Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

John D. MacDonald: Nightmare in Pink

This second adventure in the series is a little bit cartoonish in plot,though sharp as ever in every other department, and somewhat more violent in the way it gets started – McGee is essentially asked to investigate a murder, that of Howard Plummer.  This is a notch down from the novels that precede and follow it, but still a rip roaring yarn indeed!  And dig the minor characters like the white sweatered girl walking the poodle, the New York cops McGee has to visit, and the ex employees of Armister visits.

The BIG QUOTE – Travis McGee on recreational sex: “If there’s no pain and no loss, it’s only recreational, and we can leave it to the minks.  People have to be valued.”





THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own.  Mike Gibson, McGee’s fellow soldier and wartime buddy, now dying in the hospital, refers McGee to his sister Nina in NYC when her boyfriend Howard Plummer is found dead in the street, the victim of a “mugging”.


THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.  Nina Gibson; Terry Drummond; Constance Trimble Thatcher; Bonita Hersch; Rossa the Call Girl.  A great variety!


THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.  There are two – Constance Thatcher is throwing a party as she meets with McGee and Nina brings McGee to a gathering of her friends that they leave very quickly after MacDonald indulges in a little satire.



THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.  Mulligan, Hersch and Co. lobotomize Charles Armbrister in order to slowly cook his books over the years.




“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.   Total shmaltz—o-rama near the end of the novel between McGee and Nina:
        “I’ll always love you.  Can you understand that?”
        “Yes, but don’t ever try to make anyone else understand it, Nina.”
        “It will always be too private to tell.”

THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:
        “New York is where it is going to begin, I think.  You can see it coming.  The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts.  Until locust population reaches a certain density, they all act like any grasshoppers.  When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world.  One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York.  But this time they won’t snarl and go on.  They will stop and stare and then leap at each others’ throats in a dreadful silence.”



THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. 
Again, there are many examples; here’s one:
        “A good listener is far more rare than an adequate lover.”






John D. MacDonald: The Deep Blue Good-By

       
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       In my humble opinion, The Deep Blue Good-By is a remarkable piece of work by whatever standards you’d like to apply.  I’m not talking about McGee’s comic book like superhero antics in subduing and killing Junior Allen (after all, one of the main purposes of this kind of fiction is to entertain); rather, the intricacy of the plotting, the razorsharp characterizations, the finely tuned and highly observant sense of place (which MacDonald fails with, somewhat, in the McGee novels that he moves outside of Florida), the observations and ruminations of McGee – these are all superb, even amazing. 
        And MacDonald takes chances.  His descriptions of, and explanations for, the way Junior Allen makes both Cathy Kerr and Lois Atkinson essentially his willing, nymphomaniac sex slaves will make every self respecting academic feminist in the world scream in protest.  And he scalds George Brell with 180 degree water to get information out of him, so surely the sadist charge is awaiting somewhere.
        Additionally the characters who move in and out of the novel quickly – the boat salesman Joe True, the waitress Marianne – light up the pages with some special truth.
        In an earlier post I identified seven loosely applicable traits of the early Travis McGee novels; below I look at how they might figure into the situation concerning The Deep Blue Good-By.  But first, here’s the QUOTE OF QUOTES:
        “A naked man who cannot move or talk, and does not know whether it is night or day, and is not told where he is or how he got there, will break very quickly.”
       


THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own.
This is very straightforward here.  Chookie McCall directly refers Cathy Kerr to McGee, face to face.

THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.
Chookie McCall, Cathy Kerr, and Lois Atkinson are the principals; I’ve studied them in an earlier post on this blog.  I’d overlooked, however, the portrayals of Gerry Brell (which is the best in the book) and the young teens in Junior Allen’s late entourage – Deeleen, Corry, and Patty, also excel.  It’s hard not to sound like a broken record in praising MacDonald’s writing about females.

THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.
In addition to the cruise Junior Allen plans with the teenagers at novel’s end there is the gathering at Brell’s house where McGee punches Lew’s lights out.


THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.
Dave Berry and George Brell scheme for gold in and gems on Chowringi Road in Calcutta, among other places.

“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.
Not applicable here!


THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
Numerous examples exist; here’s just one:
“I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.”


THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. 
Again, there are many examples; here’s one:
“Reality is in the enduring eyes, the unspoken dreadful accusation in the enduring eyes of a worn young woman who looks at you, and hopes for nothing.”



John D. MacDonald: Common Motifs & Characteristics in the Travis McGee Novels


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In reading through the first five Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald – The Deep Blue Good-By, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, The Quick Red Fox, A Deadly Shade of Gold – I’ve tried to identify some characteristics and motifs that seem to repeat themselves.  The plots of these novels are extremely complicated at times; the characterizations are consistently razorsharp, perceptive, funny, and generally on point; but I think the underlying blueprints are what really give the tales their addictive readability. 
          Again, these only pertain to the first five books, which is how far I’ve gotten in my study, and I don’t claim for them any special importance or significance.

THE REFERRAL – Someone sends McGee the client.  He doesn’t find the client on his own.
THE WOMEN – The Travis McGee novels, in essence, are about his various kinds of relationships with various kinds of women.  The crime and recovery elements are almost incidental.
THE GROUP SCENE – Some sort of party or orgy figures importantly in the case.
THE MOTIVE FOR THE INITIAL CRIME  – Always greed, always lust for money – the other main motivations for criminal behavior, jealousy and revenge, are never present.
“DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?” – This, or a variant, is asked by McGee of the woman he has gotten romantically involved with in the course of the story, or she asks it of him, right before they break up.
THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY – Remarks, usually negative and disapproving, about the way society is going.
THE PHILOSOPHICAL COMMENTARY – Remarks about humanity and human nature on the whole. 






Kevin Powers: The Yellow Birds



          Just like you, I’ve been reading books for a long, long time.  Sometimes I feel like it’s all I ever do.  I can honestly say that, before Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, the last novel that really jarred me in an almost physical way was The Room by Hubert Selby Jr. – a long, long time ago.
          Powers writes with a sense of understatement and poetic awareness that is completely effective, wholly unnerving, and totally convincing.  This dreamsketch of a novel is brilliant in its use of a light touch, its attunement to colors and shadings, and in the way Powers alters chronology, much like cutting up individual frames from a film strip and then arranging them together so that they play out of order. 
          There’s very little reason for me to go into a detailed review here – the book is almost unanimously praised, and justly so – but I would humbly remark on just one passage that raised, for me, a number of questions about how literature functions.
          This passage begins on page 145 with “How can metal be so on fire?” and on through to “…and fuck  ‘em all” on 146.   (I’m using the Back Bay paperback edition of April, 2103.)  The first thing that jumped into my mind when reading this was, “Hemingway would never have written his,” which is neither good nor bad, just an observation on a difference in style.  I stopped for a minute, wondering if this much background on Bartle was necessary or appropriate – the one brief hesitation I had about what is otherwise an almost perfect piece of work.  

Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite: War of the Encyclopaedists



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Right off the bat I can supply three reasons to like this novel: 1) it skewers Wikipedia; 2) it aims for the grand scale, but with a sense of proportion (too often fiction about whatever happens to be the most recent American military activity virtually begs you to accept and knowledge me as a MAJOR STATEMENT; there’s nothing of that kind here); and 3) it contains a vocabulary word none of us have ever seen before in our lives, “coprophagous”.
These are just some quick notes:
I always feel a little awed by people who have served in the military – whether they’ve gone to war or not – because I have to acknowledge that they’ve made sacrifices and acquired discipline that is totally absent from my own personal experience, and I think a lot of us feel that way.  One person who doesn’t, and can’t, is a principal here, Halifax Corderoy, whose best friend Mickey Montauk is about to ship out for Iraq as the story begins.  Partial reflections of each other (they both become involved with the same two women), the story is largely about how both Corderoy and Montauk lie, and are lied to.
Indeed, lying is one of the central themes of the book.   Corderoy’s girlfriend, Mani, lies repeatedly; so does Ali Gorma, a translator in Montauk’s unit in Iraq. Corderoy gets scammed online by a potential love interest. Local Iraqis that come to see Montauk about a certain matter lie endlessly about what they know and see, one after the other.  Montauk and Mani unite to display to the world what is not, in the strict technical sense, a lie although both we and they know it is a serious lie of the heart.  When Montauk puts out a silly bounty and a punk in his unit called Monkey claims to have met the criteria to earn the cash, we know that’s a lie too.  Corderoy lies to Mani about his school and employment situation.  Luc, an agenda driven journalist, lies to Tricia Burnham (the fourth major character along with Mani, Montauk, and Corderoy) about the extent and content of his Rolodex. 
All these lies, of course, have consequences.  Truth, such as it exists, is more revealed than stated, as in the passages where Mani’s art finally begins to come to fruition and she sells some of her paintings to a gallery, solidifying the second theme of the book which is art-in-exhibition.  The novel opens with a descriptive riff about how Corderoy and Montauk began their series of themed parties with a mock art show.  Later, at an exhibition, Corderoy drunkenly damages an installation right in front of the artist who created it.  If I’m not mistaken, since we can’t quote the text just yet, modern art is referred to a few times as having an arbitrary character while John Singer Sargent is regarded with highest reverence.
Which  leads to another motif, the differences between Mani and Tricia and why and how two men such as Montauk and Corderoy could both be attracted to such different women.  Perhaps a key to this can be found in two passages that occur one right after the other – Tricia has a nosebleed all over Montauk while they have sex and, in the very next scene, Mani has her period alone in her bed, too burnt out to even attend to it.  The use of the symbol of blood to tie the two women to each other is both ingenious and ingeniously operated here.
Which leads to how nicely the two authors seem to work together.  They choose to employ the methodology of metafiction quite often: footnotes, visually reproduced Wikipedia pages, drawings of the female anatomy, reproduced US Army report documents, etc.  Every reader has to decide for themselves if they like the stamp of the author crashing onto the pages this way – not everyone is silky smooth like John Fowles with this particular storytelling strategy.  I think it works most particularly well here in the scenes set in Iraq, which are generally of a very high caliber.
That’s kind of related to another theme of the work, the semi-insanity of academia and the academic analysis of literature.  You may or may not pick up on this depending on what you think about a professor providing Paul de Man style analysis of Star Wars, but I found it really funny. 
One minor complaint: both Boston and Seattle just drip and ooze their own unique flavor, their own character – that’s not exploited here at all, except for one sentence that compares rainfall in the two.  Perhaps we could have gotten some more indulgence in metropolitan atmosphere. 
In my view this is a very good novel.  Its particular strength for me is that, while it’s not go-for-broke comedy like Catch 22, it keeps a healthy sense of humor about some of the very serious subjects it examines.  It is willing to take all kinds of chances, following its heart all the way, and contains at least one passage that will make every feminist zealot in the Western World cry out in protest.  I was also very impressed with the way the authors handle politics and the differences the various characters have in their political views.  This is the kind of fiction that could easily have collapsed into something like the Barefoot, Bible Waving Hicks from Appalachia vs. The Wild Eyed, Frothing at the Mouth Moonbats from the University of Political Correctness.  That it doesn’t do that is a testament to one of its many strong suits.