Tag Archives: California

Commonwealth: Ann Patchett

“Half the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget.”

Ann Patchett’s engaging novel, Commonwealth, begins in the 1960s, in California, at the home of detective Fix Keating. It’s his second daughter, Frances’s christening, and while most of the guests are fellow detectives, there’s a gatecrasher, Albert Cousins, otherwise known as Bert, a lawyer from the district attorney’s office. Bert attends, bringing along a bottle of gin, and it’s on this day that the lives of the Keating and the Cousins families begin to blow apart, but no one knows it yet. Taken that way, in hindsight, the christening party is a moment in time, a moving snapshot of the lives of Patchett’s characters. The novel, rooted in that event, then extends out over the next fifty years with other snapshots, following the lives of its characters as they merge for various events–some happy, some tragic, and some just marking the passage of time.


Bert, who hails from Virginia, is an unhappily married man, but he doesn’t acknowledge it. He dragged his wife, Teresa to California, and now they have three children, Cal, Holly, and Jeannette, with another one on the way (who’ll be a second boy, a “pyromaniac” named Albie). Bert gatecrashes the christening as an excuse to not engage with his overworked wife, demanding children and the chaos called home. As the novel continues, we see that avoidance is a way of life for Bert, and it’s a pattern of behaviour that will have dramatic, tragic consequences for the other characters.

The stunningly beautiful, blonde Beverly Keating, who catches Bert’s eye, has two  daughters with Fix: Caroline and Frances (Franny). There’s a sense about her that she’s the kind of perfect woman who will always land on her feet, and that feeling is proved correct as the plot reveals her various incarnations.

Beverly was always in the pictures the children brought back from summer, as if Catherine Deneuve happened to wander by while they were playing in the pool or swinging in the swings and stepped accidentally in the frame as the shutter snapped.

So here we have a cast of four adults: Fix and Beverly Keating, Bert and Teresa Cousins and between them, six children. Over the course of fifty years, we see divorce, families blending, with Bert and Beverly becoming less-than-enthusiastic stepparents, and as the six children merge into one ad-hoc family, they develop relationships among themselves, creating bonds strengthened by being set adrift.  Although these 10 characters have a shared history, exactly what that history is is open to interpretation. In adulthood, Franny, a young woman who can’t quite find a path in life, meets a much older, successful author, who takes her childhood story, makes it into a bestselling book, and this causes questions to arise, once again, about the past.

Some reviews state that the novel is plotless. Rather, let’s go back to that snapshot image. Patchett doesn’t give us a linear narrative, and takes us back and forth in time, concentrating on some characters through significant family events, so we see how certain choices develop into major pathways. Teresa is the unsung hero here, struggling to manage a job to support her four children and receiving very little credit for it.

In Commonwealth, and the title is explained as the plot plays out, Patchett has created an engaging, tender look at the lives of her characters. It’s the bite of the narrative, the power of perspective and Patchett’s adept portrayal of messiness of life that elevate this novel.

Here’s Fix talking to his daughter Franny:

“And how about old Bert? How’s he doing?”

“He seems okay.”

“Do you talk to him very often?” Fix asked, the soul of innocence.

“Not nearly as often as I talk to you.”

“It isn’t a contest.”

“No, it’s not.”

“And he’s married now?”

Franny shook her head.


“But there was a third one.”

“Didn’t work out.”

“Wasn’t there a fiancée though? Somebody after the third one?” Fix knew full well that Bert had had a third divorce but he never tired of hearing about it.

“There was for a while.”

“And the fiancée didn’t work out either?”

Franny shook her head.

“Well that’s a shame,” Fix said, sounding as if he meant it

Caroline recently posted about errors and cliches in a short story written by Ann Patchett called Switzerland that is part of the novel Commonwealth. After reading Caroline’s post, I had reservations about reading the book. My concerns turned out to be unfounded–Commonwealth was excellent–I loved it, but if I had to pick fault with the novel, then that complaint would be the section in which Teresa flies to Switzerland to meet her daughter, Holly. We don’t see a lot of either Teresa or Holly in the book, and this section, which stuck out as clunky, did not blend well with the rest of the story. But apart from that, Commonwealth is an entertaining, engaging read.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Patchett Ann

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

“Not that I like to blame things on tequila, but…”

Eve Babitz: it’s not what she sees or who she’s with, it’s her wryly witty observations that make Slow Days, Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., from New York Review Books, so much fun to read. So who is Eve Babitz? According to Wikipedia, she seems to be mostly famous for who she slept with, but if you dig around a bit, shove the notoriety aside, then you find her work as an artist and as a writer. Matthew Specktor’s introduction tackles the issue of how Babitz’s notoriety buries her books: “to start laying out the names of Babitz’s paramours is to begin building the wall that obscures our view of her work.” Specktor also points out a major point with Babitz’s work: yes she may have slept with this or that famous person, but these very real people are “largely pseudonymous, or brushed aside in a way that feels aptly dishabille.” Babitz’s reputation, unfortunately, seems to subsume her books, and while I approached Slow Days, Fast Company prepped for pretentious name dropping–there’s none of that here, and instead the book is a refreshing, disarming perspective of California life. Whether it’s Bakersfield, Orange County, Forest Lawn, Palm Springs or even something as simple as California rain, Babitz’s canny observations make us see things through her eyes, and that’s quite a vista.

slow days fast company

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. is a series of essays–each gives a snapshot of some aspect of the author’s California 1960s and 70s life. Her writing is a mesmerizing blend of worldliness mixed with innocence, and the result is, ultimately, unique and fascinating. A part of the Hollywood fast track glamour scene, nonetheless, Babitz managed to mix with the in-crowd but always kept an outsider’s critical eye. While it’s clear that Babitz loves California, still she always maintains a healthy skepticism about the lifestyle as, for example, when she mulls over the thought that “in Los Angeles it’s hard to tell if you’re dealing with the real true illusion or the false one.”

One essay finds Babitz visiting a fan in Bakersfield. It’s a unique area–you can think you know California and then you visit Bakersfield and realise that it’s a world apart. It’s an epic journey for Babitz: “It takes two hours for an ordinary person to get from Hollywood to Bakersfield, so I planned on three.”  She mingles with the locals and marvels, with an anthropologist’s interest, at the social mores, but always with curiosity–never condescension. The scene at the Basque restaurant echoed my own experience: “The forty of us from the party went to the White Bear and thirty-nine of us were prepared for what happened next. I was not.”

If I had a favourite essay, it would have to be Emerald Bay, which records a visit Eve Babitz made with Shawn, a gay man, who becomes her constant companion. In this affluent community, Babitz meets a boring woman called Beth Nanville, and while the essay could have dwindled into a diatribe of the affluent set in Orange County (where everyone is “so sadly hideous and Nixony,“) instead, the essay becomes a soliloquy of just what the author missed in the deeper, indecipherable side of Beth Nanville.

Ultimately, there was so much I liked about Eve Babitz, and this was unexpected from the things I’d read about her. I applauded the way she kept her love affairs more or less off the page; I loved the way she acknowledged feeling claustrophobic in San Francisco; I laughed when she describes her stylish friend Pamela and how she keeps  “hoping for something that is evil and brilliant to come out of her boyish mouth, but all she ever says is ‘Why aren’t there any men in this town?’ ” But here is, I think, the best quote from a highly quotable book:

Since I’ve started carrying a book everywhere, even to something like the Academy Awards, I’ve had a much easier time of it, and the bitterness that shortens your life has been headed off at the pass by the wonderful Paperback. Light, fitting easily into most purses, the humble paperback has saved a lot of relationships for me that would have ended in bloodshed.

A big thank you to Jacqui for reading and reviewing Eve’s Hollywood. I was on the fence about Eve Babitz’s work, but after reading Jacqui’s review, I decided to take a chance. Sometimes books written by people who are famous for being famous are pretentious, egotistical and boring. Not so Babitz. She has a remarkable eye and this book has a freshness that belies the society Babitz lived in.  Slow Days, Fast Company; The World, The Flesh and L.A. is highly recommended for regular readers, Emma, Carolina, Marina, Max, and, of course, Jacqui.
Review copy


Filed under Babitz Eve, Non Fiction

Carousel Court: Joe McGinniss Jr

“Remember, babe: every page of the mortgage has TWO signatures on it. But facts and shared responsibility aside: just what IN THE FUCK do you think I’m doing?”

Given the gravity and dimensions of the Great Housing Bubble, I expected, and looked forward to, a flurry of fiction books which showed characters in various phases of the fallout. Perhaps it’s easier to stick 9-11 in novels, since we have a plethora of those in an unpleasant voyeuristic where-were-you-when-it-happened sort of way.

Carousel Court (and the title evokes a great image) from American author Joe McGinniss Jr. follows the toxic marriage of Phoebe and Nick, a young married couple who swallowed the myth that homes were ‘investments,’ wealth machines, and that burying themselves in debt to follow the American Dream at the sacrifice of quality of life is a perfectly acceptable option.

carousel court

The novel opens during the collapse of the housing bubble with Phoebe and Nick living, unhappily, in a new home on Carousel Court in Southern California. They’re tied to  an “interest-only, zero-down, 125 percent renovation mortgage on the house in Seronos.”

They chose the new construction with room to grow. Granite countertops, double-ascending stairways, and a double garage. More stainless steel. More square footage. More landscaping. And the pool: in ground free-form hourglass with ice-blue Quartzon rendering natural stone waterfall with solar heating. The cabana and wet bar. Nick and Phoebe spent as much time as they could to drive up the value. Something else Nick insisted on: the rock-climbing wall. It was simple, clean, and something to make their place pop: One interior wall of their double-ascending stairway hid the bonded two-part application of granite-like panels.

They moved from Boston to California. Phoebe, who imagines her lifeline to success lies in her former sexual relationship with a previous, wealthy, well-connected employer, has a job in pharmaceutical sales. Nick’s promised job vaporized while they were still in Boston, but committed to the house and to California, they went ahead with the move.

So here they are a few years into a nightmare existence. Phoebe spends most on her days on the freeway visiting doctor’s offices, and Nick has a job with EverythingMustGo!, a company which cleans out foreclosed homes. And oh yes, they also have a small child: Jackson, I’ve added him as an aside as Phoebe seems to forget that she’s a mother most of the time.

If it sounds as though I disliked Phoebe, I’d say that’s putting it mildly. This is one fucked-up woman. She swallows most of her samples as she careens across the freeways, tries to boost sales by sending erotic photos of herself to these physician lotharios, and while Nick is the stable force in their marriage, she treats him like dirt.

In snippets, we see how Nick and Phoebe met and where exactly their toxic marriage went wrong….

Carousel Court wasn’t an easy read, and by that I mean it’s painful to read about Phoebe’s addiction to her drug samples and her appalling neglect of her son. There’s a sense of impending doom which arcs over the storyline–one neighbor burns household items in his abandoned pool, another sleeps outside in a tent, armed and ready for intruders or perhaps even bank officials who will soon come knocking. And then there are the homes that Nick empties of abandoned belongings–often high priced items discarded by the owners as they flee from their creditors.

Inside, Nick kicks a couple of dead rats, avoids what seems to be human feces in the same room, with white walls covered in graffiti tags. He could direct guys like Boss does, dividing up the labor, sending pairs of men to certain parts of the house. But they don’t need to be told. So Nick just starts working. He drags three mattresses to the driveway, scoops up children’s underwear and stuffed animals and mayonnaise jars and vacuum cleaners, two hard drives and three cardboard boxes filled with old cell phones. In a bedroom he finds soccer and T-ball trophies. A child’s journal filled with stick-figure drawings and shaky writing lies on the floor.

Nick, eager to drive up his savings account, has devised an illegal scheme whereby he puts tenants who’ve lost their homes (and have bad credit) into foreclosed homes AFTER the houses have been cleaned up and BEFORE they’re auctioned off. In one scene he meets with a shell-shocked couple, portrayed as victims, who’ve lost their home. This scenes skirts the nuances of the crisis–how people took seconds on their homes, blew the money and then whined about how much they owed. The housing bubble (which was predictable IMO) allowed homeowners access to unprecedented amounts of cash–$60,000, $80,000, and for most people, it was just too much temptation. In the past, of course, people just used plastic and declared bankruptcy, but refinancing was the death knoll for homeownership for countless Americans (and yes, all over the globe).

Author McGinniss nails the bleak landscapes, the feeling that it’s Armageddon, but I’m going to add here that while I have massive sympathy for those who bought homes which then plummeted in value, or those forced by life circumstances to sell (abandon) their under water-homes, there are many more dimensions to the housing crisis. McGinnis adds details which hint at the sort of financial incompetence rife in this society. Phoebe and Nick have no money, Phoebe may lose her job, but the extravagances don’t stop (a thousand dollar stroller,) and it’s Phoebe’s unquenchable thirst for the lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that lead her down her hellish path. She never knows if there’s any room left on a credit card, but that doesn’t ever make her stop and assess her situation:

The small Korean woman massaging Phoebe’s feet in warm water is completely silent. The nail salon is nearly empty. Phoebe turns off her iPhone, closes her eyes and tries to sleep behind her sunglasses.

I’ve known so many people who lost their homes. One man retired & living on social security bought a prestige home for $800,000 and was SHOCKED when he couldn’t keep up payments. And then there’s someone else who bought his home 20 years ago, refinanced in 2005 for quadruple the home’s original cost and now whines about the payments he doubts he can maintain. But let’s not forget the boat, the Harleys, the classic Corvette, and the brand new truck all in his driveway bought with the cash from his second mortgage. Many people thought they were wealthier than they were. They thought they deserved a better lifestyle, and Carousel Court shows that attitude along with its bitter fallout.

McGinniss takes chances in this novel, and arguably the biggest chance taken is making his characters so unlikable. But making his characters likeable would have been a very different book, so if you pick up Carousel Court, be ready to embrace its John O’Brien-type bleakness which includes showing animals as victims of foreclosure. At times, this is a painful read–not just for Phoebe’s path of self-destruction, but for the way this young couple fight, seem unable to connect over the simplest of issues, and whose relationship boils down to angry texts.

While the ending seemed a little too pat and for this reader, unlikely, given the prior events in the book, I don’t think the sort of life depicted here is any gross exaggeration of how many young families who’ve overspent on a home, struggle daily. The author takes a lot of risks taken here in this edgy, gritty book. I turned the last page and asked myself just when we expected to own so much and accept that it was ok to enjoy life so little?

Review copy


Filed under Fiction

Case of the Vanishing Beauty: Richard Prather (1950)

“She looked hotter than a welder’s torch and much, much more interesting.”

Strip for Murder gave me so many laughs, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I returned to another Shell Scott mystery from Richard Prather. Case of the Vanishing Beauty is the first in the series, and why not go back to the beginning?

case of the vanishing beauty

Shell Scott is hired by a young woman named Georgia to find her missing sister, Tracy. For mysterious reasons she refuses to discuss, she insists that he accompany her to a nightclub, a “Mexican dive” called “El Cuchillo.” The floor shows aren’t that hot until knife thrower, Miguel and his shapely partner, Lina start their routine. Shell has eyes for Lina:

She was slim. but with hips that were amply high, full breasts that she was careless about but nobody else ever would be.

Shell isn’t sure why he’s been dragged to the nightclub by his new client and his this “screwy case.” But the visit to El Cuchillo stirs up a hornet’s nest, and by the end of the night, Shell is deep in the case to find the missing Tracy.

Case of the Vanishing Beauty was published in 1950, six years before Strip for Murder. Both novels of full of Shell’s unbridled lascivious view towards women, but the setting of a nudist camp in Strip for Murder allowed plenty of opportunity for Shell’s self-deprecating humour. In Case of the Vanishing Beauty, pouty, explosive, sultry, Lina doesn’t develop beyond her stereotype even though her character appears in several scenes in the book. Venezuelan Lina, who calls herself a Mexican dancer, plays a fairly big (jealous, possessive, explosive) role in the book far beyond the floorshow, and, unfortunately as a stereotype, she’s not that interesting–although Shell Scott seems fascinated. Still, this is the first in a long series of over 40 books, and the tale includes some great riffs on California life and being a PI:

Southern California is a mecca and melting pot for half the cults and societies of the civilized, and sometimes uncivilized, world. Maybe you live here or maybe you’ve been here and know about it and maybe you don’t. I was born in this town. A quarter century ago, when I was a towheaded kid starting kindergarten, Los Angeles  and Hollywood weren’t what they are now. Pepper trees lined Hollywood Boulevard and the movies were silent, flickery things. L.A.’s city limits were a fraction of what they are today, and the population was only about half what it is now.

I’ve watched it grow, and as it grew, and as people from all over the States and even the world poured in, a rash of religious, vegetarian, mystic, and occult healers and savers sprang up like no other part of the States ever saw. Messiahs sprang up out of the ground, milked the suckers dry, then faded out of sight. Healers laid on hands, read the stars for propitious signs, and stood on their heads to save the downtrodden and, incidentally, make a fast buck.

That’s a long quote, but it illustrates Prather’s breezy, yet punchy style; plus it includes the info that Shell Scott is a native-born Angelino which gave certain bragging rights back in the day.

While I didn’t enjoy Case of the Vanishing Beauty nearly as much as the very funny Strip for Murder, this first book introduces a great character: Shell Scott, who carries a 38 Colt and drives a yellow 1941 Cadillac convertible–he’s obviously not trying to keep a low profile around town. This is 50s Hollywood written in the 50s and not a writer trying to catch the right ambience. Prather successfully maintains a dream-like quality to the book that morphs into Shell Scott’s living nightmare:

After so long a time you get a little sick of violence. You see guys gasp and bleed and die, and it makes you feel a little funny, a little sick while it’s happening, when it’s right in front of your eyes. But it isn’t ever quite real when it’s going on, when you’re in it. Maybe a muscle man slugs you, or a torpedo takes a shot at you, or you’re pulling a trigger yourself or smashing a fist into a guy’s face, and you’re hurting or crippling or killing some trigger-happy hood. But when it’s actually happening, you’ve got adrenalin shooting into your bloodstream, your heart pounds, your breath comes faster, pumping more oxygen into your veins. Glands and body organs start working overtime to keep you sharp, keep you alive, and you’re not the same, you’re not thinking like the same guy. It’s all kind of a blur like a picture out of focus jumping in front of your eyes



Filed under Fiction, Prather Richard

Strip for Murder: Richard Prather (Shell Scott mystery ) 1956

“Never in my life had I seen so many naked broads all at once. I didn’t mind though; I’m broadminded.”

Strip for Murder (1956) is my first foray into the life of Southern California based, former Marine turned PI, Shell Scott, and after reading this well-paced, witty, action packed detective story, I know it won’t be my last. Author Richard Prather (1921-2007) wrote over 40 Shell Scott mysteries, and Open Road Media has made these great little mysteries available at a very reasonable price for the kindle. Crime and humour are not natural bed mates–and if not done with just the right touch, you can end up with a novel written in bad taste. Donald Westlake knew how to blend crime and humour, and if you enjoy Westlake’s humour, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Strip for Murder.

strip for murderAt 176 pages, there’s very little down time, so the book begins with Shell Scott, inappropriately dressed, attending a dinner party for the “Smart Set” at the home of the woman who’s just hired him, millionairess, Mrs. Redstone.

And here I was in brown slacks and a tweed jacket over a sports shirt called, according to the salesman, “Hot Hula.” At least there were no wild Balinese babes doing things on the shirt, It was just colorful.

According to Mrs Redstone, the mother of two adult daughters, Sydney and Vera, she’s convinced that Vera’s new husband, Andon Poupelle is not the Wall Street man he claims to be but is in reality a slimy fortune hunter. The last detective Mrs Redstone hired for the job has been murdered after he delivered a glowing report about Poupelle. Mrs Redstone wasn’t entirely convinced by the report but the death of the detective who wrote it led her to talk to the police who recommended the services of Shell Scott. So Shell’s job is to dig around and see if there’s any dirt on Poupelle.  While Poupelle may have convinced Vera Redstone that he’s something special, after an exchange of words, Shell knows that Poupelle is a slimy gigolo at best.

Wherever there’s big money and women starting downhill, you find slobs like Poupelle hanging around giving them a push.

The last PI on the case was found shot dead near to two significant locations: Castle Norman–a swanky gambling joint dressed up as, you’ve got it, a Norman castle complete with knights on their steeds and a murky moat. The other significant location is Fairview, a nudist colony for health nuts, and after some shady incidents involving the case occur there, Shell Scott is ‘forced‘ to go undercover as the calisthenics director at the colony. When he first arrives he has no idea about the nudist part–he thinks he’s going undercover at a health retreat. The first inkling Shell gets that something is different is when he’s greeted at the main gate by a naked woman:

She was a little dark-haired doll and nobody I knew, but you can bet it was somebody I wanted to know.

She wasn’t in any terrific hurry; nobody was chasing her. Not, I thought, dazedly, yet. She ran right up to the gate and stopped. At least she stopped running, but it was quite a spell before she stopped moving completely.”Hi,” she said.

I still had some of that tightness in my chest, but that seemed to be the least of my worries. I said, “Hello there!”

She smiled, and it seemed to me that she smiled all over. “You’re Mr Scott?”

“Yes. She-er, Don Scott. You call me Don.”

“Fine. We were expecting you.”

Wow, I thought. Maybe my reputation had preceded me. If this was what happened when I was expected, I was never going anyplace again without letting people know well in advance. Hell. I’d flood the States with posters: Scott is on his way!

In between pretending to be the new calisthenics instructor at the nudist colony (and there are a lot of laughs in these scenes,) Shell navigates the dark streets of LA hitting up a series of lowlife informers, such as grifter Iggy the Wig (who wears “a rug to keep him glamorous,”) and Three Eyes (he sports a glass eye,) for information about Poupelle. Meanwhile he’s shadowed by a bunch of gangsters including Egg Foo, Folsom graduate Sardine (you’ll understand the name if you read the book) cheap thug Garlic, and a “lop-eared gunman named Strikes.” But there are some great female characters too, including burlesque dancer, Babe Le Toot, “sex cyclone,” dancer Juanita who “looked as if approximately five feet ten inches of well-stacked woman had been mashed down into five feet seven inches, the excess bulging out and overflowing in enjoyable places,” and Daphne, the secretary of a geriatric loanshark, Offenbrand:

She was wearing a dark skirt, above which was a pink sweater she might have knitted herself, getting halfway through with the job before saying the hell with it. Offie was so old I figured she was on display for the customers. I got younger every minute. She was strategically seated, so that she smacked you in the eyes when you entered, and she was strategically built so that she smacked you in both eyes. Hell, she smacked you all over.

Here’s Shell at the nudist colony looking at a guest named Peggy.

She turned sideways, leaving me enough room to get by. She really was cuter than the dickens. I thought of Laurel and looked at Peggy. Sometimes I hate myself. I went out, but as I went by Peggy I gave her a little pat on her behind. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t grab it and yank it around or anything, just gave it a friendly cuff. Nothing crude, you know.

strip for murder vintageI’ve been on a bender watching Mad Men over the past few weeks, and it’s fascinating watching history through the characters who work at a Manhattan advertising agency. Sexism is rampant, but for the most part the dominant offenders are oblivious to the way they tread on women. And that’s what’s so interesting and refreshing about Shell Scott. He celebrates the differences between the sexes rather than denigrating the females he encounters, and as a series character, he’s fascinating. He’s a lone PI, keeps a small office in downtown LA on Broadway, drinks bourbon and water, drives a Cadillac and has pet guppies for company. He also has a good relationship based on mutual respect with the local PD, and while he’s for hire, there’s a core of decency that runs right down his spine and which wrestles with his libido. While Strip for Murder may appear to be a cheap little pulp detective tale, it’s much better written than I expected, and the author is comfortable with taking some risks through memorable, over-the-top scenes. The tale begins with Shell being embarrassingly ‘underdressed’ for a swanky society party and the author keeps that theme and works it into this frothy and yet deadly serious tale. As for the “hot hula” shirt Shell wears in the first scene, even that has significance on the final page.


Filed under Fiction, Prather Richard

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 ! 


Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

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.


Filed under Fiction, Packer Ann

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.



Filed under Caspary Vera, Fiction

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.


Filed under Fiction

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


Filed under Fiction, Karabashliev Zachary