Friday, August 28, 2015

A Few Kind Words

The world is less since the passing of Tom Piccirilli. I've not written any kind of memorial out of deference for the folks who knew him personally, but I've been emotionally affected by news of his death more than usual. I'm sure that a large part of that is due to his singular gift as a writer to convey an indelible impression of having known him through his work and the bravery as an artist to lay himself bare and be so vulnerable.

I had limited electronic contact with him and he instigated the relationship. I was kind of blown away and intimidated when he reached out to me via email asking if I would interview him on this blog as publicity for his novel Shadow Season. At the time I'd only read one of his books (The Cold Spot) and his body of work was impressive in volume and quality and I felt (accurately) that I was outmatched by the prospect of doing him justice in an interview. But he was warm and encouraging and professional enough for the both of us. Each book of his that I read retroactively intimidates me again as well as deepens my appreciation of his generosity to me.

And I know I'm not alone.

I've got a mountain of his books yet to work through, but fare like Every Shallow Cut and The Last Kind Words drive home an ideal to me for the balance of delivering genre-goods in hugely emotionally resonant work that also challenged conventions of form and commercial viability. I'm republishing the review I wrote for The Last Kind Words for another web site. If you've not read Tom or this specific book, let me encourage you to.

Terry Rand, the hero of Tom Piccirilli's embarrassingly good The Last Kind Words, is in for a rough couple of weeks. He’s come back home to see the family, roots and legacy that he’s been running away from and avoiding for five years, on the occasion of his brother’s looming execution. The Rands are thieves by vocation; safe crackers, second-story men and card cheats, respected by their community - gangsters and police alike – for their consummate professionalism. At least they were until Collie Rand went on a senseless killing spree one night.

With the execution date approaching Collie has reached out to his brother Terry to set his affairs in order (or possibly, as Terry suspects, amuse himself by messing with Terry’s mind and having him jump through a few hoops before he dies). Collie is no longer claiming one of his victims – a young girl killed that same night that he murdered the others – and Collie is convinced that the real killer is still out there and continuing to slay young women. And he wants Terry to look into it.

The Last Kind Words is a family saga, disguised as a mystery, concerned with the reparation or at least resolution of the myriad of fragmented relationships that orbit Terry like so many diving satellites. His grandfather, the family patriarch who began the tradition of naming all the male progeny after dog-types (Terrier, Collie, Grey, Shepherd etc. - reminds me of the late father in Jeff Nichols' amazing Shotgun Stories who named one set of his children Son, Boy and Kid - the sway over the direction of a child's life demonstrated in the act of naming isn't wasted on those characters or Piccirilli), is reduced now to an infantile mentality, while Terry’s father is just beginning the slow slip into senility, and the baby sister he’s never really known is getting sucked into a dead-end lifestyle. The former love that he abandoned, (but is still hung up on) has started her own family and even his condemned brother has clandestinely married an enigmatic woman during his wait on death-row – tacking her on, like an unwieldy branch, to the Rand family tree.

Terry’s angst, anger, deep sadness, general, all-purpose lost-ness and ache are on vivid display in the exposed-wiring first person narrative that drives the story. There’s a slightly uncomfortable, though undeniably quickening, sensation of being a voyeur, of treading on very private ground, that you may experience when reading certain of Piccirilli’s books. As if you’ve been asked over to the author’s home for dinner only to find yourself left alone in the house and surrounded by opened doors and yawning drawers beckoning you to poke around – or invited to observe a therapy session from behind a two-way mirror. If you’ve read last year’s most excellent and tasty noirgget - Every Shallow Cut – you’ll know what I mean, and if you pick up The Last Kind Words you’ll get a long look behind the curtain at the great and powerful Oz’s inner workings – stripped down to cranks, gears and inflatable bits.

The reader’s thrill in glimpsing the raw and unmixed psychic ingredients behind someone’s projected image and public identity is also a large part of the second-story-man’s reason to pursue his chosen career. Just ask the Rands. Only – Don’t. Because they - like a skilled author - are accomplished con-men who’ll use generous chunks of un-edited truth to sell you the big lie. The mind games involved in the most basic of familial interactions here are Olympian. Is Collie concerned with redemption? Terry thinks not. Is Terry concerned with it? Maybe. Is Terry going to let Collie play mind games because he knows Collie knows Terry knows Terry needs some answers, needs redeeming. Or is that backward?

But don’t get me wrong – this is no maudlin piece of umbilicus cartography – The Last Kind Words is a forward propulsion mystery of uncommonly immediate and relatable consequence and unbearably heightened stakes. Terry’s decision to investigate the now un-claimed victim’s murder is just as thrilling and dreadful as the investigation itself due to the masterful rendering of the characters and environment, and that is far more than we have come to expect from the writing we seek to entertain us.

The title refers to the last kind words spoken by Christ during crucifixion – they were uttered to a thief and therefore, the Rand’s reason - there is a place in paradise reserved for thieves. The Last Kind Words deserves to be considered alongside anything else, concocted for awards and groomed for adulation coming down the pike this year, for a prominent spot on your reading list. It ought to earn Piccirilli a large and main-stream audience (he’s already beloved in crime and horror circles) and a place for genre writers in literary Avalon.

.......... end reprint .........

The Last Kind Words has a sequel, The Last Whisper In the Dark and I'm very much looking forward to diving in, but have been putting it off. He was doing some of his best work at the end of his career - one of those guys like Joe R. Lansdale or Elmore Leonard who pound the keyboard for decades and keep getting sharper.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

2015 in Books

Crime Irvine Welsh - Detective Inspector Ray Lennox is taking some much needed R'n'R with his fiance far away from the damp and cold, the drug problems and burning bridges, not to mention the ghost of murdered little girl, back in Edinburgh. He's arrived in the sun-fucked, paved paradise of south Florida and it's only a matter of hours before he's ready to ditch sobriety, fidelity and all future plans. It's at his weakest moment that he encounters a scene so pathetic, so bankrupt and cliche and terrifying in the banality of its evil his rusty old gears begin to click and he finds himself the temporary guardian of a little girl whose mother is in jail and probably in deep shit with some gangsters and dirty cops. A lot more heart-on-its-sleeve than I was expecting from Welsh who's plenty capable of emotionally investing me in the pathos of horrible people, this one seems as determined as its protagonist to find some redemption in the mess out there. The expected nasty is brought (the conspiracy Lennox stumbles into is some world-class awfulness) and the satire is turned on the the broad bullseye of Americana (which is fun, sure, but such a fish-shooting proposition it takes away some of the bite), but the single bravura sequence - the night of debauchery turning to a horrifying awakening - stood out so starkly against the fine if fairly conventional thriller aspects of the book it left me wanting more like that. Maybe I'll backtrack in my Lennox stories and read Filth next.

Dogs of God - Pinckney Benedict - The lone novel from a master of stories that reads like a collection of linked shorts concentrating on a fledgling drug cartel/cult in the wilds of West Virginia armed to the teeth, built on the back of slave labor and led by a messianic figure - Appalachian Apocalypse Now ain't too far off a description. The language is beautiful, the imagery striking. The tone vacillates between wryly observational and Biblically furious and it features a large cast of characters so disparate in focus and point of view you'd be forgiven for losing their place in the tapestry before the final knot's been tied off, but holy hell the final third of this book spins so hard on the fragile axis of reality the warbling at the edges is where you see all the best shit. I'd love to see another novel from PB, but he's got three terrific collections of short fiction and I'd be damned happy to have more. 

Freight - Ed Kurtz - Down and out in Texas is as good a place as any for a crime story. Make it half a heist thriller and turn it into a road novel and a revenge tale and maybe even a redemption and add one of the many voices knocking around the cranium of Kurtz and you've got something akin to Jim Thompson or Joe Lansdale in tone and scope and filmed in wide-angle Texi-vision. Crime Factory's Single Shot line of brief, blustery, blistering criminal chronicles has a winner here. 

GBH - Ted Lewis - George is the man at the top of London's underworld, controlling all manner of illicit goods and services, but his time on top is just about up. Someone with an intimate knowledge of his business is taking too big a slice and George can't let it slide. He begins an investigation into his organization, taking it apart from the top down with a hammer and a blow torch and leaving a string of bodies and ruined testicles in his wake. The narrative is split into two time lines: The Sea - George in hiding in a rundown resort town avoiding the public eye and reflecting on the events of The Smoke - George burning through trusted associates and rival crime syndicates without pause or mercy. The callous, casual tone that depicts scenes of torture, or bizarre sexual practices and dark pornographic corners where the real money comes in is chilling and without humor, but by the book's end has a humanity to care about enough to feel the loss and horror of its descent into paranoia and insanity. I think I said it earlier - the climax melted my face off. If you're a fan of fare like The Long Good Friday or Lewis's more well known Jack's Return Home (filmed thrice as Hit Man and the title the book's recently returned to print under, Get Carter) you'd better run, don't walk to pick this one up. Also - go give this piece by Andrew Nette at The Los Angeles Review of Books about Ted Lewis a go.

Goodbye Kiss - Massimo Carlotto - Giorgio Pellegrini is an unrepentant scum bag criminal who operates by psychosis in lieu of a code. Not to say he's crazy exactly, he's just so stone cold, so ruthless, so untied to anything resembling a moral north star he judges the value of everything and everyone in the world by what it/they can do for him and oh, buddy, has he got some plans. Probably my read of the year here, kids. This is hardboiled crime fiction at its purest, most potent and most propulsive. The pace at which Carlotto churns through plot is stunning. Pelligrini stars in several mini-novels in this brief and amazing book. We get vignettes of his criminal career starting with his time as a left-wing guerilla soldier, moving on to prison, turning stool-pigeon, ex-con street thug, nightclub bouncer, pimp, heist mastermind and setting the stage for his most chilling personae - legit business man. I compared the second Pellegrini book, At the End of a Dull Day to fare like Scott Phillips's Wayne Ogden novels (notably, The Adjustment), but this one is more like an even more hardcore version of Richard Stark's Parker books. Hate to say it's out of print now - I landed a used copy - but you should seek it out if you read this blog, it's so very for you.

Love and Other Wounds - Jordan Harper -  Mad Dogs, Road Dogs and Pit Dogs fight for scraps beneath the table of the American Dream in this collection of short stories as visceral and vital as any other crime fiction you're likely to encounter between now and the rest of your life. Nobody makes me more jealous with a turn of phrase or as sexually aroused with an account of violence than Harper and if you didn't catch this one the first time around with the title American Death Songs you should fucking rectify that shit right now. Stick to your ribs crime stories with wicked sharp prose make this a must for fans of hardcore American criminal mythos.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

2015 in Crime Flicks

Blackhat Michael Mann - A cyber attack on the world's most secure... blah, I'm bored already. But it's a Mann picture - okay, I'll give it a go. Aaaand... Chris Hemsworth plays perhaps the unlikeliest hacker in cinema ever (and yeah, I saw that Sandra Bullock movie) - good hair, good skin, super fit and physically intimidating (like survives in maximum security prison just fine thank you fit and intimidating) - you get where I'm coming from, and the film already feels soooo dated with tech talk - I have no idea what they're talking about ever in any show/movie/book that involves tech talk, but every single one of 'em feels dated as soon as the scene is half way through, and it's a super dumb feeling to watch people on computers in a movie (difficult to make compelling onscreen action out of clicky-clack-scoul), and Blackhat is definitely not a 21st century equivelent of Manhunter (as it feels it wants to be) - but... it is oddly compelling. That is after the first half of the film, when it becomes a fugitive revenge adventure. The movie even pulls a sometimes-the-old-ways-are-still-the-best Skyfall-esque climax where the uber-techy adversaries settle things with a super low-fi prison-yard-tactics knife fight (here's a fucking plot hole for you - Hemsworth just stole millions of dollars and he goes to 7-11 to stock up on body armor and weaponry?). I'll give it to Mann that he drops you into situations without preamble like almost nobody else. The film still makes room for extraneous relationship stuff and dull exposition, but at least has the decency to globe trot us while doing so. Of course it looks amazing. Mann's digital film making is beautiful - even his shittiest movie (Collateral) is gorgeous to look at. And I don't think anybody does better large scale gun battles than Mann and he gives us one here that is the Best moment: shootout. Mann orchestrates large scale urban warfare masterfully - the audience understands the dynamics of the thing - the teamwork, the difference between offensive and defensive shooting, etc. I'd watch this film again just for that scene.

Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry - John Hough - Couple of cool counter-culture criminals (Peter Fonda and Adam Roarke) rip off a small town super market with a Friends of Eddie Coyle style hostage heist and a plan to lose the law in a long-distance backroads chase only they didn't count on her. Who's she? Some nutty broad who don't like getting her ego bruised any more than the hot shit asshole driver she shacked up with the night before. Turns out Mary (Susan George) is a girl with a reputation around these parts and when Larry (Fonda) tries to slip out the door in the morning without so much as a thank you maam she hijacks his heist and grinds up his getaway, insisting her way into the crew with feisty feminine malarky. The film is mostly malarky. Am I the only one who resists Peter Fonda in every role? Something I find very off-putting about his brand of counter-culture matinee idol bullshit. And George? She's pretty much acted off the screen by the dull scenery. Between them is enough chemistry to fail a remedial high school class. Plus Fonda has got some particularly harsh sounding sexually-tinged threats that I hope sounded a little more like harmless fun in the 70s that he regularly tosses at her "I'm gonna braid your tits" or "Every bone in her crotch, that's what I'm gonna break." If there's a redeeming element to the picture it's Roarke as the the stoic, damaged mechanic committed to helping Larry achieve NASCAR success and Vic Morrow as the tenacious and crotchety law man on their ass. Between the two of them they rescue chunks of the picture, but I'm pretty certain that I wasn't supposed to be rooting for the establishment here. Best moment: the final one. Though again, I'm not sure I was supposed to feel the way I did about it.

Justified Season 5 - Graham Yost - U.S. Marshall Rayaln Givens (the always welcome Timothy Olyphant) continues down his path of destruction, daring the world to do him in before he can shape it to his own purposes and this time out it's his allies nearly as much as his enemies who want him to stop. One season from endgame, I'm mildly curious where it's going. The show has a terrific cast and writing, but has never broken into my top shelf favorites category because the tone has gone for cartoonishly badass (which, hey I dig just fine) instead of emotionally potent. Still for what it chooses to be, nobody's better. The writing is sharp, the cast is more than game and the story has moved (necessarily) out of the confines of Harlan County, KY. Season 5 brings in the extended Crowe clan in its best bid to give a shit about character headed by Michael Rapaport's Daryl Crow Jr., hearted by Alicia Witt's Wendy Crowe and, reminding everybody that Mud had two terrific child performers, Jacob Lofland brings the heft I've always wanted more of from Justified. His Kendal Crowe is the emotional lynch pin that creates the most intriguing dynamics of the season between Olyphant, Witt, Rapaport and Amy Smart who plays a social worker who comes between Givens and the Crowes. Other notable season regulars include Dale Dickey, A.J. Buckley, John Kapelos, plus Jeremy Davies returns for a particularly juicy scene. Special notice too for real life siblings Wood Harris and Steve Harris who inject a much needed flavor of criminal flare and a promise of more to come next season from Mary Steenburgen. One of the strongest seasons for sure. Best moment: it's hard to top Walt Goggins smoking in a hotel room.

Kill the Messenger - Michael Cuesta - Jeremy Renner plays Gary Webb the investigative reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who pissed off some powerful folks when he published a series of articles claiming that the CIA had been funding Latin American guerilla warfare by smuggling cocaine into the US and laid at its feet complicity in the crack epidemic that ravaged urban communities in the 1980s. Webb shook things up, won a Pulitzer, scooped the competition and said bold things. He was the little guy telling the big guys what fuckers they were and then the fuckers fucked him back. The film ends with Webb disgraced and his career destroyed, and Webb's story ends in suicide, but shit... it's kind of a rush to drop a truth bomb in the elevator. The cast is solid and includes the always welcome Rosemarie DeWitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta, plus why aren't you working mores Paz Vega, Barry Pepper, Gil Bellows and a rare and appreciated narrow-side-of-the-barn turn from Oliver Platt. The drama feels familiar, but not quite rote. You'll feel the tension, but not on the level of something like Michael Mann's The Insider. The details of the story are impossible to confirm, but it's got a ring of truthiness to it and its earnestness is more than okay in the moment without tipping into heavy-handed prestige picture territory (though, that's almost assuredly what was initially intended). The film is a good companion piece to FX's The Americans, or Don Winslow's The Power of the DogBest moment: Webb visits blanca drug king Robert Patrick's pad for a formality free interview and raid.

Next of Kin - John Irvin - Heralding from the Bluegrass State Truman Gates (Patrick Swayze) is a blue collar cop made good in Chicago, respected by his peers on the force he's a rare bridge between the dispossessed from which he came and the ruling, or at least higher, classes of big city society. When his younger brother Gerald (Bill Paxton) falls victim to big city street crime, the killer almost assuredly works for the local Italian organized crime family, but proving it legally is nigh impossible. Truman works the law while his older brother Briar (Liam Neeson) works a more direct path to justice engaging in a personal war against the mob. Swayze's moment happened at perhaps the pinnacle for bad movie hair and unfortunately it's too painful a reminder for some and a huge obstacle for others to circumvent on the way to engaging honestly with his body of work, but Next of Kin holds up as a mostly affectless straight up crime story that deals with the classic themes of family and class, justice and revenge, blood and honor. Plus it's funny to watch Ben Stiller as a yuppie gangster. Best moment: Truman talks down a killer with a gun and a death wish (Ted Levine). The every-Saturday-night-the-same-old-shit quality of the attitude shared by both the cops and the populace tugs at your humanity just a little. Maybe more than just a little. And you thought David Simon invented that.

Rush - Lili Fini Zanuck - Period drama about small-town, small-time cops up against slightly out of their league criminals, willingly compromising themselves in pursuit of something pure starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and in his narc before Narc role Jason Patrick, adapted from the novel by Kim Wozencraft by none other than Pete Dexter - this should have been a walk-off homer, but turned out to be a color by numbers template for future movie cliches. Heart in the right place though and not even knowing that that fucking Eric Clapton song was lurking around an unknown corner could keep a few moments from shining. I mean, you just can't make me not enjoy JJL and Max Perlich, Sam Elliott and how about Gregg Allman? Felt more like a collection of scenes (some of them swell) than a cohesive or clear-eyed narrative - which can work fine if the the tone is nailed and the atmosphere immersive. Just didn't do it. Feels like the cast delivered... blame falls with a combination of script, direction and editing I suppose. Best moment: all the time spent at the honky tonk was fun.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Let Me Show You Some Trailers

Let Me Make You a Martyr - w/d: Corey Asraf, John Swab

The Keeping Room - d: Daniel Barber w: Julia Hart

Tangerine - d: Sean Baker w: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch

The Gift - w/d: Joel Edgerton

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dig Them Veins

There's this terrific little insight in Tony O'Neill's Black Neon where a character is trying to eke out a living by stealing books and selling them to a second hand shop. The idea is so... I dunno, romantic? Antiquated? Misguided? Doomed? He's a junkie and living mostly off the money that his trans-hooker paramour makes, but he's trying to y'know contribute. Anyhow, the bit I dug here is the advice the second hand book seller gives him when he shows up with a bunch of current best sellers and Oprah recommendations - something along the lines of 'Oh, man, don't bring me this shit, nobody buys it. Bring me the alky and junkie literature - that's what people who fucking read read.' A crude summary of a more poetically expressed sentiment, but there it is.

And reading O'Neill specifically, I'm inclined to agree. I take pure pleasure and genuine spiritual benefit from his stories that look miserable and squalid on the outside, but ultimately are about the pursuit, however mostly grossly misguided it may be, of pleasure, of connection, of transcendence. And every time I finish one of his stories I think - shit, why isn't everything like this? Had to order Black Neon from UK and I just picked up his collection of short stories, Dirty Hits, for my kindle - 'cause that's how they're available, but they're worth it, kids. Take a tip from a junkie - score this primo shit.

A few years ago I wrote a review of Sick City on another website - I'm republishing it here...
When I needed it most, Tony O’Neill’s Sick City was the right book at the right time to shake me out of my doldrums. Every page pricked and stung and teased out the next gasp, gag and guffah with a seemingly effortless prose style that turned those barbed-wire pages all by itself. It follows the criss-crossing paths of a host of scammers looking for the perfect hustle to feed their addictions be they sex, drugs or fame. Some, like Dr. Mike, seem to already have found theirs. He’s a gifted sincerity conjurer, ironically helping other addicts “recover” with his treatment center, books and television program that showcases his work with celebrity addicts. His clean-cut and healthy-living image cover something darker, surprise surprise.

Others, like Jeffery wear their addictions on their sleeves (or under them) until the bottom drops out of his prime gig when his lover and sugar-daddy Bill, a retired and wealthy ex-LAPD officer dies in his sleep. Knowing his place as a certain if secret pariah to Bill’s family, Jeffery discreetly cleans out the various drug and cash stashes around the house as well as other illicit goods and slips away without anyone knowing he ever existed. One item especially occupies his rapidly deteriorating mind – a film that Bill, in his LAPD days, discovered as a first responder to a particularly gruesome and legendary Hollywood crime. He checks into Dr. Mike’s rehab center to lay low and attempt to come up with a plan to sell the priceless piece of celluloid.

Inside the rehab center, Jeffery meets Randal a Hollywood cautionary tale. The son of a powerful and influential producer and brother to another, Randal grew up sharing family meal times with De Niros and Nicholsons. Having had a good, long look at the man behind the curtain, Randal is immune to the contact-high from celebrity that so many others he sees everyday seem to live for. His drug of choice is meth.

A circumstantial friendship begins to form between Jeffery and Randal (two junkies not in the least interested in reforming) until one day Jeffery decides to tell Randal about the film he wants to sell – an intimate film – a sex picture shot at a wild party featuring Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, Mama Cass and in her final performance, mere weeks before her murder by Charles Manson’s wacked-out family, Sharon Tate. With Randal’s show-biz connections surely they could find the right buyer, someone obscenely wealthy, a collector of celebrity and history to place alongside the gold plated toilet seat that Elvis Presley died upon or the mummified member of Napoleon Bonaparte. This is the pot of gold at the end of the decidedly dingy and tainted rainbow they’ve both been chasing.

What could go wrong?

Well, a fair amount, it turns out. Re-submerged in the flow of human detritus on the streets our favorite junkies are up against a host of possibilities for a quicker, nastier death than the ones promised by smack and speed, but they soldier on in outrageous fashion, at turns comically-inept as well as truly heroic, with only each other and their absolutely corrupted senses to rely on.

Sick City is a crime story of minor proportions, putting a human face to the eleven o'clock news flash about nameless victims of shootings in fast-food parking lots and the never recovered missing neighbors whose pathetic heap of belongings end up scavenged on the sidewalk when they're evicted in absentia. This one, friends, does not find a far-reaching conspiracy that leads to multi-national corporate corruption and government collusion. It's not a redemption story either. But it is absolutely as epic as the players involved are going to be capable of pulling off.

It's also neither a tragedy nor a scathing satire. Jeffrey and Randal, (as well as Pat, Trina, Spider and the whole fantastic cast) are so vibrantly invested in their lot, that they're almost enviable. It's the straight characters who're bored and depressed and fooling themselves. And what might look like an attack on celebrity-obsessed culture rolls about in the juicy muck of it as much as the actual characters and TV shows it's mirroring.

What it is is equal parts harrowing and hilarious and without a dishonest instinct to lead you astray. Those seeming non sequiturs where conversation cuts off plot beats are every bit as important to the book as the ultimate fate of the story's perfect maguffin - the celebrity sex film.

The quotes before the opening chapter sum it up perfectly. From Winston Churchill - Success is stumbling from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm. And Christopher Reeve - Once you choose hope, anything's possible.

Sick City is recommended for fans of Jerry Stahl, William S. Burroughs, Barry Gifford, Irvine Welsh, Charles Bukowski, Vicki Hendricks and Warren Ellis. And if it whets your appetite for further Manson reading, check out Dead Circus by John Kaye.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Writing the Sea: Narrative Music by Alex Gilly

I remember reading about a writing exercise of Raymond Chandler's - how he'd re-write stories and books that he thought were good - trying to retell them in his own voice. Somebody else I admire (I forget who) would type up favorite passages from literature just to get the rhythm of good writing down before embarking on their own. Hmmm... and David James Keaton did closed-captioning for porn, so yeah there must be something to it.

Alex Gilly has been translating best selling books for years, and, if any of that dedication to craft pays off, his debut drug-running thriller Devil's Harbor ought to be the first in a long line of titles that make him a household name among fans of hardboiled crime. When I asked him for a Narrative Music piece appropriately he chose a song about darkness on the water. Check it out and give Devil's Harbor a look at his website

Writing The Sea by Alex Gilly

Why do writers write about the sea? And what draws readers to sea stories?

One answer to the first question is literary convenience: the sea is so easy to allegorise. Jot down the first five things that the word “sea” brings to mind, and I’ll bet at least two are human emotions. Here are mine: big, beautiful, deep, dangerous, capricious.

If you’re not paying attention, storm clouds will appear every time your protagonist gets anxious; every boat journey will mirror your character’s inner journey; every mention of “the deep” will evoke the unconscious; every horizon will be a promise.

The first problem here is that the most commonly-used maritime metaphors have been dead so long, their abysmal bones were picked clean by bottom-dwellers long ago. We keep using them, though, because it takes hard work to spawn fresh images, and writers are lazy.

The other problem is that sometimes, the allegorical sea can get in the way of the real one. Sometimes, the sea is just the sea.

All this is to introduce you to a song by John Darnielle, if you don’t know it already. I’ve seen Darnielle perform four or five times with his band The Mountain Goats, and I went to hear him speak about his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. Darnielle works hard, and it shows—his images are as fresh as a fishing jerking on the line. To my ear, he’s a master.

Darnielle has a side project, a band called The Extra Lens (I have no idea what that means), that released an album a few years back called Undercard (a title I plan to steal for a future novel). The track I want to discuss here is on that album. It starts with a gentle four-note arpeggio, repeated four times, that slips over you like sunlight falling across your face while you doze in the back of a travelling car. Then Darnielle starts singing, and throughout the song his voice stays so measured and restful, he could be leading a guided meditation. Here’s the opening verse:

Sun shone down on a cloudless sea
We were out on the water, my father and me
With several friends of the family along for the ride
And out on the calm water we killed the motor and spread our nets wide

There’s no literary conceit here. Just a father and son heading out on a fishing trip. The sea is just the sea, cloudless and calm. The only oddity is the nets. It’s almost certainly a recreational-fishing trip (because they’re taking “friends of the family along for the ride”), but pretty much only commercial fishermen use nets—amateur anglers use rods and reels. I’m guessing Darnielle doesn’t do much fishing, but that doesn’t matter because his first verse does all he asks of it: it introduces us to the principle characters (father and son), gives us the setting (boat at sea), establishes the mood (calm, silent) and point of view (the son’s), and it raises a question (what will they catch?).
Here comes the chorus:

Keep your face to the wind and you’ll be fine
And wait for the faint tug on the line

Here’s the first instance of something that might be a literary device. Faint tug on the line (also the song’s title) feels like it refers to something. What?

The grammatical shifts also feel significant: the switch from declarative to imperative mood and (necessarily) from first person to second. Is the father now addressing his son, advising him how to ward off seasickness and catch fish? Or is the son remembering his father speaking to him? Is Darnielle telling us to pay attention? Are you getting impatient?

Everyone getting restless when we pulled up the net
We dropped it down on the deck. Everyone's feet got wet
And the fish that looked like monsters from way down where the water gets cold
Slid down the deck like shuffleboard coasters and made for the hold
Everyone's eyes like saucers, nobody saying a word

Were you expecting that? The net comes in and everyone—all of us—are made complicit: everyone’s feet got wet. But complicit in what? What’s in the net? Fish that look like monsters from way down where the water gets cold. Are we in allegory here? Or does Darnielle mean actual creatures drawn up from where the darkness is complete, the pressure crushing, the temperature just above zero? The realm of monsters.

The chorus is repeated once, then then final verse:

Sailed home in silence across the cold sea
Several friends of the family, my father and me
And something down below deck that we would try to forget
Shapeless and probably nameless as of yet

Darnielle tells us again who’s on the boat, emphasising it, making it important: Several friends of the family, my father and me. They’re sailing back to port, and now they have something they didn’t have on the way out. Something they would try to forget. Whatever it is—whatever his analogy is mapping—stays shapeless and probably nameless, as of yet.

Tug On The Line is a sea story. Some people go fishing, they catch something, they return to shore. Simple. So why do I find it so compelling? Why do we love sea stories?

In the hands of a good writer, the sea can be an allegory for pretty much anything that keeps you up at night. Darnielle’s written a sea story about fathers and sons, about monsters, about shared secrets, about shame. All topics I’m interested in. I also get the feeling that there’s a crime in there somewhere, not directly acknowledged.

But what makes this such a brilliant piece   is that it’s also just about the sea: cloudless, calm, cold. Darnielle recognises that the sea has the power to awe, and he knows we’re born to feel awe, so he never lets his writing get in the way of it. There’s something important at the heart of the song, but it’s ineffable, so he focuses our attention on what isn’t.

So, the action in the song is exactly what it seems to be,” he writes in his liner notes. “A man and his father go fishing, and they catch something. And then they sail back to shore as the sun is setting. Pulling into dock, the evening is quiet. All the pleasant sounds of the harbor: ropes slackening and tightening, tides causing things to knock against each other, not so hard that anything breaks or gets bruised. That sort of day in one another’s company.”

Alex Gilly is a writer and an internationally bestselling translator who was born in New York City. His published translations include the bestselling INCAS trilogy (The Light of Machu Picchu, The Puma’s Shadow, and The Gold of Cuzco) by A. B. Daniel, published by Scribner in the United States, and Thierry Cruvellier's Master of Confessions, a non-fiction account of the first of the Khmer Rouge trials in Phnom Penh. He is also the official translator for award-winning novelist Amin Maalouf’s blog. Gilly has lived in Australia, Canada, France, California, and the UK, and he currently lives in Sydney with his wife and son. He is the author of the debut thriller Devil's Harbor.