October 2009

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

American Psychos

We might as well enjoy the last gasp while we can. We’ve now crept into October and out here in the west, football and outdoor sports involving ice and snow and broken bones generally take precedence in autumn over literary pursuits sooner rather than later.

Thankfully, this is often when the publishers, those who haven’t hurled themselves onto the streets of Manhattan yet, drop the good stuff from their name authors. Myself, I’ve been preoccupied with nonfiction projects and trying to rub two nickels together just like everybody else. But I have time to knock over a stack or two of the month’s titles and give you the good word about some books that stab deep into the heart of this old country of ours.

God knows it doesn’t get any more old school than Sara Paretsky, who returns to form with a new V.I. Warshawski novel, Hardball, which takes on the stormy issues of race, Chicago politics, and family secrets. The author’s complex, thick-skinned private eye hasn’t appeared in so long that I had barely begun writing this persistent column when 2005’s Fire Sale was published. But it seems like the time away from V.I. (2008’s Bleeding Kansas was a non-series diversion) has done her some good, as this round seems to be Paretsky’s most personal take on her signature character so far.

As usual, the new novel kicks off with some serious messes being dropped unannounced into Vic’s life. After a bracing prison visit during which Warshawski goes toe-to-toe with Johnny Merton, an old school gangster she defended back in the bad old days, she returns to find her office trashed. The break-in necessitates a call to her cousin Petra, a newly-minted college graduate and the only other person who knew the code to the alarm, not to mention the latest missing person in V.I.’s long life. Within just a couple of chapters, Paretsky has tied in another cold case, the 1967 disappearance of Lamont Gasden, who has the slightest tangential connection to the P.I. in the first place. “If it hadn’t been for me, and some terrible luck, their lives never would have collided,” she says of the unlikely pair of missing persons.

There’s something comforting about reading an author as practiced as Paretsky, whose hero’s traditional detecting skills and world-weary voice have only matured, in real time. The author does a fine job here again of weaving a believable, cunning mystery while also revealing more about a character we know so well, particularly about the father that haunts her still, as well as integrating the author’s personal experiences with the fiery racial issues of the South Side and a thoughtful take on post-Obama relations in the city.

Her novels are talky, sure, which is to be expected from Warshawski’s first-person narratives after all this time, but they’re always nicely punctuated with just the right amount of conflict, such as the cacophonous ending to V.I.’s interrogation of a nun.

A loud bang cut her off midsentence… “A rifle report . . . an M-80?” Glass splintered and jangled, a large starfish-shaped break now in the window over the flowers. Sister Frankie sprang to her feet as a bottle filled with liquid sailed through the break, the telltale rag in its mouth.

‘Get down! Get down!’ I screamed.

She was bending down to pick up the bottle when a second bottle flew in. It hit her in the head and burst into flames. I grabbed the throw from the daybed and flung it and myself on her, wrapping her up, rolling her along the floor. I heard a third bottle land, and then screams from the street, car tires screeching, and, above it all, the hissing of fire, the snapping of flames, as fire grabbed books, bookcases, my jacket….

Chicago belongs to Sara Paretsky but the whole damn country comes under the purview of crime’s beat poet extraordinaire, James Ellroy. Naturally, the man’s name comes up from time to time during the course of my work, but I really hadn’t given him much thought in ages, either. The last time I saw him was way back in 2001, when I couldn’t quite figure out how to take a man in a pink sweater vest who launched his reading of The Cold Six Thousand with his traditional introduction, “Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick.”

How do you take anything a man says seriously after that affirmation? The trick is taking the work on its own merit, without letting yourself get distracted by the author’s premeditated public acts of self-immolation.

It’s taken me a while to learn to appreciate Ellroy’s staccato style but I have to admit it’s a surprising pleasure to reach the end of the author’s Underworld USA trilogy with his latest novel, Blood’s a Rover. Naturally, the new book is not the place to launch into the series and I have neither room nor temperament to recount the whole thing here, but suffice it to say that the series takes every paranoid suspicion you’ve ever had about modern America and blows it up. It can get weird, and The Cold Six Thousand reached the apex of Ellroy’s be-bop, rhythmic style, but the new book seems to dial it back down a bit.  But it does continue to stretch out the bleak, wicked history of the America in Ellroy’s mind, getting down with dirty ex-cops, political operatives, black militants and mob bosses, not to mention the brief but welcome return of real nut cases like Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover. It’s crazy stuff but it’s still always hard to resist the scope and language at play, like Blood’s a Rover’s typically stylistic, dichotomous introduction.

I window-peeped four years of our History. It was one long mobile stakeout and kick-the-door-in-shakedown. I had a license to steal and a ticket to ride.

I followed people. I bugged and tapped and caught big events in ellipses. I remained unknown. My surveillance links the Then to the Now in a never-before-revealed manner. I was there. My reportage is buttressed by credible hearsay and insider tattle. Massive paper trails provide verification. This book derives from stolen public files and usurped private journals. It is the sum of personal adventure and forty years of scholarship. I am a literary executor and an agent provocateur. I did what I did and saw what I saw and learned my way through the rest of the story…

Sometimes a break from a series can be not only a diversion, but a downright epiphany. That’s been my experience with the non-sequential novels of Andrew Vachss. Don’t get me wrong -- I do like a good Burke novel now and again, and last year’s series-capping novel Another Life was a sweet ending to a killer series. But somehow I’ve always found more satisfaction in the writer’s alternative work, maybe because the non-necessity of sticking to the familiar tends to lead him in interesting directions.

That was the case with The Getaway Man, the book that wound up introducing me to him back in 2003, and one that’s so unswerving and brittle that it would have made a fine addition to the pulp paperbacks of Hard Case Crime, had the line existed back then. Two Trains Running let Vachss run rampant over his own version of American history, one that’s only so disturbing and strange because unlike Ellroy, Vachss’ version of events are nearly always based in utter, unbelievable truth.

Similarly, it’s nice to see the author let loose in his latest experiment, Haiku, whose primary message takes shape not from the recesses of some high-concept inspiration but from the very real dumping of the homeless onto America’s streets in increasingly high numbers due to local budget crises.

An ensemble piece, Haiku introduces a host of fascinating characters, a loose association of homeless men who have bonded together out of necessity, struggling to survive not only the streets but their own idiosyncratic personalities. They include Michael, a former financial gambler who lost it all and lives in worship of the unattainable sure thing that will save him; Lamont, an ex-convict and sometimes street bard; Target, who can only speak in rhyming gibberish; Brewster, who sells his meds to feed his compulsion for books; and Ranger, a veteran who is “always in-country,” adapting his perceptions of the world to suit his surroundings and his sense of self.

Their unique personalities lend a terrific diversity to the book and they’re all captured in bursts of poetic, minimalist prose and profane exchanges of dialogue by Ho, an outcast sensei who is, as he explains, not what he seems.

My name is not Ho. I entered this world without a name. I had no more need of a name than I had of a title.

It was Ranger who named me. I encountered him within several weeks of beginning my walk. Typically, I would hover around the fringes of one group or another. Not seeking admission, but looking for . . . I did not know what. One night, a man walked up to a group standing around aimlessly, waiting for darkness to blanket the city before seeking places to sleep in safety. I watched as, one by one, each person within the group detached himself.

“How come you aren’t pulling out?” the man I later came to know as Ranger asked me.

“I am still trying to understand why the others departed,” I replied.

“I’m a fucking psycho,” he said, as if by way of explanation.

“Ah.”

Certainly there’s a narrative purpose behind the prose, a “Trojan Horse,” as Vachss likes to refer to his subliminal efforts -- Andrew never does anything without a reason. But it’s also elegant, and sad, and funny all at the same time, and at a sleek 211 pages, it’s a welcome addition to a chilly fall evening.

And that’s where I’ll leave you, with cynics and psychos, iconoclasts and fallen saints. If that’s not America, I don’t know what is.

Clayton Moore sides with Mark Twain when it comes to patriotism. He seeks refuge from the scoundrels at claywriting.blogspot.com.