Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Deep Blue Goodbye by John D MacDonald

The Deep Blue Goodbye is cool. It’s always fun when you get introduced to a new dirty pleasure you never knew existed. Thanks to friends B & HP in Vancouver, I’m now aware of John D MacDonald the way I’m aware of masturbation, s’mores, or clove cigarettes. None of them really do you any good, but they can be a great deal of fun.

MacDonald is most comparable to either Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard. This novel, starring his famous character, Travis McGee, takes place among the marinas, hotel rooms, and bars of steamy Fort Lauderdale and the Keys in the confusing, fading days of the late nineteen sixties. Hot babes, scuzzy criminals, and the wise cracking hero with a knight errant’s heart fill out it’s too short two hundred pages. This is pulp fiction at it’s best—deeply derivative noir soaked in the sunscreen and cheap gin of the Florida Keys.

For my money, MacDonald is closer to Chandler than Leonard. His dialog isn’t so cropped or trendy as the latter, and his plots and characters are more reminiscent of Chandler’s LA crowd than of the mean streets of Detroit.

There’s plenty of sex, a little bit of violence, and lots of fine quipping to enjoy here. I’ll not bother with a plot summary. If you’ve read the above, you already know the kinds of streets you’ll be winding your way along here.

Highly enjoyable, and I found this morning that MacDonald has about ten or twenty other paperbacks available at the local Half Price Books for about $1.25 each. I just bought them all.

Here’s to guilty pleasures! From MacDonald, through the mouth of McGee, a little bit that could almost be Updike:

“Bless them all, the forlorn little rabbits. They are the displaced persons of our emotional culture. They are ravenous for romance, yet settle for what they call making out. Their futile, acne-pitted men drift out of high school into a world so surfeited with unskilled labor there is a competition for bag-boy jobs in the supermarkets. They yearn for security, but all they can have is what they make for themselves, chittering little flocks of them in the restaurants and stores, talking of style and adornment, dreaming of the terribly sincere stranger who will come along and lift them out of the gypsy life of the two-bit tip and the unemployment, cut a tall cake with them, swell them up with sassy babies, and guide them masterfully into the shoal water of the electrified house, where everybody brushes after every meal. But most of the wistful rabbits marry their unskilled men, and keep right on working. And discover the end of the dream. They have been taught that if you are sunny, cheery, sincere, group-adjusted, popular, the world is yours, including barbecue pits, charge plates, diaper service, friends for dinner, washer-dryer combinations, color slides of the kiddies on the home projector and eternal whimsical romance with the crinkly smiles and Rock Hudson dialog. So they all come smiling and confident and unskilled into a technician’s world, and in a few years they learn that it is all going to be grinding and hateful and brutal and precarious. These are the slums of the heart. Bless the bunnies. These are the new people and we are making no place for them. We hold the dream in front of them like a carrot, and finally say sorry you can’t have any. And the schools where we teach them non-survival are gloriously architectured. They will never live in places so fine unless they contact something incurable.”

The Keeper by Sarah Langan

Sometimes you just want pulp horror. Which makes it easy to delve into the D list section at a local grocery store or mega-bookstore’s rack. And when you come up from the stacks, raw and wriggling, holding a real stinker in your mouth, you remember that there’s a reason the Barker’s, Koontzes, and Kings of the world have sold so many copies. Because there’s a lot of really lousy horror out there. Take The Keeper, by Sarah Langan, for example.

It’s not so much that the book is poorly written, though it most certainly is. Nor is it is incoherent plot, which involves a proverbial kitchen sink’s worth of explanations for all the non-sense which unfolds that bothers one the most. Nay, nor do the shallow characters, weak dialog, or jerky pacing really distract too terribly much from the overall trainwreck. No, the real disappointment here is the PG-13 level of lurid detail in what promises to deliver “monstrous visions of violence and horror.” It’s as if Mrs. Langan wanted to give us possessed small town whores, infanticide, evil profit driven factory owners, alcoholic lead characters, and all the rest without having actually read how the masters deliver on these exact same hackneyed devices. (Respectively, loosely: Great and Secret Show, Trainspotting, Desperation, Dark Half.) Besides, instead of any genuine terror at the end, there’s hugging, crying, learning and growing. The sex scenes lack focus, as if the camera has simply drifted away from the action out of boredom. The heroine and her beau are dullards, who lack even the teen angst found in Judy Blume.

I will give props for a brief Elliot Smith reference buried somewhere in here. Also, can’t help but notice that overall, folks on Amazon give this novel fairly high praise. The collection of five star reviews for this two and a half star book makes me suspect they are mostly shills, or friends of the author, but I suppose it’s possible that I just missed some secret gem buried in all this cliché. On the cover of the novel there’s a quote from Peter Straub, hoping that The Keeper “begins what should be a very fruitful career.” This quote reminds me of Atticus Finch saying, “You look just like a picture, Mrs. Debois.” To which Scout repiles under her breath, “he don’t say a picture of what!” Perhaps Mr. Straub is right, and when Mrs. Langan’s second novel wins a Brahm Stoker award or similar, I’ll eat my words. But it will take significant improvement. Luckily, since Mrs. Langan made it into pulp press in the first place, she’ll likely get the chance.

All the above notwithstanding, I’m still not sorry I spent money on a new author; if only to support a wider circle of horror writers I hegetting published. Best of luck with your future novels, Mrs. Langan. May they be better paced, with better characters, who are better written and better received.

Wise Blood by Willa Cather

Recommended to me by an old friend, EdM, I was taken aback by the power and intensity of Cather's novel. Wise Blood is a tale of a few people searching desparately for salvation. None find it, and the search proves to be tragic. This is a fast paced, painful novel, which is beautifully written.

Hazel Motes, certainly one of the more memorable protagonists I've recently run across, is an anti-christian. Specifically, he is engaged throughout his life in a struggle against a Jesus who persues him constantly. "He saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown." When war calles Hazel to Europe, he loses what childhood faith he has, and renounces Christ and salvation. Upon his return, he becomes a street preacher, prosteletyzing the gospel of "A Church without Christ." He draws into his orbit a collection of troubled characters, all of whom move at high speed towards their own destruction among the alleys and shops of the American south in the late nineteen thirties.

This novel is powerful, disturbing, and insightful. Cather has an excellent gift with turn of phrase, and the book moves quickly. It's easy to read and reasonibly short without feeling like a snack. Good, intense stuff, particularly for anyone interested in small America's loss of faith in the decades leading up to the fifties.

Thanks, Ed! Thanks, Willa!

Velocity by Dean Koontz

So a serial killer decides to make you make some really nasty moral choices about who he should kill. For example, he says, “I’m gonna kill someone tomorrow. If you go to the police, then I’ll kill a beautiful young schoolteacher. If you don’t, I’ll kill an old woman who is active in the community.” Now, either way, you’re basically complicit in the killing – in a sense. So then, add a financee in a coma, a bunch of red herrings, and a killer that’s always one step ahead of you and you’ve got Velocity. It’s pure pulp pap, but Koonz does know how to write a page turner.

I have a few complaints, mostly that Koonz is a terrible stylist, that the novel is really contrived, that there’s way too little real horror, etc. But hey, for $5.99 at an airport bookstore, what can you expect? This is bad, trashy horror. Real students of the genre would be much better suited to explore elsewhere. But if you’re a student of mass market success and formulaic novelism, then this might be worth looking at.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

This non-fiction account of a contractor for the World Bank could best be filed under Rants Against US Imperialism in the Third World. Perkins worked from 1962 until 1982 as an economic analyst, whose job it was to create projections which provide rationale for Worldbank and IMF to give huge loans to third world countries.
According to Perkins, there’s a shell game going on, by which these giant loans are made to countries like Ecuador, for giant infrastructure projects (dams, refineries, etc.) Apparently, giving these projects to US companies like Bechtel or Haliburton is a condition of the loan. Now, everyone knows that these countries will never be able to pay back the loans, and will have to default. And that’s great, because the US can then magnanimously agree to ‘forgive’ a small amount of the interest in exchange for, say, permission to build a military base (Saudi Arabia), or votes in a UN Security Council.

Perkins claims to have been involved in this insidious system for three decades, in Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Panama, and Pakistan. He claims that when world leaders, like Torrijos in Coloumbia, refuse to agree, they are assassinated by the CIA. (He has some pretty convincing examples of this in South America in the years leading up to the Contra affair.)

Taken as a whole, Perkins book is persuasive, in that it certainly convinced me that the basic nature of the system he describes is pretty much the way things work. Do I believe this is all part of some giant conspiracy? No. But do the mechanics of world back loans tend to work this way and are US international agendas at play in the use of sanctions or granting of loans? Sure.

Perkins’ ultimate conclusion is what makes him come across as a bit of a new age whack-job, unfortunately. Because according to Perkins, the nature of loans, infrastructure improvements, globalization and modernization as a whole are just plain bad for the hardworking local peoples of wherever. Now, while this MIGHT be true on many occasions, I’m not sure that I can agree with the basic nature of the anti-progress argument. Electricity, schools, flood control, hospitals, and modernization of water treatment plants are GOOD things. Or at least, they can have good effects. Add Perkins status as a leader of something called the Dream Change group, which mostly takes rich white people to go live green among the natives of South America, and what you’ve got is a guy who sounds right, but then reveals a bit of his inner flake. Include still more pointless wailing and gnashing of teeth from Perkins about the moral implications of his job, throw in a dash of self-aggrandizement, (“hit-man”? Really?), and an overemphasis on Perkins’ extra-marital sexcapades throughout the years, and what you get is a fascinating autobiography of a very bright, once influential man, who now comes across as pretty self-absorbed and overly idealistic.

Confessions of an Economic Hitman is fascinating. It provides some valuable insight into the nature of global economies. But it’s not gospel, and its conclusions sound a bit naive.


Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

It would seem hard to take a book about deep water divers exploring the wreckage of German submarines and make it dull, but somehow, Kurson managed.

A bunch of divers, all men, mostly blue collar folks from the east coast fill the pages of this novel. Each of them is driven to perform suicidal deep water feats of salvage. They gather in two groups once a drunken captain discovers a mysterious wreck.

A few hundred pages, a few deaths, and a good bit of sleuthing later, they’ve basically pillaged the wreck, and those who survived feel like they’ve conquered assorted inner demons.

It’s been a few months now, and I didn’t enjoy this one enough to really elaborate here, sorry.