Wednesday, January 28, 2009

El Wah *

The last time it was so cold for so long here in the Detroit area had to be winter ’93-’94. I was living in a tiny second-floor room above a hair salon in a house in downtown Ann Arbor. I’d just moved to town and had no money, few friends, and a research lab job with no fixed schedule. The week the deep freeze really hit, I did what I only wish I could do this year: I did not leave home.

It was the only thing to do. Going to work meant a twenty-minute walk, and the mean temperature during that week was below zero Fahrenheit. Not life-threatening for a block-long jaunt to, say, the party store (cigarettes, beer, cold cuts, canned soup) or the library (getting to this in a second) -- but obviously lethal, I was certain, for any greater distances.

I used the time well. I hauled James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet home from the library. The Black Dahlia. The Big Nowhere. L.A. Confidential. White Jazz. And read All of it.

If you’ve read any Ellroy, you might question the wisdom of attempting to read over a thousand pages of his machine-gun prose over five days’ time while snowbound. Well, good call, neighbor. (I hasten to add that I’d never read anything by him before.) I read all day every day. I read most of the night. I read while sober, while half-bombed, while hung over. I slept fitfully. The trapped odor from the permanents being administered downstairs crept up through the vents. I upset furniture. I stopped using articles when I spoke. I jolted awake from catnaps and re-read entire chapters, convinced I’d been hallucinating.

It was great.

As I neared the final pages of White Jazz, we had a freak thaw -- a day in the mid fifties. All that ice became water, rushed through the streets with nowhere to go. Knee-high geysers over the gutter drains.

It was beautiful.

Now I’m finally reading American Tabloid. I’ve put off reading this book since it was published, in 1995, and put off reading The Cold Six Thousand since it was published, in 2001, because they are the first two books of Ellroy’s Underworld USA Trilogy, and I’ve heard over and over, through the years, that the final volume was nowhere on the horizon, and I finally tired of making due with one of his earlier potboilers or later miscellanies once a year or so, holding out hope that I could someday read all three books of his Magnum Opus on a bender, as I’d done with the L.A. Quartet.

I’m not even reading my own copy. I was, once again, in a library, during a cold snap, saw Ellroy on display, and pounced. My iced-in nostalgia was running high; Ellroy’s not getting any younger; neither am I. “If the trilogy is never finished,” I thought, “at least I'll have read the first two books.”

Kizmet. What I discovered yesterday is that the final book, Blood’s A Rover, has a publication date of September 15th, 2009.

Is this old news? At least now I can read American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand without the nagging fear -- and at a normal, middle-aged-human pace....

Eh. We’ll see about that.

*"El Wah” is a joke from that Ann Arbor cold snap/L.A. Quartet week, and probably only funny if you’re housebound in or near Canada, living on Campbell’s and Old Milwaukee, and reading so much your eyes feel like they’re bleeding.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Book: Lucky Bastard

Charles McCarry’s Lucky Bastard never made it into paperback, and it’s yet to be reprinted by Overlook Press, the house that’s brought most of his earlier books back into print. The Random House first edition (from 1998) is an ugly-looking book: the wrap is an inch undersized, revealing the topmost of a series of Kennedy half-dollars tumbling down the front and back of the boards. (It’s like a hardcover version of those hideous peek-a-boo mass market covers.)

Loathsome appearance aside, the novel had the misfortune of being pegged in reviews as a satire of the Clinton journey to the White House, and one that appeared a full two years after Joe Klein’s Primary Colors -- a reductive assessment that no doubt played a part in the book now qualifying as forgotten.

Klein’s roman à clef is knowing and funny; McCarry’s novel is a brazen fantasia, but one grounded, nevertheless, in what feel like political realities that any sane American would wish to be able to dismiss as pure fantasy. Difficult as it may be, even now, not to view the story of James Fitzgerald Adams and his wife, Morgan -- chosen during their college years by a rogue KGB mastermind to be future residents of the White House -- through the prism of the Clintons, it’s worth the effort. The story is bigger than that. As narrated by their soulful Russian handler, it’s a beautiful piece of writing, and reading it may leave you giddy.

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

Friday, January 2, 2009

Donald E. Westlake (1933-2008)

Westlake made my other favorite writers look like oafs.