Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. We’re always glad to see a new column from AICN’s own Frank Bascombe. Like me, he’s a new daddy, so it’s especially cool of him to have a new column for us on this holiday weekend. As I do every year, I give thanks for all of our regular contributors here at AICN, and hope you enjoy Frank’s reviews as much as I always do:
In the coming months we will have a new book from Chuck Palahniuk entitled, Rant, which I’ve been lucky enough to lay eyes on, and a debut novel entitled And Then We Came To The End, which has thus far shown great promise. Any way… It’s Not A Secret Until I Tell Someone… Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller Picador I’m ashamed to admit that I’m only reading this book now, at this late date because the nice people at Holtzbrink asked me too. The movie adaptation is forthcoming in a couple of weeks and they want a little help tying the two together. Fortunately, I happen to adore Zoë Heller. So you’re asking yourself why didn’t I read this when it came out in 2003? The answer is: I just don’t know. I think I read the first page, got confused or distracted and set it down. Then my wife read it more than a year ago and I’m only getting to it now. My deepest apologies to Ms. Heller, it was not my intention to ignore such an important piece of literature. My prediction? Zoë Heller will be bigger than Zadie Smith, at least she will over here on this side of the pond. I think her next book, what ever it might be, will be a smashing success. Nothing prepares you for the brilliance of Heller’s first book, ‘Everything You Know’. Nothing, I repeat. First novels are rarely brilliant (‘Everything You Know’ in a word is just that), and are hardly ever followed up with something so incredible you immediately want to start reading it again as soon as you finish it. I know who is playing each of the significant roles in “Notes on a Scandal” and it still didn’t sour the portrait drawn for me when I read the book. Oh, and as for the Zadie Smith crack? I like her too, but she’s gotten so big over here that you can’t fall down in a bookstore without one of her books breaking your fall. See, Heller and Smith hail from the UK (roughly the same age), and for some reason Smith has been getting all the ink. Even her husband Nick Laird, he publishes a mediocre novel, and he gets his own theme music when he walks down the street. Heller will be big, this book cements it. It’s not a new story, a school teacher knocking boots with one of her students, but it’s a good story to tell nonetheless. Sheba (I know what you’re thinking, how can that be the name of the novel’s predatory vixen?) is a trust-fund mommy married to a much older man, who is whiling away her days teaching “art” to young high school crumb-snatchers. She’s so inept that one of her fellow teachers walks past her room mid-class and likens what he’s seen to Lord of the Flies. Meanwhile, Heller has drawn a severe portrait of loneliness and despair in Barbara, a highly moral, almost pilgrim-like in her beliefs, virgin spinster who knows the ropes of the school where both she and Sheba. Immediately, Sheba foils the friendship by hanging around another colleague that Barbara secretly loathes. Eventually, Barbara wears Sheba down by making herself an indispensable ear for Sheba to cry to. You see, Sheba is allowing a young student to ply his pubescent charms on her, and she’s lapping it up like a hungry dog. Sheba’s home life is not rosy. She has a son with Down syndrome and a daughter who is just about as nasty a little girl as you can imagine, all while tethered to a bookish husband almost twice her age. He’s aptly described by Barbara as a man whose appearance reminds her of a sagging wire coat hanger. What’s even more acute is that Barbara is writing all of this down. Initially, she says she wasn’t planning on it being a book, but maybe someday it will. This is a confession, as much as it is an eyewitness account of the events leading up to Sheba’s demise. But listening to Barbara’s secret jealousy of Sheba, her husband and even her wealthy lifestyle is worth every penny you’ll spend on this book. Barbara is watching Sheba self-destruct and we witness a woman’s pain at being alone in the world and her realization that the only way she can fill the void is with Sheba’s misdeeds and savage self-destructive behavior. So we’re not surprised when Barbara puts into action a series of events that will ensure Sheba’s constant companionship and make you watch with horror as it happens. Zoë Heller has taken an overused story to showcase her talents of description, powerful observations of human foibles, and a general distaste that everyone feels more or less about the people they see everyday. The book will be different than the movie, it always is, so judge them separately, but what ever you do, please read this book. L.A. Rex by Will Beall Riverhead James Ellroy had better watch his back. I know the third book in the American crime trilogy is forthcoming (it’s what I hear in the wind…) and when it does land you’d better make time for it. Until then, the overlooked Will Beall is announcing his presence in the literary world with a searing piece of procedural from the lower intestines of Los Angeles’ 77th Division. I was warned at the outset that this book had gotten some queasy reads in the publishing world prior to publication, but I had no idea that it would gross me out to this extent. I was truly repulsed by at least two-thirds of this book, riveted to the pages, but reduced to closing it frequently from the sickness and drudgery that drips from this narrative. Beall tells a story that is obviously ripped from his days in the anti-gang units of South Central, L.A. – clearly those years left a mark on him. Currently a Los Angeles police officer, Beall offers up a blistering, never before seen glimpse into a hell you’re not prepared to endure. Even if I told you to get ready it would do you no good. (Richard Price had better get his game face on with Will Beall writing stuff this good.) Ben Halloran is a kid from the West Side. The son of a legendary criminal lawyer, Benji (an aptly belittling nickname) starts off his career with a legendary lawman. Imagine Alonzo from Training Day, multiply that performance by one hundred, and you’ll have Marquez who plays hard-loving mentor to Benji, on their first day together Marquez makes the job look easier than falling out of a boat. But almost immediately morality and race come into question as Benji (Jewish) and Marquez (Latino, Mexican) plow through the streets like a garbage truck looking for its daily pickups. Through a series of completely mesmerizing set pieces – a high-speed pursuit that lands the perp in a set of telephone wires after a brief respite on the train tracks, and then through the DMZ that is the surrounding neighborhood – Marquez and Benji stumble upon a dead man with his hand stuffed into the garbage disposal and his body frozen in fly-coated morbidity at the kitchen sink bloated to three times its size. All this and we’re not even a third of the way into the story. Beall is well-versed in a language that’s high end street lingo with a rabid vernacular that keeps you re-reading each sequence with a “did that really just happen?” that acts as this story’s rudder. Benji has been living a double life as a police officer who has a secret connection to the street which creates a debt he can never repay. In his salad days, he struck up a friendship with an up and coming gangster who will arrive later as a brutal grim reaper to Benji. As his past is uncovered, he and Marquez troll the slop of the streets looking for two dirty cops who have taken justice into their own hands. Along the way Benji has copious sex with his step mother and the duo defend them selves against hungry dogs, a gun-wielding pregnant wife who are dead set on killing them. The freakish and morbid set piece that closes the book; a nasty riot outside a police station that makes the L.A riots of the 90’s look like Mardi Gras. When a drug-crazed maniac chews of the face of a female police officer, you’ll know you’re reading something ferocious, nasty, vital and urgently real. Bottom line: never underestimate a human being and his ability to surprise you. Got something to say? Want me to read something? Contact me here!