Friday, August 01, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books, August 1, 2008

First, a piece of business, please email Brian Lindenmuth if you will be posting a review next Friday, August 8th when I will be visiting sunny (hopefully) Halifax. (If you haven't already corresponded with me, that is). He'll post either the review or your link on Fantasy Bookspot. We'd love your review--short or long-- because we are sparse on them starting NOW...

His blog: Thanks Brian.

Friday's Forgotten Books, August 1, 2008

Sean Doolittle, author of
The Cleanup and Rain Dogs.

Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem

I'll talk about a book which probably doesn't qualify as forgotten, even if its author is more commonly known for the later works--Motherless Brooklyn, for example, or The Fortress of Solitude--that elevated him to more rarified levels of acclaim. While I admire the aforementioned books, I'm still partial to Jonathan Lethem's debut novel, a dystopian sci-fi/hardboiled/noir mashup called Gun, With Occasional Music.

How to describe this book? It would help if my library weren't packed up in moving boxes as I write this, but without the source material at hand I'll do my best from memory (and a little help from the Internet). Gun takes its basic structure from the classic hardboiled PI novel: the protaganist, Metcalf, is a Marlowe-like character hired by a man who claims he's been framed for murder.

Only Lethem's story is set in a futuristic version of Oakland, California, where the government monitors public emotion to the point that morning radio no longer delivers news reports (which are apt to be distressing), but rather musical interpretations of the news (how does Metcalf know, in the opening pages, that his day promises trouble? He wakes up to the sound of ominous orchestra strings). Citizens carry their karma on ATM cards and serve time suspended in "cryojail" when their supply runs out. Super-intelligent babies talk tough and hang around in bars. Animals have evolved, and Metcalf's investigation leads him to trouble with the local crime syndicate's top muscle: an armed and dangerous kangaroo named Joey Castle.

In lesser hands, all of this might add up to something wildly inventive, vastly entertaining, and entirely gimmicky. But Lethem's up to something more incisive. (How does a private investigator operate in a culture where asking questions is illegal, and memories are taboo? How does a culture operate when the most commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals have names like Acceptol, Avoidol, and Forgettol?) T
he result is wildly inventive, vastly entertaining, and substantial enough that I've written all of this more than a decade after first reading the book, and it turns out I've only had to consult the Internet slightly.

James Lincoln Warren is a short story writer. Many of his stories have
appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. 
THE THREE MULLA-MULGARS by Walter de la Mare
  Like almost every other person on the face of the earth, I awaited
the final installment of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga with
tremendous eagerness.  I had been late getting onto the Hogwarts
Express bandwagon, hopping aboard only after book IV, but once
converted I became as dedicated a fan as you might find anywhere.
  But as much as I admire Rowling's achievement, there has always beena niggling doubt

in the back of my mind that if these books survive along with the timeless classics of children's literature,

it won't be because of the skill she displayed in her language, but because of
her gift for engaging our imaginations, making her a sort of 21st
Century Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Her prose, evocative as it is, simply
lacks the flowing grace of a Kenneth Grahame or T. H. White, and her
wordplay, albeit extremely clever, is no match for the wit of a Lewis
Carroll or A. A. Milne.
  Children's literature didn't exist two hundred and fifty years ago.
It's the product of the surge of literacy among the masses that began
in the late 18th century with the advent of Sunday schools and
publicly financed education.  Neither is it today what it was
conceived to be when Pooh disguised himself as a rain cloud or Mr.
Toad was enamored of his first motor car.
  But there is one writer who was a match for all of the above in terms
of fecundity of imagination and power of expression.  I have never
read a word of his without being enraptured.  The Encyclopaedia
Britannica's one-liner used to define his place in English letters
  "British poet and novelist with an unusual power to evoke the
ghostly, evanescent moments in life."
  I refer to the British poet and novelist Walter de la Mare (April 25,
1873 - June 22, 1956). These days, he is best remembered as a poet,
but among his other accomplishments he was an acknowledged master of
children's literature. 
  One of the treasures to be found in the trove of his works is a 1919
novel titled THE THREE MULLA-MULGARS (Alfred A. Knopf), ostensibly an
adventure story aimed at children, but one imbued with a mythopoeic
depth that defies easy description.  Mulgars, we learn on the very
first page, is what monkeys call themselves.  A Mulla-Mulgar is a
Royal Monkey.  Among their goddesses is Tishnar, upon whom de la Mare
expounds in a footnote:
  "Tishnar is a very ancient word in Munza, and means that which cannot
be thought about in words, or told, or expressed. So all the
wonderful, secret, and quiet world beyond the Mulgars' lives is
Tishnar wind and stars, too, the sea and the endless unknown. But
here it is only the Beautiful One of the Mountains that is meant. So
beautiful is she that a Mulgar who dreams even of one of her Maidens,
and wakes still in the presence of his dream, can no longer be happy
in the company of his kind. He hides himself away in some old hole or
rocky fastness, lightless, matted, and uncombed, and so thins and
pines, or becomes a Wanderer or Moh-mulgar. But it is rare for this
to be, for very few Mulgars dream beyond the mere forest, as it were;
and fewer still keep the memories of their dreams when the livelong
vision of Munza returns to their waking eyes."
  THE THREE MULLA-MULGARS is a quest story.  It is filled with whimsy,
terror, moral victory and failure, and poetic imagery of the highest
order.  Although it is not the easiest book to find, a facsimile
edition now exists on line that includes Dorothy P. Lathrop's
luminous illustrations. (
 I commend it to you with all my heart.

Derek Nikitas is the Edgar-nominated author of Pyres. He has also published short stories in both literary and crime fiction publications.

God is a Bullet, Boston Teran

Never heard of Boston Teran. Nor God is a Bullet. Not till last year after my first novel, Pyres. Random readers made comparisons. I sought the book, saw a plot hauntingly similar to mine, noted further comparisons to Jim Thompson and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I shelved the book a while, afraid. What if it’s too similar? Will mine lose its thin cred, cease to exist?

But I gave in and turned the first page.

I relish mysteries that extend beyond the borders of the book. Who is Boston Teran? Beats me. He’s written four books, but no pictures, no appearances, few if any interviews. Hardboiled Thomas Pynchon. Or is he a Name Author slumming exquisitely under a likely pseudonym? I mean—Boston? Really? Or is he a spirit of the wastelands betwixt California and Mexico where his hardscrabble characters dwell? His prose would have you believe it—distant and biblical, stolen from some past century, yet suddenly intimate, as if it has possessed his characters.

The Teran Myth claims that much of God is a Bullet is based in fact. We are to believe there are real roving bands of psychopathic satanic outlaw drug smugglers razing their way through the So-Cal sand. Can we believe it? Perhaps. After all, this is Manson Land and Meth Heaven, Mojave Desert and Abandoned Route 66(6?). A sunburnt heart of darkness. But Teran will have us believe those devils are still going strong in 1999. I’d recount the plot, but the thrill of this book is the land and the voice that booms out of it. Teran’s.

Legend has it Teran roamed these lands, mining research, came upon a chap called the Ferryman, with all his obvious mythic connotations. Ferryman showed him the lay of the land and all its intricate traps. Ferryman haunts the book, quite literally. There was a search for an ex-cultist, a border crossing, some bad drug double dealing, sick and twisted cult activity. Supposedly Teran’s life remains in danger. Others have died. He’s in hiding, or already vanished like a latter day Ambrose Bierce. He’s left his papers behind for safe keeping—the true story behind the story of God is a Bullet.

Or am I reading this all wrong? Depends on your interpretation. Go to to see for yourself.

Okay, so—plot. Young girl is kidnapped by a sicko band of satanic outlaws called the Left Hand of Darkness, led by Cyrus. Their depravity knows no bounds. Enter the girl’s cop father Bob Hightower, rescue mission ensues. His traveling companion is Case Hardin—young women, ex-junkie, ex-Left Hand cultist, one of the most viscerally compelling characters I’ve ever had to imagine the face of. She’s a force of violence and philosophy, the apotheosis of the noir mentality. Georgeous in her haggard, beat-down way. Plots twist, but the mission is the heart of the tale. No mind-blowing mystery, just humanity at its most desperate, amped up to eleven.

I see the similarities between Teran’s book and mine—but let’s face it, mine pales. I always wanted to write about cultists, but Teran actually did it. I wanted to push the reader to the limit of faith, but Teran pushed beyond. I wanted to bring my characters to life, but Teran’s were real before he first scrawled their names. He walks the line, ring of fire, all that. Takes risks I didn’t dare and pulls them off because he’s got the Prophecy.

His sacrifice? A diverse readership. This is no cozy mystery, no dashing thriller. This is noir with scabs and the whole spectrum of psychological scars. People will read it and say: too dour, too dark, too violent. It’s not a safe series mystery where the iconic detective solves a crime in which he has no personal stake, no lasting repercussions. This is a father on the hunt for his daughter and a woman facing her literal demons. There’s rape and trauma and forced heroin addiction and mutilation and all manner of deprivation and depravity. I don’t mean to say it’s torture porn like Hostel or Saw (which have their own merits, don’t get me wrong). Our allegiances lie with the good guys, and we want to see justice done. We’re not being asked to forget that love exists; quite the opposite. But the path to that destination is through hell.

Call me crass, but that’s how I do. Noir’s not a genre to be trifled with. It ought to have claws. It ought to reflect the true existential horror of some aspects of human existence, not flirt with it and make you feel all warm and fuzzy in the final act. You write real noir, you sacrifice book sales, probably. Lots of folks don’t want to go there, and I don’t blame them. But you write real noir and you write a certain Vital Truth, the kind that can only be found in risk-taking fiction. Boston Teran’s God is a Bullet stands testament.

Paul McGoran has published short stories ("The Thanks You Get") in publications such as Pulp Pusher. He is working on a third novel.

Serenade James M. Cain (1937)

As Serenade opens, protagonist Jack Sharp is banished from Paradise, subsisting in Mexico as a kind of operatic stumblebum. He lost both his golden voice and his European Eden when he deserted his muse over the sin of homosexuality. The agent of his temptation and fall was rich, charming Winston Hawes, his maestro and mentor in Paris.

In his Mexico hell, Jack nevertheless finds his Eve, a three-peso whore named Juana Montes, who straightens his libido, heals his voice, and escapes with him for his second shot at fame and fortune in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Before long, he conquers Hollywood and reaches his ultimate goal, singing at the Met in New York. Naturally, Winston Hawes reappears at the height of Jack’s meteoric rise. Not long after, in a decadent party setting that resembles a drag ball, Juana fulfills her fate and crushes the devil underfoot.

Those who have been awarded a second sojourn in the Garden must, of course, endure another round of purgation in hell. To that end, Jack and Juana flee to South America for the denouement, deteriorating physically and mentally until they reach ground zero – the same Mexican town and milieu where they met. The ending is appropriately melodramatic, but is too long in coming. Cain has tried our patience by now with a lot of mopey agonizing about the lovers’ final breakup.

In spite of its faults, Serenade is brisk and involving, a damn good read. You may be put off by Cain’s theory of homosexuality and by his lead character’s bias against Mexicans, but the former serves his story well, and the latter is ably countered by another character’s defense of Mexicoin Chapter Six.

Serenade falls short of Cain’s most celebrated work in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. Give him credit, however for tackling a difficult theme as far back as 1937. Here was a noted crime fiction author expounding on the relationship between homosexuality and creativity. An especially bold move, I think, because his many friends and acquaintances had to notice that James Cain’s own musicality and physical description matched those of his protagonist at every point. Despite his three marriages, and despite the charge of homophobia that some have laid at his door, I find myself wondering whether Cain wrote Serenade, in part, as self-revelation. Not at his best in Serenade, Cain was still able.

Matt Beynon Rees is the author of The Collaborator of Bethlehem and A Grave in Gaza

The King Must Die by Mary Renault

I discovered Mary Renault is a used bookstore on a rather ratty lane in West Jerusalem. I was Middle East correspondent for The Scotsman at the time and about to leave for Amman to cover the illness of King Hussein of Jordan. The Plucky Little King (as the CIA called him) was lingering, despite the presence of the international press awaiting a good spectacle at his funeral. So, off the shelf jumped a 1959 edition of The King Must Die, Renault's vividly imagined tale about Theseus, the prince of Athens, condemned to the "bull dancing" ring when he is enslaved on Crete. It's a wonderful adventure which, like Renault's other great historical novels of ancient Greece, is drawn out of detailed research into the period.

I couldn't reisist the title. I started to read it as I waited at the border crossing in the Jordan Valley. It kept me entertained as Hussein died and I was probably the only man in Jordan who neighter depressed nor convince the Middle East was about to erupt into revolution. Because I knew there were a half-dozen other Renault novles for me to read. Each of them proved marvelous, but The King Must Die remains my favorite because of its fortuitous discovery.
More Forgotten Books for August 1, 2008. Thanks to the contributors.


Randy Johnson said...

I loved Gun, With Occasional Music. To date, that's the only book by Lethem I've read.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My only experience with him is Motherless Brooklyn.

susan259 said...

Better late then never--here is my post:

David Cranmer said...

In the Big Book of Pulps there's a James M. Cain story titled Pastorale which is wickedly funny and cleverly written. I've also seen the film version of Double Indemnity too many times to count. I will read Serenade when I get a chance.

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