Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Burning Down The House

I thought it worth sharing an article from today's Guardian that seems to be sparking fierce debate in rainy old London. In the midst of the larger debate over the fate of the publishing industry, the book market in general, and, at least over here, the looming Christmas war on book prices, writer Stuart Jeffries has written a well-articulated observational piece on his country's biggest bookstore, titled no less than "How Waterstone's Killed Bookselling."

You can read, debate and twitter about the piece to your own heart's content, but I thought it was worth passing along if for no other reason than this quote by literary agent Bill Hamilton about one of my own favorite writers, Ian Rankin.

"Rankin was selling nothing at all for the first few novels he wrote, but publishers knew he would take off and so they kept with him. The opportunity isn't there to do that any more because sales are so low that you lose too much money initially, even if you make money later. That old, very successful business model doesn't make sense any more. Thanks to the prevailing way in which books are sold there would be no new Rankin."

Welcome to Rome. Now where's my fiddle?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

House of Cards

One more, while it's crossing my mind. This past Sunday, The Denver Post published my review of Cowboys Full by James McManus. You can get the full lowdown in the review but it's my humble opinion that this thing is the definitive history of poker up to this point.

I interviewed McManus by email, briefly, a few months ago and anybody who has even the slightest interest in the guy's work ought to chase him down for a longer interview. I have a feeling he pours most of his effort into his work but I'll bet he tells a great bar story.

He wouldn't tell me what attracts him to poker in the first place, and a lot of that angle is covered in Positively Fifth Street anyway. But I did get an answer to what turns him off about a game: "What repels me," he said, "Is how easy it is for a person to play his hand perfectly and lose all his money to an idiot who gets lucky on the final card."

And that's life, in a nutshell.

You can also set alternate takes on the book from Jack Broom at The Seattle Times, and even more intriguingly from Rick Kogan at The Chicago Tribune, who opines, "Now that this book is on the shelves and what should be a number of best-seller lists, perhaps he will have the time and the inclination to finish his long brewing novel about Las Vegas."

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The good: the newest issue of Bookslut is up, right on time. Inside you'll find my preview of some books due out next year, and a few that seem not to exist at all. Go forth, and read, "Things That Are Good" to get the lowdown on new titles by Don Winslow, Charlie Huston, John Burdett, Walter Mosley, Duane Swierczynski and Dennis Lehane, among others, that should be out within the next year.

The (not-so) Bad: I gave some good-natured ribbing to Winslow's publisher for not releasing the eagerly awaited (by me) sequel to The Dawn Patrol, called The Gentlemen's Hour, this year, even though it's already been published in the UK. As happens, I'm not the only one who's been giving that absence some thought. I got to chatting with the unassailable publishing industry overseer and crime writer extraordinaire Sarah Weinman about the subject over the past few days.

Not only did Sarah dig up her own scoop - that Winslow is getting beaucoup bucks to write Satori, a sequel to the Trevanian thriller Shibumi, for Grand Central Publishing - but she managed to find the lowdown on the missing sequel. Don Winslow is jumping ship.

The Ugly? Publisher's Marketplace reports that (tragedy!) The Gentlemen's Hour will be published in the United States...in July of 2011...by Simon and Schuster, and not Alfred A. Knopf. Apparently, there are more books in the deal, too. S&S will first publish Winslow's standalone thriller, Savages, plugged as "a gritty, humorous, and drug-fueled ransom thriller set amidst the Baja Cartel in Laguna Beach, CA."

So, good news and bad news in the mix. Does it balance out? We'll see when the ink hits the paper next year. I think the lesson here is always ask Sarah first. She knows all.

EDIT: No, I am not ambitious. Yes, I am tenacious. I managed to track down the great and gracious Don Winslow for an interview about Savages, Satori, and The Gentlemen's Hour. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Yes, It Is Rocket Science

Oh, and while we're at it, I did do a little interview with the fella in the picture there, one of only 12 men to walk on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin was a great interview subject: funny, smart, and truthful. If you wander over to Airport Journals, you can read my very long and ambitious profile of the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 astronaut, "Buzz Aldrin: Venturing Forward."

My favorite moment in the interview came when I mentioned reading in the NASA transcripts that when Mission Control cleared the Eagle for takeoff, Buzz replied, "Roger. Understood. We're number one on the runway."

"You know, the definition of humor is to take a normal situation, throw in an absurdity and then act as if it's normal," Aldrin told me. "When you're able to do that twice in the same sentence, you've really accomplished something. To say that we were number one on the runway ... Well, there wasn't anybody else up there and there sure as hell was no runway."

You can find out more about the mission and life after NASA in Buzz Aldrin's memoir, Magnificent Desolation or by visiting his official website.

People Who Write For Money

I'm a bit late in putting this out there in the wider world, but the new column is up at Bookslut. The latest examination of books far and wide, "American Psychos," gets down on the latest titles from Sara Paretsky, Andrew Vachss, and the always entertaining James Ellroy, who finishes up the Underworld USA trilogy with Blood's A Rover.

I haven't decided yet whether to go take another hit of Ellroy's performance art when he comes to town to sign books next week, but I've been following the latest news. The most interesting interview so far comes on video from the eagle eyes of Mediabistro's Galleycat, who interviewed Ellroy last week. In it, he offers some questions for working writers to ponder.

"It's survival of the fittest," Ellroy said. "Who wants to write? How bad do you want it? Will you write, even if you're poorly paid? I will. That gives you a leg up on people who write for money. I got 3500 bucks for my first novel, 3500 bucks for my second novel. Five K for my third, five K for my fourth. Six K for my fifth, ten K for my sixth. Then big jumps to twenty. All of which was realistic renumeration at the time."

Just to give you some perspective, Ellroy's first novel, Brown's Requiem, was published in 1981. In relative terms, the author's renumeration would be somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 dollars in present-day value depending on the economic indicator you use. $20,000 for his seventh novel, 1987's The Black Dahlia, would equate to nearly $40,000 today.

Things to think about.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Max Brooks Talks Zombies

Well, it's finally out. I was out of town for the big release myself, but I'm told that while I was away, The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks has landed with a splat on bookstore shelves, comfortably on the heels of Zombieland's surprising opening (it's a killer flick, by the way).

What seems like a million years ago, I got the very cool opportunity to ask its author, Max Brooks (the author of the deeply creepy World War Z, producer of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, and son of Mel Brooks, to boot) about his new graphic adaptation of a slim chapter from his now-famous Zombie Survival Guide. The project is illustrated by Brazilian artist Imbraim Roberson, and depicts, as advertised, various zombie encounters throughout history. Like World War Z, it's a unique perspective on zombie lore and one that makes for a much better Halloween read than all those terrible vampire books out there.

"I've always written my fiction as a fan, not an artist," Brooks said, when the project was still in production. "I always start from a place of answering the questions I wanted answered in other movies, or writing the stories that I wanted to read. The only reason I wrote The Zombie Survival Guide was because I couldn't find one already out there."

Most fanboys already know that World War Z is slated for a film production after Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment snapped up the rights. J. Michael Straczynski has taken a first pass at the script and it's now in the hands of screenwriter Matt Carnahan (State of Play, etc). But Recorded Attacks seems to lend itself even better to a graphic adapation rather than film.

"I'd wanted to do The Zombie Survival Guide as a graphic novel for a long time, actually before I even wrote World War Z, " Brooks said. "There were a lot of rejections along the way, and one potential deal ended up with the comic book company folding before we could start. I'd always wanted to 'flesh out' the recorded attacks, not just for their 'zombieness,' but because I'm a huge lover of history and I'm always trying to find ways to inject it into my work."

It turns out that more than a little of Brooks' dramatically visual writing style is rooted not in literature, but in comic books.

"I've always loved the concept of visual storytelling," Brooks said. "I am very, very dislexic, and as a kid, sometimes comics were the only way I could process information. The graphic novel that first inspired me was Sam Glanzman's A Sailor's Story. I'd grown up hearing my uncle's stories about Navy life during World War II, but actually seeing it in Glanzman's artwork suddenly gave it life. Graphic novels still continue to inspire me, works like Andrew Helfer and Randy DuBurke's biography of Malcolm X or Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe."

While the "zombieness" of Recorded Attacks is inherently terrifying, there's also a lot of hardcore research at play in the book.

"I wanted these stories to be as realistic as possible, right down to the fashion, architecture, technology, even the facial hair of the period," Brooks said. "I gave myself a mountain of extra work trying to find accurate historical representations of each period to pass on to the artist. Every hour I spent writing the actual script, I must have spent three trying to find some picture of correct Roman armor, or the hold of a slave ship, or a North African fort of the French Foreign Legion."

The process must have made an impression on him. These days, Max says he's working on a "top secret" writing project in addition to a gig writing G.I. Joe comics over at IDW Publishing.

"To be honest, it's the hardest work I've ever done," Brooks said. "I never realized how much description I had to put into each story, each page, each panel. And I'm not just talking about the artist's subjects. I had to be very specific what angle we were looking at, how close the shot was, where the light was coming from, etc. I've heard this from friends who write for cartoons or animated movies and now I have a whole new respect for both them and the comic book industry as a whole. I guess I'm making up for all that homework I never did in college."

The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks is in bookstores now. You can also download a free chapter at the book's official website and dig the book's animated trailer below.

The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks by Max Brooks from Crown Books on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

And Justice For All

I also had to share a piece that I'm really quite proud to have written. In the most recent books section of The Denver Post, you'll find my first feature for the paper, "Schooled in strength: LaNier's lessons from the Little Rock Nine."

I expected my recent interview with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin to be the highlight of my summer, although that story seems to have been mercilessly delayed by production problems. But a few weeks ago, I was tasked do an interview with Carlotta Walls LaNier, who quietly lives here in Denver. She's an incredible person and one I consider to be just as historic a figure as anybody in the Civil Rights Movement.

Most people know that in 1957, Little Rock's Central High School was forced to integrate - very nearly at gunpoint - by President Eisenhower, who federalized the Arkansas National Guard and stared down the state's intractable Governor Orval Faubus. But let me tell you, hearing that story from someone who was there is a moving experience.

Just before my own interview with her in late August, I attended a packed house at The Tattered Cover in Denver, where an enthusiastic audience came to see Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine. There were maybe 300 people in this room, and Mrs. LaNier shook every single hand and gave a moving tribute to her mother, husband and children, all of whom were there to support her.

Today, LaNier is arguably the Little Rock Nine's most vocal and public member but for years, she was understably reticent to talk to anybody about her experiences. Yet after reuniting with her classmates in 1987 for the 30th anniversary of the Little Rock action, she began to feel that her side of the story ought to be told.

She recounts her experiences in A Mighty Long Way, her memoir, co-authored by Washington Post journalist Lisa Frazier Page and forwarded by President Bill Clinton, a longtime admirer. In it, she tells not only of growing up during these turbulent times in Little Rock but also about the cost inflicted on her family and friends, her willpower to succeed when so many people were rooting for her to break down so many barriers, and her journey to make peace with her incredible past. You can read more about it in the review/interview but trust me that this book is going to outlive all of us. History is better for her sharing this story.

The most important parts of our short conversation made it into the article, but I'll share a couple of supplementary stories I found fascinating. One of my favorites was about the day that Carlotta Walls invented passive resistance all by herself.

"I might have been angry at times – and I was angry at times, " she said. "Especially at this one redhead who used to walk on the back of my heels. But I knew I could not retaliate, not that I was a fighter in that manner anyway, a physical fighter. Anyway, I knew I could not fight back so I had to come up with defensive mechanisms. After a while of dealing with her, I thought of something. So I stopped dead one time. I walked real fast during my younger days. This time, she was keeping up with me and walking on the back of my heels and I figured I’ll stop this, today. I just stopped immediately and she slammed right into me. I just had to learn to use the defensive abilities I had."

Another amazing aspect to interviewing people is getting to see other people through their eyes. When I interviewed George McGovern, you could see the delight in his eyes when he talked about going toe-to-toe with Hunter S. Thompson. In interviewing Mrs. LaNier, you could see the whole of the Civil Rights Movement, people she had known and seen with her own eyes, whether it was the amazing NAACP president Daisy Bates organizing the defense of the Little Rock Nine or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in his shirtsleeves over a plate of barbecue and a beer, mapping out the future of America in a Little Rock basement somewhere. One of her most memorable connections was the great Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown V. Board of Education in the very Supreme Court where he would later serve as Justice. She remembered being worried that the movement was losing one of its greatest assets when Lydon B. Johnson appointed Marshall as Solicitor General in 1965, but she has since changed her view.

"I thought that we were losing someone that was needed to get things changed," she remembered. "I’m now 66 myself and I look back and understand that he did the right thing. It was time for younger people to start moving on, and giving them the opportunity to take what he had done and move it to a higher level. I think that’s what we all need to do each day. I see organizations today that have always had the same public face. Teach the younger ones. Help them to take on some of this responsibility, because they have good ideas too. Get the best out of the old experience too, of course, but those things you feel were not effective, leave them behind."

The last third of A Mighty Long Way may be its most dramatic segment, as LaNier describes the devastating events of February, 1960, when her house was bombed, her father arrested, and two young black men jailed for years for a crime they didn't commit. But true to LaNier's positive nature, the book ends on a high note, as she remembers the night that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. I have to note, too, that Carlotta Walls LaNier puts her money where her mouth is. She made phone calls from Obama's Denver headquarters for more than 10 hours that day, not as any kind of celebrity but as a private citizen working hard to make things better for everybody.

"It’s not over just because Barack Obama was elected President," she said. "We all have to help him. If you notice in each one of his speeches, he brings up service all the time. I think if people got back to that, giving service to someone else, that they will feel better about themselves and aspire to do better in their daily lives whether they are getting to know other people or just being an honest citizen. I really do think positive change is coming. It's not just hot air."

I strongly encourage anyone with an interest in American history to read A Mighty Long Way and to visit and support The Little Rock Nine Foundation in its efforts to promote the ideals of education and equality for all.

Back from the Dead

No, I am not dead. I have felt like I was dead a few times during the last month, and during the ear-splitting ache that infected my skull last week I might have prayed for death a few times, but no such luck. Here I remain upon this mortal coil. Which is more than I can say for poor Jim Carroll, god rest his punk-rock soul.

Which doesn't mean I haven't been relatively busy. Between looking for work like everyone else on the planet, stalking the numerous clients who owe me money, and trying to pour out the contents of my brain out onto paper in my semi-regular attempts to light a fire under my creative side, you could never exactly peg me as lackadaisical.

After a brief intermission to visit family last month, I'm back at Bookslut with a new column. And really, what did Bookslut need more than a good dose of indie comedy? So go forth, and read "Paperbacks and Fever Dreams," turning out the innards of three great new paperback novels, Huge, Something's Missing and How To Rob an Armored Car, among a few other tidbits.

Elsewhere in the September issue, you'll find lots of good stuff including interviews with Kate Greenstreet, Sarah Manguso and Christos Tsiolkas; lots of new book reviews covering the widest range of topics available to man; and some really great columns that get down on Leonard Cohen, Richard Stark, the Apollo moon landing and Rosemary's Baby, among myriad other subjects. Go give a hand to our new day-to-day editor Caroline Eick and Berlin-bound commandant Jessa Crispin. This kind of output makes me proud to be among these writers. As an added bonus, if you're in Chicago tonight, the Bookslut Reading Series goes to town with Barry Schechter and Dave Reidy.

If you're into the homebound thing, let me suggest a bit of television entertainment that complements the new column perfectly. HBO is showing off its new series, Bored To Death, for free on various outlets including Itunes all week. The series was created by Jonathan Ames (The Alcoholic) and stars Jason Schwartzman as a blocked writer who's supplementing his creative process by pretending to be a private detective. Wait, are we sure I didn't write this?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books

Before I take myself online for a few days, here's one last bulletin from the electronic trenches. A few weeks ago, I got a very polite and kind request from Patti Abbott, the prolific short story writer and blogger, who also happens to be the mother of Edgar Award-winning novelist Megan Abbott (Bury Me Deep).

Patti asked me if I'd be willing to contribute an entry for her popular and wide-ranging series of blog posts called "Friday's Forgotten Books." Naturally, I'd seen plenty of J. Kingston Pierce's entries at the Rap Sheet and told Patti I would be happy to contribute.

So, today at Patti's blog, you can find my entry on the two more mainstream novels by the late novelist James Robert Baker, both of which I've been raving about since I was 17 years old. Go forth, and discover the buried treasure of Boy Wonder and Fuel-Injected Dreams as well as Patti's entry on Michael Frayn's terrific boyhood drama Spies and novelist Craig Johnson's take on James Norman Hall's Doctor Dogbody's Leg.

And just for the record, my runners-up were Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers (the basis for the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket); the spellbinding chess drama Queen's Gambit by the late genius Walter Tevis (who famously wrote The Hustler and The Man Who Fell To Earth), and the only true mystery in competition, Roger L. Simon's launch of the Moses Wine series, The Big Fix. I can think of plenty of other contenders off the top of my head, but somehow Forgotten Books makes me nostalgic for all my old paperbacks. I just might have to do this more often.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

If I Could Just Get It On Paper

My head is about swimming this month with all the work that's piling up around me, but I thought I'd record a couple of links to some new writing that's actually in paper-and-ink publications, as well as online.

First off, there's my inauspicious debut as a reviewer for The Denver Post, who has kindly seen fit to assign me some non-fiction books, which is a category that I really enjoy, but haven't had much opportunity to review recently. First up is a book that's mostly about the only sport I really like, baseball, and arrived with a hand-written note of praise from award-winning novelist Kent Haruf (Plainsong).

It's the tough-luck story of a kid from the bitter south side of Pittsburgh who grew up with even tougher parents and managed to escape the city to become a professor of English at Southern Illinois University and a widely published writer on - you guessed it - baseball. So, in the city's last old-school newspaper, you can read my review of Growing Up With Clemente by Richard Peterson.

For even more book-related goodness, you can check out the Kirkus Reviews "Big Book Fall Preview," which weirdly turned out to be the special in which I didn't interview hardly anyone at all because they're very busy and important. Or locked in a cave by their publishers, chained to a typewriter, which I suspect was the case with Dan Brown and his new book about Robert Langdon.

In other hard-hitting journalistic accomplishments, I did not interview (despite much pleading with publicists) Nick Cave about his funky new novel The Death of Bunny Munro. "Busy rocking out" will always be a valid excuse for not submitting to my interrogations.

But here, also from Kirkus, was my take on Cave's mutant creation. And if you're really game, you'll slap on some Grinderman, which is the perfect musical accompaniment, while you read it.

After a two-decade pause, the post-punk singer-songwriter finally follows up his well-received first novel (And The Ass Saw The Angel, 1990) with a lurid fantasia about a drug-addled salesman.

This could easily be the literary companion to Cave's recent howling performances with garage band Grinderman. When we meet long-since-gone-to-seed Bunny Munro, he's shacked up with the latest prostitute, multitasking by phoning to comfort his mentally disturbed wife Libby. A sex-obsessed peddler of beauty products, Bunny numbs himself by limiting his input to the next selfish pleasure. Returning home, he finds Libby has slashed all his clothing and hung herself in a locked bathroom. Instead of comforting their nine-year-old son Bunny Junior, the once-charming lothario fills himself with poisons, packs his bonnet full of inventory and hits the road with his son for a series of misguided lessons about manhood. Bunny's melancholy worldview takes some getting used to, but he's fitfully sly and unabashedly narcissistic, which also makes him unpredictably funny. Told he should be extinct, Bunny declares, "I resent that. I take personal hygiene very seriously." As the story develops, he achieves a broken grace that belies his repellent character and faintly hints at redemption. Things get weirder when Bunny starts seeing Libby. "He realizes, in a shadowy way, for a brief moment, that the imaginings and visitations and apparitions that he encountered were the ghosts of his own grief and that he was being driven insane by them," Cave writes in characteristically lyrical and macabre prose. "He knows more than he knows anything that they very soon will kill him."

Profane and profound by turns—not for everyone, but Cave still knows how to command an audience.

Nor did I go toe-to-toe with American literary legend John Irving, who declines to grant interviews to writers who haven't read his book. That's Last Night In Twisted River, the book with which he was still tinkering, therefore eliminating any chance for said writer to read the book and prompt an interview. Circle of life. What can I say? The man wrote The Cider House Rules. I say he gets a pass.

Other writers did get to sink their teeth in, and elsewhere in the issue you can unearth great little spotlights on new books by Nick Hornby, Joshua Ferris, Joseph Kanon, Michael Chabon and my extremely funny friend Alexander McCall Smith.

Thankfully, I did interview one author, who turned out to be the most gracious and insightful of the lot, as it turned out. Said author was the acclaimed New York playwright Victor Lodato, who has composed a fantastic first novel called Mathilda Savitch, about an adolescent girl with a most unusual point-of-view, who is desperately trying to make sense of the death of her older sister. Prior to landing the interview, Lodato had already earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, with which I'll leave you with today.

A wildly precocious adolescent girl searches for the truth behind her sister's death in playwright Lodato's creative and engaging debut novel.

The author crafts a singular voice that combines the disjointed confessional tone of Holden Caulfield with the ethereal sadness of Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones. The13-year-old narrator's matter-of-fact reflections on her dysfunctional family hold the whole amazing concoction together. Mathilda Savitch is blessed with a unique point of view. "I've been told I have an 'artistic temperament,' " she confides, "which means I have thoughts all over the place and not to be concerned." A year after the mysterious death of her sister Helene, crushed under a train, Mathilda is on the trail of the killer, breaking into Helene's e-mail account to flush out a suspect among her sister's many boyfriends. Simultaneously she's deceiving her shrink; trying to hold together the remains of her parents' fractured marriage; and balancing her affections for best friend Anna McDougal with their mutual interest in a handsome young classmate. The story Lodato tells, while compulsively readable, isn't the main selling point. It's the way he occupies Mathilda so completely, giving her marvelous lines like, "Sometimes I'd think I'd like to be a person with brain damage, with nothing but the whale of joy jumping around inside of me," or, "The thing is, I don't want to end up like Ma and Da. In a house with books and dust and all the love gone out of it." His portrait of a damaged but hopeful girl stands up to classics like Walter Tevis' Queen's Gambit (1983).

Crossover potential could be limited by some PG-13 material, but both mature adolescents and adult readers will find much to love in Lodato's remarkable creation.

You may go buy books now. The literary world thanks you for your kind attention.

Monday, July 6, 2009

While I Was Away

Well, I've been away for longer than I thought again. While I was away for a month percolating on other projects, this long, weird summer doesn't seem to be moving along any faster. I'd much prefer to offer a more interesting update - "What I did on my summer vacation when I was supposed to be slaving over a hot keyboard," or something - but this little bulletin will have to do for now.

Over at Bookslut, Jessa Crispin's reign of terror has officially ended in a bloodless coup. Well, okay, it wasn't really terror, and it really only involves our supreme leader moving to Berlin to get her deutsch on. But we're left in the capable hands of new editor Caroline Eick, who seems very nice, even if she made me feel a bit like Methuselah when I saw her on the teevee.

In this month's issue, I've contributed "Enemies, Public and Private," which offers a glancing blow at the mid-summer movie season and a fairly in-depth look at what is easily my favorite non-fiction book of the past six months, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI 1933-34 by Esquire contributor Bryan Burroughs, the much more extensive source material for the new film Public Enemies. I saw the film over the holiday weekend and while it's pretty good, especially Mann's superb command of digital photography, I can still only wish it had stayed at HBO and been made into a miniseries. Maybe someone smart will realize that there's no reason it can't still be done, regardless of the film's relatively sedate $26 million opening.

In the column, I also made a short ricochet off of Loser's Town, the debut novel by Daniel Depp, the big brother to movie star Johnny. Just in case I didn't leave enough information about that particular title, here's a bit of the much-quoted review of the book I wrote for Kirkus Reviews.

After a droll introduction during which two thugs-for-hire bicker while disposing of an inconvenient corpse, we meet David Spandau, an atypical investigator decked out in Armani and Tony Llamas. Irritable, terse and late for an assignment, Spandau is on a movie set to meet with high-strung Hollywood celebutante Bobby Dye. The actor believes he's about to break into the A-list with a western called Wildfire, but he's losing his cool after receiving a series of death threats. Still suffering from rodeo injuries, a little melancholy owing to a soft spot for whiskey and ex-wife Dee, the cowboyish Spandau reluctantly takes the case. He discovers that Bobby is being blackmailed by gangster Richie Stella, who wants the hot actor to headline his mob-financed flick. Even if this L.A. noir treads ground already covered by the likes of Elmore Leonard, screenwriter Depp blends its familiar elements with enthusiasm. He demonstrates a wicked behind-the-scenes awareness of Hollywood's inherent absurdity and utilizes a wealth of old-school venues ranging from the haunted dwellings of Wonderland Avenue to the nightclubs of the Sunset Strip (including one "Voodoo Room" that strongly resembles the infamous Viper Room once owned by the author's celebrated half-brother Johnny). Depp also turns the rare trick of creating supporting characters as charismatic as his lead, among them Terry McGuinn, an eloquent, Tolkien-obsessed runt enlisted by Spandau to co-opt one of Stella's underlings, and Amos Potts, one of Stella's go-to heavies who's just trying to make ends meet. "How Dashiell Hammett," as Terry remarks in one scene. Readers will join him in adding, "Pray go on." Sharp-tongued debut that obviously knows the City of Angels well.

There are bound to be plenty of cash-in titles about Dillinger hitting shelves any second now, but for anyone who wants more than a Wikipedia entry about the elusive bank robber, you ought to take advantage of your tax dollars at work. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has an interesting historical site about Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and other criminals of the era, including .PDF versions of the original Dillinger case files, which make for an afternoon's worth of entertainment by themselves.

Meanwhile, back at Kirkus, the Graphic Spotlight 2009 has arrived online. From my own finely-tuned pen you'll find spotlights on Rick Geary's new biography of Leon Trotsky, Tim Hamilton's really fantastic full-color adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, a chat with Hideyuki Kikuchi about his truly weird novel Wicked City (the original inspiration for both the popular manga and anime adaptations of its future-noir storyline), and finally a round of hide-and-seek with R. Crumb about his new literal adapation of The Book of Genesis, part of which is being excerpted in The New Yorker as we speak.

There's plenty of good stuff throughout the issue, as other writers take on the great Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza, Ghostface Killah's Cell Block Z, David Mazzuchhelli's much lauded Asterios Pulp, and Joe Kelly's I Kill Giants. There's even a quick look at Ian Rankin's shot at Hellblazer, Dark Entries.

And if anyone from Vertigo, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image or anybody else wants to send comic books here, they'll be in good hands. I swear.

Is that all I've been up to? There seems to be a lot more scribbling going on around here these days.

Oh, yes. I also talked to a man who walked on the moon. But more on that later.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Dead Boys Giveaway

The good news: Richard Lange has finished the follow-up to his fantastic book of short stories, Dead Boys. His debut novel, This Wicked World, will be published at the end of the month by Little, Brown. Kirkus Reviews calls it "Smartly entertaining noir, and a promise of better reviews to come."

You can get a sneak peek of the book by reading my new column at Bookslut, "Beautiful Losers," which includes a brief sampling of the prose as well as a brand new interview with the author. "It’s got drug dealers, dog fighting, crazy strippers, big guns, kung fu, a rattlesnake, and a fortune in counterfeit bills: something for everyone," says Lange.

The better news: I talked Little, Brown out of a few copies of Dead Boys, and I'm giving them away as a public service. For a shot at winning one of my three copies, do the following:

1. Email me at claywriting (at) yahoo.com, using the subject line "Dead Boys." Include your name, email address and a mailing address.

2. Tell me your favorite Los Angeles-based book or film, and why.

That's it. On June 12, I'll randomly pick three winners and mail copies of Dead Boys to the lucky trio.

Good luck.

UPDATE: The books are on their way, and weirdly enough, all of the winners are from Southern California. Congratulations to Kathy, Nolan and Victor for winning. I think. They might change their minds once they read the book and start looking around. But let's hope not.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

GI Joe The Secret of the Mummy's Tomb (Jim Sweet)

Having once owned this book and record set does not in any way detract from its retro greatness.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Big Books Cometh

Hot off the press - literally, as Kirkus Reviews remains among one of those full-fledged magazines with a print edition - is the new Big Books Special from Kirkus, featuring titles likely to make a big splash at BookExpo America (BEA), being held May 28-31 in New York City, and the American Library Association's annual blowout July 9-15 in Chicago.

Inside, you'll find two feature interviews written by yours truly, the first with the very articulate NPR and ABC analyst Cokie Roberts, and the second, well, a bit more of a revealing interview with human guinea pig and Esquire writer A.J. Jacobs. You'll also find interviews (by other contributors) on the fiction side with Tracy Kidder and Jonathan Lethem. I also wrote smaller spotlights on new books by The NFL Today's James Brown (an outstanding interview subject), super-evolutionist Richard Dawkins (not so much), MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, and debut novelist Paul Harding (Tinkers).

Elsewhere in the issue are glances at some outstanding new titles, including rundowns of Pat Conroy's South of Broad, Pete Dexter's Spooner, Joseph Kanon's Stardust, and Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic, including a comment I love by Russo: "I was determined that my next novel wouldn't leave me alongside the road for dead."

Now, after writing nearly 7,000 words in the past week, I'm going out to the desert to clear my head. I might not even bring a book with me when I go. So there.

Friday, April 24, 2009

BEAT THE REAPER by Josh Bazell trailer

Reaper Goes Hollywood

So Variety reports that Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper is going to the big screen. The writers of Ocean's Thirteen (Brian Koppelman and David Levien) will adapt the murderously funny ER-set debut novel as a vehicle for...Leonardo DiCaprio? As a hitman whose real name is Pietro Brnwa?

Myself, I think the role needs somebody with a little more heft, humor and menace (see: Clive Owen). But we'll see how it turns out. DiCaprio is producing, so due credit to him for picking up on the book's lurid appeal.

I just have to say, I called this one real early on. I ought to get a finder's fee.

"The past comes knocking for a physician with a fistful of secrets.

Medical resident Bazell opens his debut novel with a bone-crunching interlude between Manhattan ER doctor Peter Brown and a mugger whom he beats senseless, then treats for injuries. Brown soon confesses that his real name is Pietro Brnwa. He's a former hit man whose lethal trade drove him into the witness-protection program, where he reinvented himself as a pill-popping trauma physician. "It's a weird curse, when you think about it," says the killer turned doc. "We're built for thought, and civilization, more than any other creature we've found. And all we really want to be is killers." The past catches up with Brown when a terminal patient at the hospital recognizes him as the mob assassin called "Bearclaw." The patient threatens to out Brown if he does not work to save the man's life. Bazell's profane, hyperactive novel is readable and fun, and no fan of shoot-'em-ups or medical dramas can afford to miss it. Among the book's highlights is a riotous set of doctor's rounds that find Brown making out with a cancer patient, chasing down a wheelchair-bound fugitive and suffering a particularly vile needle stick.

A wildly funny mashup between genres that makes ER and St. Elsewhere look tame." - from Kirkus Reviews.

See also last year's Bookslut column "Power and Responsibility" and Josh Bazell's site for more coverage.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

New Kirkus Specials

While I'm thinking about it, it's worth posting up a couple of projects from the good folks at Kirkus Reviews that have recently gone to print.

Last month saw the release of the Audiobooks Special, celebrating a format that remains near and dear to my heart. Within, you'll find an audience with the talented narrators who tackled Issac Asimov's The Stars Like Dust (Stephen R. Thorne), John Grisham's The Associate (Erik Singer) and a terrific new BBC Audiobooks adaptation of Peter Benchley's Jaws, read by veteran actor Erik Steele, who's lately been burning up Broadway with his performance in 33 Variations with Jane Fonda and Samantha Mathis.

You'll also find a bit of my conversation with novelist Dan Simmons about his new novel Drood as well as plenty of features by other contributors including an interview with presidential debate moderator Gwen Ifill, spotlights on new audiobooks by Stephen King, Jimmy Carter and Larry Wilmore, and a peek at a cool new collection of shorts read by Academy Award winner William Hurt.

Meanwhile, in the just-released Nonfiction Special, a hellacious variety of writers speak truth to power about subjects ranging from dirty movies to guerilla warfare. I got to talk to an old acquaintance from way back, Brad Matsen - well known for his psychedelic scientific collaborations with artist Ray Troll - about his fascinating submersion into the life of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Up-and-coming dramatist Said Sayrafiezadeh talked about his new memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, while Larry Tye gave me the rundown on his new biography of Kansas City legend Satchel Paige.

I recently had a near-miss with one of the world's most controversial evolutionary biologists in working on a special coming out next month. But I got a good practice run in by talking with Robert Wright about his new book The Evolution of God, due out in June. I also got a real treat in getting to read an early copy of the new book from James McManus, who wrote the classic crime story Positively Fifth Street. I expect a huge showing in the fall for his new history book Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, due out in November from FSG.

Within, you'll also find Craig Nelson's massive history of the moon shot (Rocket Men), an illustrated history of the Obama campaign by the editors of the New York Times (Obama: The Historic Journey) and a terrific interview with French cartoonist Emmanuel Guibert about his new collaboration with late photojournalist Didier Lefevre, The Photographer.

There. Isn't it nice to have things to look forward to?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Warren's New Column @ Wired

"Correctly tuned, the internet brings a staggering volume of detail about every moment on the planet right to my desk. For someone who earns a living through consideration of outbreaks of The Future, it’s all useful information, but that’s all it is. For the parsing and condensation of that information into knowledge, it seems we still need the structure of print publishing, a form that insists on time to think, digest and present."

[Wired UK via Warren Ellis]

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

These Are Fantastic

"...the private intensity of moments rendered in such a small scale draws the viewer in, allowing for the intimacy one might feel peering into a museum display case or dollhouse.Though surrounded by chaos, hazard, and longing, the figures’ faces betray little emotion, inviting viewers to lose themselves in these crucibles—and in the jumble of feelings and memories they elicit."

(Lifted from Boing Boing)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Short Cuts

So I had several interesting diversions from work last week but the one that captured my interest most was an out-of-the-blue email from fellow Bookslut contributor John Madera, who embarked on a huge project and ended up with really interesting results.

John asked a whole bunch of writers, critics, bloggers and other ne'er do wells to come up with a list of their ten favorite...novellas?

I'm not much of a list-maker, but this particular task struck my fancy for some reason. For obvious reasons, John asked me to direct my attention to mystery and crime novellas in particular in order to fill some of the genre gaps in the list. I thought I'd have trouble coming up with that many bloody novellas but once I started digging, I was surprised how quickly it filled out. You can see my list here.

It was damned tricky business, actually, and I'm sure at least a couple of the items on my list don't fit the technical definition of a novella, but I did try to stick to the rules of the thing. Because of their length and specificity of subject, all the entries on my list at least lean towards that category in my mind.

You can also find John's introduction to the project here, as well as links to all the other contributions. Other items of note include Paul Kincaid's list of science fiction novellas, and a discussion of the whole thing over at HTML Giant.

Any gig that manages to tie together H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad and Amy Hempel is okay with me.

The book I would have put on the list, had I had more time to think about it? Graham Greene's The Third Man.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Hold Steady's Murder Mystery

Against my better instincts, I'm going out this weekend. Out to see an all-ages show in fact, mingling with youngsters who are probably young enough to be my own children. And why, pray tell, would I expose myself to the elements in such a perilious fashion?

Because Craig Finn is driving me crazy with his bamboozling lyrics. I'm out to see The Hold Steady, a band I'm surprised hasn't become even bigger already. How Kings of Leon gets to play the O2 in London but The Hold Steady has steadfastly remained a bar band is beyond me. Anyway, the tightly-knit members of The Hold Steady are out touring behind the new double-disc live album A Positive Rage.

I think my biggest trouble is that I approached the band's albums piecemeal. I'd hear a song here and there - I think I got turned onto "Stuck Between Stations," which references the suicide of John Berryman after hearing Okkervil River's "John Allyn Smith Sails," a really haunting version of the same sad event. After I got a couple of copies of the band's new album Stay Positive, and 2006's Boys and Girls in America, I started catching the repeating references to characters and places.

I still don't know if there's a coherent narrative there, and that's a question that someone should ask Finn, whether there's a truly whole story in his head. But in stitching together all the disparate threads in my head, it builds a fantastic murder mystery.

Finn told the Seattle PI, "I think there is a little bit of everyone in those characters, and I think everyone can see themselves in my songs and these characters. The more you firm them up with more and more details, the more you exclude people from relating to the stories."

Among the repeating characters are a couple of dangerous boys - Gideon, the destructive "cowboy on the crosstown bus," and Charlemagne, a pimp and drug addict, last seen in "Ask Her For Adderall" - "Skinny, scared and off his game, he's been hiding from those gentlemen with the same tattoos as Gideon."

There are also a couple of girls, Holly, whose real name is Hallelujah, dates all the way back to "Barfruit Blues" from the 2004 album Almost Killed Me. Certainly most of Separation Sunday is built around her. Another is Sapphire, the center of the lovely and underrated "Yeah, Sapphire," a recent track, and reportedly the psychic girl from the fan favorite "Chips Ahoy."

There is at least one murder during the course of these albums, and possibly a couple. In "Both Crosses," one of the girls recalls, "She's known a couple boys who died and both of them were crucified." Naturally, one of these might be a Catholic/religious reference, but I'm not entirely sure it is. In "Joke About Jamaica," the line is revisited as "One summer, two kids died, and one of them was crucified."

I'm fairly sure the narrator of this particular narrative is Sapphire: "She saw him gushing blood just before he got cut. She saw them put a body in a bag in the trunk." Now, is this the kid who gets killed in the spectacular "One For The Cutters," which recounts the incident from a different point of view? "The night with the fight and the butterfly knife was the first night she spent with that one guy she liked?" But then the "one guy" splits for Cleveland, and comes back with blood on his jacket.

Certainly someone has gotten what's coming to him in "Yeah, Sapphire": "I'm not drunk, I'm cut, I'm gushing blood and I need someone to come pick me up." The working theory is that it's same fatal fight and Sapphire wasn't physically present for it, even though she saw it coming. See how this thing will bend your noodle if you think about it too much?

But back to the original theme, Finn and The Hold Steady build these great little scenes that are straight out of a crime novel, like the investigation in "One For The Cutters."

"Now the cops want to question everyone present. They parade every townie in town through the station. But no one says nothing and they can't find the weapon," followed shortly by the song's best (and oft-misinterpreted) line: "One drop of blood on immaculate keds." That's all it takes to put somebody away these days.

There's another elegant little song on the new album, "Sequestered In Memphis," during which somebody is obviously getting sweated over a liaison gone wrong: "I think she drove a new Mustang. I guess it might be a rental. I remember she had satellite radio. I guess she seemed a bit nervous. Do you think I'm that stupid? What the hell, I'll tell my story again."

Even the songs that aren't about murder are heartbreaking, like "Lord I'm Discouraged," in which I imagine Holly has succumbed to the things she's seen, and someone is doing their best to look after her. "I know it's unlikely she'll ever be mine, so I mostly just pray she don't die."

Is there an answer to all these riddles? I don't know, but it's damned intriguing to try to stitch all these threads together. Maybe best to leave it with a line from Separation Sunday.

"Do you want me to tell it like boy meets girls and the rest is history? Or do you want it like a murder mystery?"

Writer, Los Angeles, California, Fiction

I'll be damned. Usually the books I champion fall by the wayside, lost in the swells of marketing gibberish or are buried in all the other crap out there.

But every so often, very rarely, somebody gets it right.

My friend Richard Lange, the blisteringly talented author of Dead Boys, won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Right. On.

The title of this post mirrors the deceptively simple description the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation granted to their latest honoree: "Writer, Los Angeles, California, Fiction."

For the six or seven of you left to whom I haven't already given copies of the book, you can catch up by going back to read my review of Dead Boys from the dearly departed Rocky Mountain News, and read my column, "Radio Noir," that integrates an interview with the author.

While we're at it, let's also grant a small preview of the man's next novel, This Wicked World. Here's a very small slice at the new book, due out from Little, Brown in June, from the Kirkus Reviews Mystery Special.

After laying bare the ragged soul of Los Angeles in Dead Boys (2007), his critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Richard Lange opens a wider canvas for his debut novel. “It’s a crime story set in Los Angeles and the desert outside,” says Lange. “It starts as something of a whodunit and morphs into a revenge caper told from the points of view of a bunch of different characters, good and bad. It’s got drug dealers, dog fighting, crazy strippers, kung fu, a rattlesnake and a fortune in counterfeit bills.” The book finds ruminative ex-con Jimmy Boone backing up an amigo by tagging along to look into the case of a dead kid on a downtown bus. It’s a wider-ranging story than those in Dead Boys, but one that resonates with the same forlorn sense of humanity. “What I tried to retain from the stories is that overarching sense of desperation and desolation, characters with complex psychologies that you find yourself liking in spite of their many failings,” says Lange. "I hope people will fall for the people in this book as well. I sure did. I felt bad every time I had to kill one."

The book is already garnering a few complimentary blurbs, like this one from Joseph Wambaugh: "The down-and-dirty events and street talk in this debut crime novel reminds me of a young James Ellroy, and like Ellroy, Richard Lange can really write."

I'll have more to say about This Wicked World next month, but in the meantime you can do yourself a favor by pre-ordering the book.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Long Fall

Because of my slightly delayed schedule in taking it to print, it seems like I'm the last person in America to interview Walter Mosley about The Long Fall, but I was actually the first. I managed to squeeze in what's becoming a semi-annual call to the author in December, long before the book's publication just a few days ago, but Walter has rightly and deservedly been on a publicity riot for weeks now. Anyway, you can get my take on the book, and his, in "Walter Mosley Takes New York," my 45th (!) column for Bookslut.

As usual, the rest of the issue is well worth checking out. I'm impressed as hell myself with a whole bunch of the newer writers, not to mention all the other crusty old columnists like myself. Paul Morton sits down with 80-year-old legendary cartoonist Jules Feiffer about The Phantom Tollbooth and Carnal Knowledge, among myriad other topics. Michele Filgate talks Tesla with novelist Samantha Hunt (The Invention of Everything Else), while David Varno talks punk rock and short stories with Wells Tower (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned), and Geoffrey Goodwin gets weirdboiled with debut novelist Paul Tremblay (The Little Sleep). Go read. This is the good stuff.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Zombie Comedy With Brains

Just adding a little update to the movie trailer below. The movie, and its complimentary site are promotional vehicles for a new novel called Breathers by S.G. Browne. I didn't actually realize it was out yet until I passed by a bookstore at lunchtime (new Doctor Who magazines, thanks for asking) and saw it was on a Barnes & Noble table of "Notable Books," which made me choke with laughter.

That's my fault, actually. I can't tell you how funny this thing is. It's so funny it made me laugh out loud in a hospital waiting room and scare the bejeezus out of everybody else in the room.

Oh, wait, come to think of it, I can tell you how funny it is. I wrote the blurb that's on the back cover of the book: "A zombie comedy with brains." Here you go.

"The dead shall walk the earth, and they’re hungry for…love?

Debut novelist Browne branches out from his mostly horror-related short stories and delivers a rousing entry in the Rom-Zom-Com genre. Based on his short story “A Zombie’s Lament,” Browne’s mortality tale begins rather grimly but almost immediately picks up speed and humor to evolve into a terrific comedy about the perils and joys of life beyond death. Browne’s hero is Andy Warner, who survived, so to speak, the car crash that killed his wife but lost his vocal chords along with his life. Reduced to a pathetic existence consisting mostly of downing his father’s wine collection, suffering Glade spray-downs from his mother and attending the occasional Undead Anonymous meeting, old Andy is in pretty wretched shape. His afterlife takes a turn for the better when he meets Rita, a pale but lovely girl who slit her own throat, and Ray, a feisty undead hunter. Before long, Andy is fighting against zombie discrimination, mutilation and other forms of abuse by those unenlightened “breathers”: “After all, what do I have to lose by standing up for myself? If being a rotting corpse with no rights and no future isn’t the worst thing that can happen to me, it can’t be that much further to rock bottom.” The book has its share of gruesomeness, but it also offers astute observations on the world in which we live. A zombie comedy with brains. --Kirkus Reviews."

If that's not enough for you, Fox Searchlight has already bought the book up as a production vehicle for Diablo Cody (Juno and The United States of Tara, etc.) One idiot on the Internet already dubbed the project (without so much as reading a line of the book): "Twilight for zombie lovers." Um, no. The offending line that made me burst out laughing in the waiting room?

"Is it necrophilia if we're both dead?"

Check it out. It's paperback - cost you less than an afternoon at the movies. If that's not enough to convince you, you can read the first chapter here.

Necrobufrin Kills Depression

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Two-Minute Warning

Turns out Elmore Leonard hasn't had enough of the movies quite yet. It looks like Harper Collins is looking for a trailer for his new book, Road Dogs. The fan-made trailer is to be no longer than two minutes, has to be submitted by May 1st, and should have "intrigue, edge and energy," according to the publisher's web site.

A better deal than most: the winner will be selected by Dutch himself, and will win a signed copy of Road Dogs, which is pretty cool. And a Kindle, but still.

You can read the first eight chapters of Road Dogs at Entertainment Weekly, so you can get caught up on Jack Foley, Cundo Rey, and Dawn Navarro, who all star in the book.

If I were entering the contest, I'd be digging up some illegal footage from Out Of Sight, personally. When I talked to Elmore Leonard about the book back in January, he said, "Foley, of course, was played so memorably by George Clooney. He says he doesn't know if he wants to play this character again, but you never know."

Come on, George. You'll go back to ER, but you won't get back in the trunk with J-Lo?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Here's a clever trailer put together for Wells Tower's collection of short stories, which you can find reviewed a few posts below.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Public Enemies

I just can't stop watching this. What a surprise to find the book, by Bryan Burroughs, is even more addictive.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

Book in a nutshell: Things go to hell not with a bang, but a whimper, in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a collection of nine vivid short stories by Wells Tower about men who have seen too much, failed too often, or simply lived too long. Cribbed from venues like McSweeney’s, Harper’s, and The Paris Review - which awarded him the Plimpton Prize in 2002 – Tower’s stories of masculine despair carry a peculiar sense of humor and a ringing sadness.

Just listen to the parched dialogue in “Retreat,” where two brothers confront their poisoned relationship. Matthew Lattimore, a boozy, wealthy divorcee, answers his younger brother Stephen’s query as to what’s wrong. “Nothing,” says the elder brother. “My life is on fire.” A liaison of a different sort emerges in “Door In Your Eye,” as eighty-three-year-old Albert engages the drug dealer next door.

Other pitfalls await our leftover narrators. In the prize-winning opener, “The Brown Coast,” everyman Bob Munroe loses everything after his father’s untimely death, a car accident and a foolish affair. Everyday catastrophes, but Tower makes them tragic nonetheless. Other men are disasters waiting to happen, like the simmering narrator of “Down Through the Valley,” who grudgingly agrees to transport an unlikely passenger. “You can’t sit in a little Datsun car with your wife’s new lover without recollecting all the nice old junk about her that you’d do better not to haul up,” he says.

A pair of standout stories ends the collection with rare humor and elegance. In “On The Show,” Tower finds the poetry in the lives converging at a traveling carnival, while the hilarious title story depicts the office politics of a group of Viking marauders. “After that trip, things changed,” says Harald, the reluctant raider. “It seemed to me that all of us were leaving the high and easy time of life and heading into deeper waters.” Judging the human condition by these characters, it’s easy to believe we all wind up in the deep end eventually.

Sample of prose: Dusk at the carnival: “Now it’s dark. The sun has slipped behind the orange groves, disclosing the garbled rainbow of the carnival rides. The blaring reds of the Devil’s Choir and the blue-white of the Giant Wheel and the strobing greens of the Orbiter and the chasing yellow and purple of the Chaises Volante mingle and the sky glows hyena-brown.”

Pros: There’s an everyday humanity to each of these characters that makes them appealing.

Cons: No matter how well-written, this is pretty bleak stuff.

Final word: A sublime collection of deftly composed cautionary tales.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Fistful of Pain Killers

I hate wasting things. Doesn't really matter whether it's throwaway ideas I've scribbled on a napkin, interview material that didn't make the final cut, or fully-fleshed out articles that never saw the of day for some reason.

So in the interests of self-preservation, I'll hit you with this brief review of Jerry Stahl's new novel, Pain Killers. This would have run in the Rocky Mountain News soon, had the newspaper survived.

A couple of notes. First, this was written for the broad audience the Rocky enjoyed, so it's not quite as personal as, say, my column. Secondly, this is entirely self-edited. When I wrote for the Rocky, I relied heavily on the advice and expertise of books editor Patti Thorn, a fantastic editor and stellar talent. But this one is all on me.
Pain Killers by Jerry Stahl

Book in a nutshell: Talk about a guy who’s done it all. Jerry Stahl has written episodes of television ranging from ALF to CSI, plumbed the depths of his own heroin addiction in Permanent Midnight (later made into the 1998 film starring Ben Stiller) and is currently pitching a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle around Hollywood with Johnny Depp.

To his credit, the ambitious noir writer has kept up with his fictional pursuits, most recently in Plainclothes Naked, a volatile, over-the-top detective caper that introduced Stahl’s muse, former crack addict and private eye Manny Rupert. In its sequel, Pain Killers, the author resurrects Rupert to go undercover in California's notorious penal system to ferret out the true identity of a rather unusual prisoner.

What reaction does Manny have when he catches senior citizen Harry Zell planting Photoshopped fakes of a bikini-clad L. Ron Hubbard and bondage-favoring Jerry Falwell in his bedroom? Take the proffered gig, naturally. “This one is real,” says Zell, tapping a photo of a gap-toothed SS Officer. Zell wants an inside man to get into San Quentin to out the infamous Nazi “Doctor of Death,” Josef Mengele, clipped on a hit-and-run charge. Rupert takes ten large from the cryptic septuagenarian to infiltrate the prison posing, ironically, as a drug rehab counselor.

With characteristically profane brio, Stahl weaves together an anarchic plot that incorporates Rupert’s tart ex-wife Tina (now employed by Internet-based escort service), provocative twelve-step confessions from the prisoners, an indictment of governmental torture techniques, and some graphic new experiments by the bad old doctor.

Sample of prose: Manny Rupert does some soul-searching. “What if I met Mengele and just lost it? Started to cry? Or what if this was all a front and I was actually being delivered to him? Like a lab animal. How did I know he still wasn’t doing experiments? Maybe my own shoe-leather liver – the third of three transplants, thanks for asking – would be used for some infernal, Mengele-esque purpose.”

Pros: Stahl wields black humor, profanity and the mechanics of addiction with inspired confidence but he also knows how to propel a story forward, peppered with Tarantino-esque dialogue.

Cons: Stahl’s prose sometimes comes laden with a seedy, narcissistic tone. It makes you ask yourself if he's trying too hard to achieve the desired shock value.

Final word: Bonus points for daring to make Mengele funny but Stahl’s off-the-wall take on prison, war crimes and human rights appeals to a pretty narrow band.