Monday, August 6, 2018

Ready Reader One

 Bearskin - James A. McLaughlin - Dude trying to stay under the radar for fear of a death sentence from a Mexican drug cartel takes on a new identity and a position as a gamekeeper on a federal preserve. It's ideal in that it keeps him pretty isolated from humanity, but it's also the kind of job that makes him unpopular with the local good ol' boys who regard his anti-poaching stance as some hippy bullshit. Since his predecessor in the position was horribly assaulted in the line of duty the higher ups figured putting someone of his physical build and potentially prickly demeanor on the job might send a message to the ne'er do wells prone to ne'er doing well on the protected land. When it's not describing the flora and fauna like it's a lost volume of The Lord of the Rings, Bearskin sometimes reads like a lost Elmore Leonard novel in the way the characters don't simply follow behavioral blueprints through familiar thriller territory. The wildness in the character feeling the call of the wild makes for a couple outstanding and memorable passages while a few of the boilerplate thriller bits dull the edges.

Blood Standard - Laird Barron - Pretty straight-up hardboiled fare that hits all the beats with a satisfying crunch. It's high pulp fare tempered by tone that somehow makes it feel grounded in a reality we don't quite recognize, but suspect isn't too far fetched (we get a good return on our willful suspension of disbelief). If Stephen Hunter had criminal protagonists and spent only about a third of the time he does on firearms it might feel like this (that's a healthy recommendation).

Chicago - David Mamet - Plenty of good Mametian bits here for those of us that love what he does, but I get it if anybody feels let down by the book based on expectations built by the title and cover art. It's not exactly a thrilling prohibition era gangland tale. What it is is an occasionally thrilling, often humorous and sometimes tragic collection of essays and stories delivered as anecdotes over food and drinks between the archetypes of the time - newspaper men, vice operators, semi-legit gangsters, ex-soldiers. Mamet is fascinated by hustlers, con men and survivors and the ways we accept and or bargain with corruption as a fact of life. It's talky the way you'd expect from a play write, in the way you'd be disappointed not to get from as acute an ear as Mamet's, but the story doesn't move with the pace his pulpiest movies can. Where Heist, Spartan, Ronin and The Untouchables are chock-full of great lines in service of high-octane tales this one feels more like House of Cards, The Spanish Prisoner or American Buffalo in the pace of seduction. I don't think the characters are particularly memorable, but their insights, takeaways and attitudes offer some pretty great impressions of a specific place and time and the kind of people who flourished and perished therein.

Child of God - Cormac McCarthy - Am I a bad person for thinking it was mostly pretty funny or is thinking it was mostly pretty funny just evidence that I'm a bad person?

Cotton Comes to Harlem - Chester Himes - A con man ripping off the poor black population has his haul hijacked by a larger white con operation stoking racial tensions and piling bodies up on the streets of Harlem. When the chief gives detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones a free hand to deal with the situation they turn out the pockets of the whole neighborhood in a spectacularly blunt show of force and panache. My favorite thing about Himes' Harlem cycle is the loving attention he gives to all the neighborhood characters each with carving a hard-knock life out with a little innovation and hustle. He dips from a bottomless well of colorful characters.

Country Dark - Chris Offutt - Story of a straight shooter in a crooked game told with all the laconic confidence and charm we expect of our best southern writers. The particulars of the protagonists' plight are a standout for this type of hardboiled rural fare - he and his young wife continue to have child after child afflicted with developmental abnormalities and are continually harder pressed to make the money that may keep them a nuclear family unit. The big desperate play means taking a pinch that will mean prison time for a gangster that will pay handsomely. Guess what? Everything goes smoothly and no further complications arise and the gangster honors the spirit of the bargain and all the family problems are solved by money. Or you'll have to read the book for the rest of it. Offutt's return to fiction is a welcome and it's hard to believe it's only his second published novel (he is also the author of two terrific volumes of collected short stories). He remains one of a very few writers I'll read regardless of book type - essays, memoirs, long or short-form fiction. Just keep em coming.

Edge City - Sin Soracco - An ex con working at an exotic, almost other-worldly bar in San Francisco falls in with old friends, strange benefactors and more than a few who don't want her to go straight. Pretty soon she's roped into a scheme to rip off a dangerous underworld figure and she's pretty sure everyone thinks she's expendable as soon as the job is done. So she does what any reasonable person in her predicament would do; she makes her own plans. I loved Soracco's prison novel, Low Bite, for its wild characters and anecdotal structure. The stranger the story, the more immediate and reality-rooted the whole thing seemed to me. And Edge City too is full of interesting characters driven by odd compulsions toward mostly unseemly goals, but inhabits a distinctly 'other' space - an altered or augmented reality. The prose is slightly hypnotic and we experience the atmosphere of the club - a non-stop, insistent, surreal party - as a sort of limbo where glimpses of paradise intermittently intrude on the ebbing tide carrying the human flotsam off toward an eventual port in hades.

Fatale - Jean-Patrick Manchette - A mysterious woman moves to a new town and familiarizes herself to the local citizenry, probing the secrets of the upper class for what she knows will be a terrible secret that holds the power structure together, in order to disrupt and destroy it all and make off with a fortune. All small towns are the same, but the new one may afford her the opportunity to work out a personal demon or two. The first half of this brief novel is a grotesque comedy of manners and the second half is pure carnage. A comedic meditation on revenge with especially potent imagery in its closing segments.

The Force - Don Winslow - I love dirty cop stuff more than heroic cop stuff because it always feels closer to reality. I love Winslow as a storyteller of rare gifts to tell sweeping, epic stories with immediacy and through intimate lenses. His flare for scan-able prose has never been smoother. While the prose is propulsive, it's dignified - it's not near as flamboyantly showy as he can turn out, nor is it stodgy and formal like an 'important' book can feel. Nor, I might add, is The Force 'an important book' the way The Power of the Dog and The Cartel could be considered. This one is a portrait of a highly skilled cop, a predator of predators, forced into a personal reckoning. It's big and it's grand and tragic every bit as much as it is exciting and morally chewy, but it's a top-shelf work of popular entertainment in an already familiar genre that benefits from the immersive research with credible accuracy backing up the well established short-hand of similar fare. This one's less Michael Mann professionalism than it is Sidney Lumet moral culpability, less The Wire's social realism than The Shield's pulp operatics. I loved this book.

Rocket Ryder & Little Putt-Putt Go Down Swinging - Timothy Friend - When the stars of a forgotten but not gone children's TV show find out they're about to be pulled from broadcast the titular duo consider their options and take bold action. Super brief, but popping with energy. Not a page goes by without an act of violence or perversion and that's a lot of bang for your precious reading-time buck. 

A White Arrest - Ken Bruen - First in a proposed re-read of the Brant series which I used to consider third-tier Bruen behind the Jack Taylor titles and the stand-alones. I now think of Jack Taylor as the third-tier (at least after the first 2 or 3 books) and the Brants as delivering what I really want out of KB - fast, brutal action and zippy lines about drink, drugs, music, film, literature, sex, politics and sport. This is my comfort food

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