Friday, March 05, 2010

Friday"s Forgotten Books, Friday, March 5, 2010

I wonder if we could use the last Friday in April, the 30th, as a week to review forgotten story collections-either single writer or anthologies. Although we've done forgotten stories, we've not done this yet and it might be nice to celebrate the beginning of our third year with it.

Reminder I'll be away March 19th and next week, I will post the links on Wednesday since I leave Thursday.

Dennis Tafoya was born in Philadelphia. Dope Thief, his first novel, was published in May 2009 by St. Martin’s Minotaur. He is a mem
ber of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the Liars Club, a Philadelphia-area writers group. He lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. His second novel, "The Wolves of Fairmount Park," is coming from Minotaur in June of 2010.


I love to re-read. There are certain novels and authors that I return to over and over, both because of the satisfying emotional experience to be found in the books, and also because I think of these books as exercises in successful fiction writing. One of these books is 1994's The End of Vandalism, by Tom Drury. The novel follows the lives of petty thief Tiny Darling, his ex-wife Louise and her new husband, laconic sheriff Dan Norman. The book has very little discernable plot: Dan and Louise fall in love and marry, Louise spars with her mother; Tiny drifts in and out of Grouse County, the fictional setting of this and other Drury books. "Stealing is like being a chef," he says. "You can find work anywhere." Louise and Dan struggle in their marriage, separate and reconcile. The book's epigraph, from the Brothers Karamazov, tells the reader a lot about the winding path ahead, "If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it."

The characters are all treated with a beguiling generosity and humanity, though the real attraction here is the humor, a gentle wit that's nearly all in the language of the northern plains, the tone and the odd angle between events and the dialogue used to comment on them. Early in the novel Dan asks Louise if she thinks Tiny might be stalking her. She laughs it off, but Dan warns her elliptically, "You know, though, sometimes you drive by a pickup and it might be parked along the shoulder with the flashers on. Now, say there's baled straw all over the road, maybe there's a man, there's a woman, picking up the bales. Well, it's easy to see what happened. But it's too late to tie them tighter, obviously." "O.K," Louise responds, "I'm lost."

It’s Drury’s talent to present wonderfully aimless characters, who can neither see nor arrive at a discernible point, and to present them without straining our sympathy or letting our interest flag. These are characters who struggle in an entirely real and human way to know themselves and their own fitful desires, and they succeed about as often as we do. Later in the novel, as Tiny wanders to Colorado, a man he encounters in a bar quizzes him to discover his suitability for a program he's selling called Lunarhythm: "I don't consider myself a loser, and yet..." to which Tiny responds, "I have lost things."

The novel was largely serialized in the New Yorker, which is where I first encountered it, and when it was released it immediately became one of my favorite novels - I've read it over and over, and I guess it's become like literary comfort food. Drury's other books, Hunts in Dreams, The Black Brook, and The Driftless Area, are all peopled with the same hopeful losers, trying to get a purchase on life through nearly imperceptible and fallible effort and a kind of doomed yearning that seems very familiar and almost uncomfortably real.

Trey Barker is the author of 2000 MILES TO OPEN ROAD (Five Star) and short stories on publications such as THUGLIT. You can find him here.

GOD IS A BULLET, Boston Terran

I troll my library shelves constantly. I would love to buy everything I want, but alas…money becomes a problem. So I troll. I look at everything: covers, titles, back copy, how many times it’s been checked out.

This is what I found recently: the cover was a picture of the desert, which I love. I grew up in west Texas and have set many of my own novels and stories there. The cover had gaudy yellow letters that stood out like the red bloom of a sucking chest wound. The title juxtaposed God and bullet and that doesn’t happen very damn often. And the writer’s name intrigued me.

So I took it home.

And read it in about 37 seconds.

I knew nothing of Teran before I read 1999’s God Is A Bullet. In fact, I’d never heard of him, but this book is amazing. It is noir, fast and brutal and fairly stripped down, and filled with the kinds of crazed characters that noir and hardboiled readers expect. It also has crooked cops and people whose actions are – finally – coming back to haunt them.

But at the same time, it is not noir. It is something more than that. It is what I like to think of as American Desert Noir. Think the feel, though not the humor, of Brian Hodge’s Wild Horses. The desert does something to people. It gets to them, and into them in many cases. It changes how they see themselves and their world and if the author does it right, the reader feels every single moment of that transformation.

This is what Boston Teran has done extremely well in this novel. The relationship between his protagonists – one extremely middle class, the other extremely not middle class – is obvious from the first time they meet. They will become close, they will fall in love in the only fashion they are able. But they might well kill each other before they get to that pay off. It’s standard stuff for most genre books, but Teran portrayed that relationship extremely well, perhaps better than any writer I’ve read in a while.

The plot is basic and straightforward. A cop’s ex-wife and her husband are murdered and the cop’s 14-year old daughter is snatched by the murderers. The cop takes a leave of absence to find his daughter. At the same time, there is a woman named Case, a heroin addict who’s been massively traumatized by her time spent with a sort of a wanna be cult. There are machinations and schemes and coincidences and eventually, the cop and Case are on the road together chasing down the kidnappers, who just happen to be the cult members from whom Case recently escaped.

Fine. Good enough. I can suspend my disbelief easily enough.

But woven throughout that standard plot is a journey of moral change ups that left me dizzy. Teran asks incredibly hard questions of his characters and readers and rarely lets either go with the simple answer. There are few writers who do this and fewer still who do it as harshly and brutally as Teran. Laura Lippman, to use but one example (one of my favorite writers) always asks the hard questions, but her prose is so pitch-perfect that the toughest questions are frequently hidden beneath her poetry.

There is no poetry in God is a Bullet, not standard poetry anyway. Not poetry your 7th grade English teacher would appreciate. If there is poetry, it’s something William Burroughs could appreciate. The language is demanding, doubly so in its literarily pretentious present tense, and forces the reader to think and keep up.

On the other hand, the Library Journal hated the damned thing. Their reviewer called the book both “silly” and “distasteful.” The review said everything in the book was simply an excuse for Teran to focus on “graphic violence, depraved sex, and gross obscenities, demonstrating his ‘toughness.’”

That might well be true, but there are enough truths in the book that I could overlook that. Plus, I like ‘distasteful’ books. I like reading books that force me to think about something new or something old from a new point of view. I want books to push me and this one did.

Now, as much as I loved this book, I think everything surrounding it is total bullshit. For instance, the author’s website has a note that it was put together by his friends. There is a letter on the website purported to be from a ‘close friend and business advisor to the author.’ The letter talks about how this friend was a pilot in Vietnam, in law enforcement, is a successful entrepreneur, worked with members of the intelligence community, for the Democratic National Committee, and two presidential candidates. The letter also tells us how this guy introduced Teran to the man who then led him to Mexico on the journey for a lost little girl that become God Is A Bullet. Then there are letter excerpts unearthed by the author’s French publisher.

What the fuck is all that? Come on, that’s just a little too Boys’ Life adventure to be real. Some rumors have the name Boston Teran as a pseudonym for a well-known author…or even a group of authors working together. And, in the reviews for the new book, Giv: The Story of a Dog and America, reviewers are told this book is based on the author’s life. Fine, except we were told God Is A Bullet was based on blah blah blah….

Someone is working too hard to build up a manly buzz around this author and his – or their – work. Come on, the work is good without all the bullshit. The bullshit just serves, I believe, to highlight a cynicism about marketing and readers’ intellects that is exactly opposite what the actual prose demands of readers.

Patrick Shawn Bagley

Paul Bishop

Bill Crider

Randy Johnson

Thomas Kaufman

George Kelley

Chris La Tray

Evan Lewis

Steve Lewis (David Vineyard)

Todd Mason

Eric Peterson

Richard Prosch

James Reasoner

Richard Robinson

Kerrie Smith

Richard Wheeler


Charles Gramlich said...

I like the idea of reviewing lost story collections. I've got some good ones in mind. I'll definitely try to take part.

Randy Johnson said...

Patrick Shawn Bagley has one up on his blog.

Soames said...

Okay story collection it is, assuming I remember. I have one up today too.

Richard Robinson said...

Patti, I have a FFB up also.

George said...

Count me in on the FORGOTTEN SHORT STORY COLLECTION event, Patti.