Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
On a recent flight, I read Nick Hornby’s essay collection, THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE, and I was reminded just how natural and entertaining a writer he really is. Glad to see our man Frank Bascombe reviewing Hornby’s latest fiction offering. Couldn’t be more timely, too. Check this out...
This month we’re lucky enough to take a peek at a few books that I think you’ll all really dig. Peter Craig took a few minutes and answered some questions and Nick Hornby gets my full attention with his new book. The baseball season is upon us and as The Masters approaches so does spring. In the next few weeks expect a review of James Frey’s ‘My Friend Leonard’, and Kevin Canty’s ‘Winslow in Love’. Sorry I haven’t jumped on the Ian McEwan bandwagon; a galley of ‘Saturday’ has been on my desk for months, like it needs any more help.
Until then…It’s Not A Secret If I Don’t Tell Anyone…
I tried. Really, I did.
Here I am, a book reviewer admitting the ultimate sin. I couldn’t finish the book.
At least I said it out loud.
The Chrysanthemum Palace by Bruce Wagner
Simon and Schuster
I always use the “fifty-page rule” on everything I read. This book made it that far and then I couldn’t go on. Reading each sentence, looking down at the words meant nothing to me. It made no sense whatsoever. Sure it was the English language, left to right, but it was so incredibly arcane, esoteric, and colloquial that I could barely keep my eyes open. Night after night, reading the same pages over and over, trying to find a narrative thread, a glimpse of something to hold onto to keep me going. Is this a bad book?
To me, the references that each character imposes on the reader seem more obscure than a Dennis Miller rant. The last time I saw Bruce Wagner was from the front row of his reading at Astor Place B&N in Manhattan. He read from ‘Still Holding’, volume three of his cell phone trilogy. He was clear, vibrant, and exciting. I’d go so far as to say that his books are a vital component to the literary landscape.
Just not this book.
Kakutani gave this book her usual thumbs up and after reading that review I found myself even further submerged into the darkness that is ‘The Chrysanthemum Palace’; more than I was when I read what little I already had. There’s something about a Star Trek-like show, rich kids doing drugs and having sex, family bonds, literary icons and heroes. This book will correspond with the re-packaged paperback release of Wagner’s first book, ‘Force Majeure’, the ultimate Hollywood book, which is better than anything Julia Phillips ever wrote.
Forget it. Skip it. Bruce Wagner, I apologize. I didn’t read your new book.
Our sponsors speak…
Horror’s Classic Masters: Remastered
Edited by Kurt S. Michaels
Forward by J.C. Spink, producer of The Ring, The Ring 2 and the Butterfly Effect.
So it seems like a bad idea: taking classic horror stories and re-mastering them. Like remaking ‘Gone with the Wind’ Right? No. Certainly not. Check out “the classics” as they’re tossed about in your local lit classes. Do they bore you? Did you think that this is all pompous arrogance when you read it? If you do, and you want a little help understanding them, then you should take a look at ‘Horror’s Classic Masters: Remastered’. Personally I stopped reading “the classics” in the ninth grade (when I discovered popular fiction), because of the very reasons that are laid out here in this book. They were arcane, antiquated, and brutal to sit through. My mind wandered, I got distracted. In this collection of 29 short stories we get a fresh perspective and a wonderful point of view that is understandable and even, shall I dare to say, palatable? It’s really nice to see someone trying to turn what we’re supposed to like into something that we will end up liking. H.P. Lovecraft, Poe and Stoker are some of the writers whose work is contained in this collection. Give these stories a second chance, you just might find that you really do like the classics.
A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
So I’ll bet you’re wondering if Nick Hornby is going to write another book. He did, and it’s as sharp as a tack, hot to the touch, and as slippery as deer guts. ‘A Long Way Down’ is nothing unusual, nothing un-Hornby like. You’ll recognize it right away. Riverhead has this packaging theory: low impact, small trim size, and flat cover art. His books don’t pop off the shelves; they glow, laying in wait…for you, dear Hornby lover.
You loved ‘About a Boy’. Movie wasn’t bad either.
And ‘High Fidelity’, that’s the ultimate guy book. How does Nick Hornby know so much about guys? Why did he give it all away in this book?
Great stuff. Really.
‘How to Be Good’, reviewed by yours truly. I liked it a lot. Hornby writing as woman? It worked, believe me.
Suicide. Not the most exciting subject matter for a contemporary writer to take on. In this day and age, if you’re Joel Osteen, you’re selling books about happiness via religion. If you’re John Grisham, you’re flogging the dead horse, getting paid, getting rich…
‘A Long Way Down’ has a great premise. Four down on their luck and bankrupt of self esteem misfits accidentally meet while standing on the roof of an apartment building in London, England on New Year’s Eve. They’re all there to kill themselves. Jump off the roof and end it.
Obviously they don’t. It’s what happens next that will thrill you. Hornby has created a foursome so grueling and selfish that you’re likely to feel much better about your own life after reading this. I don’t think you’ll identify. Martin, defrocked talk show host, on the outs with everyone from his ex-wife to his former prison cellmates for sleeping with a fifteen-year-old girl. He’s here to end it because his life is over, or so he thinks. Maureen, a blue-haired old hag that lives in the shadow of her vegetable son, lives for him, decides that it’s too bleak to go on watching him, so she’s there to end it all, leaving her kid in the custody of “care givers”. Jess, daughter of a high ranking English lord, or what ever they call them over there, and JJ, the American of the lot, failed at everything from being in a band to getting a steady lay. Hornby sums his feelings about Americans up perfectly with the view point that everyone in America thinks that they have the right to be someone famous, well known, whatever. And how they’re (us over here in the U.S.) basically a group of disappointed wanna-be’s. It’s true, sort of. But then why pray tell did the British open the Man Booker Prize to Americans, among others?
This is life. That’s what this is. These are people, ordinary people living lives that are funny, sad and lousy. So you can identify. You will. You have no choice.
It’s Martin who carries the story, Jess the brat, the awful truth teller that makes you angry, and Maureen’s hen pecked existence that will infuriate you. JJ on the other hand is there to show you, dear reader, how much the English really dislike us. He gives us examples of his dreams of grandeur, the mountains of praise he heaps on himself with his non-existent music career, having snatched failure from the jaws of victory. Martin tells his daughter that he and his new friends saw an Angel in the form of Matt Damon on the roof of the apartment building on the night in question. This section, along with countless others, is by far some of the best stuff you’ll find out there in the book world today.
Martin. I’ll say it again, is the shit.
Maureen is sad. You’ll be sad for her. When she describes her son, I ask you to control yourself. You will be ruined. Jess has another cross to bear. She survived suicide, or the attempt anyway, and someone else doesn’t make it. Or did they?
Hornby has a great knack for telling it like it is. Using a couple of easy going speech patterns (characters commonly have very long conversations with other players in the story, for long periods of time, without actually having them aloud - internally they work them out) and thus creating a likeable surrounding for all inhabitants to gyrate in, he eventually shows the reader what it’s like to chronicle actual human existence. He captures the banality of it all; life as a boring slog towards death. The foibles of the little things…like working for a living, and hating it.
Finally he renders his characters with the unavoidable “warts and all” syndrome. All of this will remind you of your own personal history, and living with it is where Hornby gets your attention. This is a tremendous book, probably one of his most achieved and you will be thrilled to read it when it hits stores in June 2005.
Blood Father by Peter Craig
Last summer I stumbled upon Peter Craig’s second novel, ‘Hot Plastic’, and reviewed it in this column and have been waiting ever since for something new from this blossoming talent. I was surprised to find to find ‘Blood Father’ on the shelves of my local Barnes & Noble (I expected it eventually - you’d think after my review of ‘Hot Plastic’, his publisher would have me on the mailing list) and what a pleasant surprise it was.
Where ‘Hot Plastic’ left off, father and son and the girl who comes between them, this new novel picks up, father and daughter in crisis. What appeals to me most about Craig’s writing is his brutal honesty within his characters. There’s a savageness that is so incredibly appealing to the reader as he keeps you glued to these marginal failures. Reminiscent of Eric Garcia’s ‘Matchstick Men’, without the idle hustle and grift, and hopefully not the putrid stench of Nicholas Cage, ‘Blood Father’ is a whip smart crime escapade through the gritty Los Angeles underworld. But it’s not underworld in a mafia sense, more like the toxic waste that has become the main story line of ‘The Shield’. Craig drinks heavily from the same swamp as the writers of that fantastic show. Lydia and John Link, her father, are cut right out of the urban fabric that comes so naturally to writers like Ellroy and lately, his wife Helen Knode. You’ll admire the fast pace that Craig swims in immediately. He uses the formula of getting his heroes into trouble and then keeping them there, the only way out being doom. So I guess he doesn’t follow a formula at all.
Which is good.
‘Hot Plastic’ showed Craig’s ridiculously fluent talent at describing crime and its components. ‘Blood Father’ is where Craig really starts to shine with John Link, ex-biker outlaw who’s been cast into purgatory by his own hand. His only talent is his ability to draw and carve tattoos into people’s flesh. This is the talent, mixed with his prison smarts and his world-weary experience in profound abundance, that leaves the reader wondering where the good in this man really is. Lydia, his daughter and the one that throws his narrow-sheltered existence into flux, is a red-hot mess. Drugs, drugs, and more drugs. Craig drags Lydia through the minefield of the high-end drug cartel while giving us a glimpse of a Los Angeles reminiscent of a Michael Mann ride along. This book is about a girl who fucks up, then does it again throughout the entire story. The narration seems to be from the perspective of John Link, her father, but it’s more like a cautionary tale,
“I know you’re doing bad things, I did them too, but let’s try to stop them together.”
John Link spends the entire book trying to keep his daughter clean and out of the pine box. Peter Craig spends the entire book impressing me with his storytelling ability and keen knack for delivering impressively credible details. By now Peter Craig is ready for the big time. He’s paid his dues and I’d like to see a big book. Something sprawling, epic, full-blown crime noir, like Jake Arnott from across the pond, or Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’. He’s good enough to deliver something on that level.
Peter Craig was nice enough to sit down and answer a few questions.
Frank Bascombe: Where did you do your research for the characters in ‘Hot Plastic’? I’ve been dying to ask that question for a while now.
Peter Craig: Once, I got ripped off when someone starting buying huge mail order purchases on my credit card, and then I became very curious about how they’d pulled it off so easily. There’s so much information out there about identity fraud nowadays, from the credit bureaus themselves even. Also, there was an old friend of mine that unfortunately had some troubles of his own with the law. He was an excellent resource, because he’d known so many hustlers during his time away. Finally, my father’s old lawyer vanished for years and lived under a handful of aliases, mostly to avoid the IRS. That guy knew TONS, and I’d back up everything he told me with more research in the libraries. (He makes a cameo in the book, by the way.) But there’s also just a huge amount of info out there, archived on old hacker bulletin board services, police reports, newspapers, and books. It was really easy to imagine living with those three characters as soon as I had enough of the hustlers’ devices in front of me. Plus, once I had the logic of it all, it was fun to make up my own scams, too.
FB: A lot of what you write seems to be outside the world you grew up in. I don’t see Peter Craig in these books; I see your characters. Your life is absent, which makes me wonder if you would rather write about something imagined than your life. In today’s literary landscape writers are blurring the lines between their lives and fiction, and then calling it fiction. Where do you fall on this topic?
PC: That’s actually an interesting take on my stuff; and I definitely think that a writer should have some distance from the characters. But, that said, my life is all over these books. Maybe because I grew up with a Hollywood background, there’s the assumption that I was isolated by it: surrounded by nannies, chained to a bumper pool table in some lavish rumpus room. That really wasn’t the case. I grew up with a father who was a wild man, with practically a cult following of colorful die-hard hippies around him; and a mother who was often on location in small towns. My experience of show business wasn’t so much red carpets or Spago’s: it was more like playing Frisbee with teamsters in a field beside a catering truck, or hanging out with local kids who were hustling for jobs as extras. So the stuff I write does intersect with the world I knew in a lot of ways. My books are always full of motels, scheming minor characters, and self-destructive people who desperately want to connect with someone else, at any price. That’s more of my past life than I should probably admit.
FB: The publishing world has become a very narrow place, focusing in only on the moneymakers. Do you think it’s a good sign that writers like yourself can get published and make a living writing from this perspective?
PC: Like you said, much more attention is paid to bestsellers than the old days, so there’s less of a middle class among novelists. The hardest part is just getting noticed out there. That’s why I think the best sign is that blogs and websites now discover a lot of midlist books that might otherwise get lost. A good example is Sam Lipsyte’s HOME LAND, which had such a buzz online (deservedly so), that the mainstream media began to discover it also. The same may be happening for Kent Harrington’s RED JUNGLE, which is a brilliant book. So the best sign, to me, is that good work can still find an audience, even in the climate you described.
FB: Back to research. Can you tell me where John Link and Lydia came from? And where did you find out so much about the drug underworld of L.A. and tattoo’s?
PC: Lydia is basically an amped-up composite of a lot of girls I knew in High School out here in Los Angeles (one of whom I was crazy about, but couldn’t keep up with). John Link probably grew initially from memories of some of my father’s buddies, and the strange, curt wisdom they used to mumble sometimes around the bonfires at his parties. But I also had to do a lot of work to get Link right, a lot of interviews with people willing to help me. There’s a guy from an Outlaw Biker Club out here that calls and facetiously threatens me from time to time, wanting his “cut” of profits. I’ve talked to him about the system of royalties, returns, and co-ops, and he’s now finding the publishing business to be pretty narrow also. As for the “underworld” question, Los Angeles is an easy place to do research. I can usually get pretty serious thugs to explain their lives to me, as long as I agree to help them with their screenplays.
FB: Have the movie rights sold to any of your books? If so can you give us a glimpse at a future cast list?
PC: Warner Brothers just bought BLOOD FATHER about a week and a half ago, after Anonymous Content optioned it in the summer. The producers are Steve Golin and Alix Madigan, and I really couldn’t be happier. I love their movies, and they’ve turned out to be great people also. HOT PLASTIC was optioned earlier in the summer, by a really brilliant screenwriter, Ted Talley (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS). He’s going to be producing it, and we’re still working out logistics with the script. It’s interesting to think about casting; but the process hasn’t started yet.
FB: In your author bio it mentions you did a stint at the Iowa Writers workshop. What’s the competition to get in to that like? How did you find it helped your writing? And can you give some advice to writers just getting started?
PC: It did help. But it was a bit of a smoke-filled, pool-playing blur, with a lot of literate graffiti carved into barroom tables. But there were very good writers there with me, and a couple of brilliant profs. I’m still sorting out some of the impromptu speeches from Marilynne Robinson and James Alan McPherson. The competition is stiff, I think; but no one should ever be discouraged. For someone just starting out? Just read and write as much as possible, and try to find some good critics to give you perspective. That’s the main thing: to get out of your own head and hear what other people think. Sometimes it’s brutal, but there’s no other way to get better.
FB: I like to do the inspiration questions at this point of the interview process. What are your favorite movies? Top Ten.
PC: (1) The Man Who Would Be King
(2) Dog Day Afternoon
(3) The Graduate
(4) Carnal Knowledge
(6) Being There
(7) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(8) Amores Perros
(9) Blade Runner
FB: Favorite books? Top Five.
PC: (1) LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov
(2) A HANDFUL OF DUST by Evelyn Waugh
(3) IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote
(4) The Hoke Moseley series, by Charles Willeford
(5) Anything by Ian McEwan (even though I haven’t read SATURDAY yet.)
Though, of other contemporary stuff, I also really love Scott Phillips, Jonathan Lethem, Neal Stephenson, George Pelecanos, and Steve Erickson.
FB: What’s next? I hear you’ve got another novel in the works?
PC: Yeah, it’s coming along. Hopefully I’ll have it together fairly soon. The research is making me nervous with this one, since some of it takes place in the California Youth Authority. I’m just starting to get into the heavier lifting, volunteering at a camp. Other than that, I’m a full-time single Dad. So I also spend a lot of time making peanut-butter sandwiches.
FB: Peter, thank you for taking the time. I hope everyone runs out and picks up ‘Blood Father’.
PC: Thanks, Frank. Anytime.
Got something to say? If you’ve read this far then you can contact me here.