The books have been piling up again. So here are some short reviews of a few- fiction, journalism, poetry- that have recently come my way.
Monday, July 05, 2021
The Big Spill-over: Recent books by William Gardner Smith, Lee Durkee, Billy Wilder, John Sanford, Paul Buck, Kirby Doyle, John Wieners, Anna Mendelssohn, Katherine Gogou
Sunday, June 20, 2021
Try and Get Me (Cyril Endfield, 1950)
Take away this San Jose, replete counter-factual
lynchings, deep into the genotypical. And if
offending the offendable, remove the offence,
or, for that matter, sleazoid jurisprudence.
Preambled by yet another religious nutter, his
sign, gulp, muddy water, turkey in all this
chinoiserie: like, "How much are you guilty
for the evils in the world?" Swallow, head down.
Numb post-war suburban man, washed with a yen
for monopoly capitalism. Lurking in a tostada-
with-all-the-trimmings clink. Ain’t no get outta
jail free card in this star spangled banana republic.
And "no law against what's right." But what is right?
Poor pendejo, coming back to his little chickadee.
In darkness, a window, his only art, sans tv to
distract, sans disposable dosh to schlep his sitcom
son to a ball game. Still, ducks will slurp for the
nearest psycho, and rungs on the ladder will break
with lumpen farce, Elmer Fudding raison robbery.
Born to shoot shit, his marriage crumbles for lack
of middle-class moxy. Spilling beans on a barroom
floor, to a wallflower displaying her magnificent
ambersons, plumaged to shop the schmuckable,
revving the reviled to break into jail, their monkeys
signifying one man's guilt might well be another
man's gelt. Whether backroom boy or tinselled
mensch, seething to insert an immigrant root-canal
cosmopolitan, eurosplaining vigilantism. Pre-
Murdoched with a by-lined Green Stamp wallop,
sans hostages to redeem, for this, buy easy bay lurch.
Where Danger Lives (John Farrow, 1950)
Who doesn’t “do” anxiety, influence or discontents.
High rollers, disguised as low hitters. Dodge-ball
pretenders and four-square curators. Likewise, scionic
border rats, and their calico partners. Blimey! It’s a
replicant of Willeford’s Wild Wives, six years later.
Uncredited, forgotten, unmentioned, or marooned in
anodyneland. But let’s gloss this lipstick, mire this
pig in graveyard proverbials. Picture a wealthy young
wife, her past perturbing her present, secondhand
clocking a handsome young doctor. We wonder, is
the old guy her husband or father? Well, Cassandra
is nothing if not complex. That Dr Mitch and the old
man come to blows, is more ontological than generational.
That Dr Mitch dances like Sluggo, must impair his
gamut of suicidal tendencies. Like travelling to Mexico,
with warts and all peccadilloes. Nearing the border, her
psychosis riles, tries to kill Dr Mitch. Hardly una
mojada, but shot all the same, straight to the core of her
consequentialism. Her confession prompting a debate
on the nature of false consciousness. Is this a stitch-up,
or simply a gold digger’s diet? Ubiquitous, granular
paranoia, so lopsided an autonomy, so why can’t these
fuckers recycle their trash as they do their movies or
wives? I had no choice. I fell under her spell. As old as
Hollywood, clueless though it was and always has been.
Thursday, June 10, 2021
It must have been over 20 years ago that I first became obsessed with the seldom-spotted existence of Myron Brinig’s Southern California-based 1933 novel Flutter of an Eyelid. The novel had been mentioned in two related but very different books I’d been reading, Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster and Kevin Starr’s Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s. Had I been paying more attention, I would have remembered a similar shout-out in Carey McWilliams’s seminal 1946 Southern California: An Island on the Land. It wasn’t just the novel’s evocative title that grabbed me, but the descriptions of its setting and devastating finale, as well as the controversy surrounding it in its own time. Back then I thought I knew a bit about California fiction from the 1930s, but here was a book I’d never seen, much less read. And for good reason. In spite of, or maybe because of, its merits, Brinig’s novel had then been languishing in obscurity for over half a century. Fortunately, thanks to this elegant edition from Tough Poets Press, with complementary illustrations by the renowned Lynd Ward, Flutter has, after some 90 years, finally risen to captivate anew.
Given their respective agendas, Davis and Starr emphasized different aspects of Brinig’s novel. As a leftist cultural critic, Davis applies, as one might expect, a political lens, referring to Flutter as a “savage satirical novel that ends in mock apocalypse,” a precursor to — and arguably more original than — Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, which was published six years later. Meanwhile Starr, the former state librarian and eminent California historian, presents Brinig’s novel simply as one of the more interesting, eccentric, and scandalous works in a litany of neglected works from that era. In fact, Starr appears to be more impressed by the audacity of the novel than by its literary qualities, much less its prognostications regarding geographical retribution for the populations’ excesses and sins.
Davis’s special interest lies in Southern California catastrophe literature, a sub-genre that, at the time of Flutter’s publication, had yet to become as fashionable as it would in subsequent years. He claims that from 1931 to 1940 Los Angeles had been decimated in literature on at least seven occasions. With its literal and figurative fault lines, California, and L.A. in particular, seemed destined, even in the 1930s, to meet an untimely end — an end that would , for various retributionists, be its just comeuppance for decadence, economic inequalities, real estate speculation, cults, quackery, and the obsession with celebrity.
Davis make a further claim — namely, that Brinig was one of the first novelists to suggest a destructive correspondence between evangelicalism and not only bohemia, but the various cults of which Californians have always been so fond. That said, Starr, though largely apolitical, had the nous to place Flutter amidst a handful of other relatively unacknowledged 1930s classics, such as You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas (pseudonym of Eric Knight), The Long Haul by A. I. Bezzerides, Count Ten by Hans Otto Storm, or the better known They Shoot Horses, Don’t They by Horace McCoy. Of those novels, it’s You Play the Black to which Flutter might best be compared. In many ways, Flutter reads like a cross between Hallas’s dark novel and an array of other, more diverse works, from Evelyn Waugh’s to James Branch Cabell’s, with perhaps a soupçon of Wyndham Lewis, whose Apes of God is accented by a similar cattiness. At the same time, Brinig’s novel is so original that it is quite capable of holding its own in such company.
Born in Minneapolis in 1896, Brinig grew up in Butte, Montana where his Jewish Romanian father ran a dry goods store catering to local miners and their families. Brinig would attend NYU, followed by a spell working for Daryl Zanuck’s studios in Fort Lee. By the time Flutter appeared, he had already published five novels. This one appears to have been the result of a short, but uncomfortable, stay in Los Angeles at the beginning of the 1930s. At the time, Brinig was by all accounts on a fast track to literary notoriety — one that, in the year of Flutter’s publication, took him to New Mexico, where he was feted by that doyenne of Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan. She was so impressed by Brinig, who she thought might become an American D.H. Lawrence, that she suggested he help write her memoirs. Brinig claimed the rough draft of Luhan’s life was “one of the most damning arraignments of modern white society in literature.” After he placed his stamp on her story, the two had a falling-out, echoing what one suspects had taken place in Southern California a couple years earlier. Luhan achieved her revenge in a 1935 short story, “Derision is Easy,” in which she portrayed Brinig as a voyeur seeking to penetrate the inner lives of others to use in his fiction. In turn, Brinig would offer a portrait of Luhan in his 1941 novel All of Their Lives, a no-holds-barred account that included the Luhan-like character’s fictional death by lightning. Brinig clearly had a fondness for such endings, with nature meting out revenge on some deserving person or population; there was also his 1937 novel The Sisters, which ends with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
None of his other novels, however, is as strange as Flutter. His earlier books had mostly been set in Butte. The protagonist of Singerman (1929) was based on Brinig’s immigrant father; Wide Open Town (1931), depicted disputes and disasters in the local mining community, including the lynching of a character based on Wobbly organizer Frank Little (recalling Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, published three years earlier); and This Man Is My Brother (1932), also set in Montana, bravely portrayed the lives of two gay siblings. At the time, some were comparing Brinig to Thomas Wolfe, but anyone familiar with more recent novels of the West might, when reading Wide Open Town, be put in mind of Oakley Hall’s classic Warlock (1958). Yet so different is Flutter from Wide Open Town and the other novels that came before that one might be excused for thinking it belonged to some other author.
(You can read the remainder of this article at the L.A. Review of Books)
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
"This is the saddest story I have ever heard," reads the opening sentence of Ford Maddox Ford's novel The Good Soldier. One could say the same about Willy Vlautin's latest work of fiction, The Night Always Comes. If not the saddest, then something close to it. But it's also, for me, Vlautin’s best novel yet. On the other hand, I'm prejudiced, since Vlautin has recently become one of my favourites. Though I have to admit it did take me several years to come to that conclusion, or even to fully appreciate his writing. Of course, I'd always liked his deeply rooted band Richmond Fontaine and, more recently, The Delines. But that might have been why I’d always been reluctant to give his work the attention it deserved. In my defence, I can only say, what an idiot I can sometimes be.
In fact, it was only in the past year, filled as it has been with hardship and grieving, in both a general and personal sense, that I found myself with more than enough time to finally discover why Vlautin is rated so highly by so many writers I respect. So, over the past seven or eight months I've read each of his books in the order in which they were written. Despite my culture-lag, I can say in all honesty that there are few writers capable to conveying such compassion for ordinary, troubled souls as does Vlautin, and to do so in such a non-nonsense, straightforward and readable manner.
Although the tone of his work, with its cast of hard-bitten characters, might strike a similar chord, Vlautin draws upon a range of influences. Foremost, of course, is his adherence to historically rich tradition of noir fiction and, by extension, film. But he also occasionally calls on elements of science fiction, and, even more so, novels of the west. And like many hardcore noirists, Vlautin has clearly been influenced by certain proletariat writers, with their concern for the plight of people exploited and beaten down by those who the power to do so. But if Vlautin in his latest novel is reminiscent of anyone, it must surely be David Goodis, whose tragic and haunting tales focus on a range of troubled souls. In fact, it sometimes seems like Vlautin is channelling Goodis, while throwing in a touch of Jim Thompson to keep things interesting and unpredictable.
The novel itself revolves around Lynette, a twenty-something who's been extremely hard done by, some might say trampled on, by others, who, for the most part, happen to be men. In addition she has a history of personal problems. All of which she is doing her best to overcome, and to do what's right for those close to her. But that's made difficult not only by various people standing in her way, but by the prevailing state of things. All around her, she can't help but note that her home town of Portland is becoming increasingly gentrified. But Lynette, who, to save money, holds down more than one job while occasionally engaging in some dubious activities, inhabits a world in which trickle-down economics has not trickled down far enough to benefit her in any substantial way. And probably never will. She lives in a rented run down house with her disabled brother and mother. The latter, in contrast to Lynette, is nothing if not beaten down by a lifetime of hard work, bad luck and bad decisions, and has no interest in sharing Lynette’s dream of buying their ramshackle house to give them a leg-up on a slippery ladder that might lead to solvency.
I mentioned the influence of proletariat fiction in Vlautin’s work. For me that's most apparent in Lynette’s mother’s five page inebriated assessment of the world at the end of the book, which reads like a 21st century inversion- filled with despair rather than hope- of Ma Joad’s “we keep a comin” speech at the end of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It's a grim assessment regarding the state of things. Even so, Vlautin doesn’t portray Lynette's mother, despite her view of the world, as a bad person but simply someone who has been destroyed by the system, whose future has been used up, but, despite what appears to be cruelty, might see in Lynette a glimmer of hope. There aren’t many writers able to create such realistic characters and do so with such depth and humanity. In this day and age that’s saying a lot.
Saturday, April 24, 2021
Sunday, April 04, 2021
“‘Take it easy, I don’t know anything,’ is a line that never
works in detective novels...”
Dick Gallup, “close your eyes,” from Shiny Pencils...
Recently, while recovering from a bout of sciatica, I found myself binging on two novels by John Rector, a writer I’d heard about but had never read. Both novels, Already Gone (2011) and Cold Kiss (2010), his first novel, were as diverting as they were intriguing. It occurred to me while reading them that noir writers have a tendency to withhold the backstories of their main characters until fairly late in their novels. This is what Rector does to some effect in both novels. But, then, so did the likes of David Goodis, Jim Thompson and Dorothy B. Hughes. It’s a technique that gives all of their work added tension and their main characters an added amount of ambiguity and mystery. I suppose the technique goes right back to the origins of Black Mask writing, and maybe to others who base their narratives as much, if not more, on character as on plot.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but, sciatica not withstanding, it had never occurred to me before. In Rector’s Cold Kiss, one has little if any idea what trauma informs Nate’s actions and thoughts. There are hints, revealed in pieces to his girlfriend Sarah. Something about killing his brother who, as a teenager, he had been in charge of, then something else about a road accident, and detention. Clearly Sarah knows a bit, though not all of Nate's backstory. Certainly she knows more than the reader does. Likewise, Already Gone, in which the couple, Jake and Diane, seem to know very little, if anything, about each other’s past, Again, one gradually hears about Jake's violent teenage days, his relationship with his father and their relationship to Gabby, a local crime boss. This even though Jake has written a book that supposedly tells all, though, in fact, it only skirts around the subject of his past. But enough to find Jake gainful employment. At the same time, neither Jake nor the reader, knows much about Diane's past, a forewarning if nothing else that there is trouble on the horizon.
The temptation is for an author to reveal any pertinent backstory in a book’s early chapters, and so establish a clear-cut motivation and narrative pathway. However, withholding the backstory means any such motivation will become part of the overall mystery. Although there is nothing inherently wrong in revealing the backstory early on, it can, when it comes to a character’s psychology, seem overly formulaic. The implication being that a particular event or situation can explain everything, which should be rarely the case, ir only because such events often explain only part of the story. There are, after all, choices made that are necessarily contingent, as well as choices based on free will, though that difference is often blurred, and can sometimes be mistaken for one another.
Narratives by the likes of Rector might appear straightforward when it comes to linearity and forward momentum, but by withholding the backstory, the reader is made to fill in, or speculate upon, the spaces, intervening as the information gradually becomes apparent. It's, for me, what makes the two novels by Rector interesting. The fact that the reader doesn’t know exactly what motivates Nate and Jake works to free up Rector's narrative, giving it the space in which to operate without the baggage that comes with flashbacks and explanations. This as opposed to plot driven novelists. Even James Ellroy, who readily and mostly effectively broadcasts his backstories whenever and wherever possible, sometimes even expanding on them previous novels.
Though it might appear simplistic, even basic, when it comes to a novel's momentum, it is often a more subtle and complex technique than it seems. It means that not only are the peripheral characters kept in the dark, but so is the reader, which not only creates tension and movement, but the need for one to continue reading. It also tends to place those inhabiting the novel and those reading it on something approaching equal footing. Not contributing to the creation of an unreliable narrator or protagonist, but establishing the integrity of such characters while building a conflict zone that connects a character's past, present and future.
I’m not sure this technique is all that unusual. On the other hand, it makes Rector something of an old school writer, the technique a variation on Marcel Duhamel’s advice to Chester HImes when the latter began writing novels for Gallimard’s Serie Noire imprint, which is to say, avoid too much introspection and allow the dialogue to carry the narrative forward. The lesson from reading such writers as Rector, with all its psychological ambiguity, might be a version of that cry heard in countless films about newspapermen. But not “Hold the front page,” but “Hold the backstory.” Ranking up there with that Mamet rule regarding screenwriting, applicable not only to chapter deliberations and scene shifts, but, as far as I’m concerned, to social gatherings of most varieties, which is arrive late and leave early. But, as usual, I am veering off-piste. Suffice it to say that reading Rector is an effective antidote to modern life, whether suffering from sciatica or not.