Saturday, September 12, 2009

Going Native by Stephen Wright

A man walks out of his life in the midst of a dinner party on the East Coast somewhere. He may steal a green Galaxie automobile. Nearby, some awful crackheads have sex, score, and argue. Someone steals their green Galaxie. A hitchhiker kills a truck driver on the Interstate, then later hitches a ride in a green Galaxie. A young woman runs away from her family with her boyfriend, later ditches the boyfriend for a man driving, yep, you guessed it. Some guy involved in porn goes to a party and his car is run into by our old friend the GG. And so on. These vignettes of wrecked and unpleasant modern lives have three things in common: sex, drugs, and the green Galaxie. It’s a collection of meaningless searches for meaning. The writing is occasionally clever, but usually feels like it’s trying way too hard. There is also a certain pre-911 self-absorption that was common to fiction in the nineties, but which now just feels a tad petulant. I’d skip this one if I were you.

The Woods Are Dark by Richard Laymon

What a turd. This horror novel is an incoherent mess and dirty in a way that reminds me of a kid drawing pictures of genitals with crayons. I doubt even Dimension Films would option a script for this thing. Plot: Two women driving at night stop in a dinner. They are kidnapped to be sacrificed to a local tribe of savage barbarian sex-fiend man-beasts. Some other dumb shit happens. Beasts win.

Lucky for Laymon, I was trapped in a middle seat on a trans-Pacific flight between two chattering Chinese and no choice but to devour his crappy horror novel.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Since I wasn’t a theater guy after high-school, I missed out on Beckett earlier in life. But after Rushdie quoted him in one of his essays in Imaginary Homelands I became intrigued and decided to dive into his most famous work. Waiting for Godot is a compelling, hilarious, though-provoking piece in which, as a famous critic once said, “nothing happens. Twice.” It’s almost true that the purgatorial setting and nearly nonsensical dialog between Vladamir and Estragon are beyond puzzling. So much has been written about this intentionally opaque work that it’s hard to imagine anything I can add, except to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading the play, and enjoyed even more trying to interact with Pozzy, Lucky, and the text after the fact, in ways that I think the author might well have appreciated.

(What do I think? I think that despite Beckett’s denial, Godot is God, the men are in Purgatory awaiting a conclusion or judgement on their lives. I think that Vladamir has a venereal disease and that Pozzo is a demon of some sort who is punishing the hapless ‘Lucky’ who is a standin for mankind as a whole.)

Woman in the Dark by Dashiel Hammett
This mini-novel is vintage Hammett, but there’s a reason that it isn’t as well known as The Thin Man or Maltese Falcon. His style is minimal here, terse and so unadorned as to be little more than a sketch of actions at some points. A damsel in distress appears in the night and a manly hero rescues her, which quickly turns things into a man-on-the-run tale. It’s not particularly interesting unless you really like the genre or the time period, but it would likely have made for a popular movie in the middle of last century.

Imaginary Homelands by Salman Rushdie
Rushdie’s essays are as good as his novels, if occasionally equally unfocused. In this collection, written between 1982-1992 we get some pre-Fatwah Rushdie. He is younger, perhaps a bit more arrogant in some ways, and just as outspoken and bright. These essays, about politics, literature, history, sports, and music ramble across themes, but always return to the notion of home as more than a location. There are a total of almost seventy-five essays here, which reveal a mind that is unable to rest with comfortable definitions or life unexamined.

This book seems to be out of print. I looked high and low for a second copy to give to LT, (whom I thought might find Rushdie’s comments on Borges interesting) but was unable to find it in any new bookstore. So if you find a copy somewhere at a used bookstore, grab it and run like hell!

Shanghai City Guide by Lonely Planet
A useful overview of one of the world’s megacities. It seems clear that the authors didn’t particularly enjoy their time in Shanghai, but then, I can also concede a number of their observations about the pollution and exhausting climb for status and wealth that seem to so occupy the citizens. Their several sidebars on “The jews of Shanghai” also struck me as a little odd, as other ethnic minorities don’t seem to get similar coverage.

Lonely Planet guides are typically a little better than this. And not a single one of the various drivers I had was able to decipher the map in the center of the book, which made it more or less useless too. So, maybe try a different guide if you need an overview of Shanghai.

The Shining by Stephen King
Somehow, years ago when I was trying my damndest to read everything Mr. King had written I missed this old chestnut. Perhaps odder still, I’ve still never seen the famous Jack Nickelson film of the same name. So I was in for a delightful treat when I found a tattered bright yellow copy of the novel at Halfprice on one of the infernally hot summer days we’re all enjoying right now.

The Overlook Hotel isn’t hot. At least not outside the boiler room in the dead of winter. And that’s the setting where Jack and his family end up trapped while ghosts eat their sanity and make them turn on one another.
The Shining is a tight psychological thriller for the first two thirds, a well written survival horror piece for the remainder. Vintage King. REDRUM.

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone

Stone chronicles the depressing collapse of the sixties and the morally bankrupt characters in his novels always remind me of lost children wandering around the remains of a birthday party that ended hours ago because their parents never came to pick them up.

Dog Soldiers tells the tale of a heroin smuggling deal orchestrated by two former marines still living in Vietnam. They return to the US with more smack than is good for anyone, and they draw a collection of their former lovers and friends into the messy deal, which ends in ruin for almost everyone. This is all set in California, the canyons of LA, the mean streets of Oakland in about 1973. Peace and love have died, and only sex and drugs are left. There’s a sense of intense paranoia, as if everyone might be running a number of some kind. (And most people are.) Our characters are all awash in philosophies, from zen to… weirder stuff. But none of them are able to really pursue enlightenment of any kind, because they are all too drug addled.

Ultimately, this is Stone’s message in Dog Soldiers: That the movement(s) of the sixties got sidetracked, trying to take shortcuts, or becoming wrapped up in hedonism, and ended up missing the more high minded, spiritual targets they initially sought in the communes and San Francisco gatherings of the mid to late sixties. What remains is a sticky criminal residue of paranoia, psychosis, and social fragment. It’s a message we hear at the end of Easy Rider; (“We blew it.”) and hear echoed in A Scanner Darkly.

Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill
An jaded aging rockstar buys a dead man’s jacket from the internet. Then things start to get evil.

The premise works. The dialog is believable, the characters are interesting, if clichéd. The evil is small bore haints, wicked stepparents and the like. People learn things about themselves and some of them don’t make it.

Quality horror, especially in a debut novel. Reads almost like… oh, I don’t know… a young Stephen King…

Cause, oh wait, he is. Well, that’s cool anyway. Street cred for not having your dad endorse your book on the back jacket, and for using a psudo-pseudonym, I suppose.

It’s also cool that The Shining is dedicated to this (once) young man, even if it has no relevance to this particular tale.

Good pulp horror novel. I’ll buy the next one.

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett
Take a tour of steamy Bangkok’s red light districts, prisons, and police stations with your guide Detective Soncheep, the last honest detective in the city. Mostly, he’ll take you to tourist destinations, like Khao San, Pattaya, and so on. But he’ll also muse a lot about prostitution, tell you all about the drug Yaa-baa (speed), and let you in on a murder in the jade-smuggling/sex-change/S&M industry.

This is a fun noir style novel written by a farang, but with a superficial understanding and discussion of thai culture. It’s seedy, seamy, never really dull, and has enough occasionally well written paragraphs to hover just so slightly above crap, but still firmly in the pulp-o-sphere.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
This collection of terse, heartbreaking little stories are mostly about infidelity. Carver’s vision of the desolation of suburban America is distinct and his eye for detail is superb, though it tends to only light upon the melancholy. Twelve stories here chronicle the dissolution of marriages and relationships and the fallout of same. Carver’s dialog and ear for language is superb; hardly a word rings false in this collection. Sad stories from the sixties which chronicled the dissolution of the idealized American marriage.

Planet Law School II by Atticus Falcon
Writing under his silly pseudonym, Atticus Falcon slams the pedagogy of law school’s case method, reveals the men behind the curtain trying to part students with their money while not teaching them anything, and rails against the incompetence of most lawyers. No wonder he needed to protect his identity!

But along the way in this nine hundred page journey, he also opines on almost everything else under the sun, and gives the reader a very firm grasp of the basics of studying law in the US. I suspect that the “PLS Method” he proscribes is likely a very effective, if very time consuming, way to both get good grades, and to emerge from law school much better prepared to practice law than most of your fellows would be.

This book is eternal, but every time you get sick of Falcon’s screed, he introduces some fascinating new topic, or delivers a paragraph that just seems so very right on target that you can’t help but to keep reading. Anyone who is considering law school should read this book, just… take it with a few grains of salt.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s sad funny little tale about the firebombing of Dresden is a fast tragic-comic romp which is still probably the best example of his writing. I read it back in high school and enjoyed it immensely, and again in the early part of this summer in South Austin with no less love. I’d love to grab it and include a quote here, perhaps from the beautiful image in which time reverses so that the buildings all grow back together and the bombs fly up into the air where the airplane hanger doors shut quietly, and the planes fly backwards to land in reverse on the runway and the pilots and crew all walk backwards down the tarmac and return on boats to their homes in America and the bombs are disassembled in reverse and their dangerous chemicals returned to elements and carried backwards into the mines beneath the earth where they can never hurt anyone again.

But alas, we’ve moved from the library on Mosquero into an apartment near the Arboretum. So like almost every other book I own, Slaughterhouse Five now lives in storage, awaiting the return of a new gilded age when it will be able to go back on a shelf where it belongs in some new library somewhere else.
And on the third day, it continued raining. But no one here complains because we need it so badly. The professor is away on Cruiseapalooza, and I'm taking a break from working on finishing the book. Which means it's time for a long overdue update! This set were read in June and July of 2009, while still living in South Austin. I'm writing this from an apartment in North Austin on a rainy Saturday in Septmeber.