Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It's a Mean Old World: Nobody Walks by Mick Herron

Nobody Walks, as far as I'm concerned, is Mick Herron's best novel yet.  But it's different than his previous two novels in that it moves  further afield from that band of MI5 losers ensconced in their  headquarters in Slough House, or its more respectable equivalent at Regent's Park. Not that MI5 doesn't play a part in this one. After all, this is a Mick Herron novel, and, even though he has also written a handful  of detective novels, MI5 has been his specialty of late. Written in short, sharp bursts, with nail-biting editing that move from scene to scene, Nobody Walks  follows Tom Bettany who, while working in a meat processing plant in France, receives a voice mail regarding the death of Liam, his estranged son, who, high on some new and potent form of cannabis, has fallen from the balcony of his London flat.  Bettany returns to London for Liam's funeral, after which he sets out to find the person responsible for his son's death. Of course, with his background, it's only a matter of time before his presence in London awakens an assortment of bedfellows, not only MI5, but local gangsters, the Russian mafia and the police. In all, an evocative novel about present-day London.

It's also a novel evokes present-day London. With an eye for the incongruous as well as a sharp turn of phrase, totally British, but not without mid-Atlantic influences:

"So he walked the streets and checked what was on offer. It was early for clubs but pubs were available, and wine bars. Other places, he had no idea what they were. Literally. He passed a window through which white walls shone, art hung at well-lit intervals, and he'd have thought it a gallery if there hadn't been people unfolding menus and laying tables. Every twenty paces, the world changed. Now he was passing a bookie's and a boarded-up salesroom, now a string of takeaways, Bangladeshi, Japanese, Thai. A dentist's surgery next to a sex shop."

"Bad things could happen on the tube, though few entertained the possibility that disaster would happen to them. They feared, instead, small acts of rudeness and aggression, their own as well as others', because in the daily anonymous crush it was easy for a grip on the ordinary to loosen. The underground birthed a creature that might turn on itself. There was little need of outside agency."

There's a very thin line separating crime and spy fiction. With the former these days tending to turn in on itself, it's the latter that seems more than willing to be picking up the slack. Which was something the late French noirist Jean-Patrick Manchette commented upon over twenty years ago. My bet is that Herron would have appealed to Manchette in more ways than one.  

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

It Always Rains On the Working Class

It Always Rains On Sunday is a favourite of mine, both Robert Hamer's 1947 film adaptation, and Arthur La Bern's 1945 novel. Taking place within a single wet Sunday, both film and novel are evocative depictions of London East End life just before the onset of  the war. Romanticised, perhaps, though not by much.  Or at any rate, just enough to be effective. The film, best remembered for Googie Withers' tough and touching performance- even better than her role in Night and the City- accurately captures the claustrophobic ambiance of the novel. Though Rose in La Bern's novel is far more worn down and heavier than Googie in Hamer's film, and a lifetime away from her youthful romance with Tommy who shows up asking her for help after escaping from prisoner. The film also lacks the scope of La Bern's novel, which, despite its set pieces, combines a Kersh-like grittiness with a cinematic eye and interventions  reminiscent of Dos Passos. Particularly observant is La Bern when it comes to all things sartorial, as in "ten-and-elevenpenny imitations of Anthony Eden hats, white silk mufflers, quite smart fifty-shilling suits and patent shoes." Written in a rhetorical mode few would try to emulate these days, La Bern's novel doesn't miss a trick. Told in retrospect, from a post-war perspective which  looks back on the days prior to the war, this is an East End replete with class gradations, populated by wide boys, petty criminals, womanisers, second-rate dance-band musicians, pugilists, street urchins, barrow boys and dreamers. La Bern also has an fondness for expositions, which he probably inherited from his visits to the local picture palaces, as much earlier working class fiction and populist  journalism. This is the East End on the verge of change, first in the form of the war and the blitz, followed by the creation of the welfare state.
Arthur La Bern

Here's the opening paragraph:
"The houses in Coronet Grove were originally constructed in yellow brick, but in the course of half a century the factory fumes and domestic smoke of East London have transformed this bright ochre rash into a grey smudge, which is only relieved by the six white strips in front of each house, the bright colours on the advertisement hoarding at the end of the street and the white lace curtains at the windows, here and there parted to reveal the dark-green plumage of an aspidistra plant."

Just one of a handful of excellent writers from that era who wrote about London's working class with a style forged on Fleet Street, La Bern is best remembered, if at all, for writing Frenzy (original title: Goodbye Piccadilly, Hello Leicester Square) which Hitchcock, much to the author's ire, adapted for the screen. An added feature of this volume is crime writer Cathi Unsworth's introduction, which not only puts La Bern's career in perspective but is informative regarding the criminal underworld of that period (particularly for fans of the BBC's Peaky Blinders). In all, another excellent reprint from London Books.








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Saturday, May 09, 2015

Daniel Fuchs: From Proletariat Williamsburg to Criss-Crossing Noir

AT FIRST GLANCE, Daniel Fuchs's screenplays bear little if any relationship to his fiction. While his best and most evocative scripts- The Gangster and Criss Cross- are, to differing degrees, prime examples of hardcore film noir, the novels Fuchs produced prior to those films, based on his formative years during the 1920s amidst Brooklyn's Jewish community, stand firmly in the tradition of first-generation, street-corner proletariat fiction.

Fuchs arrived in Hollywood in 1937 as much on a wing as a prayer, and stuck around for some four decades. Unlike many of his cohorts, he was able, upon permanently shutting the lid on his studio typewriter, to return not only to writing novels, but also nonfiction books covering a range of subjects, from Jewish culture to the poetry of Wallace Stevens. As critic Irving Howe once said, "In the writing of fiction, talent came almost as easily to Daniel Fuchs as to Willie Mays in the hitting of baseballs." Easy it might have been, for, for Fuchs, writing in those early years was a necessity, allowing him to escape a claustrophobic ghetto in much the same way Robert Tasker and Ernest used their writing skills to extricate themselves from prison and a life of crime. But just as Tasker and Booth would come to realize that working in Hollywood constituted just another kind of prison, Fuchs would conclude that, for better or worse, Hollywood was itself in fact just another kind of ghetto...

(To read more go to the L.A. Review of Books website)

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Monday, May 04, 2015

Three Types of Loquaciousness, Two Types of Ambiguity, One Type of Southern Soul: Jeremy Prynnne, Tom Raworth, Frank Stanford

Within the space of a few weeks I was fortunate enough to receive books by three poets, each a personal favorite: Jeremy Prynne, Tom Raworth and Frank Stanford. While Prynne and Raworth share certain characteristics- each deploying units of language as either roadblocks or road signs, leading to various by-ways and highways- Stanford is something of an outlier. While the island-specific Prynne and Raworth can be as perplexing as they are intriguing, their words controlled onslaughts signifying something, or something not, Stanford was, in his short time on the planet, able to mine a deep narrative strain derived from a place-specific southern drawl.

To be truthful, I've never quite known what a Prynne poem means; that is, if meaning is even a useful term to deploy.  At best, I can only half-guess what he builds his poems around. Though I suppose any deep research and reading might reveal a great deal more. Consequently, for me, any meaning remains, for the most part, hidden within those perfectly formed structures and syntax. Not that my semi-incomprehension has ever stopped me from enjoying and taking an interest in his work, at least since first picking up  Kitchen Poems, published by Cape Goliard, in a San Francisco bookstore in the late 1960s. As for Raworth, I remember reading Relation Ship on my initial visit to London in 1967 (sorry, but books for me have always been place-specific). I wish I still owned that book, beautifully produced by Goliard Press, though, for some reason, I associate it with Asa Benveniste's Trigram Press. If I'm not mistaken it was also Raworth's first book. Since then he has produced work ranging from the easily comprehensible to the outrageously obscure. But, then, as far as I'm concerned, understanding Raworth's or, for that matter, Prynne's work, is almost beside the point. For me, it's like any other form of music, in that it's mostly about sound and rhythm, with the words moving in and out of earshot. Though with the difference that I associate Prynne with the printed page and Raworth, whose work can be funny, political, thoughtful and every bit as obscure as Prynne, with a voice rampaging through a text at heartbreak speed.

Sanford is another matter. His poetry, like Raworth's, pours forth.  And, in his few short years, he certainly wrote a lot of it. If I wanted to be unkind, I'd make a comparison with David Foster Wallace. But he isn't that. What Stanford was after wasn't meaning as such; rather a certain kind   pseudo biography as detailed as it is romantic, always informed by place and temperament.What did Lorenzo Thomas call him  a "swamp-rat Rimbaud"?  Though Rimbaud was nowhere nearly so prolific; and instead of killing himself as Stanford did in 1978, not quite thirty years-old, having shot himself three times in the chest with a .22 calibre target pistol, simply slipped away to live out a slow death gun-running in a foreign land.


Here's three fragments, one from each of the above poets, picked at random, however much any given fragment could run the risk of being atypical:

Raworth
"what happens in any
 sovereign body is created
 on the evidence of the last
 head on its last lap
 those of us watching
 then, during the programme,
 see the die, seem to be cast
 to draw the teeth
 of our first question
 affecting essential interests
 they and only they had"

                                                                  *****

Prynne
"Trim forward but as it never was or bite fittingly so
 defused album transit for another,  into proof type
 pronoun intercepted. Our sung script frayed to gather
 in one for shifty plenum, tie up, her lung cavity
 dilated before. Riot babble scented, sleepless with anxiety unknowing."

                                                                  *****

Stanford
"with a feather I ordered them 
 to salute the adventures 
 of their skin 
 the blue one like a constellation 
 of women prepared to undress 
 the yellow one who yodeled 
 the twig’s tornado 
 the orange one to be done with another poet 
 the final one hanging 
 like the noose of midnight "

What separates Prynne and Raworth, besides formalistic concerns, might be gleaned in that final line of Raworth's-
"we do die seem to be cast/to draw the teeth
of our first question/affecting essential interests"
is hardly something Prynne would likely write, but not that far removed from a unit that Stanford could employ. On the other hand, Stanford might also have written Prynne's Riot babble scented, sleepless with anxiety unknowing." Of course, anyone is capable of writing anything, so I'm referring more to tendencies and probabilities than possibilities. Meanwhile, the third quote, from Stanford,  remains, "in the noose of midnight," the odd one out, but perhaps only because he's more interested in the poem as a vehicle to transport himself and the reader from one place to another, if only from a specific geographical place to the page itself.

Incomprehension, of course, has its own meaning, and can reside within any given statement, word, line, declaration, or poem.  For me Prynne and Raworth have carved out a poetry specific to the British isles. Geographic even in its non-specificity. While Stanford is rooted in the hardcore actuality of the southern US. Stanford has been eulogised by many, not least C.D. Wright and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams in her song Pineola, while the best overview of his life and work might well be Ben Ehrenreich's The Long Goodbye. For me, Stanford was a kind of one-off, certainly no one's protege, least of all macho pro-Vietnam war James Dickey, with whom he is, for some reason, often compared, but from whom Stanford took some pains to distance himself. I think of Stanford more as a poetic equivalent of various southern wrirters, more gothic, even noir, than literary, more early Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah, William Gay, late Daniel Woodrell, and maybe even Jim Thompson, than Dickey, Peter Taylor or Eudora Welty. In other words, Stanford is a regional writer whose work comes out of the Mississippi Delta, by way of his native Arkansas, his childhood having been spent in river camps along the levee, which helped turn his work into cries coming straight from the region's mud, muck and everyday life, to inhabit heaven, hell and places in-between.  A landscaper by trade, his are poems of isolation and marginality, like songs that have yet to be sung- think of Jimmie Rodgers crooning a country blues with birds flying from his skull- but which, nevertheless, reverberate in body and soul long past hearing them. Like the beginning from the poem Death and the Arkansas River:

"Walking from the killing place,
  Walking in mud,
  The bootsoles leave little hexes in the kitchen.

 One summer there was a place
 Where everyone chewed dirt in their supper

 It was a place like an attic
 With a chest of orchids pressed in books.
 Men cleaned their fingernails
 In the moonlight."

Stanford's poems are  rough and ragged and a million miles from Prynne's beautiful crystalline constructions or Raworth's wonderful non-sequitor rapaciousness. Hardly confessional writing, but rather a poetry of place and disposition with a weightiness as light as a feather, and written as if the poet's life depended on it. Does it bother me that I can appreciate, on the one hand, Stanford, and, on the other,  Prynne and Raworth. Not one bit.

I can't recommend these three volumes highly enough. Even if you have previous volumes of Prynne's Poems (published by Bloodaxe)- mine, for instance, is the first printing, published fifteen years ago, which lacks some two hundred pages of subsequent poetry- any Prynneista will want to get this one. While Raworth's As When (published by Carcanet) contains poems not included in his Collected Poems of 2003, nor in his Windmills in Flames of 2010. As for Stanford, finally we get most of his poems collected in one volume, with a good selection of his first book, the mammoth 900-plus page The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You ("a very unusual book," said Ferlenghetti)  interspersed throughout the book, all of it beautifully presented by Copper Canyon Press.

Note: corrections have been made to the original entry thanks largely to John Kearns, who pointed out that I had attributed authorship to the Prynne poem (from Blue Slides at Rest) to Raworth, and the Raworth poem (from The Vein) to Prynne. This, in turn, necessitated a slight change in the paragraph that follows on from the quotes.


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Sunday, April 19, 2015

An Absurdist Western: The Drop Edge of Yonder by Rudolph Wurlitzer

Contrary to popular belief, westerns have never gone away. They have always formed a staple of American literature. A short roll-call would include Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Dorothy Johnson, J.P.S. Johnson, Tom Lea, Max Evans, Max Crawford, Dan O'Brien, not to mention Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and various younger writers.

Rudolph Wurlitzer has always been a writer of the west, though not a writer of westerns. Yet it's hardly surprising that, with The Drop Edge of the World, he should be adding his name to the above. Even if this is a novel that seems to have more in common with Ed Dorn's epic poem Gunslinger or Tom Spanbauer's exquisite novel The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon, than with either Cormac McCarthy or earlier traditionalists.

Having evolved out of a screenplay that made the rounds int he 1980s, the accomplished Wurlitzer has produced a mind-bending western that, like his characters, between worlds. Well-researched, it can hardly be called a straight western. Some have compared it to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man. In fact, of those who have, some have even said that Wurlitzer should sued for plagiarism. However, based on the novel alone, I find it hard to see any similarities other than it's picaresque quality. Funny, surreal, grotesque and profound all at the same time, The Drop Edge... is, in many respects, a million miles from his earlier, semi-minimalist and much loved, at least by me, novels like Nog, Flatland, Quake and Slow Fade. No doubt it's partly the product of spending all that time with Sam Peckinpah on the set of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, whose screenplay he wrote, or churning out all those heavy-set words and one-liners in his screenplay for Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop.  

The main character, Zebulon, could be a Native American or just someone who, by circumstances, has, through no choice of his own, gone native, so embedded is he in that semi-rural world circa 1845, so much so that it doesn't matter what he is or is not. Constantly interceded upon by his would-be brother Hatchet Jack, whom Zebulon's father won in a poker game.  The two men are at odds. Hatchet Jack, as a child, came close to killing Zebulon, and, as an adult, would still like to do so. Instead, he is fated to save Zebulon's life on various occasions. Zebulon, like apparently half the world, is on his way to California. En route he encounters Delilah, a woman of uncertain race, and the companion/slave of a Russian prince. Whether Zebulon is in love with her or her with him is another matter. What is certain is that they are fated to be together and can barely escape each other's presence.

An absurdist western, these characters have only a tenuous grasp on reality, all they can do is keep moving, trapped as they are in some kind of Beckettonian universe. Zebulon on a horse ambling through the landscape, is unable to fall asleep because he doesn't want to dream or, worse, end up in someone else's dream.  Meanwhile, they are fated to keep on, to pursue something or other, with, if not goldfield riches, no apparent reason. As  Delilah puts it, "Is that all we need? A map? Is that why we're here? To ride on, and then on some more, and then some more again, after someone who rides after us, or maybe ahead of us, because we don't know how to ride after ourselves?"

Moving from place to place and back again, Zebulon and company encounter ships, jails, cantinas, pool halls, Indian encampments, etc., and in each place they encounter the same violence, the same stupidity, the same wisdom and the same hunger for gold or just plain survival. Over and over again:

"From the moment Delilah slid the cards across the table, Zebulon felt caught inside a repetition that he was unable or unwilling to back away from. He had been trapped here before, over and over, ever since he had first seen Delilah in the Panchito saloon. Once again he was in the same dimly lit cantina with most of the oil lamps smashed or burned out, the same restless piano chords, a mural of an unfinished journey over the bar, a deck of rubbed and bent cards, two whores staring at them from their bar stools, and now, Delilah dealing a hand where winning and losing had already been decided. And there was something else. Something that he felt doomed never to be able to realize or acknowledge."

An unfinished journey, for sure, the meaning of which is left to the reader to realize or acknowledge. Published in 2008 by a relatively small press (Two Dollar Radio), this one slipped by without much fanfare. But, then, I guess that, to one degree or another, was always the case with Wurlitzer, which is why he can keep on keeping on, just like the characters in his novel. As real a western as any traditionalist has written, and proof, if one needs any, that the genre is alive and kicking. Now as it has always been.
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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime: An Imaginary Soundtrack

Here's a playlist for what could be called the soundtrack for my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime. All the tracks are either referred to in the novel or catch the mood of a particular scene. Should you want to listen to any or all of the tracks, you can find this imaginary album on Spotify under the title Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime (see link at the bottom of the page).

Robert Johnson
1 Robert Johnson- Last Fair Deal Gone Down

2 Ornette Coleman- Ramblin'

3 Charles Brown- Driftin' Blues

4 Willie "the Lion" Smith- Carolina Shout

 5 Charlie Patton- Pony Blues

6  King David's Jug Band- Tear It Down

7 Geeshie Wiley- Pick Poor Robin Clean

8 Hambone Willie Newbern- Rollin' & Tumblin'
Ornette, Cherry, Haden, Blackwell

 9 Tommy Johnson- Alcohol & Jake Blues

 10 Sleepy John Estes- Floating Bridge

11 Sam Collins- Jailhouse Blues

12 Geechie Wiley & Elvie Thomas- Motherless Child Blues

13 Bukka White-  Shake Em On Down

14 Lowell Fulson- Reconsider Baby

Chet Baker
15 Nat Cole- Straighten Up and Fly Right

16 Hadda Brooks- Romance In The Dark

17 Pee Wee Crayton- Central Avenue Blues

18 Hop Wilson- Broke & Hungry

19 Little Julian Herrera- Lonely Lonely Nights

Sleepy John Estes
20 Don Julian & the Meadowlarks- Heaven & Paradise

21 Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie- Night In Tunisia

22 Frank Sinatra- One For My Baby

23 Red Norvo- Move

24 Chet Baker & Gerry Mulligan- Jeru

25 Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie- Salt Peanuts


Hop Wilson
Hadda Brooks

Bird & Diz



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