Recent Reads Reviewed
I'm tired! Very tired! But not of using exclaimation marks! Let's talk about some books I've read recently!
The Land of Laughs, Jonathan Carroll
In a brief yet much-discussed post, I suggested that this book was "a crock". I forgot to add: "of shit". Allow me to elaborate. The story concerns one Thomas Abbey, the cynical, dilettantish son of an old Hollywood star, and his "spirited" girlfriend (she's always drunk), who are drawn together by a shared love of reclusive children's author Marshall France. For various uninteresting reasons they head off to his home town of Galen, Missouri, to research and write his biography. But what's this? The town is actually a product of France's imagination - he dreamed the fucker, from the pitbulls to the bullshit. And France's oddball daughter is using Abbey and Saxony (his pissed tart) to bring her old man back - back from the grave!
Carroll handles the set-up nicely, but when Tom and Sax get to Galen it all melts into a big greasy puddle of cliche. The fiction-merging-with-reality schtick has been done so many times that yet another go at it seems, at best, superfluous. Granted Land of Laughs was published in 1980, so predates the many subsequent variations on the theme, but even so Carroll's handling of it is disappointing. You never really get the sense that France's surreal-sounding books are coming to life. There is no dread, creeping or otherwise. Instead, dogs start talking and people start speaking in a conveniently expository manner, and before you know it you've hit the end and that's about that.
One interesting thing about Land of Laughs is that Carroll pauses to name check Borges's "The Garden of Forking Paths" even as he is delivering a half-arsed variation of its central theme. Readers are advised that ten minutes spent with the Borges is worth four hours with Carroll, if not more.
The Walkaway, Scott Phillips
By far the best book I've read in ages, The Walkaway is a prequel/sequel to Phillips's The Ice Harvest, which I haven't read but have subsequently bought. If I tell you The Walkaway is a noirish crime thriller you'll get certain ideas, and you're probably right to have them because it does embrace the genre in setting, story, and (most importantly) sleaze. But Phillips paints a big canvas (I love cross-media metaphors: I was originally going to say that "Phillips crochets a big quilt" but I decided to go all traditional). There are two intertwined stories, set thirty years apart, populated by a large, well-drawn bunch of characters, and Phillips keeps everything loose, circling a point that is perhaps not entirely satisfactory when reached, but in this novel it's not A and Z that are important, it's B through Y. (I can't believe I not only wrote, but am actually going to publish that sentence.)
In short, it's dark, witty noir, and better than anything you could write. Unless you're Scott Phillips. Of course.
Double Indemnity, James M. Cain
The Walkaway got me started on a bit of a (wait for it) crime spree, in particular Orion's excellent Crime Masterworks series. Double Indemnity is probably more famous in Billy Wilder's 1944 film incarnation, but the novel remains good fun, if by "good fun" you mean murder most foul, which you probably do, you fucking sicko. The story is seminal noir: gullible insurance agent falls for attractive woman (or femme fatale, to employ the terminology) and offs her husband, only to be double crossed, triple crossed, and so forth. We're inured to this stuff now, but Cain's plotting is so tight, and the crime and its aftermath so well described that this brief thriller was a perfectly satisfying evening read.