Friday, April 11, 2014

Come As You Are

About a Boy
by Nick Hornby
p. 1998

While staying at someone else’s house, I raided their teenage daughter’s bookshelf for something that struck my fancy and came up with Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Since I was only there for the weekend, and I’m too lazy to track the book down elsewhere, out of necessity, I read this book in a single day. I specify the ‘necessity’ because, while I liked it, it’s not exactly a book I’d describe as ‘a constant page turner.’ I could have put it down, and would have, if it had been in my possession, because the speed at which I read makes me unfit to read 300 page books in a single day, but I wanted to finish it in one go, so I did. The simplicity and flow of Hornby's language thankfully allowed me to do so.

About a Boy is my second outing with Nick Hornby. Earlier this year, the first book on my 2014 roster was his earlier novel, High Fidelity, and you can really see the similarities. One of About a Boy’s two primary protagonists, Will, might as well be the same person as High Fidelity’s Rob (both likely extensions of Hornby himself), and in fact they do exist in the same universe, as Will refers to Rob’s record shop, Championship Vinyl.

Will is a 36-year-old bachelor who is content with his freewheeling, childless, unattached ways, who decides that a great new way to meet women is to target single mothers. He does this by going to single parent groups and posing as a single father, fabricating a child and a life to go with it, in order to get closer to women. It almost works, but backfires when, instead of meeting women, Will finds himself saddled Marcus Brewer, the 12-year-old son of Fiona, a depressed single mother to whom Will is not attracted. Early in the novel, Fiona attempts to kill herself by swallowing a bunch of pills, and Will is present when Marcus stumbles upon the aftermath. While Fiona has her ups and downs, Marcus realizes he has to do a bit of growing up on his own, and sets out to hook Will up with his mother, so that she is not so alone and Marcus has a male figure in his life outside of his estranged father.

Marcus and Will’s friendship develops over much of the book, the point of view alternating between the two. Marcus continues to show up on Will’s doorstep, despite the latter’s reluctance and his mother’s downright rejection of their unusual friendship. A subplot involving Marcus’s infatuation with a teenaged punk, Ellie, who is in love with Nirvana singer, Kurt Cobain, and thinks Marcus is a funny/weird little boy, is the catalyst for the novel’s climax, colliding with Marcus’s dilemma with his mother in ways that are predictable to the reader, but not to the characters, of course.

Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, in a weird way, are an element of this novel that sort of possess it. For the reader, it sets us in a specific timeline, so I can see why references to it are left out of the 2002 movie version and this year’s 2014 TV show. To them, it would seem anachronistic and unfitting for the characters. Unfortunately, the alignment with the novel’s main events sort of guide the characters to realizations about themselves, so it’s a shame that element was lost. I guess that’s what you get when you guide a novel based on pop culture of the time; the TV version will just have to find another way to tell the story. [On an inconsequential side note, I unknowingly read this novel exactly one week before the 20 year anniversary of Cobain’s suicide.]

About a Boy is a title with more than one meaning. It’s supposedly a reference to Nirvana’s song, “About a Girl,” it’s ostensibly about a boy—Marcus—and his coming of age tale, but it’s also about the maturation of a much older ‘boy,’ Will himself, who realizes through the precocious Marcus that he has a lot of growing up to do himself. Young Marcus often seems like the smartest person in the room, as the adults he is surrounded by can’t seem to get it together. It’s a bit of a cliché, but not unwelcome. Adults and their problems must seem really incomprehensible to kids; sometimes a child’s simplicity is all we need to reevaluate our opinions.

Thanks to Marcus, what everyone comes to realize is that life is too complicated to do it alone. As a strange, friendly but bullied boy, Marcus had no choice but to fly solo his first twelve years. Will and Fiona and Ellie and the others do have a choice, but choose to alienate themselves. About a Boy teaches us that all we really need in life is a community, someone to rely on, someone to be there when someone else is not, because life will be hard, no matter how you try to insulate yourself from its troubles, but it’s a hell of a lot easier when someone’s sitting next to you.

Monday, March 31, 2014

This Story Really Has Nothing to Do With Being Irish

Dead Irish
by John Lescroart
p. 1989

Needing to take a little break from science fiction after my letdown with the Trilogy of Disappointment, I pounded out a quick murder mystery I’d had lying around for ages, Dead Irish, by John Lescroart, whose name I still can’t pronounce for the life of me. Dead Irish is a crime/thriller novel with a wide cast of characters revolving around the untimely death of young Irish Catholic Eddie Cochran, allegedly a suicide until the truth is slowly unraveled.
The central character in Dead Irish is Dismas Hardy, a former cop, former lawyer, [former everything in the way that only serialized private eyes can be], who currently works as a bartender for Eddie’s brother-in-law. Hardy only obliquely knew Eddie, but he is roped into investigating the young man’s death, for the sake of his young, pregnant wife, who would receive no benefits if her husband’s death were declared a suicide, and Eddie’s despairing family, who cannot believe their eldest son would take his own life.

I initially had no idea that Dismas Hardy was a serialized character. When I thought that the book was a one-off, I assumed that Hardy was investigating the death because he wanted to get into the pretty widow’s pants, which was a little tacky, considering she was pregnant with the dead man’s child and all, and also a good 15 years younger than Hardy. It wasn’t until I caught on that Dead Irish was just the first in many investigations of Hardy and the LA detectives that I realized his motives weren’t self-serving.

The fact that Dismas Hardy and his detective friend Abe Glitzky both recur in many other Lescroart novels also excused the lack of culmination to their individual storylines. A lot of threads were introduced and Lescroart didn’t really do justice to them all. The ending itself was terribly rushed, but in the context of what Dead Irish is—one in a series of neo-noir style thrillers starring a hardened ex-cop—I guess I can excuse the slapped-together ending.

I’m not overly fond of Hardy as a protagonist. Early on in the novel, one of his methods of information-gathering involves vaguely threatening dead Eddie’s teenage brother. It was mildly effective, sure, but the kid really had nothing to do with the murder and smacking him around while he was grieving was a bit unnerving, even if he was being a bit surly. At the end, when the real killer is outed, Hardy encourages him to kill himself instead of turning himself in, for no discernible reason... and he does, screwing over his detective friend, Glitzky, in the process. Hardy also shows up at a ton of crime scenes when I feel he probably doesn’t have any business being there, but it was the eighties, so maybe the LAPD didn’t care that some dude who was only a beat cop for half a minute twenty years ago is hanging around telling them what to do. Maybe they would care if they knew Hardy was handing out guns to murderers and telling them to take care of it themselves...

I feel like all of this is supposed to make me think of Hardy as something of a maverick, but I really just thought he was kind of a self-serving jerk and the LAPD were all idiots for not being able to do the legwork themselves.

I also guessed the killer after like thirty pages (of a 400 page book), but then I subscribe to the school of televised crime procedurals, in which it is always the last person you should suspect, and after you cycle through all the more obvious suspects, only then the truth will out, so really, the last person you should suspect is actually the first person you should suspect. It’s like, why else would they spend all that time on that seemingly inconsequential character if he didn’t do in the dead guy? It’s really the only thing that makes sense, from a storyteller’s point of view.

Read this book. Read another Lescroart book. Read any crime thriller at all, really. I’ve got a feeling there won’t be much variation, when all is said and done.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The League of Evil Should Stick to Mustache Twirling

Yay, a cover that looks NOTHING like the two before it!
The Golden City
by John Twelve Hawks
p. 2009

[There are a ton of spoilers in this review, to the extent that there was just no point in blacking them out, since the substance of this review primarily revolves around the events of the novel, so be warned.]

You can chart the evolution of the League of Evil with my reviews of:

Despite my lukewarm feelings about the first two books in John Twelve Hawks’ Fourth Realm Trilogy, I was eager to power through the final installment and find out what it all amounted to, to decide whether the story redeemed itself in its final act, to know that I hadn’t been wasting precious hours of my life investing myself in a story that goes nowhere...

... But some times, life disappoints.

I don’t know why I expected more; the complete lack of buzz surrounding this trilogy probably should have clued me in to its mediocrity. But I guess a small part of me hoped the trilogy would get better as it went along. The second book certainly hooked me better than the first, and there was a lot of potential, but in the end, the series just failed to satisfy on every level. The heroes never graduated beyond boring tropes delivering weary, wispy platitudes, the villains never emitted the remotest sense of true villainy (despite a great deal of proverbial mustache twirling), many of the plot points of the first two books (which had the potential to be interesting) are resolved with minimal payoff, if they’re resolved at all, and the whole thing ends on an open note that leaves you with far too many questions, the most important of which being WHY?

Why ANY of it?

I thought it was a great idea when Book 2, The Dark River, sent the heroes on an international romp. The first book took place entirely on the east and west coasts of the United States, the second took us abroad, to parts of Ireland, England, Italy, Ethiopia. It seemed appropriate then that The Golden City would take it one step further and spend most of the time exploring the notorious otherworldly realms [that form the whole basis for the trilogy and yet have barely been touched upon...] Twelve Hawks had made us wait long enough; it was time to figure out what the big deal was. Plus, at the end of The Dark River, our Harlequin heroine Maya had been left stranded in the first realm. Surely now was the time to reveal the secrets of the five other realms, only two of which we’d gotten a glimpse of.

Nope. Maya’s vacation was cut short without much fuss and yet we still inexplicably had to deal with some half-assed attempt at what I suppose was meant to be a PTSD storyline, wherein Maya has a hard time dealing with her experiences, withdraws, and reverts a bit back to her old stoicism. But none of that even made sense to me. Maya only went to the first realm to rescue Gabriel, who had been imprisoned and tortured there for days, if not weeks, and yet he came back relatively well-adjusted (and actually a bit 'enlightened'). Maya, on the other hand, despite being a rigidly-trained and highly capable warrior, capable of defending herself, seemed to suffer way more, for no apparent reason. And no one ever talks about their experiences nor are they relevant, so what was the point?!

Speaking of things that don’t have a point, we finally meet the fabled Corrigan patriarch and fellow Traveler, Matthew Corrigan, in what you would think would be a turning point for the series and our hero. Instead, Gabriel improbably gets over his daddy abandonment issues in about thirty seconds and Matthew dumps a lot of dimestore philosophy on Gabriel, who has already become a bit of a smug tool after play-acting at revolutionary leader for so long. After playing Yoda to Gabriel’s Luke Skywalker for awhile, Matthew promptly vanishes, never to be a plot contrivance again, and not really accomplishing anything at all. Seriously. Absolutely nothing learned in the super special sixth realm (the realm of the Gods and the 'Golden City' after which this novel is named) does anything at all to further the plot.

Also doing pointless things this time around is Gabriel’s ally, Hollis, who—in The Dark River—lost his girlfriend to an untimely, violent death at the hands of the evil Bretheren. Hollis spends almost the entire final book traveling to Japan, and leaving a few bodies in his wake, JUST to talk to the spirit of his dead girlfriend for two minutes so she can chearlead him on to giving up his vengeance and converting to Harlequinism, or whatever the fuck they call it. It was at this point that I had to refrain from chucking the book across the room and limited myself to a simple eye roll and a muttered “Are you kidding me?!” so that I could soldier on in the vain hope that the story was leading somewhere.

And then there was the bullshit non-ending, where Gabriel ‘defeats’ his brother/nemesis by... what, exactly? No, I’m seriously asking, because it’s a truly ambiguous copout defeat. Micheal Corrigan, power-hungry and a bit psychotic, confronts his brother in the Golden City and Gabriel refuses to back down but also refuses to definitively defeat his brother, leaving the pair at a stalemate in another realm. We know they aren’t dead, but we also know they probably won’t ever come back, leaving our Traveler in an eternal limbo while his friends and unborn soon-to-be-a-Traveler baby (of COURSE there was one of those in this story; had you ever any doubt?!) try to move on without him. I kept waiting for the part where it is revealed that Gabriel—who learned to Travel through legitimate and natural ways, versus his brother’s drug-induced cheatin’ ways—has the edge and lays the smackdown on Michael, but this never happened. So what was the point of all that buildup?

I could honestly go on and on; there is so much here to disappoint the reader. I could see it all coming when I got down to the last thirty pages and I realized there was no way all the open threads were going to be tied off in a satisfying way. But in spite of the torture, I had to see it through to the bitter end. I guess I could validate my reading experience by using the Fourth Realm Trilogy as an example of how not to write; it’s the best I can do to justify the time I wasted reading these books, since I certainly won’t be taking anything substantive away from the experience.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Hard-Drinking Irish Jesus

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
by Ken Kesey
p. 1962

[Aye, there be spoilers in this review. I have blacked them out accordingly and if you wish to read them, simply highlight the text.]

Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an American literary staple, but it flew under my radar until just recently. I had never read the book, seen the Broadway musical or even the notorious 1975 film version starring Jack Nicholson (though, by the description I’ve read, it sounds like a fairly accurate adaptation). It’s really been my loss all these years, because this novel is an experience that you can sink your teeth into, and it’s easy to see not only why it’s so popular but also why it is so widely banned for its controversy.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of a psychiatric ward under the strict supervision of the emasculating ‘Big Nurse’ Mildred Ratched, who comes into conflict with brash, fast-talking, hard-drinking newcomer, R.P. McMurphy, a man faking insanity to escape from the work farm he’d been sentenced  to for gambling and fighting. It is clear from the start that McMurphy is not expecting the challenge brought before him by the harsh, disapproving Nurse Ratched, but it does not deter him from his goal.

McMurphy and Ratched really possess this novel, yet it is told entirely through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a Native American man who has spent over a decade on the ward pretending to be a deaf-mute and witnessing the inner workings of ward politics firsthand. Bromden, who ruminates often on the subjugation of his father and his people as their land is slowly taken over by what he refers to as the Combine, is the only one who is allowed to see through the secret window into the person McMurphy really is. The Irish rogue is at first a curiosity to the ward’s inhabitants, then a hero as he teaches them to stand up for themselves against the Big Nurse and learn to laugh again, bringing life to the ward where before any semblance of joy or disorder was immediately silenced. What ensues is a battle of wits and willpower as McMurphy and Ratched fight for control of the ward.

It took me a while to get into this book. I found Part 1 (over 100 pages and roughly half of the novel) to be a bit dull. Apart from eliciting a few laughs here and there at McMurphy and Ratched’s posturing, not much happens aside from your typical stage-setting. It isn’t until Part 2 when McMurphy realizes the reality of his predicament—that he could be kept long past his original sentence if he continues to get on Ratched’s bad side—and scales back his antics, that the story perks up. And it isn’t until the end of Part 2, when McMurphy makes the conscious decision to say ‘to Hell with it’ and continue his crusade against the nurse’s conformity, that the character truly comes alive. That McMurphy stayed on knowing his freedom was at stake because he knew the other patients needed to see his rebellion turned the jokester into a true hero, while still making him endearingly human.

I must admit, even though I saw McMurphy’s eventual fate coming from a mile away, it was still so devastating to see him martyred like that. The entire final act of this book is just demoralizing in general. I felt terrible for all the patients and furious at Big Nurse who defied the most basic rule of healthcare provider in order to maintain her aura of power. It’s all a very potent allegory for society and the book is rich with metaphor to be picked apart. It’s a shame that the idea of a hard-drinking, womanizing rogue as a Christlike figure is so offensive that the book has been widely banned over the years, because it would make an excellent teaching subject.

I strongly encourage fans of the movie and people who’ve never experienced either book or movie to read this novel. It is surprisingly satisfying and an American classic. It’ll make you laugh and cry and all the other emotions that the ‘Big Nurse’ would rather you just keep to yourself. But that’s exactly why we need characters like McMurphy in our lives—to remind us to never take life too seriously.