Hawking Up Hairballs
Three Crime Novels
Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, is a crime novel, no question about that. It’s more literate than novels in the genre tend to be, and it’s more accessible than anything he’s written since his youth, but it fits the formula. Man comes across dead drug dealer with satchel of money. Man takes satchel. Drug dealers come after man because they want their money back.
It’s hard to know how to judge the novel though. If one chooses to compare it to McCarthy’s best, it’s a slight work, and the theme couldn’t be more hackneyed. It’s that this country is going to hell in a hand basket, the lament of so many people as they get older. On a superficial level, this seems to be true for the baby boomers. However, one has to look at things in historical context. Ever since the end of WW2, this country has seen increasing urbanization, as well as a steady decline in the job prospects and standard of living for those in the bottom strata, especially blacks and Hispanics. In the pre-WW2 era life was every bit as nasty and violent in the slums of the big cities like New York as they are anywhere in America today but, as cities all across the country have exploded in population, they have come to experience the same sorts of problems that were present in those few isolated areas. It isn’t a question of a moral rot or any such nonsense, but of sociology. Put people together in an urban environment with little money and few prospects and you’re going to get the kinds of problems that McCarthy’s protagonist bemoans.
Those who have read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian while recognize the Judge in the figure of the assassin Anton Chigurgh in No Country For Old Men. As such he in is a Satan figure, damned near invincible and, at the end of the novel, he isn’t killed or apprehended, he just sort of disappears and no one knows where he went. So the problem with this country to McCarthy’s way of thinking is that the Devil is lose upon the land. Sounds like a damned evangelical, but what the hell. I chose to judge the novel as a crime thriller and, as such, I enjoyed it.
Bangkok 8 by John Burdett is a lot of fun. It takes place in Krung Thep, Thailand, better known to Westerners as Bangkok. The detective protagonist is a half-breed, Thai and American, fathered by an American GI on leave during the Vietnam War. The book is entertaining and funny. The locale is so exotic that it feels like sci-fi at points, but it does provide some interesting insights on the country.
The police there are hopelessly corrupt. They take money to let people off on all kinds of crimes. They confiscate drugs and sell them. They take kickbacks from people in the sex trade. The Police Colonel who heads the precinct in which the protagonist works is involved in the drug trade in a big way and has become rich as a result. From the American point of view it’s despicable, but it’s not as simple as all of that. On one level this practice represents a transfer of rural tribal values to an urban environment. The cops in the precinct function like a tribe. The Police Colonel is the chieftain, who takes good care of his men, and all are expected to contribute to the communal good. The protagonist is a devout Buddhist and refuses to take bribes, which irritates his fellows because they don’t feel that he is contributing his share. Here in the US, corruption is all about individualism, but apparently not there. The individual profits, of course, but he’s expected to look out for the communal good as well. It’s a nice read if you’re looking for some light entertainment with a few laughs.
I can’t recommend The Black Angel by John Connolly. I picked it up on impulse at the library. The strange thing about the book is that it’s a signed first edition and, if you can believe it, there’s a music CD in the back, containing songs that the author feels goes with the novel. The CD was still unopened and I wasn’t tempted to break the seal, but this is so odd on two points, that a library would be circulating a signed first edition, and that the author would include a CD. For some reason, the latter smacks of hubris of me, especially considering how bad the novel is. Not only that but he has a bibliography in the back. Of course, when one of the books listed is by the cultist Elizabeth Clare Prophet, it’s hard to take too seriously. The sad thing about the book is that Connolly, who is a journalist, has a real gift for writing. It shows through in his prose, though it’s obvious that he’s just banging the book out. There are occasional passages that are striking. Here’s one for example. The protagonist is talking to his grandfather, who has Alzheimer’s which he says is “...like ink clouding clear water and turning it to black, claiming all of his memories for its own.” Now, that’s really nice and damned descriptive. Unfortunately there’s not enough of it and the plot is ridiculous.
Some Book Notes
I just finished reading The Peloponnesian War by Donald Fagan. He’s a classics professor at Yale, and his four-volume history of that war is apparently the definitive work on the subject. The book that I read is a condensed version that is aimed at the reading public.
For those of you who may be a bit foggy on your ancient history, the Peloponnesian War was a twenty-seven-year-long contest between Athens and Sparta in Greece that began in 431 BC. It was a debilitating contest which virtually destroyed the two city-states. Athens lost the war, but it would recover in time. Sparta won but, though no one knew it at the time, this victory was the beginning of the end for that city-state and its culture.
As mentioned in passing in the book, at the age of twelve a Spartan boy would be introduced into the warrior class, and he would be assigned a mentor. The boy would also be the mentor’s lover. Just the sort of thing that got all those Catholic priests in trouble. It’s not all that unusual among warriors and military types either. The Celts fought on two-man chariots, and the men of these teams were encouraged to become lovers, the theory being that they would then fight harder to protect one another. Winston Churchill said that the British navy ran on rum, the lash and buggery. There’s a long history of the military and homosexuality. So what do we Americans make such a big deal about gays in the military?
The most fascinating character of those times had to be Alcibiades. They don’t come any larger than life than him. He was reportedly an extremely attractive and charismatic man, the sort who would be voted the world’s sexist, but he was also a political force and a splendid diplomat. In addition, he was a relentless self-promoter who made lots of enemies. After certain war plans that were promoted by him ended in strategic failure for Athens, he was framed on charges of blasphemy. Fearing that he wouldn’t get a fair hearing, Alcibiades fled to Sparta and advised them in their campaign against Athens.
He was also instrumental in convincing the Persian empire to join an alliance with Sparta against the Athenians. This alliance was a troubled one and the Spartans decided that he was guilty of treason. The were going to kill him, but Alcibiades escaped to the Persians. The story doesn’t end there though. He was called back to Athens and won a couple of estimable naval victories, only to be disgraced again and forced to flee to an estate that he had acquired in Asia Minor. Could such a figure exist today? No way. The world is just too big and complicated.
I’ve recently read two novels by Frederick Busch. The first one Girls was very good. It’s the story of a guy who works as a campus cop at a college in upstate New York. His life and marriage are coming apart when he notices posters up around the town asking for information about the whereabouts of a missing fourteen-year-old girl. He tries to pull his damaged life together as he tries to determine what happened to the girl. A blurb on the back calls it a literary thriller. That’s inaccurate. It’s a crime novel but it’s more than that in that it’s character-driven. I recommend it. It’s not a must-read, but it’s worth the effort.
I can’t say the same thing for the other novel, A Memory of War. This time the protagonist is a clinical psychologist who practices as a therapist. His life and marriage are coming apart as well, and though Busch has a quest around which he tries to build his narrative, it doesn’t work. The story comes off as diffuse and poorly thought out. There are a couple of reasons for this, in my opinion. Busch has been a writer all of his life, and he’s published around twenty novels. As he says in a short interview at the back of the paperback edition of Girls, “I feel like I have not earned my oxygen and food and water unless I’ve written, and so I try every day to make language - whether or not it’s a successful piece every day.” So, it appears that he’s one of those writers who feels that it’s his job to produce books and once he decides that a book is good enough, he lets go of it and moves. (Interestingly enough, there are blurbs on the back of this book from Ward Just, and Reynolds Price, both of whom seem to work in a similar fashion.) I think there’s another reason as well for why A Memory of War doesn’t work. In that book the protagonist is too much like Busch himself in terms of education, social class, etc. However, in Girls he’s different, a high- school-educated, blue-collar sort of guy, and I suspect that, for that reason, Busch had to put more effort into thinking things through. Of course, that’s nothing more than speculation on my part, and I would certainly like to be a bit more like Busch. I’m too much of a brooder and, as a result, I’m on my third complete rewrite of my current novel.
I find it frustrating that it is so difficult to get reliable knowledge about other countries, in particular the ones that are disapproved of by our ruling elites. Iran is a case in point, and the difficulty came home to me again in a piece in the Nov. 3. 2005 issue of The New York Review of Books called “Soldiers of the Hidden Imam.” It was written by Timothy Garton Ash, a Professor at the Univ. of Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Garton Ash is certainly no supporter of the jingoistic policies of the Bush administration, but he accepts without question the notion that the West must do whatever it can to support democratic forces within Iran. I can’t disagree with that. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a regime that is as oppressive as Iran’s seems to be. However, there are two questions that I have, and it’s damned difficult to get them answered to my satisfaction. The first concerns the true nature of the regime. The second concerns the opinions of the people in Iran. Garton Ash fails to furnish helpful answers to either.
Regarding the nature of the regime, he would do the Bushes proud in that he paints it as bad, bad! That’s fine, if he did it with facts, but he chooses to tar it with various loaded words and condemnatory comparisons. For example, he says, “Khomeini was both the Lenin and the Stalin of Iran’s Islamic revolution. The system he created has some similarities with a communist party-state.” This is all ad hominem, and presents no real useful information to the reader. Why not aver something like that there are sociological similarities between the structure of Iran’s state and that of the Soviet Union? He could then follow that up with examples that illustrate his contention.
This isn’t just one instance that I’m picking on. Later he says, “In a communist party-state, the party line was to be found in the pages of Pravda or Neues Deutschland. In the Islamic mullah-state, the “imam line” is handed down through Friday prayers,...” What is the purpose of that first statement except to tell the reader that these guys are as bad as the communists were. It’s yet more ad hominem.
Even when there is an example of some minimal democratic practice, Garton Ash dismisses it. “As in communist party-states, there is intense factional struggle, which Western observers sometimes mistake for pluralism. Unlike in communist party-states, factions actually appeal to voters to strengthen their position(sic).” He goes on from there to explain why this doesn’t really count.
After reading such passages and, believe me, there are more, how am I supposed to believe anything that he has to say about the nature of the regime is accurate? Yes, I know it’s a theocracy and that it’s oppressive, but that’s about it. What informed readers in the West need to know is more details about the regime and how it operates. This isn’t just an intellectual exercise either because it bears upon the question of whether or not there are political movements that can be supported that embrace democracy. Is it possible for the regime to be changed peacefully, or is it so oppressive that nothing short of a violent upheaval will change things? That’s a questions that dearly needs answering.
The second question regards the support for the regime, and Garton Ash provides no more helpful information here. He traveled to Iran for two weeks and claims to have “met intellectuals of all stripes, artists, farmers, politicians, and businesspeople.” I find it interesting that of the five sorts of people that he claims to have visited only one, the farmers, are what are usually considered to be members of the masses of people, and I’ll bet that he didn’t get as up close and personal with the farmers as he got with the people in the following passage. “I also got a taste of life behind the high garden walls of the houses of the middle and upper class, where the hijab immediately comes off and opinions are scathingly contemptuous of the aging revolutionary Islamic zeal of the country’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
If one wants to get a feel for Garton Ash’s true feelings toward ordinary people, consider the following remarks, “In the middle of a Tehran traffic jam, my driver received a text message on his cell phone. It asked him urgently to pray for the return of the hidden imam, the Shiites’ twelfth imam or mahdi, who supposedly went into hiding some 1127 years ago. A secular intellectual wondered aloud whether a society so rife with mendacity and superstition is at all susceptible to understanding through reason.”
The fact is that Garton Ash is a privileged fellow, even here in the West, so who is he going to be most comfortable with? Those who are like him, of course, so I’m guessing that he mostly hung around those from the educated and relatively affluent elites. These people, of course, would love a more Western style of government in Iran because they would then be the ones most likely to rise to positions of wealth and power. The question is though, how do the broad masses out there feel about the regime, and I don’t feel that I can trust the likes of Garton Ash to answer that question for me.
"When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets," Papa would say, "she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing. ‘Spread your lips, sweet Lil,’ they’d cluck, ‘and show us your choppers!’"
Those are the opening sentences of Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. How could I not love a book that begins like that? "Spread your lips, sweet Lil." Does it get anymore Freudian than that, with the castrating choppers within? Okay, I’m probably pushing the Freudian bit here since the chickens are hens, but I love this book.
Two stories run through Geek Love. Both of them center around the albino dwarf Olympia Binewski, daughter of Al and Lil Binewski, proprietors of Binewski’s Carnival Fabulon. The main story, told in flashback, is that of the Fabulon. It’s your basic monster tale. Al and Lil go to fooling around where they shouldn’t and end up creating a physical and moral monster.
The fooling around that I’m referring to is the decision to breed their own freak show. They do this by "experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes" during Lil’s pregnancies. As a result she gives birth to four freaks. Besides Olympia herself, there’s Arturo, the oldest, who has flippers where he should have arms and legs; Elly and Iphy, the Siamese twins who are joined at the hip; and, Chick who has the power of telekinesis. Arturo is the monster of the story and his actions end up destroying all of the Binewskis but Olympia.
The second is a contemporary story of redemption in which Olympia saves her one daughter, who is normal but for a pronounced, vestigial tail. I don’t want to say anymore than that, lest I ruin the story for those of you who might want to read the book, though I suspect that Dunn included this second story to keep the book from being too grim. However, it works and it fits in seamlessly with the other tale.
The book might be a bit much for some people since it is largely a grim story with a somewhat perverse sensibility. However, Katherine Dunn is a hell of a writer and I recommend it to everyone for that reason, if for no other. In places, her prose seems a bit labored, as though she worked it over too much but, in general, it is simple, clean and effective, not to mention descriptive and imaginative.
Dunn herself seems to be a kind of odd duck. Geek Love first appeared in 1989 and she hasn’t published another novel since. She has been a boxing writer for AP, which is certainly unusual, particularly that she started some twenty years ago. She wrote an introduction for a book entitled Freaksin the early Eighties. It was published by Pocket Books, but they thought better of it and pulled the title after a month. She has also written a foreword for a book called Freak Like Me. Even stranger, she wrote the introduction to Death Scenes, which was published in 1995. It’s a book of Los Angeles homicide scene photographs from the 1920's through the 1950's, some of which are supposedly quite disturbing. It’s not a book that I would care to peruse.
I have been told that I have a strange and often perverse imagination, but Katherine Dunn has me beat by a good bit. I wouldn’t want to live with what she seems to have going on in her head.