Tuesday, May 12, 2009

OOOH! Look! Excrement! (And Nazis!)

Manny Rupert is your typical circling-the-drain gumshoe with serious substance abuse problems.

After making his debut as a self-loathing ex-junkie cop in Jerry Stahl's Plainclothes Naked (2001), Manny returns as a self-loathing, full-fledged (and supposedly clean and sober) private eye in Pain Killers.

Guilt and self-loathing? This guy mainlines them.

Clean and sober? Yeah, right!

Of course, he's still got a rather large monkey on his back, and when he falls off the wagon, he really falls off the wagon. Which means no degradation, no debauchery, no wallow and no metaphorical shitty diaper is too disgusting to rub our faces in.

All of which should probably be expected. Manny's creator is, after all, Mister "Permanent Midnight" himself.

This time out, Manny is hired to go undercover, posing as a drug therapist counselling San Quentin inmates, in an effort to expose an elderly prisoner with a German accent who just may be notorious Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele. 

And, oh! the irony! Did I mention Manny's Jewish?

This is the flimsy, alleged laughfest of a foundation upon which Stahl builds his story, which consists of a series of loosely connected, deliberately squirm-inducing little set pieces, from lovingly recited Nazi atrocities to various sexual, chemical and scatalogical abuses, occasionally leavened by some genuinely funny -- if rude --wisecracks. Whether that will be enough to keep you reading will depend on your stomach for high concepts in low places.

You've heard of black humour? This is brown humour.

I dunno -- I think most people already agree the Nazis were pretty much pure evil, but there's something so wearisome and tired and forced about this book that I had real difficulties reading it right to the end. The real outrage I felt was at how predictable and shallow and juvenile it all felt. Stahl may have inadvertently given Holocaust deniers and their ilk a helping hand.

After all, it's hard to be outraged when you're yawning.

Labels: , ,


Blogger Guillaume said...

Just how many contemporary novels in a contemporary setting can we write about Nazis? As if we didn't have enough with serial killers novels.

Kevin, you blog a lot these days, what's happening? You wrote more in the last two weeks than in the last two month.

2:29 PM, May 12, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Well, it would be okay if Stahl had something to say. Philip Kerr's latest, A QUIET FLAME, has Nazis in it, and it's one of my favourite reads so far this year. Stahl's crime isn't so much that he played the Nazis for laughs -- Mel Brooks proved that could be done -- but that Stahl wasn't particularly funny.

As for the sudden burst of activity, beats me. I guess I'm just coming out of hibernation.

10:07 PM, May 15, 2009  
Blogger Guillaume said...

Last time I read and enjoyed a crime novel with Nazis it was Konop's Pas de kaddish pour Sylberstein, which was both funny and an interesting reflection on identity. I might check A Quiet Flame.

3:19 AM, May 17, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

By all means, check out Kerr's original Berlin Noir Trilogy.

The subsequent two books that have followed in the last few years (A QUIET FLAME is the latest) are solid entertainment in their own right, but the first three, taken together, are about as thorough a routing of the Nazi regime and the complicity -- both in and out of Germany -- that allowed it to happen as you'll read in the genre. Bernie Gunther is an ex-SS officer turned P.I. who plies his trade in 1930s and 40s Berlin. At times the trilogy reminded me of Leo Malet or Didier What's-His-Name, but Kerr's more contemporary viewpoint and sensibilities, not to mention perspective, captures the Nazis on the way up, in charge and on their way out in a way few novelists have -- or have dared. It's like being hit in the head with a pipe called history.

Maybe it's the more European perspective (Kerr is a Brit) or my own prejudices but I can't imagine these books being written by an American mystery writer. There's a whiff of personal anger here against the Nazis that just raises the stakes.

By comparison, Stahl's take on the Nazis just seems more HOGAN'S HEROES than William L. Shirer.

7:37 AM, May 19, 2009  
Blogger Guillaume said...

I think the problem with American writers is that they often turn Nazis into bogey men or "bandits d'opérette". I love a good WWII drama, so I will definitely take a look at Kerr's books.

10:35 AM, May 19, 2009  

Post a Comment

<< Home