Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty

In 2003, a new sort of crime fiction protagonist slipped into our midst, much as he had slipped illegally into the U.S. in the fictional realm. The book was Dead I Well May Be and the hero, or anti-hero, was Michael Forsythe, a young guy hailing from the environs of Belfast. A small, wiry guy, (at least the way I pictured him)  you probably wouldn't have noticed him on the streets of New York, where he did the dirtywork for an Irish gang, but he turned out to be a figure to be reckoned with, as his enemies (and readers of the three Dead trilogy novels) would shortly come to know. Those who have been lucky enough to happen upon these books have been clamoring for more Michael Forsythe ever since. His tough, indeed ruthless way of achieving his ends was counterbalanced by his wit, his literary sensibilities, and his vulnerability, a kind of too open stance despite his bravado, which readers seem to have picked up on. When all's said and done, he's a thug, but readers do not love Michael Forsythe for this, but despite it. You may thrill to his acts of derring-do, but all the while understand that from the beginning his path is not so much a choice as a fate.

So, although McKinty has warned fans that his latest novel, Falling Glass, includes Forsythe, but without a starring role, he's still worth considering here as a background, a prime mover, or something more elemental, like the weather. This is Killian's book, not Michael's and I believe readers will be happy it is so. But it's still worth keeping Forsythe in mind, and possibly even read a Dead trilogy novel or two first if you haven't, because it's useful to have the Michael Forsythe frame of reference when you're considering Killian's alternatives. Let's just say that Forsythe is not incidental to the novel, but crucial to it.

Killian has traveled down much the same road as Forsythe. In fact, at a fateful meeting in an early novel, Killian failed to protect someone from Forsythe, which led to one man's death and allowed Forsythe to live to tell--or not tell--the tale. Killian has left his past in the Irish tinker culture to commit petty and not so petty crime for a number of years, but the advent of the Celtic tiger prosperity had allowed him to dream of the straight life, just as the departure of prosperity is now leaving him little option but to do 'one more job' in order to sort out his own financial nightmares.

The successful dispatch of one job quickly leads to the offer of another even more lucrative task. And it's to be a good deed, isn't it? Rescue two wee bairns from their drug addicted mother, who has broken custody rights and fled with them. Although Killian half-heartedly asks a time or two why the police haven't been called in, the money is too good to really ask this question seriously.

The fact that Killian is a tinker is not incidental to the tale, nor just a bit of colorful lore, thrown in. To be a tinker is to take part in the nomadic life of the human race, which belongs to a different value system than the settled peoples of the world entirely. It is a last remnant of oral culture, and is tied, as McKinty does tie it, to Homeric times and Homeric values. I found this rumination on a non-capitalistic culture surviving within a capitalistic one very thought provoking, especially in the context of the bust that followed the Irish boom. Killian starts the novel with a bunch of useless apartments, a one time seemingly sound investment that, as for so many, has turned out to be at best a headache and at worst a nightmare. By the midpoint of the story, he has reconnected to his tinker past, and gradually finds his true identity among them. That identity includes songs, fairs, fests, but also true honor and true hospitality.

I found myself thinking a lot about Laurens Van der Post's work, both fiction and nonfiction, on the culture of the Bushmen. It was not only white settlers who were their enemies, he claimed, but settled black Africans as well. At the time, I thought that it was because these two culture's were antithetical, but something about McKinty's book made me understand that the tinkers and Bushmen and the Romany gypsies are not so much opposites of our culture, as simply a past that has been despised and repressed. It seems like it might be a good time for that repressed to return.

Lest I give you any impression that this is not a crime novel, it certainly is. It's a fast-paced tale featuring more than one foe for Killian and more than one decision to make about where he really stands. Killian is no pacifist, and he has occasion to take up a weapon or two before the course of the book has run. But the superb ending is a duel of another order, and one well worth waiting for.

(I'm editing this to add some links to other reviews I've held off on reading till I was done myself :)

 Glenna's Inspirations;

Detectives Beyond Borders, where Peter Rozovsky gets further into the language aspect of the book;

David Park's review for the Irish Times;

Laura Wilson's Guardian piece;

And finally  my own review for Goodreads and a few other places, which emphasizes the crime novel aspect a bit more.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Portis and Waugh: Compare and Contrast

It's pure happenstance that I recently read Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis of True Grit fame and Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh back to back. Despite the many real differences between the novels, I was struck a few times by their similarities. I thought I'd see if I could pinpoint one or two of these, as I'm assuming it's a rather rare comparison.

Masters of Atlantis begins with the chance encounter by the young and feckless soldier Corporal Lamar Jimmerson with a mysterious mendicant who in gratitude for being swapped a couple of packs of American cigarettes, reveals to Jimmerson the Codex Pappus, containing the mysteries of Atlantis, and sacred document of the Society of Gnomons. Duped-- or is he in fact initiated?-- by this man of many names, Jimmerson realizes that it is his vocation to bring Gnomonism to America. Which he, in slightly haphazard fashion, does.

Decline and Fall begins more with a fall than a decline, as a young and feckless Paul Pennyfeather, happily living a quiet student's life at Oxford, runs into some members of the Bollingen Club, out on a tear after their annual dinner. The result of their assault finds him badly in the wrong (or just plain wronged), and he is sent down in disgrace. Without funds or family, Paul considers himself lucky to find a position at an eccentric boys' school in Wales. Llanabba Castle is in one sense, Pennyfeather's Codex Pappus. It is the catalyst for all that happens after.

Both books are comic novels, although the filters of American vernacular and English high culture of course make them distinctly books of their own countries. Waugh is quite a bit more savage than Portis, I think. (Watch what happens to schoolboy Tangent in several casual asides if you don't believe me.) Portis's geographical range is much wider, as is the time period in American history he covers as well.

As I was reading through some of the reviews on Masters of Atlantis over at Goodreads, which ranged widely in their assessment, I was struck by one favorable but reserved comment that said "At it's core, the novel is inert." I agreed with that assessment, but wondered whether that was any real indication of its merit. We tend to think of inertia in a story as a fault, but I don't think either Portis or Waugh would find it so.

For, as it turns out, neither Lamar Jimmerson or Paul Pennyfeather are heroes in any traditional sense. They are simply the excuse for  setting in action the wide and ever evolving casts of characters they encounter. Paul does move through the world; Lamar does it increasing less as his story progresses. He is himself the inert center, around which a wide cast of scoundrels and others move. When he does act, it is at the urging of someone else, likely because they see a pretty penny for themselves in it.

Pennyfeather undergoes quite a bit more than Jimmerson ever does, but Waugh actually makes the same point about him roughly halfway through the book:

" the reader will probably have already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness."

What we have instead in both books are the rogues and scoundrels who are magnetically attracted to the innocence of these central, inert and innocent characters. It's interesting that in both books they accumulate, drift out of the story and reappear again, not dead, not imprisoned, but simply with some new scam they're operating. Both books have women as elements, but neither, I think is particularly interested in women as characters. A case I suppose could be made for Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde in Decline and Fall, but not a really serious one. Women, in Waugh's book as perhaps Portis's are, simply put, trouble. Or if not trouble in their own right, certainly the inadvertent and largely careless agents of it.

Towards the end of Waugh's novel, an eccentric architect tells Paul his theory about static and dynamic types. He describes life as a large wheel, with a still hub where it is possible to simply rest or move in a normal way, and a rim where people are thrown off by centrifugal energy for the sheer fun of it. Many other people sit in the seats and merely watch.

"Now you're clearly a person who was meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored you can watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel and you got thrown off again at once with a hard bump. It's alright for Margot, who can cling on, and for me at the centre, but you're static."

Perhaps the real difference between Jimmerson and Pennyfeather is that Jimmerson accepts his true static nature a lot earlier on. Either that, or he really is an Adept of the Gnomons.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle

There was a time not so long ago that I thought I didn't really like graphic novels. I can no longer remember exactly what I thought graphic novels were--a roommate I'd lived with for awhile was big on Love and Rockets and a very cursory glance made me think it was too cool or countercultural or something for me. I felt that I'd outgrown whatever interest I'd ever had in superheroes long before, ditto comics based on cartoon characters like Casper the Friendly Ghost, or Scrooge McDuck. I'd never really been crazy about Japanese cartooning style--frankly, the eyes kind of freak me out. In short, nothing really spoke to me.

Then, a couple of things happened. First, we had a really creative guy on staff who was very into them, and then I came across Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. McCloud's impassioned advocacy for the form and it's possibilities, not to mention the fact that he wrote the form in comic book form himself, won me over. I discovered Adrian Tomine's Sleepwalk and Other Stories, Dan Clowes' David Boring, Posy Simmonds Gemma Bovery,  and R. Kikuo Johnson's Night Fisher. Turns out that I really like graphic novels. I forget about them sometimes, but when I come back to them, I am almost always gratified. Such is the case with Burma Chronicles.

I had heard of Delisle before, but it took Adrian McKinty's blog post on the book a couple of months ago to get me interested. I seem to have forgotten about it until he mentioned it again elsewhere. We had a couple of copies around at the bookstore, and I picked one up and read it while hanging out at the information desk. It was a nice way to do it, actually, as I didn't race through it, a problem sometimes with graphic novels, but read it over the course of a couple of days.

Delisle has written several travel style graphic novels by now. This is because he is married to a French, or at least French speaking woman who works for the heroic organization Doctors Without Borders (or in their case, Médecins Sans Frontières). His episodic story chronicles the year they and their young son Louis spent in Burma/Myanmar. As is the case with North Korea, sometimes we forget that there are real people just trying to live a life under a repressive regime. Delisle doesn't have a huge political  ax to grind--he's just an observer. But his observations often gain an extra charge from his understated style. He portrays himself as just a guy, who often complains and often wonders why a certain thing must be so.

I like reading the printed word--a lot. But the graphic novel is a very compelling and absorbing form if you allow yourself to surrender to it. There is something about the marriage of image and word that takes you very far into a story, or at least it does me. I don't think that if Delisle had just decided to write a kind of diary of his time, it would have worked as well. He would have had to fill it out more, introduce some other elements. But as it stands the book is just right. Thanks to his illustrations, we can read between the lines.