Tag Archives: gentrification

The Night Always Comes: Willy Vlautin

One thing in my line of work that you find out is that most people act like they have more than they really do, that they’re better off than they really are. It’s always the same kind of people too. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years and it never changes. Rednecks and gangsters want to be rich but most of them aren’t rich. Rednecks with their trucks and gangsters with their SUVs and Cadillacs. And on the other side are the full-of-shit people trying to act white collar rich by driving BMWs and Mercedes and Audis.”

“I made a lot of mistakes and got greedy” so says 30-year-old Lynette. Lynette’s conclusion about her behaviour comes after a series of bad decisions taken over the course of two days. This dark bleak tale weaves together a complex tapestry of social and personal ills: poverty, gentrification, prostitution, burglary, assault, drug sales, bitter recriminations and the betrayal of friends and family. Willy Vlautin’s The Night Always Comes is a crime novel, but it’s also an examination of American life: those who work, living paycheck-to-paycheck–those who work multiple jobs to hobble together enough to survive; those who tread water but who will sink with just one financial hurdle that could send them out onto the street.

Lynette driving an old banger, holds two jobs (bakery, bar) and in the few hours left in the day, she’s also a prostitute. She lives in a rented house in Portland with her bitter chain-smoking, heavy-drinking mother and her developmentally disabled brother, Kenny–a child in a man’s body. Lynette’s father left years ago and has a brand new family. When the novel opens, Lynette has saved about 80,000 as a downpayment for the house her mother currently rents. The owner, who hasn’t fixed a thing in years, is giving them a ‘deal,’ and with massive gentrification changing the face of Portland, Lynette sees buying the house as an opportunity for stabilization. If they don’t buy, they will have to move which inevitably means a huge rent increase. Lynette’s credit sucks and so the plan is that her mother will get the loan.

As the sale moves closer, Lynette’s mother brings home a brand new car, bought on credit of course, and it’s this purchase that effectively sabotages the plan to buy the house. Unwilling to give up her plan to buy the house, and desperate to get more money, Lynette heads out into the night to collect an old debt from a fellow escort. From here, it’s all downhill as Lynette spirals from one bad decision to another, reconnecting with her past to solve her present problems. At first, author Willy Vlautin only reveals Lynette’s ambitions and she appears to be the hard-working voice of reason, the one person willing to anchor herself to her mother and brother and pull them out of poverty. Gradually, however, Lynette’s troubled past and her irrevocably damaged relationship with her mother is revealed. There’s a dark side to Lynette, and when she hits up her Johns for cash, it’s interesting that she treats the one who actually gives her money the worst. As Lynette sallies on into the night trying to gather together as much money as she can, she sinks into male-dominated, violent, predatory Lord of the Flies territory.

When the novel began with its descriptions of Lynette’s car starting after multiple tries, and Kenny being left in Lynette’s car while she works, all the misery felt a little overdone. But Lynette’s past (and present) float to the surface and her tired, damaged victimhood recedes, to reveal a powerful novel of greed, getting ahead and the twisted reality of the American Dream. There’s an underlying theme about money–how we fight to get it, but how we don’t understand its power, and as a result, how money runs people, not the other way around. “Why does it matter to feel bad about anything? Isn’t that the American Dream? Fuck over whoever is in your way and get what you want.” And this is the mantra for nearly all the characters in the book. Take or be taken. All relationships carry debt: debts to be repaid

It’s all fancy buildings and skinny people who look like they’re in magazines. I don’t know where they all come from, but they sure are coming, and then all you do is cross another street and there’s homeless people camping everywhere. They’re coming too. You can’t drive around Portland without seeing a hundred tents. People living in tents. Are they all on drugs? Are there that many people who are crazy and on drugs. I always used to ask myself, ‘why would a man in his twenties want to live on the street when he could work?’ I mean, my god, what’s happening? For a long time I didn’t understand it. Why? Why would they live that way? It seems so awful, so miserable, but you know now I think I’m starting to understand. The answer is .. why not? Why should they bust their asses all day when they know no matter what they do, they’ll never get ahead. And why should they pay 300,000 for a falling down shack when they don’t have to. And when it starts raining and getting cold and they get sick, well they’ll be the first ones to march up to any hospital and get taken in. Me? I have to pay for my shitty health insurance and all the goddamn copays and I have to pay out the nose for anything that’s not covered. And there’s a lot of things not covered. And then some homeless creep who lives in a tent just goes to the hospital and gets everything for free. Politicians get healthcare for free and bums do too. But of course not us. How does that make sense? How does that make you want to get out of bed in the morning and go to work?

At the bar where she works, Lynette hands out free drinks, her co-workers hand out free drinks and it never occurs to them to wonder who is paying for all that free booze. Its currency (favours, freebies for friends) is all taken for granted. But then again, there’s so much resentment towards employers, that it’s justified. But other things are currency in the novel too–sex, relationships, power and violence. These are all currencies used to get ahead–to get what various characters want. In one part of the novel, my favourite part, Lynette goes to visit a man who repossesses cars, and he delivers an amazing soliloquy on the stupidity of people who, refusing to be content with what they have, seek credit, larger mortgages, bigger homes, as they try to move up in American society only to lose everything. Rodney has seen it all and knows that just because you drive around in a fancy car or live in fancy house doesn’t mean that you have two nickels to rub together. From his viewpoint, you can’t judge a person’s financial health from the trappings of wealth. Then there’s Lynette’s mother, a woman who’s simply worn out by life and the emotional cost of taking care of a developmentally disabled child: she sees that the struggle to keep afloat or get ahead is pointless: “No one wants to hire a worn-out, middle-aged fatso.”

Thing is Lynette, I’m getting mean. Not angry like you, but just mean and bitter. And on the TV all these rich sons of bitches they just talk bullshit and take whatever they want. They take and take and then when they get themselves in a pickle, we bail them out, so why would they care about anything but themselves. The politicians don’t give a shit times a thousand, all they want to do is stay elected and when they get reelected, they still don’t get anything done. They don’t seem to want to help anybody and they have no backbone. They just argue and blame and take money and get great healthcare while they do it. Those cocksuckers get free healthcare and we don’t. They don’t even care about our health. That says a lot doesn’t it. So why vote? I’m serious, why? Because they don’t do anything. They don’t help and if they don’t help then what’s the point of any of them? She looked at Lynette and took another drink.

Audio review copy. (punctuation of speeches may not be perfect)



Filed under Fiction, Vlautin Willy

The City Under the Skin by Geoff Nicholson

“But there are two kinds of power, as I see it. There’s one kind where you can make other people do what you want. That’s what most civilians think of as power. But there’s another kind, where nobody can make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

Let’s say I heard an audio reading of The City Under the Skin but I missed the part where the author is identified. With that scenario, I would have recognized this book as the work of Geoff Nicholson, one of my favourite British authors. Just to be clear here, I didn’t hear an audio version–I had this book on pre-order the moment I heard there was another Nicholson novel in the pipeline. These days, the author lives in America and maintains a fascinating blog where he explores his fascination with the landscape (urban, ruins, you name it), but back to the darkly humorous novel which has all the classic elements of Nicholson mania–obsessives, collectors, quirky misfit characters and a quest. Throw in cartography, an assassin, urban decay, sinister gentrification, and just a touch of kinkiness and here’s another Nicholsontopia.  

the city under the skinThe main piece of the puzzle in The City Under the Skin is the abduction and subsequent release of young women by some deranged and not particularly talented tattooist.  In another author’s hands, this might turn into a lurid crime novel, but since this is Nicholson, the emphasis is, instead, on the weird.

Zak Webster is the unassuming hero of The City Under the Skin, and as with many of Nicholson’s heroes, there’s a lot more to Zak than meets the eye. Zak is the sole employee of Utopiates, a shop that sells “cartographic antiques–maps, atlases, globes, navigation charts, the occasional mapmaking instrument, folding pillar compasses, snake-eye dividers.” Zak, a cartography expert, is a man whose talents are in low demand; he thinks of himself as “map nerd,” Feeling lucky to have this job and the apartment upstairs that comes with the small salary, Zak fantasizes about being “a curator or custodian of some magnificent, highly specialized, and possibly clandestine map collection.”

Zak steps into the mystery of the tattooed women inadvertently when he is at work in the shop one evening, and a naked woman, covered in rags, appears asking for help:

Her back looked less naked than the rest of her. It was marked with tattoos: wild incomprehensible lines and symbols that Zak first read as a meaningless accumulation of ink, a savage scribbling, and yet there was something compelling about it, something that suggested it wasn’t entirely haphazard. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might just possibly be a kind of wild ramshackle map, but the glimpse was brief.

Moments later, a “battered metallic-blue Cadillac” stops, a man gets out, shoves the woman in the car, and drives off. The strange scene witnessed by Zak is over in a matter of seconds, and perhaps Zak’s involvement would have gone no further, just another one of those weird things you see in the city, but an intrepid, assertive young woman named Marilyn also witnessed and photographed the incident.

As he drifted he kept trying to make sense of what he’d just seen, unsure whether there was any “sense” to be made. It was puzzling, but hardly one of the world’s great mysteries. Strange women got into strange cars with strange men at any time of the day or night, every day, every night. People had all kinds of weird stuff tattooed on their backs. People lived incomprehensible and desperate lives. It probably meant nothing: things only meant what you decided they meant. He would probably forget all about it in a day of two.

Zak, is a typical Nicholson hero–a loner who’s liberated from that state of inertia not exactly against his will, but not exactly by choice either. Wanting to impress Marilyn and hopefully get laid in the process, Zak teams with Marilyn to solve the mystery of who is tattooing these women, who is making them disappear from the street, and what the maps, tattooed so badly on their backs, represent.

But The City under the Skin isn’t just about 2 people trying to solve a mystery–it’s also about places in a city slated for “speculative urbanism.” The city is in a state of flux, and those impending changes are the white noise surrounding the mystery of the tattooed women. As the plot unfolds, Nicholson shows us the complex connections between three sets of parallel worlds: the criminal underworld and the surface world of the everyday working people, the worlds of urban decay and gentrification, and the architecture of childhood and the remnants which remain in adulthood. All these worlds co-exist, collide, and merge in The City Under the Skin.

Since this is a Nicholson novel, there are plenty of references to architecture and landscapes seen through the characters who inhabit various spaces. Do the places we live in define us, or do we define those spaces? Ex-con Billy lives in a trailer on a parking lot which is as bland, boring, and anonymous as you can get, but this blankness seems to be intentional. Wrobleski: a sinister real estate developer, crook and map collector lives in a walled compound while retired tattoo artist Rose lives in a “personal museum” stuffed full of tattoo “memorabilia” from a career in Ink. Marilyn, a woman of many talents, and many faces, lives somewhere extraordinary, rather as you’d expect.

The Carnaveral lounge said sixties all right, though it spoke in a stuttering, muted fashion. There were plastic pods and blobs, white egg-shaped chairs, though the plastic had crazed and developed  a yellow patina. On the floor, the carpet showed a pattern of stars and planets, seen through a veil of plaster dust. The walls were decorated with memorabilia that looked authentic enough: tattered flags and banners, portraits of alarmingly youthful-looking astronauts, sections of charred rocket fins and satellite housings. There was a map that Zak, even in his present state, recognized as a lunar landing chart for the Sea of Tranquility, still visible through cracked glass that had developed a thin film of mold.

“You really live here?”

“Sure,” said Marilyn. “A view property.”


“Who needs a reason?”

“Isn’t it like living in a  Kubrick movie?”

“The Shining or 2001?” Marilyn suggested. “Or were you thinking Spartacus?”

While this is a novel about discovering the mystery of the tattooed women, through the various characters we see that The City Under the Skin is also about finding one’s way in life which, after all, comes with no instructions, no landmarks, no maps. And part of making one’s way in life is making choices and decisions, taking a moral stand. Rather interestingly, Zak’s hobby, urban exploration, a seemingly odd activity, proves to be incredibly useful, and again there’s that subtle idea that our lives are defined by incidents that are not random. The novel argues that our lives are maps with one incident leading to another, and pathways are created by recurring patterns. The city that exists under our skin is our personal map, dotted with significant events and experiences that explain, connect and predict our choices.

“Urban exploration: investigating the city, creative trespass, going where I’m not supposed to, getting into abandoned structures, factories, closed-down  hospitals derelict power stations. You know?

“So you spend all your workdays dealing in representations of places, and you spend your free time exploring actual places.”


Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff

What We’ve Lost is Nothing by Rachel Louise Synder

Apart from gangster lore, I know very little about Chicago, but I wasn’t far into Rachel Louise Synder’s debut novel What We’ve Lost is Nothing, when I realized that the action is set in a real community. Oak Park has its very own Wikipedia page, and according to the book’s intro (which I didn’t read immediately in case it contained spoilers–it didn’t), “Oak Park is  a suburb in flux. To the west, theaters and shops frame posh homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. To the east lies a neighborhood trying desperately to recover from urban decline. Although the community’s Diversity Assurance program has curbed the destructive racial housing practices that migrated from Chicago’s notorious west side over the past decades, cultural and racial integration has been tenuous at best.” I’m including that entire quote because I can’t do better. The name “Austin Boulevard” also crops up in the novel, and I discovered that this road is the border between the crime-ridden community of Austin (termed Chicago’s deadliest neighbourhood) and the community of Oak Park. So who wants to live in Oak Park, the neighbourhood which boasts the largest number of Frank Lloyd Wright designed residences? Come on raise your hands….

what we've lost is nothingWhat We’ve Lost is Nothing focuses on a neighbourhood mass burglary that takes place one afternoon in Oak Park’s fictional Ilios Lane, a cul-de-sac of eight houses–all of which are burglarized. The incident challenges the lives and beliefs of the residents as shock waves from the burglary wash through the neighbourhood and issues of race and class float to the surface.

The premise of the novel sounded … well… interesting.  Burglaries are traumatic events for anyone, and that trauma goes far beyond the loss of stuff that can be replaced. Sometimes items that are worth next to nothing, but hold immense sentimental value, are taken, and then there’s the sense of violation that remains long after the event. For the residents of Ilios Lane, however, the burglary has even deeper ramifications as the residents begin to question whether or not they can live a safe middle-class existence right next to the crime-ridden community of Austin, located on the borders of Oak Park.  This is especially true for Susan McPherson who’s an agent at a housing office and who believes wholeheartedly in “diversity assurance.” She spends her days showing apartments to young couples, proud of her “progressivism,” assuring them that the neighbourhoods are safe.  She believes in her sales pitch until the burglary tells her otherwise. Meanwhile, her husband, Michael, begins to feel that he has to ‘do something,’ and his inner fascist awakes.

The novel begins the day after the burglaries and then follows various characters for the 24-hour fallout after the event. Mary McPherson, a cheerleader, was cutting school with Sofia, a Cambodian friend, and the two girls were high on Ecstasy, under the dining room table during the course of the burglary. Another couple, the Kowalskis, were on holiday, others were at work, and one man, Arthur Gardenia, the novel’s most sympathetic character, who suffers from Hemeralopia, was at his usual daytime post– upstairs in the dark. He heard noises downstairs but was too afraid to investigate. The items stolen from his house are without value to the thieves, but the loss crushes Arthur and tests the limits of his already-fragile existence.

Who goes into a pawnshop in search of used notebooks? What was the street value for such a personal thing? Arthur fought waves of nausea and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He couldn’t even search for them himself, his vision was too poor. They were simply gone. He sat on his bed, fighting a growing sense of helplessness, waiting, it might seem, until the sanctity of his haven was restored, the one place he felt he could emerge from his own helplessness. This, too, he had to admit, was what had been invaded. Not his home, but his sense of security.

Meanwhile Mary finds that Caz, the school lothario, is attracted by her new-found notoriety and increased “social capital.” Understanding that the burglary “catapulted her into Caz’s periphery,” she’s desperate to hang on to that attention.

While the novel, with its emphasis on class and race has a very interesting premise, I wish the plot had spent more time on some of the other residents; additional development with some of the more neglected characters would have produced a more even story. We see that for some residents of Oak Park, life there is an arrival, a step up into the middle-class, but for others, it’s a daily fight to keep their heads above water. While the burglary realistically brought some issues between the neighbours to the surface, the whole diversity issue was hammered too heavily. It was there front and central immediately through geography and Mrs McPherson’s employment, and the additional elements (particularly her run) moved the story from incident to cliché. The portrayal of the Cambodian family was also weak.

Unfortunately, there seemed to be a little too much emphasis on Mary and Caz, and aren’t cheerleaders, by their very role, popular? At least that was my impression, but here Mary is painted as a bit of a wall flower who’s desperate for Caz’s attention. The final scene between Caz and Mary was far too extended and resulted in an unfortunate and not entirely believable conclusion.  On the positive side, I liked the way the novel showed that the residents all led fairly fragile existences for one reason or another, and that these lives were shattered by the burglaries. If you’re on the bottom levels of society, suburbia may seem enviable, an impossible dream, but middle-class life brings its own nightmares, and the author explored that aspect of the story well. Also of note are the fast-forward moments which give us glimpses into the futures of some of the characters, and the insertion of the listserv comments where various paranoias and beliefs emerge, and everyone unleashes an opinion they might not express face-to-face.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction

Happyland by J. Robert Lennon

 Author J.Robert Lennon struggled to get Happyland published–astonishing really when you consider just how good an author he is, but apparently publishers feared lawsuits for implied connections between the very fictional Happyland and the real life story of Pleasant Rowland and the town of Aurora, in New York state. In the introduction, Lennon explains his multiple thwarted attempts to get this novel published adding that “if you’d told me in 2003 that this novel wouldn’t be read in its entirety until 2013, I would probably have stopped writing it–and if you’d told me why, I might have sought out, at least for a while, a less heartbreaking profession than novel writing.”

This is clearly a satire, a work of fiction, and yes inspired by an idea. The author states that he didn’t intend to “write anything remotely controversial,” but he got an idea from real life and ran with it. Unfortunately, publishers were worried about “unthreatened lawsuits,” and when the author refused to change some of the story basics, the book was shelved, appearing only in serial form in Harper’s in 2006. What a great shame that a writer of Lennon’s calibre had to wait so long for the novel to make it to readers, but here it is at last, and it’s well worth the wait….

happylandThe main character of Happyland is middle-aged Happy Masters, married to millionaire mogul James Masters, and while the marriage “dulled by familiarity” isn’t love-y in any sort of traditional sense, it’s successful mainly due to the fact that Happy and James lead their own lives and their meetings are infrequent, “explosive collisions, cataclysmic unleashings of pent-up emotion. Where once they argued, they now fought, open-handed and filthy-mouthed.” 

Happy “founder, CEO and creative mastermind of Happy Girls, Inc” formed the doll company 25 years earlier when “weary of her duties as a bride of privilege,” she found a broken antique doll and began a collection. Happy’s sad childhood never included a doll, and this one precious doll grew to a large, expensive collection, and then she formed Happy Dolls–a company which eventually included an entire line of historic dolls “decked out in period clothes,” and included storybooks with cheesy, abbreviated versions of history. No one could have predicted Happy’s phenomenal success. She intuited what children wanted–probably because her own childhood was spent in longing. Some of her dolls are so popular that “near riots” occur when stock runs low.

There were ninety-two different dolls currently in production, and one hundred fifty-six discontinued models, which had their own separate category on e-Bay. There were websites conferences, clubs. There was fan fiction. There for full-size clothes for real girls to wear, There was an animated cartoon and a live-action dramatic series. There had been one movie Lily and Sally, critically panned but big box office.

Some people overcome horrendous childhood experiences to become almost inhuman, and that’s Happy Masters in a word. Happy was an orphan, “raised by a bitter, alcoholic aunt,” and she learned to “[endure] the inventive maliciousness of two older cousins.” This rags-to-riches story may sound a bit like Cinderella, and we’d expect a happy ending. In a way, Happy has that happy ending. When the novel opens, she’s attended the funeral of one of the cousins. Now they are both dead and Happy has lived to see her 2 of her 3 worst enemies placed 6 feet under. Aunt Missy, however, is still alive, as garrulous as ever, and a meeting at the graveside comes dangerously close to violence.

After the ugly, vicious scene with her aunt at the funeral, Happy drives around for a few hours to cool off. Her journey takes her to the small college town of Equinox, population 410,  sleepy, pretty and quaint in its genteel decay and with a dark bizarre history. To Happy, it’s a “forlorn town, a dilapidated town: barely a town at all, just a few blocks clustered around a handful of cracked and dirty streets.” And it’s here as Happy looks around the town and its disinterested service population, that an idea takes root in her “toxic heart.” Equinox will become her next triumph, her “Jerusalem.”

She learned long ago that there was no point in looking for the thing you wanted; only the weak wanted things that could be found. The greatest desires could only be fulfilled by creating their object: a toy, a man, a state of mind.

She begins by bossing around the local real estate agent and handing the astonished woman a check for a neglected mansion with a beautiful lake view. Then slowly and strategically, Happy approaches various business owners in Equinox.  She begins by buying key operations–the inn, the beauty salon, the dusty corner market–initially offering overly generous sums of money, but then she starts to play dirty. Soon the town becomes divided over Happy’s plan to renovate Equinox making it some sort of glitzy tourist destination which will include a Happy Girl Museum. Most people who lived there were perfectly happy with the town the way it was, but a few people are thrilled to grab the money Happy offers for their anemic businesses.

And people in the  bar had started taking sides. By and large the locals liked the idea–rumor had it Ken Pell had gotten more than a hundred grand for the market, which was probably three times what it was worth, and there were plenty of Equinoxians who would stab their own sisters for that kind of money. College people, on the other hand–professors–said they’d never sell. They liked Equinox because it was quaint and cheap and on the lake. They liked authenticity, which evidently meant hicks and greasers, and they disliked the rich, a category they apparently excused themselves from.

Locals, though: they liked the idea of some bigwig moving into town. They liked somebody spreading money around. They thought it would help.

Even the people who dislike and distrust Happy have no idea of the sort of person they are dealing with. Underneath the public persona of sweetness and a great understanding of children, the real Happy is a hard, driven and canny millionairess who will do whatever it takes to ‘own’ Equinox. That includes lying, cheating, and breaking the law–it’s all on the table over the battle for Equinox. Happy feels renewed by her new plan, and that makes her a very dangerous adversary. Anyone who has the guts or the lack of imagination to stand in Happy’s way discovers the hard way that this woman plays dirty. Happy’s plan of attack when it comes to her play to take over Equinox College–a small private institution for women is simply hilarious.

Here’s Happy in a long quote that gives a sense of the author’s style, Happy’s character and merciless MO as she’s about to take over the general store:

From inside, a rustling, a scraping, a heavy tread. The door swung open. As soon as Happy saw the owner, she knew the battle was won. A shame, really, she’d hoped for a fight. It hardly seemed worth going through the motions now. The man who stood before her was little taller than she was, and half again as heavy; he had the blockish body that results from a five-coke-a-day habit and a lifetime of indolence. His coarse gray hair drooped over a pitted forehead, and the eyes were brown and dull as bark. They regarded her from behind thick curtains of tired flesh, and thick black eyebrows–dyed? she wondered, and is so, why?–dove into the furrows between them, in hostile curiosity. Happy said. “Mister …?”


“Mr. Pell, so pleased to meet you. I’m Happy Masters.”

The steel door snicked shut behind her, and a switch was flipped in her head. She was different now: relentless, glib, incontrovertible. Homo hardsellius.

“Mr. Pell, let me get straight to the point. I want to buy your store. Today.”

“Not for sale,” he said, but a hint of life crept into those hooded eyes.

“You could be on your way home, right now, with a check in your hand. You could, in fact, be on your way out of town. Winter will be here soon, Mr. Pell. You could be on Maui by the end of the week.”

“Where?” he muttered.

“Hawaii, sir. or wherever you like” Finland, maybe, or Canada. Gotta hurry this up–it was like doing business in a doghouse.

“Mr. Pell, I would like you to retire today. I would like these to be the last moments you spend in this store. I would like to remove the burden of this property from your hands, right now. What would it take to make this happen?”

While Happyland has a delightful, wonderful plot, it’s also full of some great characters, including laconic, easy-going Bud and his tenacious wife, Jennifer who own the rundown gas station/ice cream kiosk. Jennifer makes a decent adversary for Happy as she’s every bit as mean and merciless but, unfortunately, lacks deep pockets. There’s also David who owns the local bar who would like to have principles if he could afford them, and  “middle-aged and languishing,” Reeve Tennyson, the college president who landed in this third-rate school after an embarrassing scandal that he walked into through his own ineptness. Aware that Equinox college really wanted to employ a woman, he’s a bit ashamed of working at Equinox College with its all female enrollment and the large percentage of lesbian students. He mostly hides out in his office, waits for his life to pass and thinks he’s hit rock bottom. It’s probably a good thing that he has no idea of the fate Happy Masters has in store for him.

Poor fella. He was doomed to lose. She could have told him this back in the day. The wandering eye, the nervous hands–it was a wonder he managed to get as far as he did before he fell. And the saddest part of all was that he thought he had landed. he thought this was the bottom.

Well, far be it from her to disabuse him of that notion. There was nothing quite so useful as someone who think she has nothing to lose. Indeed, there were, as life had demonstrated to Happy time and time again, treasures at the dump.

 Happyland  with its dark, satiric humour is very different from the other two Lennon novels I’ve read Castle and Familiar. But even though Happyland is meant to be taken as a very funny story, there’s no shortage of moral questions raised in this quintessential American novel in which money and power trumps all other considerations. Does anyone as filthy rich as Happy Masters have the moral right to convert and co-opt an entire town to their own purpose? And then there’s the response of the townspeople–some business owners would really like to sell to Happy but they’re affronted by her attitude that everything and everyone is for sale, so they don’t immediately sell. This results in a war between locals and Happy, who’s a) determined to get her way and b) ready to bury her enemies in financial disaster. Happyland looks at the reaction of the average Citizen when he’s faced with being either figuratively bulldozed into oblivion by a multi-million dollar corporation or starved off the face of the earth by someone with near-endless financial resources.  Taking a moral stand or arguing principles is a very expensive position to maintain as several townspeople find out the hard way. Then there’s Happy–a woman who possesses many admirable character traits but they’ve been trumped by her own moral corrosion and steady diet of endless power and money. Finally on the meta-level, there’s author J. Robert Lennon  who refused to compromise his principles when it came to altering some of the story basics, and he had to wait ten years for this book to appear in novel form…. I thoroughly enjoyed  Happyland  for its complete change of pace, its even, funny narrative and its underlying moral questions. This book (and its author) comes highly recommended.

review copy


Filed under Fiction, Lennon J. Robert

Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld

Triburbia, a first novel from author Karl Taro Greenfeld, is set in Tribeca, an upscale, trendy neighbourhood located in Lower Manhattan. This unique historic neighbourhood was a commercial centre for the textile industry in the 19th century, and for its vast lofts, the area became an artistic mecca in the 70s, but then morphed into a popular and pricey residential area.  

Triburbia is described as a novel about a  “group of fathers” who meet “each morning at a local Tribeca coffee shop after walking their children to their exclusive school.” I suppose we have to start somewhere with the description, but that description doesn’t quite fit and argues for a structure that isn’t there. While there are a couple of meetings between the fathers at the coffee shop, it’s not a main event. Triburbia is a series of inter-connecting stories exploring the convergence of various residents and the sometimes-uneasy, underhand and competitive relationships between them. If it’s the author’s intention to argue that location! location! says a lot about who we are, how we live, and the values we hold, then in Triburbia, an extremely entertaining, lively and witty novel, he succeeded admirably.

Set in the post-boom of 2008, the neighbourhood has gone through gentrification, the explosion of property values, and now is in a downward slide. For the families who live there, it’s the place to live, but some of its cachet is fading. Some of the residents moved there while the area was affordable, while for others, it’s just one more move in the never-ending movement upwards. Through the chapters told by various narrators, both male and female, we learn the circumstances surrounding just how each person ended up in Tribeca. One character, a puppeteer, the poorest of the lot, moved from a dump on Second Avenue to a roomy loft for $280 a month rent. Compared to the other characters, the puppeteer has lived in Tribeca for the longest period of time, and he’s seen the businesses move out, the artists move in, and then the gentrification process that rocketed the neighbourhood into affluence. While his artistic career never took off, he remains working as a repairman, in his rent controlled space with his daughter like “aboriginals who were slowly being driven out by the wealthier, colonizing settlers.” The puppeteer’s daughter, Sadie, rubs shoulders with the extremely wealthy through babysitting and takes her father’s advice to be “ruthless” when it comes to getting what you want from life.

While the puppeteer’s story is a sad tale of failed talent and ambition, the other stories range in levels of humour. There’s the memoirist, married to former magazine editor, Marni, who has written a number of bestselling and sensational books about his troubled past–including one titled Seven Times Down, Eight Times Up about beating a “nasty drug habit with a combination of martial arts discipline–picked up during my years in Japan–and a tough, go-it-alone ethos.” The memoirist’s stellar and affluent career comes to a screeching halt when some nasty rumours surface questioning the book’s authenticity. There’s also a gregarious celebrity chef who tests the patience of his wife, and Brick, the sculptor who realises his wife looks a lot like his mistress.

Then there’s Asian-American, Mark, a sound engineer who’s married to Brooke, the only living child of a very wealthy Connecticut family. Now a landlord whose main non-wifely income comes from the rents he collects, he feels that he’s ‘landed’ in the upper echelons of American society by pure accident. The vague feeling that he’s somehow a fraud in his own life is accentuated when stories circulate about a neighbourhood teenage girl who was molested. The sketch of the child molester looks uncannily like Mark, but he gets little sympathy from his pot-smoking wife or film producer, Sumner, the man who thinks his neighbourhood is under assault by pedophiles.

Here’s Mark discovering flyers about the suspect in his daughter’s backpack:

“Why do you have so many?”

“I took a lot  because they look like you,” Cooper says.

“We’re gonna draw on them,” Penny adds.

I say that they shouldn’t have them and that I am throwing them away. The suddenly angry tone of my voice shocks them and Penny starts crying, running into the dining room where Brooke is flipping through a Pottery Barn catalog. I can hear Penny sobbing, “Daddy yelled at me in a mean voice.”

As she consoles our daughter, Brooke looks at me sternly. Her eyes are red, veiny; she’s already had her late afternoon/early evening toke.

You have to keep on your toes when reading Triburbia as a character can be central in one chapter and then is mentioned in a minor aside a few chapters down the line. While the characters in Triburbia are not as eccentric as those in Daniel Kehlman’s Fame, nonetheless, the format and the humour connects the two books. Of course with books with multiple narrators, it’s inevitable that you end up with favourites, and the author doesn’t aim to get us to like these people who are all frauds on some level or another–in fact by the time the book, you’ll probably dislike most of them. My two favourite characters are Rankin, the predatory gangster, and the utterly delinquent, morally reprehensible playwright, Levi-Levy.

Here’s Rankin on his wife, Sydney:

Rankin had been pleasantly surprised that Sydney, a stripper-turned-mother-and-wife, was mothering and wifing like the outer-borough Jewess she was supposed to be, albeit one with artificially enhanced cleavage. Baked brisket and roast chicken and her sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage and she never failed to collect the kids at 2:50 p.m. and deposit them as required at Little League or Hebrew school or soccer practice. He originally thought he had been marrying down but actually he had married up. The woman was a warrior mother, as efficient at cajoling broccoli into Jeremy’s gullet as she had been wheedling bills out of the wallets of her lap-dance clients.

Rankin and Sydney’s Waterloo occurs when their 8-year-old daughter falls foul of the class princess, Mark and Brooke’s snotty daughter, Cooper. Rankin contemplates, for just one second, hiring a nine-year old to beat up his daughter’s arch-enemy, but then Sydney opts for the more reasoned route.

Playwright Levi-Levy warrants a whole novel to himself.

“So erratic was Levi_Levy’s parenting, fidelity, and wakefulness that his abandoning his loft following an argument with his pretty (if always exhausted-looking) wife, Charmaine, elicited neither comment nor even notice in the neighbourhood.”

Levi-Levy is thrown out of his home for two unforgivable events: 1) a credit card bill for a month’s out-of-control spending which exceeds $10,000 along with the fact he had an “urgent errand” and told his ten-year old son to drive the family SUV “to go pick up Mommy.” Levy-Levi is, according to his wife, an “unrepentant recidivist.

Charmaine guesses that her errant husband is having yet another affair and decides to strike back:

Instead of anger or betrayal of frustration or jealousy she felt that perhaps it was for the best. She had noticed among her circle, among the fellow parents, an enhanced friskiness in the air; an upsurge in mufky-fufky that was leading to some divorces, separations, and broken homes. She wondered, how many other affairs simply were being quietly buried? Why shouldn’t these husbands and wives have a fling now, during this last stage where they might pass as sexually attractive, or at least before the sight of their own naked bodies repulsed even themselves They were going soft, losing hair on their heads, and sprouting new hair everywhere else. They worried that a missed period meant the beginning of menopause rather than an unwanted pregnancy. They lived in fear of the moment arriving when they could see, however distant, but certainly there, the end. before we are all horribly gone to seed, why shouldn’t we fuck our brains out one last time, Charmaine concluded.

Triburia is being compared to the novels of Tom Perrotta, and I think it’s a fair comparison. Perrotta has a knack for showing the pathology that lies beneath American suburban domestic life, and that same theme of the pathology of so-called respectability is here too. The real estate boom-and-bust is in the background with our mostly wealthy characters grumbling about decreased rent and property values along with the sense that it’s time to move on to greener pastures. Greenfeld has authored a number of non-fiction books (haven’t read any of ’em) and also published some short stories.

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Greenfeld Karl Taro

The Fairy Gunmother by Daniel Pennac

“You know what kiddo? Dragging myself up in Belleville for the last month’s at least taught me one thing: wrinklies can wander the streets at night, stark naked, with diamond studs in their navels and the family silver hanging round their necks and not one smackhead’ll so much as touch them.”

I’d had my sights on the crime novels written by French author Daniel Pennac for some time, so when Emma from Book Around the Corner and I decided to do a virtual book exchange for Xmas, I was happy to see that one of Pennac’s novels made my list. This brings me to The Fairy Gunmother (La Fée Carabine), the second book in La Sage Malassène, a series of novels concerning Benjamin Malassène and his idiosyncratic family.  The first book is The Scapegoat (La Bonheur des Ogres) which introduces the main character, Benjamin.

The title, The Fairy Gunmother may give you a hint of what you’re in for as the writer loves wordplay, and if I had to compare this author to anyone else I’ve read, then that would be Raymond Queneau–specifically Zazie dans le Métro, which I loved incidentally. But back to the plot and more about the wordplay later.

The book begins in Belleville on a cold winter’s night with police Inspector Vanini hanging out on a street corner. There have been a number of old ladies robbed and murdered with their throats slit in Belleville, and with no suspects (other than Arabs in general), Vanini is on the lookout for suspicious persons and old ladies in trouble. As fate would have it, Vanini spies an elderly lady beginning to slip on a sheet of black ice:

Then the old dear’s shawl suddenly spread out, like a bat taking off, and everything came to a standstill. She’d lost her balance. Then she got it back again. The disappointed blond [Vanini] cursed between his teeth. Watching people fall flat on their faces always made him laugh. That was one of the nasty things about this blond head. Though it looked as neat and clean as can be from the outside, with its dense, evenly barbered crewcut. But its owner didn’t like oldsters much. He found them a bit disgusting.

So we know that Vanini isn’t hanging around in Belleville for the love of old ladies. In fact he’s hoping that this particular old lady will slip and fall and give him a good laugh in the process. So why is Vanini in Belleville on a freezing winter’s night? Simple: he’s convinced that Arabs are behind the vicious crimes, and he has very specific ideas about Arabs:

He was Nationally Frontal and made no bones about it. And that’s just why he didn’t want people to say he was NF because he was a racist. No, like he’d once learnt at school. This was not a case of cause and effect. It was a case of consequences. That blond head of his had become Nationally Frontal as a consequence of having objectively thought through the dangers of uncontrolled immigration. And he had quite sensibly made up his mind that all scum should be chucked out of the country as soon as possible. Firstly, with a view to saving the purity of the French livestock, secondly because of unemployment and, finally, to uphold law and order. 

So although Vanini would love to see the old lady slip on the ice, he notices two Arabs standing opposite, and since he’s convinced that Arabs are behind the latest elderly whackings, he decides to go and help the frail old lady and to act as a “deterrent” to the Arabs’ imagined bad intentions. To the astonishment of the bystanders, the old lady pulls out a gun and blows Vanini “to smithereens.” The Arabs, knowing full well that no one will believe their story that a geriatric woman just felled Vanini, run from the scene of the crime.

The Fairy Gunmother then follows the fallout of Vanini’s murder as Chief Superintendent Cercaria swoops into Belleville on a mission to catch the killer. There’s a dramatic division within the department with Cercaria’s mob believing that the Arabs are to blame for everything, but meanwhile Inspector Van Thian argues otherwise. And he should know since he’s living disguised as “wrinklie” granny, the widow Ho in the middle of Belleville.  But since the police are unable to catch the granny-snuffers, Belleville grannies don’t count on the police for help, and instead  they begin arming themselves…

Benjamin, the main character of the series, is employed by Queen Zabo at Vendetta Press. He lives with a sprawling family with so many members it wasn’t easy keeping track of them all–especially since they tend to ‘adopt’ various old men–some of whom have been led into a life of ruin by drug pushers. The story has various threads which cover a number of crimes under investigation (with Benjamin becoming a suspect in all of them), and while the story may seem to swing out of control at times, by the end of the novel, all the loose ends are neatly tied together. Gentrification, racism, and the care of the elderly play no small role, and while there are a lot of laughs, the story’s message is deadly serious. Pennac’s tale is rife with playful humour, and many parts of the novel, bolstered by Pennac’s use of language, are laugh-out-loud funny:

Minus twelve weather can freeze your balls off, but Belleville was still bubbling like a devil’s cauldron. It was as if every copper in Paris was getting in on the act. They were crawling up from the Place Voltaire, parachuting onto Place Gambetta, doing pincer movements from Nation and the Goutte d’Or. With sirens blaring, lights flashing, tyres screeching left, right, and centre. The night was on fire. Belleville was vibrant. But Julius the Dog didn’t give a damn. In the half-light that goes with doggish pleasures, Julius was licking up a sheet of Africa-shaped black ice. It tasted delicious to his dangling tongue. A city is a dog’s favourite dinner.

During this razor-sharp night, it was as though Belleville was settling all its old scores with the Law. Side alleys rang to truncheons. Information highways stretched through Black Marias to the Station. Pushers were having their sleeves pulled, the Arab hunting season was open, big mustachioed pigs were out for a barbecue. Apart from that, the neighbourhood was much the same as usual, that is to say, ever-changing. It’s on its way to being clean, on its way to being smooth and on its way to being expensive. What’s left of the old Belleville housing sticks out like fillings in a grinning set of Hollywood teeth. Belleville’s on its way.

Translator Ian Monk


Filed under Fiction, Pennac Daniel

Fever Dream by Dennis Palumbo

I’d read some good reviews of Dennis Palumbo’s first book Mirror Image, so I decided to give this author’s second novel a try. After all, Fever Dream features Daniel Rinaldi, clinical psychologist and “trauma expert” who acts as a consultant for the Pittsburgh police, and I have a weakness for books that feature therapists. Dennis Palumbo who is a psychotherapist was formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, and all of that experience is apparent in this action-packed tale that seems to be firmly rooted in the thriller genre and screams for a film adaptation.

Rinaldi, now a widower due to the actions of a coked-up mugger, rather appropriately specialises in therapy for the victims of violent crime. So it’s no surprise when he’s called in to try to extract some vital details from a terrified bank teller who’s just been released from a hostage situation at First Allegheny Bank. The teller, Treva Williams, is in a state of shock when Rinaldi arrives at the scene, and she’s able to give a few details about what happened inside the bank. A SWAT team surrounds the area, but any plan to negotiate vaporizes when the bank robber executes everyone–with the exception of the guard who’s left wounded, disgruntled and threatening to sue

While a bloody mop up is underway, Rinaldi promises to accompany Treva to the hospital, but a delay causes him to miss the departing ambulance that’s transporting Treva and the guard to the hospital. Later, however, news breaks that the ambulance never made it to the hospital….

From the moment Rinaldi arrives on the scene outside of the bank, something doesn’t feel right about this bank robbery. Was this because one of the robbers flaked out and ran off? Or was it because the assistant bank manager was cold-bloodedly killed as he bent to pick up his glasses? And what about the bank manager who rather conveniently didn’t go to work that day?

Rinaldi isn’t exactly on the Philadelphia’s Police dept Xmas list, and many of the officers resent his interference–especially Lt. Stu Beigler who thinks Rinaldi has no place sniffing around a crime scene. The bank robbery turns out to be a political hot potato as it’s an election year and District Attorney Leland Sinclair, a smooth, ambitious politician who’s running for Governor in a gentrified city is running on one of those  “tough law-and-order” platforms. The bloodbath at the bank is a PR nightmare for Sinclair, and while he spews forth the usual insipid political platitudes, he doesn’t fool anyone, least of all Rinaldi, about his real concerns. After all, “dead hostages make for lousy campaign ads.”

The clash between outward appearances and inner realities runs through the story as Rinaldi juggles his personal and professional life while finding that he’s drawn deeper into the aftermath of the hostage crisis. Since Rinaldi is a psychologist, the novel is full of his insights into human nature–insights that others miss:

His name, I recalled from Treva, was George. Tall, salt-and-pepper hair trimmed to a severe V at the middle of his forehead. He was in his mid-fifties, and given how tight he wore his olive green uniform, maybe a bit vain about how fit he was. Skin tanned like leather, a strong chin. Hard grey eyes that had seen a lot.

Here’s a scene from inside the bank:

I took another breath and found myself looking at the walls. Maybe to avoid looking down at the bodies. The walls spattered with blood, scarlet blotches that sprayed out in a curving pattern like thrown mud. That dripped slowly in rivulets to the floor like some living Pollock painting.

Bits of flesh and bone fragments pitted the teller’s  stations, the customer counters, the free-standing courtesy desk whose pen still dangled half-way to the floor with its silver chain.

Palumbo shows his screenwriting background in the sharply drawn physicality of that scene which captures the stunning violence and lives cut short in the flash of a moment. An engaging read packed with enough action to push the book into thriller rather than straight crime fiction, Fever Dream checks all the boxes for the genre while continuing the story of a strong series character. While references are made to incidents that took place in the first novel (Mirror Image), it does not appear necessary to have read that one first. However, that said, I would have preferred to read Mirror Image first as it seems that Rinaldi is not the only character to reappear in this second novel, and many of these characters have a history with Rinaldi.

My copy came courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and was read on the kindle.


Filed under Palumbo Dennis