Friday, September 28, 2012

The Grifters

Author: Jim Thompson
Genre: Crime
Original Pub. Date: 1963

For a refreshing change of pace, I thought I'd review something that isn't a heap of one-star fantasy garbage. Believe it or not, many good books inhabit my overloaded shelves, though a reader of this site (Hi, Mom!!) would rarely know it. Today's pick: The Grifters, one of relatively little-known crime novelist Jim Thompson's best tales of confidence trickery, brutality, depravity, alcoholism, and theft.

It's odd how little Thompson is known, given how many film versions have been made of his books. In 1990, this 1963 book became a movie starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston, and Annette Bening -- and a good movie, at that. It perfectly captured the tone of a typical Thompson story: grim, twisted, and hilarious in much the same way that Maupassant's short story "The Necklace" is a real knee-slapper.

There are two movie versions of Thompson's The Getaway, although neither of those stick to the jaw-droppingly creepy ending as originally written.* French directors have made more movies from his works and seem to understand their point a lot better than American filmmakers do, and that really ought to tell you all you need to know.

The Grifters chronicles the fall of career con man Roy Dillon, who stays under law-enforcement radar by only working small cons and moving around. His favorite is "the twenties,"** and he's just pulled one of these in the opening -- but he got caught, and he's staggering out of a bar in agonizing pain after a quick and richly deserved blow to the stomach. Roy's mother, who had him when she was an adolescent and raised him . . . oddly, turns up, visiting in town while fixing some races for her mob boss. Roy's shady older girlfriend and the mother, who look startlingly alike (something the movie screwed up -- Thompson's not-so-subtexts really are a little too much for Hollywood, it turns out), don't exactly hit it off. Crime, vice, and depravity ensue, but probably not in quite the way you would expect.

Jim Thompson is set apart from the vast legion of pulp crime fiction writers by his two great talents, which in some of his works -- this one among them -- amount almost to genius, if you like that sort of thing. First is his extraordinary imagination. Like Jack Vance in science fiction and fantasy***, Thompson isn't the first writer to come to mind when the average reader thinks of his genre, but he is perhaps the most original. Any plot twist, any character archetype that's appeared in a hard-boiled suspense novel, well, Thompson used it first, and probably to better effect than whatever writer you're thinking of.

Besides that, Thompson has the extraordinary ability to present his characters objectively. That's much harder than it sounds. Every person makes moral judgments all day long; I usually find that reassuring, myself, liking to live in a world not populated entirely by sociopaths. Thompson clearly wasn't a sociopath himself -- but he was able to write like one. His characters are nasty, and many of them are sociopaths. Since the reader isn't manipulated into justifying or condemning them, one can simply be pulled through the story without getting bogged down in the meaning of it all.

To put it another way, Thompson is postmodern in precisely the way that my favorite ole' standby of the literary movement, Douglas Coupland, isn't. Coupland sees the imminent end of civilization as an opportunity to forge meaning out of every otherwise insignificant event; his characters make as many connections as possible to avoid the existential loneliness of a world without purpose. Thompson's characters live in the same landscape of cheap, disposable pleasures, but they're simply hell-bent on getting them as cheaply and disposing of them as quickly as possible. For them, an unexamined life is the only kind worth living; examination only reveals the rot beneath.

For a nihilistic, haunting, unpleasant great time, call Jim Thompson. The Grifters: four stars.

* For anyone who has seen one of the films but not read the book, the spoiler appears in white text here, because I simply can't resist. Highlight to read: So, at the end of the movies, the two get away clean. In the book, they go to Mexico, where they've found a sort of retired-criminal resort paradise where they can enjoy their ill-gotten gains in comfort and security. What they don't know, until they get there, is that you can live there forever as long as you can pay. Food, lodging, anything you want and on any level of luxury: it's all available, but all for a price. Once their money starts running out, they start cutting back on their expenses. And once the criminals' money is gone, they tend to want to leave, but sadly, they can't -- that's another bit of fine print not publicized in advance. All the residents get, at that point, is a daily ration of stew, on the house, until they don't even get that anymore. What's in the stew? Yep, that's what's in the stew.

** I once had someone try this on me when I was working retail, and I was very proud of the fact that I was able to correctly name the con due to a youth (obviously not entirely) misspent reading Jim Thompson. For those of you who are interested: you pay for something small with a twenty dollar bill. You get your change, and as the clerk has just handed it to you, you fish the necessary dollar out of your pocket. With an ingenuous smile, you say, "Oh, wait, I have exact change," and hold out your hand expectantly while handing over the dollar. The clerk, if the con is working, will say, "Oh, right, your twenty," and hand it back to you, at which point you should have gotten into your car and away before he quite catches up. Bingo, nineteen free dollars. Of course, this would have been a much more attractive game in 1963, when nineteen dollars was worth about what $140 is now.

*** Although I would hesitate to compare them in any other way, as they differ in all others. Someday I'll write about Jack Vance. In the meantime, please read any one of his amazing books immediately.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Chronicles of Elantra

Today's review is going to be a little odd, in that I neither remember nor care much about any of the series of . . . I don't really remember how many books, that I'm kind of sort of reviewing. Confused yet? Annoyed with me for wasting your time? Enjoying the experience? If yes, yes, and yes, then run right out and buy any one of Michelle Sagara's series of fantasy/romance/word jumble books, the Chronicles of Elantra.* You'll love 'em.

Book one, Cast in Shadow, introduces nineteen year old (ish) Kaylin Neya**, an intrepid magical police force type person with a shadowed past. (See what I just did there?) She lives in a lame, dirty city ruled by people who are also kind of dragons or something, and yet they generally take human form; you can tell they're dragons by the crazy eyes and the fact that they talk even more like cryptic douchebags than everyone else in these books, quite an accomplishment I might add. Then, there are bird people, who are somewhat less messy and squawking than they could be, and some people who are also some kind of cat? Or something?

On the outskirts of this hot mess of a town are the fiefs, basically slums ruled by evil fairies. Or maybe they're demons. Anyway, one of the fairies, Lord Darkface or Nightshade or Doombottom or some such, seems to have a thing for Kaylin, although no one can really tell why, and at some point he leaves a small mark on her cheek to prove his lurve. (I think it was her cheek, could be shoulder. Doesn't really matter.) Then, from out of the deep, dark, foul-smelling depths of Kaylin's childhood comes her old friend Severn, who supposedly murdered two girls who were also their childhood friends, because some kind of magical tattoos appeared on Kaylin's body. Or something? Then they bicker and glare at one another, and it's obvious that he's in love with her. No one cares. She has a friend on the magical cop force who's a giant cat. Again, no one cares.

This sort of nonsense continues throughout books two, three, four, and five, at which point I threw in the Magical Towel of Varlon. Various types of mysterious, ancient magic are unleashed, caught, used, exploded, tattooed on people, and wondered at, but never, never are they explained. I'm quite seriously attempting, dear readers, to provide a coherent description of these books, but they just, don't, make, any, sense. The most magical thing about this series is the way Sagara managed to type so many words without any of them stringing together to form meaning. Sentences, yes. Paragraphs, even. But no story.

Here's a sample page to demonstrate what I mean, and guys, I opened a random book from the series to a random page.*** I swear to God:

     "That's why he's trying to die. That's why he's trying to shed his name. It's not for power," she added. "It's not for the freedom from the tyranny of the name. It's for freedom from the man who holds it. Don't you understand? He's lost his name. He's trying to divest himself of it in the only way he can because of the leoswuld. He's doing it because he knows he can't be a vessel for anything if he's . . . undying. Whatever gift the Lord of the High Court gives, he won't give to the Lord of the Green."
     The Lord of the Green looked at her. Only at her.
     But he did not deny the truth of her words.^
     "He can't kill himself," she said quietly. "He doesn't have that much control anymore. I think he tried to make you kill him." She added, "I hold your name." Speaking to the younger brother, holding the gaze of the older.^^
     The Lord of the West March stiffened; she'd almost forgotten Andellen was present. But this was important enough that it almost didn't matter.^^^
     "If you wanted to be free of that, how would you do it?"
     "I would kill you."
     "And that would work?"
     "Yes."
     "You're sure?"
     "Yes."
     "Then find the person who holds his name and kill him."
     "That, kyuthe, is why you are here."
     "What?"^^^^
     "In truth I cannot think of the man who could hold my brother's name with any certainty. But there is one who must be able to," he added grimly. "And if I cannot free my brother, it will end here."
     The words made no sense. On so many levels.

^ Do people generally contradict whoever they're looking at?
^^ Good writers are allowed to break the rules of grammar. Ahem.
^^^ You know what? Never mind.
^^^^ Given the indeterminate number of people present and the lack of speech tags, and the fact that she just told him she's the one who holds his name, or was that someone else? Anyway, I think What? sums it up adequately.

Your perfectly fair question -- Why, oh why, Indiscriminate Reader, did you so indiscriminately read five of these muddled European fairy tale/furry convention/teen angst/italics party/lack of speech tags things? -- can be answered easily: I kept thinking that something had to happen. Kaylin would get in a furry cat suit and get it on with Lord Doombottom, or she would italicize all the magic words on her legs and get fired from the copy desk, or maybe Michelle Sagara would someday hold the name of a competent editor and force him to be an undying vessel for her next novel. Anything.

All that happened was that my patience ran out somewhere in the middle of book five, Cast in Silence. The title is misleading. When I cast it across the room, it made a very satisfying thunk.

Your other perfectly fair question -- Why did you bother to review these? -- can be answered simply as well: like a PSA, I'm hoping that this review keeps kids off heroin and away from these utterly dull and useless hack jobs. I take that back. Do as much heroin as you want, just stay off the Elantra, man . . .

One star.

* Yes, she did get that from a fantasy name generator at the Wizards of the Coast website, now that you ask.

** Totally just had to look up the character's name on the author's website; you never know where the name generator's going to place all the y's.

*** Cast in Courtlight, this edition, page 226.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

New Feature: The Two-Haiku Review

I'm pleased to announce a new occasional feature: The Two-Haiku Review. I read far more books than I review here, partly because I'm a lazy bastard and partly because some books are just so dull that I'm left baffled and mute when I try to describe them. So think of these haiku more as snapshots of the blasted mental landscape left behind by a neuron bomb than as book reviews as such.

This time, I've reviewed a few of the classics.

The Possessed, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

People walk around
From room to room, whispering
But wait -- can't talk now

It's because there may
Be spies listening to them
That's all that happens

The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

Some guys wrote some stuff
None of it is connected
One is called Pickwick

I slept through the book
Oh wait, that's not possible?
In this case, it is

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

Choking on dust clouds
Sad, starving morons head west
Looking for less dust

On the way, they die
California has dust too
Then rain, and then mud

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway*

Oh noes, no testes
So my girlfriend sleeps around
She feels sort of bad

There is bullfighting
I think it's a metaphor
Oh noes, no testes

* With apologies to L.

Something Blue

I picked up Something Blue about five minutes after I finished Nights in Rodanthe. Perhaps that's why this book didn't seem so bad; it's also possible that it seemed decent simply by comparison to its dreadful, soul-sucking prequel, Something Borrowed.

Something Blue picks up immediately after Something Borrowed leaves off, from the perspective of Darcy, the evil, well-groomed* best friend from the last book. Please be warned: any spoilers left unspoiled from the previous book will be ruined here.**

At the end of Borrowed, it's revealed that while Darcy's charmer of a fiancé was cheating on her with her best friend, Rachel the Doormat, Darcy was cheating on him in turn with his friend Marcus. (With me so far? Don't really care? I so don't blame you.) We get some background on their affair, find out that Darcy is pregnant, and then see Darcy and Marcus break up. See Darcy and Marcus fight! See Darcy cry. See Darcy go to London and get with her old friend Ethan. See Darcy have twins! See Darcy learn that love is more important than money. See me vomit! See Emily Giffin make another half million dollars with a sequel!

Seriously, though, Something Blue is about a hundred times better than the first. It's also written in the past tense. Coincidence? I think not. I was going to give this book two stars, but let's go ahead and give it two and a half for the tense change. I believe in rewarding slightly less awful behavior.

* In chick lit, these two attributes are practically synonymous.

** And I feel about as guilty as I would if I walked up and spat in your dish of rotten eggs in crap sauce.