Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My Booky Wooks 2009 (Part 2)

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzuccheli
Mazzucchelli returns, at last, and he's working on a different plane from 99% of the cartoonists in the comics medium. His book is a character study but it is full of digressions and tangents, and Mazzuccheli is good enough to be able to address two themes simultaneously. While his narrative may be concerned with fate or one of its titular protagonists opinions on life or art, his art is generally interrogating one aspect of the medium or another in his use of colour (his main characters are colour-coded), in the design of his characters, in the flow of his panel-to-panel storytelling. This is a cartoonist who obviously thinks as much about his chosen medium as, say, Scott McCloud does. His story follows Asterios Polyp, an Architect without any buildings to his credit, and flashes back and forth between his present - working in a garage in a small town following a fire that has destroyed his life and possessions, and finding himself once again, to some extent - and his past , in which he met a girl, fell in love and ultimately lost that girl. Asterios is not exactly a sympathetic character, but he is always interesting, and his slow thaw in his newfound smalltown life, while being the corniest, most predictable element of the entire book, is also tremendously effective and satisfying. Mazzuccheli draws him as an unchanging razor-edge design squiggle, almost an abstraction, throughout the book, in what may be a comment on the stubborn, immobile nature of his personality. It works as an epic of sorts, a detailed, artful character study, and a brilliant, frequently inspired piece of high comic art.

An Expensive Education by Nick McDonnell
Forget his youth and the suggestions of nepotism his well-connected family have made unavoidable, across the three novels published since he was 17 - which was only in 2002 - Nick McDonnell has proved himself a writer of great style, vision and ability. His third book is his best yet and shows the exciting maturation of his talent. It traces parallel stories with many links between the two - somewhere in Africa, a satellite-guided missile has just wiped out a village of potential anti-government rebels, leaving a young CIA operative the only witness. Back in America, a Professor working at an Ivy League University finds her work - on the rebel leader - and its sources questioned. McDonnell draws the connections between these two worlds with the lightest touch in scenes depicting the CIA agent and his growing paranoia and awareness of the mysterious forces behind his orders. These scenes are reminiscent of Graham Greene and John LeCarre in their great sense of place and moral confusion. In one brilliantly depicted interlude, the agent is dispatched to a luxury, tiny resort on a tropical island for some R&R and debriefing. This is where he figures out what he has seen and what it means and we can see that his growth of a conscience may come to mean his death. The College scenes - a mix of student romance and academic politicking - read like they are based in a solid reality, like McDonnell has based them on his own experiences, and they positively hum with the complex set of social and hierarchical systems universities run upon. I can't wait for whatever he does next, and for the chance to watch a fascinating career unfold.

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Not quite a short story collection but not quite a novel, either, Vann's book turns upon the event which changed his life - his father's suicide when he was a boy. And so he revisits this event, and the events leading up to it, and its consequences, over and over, in a set of tales about family and boyhood, divorce and adult unhappiness, and what forms character. The central piece follows a boy and his father as they go to live on a remote Island in a Cabin together for a year. The father has a slow, agonising breakdown and the boy witnesses it all before one horrible event turns the narrative upside down. In the final story an adult narrator returns to the town where he grew up, searching for memories and explanations of his father's actions.
Vann has a lovely, effortlessly elegant prose style - evident to anybody who has ever read any of his magazine feature work - in which no sentence is too long and each word seems to possess just the right weight in the grander scheme. His characters are well-observed, flawed and painfully aware of it, and his portrayal of Alaska - perhaps the third character in this book - is evocative and exciting, a true wild frontier with it's own tough side which wears down the father and his efforts to make a living in the great outdoors.

Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke
I read this in about 20 minutes, flying through it, then when it was finished I went back and appreciated Cooke's command of the comics medium, his storytelling skill, the sheer beauty of some of his panels, by reading it again, slowly this time, drinking it in. A faithful adaptation of one of Richard Stark's great pulp anti-hero's adventures, Cooke works in a lovely monochrome noir style, and his art is messier and more fluid than it has been on his big DC projects in the past. His script plays perfectly with that art, forming a near flawless reading experience for this type of material - stylish, exciting, witty and self-aware. The majority of the opening chapter is utterly wordless, placing much weight on Cooke's purely visual storytelling. His craft and flow carries that like it was nothing. Stark's books have the nastiness of the best pulp, as does his protagonist, and Cooke captures that quality both in his characterisation and his violent, slashy art. It made me want to read some of the original novels. More than that, it made me want to see Cooke adapt them.

Black Postcards by Dean Wareham
Wareham was the singer and chief songwriter in the influential, semi-legendary and awesome band Galaxie 500, and when he left, he went on to form the just-slightly less awesome but massively underrated Luna. These days he spends his time playing Lee Hazlewood to wife Britta Phillips' Nancy in Dean & Britta, and writing this fascinating, often hilarious memoir of the reality of life in a second tier alternative band in the 1990s. Alongside the vivid descriptions of gigs in seedy clubs in cities you've never heard of and the accounts of writing and recording various songs and the bleak little vignettes of isolation and boredom in sundry anonymous hotel rooms all over the world, Wareham pulls no punches in articulating his own flaws: his infidelities on the road, his pettiness and irritation with bandmates, the affair with Phillips that led to his divorce. But he is always likeable. Witty, self-deprecating and appealingly honest, his voice here makes the book an easy read and encouraged me to listen to nothing but his music for the few days it took to read the book.

The Way Home by George Pelecanos
If any book will ever finally send Pelecanos over into mainstream success, than this is it. He's been angling for that for a few years - ever since Drama City (2005), his first novel since Shoedog (1994) that wasn't part of a series. The Night Gardener (2006) and The Turnaround (2008) are both standalone stories without the Western, music and movie references of his earlier, more violent work. I loved those early books, back when Pelecanos felt like my writer, when nobody liked him and his books weren't reviewed in the broadsheets. But he deserves to be read by a huge audience, because he writes novels with indelible characters and great stories, full of atmosphere and exciting incident, and with funny, authentic-sounding dialogue, and thematic consistency and a righteous social anger. If his colleagues on the writing staff of The Wire; Richard Price and Denis Lehane, write bestsellers and have their books turned into big Hollywood movies, then Pelecanos should too. The Way Home is perhaps his most accessible novel yet, but he has not compromised on the quality of his writing. Washington D.C. is as strong a presence in this book as it has been in all his work, and his characters are just as angry and complex. The story follows a young juvenile delinquent through early incarceration and a subsequent attempt to go straight, which is tested by his discovery of a large bag of cash in a house he is working on. His relationship with his father is precisely dissected, as is the American juvenile detention system, and Pelecanos astutely probes at the forces driving young men toward crime. Also last year Pelecanos wrote the introduction to the NYRB reissue of Don Carpenter's brilliant and hitherto neglected (though not by me) Hard Rain Falling (1966), and I can see the influence of that novel in Pelecanos' book. The cool, dispassionate account of a young man's trials in prison echo Carpenter's lack of judgement, as does the understanding the author extends to his character's shaky efforts to remain clean on the outside. Pelecanos' clean, plain prose is not too far from Carpenter's style, either. The Way Home probably isn't Pelecanos' greatest novel - I would recommend Right As Rain (2001) or King Suckerman (1997) as better starting-points - but its still a great read, something Pelecanos unfailingly provides.

And just a few of the many older books I read last year:

We Don't Live Here Anymore: the Novellas by Andre Dubus
I'd read some Dubus before, in the form of his Selected Stories, which I'd dipped into but no more. But I had seen John Curran's terrific We Don't Live Here Anymore (2004), (which narrowly missed out on my Best of the Decade list), adapted by Larry Gross from a couple of Dubus' works (Adultery and We Don't Live Here Aymore). This book was utterly revelatory. Not that Dubus could write - I knew that from the stories I've read, where his prose had that very America ease and elegance. But that his vision was so acute, his ability to nail his characters to the page so faultless. Each of these novellas studies relationships between men and women in absolutely pitiless, unblinking detail. Dubus captures the way people think, the way they lie to themselves and others, and brilliantly; the way they talk. In the title novella, two couples dance around one another, two of them engaged in an affair that will ultimately damage all of them. In another, a young man disguises his obsessive stalking of his ex-wife even from himself, eventually forcing her into desperate action. Dubus charts it all so precisely - love scenes, arguments, internal monolgues...These stories are, variously, moving, painful, and funny. Dubus was a great writer, and he is absolutely ripe for a proper rediscovery of his talent and achievement.

Escape from Five Shadows by Elmore Leonard
I love Leonard's Westerns far more than I do his crime writing. Back when he wrote Westerns, he hadn't yet fallen quite so much in love with dialogue and those books are full of sparse descriptive passages that evoke his classical settings concisely but artfully. One thing that has never changed is his way with characters. He writes great villains - human, complex, with believable motivations and reasons, yet completely and utterly unsympathetic people who a reader wants desperately to see fail. His heroes are of a type - tough, honest, fearless and resourceful men. In other words, his westerns are formulaic in so many respects. And yet, Leonard somehow transcends his formula. His storytelling is great, his plotting like clockwork, and so books like this - to be honest, second rate as Leonard Westerns go - are still gripping, compulsive reading. The plot involves a man sent to a famously hard, impossible-to-escape Desert Prison and his attempts to, you guessed it, escape. And Leonard's account of his attempt is cool and laconic, with a cracking impact to each action scene and a seamlessly integrated love story.
If you want a really top-class Leonard Western, read Hombre or Valdez Is Coming. But I've read those books and I'm running out of other Westerns by Leonard, so I'm trying to ration myself to one a year. Its hard. If only he'd agree to write a few more...

Butchers Crossing by John Williams
My biggest discovery this year came courtesy of the incredible NYRB press. I'd never even heard of John WIlliams before I saw one of his books in a lovely NYRB cover in a bookshop. Reading the back, I discovered he was an American writer with some bold claims made for him. That book was called Stoner, and I bought it. Its a 1965 account of the uneventful life of an English Professor at a Midwestern University - his marriage, rivalries and disappointments. It is masterfully written, almost perfect in the cold poetry of Williams sentences, full of melancholy, and finally of a quite profound sense of the sum of a normal, unexciting, slightly drab life. That book inevitably led me to Butchers Crossing (1960), which is a Western. It follows a young Harvard Student near the turn of the last Century but one as he gives up his studies and travels to the Frontier in order to experience it before it disappears. He funds an expedition to hunt buffalo and he and his comrades spend a Winter in the mountains. When they return to the town of the title, they find that their world has changed utterly. Something of a boys own adventure, Williams' book is also a subtle deconstruction of the myth of the West and the Westerner, has almost an almost ecological agenda, and is a beautiful account of the natural world. I love literary Westerns, and this is one of the best I've ever read. I should thank the NYRB, I suppose, and hope that they get around to publishing Williams' last novel, the National Book Award-winning Augustus (1973), soon.

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