Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard

A bit of Prohibition-era
fussin' and a feudin'.
I borrowed this book from a colleague at work and as such can't quote directly from the text, or even go back to prove I've not made a whole heap of stuff up–darned memory is playing up these days yes siree and so forth. But as near as I can remember, this little ripper is set in prohibition-era [insert redneck country town here], and is the story of one man who, thanks to strongly held principles and damned ornery stubbornness, goes to war with bootleggers over his father's not-so-secret stash of eight-year-old moonshine whisky. And that's pretty much it.

Of course, if you dig a little you'll come to realise it's a perfect example of Leonards own rules of writing. Nothing is extraneous; each sentence pushes the narrative onwards through the dramatic crisis and explosive finalé. No-one expounds, anguishes, gasps or grumbles; they merely say what they have to say. Characters are never described except by other characters. And at no time does it ever sound like writing. 

Son Martin lives alone except for his friend (who I choose to remember was called Amos), a black man whose very existence is an affront to at least two of the antagonists. He distills some of the best darned clear moonshine in all of [insert redneck county here], something that gets him the attention of the local sheriff and his army of 'deputies' who enjoy 'raiding' his still every now and then to get loaded. His pappy lies in a grave on the property, his wife is dead, and his mistress runs the hotel in town. And he's sitting, so they say, on a fortune in aged whisky that his pappy made near enough ten years ago. But he's only gone and blabbed this secret to an army buddy, so it transpires, while drunk and vulnerable when he was still in the service; a buddy who comes looking for it, and brings a hostile posse of bootleggers along with him.

I recall an Alan Alda movie version, but only poorly. It can only have been played as a comedy, and in truth there are comedic moments in the book–it's not all cussin' and spitting and inscrutable stares and casually slung shotguns invoking death at a moment's notice. At one point Son looks out across his property at the trees wherein hides an army of shotgun toting bootleggers to see what he thinks is the cavalry come to his aid. In truth it's the locals, come with picnics and lemonade to watch the show. But at heart this is an all-action thriller. In the timeline of Leonard's work, it comes after the bulk of his Western novels, and before his more contemporaneous work, but it could easily belong to either category or exist on its own. Either way, it is quintessential Elmore Leonard, and I put him up there with John D. MacDonald as one of the most consistently entertaining American writers of thrillers and action, one to which I will return again and again until his work is exhausted. Then I'll go back and start again. 

Monday, 20 June 2016

Acts Of The Assassins by Richard Beard

The membrane between God and man
is thin here, between the living and the dead,
madness and sanity.
Enthralled as I was by the re-telling of the Lazarus story, from the viewpoint of the titular resurrectee, one of the most entertaining tales I've read affectionately appropriated from the Christian Bible, I was bemusedly unprepared for Beard's latest reimagining: for I hadn't clicked that this was the story of what came after the ascension of Jesus.

Thankfully so! Having read a review by Philip Hensher in the Guardian where he points out the absolute futility of transmogrifying the crucifixion and resurrection story into the popular crime procedural form, it probably would have put me off in a small way. However, blundering in blindly, I twigged pretty quickly but it was a very pleasant surprise and made me want to find out if Gallio could figure it all out before everyone died. I can only imagine my sigh of disdain had I known this up front. I am, after all, sinfully disdainful.

Instead I was treated to a wryly amusing novel, situated both in the present and the past, an intriguing device (flagged with the quote from the letters of Peter wherein he explains that "With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.").  Intelligence officer, Cassius Marcello Gallio, returning from his cameo in Lazarus Is Dead, exiled to Europe in disgrace having failed to both assure the death and prevent the assumed escape of terrorist cult leader Jesus from his tomb, is drawn into the pursuit of the resurrected insurrectionist and the prevention of the serial murders of his disciples. He sees it as his chance to right a wrong, to reclaim his place as a Speculator in the ranks of the Roman Complex Casework Unit, but as he searches for answers he begins to lose his faith in those around him, in his mission, and in the certainty that he saw Jesus die on the cross.

Even in the most soul-searchingly emotional scenes, it's hard not to picture Beard with a grin on his face. It's an epic satire, an exploration of rationalism versus belief, but towards the end, where the last disciple, blind John, nurses the frail and dying Gallio, still struggling to come to terms with the failure of his logic, it allows the humour to fall away and becomes thoughtful and sombre, providing a catalyst for the reader to ponder just what has happened over the course of 340 pages. Gallio is a skeptic and from the beginning it's clear his searching will be in vain unless he softens his calcified position and opens his heart. He comes close to understanding but just can't let go of his ego and dies in darkness.

This is only my second Beard novel, but he's certainly creeping up the undocumented and oft-changing list of authors whose backlist I intend to seek out and hoard to the point of obsession. This is a superbly entertaining novel on any number of levels you care to consider.

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Development by John Barth

We'll each be presumed to have
survived the other, as the saying goes,
and neither of us'll be around to know it.
I have a great deal of respect for John Barth. Even casual readers of these pages might notice the regularity of his appearances, generously spaced as befits a writer whose words require some significant effort of his readers. His insouciant love of wordplay, of use of subtext, and the meta-meta-meta [ad infinitum]* nature of some of his fiction makes me giggle with delight.

But on with the story! Or nine stories to be exact, and each is a window into life at a fictional but easily identifiable tidewater settlement of retirees, in which those seeking towards-end-of-life sanctuary find themselves in an awkwardly contrived and flimsy community at the turn of the century and indeed the millennium. There's a peeping tom (or is there?), spouses die, children are killed, an octogenarian stabs himself before his friends gas themselves in the garage, and of course there are innumerable community meetings and dinners and toga parties. Over it all hovers the opaquely implied threat of Tidewater Inc., a faceless multinational seeking to tame nature one gated enclave at a time.

I get the distinct impression that Mr Barth is coming to terms with the rather terminal and definite concept of dying. Not unusual, you might imagine, for a man on the wrong side of 85 (or of 80 at the time of publishing). I also get the impression that he is very much still enjoying life and having a lot of fun with words. Even when he's talking about the shocking and sudden double suicide of two empty-nesters in the gated community in which this collection of inter-connected short stories is set, it's hard not to imagine a crooked smile peeking out from behind his scruffy white beard as he tilts his head so his impudently-angled beret lies flat as the horizon across your line of vision. Yup, he seems to like wearing berets. The book cover blurb reports his humour as mordant, but any acidity is tempered by what appears to be his natural instinct to poke fun at himself, without taming the ferocity of his attack. It's a perfect disguise for what is essentially a savage critique of a particular mindset of American retirees of a certain social and economic standing, one in which Barth no doubts finds himself–educated, affluent and isolated in pristine suburbia. 

But whatever the reasons Barth has written short stories about a gated community, the stories themselves are worth taking the time to savour, to enjoy, and to share, and I would heartily recommend you indulge in his special blend of wit and compassion.

*I'm struggling to find the proof, but I understand Barth might hold the record for the number of pairs of inverted commas around reported speech in published fiction–14 discrete reports of the original conversation!