Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review: White Teeth

White Teeth White Teeth by Zadie Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know how to categorize this novel.

It’s a pre-millenium story, culminating as it does on New Year’s Eve 1999 and concerned as it comes to be with the power of technology to reshape our very biology.

It’s a philosophical novel, one where clear ideas of East vs. West play out as ideas. We see that almost bluntly in the way a pair of identical twins get split up, one growing up in lower-middle class London and the other in late 1980s Bangladesh. (In fact, the clear layer of such interrogation reminded me often of Saul Bellow – not a bad author to be compared to, but it did sometimes make me feel as if the characters themselves were secondary to the underlying argument. I felt sometimes as if they behaved in order to further the experiment of the characters’ lives rather than as figures growing out of an organic identity.)

And, most evidently, it’s a post-colonial novel, one that interrogates what it means to be a British citizen at the dawn of the 21st Century when someone is as likely to be of Indian or African descent as to boast a posh pedigree. That’s what put it on the map and established Smith as not merely a world novelist but also a prominent public intellectual.

Across those lines, it’s clear that this is often masterfully written. Smith is as insightful here (the first of her novels I’ve read) as she is in her public musings. She can turn a phrase brilliantly, and often summed up difficult thoughts with what felt like a pen stroke. One example from late in the book comes when a couple working class characters acknowledge they are not OxBridge graduates. Our narrator observes (and I paraphrase) instead, they had both attended the School of Life. It’s just that they were there at different times. That particular gem, and countless others, came quickly and made it hard to reflect on. As I do, though, I see a wonderful irony. There is a certainty that comes in reflecting on one’s growth and education. There’s also a limit to it, though, and like the best philosophers, Smith has a skepticism about the unexamined life. A line like this isn’t preachy; it’s just a drive-by shot at certain kinds of self-satisfaction.

It's also clear that this is effectively plotted. As tangled as the story is – it’s three generations across three different families – everything ties together. That’s almost too much a virtue; the final scene brings almost every character we’ve met into a single conflict, and it feels almost more like the summation of an argument than the resolution of separate characters’ concerns. Still, you can’t help but admire the ambition behind it all.

The bottom line for me is that I did admire this at every turn. Any time I stopped to think about what I was reading, I had to marvel at the construction of the story and the ultimate efficiency of a narrative that sometimes seemed to proceed sideways (introducing us to major characters sometimes as late as halfway through the narrative) but that always wound up going in the direction of its overarching concerns.

I also often – but not always – enjoyed this novel. Smith writes with such cleverness, and she layers such finely woven backstories, that I often got happily lost in the proceedings. Other times, though, I had the opposite reaction: I’d be aware of how she’d arranged contrasts – at the way the separated twins balanced each other, at the way the early story of Archie and Samahd’s encounter with a Nazi eugenicist spoke to the later story of Marcus’s gene manipulation of a “Future Mouse,” or at the way our immigrant characters valorized a Britishness our British-born characters had lost sight of – and I’d feel a bit manipulated. In other words, the plan of the novel is so remarkable, that sometimes I found myself remarking on it rather than reacting to what I felt was the emotional heart of the piece.

That secondary, more clinical feel came often enough for me to wish myself finished with the novel more quickly than I was, but it never tempted me to put it down. Instead, I found this worked best for me when I allowed myself leisure to work through it. It functions so well as a novel of concepts that, if I did get distracted by its ideas, I could just let it all breathe. When I’d find my way back into it, Smith’s terrific prose and her vast field for exploring ideas would gradually pull me back in. And then I wasn’t merely processing but also enjoying things again.

Smith’s been on my list for years, and I certainly want to get to the more recent novels. Something tells me she’s learned from this already impressive debut, that she’s lost the sharp focus of her inquiry in favor of letting more of her characters define their own ambitions. Even if she hasn’t, though, she must still be worth reading. For all that this is engaging on so many levels, it’s also powerful for the sense that it’s a fresh perspective asserting itself in prose. This is, not just by reputation but across page after page, the emergence of a world-class novelist. It’s always impressive and usually a deep pleasure.

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: Ice Haven

Ice Haven Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review of Daniel Clowes’s Ice Haven

This weird little book is what happens when The Family Circus collides with Crime and Punishment.

Among its assorted threads of stories, the evocation of the Leopold-Loeb murder case emerges and re-emerges as an explicit retelling and as a reworking when a child goes missing and a neighbor boy confesses to a friend that he’s killed him. It’s gruesome stuff, not for its bloodiness (there is none) but for its exploration of a universe that’s utterly indifferent to the happiness of its characters. (That changes a bit at the end, but it does so with such over-the-top irony that it feels even crueler than the earlier coldness.)

None of that content is especially new. This one comes from an era when we had a run of evil-in-the-suburbs things, whether Twin Peaks, Witches of Eastwick, or Poltergeist. It’s not that hard to think of a darkness lurking beneath our supposed safe places. The zeitgeist kind of suggested it.

What is striking here is that Clowes’s medium has to work so hard to contain the nihilism at its heart. These are illustrations that look as if they come from the sunniest corner of the Sunday comics. We see cute cherubs and benign older people. The lines are all clean, and the colors only a little washed out from a full rainbow.

When you look more closely, though, there’s something off. Sometimes it’s that a character’s eyes are too intense. Sometimes it’s that someone is too stiff, too clearly someone who doesn’t belong in a happy, unreflective world. Other times it’s a too-cramped feeling, a series of frames that, while extending the potential for illustration, give us repetition of small, unhappy illustrations.

And then there is the dialogue itself. There are so many species of unhappiness here: a suave, seasoned detective who dimly suspects his wife is sleeping with everyone in town; a loner wannabe poet who fumes at the attention given his doggerel writing neighbor; a boy in love with his new step-sister and worried over the secret he can’t tell anyone; and a pair of teenage girls aware they have more to offer than their small town can accommodate.

If few of the ingredients here are strikingly original – there is nothing, for instance, to rival the fever dream quality of Clowes’s Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron – what works is the way he pushes and eventually ironizes the medium itself. We get cameos by a comics critic who periodically tries to interpret what we’re reading. He’s in the story but not of it. He has a sense of what comics can do, and he seems aware that he is part of this comic, but he cannot abandon himself to being just a character. Like the work as a whole, he undermines his own context. He gets the penultimate word, but it’s so steeped in irony (he gives a brief bio of Clowes that may be, for all I know, entirely fabricated) that we can’t take it seriously.

This one feels slight from start to finish, but once I put it down I started to feel its uncomfortable weight. This is certainly less memorable than Velvet Glove, but it has its own way of haunting. I’m only two-fifths of the way through my new pile of Clowes (I like the way that sounds out loud), and I am happy to have more to go.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review: Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron

Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clowes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review of Daniel Clowes’s Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron

This is the first “alternative” graphic novel I ever read. It was somewhere not long after Maus, and I was just learning the possibilities of the genre. I had to buy the individual issues at an alternative comics store on the near West Side in Chicago, which meant special trips and sometimes months between issues. As it is, I’m not sure I ever read the final issue. I may not have found it in time.

The “story” doesn’t make any more sense now than it did 28 years ago. Clay is a troubled everyman who stumbles into a screening of a bizarre art sex film called “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.” Haunted by its star, he proceeds to track down the filmmakers. Along the way he gets distracted by, among other things: a dog with no orifices that lives on a daily injection of water, a clingy teenage waitress who looks like a human potato, an advertising cartoon character who may represent a decades old gnostic plot, a pipe-smoking young girl whose reveries become the stuff of snuff films, and assorted other grotesques and caricatures.

The whole thing is less a narrative than a fever dream, and I think I forgave it even back then because so much of it is haunting at the deepest and best level. It’s been a quarter century since I read this – I have the originals buried in a closet, but I just bought a lot of Clowes books and had to start with this one – and I remember a surprising quantity of it. In fact, reading it again felt a lot like that deja-vu when you think you’ve had the same dream night after night. There’s a familiarity, but a troubling familiarity. You can’t look away even though you want to. You wake from dream into new dream.

This is finally a book that delves into strangeness in a way that reminds me of some of Grant Morrison’s work. I admire that as well, but Morrison feels more like a performer, more like someone gathering a crowd to admire his strangeness with him. Clowes is even more troubling. This is not a celebration of the strange and the freakish. It isn’t a sideshow with a barker drawing a crowd. Instead it’s a troubled figure talking to himself down an alley, and our looking at him feels a bit like voyeurism. Clowes doesn’t forgive his characters the way Morrison does. He delves more deeply and darkly into them, leaving us with a universe governed by a hybrid of indifference and malice. He makes us share Clay’s guilt, makes us feel the guilty pull of the film in the experience of reading this book that shares its title.

There is nothing comforting in this except for the fact of its execution, except for the fact that it’s a finished work of art. In the early days of this graphic novel genre, Clowes had a vision for a work that would be different from anything else. I’m not sure he could get away with it today – not when the rules (and the skill of its practitioners) have hardened – but it’s every bit as striking an experience now as it was then.

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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Review: Geek Love

Geek Love Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love

For much of this weird and generally wonderful novel, I got the central conflict wrong. I thought this was – as the title and its ‘freak show’ setting imply – about accepting difference. I thought it was a provocative but ultimately conventional claim, that there’s a goodness and decency in accepting the other.

As it turns out, though, this novel more or less takes for granted that convention. Everyone accepts a fundamental notion of difference, at least everyone who comes into its orbit. The more troubling question turns out to be how one feels about physicality, about the body and flesh. And that turns out to be a more compelling conflict than a trite one between difference and ‘normalcy.’

I like almost all of this, but my favorite part is the magnificent opening sequence. We learn, seamlessly, that Al and Lil, have made the freak show, “the fabulon,” their family, and vice-versa. When hard times hit, they made the calculated decision to breed a family of midway acts. Lillian took all sorts of drugs and radioactive materials in order to alter her children, and she gives birth, in succession, to Artie the Aquaboy, a pair of conjoined twins, our narrator, Ollie, who’s an albino dwarf, and Chick, the telekinetic.

The heart of that opening sequence, though, is the great love and acceptance within the family. Al calls the children his “dreamlets,” and, despite the horror under the notion that the parents have induced birth defects, it’s a celebration of a great and physical love. (The prose description of Lillian as a young circus geek is worthy of a frame. Against my habit, I went back and re-read it just because it’s so lyrical.) These aren’t characters who are concerned about being ‘different.’ They are defiant in celebrating the wonder that they embody.

That ethos – or, if you prefer, that philosophy or that way of being – casts itself over the novel through that opening scene and through Ollie’s embrace of it. Like most of her siblings, she has inherited her father’s deep sense of wonder at the potential in human beings. It meets its opposite from two extremes.

On the one hand, Artie slowly develops a theory that ‘freakishness’ – particularly of his variety – is superior to the alternatives. His difference, his limbless aquatic muscularity, is the only kind that matters. Others should aspire to be like him. While the whole family looks down on “norms” who have no particular unusual physical characteristics, he takes it to an extreme. He cultivates insecurity in the people who come to him. He manipulates them into seeing their physical selves as a source of their unhappiness. (And, eventually, he turns to their mental selves as well.) He becomes a prophet of surgery against self. He supplants Al as head of the show, but he also supplants his philosophy of wonder with a philosophy of anti-body, of anti-flesh.

I’d spoil things to say how all that wraps up, but Artie’s philosophy meets its cousin in the person of Miss Lick, a wealthy heiress who – years later as part of a second plot woven (with some awkwardness) into the flashback portions – makes a fetish of removing or altering the birth ‘defects’ of others. She acts in the spirit of a condescending charity, but she’s motivated by a desire to make or remake others. Less like Al – who wanted to awaken dreams – and more like Artie, who wanted to impose a perverse sameness on the world, she pushes against possibility and toward the pre-fab quality of the frozen-dinner world in which she was raised as queen.

It’s only toward the end that that fundamental opposition comes into focus. Ollie, in her basic decency, loves Artie as much as he expects to be loved. She’s also drawn to Miss Lick even though she seeks her out to try to protect her daughter Miranda from her surgical predations. Even that opposition is complicated, though. Simple acceptance – as I’m tempted to characterize Al and Ollie’s perspective – does pale before Artie and Miss Lick’s calls for self-improvement. Ollie has achieved little in life, largely because she has so easily accepted the role everyone has cast for her. Artie and Miss Lick have a shared point; difference doesn’t just happen. Even the family is the product of a planned drug and radiation method. We are individual expressions of the species, but we are also the result of decisions we and others have made. It’s a complicated cycle, and there’s no clear resolution to it.

Throughout it all, the writing here shines, but I did get frustrated by some of the organization. On a page by page basis, this is a master class. More broadly, though, I wanted to see a more thoughtful braiding of the two narrative threads. We get a glimpse of the “now” of Miss Lick as soon as the second section of the novel, but we often go long stretches without returning to it. At a narrative level, the “now” passages get set up to resolve the entire story, but then they become so few and far between that they eventually fizzle. When we return to them at the end, they feel artificial. The real energy is all in the past, and it becomes hard to accept it as the end. There’s simply much less at stake in the conflict with Miss Lick; we haven’t gotten close enough to it for it to bear the weight of the conclusion.

In a similar vein, as wonderful a voice as Ollie’s is, she isn’t good at narrating change. She describes memorably and beautifully, but Dunn comes increasingly to depend on the notes of a reporter to fill in the changes in the story. It’s as if Ollie is made for us to marvel at, as if she is complete in herself. She simply doesn’t work as well at describing change.

If I squint, I can see this narrative misshapenness as reflecting the misshapenness of its characters. These are bodies that don’t fit together all that well, so why shouldn’t their story come to us in a form that rejects the organic shape of the conventional novel?

In the end, though, as much as I love the ideas and language here, that seems a too generous reaction, and I can’t quite overlook the structural issues. The arrogant inner editor in me kept wishing I could have helped put together a final draft, if I couldn’t have urged her to move a few sections around, limit some of the flashback, and expand some of the now.

I still think of this as a “five-star” novel, and I think parts of it will stick with me a long time. It’s so close to being even stronger, though, that I think I’ll recall its flaws for a good while, too. And maybe that really is part of the point.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Review: Kindred

Kindred Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did.

The premise here is fantastic, and I mean that both literally and evaluatively. On the one hand, this is clearly fantasy. It takes a contemporary woman (contemporary to the moment of its writing in 1976) and transports her back to slave times. As a Black woman, she is in the awkward position of preserving the life of the generally obnoxious plantation owner who will eventually become her great-great-great grandfather. If fantasy is typically escapist, this is an ambitious effort to engage the ever-challenging question of race in American history. If I’d read this as a book proposal, I’d be all over it. I’d pre-order it, sure I was going to get a home run read.

But, great as its conception is, this suffers from the same problem a lot of “golden age” science fiction does. It’s so in love with its own premise that its characters don’t emerge as satisfyingly formed. Dana is ever reasonable, taking her time-slipping almost for granted. She solves some of its problems in straightforward fashion, for instance tying a denim bag to her waist so that, when she is transported next, she has assorted 20th century items (aspirin or a knife) at hand. That said, she then takes the experience at face value. There are things to learn, situations to apprise, horrors to see. There is almost no real emotional grappling, though.

Take, for example, the section of the novel where her husband, Kevin, goes back in time with her. She inadvertently goes forward again, stranding him in the past. For her it’s only another day or so before she returns. For him it’s five years of his life. He’s a white man in a world where that gives him privileges, but he still has to live five years in a world that condones slavery, a world much more physically demanding than our own. When Dana does get back, she busies herself in the lives of the plantation family to which she’s tied. She tries to figure out what’s happened while she away, and she tries to put things right.

And she hardly bothers to ask after Kevin! As a sympathetic reader, I’m desperate on her behalf. She has just stranded the most important man in her life in a difficult past, but he seems an after-thought. It’s as if the bones of the story are too interesting for Butler to worry over what must surely have been the central emotional fact of Dana’s experience. Husband? Oh yeah, he’s around here somewhere, but I’m going to worry over these slaves instead.

There is also a narrative clunkiness here. The episodic nature of the story means that we never have to see how one situation develops into another. Dana is then, she’s now, and she’s then again. The opening scene recounts what will happen to her, and all we’re left to figure out is how. I might call it a [SPOILER] to suggest i that Rufus’s holding onto her arm – and causing her to have it sheared off on her return – reflects the crippling grip slavery has on our national consciousness, but I don’t have to say it. That’s a blunt claim, one she shares at the very beginning, and one so heavy-handed as to seem unartistic.

There is a lot of ambition here, and I think it might serve well to push a young adult audience into contemplating slavery in new terms. Plus, this has a solid spot in literary history. It’s a stepping stone toward stronger work that contemplates some of the same material – I’m thinking of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow or, by reputation at least, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad – and someone had to be the first to subvert sci-fi to the problem if race and history. Plus, I’ve read Butler’s later Dawn and, if I don’t quite love that, I see a more mature artist there.

So this was a place to start, and it deserves credit for that. I can overlook some of its clumsiness to the better work beyond, but I’m also less than inspired about this work on its own terms.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review: The Deep Blue Good-By

The Deep Blue Good-By The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A couple days ago I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail again. I laughed, as always, at the scene where the gang, encountering the vicious bunny guarding the final cave, tears into them. “Run away,” they shout, as the rabbit proves a menace greater than any other they’ve encountered.

In this one, the bete noire is also a rabbit. It’s what McDonald labels “rabbit culture,” his thinly veiled reference to the prevalence of what Playboy promised with its photo-shopped pictures of naked beauties whose fake willingness hides a deep need. And here as well, we see a knight overwhelmed and fleeing in terror.

On the one hand, there’s a measure of almost admirable sympathy to that view. Never mind that middle-aged Travis McGee seems always to be having to dodge the interest of such women, women who turn to him because they sense his strength and pry after it with their sexual wiles. At least (and it isn’t much) he sees beneath the veneer to a sense of the despair that mid-1960s culture represented.

Rather than see such women as fully realized humans, though, he pities them for the way they’re inclined to settle. It’s not that he envisions the lives they might have if only they valued themselves more and put themselves forward. Instead, he laments that there aren’t enough decent men to pair off with each one. It isn’t the dependence and sexualization that makes him sad. It’s that such women find themselves in a world that makes it all the harder for them to become the wives and mothers they ought to be.

The story within which that cultural sadness plays out has to do with Junior Allen, a vicious con-man lothario who imposes himself on one woman after another. He steals a fortune from a hapless family of a widow and her daughters, debases an especially lovely woman – more “lovely” than the dancers and centerfolds he also meets because of her New England breeding and family wealth – and takes up with a bunch of attractive 20 year-olds who, in McGee’s cold daylight study, have ‘flaws’ that keep them from being grade-A sex objects.

McDonald moves the mystery/pursuit forward throughout this, but there’s a clumsiness that surprises me. Secondary characters rarely have any depth to them. Many reminded me of the kinds of characters you meet in video games. They just sort of exist until the point-of-view character arrives, asks the right questions, and get the next step toward the solution.

With that, McDonald rarely goes more than 25-30 pages without moralizing about the sordid nature of the world we’ve built for them. He’s never subtle, always blunt, putting forward a pre-Reagan era cultural conservatism. As he says at one point, “Most of the wistful rabbits marry their unskilled men.” Or, soon after, “These are the slums of the heart, and bless the bunnies. This is the new Eden, and we are making no place for them.” Meanwhile, because he has pledged temporary loyalty to his upper-class client/girlfriend/pseudo-wife, he declines the chance to have sex with the girl who actually shows him the naked photos she’s had taken and sold to girly magazines – all this aboard a boat called “the playpen.”

I understand McDonald by reputation as the most prominent heir to Hammett and Chandler in the 1950s to the 1970s period. This is the second I’ve read that suggests that’s far from true. There is some skill in the way he moves the narrative forward – there’s the occasional thumb nail sketch that makes me stand up and pay attention – but there’s an equal laziness about the form, a kind of second-rate Vegas act that knows its audience knows how the show works and has showed up just because it’s what you do when you’re in Vegas.

Put that alongside the tired and condescending view of women – and the underlying sense that the real problem isn’t so much women as the sad fact that there aren’t enough Travis McGees to satisfy all of them – and this seems as much hack work as anything by Mickey Spillane.

The final scene takes the sordidness almost to a new low. [SPOILER] There, as McGee mourns the loss of the woman he might have loved, he allows himself to accept the ministrations of a less attractive, less compelling woman. She’s wrong for him – a fact we know because she disrobes at his request rather than through any particular initiative – wrong because she has the temerity to have had a child and to have gotten early middle-aged chubby. She shows him comfort, though, and he takes it just long enough to get back on his feet. If it isn’t easy to watch McGee in his condescension, it’s even worse to see him wallowing in self-pity.

Here’s a character who understands himself as heir to Chandler’s vision of a knight conducting himself as best he can in a fallen, modern world. Chandler makes the fantasy work because, judgmental as he is of the modern world, he still recognizes himself as part of it. He’s a curator of a lost code, a writer fashioning the what-could-be of today. McDonald is a heavy-handed moralizer, someone using his detective code as a tool for a sexism that, however it looked half a century ago, seems as sad and unimaginative as his own view of the then contemporary world.

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Review: Hit: 1955

Hit: 1955 Hit: 1955 by Bryce Carlson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes after you read a writer, you find yourself trying to sound just like her or him. I’ve had that with Mordecai Richler, with Kurt Vonnegut, with Wendell Berry, and probably with dozens others. You want to try to capture the prose, the rhythm of the story, and the point of the story. You want to stay yourself – you want to write from what you feel inside – but you also want to be that writer, at least for a while.

It’s not hard to see who Bryce Carlson wants to be like. This is so steeped in James Ellroy that it may be a more faithful adaptation of Ellroy’s work than the wonderful L.A. Confidential film. (That’s not to say that “more faithful” means better, just that it’s more in the thrall of Ellroy’s peculiar narrative power.) We have the familiar L.A. setting of an L.A. scrambling to fill the void left by Mickey Cohen’s arrest. We have rogue cops who recognize their responsibility to kill “bad guys” and the occasional not-so-corrupt cop who gets in their way. And we have an almost amoral consideration of what it means to grab for power in a world that grants it only reluctantly.

If you admire Ellroy’s work as much as I do, it’s generally a good thing to see someone parroting it, and Carlson does so with reasonable competence. To his credit, he doesn’t spend time justifying or explaining what his characters are doing. We’re supposed to recognize their motives and their excesses. We’re supposed to know them because, implicitly, we’re supposed to have read our Ellroy as well. This isn’t fan fiction, but it is fiction with bounded ambition. It says, “If you liked L.A. Confidential, I’ve got a good one for you.”

What separates this from simple parody, however, is that it’s an adaptation. It isn’t a novel, it’s a graphic novel, and it’s a good one. I find myself taking Carlson’s prose for granted, but that’s because he makes it look easier than I am sure it is. We get a lot of Ellroy-like dialogue, but the what’s-happening of the story has to come more subtly. (And, much as I do admire what Ellroy does, it isn’t subtle.) Carlson simply has to do more with fewer words. He isn’t stealing from Ellroy so much as – in the hip-hop sense of the term – sampling him. That is, rather than getting Ellroy’s entire song, we get enough of the familiar bits to hear it again in a new context.

And the star of that other context is Vanessa Del Rey. I could be picky and complain that some of her close-up drawings seem to dissolve into irresolution. Her faces aren’t strong, and some of her figures seem to move in unlikely ways.

But, in what becomes a generally very satisfying overall effect, she isn’t after still images. She accomplishes striking tension in almost every frame, pitting one figure against another. She does remarkable things with composition, giving us a manic feel that perfectly complements what Carlson is doing. To take the terrific cover image as an example, no one is better at cartooning the menace of a man holding a gun, and yet there stands Slater, long-armed, smoking, and alpha-male posing, as a bored Bonnie seems to wonder when he’ll tire of the tough guy act and sex her up.

Yeah, the story works, and works well, even if it’s ultimately Ellroy by the numbers. But it’s the energy of the prose and the illustrations working together that elevate this. At its best it comes awfully close to what Brubaker and Phillips are pulling off. And that is no small praise.

I understand there’s a sequel out there, Hit: 1957. It’s on my list.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Review: Black Water Rising

Black Water Rising Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s the early 1980s, and Jay Porter is in a dark place. A decade before, he was an outspoken leader in the African-American student movement. Following a betrayal and a few years in school, he’s built a new life as a lawyer and an expectant father. He’s lost the passion of his younger years, and he’s taking sleazy, two-bit cases. He thinks he knows who he is, but a part of him feels he’s let down the idealism that launched him. Then, on a boat trip in the Houston Bayou, he comes across a woman running for her life, and he’s drawn into a tangled mystery that runs far deeper than he might have guessed.

This one unfolds slowly, but that’s all right because Jay is such a compelling character and because, as you can tell from the opening pages, Locke can write. She has an eye for the telling detail, and she has a sense of how to keep a story moving. She mixes backstory with new narrative, and she adds layers both to the story and to its significance. This is a mystery, yeah, and you never quite forget it’s genre, but it’s also social commentary. This is, along with a good story, a look at the era when the fight for racial equality confronted its own adolescence. The Stokely Carmichaels of the world took matters a good distance. Locke suggests it was the Jays of the world who picked it up.

This one reminds me a bit of Walter Mosley, and that’s a compliment. The downside of genre is that it gives you too clear a roadmap of what to expect. The upside is that, given such a roadmap, it’s possible for particularly strong writers to invest it with more than just the generic material. Locke is a strong writer – however much this might slow, it never loses momentum – and she makes this mystery about something, about how to narrate the seeming break a generation ago in the story of the fight for African-American self-representation.

There’s also a dash of Chinatown in this. That is, [SPOILER] as the late parts of the novels make clear, the Houston of this era was built on the false promises of the oil industry. We see here an early glimpse of the corruption that rose to the Presidency under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. This is a condemnation of an industry – and the men running it – that’s built on exploiting the public and hiding its excesses. Like the freeway and real estate magnates of the great movie, the oil men here are all about inventing a need that they can fill in their own way and multiply their fortunes.

I’ll add my sense to the overall excellence here that Locke never settles for the easy answer. One nice way that plays out is in the depth of her characters. Everyone we meet has his or her own agenda. The people Jay encounters have their own lives. His intersects theirs for a time, then he moves on. When he meets some of the striking longshoremen, they aren’t hapless victims waiting for a lawyer hero. They’re men with real hopes and real strengths who, for a time, find common cause with Jay.

There’s always subtlety to the story, even at the end. There’s no abrupt resolution; Jay simply takes on an environmental case he’s likely to lose. Instead, the resolution is more telling. It’s about a brave man who, having been frightened into submission by the betrayal of others, rediscovers his strength. It’s nice to think that his child, born at the end, has a role model more inspiring than the frightened figure from the opening pages.

I give myself a rule that genre, unless its inventing the form, can never be higher than four stars. That’s what I’m going with here, but I’d make it 4.5 if I had the choice.

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