Sunday, September 25, 2011

Review: "The Wanderers" by Richard Price

I know how good of a writer Richard Price is, from reading this and Freedomland, and from his excellent work on The Wire, but he has yet to really blow me away. I am reading Clockers next year, and hope that is the one that will do it for me. I just don’t want to give up on him quite yet. He bucks trends in favor of a gritty, unpretentious yet eloquent style that brings a beauty to street life, and while The Wanderers is not great, it does it’s job of honestly exploring the life of inner-city youth gangs in 50’s New York. The plot is very simple, and follows a select few members of this gang known as The Wanderers, they are not the toughest gang or the scariest, but they do a good job of defending themselves in times of danger, and are loyal, even when they do terrible things. The real draw of this book is the dialogue, which is obviously reminiscent of early Hubert Selby, if you liked Last Exit to Brooklyn, this will definitely be up your ally. It also has great moments of humor, especially when talking about sex. But it can also turn dark and depressing, which shows Prices grasps the emotional states of these young people from an internal standpoint, which makes it come off as truthful. The things that really bothered me were the lack of any real standout characters. They seemed to be an amalgamation of many different kinds of emotions, and seemed to lack any depth unless they were talking to each other. For all of Price’s honesty, this is a major flaw. It is also very pedestrian in how it sometimes allows itself to rely solely on shock instead of something more creative, which I blame on Price being 24 when he wrote this. It is very much like Less Than Zero, in how it tries too hard to label a certain social group of a certain time, and is now acts as simply an artifact of that time instead of an enduring story. If you like funny dialogue that is quick and snappy and so sharp it may slice your finger tips, this book will be for you. But if you have outgrown the kind of books that think they are cooler than they are, it is for Price completest only. And if you have read Clockers, let me know what it is like.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Galveston" by Nic Pizzolatto

No book in my recent memory has been more unknown to me than Galveston. I probably went into this book more in the dark than I usually am, and bought this book (used) knowing only of Pizzolatto’s short story collection, which won a few small awards. The plot really interested me, and sounded like a good narrative driven piece. It also has a really cool cover, both minimalistic and brooding. And at only 257 pages with big print it was small risk. And while it is not an unsung masterpiece that deserves the kind of acclaim that a Swamplandia does, it still deserves an audience. It follows a middle-aged man named Roy Cady (or with great malice from his acquaintances, Big Country, for his style of dress and long beard), who was just diagnosed with a terminal illness and has also been double-crossed by his boss, a dangerous and unpredictable loan shark and bar owner. In the aftermath of this double cross, the only ones left standing are Roy, and a young prostitute named Rocky. Together, they along with Rocky’s younger sister Tiffany, embark on a road trip to Galveston, Texas, which will change all three of them, for better and worse. The good thing about Pizzolatto is that he does not adhere to any kind of sentimental rules when the fates of his characters are decided. Sometimes it is scary, and, with one death I did not see coming, quite sad. It is refreshing without coming off as cynical and the bad things always come with great poignancy. The bad aspects are a few random pieces where I did not know whether the things happening were in the past or present (I found out later). It reminded me too much of that Cormac McCarthy style that is too complex and jumbled and sacrifices the flow of a story for a stream of consciousness approach to the characters inner mind. But that was not all that bad, and it made up for it with a swell ending. I do recommend this book to anyone who wants hard-edged storytelling with a bite, if you don’t mind over-thought out prose. Pizzolatto needs some recognition; he is definitely someone to look out for.
Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: "The Leftovers" by Tom Perrotta

I do not know if it is safe to call Tom Perrotta a literary superstar, which is not to say he is better than all the rest, but simply as someone who is more famous than your average author. Two of his novels have been made into really good movies, in election and Little Children, and his books seem to be very successful financially and are meet with usually great reviews. But for a while, I always thought he was someone whose fame overshadowed his talent, like Palahniuk (although I do not bash him as much as I used to), whose sole reason for fame were two highly successful movies. I read Election last year, and it was good, but it did not bowl me over with its wit or story. Having said that, his new novel, The Leftovers, I thought was fantastic. The story is a more fantastical one than the plots of his other novels, but the searing insight into late 20th century suburbia and those who are confined to its limitations that I found in Election are not only here, but seem to create situations where way more things are at stake. The novel asks the question of what would happen if the Rapture actually happened and many people were left wondering what it exactly meant. It is not simply god-fearing Christians who disappeared all at once, but a few unsavory people as well, as we learn near the beginning of the novel. This widespread panic is narrowed down to the small town of Mapleton, a place severely affected by the Sudden Departure. The town’s mayor, Kevin Garvey, is dealing with his own problem caused by the disappearances. His family life has shattered into pieces, with his wife Laurie, joining a fringe group known as the Guilty Remnant, who take a vow of silence, smoke to speed up their deaths, go around trying to remind people that the end is coming and, later on, more nefarious goals to force their ideas on the public. His son, Tom, is dropping out of college to follow a sketchy prophet known as Holy Wayne. His daughter, Jill, who luckily stayed behind, is no longer the A student she used to be, and has fallen into a crowd right out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. The disappearances are never explained, and we are left only with Kevin and his new life, which he is trying to share with his new girlfriend Nora, who lost here whole family to the Sudden Departure and is suffering deeply from their absence. Ultimately this is a story that uses something like the Rapture to show how the cracks in a family infrastructure can be widen by such a confusing and dark event. No one is immune to the effects of the disappearances, and sometimes it brings to light some the hostilities that already existed. In the end the story is a hopeful one in my eyes, one that shows the inner strength that exists in all of us to withstand even something that is as precious as family slipping away without warning and, no matter how rough it may be, life going on in the absences of our loved ones. So I definitely recommend this book. At best, it is a deep and humorous mediation on loss and grief, and at the least, its damn entertaining.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "Letting Loose the Hounds" by Brady Udall

This is a very standard collection of short stories by a very good writer, who rises above some of the simply cultural stories he tells to be kind of funny in places, and while this collection is not anything special, that does not mean it was a waste of time. I first heard of Brady Udall when his most recent novel, The Lonely Polygamist, was named the best novel of 2010 by Entertainment Weekly, and from reading this collection, which was published in the mid-nineties, there is enough potential in these stories that I am very excited to pick up that book next year. Until then, this story collection is a relatively harmless look at life on an Indian Reservation. Udall seems to have a great sense of humor about the people he writes about, and they always lean toward being funnier than they are serious, even when the subject matter is grim. I like that quality in them because it sets Udall apart from the many run-of-the-mill writers who seem to be obsessed with their culture to the point of arrogance. The downside is that a lot of these stories fall flat, and I was left still somewhat of a stranger to the world Udall is writing about. I really liked the first story, Midnight Raid”, about an Indian man breaking into his ex-wife’s new home to see his son for one last time and give him his favorite baby goat. It is very funny, and has a cathartic ending that many people will find hilarious. The ending story “ He Becomes Deeply and Famously Drunk”, again uses humor to show the futility of seeking revenge, and ends on a poignant note. Far from perfect yet far from being as atrocious as some of the ethnic centered fiction that is published in America, Letting Loose the Hounds may be worth your time.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Devil All the Time" by Donald Ray Pollock

This book will not appeal to those who don’t like nasty, unredeemable characters, graphic violence and hints of even worse kinds of heinous actions, but there is something so fascinating and honest about Donald Ray Pollock’s first novel “The Devil All the Time that makes it such a great read. Pollock, who did not start writing seriously until his fifties, crafts a dark tale of murder, desperation, and retribution set between the end of WWII and the middle of the 1960’s. It feels very much like something Flannery O’ Conner would write, except a lot more aggressive, with characters right out of a Joe R. Lansdale short story. It feels like one of his stories as you are reading it, where violence can happen in the blink of an eye, and something depraved is always right around the corner from where you call home. The narrative splits itself four ways, telling the stories of a few inhabitants of the small town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. We first meet Willard Russell, who is willing to try anything to save his wife Catharine from a painful death by cancer, even animal, and eventually human blood, which he pours on his prayer log he has set up in the woods. We also see the lives of Carl and Sandy Henderson, a serial killing couple, whose atrocities Carl documents with his precious camera. There is the preacher Roy, and his invalid side kick Theodore, who are on the run from Knockemstiff after Roy kills his wife in cold blood. Finally, we meet Arvin Russell, the orphaned son of Willard and Catharine, who has a vicious streak a mile wide. All these characters live out their lives mostly separately throughout the novel, but it comes together in the end in a beautiful way that contrasts greatly and magnificently with the novels darker shades. While many of the characters do heinous things (especially Carl and Sandy as well as an amoral preacher introduced about halfway through), they always stay true to themselves and the rules they have set out for themselves, no matter how wrapped they are. And they always have a way to rationalize what they have done, which gives them a three dimensional quality that adds to there realness. Which is what makes this a special book in my eyes, is the compassion Pollock has for even the most undeserving character. He inhabits every character he writes about, and you can tell that he cares deeply for them all, which makes the reader open to caring about them to. While I do recommend this book, it is most definitely not for weak stomachs. This is down and dirty storytelling at its best, and some of the awful things these people perpetrate on others had me gasping and thinking twice about what I was reading. But if you remain as open to these people as Pollock is, you will be rewarded with great beauty and reassured of the amazing things that can exist in the most humbling of people.
Rating: 5/5