Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Hallows Eve

Happy Halloween! It's a bit late for this kind of post, but what the heck. Here's Slate magazine's suggestions for All Hallows Read.

Sure, Halloween is pretty much over, but it's not like the days are getting any lighter right about now... 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Live By Night, by Dennis Lehane

I've been thinking a lot about writing this review for the few days since I read this book, and I seem to be feeling a bit tentative about what I want to say. I'm a big fan of Lehane's books, and have read pretty much everything he's written except Coronado, his book of short stories, and somewhat ironically, The Given Day. I say ironically, because I didn't learn that there was a connection between these two novels until I was well on my way in Live by Night, and though the hero of our present tale is only a minor character in that one, I still wonder if reading it first might have given me a slightly better understanding here of his drives and motivations.

Many if not most of Lehane's fans have come to him through his early Kensey Gennaro crime stories, which feature a very appealing couple working out of a Boston belfry in their fight against crime. Lehane has often characterized these as potboilers, which I think gave him the means to do what he really wanted to do, which was write novels with a little larger scope and a lot more clout.

It's funny how that goes, though, because though he did go on to write the highly praised Mystic River, which then became the equally highly praised movie of the same name, the fans kept on clamoring for Kensey and Gennaro. Lehane finally brought them back in Moonlight Mile in 2010, very much a sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone.

Many people liked that one a lot, but, though I was as eager to read it as the next person, I found the older, wiser and more comfortable pair less interesting. People's growing up isn't always their most attractive feature, especially when it comes to fiction. I think the second factor at work, though, may have been that Lehane's heart wasn't really in it anymore. What I presume he really wants to do is write historical fiction about the last century in America, because this is what he's done at this point in his career when he gets to call his own shots.

Live by Night traces the adult life of one Joseph Coughlin, though no one but his father ever calls him Joseph. As the emotionally neglected younger son of a police commissioner, Joe somewhat predictably (at least in novels) turns to a life of crime. Ostensibly a fast paced action tale about life during Prohibition as seen from the criminal side, this is actually an introspective novel about this one guy caught up on this often questionable path. Although a lot of the action revolves around how he slowly builds his Prohibition empire, the book in many ways is about limits. Joe is always looking for his own boundaries. He's a criminal, not a good guy falsely suspected of being one. And I think until possibly at the very end, he never really questions or repents of that choice. He knows or at any rate believes that he belongs with those who live by night, not the day workers of our world.

I think the introspective quality is what keeps us at a little remove from Joe, and perhaps from the book itself. We move through Lehane's meticulously researched 1920s Eastern Seaboard as in a dream. Most gangsters probably don't worry a lot whether good money can come out of bad, but Joe does. On the other hand, he's not a gangster. Or so he says. He's an outlaw. These aren't always distinctions the non-criminal can easily understand, however.

Live by Night is a very beautifully written book, and there are many scenes that seem almost cinematographic. Even this I find myself wondering a little about, though. Lehane has done very well with the movie industry, and as I've heard this book is already optioned (DiCaprio again?) it's not hard to think he may have been thinking in terms of film even as he wrote it.

I think Lehane's writing always retains a bit of the potboiler elements, sometimes deliberately so (Shutter Island, anyone?), and sometimes not. There are certainly some potboiler elements in this one, despite its greater ambitions. Some of the thuggish gangsters (because they're not all like Joe) seem pretty worn out. And don't even get me started on the prison sequence. I don't if anyone should even attempt prison scenes any more, they are so tired. But all the way through the book there are wonderful moments, like the getaway scene early on, or Joe's arrival in Tampa.

"Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin's feet were placed in a tub of cement."

That's the start. Now you go on and finish it.     

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Falling Glass--a reprise

The fall double header of Adrian McKinty's fiction began today in the U.S. (The second book, The Cold Cold Ground, is out in November.)Although many of his American fans may have gotten their hands on these books already after their British publication last year, for all intents and purposes, the U.S. is an untapped market. So I thought I'd repost this review from last year, as it seems possible that it might reach a few new readers.

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 dirty work 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 halfheartedly 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.