Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Legend in Print

This is an expanded edition of my Ransom Notes post on Craig McDonald's new one, Print the Legend.

Hector Lassiter, the fictional mid-century, pulp writer who “writes what he lives and lives what he writes” first appeared in Craig McDonald’s short story called The Last Interview. In the story, an aging, broken down Lassiter capitalizes upon an interview request to exact some personal revenge, further his own legend and extend his authorial “long game”. The series of novels that have followed do the same.
The bulk of the third book in the Lassiter series is set in 1965 and places Hector in uncomfortable proximity to the legion of vultures descended upon Ketchum Idaho to feast on the body of work left behind by Ernest Hemingway. Four years after Papa’s life ended, the dissection of it has become an obsession for scholars, critics and writers looking to glean insights, unveil theories or just soak up the tattered remnants of his spirit by walking where he walked, eating where he ate and sleeping where he slept. Operating on his own agenda, Hector swallows his contempt for the whole affair and agrees to be the keynote speaker at the conference celebrating his late best friend.
The plot centers around discovering the truth behind Hem’s last days, when friends believed him to be paranoid or deluded and he sunk into a deep and devastating depression. It goes into the practice of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover to keep America’s greatest authors and artists under constant surveillance and hypothesizes on Mary Hemingway’s practices as executor of Hem’s estate and lost writings. In one passage, McDonald gives us a missing chapter to A Moveable Feast, one portraying Hector and Hem’s relationship through Papa’s eyes. The treatment of Hem’s unfinished manuscripts is clearly a sore spot for McDonald, but he refuses to handle Hem, the man, writer or legend with kid gloves, giving the lay reader peeks into the troubled psyche of one of our greatest novelists.
Print the Legend, the change-up in his repertoire, continues McDonald’s study of history, literature and masculinity through the eyes and against the backdrop of his central character. But Lassiter is evolving under the steady hand of his creator, adding layers of dimension, contradiction and depth with each book. The non-linear arc of each story and also of each novel in the cannon serves to highlight an aspect of the character, a point in history or an attitude held by author and character alike.
Print the Legend also expands the story, stepping, for the first time, outside Hector’s point of view and into the supporting cast: a scholar and his young wife, a demonically driven FBI agent and even Papa himself. This broadening of the canvas serves to deepen the reader’s appreciation of the earlier novels and certainly of those yet to come. The events of the next, (in order, but not sequence) novel Gnashville remain veiled, but are hinted at seductively, and those inclined to re-read Head Games, (the only one narrated by Hector – thus far) and Toros & Torsos, (not to mention The Last Interview) after Print the Legend will be rewarded with a multi-layered appreciation of McDonald’s rich and intricately conceived series.
McDonald baits his books with lurid subject matter taken from the shadows of recent history, weaving together disparate strands of the 20th Century into a singular narrative unfolding to the cadence and tune of a master storyteller. In the end, the true pleasure is Hector himself, a fictional creation admirably fleshed out and filling the cracks in your memory – someone the author hopes “will seem strangely missing from the actual history books and biographies pertaining to the real events and people who populate this series.”
He does.

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