Monday, July 02, 2007

"Freedomland" - Richard Price

While not a sequel to "Clockers", "Freedomland", from 1998, is set in Richard Price's fictional New Jersey cities of Dempsy and Gannon. Respectively they're stand-ins for Jersey City and Bayonne with fictional room to spare.

There's still crime and drugs on the streets around the Armstrong Projects in Dempsy and their mostly black tenants but it's not like the crack era depicted in the "Clockers". In fact it's barely alluded to in "Freedomland". In the first book, black-white interaction seemed to be limited to white cops and junkies and teenage black crack dealers. flying squads of narcotics cops are constanly storming the parks and playgrounds in "Clockers" rounding up everyone they feel like. By the era of "Freedomland" that doesn't seem to be the norm anymore. The cops, instead, now exist to establish a cordon sanitaire around the projects and keep blacks out of Gannon.

"Freedomland" opens with a wounded white woman, Brenda Martin, wondering through the Armstrong Houses and into the local emergency room where she says she's just been carjacked by a black man. Eventually she also lets the interviewing detective know her four year old son, Cody, was in the back seat of her stolen car. From the moment that information is relayed to police headquarters the two cities, white Gannon and heavily black and brown Dempsy, begin moving towards an explosion in slow motion.

The inevitable disaster, and Price makes it clear from the beginning that it is inevitable, is seen through the eyes of Det. Lorenzo Council and Jesse Haus, a reporter for the Dempsy evening paper. Council is older and black and lives for the job. His range is the Armstrong Houses and he will do whatever he needs to keep things calm, help those in need and ensure that deceny is given a chance and the tenants are treated with respect. Haus is young and white, the child of communist party parents who still live in projects because moving out when they turned black would have been a racist act in their eyes. Both are drawn to Brenda by their job and become entangled in her story.

While both Council and Haus suspect that Brenda isn't telling the whole story they and the rest of the city's law enforcement apparatus and regional media have to proceed on the information at hand. Soon there is a blockade around the Armstrong Houses, long outstanding minor warrants being enforced and violent roustings being conducted. There are no surprises in the book and I think that's one of Price's goals.

We all know that there's crime in the projects, that there are struggling working people there and that most of us (by which I mean middle class educated white folks) couldn't care less.

When a cute little white kid goes missing it's bound to be the lead news story. When a cute little black kid goes missing it's going to be on a middle page of the paper. There's just too much history to point to dismiss that. It's not the cops' fault, but it is the law enforcement hierarchy and media's fault.

We live in a country where we willingly tolerate cities becoming hollowed out shells and abandoned many of the people left there when our parents and grandparents moved to the suburbs. As long as the police kept the criminals in those cities and away from our nice streets we didn't care. When moments arises like the book's plot we want an immediate military style crackdown. At some point there are bound to be explosions.

As the truth is teased out by Council, Haus and group of semi-professional missing child finders Dempsy and Gannon's clash slowly builds from a series of skirmishes to full dress battle. Over a few days and nights years of black-white tension come to what Price portrays as foregone conclusion.

While "Clockers" raced to its end, "Freedomland" moves with at a funereal pace. The book is packed (and padded) with incident and incidental characters. There's just too much. Price's prose is soul wrenching at times but it's not enough to overcome the book's ridiculous length. When the story's come to its end there's still one hundred more pages to go. Since there's no mystery he needs to give his readers more than endless repetitions of the same points and that's what the book does.

Not since "Bleak House" have I taken this long to read a book. It's not a bad book and Price's book is about things we don't talk and scream about till something's done about them. It's about the rage and devastation that lives on the periphery of our own comfortable lives and it's a story told with appropriate rage. It just doesn't have to be so long.

"Clockers" - Robert Price

One of the authors praised by Stanley Crouch in "the Artificial White Man" for examing America and race in depth, is Richard Price. Actually, he writes about Tom Wolfe, whom he praises, giving a speech in which he extolls Price for moving into Jersey City for over a year and striving to understand the place down to its sinews and guts and then producing the novel "Clockers".

Published in 1992, "Clockers" is about race, murder and drugs in Jersey City (called Dempsy in the book) in the early nineties. We see the violence and devastation through the eyes of 19-year old, ulcer ridden dealer Strike and just shy of retirement homicide detective Rocco Klein. Both are men at their limits of mental endurance and achingly striving to understand how they managed to lose control of their lives and how can they climb out of the pits they dug themselves.

Strike and Rocco have grown up, like all of us, with strongly held notions of how the world works. For years nothing they've encountered has discouraged their prejudices. When a fast food manager is murdered and it's discovered he's dealing from the restaurant things begin spinning out of control for Strike and Rocco become obsessed to the point of possibly screwing up his looming retirement.

Strike's brother, a church-going, hard working man who always does the right thing confesses to the murder. Strike can't believe his brother did it and neither can Rocco. Strike tries to find out what happened in hopes of saving his brother. Rocco too disbelieves the confession, instead believing in Strike's guilt. As the two fight their way through the streets and bureaucracy of Dempsy to discover some sort of truth we're given a deep tour of economic despair, drug abuse, racial hatred and simple police callousness.

Price writes gorgeous prose (at time a little too so) that sounds believable even when coming from dangerous thugs. Strike's boss, the mid level dealer, Rodney Little, with dreams of legitimacy while Faginishly building new teams of juvenile dealers to move his product, is one of the most disturbing villains encountered in recent realistic fiction. Rodney's manipulation of Strike is Mephistophelean.

"Clockers" exposes the war on drugs as a failure and the urban decay that robs too many American's of any sort of hope and ultimately the rest of the country of the contributions of too many of its citizens trapped in the rotten hulks of long lost cities.

"The Thanatos Syndrome" - Walker Percy

I was looking up some background on the late historian Shelby Foote and found a lote of references to his friendship with another Southern writer, Walker Percy. From there I decided to check out Walker Percy. I found a few articles and interviews with Percy that made me want to give his books a whirl. The theme he explored until his death was the creep of relativism and how it natuarally undermines a larger, societal morality.

"The Thanatos Syndrome" takes that theme to its darkest conclusion and tries to pull it apart and expose the snake coiled around its heart. At what point does abortion lead to proactive euthanasia of the disabled and elderly? When does the belief that mankind is perfectible lead to re-education camps and ultimately the ovens?

Percy's hero Dr. Tom More, a psychiatrist recently released from prison and returned to his old home in Louisiana. Beset by family problems, diminished faith and a general seething rage at the world around him he quickly finds out things seem to be getting horribly strange in his town. People are emotionally flat but sexually aggressive. Some of the same people are suddenly possessed of great calculating ability and utter geographical recall. There are also signs of child molestation at his children's private school.

Soon More realizes that his town is the center of some sort of experiment being conducted to improve mankind. If it all recalls some seventies medical thriller (like Coma, just not as boring) that was exactly Percy's goal. He hoped he could bring the issues that moved him most by deliberately creating a blockbuster style thriller. He almost succeeded.

Parts of the book are too dry and pendantic which is a shame. Percy's ideas are important and worth examinating but a times the book just slips into a little too slow a gear. Is mankind perfectible? As a Christian I of course don't think so and that's the basis of Percy's argument. He makes a strong case for what are seemingly logical outcomes from the dismissal of any sort of greater morality from human interaction. What happens when man takes it on himself to try to reform man? What doors are opened and how dark a place do they lead to?

Maybe a non-fiction work would have been bettered suited to Percy's examination of the questions he wanted raised. Unfortunately he tried to write a thriller and his skill just didn't meet the task he set himself. The action sequences are sloppy and confusing. The dialogue is too long and drawn out to be part of a potboiler and is overwritten for where it's placed.

I haven't read anything else by Percy yet but I suspect that the thriller just wasn't something he'd schooled himself in well enough to actually write a really good one. I've got some of his other books and "The Moviegoer" is always showing up on lists as one of the most important American books of the last century so I sort of feel obligated to give it a try someday.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

"The Artificial White Man" - Stanley Crouch

"The Artificial White Man" is Stanley Crouch's most recent collection of essays on all things American, artistic and political. Crouch is a curmudgeonly New York writer that I first encountered twenty years ago in his arts writing for the Village Voice. I'd never read anyone who combined indignation, rage and what seemed like a heavy dose of common sense before. My own views were only starting to coalesce into traditional conservatism I tend to favor these days and finding a liberal who wasn't simply vomiting up the standard liberal lines on the arts and culture was enlightening.

I admit I also loved his thick style awash in seemingly endless trains of adjectives. Again, I'd never read a style like Crouch's up till then. I even got a subscription to the New Republic because he was listed as an associate editor at the time. Unfortunately he never wrote a piece for it during the years I got it.

Over the years as my reading scope widened I saw the verbal bloat that Crouch suffers from. I also realized that too often his essays are limited by his pugnacity and strong prejudices. I still enojyed his newspaper columns but I didn't buy his novel when it came out.

So why did I buy "The Artificial White Man"? I've come to the conclusion that I love essays. I like their succinctness and tight focus. Too much non-fiction I encounter is crushed down with minutiae that I don't care about and I can barely imagine the authors even have regards for.

I started reading the Atlantic Monthly because it features some of the best non-fiction writing I'm aware of. People like Christopher Hitchens and Sandra Tsing Loh are regular contributors. Robert Kaplan, Mark Bowden and all sorts of amazing authors regularly write great dispatches on the wars.

That's a long way of saying I'll always grab a book of essays that looks interesting when I'm in need of something new to read. Crouch's book seemed to fit the bill.

The book is a mishmash of determinedly provacative essays on white justifications and fetishizations of black social patholgies, the unwillingness of American writers to confront race (as well as anything outside of their immediate social zone) and paeans to some artists who happen to do all the things Crouch wants them to.

Can you tell I thought the book was a little too much? I mean it only cost me about $13 (thank you little beige Barnes&Noble member card - absolutely worth the $25 per annum if you buy more than three of four books a year) and he does have an interesting take on things. Race is still the monster underpinning and undermining so much of what goes on in this country these days and we don't really discuss it.

Friday, April 27, 2007

"Hostage" - Robert Crais

I'm a pretty solid Bruce Willis fan and will check out most movies with him (okay, I will not see "Perfect Stranger") and one night I stayed up and watched "Hostage". There's not all that much to it but it's an entertaining enough hour and a half.

Sometime later Otto Penzler strongly recommended the original book and wrote pretty emphatically that its author, Robert Crais, is one of the best hard boiled writers around. So, ever the ready fool, I took Penzler's advice and rushed out and found a copy in the increasingly disorganized stacks of books at the Barrett Book Trader.

Yeah, well, I know Penzler's one of the most knowledgable fellows around when it comes to the history of crime and mystery writing. I love his weekly column in the New York City Sun and would actually pay to own them in a bound collection someday. I don't, however, think I'll fork over money for another book he pushes quite so quickly anymore.

"Hostage" is pretty much, well, it is entirely nothing special. Grizzled hostage negotiator burns out and moves out of LA and becomes the chief of a small town police force. A group of young punks invade a house and unintentionally take a mob accountant and his kids hostage (work that title). When the mob gets wind they force our hero to devise a way to get their records out of the house without any one finding out.

The book reads like a slick Hollywood treatment from the start and reeks of high concept and no originality. There isn't a character or a situation that doesn't feel old and tired. The villains might as well be twirling long mustaches. Crais needed to find a way to hide the neon "I'M THE VILLAIN" signs hanging about their necks.

No, this is not a good book for even whiling away mass transit time or laundry time or any sort of time you have to waste on potboilers. There's plenty of good crappy thrillers out there (can you say Preston and Child?) to spend money on instead of "Hostage"

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"The Grave Tattoo" - Val McDermid

Val McDermid's the author of the "Wire in the Blood" series of serial killer books that I haven't read but I have watched a lot of the BBC movies based on them. They were sort of okay. Pretty much run of the mill in these days of CSI and its tiresome ilk.

"The Grave Tattoo" chronicles the adventures of a low level Wordsworth academic searching for the connection between a two century old tattooed corpse in an English bog, Fletcher Christian of HMS Bounty fame, and William Wordsworth, long winded, now deceased, poet laureate of England.

The reviews made the book sound pretty cool, I swear it. But it wasn't. McDermid threw in so much ancilliary crap (such as a clever mixed race tough girl with a penchant for poetry, conniving gay male friends, untrustworthy ex-boyfriends and jealous brothers) that none of it really helped move the story along and kept it from ever really achieving any sort of depth. In the end it felt like a sort of politically correct Agatha Christie singleton with none of the true cleverness the old dame brought to a mystery.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"Every Secret Thing" - Laura Lippman

I was reading an article about "The Wire" and discovered that series creator David Simon's wife, Laura Lippman, was a writer of mysteries set in Baltimore. Since becoming a fanatic regarding the show and slightly addled and obssessed about all things Baltimore I decided to check her out.

I quickly learned she has a series detective character and a batch of standalone books. The latter are more concerned with the psychology of people involved in tragic, violent events. I went for one of the second group.

"Every Secret Thing" opens with two mismatched young girls who are not really friends being kicked out of a birthday party. On their way home they find a seemingly abandoned baby in a carriage. The next thing the reader knows is that the baby is dead and the girls are convicted of her death.

Seven years later the girls are released from juvenile incarceration and returned to their families in Baltimore. Soon their are new incidents involving young children being temporarily taken from their mothers. Eventually all the people involved in the past murder begin to converge around each other again.

There are the two girls, the deliberately bohemian mother of one of them, their public defender, the cop who discovered the body of the dead girl and the victim's politically connected mother and a reporter. Soon all are weaving around each other trying face the past or their inability to do so.

The book's not really a mystery. It's similar to Ruth Rendell's Barbara Vine books. Lippman's opening up the minds of two broken young women and the people who's lives they changed. There actually is a question of what really happened on that day the baby was found but it's important only as to unveil the deepest nature of the girls.

"Every Secret Thing" is a despairing book with damaged characters unable to staunch the flow from their wounds. There's nothing happy here and nothing heroic. There is a good book about wounded minds and the weight of murder and revenge.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

"The Road" - Cormac McCarthy

"The Road" is somehow Oprah's new book club selection. I'm curious how her fans will take to one of the grimmest reads I've encountered in a little while. Simply, "The Road" details the journey of a man and his son from Tennessee to the Gulf Coast in an America devastated by nuclear winter and beset by marauders, cannibals and encroaching doom.
As a genre fan by birth, I'm always wary of non-genre authors trying their hands at basic sci-fi tropes. They usually are ignorant of other work and write like they've come up with something new that says "I'm important" in loud, pretentious tones. They also always seem to insist that they're not writing science fiction (witness Margaret Atwood).
Nonetheless, something about the reviews of this book made me want to actually envision reading it one day. With its paperback release that day has come.
I tried to read McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses" some years ago and couldn't get into his style. There's limited punctuation and lots of pure dialogue. In "The Road" it served the story beautifully. It conveys the personalities of the man and boy struggling to hold onto their souls and lives as the world disintegrates around them exquisitely.
The book is filled with descriptive passages of icy beauty and black terror. I've read everything McCarthy wrote in "The Road" in other books but never with such perfect prose.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Straw Men Trilogy - Michael Marshall

The first book in Michael Marshall's Straw Men trilogy is called,aptly "The Straw Men". While never as great as I hoped it would be it's a great idea with some solid writing. Great, crazy plots, towering demonic villains and dark secrets in the background that aren't too easy to figure out are all in there.

The first book opens with a series of seemingly random acts of violence: mass murders in a fast food joint, girls abducted from the street and car crashes. We promptly meet our protagonists; a cop who retired when his own daughter was abducted several years before the novel's opening, a CIA employee who's parents die in a that car crash and LAPD detective. Within pages we are shown connections and intimations of motives linking the events and characters.

In the ancient past, all humanity was given to indulging its violent desires. There was no moral imperative to rein in such impulses. Then came the infection. Most of humanity was infected with a virus that encourage socialization, urbanization and peaceful coexistence.

The Staw Men are those who are uninfected and are manipulating world events for their own ends. What those ends are and how they'll be achieved are the mystery that occupy our heroes.

The books weave in classic conspiracy theories and urban legends as well as all the more typical serial killer trappings. Unlike most of the sub-Red Dragon crap being churned out these days, Marshall takes his plot and characters to levels of almost high camp and ultra-violence that overcome the inherent unbelievabilty of the material. Instead of suffering from trying to present essentially comic book materials seriously, "the Straw Men" revels in its pulpishness. Find these books and give 'em a whirl.

Truly heavy music

A couple of months ago in the New York Times one of the guys from Mars Volta mentioned a great new ultra heavy band from California called "Mammatus".   I tracked down the album at Vintage Vinyl and have been listening to it constantly.   It reminds me of reading Heavy Metal when I was a kid, particularly "Conquering Armies" by Dionnet and Gal.   I can picture armored men cutting through jungles in search of lost treasures to only fall short of their goals and die.   Very heavy then very spacey and then really heavy.  Cool stuff with a dragon on the cover.

So last night I finally did a little research on "All Music" (one of the 2 or 3 greatest resources on the web) for similar bands.  I found them and now I'm finding them as downloads to preview.   So far so good.

The first one I found is simply called "the Sword" and their debut album is "Age of Winters".   Where Mammatus only gives us four long songs 9one clocks in over 20 minutes), these Texicans hold the times to near radio-manageable lengths and go for more riffing and song structure than the latter's heavy, exquisite drone.

From "Age of Winters" we get a pretty Arts and Crafts maiden on the cover and songs about Norse goddesses and wolves (with howls) inside.  There's not a hint of irony or self deprecation.   These guys, like Mammatus are doing what they love without a hint of post-modern distancing involved.   I think if they even felt like they had to avoid that they would fall apart.   These albums work because they're played by utter true believers.   Definitely thunderous stuff.

There's more stuff I'm trying to find right now, particularly "High on Fire" and "Turn Me On Dead Man".   It's pleasing to learn there's a generation of people who know where to look for musical inspiration (the early 70's - Zep, Sabbath, and, well, that's sort of it.  OK, maybe a little early Floyd like "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" for the spacier bits) and then know what to do with it.   

For years I've complained about the lack of variety in music, especially heavy stuff.   I don't want another  (I really don't want any) metal/hip-hop band singing about their crappy lives.   Even when I loved hardcore I was more into the political than the personal.   I mean lyrically what's all that different from any filthy little emo-band and some modern metal act?   You don't have to sing about dragons and harpies (though I'm drooling at the thought), but c'mon.   I'm forty now and I don't really care about the misery of some teenager's problem.   SO give me my super heavy riffs and keep singing about them ruins and dragons.   I'm a happy listener for the moment.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

"The Night Gardener" - George Pelecanos

"The Night Gardener" is the latest book by George Pelecanos. I've never read him before but I'm familiar with his insanely great work on "The Wire" (the single greatest tv show I've ever seen). I'd read a couple of good review for the book so I picked up a copy.
The book opens with 3 Washington DC cops at the discovery site of the latest victim of a killer of children. The first is an older black detective who's been working to no avail on the case for several months. The other two are two fairly new white patrolmen. All are indelibly tagged by the crime which goes unsolved.
Jumping ahead 20 years events occur which lead to a reexamination of the opening scene's crime and the commission of several new crimes. The older detective is long retired and diminished by a severe stroke. One of the patrolmen was forced to resign for inappropriate behavior and now runs a small time chaffeuring business. The other patrolman is happily married detective and is primarily concerned with helping his son avoid the pitfalls of adolescence.
Pretty swiftly Pelecanos plunges his characters into the investigation of a series of murders, some seemingly related and others not. There are gangster obssessed petty criminals and one-time criminals hoping to avoid temptation and stay straight. Pelecanos' style is sharp and realistic and his cops sound and act like the ones I've known.
I'm still not sure if I really like the book. Pelecanos strives for a realistic portrayal of the lives of several cops, their associates and criminals but the book suffers from a little too much mundanity.
The serial killer plot line is great. Too often such characters are presented as super genius gamesmen. The real serial killer is usually a creepy loner who kills a handful of easy victims until their craziness leads to their capture. The weight that his crimes have burdened the three central characters with seems true and their sadness over their failure is palpable.
However, in the end there's too much going on. Pelecanos is striving to create a real police unit and its series of ongoing investigations. The problem is that none of the plotlines really are served well by what's a relatively short book (384 pp). I wanted a lot more of each bit.
When he has the luxury of hours of development as parts of an ongoing tv show that goal is attainable. Here it's a little distracting.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Anybody out there?

Just checking to see if anybody's actually out there. If you are are you reading this directly from the Ape Shall Not Kill Ape site or the main FLA site?