There are only a handful of writers whose work I've read more or less in its entirety. Daniel Woodrell is one of them. The Outlaw Album is his long-awaited book of short-stories. Long awaited by me and all those who over the years have become hopelessly addicted to Woodrell's fiction. Published in various periodicals, the stories more or less take up where novels like Winter's Bone and The Death of Sweet Mister and Tomato Red leave off, and are set, as one might expect, in and around the Ozarks. Mostly they are about the people- mostly men- who scratch out a living in the region, many of whom, whether by circumstance or desire, do their best to stay on the cultural margins. One gets the impression that it's in the short story format that Woodrell is best able to experiment with words, perspective and narrative voices. Therefore these stories cover a range of topics and depict people in various states of dissolution: a man kills a neighbor not just once but whenever the spirit moves him; a woman who teaches writing in prison tries to convince a disbelieving father that their son is a talented poet rather than simply a
good for nothing thief; a young woman finds herself caring for her rapist uncle; a
man is threatened with death because in his youth he saw and rejected a beautiful girl; a man attempts to come to terms with his daughter's
disappearance; a man kills a disturbed intruder who happens to be the son of his oldest
friend; another man drives his disturbed girlfriend off a cliff. Then there is
the seemingly autobiographical story about a horse, a jockey
and the father of Daniel-the-narrator, which reads like a personal investigation of the
region's recent past. And another story, Woe to Live On, is quite likely the original story on which Woodrell based his novel of the same name. In all, the stories might be geographically similar, but
they vary greatly in subject and style. As disturbing as some are, these stories are multi-layered and lyrical, invariably rendered with dignity and a touch of humor. I've never before taken seriously comparisons between Woodrell and Faulkner, mainly because I find it difficult to compare anyone with Faulkner. But, for the first time, I have to admit the notion has some merit. If you like Woodrell's novels, you'll love this book. And if you don't know his work, then you've been missing something special, so you might as well start here.
Gerald Kersh has long been one of my favorite British writers. Night and the City, later made into a classic film noir by Jules Dassin, Fowler's End, about a cinema in north London, are two of my particular favorites. Kersh is capable of transporting the reader back to an era that London barely exists any more, but is instantly recognizable, before exploring it as few others have done. In fact, one of the pleasures of reading Kersh is to follow not only his intertwining narratives but where those narratives take often the reader geographically. Like Patrick Hamilton, Norman Collins, the late Emmanuel Litminov and Alexander Baron, Kersh's books are hymns to London, not the obvious places but its seedy cafes, cinemas and suburbs. The Angel and the Cuckoo is probably Kersh's most dense book, yet it is arguably his funniest- its humor invariably dark- taking place as it does in a pre-WW2 demi-monde with artists, criminals, conmen, singers, film people and writers rubbing shoulders. It's comprised of three love stories, linked by Steve Zobrany, the proprietor of The Angel and the Cuckoo, a cafe at the end of Carnaby Street which is frequented by the characters degrees of loucheness, including Zobrany’s compatriot Gèza Cseh, who starts a busboy in Vienna, but mutates into Baron Cseh, then goes to Hollywood; Tom Henceforth (“Henceforth henceforth,” he announces proudly), "an artist without an art" who has an affection for various illegal activities; Perp, the godfather of the Brighton underworld; and a variety of crooks, tarts, con-men, and a hack writing an in-depth article entitled “Would I Live My Life Over Again?” While geographically the novel takes the reader from Poland Street in Soho through to Oxford Street, south to Blackfriars, to the Farringdon Road, then back to Carnaby Street.
This is another fine publication from London Books which comes with an informative introduction by Kersh biographer Paul Duncan, which alone is almost worth the price of the book. From it we learn that Kersh, who originally called the novel Poor Tom Henceforth, hoped the book, which he started writing in 1963, would be a success in America. In fact, he hadn't published a novel in the States since Fowler's End in 1957. This novel, his nineteenth, would be finished three years later, in 1966, and Kersh sent finished copies to the likes of Henry Miller, William Saroyan, Ellery Queen, JB Priestly, John Steinbeck and, strangely enough, Jane Fonda. However, even though Night and the City had sold over a million copies, The Angel and the Cuckoo would sell something like two-thousand. Yet it did receive a modicum of critical acclaim. Less than two years later Kersh would die from the cancer that had been eating away at him for some time. Long out of print, The Angel and the Cuckoo, though evoking a bygone era, has stood the test of time and, with its anarchic drift, so much more.
It's a good time for James Sallis. Drive, adapted from his novel, has hit the screens, and his new book, The Killer Is Dying has arrived in bookshops. I haven't seen Drive (I'll wait until the hype turns into a pleasant buzz), but The Killer... is exactly what one would expect but more so from this always excellent novelist. Tersely hard-boiled, literary, soulful and filled with surprises. it's, for me, a step up from his last couple outings in which Sallis was, I thought, marking time, no matter that the time he was marking was still as original as it was interesting.
Invariably a man who likes his narratives to retain more than a small amount of internal mystery, Sallis, as usual, makes no excuses for that mystery, by which I really mean narrative complexity. Here, without revealing his hand too soon, Sallis intertwines three world-weary narratives, allowing them to compete with one another before becoming almost indistinguishable. Likewise, dream and reality, and everything becomes dependent on everything else: an ageing detective whose wife is dying, a young boy struggling to survive on his own, and a hit man looking for the person who beat him to his target. The boy is left with the hit-man's dreams, while the hit-man leaves messages for the cop who is tracking him down. They all have their own story, fragments of lost lives that reveal their vulnerability, their sense of mortality, and their latent desire to connect.
The Killer... is also a novel about the southwest, that crazy place where politicians are shot, immigrants are suspect, and the sun, which eats into the skin, puts everyone on edge, and makes skin cancer merely a chapeau away. But that makes the place only fractionally more crazy or dangerous than anywhere else. It helps, though barely explains Sallis's fondness for approaching things at an odd angle, or for someone who searches for their nemesis only to find it's their spiritual double. As one cop says to an older cop, "It would help if we had some idea what we're looking for." The older cops answers, "And how often does that happen, that we know what we're looking for?" Not often, is all one can say, because The Killer is about coming to terms with things, whether disillusionment, compromise or the mysteries of life: "Maybe we have to [lose the dream], to go on. Or maybe we only displace it, as we do so much else. Is that why we are all so sad? Are we? Sad? How can we be with life so full around us, with so very much of the world to engage in? But always the bad ending. Is the ending what matters?" To which one can only add, no, it's not at all, it's not the ending that matters, but how one arrives at it; it's the process that counts, and that's something Sallis and the characters in the The Killer... know all too well.
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.