Monday, October 31, 2016

Missing Ed Gorman

I was in bed June 19, 2005 when I became Sam McCain. It happened during a flash of magic, one of those unpredictable windows in the space-time continuum one reads about in certain kinds of fantasy fiction. Had I been reading Metamorphosis during that bewitched, cosmic shift you might at this moment be reading combinations of only h and i and s to represent the hissing sounds I presume Kafka’s central character might produce. Thankfully no magic window opened when I read Metamorphosis, not like the one with Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, a mystery novel featuring the aforementioned Sam McCain, whom I became instead of Kafka’s humble dung beetle. I don’t mind admitting this, that I became the fictional lawyer/private eye, in part because the character I was reading about, an engaging little Irishman, himself admits to a cross-identity assumption, that he secretly believes he’s Robert Ryan, the tall, strapping movie actor.


  Mixed up, mysteried up, shook up world, to play with Lou Reed's little ditty about a fellow who became a gal named Lola. Oh, there's no Lola in any of the ten Sam McCain mysteries. Straight as can be in that sense. Not that I as McCain nor McCain himself—even in his secret Robert Ryan persona, presumably--would have found anything wrong had any of the plots been muddled that way! That which I've read of Ed Gorman's phenomenal literary canon, celebrates hope in a world seen with unblinking yet tender clarity no matter how jinxed the view. It was my sense of this vision at the start of Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow that grabbed me after setting me up with the epigraph:
 
I smell blood and an era of prominent madmen. —W. H. Auden
Then:
GEE,” THE BEAUTIFUL PAMELA Forrest said. “He actually looks kinda dopey.”
And he did.
Here he was, the world’s first nuclear-powered bogeyman, and he looked like the uncle everybody feels sorry for because he’s fat and sloppy.
Nikita Khrushchev. Premier of the Soviet Union. The world’s number one Russian. Not to mention Communist.

Athough I did not know at this point it was Sam McCain speaking, already I was him—if only to enjoy his proximity to "the beautiful Pamela Forrest." Little did I know how frustrating this proximity would prove to be for both McCain and me as I worked my way through the McCain saga. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow is the second in the series. I read it first, not having any knowledge of McCain or Ed Gorman, because it was a Father's Day gift from my wife. She had inscribed it sweetly, hinting that perhaps I would enjoy reading it "while cruising to Bermuda." I couldn't wait for the cruise, which came later, so my initiation to the Sam McCain phenomenon, which led to a treasured friendship with his creator, came landlocked next to the woman whose thoughtful gift had introduced us, and who too was reading during our habitual read-before-sleep time, which, in retrospect, might otherwise have been spent more wisely, as the title's yearning question no longer for us begs a fortuitous answer. Happier exponentially answering the question more directly: the immediate tomorrow of my discovering Ed Gorman has come and gone but I cannot begin to imagine, no matter how many tomorrows I may have left, answering that question any other way than Hell Yes!

Thinking back, it occurs to me there probably was no magic flash that turned me into Sam McCain that fateful eve. At least not in a fantasy physics sense, as Ed Gorman, whose oeveure includes science fiction as well as westerns, noir, horror, and genres I'm likely forgetting, would have told me. Too modest to admit it, though, he'd merely have flashed a leprechaun grin at the suggestion it was his storytelling sleight of hand alone that made the magic. And then he'd have reminded me of the things McCain and I had in common: McCain practiced law and worked as an investigator for the local judge in his hometown, the fictional Black River Falls, Iowa; my dad practiced law in our small Wisconsin town where I was a high school senior when Krushchev visited Roswell Garst's Iowa farm. The detective part? I'd been reading detective novels from the time I discovered them in the little bookcase my dad kept near his favorite chair in our living room. Ed Gorman captured me by capturing the mood and the feel of a small prairie town and its people. Especially Sam McCain, whom, had I not grown up to be a mild-mannered newspaper reporter (sans tights and cape), might well have had a career quite like that of my fictional alter ego.
McCain is not my father's detective type. He's neither the classic hard-boiled nor cozy mystery solver. Were he Jewish he'd be describing himself what in Yiddish is called a schlemiel, a chump. But that is just his modest way of self-appraisal. In truth he's a smart, tough little guy who can face his fears, handle himself, and get the job done. He doesn't often get the girl, although not for lack of trying (see opening reference to "the beautiful Pamela Forrest"). He loves his sister (I have one, too) and his parents. One description of his dad, in the first book of the series—The Day the Music Died—is so honest and poignant it chokes my throat up with each reading:

I still remember standing on the platform at the train depot and watching my dad wave to us when he came home from World War II. I was shocked. My parents are small people. My mom is five-two and has never cleared ninety pounds. But I’d grown up with my mom and was used to her size. My dad was a different matter. I’d seen a lot of John Wayne and Ronald Reagan— two of the many brave movie stars who hadn’t actually gone to war— war movies, and so I just figured my dad would be this big heroic kind of guy, too. He’d been gone a long time. Well, he wasn’t big and heroic-looking. In fact, he looked like a kid. He was five-six and weighed maybe 130 and had dishwater blond hair. His khaki uniform looked too big for him, gave him a vulnerability that made him seem even less soldierly. He was an utter stranger to me. The last time I’d seen him I’d been seven years old. I felt sort of ashamed of him, actually, how young and vulnerable he looked in the midst of all these other towering GIs. Why couldn’t I have a dad who looked like Robert Mitchum? And I’ve always been ashamed of myself for feeling that. I know that when I see him in his coffin over at the Fitzpatrick Funeral Home, that’s what I’ll think of, *how I betrayed him in my heart that first day he came back from the war.

And this, lest there be any doubt about our (McCain's and my) political leanings:

Dad had all the insecurities that go along with being a small and somewhat delicate man. But instead of using them to hate or bully, he’d turned them into empathy and wisdom. He always watched the CBS Evening News with Douglas Edwards and watched what the white cops were doing to black people trying to ride whites-only city buses. Stuff like that got to him as much as it did me. Even my mom, who didn’t vote because she hated all politicians equally, had tears in her eyes when she saw little Negro kids blasted off the streets with fire hoses and their parents clubbed to their knees.
The McCain series is set in the years 1959-71, with their pop-song titles corresponding to the times of the stories. The first one, The Day the Music Died, begins on the day commemorated by Don McLean’s eponymous song, when a plane carrying rock ‘n’ roll stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa, killng all aboard.
The novel opens with Sam McCain and “the beautiful Pamela Forrest” driving home from the group’s final performance at Clear Lake.
McCain isn’t one of those fictional characters who never ages despite a series span of decades. His finale, Riders on the Storm, has him recently returning home from a five-month hospital stint after a drunken jeep accident when he was a National Guardsman. He’s lost some of his smartalecky edge. In fact, well, let’s let him tell us:
 
I top a small hill and gaze down at the moonlit homes stretching out before me. Senators love to bluster about how the rest of the world envies us, and when you see this portrait in shadow and light you have to agree with them. Solid houses, good jobs, bright futures. Too bad we were losing thousands of our troops— not to mention even more thousands of innocents— just so two fine fellows named Johnson and Nixon could play John Wayne…

This was the seventies. I indulged in liquor, grass and sex. I’d lost my religious faith, I’d lost most of my faith in the political system and I knew how corrupt our system of justice was. And if I had to sit down and count up the number of lies I’d told in my life, a fair share to women I’d cared about, I would be one hundred and thirty-four before I could stand up again.

Sam McCain died 17 days ago, along with the man who gave him the life he shared with me. Ed Gorman promised me several months ago in the last email I got from him that another McCain novel was in the works. I kinda knew better, because Ed had been seriously ill during the years I came to know him after that auspicious Father’s Day 11 years ago. A type of cancer known as multiple myeloma finally killed him. I was never blessed with the honor and the pleasure of meeting him in person, or even speaking with him on the phone. But there was never any doubt he was a friend—from our first exchange of emails. And dammit now he’s gone for good, and so is Sam McCain. 


 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

FAHRENHEIT 451 – Ray Bradbury

My librarian friend Angie shared an article on Facebook decrying our frightening decline in reading, and its effect on our elections. Introducing the article, Angie posed the question, “What one book do you think everyone should read at least once?”
Picked your book yet? You know which one I chose. After scanning in my head many of the books you likely are considering yourself at this moment, Fahrenheit 451 seemed so obvious when my scan reached it that my brain pushed select and I proceeded with no more ado.
It was high time, too, as, unthinkable though it may be of a lifelong avid reader, I’d not yet opened the cover of the 1953 science fiction classic about a dystopian future where books—any books—were illegal. So illegal, they were, that fire departments comprised, instead of firefighters, firestarters. The alarms they raced to answer in their kerosene-laden trucks were called in by people reporting a suspicion that books were at a particular address. The books were burned at the scene, usually along with the building and, on at least one occasion, the building’s book-hoarding occupant.
I’d always been aware of Fahrenheit 451’s book-burning theme as well as the title’s significance (the supposed temperature at which books ignite). Maybe the idea was too distressing to wish to read a story about it. Then there was the science fiction factor, a category that’s never generated much enthusiasm in me. I avoided the movie as well, despite a lifelong infatuation with Julie Christie and an abiding admiration of Oscar Werner’s talent. But now, suddenly, confronted with friend Angie’s incendiary question, the obstacles were gone. I knew it was time.
What I hadn’t expected, at least not consciously, was the startling knockout timeliness of Fahrenheit 451. This, for example, as Faber, the old professor, reminds Montag, the rebel fireman, how their nightmare state came about:
Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You firemen provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it’s a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line… People are having fun.”
I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them. And then the Government, seeing how advantageous it was to have people reading only about passionate lips and the fist in the stomach, circled the situation with your fire-eaters.
And this:
So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless.
I might have gasped, aloud, reading those passages, apprehending their electric immediacy, their awful insidious currency. I gape anew with each reading, yet, though written more than half a century ago! The fateful trend toward passive consumerism and ultimate illiteracy is malignantly alive and thriving. I’m wondering now if my reluctance to read Fahrenheit 451 over the decades since it first appeared was more a response to a chilling subconscious intimation, from its theme alone, that Ray Bradbury had done something much more important than merely write an alarming novel, that he in fact had divined a prophesy.
 Bradbury’s narrative, besides its philosophical insight and lyricism, is what today’s publishing marketers call “a thriller” or “suspense”. Fahrenheit 451 is both. Montag gradually metamorphizes into all-out rebellion, sparked by a teenage neighbor girl whose family has not succumbed to the prevailing herd mentality Faber characterizes as “the most dangerous enemy to truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority.” The rebel fireman eventually finds himself the object of a nail-biting chase involving swarms of helicopters and a relentless mechanical hound with eight legs, a cruelly efficient computer brain and a retractable needle that injects poison into its captives.
Montag takes up with an underground band of former literature professors who avoid cities and travel by night. They’ve devoted themselves to memorizing great works of literature in the event some day humanity will want to remember its roots. “Some day, some year, the books can be written again,” one of his fellow fugitives tells him, “The people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again. But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.”
So, after finally reading Fahrenheit 451, would I recommend it as “the one book everyone should read at least once?” Well, I’m sure glad I did. Thanks for the prompt, Angie!


[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]






Wednesday, October 19, 2016

THE DIG – Cynan Jones

I might never have read the startlingly good short novel The Dig had a poet friend whose eclectic tastes I respect but don’t always share not recommended it. I still might not have read it had she spoken in the same breath—as well she might have--“Cormac McCarthy”, a name that has irritated me ever since I read enough of Blood Meridian to hear in the author’s self-consciously poetic voice an unmistakable celebration of cynicism that made me want to dash a glass of cheap beer in what I imagined to be his smug face.
It didn’t help to know of his brilliant success, which for me elevates nothing more than my ordinarily healthy blood pressure. Had I a lawn and saw him on it I’d grab my 12-gauge and order him off. But enough of him whom I would name only a pet vulture after. We’re here to talk about The Dig. Despite critics comparing its writing to that of the aforementioned vulture’s namesake, I would read anything Cynan Jones wrote.
This young Welsh author seduced me at The Dig’s get-go. I came near to short-circuiting my laptop with drool (that’s hyperbole, for which I apologize, recognizing the need to calm down a tad before my blog administrator pulls the plug on this report). Jones seduced me even before I reached the following description, which some reviewers cite in their comparison with...the other:


He was a gruff and big man and when he got from the van it lifted and relaxed like a child relieved of the momentary fear of being hit. Where he went he brought a sense of harmfulness and it was as if this was known even by the inanimate things about him. They feared him somehow.
He opened the back of the van and the wire inside the window clattered and he reached for the sack and dropped the badger out. He spat into the dirty tarmac beside it.
The dogs had pulled the front of its face off and its nose hung loose and bloodied, hanging from a sock of skin. It hung off the badger like a separate animal.
Ag, he thought. The crows will sort that.


Were The Dig to continue in this vein, with “the big man” (we’re never given a name) carrying the entire weight in a saga of cruel, earthy brutality, the polite faint praise I’d have felt compelled to offer likely would have strained my friendship with the poet (one avoids outright dishonesty in literary relationships of this nature, and snarling or shouting discourse is unthinkable except perhaps when either or both parties are hearing impaired). It was our good fortune the other weight-bearing character is farmer Daniel, a decent fellow mourning the violent death of his wife, obviating any need to ponder those scenarios.

 
TBM and Daniel live near each other in a rural Welsh community, but they apparently have never met. Yet their lives, different as can be, appear on a collision course. Both men live alone, although Daniel feels a constant presence of the wife he lost recently when a horse kicked her head. TBM makes his living with his dogs, exterminating rats for farmers by day, and, by night, illegally digging up badgers from their burrows to sell to gamblers who pit them against dogs. We find Daniel birthing lambs by hand, an exhausting and occasionally heartbreaking job especially with the ever-present grief for his wife.
Scouting the countryside with his map of badger “setts” (burrows), TBM sees Daniel’s farm as a good prospect for his next dig:


The first sett he had in mind was too close to outbuildings with men and dogs he did not know. This might be the place.
He’s weak, the big man thought. He’s weak and he is a farmer by himself. He will be occupied. News spread out here, soaked out, and he knew about the loss of Daniel’s wife and why he was at the graveyard. He’s trying to get through on his own.
He knew the setts locally and knew that this sett was relatively distant from the house of the farm. It was walkable from his own place. It’s the one, he said to himself. A man on his own, what can he do?


It’s a setup crying out for the Peckinpah treatment: Borgnine as TBM, of course, and Hoffman as Daniel with Eva Marie Saint in the ghostly flashbacks. Alas, Rin Tin Tin and Lassie are obliged to sit this one out.
Facetious again, a tic I’ve acquired to protect my manly cover sometimes in the presence of beauty and elegance. The writing, oh, the writing, the story. The setting. Hemingway came immediately to mind as I marveled at the spare perfection of Jones’s word choices and his pacing and tone. Then I started thinking. Much of Hemingway’s pared-down prose and structure betray a studied dramatic air. In its time, this was new and different and it dazzled. Today it stands out a tad threadbare.
None of that in The Dig. It’s simple reality, stark naked humanity, this alone.


[find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog:




Thursday, October 13, 2016

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT – Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke had already published a dozen novels before I had any inkling she existed. And when it finally sank in that she did, I put off reading anything she wrote until a couple of days ago. Took me awhile to get used to the idea the Alafair I had watched grow up in her father’s novels wasn’t the same. Even then I no doubt shall always see the real one, the nonfiction daughter of James Lee Burke, through the same Louisiana bayou’s misty glow as Burke’s fictional character, Dave Robicheaux, continues to see his grownup Alafair:




Whenever I looked at Alafair, I saw the little El Salvadoran girl I pulled from a submerged plane that went down in the salt by Southwest Pass. I saw a little girl I called Alf who wore a Donald Duck cap with a quacking bill and a T-shirt with a smiling whale named Baby Orca and tennis shoes embossed with the words LEFT and RIGHT on the respective toes. The image of that little El Salvadoran girl will always hover before me like a hologram.




That’s from Burke’s most recent of his twenty elegant Robicheaux crime novels, published three years ago with the Alafair character a graduate of Stanford Law School and writing her second crime novel. And still instructing her father, as she has from about the midpoint of the series, to stop calling her “Alf”. I’d be willing to bet (were it not illegal, of course) that Alafair Burke, a graduate of Stanford Law School, a former prosecutor and now a law professor in New York City, instructs her father as well to stop calling her “Alf”. Knowing this, and knowing the power of richly imaginative writing and how it can carry you to a magical landscape from which it is hard to take leave, maybe it helps to understand my ambivalence toward venturing from the bayou’s misty glow into another, perhaps more objective light, even and especially one emanating from the same corpuscular soup (despite the myth being more fun, the real Alafair is JLB’s natural daughter). There’s the curiosity and the caution. Ultimately the first prevailed when I decided to read Alafair Burke’s ninth crime/suspense novel, All Day and a Night.

Not her father’s style in any way, but smart and engaging in her own. All Day and a Night is the fifth and most recent in a series starring Ellie Hatcher, a thirty-something (I think—maybe fortyish) New York City homicide detective. She grew up in Wichita, same as Alafair Burke. The plot uses a familiar serial-killer trope but with several clever twists. Hatcher’s boyfriend, an assistant district attorney, arranges for her and her partner to re-investigate the murders of five prostitutes for which a man is already serving life without parole (known in prison parlance as all day and a night).Why the fresh look? Because the victim of a new murder was mutilated in the same way as the others, a way that was never made public, suggesting the real killer is still unknown.

At the same time a ruthless, publicity-hungry defense lawyer lures brilliant young corporate attorney, Carrie Blank, from her prestigious firm to help spring the convict. The attraction for Blank, whose half-sister was one of the victims, is that proving the wrong man was convicted might help lead police to the real killer.

Alafair Burke and her father


Complicated indeed. And it gets more so, much more so, before eventually it all comes together. There’s something of the classic police procedural here as well as edge-of-the-seat suspense. And the writing is deft. So are the main characters. Here’s a taste, right at the start, right after Hatcher has won a bet with her partner, J.J. Rogan, that she’d be the one to finesse a confession out of the woman they were interrogating in the stabbing death of her cheating husband. This is the banter shortly afterward in the squad room between Hatcher, Rogan and another detective:




Rogan was handing Ellie a crisp new set of twenties from his wallet when John Shannon emerged from their lieutenant’s office and witnesses the transaction. “Looks like a nice wad of dough you guys got there.”

Ellie could already see where this was heading. The most effort John Shannon ever put into the squad room was cracking wise. With money changing hands from Rogan to Ellie, his wee brain was probably overheating from the collision of potential barbs: Would it be the attractive female detective earning her money the old-fashioned way, or yet another comment about Rogan’s family wealth? Lucky for Ellie, more often than not Shannon had a way of opening the door for her go-to retort.

You mean like those wads of dough you snarf down every morning at Krispy Kreme?” She tapped out a “bu-dump bump” on her desktop. “I’m sorry, man. You just make lame cop-eating-doughnut jokes so...damn...easy.”

When you got it, you flaunt it,” he said, patting his oversized belly. At least the guy had as good a sense of humor about himself as he expected in others.




Ah, dear little Alf, look what you've become.





[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]





Monday, October 10, 2016

Death's Honesty (13)

Callahan was standing alone at the defense table studying a sheet of paper in his hand when Blow emerged from the judge’s chambers. Gobble, who had left the hearing room shaking his head and making a demonstration of checking his watch as if in a hurry, was nowhere in sight. Blow stood for a moment, eyes on Callahan, still trying to fathom whether his imagination was playing tricks or if he was seeing an aspect of the cop he’d not noticed before. Callahan raised his eyes from the paper, and Blow knew his second notion was the more likely. It was something in the way he held his head. The chin a little higher than usual affecting the planes of his face to give the cheekbones more prominence and foreshorten the aggressive nose. It was a pugnacious sort of tilt, yet it held a subtle mitigation. The tension ordinarily associated with this posture seemed missing. There was an absence of challenge. And the eyes corroborated this sense. They were fixed on Blow but the skin between them had creased, suggesting an incongruous uncertainty. Blow offered a single nod as if acknowledging a stranger.
Anyone still in there?” Callahan tilted his head toward bench, behind which the door to the judge’s chambers was closed. The tension missing in his visage was in his voice.
I’m the last one. Judge went out the back way.” Blow saw the effect his own stiffness had on the other—head position returned to normal after a quick swivel to either side surveying the empty courtroom. The creases were gone.
Let’s go to my office.”
I’m exhausted, Carl. Been a long day.”
Tell me about it. Witness room okay?” Blow nodded. Callahan folded the paper he’d been studying, and put it inside his jacket. He led them to the room on the west side of the building and opened the blinds enough to let in the late afternoon sunlight giving the room a coppery cast. He sat at the long table with his back to the window and Blow took the chair directly across, near enough that now even half-silhouetted by the back lighting he could see in Callahan’s face the same weariness he was feeling. The cop passed a palm over his shaved head and leaned forward with both forearms in front of him on the wooden table top. After a few halfhearted starts at small talk sputtered like the flooded engine of a lawnmower, he blew air through his lips, shaking his head a couple of times as if bewildered and fixed his eyes on Blow’s.
I think the bitch is back.”
Blow felt he knew exactly what Callahan had just said and what it meant but, unsure just how to respond, how much to give away if he was right and more importantly how much Callahan knew and suspected Blow of knowing or suspecting, he merely furrowed his brow and nodded, thinking to convey he had heard the words and was processing the various implications. But he quickly saw this wasn’t enough. Callahan was staring at him as if he’d lobbed a ball over the net and was waiting for the return. Blow had to say something.
You mean,” he started, staring back with matching intensity. He’d stopped nodding, let his words hang. Callahan’s turn.
You know who I mean, Joe. The Connie Rodriguez lookalike who always seems to show up in Leicester whenever we get a big-ass murder, who’s had federal warrants on her head for three years now in the theft of classified military property not to mention the murder of an FBI agent. That one. Last we heard she was calling herself, umm--”
Moriarty.” He hesitated a beat and added, “What do you mean she’s back?
I said think. I think she’s back. Teach said he saw somebody looked like her last night. At the scene.”
Blow’s eyebrows shot up of their own volition. He eased back in his chair. “Did he talk to her?”
He did not. Says he was checking on the vics and looked up and there she was standing by the pier, looking straight at him. Homer was putting your future client in Teach’s unit—by the way, I advised him not to resign. Ogie’s in North Carolina trying to catch a marlin or some damned big-ass fish, so I told Homer to take a leave, that I’d write it up for him. He’s too good a man to cut loose like that. I trust him not to cross his wires working for you on this. I reminded him that just in case something like that were to happen, even inadvertently, Ogie’d fire his ass and get his P.I. license yanked. I probly didn’t need to tell him that but Homer didn’t seem to take offense, anyway--”
So what about Moriarty? Teach saw her, that’s all?”
Pretty much. Teach says he thought it was Rodriguez responding, although she was off duty and out of uniform. When he finished checking the vics she was gone. He called out. Nothing. There you have it. I checked with Connie this morning. Says she was home all night. I believe her.”
Well shit.” Blow knew he sounded natural despite his other concerns about Moriarty and the ever present possibility Callahan was trying to put something over on him. His voiced chagrin had more to do with the added complication to his agenda than with what Callahan undoubtedly expected of him. Good enough, although his scrutiny of the cop seated across from him had grown keener.
Yup. My reaction precisely,” Callahan said, and Blow caught no irony in voice or face.


Blow was in his truck when it occurred to him he hadn’t turned his cellphone on after leaving the hearing. He did so now and found he had one unplayed message. It was from the secretary at Patmos Evangelical, sent within the past hour. She was hysterical, her voice shrill, words coming between gasps.
Mr. Stone? Something’s happened to Rev. Curtis. That car came back. One of them. One of the ones that took that woman. They sat out there and honked the horn and Chris went out to see what they wanted and a man got out and it looked like they were arguing waving their arms and shouting and I got up to go out to see what was wrong but when I got out the door they were gone and I think they took Chris with them oh please--” The message broke off.
Blow pushed the button to reply. Got the answering machine.


 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

THE GLASS CHARACTER – Margaret Gunning

Might not be too late to flip The Glass Character from flop to fortune in one fell swoop simply by changing the title to Glass Girl. Sounds cynical, but I like to think it’s more the steak's-sizzle school of salesmanship. Implying of course ultimately one is selling the steak and that unless one is a charlatan one’s steak will live up to its sizzle. And if bacon happens to be the sizzle everyone wants, one perhaps should think twice about pushing steak. The hot sizzle in fiction right now is girl, and it’s been so for several years.

Girls, Girls, Girls: The Buzziest Word in Book Titles” screams the headline in a July 17 Departure article by Elizabeth Siles. Its subhead: “The one word publishers can’t get enough of.” And this June piece in USA Today: “Book publishing goes wild for 'Girls'.” Even The New York Times declares its hip, albeit with more restraint, in this May head: “This Summer, Girls in Titles and Girls in Peril.” Stieg Larsson launched the burgeoning modern craze eight years back with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Four years later came Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, followed in 2015 by Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. The five biggest U.S. publishers came out with 20 girl books that same year, and the figure has jumped to 30 this.

Margaret Gunning’s The Glass Character hit the bookstores two years ago. It’s barely been reviewed. Not even kicked around by the NYT’s literary executioner Michiko Kakutani. Had girl been in the title I can’t imagine anything stopping it from arriving on Maureen Corrigan’s desk and thence aired on NPR.
Gunning and Lloyd

I trust it’s not too late for the disclaimer: The Glass Character is the only book ever in which I am honored with a dedication. Margaret Gunning, a Canadian author, and I, a Virginia scribbler, have been Internet friends for over a decade. I read an early draft of her novel and offered encouragement during the long arduous months she spent hawking the manuscript to publishers. We rejoiced when Thistledown Press, a boutique house in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, bought the book we’d hoped would be Margaret’s break-out novel. It was her third. The first two—Mallory and Better Than Lifeboth published by small Canadian houses, had received excellent reviews but no widespread marketing. The Glass Character was a more ambitious project, built around the all-but-forgotten silent movie comedian Harold Lloyd. The title refers to his fake signature glasses, which he wore to set himself apart. So why title such a novel as if it’s about a girl? Because it is. You don’t think I’d try to sell you a sizzle without the steak! Here’s the review I wrote after receiving my special copy of The Glass Character:




In case the name doesn't ring a bell, he's the guy with the straw hat and Woody Allen glasses, in the suit, dangling from a clock on the side of a building so far above a busy avenue the cars below look like ladybugs on wheels.

Harold Lloyd.

Movie comedian of the silent 1920s. Called himself the "Glass Character" because his trademark glasses were fake. No glass in them. The guy was a nut. Blew one of his hands to Kingdom Come fiddling with what he thought was a stage prop bomb. It was real. Deliberately gave himself powerful electric shocks to get his hair to stand straight up. Did his own stunts--the clock dangle, the shocked hair, pretending to trip and stagger on building ledges up in the sky, netless--a brave, some would say foolhardy, genius. Nut.


Knowing this and being acrophobic, I can't watch his movies anymore. It even scares me to look at the photos. I'll let Margaret Gunning watch the movies and look at the photos, and I'll read her reports. Well, then again, I don't have to anymore. I've read The Glass Character. It's all in there.

Margaret, poor girl, is in love with Harold Lloyd. It started out as just a fascination with soundless images. Love snuck up and struck her dumb somewhere amid the exhaustive research she was conducting for a book about what was then still just a fascination. Love. Alas. A happily married grandmother, Margaret is still far too young to leap the gap into the day when her beloved Harold held sway with the girls of a baby Hollywood. Fortunately, for her and for us, she's a novelist. She has the skill to weave the magic carpet to carry her backward in time to those days of yore, those Harold heyday days, and set her gently down along the path the love of her dreams must follow for there to be a rebirth in the imaginations and hearts of Harold Lloyd admirers evermore. She's woven that carpet. It's large enough to take us with her on that long strange trip. I rode along on a test flight. We made it back, and I'm still agog.

When we stepped off the carpet in la la land I saw that Margaret had changed. No longer the familiar author of two of my favorite novels--Better than Life and Mallory--she'd become sixteen-year-old Jane Chorney, a virgin and erstwhile soda jerk in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a terrible crush on movie idol Harold Lloyd. Soon after we landed, Margaret /Jane (and later "Muriel", as you will learn) decided to pack up her meager belongings, cash in her chips (two cents shy of fifty bucks) and head to Hollywood and into the arms of her eternal love. I might have tried to instill sense in her were I anything more than invisible eyes and ears. Unfortunately I had lost my voice and corporeal substance upon alighting in the Santa Fe dust.

So it was off to Hollywood via a wearying, bumpy bus ride, Margaret/Jane/Muriel full of glitzy dreams and innocence, and me hunkered weightless, mute and unseen on her delicate shoulder.

I won't say more. I took no notes and had to avert my gaze any number of times during moments that really were none of my personal concern. The Glass Character is Margaret/Jane/Muriel's story, not mine. What I did see and hear, and learn during our holiday in history is captured with such lucid, insightful poignancy I can't help but wonder if Margaret didn't in fact remain there, dictating her journal to a holographic image of herself in the distant future tapping on a keyboard somewhere in a place called Coquitlam, B.C.




So. Disingenuous to drop the The and the Character and add Girl without changing the novel even a wee bit? I don’t see why. Might Glass Girl sell a few more books and still have a chance to get read on NPR and maybe kicked around or, should hell cool down a notch, actually praised by Kakutani? Maybe get a movie deal? I don’t see why not. Wouldn’t hurt to try, I reckon.




[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]