Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book: Budding Prospects

T. Coraghessan Boyle is probably my favorite living short story writer. The archetypal Boyle narrator/protagonist –- a too-intellectual sad sack, half-clinging to hippie ideals he no longer believes in or lives by, easily led around by the pecker, battered by whatever societal or natural disaster catches the author’s fancy this time -– is a surprisingly hardy fellow, a regular Buster Keaton figure. You welcome him turning up in story after story, surviving all sorts of out-there scenarios.

In the novels, though, that same character can come to seem like a bit of a straw man.

Not so in Budding Prospects, his second novel.

Lighter than anything else I’ve read by him, this is a pretty straightforward comic novel -- a marriage of the traditions of the “fuck-up” novel and the heist novel -- about a simple plan to grow and sell some marijuana in northern California.

The novel begins:

I've always been a quitter. I quit the Boy Scouts, the glee club, the marching band. Gave up my paper route, turned my back on the church, stuffed the basketball team. I dropped out of college, sidestepped the army with a 4-F on the grounds of mental instability, went back to school, made a go of it, entered a Ph.D. program in nineteenth-century British literature, sat in the front row, took notes assiduously, bought a pair of horn-rims, and quit on the eve of my comprehensive exams. I got married, separated, divorced. Quit smoking, quit jogging, quit eating red meat. I quit jobs: digging graves, pumping gas, selling insurance, showing pornographic films in an art theater in Boston. When I was nineteen I made frantic love to a pinch-faced, sack-bosomed girl I'd known from high school. She got pregnant. I quit town. About the only thing I didn't give up on was the summer camp.

Let me tell you about it.

If you need more convincing, and you’ve never read T.C. Boyle before, check out one of those story collections first.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Burn After Reading

A lot of movies huff and puff to feel up to the minute; Burn After Reading, with great stealth, makes it look easy.

The value of “intelligence” misjudged, resulting in carnage? Check.
Bureaucrats sitting on their hands, waiting to see how matters of life-and-death play out? Check.
Isolation, paranoia, and self-interest verging on solipsism? All on full display.
An audience that wouldn’t have been certain how to take this stuff eight years ago, erupting into bitter, knowing laughter? Yep.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book: Trace

Reading this week of Gregory McDonald’s death, I remembered how startling the first sighting of Fletch on the paperback rack at the supermarket or drugstore, in the late ‘70s, was. What the hell is this? I thought. Dialogue on the cover? I was 10 or 11 at the time, but I knew that covers were for sexy illustrations or for photo still-lifes of handguns & drug paraphernalia.

But those Fletch covers had the immediacy of a great newspaper headline. There was no need to pick the book up and thumb through it. You knew you were going to buy the book before you ever touched it. Probably the only pure true case of a book you could judge by its cover.

Of course, when the Fletch books became best-sellers, the text of other books began leaking out onto covers, but years went by before the design was applied to anything I considered reading. And then the Trace books started showing up.

The dialogue on the covers of the Trace books was nowhere near as good as Gregory McDonald’s, but I was all caught up with Fletch and wanted something similar, and these books were doing back flips to look like McDonald’s stuff. On some level, too, I think I wanted to see how you might go about ripping off work you admired and tweaking it enough to make it your own, and something told me the Trace books accomplished this.

The author Warren Murphy is best known as the author or co-author of the three thousand books in the Destroyer series, but I haven’t read any of them. I don't know if the emulation of Fletch stretches far beyond the cover; at any rate, the Trace books are quite different.

Here is what I remember: Devlin Tracy is an investigator for an insurance company. He hates the company he works for, and is tired of doing investigative work for a living; he constantly daydreams of making a big score by inventing something, but his only real skills seem to be 1) the ability to tell when someone is lying, and 2) the ability to drink astonishing quantities of alcohol.

The cases he works on bring him into contact with wealthy families right out of Lew Archer Land, and he alienates nearly everyone he meets (with the exception of his faithful girlfriend -- who, if I remember correctly, solves the mystery in a couple of the later books, while Trace nurses a hangover somewhere.)

Darker (or more depressive) than the Fletch books, lighter than Charles Willeford’s Hoke Mosley, the Trace books would probably appeal to a fan of either. Find one and save it for next summer: Trace’s drink is gin, I believe.

for all of Friday's Forgotten Books, see Patti Abbott's blog.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Book: A Stranger In This World

A Stranger In This World by Kevin Canty, published in 1994, doesn’t seem to enjoy the afterlife it deserves. It’s both a first book and a short story collection, and, as in a lot of literary short fiction, many of the tales here end with an epiphany. The difference here is, the epiphanies always arrive too late. The characters are captured at the exact moment they fall through the cracks. (One story begins: “Let’s say things stop working out for you.” By paragraph’s end, it’s no longer hypothetical. And it's a short paragraph.) Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son was published a few years earlier, and I think that, for a time (as with Raymond Carver the previous decade), any fiction with protagonists on the margins of society was measured by the Jesus’ Son yardstick and found wanting. Compared to these stories, though, the characters in Jesus’ Son are playing in a sandbox. There’s real hurt in A Stranger In This World, and the characters in “Pretty Judy” and “Junk” and “Blue Boy” aren’t headed to a better place, but Canty’s tough, elegant prose makes their journeys rewarding.

for all of Friday's Forgotten Books, see Patti Abbott's blog.