Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Review: "The Motel Life" by Willy Vlautin

After finishing Willy Vlautin’s debut novel, The Motel Life, I can say with great pride that I am a fan of his, even though his style will warrant some detractors. Some will call it overly romantic, overly simple and very derivative of other, better writers like Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver.  And I have to agree that these are all valid arguments against this book and Vlautin’s talents in general, but there is just something so simple and so sweet about the way he writes. I wouldn’t go so far as too call it brilliant or even original, but his stories are all within shouting distance of the many legendary authors that he is so frequently compared to. Like them, he brings poetry to the downtrodden, relishes in the sweet victories of small accomplishments, and thoughtful crafts his characters with love and wisdom, even as he crushes their spirits in the emotional meat grinder. One thing Vlautin will never be accused of is being sentimental. He writes about these people living on the fringes of society, ice-skating on the breaking point in a way that is interesting and quite readable, but one will never get the feeling that they are missing out on living like this by growing up in privilege. Because while, at my most cynical, I could agree with most that Vlautin’s work really romanticizes the lives of the lower class in the way that makes Steinbeck’s book seem really outdated, I also enjoy these books quite a bit for how emotionally connected I feel toward them, so for the most part he is just giving a voice to those unable to have their own. Two of those lost souls are at the center of this book are brothers Frank and Jerry Lee Flannigan, two aimless drifters living paycheck to paycheck, surviving on loads of hope and imagination. At the opening of the book, Frank wakes up in his home to the news that a crippled, slightly drunk Jerry Lee just ran over a young man and killed him. Panicking, they dump the body of at the hospital and pray no one saw them. The rest of the novel is as loose and lacking in plot as their lives. We learn about Franks’ talent for storytelling, and the love he once had for Annie, a girl just as troubled as he was, and the crappy hand life has dealt the two brothers, with a father addicted to gambling, and a mother who died while they were still teens. They find happiness where they can, in small increments, like a successful bet over the first Tyson/Holyfield fight, and weather trouble when they can, like when Jerry Lee tries to kill himself by shooting himself in his partially amputated leg. The stories Jerry fashions can get a bit old and kind of silly, but Vlautin always sprinkles in a bit of levity at the beginnings and ends of them, especially at the book’s somber conclusion. A little rough for some, and a little too much of a stunt for others, I liked this book a lot, and can’t wait to delve deeper into Vlautin’s work.
Rating: 5/5

Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: "Hold the Dark" by William Giraldi

It has been a long while since I have come across a novel that is so brutal and so downbeat that it affects my mood for days after finishing it, but William Giraldi’s sophomore novel Hold the Dark does just that in the most beautiful and eloquent ways possible in a brisk 200 pages. The way Giraldi writes about modern Alaska is the same way Woodrell writes about the Ozarks and how last year, Smith Henderson wrote about the Pacific Northwest in his brilliant debut novel Fourth of July Creek. Giraldi’s Alaska is very much like those places: desolate, far from any form of civilization or things like mercy, justice or redemption. It is a place where anything can happen and where the modern and brutally realistic mixes fluently with the ancient and mystical. There are scenes of graphic violence that are juxtaposed with breathtaking descriptions of the untouched portions of Alaskan wilderness. It is as much a character as any of the few very memorable characters that find themselves at odds with it or whatever wants to end them at any moment. This short novel is also an intense thriller, involving lots of murder and tension that will have even the hardest reader sweating, not fully comfortable in their daily life until they find out what happens, or see what kind of crazy things Giraldi has up his sleeves, because I can guarantee you it is something you will never expect, and it is always for the better here. It begins with a series of wolf attacks in a small town called Keelut. Packs of wolves are abducting children, leaving little trace that they are alive. The third victim is Bailey Slone, taken right off of his front porch, or at least that is what his mother Medora tells Russell Core in a letter he writes to him. Core is a grizzled failed nature writer estranged from his family, but since he once wrote about killing a wolf, something he thinks haunts him to this day, Medora wants him to help track down the wolves that took her son and kill them. When he gets there, Medora’s strange behavior quickly leads Core to realize that something is dreadfully wrong about Medora’s story, and, in a harrowing scene, he discovers the strangled body of Bailey hidden in her boiler soon after Medora disappears into the woods. To say things are complicated when Medora’s husband Vernon comes home from war is a deadly mistake. Already a violent man by nature and hardened even more by the horrors of combat, Vernon hears the news of his son’s death and, along with his equally violent lifelong friend Cheeon, seeks bloody vengeance against his wife, killing everyone they come across in the most gruesome ways possible. There are many intense scenes in this book I won’t soon forget, from a shootout that graphically describes the damage done by an assault rifles, to a upward shot gun blast to the chest with horrifying results, but besides the violence, the unexpected is what really makes this book shine, with deaths happening quickly enough for them to not be seen coming and an ending that drastically subverts a tacked on happy ending, finishing instead with a bleak notion of the darkness inside all of us. Despite the gore, this is quite a moving and beautiful book about human nature that will stick with you for a long time

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: "The Day of the Owl" by Leonardo Sciascia

Leonardo Sciascia, the late Sicilian crime author, who wrote mystery stories where the mystery wasn’t so much the “what” of it all, but the “why” of it, the brutal, dehumanizing “why” that turned Sicily into a mecca of organized crime, whose influence over every aspect of life was almost mystical. While not one of his better books, at least to me, The Day of the Owl really exhibits his style perfectly, presenting a simple story in the swift format of no more than 200 pages that unfolds layers upon layers of corruption and violence, so much so that it is impossible to get past any of it in order to gain any semblance of justice of sanctity of life. The novel begins with the shooting of a seemingly innocent man, as he is about to board a crowded bus. When the police get to the crime scene, no one on the bus wants to admit that they saw who shot the man, even though someone had to have seen the murderer. They are obviously afraid of what may come if they identify him, and as one lone detective is assigned to the case, he begins to see that it wasn’t just a simple murder, but a killing that leads directly to the heart of the mafia, which people of influence claim doesn’t exist. Sciascia sometimes gets bogged down in police procedural information that detracts from the stories power, which I didn’t find in any of his work before, but he still accurately describes the feelings of fear, isolation, loneliness and worthlessness that must have been felt by the citizens of Sicily when their lives were negotiable. His stories are never happy ones, always ending cynically, maybe too much so, but even when he is not in top form, like this novel, his stories are still powerful and should be checked out.

Rating: 3/5

Review: "The Tenants of Moonbloom" by Edward Lewis Wallant

The Tenants of Moonbloom is a joyous wail of a novel that might not cut it with a lot of readers. On the one hand it is smart, thoughtful and very well-written, but it paints, in broad strokes a cast of overly romantic characters in a very saccharine light, focusing almost always on the positive and not the negative. Despite its setting, a dilapidated tenement building, this is very much a novel of the 1960’s but not one about the 1960’s. Some people will like this novel, and some people won’t, I really felt entranced by certain parts of it, but felt very left out during others. After finishing a book that was too long, this one might have benefited from a few extra pages. It tries to stuff a ton of characters into a book that is less than 300 pages, so some of the most interesting aspects of this novel do not get the attention I felt they deserved. The Moonbloom of the title is Norman, a sad sack in his early thirties with no job, no romantic prospects and no direction. He is hired by his brother Irwin, to be the rent collector for a few of his apartment buildings in New York. At first Norman is quite reticent to the idea of helping out the people he comes across. From getting roped into family squabbles to being belittled for the many problems in the rooms. But as he gets to know these people, their hopes and their dreams, he comes to see himself as their protector and finds a purpose for his life. Some of the descriptions are brilliant, describing Norman’s lack of humor as well as descriptions of the apartments that are breathtaking. But as I said the book has too many characters, and it is hard to keep track of all of them since some aren’t too distinct, and it hurts the book some when someone dies, and I was left confused instead of heartbroken. But it makes up for it with a soaring ending, where a simple repair becomes something transcendent. Check this one out, you won’t be disappointed.  
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Fay" by Larry Brown

As much as I support Larry Brown and want to keep his legacy alive, his novel, Fay, is surely not something that will be remembered as a milestone for him. It has everything that makes Brown such a unique part of Southern Literature, from clean, honest prose that never undermines the reader, a harrowing story of high tragedy among low people, and a keen sense of sympathy and understanding for the most tarnished of souls. But despite that, this novel feels overlong and overstuffed, probably more so than any other book that I have read in a while, being almost 500 pages long but really have only enough gas to sustain the story for about a 100 pages less than its length. It makes for many moments during this book, which is fairly easy to read, where I, as a reader, felt very detached from the novel’s proceedings, which is very uncharacteristic of Brown’s books. The eponymous woman of the title is a seventeen year old illiterate girl who is running away from an unseen home life with half a pack of cigarettes and two dollars in her purse. Those two dollars don’t last very long, as Fay is swept in the lives of a wide variety of people, from a group of men who only love fishing and rape, to a good-hearted sheriff with a few too many secrets, and a brutal gang of criminals who surely don’t have her best interests in mind. The novel is very much like James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, in at it presents a few days in the life of a blank, wandering soul in the lives of the people they encounter, only here, she is something of a harbinger of doom. Although it sounds interesting, Fay is little more than a vessel that reacts to the violence and depravity that happen around her, and she fluctuates between fascinating and dull too many times for my liking. I’d say check this out if you like Brown, but to discover how great he is what we lost when he died, pick another novel.
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review: "The Marauders" by Tom Cooper

Books like Tom Cooper’s insanely funny debut The Marauders are the reason that I read so much. Very rarely, about a few times a year, I read a book that gets everything right, uses some of my favorite themes in one of my favorite settings (here, its crime and redemption in the Deep South) and crafts a brilliant story around a disparate group of fully formed characters with big flaws and even bigger dreams. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the non-horror novels of Joe R. Lansdale, the absolute best of Daniel Woodrell, and the books of my fellow statesman, Frank Bill, with an added sense of cheeky humor found in Elmore Leonard. But what makes Cooper’s book shine amongst some other books capitalizing on the success of True Detective is the infinite size of the hearts of many of the people who populate the small bayou town of Jeanette. After the BP oil spill, and the lingering effects of Hurricane Katrina, a lot of the people in this story have lost hope and are just scrapping by. Cooper’s book, instead focuses on  the dreamers in this little town, home grown and from away, who, in spite of the harrowing circumstances still hold on to the hopes and dreams that existed in them long before their lives fell apart, and the last ditch effort of theirs to make their dreams come true. But it isn’t all pretty in this book; there is plenty of mayhem, both hilarious and heart-stoppingly cruel, to warrant reading long after bedtime. There are four strands that make up this novel. The main one concerns Gus Lindquist, a one-armed, pill-popping shrimp boat captain whose wasted life, including an ex-wife and an estranged daughter, and his dreams of finding a long buried treasure deep in the swamp. Fellow shrimp boat captains Wes Trench and his are still reeling from the death of Wes’s mom during Hurricane Katrina, which causes deep-seeded hatred between the two that has never been addressed. Cosgrove and Hanson, two out-of-town petty criminals are themselves on a similar quest to Lindquist; only this is a large cache of weed instead of gold doubloons. Another outsider, Grimes, is a BP spokesman with a chip on his shoulder, sent to his former hometown to “buy off” residents whose lives were destroyed by the spill, one of which is his estranged mother who he hasn’t seen in years. And finally there are the Toup brothers, twins Victor and Reginald, distant cousins of Vinnie and Pork from Lansdale’s “Night They Missed the Horror Show”. They are drug lords, with a psychopathic streak a mile wide and a complete disregard for human life. All these narratives come together to form a pleasurable yet rewarding experience, with these broken soul’s struggle for meaning and happiness juxtaposed against some pretty hilarious scenes involving buffoonery, robbery, and a vibrating dildo being used as a weapon against a home-invading alligator. A hilarious unique and ultimately heart-warming tale from the Deep South, this is one book that will surely be making an appearance on my best love list at the end of the year.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Review: "The Pale King" by David Foster Wallace

I have never read any novel that was unfinished, and despite The Pale King, the final novel of David Foster Wallace being less than stellar, it is still a fascinating experience to read something whose meaning and themes will always remain at least a little bit ambiguous. About two years ago, I undertook Wallace’s most famous novel, Infinite Jest over one Christmas break. While its length and difficulty are more memorable to me now than certain scenes, it is still a feat of the imagination that has something for everyone. We’ll never know what Wallace wanted to do ultimately with The Pale King, but as it stands now, published with as best a polish as possible for what there was to work with, it can be a bit of a mess sometimes, and has passages that rival some of the jargon lists in Infinite Jest, just replace pharmaceuticals with tax codes. The plot is loose, as to be expected, even more so now since the novel is unfinished, but there are two story lines that I could decipher: one dealt with a man named Sylvanshine who works for the IRS who is a fact psychic, a person who knows intimate, unimportant details of a persons life, what they ate for breakfast five years ago, what they were thinking when they tripped over a decade ago, etc. The other concerns a fictionalized version of the author himself, David foster Wallace, who is hired by the IRS to gather personal information about the workers at a tax office in Peoria, Illinois. A lot of the clear meaning remains a mystery here, although, like Infinite Jest, Wallace is using modern technology to show the lengths we go to avoid unhappiness and loneliness. There are some funny bits, such as a chapter about a crossing guard whose kindness is destined to remain unrewarded, and the trials of a pathological academic who found himself working at the tax office out of fear and hatred for his dad. But it is quite directionless, and many chapters go on for such a long time that the reader just feels exhausted and wants it to end. Wallace could have made this something really cool if he was still alive, but as it is, it is little more than a curiosity.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review: "We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves, the debut novel of Matthew Thomas, is the kind of debut novel that comes around very rarely. That isn’t to say I have read some fantastic debuts even this year, but none have come out this fully formed and this mature. I’d liken it to Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History, and more recently David Wroblewski’s first, and to date only, novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This mammoth novel of family crisis, clocking in at an even 620 pages, is not only a great read that I am sure will make a big splash once word of mouth spreads about it, but it is also a grand summation of Thomas’ abilities as a storyteller. This is the kind of book a writer writes well into their career, with the large scope of classic family novel yet with the intimacy that usually accompanies gritty, realistic stories. To pull such a balancing act off takes great skill, and usually only occurs once a writer is halfway into his career. Thomas has done something astounding with his first novel. There is nothing really showy about it: it doesn’t make any big political statements; Thomas is not an overly aggressive writer, and it is written rather plainly, telling its story of a family affected by Alzheimer’s Disease with great compassion, insight and without a hint of irony to be found. The books’ main focus is on Eileen Tumulty, born in 1941 to a large Irish family living in Long Island, New York. From her younger days, she has always been a dreamer with goals that always seem out of her reach. She has to be, growing up in a tumultuous (pun intended) house where her father was a slightly heavy drinker and her mom has a slight emotional problem. It isn’t the stereotypical abusive family archetype; her parents love her and the rest of her family is rather supportive, they are all just flawed human beings screwing up and succeeding in equal measure. It creates not only a relatable atmosphere, because no one had perfect parents, and sustains Eileen’s dreams for something better. She sees that something better in the form of Ed Leary, a man she falls in love with who also happens to be on the fast track to a promising academic career. They marry, have a son, Connell, and reach some sort neutrality in their lives, but once Ed begins to exhibit signs of the aforementioned neurological disorder, do things begin to unravel for the Leary’s. Connell grows up confused and painfully self-aware, going from being bullied to being the bully throughout his school years, more than once being too scared to make his life better. Worse for Eileen, she must refit her dreams to deal with her fading husband, sometimes giving up on them all together. It gets ugly at times when the disease is in full swing, but this is an honest book filled with (mostly) honest people, who, no matter what, will always have our sympathy. There are some distracting moments, like a scene where Connell and the afflicted Ed practice for Connell’s upcoming debate by discussing euthanasia that seems tacked on, but there is rarely a moment where this book doesn’t grasp the kind of greatness every debut novel seeks, and this isn’t just a great debut, but one of the best books I will read this year.

Rating: 5/5