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___MINI-VIEWS #8___

EXTREMELY INADEQUATE THUMBNAILERS OF BOOKS I'M TOO LAZY OR TROUBLED TO ACTUALLY REVIEW, OR, TOO BORED, DISTRACTED, MADDENED TO EVEN FINISH READING.

 

 

CAUGHT STEALING by CHARLIE HUSTON, c.2004.

I picked up author Huston's debut novel for a beach read weekend at Puerto Penasco, page turning through it in two days. The 1st-person narrator is a whiney, total victim-hero, but with enough Everyloserman qualities--NYC hovel-level living, loser bartender job, booze to wake up, booze to sleep, five-fingered lovelife, no car, no cool stuff, no future--to seem appealing in a help-me-save-me sorta way. He tries to do the right thing like stop drinking and call his Mom & Dad more often, but the rest of the world gets in his way.

The plot fires off like a wadcutter out of a .357 when his neighbor asks him to watch his cat Bud while he's away. Suddenly blobs of scary muscle in no-taste clothing snoop his neighbor's apartment and Hank--that's our baseball-lovin' lifemess--get suckered into a ratpack that leaves him hospitalized. More pain arrives while he's convalescing and question marks concerning his neighbor's whereabouts leave nasty bruises. They even skull smack the cat and leave him with a broken leg.

The cat, I mean. Hell, Hank's already got a kidney kicked out of him and the story's just started.

Machinations abound. Bodies start dropping. Booze, drugs, blood, but not much sex weave together for a loose plot. It's down Cain/Goodis/Crumley rough, dark roads with Williford humor steering by post-Pulp Fiction explosive extravagances and signposts revealing a Nicholas Ray-like humanist noir attitude.

 

Copyright 11/11/2010 by Larry Crawford

SIX BAD THINGS by CHARLIE HUSTON, c.2005.

This sequel to Caught Stealing finds old Hank Sixpack three years later sober as sand down the Yucatan below Can-Cum. He's got 4 1/2 million clams stashed, boosted out the SF Giants for football's Dolphins as a sneaky disguise, and keeps Bud in his cabana as if the cat's on the wanted poster with him. The title alludes to six hash marks tattooed on his arm to remind him how many lives he's extinguished. He's clear, but pretty frayed. Tan and fit, but saucer-eyed paranoid. The plot shakes loose like a landslide when a Russian tourist noses around. Hank ends up pushin' him off the Kukulcan juggernaut at Chichen Itza to get things rolling. Investigating, federales spy Bud. Hank leaves Bud and runs back to the USA to protect his parents as his identity slips into international news loops. Life becomes a series of events to live through or evade while everybody you meet or know becomes untrustworthy or easily killed.

That's about it for any pre-planned plotting. Early on, Huston opts for the slippery slope of it-is-what-happens attitude. The rest of the novel is like an un-mapped road trip with the author writing the day's events on sleazy, motel stationary for the maids to find along with their $500 tip.

But it's tasty, especially if you savor that give-in to fast foods every week or so. But the drive-thrus all start feeling the same and the persona of Hank becomes more and more processed. Suddenly, I became painfully aware that the author wasn't coming from that un-recognized, tortured life of a Jim Thompson, or didn't have the true grit experiences of a Kent Anderson in writing his fiction. I don't require authors to lead miserable, scary lives to write about miserable, scary situations, but when affectation usurps believability, this type of fiction crumbles into, well, fiction.

There's a third sequence to his character called A Dangerous Man from 2006.

Shoulda never tossed the cat, Charlie.

Copyright 11/21/2010 by Larry Crawford

NORTHWEST PASSAGES by BARBARA RODEN, c.2009.

I read these "ten spellbinding stories" (DJ flap blurb) and have not enough recollection to write about them. And I finished the title story last night! Oh yeah, now I remember some of "Out and Back", where a couple enters an abandoned amusement park on the insistence of the photographer/boyfriend. All of it falls into a simple allusion of their Me Tarzan You Jane relationship, using literary trickery like the dilapidated signage for the roller coaster broken away to the remaining letters COST. The creepiness builds as they scurry deeper into the wreckage of lost dreams and abandoned fun times, but the author drops anchor in her own pools of cold sweat by overweighting the symbolism. On the other hand, the title story, "Northwest Passage", fails to stir post-reading trepidation by not prescribing enough eruditeness in the plot bones. This is the story of two very different nomadic youngsters voluntarily grounded in a scrounged-up miner's cabin in Canada's wilderness next to a 60s-something grandma protagonist who gives us this very scanty looksee into an Anomalistic Event. Concluding that anything's possible feels like there's just not enough clues for caring, or they were too subtle for my addled brain to pick up in the story's body.

A re-reading could launch hidden discoveries, however. Anything's possible, right?

Copyright 11/22/2010 by Larry Crawford

 

FULL DARK, NO STARS by STEPHEN KING, c.2010.

I read in the LA Times this morning that two 20-somethings, enraged at having been stopped making a left turn by a 59-year old female crossing guard while she managed a brood of 20 or so kids in a crosswalk, got out of their Expedition, pummeled her to the ground, took her whistle and hand stopsign, then sped off. These chollos were arrested later in their home, since they left plenty of open mouthed witnesses to write down their license plate number.

Sure, no one was killed, but the breakdown of decent, human behavior is almost as startling as their own moronic disregard for being caught and facing the consequences of their actions. Society functions by agreement. It is scary when it collapses at such a basic level.

King writes scary. In this leadoff novella he does just that, but with a calamitous tone of all-consuming misery. And while the initial action of “1922” is horrifying, the expanding consequences become far worse by dooming those innocents in the way. King believes there's such a thing as community. And he's not always willing to wait for brimstone to make the final bludgeoning for disconnecting from what makes us human.

“1922” is a confession by a man who has murdered his wife. But what's even fouler is that he's gotten their teenage son to help him do it. Wilfred Leland James can deal with the blood spill, the abandoned well burial, the demise of livestock, even the growing presence of a rat horde chewing his miserable life out from underneath him. What he can't abide or control is the disintegration of his son through the forces of shame, guilt, hatred, and fear. This is played out on an 80-acre scratch farm in the dust bowl of Nebraska in 1922, all the more resigning for its unawareness of the coming Great Depression that will render the reason for this crime moot.

How many more dominos have to fall before even crossing guards refuse to show up? Get the feeling we're running out of chits?

King's next sendup, “Big Driver”, is not in 1st person, but it might as well be, as there is no PofV shift from Tess—middle aged, single, blonde and skinny—as she fights back from rape and near death with a single load in her Lemon Squeezer .38 and an out-and-out, monomanical Retribution bile souring her taste of things. Tess is the authorial voice for a quasi-successful series of cutesy/cozy mystery novels featuring a group of bluehaired Miss Marple wannabes known as The Willow Grove Knitting Society. Driving home from a speaking engagement, she gets trapped by a Green Giant with a jolly penis known as Big Driver (his pickup line is classic King: “Instead of changing your tire, how about I fuck you?” p.148), which leads eventually to Tess blowing away this retarded asshole's Mother, the asshole himself, and asshole's even bigger asshole brother. The plotting is typical King page-turning bravura, but he spends too much time convincing us that Tess could revenge-murder these three as if they were standups in a carnival shooting gallery. And he's not successful; any more so than by winding up this predictable tale with a mouthpiece plant from a fellow rape victim stranger that gives Tess the airtight way out devoid of legal consequences.

The third, and shortest story, is just plain radioactive. In “Fair Extension”, a newly-discovered fast and lethal cancer turns an already-disgruntled man into targeting his once-closest buddy as the source of all his woes. And the Devil, cleverly disguised as a roadside deals vendor named Elvid sets him up with a 20-year remission as long as he agrees to “transfer the weight” (Scribners, ISBN 9781439192566, c.2010, p.255) which turns his best friend and neighbor's once-wonderful life into a living Hell. What makes the bargain so toxic is the unfair over weightiness of death and destruction upon his supposed adversary's whole family while our now-cancer free whiner enjoys just the opposite. Even with tongue in cheek, King giving this repulsive gasbag dialogue like—

 

Life is fair. We all get the same nine-month shake in the box, and then the dice roll. Some people get a run of sevens. Some people, unfortunately, get snake-eyes. It's just how the world is.

—p.279

 

—makes for sprinting quicker to the final paragraphs. And speaking of The End, he finishes by wishing for more. Wow. This, of course, is King's closing irony, considering his protagonist is a fucking' bankster, and leaves no doubt who has always owned this shithead's soul.

The closing adventure, “A Good Marriage”, is another 3rd person PofV exclusively from the wife of 27 years married to an accountant and amateur rare money collector. He also collects mementos from the dozen or so women he's raped, tortured, and murdered, which starts the ol' Fear Train a-rollin' for the wife when she discovers his hidey-hole out in the garage. When he realizes he's spotlit, the hubby starts a long, sympathetic dialogue to convince his Pollyanna wedding partner that everything'll be fine, just as long as she doesn't upset the status quo.

On a personal aside, this being the final pages of Stephen King's latest, I attempted a late-night finish, finally succumbing to drowsiness around midnight and about half-way through this story. At 3AM, I found myself hugging the porcelain and throwing back some of what, I suspect, was ingested from this book.

I consider King the current, undisputed master of dark fiction on this planet. If there's a criticism, it is that he's too prolific and some of his published work should have stayed in MS form or gotten filed in the “character studies” folder.

Except for “1922”, the bulk of Full Dark, No Stars should've made one of those considerations.

Thematically, 3 of the 4 novellas here deal with abuse toward women in its most horrible manifestations. Enough already. That horror hobbyhorse has been parading the grounds for decades now. I don't need a female action hero twist on the Death Wish scenario any more than I crave another variation puzzling the “gee, officer, I don't understand, he was always the perfect neighbor” witness statement.

I love ya, Stephen, you Dickens of Death, you. I guess I voided this one in too spectacular a manner to give it much rational deliberation.

 

Copyright 12/05/2010 by Larry Crawford

 

THE PACK by JASON STARR, c.2011

He felt better than he had in years; he had limitless energy and a raging sex drive. So , he asked himself as he lay on his back next to his amazing, sexy, irresistible wife, what exactly is the problem?

--p.146

 

Well, one problem is that it took 146 pages to get here, 94 before he's even involved in the first chewfest. For a Horror novel, it's quite slow out of the cave. I mean toss-the-book slow, especially with a hip audience that is way ahead of this whiney, milquetoast victim hero as he plods through the fated steps to lycanthropy. Classic stories of this sort tend to focus on the despair felt by a moral man turned murderously feral best exampled by cinema's The Wolfman of 1941, to An American Werewolf in London of 1981. It's the perfect fictional journey if you want to go against the standard happy ending and slaughter your sympathetic hero.

Okay, the book starts speeding up once he meets the guys of the pack at the playground, but it really redlines when it hits midpoint. You have about as much chance of dropping it as Mario Andretti has of letting go the steering wheel into the Indy turns.

But just because it'll keep you up all night doesn't mean it's a satisfying read, just a compelling one. Hell, cocaine'll keep you up all night with the same kinda benefits. In fact, if you substitute a heinously-addictive drug for the wolf bite—as author Starr has with a pint of Michael's family beer—at least you'd have a believable story.

But, hey, what's the fun in that?

Our transformer hero is Simon Burns. He lives on the Upper West Side of the Big Ap and is married to Alison. They have a boy named Jeremy in the Terrible Threes. Simon gets fired from his advertising job ‘cause he isn't aggressive enough and becomes a house husband, complete with the critical-but-supportive, now-Enjoli-ad wife. She's pushing pharmaceuticals for a living and Simon for a better marriage. Simon takes the place of their by-day babysitter and starts wheeling Jeremy around the city's playgrounds. The “major meltdowns or poop disasters” (p.29) become tiring.

Just in time, Simon meets “the pack”—a group of three dads who also watch their boys during daylight hours. None of them are married, however. Ramon's an actor, Charlie's a fireman, and Michael, well, Michael's a full-blown, fuckin' werewolf.

They bond. Any suspicions of a gay thing—Simon thinks Gere from Pretty Woman to “scruffy” Don Johnson to “broad muscular shoulders” (p.36) as first impressions—can be dispensed with. No cultural buzzings as red herrings here. These dudes are just “hip, relaxed, and very cool” (p.37). It doesn't take Simon long to get together with them after hours to eat T-bones with their hands and drink brew tainted with wolf's blood.

Remember the old joke about waking up naked in a vacant lot with a pickle up your butt? Well, that's Simon's next scene, sans the condiment. It's morning, it's Jersey , and Simon's old boss' house—which is now a grisly murder scene—is close by. Simon makes it back home, lies to his wife, and starts feeling the good things about being an under construction wolfie.

Like sex with Alison as if he's hooked to a Viagra drip 24-7.

How ‘bout an appetite so strong he eats 4 Macdonald's burgers at once?

Or passing bike messengers and taxis while he takes his daily jog.

In fact, he becomes so extraordinary—even helpful and condescending—his wife accuses him of having an affair and starts talking the Big D walk!

Of course there's also blooming torso hair worse than Robin Williams and the ability to smell the cheese factories in Wisconsin from Manhattan, and, as he continues to metamorphose, “he felt like he wasn't in control of the decisions he was making, like he was a visitor in his own body” (p.208). Cops are pawing around his boss' murder and the full moon's arisin', so he turns to his pack buddies and alpha Michael helps him by slaughtering any possible witnesses. Trapped, he lopes back to his wife and confesses he's a werewolf. That goes over about as well as saying he's Lil Red Ridin' Hood's Grandma with a drag queen fixation. Since that doesn't work, he confronts Michael to save the others in the pack from becoming full-fledged werewolves. Don't ask, but the logic's explained by the obligatory Gypsy type—you know, “Bevare, Bevare, da wolf boy, my son!”—when Michael's old, old father comes out from hiding in the wolfbane bushes. In the end, you don't know which to do: laugh, cry, or shoot author Starr with a silver bullet.

This sounds like melodramatic pastiche, and it is. But there are a number of fun moments, really. My favorite is the side bar story of Olivia. She's a single-something, man-hunter looking to get laid when she meets Michael. He stupidly gives her the werewolf hickie and she rampages the city in total, feral delight, brightening up the book as much as Simon brings it down with his incessant meek-dog whimperings. All she wants to do is fuck and chew, even to the extreme of walking into a rough bar and exclaiming the tired line, “what does a girl have to do to get laid around here?” (p.265).

This is tongue-in-snout urban fantasy, without the strained subtext of Mike Nichol's 1994 cinematic disaster, Wolf . It's a potty break from the serious wolfings of, say, Thomas Tessier.

 

Copyright 07/23/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

DEADLIEST OF THE SPECIES by MICHAEL OLIVERI, c. 2001

She could have easily killed him by now. Instead she fucked his brains out. He sat back on the bed. “What kind of mess have I gotten myself into,” he muttered.

—p. 120

 

This novel has coveted quite a glowing reputation but I question with whom. There are no reprints available, so obtaining a copy at a reasonable reading price is difficult. The trade package of cover design, layout, bookbinding, etc. is certainly adequate—the limited edition at $200+ is over my head—but the proofreading is the most atrocious I've seen in a half a century of reading. There is literally an error a page in spelling, paragraph indents, grammar. Beyond the city slicker mistakes of describing a desert landscape—rattlesnakes do not chatter among themselves like birds and coyotes—the writing is not a deterrent to the experience.

Unless you consider the absurdity of a Nazi-like witch's coven overseen by a satyr in a totally-autonomous town existing without notice in presumably modern-day America , that is.

But, hey, why spoil the introductory fun of a guy hanging like a scarecrow in a corn field with his flesh pecked off by sprite-eyed crows, or a real wetdream blowjob to extract “precious bodily fluids”(1) for enchantress' control? There are plenty of grisly-an'-girly vignettes that make this novel a fun read, but the clothesline that strings them all together? Well . . .

Tim Wilder has one reason to hate women: his ex-wife. Driving into the seemingly-innocuous burg of Rapture, population 1503, located God-knows-where, he's pretty much broke, has no home or job prospects, and is sitting in his only possession of value after the divorce: a restored 1978 Camero he managed to hide from his faithless wife. His choice in rolling trashcans should tell you everything you need to know about this dude. He stops for a bite to eat and inadvertently watches the sideshow of 4 women forcing the waiter—later to become the sheriff—lick bitch's boots. He crashes in a sleaze-bo motel only to wake up sperm-drained, car stolen, money gone, suitcase bye-bye. Walking the town, he notices all males are strangely subservient to the women; even male children don't attend school next to their female counterparts. No one will help him except the besotted pastor, Father Mike. It is clear God is abandoned in Rapture and Father Mike becomes our info dump for past atrocities and the current ministrations of the witch's coven that's enrolled all females to its purpose. He'd led a revolt, you see, but that stink got buried along with a lot of dead buddies. Men are “only here for labor and breeding” (p.81), and the women so maniacal in their control that remaining dudes have “underwent voluntary castration” (p.92) to avoid their spells.

Alexandra is the head honcha sorceress who's riding on Sebastian the Satyr's back to propagate the continuing bloodline of Gaia's(2) children known through legend as Nymphs and Satyrs. They've decided Our Hero is carrying the chromosomes of their ancestors and can contribute by impregnating Alexandra and siring another Satyr. Past couplings between Alex and Seb have created only human munchkins—they apparently drowned them like puppies or ate them like lambs if they were male—so Tim is paramount to their continuing survival. The rest of their interpretation of pagan mythology is hocus hooey, and, most appropriately, Tim quips his plight as “a breeder for a feminist witch bitch serving as a sex slave for a forgotten Greek myth” (p.165).

The bulk of the novel plays “kind of like a bad B-movie” (p.174), but, hey, I love Bava's Black Sunday from 1960, okay? After what I'll call the Foil Cover Era of the 1970-80s, Horror seems to be tip-toeing between camp and revulsion, as few new directions have surfaced, causing this sub-genre to collapse back into its parent, Fantasy. Deadliest of the Species is not the standout its market price or Stoker award win suggests, but it strings together some pretty unique and gnarly snares like Tim having his testicles spellbound into Alexandra's hands, or visuals like all the little girls finding their pet cats slaughtered on the sidewalks when they start off to school in the morning. And the Big Boss Battle is riveting and Alexandra's finale a surprise. Not many Horror novels use sex so tantamount to their storyline, although the correlation between it and violence and death is inadequately explored. Misogyny, a slam-dunk theme for this novel's direction, seems also to be puerilely underindulged. There is an interesting sidetrack, however, addressing the carnality that runs through paganism like a mother lode in that its suppression is the basis for most Christian and Muslim religions. Further, “the Earth Mother taught . . . the harmony of all life, not the glory and divinity of the single being as the Christians preached” (p.198). Unfortunately or not, there's just too much nastiness in the adversarial characters to welcome these counterpositions as balancing.

Postreading leaves a taste of dilettantism, bolstered more by the author's blurb on the back cover—which refers to Microsoft as the “Beast of Redmond” among other geeky notations—than the fact that Oliveri has not produced a second novel in the past decade. But kudos to him for getting this out of his system before we had another Jared Lee Loughner on our hands.(3)

 

1) Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Love the Bomb (1964), of course!

2) That's Earth Mother to all you non-Greenies or de-frocked Hippies out there.

3) Jus' kiddin', Michael. I worked in Redmond for 25 years and that “Beast” made us all very rich. And I didn't even hafta sell my soul, I don't think.

Copyright 06/23/2011 by Larry Crawford

 

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