September 2009

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Paperbacks and Fever Dreams

It's that time of year. I don't get sick very often, but when I do, the most common viruses hit me like the Black Plague. Here is where you can insert your own health care reform-slash-swine flu joke. I'm too ill to protest.

The last time this happened, a water pipe burst in my apartment just as I was falling under the weather, and I spent five days trapped in a bedroom with earsplitting blowers outside fanning the soaked carpets. The time before that was in London, when I spent nearly two months drearily staring out a grimy window overlooking Tower Bridge, praying for the strength to get back on the street.

I swear this time is worse, since it's a beautiful 80 degrees outside and this year's raging summer cold, not to mention the slight acquisition of wisdom over the years, just makes me yearn to be well enough to appreciate all the things I'm missing. Okay, it so happens that there are asphalt experts outside with jackhammers making a horrific noise, and yes, I may have spotted them through a telescopic sight, but I'm trying to be patient during this latest hurdle.

But deadlines wait for no one, and altered senses require some input with altered sensibilities. I might as well run down some titles of the moment for you, especially since other mediums aren't working at all for me. I tried to watch the latest season of Mad Men, but for all of the lovely set dressing, it's like watching a Broadway play set in the 50s, but on massive doses of Ambien.

In fact, the only thing that made any sense at all this week was an accidental viewing of Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's keen depiction of culture shock in Japan. Indie comedy/dramas like hers are a damned neat trick to get right, and they're very rarely done well on the page. Every once in a while, though, you get a batch that capture that distorted awareness that you're well outside of your comfort zone. Invariably, you'll only find them in trade paperbacks.

Mind you, that's not an insult. I love paperbacks, be they Charles Ardai's pulpy throwbacks at Hard Case Crime or Charlie Huston's wildly entertaining Hank Thompson trilogy, which started in hardback but ended in paperback, where it belonged. In this day and age of multi-format, over-marketed, field-tested novels where it takes a panel of experts to judge whether a book merits publication on the Kindle or even more rarely, a first-rate audiobook adaptation, people forget that paperback novels used to be the primary method of consumption for the ravenous public.

Not to mention the fact that they're more user-friendly. Trust me; I've just finished James Clavell's 1,300-page Shogun and if I tried to lift it over my head right now, my lungs would give out. Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games? That's a suicide manual if you try to read it when you're laid up. So let's try a few titles from the past few months that make more sense for a man in my compromised condition.

Humor helps immensely when you're trying to summon the patience to live through this, and one of the funniest titles that came across my desk this summer was Huge by James W. Fuerst, a debut novelist who channeled all of his love for pulp fiction and teenage angst into an unruly black comedy set in New Jersey in the early 1980s. Its hero is Huge, known to parents and teachers as Eugene Smalls. In his mind's eye, however, Huge is the biggest badass in the county. Early in the book, he explains the changes that came over him when he was suspended for three months and wound up having to repeat the fifth grade.

"I didn't get that at first," Huge says. "It wasn't like they enjoyed my company so much that they couldn't bear the idea of going on without me. Shit, I thought they would've been happy to get me out of their hair. That wasn't what they did, though, so I knew I had to be missing something. So I started watching people -- teachers, kids, a few of the other parents, the cleaning staff -- observing them closely, paying attention to details, trying to size them up at a glance like Sherlock Holmes, or to predict their moves two steps ahead like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, applying what I learned. Not that I gave a shit about any of them -- most of them were so dull and stupid it hurt to be in the same room with them. But I was a marked man by then, with nothing going for me and nothing to do, except to work out the bigger picture, so that's what I did."

Tidily, Fuerst doesn't burden his hero with small-town murders or other challenges that are outside of his area of expertise. Huge's stomping grounds are relevant to the times, as he leans back in the corners of arcades, watching the wildlife, waiting to make his move. His biggest case so far: accepting ten dollars to ferret out who vandalized the sign outside his grandmother's nursing home.

It's a trick that has been done before, most famously in Rian Johnson's 2005 debut film Brick, which benefited from the outstanding performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as its tough-as-nails adolescent detective. But what Huge adds to the very small canon of high school noir is a character that doesn't just play at being tough, like Brick's Brendan Frye. Huge is mean, a half-psychotic little bastard who carries (and talks to) a stuffed frog named Thrash, given to him by his first counselor after he popped a teacher in the face. Huge, like all the private dicks that inspire him, has the temper that allows him to do all the bad things he has to do to get by.

"Sure, I realized I didn't exactly fit the bill, because most people around here would tell you that I was meaner than a short-order cook and more tarnished than all the girls in Catholic school," Huge confesses as he takes the case. "So I had two strikes against me from the jump. But I had one thing in my favor: I wasn't afraid of a goddamn thing."

For all the bravado shown by the colossus Huge, an equal amount of fear drives the protagonist of our next choice. The correspondingly broken protagonist of debut novel Something's Missing isn't just afraid of conflict; he is, justifiably, afraid of getting caught. But like his literary comrade-in-arms, Lawrence Block's elusive burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, the thrill of B & E is just too much to resist.

Its author, New England schoolteacher Matthew Dicks, swears that he's not a thief himself, but his attention to detail in chronicling the rather inglorious career of professional thief Martin Railsback is certainly enough to arouse suspicion. To his credit, Dicks manages to craft a novel that swerves so far away from the traditions and clichés of the petty criminal, Martin becomes such an unusual character that he might well merit starring in an indie comedy himself.

Martin, you see, operates on a very specific set of rules, the first being, "If the missing item will be noticed, don't acquire it." In other words, this peculiar bandit doesn't make his living by theft, but theft is what allows him to live. Martin supplements a menial service job by stealing only those items that their owners, strictly middle-class targets, won't miss, such as toilet paper, toothpaste, or, at worst, jewelry long-forgotten and left to the bottom of a drawer. It's through Martin's meticulous methods -- countless hours of observation of his victims, or the painstaking tracking of household items -- that Dicks cleverly gets inside the head of his off the wall protagonist.

"Before the days of digital photography, Martin had used a pencil and notepad to keep track of the inventory in each of his clients' homes, and this system had worked well," Dicks writes. "When the idea of taking digital photos first occurred to Martin, he immediately rejected it on the grounds that he was a professional, and professionals didn't need fancy gadgets in order to be successful. Martin considered himself an old-school pro, as evidenced by his burlap sack and his cautious nature, and digital photography was anything but old school. However, after thinking about it some more (because Martin believed that professionals constantly reevaluated their decisions), he began to see the tremendous potential of digital photography for his business… With this new technology, Martin found that he was able to gather more information about his clients in far less time, and in Martin's mind, information was invaluable."

Later in the novel, Martin gets more information than he would like when he's trapped in the house with two married "clients," one of whom muses that she wishes her husband would simply buy her flowers. Martin's subsequent manipulation of the husband via anonymous note, and his resulting joy from his good deed, puts the errant thief on a path he never anticipated. It's not quite a crime novel but it is dead funny, and an interesting stand-in to the bleaker capers out there.

Of course, if Martin Railsback is the consummate professional, then the future felons at the heart of October's How to Rob an Armored Car are surely the biggest bunch of fuck-ups you'll meet this year. Director Alexander Payne might be the right vibe for Something's Missing but a screw-up like the ones at the heart of this novel surely requires someone like Sydney Lumet to capture its multifaceted idiosyncrasies.

Author Iain Levison has already delved deep into blue-collar misery with his memoir A Working Stiff's Manifesto and scraped the bottom of the criminal barrel with Since the Layoffs, which is about a laid-off tractor maker who accidentally becomes a hit man. Given the current economic "downturn" (that's political speak for disaster, by the way), his latest novel about three friends who escalate their misadventures from petty larceny to full-blown armed assault may ring a little more true than most readers might like.

Their ringleader, Mitch Alden, is a manager at a big-box store whose main priority is keeping enough weed on hand to stay baked through his shift. His amigo Kevin is a blown-out high school athlete, already armed with a criminal record, who barely makes a living as a dog-walker. Meanwhile, their dumbass friend Doug vacillates between gigs as a short-order cook and minor-league dealing in the dying Pennsylvania coal town they occupy. Before long, Mitch figures out a way to fudge the paperwork on a big-screen television, and the trio is so delighted with their big score that they start looking for other opportunities.

As it does, trouble finds them quickly. Doug sets them up with a dirty doctor, Jeffrey Billings, who uses them to unload his illegally-gotten stash of hillbilly heroin. After stealing a Ferrari, they cruise on top of the world for about six seconds before one of them manages to ask if the GPS was disabled, and the consequent mayhem leads to a ferocious crash. Worst of all is the denouement, as Mitch idly muses, "I know how we can make a million dollars in forty-five minutes."

The book is funny, but it's terribly sad, too, as Levison captures the frustration, anger and resentment that lead decent guys to a life of crime.

"Kurt Cobain was a drug addict," Mitch explains. "All the people who killed themselves when they got rich were drug addicts. Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Jim Morrison. Money doesn't buy happiness for drug addicts because they can buy so many drugs all of a sudden that they just freak out. Then rich people look at that and they say, 'Money doesn't buy happiness, fuckers. See what happened to Kurt Cobain? So stop asking for more money, 'cause it ain't gonna help.' They just use that bullshit as an excuse to not give us raises. Then they take the money and laugh on the beach in Bermuda. Dude, fuck that. If money doesn't buy happiness, why do guys guard it with guns?"

Man has a point. And on that note, I'll have to leave you. It's time for me to take more drugs.


Clayton Moore finds fever a lovely way to burn. He posts from his bedside at