Sunday, January 16, 2011

Dennis Lehane: Hardboiled and Humane

Dennis LeHane has finally published what will almost certainly be the last of his beloved Kenzie-Gennaro detective novels. In honor of the occasion (and to test drive my new Kindle) I downloaded all six, and read them in order, from A Drink Before the War, Darkness Take My Hand and Sacred to Gone Baby Gone, Prayers for Rain and the most recent one, Moonlight Mile. The books have a strong through-line and this was the ideal way to experience them: as a single, self-contained 1800 page morality play, love story, heroic quest and gritty noir procedural combined into one overarching, poignant, harrowing and beautifully sustained narrative.

In short: a masterpiece.

The books are probably most familiar to the public from the movie version of Gone, Baby Gone, which was a strong and admirably faithful rendition of the source material, perfectly cast and unflinching. LeHane has been treated well by Hollywood: Mystic River turned out well and even Shutter Island – a second rate book to begin with – received a pitch perfect second rate film treatment. You couldn’t really ask for more than that.

LeHane has also written historical fiction and short stories – even a play. He worked as a writer on HBO’s classic series The Wire. But for the moment at least, it’s safe to say he’ll be best remembered at the creator of Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.

When we first meet them in A Drink Befrore the War (1994), they’re friends and colleagues, running a low-life detective agency out of the abandoned belfry of a Dorchester church. Beyond any of the cases they work on, or the dangers and corruption they encounter, the real tension in the novel comes from the fact that Patrick has been in love with Angie since high school, and she’s married to his best friend. Phil Dimassi is an abusive drunk and Angie often comes to work bearing the wounds and bruises of her ill-fated marriage. Patrick understands that toxic combination of love and rage: his own father, a fireman he always refers to as The Hero, once burned him with a steam iron in a fit of rage, and Patrick still wears the disfiguring scars on his abdomen. He and Angie come from a brutal world, and they stick with the friends who grew up with them in that urban jungle: columnist Richie Colgan, hard nosed cop Devin Amronklin and e-Marine and arms dealer Bubba Rugowski, whom Patrick describes this way:

…an absolute anachronism in these times--he hates everything and everybody except Angie and myself, but unlike others of similar inclination, he doesn't waste any time thinking about it. He doesn't write letters to the editor or hate mail to the president, he doesn't form groups or stage marches or consider his hate as anything other than a completely natural aspect of his world, like breathing or the shot glass. Bubba has all the self-awareness of a carburetor and takes even less notice of anyone else--unless they get in his way. He's six feet four inches, 235 pounds of raw adrenaline and disassociated anger. And he'd shoot anyone who blinked at me the wrong way.

Bubba is a handy guy to have around when things get violent and in Patrick’s world that happens a lot. A blackmailed politician leads Patrick and Angie into the midst of a particularly horrible gang war in this first novel, an ominously familiar battle between father and son for the control of the local drug trade. It turns out that Marion Socia pimped his son Roland out as a prostitute many years ago, and photographs of him with the politician spark the action of the novel, which ends with Kenzie killing Roland in self-defense – a moment of projected oedipal violence that you know has to resonate horribly inside him. The worst Patrick did himself was refuse to take his father’s hand, in the moments before the old man died.

The horror strikes even closer to home in the second book, Darkness Take My Hand, where the search for a serial killer leads into the heart of the old neighborhood, and a beloved local character turns out to be an authentic monster, murdering children, dismembering adults and at the end of the book, killing Angie’s husband and mutilating Patrick with a straight razor. This is the most intense and traumatic of the novels, and though Patrick and Angie wind up together at the end, both of them are wounded and grieving.

Sacred is the slightest of the books, an appropriate breather at the midpoint of the series. Despite its murderous religious cult, scheming femme fatale and tanker full of heroin, it remains a relatively routine story, burnished by the pleasure of seeing Patrick and Angie living and working together as a couple. The idyll doesn’t last long.

In the most well known installment of their story, Gone, Baby Gone, Kenzie and Gennaro set out to find kidnapped four year old Amanda McCready. Her mother Helene is possibly the worst parent of all time, neglectful category, leaving the baby alone whole she goes out drinking. Her sister Bea hires the detectives and the case follows a long tortured course involving drug deals gone bad crooked cops, local gangsters and a ring of psychotic child molesters. Kenzie and Gennaro find corruption and murder, they find scraps of a little girl’s life in a deserted quarry. But they don’t find the little girl.

Turns out she was kidnapped by a couple who make a avocation of creating healthy loving homes for abandoned and abused children. The problem – for Patrick at least – is that they do this wholly outside the law, with no oversight from the authorities. So yeah – they’re kidnappers: kidnappers who enforce nap-time and make sure the vaccinations are up to date, who read kids to sleep and help with their homework. “Eat your vegetables” is not a line one associates with child-napping sociopaths. Patrick wants to return Andrea to her mother, however inept or drug addled she may be. He can’t endorse a world where anyone can just grab a kid if they think the parent is doing a bad job. Angie wants to leave the little girl with her new parents. Both sides of this difficult issue have merit, but the conflict tears Patrick and Angie apart. Patrick wins: Andrea goes home. But he loses Angie over the case and winds up alone and the book reaches its dark and bitter conclusion: you can do the right thing and be dead wrong, and pay the consequences forever.

Near the end of the book, Patrick is invited to an all-cop ‘touch’ football game – Homicide Robbery versus Narcotics/Vice. He gets pounded and threatened by Remy Brussard, one of the policemen involved with the case, Later it turns out that Brussard faked the kidnapping to get Amanda into a loving home … and of course, to steal the ransom money for himself. He’s a dangerous thug, perfectly willing to kill to cover up his crimes; Patrick winds up killing him in a shoot-out a little later on.

I sketch this in to set up the following fragment of LeHane’s prose, which I think gives a good sense of how beautifully he writes these books, sentence by sentence:

We won by a field goal.

As a guy who grew up as desperate to be a jock as any other guy in America, and one who still cancels most engagements on autumn Sunday afternoons, I suppose I should have been ecstatic at what would probably have been my last taste of team sports, the thrill of conquest and the sexual intensity of the battle. I should have felt like whooping, should have had tears in my eyes as I stood at midfield in the first football stadium ever built in this country, looked at the Greek columns and he rain boiling off the long planks of seating in the stands, smelled the last hint of winter dying in the April rain, the metallic odor of the rain itself, the lonely advance of evening in the cold purple sky.

But I didn’t feel any of that.

I felt like we were a bunch of foolish pathetic men unwilling to accept our own aging and willing to break bones and tear the flesh of other men just so we could move a brown ball a couple of yards or inches down a field.

And also, looking along the sidelines at Remy Brussard as he poured a beer over his bloody finger, doused his torn lip with it, and accepted high fives from his pals, I felt afraid.

As Prayers For Rain begins, Patrick Kenzie has become a regret-addled solo act, missing Angie, who has gone to work for a corporate detective agency and left him on his own. His regrets multiply when he fails to take a phone call from a client who’d been harassed by a crazy guy that Patrick and Bubba scared off. Easy work: Bubba is good at scaring people. Taking off for vacation, Patrick figured he could touch base with the girl when he got back from Bermuda. But by then she was dead, a suicide victim who threw herself off a tall building downtown. The effort to prove her death wasn’t suicide leads Patrick into the twisted world of a sociopath who destroys people for fun. He doesn’t kill them, but rather takes everything away from them, ransacking and vandalizing their lives until they wish they were dead. The investigation reveals layer upon layer of festering family secrets, guilts and grudges going back decades. It comes to head in an underground bunker, with Bubba leading the way into battle. The villain is revealed, but he laughs when Patrick admits that he could never win at chess because he could never “see the whole board”. He finally does grasp the big picture, of course, but it takes several months for him to do it. When he lifts the rock on that last squirming nest of family dysfunction and walks away, he goes home with Angie and we leave them happily in love, wounded but standing tall, together at last, ready for new dventures.

It seemed that LeHane was finished with Patrick and Angie at that point. He left them to themselves for more than ten years, moving on to other projects, including the sweeping historical epic The Given Day. But the conclusion of the series felt inconclusive, somehow: would Patrick and Angie keep working together? Quit and start a family? Break up? Whatever may or may not have been kicking around in LeHane’s head, the series was just five books about the same two people at that point, a typical detective franchise, cut short and left dangling.

LeHane must have felt the urge to tie things up and finish the story, because he has done it now, with style and conviction.

Moonlight Mile invokes the past: Andrea McCready has gone missing again. She's sixteen now, tough and self-contained, with a hard carapace from living all those years with her drug addict mother. Now she's involved with the Russian mob, trying to save her friend's baby from child trafficking and a particulatrly loathesome crime lord and his psychotic wife. The boss wants the baby back -- as well as a hugely valuable stolen antiquity: the Belarus cross. Fortunately, his immensely dangerous Capo, one Yefim, winds up on the side of the angels. He wants the boss killed as much as everyone else and turns on him in a crucial moment saving everyone's lives and assuring a much more sane and intelligent criminal empire, with himself running things. Yefim likes Patrick, finds him smart and amusing, and we can't help liking Yefim, crazy as he is ... although we know he would have killed Patrick and everyone else we have come to care about if it suited his plans. Horrible enemy -- bizarre jovial ally. A strange combination, replete with Lehane's signature moral ambiguity, clapping Patrick on the back in a room full of corpses, offering him stolen blu-ray players and kindles (Patrick turns down the kindle; the blu-ray he gives to Amanda). Parick finds himself oddly detached, considering the murders he's just witnessed -- tribute to the shit he's been swimming through for so many years. And just like that, he decides to quit the life.

He calls Angie and his daughter -- whom he had sent to her mother's house down south, to hide from the trigger-happy mobsters. He throws his 45. into the Charles and tells her the news.

Let's eavesdrop:

"Know what it is, babe?" I looked back at the trailer. "When you start out doing this, you think it's just the truly horrible shit that's going to get you -- that poor little boy in the bath tub back in '98, what happened in Gary Glynn's bar. Christ, that bunker in Plymouth ..." I took a breath, let it out slowly. "But it's not those moments. It's the little ones. It's not that people fuck each other over for a million dollars that depresses me, it's that they do it for ten. I don't gve a shit anymore whether so-and-so's wife is cheating on him, because he probably deserved it. And all those insurance companies? I help them prove a guy's faking his neck injury, they turn and drop coverage on half the neighborhood when ythe recession hits. The last three years, every time I sit on the corner of the mattress to put my shoes on in the morning, I want to crawl back into bed. I don't want to go out there and do what I do."

"But you've done a lot of good. You know that, don't you?"

I didn't.

"You have," she said. "Everyone I know lies, breaks their word, and has perfectly legitimate reasons for why they do. Except you. Have you noticed that? Two times in twelve years, you said you'd find this girl no matter what. And you did. Why? Because you gave your word, babe. And that might not mean shit to the rest of the world, but it means everything to you. Whatever else happened today, you found her twice, Patrick. No one else would even try."

And that's what sets these books apart, as we come to the final chapter: the violence and trauma these two people see, and suffer (and occasionally inflict) affects them. It wears them down, wounds them, leaves scars that won't heal. That's just not true of other crime fiction heroes. Joe Pike and Jack Reacher soldier on; so do Elvis Cole and Harry Bosch and all the others. Patrick and Angie feel the pain of the world they live in, and allow themselves to be tormented by the tragedies they investigate. They're real people and they wind up doing what real people -- what any young couple with a toddler -- would really do: walk away, take that boring job, go back to school, start living like civilians -- just start living.

It means there won't be any more books about them, but I'm happy to see them go, to see them start over, and I wish them good luck. Lehane has brought them to that rarest of moments: a satisfactory conclusion, a happy ending, a new beginning. And in the process he has created a startlingly bulky (amost 2000 pages!), but graceful, suspenseful, lightfooted and big hearted novel of Boston and its people.

I can't wait to see what he'll do next.

Reading the E-Readers, Part Two: The Nook Color

Barnes and Noble just released their sales figures for the year and e-books outsold paper ones on their website for the first time. Real books are still outselling the digital variety at the actual stores, I assume – though you can both buy and read books for free on your Nook e-reader at any Barnes and Noble ‘brick and mortar’ outlet. That’s convenient for me, because I got a Nook Color for Christmas … as well as an elegant leather cover (with attached reading light) for my Kindle.

I’d like to say “Game on!”, but for me at least, it’s game over.

The Nook color wins on almost every count, so let me get the problems and quibbles out of the way first. The primary liability is price. The thing costs two hundred and fifty dollars. It’s half of what an iPad will set you back, but more than a hundred dollars more than the Kindle. Around now you may be thinking to yourself – you, an internet junkie scanning Open Salon with your morning coffee, no Luddite, no “I-liked-rotary-dial-telephones-and-why-is-the-good-version-of-anything-called-‘analog’” crank …you're cool, you're hip, you're modern ... but you're still thinking … WTF?? Why should I pay 250 bucks to read a buck I can get for free at the library? Or for a dime at the yard sale? Well, in answer to that shrewd piece of economic skepticism … I got nothing. Except … maybe you’re reading the wrong blog post. There are some excellent recipes and family dramas on the home page, some insightful political coverage (Someone even explains Auld Lang Syne!). Enjoy.

This post is for reading geeks who like cool new toys. I mean, pause a second and look at it from our point of view. We don’t particularly like cars, or guns, or fancy clothes, or even high end cooking stuff like pasta makers and ‘mandolins’. We don’t play an instrument, either (most of us) so an actual mandolin wouldn’t be much better. Our hobby, our escape, our primary source of fun, has always been associated with the smell of oxidizing paper, dusty leather and the sickly, soiled-aquarium light from library fluorescents. Our idea of a new development was the trade paperback. Some of us were pleased about ‘big print’ editions. (Or so I’ve heard).

But those days are over.

Now we have something cool to call our own.

But I was listing the drawbacks, so let’s move quickly here. The touch screen is perhaps too sensitive. It reminds me of a dog, sitting net to the couch while you eat a left-over slice of pumpkin pie, alert to every movement, following your arm like the ball in a Wimbledon Final. At any stray brush of the screen and it wants to know if you’d like to change settings, bookmark something, create a note, change the font size, check the table of contents. It’s irritating, but you learn how to deal with the touch sensitive screen after a week or two. What else? It needs to be charged much more often than the Kindle. But there are good reasons for this. It does so much more, so lavishly; Adrian Peterson probably eats more than the average toll booth attendant, but he manages to burn those calories, somehow (See, Vikings Vs. Esgles, 12/28./10).

One actual complaint: the Nook offers a plastic sheet to cover the back-lit screen and prtect it from glare, as well as dust and scratching. Sounds good, but it feels half-baked in practice. They tell you to meticulously clean the screen with the provided, color-matched cloth, before applying the wonder plastic. If you fail at this first step, air bubbles will appear. Well, you could have OCD and spend the better part of a day cleaning your Nook in an hermetically sealed room, and there would still be air bubbles between the plastic and the screen. You barely notice them … but if you’re the obsessive type who really cleaned the Nook in the first place, that won’t be much comfort. I’m waiting for glare-proof plastic 2.0. I suggest you do the same. If I want to read in broad daylight (usually I’m doing other things when I’m outside on a frosty winter afternoon), I’ll bring along my Kindle. It has a gorgeous leather case! Seriously, it looks much more substantial now, somehow part of the library- pipe-smoke-and-brandy-snifters-stuffed-armchair world it’s so rapidly displacing.

Well, enough about the Kindle. We'll always have Paris (or was it I'm out complaints regarding the Nook Color, so on to the praise.

First of all, it looks amazingly cool: dark and sleek and powerful, somehow. It’s also heavier than the Kindle, which seems like a disadvantage, but turns out to be just the opposite: a tennis ball weighs more than a Badminton shuttlecock, too; but the game feels more substantial because of that. You don’t play tennis in flip-flops. You turn on the Nook Colotand it feels like a miniature iPad. Or rather, an iPad sized properly for reading. People say it’s hard to read on the back-lit screen, that they get headaches from it, etc. I have no idea what they’re talking about. Lying in bed in a dark room next to a sleeping loved one, with your pug curled up beside you, wolfing down a book on that glowing screen is one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve ever had. It mysteriously evokes the whole sense of entering another, more engaging, more brightly lit world that I remember from my childhood. Maybe it even evokes that famous ‘birth memory’ people are supposed to experience as they die: sliding toward the bright light of a new world. Okay, that may be going too far. But the backlit screen makes you want to go on reading forever. I downloaded The Lord of the Rings for that exact purpose. It seemed fitting anyway, as I caressed my Nook and kept it away from everyone else and muttered “My precious.”

Technically, once you get used to it, that hyper-sensitive touch screen becomes a real pleasure to use. Lightly tap the edge of the page and a new one appears – much more quickly than it does on the kindle, whose irksome ‘tiny-dot’ keyboard seems almost steam punk compared to the virtual one that materializes at the bottom of the Nook Color whenever you need it. In general, the Kindle feels utilitarian, almost like some kind of military issue piece of equipment, after using the Nook Color. In civilian terms, it’s like driving a Dodge Caravan after zipping around in a Lexus. And much the same way, let’s face it -- you don’t really need the Lexus to get to the grocery store. But it’s a life-enhancing luxury, and the Nook Color gives you the same rush for just an extra hundred dollars: seems like a good deal to me. It’s all amortized so quickly anyway – just not buying all those hard-cover books you’ll never read again (saving anywhere from ten to twenty dollars on each one) adds up fast, not to mention eliminating some of the diabolical book-clutter that always threatens to overwhelm any true book-nerd’s house.

You can also play chess, listen to Pandora radio and play video games on your Nook. You can read magazines in full color and just scroll down whole articles without the pesky ‘continued on P. 47’ interruptions. This is true for newspapers, also. If you like, the New York Times can be delivered to your Nook every morning, available when you actually wake up, unlike the physical paper, which never seems to arrive on my doorstep before I have to leave for work. And the color photography – at least in the newspapers – seems to have a much higher resolution on the e-book reader.

So, the Nook Color seems almost perfect to me – smaller and lighter than the iPad, with all of its best reading-related features, sleeker, quicker, more advanced than the Kindle, and still allowing you the same e-book ease of reading – and buying! – books.

Let’s not forget buying. Barnes and Noble offers almost three times as many books as Amazon, so your chances of finding the book you want in digital form are much better. The other day I was roaming around on line and found an embedded trailer for a movie called The Other Woman on Nikki Finke’s web site. I played the preview. The movie, starring Natalie Portman, looked interesting, but wasn’t coming out for a while. I freeze-framed the credits, saw it was based on a book by Ayelet Waldman, clicked onto Barnes and Noble, bought the book for my Nook and was reading it happily, all in less than a minute.

No wonder e-books are outselling the “hinge-and-stitch” dead tree pulp variety. They can’t compete with that.

Internet, RIP: Proprietors Win, Again

The internet as we know it is officially doomed, as of today, and I’m already feeling nostalgic. Funny that a technology could move so fast across the landscape of my life – from a geeks-only fluke to a curiosity, to a useful tool, to a powerful engine of procrastination and finally a central venue for all my communications, research, entertainment and shopping, only to be reduced to the closed down, controlled, censored corporate cash cow it’s about to become, with the Obama administration’s blessing.

Internet, we barely knew ye.

But of course the Proprietors of our Nation couldn’t allow this internet business to go on the way it was heading. What a frightening thought – free, unobstructed communications, with no control and no profit … people just saying whatever they want, whenever they want, leaking documents, downloading YouTube videos that make Proprietor-controlled media outlets look like liars. You knew there’d be repercussions after the “Colbert bombed at the Press Association Dinner” narrative was reduced to one more punchline, a million downloads later.

The bigger headache for the Proprietors, from the start, was how to monetize this new tool and use it to consolidate power. After all, the ‘world-wide web’ seemed inimical to the consolidation of anything, an open-source free-for-all, wild and uncontrollable as the American Frontier itself. But they managed to organize that anarchic sprawl – nothing like guns and small pox, railroad lines and highways, corporate tax breaks and zoning variances, to tame a continent. It took a while, but our coast to coast shopping mall stands as the shining trophy of their triumph. We outlasted the last of the Mohegans; welcome to Mohegan Sun!

The free internet will collapse much more quickly. The Proprietors understood almost from the start that all you really need to control the internet is to control people’s access to it. (Remember stuffy old Al Gore’s warnings about ‘toll booths on the information superhighway’?) That’s the real value of the high speed cable or DSL connection. Dial-up was slow, and anyone could get on-line any time and go anywhere. But Comcast controls our access to the internet now, and that's fine with us we like it, we like the speed and convenience, the bread and the circus, football in HD on a giant flat screen TV or a bucket of chicken from KFC.

So Comcast, or some corporate entity identical to Comcast, will soon determine which web-sites you can visit easily and which ones take forever to load, which services you can use at all ... perhaps even what content you’re allowed to see. China is doing that right now and despite all our disapproving noises, our government is moving in exactly the same direction. Netflix is one of the earliest and most prominent victims. They’re in for the fight of their life right now, and it must be disheartening to know that they can take a law-suit all the way to the Supreme Court only to lose with chilling certainty to a court which has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Proprietor oligarchy. This is a group of judges who think corporations are people, though they’re not so sure about actual people, whom they rule against in one cruel and Dickensian decision after another. Am I a crackpot conspiracy theorist to speculate that this is the real reason they decided the 2000 election Bush’s favor? Whether by plan or happy accident, he managed to pack the court with a lifetime’s worth of frightening conservatives who can be guaranteed to rule along Proprietary lines.

Don’t get me wrong: this is nothing new. The ruling elites have struggled to hold onto their power, growing ever more corrupt until toppled be revolution or debauchery or both, allowing another group to rise and self-destruct in the same way, since the caveman with the biggest club figured out he could get the most Mastodon meat. People are predictably awful, power corrupts, history repeats itself.

But something new has arisen in our era, strutting rather than slouching toward its dystopian Second Coming. This Oligarchy has managed to combine the power of mass media with a diabolically subverted education system (Leave No Child Behind) and an unwavering ability to strike the proletarian nerve with ‘values issues’ like abortion and gay marriage. It’s relatively easy to convince an ignorant rabble that government is bad and taxes are worse, that health care is evil and the gilded age for the wealthiest stock manipulators and hedge fund Sun Kings (more despicable than any top-hatted grotesque in a Communist propaganda cartoon) should proceed without a hitch. That billionaires like the Koch brothers are behind this bogus ‘grass roots’ movement should surprise no one. Instead, step back with grudging respect and admire their audacity. How to get poor people who can’t afford a doctor’s visit to cut taxes for millionaires and deny themselves any kind of proper health care, education or secure employment? Use their own prejudices, leverage their fear, manipulate their anger. “Get the government’s dirty hands off my Medicare!” What a perfect delicious, sublime sentiment with which to inoculate a population through the IV drip of a thousand blaring radio and television propaganda shows, a million campaign ads.

The only way to break this Oligarchy would be to outlaw television advertisements in political campaigns. That would sever one of the crucial linkages that bind the system together. If candidates didn’t need the money they spend on television, they could break free from the powerful interests who control that funding. They couldn’t be bought; they wouldn’t be owned: their next election would not be in the hands of deep-pocketed, demanding contributors. But of course that will never happen. It would destroy local TV stations, who depend on that gold-rush of combative ads, and their ‘grass roots’ battle against the socialists trying to deny people (corporations are people now, remember) their right to be heard in ‘the public square’ would be funded by the same people who keep thr Tea Party afloat. Elections will proceed as usual, the only change being that even more money will be spent than ever before. Big money fails sometimes – occasional candidates are simply too extreme to be electable, no matter what. But most of the time, the system works well.

The internet was the first real threat to this unprecedented consolidation of power. But that threat is gone and the only thing that will bring this global hegemony down is some vast international implosion of greed: the end of cheap oil, the acceleration of global warming, the destruction of the oceans the contamination of the drinking water. The world the Proprietors have built as a palace for themselves will have to crumble to bits from its own mindless greed, as all the others have, throughout history. Unfortunately, this time, the rest of the world is going to come down, also. They’ll take us all with them when they go – they’re ‘too big to fail’.

But so were the dinosaurs.

And this afternoon, the thought of a whole planet staggering through the rubble, reduced to plowing with horses, heating with scavenged wood and lighting homes with tallow candles, a life of medieval toil at the mercy of the elements, with travel and indoor plumbing and refrigeration the subjects of a dim racial memory and hare-brained science fiction – it seems like a fine trade-off. If that’s what it takes to bring these foul greedy tyrants to their knees, bring it on. I would go to war against them, but the war has already been lost. Today’s FCC report proves it; we live in their world, and we will go on living in their world until they bring it down around us. Then we’ll be living in their ruins. I can only hope the next oligarchs, the shrewd operators who get control of the fresh water, or manage to piece together the first electrical generator, will have learned something from the blind gluttonous excess of their predecessors.

But I doubt they will. They never have before.

Branding Fatigue: The Problem with Populatr Fiction

Finishing the last page of Michael Connelly’s new novel, The Reversal, I couldn’t help thinking of a friend of mine, who met our local author at a party this summer. Elin Hilderbrand writes breezy romances set on our summer tourist island – stories of beach club staffers and waiters, unhappy vacationing wives, lusty locals, troubled families putting their lives back together among the mild Atlantic breezes and the clambakes. Her first books barely made a ripple, but she cracked the New York Times best-seller list with the last one, and it seemed like she had it made: a book-a-year professional scribbling about her home town, supporting herself with her words, vocation and avocation one, work as play for mortal stakes, just as Robert Frost described in his wonderful poem, “Two Tramps in Mud-Time”.

Turns out, not so much.

Actually, she’s kind of miserable. I know, I know – world’s smallest violin: you’re blond and rich and good looking and they make you write the same book over and over again – boo hoo. I’m painting houses sixty hours a week – let’s trade. But her predicament is real. She actually has to write the same book every year, with slight variations, of course. Still, it’s a whole book and you have to put it down on paper word by word, paragraph by paragraph, page by page. That can be a slog.Those books started to bore me five years ago, but I don’t have to write them. The problem is, they’re starting to bore Hilderbrand, too.

And it shows.

She’s not alone, that’s the worst part of it. I remember a thriller writer from my childhood named Alistair MacLean. He’s most famous now (if he’s famous at all) for a handful of his books they made into movies: Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra, The Guns of Navarone. The last one of these was the beginning of the end … or rather, the sequel was. Force 10 From Navarone (It was Robert Shaw’s last movie and one of Harrison Ford’s first) was bad, but not anywhere near as bad as the book, which was clearly a sequel not to the original novel, but to the popular Gregory Peck film. I was fifteen years old but I knew a sell-out when I saw one. And Maclean’s books after that had a dreary, I’m-only-writing-this-to-pay-my-alimony feeling about them. Finally I just gave up. I didn’t understand what was going on back then, but now I do. MacLean was suffering from the exactly the same malady as Elin Hilderbrand. The plague was in its infancy at that point, but it has reached full pandemic status now: writers sell by branding themselves and reliably turning out a familiar product. The paperback of the last book comes out just in advance of the next book’s hardcover release, usually with a little teaser chapter at the back to spike the reader's interest: momentum builds, sales acuumulate, and the writer has deadlines to meet.

It makes me think of comedians like the Flight of Conchords boys, who spent years developing the material that comprised their hilarious HBO program’s first season Then they had maybe six months to throw together the material for the next one. Fifteen years … six months. Of course the quality went down, Bret and Jermaine had sense enough to cancel the third outing and get back to work at a more reasonable pace. As far as I’m concerned they can take their time – Jonathan Franzen spent nine years writing the follow-up to The Corrections -- and it shows.

As I struggle happily with a new novel myself, I’m encouraged to know that I’m not fighting against a deadline; as I make radical changes in the story, it’s nice to know that I won’t have to defend them to an irate publisher. I can dawdle and write as I like: that’s a luxury few professional authors can claim.

The problem is that the relentless schedule, the unappeasable expectations, begin to wear these authors down, even the best and most consistent of them. The last couple of books by Michael Connelly are showing a kind of metal fatigue (Maybe it’s some consolation to him that even metal gets tired): they groan and creak with familiar tropes and predictable twists. They exhale a gloomy sense of exhaustion. The characters are just going through their paces, now, like road show actors in some long running hackneyed farce. I don’t blame Connelly: it’s the system. It still works for some people – most notably Lee Child, who is happy churning out his Jack Reacher books; others escape into a different set of expectations, like Ken Follett, who has become the new maestro of the ponderous historical epic.

The mechanical quality of so much popular fiction (One thinks of the ‘novel writing machines’ in the Ministry or Truth that churned out cliché romantic pap for the Proles in 1984) comes from turning our best genre writers into machines. My agent is sending out a dark sexual noir thriller right now, and he said to me recently, “I hope you have a few more of these up your sleeve. Anyone who publishes this will want to know you can do it again.” It’s a conundrum: I’d like to be published of course, but I feel for Elin Hilderbrand when I think of being locked into writing an endless series of transgressive sexual thrillers, of being the go-to creepy noir guy, of being branded.

Branding started with cattle, a ranch logo burned into the flesh of a steer to prove ownership. It’s not that different now. I hear the feed is good (lots of corn), but we all know who winds up getting eaten.

As for me, I’m happy to run wild, at least a little longer. The grazing is skimpy, but I’m used to it. And I’d be happy to see Elin Hilderbrand and Michael Connelly out here with me, escaped from the feed lot, working at their own pace, living life on their own time, at last. Their lives would be a lot better.

And so would their books.

TV Tonight: "Hawaii 5-O"

Hawaii 5-0 (10:00, Mndays, CBS)is the most surprising new show on television. I dimly remember the original – a blunt and uninspiring police procedural with a palm tree background, shot mostly on sound stages, with its tough guy cop and ho-hum sidekick (“Book ‘em, Dano”).

The new show I a pleasant relief from the cable political shows I often find myself watching. The heroes and villains are no less crudely drawn, but in my tropical cop show the good guys win and the bad guys often get shot, which makes a pleasant break from watching Tea Party candidates advancing in the polls at home and toxic red sludge spills advancing on the Danube, abroad.

Hawaii 5-0 is filmed on location and really uses the culture and texture of the islands. Two of the characters are locals, and the hero, though white, was raised as a native by his police chief father. Scott Caan plays the fourth member of the team, a transplanted New Jersey cop, who has turned his life upside-down and traveled 5000 miles, just to spend weekends with his daughter. Caan is an engaging actor, with much of his father’s macho spirit, leavened by an easy-going sense of humor. You can imagine him as Sonny Corleone, but he would have made a far more appealing hot-head Mafiosi than his Dad. The story-lines involving Dano and his daughter are authentically – surprisingly – touching. The moment where he’s pleading for shared custody into a locked-gate intercom (only to find out he’s talking to his e-wife’s maid), breaks your heart and makes you laugh at the same time. Dano’s ultimate custody victory has nothing to do with his wife’s compassion or clemency, though: it turns out that McGarrett pulled strings with the Governor over some business contracts, to put pressure on the new husband. “You’re not as alone out here as you think you are,” he tells Dano, in a moment of unexpected fraternity.

Not that the show is all touchy-feelie. Daniel Dae Kim’s character was thrown off the force for (apparently ungrounded) corruption charges, and has to deal with becoming a small town pariah among his old friends and colleagues. His cousin, played by Grace Park, takes his side, sometimes against her own friends and colleagues. She rounds out the team, and the intimate knowledge of Hawaii they share with McGarrett contrasts in a very entertaining way with Dano’s off-island alienation. Together they make Hawaii itself a character in the drama.

Beyond all this, she show is fun. They play with the old catch phrases in amusing ways. The second time McGarrett says “Book ‘em Dano”, Dano rolls his eyes and says, “Are we doing this now?” He’s already tired of it; but his irritation makes us smile.

The procedural elements of the show are workmanlike – no one expects Sherlock Holmes or even Michael Bloomkvist here – but the action is sharp and well-choreographed. Alex O’Loughlin as McGarrett is physically credible as a kick-ass ex military man, as much assault commando as policeman. In a way this all is a throwback to the sixties, when hour long cop dramas like Hawaii 5-0 wanted nothing more than to provide escapist entertainment. So much of what I watch these days strives for so much more -- and often succeeds: Mad Men, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire … even The Good Wife, on Hawaii 5-0’s own network. It turns out I had kind of forgotten the simple minded pleasures of old school television. Still it’s not as easy to turn out a frictionless piece of hack work as it used to be. We settled for so much less, in the old days.. Just watching a show in color was a thrill. We didn’t care about the tacky sets and interior ‘exterior’ street scenes, the predictable plots or trite dialogue. To give us those same simple pleasures now requires so much more: sharp writing, committed acting, real locations, big budgets – so much work and investment to make a light-hearted throw-away cop show; and the touch of soul. that lifts it above the average entertainment just feels like good luck. Personally, I’m glad they took the trouble, and I hope they stay lucky.

Pomaika`i Hawaii 5-0.

And keep up the good work. There are a lot of us tired people out there who can’t watch another minute of Chris Matthews or Anderson Cooper, and we’re all counting on you to distract us.

Art and Fun: Steve Martin's "An Object of Beauty"

I find it bizarrely ironic that Steve Martin’s recent interview at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan ended so badly. E-mailers from all across the country (the interview was shown to subscribers on closed-circuit TV) were invited to comment and they did, demanding less art talk and more details about the comedian’s career –what was it like hosting the Oscars? Where did you learn to play banjo? How did you get that arrow through your head? The general impression was that Steve Martin had written, and now wanted discuss at droning length, an expository ‘novel’ crammed to bursting with high falutin’ cultural references and dreary factoids – a snob’s piñata full of carrots and pocket dictionaries, not even worth hitting.

The irony comes when you read the book

It’s delightful, and I say that as a dedicated reader who was not thrilled with Steve’s previous efforts -- the wan May December rich-man poor girl romance Shopgirl and the follow up, about a phobia-plagued recluse, The Pleasure of my Company. Most struggling writers I know were irked by these efforts, which would probably never have seen the light of day without a celebrity’s name attached. It’s one thing for a famous performer (Or reality show star) to pen a ghost-written autobiography. Poaching our territory and attempting novel seems presumptuous: an act of pure privilege, some kind of perverse literary droit de seigneur. Steve was dabbling, and it showed.

Well, it’s been seven years since that last book, and Steve used the time well. He’s obviously been working at his craft (did he sneak into an MFA program?) because this book is good. More than that, it’s fun. The story of Lacey Yeager, a rising star in the New York art world, it combines the diverse pleasures of a Christopher Isherwood or Truman Capote-like free spirit viewed from an adoring distance by a male narrator with the gossipy plot of a Judith Krantz novel and the zeitgeist marksmanship of Tom Wolfe. Of course, the writing isn’t as poetic as Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Berlin Stories. You don’t get the delirious page-turning junk food sugar high of trash classics like Scruples and Princess Daisy. And it lacks the red-line energy and epic polymath cultural obsession of A Man in Full or I am Charlotte Simmons. But Judith Krantz hasn’t written a novel in more than ten years, and Capote and Isherwood are dead. While we wait for Tom Wolfe’s big Miami book, this slim volume of Steve Martin’s makes an enjoyable substitute.

We watch Lacey’s rise from Sotheby’s drone to gallery owner, and Steve lets us guess at the dirty scandalous secret behind her success, revealing it at the perfect moment with the understated flourish and impeccable timing familiar from his best comedy routines and screenplays. Balzac said it: “Behind every great fortune is a great crime”, and the spectre of various art world crimes and frauds haunt Lacey’story, from the con-artists of the downtown galleries to the robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, to the subtle tricks of rigging an art auction. The book takes place over twenty years and encompasses many changes in the art world, as well as the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war. Through all her ups and downs, her brief affairs (She only sleeps with men on the first date), her cunning tactics and shady dealings, Lacey remains a novelist’s triumph: like Holly Golightly and Sally Bowles, like Charlotte Simmons and Billy Winthrop, she’s a character you can’t help loving , even against your better judgment, who you root for even when she’s wrong, and who you want to keep reading about forever.

That should take some of the sting out of a bad night at the Y.