I have been reading laudatory reviews of Mr. Lehane's work for years, and have enjoyed listening to interviews with him on NPR. And I love gangster movies and noir thrillers. But this was just not for me. This book traverses a queasy tightrope between the sentimental and the horrific, with not much in between. When I wasn't annoyed at the tough-guy codes (concealing deep and lardy emotions), I was dreading the next revolting description of physical torture. At about hour two, I decided I just wasn't enjoying it: not the plot, not the characters and not the writing.
Saunders is a formalist who loves to play with form. He is also funny, also witty. His characters are put through excruciating trials. They are often not bright. They are very earnest. Their relatives and bosses are often not bright, and are often also earnest. Everyone in these stories is suspended somewhere below the middle of a brutal pecking order.
But unlike other sardonic cool guys who are better and smarter than their characters (I'm looking at you, Sam Lipsyte), Saunders is not cruel. In fact, these stories are suffused with empathy and tenderness. Even while admiring some amazing feat of form or concept, I often found myself, halted on my morning walk, in tears for these characters.
I've only read Saunders in the occasional story he publishes in the The New Yorker, and have always relished their strange richness. A whole book of these stories is quite a bit more rich, and strange, so I listened to just one or two at a time. Not just because there's a lot to think about, but because there's also a lot to feel about.
My husband and I are big fans of this series, and enjoy listening to these books on long car rides, partly because every Jack Reacher novel involves a lot of time on the road, a lot of coffee and a lot of cheeseburgers. This book, however, is practically a parody of a Jack Reacher novel. Child reports every event, no matter how trivial, in three different ways in three successive sentences (including three entire sentences describing a shirt button) -- it becomes a strangely Dr. Seuss-like tic. And, had I bought this book the year it came out, I would immediately have nominated it for the Worst Sex Scene of the year: it goes on and on in hilariously flat-footed, repetitive and charmless detail. We listened to it for what seemed like 15 minutes, feeling more and more as if this whole scene is just none of our business, when my husband said chirpily, "Well, more coffee, anyone?!?" and we just fast-forwarded through it.
And I might as well bring up the Great Mystery of Jack Reacher. Reacher is described as being built along the lines of an upright freezer, with fists of granite, the reaction time of a cobra and the speed of a gazelle. But all he does is drive around, eat cheeseburgers and drink coffee. I've read several hundred of these now, and the guy has not so much as taken a jog around the block or lifted a pink 2 lb. barbell. How does he maintain his boyish figure?
If you have ever wondered what the British term "Jack the Lad" means (as in, "I was very much Jack-the-lad in my twenties"), this book provides an extended definition. It means behaving like Rod Stewart, who has managed to maintain the stance for nigh unto seventy years. Rod (or his ghostwriter) has shaped an amusing, self-deprecating, lively narrative, long on anecdote and short on self-reflection, that rolls merrily along and does not overstay its welcome. Nor does it peer too closely into the darker corners of rock stardom, or the prolonged adolescence of its hero. Why should it? Rod the Mod is, he reminds us, an entertainer first and foremost. Looking round at his generational cohort, and their success at re-packaging their lives as beacons of boomers' youth (Pete Townshend, Keith Richards and Neil Young are a few who have had successful memoirs lately), he may well have decided to cash in. It's not even irritating when he fetches up at the end with an earnest tease for ... a new album, coming out this spring. Exasperating, but part of the bad-boy charm.
One of the (perhaps) unintentional running gags in this memoir is Mr. Stewart's persistent habit of marrying/having children by a tall, blonde underwear model. I use the singular because I googled Britt Ekland, Alana Stewart, Kelly Emberg, Rachel Hunter and Penny Lancaster and they all look exactly alike. One hopes all those kids take after their mothers.
The narrator, Simon Vance, deserves a special shout-out for conveying exactly the right tone without being intrusive. I am most used to listening to Mr. Vance as I make my way through Anthony Trollope's vast oeuvre, so to find him here amid amps and microphones was both funny and reassuring.
Donna Leon's series has been so highly recommended by so many people for so long that I finally downloaded this book. I found the first half to be very slow-moving, as Leon carefully seeded her plot with clues, red herrings and domestic details. The villains were almost immediately identified, and painted with a very broad brush; the murder "twist" was quickly obvious; the observations on Venetian life only moderately interesting. Then the second half just kind of stumbled to a conclusion. Leon seems very impressed with the decency of her decent characters, which gives the book an odd air of self-satisfaction.
But perhaps it's the narration I found the most off-putting. The narrator is American, so the descriptive bits feel quite transparent to this listener. But, if every single one of your characters is Italian, why adopt an Italian accent in the dialogue? It's not as if we need to distinguish among nationalities (as we did in Neal Stephenson's "Reamde", for instance, or Jess Walter's "Beautiful Ruins"). It puts an unnecessary distance between the listener and the characters, as if they are "colorful characters" rather than people.
Yunior (Diaz's alter ego) is doggiest of dogs: a compulsive womanizer, he nonetheless falls in love with one serious, ambitious woman after another, each of whom eventually leaves him with not a glance back. He suffers greatly -- the last story in the collection features a Job-like catalog of sufferings -- but also energetically, hilariously, floridly. Reading this book reminded me that depression is an intensely active state. Yunior is flailing and drowning in his own misery and chaos, but also in the misery and chaos of his history, that of his fellow Dominicans and of the immigrant experience. And he's also glorying in it, with an acuity of observation and a jazz-like ecstasy of description that is profane, filthy, funny and beautiful. He's a mess, and he's a searching mess. Diaz touches upon many possible sources of Yunior's dysfunction, but is too shrewd and humane to manufacture insight, to tie it up with a bow and present it to Yunior or to the reader. You don't want to do more than touch, lightly, bruises so fresh and deep.
This book is so beautifully conceived and beautifully written -- astonishing imagery coupled with shrewd insight -- that I ran out and bought a HARDBOUND copy for my sister! The son of Jim Hawkins and the daughter of Long John Silver set off for treasure, just as their fathers did, and, like their fathers, end up in the land of mature experience, a treasure in itself. If there is a fault, it is that it devolves into mere action adventure at the very end (keeping an eye on a Disney franchise?). But on the way it delivers some very thoughtful entertainment.
Special praise goes to the narrator, David Tennant, for providing excellent characterizations for a large cast -- not too broad, not too dry.
It is always a pleasure, at least for the reader, to revisit Treasure Island. Stevenson billed it as a "boy's book", but it is more than that. The hero, Jim Hawkins, IS a boy, and has all of a boy's heedless impulsiveness, and none of an adult's analysis or judgment. But Stevenson, using Jim as his narrator, manages his characters so shrewdly that the reader can analyze and judge far beyond Jim's ability. It's an interesting feat: Jim is by no means an unreliable narrator, but the adult reader sees much more than Jim does. I enjoy the squire and the doctor much more than I did when I was young, now that I am their age and have many friends with both their failings and their virtues. And Long John Silver retains both his insinuating charm, and terrifying malevolence.
Coincidentally, I just finished Benjamin Black's "Vengeance", another procedural set in Dublin. Black's novel is skillfully written, but is no match for French's, kicking with life and clear-eyed observation. She has, for instance, a hardened detective, but he is no romantic figure: he is, as she both demonstrates and remarks, merely "****ed up". All her characters are palpably human, and, quite rare in any fiction, she portrays a convincing "besties" friendship between a male and a female. Amid the general dark mayhem lurks a keen sense of humor.
Benjamin Black is, of course, the name under which the high-literary writer John Banville indulges his love of genre, specifically of noir procedurals. He is a skillful and evocative descriptive writer: one beautiful image succeeds another, page after page, until an entire shimmering edifice of hardened men, weak sisters, femmes fatales, familial grudges and dogged investigators is conjured -- and then collapses, bloodlessly, in a silly plot. This book has it all: identical twins, crazy aunts, a variant on the locked room mystery. Everyone in it smokes and drinks like crazy. Perhaps the author suspected that the whole enterprise was more than a bit musty and therefore set it in the Dublin of the 1960s. It would have felt musty then, too.
Coincidentally, I followed this book with Tana French's "In The Woods", another procedural set in Dublin. French's novel is also skillfully written, but is kicking with life and clear-eyed observation: her hardened detective is not a romantic figure, for instance, and amid the general dark mayhem lurks a keen sense of humor. Everyone still smokes and drinks like crazy, though.
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