Tuesday, May 31, 2016

THE LOBBYISTS: How Influence Peddlers Work Their Way in Washington – Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

Jack Abramoff 's describing himself as “America's Most Notorious Lobbyist” was clever bait, and no doubt sold more copies of his memoir than had its cover instead whined “Victim of Dirty Rotten System.” It garnered more Amazon customer reviews than all the other serious books on Washington lobbying combined. I was looking for such a book, but I didn't take Abramoff's bait.

His name rang a bell from some years back, when he got busted and hung out to dry, so his “notorious” hyperbole was redundant for me. A quick scan of the book's 111 reviews told me the alternate subtitle would have been the more meaningful. I chose instead a book with only a single Amazon review, a book neither whining nor trumpeting notoriety. It's the work of a respected journalist purporting merely to explain the system: The Lobbyists: How Influence Peddlers Work Their Way in Washington.

As I started reading The Lobbyists it struck me I might be scratching a dangerous itch, exploring a question of the sort that had occupied my aviator father whenever he learned of an airplane crash: was it caused by mechanical failure or pilot error? I don't believe he ever explained the significance of this difference to me in so many words. I was a boy, but I wonder now if he was sure he could explain it satisfactorily even to himself. It boiled down to control, I believe. Flying was as close to a religion as my father ever came. Flying itself had to be safe, with as few elements left to chance as possible. The burden fell almost entirely on the pilot to manage the aircraft. If the pilot didn't do his job, he said, the plane “will fly like a piano.” The faith part was twofold—the pilot had to believe he was doing everything right, and he had to trust that his airplane would not without actionable warning turn into a piano.

Reading The Lobbyists I began to understand Jack Abramoff's appeal to so many as villain, not victim. Because he is right. The corruption he blames is thorough and entrenched. So much easier to impute one whose luck ran out than to admit our government is flying like a piano. But this is what then Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum forces us to do. The Lobbyists is framed around an account of one of the nation's toughest budget fights, pitting a new president's “read my lips: no new taxes” campaign pledge against our government's worst ever fiscal deficit. Birnbaum spent over three years doing research and interviews, including a year embedded with some of the nation's most powerful lobbyists. His report reads like suspense fiction. The reality of what happened heightens its drama but brings a disheartening prospect. He delivers this blunt conclusion at the starting gate:

Washington has become a club in which the line between those inside and those outside the government is not clearly drawn. Corporate lobbyists have so suffused the culture of the city that at times they seem to be part of the government itself. One result is that corporate America, once a perennial sacrificial lamb when it came to government crackdowns, has become something of a sacred cow. Not only are lawmakers and policymakers reluctant to make changes that would hurt businesses, they even have a tendency to try to help them, as long as budgetary pressures do not interfere. In 1990, Congress passed, and President Bush signed, the biggest deficit-reduction bill ever. But of its approximately $140 billion in tax increases over five years, only 11 percent came from corporations. The rest came from individual, taxpaying families.

Let me repeat those last two sentences for emphasis: “...of its approximately $140 billion in tax increases over five years, only 11 percent came from corporations. The rest came from individual, taxpaying families. This disparity hardly seems new, at least as it plays in our current presidential primary rhetoric. But back then it cost Bush a second term as president. Pundits cited the Clinton campaign's in-house slogan “It's the economy, stupid,” as a reflection of the popular anger toward Bush's presidency and its knuckling under to corporate lobbyists. Clinton capitalized on this anger:

Public awareness of— and disdain for— lobbyists reached a new height with the presidential campaign of 1992. Ross Perot never tired of bashing “alligator-shoed” lobbyists. And Bill Clinton quickly copied him with his own brand of populism. In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, candidate Clinton said of President Bush, he “won’t break the stranglehold the special interests have on our elections and the lobbyists have on our government. But I will.” Influence peddlers, and the special interests they represented, came to symbolize everything that was wrong with Washington, and Clinton’s election confirmed that the public wanted the system to change.

And Clinton acted on his pledge, imposing new lobbying bans in his administration and pushing new restrictive legislation. But the bans were “riddled with loopholes and affected few people. Experts agreed that lobbying would remain a potent force. The 'stranglehold' of lobbyists would not be broken by President Clinton or anyone else.” Clinton knew this as well:
...despite the president’s populist rhetoric and legislation, he continued to work closely with lobbyists. One of the most important functions in the White House was to coordinate the support of lobbyists and their clients on behalf of the Clinton policies. There was a whole department devoted to the purpose. Clinton himself reached into the ranks of lobbyists to populate his administration. The top White House lobbyist, Howard Paster, was once a top corporate lobbyist; and several members of the cabinet, including Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown and Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, were also professional lobbyists.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
A dizzying cast of characters populates The Lobbyists besides the professional influence peddlers of its focus. Most dismaying to me was recognizing among them many names of former government officials and high-ranking staff in both Congress and the Executive Branch. Even former members of Congress were representing corporate interests in the lawmaking process. It was sometimes hard to keep them straight—in the government or working as lobbyists, with some occasionally going from public to private payroll and then back to public. Many government staffers freely admitted they put in a few public years becoming marketable before turning to lobbying to make serious money selling their name and access to former government employers.

Birnbaum avoids the hyperventilating tone of an exposé, presenting his details for the most part with the practiced poker face of a veteran newsman. He leaves it for us to respond with gasps at the unmistakable role the almighty dollar plays in this all-important game—the obligatory campaign fund-raising, speaking honoraria, gifts, free lunches and dinners, and all-expenses-paid trips and getaways for members of Congress and their families. All are technically legal, for the most part, according to laws the lawmakers themselves make. It's a technicality everyone involved, of course, hates to see celebrated in the news and on social media, especially during an election year. More prudent to shift the ignominy onto a hapless scapegoat like Jack Abramoff.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

WINNING TEXAS – Nancy Stancill

Bad news in Texas is good news for Annie Price, the leggy, intrepid Houston Times investigative reporter whose exposés broke up a dangerous secessionist plot and quashed a rich rancher's campaign for governor. Bad news good for Price despite the cost of a colleague's murder and almost her own, such being the calculated risks for clarion snoops of her stripe.

That was four years ago, described with nail-chewing suspense in Saving Texas, prequel to Winning Texas. Their author, former investigative journalist Nancy Stancill, has worried bad guys for newspapers in Houston, Charlotte, N.C., and Newport News, Va.
This time there's bad news for Price as well as the other kind of bad news, the good bad kind. Although she's been promoted to investigative editor, her newspaper is sinking like the Titanic—the deck is already awash under her feet, and the water's rising. But this is the kind of bad news daily newspapers are facing everywhere, with plunging readership and advertising revenue forcing owners to cut operating costs. This includes freezing pay, leaving vacancies open, and laying off staff. Price's team of reporters is stretched so thin she's forced to grab her notebook and hit the pavement herself when, while eating breakfast, she hears on the radio that a floater has turned up in the Houston Ship Channel by the Valero petroleum refinery. “Floater” is police parlance for water-borne corpse.
She heads down to the channel, her mind spinning with anxiety and excitement:

She'd never outgrown a reporter's stage fright, even now as a fairly experienced editor. She was spending too much time at her desk editing other people's stories. Would she still be able to coax enough details out of the police? Could she frame her story fast enough to be competitive? Would she get all the details right? Timing was everything on the police beat, especially now that Houston's radio, TV and newspapers all had fiercely competitive websites. She was definitely rusty and she'd always performed better on longer stories with more expansive deadlines. But she knew that once she got on the scene she'd stop worrying, and her skills would take over.

To her relief the lead detective on the scene is an old friend. They go for coffee. He fills her in on the skimpy available facts, which she phones in to the newsroom. For Annie Price the game is literally afoot once again.

Stancill bases her fictional material on real happenings. In Saving Texas, the secessionist movement, Nation of Texas, resonates from a long tradition of secessionist feeling in the Lone Star state. Annie Price's reporting drives it underground, but it's creeping back in the sequel. This time the ex-CIA operative who's secretly behind Nation of Texas targets a new group that's promoting German-Texas, also inspired by circumstances outside the novel. According to the Texas State Historical Association, “after Anglos, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans, the ethnic group with the largest impact on Texas has been the Germans.” Probing by Price and her team turns up key figures in the German-Texas movement, being sold ostensibly on the idea of encouraging businesses to emphasize their ethnic culture as an attraction for tourists to the Central Texas Hill Country, location of the largest German settlements.
As with the Nation of Texas movement, German-Texas has some questionable undertones, including a plan to arm members of the community supposedly as an adjunct to understaffed police departments. One of the movement's biggest donors is a man who owns a chain of strip clubs. A Houston Times reporter, one of Price's team, is beaten to death behind one of these clubs after trying unsuccessfully to interview the owner. Someone slashes the tires on Price's car parked behind her apartment. Another member of her team leaves to take a TV anchor job, and, as if in spite, moves in on Price's former fiance. Her personal life takes an unexpected hit when, intending to surprise her new lover at his apartment with the key he'd given her, she finds him in bed with another woman.
Nancy Stancill
Of course she's battling a drinking problem—the traditional occupational hazard, but... But she's intrepid, remember? Did I mention the “sinking” newspaper? Price can't help wondering if the Houston Times will still be there to print the story she's working on, if in fact she and her shrinking team can manage to live long enough to crack the case. The paper's owners have already jumped ship, notifying their employees in a grim newsroom meeting they've sold out to a hedge fund that intends within several weeks to shift the entire news operation to its website. This would mean reducing the already downsized staff to little more than a handful of reporters and editors. Would Price even have a job?
She can't let this stymie her, though, intrepid newsie that she is. Do she and her two remaining reporters get the story? Bet on it. Is there still a Houston Times to print it? Barely. Will there be a sequel to Winning Texas? Stancill promises us there will. It's a credible promise, too, as, like at the end of Saving Texas, a couple of really bad guys are still on the loose. There's even a chance Annie Price will finally make it to the altar with one of her on-again-off-again boyfriends, this one looking like a sure thing. If so, will her two cats mind? Probably, but isn't that what cats do?
[find more Friday's Forgotten Books reviewed at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog:

Monday, May 23, 2016

Snatch XIII (pain)

But bliss is an ambivalent if irresistible flirt. An opiate flash. An instant of fragile magic. Its recognition both grace and corruption. Yet, aware it only mimics redemption, is relative and can't last, carrying enough of the before to divine the after, I accept this gift with a deeper gratitude than I might have imagined, float with naked trust on its unearned buoyancy. And why? At the start, I suppose, because it distracted the pain.

Oh, the pain. My infantile anticipation of it fell woefully short of preparing me for its arrival, its suddenness and magnitude. A jolt of such surprising intensity, so unrelenting a murderous force, my immediate sense was of collusion, that somehow this boiling intrusion into my every essence, blocking the denial patterns in my neurological coding, was in part my own doing, my reckless push beyond the existential boundary to an ambiance where the practical joke held court.
That has to be it. A joke. Else I'd be dead, no? And the pain? Well, hell, that's a damned good question. It never did stop, mind you. Never diminished. Lit me up with celestial wattage, apparently for good. I'm still astounded how adaptable I must be to have gotten past its shock and managed to put the pain out of reach simply by paying it no heed. Like the tinnitus I've had as far back as I can recall. The constant locust whine I hear only when I turn my attention to it. The pain, this ultimate rending of nerves and the maddening whine by now I'm sure are in deep cahoots. I could laugh as well, knowing I remain in charge.”

Thursday, May 19, 2016

DOUBLE DEBUT – Bill Crider and Megan Abbott

A single word in the titles of their debut novels gave them away, told the world they were rolling their die in the crime-writing game. They won, and their streak is still hot. Bill Crider went first, in 1986, with Too Late to Die, a mystery featuring Sheriff Dan Rhodes, set in a small Texas town. The novel won the Anthony Award for best first novel, and Crider went on to write nineteen more Dan Rhodes mysteries and several other series and a bunch more novels and stories. His total of published novels has climbed to more than fifty.

In 2005 Megan Abbott gave us Die a Little, a noirish Hollywood underbelly mystery. Three years later her third crime novel, Queenpin, won an Edgar for best paperback original, and a Barry for best paperback novel. After publishing four more crime novels and a collection of stories, Abbott is coming out near the end of July with a new crime novel, You Will Know Me. Just so you know, it can be pre-ordered.
Being published for the first time is the last in a string of debuts for every novelist. The first for most, one presumes, is the act of putting the first words on a blank screen or sheet of paper. “Zounds,” you might whisper when this happens, celebrating with a Shakespearean expletive your embarkation upon the time-honored craft of engaging the imaginations of others with stories. The struggle itself, with plot, character, dialogue, scene, and an ever-present self-doubt, would be a sort of elongated debut leading to the next zoundsworthy debut, that of writing The End. There are the debuts then of writing the query letter to agents and/or publishers, the debut of sending the novel to strangers—agents or editors—any one of whom can help you celebrate the next debut, that of having a stranger like your novel enough to take a chance on it, either to send it around to publishers or to sell it to a publisher's decision makers, and probably a few more debuts I haven't thought of until finally, perhaps the biggest zounds eruption of them all, when you find yourself holding your first copy in your proud, trembling hands.

Whether Bill Crider intended his Too Late to Die as the debut of a twenty-book series featuring Sheriff Dan Rhodes, or just a stand-alone mystery, I cannot say. Too Late to Die was not my introduction to the series, as I had started somewhere in the middle. This made the series' first book the more interesting to me because I already knew most of the main characters and felt at home in Blacklin County, where Rhodes is sheriff. Would I notice any difference, in voice or style? Did Rhodes or Blacklin County change? Not that I could tell. I'm guessing you could switch all twenty in the series around like walnut shells in a find-the-pea game and, if I didn't know, I would be hard-pressed to pick the order they were written. I should add that Crider's writing is impeccable, packing much into an understated, authentic voice.
Here's what I mean: as the novel opens, Sheriff Rhodes is talking with the owner of a store that's just been burglarized. It's an election year and Rhodes has stiff competition in his bid for another term. Rhodes figures the store owner, Hod Barrett, probably won't vote for him.

The two men were standing on the cracked gray sidewalk in front of Hod’s store, shaded by a heavy wooden awning. Rhodes looked through the screen doors of the store with their faded Rainbow Bread stencils. He could see some of the old men on the red loafer’s bench by the soft drink cooler lean forward and perk up their ears. One of them spit a stream of snuff into a Styrofoam cup he held in his left hand. Any minute now, they would get up the nerve to walk outside and join in the conversation. Rhodes didn’t want to make a campaign speech, so he changed the subject. “Tell you what, Hod,” he said. “Let’s us go take a look at where the break-in was.”

Mayberry set in Texas, that's how Blacklin County comes across to me. There's not as much comedy, but there's some, mainly in the regular characters, two of whom are a couple of old geezers who work for Rhodes—one's the jailer, the other the dispatcher.There's also murder. The young wife of a fellow who works nights is found strangled in their home.The case gets complicated as Rhodes learns that various local men had a habit of stopping by at night to visit the woman, who, they all insisted, merely loved to chat. The investigation gets trickier when two suspects are murdered, one of them while Rhodes is questioning him at the stone quarry where the suspect was fishing.
I liked Too Late to Die a lot. Although I'm usually drawn more to voice and character and atmosphere than I am to plot or action, this novel has a good balance of all these aspects. In a burial scene at the local cemetery Crider masterfully combines comedy and high drama as well as giving Rhodes insight into a couple of suspects. And a chase near the conclusion is as exciting as any I have found in some of the most commercially successful thrillers.
The word “die” in the title and its debut status, and talented writing, are about the only things Megan Abbott's novel has in common with Crider's. Where Too Late to Die has a persistent upbeat feel broken by an occasional harsh downbeat, Die a Little brings a continuing crescendo of suspicion and foreboding. This from the get-go as narrator Lora describes meeting Alice, her future sister-in-law, at the hospital where she and Lora's brother, William, are being treated for minor injuries in a car accident. Alice had caused the accident, and William, a police investigator, was smitten while helping her out of her damaged car. At first, Lora is happy that her brother obviously is taken by the pretty young woman:

He laughed when he said it, which was how I knew the driver was young and pretty, and troubling and helpless, all of which seemed, suddenly to me, to be just what he wanted, what he had been waiting for all along. It happened just like that. I realized it about him just like that, without ever having thought it before. “Is she all right?” “She had a concussion, but she’s okay. She sprained her wrist trying to break her fall.” He touched his own wrist as he said it, with great delicacy. This gesture confirmed it all.

We already know something's not right, though, before we reach this part early in the first chapter. We feel it at the very beginning, from Lora's wistful tone as she remembers William. The two lived together before Alice entered their lives. Lora taught school:

Later, the things I would think about. Things like this: My brother never wore hats. When we were young, he wouldn’t wear one even to church and my mother and then grandmother would force one on his head. As soon as he could he would tug it off with soft, furtive little boy fingers. They made his head hot, he would say. And he’d palm the hat and run his fingers through his downy blond hair and that would be the end of the hat.
When he began as a patrolman, he had to wear a cap on duty, but it seemed to him far less hot in California than in the South, and he bore up. After he became a junior investigator for the district attorney, he never wore a hat again. People often commented on it, but I was always glad. Seeing his bristly yellow hair, the same as when he was ten years old, it was a reminder that he still belonged to our family, no matter where we’d move or what new people came into our lives.

Lora's misgivings grow to suspicions after William and Alice are married. It's Alice's background that concerns her. Too mysterious, things don't quite add up. Alice said she'd worked as a seamstress for a Hollywood film studio, but also claims to have credentials to teach. She gets a job at the school where Lora teaches, but her promised credentials never arrive at the school. Lora, feeling protective of her brother, begins secretly trying to learn more about his new wife. Her efforts lead her into the dark side of Hollywood where drugs, prostitution, and eventually murder occur. She finds her own innocence slipping away in the corrosive environment.
Her voice is strong and clear, her intelligence a constant to the very end. I'm not ordinarily attracted to dark novels, and I'm not sure why. I've always preferred happy endings, is one reason. Another, I'm wondering, is the danger of being seduced by the dark side along with characters I've come to like who rarely end up the way I would like them to. Die a Little's dark suspense and inevitable end are a credit to the genre. The novel seduced me as I'd feared it would, and I'm glad it did.
[find more Friday's Forgotten Books reviewed at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog: 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Snatch XII (pondering paralysis)

I mean, theoretically were I to try to move something, just a finger, or blink my eyes, or take a breath, even, and I couldn't, and nothing would happen, no action the signal from my brain would affect, I...the panic could kill me, scare me to death. Not that death alone, just by itself, would be so unwelcome. Total paralysis? Absolute, unequivocally complete paralysis? Another story. I'd go mad. That would come first. And not the sort of gibbering, slobberingmadness that's a sanctuary from comprehension, the psychological womb where one feels safe from memory, from its secrets, not that. No. No. No. But the kind of madness that's in stark, unyielding, undeviating communion with a feral imagination so unmanageable it surpasses exponentially the most hideous fevered delirium where even then one instinctively senses at least the hope of a latent mercy just beyond reach.
"Not this time. The madness residing in this unconscionable imagination feeds off the likelihood of every fear one has ever experienced and can conceive of experiencing looming just out of view, waiting to do with one what it wishes whenever it chooses. This I am without doubt would occur were I to try to move and fail. I would know beyond rescue I am stuck in a hellish, incrementally whimsical doom. A fly of uncommon sentience caught intractably in a web across which the measured approach of some other on the connected strands can be felt but not yet seen. No thank you. I choose, for the moment anyway, to keep the option of knowing open. The merest possibility of physical freedom in this circumstance of lethally slender range is nothing short of bliss."

Monday, May 9, 2016


Back when you were so much older, as the saying goes, and that wild-haired, skinny troubadour taunted you in his nasty, nasal, tone-deaf voice that you didn't know what was happening did you, it annoyed you a tad, didn't it? You laugh, of course, now that you are younger and able to accept there are many things you don't know and never will and don't give a big cahoot about knowing. Many things.

There are things, though, that you do give a big cahoot about knowing. One of these is the singular recording everyone seems to be looking for, that some would pay big money for, kill for. The things you want to know are, regarding the tape, what is on it and where it is. But this, the tape, really is only of secondary size among your cahoots, at first. The big one at first is how to get back your stolen Phish concert tickets. You eventually discover a connection, between the tickets and the tape, and once this revelation comes to you, the tape immediately ascends as the subject of your biggest cahoot.
At this point, were this an earlier day and you a sly, dangerous, knockout dame, you'd hire a tough private eye—say, Sam Spade—to find the dingus--the tape—and get your tickets back to boot, before you bumped him off. But this is not an earlier day. It's right now, and you're not any kind of dame. You're Quentin Pfeiffer, aging Dead Head/former Phish Follower/married-soon-to-become-father trying cautiously to pass the rocker torch to his wife's guileless niece and her callow boyfriend by taking them to a Phish reunion concert at Long Island's Jones Beach. This is where things go haywire in a strobing progression so incrementally ominous that if you were not already enjoying a half-decent karmic equilibrium you might feel a need to start calling yourself “Dude.”
Pfeiffer abides without such accouterments, although for our (and the typesetter's) benefit The Ashakiran Tape's narrator calls him simply “Q.” The sly, dangerous, knockout dame in this adventure calls herself Ashakiran, “Goddess of Peace, but you can call me Ash.” She introduces herself thusly to Q and the two youngsters after they rescue her from a tall, lanky “sketchball” who pulls a knife as she tries to fight him off over some sort of bag at the impromptu pre-show hippie bazaar on Shakedown Street outside the concert venue. Are you beginning to feel the bern...I mean buzz? Things are not always as they seem, in life, of course, and especially on Shakedown Street when Phish is playing.
Jürgen Fauth
Here's what we are permitted to see as Q and his wards meet the damsel they'd saved from the beast when she comes to thank them after the sketchball dashes away into the crowd, eluding the concert security foot patrol: “You were a-mazing,” a husky voice said from behind. They weren’t alone. The dreadlocked girl had somehow managed to follow them. “All of you, just amazing!” she said, her voice raspy from, Q guessed, years of heavy smoking, and not just weed. “I don’t even know how to thank you!”
Q looked her over and saw that she wasn’t nearly as young as he’d initially thought. Something about her clothes and the coiled strength on display when she was fighting with the lanky guy had made him misjudge her age, but her face revealed the truth, weathered and furrowed by, he imagined, hard living and some less than savory adventures on the road. Her eyes could’ve belonged to a much younger woman though, as if, over the years, a tough shell had slowly grown around something tender. It was a face like a coral reef.
Hardly “Miss Wonderly” of Spadeville. Maybe more like “Maude” of Lebowskiland. Better yet, a Suzy Creamcheesy amalgam of the two. And there's the fat arch-villain, “Greg,” obsessed with getting the tape he'd promised to name after Ashakiran when she promised to steal it for him. A fat and pompous villain as single-minded as Kasper Gutman seeking the bird “that dreams are made of,” or Lebowski his vacuous, porn-queen, fake-abducted wife.
And there's a murder. And it has to do with the Ashakiran tape, reputedly of a private jam session Phish had with Jerry Garcia. Listen in:
You’re telling me this tape you’re after is Phish playing with Garcia?...I don’t believe a word. Why have I never heard about this?”
Greg shrugged. “I was at the Shoreline shows, and I saw Trey and Page there myself. There were always rumors. But Garcia wouldn’t make a big deal about it, and the guys in Phish probably thought it would sound like bragging, and bragging of the wrong kind. ‘Ooh, we got to jam with Jerry!’ They wanted to be their own thing, not Grateful Dead junior. So nobody ever talked about it.”
And there’s a tape of this?”
I’ve been looking for it ever since I first heard about it, fifteen years ago...”
The stuff of acid-spun dreams, greed-glory, mystery, murder most foul, and innocence ravaged and somewhat salvaged.
The Ashakiran Tape is subtitled Head Cases Vol.1. Would there be others. Would that be far far out.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Snatch XI (blood)

Blood. Portal to basics. A demanding focal intersect of now with ever. Distractions vanished in relevance. Whose, the initial interest. The sense of a voice, one of his own, weighing implications of the blood being of the preferred other: A wound from him? Accidental? Negligence? Otherwise...

Otherwise it would have been assault, by me...” Public voice when he's tense. Tension leaves with its recognition. Ultra private voice: “That's bullshit. No memory of anybody near and if I'm not remembering them it could be somebody else or something hurt somebody and it wasn't me but what the fuck did happen? Is it me then? My blood? Nothing hurts, I don't think. No, don't feel anything, pain, itching, nothing. So if it is my blood? My blood. OK. What the fuck. Just on my face though. Just there? So how'd it get there?
But I'm just guessing, OK? That it's blood. It could be bird shit hahahahahaha. But what about the rest then? The numbness or whatever. Could I move if I wanted? If I had to? I don't have to, I don't think. Do I want to? I don't really want to, I think, although I could be rationalizing. Shit. I shouldn't be afraid to see if I can move. Just to see. I think I am, though. Afraid. Maybe just theoretically.”

Thursday, May 5, 2016

CONCRETE ANGEL -- Patricia Abbott

Perverse, it would seem, to publish this review of Concrete Angel, about a monster mother, so near the Sunday devoted annually to honor mothers everywhere flowers and greeting cards are sold or received. The timing was not on purpose. My mother died some years back, taking with her the incentive to remember such calendar events. Nor was Mother's Day likely on Patricia Abbott's mind when she decided to dedicate to debut novels this Friday's “forgotten books” feature on her widely popular blog.

What is intentional is my review of Concrete Angel for this feature. Concrete Angel happens to be Abbott's own debut novel, published nearly a year ago. I read it then, and re-read it yesterday. The first time was a jaw-dropping experience. Yesterday was the same jaw-wise, but from a different vantage. This time the characters revealed much of themselves I'd missed before, before I knew how it all would end. This time they pulled me so deep into their lives I'm afraid I might have given voice to my fears, muttered warnings, trying to get my fictional friends out of jams, to see the dangers ahead. I should probably wait another couple of years before reading it again, give my imagination a rest, or I might end up inside Concrete Angel for good with no way out.
Yet another cosmic convergence of timing brought me back to Concrete Angel to sound this unintended discord amid the harmony decreed for mama's special day. Last week I brought several of John le Carré's novels home from the library's used-book sale, and immediately read A Perfect Spy. Unbeknownst to me as I started reading, the primary supporting character was the eponymous spy's monster father.
Villainous parents, of course, have played prominent roles in our fictional dramas since the days of Sophocles, and no doubt earlier. What keener way to engage the inner adolescent in anyone than to tickle memories of that tug-of-war between love and independence that arrives inevitably with awakening from innocence? In Concrete Angel twelve-year-old Christine's travail with this filial rope enters a lethal arena when her divorced mother shoots a man to death in their apartment while her daughter's asleep in the next room. Mother persuades daughter to take the rap, claiming daughter, awakened by noise, mistakenly thought the man mother had invited to the apartment only hours earlier, had entertained and then taken to bed, was attacking her.
Patricia Abbott
The ruse works. The authorities buy it, and the only legal consequence is court-ordered counseling for the girl. Even Christine, bewitched by her mother's powerful, manipulative personality, almost comes to believe the imaginary version of what happened. In fact, Christine's mother had emptied her revolver into the man as he tried to call the police after catching her going through his wallet.
Occurring only weeks after Christine's parents' divorce, the murder caps what up to then had been an abnormally tight relationship between mother and daughter. Christine, from her earliest memories, had assumed the role of confidante, passive accomplice, and protector to an obsessive/compulsive, thieving con-artist mother. The shooting punctures Christine's albeit uneasy comfort zone in this bond. It arouses her survival instincts, allowing her to see her life more objectively and to recognize, by increments, the intimate toxicity of her mother's presence.
Christine bides her time. She's inherited, if not the pathology, her mother's toughness and cunning, traits similar to those of le Carré's spies. And Christine does become a spy, but her only target is her mother. It takes six more years before the girl, now eighteen, knows it's time to make the break. Her incentive is to save her younger step-brother from succeeding her as their mother's unwitting partner in crime. She sees it already happening, their mother taking the cutely dressed boy with her as a diversion while she shoplifts and buys merchandise with fake identification and bad checks. It comes to a head when the gun is turned on Christine after she confronts her mother with documentary evidence of her lifelong crimes.
Obviously Christine survives, at least long enough to narrate much of Concrete Angel. And hers is a surprisingly upbeat, wryly amused voice. Her mother amazes her in retrospect, the daughter admiring in a detached way the beauty and charm of this agile, quick-witted, thoroughly self-absorbed woman. It's as if she's describing some wild jungle cat, some force of nature, the way her mother sees herself.
No one can cure me because there’s nothing to cure. I just like my junk,” she says when confronted with her obsessive need for things. On another occasion, when her husband suggests another in a succession of professional treatments, she offers this snarky observation: “Acquisitive women must rank at the top of the list of faddish psychiatric disorders.” She blinked her eyes twice. “You only have to think of how many synonyms there are for greedy to get the gist.”
Despite Christine's general tone of savvy insouciance, her loneliness and mounting despair appear with sharp poignancy in this reflection as she struggles internally with the separation she's coming to accept as inevitable: Whole sections of my life— our lives— were forbidden topics. No, more than forbidden. They’d virtually disappeared... There was no one in my current life who wanted to hear about my past. There was no past; we lived in the moment. Mother had reinvented us time and again. And would forever, I feared.
Patricia Abbott's next novel, Shot in Detroit, is due out in June. It should come as no surprise I've pre-ordered it for my Kindle.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]