoning the behaviour model of showing kindness as he has too often been the brunt of the alternative–dehumanization in the various institutions. In addition, part of Max’s downfall is caused by the way he sees the world in terms of predator & victim, and he refuses to fall into the latter category. We see the predator-victim dynamic early in the novel through the violent, explosive relationships between prisoners.  

And though it was free choice, it was also destiny. Society had made me what I was (and ostracized me through fear of what it had created) and I gloried in what I was. If they refused to let me live in peace I didn’t want to. I’d been miserable that week of struggling–miserable in my mind. Fuck society! Fuck their game! If the odds were vast, fuck that, too. At least I’d had the integrity of my own soul, being the boss of my own little patch of hell, no matter how small, even if confined in my own mind.

When morning came I was strong; I’d transcended decision.

The novel is full of well-drawn characters: shabby ex-con Willy who’s trying to juggle family demands with a heroin business, “vice-ravaged” party animal Red, former bail bondsman Abe Meyers, shyster lawyer Allen McArthur, and Allison, the girl who asks no questions.  Occasional “writerly” additions to the author’s blunt style do not complement his natural talent and instead feel forced and discordant. Here’s one example, “But for all the exultation, the joy of leaving after eight calendars in prison was not unalloyed,” and “In this fertile abyss, this void, an encompassing indignation bloomed.” Fortunately these occurrences are few, and the author appears to grow more comfortable with his own style very quickly. Bunker shows us Max, a ex-con who wants to go straight, who is a fairly reasonable fellow, and someone whose desperation oozes from the page, but by the end of the novel, Max’s raw violence and criminal intelligence explodes….This really is a fantastic read.

No Beast so Fierce was made into the film Straight Time. And the book’s title is a quote from Richard III:

No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity, but I know none, therefore I am no beast.

Review copy from publisher Mysterious Press via Open Road Media

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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? : Horace McCoy (1935)

I saw the film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? some time ago, and due to my film-book obsession, it was just a matter of time before I sought out the source material. I wondered whether the visual advantages of the film would overrule the novel, but no, for its intense, unrelenting bleak depiction of a luridly exploitive dance marathon in 1930s California, the book outweighs the film. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1897-1955) is considered his masterpiece, and after finishing the novel, it’s easy to see why. This is a fairly short novel, and the title makes sense by the time the book concludes.

Robert Syverten is walking down Melrose Boulevard with seven dollars in his pocket when he meets Gloria Beatty. He’s just left the Paramount studio lot after being rejected, yet again, for a part as an extra in a von Sternberg film. Although the name of von Sternberg’s “Russian picture” isn’t mentioned, the date 1935 appears later in the novel. Von Sternberg made The Scarlet Empress in 1934, and Crime and Punishment in 1935, so if McCoy referred to the latter film, then that’s a significant allusion given the events that take place.

Both Robert, originally from Arkansas and Gloria, from West Texas are trying to get bit parts and break into film, and since they are both meeting with little success, they appear to have something in common. They strike up a conversation and then Gloria suggests that they join a dance marathon.

“A girlfriend of mine has been trying to get me to enter a dance marathon down at the beach,” she said. “Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars in you win.”

“The free food part of it sounds good,” I said.

“That’s not the big thing,” she said. “A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture … What do you say?”

Gloria overrules Robert’s initial objections, and so they sign up for the 2500 hour marathon which is held at the beach on an amusement pier. 144 couples begin the marathon, but 61 dropped out the first week. The conditions are horrendous, and this is, of course, an indication of just how many desperate young people are willing to risk their health for $1000.

The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.

Some of the couples in the marathon are professionals and so they have tips for how to maximise the ten minute breaks. As the vicious contest continues, there’s a sense of brewing violence. Tempers are short, exhausted partners begin squabbling and the men organising the marathon arrange a number of questionable publicity stirring events to boost attendance. One of the worst aspects of the dance marathon is the derby–this is a nightly event which exists simply to cut remaining couples. It’s a brutal rapid walk-around the dance floor with the last couple being eliminated, and many others collapsing and seeking medical help in the “pit.”

“Two minutes to go,” Rocky announced. “A little rally, ladies and gentleman–” They began clapping their hands and stamping their feet, much louder than before.

Other couples began to sprint past us and I put on a little more steam. I was pretty sure Gloria and I weren’t in last place, but we had both been in the pit and I didn’t want to take a chance on being eliminated. When the pistol sounded for the finish half the teams collapsed on the floor. I turned around to Gloria and saw her eyes were glassy. I knew she was going to faint.

“Hey…” I yelled to one of the nurses, but just then Gloria sagged and I had to catch her myself. It was all I could do to carry her to the pit. “Hey!” I yelled to one of the trainers. “Doctor!”

Nobody paid any attention to me. They were too busy picking up the bodies. The customers were standing on their seats, screaming in excitement.

The curious thing is that while Robert was reluctant to join the marathon in the first place, he very quickly becomes the team’s cheerleader. Gloria sinks into pessimism and despair, refusing to talk to the sponsors,  and while one of her main (and pitifully sad) reasons for joining was to meet ‘movie people,’ when anyone famous attends, their presence serves to create Gloria’s anger and resentment. Gloria sees life as hopeless, and the contest as a meaningless diversion from their fate:

“This whole business is a merry-go-round. When we get out of here we’re right back where we started.”

“We’ve been eating and sleeping,” I said.

“Well what’s the good of that when you’re just postponing something that’s bound to happen.”

Unfortunately, Robert doesn’t realise that Gloria is one of the “Kamikaze women” we find in Woody Allen films, and as a character says in Husbands and Wives (1992)

 “I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women….I call them Kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.”  (Professor Gabe Roth played by Woody Allen)

Within minutes of meeting Robert, Gloria mentions that she tried to kill herself with poison. A warning for any man who’s listening. This is a woman with a serious death-wish:

“It’s peculiar to me,” she said, “that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it? There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me who want to die but haven’t got the guts–“

The only time Gloria shows any fight is when she meets a couple of do-gooders from The Mothers’ League for Good Morals. In a wonderful showdown, Gloria tells the women where they can shove their good intentions:

“It’s time somebody got women like you told,” Gloria said, moving over and standing with her back to the door, as if to keep them in, “and I’m just the baby to do it. You’re the kind of bitches who sneak in the toilet to read dirty books and tell filthy stories and then go out and try to spoil somebody else’s fun-“

Anyone who’s enjoyed the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? needs to read the novel from which the film sprang. Dancing is a social and cultural mechanism for romance & courtship and here it’s degraded into brutal, demeaning savagery, and the voyeuristic public’s taste for destruction harks to the modern-day excesses and morally questionable abuses of reality television.  While McCoy’s novel is ostensibly about a vicious dance marathon in which the suffering of a few becomes entertainment for the masses, Gloria understands that the marathon–the desperate struggle to survive and the demeaning obsequiousness they must show towards the audience and the sponsors are symbolic of the struggles of a bitter, hard-scrabble, poverty-stricken life from which there’s only one escape….

Review copy from Open Road Media

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Watch Me Die by Lee Goldberg

“There’s no reason to spend more than thirty bucks a night for a mattress, a toilet, and a sink, especially for a hardened, professional private eye on assignment.”

I needed to read something distracting–something light, something funny, and so I picked by Watch Me Die by Lee Goldberg. Yes, I know the title doesn’t seem to imply the qualities I sought, but this very entertaining crime book made me laugh out loud upon occasion, and it proved to be a great distraction from the darker side of life. Most of the novel’s strength can be found in its protagonist, 29-year-old Harvey Mapes–an underemployed security guard who’s addicted to crime novels:

I don’t know if you’ve ever read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books before. McGee is sort of a private eye who lives in Florida on a houseboat he won in a poker game. While solving mysteries, he helps a lot of ladies in distress. The way he helps them is by fucking their brains out and letting them cook his meals, do his laundry, and scrub the deck of his boat for a few weeks. These women, McGee calls them “wounded birds,” are always very grateful that he does this for them.

To me that’s a perfect world.

I wanted his life.

This is the story of what I did to get it.

If that quote appeals to you, then you’re going to enjoy the book.

Harvey’s job is boring, so it’s really no surprise that he ends up trying to live the fantasy life of his crime heroes:

My job is to sit in a little, Mediterrean-style stucco shack from midnight until eight A.M. six days a week, outside the fountains and gates of Bel Vista Estates, a private community of million dollar plus homes in the Spanish Hills of Camarillo, California.

Harvey’s job is to sit there, monitor the security cameras, and wave residents through. Once in a while, he writes what is called a “courtesy ticket” to residents  who ignore the stop sign. He doesn’t “have a gun, a badge, or even a working stapler.” Of course, at best he’s ignored and at worst, he’s treated rather badly, and since he sits there all night long alone, it’s no wonder that he reads crime novels and begins fantasizing about a different sort of life.  Then one night a resident, Jag driving (“the one with a forest of wood and a herd’s worth of leather,”) Cyril Parkus makes him an offer. Here’s Harvey’s take on Parkus:

Even just sitting in that car, Parkus exuded the kind of laid-back, relaxed charm that says to me: look at how easy-going I am, it’s because I’m rich and damn happy about it. He was in his mid-thirties, the kind of tanned, well-built, tennis-playing guy who subscribes to Esquire because he sees himself in every advertisement and it makes him feel good.

Harvey agrees to meet Parkus at Denny’s the next morning. Parkus thinks his wife, Lauren, is up to something, and it’s Harvey’s job to follow her and find out what that ‘something’ is. 

“Harvey, I’ve got a problem and, since you’re experienced in the security field, I think you’re the man to help me,” he said. “I need someone followed.”

“Who?”

“My wife.”

I knew he’d say that.

I sipped my Coke and hoped he couldn’t hear my heart beating. In that instant, I’d become the hero of one of those old Gold Medal paperbacks, the ones with the lurid cover drawing of a busty girl in a bikini wrapping herself around a grimacing, rugged guy holding a gun or a martini glass.

I was now that guy.

So Harvey’s dream comes true–he’s a daylighting PI working on $150 a day plus those ever-important expenses.

As the novel continues, pepto-bismal popping Harvey bluffs his low-rent way through various dangerous scenarios relying largely on the scenes he’s read in his favourite detective novels. Things turn deadly, however, as the case intensifies and the body count rises. Laid-back Harvey makes a wonderful narrator as he makes his way through the 2-star motels, the cheap diners, and the tacky trailer parks that are part of his investigation. Every page is full of his  low-key humour which is accompanied by wry observations, and he isn’t afraid to laugh at himself:

I had no self-defense skills at all, unless you include running and hiding.

Author Lee Goldberg is also a screenwriter and producer. He’s written the Monk series, the Dead Man series, and a couple of Charlie Willis books. Watch Me Die was originally called The Man with the Iron-On Badge, and I prefer that title as it matches the novel’s tone and low-rent feel. And I prefer the original cover too.

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