Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Suspense and Sensibility: Appreciating Thomas Perry

The Informant, Thomas Perry’s nineteenth novel, was published last week. It’s an appropriate occasion to step back and take a look at this extraordinary, underrated author’s body of work. His first novel, The Butcher’s Boy, came out in 1982 and won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel a year later. He hasn’t made much of a splash since then, partly because his books have never been made into films. He advanced a theory about why this might be, during a 2003 exchange with Roger Birnbaum:

TP: In a way I don’t really think about it much anymore. My first book, The Butcher’s Boy, was in option continuously for 18 years. It was never out of option. There are studios that don’t exist anymore that had these things. At some point every working screenwriter in Hollywood has a bad script for one or another of my books. Which is why they all hate me. So, I don’t know.

RB: I’m not seeing the connection. They write bad scripts and they hate you?

TP: These are people who have written good movies. And they are hired to write a script of one of my books and it just doesn’t work out. It’s partly an obvious problem. Most of my main characters spend most of their time alone. And when they are not alone, whatever they say aloud is a lie. So, it’s confusing and very difficult to make a movie out of that. You have to invent some bogus character who is going to be the interlocutor. That’s one thing. And very often you have to soften the protagonist because he is amoral or something. Or has some other minor drawback.

I’m convinced there’s a different explanation.

Perry’s books resist adaptation for the same reason that many books do: their literary quality is simply not translatable to the medium of film. Thomas Perry writes escapist fiction. I’m sure he’d be amused to hear me accuse him of making literature. And yet, in his small and particular way, that is precisely what he does.

The next obvious question is – what do I mean by literature, anyway? No one would confuse Thomas Perry with Marcel Proust. If we define literature as “Proust-like”, as densely written, largely internal depictions of small resonant events and complex emotional states, mixing dreams and memories and philosophical musings, setting them all in the context of the larger world, to give a vivid sense of a living culture, a political and personal eco system, a pond we describe by studying the food chain of human connection and the plankton of a single life … then – no. That’s not Perry’s game. Put another way, a way most people would sheepishly agree to … “Literature” is boring and overly descriptive and difficult to read. Most of us enjoy books as consumers, not critics, and have little interest in image patterning or thematic subtext. We are taught that good literature is meant to be an ordeal, and to feel guilty pleasure for the stories we enjoy.

If it’s fun, it can’t be serious, and vice versa.

I have an alternate view of what makes for authentic literature. Internal or external, active or inert, stream of consciousness or unexamined action … none of those techniques are definitive – great books come in all styles and sizes. But the one thing that all the books I take seriously have in common is a feeling in the text of the author’s personality and point of view, his unique slant on the events he’s describing … his sensibility.

Sometimes you can feel crowded by it, as you do with Herman Melville; reading Moby Dick can feel like sitting at a bar long after closing time with a garrulous drunk who refuses to shut up and just has to tell you one more factoid about whale blubber or the symbolism of the color white.

At the other end of the scale you have many of today’s thriller writers -- Perry’s competition. Writers like Harlen Coben, John Lescroart, James Patterson and John Grisham specialize in no-frills story telling, designed for the plot hungry and the easily distracted: this happened and it caused that to happen which made for a terrible situation which could only be solved by the hero doing this … which made things worse and caused that … and so on, with crises and solutions falling like dominoes, one into the other until they’re all flat on the table and the book is done. How the weather was and what these ingenious heroes and diabolical villains were feeling or thinking (beyond the way out of a locked room or the stab of fear when the shots ring out) doesn’t really matter to anyone. The reader’s single command is: Get OnWith It. You could read the complete works of Jeffery Deaver or David Baldacci, among many others, without ever getting the slightest sense of who these men really are, what they feel and how they see the world. It’s genre fiction and it’s generic fiction, and it could have been written by anyone, which may be why so many of these writers (Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler among them) have been outsourcing the actual writing of their books, for years.

Sometimes, browsing through bookstore, it seems like you’ll never find an authentic human personality behind the plots and predicaments. Then you turn away from the multi-part sword and sorcery epics and introduce yourself to J RR Tolkien; you put down the latest space opera and try a speed date with Phillip K Dick.

Or you take my advice and read your first Thomas Perry novel.

Start where I did, with the Jane Whitefield books.

Jane is a half-Seneca Indian woman who acts as a “Guide” – she leads people away from places where their lives are in danger and brings them to new places, where they’ll be safe. In other swords -- she’s a one-woman witness-protection agency. She knows how to procure false papers and build false identities, how to disappear and live inconspicuously. As she concludes about Pete Hatcher, a client on the run from mobsters who own the gambling casino where he works,

The way he would defeat his enemies was to outlast them. While they were staring at computer screens or loitering late at night in airport baggage areas or sitting in cars outside hotels at check-out time studying each male who came out the door, he had to be somewhere, living a normal, reasonably contented life. If he could do that for long enough, they would give up. (Shadow Woman, p.224)

Perry weaves Jane’s Indian heritage into the fabric of every story, as in this moment, as she is about to go to the aid of a small orhan boy in mortal danger from criminal financial predators trying to steal his inherited fortune. Jane has just received a ‘present’ from a previous client named Rhonda Eckerly – Jane never accepts formal payment for her work. The two hundred thousand dollars will come in handy for the task ahead:

As she locked her door and took a last look at her house, she thought about the old days, when Senecas went out regularly to raid the tribes in the south and west in parties as small as three or four warriors. After a fight they would run back along the trail through the great forest, sometimes not stopping for two days and nights.

When they made it back to Nundawaonoga, they would approach their village and give a special shout to the people to tell them what it was they would be celebrating. But sometimes a lone warrior would come up the trail, the only one of his party who had survived. He would rest and eat and mourn his friends for a time. Then he would quietly collect his weapons and extra moccasins and provisions and walk back down the trail alone. He would travel all the way back to the country of the enemy, even if it were a thousand miles west to the Mississippi, or a thousand miles south beyond the Cumberland. He would stay alone in the forest and observe the enemy until he was certain he knew their habits and defenses and vulnerabilities. He would watch and wait until he had perceived that they no longer thought about an Iroquois attack, even if it took a year or two.

It occurred to Jane as she got into her car that Rhonda’s present had come at a good time. If she stopped to deposit it on the way to the airport, it would buy a lot of spare moccasins.
(Dance for the Dead, p. 115)

Jane’s Indian heritage affects her ethics as well. In Shadow Woman she appeals to tribal leaders, asking them to reject the idea of running a casino on Iroquois land. “Once gambling comes in you’ve got to think of what else happens,” she tells Billy Peterson, the Sadagoyase – the clan Seneca clan leader. “New York state will wanted a vested financial interest, the way they did with the Oneidas, and they’ll have to police the gambling and everything around it. There’s a big difference between having the cops investigate a crime every ten years and having dozens of them move in with you to protect the financial interests of the legislature and it’s cronies.”

“What cronies?” Billy asks.

“Building casinos and hotels can’t be done without money from outside. That means some big corporation with investors and boards of directors is going to have more to say about what goes on here than we are. It may have occurred to you that Senecas haven’t had a lot of luck trusting either the State of New York or big corporations in the past. This state has a perfect record. It has never, even in the most minimal way, lived up to any agreem3nt it has ever made.”

Jane doesn’t quite convince the Sadagoyase, but Perry ties the scene off in his own resonant, distinctive way, as Billy watches Jane walk back to her car:

As she passed under the big hemlock and the sunlight fell in bright dapples on her head and shoulders, he felt himself losing perspective. He could not help feeling he had just received an official visit from his grandmother’s grandmother. (Shadow Woman pp. 95-7)

Jane is exigent and unsentimental, ruthlessly clear in her judgments, sharply articulate in expressing them … rather like Perry, himself. The astringent perceptions speckle the books and touch you as you read like summer rain on your face. Of a silent woman in a county lock-up he remarks, “She never spoke to anyone, having long ago lost interest in what other people gained from listening, and having gotten used to whatever they expelled by talking.”(Dance for the Dead, p. 72). Hiding out at the University of Michigan, the 28-year-old guide makes this unflinching assessment of herself: “There were places where she could still pass as a college girl, but college was not one of them.”(Dance for the Dead, p 197) Of her own husband, a successful surgeon, she notes, “Carey was very good at constructing fair, logical solutions to other people’s problems.” (The Face Changers, p.67) Of the three urban gang-bangers she entices to help her follow an escaping villain, spicing the request with the hint of possible danger and death, Jane thinks, “The part about killing seemed to have raised their level of interest considerably. She had forgotten for a moment about seventeen year old boys. There had never been a moment in human history when anybody hadn’t been able to recruit enough of them for a war.” (Dance for the Dead, p 231)

Jane’s pitiless self-examination and her pragmatic judgment of shifting situations shows clearly in this passage from the fourth book in the series, The Face-Changers. After demanding that she give up helping fugitives, Jane’s husband Carey McKinnon reverses himself when Richard Dahlman, a great surgeon who also happens to be Carey’s oldest friend and mentor, comes to Jane in desperation, framed for murder. Jane is taking Dahlman to a house where very bad people sell very good false documents for very large sums of money:

Jane frowned, and there was an edge in her voice. “I need to say a few things, so listen carefully. As long as I could, I’ve kept you in the part of the world you’re familiar with. People aren’t entirely rational in that world but they behave as though they were, and they make sure that their actions have to do with attaining reasonable goals – that is, things they’re allowed to want Their way of getting them is by a logical series of causes and effects: you work, you get paid. You’re patient, you get rewarded. You’re pleasant, people like you. I kept you in that world for several reasons. You’re a success in that world you so you know how it works and can move around in it without raising eyebrows. Something as simple as using grammatical English and holding a fork correctly makes you almost invisible. You also feel comfortable there, and that makes you look innocent. But the main reason I kept you in that world is that it’s safer.”

“Safer than what?” Dahlman’s voice was skeptical

“Safer than where we’re going now.”

“And where is that? What do you mean by other parts of the world? Are we leaving the country?”

Jane looked at him and there was a touch of regret in her eyes. “I’m trying to prepare you for a shock. I hope it’s not a big one, but it might be. The people we’re going to see are not like you, not like Carey. I‘d like to say they’re not like me either, but this isn’t the first time I’ve been here.” As soon as Jane said it, she realized she had identified the hurt that had been constricting her chest. She was back in this life. It was as though she had happily fallen asleep in the old house beside Carey, and awakened with a start along the path by the lake. The place where she walked now wasn’t a point in space; it was a point in time, in the past. Falling back into this place was not like being abducted. It was like being unmasked.
(The Face Changers, pp. 130-1)

Jane is caught between two worlds and the binary nature of reality figures prominently in Seneca lore, as well. Two brothers, Hawenneyu the creator and Hanegoategeh the destroyer, struggle over the world, fighting each other at every turn:

Hawenneyu makes a little boy. Hanegoategeh gives him a virus. Hawenneyu strengthens his body to give him immunity, and Hanegoategeh makes the virus mutate and sends the boy of to kill eighty thousand people. Hawenneyu has made sure that one of the eighty thousand is a man who would have started a war and killed eighty million. (Blood Money, p.61)

The protagonists of Perry two main series form a similar dichotomy: Jane Whitefield, who saves people -- and The Butcher’s Boy, who kills them for money. The three novels in this series, The Butcher’s Boy, Sleeping Dogs and Perry’s latest book, The Informant, tell the continuing story of a professional assassin’s war with the Mafia overlords who hired and then betrayed him. Mobster Carlo Balcontano explains the situation – and the dilemma -- about a third of the way through Sleeping Dogs:

Balcontano sighed. “They arranged a meeting to pay him, but it was really a setup to lure him out onto the Las Vegas strip and blow his head off …But what didn’t occur to them is that there a reason people keep going into dark places with people where you know only one of them is going to come out, and it’s always the same one. It’s like watching the same dog go down a hundred rabbit holes and always come out with a belly full of rabbit. When you come to the hundred and first hole, do you bet on the rabbit?”

But they keep on doing it. All the Butcher’s Boy wants is to be left alone – he slipped away to England after the first book and took up with a lovely, titled English girl who likes to make up stories (I thought of Saki’s Open Window heroine, all grown up: “Romance on short notice was her specialty.”). But the mob found him and they keep finding him and as he cuts a swath through them, he comes to the attention of one Elizabeth Waring, a Justice Department clerk in the first novel who figures out that this apparent gang war might just be the work of one man. By the second book, her theories almost get her fired, but she comes to develop a fascination and a grudging respect for he solitary killer she’s spent most of her career tracking down. As the third book opens, she’s a widow with two small children, and she’s on the Butcher Boy’s trail again, determined to save him by convincing to rat out the Cosa Nostra capos who have been trying to cap him for twenty years. He needs witness protection, but he knows the government’s interest in him will evaporate after he testifies. He’s looking for a permanent solution.

I couldn’t help thinking – go to Deganawida, New York and ask for Jane Whitefield.

This round, Waring has an even more annoying boss to contend with, and Perry understands this type of obstructionist bureaucrat all too well:

Now she had to report to a man who really had been allowed in for purely political reasons. He had, through complicated family relationships, been made partner in an old, respected law firm. The combination of family and law firm had made him a good fund-raiser for political candidates, and so he was a perfect choice for a post two levels down from a cabinet member. Fortunately, he could be counted on to leave eventually. He was a bit too arrogant to survive many meetings with his superiors, too unintelligent to inspire his staff to do great things he could take credit for, and too ambitious to sit still for long. Most of the value he could get from serving as a deputy assistant attorney genera, he’d had on the day he’d been sworn in…She steered her mind around the inevitable comparison. She had begun as a data analyst in this same building more than twenty years ago. She had repeatedly, reliably, done something none of the political appointees had ever done: she had solved crimes and put the people who committed them in prison. (The Informant, pp. 20-1)

What irks the deputy assistant most is that his office and a renegade hit man have more or less the same ambition – to disable the Mafia. Their shared goal binds Waring and The Butcher’s Boy closer and closer together in a wary alliance that flirts with friendship but never veers into the romantic. Perry is too austere and practical to allow such maudlin shenanigans. They ultimately save each others’ lives though, and that’s enough, for them and for Perry and for this reader, as well. I take Perry’s chilly unblinking pragmatism as a welcome tonic, refreshing as a dive into the ocean on an August afternoon.

It’s a frightening world that Thomas Perry explores withy such gusto, and while he’s not the only guide out there, most of the others just tell you what happened and what happened next. The best ones let you hear the gunfire and smell the cordite. But that’s not enough. They don’t intrude themselves, or cannot express themselves, or have no sufficiently interesting self to express, and so, reading their books, we’re all alone on Raymond Chandler’s dark streets. Perry is with us all the way, leading us by the elbow, raising an eyebrow, debunking a cliché, pointing out a salient fact, just as Melville talks to us through his creature Ishmael, just as Jonathan Franzen, stands above his Midwestern characters and noting “the whole northern religion of things coming to an end.”

No, Perry isn’t the equal of Melville or Franzen. But has something in common with the greats that his colleagues can’t claim: he makes a particular sound, he owns a particular tone of voice, and you keep the compassionate asperity of that voice with you long after the details of chase and pursuit are forgotten.

Maybe it’s just this: he’s good company.

And you don’t want to be alone when you’re reading, even when you’re only reading a thriller

Three Writing Rules to void at All Costs

A small mercenary army of writing instructors have been making a good living for decades now, dispensing advice to hopeful neophytes, creating systems and structures, plans and pie charts, creating a step-by-step creativity that reduces a novel or screenplay to a useful object which can be taken apart and reassembled like a four-barrel carburetor or a military issue M4 carbine.

Aspiring authors have been constructing their stories using the ‘Hero’s Journey’ template, and setting the ‘second act reverse’ in their screenplays precisely at page 77 for so long now that you can almost read along with the Syd Field instructions or hear the didactic tones of the Robert McKee lecture as the predictable story unfolds. There are plenty of other sources for writing advice – MFA programs, on-line writers and editors, even the venerable correspondence courses that still poke along critiquing the unreadable and collecting their fees.

The trouble with all this advice is that much of it is useless, and most of it is wrong.

Three notions in particular have been bothering me lately, as I inch toward the half-way mark of my own new novel. I call them “The Toxic Narrative Template”, “The Write-What-you Know Fallacy” and “The Character Dossier.”

My father, quite a prominent screenwriter and playwright in his day, often spoke of publishing his own guide book, but it would have been too short to print. He believed that each story contained in its DNA, the perfect way it should be told. Pulp Fiction would not have worked as a straight chronological film; Atonement’s narrative trickery was fundamental not just to the plot but to the theme and spirit of the novel as well. To begin a small masterpiece like Room with the abduction of a young woman, her subsequent sexual captivity, her miscarriage and the eventual birth of her son would have rendered Emma Donoghue’s masterpiece – written entirely from the point of that child, starting on his fifth birthday -- into a banal piece of faux ‘true crime’ exploitation trash.

Heroes don’t need a journey and they don’t need an ‘arc’.

The archetypes popularized in the late 20th century have degenerated into tiresome clichés. The idea that protagonists must learn and grow through the course of the story is particularly irksome. Women as diverse as Scarlett O’Hara and Dagny Taggart change very little through the course of Gone with the Wind and Atlas Shrugged, respectively. After Scarlett figures out that she’s going to have to rely on herself to survive, and that happens fairly early in Margaret Mitchell’s epic story of the Civil War and the Reconstruction, it’s Scarlett’s self-blind, relentless consistency that makes her fascinating. She never does figure out that Rhett Butler is her true soul mate because she never comes to terms with the reality of her own tough, heartless and mercenary soul. As for Dagny – and whatever else you say about the book that features her in a starring role, Ayn Rand’s doorstop has been an unfailing stalwart of the Random House backlist for decades – any change in her attitudes or behavior would constitute a sort of secular sacrilege.

And it’s not just the distaff side of literature: who would be more different that jaded Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises and retarded Benjy Compson in The Sound and the Fury? All they really have in common (apart from castration) is the lack of a character arc. Benjy is frozen at around age six and Jake Barnes ends up at the end of the book exactly where he started: unrequitedly in love with Brett Ashley, hanging out in Paris with his motley group of ex-pat pals.

Hemingway and Faulkner: the twin peaks of 20th Century American literature … and neither one of them relied on any of the conventional narrative templates.

You don’t have to, either.

Then there’s the old saw about ‘writing what you know’. Well, of course, on a certain level you’re always writing about yourself and your own experiences, your family, your childhood and the people around you. But that’s just the base material, the set of crude resources parceled out to you more or less at random. How you use those resources is up to you. Knowing how to make a science fiction story set on a fictional version of Mars believable, knowing how to research a historical epic and then use that information to inform your story without sinking it under the weight of regurgitated facts and statistics is a vital part of any robust writing life. Use your writing as an excuse to educate yourself as Tom Wolfe does. Go out into the wider world, try to understand it, then and bring it home and make it your own. If the Emperor Caligula or the King of some barbaric horde on some distant planet bears an uncanny resemblance to your own father, so much the better. The alternative – writing an endless series of disguised memoirs where Dad’s various crimes and misdemeanors are replayed over and over again – serves no one, not even you.

Finally, there’s the character dossier. Students are told to assemble a file on each character before presuming to dramatize their behavior or put words in their mouths. In grade school we all wrote ‘book reports’ describing the themes of each assigned novel, and listing each character’s ‘traits’ : so and so was selfish but funny, liked rap music and ate orange peel. Someone else was abused as a child, smoked too much, liked climbing trees and building custom furniture.

All of this satisfied the eighth grade curriculum requirements. It might even have made for a good personal ad, but it’s all worse than useless when you sit down to write a story. So how do writers invent characters? The process is a mystery with no clear guidelines and it requires relinquishing your list-making front brain and letting your unconscious mind do most of the work. Stephen King refers to that part of his mind as a sweatshop whose workers he relies on almost exclusively, so he respects them and defers to them.

I believe that all the characters you’ll ever create are already living in some deep part of your mind. They don’t need to be designed from the outside. Just give them names and let them grow in dark basement like mushrooms. Those inventories of habit and history you compile are just a way of pretending you have some control over the process – not unlike the outlines writers draw up, knowing full well that their book will start coming to life only when the plans are abandoned.

“Follow the accident.” John Fowles advised. “Fear the fixed plan”

This was all brought home to me in my own work this week. I have a new character named Julia Copenhaver. All I know about her is that she’s a high-end Nantucket interior decorator who will become my protagonist’s lover. Where does she come from, where did she go to school? Were her parents divorced, what flavor of ice cream does she like? Is she a vegetarian, a scientologist, a football fan, a bird watcher?

I have no idea.

All I had this morning was the name.

Some inchoate sense of the person it was attached to had been growing wordlessly inside me for the last few weeks. I didn’t try to itemize any facts about her, I just started writing. I had the idea that Harlan Mallory, the 60-year old artist, would be giving a lecture at the Nantucket Athenuem and that somehow Julia would have wormed her way in there somehow.

She’s pushy – I guess I knew that much.

Here’s what came out :

Harlan Mallory stood at the podium, upstairs in the great Hall at the Nantucket Atheneum, talking about his Viet Nam paintings and wondering how he had won this dreary trifeca of social obligations: visitors up from the city, an evening spent with the relentless Julia Copenhaver, and this excruciating bout of public speaking. As far as he could see, most of it was Julia’s fault. She had convinced him to give the lecture and even assembled the slides and set up the ‘power point’ presentation so that all he had to do was push a button and talk.

“It’ll be lovely,” she had said as they paced around the outside of his new guest cottage, the previous Saturday morning, deciding on a color for the clapboard siding. “You’ll be giving back to the community.”

He had laughed at that. “And what precisely, has this community ever given to me? Just asking.”

She seemed to deflate at little at his obtuse, masculine refusal to understand the simplest things. “This community? Not much I suppose -- a warm welcome, but you’re reasonably presentable. Paved roads and police protection, but you pay taxes for that. I was thinking more of the community as a whole, the human community, the society that nurtured you and allowed you to study your art and create it in peace and sell it for increasingly extravagant prices to the four hundred people who own half the wealth of the country, approximately three hundred and twenty two of whom spend at least some part of August on this island. You’ve had a lucky life. It’s seemly to show your appreciation in small ways. This would be one of them.”

There was no way to refuse at that point without looking like the bitter old crank that he actually was; but he did make one attempt, revealing that his old friends the Barudskys would be on-island that weekend: other plans, previous engagements, bad timing.

Julia wasn’t buying it. “Alfred Barudsky. He shows your work, doesn’t he? I’m sure he’d be delighted to see you talking about it. Maybe we can get him to introduce the lecture. I’ll take everyone out to dinner afterward.”

“I’m cooking for them that night. It’s an old tradition.”

“Great. I’ll do the dishes.”

So somehow she was coming to dinner at his house after this, as well. She was a force of nature, a human flood. You could pile up the sandbags but they weren’t going to help.

I stood up from my desk after writing that passage, pleased and startled, feeling like I’d just met someone new, someone I liked, someone who was more than a match for my dyspeptic protagonist.

I’m looking forward to getting to know her better. That’s what gets me up to write at five o’clock every morning. It’s an eccentric system, but I suspect most working writers use some version of it.

Give it a try, I guarantee you’ll have more fun.

And so will your readers.

Voodoo Economics

The Republicans have all the good catch phrases.

But one of the most revealing aspects of our new political "discourse" is that they have moved so far to the right that Democrats can now use their old catch-phrases against them. It was George H.W. Bush who coined the phrase, "Voodoo Economics" when he was running in the primaries against his future boss, Ronald Reagan ... who wound up raising taxes, by the way. And why? Because in the real world, when you cut taxes revenues drop.

That's because you have less money.

It's not calculus, or even algebra -- it's barely arithmetic; yet somehow today's Republicans still can't figure it out. Yesterday Illinois Repupblican Joe Walsh (His slogan could be "There Goes the Neighborhood") went on TV to say, and I quote, "Every time we've cut taxes, revenues have gone up."

Right. And every time I rob you, you get richer! So don't complain when I stick a gun in your ribs and empty your wallet --I've just increased your spending power.

Lucky you.

My question is, why do talking heads on television let people like Walsh get away with this brazen amoral mendacity? The proper follow-up question is: "Why do you think people will believe that lie -- and who's paying you to say it?"

But of course, the same people are paying the talking heads! That's why you have to read foreign newspapers and watch Al Jazeera English and the BBC news to find out what's going on in your own country.

But I wonder how extreme the Republican statements would have to become before someone (anyone) demurred. "Every time you jump off a building, you float up like a snowflake in the wind! Sometimes you go up one story ... sometimes two or three! That sepends on a lot of complex factors. You should read the heritage Foundation report on it. But this Democrat whining about 'Falling to your death' just makes me sick."

I wish Walsh had made that claim.

We could have asked him for a demonstration .