Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Dark Fields (aka Limitless) by Alan Glynn

After reading the excellent Winterland, a friend was kind of enough to give me her copy of Glynn's earlier work, which was originally called The Dark Fields. Thanks to the coincidence of The Ireland Reading Challenge 2011 , and renewed interest in this title under its new name, Limitless, The Dark Fields has finally been bumped up the queue.

I'll start by saying that The Dark Fields is quite a different kettle of fish from Winterland. Being set in New York, with no reference to Ireland, and with a main character with the name of Eddie Spinola, Glynn has very successfully masked his Irish-born identity. It is truly an American novel, and a New York City novel to boot. The title takes its reference from The Great Gatsby, and though F. Scott Fitzgerald obviously had some Irish blood in his veins, the story is essentially about American success and American failure.

But lest I get too serious about this before we even start, The Dark Fields is first and foremost a thriller. Eddie Spinola is a former coke addict and pretty much failure at everything he turns his hand to, including marriage. But that doesn't stop him from running headlong into his former brother-in-law, Vernon Gant, while he's out walking the streets near his apartment, trying to come up with some inspiration for some copy he's supposed to  be writing. As the result of their conversation, Vernon offers him a 'free sample' of a new drug he's helping market. Eddie thought he was done with the drug life, and has the token reservations about popping a pill he knows nothing about. But come on--if he was totally sensible, there wouldn't be a story, would there?

What Eddie soon learns is that the drug is an amazing performance enhancer. It is a little hard to pin down what the drug actually does, but basically it all but forces Eddie to clean up his act, organize his life and his thoughts. It's the kind of drug that many of us would be tempted by, I suspect, especially those doing freelance work under deadline. When Eddie learns what the thing does, he has to have more. So he goes back to Vernon's apartment, and...well, that's where the adventure really begins.

I'll leave the various twists and turns of the plot for you to untangle, but I thought I'd comment on a few of the points Glynn makes in the course of the narrative. Not surprisingly, Eddie does rather well on the stock market, and this is one of the things he thinks about his success:

"Grappling for understanding, I soon realized that despite its susceptibility to predictable metaphor--it was an ocean, a celestial firmament, a numerical representation of the will of God--the stock market nevertheless was something more than just a market for stocks. In its complexity and ceaseless motion the twenty-four-hour global network of trading systems was nothing less than a template for human consciousness, with the electronic marketplace perhaps forming humanity's first tentative version of a collective nervous system, a global brain...It seemed to me that in that moment that I had tumbled upon it--I was jacked in and booted mind was  a living fractal, a mirrored part of the greater functioning whole."

(For another and earlier novel about the markets, check out David Paynes' very fine Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street.)

What's significant to me is that this whole train of thought, while interesting in its own way, would probably not be framed the same way now, even a mere decade later. It's funny that as I was sitting in a deli reading this book there were two guys sitting next to me, and they too were talking about making money, but it was now all about portals and social networking and your platform and free content versus paid content, etc. It did make me feel that this book, published in England in 2001, was in some ways an elegy for a vanished time in New York City. There's no mention of the Twin Towers, or terrorists, and Wall Street hasn't become quite the enemy of Main Street that it's perceived to be now. Email of course exists but the whole networking way of life hasn't become significant enough yet to be the basis of Glynn's metaphor for the global mind, as it would almost certainly be today.

Our hero, while not ill-intentioned is somewhat remote, ala American Psycho. Some of this is due to the state the performance drug induces in him, but some of it seems always to have been with him. We are interested in what happens to him, but don't necessarily feel for him as we do with Glynn's subsequent protagonist, Gina Rafferty. Eddie is in some ways incurious, despite his newfound ability to take on vast amounts of information. He also seems to have few thoughts about what to do with his new powers--a humanitarian he is not.

One thing that I found interesting was that buildings played such a prominent role in this book, because a building proves to be almost another character in Winterland. Although it might seem on the surface that the book is about gaining mastery and wealth, a lot of it is simply about the aspiration to move from cramped digs in an unfashionable part of town to a grandiose suite in a building called The Celestial. We see the city from the heights more than once in this book.

For the heck of it, I'll just link here to a post by PQ over at the always thought provoking A Building Roam, called Dream Architecture. It seems related.

The pacing in The Dark Fields suffers a bit in comparison to Winterland, though it's still an enjoyable read. I am quite interested in what the filmmakers did with the story, as they have inevitably tightened it up, and I assume made it more relevant to life in 2011. The tale itself is timeless, of course. Since Gatsby, Americans hustlers and dreamers never do end well.

At least not in fiction.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ian McEwan and Solar, continued

In the absence of a current review of my own, I thought I'd link to this What Five Books? interview with Ian McEwan that Alec Ash has just posted over at The Browser. It refers to Solar at points, but really is just evidence of McEwan's active, thoughtful mind. Really much more worth reading than anything I am ever going to post here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Solar, by Ian McEwan

I've had some resistance to McEwan in the past. I enjoyed the creepy movie that was made of The Cement Garden, but didn't go back and read it. I wasn't thrilled when Amsterdam won a Booker and Tim Parks in some ways similar but to my mind more enjoyable Europa didn't get a look in. I loved the beginning of Atonement, but never quite forgave the writer for breaking off the story and taking it up again in the middle of World War II. And felt the same way all over again when I saw the movie.

But I love Solar. I'm reading it for my book group, and as I've become more grumpy about required reading in general, I wasn't thrilled to learn that this was our next task. I thought I'd give it a try and if I didn't like it fairly quickish, I would not keep going. The resistance vanished right away. It probably actually vanished with the dedication quote from John Updike:

It gives him great pleasure, makes Rabbit feel rich, to contemplate the world's wasting, to know the earth is mortal too.
                                                                         -Rabbit is Rich

Right there, we know we aren't going to have a sympathetic hero enacting our tale.

And sympathetic Michael Beard, the aging former Nobel Prize winner in physics, most definitely is not. Solipsistic, a womanizer, serial husband, glutton, and a good deal worse than that. If you have a low tolerance for anti-heroes, you really probably shouldn't bother with this one. But if you like a dose of Satanic energy to keep the tale going, by all means plunge right in:

"He belonged to that class of men--vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever--who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed it was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women seemed to think he was a genius in need of rescue."

And off we go.  As the story opens, Michael is watching his fifth marriage fall apart, but with uncharacteristic feelings of despondency and obsession. He is a figurehead for a small environmental concern that has staked its future on wind turbines for rooftops, and he can already see that the whole thing is doomed. To escape all this, he allows himself to be invited on a trip to the Arctic, where in the company of a motley crew of artists, he is apparently supposed to make a statement about global warming. Let's just say that things do not go well for him there, and when he gets home, they go worse.

But Michael has a way of turning small setbacks to his own advantage.

Every once in awhile you come across a book that 'speaks to your condition'. The last time this happened for me was when reading Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. It's hard to explain the phenomenon if you haven't experienced it. In both cases I had more than one of the author's previous work with a certain degree of neutrality and a feeling that I didn't quite get what all the buzz was about. But with these two works, I experienced a kind of mind meld. It's a slightly uncanny experience. It would seem that I would have little in common with an aging Nobel physicist who happens to be a bit of a lad, but the inner life of this guy, despite the outer exploits, is some kind of mirror image of mine. It's not a flattering portrait of a mental life, either. Indeed there were some instances where even the outer world held a kind of echo, as when McEwan is describing Beard's dumpy 'temporary' basement London flat.

"Everywhere he looked, his apartment, made gloomier by unwashed windows, reflected some aspect of himself, his worst, fattest self incapable of translating a decent plan into a course of action. At any point in the present, there was always something he would far rather do--read, drink, eat, talk on the phone, drift through the Internet--than contact an electrician or a plumber or a house-cleaning agency, or sort through the three-foot-high paper piles or contact Tom Aldous's father."

And that's not the half of it.

Now, of course, it's one thing if the protagonist's mind in some flukey way mirrors my own, but it's quite a different and higher feat if McEwan has held a mirror the psyche of Western Man (and Woman) in the late stages of industrial civilization, as one of my teachers, Paul Lee, would term it. I'm hoping for the latter, and that other people wriggle a bit in seeing the likeness of their own interior lives to Michael Beard's. I think it's possible. By coincidence, there is a long section in the latest Utne on the culture of narcissism, with a nod and some salutary quotations from his famous book by the same title .

Well, tonight, I'll see if the group sees this book in the same way as I did. I shall report back.

Oh, did I mention that this book is deeply, darkly comic?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sisters on the Fly: Caravans, Campers and Tales from the Road, by Irene Rawlings

Taking a brief break from reading Irish crime fiction, I thought I'd put up a quick mention of this book, which I've been looking through (more than really reading) at our information desk. It's  a book devoted to a group of women who restore old trailers, decorate them to their heart's delight, and meet up and drive around the country with them, stopping to camp, fish and just plain hang out together. It started with two real sisters and then just steadily grew. According to their website, they now have 1400 members.

Now I have to admit that I am unlikely to do any of this. The appeal of this kind of book, like that of one I wrote up here on Parkour awhile back, is more about knowing that people are doing something like this somewhere. I'm not all that big into home decor either, but it is a lot of fun to look through this book and see the ingenious and cheerful ways women have fixed up these tiny living spaces.

My mom often told me that she'd had the dream as a young woman of buying a trailer and travelling around in it. She didn't get around to it--had other adventures instead.  And these aren't women who have dropped out--they all have busy lives waiting for them back home. But I bet Mom would have enjoyed hanging out with these gals, and though I'd eventually want to go off on my own, for awhile, I'm sure I would too.

If this sounds like something you would like to do, the book has a lot of practical tips for picking out a trailer, knowing what to bring along and so on. And you can always check out their website.

(Sorry, guys, the rules are: 1.)No husbands, 2.)No dogs 3.)Be nice. But for everything but the last one, they've been known to make exceptions.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Eightball Boogie, by Declan Burke

Although these days, I write posts about whatever books come to hand--new, old, or somewhere in between--this is exactly the kind of book I was thinking of when I first considered doing this blog. Eightball Boogie was published in 2003 by Sitric books, but despite it's many virtues, never made it's way over to my side of the pond. So the first book of Mr. Burke's that I was able to read was the madcap romp known as The Big O. At the time I read it, I hadn't yet decided to do a book post blog, but you can read a post to whet your appetite for that one at excellent crime blog Detectives Beyond Borders.

Recently, Eightball Boogie has become available on Kindle, and the author has also made the remaining print copies available for the mere cost of shipping and handling. As the true opposite of an early adopter, I of course sent off for a print copy. I knew it was an earlier work than The Big O, so expected it to be a more elementary type of the same thing. Much to my surprise and delight, I was largely wrong.

Rather than the multicharacter perspectives of The Big O, Eightball Boogie follows one Harry Rigby through a few wild days leading up to Christmas. ("The rest of the week is coming on hard, and its breaks are shot to hell.") Although he's managed a successful tryst with his not quite wife Denise ( and not incidentally, the mother of his son Ben), in reality he's been kicked out of the house and is sleeping at his office. If there were P.I.s in Ireland (and both Ken Bruen and Declan Hughes say there aren't) that is probably what Harry would be, child of Philip Marlowe that he so clearly is, but as it is, he's an "independent research consultant". Also, sometimes a freelance reporter, or at least that's why his pal Herbie, a photographer, is trying to lure him to follow up on some big news that's happened a few hours earlier: Imelda Sheridan, wife of an up and coming politician, has been savagely murdered on her own front porch at five o'clock that morning. We know this from the get go, but the police, or "the Dibble", as Harry is fond of calling them, seem to be in favor of calling this suicide. Herbie thinks he and Harry will be in the money if they can prove otherwise.

Oh, and one more thing to keep Harry on his toes. Denise informs him before she shoos him out the door that Gonzo's coming back. Who's Gonzo? Harry's, shall we say, 'no boundaries' brother, absent these four years.

To  make matters a bit more complicated, a shady seeming car auctioneer named Dave Conway shows up at Harry's office, wanting him to find out the dirt on  his wife, Helen. Why? So Conway can "break her fucking neck". (It's right about here that I should probably warn you that this isn't a cozy.)

So now Mr. Burke has all the plates spinning, and it's just as much a matter of suspense whether he can keep them all up in the air as to whether Harry can solve Imelda's murder, find out what's going on with Dave's tigress of a wife, and most importantly, deliver's Ben's present in time for Christmas. I'll give you a hint by saying that Declan Burke is an excellent plate spinner, and in fact there is only one character who I thought came into and disappeared from the story without a trace. (Yeah, read the book and see if you can spot it, or if you even agree with me.)

I've seen the quibble in various reviews that maybe Harry gets beaten up a few too many times, not to mention shot at, but I have to say that I didn't really care about that. It's an old trope in crime fiction, and Harry's not the nicest guy in the world, and probably deserves his licks. There was one scene in the book that I found a bit too excruciating, but it is very brief, so don't let that scare you off.

What I really want to talk about now that I've given you some idea of the premise is the inventiveness of the prose. Emulating a master like Chandler is a risky thing and you not only have to have guts, you've got to have a gift. And Burke's got it.Everyone's going to have their favorite line or ten by the time they get through with this one.

Here's a throwaway, bearing on the plot not at all, but terrific:

"It was Christmas week and the town belonged to the farmers. They lumbered up and down the streets, sailors on shore leave, grim and determined. Parcels stacked in elastic arms, necks craning around the piles. Tinny hymns drifted out of shop doorways. High above the streets the coloured lights danced a hangman's jib on the breeze."

99 cents, people. 99 cents. Or check out the print book offer (while supplies last) HERE.

Not convinced? Think you're somehow going to buy a cup of coffee with that instead? Well, take a look at one of his Digested Reads (which I wish he'd do more of) and think again.

(I'm editing this to add another interesting perspective on this book.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Guards, by Ken Bruen

I've been headed toward a rendezvous with Mr. Bruen for a long time. Or at least his books. As with  James Lee Burke, reliable sources have long plied him on me. I haven't been resistant, I've just been, as with so much else, behind times.

I don't know where the latest prompt came from, but I finally bit. One of the benefits of waiting so long is that you have the time to form an impression that will quickly be knocked down once you start turning the pages. So what did I think this book would be like?

Well, for  someone who has read a lot of crime fiction over the years, I'm a little bit of a chicken about the genre. For some reason, I had the Jack Taylor books down as a bit brutal, probably dark and undoubtedly wet.

The Guards wasn't like that at all.

Jack Taylor is an ex-garda, which means he was once an Irish cop, and according to him, getting booted out of this venerable institution meant he really had to put his mind to it. But out of control drinking, among other less than highly desirable traits, has left him high and dry. Well, not exactly dry.

There isn't technically such a thing as a private investigator in Ireland ("the Irish wouldn't wear it") , so Taylor is instead something of a finder. Which really means he drinks his way around Galway, in the company of his mad and sometime friend Sutton, and in Sutton's company he gets himself into a situation that is deeper and darker than any person whose got his problems with sobriety should reasonably get.

Taylor is also a reader, which surprised me. One lesson we learn from his wide knowledge of books, detective novels, but much beyond these as well, is that reading is a lifeline for a certain kind of kid. What we also learn more painfully is that reading alone won't save you.  But I enjoyed the literary asides and the way all of Galway seems to come to Taylor's aid at times, and the way his own low tide makes him compassionate to many others at a similar low ebb. Sometimes, of course, that's a mistake. As in life

I'll definitely be reading more.