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.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Hell You Say

For every thing that dies, another is born. Even as The Rocky Mountain News goes on to its final reward, my online musings continue unabated at Bookslut.

Here, you can find my new column, "The Hell You Say," and get the inside scoop from three terrific writers. Dan Simmons talks about his Dickensian gothic Drood, while my British amigo Tom Cain comes out from under cover to discuss No Survivors. I also finally accomplished the longtime goal of questioning Greg Rucka, a writer I much admire, about his latest Atticus Kodiak novel, Walking Dead.

In other words, lots of discussion of Charles Dickens, renegade assassins, human trafficking, the character development of action heroes, the mechanics of writing, and exploding nipples.

It didn't make the final cut, but I would have been remiss if I hadn't quizzed Rucka about the status of Whiteout, the film adaptation of his stellar graphic novel. The movie stars Kate
Beckinsale, and Greg tells me that what he's seen is visually very cool and that the rest of us will get to see U.S. Marshall Carrie Stetko on the big screen in September. He also gives a good account of visiting the set in Montreal.

"I don't think I'll ever forget the moment I first saw Kate Beckinsale," Rucka recalls. "I had walked into a dark soundstage. The red lights went off and she came off the set wearing the cold weather gear and the army hat. She had these bits of ice and snow on her and she was just so pretty she made your chest hurt."

I'm also pleased to report that Rucka and longtime collaborator Steve Lieber are making progress on the last of three Whiteout stories, the final chapter now titled Whiteout: Night.

"Steve and I always joked that if they made the movie, we would craft the last story," he says. "I've always known what the last story would be, ever since we made Whiteout: Melt. I even knew what the ad campaign would look like. It was always going to be one of those galvanized metal coffins being loaded into the back of a C-130. The tagline reads, 'Carrie's leaving the ice. The only question is how.'"

If for some lunatic reason you haven't taken a shot at Whiteout, here are some nearly full-issue previews of the original graphic novel and its sequel, thanks to our buddies at Oni Press. Enjoy.

The Angel of Death Is Here For You

Here's some good news on a Monday morning. It looks like comic book writer Ed Brubaker has launched his direct-to-web series "Angel of Death," starring stuntwoman and actress Zoe Bell (looking particularly dangerous over on the left). Here's a description of the show, from Crackle.com:

"Nobody looks for the Beretta, when all they see is a slinky chick in a cocktail dress. Noir comic book legend Ed Brubaker cuts deep with the story of Eve, a hot woman with a heart of ice. Zoe Bell steps in as an assassin haunted by visions after a bloody encounter with a very big knife. In this, the most ambitious web series ever created, Zoe makes bare knuckle boxing a thing of beauty, and a head wound as sexy as sin. Lucy Lawless, Doug Jones, and Ted Raimi all show up for the ride, but few come out alive. If the sight of blood bothers you, just keep your eyes on her other assets, and remember she can grab your heart with her looks or her hand, your choice."

Get the good stuff at