Five Off the Top
I don’t gamble, generally speaking. Oh, I’ll throw a buck down at the gas station on a lottery ticket now and then to fuel that common fantasy about leaving work behind but for the most part I’m what you’d call risk-averse. I think before I act and I shy away from activities that involve my feet being higher than my head. It’s a bit ironic for someone who used to leap at the first insane thing that anyone proposed.
“If all your friends jumped off a building, would you?”
Depends. Are my friends good-looking? Easy? Is it a tall building? Is there a vat of whiskey at the bottom? To borrow a line from Eric Burdon, I used to be an animal, but I’m all right now.
But the longer you live, the less you know, and with enlightenment comes a certain respect for the brevity of life. I spent the last few days mourning the death of Alex Chilton, the legendary singer-songwriter, primeval pop star, Alex Chilton. “They’ll get theirs and we’ll get ours,” he sings. If only it were so.
But I realized recently that I used to be a little more carefree about writing this bloody little column each month. I started writing for Bookslut more than five years ago now, when I submitted a hastily-written roundup of forthcoming books by people I dug, among them Lawrence Block, Ian Rankin, Robert B. Parker, and George Pelecanos among them. In the intervening years, I’ve talked about Pelecanos with Greek pirates on the shores of Attica, landed distinctly different interviews with Block and Rankin, and just missed Bob on his way out.
The circumstances are always different. I’ve written this column six months in advance, and I’ve written it the morning of the day it went online. I’ve crafted it in mountain hideouts, country manors, Manhattan pizza parlors and more bars and hotel rooms than I care to remember. Got better at it with practice, pushed myself, sought out the wheat among the chaff. But you get cautious after a while. You look before you leap. Sometimes you think too much when you’re carrying that much history with you.
So this month, let’s just go back to the way we used to do this dance. I’ll grab the first five books on the stack, no matter what they are, and we’ll chew through them together. We’ll start with the sublime, work our way through some outlandish, awkward moments, and end with a little treachery. It’ll be good, like a date that goes terribly wrong. You might not have a good time, but no doubt it will be a night to remember.
For one, we’ll even start with a book you can lay your hands on this month, and it’s a good one, too. A few months ago, I was asked to speak briefly with a debut novelist who makes his home in the wilds of Maine, where he edits one of the country’s best regional magazines, Down East, and turns out to have a real talent for the crime trade.
I’ve never been one for the outdoorsy sub-genre, although I certainly understand the attraction of CJ Box and his ilk. Yet somehow Paul Doiron’s debut novel The Poacher’s Son transcends its setting, lending a bleak austerity to its milieu while simultaneously infusing its main character with Steinbeckian humanity.
Game Warden Mike Bowditch, created from thin cloth but inspired by Doiron’s enterprising magazine features and his own experienced as a wilderness guide, is a fascinating, troubled character. The salt-of-the-earth officer is a twenty-four-year-old rookie with less than a year on the job, dealing with bear attacks and drunks with guns during the course of his very weird job. Then one night, Mike gets a strange phone call from his long-absent father, the rough-and-tumble Jack Bowditch, and the young game warden is forced to choose between family and duty.
“Masculinity as a concept really interests me,” Doiron says. “All boys need father figures, and Mike grew up with just this impossible contradiction of a man. Jack Bowditch is the biggest, bravest guy in every room he enters -- the war hero and the woodsman, who’s also a hard-drinking ladies’ man -- but he’s emotionally unavailable and unwilling to be a role model for his own son. So Mike has to navigate his adolescence alone, trying to learn what qualities he should aspire to, and which ones are toxic.”
The author, who devoured Sherlock Holmes as a kid and Raymond Carver and Tim O’Brian as a younger man, has managed to craft a novel that lies somewhere between the two, a crime novel that encompasses the full range of human emotion. The novel is the first in a series that will follow Mike’s emotional development as he grows to be the man he’s meant to be. It’s a fascinating character study with much promise for the future.
“In an age when more and more young people are living entirely indoors and connecting online, Mike Bowditch has made a conscious decision to forge a life for himself outdoors,” Doiron observes. “He’s not a Luddite or a hermit, but he’s suspicious that modernity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. He can be volatile and impulsive, but he’s deeply intelligent and has a strong moral center. Norman Mailer once wrote about the challenge he set for himself in trying to create a character who was braver, stronger and smarter than himself. I’ve always liked that idea, and Mike Bowditch is my attempt to win Mailer’s bet.”
Later this month, you can move from a stand-up hero to one who is, to borrow a phrase from another writer intrigued by masculinity, stronger at the broken places. This Russian detective that stars in the forthcoming Eye of the Red Tsar is one of the most volatile characters I’ve seen created in a while, and the star of a book that deserves its already blistering word-of-mouth.
Intriguingly, the book is by a pseudonymous author, Sam Eastland, whom the publishers tell us is “A British writer who lives in the United States.” As some genre observers have pointed out, that also doesn’t tell us the writer’s gender, so it could be damned near anybody. Regardless, it’s a tale flush with both character and plot, not to mention a healthy dose of real-life historical drama.
The novel opens deep in the forests of Siberia in the year 1929, where Prisoner 4745-P has been abandoned by his captors. After nearly a decade in the woods, the unshaven, half-mad detainee stalks the woods marking trees slated to be cut down, earning him the moniker, “The Man with the Bloody Hands.”
Approached by a young Commisar from Stalin’s new revolutionary government, the prisoner soon revealed as the long-exiled Detective Pekkala, an operative whose loyalties lie with Tsar Nicholas himself. Before long, the resurrected Pekkala is brought before Commander Starek, a corrupt rising star who needs Pekkala’s talents for a very special missing persons case.
“I am talking about the Romanovs,” Starek says. “The Tsar. His wife. His children. All of them.”
In order to bring himself back from the dead, Pekkala is forced to relive his first-hand memories of the fall of the Russian empire and reassume an identity he had long abandoned.
“He was his own branch,” explains Pekkala’s captor about his new dog. “The Tsar created a unique investigator, a man with absolute authority, who answered only to himself. Even the Okhrana could not question him. They called him the Eye of the Tsar and he could not be bribed, or bought or threated. It did not matter who you were, how wealthy or connected. No one stood above the Emerald Eye, not even the Tsar himself.”
Why does the stack always get weird towards the middle? I seem to have picked up some final books that don’t really fit within any one subgenre.
Last month’s winner for funniest book of the month was a killer. “The first sentence of a novel is the most important, except for maybe the last, which can stay with you after you’ve shut the book, the way the echo of a closing door follows you down the hall.” So begins the wicked literary send up that is David Gordon’s debut novel The Serialist, in which the multi-hyphenate creator takes the piss out of modern literature with verve.
The book explores the inner and outer life of one Harry Bloch (nice nod to Psycho there, David) who pours his talentless soul into grinding out those paperback novels that used to only be sold in drugstores and airports -- pulpy crime novels, vampiric gibberish, and other trashy send-ups of those books every one of you take to the beach with you. I see you there.
There’s a plot here, and it’s not bad -- Harry agrees to ghostwrite the autobiography of a serial killer, and not long after the convict’s signature style starts appearing in the murders of young women around New York. But it’s the author’s affectionate ribbing of popular tastes that makes the book sing. Not that he can’t write a gloriously creative (bizarre) passage all on his own. Here’s a bit from Bloch’s creative process.
“Heart of a failed poet, mind of an amateur detective, ass of a middle-aged hack writer -- did I really suspect her of the murders?” Gordon writes. “Ass of a detective, spleen of a poet, pituitary gland of a burned-out pulp novelist -- what I felt was the sudden abyss that opened between us, the irreducible distance between one body and another, one mind and other. Skull of a poet, wings of a detective, claws of a two-bit sci-fi novelist -- who are you when you are not with me? Sex of an angel, face of a devil, ass of a curious fourteen-year-old boy -- even if we talk all night, even if we cry, even if we sleep with our arms around each other, even if I plunge my fangs as deep into your flesh as I can, that tiny crack remains, waiting to split at any time.”
If that’s not enough weird for you, there’s always more to look forward to. Coming in May, Steven Polansky’s debut novel The Bradbury Report will have your head swimming with echoes of inception dates and tears in the rain. This futuristic thriller isn’t quite a nail-biter and not quite a whodunit, as its narrator readily admits.
“This book, if one can call it that, is not science fiction, or fantasy,” says the equally pseudonymous Raymond Bradbury. “It is, at its heart, the account, manifestly true, of a young man, and of his courage and generosity. His preternatural humanity.” Here, Bradbury is a genetically-engineered man who believes he has lived out the greater part of his life, outlived his wife, struggles with heart trouble, and has no idea of the trouble he’s about to get himself into.
In his world, a huge swatch of the United States, dubbed “The Clearances,” has been closed off to create a giant farm for human clones. While Raymond is aware of this practice, he’s not expecting a former girlfriend to show up on his doorstep with a twenty-one year old version of himself whose mind is a clean slate.
“Here’s what my group wants you to do,” she says. “They want you to meet your clone. Face to face. They want you to spend time with him. Then they want you to write about how that feels, to write about what that means. To you. To meet your clone.”
It’s a head-spinning novel that relies more on creativity than sci-fi conventions to tell its tale, and it’s worth picking up for the curiosity factor alone.
Finally, I think it’s been obvious within these pages that I have a great admiration for those writers that still take the time to craft short stories, and there’s a hell of a collection coming in June from the great Otto Penzler. Agents of Treachery pulls together fourteen short stories -- never before published, mind you, this isn’t another dusty collection of reprints by Fleming and Le Carre -- that examine the unglamorous but spellbinding world of espionage. You can dive deep into the collection yourself -- the anthology assembles such luminaries as Lee Child, who turns team dynamics on its ear in “Section 7(A) (Operational); the old school novelist and former CIA officer Charles McCarry, who gets bloody in Africa with “The End of the String”; Joseph Finder spying on the locals in “Neighbors”; and Rambo’s father David Morrell pulling nails in “The Interrogator.” But I thought it was worth briefly pulling some insights from Penzler’s thoughtful, introspective introduction.
“What often captivates the reader of this compelling fiction is not the outcome of whatever the struggle has been,” Penzler writes. “We know World War II will break out. We know de Gaulle will not be assassinated. We know Hitler will not be killed by German officers. What is terrifically engaging is watching the principal characters struggle with the moral compromises they are forced to make through fear or accommodation.”
But wait, there’s more.
“Every story you are about to read, to a greater or lesser degree, deals with these issues,” Penzler explains. “Some adopt a fundamental theology of right and wrong, home country versus enemy state, while others assume the philosophical position of much contemporary espionage fiction, filled with ambiguity and relativism. One country’s traitor is another’s hero, a duplicitous lying swine to one organization is viewed as a stalwart figure of brilliance and courage by another.”
Isn’t this what I’ve been telling you people all along? There are no good guys and bad guys. There are only people. And you’ll never be able to tell whose side they’re on.