Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Free Bird

Several weeks ago publisher Benjamin M. LeRoy and senior editor Alison Janssen left Bleak House Books where over the last few years they’d built the boutique press into one of the leading names for quality in literary crime fiction with authors like Craig McDonald, Anthony Neil Smith and Reed Farrell Coleman/Tony Spinosa. Their departure to start a new company, Tyrus Books, is one of great interest to HBW and we will watch closely the future of both houses. Uncage Me, an anthology of crime and transgressive fiction edited by Jen Jordan is one of the final titles to be published by Bleak House from the LeRoy/Janssen era and the second hard-edged collection from Jordan whose previous book Expletive Deleted, (originally titled Fuck Noir) offered a trip through the darker recesses of the human experience from the safety of your own cozy chair/lumpy mattress/cold toilet seat/cell block or wherever you make the time to read. The goal of UM seems to be to destroy the illusion of that safety and make you recognize your own capability to star in one of these sordid tales of abuse be it substances, spouses, society at large or that guy/gal in particular that gets under your skin for reasons you can’t quite explain. As John Connolly puts it in his introduction every story "touches upon the basic human urge to transgress, and in this you will find a certain sense of commonality, however uncomfortable it may be." Yeah, I kinda agree, though I got whiplash from the hard gear shifts in the tone of the pieces included. For instance, Scott Phillips kicks things off with another flaming bag of dog crap left on the doorstep of the Wichita tourism board in his piece Ten Gallons of Infected Saliva, or The Cuckhold Avenged - about a young, naive projectionist working at a scuzzy porno theater in Kansas. It's a dirty little chuckler and is followed by Declan Burke's solid, but somber tale of a battered woman, No Thanks, Please. There's a bit of everything here from hardboiled, (Tim Maleeny), to psycho-sexual, (Maxim Jakubowski), gonzo cubicle, (Greg Bardsley), to rural malaise, (Patrick Bagley), the underworld of fetish work, (Christa Faust) to the piece that deserves its very own classification - absurdist bucolic noirotica - The Turnip Farm by Allan Guthrie. Some of the authors, (and maybe Jen deserves some credit here) seem to have gone the extra mile in titling their pieces - Like that Japanese Chick What Broke Up Van Halen, by Stephen Blackmoore - being my favorite. Also included are stories by Steven Torres, Brian Azzarello, Gregg Hurwitz, Nick Stone, Martyn Waites, J.D. Rhoades, Simon Kernick, Victor Gischler, Stuart MacBride, Blake Crouch, Talia Berliner, Hansen and J.A. Konrath, (who edited his own pretty great anthology of hit man stories for Bleak House a few years ago - These Guns for Hire).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Slaying of a "Chinese" Rookie

Remember the good old days of video store browsing? Remember back before DVDs when every grocery store and even convenience stores had video sections? Every place had a weird ass selection of shit you'd never heard of, most of it stuff that should never have been made in the first place, but man I loved going up and down the aisles picking up every box and checking out the strange things you never heard about in the circles I traveled as a child. I grew up in a household that didn't care about film or television and exposure to them was strictly regulated, so I started from square one as a fan when I got my first video store membership. Everything was on equal ground, 'cause I just didn't know what I "should" like/see/love/avoid/hate, (I didn't see the Godfather films till I was twenty). One such grocery store visit when I was about twenty years old, I found a title called Killing of a Chinese Bookie directed by John Cassavetes, (which meant nothing to me). Basically it had a great title, so I picked it up. She-it I was floored by it. I was finding out that I was drawn to "crime" in film and literature and had started picking out some of the rhythms and themes as well as the cliches and pitfalls, but hell I had never seen anything quite like this one. Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, the owner/operator of a gentleman's club in San Fransisco. He's a Korea vet and takes a hands on approach and pride in the business he's built. His interest in his employees is good natured and his control over the place is absolute. He writes, produces and directs all the "numbers" that are performed by Mr. Sophistication, (the elegantly creepy Meade Roberts) and the girls who recite poetry, dance a bit, tell some jokes and eventually, sometimes take their tops off. One of the best scenes of the film finds Cosmo in a phone booth, at his breaking point, making desperate calls as his plan to fix everything is falling apart. While he waits on a taxi to arrive, he places a call to the club and demands to know what's happening on stage from the uninterested bar tender. "What song are they singing? What do you mean you don't know?" He proceeds to sing I Can't Give You Anything But Love into the receiver with such naked emotional investment that it defines his character. He is smooth and slick, dressed in odd colored suits with black bow ties, he seems sleazy yet holds the moral center of the film well because his smarminess is so sincere. When we first meet Cosmo, he's making the final payment on a debt and feeling on top of the world. He feels so good that he takes all the girls out on a date and they end up in a back room casino where he loses $23,000 which he doesn't have. "I pay my debts!" he tells the gangsters with a searing genuiness when they try to work out a payment plan and when the titular solution is proposed, Cosmo stands up briefly - I owe you money and that's what you'll get. But before long, he's leaned on harder and forced to go through with their suggested form of payment. What happens next, I'll leave for you to find out, but this one left me reeling all those years ago. It was shot with a hand held camera and the garish neon source lighting gives an instant immersion into the world. The acting is incredible too. Naturalistic and physical. Nobody spouts a "written" line, they talk like people talking and the fly on the wall feel of it heightens the stakes and the tension. There was talk of a Hollywood remake in the works not long ago and thank god it never happened because they would fuck it up, I guarantee. The focus would be on the mechanics of the hit, or the workings of the gangster's fiefdom. It would become a love story between Cosmo and one of the dancers, something only touched on and more powerful for its subtlety in the original. It would get into double, triple and quadruple crosses and have snappy dialogue and a snazzy soundtrack. The editing would be cool and retro, instead of intimate and ground breaking. I attended a screening of Killing of a Chinese Bookie the other night, the first time I'd watched it in its entirety in a while and it is one that I wish dearly I could go back and see again for the first time. I was hoping it would be a digital projection of the Criterion edition, but alas it was not. It was scratchy, hard to hear and dark... like drastically underlit, dark. Still loved the picture, but I'm going to have to go a while longer before seeing the Criterion edition. Can't afford that shit and there aren't video sections at the grocery stores anymore.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mr. Meeks Camus, Can You?

The opening of Jackson MeeksWhile the Devil Waits finds its nameless narrator contentedly working his spirit crushing job, tucked away in some closet/cubicle and cut off from any kind of human contact, which is just the way he likes it. Not that he hates his co-workers per se, not even that he hates humanity, but he is very, very uncomfortable around people. He is so out of touch with his own species and sends back such a foreign correspondence from his own culture that the reader begins to read puzzling clues into every mundane contact. Who are these people? What do they want from me? Why are they looking at me like that and how can I best become ignored?

His boss interrupts his solitary work and has an awkward conversation with him in which he suggests that our narrator resign his post rather than forcing the company to fire him – all that paperwork. Seems he makes his co-workers as uncomfortable as they make him. He is mortified to think he’s making anyone upset and eventually leaves his job.

He finds himself with time on his hands, a bad thing, we find out. Seems his dislike of disappointing people is strong enough to make him tag along on a fast-food restaurant robbery and y’know shoot some people.

Oops, did I say too much? Not if you know anything about this stuff and I assume you do if you’re reading While the Devil Waits. Yes, the shit goes downhill at this point and just gets STRANGER, which, come to think of it, is the name of another slim book about a social misfit who can never quite seem to find the proper emotional cue card for any occasion including killing someone. Remember that Cure song? Yes, I like The Cure. Fuck you.

What may take you by surprise is just how badly things go and just how they go badly. While the Devil Waits is a streamlined novel that reads like a modern day parallel to, or riff on, The Stranger, both chilling and dispassionately funny in it's depiction of the alienation of the protagonist as he aspires to little more than not causing anyone else any trouble.

The prison segment, (shit, there I go spoiling things again), are particularly satisfying and the final pages, riotously bleak. The climax could spark a fantastically dull debate between those among us of a literati bent, but it successfully straddles the line that New Pulp Press appears to be aiming for between "literary" and "crime" fiction. Like Nate Flexer's Disassembled Man, the goods are delivered for crime readers, but they come through the side door - there are no cool criminals here, no tough guys or crafty grifters to escape with and it's not a traditional thriller with an easily identified goal to achieve or avoid. The prose is sparse and unadorned with the type of post modern fireworks that might make a story like this one a best seller or cult sensation. And thank god. The world has enough self consciously, unreadable "writers' writers" who want to slum in a genre piece and more than enough genre hacks cranking out substance less excursions to find that ever elusive lowest common denominator.

WTDW doesn't take long to read, (it comes mercifully in at under two-hundred pages) and doesn't feel like it took long to write, (the illusion is that it rolled off the author's fingertips in one long night), but it will stay in the back of your mind long enough to make you double take that next awkward encounter you have, wonder what may be lurking beneath the over apologetic veneer of the clerk you dismiss and it will probably whet your appetite for more fiction of this sort. Fucked up.

Again, New Pulp Press is an independent start up and if you'd like to purchase their product, please do so from their website. Rumor has it they'll be launching into classic crime reprints soon. Fingers crossed.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Be Dalton

A couple of days after I selected the photo of Patrick Swayze for the Bad Mutha's Day post, I was overcome with an old, but familiar jones for something badass, something full of flavor yet devoid of taste, something I could watch with my wife. I was jonesing for Road House. How long had it been since I'd seen it? Dunno, but it was too long. Seems I watched that thing every week when I was 14/15 and it's just as awesome today, a balls-out, redneck, kung-fu flick with tits and monster trucks. My wife had never seen it, but she fell for it immediately, overwhelmed by its testosterone-fantastic fuckall spirit and muscled-up, irony-free, white-boy-zen-blues delivery. A smorgesborg of feathered hair, (on Swayze and Kelly Lynch especially - is that a wig?!?), awesome lines, ("Let's you and me get nipple to nipple." - thank you Ray Banks for highlighting that one - and "I used to fuck guys like you in prison.") and stone-washed denim chopsocky, it is the first of the Swayze cults I belong to, (see also his zen outlaw extreme sports bank robber in Point Break and motivational speaking, pleated pant wearing perv in Donnie Darko. Incidentally, Next of Kin is on my catch it again list, but the jury's still out). Aside from a stellar supporting cast including Sam Elliot and Ben Gazzara there are some intriguing musician cameos in it, Jeff Healy, John Doe and Tito Larriva make appearances and add to the atmosphere - hell, make you wanna rip the sleeves off your shirt and join in the mayhem. But I digress, this post was supposed to be a congratulatory announcement that Pete Tass was the winner of HBW's Bad Mutha's Day contest and will receive in the mail any day now, (HBW sends things econo-rate) a signed copy of Anthony Neil Smith's awesome new novel Hogdoggin'. Congratulations, Pete and look for more contests coming to HBW soon. BTW, if you're in the St. Louis area, the Webster Film Series continues its John Cassavettes series this evening with a screening of Shadows and on the 19th make sure you clear your calendar to catch Road House alum Ben Gazzara in Cassavetes' Killing of Chinese Bookie - a personal favorite, (also recently released Criterion edition that I have yet to see).

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hell of a Woman

Megan Abbott is one of the most exciting "noir" voices to emerge in the last ten years. Her quick, deft prose style slices the subject matter to the bone and evokes not only the classic themes of the genre, but the time periods themselves, (1930s, 50s, 60s and today in several of her short stories). She is a teacher and scholar of the form, and armed with an encyclopedic knowledge and incisive vision, crafts stories recalling the promise of yesterday's golden age of pulp and tomorrow's post-genre discussion of literature in the new millennium. She is the author of Die A Little, The Song is You, Queenpin and the editor of the anthology A Hell of a Woman. Her new novel Bury Me Deep is now available from Simon & Schuster.

There's a progression in your protagonists from a still somewhat timid and rather shocked Lora King denying to herself that IT is in her at the close of Die a Little to the much more forwardly ambitious and unapologetic opening of Queenpin - I want the legs. Is there any of the author in that evolution?

Probably. When I think about it, Lora and Queenpin's narrator are more alike than they might appear. They both are unreliable narrators because neither character can really admit or reckon with their own drives. As much as Queenpin's narrator feigns to lay herself bare for the reader, she chooses which cards to show and which ones to hold back. And, like Lora, there's things she doesn't want to look at about herself, so it becomes a kind of shadow dance. That self-deception is something, I realize now, I keep circling back to. It might be an abiding fascination rather than an evolution, because I can't seem to let go of it.

It's a little hard to believe there's anything subconscious about your craft after hearing you speak on film noir or reading something like The Street Was Mine or the afterward for Miami Purity. Are there other elements that take you off guard, other themes you don't recognize you return to 'till it's out there?

It's pretty buried. I always think of it like the sides of my head that never, ever talk to each other. And I'm glad they don't. The minute the analytical side touches the creative one, I feel like the writing is doomed. I really have to be at a great remove before I can look at my stuff that way, and I guess I'd rather not. I'm always surprised when people notice common threads, for instance. Craig McDonald interviewed me recently and noticed that I had these images of scars and wounds in all my books and I hadn't realized it at all. It was pretty alarming (and very astute on his part).

Which side of your brain was first attracted to the subject matter? Did you decide you wanted to study it or participate in the creation of it first?

I decided I wanted to study it before I began writing fiction, but I think that's because it had this imaginative lure to me through a longtime love, since I was a little kid, of the associated movies--1930s gangster movies and 1940s noir. They created my whole world when I was little, like comic books do for some kids. So studying them was a great excuse to sink back into that world, although for a wholly different purpose: not to lose myself to it but to analyze it, break it down to its component parts, jiggle the wiring, test the circuits, all that kind of stuff.

How about the novels, is there something specific you're going after at the start of each? Do you begin with a wire you want to jiggle?

No, quite the opposite. I start with a character and a voice and let him or her be my guide. I tend to build stories around a character that intrigues me, a voice that gets stuck in my head. Sometimes it's a real person (either someone I know or someone I read about--I read a lot of nonfiction, biographies, old newspapers and magazines), but that's just the spark you hope for, and then, if it's going to work, it transmutes into something all its own

How important is the time setting? I heard there may be a modernized film version of Die a Little.

Time setting is pretty central to me, at least when I'm getting started. I'm a lover of cultural history and popular history--the sort of secret history of the mid century, which James Ellroy has given such fresh life too. It's hard for me to imagine Die a Little set now for that reason. For me, it's quintessentially a 1950s tale--the restrictions on the women's lives seem very time-specific. That said, while I'd telescoped back in time to tell the story, the original impetus for the book was a Newsweek story I'd read about a contemporary criminal case. And, after all, the primary drivers in most crime fiction, or fiction in general, are eternal things: desire, envy, greed, loneliness.

You've written some contemporary - set shorts that keep very much with the themes of the novels set fifty years ago, usually about young and somewhat sheltered women with a taste for danger and a dark line, often sexual, that they're drawn to cross. Have sexual politics and the "restrictions on women's lives" changed too much to set a novel now?

I don't think so. It reminds me of the thing you always tell college freshman when they're writing their first essays. They (and I was no exception) always want to start with sweeping statements like, "In the 1950s, the culture repressed women" or "society oppressed women." But we are the culture. Society is made up of us. It's just the particular alchemy of the era and the forces holding the power at a given time that affect the way it gets played out (often to devastating results, of course). Whether it's 1954 or 2009, there are certain eternalities that just persist, time and again, in different forms. And I'm sure the lure of the dark side for a character will never go away, nor ever stop meaning something. As long as prohibitions exist, the desire to break them will be tantalizing. The restrictions in large part create the desire.

Is there a trajectory you have planned for your career? Is there a direction or step you want to take next?

I wish I thought things out so well, but I kinda stumble my way along. I do try to get out of my safety zone. With Bury Me Deep, my latest, I moved away from my usual mid century big-city terrain. It's set in early 1930s Phoenix, when it was still a desert town, a haven for TB victims. I was inspired by wild and woolly pre-code movies and a lot of dark 1920s fiction, and this voice emerged that felt really different to me. Now, I'm writing a contemporary novel and at first it felt terrifying, but as I get my sea legs, I'm glad I'm trying it.

How about the move away from hardcovers, it certainly didn't seem to hurt Queenpin?

Well, that's the business side of things, which I try to shove out of my head (that stuff can drive you crazy). Of course, as a fan of classic pulps, there's a lot of pleasure in being a small part of that tradition.

Speaking of the pulp tradition, how did you get paired with (artist) Richie Fahey?

Ah, the genius of my editor, Denise Roy, who got him for Die a Little and who I've been lucky enough to work with ever since. And I've had the added luck of getting to know him, too, since he lives with his family in NYC in this wonderful, fully vintage-decked-out house, Formica and tiki and, of course, Richie's wonderful artwork. You feel like you walked into 1952.

You hate to judge books by their cover, but without tossing off spoilers, he's really told the reader an awful lot about what's in store for them - set the mood - I wonder how much collaborative input you have?

They are purely a credit to Richie's talents. I only see them when they're ready to go. Getting the email with the cover image attached and opening the file to see what he's unfurled--well, that's singlehandedly been my favorite part of the publishing experience. I feel like he has this kind of special access, somehow. He enriches everything. It's like he just walks into the world of the book and emerges with this lustrous jewel that he then hands to you.

What surprises you the most about the way your work is received?

I'm having a hard time coming up with an answer here and I'm not sure why. I always think readers are so much smarter than writers. That they know more about my books than I could. Part of me really believes the book only lives in the reception of the reader. The reader creates so much of the experience from his or her own history, imagination. That's how I feel as a reader, too. When I'm working on a book, I'm just living in it. it's just everything. And when I'm done, I lose all access to it. It's sealed off. I can't even look at it. If I ever had to go back to a book of mine that had already been published and do something, re-edit, cut for a different format, I think it'd be the end of me.

Have you been approached to re-edit or translate your work to other mediums?

No, I haven't.

What about Queenpin then? First there was Policy, (a short story from the anthology Damn Near Dead, edited by Duane Swierczynski), was it always going to be a novel, or did the short story surprise you upon re-visitation?

Oh, that's true! No, I never meant for it to be a novel. That came much later. The interesting part there was how much I had to soften it to turn it into a novel. It's a kind of nasty book, to me, but the short story is much nastier. You can get away with that in a short story. In this case, the story's characters were simpler, with no history behind them, little psychology. There's just want, want, want. But that's harder to sustain in a novel. For instance, the "homme fatal," Vic, is just a thug in the story and he becomes more of a charmer (to me) in the novel. The novel's narrator is also warier of him, hipper to his game, which makes her read as smarter, so we're more patient with her. The changes were designed to make the characters worthy (hopefully) of a longer stay.

I heard Eddie Muller once define the central theme of 'noir' as 'you will destroy yourself' and I was resisting the urge to use the term "homme fatal" but now that it's out there, would you like to comment on the role sex plays in that - seems to be the catalyst for most self destruction in the genre?

I guess I see sex as less the catalyst than the device. I've come to think the real catalyst is a death drive. The two are always already twinned in noir, so it can be hard to tell which comes first. To me the standard-bearer is Double Indemnity, Walter Neff peering over the edge. The first moment of attraction to Phyllis is not when he sees her, but when he figures out she wants her husband dead. That she's murderous. You read enough of this, and you think, gosh, Freud was always right.

Given the lurid subject matter, the language in your work is very restrained. Somebody like a James Ellroy uses a lot of the appropriate slang, but his prose style is absolutely now. For your part, is it a conscious attempt to sound as if it were written during the time the stories are set in or is that just your style as a writer?

With Queenpin, I wanted to write as fully as possible in the language of the pulps. With my other books, I try to evoke the period in the dialogue, but for the rest of the prose I don't set many rules, other than avoiding big anachronisms. I basically let the main character rule the style. For Bury Me Deep, for instance, the protagonist is in this kind of emotional disarray, almost a free-fall, and so that's how the words fell.

As a story teller, is there anything you're working up to? Any passion project you've been keeping in the wings until you're "ready" to do it?

I do have a few ideas in my back pocket, but right now, I'm just working on writing a book with more than five characters. My tendency is to shrink everything down to two or three folks in a backroom. I'd like to try my hand at something with a larger canvas, one of these days. I haven't earned it yet. If I make my bones...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Copporn Flick

So many movies I'd love to get out and see but never do. The nexus of time and money just eludes me. Who are these tiny people calling me 'daddy'? But I made the time for Michael Mann's Public Enemies today. That's what we go to movies for, ladies and gents. Gorgeous picture. Not a bio-pic, not even procedural-porn, just this is what happened and then this and then this and then... No back story, no attempt to provide motivation for Dillinger or Purvis or Hoover or Frechette or Karpis or... Assumes you know the score and that's why you're watching this movie... Kinda like if the Titanic film had started when the ship struck the iceberg - none of that "here's some milquetoast caricatures you should feel for and here's why and blah blah blah" - just prison break, bank job, hideout, stakeout, shootout, getaway. Yeah, baby. Was a little surprised at the version of Pretty Boy Floyd's demise presented, but in the single scene Dillinger and Purvis share words, Public Enemy No.1 hints at a darker episode. Must get out to more pictures... BTW, Winter's Bone - the movie - finally has an IMDB page and That Evening Sun now has a trailer. Gotta find a new film to dork out about.