Michigan Murder Mystery

Writer Jim Harrison is to letters what Woody Allen is to film. If that seems a stretch, consider: both are prolific, releasing a new work (or more) yearly. Both were born during the Depression, two years apart, both in December. Both mix drama and comedy into something that’s entertaining as well as thought provoking. Both are fixed on the complications resulting from relationships and sex. Both are obsessed with mortality. Both have tried their hand at writing from a woman’s point-of-view. Both are connected to specific locations, Harrison to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Allen to Manhattan’s Upper Westside (and more recently, Barcelona and Paris). Both are revered in France.

Okay, it’s still a stretch. The grizzled, one-eyed novelist and poet who wrote Legends of the Fall and some 30 other volumes of prose and poetry is more at home in the outdoors than the bespectacled urbanite who wrote and directed Interiors (no matter how much  of A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy takes place outdoors) . And while Harrison’s characters, like Allen’s, often dwell on the fact that their days, as everyone’s, are numbered, they don’t all take it personally. They’re more stoical about it.

Take 65-year-old Detective Sunderson from Harrison latest novel The Great Leader. “He thought just because you’re older doesn’t mean that death is imminent every day. There’s generally a tip-off when it’s coming.” Tips, being the detective’s stock-and-trade, need to be acted on. And Sunderson’s been given more than a few.

If your hunch is that detective fiction is out of character for someone as literate as Harrison, you’d be half right.  Detective Sunderson doesn’t break from the manly Harrison mold. He’s burly, fond of brook trout, dogs and deer livers.  He has a frustration-inducing appreciation for female posteriors and is prone to use whiskey as a cure. Three years ago, his troubled lifestyle cost him “the world’s finest woman,” according to his niggling 85-year-old mother. It’s his down-home style of introspection, in light of his vices, that stands him apart from the usual sleuth.

Recently retired after a career policing familial abuse, small-time drug dealing, and bear poaching, our detective is hardboiled country-style. When asked why he continues to follow The Great Leader out of the hummocks of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Arizona and the Sand Hills of Nebraska, he claims he’s investigating the evil connection between religion, money, and sex. A more accurate answer: he’s pursuing himself.

If this doesn’t exactly sound like Manhattan Murder Mystery that’s because it isn’t.  There are plenty of dark moments and intimations of mortality in The Great Leader, though balanced by comic action and witty asides. Plot? Only the barest, vulture-picked bones. Along the way, Sunderson is threatened with a sodomy charge, has a run-in with a Mexican drug kingpin, eats prodigiously and suffers gout. It’s not a thriller and there’s not a lot of suspense. But if you’re fond of existential puzzles, then The Great Leader is your rib steak.

In this age-of-anxiety sense, The Great Leader is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s1985 mystery City of Glass, an existential detective yarn in which the unraveling thread of the central charter’s psyche is more knotty than the mystery he’s trying to solve. While Auster’s tale is surreal, Harrison’s is well-grounded. Auster says, “nothing is real, except chance.” Harrison counters, “there is no truth, only stories. “ As a detective, Sunderson‘s heard plenty.

The real mystery here is Sunderson himself. Even as he plots the downfall of the cult leader for his taste in 12-year-olds, he ogles his 16-year-old neighbor girl, an exhibitionist whose bedroom window is just 30 feet from his. That and the excitement he feels almost every time a woman bends over cause him to curse “the distracting nuisance” of the biological imperative, like “carrying around a backpack full of cow manure.”

Harrison is skilled at straight-talking life’s big issues and the book is full of homily. “Crime did pay but usually very little,” Sunderson observes. Or, when marveling at the rejuvenating powers of time spent in the wild, “A creek is more powerful than despair.”

Not all such insight seems worthy: “Men would say they were as horny as a toad but who among them knew if a toad was horny?” Sometimes, Harrison’s dialog seems unnaturally smart, as when a tough plainclothes cop, describing religion as a drug, says, “you know, the Marxian opiate of the people.”

But by and large, Sunderland’s social and political one-liners give a jolt on almost every page. He’s outspoken on religion, Republicans, the FBI, American history (especially when it came to Native Americans), 9-11 and justice (“When a guy with four DUIs runs over a kid and receives less time than a college kid with a half-pound of pot…”); all tempered by his unruly self-doubt: “…what were his conclusions worth? Hadn’t he been put out to pasture?”

Sunderson eventually chases down a sort of religion of his own, one anchored in extended family and the natural world. Like Alvy Singer in Allen’s Annie Hall, he finds solace in his surroundings, a beauty and buzz of life that’s present no matter which landscape he’s in. It’s this revelation that helps him get his man. I won’t tell you which one.–Cabbage Rabbit




The Postman Rings Once

Albert Snyder’s murder in 1927 at the hands of his wife and her lover gave James M. Cain — and others —  ideas. As Literary Legend has it, the killing inspired Cain twice, once in Double Indemnity and again with The Postman Always Rings Twice . The actual incident was the perfect combination of sex and murder, and its telling in the papers overshadowed what was waiting on the economic horizon.

A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion –the title pulled from a newspaper article of the time;  the chapters have equally Old Testament titles–is something of a tease. Hansen’s fictional period piece is big on “surge” and short on “guilt.” It’s as if the postman rang only once.

What we get instead is long on before and short on after. When the two finally dumb themselves into doing the deed (they’d already done dirty in many dirty ways), things move fast.

Hansen had benefit of memoirs from both of the condemned and is reported to have studied the incident throoughly.  While the juries, the attorneys and the public might have supplied endless material for  Hansen’s biopic, he instead concentrates on the accused’s lack of genuine guilt. The characters in both Postman and Identity, and their subsequent films, share the same base characteristics, all in different circumstances. Here, the not-so-star crossed lovers are oblivious in completely different ways.

The faux-steamy first section is where Hansen takes advantage of creative license. What he made up is damn good, presented flatly, judgmental in that it’s not.  And if the closing section, by comparison, seems to get bored with itself,  we should appreciate Hansen’s circling in quickly. It seemed like knowing how it was going to end suddenly made it less interesting even though we knew how it was going to end from the beginning. If this is the well from which much noir springs, it doesn’t give whatever cliche it’s attached to much support. And, as well,  it does. Are we all this self-absorbed? Hansen, with example, says in so many words that we like to think we’re not. Verdict? I couldn’t put it down.–Cabbage Rabbit

Sons and Brothers

Craig Thompson of Blankets fame asks a silly question in the introduction to Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s Daytripper:  “Does Art Enhance Our Lives Or Distract From It?” Then he makes what might be an unpopular decision between fantasy and reality comics. (And shouldn’t that be, “Our Life”?)

“The Superhero,” he says, ” is escapist. The DREAM. Clearly a distraction. But [reality] is its own abstraction–distilling life to its most mundane, suppressing the dream with CYNICISM.” He goes onto say the Brazilian brothers Moon and Ba (twins!) travel both. Daytripper takes a magical realism approach, its hero is oh-so-human. It follows a “miracle child” and son of a famous writer through parallel universes of the same life, but not the same death.   Added twists: the son, Bras, aspires to be a great writer like his father but is employed scribbling obituaries for the local paper. He stands in shadow. Lovers and a friend, sometimes only their memories, tie the episodes together.

Ba’s artwork is much more round and human in his brother’s story, more sharp-edged and angular in his work for Matt Fraction’s Casanova Luxuria, which appears more commercial. Casanova comes down on the fantasy side, fantasies of several types, the best of which is probably not the legions of sexy, female robots. Sure, the sex in Daytripper is good, too. The best parts of Cassanova (there is a collected Volume 2 out; haven’t read it) are when the characters are at their most human.  Contrast that with Daytripper‘s  magical mystery tour of (multiple) existence, all of it all too human. Fantasy and reality–one can’t seem to exist without the other.–Cabbage Rabbit

Death and Taxes

You’ve gotta believe that most all of what you read in David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King was written by David Foster Wallace. After all, the manuscript was trimmed from “a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s sacks” worth of paper  to 548 pages, as editor Michael Pietsch tells us. But then, we don’t know how much stitching Pietsch had to do. We know there was no “outline or other indication of what order David intended for these chapters.”   He tells us he edited “lightly,” and that he cut out”unintentional distractions and confusions…”. And I thought confusions were what Wallace was all about.

Pietsch says, “There were notes and false starts, lists of names, plot ideas, instructions to himself. All these materials were gorgeously alive and charged with observations; reading them was the closest timing to seeing his amazing mind at play upon the world.”  This may suggest that the editor did a lot of writing to bring it all together. It also gives us a way to discern, in its dull and stammering way, what is stitching to what is Wallace.

Does it matter what is Wallace and what is not? Of course it does. And our take is that most of it is, in its being “gorgeously alive” (well, maybe not “gorgeously”  but “grindingly” or “sadly”) and in its glimpse into Wallace’s  “amazing mind.”  What’s amazing about it is its willingness to pursue detail, to pose self-reflecting questions and see a number of answers, to find the most absurd circumstances and put them to sound use.

It matters because I can’t help wonder if the young man who is at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Il isn’t — it is! — David Foster Wallace and that as he explains his adolescence in terms of his job aspirations (what a turnaround!), he’s telling us about what that amazing mind went through. There are other characters of interest, drawn in Wallace’s too-revealing style, as if, again, he were writing about himself.  The  narrative is Pynchon-like  in its time-out-of-mind pacing. And there’s some paranoia  — big-brother type paranoia–  thrown in for good measure.  What’d you expect? It’s the IRS.

We’re not ready to make comparisons to Infinite Jest…may have to read it again (that was last summer’s project). And there’s one thing certain: it is unfinished. But this is definitely a David Foster Wallace novel, even some of it wasn’t written by him.–Cabbage Rabbbit

Roth Stops Reading Fiction!

Philip Roth’s interview in the Financial Times ahead of his visit to London to pick up the Man Booker International literary prize is an exercise in avoidance. Roth avoids answering the tough questions by letting the interviewer get away without asking them. For an author who’s used alter ego to advantage,  Roth is presenting himself in a way we doubt is really him.  Way to play it!

If Roth’s claim that he no longer reads fiction is the article’s attempt at something resembling sensationalism  — “I read other things: history biography…I wised up”– the rest is something so predictable that I predict you’ll be bored. What is interesting is the journalist’s hand wringing about the author’s reputation and love of privacy. She can’t believe  he’s being nice. “As we talk, Roth is perfectly courteous, perfectly charming, perfectly defended.” Hers is a sterling example of procrastination and out-and-out avoidance with, no doubt, a bit of hero worship as well, despite that bit at the end about feminism.

She should have slapped the guy. Just kidding.

Even more interesting are the comments that follow The New York Times “Arts Beat” blog item on Roth. People hate the man! They hate fiction!. They hate people who hate fiction! Talk about Indignation! These are exactly the kind of feelings that Roth’s been able to inspire over the last 50 years. This is why we love him. And Zuckerman, too. —Cabbage Rabbit

God’s Almighty Roth

Just what the nemesis is in Philip Roth’s latest novel,  if there’s to be only one, isn’t clear. Polio? Certainly. But maybe it’s God. Or even our superstition and ignorance. Or life, as in mortal,  itself.

Or maybe it’s just playground instructor Bucky Cantor’s proclivity to take things too seriously, particularly when it comes to what his grandfather preached: “to stand up for himself as a man and to stand for himself as a Jew.” All this standing, complicates Bucky’s life. He cannot, like his friends, serve in the big European war because of his poor vision, a fact used later as metaphor for what Bucky can and can’t see. Standing up like a man means knowing better than those who love you, and doing things they would not have you do. Failing this once is a hard lesson. Failing it twice isn’t allowed, even when it precludes a better decision.

Nemesis is Roth’s The Plague. The inexplicable existentialism of the disease’s spread challenges the easy notion of standing up no matter the circumstances. Like Camus, Roth keeps his narrator hidden for a good part of the book, giving the story an omniscient depth that seems to sink and surface as the story progresses. Like Camus, Roth has Bucky pose questions, not to, but about God.  As in Camus, God comes up terribly cruel or missing altogether.

Bucky’s sense of duty is a source of guilt. But it is also the source of his pride. When Italian teenagers invade the playground from their neighborhood where the disease has taken up residence, Bucky stands up to their threats and washes away their spit. His need to pass on his Grandfather’s advice to the boys on the playground makes him a hero to the boys and a champion in the neighborhood. When his love seeks to draw him away to the safety of the country he first refuses.

But not for long. His fear gets the better of him and he takes a job at an upstate summer camp away from the “equatorial” heat and disease of Newark.  The experience give him both a false sense of security and new reason for fear.  He’s bothered that his  girlfriend’s younger sisters cling to him and kiss him on the mouth.  When he and his beloved take a canoe and go to an island where they can be alone, storm clouds rumble in the distance. Despite this overplay, the moments of foreshadowing are chilling against the supposed blue-skies future.

Ethnic issues  — the Italian neighborhood that the disease first over runs while the Jewish neighborhood seems, as if by God, protected — are underplayed, serving as little more than setting to the action. Placed in a time when the Holocaust was reaching its horrific zenith in Europe, the  story seems designed to contrast human and natural suffering. But despite grandpa’s urging for Bucky to stand like a Jew, the comparisons are, like God, missing.

This is some of the genius of Roth’s story and keys to a short novel. He doesn’t need to connect the dots. The reader is entirely capable. Suggestion is more than enough to make the horrors of spreading death part of the tone, part of the setting.

In other ways, Roth seems to telegraph what’s coming. Bucky’s two buddies serving bravely in Europe? Don’t ask. His frequent declarations of happiness — that memory of eating a peach with his fiance’s father  —  suggest unhappiness looms. And don’t forget those thunder clouds advancing as the two make love.

Because of these clues, when the end comes Roth is largely able to skip over it and get right to the denouement. Now Grandpa’s advice works against Bucky. He can no longer stand like a man. His own strength and beauty gone, he relies on pride to carry him forward into a future he didn’t imagine. His narrator, during a chance encounter, hears the whole story. And he, like us, can’t quite figure it out.

Roth’s tale is at once a reminder of how our fears and superstitions color our most immediate reactions and important decisions. There’s hints that an ignorance of science,  in this case, how polio is transmitted, leads to misguided anger and judgment. The ethnic and racial prejudice of the time (not so unlike the prejudice of current time) clouds understanding. There are so many of these intervening factors in the book that it’s easy to believe its title should be plural if the series didn’t already carry that name.

Despite the obvious clues where all of it is leading, Nemesis is absorbing and propulsive reading, the kind of book you want to consume in a sitting (but it will take two). Much of this is due to Roth’s craft, the smoothly consumed rhythms and phrasing as natural as a jump-rope rhyme. It’s lesson isn’t so much not to get comfortable because life has something else in store for us but, instead,  not to be so forthright and resolute because, again, life has something else in store for us.–Cabbage Rabbit

Mosley’s Old Man

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is a ghetto variation of the Faust myth. An aged man makes a deal with the devil so that he may settle with the past. Ptolemy Grey is 91 and living in an unkempt  South-Central Los Angeles apartment. He sleeps under the kitchen table, his toilet won’t flush and there’s a room populated by mice and roaches he won’t even enter. Being 91, Ptolemy has a lot to forget and his memory gives him trouble. He often can’t remember things. Often, he remembers at inopportune times.

Ptolemy is stoic about his condition. A nephew calls every few weeks to take him out to cash his pension check and buy groceries. Otherwise he’s alone, except for occasional visits from a drug-addicted woman who doesn’t mind beating up on him to get some money. When his nephew is killed in a drive-by, another less-compassionate relative stands in.

His life changes before his mind. At his nephew’s funeral, he meets Robyn, a 17-year old orphan who’s been taken in by Ptolemy’s extended family. Robyn cleans up the mess in his life and Ptolemy falls in love. “If you were twenty years older and I fifty less…” is a common refrain.

Ptolemy, forgetful as he is, is haunted by the past. Memories — often arriving as metaphor– flare up at odd moments. His life is consumed by incidents of regret; a fire in which he was helpless to save a friend, a down-home mentor, still whispering in his ear, who was hung, a beloved wife that died in his arms. The past is also treasure, the spoils of a “righteous crime” against racial injustice, hidden under his own floorboards.

With the best intentions, Robyn brings Ptolemy to a doctor who has an extreme treatment for dementia. “The Devil,” Ptolemy calls him. The Devil’s medicine ignites Ptolemy’s memory and brings fire to his veins. Without much life left, Ptolemy makes it his mission to do what he can do about those regrets as well as discover the reason for his nephew’s death.

The Rabbit’s often broken down Mosley’s novels into “detective”  (Easy Rawlins series) and “serious” genres (The Man In My Basement, The Right Mistake).  This book is a bit of both and something entirely different as well. The care that Mosley takes to create the fragile, vulnerable Ptolemy Grey is an insightful look into our own aging (and the miserable conditions we condemn them to as social programs are withdrawn). Mosley  grants glances into Ptolemy’s crippled consciousness and the distinct change it makes under the doctor’s medication. The mysteries resolved here are done with soul-searching and a little sleuthing. That Ptolemy unravels the cloth of his nephew’s “random” killing give the book a taste of Mosely’s mystery skills. The Last Days is equally touching and engaging, balanced with humor and full of personal revelation. It’s framing lessons, as Mosley so often states them, are centered on the black experience but universal in their message. The question here is not so much who can refuse the devil when he comes calling, but who can refuse love?–Cabbage Rabbit