Monday, August 31, 2015

Forgotten Books: (Two Minute Warning)

Two debut novels with an identical theme—terrorism at the Super Bowl—came out in 1975 bringing singular success to their authors: they sold to the movies. Both films—Two Minute Warning and Black Sunday--starred big-name actors. One flopped, the other hit. The author of the flop published 14 more novels, yet today is essentially forgotten despite winning a PEN award for one and success on the screen with another. The hit's author is known as the creator of arguably the greatest modern fictional bad guy: Hannibal Lecter.
It might be no accident that Thomas Harris's blast-off success, Black Sunday, also features a weighty villain—a ruthless operative in the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September. By contrast, the villain in George La Fountaine's Two Minute Warning is a young man of little substance with no interesting motive, the stereotypical lone gunman soured on life, as much a victim as those who fall within his rifle sights.

The famous Goodyear blimp hovers as a symbolic paradox in the fate of these two stories. In Two Minute Warning a TV camera in the gondola provides the first glimpse of the sniper hidden behind the scoreboard. Terrorists hijack the blimp in Black Sunday to deliver a bomb whose shrapnel can prove lethal to all 80,000 people inside the stadium, including the U.S. President.
Blimp as good guy, blimp as bad guy. Which one looms on book cover and movie poster? Bad blimp, of course. Why we are fascinated more by villains is above my pay grade, but we are. A primal thing maybe. The thing that could end up giving Donald Trump control over our hair styles like that other child monster has over his subjects, in North Korea.

From what we have, it seems plausible to blame the blimp for La Fountaine's literary flame-out. Although Black Sunday comes out ahead in a comparison of the writing--Harris was a newspaper wordsmith when he wrote it; cinematography was La Fountaine's trade--we know fine writing alone does not a blazing commercial success necessarily make. Robert Stone and Ron Faust come to mind. At the spectrum's opposite end we find E. L. “Shades of Grey” James.
Whatever it might be, the formula for success, La Fountaine learned quickly. He proved this with his second novel, Flashpoint, published the following year. A New York Times review pronounced it "much better--more original, written with more security, and with a chilling impact in its last pages." It took a little longer for Flashpoint to make it to the movies—eight years--but its success towered over Two Minute Warning's. It remains one of my all-time favorites, and it introduced me to La Fountaine's novels.
And to his mystery.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Angel's Return

I didn't recognize her. It had been over a year, and I'd had only the one glimpse of her face, a momentary meeting of eyes when we smiled. The other two sightings, within a week or so of the doctor's office, time proximity enabled me to recognized her from a greater distance. I don't believe she saw me on either occasion. We were shopping.
And here we were today, again shopping, in a small crowded farmer's market. It did not occur to me it was she. My angel.
As at first her presence registered a mild annoyance. Then, because she was ahead of me in line at the appointment window, today I found her in my way a couple of times as I prowled the narrow aisles. There were other browsers and they also annoyed me. I'm never comfortable shopping. The fewer other shoppers the less my irritation.
The angel annoyed me more than the others because it appeared she was ill. The clue was her odd off-white flannel head covering. I assumed it covered baldness from chemo, and I get edgy in the presence of sick people. I never looked at her face.

As fate would have it, we found ourselves approaching the cashier simultaneously. Irritated though I was—ever impatient at check-out time—I of course was a gentleman. I likely mumbled something appropriate. If she said anything I didn't hear it. When it seemed she'd finished with the cashier and stepped away I moved up to unloaded my basket. Her plastic bag of produce was still on the counter. I touched the bag and asked if the angel was finished. The cashier said yes. I have the sense now the angel might have been waiting for someone. As she never retrieved her bag while I was transacting, I assume it was still there after I paid for my items and left. She and her plastic bag vanished from my mind the instant I turned and started back to my truck.
Thence recurred a more powerful irritation than that in the market, this one provoked initially by the spectacle that deranged my better nature when I arrived there during my lunch hour. Pickups, vans, SUVs and cars were jammed haphazardly into the tiny customer parking area. Cursing repeatedly without sound, I threaded my small pickup through the jumble to get from the street to a slot in the row of vehicles stretched along the side near the rear of the property. Accomplishing this without mishap, I felt my ire ebb as I walked across the gravel to the rows of produce under the roof. It returned the instant I stepped back out with my purchases. The lot as cluttered as before.
Getting out would require a series of cramped maneuvers to avoid scratching or dinging metal or backing into another shopper returning to or coming from his or her vehicle while doubtlessly absorbed by the ubiquitous hand-held digital device. I had just completed the final backup of my escape pattern and was about to turn toward the exit when I glanced to my left. There she stood, scant feet away holding her bag of produce and staring at me as if we'd both just dodged disaster.
I recognized her only as the bald woman whose bag of produce I'd touched moments earlier. Anger and vulnerability vied for dominance in my head. I wasn't certain I had looked carefully enough out that side of my truck while backing up. Her wide blue eyes suggested I had not. Yet, they were hesitant. Was she betraying suspicion of her own negligence in approaching too near a moving vehicle? Our mutual ambivalence, as I see it now, held fast in equipoise until I broke off my gaze and drove back to the street.
Her face haunted me on my way home. I was unpacking my purchases on the kitchen counter a short time later when something else in those startled eyes came through to me. There was a quiet friskiness in them. A glow of serene thrill. Her health evidently had worsened in the fourteen months since I'd last seen her, but she gave off no fear. No sign of surrender. Unbeaten. My angel was still in the game.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What's Wrong with Dorfman? [book report]

I put off reading What's Wrong with Dorfman as long as I could. Not because I was afraid it wouldn't be good. I knew it would be terrific, which is why I finally gave in and read it. I read it despite knowing that whatever was wrong with Dorfman would soon be wrong with me. I was right, of course. This is precisely what happened.
Dorfman wakes up disoriented, dizzy, nauseous, depressed, and has diarrhea. As I followed his symptoms in the book it became grotesquely clear to me I had them, too—except for the depression. The saving grace was John Blumenthal's devious comic sensibility. Every time I started feeling depressed along with Dorfman, I came to something that made me laugh. If only poor Dorfman could have read What's Wrong with Dorfman whenever he started sliding into depression maybe he would have laughed like I did, and felt better. But let's get real.

Dorfman's dad was a doctor, a medical doctor. He was such a conscientious doctor he took the blood pressures of Dorfman, Dorfman's sister and their mother several times a day. He admonished the three of them repeatedly, whenever they were in his presence, even as adults, before meals and, in fact, whenever it occurred to him, to wash their hands and to make sure they worked up a good lather with the soap. This reminded me of my own father, who constantly harped about washing hands. The only difference was my father never mentioned the lather part. But then my father wasn't a physician. He never took our blood pressure.
It seemed fairly evident to me, as it's probably seeming evident to you, that Dorfman's father--who did other nutty things, as well, such as following everyone around in his house turning out the lights behind them—that Dorfman's father was the reason for Dorfman's symptoms. That he was neurotic, just as my father was neurotic.
Living with such nuttiness it would be expected of Dorfman to be neurotic, too. Unless the experts have re-defined neurosis, or if in fact there even is such a disorder anymore. For the sake of coherence here, let us say there is indeed such a thing as neurosis. Let us say further it's pretty damned clear Dorfman and his doctor dad were both neurotic nightmares.
I'm not going to give anything away here and confirm or deny that what was wrong with Dorfman was caused by neuroses caused by his nutty father. That would be too easy. Dorfman himself would—and did--scoff at such a suggestion. He spent tens of thousands of dollars seeing specialists and undergoing every test known to medical science. He sought treatments not recognized by medical science, such as a Chinese “herbal treatment” that might well have been based on dried “cow turds,” and torture prescribed by a chiropractic allergist.
It should come as no huge surprise that Dorfman is a hypochondriac. This means he is ambivalent with test results that turn up nothing frightening, such as cancer or an aneurysm that could kill instantly without a wisp of warning. He's relieved as well as disappointed. His recreational reading consists of “The Big Red Book” of diseases. He commiserates and talks of suicide with a down-on-her-luck actress named Delilah, whom he met in his doctor's waiting room and who suffers symptoms identical to his.
Dorfman, by the way, is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter. While he suffers with the uncertainty of his intermittent symptoms—that's another thing, they come and go unpredictably—his screenplay, a comic cop story, is undergoing the horrendous Hollywood sausage grinder committee process that could ruin him for good if it fails, or save his career if it ever becomes a movie.
Yikes, my own neuroses (yes, me too), which I've pretty much maneuvered into dormancy over the years, are giving me flashback pains in the abdomen by my merely recounting what's wrong with Dorfman's life. I must go now before I contract sympathetic diarrhea.
Okay, I can tell you this: What's Wrong with Dorfman has what I would call a happy ending. If it didn't I would not be sitting here writing this report. I'd be reading an outdated magazine in the waiting room at my doctor's office. In other words no matter what is wrong with you, you will find What's Wrong with Dorfman not only safe to read but rather a hoot—so long as you read the whole thing straight through to the end.
An added benefit for me is that I now diligently work up a good lather with the soap when washing my hands. You should, too.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

I'm Interviewing Muses [book report]

I and most likely every human male since the species first appeared in the cosmos have been tormented by what has seemed the ultimate unanswerable question, “What do women want?”
Having read the above sentence you might be thinking something along the lines of, “Aha, at last I am about to know the answer.” Forget it, pal. The only “answer” you will find in Laura Stinchcomb's amusing little book, I'm Interviewing Muses, is another question: “What say we just forget about that other question?”
Stinchcomb's writing, which can be described as evoking an unthinkable collaboration between Erma Bombeck and Prof. Irwin Corey, has persuaded me that even women, no matter what they might say or think they want, haven't the slightest clue as to what they really want.
One might expect a man reading such revelations from the mind of an intelligent, articulate, good-humored and admittedly snarky New Jersey mother and wife to scream in self-righteous frustration. I can be as self-righteously frustrated as the next guy, but I did not scream thusly while reading I'm Interviewing Muses. Not even once. I laughed my ass off, is what I did.
An underlying theme is Stinchcomb's obsession—she's reaching that stage in life when women refer to each other as being “of a certain age”--with becoming “a sex symbol.” We learn about her experiments with collagen injections to puff up her lips, and what happens at a party when, wearing breast tape, she bends over too far and reveals too much, and how she claims to have saved her flagging marriage by, on a whim, deciding to have sex with her husband every day. It works brilliantly for over a year, she says, until he pooped out.
On another, admittedly less connubial whim, she cuts down on her trips to the drycleaners because “I have decided that I like to hear my husband ask me in an almost begging way to drop off and pick up his shirts.”
She fantasizes what it would have been like having sex with George Washington. The George Washington, with all the 18th century body stenches including that of fecal traces, a permanent sinus infection and rotting teeth.
She loves potbellies on men.
Are we getting the picture here? Is it just Stinchcomb having a little snarky fun? Or is she ratting out an entire gender?
Can we ever know for sure?
Do we really want to?

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Autumn Dead [book report]

No doubt serious scholars of Ed Gorman's extensive literary oeuvre would sniff, or even snicker, were I to suggest that Sam McCain was conceived at least twelve years before The Day the Music Died. I hate being subjected to academic scorn. This is why I would never suggest that arguably Gorman's most popular character became a gleam in its creator's mind's eye sometime during the writing of The Autumn Dead.

It is irrelevant, I would contend, that The Autumn Dead is only the penultimate Jack Dwyer novel in Gorman's debut mystery series. The Cry of Shadows comes out two years later, in 1990. But it's in The Autumn Dead that the Dwyer of the series' first three novels begins to reveal an evolving persona. One that will emerge a dozen years down the road to launch a ten-book run as lawyer/PI Sam McCain.

Additional evidence is the setting of The Autumn Dead, more defined than in the earlier novels: a small Midwestern town, unnamed, but with features strikingly similar to McCain's Black River Falls, Iowa.

There are finer details that would fit neatly into a comparison were that my aim here. I'll mention only one, the one that brings The Autumn Dead closest to the McCain novels in its effect on me. The one that left my heart aching with bittersweet memories long after I finished reading. The one that took me back to my own youth when dreams held real promise and disappointments seemed mere bumps along the Yellow Brick Road to a magical future.

Jack Dwyer trips back to those days from a vantage filled with reminders there is no magic behind the curtain in youthful dreams. A former high school flame prompts his journey in time when she appears out of the blue needing his help. She dies in his arms while dancing at their twenty-fifth class reunion. He soon learns she likely was murdered and that others of their former schoolmates could be involved. An ex-policeman, Dwyer sets out to learn what happened.

The Autumn Dead is the darkest and most violent of the four Dwyer books I have read (The Cry of Shadows is inexplicably out of print), and its violence exceeds any of the McCain novels. In fact it's the most violent of anything I've read by Gorman.

The writing is superb, as always, with the first-person narrator's signature self-deprecating humor and compassionate outlook. Dwyer's approach in confrontations is carrot/stick, with the stick always a last resort.

Gorman's characters are never uninteresting. While some appear initially as caricatures all reveal complexities enough that any one of them is plausibly capable of virtually anything. Not unlike real life.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Murder in the Wings [book report]

Were I Police Detective Edelman and I had the faded TV star Stephen Wade in my custody I'd lock him up, close the case and take a long, well-deserved vacation. This is one murder rap not even my buddy Jack Dwyer--former cop, now private eye and sometime actor—is going to upend, believe me.
I mean, look. Let's be realistic here. Wade's fingerprints are all over the knife that's buried in Michael Reeves's back. Okay? Need more? Opportunity: A reliable witness sees Wade enter Reeves's apartment around the time of the murder. Motive? Hours earlier Reeves had shoved, slapped and humiliated Wade in front of the rest of the cast of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night following Wade's drunken bumbling, stumbling, mumbling performance. Reeves directed the production and is the local theater's resident director.
One might think even Jack Dwyer would let this one go, especially considering the victim was not a likable guy. Somewhat of a loathsome guy, actually. The kind of guy who probably had it coming anyway. But, then, Jack Dwyer's not the kind of guy who gives up easily. Not the kind, either, to rush to judgment, no matter how loathsome it might be to keep an open mind.
One suspects Ed Gorman is a Dwyer kind of guy. He created Jack Dwyer and used this quote by the late British author Gerald Kersh to introduce Murder in the Wings, our currently discussed Dwyer mystery: ". . . there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment."
In Murder in the Wings, Jack Dwyer neither hates the man charged with murder nor has to look for any chinks in his armor. There is no armor. Stephen Wade is himself writhing in torment, destroying his career and his life with drink. He is also Dwyer's friend. Dwyer was one of the cast members in this disastrous performance of O'Neill's classic play. He restrained the actor after a fight broke out between the two enraged men. It was Dwyer whom Wade called, in a drunken stupor, from Reeves's apartment where he said he found his tormentor lying face down in bed with a knife protruding between his shoulder blades.

Nope. No way Jack Dwyer is going to let this one go. Not even after Wade admits he isn't positive he didn't stab the loathsome director to death. Not even after he waves a .45 at Dwyer and flees sobbing into the night. Dwyer couldn't let this one go if he wanted to, if only because his lovably flaky girlfriend, Donna Harris, has decided that “sweet” Stephen Wade did not—could not—murder anyone, not even someone as loathsome as Michael Reeves.
Besides, taking a closer look one sees there are plenty of folks, in the theater group alone, with motive, opportunity and means to have done the dirty deed.
Ed Gorman's at the top of his game with this novel. His writing is crisp and insightful, with moments of pure poetic joy. His characters are so real you feel you know them, or would like to. His plotting is intricate and daring. He keeps you guessing right up to the eminently satisfying denouement.
And the humor. Oh, mercy. It sneaks up and gooses you when you least expect it. There seems always to be a scene or two in every Gorman novel that sets me to laughing so hard I worry I will not be able to stop. Or that the neighbors will call 911. This time, about halfway through Murder in the Wings, I grabbed my cell phone thinking I might need to make the call myself.
Turns out I didn't. But I was ready.