Saturday, April 21, 2018

Review: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James B. Comey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a bad book, not for many of the reasons I’ve heard in the many news reports surrounding it, but because it’s above all a bland book. As a writer – and Comey has become a writer in the process of putting this book together – Comey’s go-to move seems to be the platitude. I’ve noted a few, almost at random:

“Evil has an ordinary face.”

“I can’t explain God’s role in human history.”

“Intelligence is the ability to collect and report what the documents and witnesses say; judgment is the ability to say what those facts mean and what effect they will have on other audiences.”

So, looking at this as a book rather than a publishing moment, it’s hard to admire. Comey seems dazed, as if he hasn’t really processed the whirlwind of controversy that brought him down and as if he is still worried – along with many of us – that our intellectually limited and emotionally unstable President threatens our democratic institutions. I have a writing rule I take from my father: some of our most troubling experiences have to ripen before we can write about them. I wish Comey had had the chance to follow that here. He hasn’t moved far enough away from his experience to have learned much from it. What we get here is a digested diary rather than something that rises to the level of memoir.

But, of course, this book is primarily an event, not a work of literature. As such, it lets us get a sense of the mind of someone who, almost Zelig-like, has been in the press photo for some of the most controversial political decisions of the last twenty years. From the time he prosecuted Martha Stewart for insider trading, through his role in prosecuting Scooter Libby, his showdown with Dick Cheney loyalists about waterboarding (while Attorney General John Ashcroft lay delirious in a nearby hospital bed), his handling of the Clinton email scandal, and his sort-of standing up to Trump, he’s had a front-page presence at least every few years.

What’s striking in all that – as Comey himself admits – is that he is not an extraordinary man. He is, I am certain, above average intelligent and above average diligent, but he’s where he was in part because of his ability to survive in a cutthroat world. And his survival strategy is pretty clear: he has a capacity for being inoffensive, for giving the impression that he is acquiescing but simultaneously demonstrating that he followed his own conscience. He admits he learned much of that strategy as a child bullied at school and, in a harrowing instance, as an adolescent held at gunpoint during a home invasion.

I don’t mean to say that Comey comes across as spineless. If anything, it’s the opposite. He seems stiff in some of the ways photographs capture him. He’s a surprisingly tall man who doesn’t seem practiced in stooping.

Rather, what I do mean is that Comey has succeeded because he is an exemplar of a certain kind of decency. He believes in the power of institutions; he says repeatedly that he saw himself as a servant of the Justice Department or the FBI, that he refused to allow himself any partisan political leaning.

In ordinary times, I’d admire that decency. We need capable people to fill those institutions so that the rest of us can fight about the policies that will govern them. These are not ordinary times, though, as Comey himself admits.

As a result, the most uncomfortable parts of this book – as many reviewers have noted – come when Comey seems to stoop to some Trump-like moves, when he talks of the man’s orange skin, ignorance of the word “calligrapher,” or mob-boss aspect. But Comey doesn’t stoop well, and he doesn’t have a feel for the language of deep criticism.

The bottom line, then, is that Comey is as ill-suited to shed fresh light on the Trump experience as he was to survive it. He is a creature of institutions while Trump has set himself against institutions. He is scrupled and calm, showing his passion through a life-long commitment to the rule of law. Meanwhile, Trump instinctively pushes against structures, against anything that might constrain him or cause him to confront his self-contradictions and outright fictions.

James Comey had it in him to be an exemplary director of the FBI, to be someone who gave his full mind to pursuing justice in an impartial way and to diversifying the Bureau’s workforce so that it could do that work even better in coming generations. He is, however, just one of the many timbers left in the hurricane wake of a man who is intent on preserving his own power by undermining everything Comey represented. As this book arrives, the storm is still raging, and his analysis – even the language he has for stating that analysis – is bland by comparison.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Review: The Dramatist

The Dramatist The Dramatist by Ken Bruen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve spent much of my time reading the first four of Bruen’s Jack Taylor books trying to figure out what makes them so good. The plots do matter – the twist at the end of The Killing of the Tinkers pushed that one back into elite territory, and I found myself gripped at the end of The Magdalen Martyrs too.

And this one definitely falters in the plot department. Where we’ve had political complications and individuals with deep and troubled backgrounds, this one turns on a too-conventional serial killer (so he’s obsessed with John Millington Synge) and a socially conservative paramilitary group of guards. Neither is anywhere near as satisfying as we’ve seen.

Still, while I find this one a definite step down, I still very much enjoyed it, and that’s lead me to another theory about what makes Bruen so good here:

When Hemingway developed what I understand as the hardboiled style – when he created the tone that Hammett and Chandler refined into genre – he did so laconically. Hemingway fights with language; he teaches us to leave most things implied rather than said. Hammett picked up on that most dramatically, leaving real (and sometimes haunting) gaps in his explanations. Sam Spade and the Continental Op are some sick and twisted guys, a fact we don’t see that clearly for a long time because they keep so much to themselves.

As the genre evolved, though, the challenge for each new writer became how to give us a sense of an inner monologue. If a mystery unfolds too quickly, it has no power. While it’s unfolding, though, our detectives have to deal with something. Lots of good writers have given their detectives intense personal lives to wrestle with – like Lawrence Block, Walter Mosley, or dozens of other solid hardboiled success stories. Still, there’s always the difficulty of giving the hero someone to talk to. Without the still profound skill of a Hemingway, we need to hear something from the guy who’s doing the sleuthing.

What Bruen does with Jack Taylor – and, from what I’ve seen, with some of his other heroes as well – is give him an inner “dialogue.” That is, because Jack is always reading something, he’s never entirely alone with his thoughts. Bruen name-drops other writers in what I take as a generous appreciation of his colleagues (he does that so well in Bust that I took 3-4 good recommendations from him) but also as a solution to the what-does-my-detective-do-when-no-new-crime-is-happening conundrum.

I don’t know that I could pull it off myself. For one thing, my life is already too saturated with books, and my challenge as a writer is to find real-world things to refer to. Making books so central a touchstone would just add to the weakness I’m always fighting.

But Bruen gives the impression that he knows the hopeless streets and the alcoholism of Jack’s experiences. His novels work because he doesn’t seem to be showing off when he veers into pictures of the bottom side of addiction and despair. He seems to know it, and literature is one of the ways he’s kept from succumbing to it.

Anyway, I’m still on this train, and I’ll get to the next one in the series pretty soon. I’m hoping the somewhat lazy plotting gets a makeover, and I’m hoping I won’t get too frustrated by the lengthening descriptions of what’s happened to Jack in earlier episodes.

And, above all, I hope I can forgive Bruen for [SPOILER] what he does to Jeff and Cathy’s baby in the closing pages. That may set up some freshly inspired self-loathing, but it may also mark one gimmick in a series that I find I no longer have the patience for.

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Review: The Magdalen Martyrs

The Magdalen Martyrs The Magdalen Martyrs by Ken Bruen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I work my way through Bruen’s extraordinary Jack Taylor series – this being number three – I keep looking for patterns. I find myself enjoying it all tremendously, and Bruen makes it all look so easy that I figure there has to be a secret weaving throughout it. If I could only bottle what he does, I’d be a better writer than I am.

There are clear elements: Jack disappoints everyone who gets close to him, especially the women foolish enough to fall for him. He stumbles through a crime that seems merely an excuse for much of the forward motion of the story, but it turns out to be neatly plotted as well, ending – as it does again here – with a nice twist that Bruen leaves largely to the imagination. (This after he spells out what will happen, setting up the downfall of someone who’s otherwise outsmarted him.) He reads a lot, hates his mother, and stumbles from the wisdom of one rundown, hard-luck Galwegian after another.

That is, I can see how the lyrics go, but I can’t imagine singing them with anything like his tune.

This one is, at last, a modest drop from the first two. (The Guards, well, good luck finding better noir than that. When you start on top of that mountain, you can go a long way down before you hit bottom. And, if these books are gradually getting less inspired, they’re doing so pretty slowly.) For me, the first sign of that is the way the paragraphs get longer. There’s a little more of the obligatory series business of explaining what happened in previous stories, of bringing people up to speed who’ve either not read the earlier ones or forgotten them.

That aside, there’s a similar despair running throughout this – a despair tempered by humor. In one scene, he’s lying in ambush for a tough guy who’s nearly killed him. He’s in a skid row alley, sweltering in the stink and the dark. It makes sense when a young drunk comes out and urinates nearby. What makes this Bruen, though, is that Jack shouts back at him that the least he can do is wash his hands.

Or there’s the time he tracks down an old frenemy. The guy’s in hospice, dying slowly from an awful cancer. So Jack leans in to him to whisper, and then punches him two or three good times in the face. It’s awful, but it’s beautiful too. It’s got that noir edge, and it’s got the old Dylan Thomas rage against the dying of the light. Where there’s life there’s anger, and Jack, if his despair never quite flares into rage, will nonetheless go down swinging.

It may be worth noting that Jack keeps changing his chemical dependency as well. In The Guards it’s alcohol. In The Killing of the Tinkers it’s cocaine. Here it’s Quaaludes. To Bruen’s credit, each book seems to respond to that changing addiction; thinking of it now, I can forgive some of the longer, slower paragraphs because, of course, that’s how such downers would work.

Anyway, read this guy. I’ve enjoyed some of the out-of-series Bruen I’ve read, but this is a great place to start. Give The Guards a chance, and I think it’s likely you too will find yourself jonesing for number four in the series before long.

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Review: The Hike

The Hike The Hike by Drew Magary
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read a number of reviews of this one before I picked it up, so I certainly heard good things about it, but nothing gave me a sense of how playful most of this is. Most of what I read seemed to emphasize the existential questions that are the aftertaste here rather than the persistent clever game-like quality of it.

And, for me, it’s the playfulness that makes the first three-quarters enormous fun. Like Senlin Ascends and The Book of Lost Things – both of which I ultimately prefer to this still fine work – this is many ways a fairy tale for a 21st Century readership. Its best success comes in giving us an old woman dispensing magic beans, but doing so crankily and with exacting gardening demands. Or a talking crab who calls our protagonist Shithead. Or scary men with Rottweiler faces.

The details fly by, but the basic invitation is to lose ourselves in adventure and make believe. There are enough “now” moments – cell phones and business meetings – to make it feel as if it’s talking to our adult selves, but we’re invited to be frightened and thrilled like children. Our hero has to walk a literal path, venturing into an unknown that’s rigged only partway in his favor.

For much of this the point seems either pure entertainment – which it does well – or a meditation on the power of story itself to serve as an escape. I’m all in for the former; this is a clever story most of the way, and Magary has a terrific ear for juxtaposing the silly with the frightening. I’d be OK with the meta-narrative as well, but that’s been done.

As we near the end, though – and I think I can say it without a spoiler – Magary seems to feel he has to flex some philosophical muscle. The lightheartedness dims, and we start to see real suffering. Our hero faces an ultimate test linked to the nature of existence, and then he cheats (by “splitting”).

The result is a peculiar lingering melancholy that’s at odds with what makes most of this such a pleasure. Magary may have had this ending in mind the whole time, but it feels like a forced fit, like an effort at changing the tone late in the game.

So, while I like most of this, I think it’s ill-served by the last 30 pages. It becomes the novel people described before I read it, an intriguing one, but one less playful and less fun than most of what is really here.

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Review: The Killing Of The Tinkers

The Killing Of The Tinkers The Killing Of The Tinkers by Ken Bruen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not much given to the idea of detective series. For me much of the fun in a book is getting to meet a new character, and that’s gone if it’s someone we’re seeing again after a first – or a dozenth – earlier volume(s). On the other hand, Ken Bruen writes so well, with so sharp and comically sweetened a hardboiled edge, that I think anything he writes is worth a shot.

I don’t think this one quite reaches to the level of the first Jack Taylor novel, The Guards, but that’s a masterpiece, so it’s more than fine to come close. And this one comes very close. Especially with its killer ending, this steps right up to that level of true excellence.

Bruen writes here with the same inspired hardboiled mumbling as The Guards. Sometimes his sentences come out as poetry; more often they just stop short. If it’s not inspired, neither he nor Jack will waste our time in saying it.

That’s as true at the level of the chapters as it is with those sentences. Some chapters wind around an incident, taking us right up to something disturbing in the world or in Jack’s blighted soul. Others belch out an insight and conclude all within the space of a page or two.

So, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll listen to Bruen meditating on whatever he cares to share, be it the murders of a bunch of Irish Tinkers, the thrill-kill beheading of a bunch of swans, or the writers or singers he thinks are most neglected.

For much of this book, I paid only loose attention to the plot. [SEMI-SPOILER] Jack is sure he’s solved the mystery of the Tinker-killer early in the novel, and it becomes less a whodunit and more a how-to-get-revenge. In that light, I just enjoyed the prose and the constellation of other characters, especially Cathy – the ex-punk turned mother of a child with Downs Syndrome – and Kiki, the intellectual who marries Jack when he’s in a manic mood and repents when she sees him in full.

I’d read a bunch, put it down for a few days, and then pick it up with the same joy a little later.

And then, [FULL SPOILER] comes that ending. The last couple dozen pages make it clear Jack’s fingered the wrong man for the Tinker killings. His certainty has sicced some mean bastards on a nasty but ultimately innocent man. And it’s as hard as hardboiled gets when Jack confronts the man – his teeth ripped from his jaw with pliers – knows the truth for himself, and nods again toward his murder. What else is he to do? If he owns up to the mistake at that late date, then he’s a dead man himself.

The final page is note perfect in its leaving Jack disgusted with himself. He’s cleared a lot of money on the job, but he can’t take knowing what he knows. So he hires someone to kill ‘Mikey,’ the man he knows for the true killer at the last.

Bruen gives us all that in the space of a couple paragraphs. It’s a dark truth made all the darker in the telling. Yet it’s inspirational too in the discovery that someone so plugged into genre that he’s working in series has the capacity to hone the stiletto as he does.

So, yeah, I’m all in for the next one. I can’t imagine the next will be as good as this one, but if the slippage from this one (number two in the series) to number three is as slight as the slippage from The Guards to this, then I’m sure I’ll enjoy and admire it too.

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Review: Deliverance

Deliverance Deliverance by James Dickey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think James Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals” is one of the most compelling poems of the last half century. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily among the very best – although it could be – but that it’s a call to consider our place in the world as either predator or prey. It happens to be powerfully written, and I’ve found it one of the best things to teach in introductory college literature settings, but above all it asks us to consider who we are if we neither hunting nor being hunted.

After all these years, I’d never read Deliverance. If you grew up when I did, though, you knew the song “Dueling Banjos” and you knew the phrase, “Squeal like a piggy” – neither of which I really understood at age 10 and neither of which appears directly in the novel. Still, now that I’ve read this, I understand both the power of the film (which I have never seen all the way through) and more of what Dickey may have been driving at in “The Heaven of Animals.”

Half of this book is the poetic meditation I expected on the distinction between the tedium of civilization and the thrill of life-as-survival. It opens with our narrator, Ed Gentry, recounting the irritating details of his life as an advertising executive. He’s worked to stay tough, but he’s in awe of his handsomer, stronger, more capable friend Lewis. So, when Lewis proposes a trip down the river through a north Georgia river about to be dammed up, it seems a last chance to grasp a vanishing outdoor world.

It's worth noting as well that the book ends in a similar “civilized” conflict – this one between potential conflicting stories about what took place on the river, in the inaccessible places of the world.

The other half of this book, though, is a classic thriller. It’s the middle section, and it pits man against man in a life-or-death showdown. Ed is initially hunted, and then he does the hunting.

This part is “Heaven of Animals” made literal, but a lot of the poetry gets lost in the translation. We get some powerful language about despair and last remnants of strength being just sufficient to the task, but somehow the urgency of the insight gets lost. Ed does what he has to do survive, but it certainly doesn’t ennoble him, and it doesn’t quite seem to give him the purpose that the poem celebrates. There’s nothing awe-inspiring about his [SPOILER] sending a razor-sharp arrow into a man’s throat. It’s an ugly and bloody instant.

To be fair, Dickey drives that point home by having Ed fall on his own arrow in the same exchange. Ed nearly kills himself in the moment of the killing that he does, and I admire the ambiguity that gives us. Much of its potential for poetry vanishes, though, under the weight of the thriller unspooling around it: we want to know whether Ed will survive.

As a bottom line, then, I do recommend this book – one I saw on every shelf of every one of my friends’ parents in the middle 1970s. I can’t tell how well it holds up altogether, and it’s particularly disturbing in this Trump era to see how much of it turns on the fundamental inability for the ‘elites’ of the city to communicate with the left-behind people of the rural spaces. In the end, though, Dickey is such a talented wordsmith, and he’s wrestling with such primal questions, that the still-thrilling conflict at the heart doesn’t entirely obscure the poetic question that lies even deeper.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review: Ham on Rye

Ham on Rye Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a vivid memory of discovering Bukowski’s poetry: the poem “Tough Customers” in the volume Play the Piano Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed in the ‘poetry closet’ at Denison University’s library in the summer of 1983. It was an amazing moment, one that opened up for me new possibilities for writing and reading literature. I’ve never found my way to his prose, though. If I started Barfly, I know I didn’t finish it, and he has remained only a poet for me ever since.

This one, though, is worth the wait, even if I am coming to it 35 years late.

Ham on Rye opens with Bukowski’s seemingly autobiographical protagonist, Henry Chinaski, age two, sitting beneath a table and watching the legs of the adults go past. It ends with him gazing uncertainly at the rock-‘em, sock-‘em-robot-like game where his toy boxer has been knocked down for the count by a kid across the way. In between, he resents the world, grows into an ungainly body, and gets into more fights than I can count. Along the way, he tallies up reasons to hate himself, then he more or less shrugs them all off and settles into drinking, reading literature, and drinking some more.

If the arc of the narrative sounds flat, what makes this memorable is Bukowski’s nonjudgmental recording of the world around him. He is, in many ways, a camera, telling us what he sees and sometimes what he feels but never applying philosophy to it. The kids and adults of his world often do cruel things to one another, but he doesn’t spend time assessing others or himself. Life isn’t particularly generous in his case. He has a mean, insecure father and a weak-willed mother. He is awkward as a child and then, just as he finds his strength, he develops what the doctors call the worst case of “acne vulgaris” they’ve ever seen, and he has to deal with the almost disfiguring condition. He’d love to get laid, but he knows it won’t happen.

So, if there’s any drama here, it’s the slow-motion way in which Henry becomes accustomed to himself and to a world that seems always to tantalize him. He’s never going to get what he wants, but he develops a model of masculinity where he’s OK with deprivation. He sees himself as one of life’s losers, as someone destined for skid row, but he refuses to complain and he refuses to take comfort in anything metaphysical. He’s always interested in the world around him, not necessarily in its people, but in the substance of the things he encounters.

As a fan of his poetry, I enjoy that stance because it explains to me how he could write the unsentimental things he did. He’s willing to draw portraits of the forgotten people, the bums or the prostitutes or the alcoholics just this side of developing tuberculosis, but he isn’t interested in celebrating them. His greatness (a limited greatness, I think, but a memorable one) comes in his being so tempted to despair but never giving in. As close to bored as he is with his succession of failures, he can never quite suppress his interest in what makes people – including himself – tick.

It might be nice if there were a clearer structure here, and, for once, I’d be interested in seeing something that presents itself more clearly as a sequel or continuation, but I still admire this for what it is. It’s a fragmented, fractured work about a man whose life is a trail of disappointment. Somehow, throughout it, he never gets too low or too high. He just keeps his word-camera running and shows us a world few others have the combination of misfortune, strength, and fundamental humanity to share without moralizing.

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