Thursday, July 12, 2018

GORKY PARK – Martin Cruz Smith

Well dammit I don't care that Martin Cruz Smith thought the movie adaptation of his 1981 groundbreaking novel Gorky Park was "dreadful," or that the critics thought it was odd, or that it drew box office yawns. Temporary insanity, the whole lot of 'em. Including Smith! You may curl your lip at my cinematic taste but I’ll just grin, because I liked the movie! A LOT! BOTH TIMES!! [pausing here for a calming moment, in lieu of having a stroke] But it's the book I'm reporting on now. The book, which I also liked but which baffled me now and again with its intricacies and narrative syncopation, both times (go ahead and smirk if you must—I wasn't the only one, although most of the literary crowd hyperventilated with joy over it).
Both times I read the book after seeing the movie. First when it came out, in ‘83. I don't remember hearing any snoring. I was so raptly fixed on the screen I don't recall if there was anyone else besides me and my friend in the theater. I remember having to pee but not daring to run up the aisle to the men's room for fear something important would happen before I could run back to my seat. I executed, successfully, what we called in football practice "water discipline." When the movie ended, I stopped to pee, staggered out to the car and we drove to the nearest bookstore.

Reading the novel, I was thunderstruck by how accurately the leading characters matched their movie depictions. I knew with absolute intuitive certainty that Martin Cruz Smith when he wrote the book—altho I've not a scintilla of doubt he'd deny it--had William Hurt in mind for the role of Moscow Militia Chief Investigator Arkady Renko; Brian Dennehey as Kirwill, the New York cop whose brother was one of three murder victims found frozen next to a skating rink in Gorky Park; gorgeous Joanna Pacula as gorgeous Irina Asanova (Renko's love interest, among other involvements), and Lee Marvin as the slick, wealthy, worldly American who trades in exotic furs, among other activities.
Watching the DVD last week I saw I'd forgotten much of the plot, but then re-reading the book I again marveled at the perfect choice of actors for the leading roles. They came alive in the reading as smart-angsty-dogged Hurt, big-tough-no-guff Dennehy, beautiful-stubborn-sassy Pacula, and smooth-silvery-teflon Marvin. One might think that with such strong characters so perfectly cast in a setting as exotically mysterious as Cold War Soviet Russia the transition from page to celluloid would be a snap. But while it worked convincingly for me, possibly because I am easily mesmerized by well-executed passive entertainment, I can see how the sophisticate, who’d already read the book, might have expected a more comprehensive inclusion of the many facets in a novel that excited critics to gush of Smith as the new le Carré: “The most dazzling breakthrough in the suspense field since The Spy Who Came In from the Cold,” said the San Francisco Chronicle’s reviewer, picking one at random.

And therein lies the problem, at least for me, with the sort of butterfly literary narrative that floats about, alighting hither and thither in a flattering tease of an indulgent readership that would rather risk getting lost now and then in a garden of thoughts and details than to admit preferring novels with clearer signage along their story threads. In a way, the former style, be it post modern, post post modern or some new style with a name I’ve not yet stumbled upon, brings to mind the old tale of the emperor who rides nude in his carriage thru the land believing what he’s told by his tailors that he’s clad in exotic new clothing. His subjects, of course believe as well what they’re told—except for the innocent child who shouts out the truth. The “child” in this instance is Peter Andrews in his albeit highly flattering review in The New York Times, gently admitting in the final paragraph that Gorky Park “suffers from a flaw...that is common among even the best examples of the genre. There is a falling-off at the end, when the plot turns about three notches more than my credulity is prepared to be stretched. But the first 340 pages were splendid.” My bratty critique of Mr. Andrews’s faint damning is that if the foregoing is so splendid how could the ending pose any trouble at all clarifying the whole? A reasonable answer: maybe the plot wasn’t handled quite so splendidly if a difficult ending was needed to wrap things up à la Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Yet, it doesn’t especially matter with either novel, in the long view.
I’ve come to expect the cognitive briar-patch ending with ambitious hybrid novels that mingle genre and literary. When it works, it’s the best of both forms. Story with thick glasses. Thing is, for me this approach is barely an irritant even when it doesn’t quite work, mostly falling off the page as superfluous style, so long as the voice and characters are engaging and the narrative thread remains fairly visible, and the atmosphere has the feel of real. I found all of these requisites present in Gorky Park.
Plot, of course, can be the deal-breaking bugaboo for literary avant guardists. Too much stink of story alarms their nostrils and sends them rushing to trusted critics for dispensation. I suspect it was the contemporary Russian setting that turned the trick for Gorky Park—the better to acquit Martin Cruz Smith for muddling the middle enough to pass muster with the gatekeepers of highbrow taste. That the book became a bestseller must have given our literary high priests serious pause, and it testifies to their courage for admitting in print they liked the novel despite its popularity.
Part of the plot muddle is the Byzantine political intrigue of the Soviet Union near the height of the Cold War, which extended not just to East/West high jinks but to the internal struggle between the KGB and the militia. This dynamic is most fascinating as Arkady Renko struggles to solve the triple murder. His initial focus is on finding an excuse to shuck jurisdiction by proving the murders were connected to activities of interest only to the KGB.

Renko works for the MVD, or Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is strictly limited to interior criminal matters, whereas the KGB theoretically is strictly limited to matters of national security. The two organizations occasionally work at cross purposes and squabble over jurisdiction.
He has a personal history with Major Pribluda, the local KGB chief, which adds a dangerous dimension to the rivalry. Renko’s sly moves to shove the case into Pribluda’s lap include requesting KGB tapes of foreign visitors to Moscow. He’s hopeful when recognizing a voice on one of the tapes of an international businessman known to be a KGB friend. If a link could be found between the murders and this individual, Renko tells himself, “he was sure Major Pribluda would step in.”
And this: “Was it possible–did he have the imagination–to create some elaborate case full of mysterious foreigners, black marketeers and informers, a whole population of fictitious vapors rising off three corpses? All of it a game of the investigator against himself?” One such “mysterious foreigner,” an American religious extremist, he learns, was likely one of the victims.
In such a tangle of duty, history, and politics—international and internal--it’s perhaps inevitable that Renko, despite being the son of a Red Army heroic general and the best militia investigator in Moscow, should find himself at some point under state arrest and in Pribluda’s custody.
Ain’t no way I’m going to try to describe the plot complications here. Wouldn’t be prudent. In fact, ‘twould be supremely redundant trying to reinvent the perfectly good wheel Peter Andrews gave us in his fine, brave 1981 review, especially considering the treacherous ground of opportunities to inadvertently commit a devastating spoiler. But I can say this: Arkady Renko lives to fight another day, and another after that, and another… He’s become a series character, and has gotten rave reviews at each outing.
I’m now reading Red Square, which I am liking thus far, A LOT, and expect to report on next Friday.

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

Tuesday, July 3, 2018


At long last it can be alleged: Perry Mason and his associates were in fact a highly classified cell of fantastics working undercover for nearly forty years combating heinous crime and prosecutorial incompetence in Southern California’s judiciary. Their morally dicey mission: to save well-financed damsels in dire distress against unimaginably implausible odds.
Mason, the cell’s lead operative posing as a dauntless criminal defense attorney, sheds light on the mission’s moral dilemma in this brief exchange with his purported secretary, Della Street, while considering a potential client’s tale of woe in The Case of the Rolling Bones:

“‘I don’t like rich people,’ Mason said, pushing his hands down in his pockets. ‘I like poor people.’”
“’Why?’ she asked, her voice showing her interest.”
“‘Darned if I know,’ Mason said. ‘Rich people worry too much, and their problems are too damn petty. They stew up a high blood pressure over a one-point drop in the interest rate. Poor people get right down to brass tacks: love, hunger, murder, forgery, embezzlement— things a man can sink his teeth into, things he can sympathize with.’”

Moments later Mason tells the distressed damsel, “If I take this case, I’ll need money—money for my services, money for investigation. I’ll hire a detective agency and put men to work. It’ll be expensive.”
One might get the notion from these two sentiments Mason didn’t like his clients, and maybe he ddidn’t. If not, it’s the more to his credit, as he tells the team’s uncannily effective chief investigator Paul Drake in their debut published case, that of the Velvet Claws, “It’s sort of an obsession with me to do the best I can for a client.”

Erle Stanley Gardner, who controlled and chronicled the activities of what we shall call the Marvelous Mason Machine (MMM for short), gives us vivid descriptions of these superheros introducing them in this first of some 80 published cases. Mason, Gardner confides, “has about him the attitude of one who is waiting. His face in repose was like the face of a chess player who is studying the board. That face seldom changed expression. Only the eyes changed expression. He gave the impression of being a thinker and a fighter, a man who could work with infinite patience to jockey an adversary into just the right position, and then finish him with one terrific punch.”
And later, “His hand was well formed, long and tapering, yet the fingers seemed filled with competent strength. It seemed the hand could have a grip of crushing force should the occasion require.”
The lawyer’s “broad shoulders” are mentioned frequently, as are references to his athleticism and pugilistic nature. Sort of startling to encounter this Perry Mason after years of watching stout, sedentary windbag Raymond Burr in the TV role inspired by Mr. Gardner’s descriptions.
Similar startling contrasts are evident with Della Street and Paul Drake. In the original case files the two are a far cry from their bland portrayals on TV by Barbara Hale and William Hopper: Della Street has a slim figure and steady eyes. She’s about twenty-seven, and appears to be watching life keenly and appreciatively, seeing “far below the surface.” Her cover story? She came to work for MMM after her wealthy family “lost all their money.”
And Drake, who heads the gargantuan P.I. agency unobtrusively headquartered across the hall from Mason’s office is tall, with “protruding glassy eyes” that hold “a perpetual expression of droll humor,” whose shoulders droop and head thrusts forward on a long neck.
It’s just now occurred to me that maybe Mr. Gardner was deliberately misleading us with his team’s physical identities. It’s entirely reasonable he would wish to protect them in the event of reassignment to other, perhaps even hairier undertakings in the eternal struggle for truth, justice, forth. At the moment, however, MMM’s superpowers are of greater interest than their appearances.
Granted, on the surface Mason and his crew display attributes one might expect in top-tier professionals of their kind--or at least which could be contained within mortal bounds. Mason’s NFL-linebacker’s physique, for example, the crushing grip, the pugnacious spirit, zen-like mental control, and I’m guessing he can make a fairly decent omelet or poached egg in a pinch. His legal knowledge may seem superhuman to some, but I would argue this appears so by comparison with the theatrically dim performances of prosecutors he routinely opposes. Fortunately Mason’s lawyerly skills are on par with those of the judges who try his cases—men, of course, as this was a time when even the formidable Della Street was regarded as “the girl” by none other than Gardner himself—who always ultimately agree with Mason despite his penchant for highly irregular courtroom practices. One might speculate as to whether Mason’s skills extended to some form of subtle hypnotic spellbinding of these strangely sympatico men of the bench.
We’re homing in here on just what it could have been beyond Mason’s competence, both physical and jurisprudential, that elevated him to the realm of superherodom. I postulate it was a cerebral brilliance that impinged upon the outer limits of some mechanical contraption on the order of, say, the Cray Supercomputer. Could it be that Perry Mason’s brain was either somehow melded with such a device or else had been implanted with a microchip that corresponded directly and instantaneously with some such? Else how could he reach beyond intuition, invariably with indomitable confidence, to know, for example, which of the four identities assumed by a suspect in various contexts was in fact the actual one, as he did in Rolling Bones? I mean Mason was supposed to be a lawyer, no? Not Carnac the Magnificent or Sherlock Holmes, for Pete’s sake!
Which brings us to Paul Drake, MMM’s detective but most certainly no Sherlock Holmes, either. Yet Drake NEVER FAILED! Whenever Mason needed someone shadowed, someone who might at that moment be sitting across from him in the office, he’d slip a note to Della Street, who’d slip across the hall to Drake, who’d immediately place an operative—sometimes waiting right in the building’s elevator--to tail the person to wherever he or she would go. Drake was always in his office when needed for this, and always had plenty of operatives available at a moment’s notice. And he had “correspondents” wherever in the world he needed them to pick up the trail of someone or obtain information the instant Drake contacted them.

In The Case of the Postponed Murder, Gardner’s last report (published three years after his death in 1970), Drake literally overnight digs up evidence of a check forgery ostensibly committed by a missing woman Mason’s been hired to find and help.
Mason tells his client, claiming to be the woman’s sister, “Go see Paul Drake. In all probability, one of his operatives can locate your sister within twenty-four hours. If it turns out your sister is in any difficulty and she needs legal help, I’ll still be available.”
Della Street said, “This way, Miss Farr. I’ll take you to Mr Drake’s office.”
Next morning Drake tells Mason what he’d learned about the forgery, and predicts he’ll locate the woman in two or three hours.

And we dare not overlook Della Street, who played a lower-keyed but equally effective role for the team. She could whip out a steno pad and take impeccable notes on what was being said anytime, anywhere. She also found things the men missed, and sometimes had help from cosmic convergence. In Rolling Bones she and Mason and Drake are musing over a woman Drake’s operatives have located. They’re not sure but whether the woman’s using a fake name. While they’re talking, Della Street is perusing the day’s newspapers’ classifieds. Within minutes, SHAZAM!!, she hits paydirt. “This what you want? ‘L. C. Conway, 57, to Marcia Whittaker, 23.’ Notice of intention to wed.”
My word!
I suppose my admiration for Mr. Gardner’s superheros would be all the greater had they applied their powers helping the “poor” people Mason said he preferred to the rich. But that would be unbelievable. After all how could impecunious clients support the most effective criminal defense law firm in Southern California and the largest, quickest, most honest, most successful detective agency ever known?
Could this very, very minor oddity have some bearing on why Albert Einstein hid his Perry Mason paperbacks behind the heavy physics tomes in his office at Princeton University? Relatively speaking, of course? Because that’s where William Tangney, Princetonian reporter later to become founding editor of Virginia’s York Town Crier, discovered them minutes after news of Einstein’s death reached the campus. Had the great man been honoring MMM’s elitist reputation by keeping its chronicles’ egalitarian publications discreetly concealed?
The prosecution rests, uneasily.

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

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

THE ECHO MAKER – Richard Powers

I doubt I'd have been able to discuss The Echo Maker if I hadn't found something I thought was wrong with it. It's almost too daunting. "You stagger out of Powers’s novel happy to find yourself, like Scrooge the morning after, grasping your own bedpost, saying 'There’s no place like home,'" says Margaret Atwood in The New York Review of Books, "and hoping you still have a chance to set things right."
And Patrick Ness in The Guardian: "His books seem wrought rather than written, and try as he might, he can't help but make you feel just that little bit stupid."

I feel a little bit like Homer Simpson would trying to write about Finnegan's Wake, but I’m too stubborn to shirk making an effort, if only just to stitch together some of the erudite observations by vastly more sophisticated readers who dared to step forward and put them on the record. The Echo Maker, after all, is a must read for anyone busy being born, not busy dying (to steal shamelessly from a Nobel laureate).
And for those readers perched on the edge of their seats eagerly seeking an opening to accuse me of oversimplification with my observations, I hereby address their indubitably accurate assessment right here and now: The core notion in both Richard Powers novels I've read—The Echo Maker and The Overstory—condemns the human species as having evolved too far for its own good. We've come to know too much about too little, and too little about too much. In even simpler terms, because our lizard brains continue to call the shots despite what our higher intellect knows to be true, we are doomed. Powers brings the humility to us more delicately with this quote from Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey:

As for men, those myriad little detached ponds with their own swarming corpuscular life, what were they but a way that water has of going about beyond the reach of rivers?

Be assured, Powers is a preacher. A preacher in the mold of those 18th century Boston Unitarian pulpiteers whose eloquent oratory nudged statesmen, merchants, and the general citizenry to set their sights a tad higher than base appetite and self-servitude. Morality for the sake of a civil society was the impetus then. It was good for everyone for each to be good. Not enough anymore, Powers contends. In fact it's likely way too late for good by anyone to do most anyone any good beyond the short-term illusion. As someone in the Bible must have said or at least pondered, we've pretty much sealed our fate.


Yes, I am most grateful to have found something to carp about in this incredibly, brilliantly overwhelming novel. It has to do with neither plot, science, philosophy, conjecture, or fluidity of thought, all of which contribute to the overall disquieting effect of The Echo Maker. My quibble is with the humble element of the writer's craft, about which I will have more to say after a brief synopsis/discussion of the astonishing features alluded to in the previous sentence. I probably shouldn't have said "brief," as I doubt I can be as concise as I, and you, most certainly would prefer. But please bear with me. I shall try, we shall see.
Powers brings his scenario of doom to us in the guise of several seemingly disparate narrative rivulets, each engaging us in its own way as it meanders through crises of purpose and identity edging incrementally closer to the others with a momentum toward confluence in a larger, more portentous story. A key to Powers's power is a storytelling gift that enables him to deliver conclusions from his boundless intellect in a palatable embrace accessible to curious muddlers like me. And Powers understands the importance of story, most likely more keenly than I, who without question would stumble pitiably off the foot bridge to understanding his wizardry without the rope of story to hold onto to steady my nerves. One of the principal characters in The Echo Maker, a cognitive neurologist, emphasizes its fundamental importance:

Consciousness works by telling a story, one that is whole, continuous, and stable. When that story breaks, consciousness rewrites it. Each revised draft claims to be the original. And so, when disease or accident interrupts us, we’re often the last to know.

The novel’s plot unfolds in the minds of three individuals besides the cognitive neurologist: a young man with brain damage who believes his sister is an imposter; the sister, who tries mightily to convince him she’s real, and Powers, constantly looking over everyone’s shoulder explaining what they see and are thinking, And there’s the irritation for me: too much ‘splaining and not enough showing. His kibitzing intrudes needlessly, tediously, and, as one professional reviewer put it, the prose lacks levity. Powers’s voice here brings to mind the brightest kid in class forever displaying his superior knowledge. The kind eager to explain in minute detail, without himself laughing, why a joke is funny. Possibly the only aspect of human cognizance Powers either doesn’t get or is blind to for its narrative value is subtlety.
Yet these shortcomings are mere nit specks in the extraordinary tapestry he has woven for us to make his point that we just might yet have a miniscule chance of getting our shit together in time to avoid flushing ourselves down the toilet of extinction.

He uses as an analogy the marvelously mysterious sandhill crane, known by the very earliest Americans as “echo makers” for their unearthly cries. “All the humans revered Crane, the great orator,” Powers explains. “Where cranes gathered, their speech carried miles. The Aztecs called themselves the Crane People. One of the Anishinaabe clans was named the Cranes—Ajijak or Businassee—the Echo Makers. The Cranes were leaders, voices that called all people together. Crow and Cheyenne carved cranes’ leg bones into hollow flutes, echoing the echo maker.
Tecumseh tried to unite the scattered nations under the banner of Crane Power,’ Powers tells us, “but the Hopi mark for the crane’s foot became the world’s peace symbol. The crane’s foot—pie de grue—became that genealogist’s mark of branching descent, pedigree.”
These long-legged, graceful dancing birds land by the hundreds of thousands every year in a Nebraska marsh on their seasonal migrations. Two former lovers of the brain-damaged man’s sister are adversaries over disposition of the wetlands that host these legendary birds. One is a preservationist, the other a developer scheming to build a tourist facility to celebrate the birds in an ironic twist destroying their habitat.

One million species heading toward extinction,” says Daniel, one of the sister’s lovers. “We can’t be too choosy about our private paths.”
The sister muses, “Something in Daniel mourned more than the cranes. He needed humans to rise to their station: conscious and godlike, nature’s one shot at knowing and preserving itself. Instead, the one aware animal in creation had torched the place.”
One might think these details thicken the plot enough already. One would be wrong. It gets plenty thicker. Much of The Echo Maker has to do with the brain, of humans and others. My Homer Simpson wisdom ventures a guess that what Powers is doing with his dazzling exposition of cutting-edge neurological science is to show us how fractured we are, how amorphous and shifting is our sense of who we are and what we are, and how terribly wee we are in the cosmic scheme of it all.
Powers gives us science so mind-blitzing we can’t help but wonder at its veracity, yet we know from others who’ve done their Googling that it’s real. Anecdotes of people whose lives have been horribly deranged by injury or changes in their brain chemistry are enough to make me consider wearing a football helmet everywhere, even to bed.
Alright now here’s something that if it isn’t true Powers ought to be tarred and covered with crane feathers and made to get a better haircut. The following whacked me especially hard upside the head because I had exactly the described experience back in the day, although it wasn’t induced in the same way. No stream of electrodes was employed; mine came with the so-called illegal smile. Here’s the one with the juice (big words be damned):

Consider autoscopy and out-of-body experience. Neuroscientists in Geneva concluded that the events resulted from paroxysmal cerebral dysfunctions of the temporoparietal junction. A little electrical current to the proper spot in the right parietal cortex, and anyone could be made to float up to the ceiling and gaze back down on their abandoned body.

Wondering now if maybe that smile of mine (or its motivator) didn’t generate a certain mellow sort of buzz in my right parietal cortex. As it happened, I’d been watching Sam Ervin on TV gently interrogating White House Special Counsel John Dean.
In addition to the exhausting mystery of our brain, a more mundane question hovers over one of the narrative threads in The Echo Maker. Mark, the brain-damaged man, doesn’t remember how he came to flip his truck on a straightaway (albeit while driving some 80 m.p.h. at night) leaving him trapped under the three tons of steel in a marsh during the migrating sandhill crane layover. Author Powers gradually feeds us random clues, which, as all good mystery yarns should, merely awaken new questions and speculations as momentum builds to the solution, which, I daresay, is a lollapalooza.
Did I say there was no humor in The Echo Maker? I trust I didn’t put it quite like that. Something did give me a pretty good laugh, before a sudden lump in my throat made the verbal mirth sound a tad hollow. Here’s what caused the confusion:
This is it. Carhenge,” says the brain scientist to his female companion. (They’re on a Nebraska road trip.) The huge gray stones turn into automobiles. Three dozen spray-painted junkers stood on end or draped as lintels across one another. A perfect replica. They are out of the car, walking around the standing circle. He manages a pained imitation of mirth. Here it is: the ideal memorial for the blinding skyrocket of humans, natural selection’s brief experiment with awareness. And everywhere, thousands of sparrows nest in the rusted axles.


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