As usual, I’m late in posting. I was supposed to come up with something brilliant to say yesterday. But since I’m lazy and busy and have all kinds of things on the burner, I’m going to take the easy way out and let fellow Killer Year classmate Bill Cameron do all the talking.
If you head over to BattlesandBrowne.com, you can hear Brett Battle’s and my latest podcast, called DEAD HOOKERS, with the aforementioned Mr. Cameron as guest, talking about all kinds of writerly things. I just mostly make fun of him…
Somehow, I’ve found myself in the middle of a crime wave. Reading detective novels, I mean. I’ve been trying to fill those embarrassing knowledge gaps in my reading history. In the last week I’ve read four novels and a story, quite a lot for me. I figured I’d praise and complain a bit, and I’d do it in chronological order:
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Edgar Allan Poe. They say Mr. Poe birthed the detective story out of thin air (or, as he more snoringly called it, the “tale of ratiocination”) with this ditty about amateur sleuth and French braniac, Auguste Dupin. It’s not true, by the way, that Poe created the genre, since this story is a mash of gothic horror and French true crime memoirs. Still, Poe managed to solidify a good chunk of the armchair detective conventions in just thirty-odd pages. Like most dorks I was into Poe as a pre-teen, but I never read this one before. Maybe because the first five pages are a cheerless philosophical essay about people with strong analytical abilities. The “start with a bang” aesthetic wasn’t around yet, apparently. The whole armchair detective genre can be a bit of a bore, considering all the fun stuff has already taken place by the time the story starts—all the action, all the emotion—then some detached curmudgeon comes around to parse the whole thing out with logic. Man, logic is for math class! All the good parts are told in summary, a strategy that rather lessens their punch. Ah, well, we still get vague but tantalizing descriptions of a mother/daughter pair of corpses all slashed to hell, beaten, thrown out windows and shoved upside down into a chimney. And the killer, oh-ho, the killer is a fucking maniac straight-razor-wielding Orangutan! Mr. Poe, my man, you’d be a badass if you weren’t so dry. The other reason I’ve never read it is because I’ve known the punchline since deep dark childhood. I can’t even remember how I found out. I figured you did, too, which is why I just spilled the beans. If not, oops. But all the fun stuff in the story can be whittled down to: “the killer is a fucking maniac straight-razor-wielding Orangutan.” I’m sorry, all the other baddies in detective fiction history just frankly pale in comparison to that.
*Red Harvest,* Dashiell Hammett. Here we get the dawn of the hardboiled detective with Hammett and his Continental Op. Still a curmudgeon, but he’s working class and not so much of a brainiac, and most certainly not French. Most people think of *The Maltese Falcon* when they think of Hammett, but *Red Harvest* deserves a fair shake too. What shocked me is this novel’s relentless originality, even now, even though it’s been referenced to death by other movies and books (the Coen brothers, Akira Kurosawa, Bruce Willis in *Last Man Standing*). It purports to be a detective story, and it begins with a murder that must be solved. Fair enough. Problem is, our anonymous hero the Continental Op solves the murder within the first thirty pages of the novel. He’s still got a hundred and twenty pages to go. There are a couple more murders and he solves those too, but along the way he gets seriously pissed at the cops and politicians in this little town of Personville and decides to play them against each other until everyone is stone dead. Seriously, there are like forty murders in this book, and most of them jump out of nowhere. Even a savvy reader can’t guess where the plot will whiplash next. This virtue is also a fault, because some plot turns are either too ridiculous to work or too sudden and baffling to have much impact on the reader. But mainly Hammett is trying to be funny, and it works. The first person narration is hilariously cynical, and somehow manages to convince the reader that the Continental Op is not the bloodthirsty sociopath that he is. In that way, he’s a two-for-one character: first major hardboiled detective AND first major crime-novel psycho.
*Devil in a Blue Dress,* Walter Mosley. I finished it this morning, and now I can finally come out of hiding. I no longer have to shamefully admit I’ve never read this Mosley classic starring softboiled “detective” Easy Rawlins. Don’t get me wrong, the story is as hardboiled as anything by Spillane or Chandler or Ross MacDonald, but Easy is a softie, and that’s part of his charm. He’s more prone to getting beaten than to doing any beating himself, though he claims to have ripped off people’s faces during World War Two. I don’t buy it. What’s cool is that Easy isn’t even a real PI; no training at all. He’s just drinking in a bar one afternoon, laid off from work, when some guy says, “hey, go find this girl; here’s some blood money.” Aside from that quirk, *Devil* sticks to almost all the major tropes of hardboiled detective novels before it, with the one exception that Easy is Black, so many more of his conflicts are racially motivated and give the book a sociological depth that lesser crime novels maybe don’t have. I think of genre as a kind of hanger you hang the new clothes on. The hanger gives the book some form, but the new clothes are what captures the reader’s interest. So, yes, Mosley gives us femme fatales and knife fights and shootouts and rich white bad guys who molest children and corrupt cops who conduct painful interrogations, but the moments where he truly shines are those moments when we see Easy in his own right, separate from his predecessors Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. New clothes. The best chapters in the novel, like the one where Easy visits an airline plant to try to get his job back, have nothing to do with the central mystery. The first half is better than the second because the second locks into basic detective conventions and plays them out in familiar ways.
*The Night Gardener,* George Pelecanos. I bought this one because of the buzz. Pelecanos probably doesn’t need buzz. I read his *Drama City* two summers ago, thought it was a quick, entertaining read. And last summer I saw the first season of *The Wire,* a TV show with which he is involved. *The Wire,* Season One, is perhaps the single greatest piece of television I’ve ever seen, its epic scope and depth of character and theme even better than many good crime books I’ve read. The buzz suggests that *Gardner* would rival *The Wire* in this respect. I just think *The Wire* is bigger, deeper, more complex and ultimately more satisfying. The emphasis in both the TV show and the novel is on realism, the days-in-the-lives of city cops. Pelecanos builds character slowly through dialogue and action—not through introspection, narrative voice, or evocative detail. His dialogue is kick ass, but his narrative prose is bare bones minimalism. Sometimes I felt like I was reading a teleplay for a show when I’d rather be watching the show, getting all the missing nuance from the actors and the set designers. The book is more like a series of Raymond Carver short stories than a crime novel. Fine by me, but you’d expect a tad more tension from a tale about cops on the trail of a serial killer. I know, I know—Pelecanos is making a point about those kinds of novels. He’s entertaining us through strategic disappointment. I dig, but it’s a big risk to take. The new clothes fall right off the hanger, you know?
*Songs of Innocence,* Richard Aleas. Newest of this lot, and damned if it isn’t the best. That’s right: better than Poe and Hammett. All right, unfair comparison. Those guys were burdened with creating conventions that we shrug off now, while Aleas (an alias) gets to trample all over those conventions like a line dancer wearing golf shoes. New York City: ex-detective has to go back onto the beat when his girlfriend winds up dead, and pretty soon he’s pegged for a criminal himself. Pretty conventional stuff so far, but it moves along briskly and insanely enough to keep you interested. The trick is that the conventions keep unraveling more and more as the story progresses, until you hit an ending tangled up in a beautiful web of ironies and surprise. Sure, the culprit’s not too tough to spot, but the culprit is also not exactly the culprit, and the culprit’s reasons…well, the end is going to kick your ass. When Chris Well asked me in an interview what kinds of books I like, I said, “the ones that deliberately screw with you.” This is that kind of book. Hell, the first-person narrator, John Blake, isn’t even particularly hardboiled. He’s into poetry, wears glasses. His quietness, at least compared to a guy like Mike Hammer, is part of what makes the denouement all that much more of a punch in the face. I picked up this book because I read some glowing reviews and because I’ve been intrigued by this Hard Case Crime line of paperback originals. It comments on “solving a crime” in a manner quite similar to Pelecanos in *The Night Gardner,* but it keeps the new clothes on the hanger till the last page, then it shreds the shit out of them. Who would’ve thought it’d be such a treat. And by treat I mean nightmare.
Author of Pyres
October 16, 2007
Filed under: Dave White
I’ve been thinking about public image lately. Namely, my own.
J.A. Konrath has a post about it.
I don’t wanna have a public persona. I don’t want to be “on” all the time, anytime I’m at a signing. I don’t want to have to worry about being “Dave White.”
I just want to be.
So, I’ve made a decision. (Actually I probably made this decision along time ago, subconsciously, but now it’s a conscious one.)
I’m just going to be Dave White… warts and all.
If you read my blog, you’ll see I’ve made a ton of faux pas in front of authors. I’m pretty sure Harlan Coben has a restraining order against me. I made David Montgomery uncomfortable on an elevator.
But you’ll also see me, a complete goofball balancing a beer bottle on my head. You’ll see me smiling and telling jokes and talking.
And you know what? Sometimes I won’t want to give out business cards. Sometimes I won’t want to say any more about my book than its title and maybe a sentence.
And to me, that’s okay.
I’ll talk about my book if I want to. And I’ll listen to you about yours.
But what I’m not going to be is “in your face.” I’m not going to have a prepared spiel about my book. I’m not going to stop people in bookstores to talk about it.
But on September 25th, if you’re in NJ, you’ll probably see me taking photographs at the bookshelves.
Because that’s me.
On August 25th and 26th, hear Kim Alexander’s interview of Toni McGee Causey and Bill Cameron, a fun, free-wheeling conversation about their books and the experience of being members of Killer Year. If you’re not an XM subscriber, you can read Kim’s review of Bobbie Faye’s Very (very, very, very) Bad Day and Lost Dog online.
Hear Fiction Nation on Take Five, XM 155 on Saturday August 25th at 6pm and on Sunday August 26th at 10:00am, and again on Sonic Theater, XM 163, on Thursday, August 30th at 3:00pm. All times EDT.
I’m curious…when you write, do you listen to music?
I do. I’ve got my iPod with me wherever I go. I’ve customized several different play lists depending on what I need to write. I have the Emotion play list with songs that can make me feel sad or passionate or hopeful (Nick Drake, Five for Fighting, U2, Macy Gray to name a few). I have one entitled Action which has a lot more fast paced stuff (Green Day, Lenny Kravitz, Evanescence and even some Boston, Cheap Trick, David Bowie and Stones) that’s great when I’m writing any action scene.
When I’m writing a first draft, or creating a new scene, songs with lyrics don’t bother me at all. But when I’m doing rewrites, I’m more likely to listen to instrumental pieces. Soundtracks mainly. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to The Mission is a favorite. As is James Horner’s music for Glory, Patrick Doyle’s for Henry V, and Tan Dun’s for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
I love the mood music can put me in. I love the way it can drown out the noises of a busy Starbucks. I love how sometimes it makes me feel like I’m watching a movie instead of writing a book. Music intensifies everything for me. It’s an essential implement in my writing toolbox.
What about you? Do you listen? Do you need quiet? Do you change your music depending on what you are writing?
THE CLEANER now available from Delacorte Press.
Cross-posted from my guest-blog over at Murderati.
I love baseball. Not the way that a lot of people love it, where they can reel off stats of this player or that team and one-up each other on trivia. I love baseball for the poetry and motion, for the hope it gives, for the way it makes you believe again in wonder and miracles and faith.
Both my sons played and the beginning of the season was always fraught with tension. The first day — the nerves, the missed balls, the frustration. They practiced basic skills and watching them come back to form after a whole year off was like watching a retired musician struggle to finesse an old tune, once familiar, now only awkward. They had a difficult time dealing with their lack of grace, how how hard they had to work at it. Then it happened eventually: the skills worked, something ignited, and the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. In one of my son’s first double-headers, he played second base and caught two line drives and got the man out on first both times. I think he floated off the field. He didn’t even seem to notice that they lost the game — all he knew was that the ball didn’t get past him.
I remember playing softball at his age. I remember the shock of the first line drive of each season, stinging in my glove. The smell of the grass, fresh cut on a spring day. Praying that someone would please hit a fly out to you so you have an excuse to out-run the mosquitoes. (Well, maybe that’s more of a Louisiana tradition.)
You’d have to understand just how much of a non-athlete I usually was in school to grasp the freakishness of the fact that I pitched, first string. It was my one cool moment, my one grace during the hell years of junior high. We were a championship team, unbeaten, with a coach who believed in fair play. Everybody got a turn, everybody played and we always won. When I had nothing else, I could pitch.
I zoned on the mound. I wasn’t this skinny, scrawny kid. I couldn’t hear the crowd, the chatter; it was me, that ball and that catcher’s glove. Rhythm. Motion. Rhythm. Motion. Strike.
When my oldest son was eight, there was no one to coach his team at the Y except this really sweet college girl who had been assigned to us, but who had never thrown a ball in her life. I volunteered and dragged my dad into it as well. My dad and I were still at the point in our relationship where I hadn’t quite forgiven him from being the royal pain-in-the-ass to live with that he had been and he couldn’t quite accept the fact that I wasn’t still the most-stubborn-child-on-earth, so it was an uncomfortable, prickly, strange sort of relationship between the two of us as we set out to coach this poor little orphaned team.
There were teams in this league who had already been playing together since kindergarten — most with the same coaches every year — and they worked with beautiful, efficient precision. Let me tell you, that was scary. They were over there saying: Here’s how to do a squeeze pay while we were saying: This is a ball. Here’s how to hold your bat. Here’s how to swing.
When we practiced, we worked with each and every kid, equally. We taught them everything from how to bat to how to slide to how to steal to the art of catching the fly ball… all the plays and the nuances of the game. They were shaping up into a fine little team.
Except for Michael.
You would have to see Michael to really understand. He was a tall, thin black kid with a sweet, cherubic face, but his eyes were just… vacant. Nobody was home. Every single time Michael drifted up to bat, I had to go over there and show him how to hold it all over again. He never swung at the ball. It whizzed past him, splat in the glove. Not only did he not catch anything in the field, he never really even seemed to know that he was playing baseball. I’m not sure if we heard him utter a single word during all those practices.
His mom and sister were there, day in, day out, cheering Michael on. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they were the only family who stayed for the practices. And Dad worked with him every day, drilling on those skills, giving him extra attention when the other kids had learned it and Michael was back at square one.
Michael played every game. That’s when I really saw my dad. That’s when I saw the man. He believed in fair play. He believed that each and every kid deserved their chance to try. He believed that the second string would improve greatly with game experience, and they did. He believed that it was more important what you teach the kid about life than how they do at baseball.
Michael had no clue. I can’t tell you how many times I’d have to call out to him to get him to turn around and face our field. I watched my dad keep encouraging Michael, both on and off the field. I watched him tell his mom how much Michael was improving, in front of Michael, so that they both could be proud of him. It would have been a lot easier to let Michael sit on the bench; I wasn’t entirely sure he’d even notice.
There are moments in your life when something clicks, when you hear the tumblers in the universe settle into place and you know — you know this was what it was all about. This was a moment you were meant for, because it changes everything.
We had split the team into two and were playing a scrimmage. Everything seemed exactly the same. Michael was up and I had to show him how to hold the bat again, remind him how to swing it. My dad shouted, “Hit me a home run, Michael,” from the first base line where he was coaching the runners. The pitcher released a fast ball and Michael pumped the bat around. It was the first time I can remember him swinging. I mean, actively swinging, with the bat going all the way around in the right kind of motion and momentum like you’re supposed to do when you swing at the ball.
He hit a home run.
I’m not sure who was more shocked: me, dad, his mom or Michael. Dad was so beside himself with joy, he was jumping in the air, shouting for Michael to run the bases. He said later that Michael’s face was so wide with shock and his mouth hung soooo far open, that he’d have made it around the bases faster if it hadn’t been for the wind drag. He ran the bases and came in to the entire team cheering. His mother and I went completely hoarse.
After that, he hit home runs just about every game. He started catching the ball, making plays. His eyes weren’t vacant any more. His mother told me he had started participating in school. They were able to move him up a class.
Michael was talking.
My dad and I were, too. We figured out some stuff, forgot and forgave some other stuff. We got to know each other then.
Now some would say that it was just a little league team, an unimportant game in the grand scheme of things. Possibly entertainment. Maybe the expression of craft, but never art, as if art has to be validated by others and hung in a museum or voted on by esteemed committee. That’s cynical, really, and it’s easy to be cynical. None of what we did was out of the ordinary–thousands upon thousands of coaches and parents do this every day. There was never another season like that one. But that moment, when Michael connected that bat to that ball, that moment of unadulterated joy… that was art.
I think, sometimes, we miss too much of what actually is art while we’re waiting for someone to label it so. I read a few things this week that transported me. They connected. This came at a time when I was exhausted and needing something to entertain me, to rebuild my faith, to energize me and it worked. I’m ending the week feeling happy and at peace and in the face of some of the things I need to accomplish, that’s pretty amazing.
Lately, I’ve been noticing the deprecating term “guilty pleasure” when referring to genre works as if there is some sort of literature police out there who are going to arrest us if we declare something worthwhile that isn’t on some sort of aesthetically acceptable list. I don’t have a clue whether anyone else would consider any of the books I read this week art. It doesn’t matter. Art arts. It creates within us a response. Our world changes.
They were art, to me. Like that baseball game was to Michael.
Michael changed that day. There’s hope in the arch of that ball, the swing of the bat, the beauty of a story. This is what I love. This is art.
What has changed you?
Were you to ask me to name my desert island book, I’d be a pain in the ass and demand two, one fiction and one non-fiction. My fiction choice is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. It’s not necessarily my favorite book, which of course changes every five minutes (my list of my top ten favorite novels of all time has a couple hundred entries on it). But One Hundred Years of Solitude is, to me, the most lush, the most abundant of my many favorite books. I can read it a hundred times and find something new with each reading, or understand some aspect of the story in a new way. A gorgeous novel, alternately heartbreaking and inspirational, it possesses an abiding sense of time and history, and of our relationship as human beings to both.
But if you insist on just one book, that’s it, no categorical weaseling, no one-of-each nonsense, well then I’m going to shift to non-fiction and choose Basin and Range by John McPhee. Basin and Range is the first in a series of four books in which McPhee tells of the development of the theory of plate tectonics.* But it’s not just a science book. McPhee tracks his way across the United States roughly along the path of Interstate 80 in the company of a number of geologists, and along the way he tells not only the story of the rock beneath his feet but of the men and women with him who know the terrain—and terranes—like they know their own skins.
And if I got really stuck and you insisted I could only take one chapter out of one book on my desert island sojourn, I’d pick the chapter in Basin and Range in which McPhee describes the evolution of the geological time scale. McPhee doesn’t title or number the chapters, so look for the one which starts “The Old Red Sandstone was put down by rivers flowing southward to a sea where marine strata were accumulating in the region that is now called Devon.” No matter your interest or disinterest in geology, I urge you to take twenty minutes in the library one day to read that one chapter.
The story McPhee tells is as much poetry as science. Periods during prehistory named for Welsh tribes, geographic regions, philosophical conceits. Scientists bickering over the relationship between this or that fifty or hundred million years. Eons delineated by the appearance and disappearance of a particular type of mollusk or arthropod, by the flow of primordial rivers inferred in exposed sediments. When the science of geology came of age during the 1800s, much of the technology that would enable scientists to determine how far back events occurred didn’t exist; vast chunks of time were identified and named decades before radiometric dating and similar tools would assign actual values to eons. There was in fact a certain geological quality to the development of the time scale, as new chunks of time were identified and named and divided in an accretatory and erosional manner. McPhee describes the process beautifully in what amounts to one of the most far-reaching yet intimate essays I’ve ever read. I can pick it up at any time and it will take my breath away.
In this essay, McPhee coined the phrase “deep time” to describe that vast weight of time before the present, the billions of years it took for the earth to reach its current state. It is a depth of time so great, McPhee notes, “With your arms spread wide to represent all time on earth . . . in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history.” And yet so much of it remains beyond knowledge. The nature of geology is that it deals with surfaces and shattered remains beneath which far more is hidden than revealed. Describing the first four billions years of Earth’s lifespan, McPhee says, “. . . so little is known of this seven-eighths of all history that in a typical two-pound geology text book there are fourteen pages on Precambrian time.” He goes on to note that the “Precambrian has attracted geologists of exceptional imagination.”
This to me is the lure of geology in the picture painted by John McPhee. For all the measurements, for all the core samples and lab tests, the calculus and the piled collections of rocks there lives at the heart of the science that spark of imagination, not so different, I believe, from the spark that lives in the heart of writers—or any artist. The art of writing, like the science of geology, is like exploring a dream with a candle, illuminating more and more until at last a history is revealed, often in broken pieces, often incomplete. Yet also sparking a further drive toward exploration and revelation. To me, McPhee—master of analogy—is speaking only partly about geology and history, just as García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude is speaking only partly of the town of Macondo and the Buendiá family. When I read about McPhee’s deep time I find myself excavating my own sedimentary layers. He wakes me up and shows me how to look backward and forward in a single glance.
The chapter ends with McPhee sharing a number of comments made to him by geologists over the years as he traversed so many terrains in their company. “In the company of geologists,” he says, “the least effect of time is that they think in two languages, think in two different scales.” He ends with a quote from one geologist who says, “If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then, in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”
It may be a comment about deep time, about the geological time scale, but for me it’s an apt description of how I often feel when I write, and why this essay by McPhee is so important to me. When I write, I feel disconnected from ordinary time, freed from the constraints of day-to-day life. I can be anywhere, anywhen. It’s a freedom, both exhiliarating and frightening, that I don’t experience under any other circumstances. And so the best answer to the question “why do you write?” I can give is this: when I write, I feel like I am living forever.
* Note: The others in McPhee’s geology series are In Suspect Terrain, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California—and for true desert island book convenience, the series has been collected in a single volume entitled Annals of the Former World.