Sunday, July 26, 2015

BLUEBOTTLE by James Sallis

* Book 5 of the Lew Griffin series *
That's what we're here for, Griffin. To bear witness, to
take notice. Ever doubt that, you just look into a child's eyes.
When jumping into a book by James Sallis, especially the ones in the Lew Griffin series, I've learned not to expect that he'll be interested in focusing very much on plot. I don't read them for action, but I do read them for Sallis's evocative writing, and for the characters themselves. I've mentioned before that one of the most fascinating things about the Griffin series is the malleable chronology, the blurring of history and the parallels (which essayist Richard Martin calls "echoes) in Lew's life. In Bluebottle, the fifth and penultimate novel in the series, time is at it's most malleable here than in any of the previous books as Lew remembers a time in the seventies, after he was shot and lost a year of his life and memory, and the subsequent search for the white woman he was with at the time of the shooting. 
Chekhov insists that once a story is written we cross out the end and beginning, since that's where we do most of our lying. What you have here, then, is all middle: all back and fill, my effort to reconstruct the year missing from my life, to hold on to it.
Sallis jumps back and forth and up and down through time as Lew recalls various aspects throughout his life, but it never felt too confusing. And there are many echoes of characters and situations from other parts of Lew's narrative, and sometimes it causes you to either doubt Lew's memory, or wonder at the significance. For example, the woman he's searching for, Dana Esmay, is eerily similar to Esmé Dupuy, the white journalist who was with Lew during the shooting in Black Hornet that is almost a straight parallel to the one here. There are more examples of this throughout all of these books and it makes for fascinating reading. There are some interesting plot elements this time around, like the missing writer that Lew ends up searching for, a man who begins to write his masterpiece by researching a white supremacist group, and might have ultimately began to commit fully to their cause.
I never found out exactly what it was that had hurt my friend so–something working in him a long time, that finally found purchase. In future years I'd come to recognize similar things scrabbling for footholds within myself. They were already there, of course, even then. Sometimes at night I heard them breathing.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

BAD CHILI by Joe R. Lansdale

* Book 4 of the Hap and Leonard series *

I started reading this series earlier this year, but Hap and Leonard already feel like a couple of old
friends! In this wild installment, while Hap is stuck in the hospital awaiting rabies shots after a run-in with a crazed squirrel and shitty health insurance, he discovers that not only has Leonard gone missing, but Leonard is also the lead suspect in the murder of Horse Dick McNee, a biker that stole his boyfriend Raul. In his quest to clear Leonard of Horse Dick's murder, he will discover a plot to steal grease from restaurants, meet a new love in his life, and risk forfeiting what measly insurance he has!
"The Sound of Music, I'd rather have my dick nailed to a burning building than have to sit through that shit again, and I don't care if the popcorn is free and you're giving me each bite with your vagina."
This just might be the funniest book of the series so far. The opening chapter of the squirrel attack, the section with the job interview at the chicken-processing plant, or anything involving Charlie Blank, are just some of the sections in this one that caused some serious out-loud laughter. But, this one isn't just all chuckles and political-incorrectness. It's also just as violent and menacing as the others, with some really stomach-churning bodily-harm this time. I also love the network of friends that Hap and Leonard are managing to collect; the supporting characters are just as entertaining as the two stars themselves. I'm happy that Hap has met the dirty-mouthed, kind-hearted nympho Brett, who seems to be a perfect match for love-lorn Hap ("She had legs that would have made the Pope abuse himself in the Vatican toilet."). Hopefully we see more of her, as well as more of the private dick Jim Bob Luke. And as usual, the book is filled with Lansdale's pitch perfect prose and genuinely insightful looks at life that really help to balance these stories, making for some entertaining reading!
"Life's like a bowl of chili in a strange café. Sometimes it's pretty tasty and spicy. Other times, it tastes like shit."

Sunday, July 19, 2015


At the other end of the bar they were having a good time, talking pleasantly with some energetic
laughter thrown in. He tried to hate them because they were enjoying themselves. He collected some hate, aimed it, and tossed it, then knew right away it was just a boomerang. There was no one to hate but himself.
It's hard to believe that David Goodis could get any more depressing than he's already been in his other books I've read so far, but this one takes the cake to date. Written during the last leg of his career, This book introduces us to the sad couple James and Cora Bevan, dropping us right into their marriage, as they try to mend it while on holiday in a Jamaican resort. James is an insomniac, suicidal, impotent alcoholic who drinks all day because he can't seem to get his wiife to enjoy sex with him, and Cora might have a history of abuse in her past and also still struggles with her sexual dysfunction. She seems to have some hidden desires to get roughed up by a hairy man, and James doesn't do that for her. A series of adventures in the Jamaican slum outside of the hotel might change things.

Unfortunately, although the novel still sported Goodis's fascinating and poetic prose that I've come to love and the story could've been pretty interesting, this one was a hard one to get through. I really liked the flashbacks and it has a great first chapter. But eventually, it felt like he was trying a bit to hard in his writing and characterizations, and many times, it just came out as rambling, repetitive, and on-the-nose, and the attempt to write in Jamaican patois was just awkward. And man, was the dialogue plodding! But the biggest reason why it was so difficult to read was because of the character of James. Now I understand that noir usually features so pretty unlikeable characters, but James was ridiculous! Talk about a dick! He was so annoying with all of his self-pitying and being a constant downer in every conversation he had. I just couldn't take it sometimes and just put the book down on many occasions. The best part was the James/Cora backstory and their relationship, I wish that was focused on a bit more. The story is pretty similar to Street of No Return (which was written a year before this one), where a man that's hit rock bottom, travels
through the gutter for redemption, but was done a lot better in that previous novel, and the protagonist was a lot more engaging.

Whew, this one was a downer! I think I'll read some Hap and Leonard now as a pick me up! Goodis is still one of my favorite novelists, he seemed like he bled his demons out onto the page, or at least got wine-drunk and threw up all over it, and I love continuing to make my way through his fascinating work.
What I think this calls for is a gin and tonic. Or it might be a good idea to fill a swimming pool with gin and just dive in. But gin doesn't quite fit this mood. What would you say fit this mood? The diving part of it is fine. Let's make it a high dive, say a few hundred feet up with rocks at the bottom, a collection of nice sharp rocks.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

THE DEVIL'S SHARE by Wallace Stroby

* Book 4 of the Crissa Stone series *

Crissa Stone is back and this time she's taken a job in my neck of the woods, in sunny Los Angeles,
the City of Angels. She's there to lead the easy heist of millionaire, Emile Cota's prized art pieces as
they're being driven from Vegas to the Port of Los Angeles. It's a piece of cake job because Emile Cota himself is the one who hired her! Can't be anything easier than robbin' a dude who's asking to get robbed right...? Wrong. Dead wrong.

One of the things I've been a bit worried about with this series is the potential to become repetitive and boring. But Stroby has been able to keep it fairly fresh with each installment. And this newest novel definitely feels more distinct, and a bit more dangerous for our diligent heroine this time around. This one feels more assured and you can feel the author really getting into the groove of the series in his writing. I really appreciated how the "villain" this time around turned out to not be as one-dimensional and mustache-twirling as the previous ones have been. But I still want to see the series really evolve more and not fall into the usual series trap of not growing and not raising the stakes. Wallace Stroby, if you're reading, what about maybe having Crissa, in her desperation to be with jailed boyfriend Wayne, plan an epic breakout that might go horribly wrong, or maybe have her do a job that becomes really personal, like one that Wayne organizes or something? Something like that would be awesome and really step things up in the future!

But in the meantime, although the writing is as usual pretty straightforward and workmanlike, mostly surface with no frills and no time for real explorations of inner drama, this style really works with Crissa's character. The series is full of exciting action and all the books are quick, fun reads. And The Devil's Share might be the most satisfying and well-imagined book of the series.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

THE BUTTERFLY by James M. Cain

This one is a peculiar piece of backwoods incest and hillbilly soap opera written by the godfather of
noir, James M. Cain. It's been a long time since Jess Tyler's two-timing wife left him, taking their two young daughters with her. Since then he's been spending most of his time alone on his farm. All that changes when 19-year-old Kady shows up on his doorstep, he realizes she's his daughter and takes her in to live with him. And against all of Jess's Christian upbringing, not only do they start making moonshine up in the caves behind his house, but they also start making illicit love back there too (eeek!), which sends him into a tizzy and leads to destruction. 

Although I kept reading because it was Cain and I wanted to see how crazy it would get, the writing in this one felt awkward and dated, and everything about the book seemed a bit rushed, as if Cain wrote it as an assignment and was in a hurry to finish it. It was released shortly after the three hugely successful movie adaptations of his novels, so I'd like to think that maybe he was pressured to churn out a new novel and wanted to make some dough. It also came out right around his dark divorce from his wife, so maybe it was written during rocky domestic times, or maybe he was just drunk, or maybe he just plain fucked up. Either way, the book was pretty weird.

It had a cool ending though. And I am happy I read it, just to say I did. For fans and completists of Cain only. There's even a really fascinating and lengthy preface by him in this edition!


Monday, July 6, 2015

HELL HATH NO FURY by Charles Williams

What was my batting average so far for staying out of trouble when it was baited with that much tramp? It was an
even zero, and I didn't see anything in the situation here that promised I'd improve very much.
All I can do is chuckle whenever I read about people being in such an uproar recently about the ending of the book and movie Gone Girl. I keep thinking that obviously they've never
really read true classic noir fiction. Because if they had, then they'd know that an ending like that is true to form with the genre and had been done many times back in the genre's heyday! That's how I like my noir: depraved and nihilistic! And this nifty, archetypal, little dark thriller fits right there in that category, with it's tale of a horny, low-life car salesman who's aching to not only bed down a couple of the local ladies, but also to rip off the local bank, which is just begging to get robbed. He quickly finds out that these two goals don't fit very well together.
The smart thing was to get out of here and let her happen to somebody else.
Author Charles Williams was one of the star pulp writers back in the 50's and this is considered one of his best works. It was originally published as a Gold Medal original, titled Hell Hath No Fury, but is now more commonly known as The Hot Spot after the movie adaptation. But The Hot Spot is terribly boring and I definitely prefer the original name. This book is a great example of the classic pulp and Gold Medal tradition, with its tight plotting, suspense, witty, hard-boiled dialogue, its lusty femme fatale ("She was as crazy as frozen dynamite"), and questionable morality. This is an essential one for fans of the genre.
Maybe some day I'll make it and become the only bank director in the world who started at the bottom by robbing the bank and worked his way up by becoming indispensable to a bitch, and the only one anywhere who has twelve thousand three hundred dollars of his bank's assets buried under six inches of slowly rotting manure in a collapsing barn on a sandhill and who intends to let it stay there until the barn rots or the money rots or he rots himself. It's an ambition, and everybody should have one...


Friday, July 3, 2015

BULL MOUNTAIN by Brian Panowich

"Nobody bled that didn't need it comin'."
I recently finished the best book of the year so far and I want to just clue in as many people as possible. The book is called Bull Mountain and it will be released very soon on July 7th. Read it as
soon as you get your hands on it. I would say that it will win awards and all that jazz but we all know that most of the really great ones don't these days...

The book is a look at the Burroughs clan that have ruled their northern Georgia mountain home with an iron fist for generations. Not only does the land on Bull Mountain pass from son to son, but so does the legacy and the mistakes and they affect each generation until it all threatens to blow the family apart once a wayward son decides to make a change. It's a tragedy about a family that must reap what they've sowed throughout the years and face the destiny that they've created.

This story is so well-conceived, it was a joy to read each page and witness each layer of the tale get peeled away to reveal yet another enriching thread in the narrative web. You can tell every aspect of this book was planned out meticulously; everything matters and adds to the story, even down to the smallest detail. It's structure is important too, and while in other books a similar structure might be annoying, it's ingenious here. The author jumps back and forth between multiple eras, different POV's, and the different generations of the Burroughs family in a non-linear narrative where each chapter cleverly provides perspective and a frame of reference for the parts that precede it and follow it.

You'll probably read a lot of praise about this book throughout the year, and I'm here to tell you it's all warranted. If I had a gripe, it would be that I wish that the ending was a bit more tragic, but the book is so great as it is, that I don't really care. I can go on and on about how excellent this book is and how not only is it the best that I've read so far this year but it's one of the best that I've read in a long time. But please, just read it and see for yourself. And did I forget to mention that this is a debut novel? I'll be damned...