A weblog dedicated to noir fiction and film, music, poetry and politics.
Friday, December 25, 2009
One more to be added to my favorites for 2009: Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper. Hilarious, weirdly informative, deliciously perverse, but not for the squeamish.
I don't know how I missed this one when it came out a while back. But I finally got around to reading it a couple months ago, and intended to write about it along with McDonald's forthcoming Print the Legend. But since it doesn't look like I'm going to get to the latter until after the new year, I thought I'd address this, McDonald's second novel, sooner rather than later. Toros & Torsos, published by Bleak House in 2008, is a book that, in its scope and politics, I've come to greatly admire. At a time when, aside from the likes of Ellroy, most crime fiction has become increasingly localized, Toros & Torsos moves from Florida to Cuba to Spain to the US, and, spanning three decades, from the 1930s to the 1950s, depicts such personages as Hemingway, Dos Passos, John Huston, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, etc.. In doing this, Toros & Torsos is able to take into account many of the social forces that inform mid century America, from modernism to surrealism, anti-fascism to anti-communism. I had my doubts about McDonald being able to carry this off, but he does and it was only a matter of a few pages before I had fallen under the novel's spell.
McDonald has definitely done his research when it comes to surrealism, the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway and his circle, as well as the group surrounding Man Ray and John Huston that Steven Hodel writes about in Black Dahlia Avenger. I've always been dubious about Hodel's book, though enough of it is probably true for it to be disturbing and effective fodder for a novel. Likewise, McDonald's account of rumors about surrealist torture chambers during the Spanish Civil War, were based on reports- the one I read appeared in the Guardian- whose source has since turned out to be somewhat dubious. Nevertheless, it makes for interesting speculation and fits nicely into the confines of McDonald's novel. It also helps of course that McDonald's protagonist, Hector Lassiter, a pulp crime novelist "who writes what he lives and lives what he lives," is a fairly complex person, whose outlook, partly noble and partly distorted, fit nicely into the eras described. Meanwhile, McDonald's depiction of Hemingway- here suitably egocentric, overblown, brilliant, childish, obsessive, irrepressible- is sufficiently ambivalent and complex to be interesting, the implication being that in some way he personifies America during that period and beyond. By portraying Hemingway and Hector Lassiter, warts and all, Toros & Torsos, from the novel's opening scene to its denouement, critiques the effect of masculine values on the culture, and examines the relationship between reality and ficiton. And by looking at the sexual politics of surrealism, McDonald addresses the nature of metaphor. And don't think surrealist murders are simply the stuff of urban legend. In the part of the world where I'm currently living, near Perpignan, there were a handful of such murders a few years back, the corpses of which supposedly replicated paintings by Dali. Toros & Torsos illustrates that McDonald can handle complex material and on the basis of this one book, has become, along with Megan Abbott, one of the more interesting crime writers to have emerged over the past couple years.
More about McDonald's Print the Legend in the new year.
I'm currently engrossed in Jonathan Lethem's hilarious, perceptive and beautifully written paean to contemporary New York culture, Chronic City. I've long been an avid reader of Lethem's work and always look forward to his next book. For me, Chronic City is a return to form after the somewhat disappointing You Don't Love Me. But I was interested in hearing on WNYC's Soundcheck with Lethem and Kevin Avery that the protagonist of Chronic City was loosely based on the late, but sorely missed critic Paul Nelson. Not physically, but intellectually. That is, as someone that is, above all else, engaged with the culture. As I've written before, my interest in Nelson goes back to the Little Sandy Review in the early 1960s, when he, along with fellow editor, Jon Pancake, became one of my favorite music writers. Once Nelson moved to New York, I more or less lost contact with many of his activities, while I was more into the likes of Grover Lewis. Still, whenever I came across liner notes or articles by Nelson, I read them with interest. Nevertheless, I could easily identify with Nelson's obsession with film noir, Orson Welles, Philip K. Dick and Ross Macdonald. So I'm looking forward to Avery's forthcoming biography of Nelson, Everything is an Afterthought. For anyone interested in Nelson, and the world around him, and you read French, you could do worse than have a look at Philippe Garnier's Freelance: Grover Lewis a Rolling Stone. If you don't read French, try the University of Texas's Splendor in the Short Grass. Lewis was every bit Nelson's equal, with some of the same interests, and, of course, like Nelson, and a major influence on any number of subsequent rock and film critics.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.