Monday, June 29, 2009

Coming in July: Palmdale Noir

Hmmmm.... every day there seems to be some sort of crime in Palmdale and the Antelope Valley splashed across the pages of the local rag, offering a little something for everyone, from redneck meth dealers and crazed desert rats holding off an army of cops to assorted gangs imported from LA going ballistic on school teachers, plus the usual suburban real estate scams and municipal graft (I think they call it "Palmdale" because of all the palms that are out) and good ol' American domestic violence.

But there will be a whole different kind of crime going on in Palmdale, where The Thrilling Detective Web Site and Butler's Coffee are presenting the first ever PALMDALE NOIR: AN EVENING OF MUSIC AND CRIME on Saturday, July 18.

Butler's is this funky little coffee shop that I've probably mentioned before, but anyway, they've been offering live music (with my bumbling interference) for the last six months or so, and this is definitely going to be something completely different.

Robert Fisher, the front man of Americana noir collective The Willard Grant Conspiracy will be hosting a salon-type discussion and performance of songs about crime, aided and abetted by Vince M. (a singer-songwriter stuck on the lost highway somewhere between Townes Van Zandt and Paul Westerberg), Mark Burgess (primo slide guitarist and ace performer of bloody, muddy blues) and Laura Browne-Sorenson (angel-voiced singer-songwriter and member of Celtic folk group The Browne Sisters and George Cavanaugh).

They'll all be performing individually and in various combinations, talking and playing about robbery, assault, thievery, cheating, lying and other assorted crimes, including of course everybody's favourite: murder. Possible songs to be performed include "Folsom Prison Blues," one that deals with stealing beer from a convenience store, Springsteen's "Stolen Car" and an old (auld?) murder ballad sung in Gaelic. It's going to be some kinda night.

If any SoCal-area crime fans or other Rare Birds (or even birds on vacation) have a hankering for caffeine and crime you can tap your foot to, Palmdale is about an hour north of LA, located in the High Desert. I'd love to see a few rare-birds representing. Hell, I think I'll even give out some crime books as door prizes...

Butler's Coffee is located at 40125 10th St. West. Their telephone number is 661-272-9530.

There's such a wealth of songs about crime and murder that we could probably do this for a year and never repeat a song.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is He Rough Enough? Is He Tough Enough? Yes.

True confession time: I've been a fan of Ray Banks and his woe-begotten Manchester ex-con private eye, Cal Innes, for years, ever since I first published "Walking After Midnight," one of his early Cal Innes stories way back in 2003.
I can't claim to have "discovered" Ray, or even to have been the first to publish him, but nonetheless I feel quite pleased for his success, and even a little proud, no matter how misplaced that pride might be, that I may have contributed even a miniscule bit to it. And I've liked his three subsequent novels featuring Innes well enough to name 2007's Donkey Punch (known in the U.S. as Sucker Punch) as one of my picks for January Magazine's Best of 2007.
But nothing prepared me for Beast of Burden, his latest novel. Maybe it was the mood I was in, maybe I was desperate for something good to read after a disappointing spate of shitty books, or -- and this is more likely -- maybe Ray Banks is just one hell of a writer really, finally kicking out the jams.
But, for whatever reason, this is, hands down, one of the most affecting books I've read in a long time.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I'm fucking floored.
I knew Ray was good, but this one just... well, I'm still reeling. As I said about Donkey Punch back then, "What separates Banks’ writing from that of so many other 'new wave of noir' writers is that he actually seems to understand noir and what lies right at its deep, dark heart. He doesn’t have to rely on juvenile, self-conscious shock tactics... to tell his story. Instead, he does it the old-fashioned way -- by creating credible, memorable characters and telling an actual story. Don’t get me wrong: nasty things do happen... but it’s the characters that really matter."
I still stand by that, but Beast of Burden hits so much harder and sets the bar so bloody high, it's difficult to see where Banks could possibly go after this. It's truly mortal stakes he's playing for this time, as Cal, reeling from his brother's recent suicide and suffering from a stroke that's left him partially paralysed, reluctantly goes to work for notorious local mobster Morris Tiernan, who wants him to find his missing son, Mo, a useless piece of crap/wannabe crime lord that even his own father doesn't particularly want anything to do with.
This is no jolly cozy set in a picture postcard of swinging modern Manchester -- this is a cold, ugly rough wind of a novel, and Banks makes this ugly scab of a hardscrabble industrial town come alive, offering no apology or mercy. This is the Manchester the shiny happy trendies and tourists don't see; this is the Manchester of rundown buildings and squats, of boxing clubs and dives, of piss and despair and regret. And the whipsaw first-person narration, split between Cal and his old nemesis, Detective Sergeant "Donkey" Donkin, possibly the most venal, stupid and just plain evil cop to pollute the genre in ages, just cranks up the tension. It's rough and abrasive and unrelentingly coarse, but never feels forced or phoney or gratuitous.
That these two men are on a collision course is a given, but the fact neither truly understands the other's motives rips this story loose from any preconceptions I might have had. This is contemporary noir at its absolute ground zero finest: dark, disturbing and nasty, but tempered with surprising acts of friendship, loyalty and honour and just plain humanity so moving and real that they're a spit in the face of the glib cynicism and shallow posturing that currently taints too much of the genre.
It's hard to believe, in a novel that trucks so much in misery and greed and stupidity and hate, but the ending, when it comes, is still like a knife in the gut. It's one of the most ballsy, most disturbing and yet most moving conclusions to a crime novel I've read in a long, long time.
Beast of Burden goes on sale in the U.S. in a few weeks (or maybe it's already out; books from the U.K. seem to have a hard time crossing the Atlantic according to schedule). But if you give a damn at all for hard-boiled fiction, get this book.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Disassembled Man Disassembled (Sorry, Frankie)

There's a new gang in town and they call themselves The New Pulp Press.

According to head honcho Jon Bassoff, they were founded as:

"... an alternative to the often generic world of conglomerate corporate publishing. Dedicated to giving voice to some of today’s most talented and neglected writers, New Pulp Press focuses on off-center crime fiction and neo-pulp. Veering away from the assumption that a protagonist must be a sympathetic character, our books are centered around con-men, losers, and sociopaths. In other words, we represent what's best about America."

Got that? Con-men, losers, and sociopaths are what's best about America? Maybe they should tear down the Statue of Liberty (that French bitch) and put up one of Ted Bundy. Or Robert Ford.

But hey, chest-thumping publisher hyperbole is one thing -- what about the books themselves?

I had the fortune of receiving a copy of one of NPP''s very first books, The Disassembled Man by Nate Flexer. It came blurbed by a few guys I know and a Bruce Bassoff (no relation) says very nice things on the book's Amazon page. And the publisher himself recommended it highly to me. Not a surprise, perhaps, but he chose this one over the others in his small but growing catalogue.

I had high hopes, then, but it turned out more cartoon than caricature, and what humour there was in it was more of the gross-out/train wreck variety -- a more-than-likely likely candidate for Gun in Cheek III, if Pronzini ever gets around to it. This is "noir" as understood by fourteen year olds.

Granted, we all like different things. What disappointed me about this book -- what I felt was juvenile and self-conscious -- others may praise as fresh and exciting and the funniest thing they've read in years.

Maybe I'm being too harsh on a first-time (?) novelist, and should save my vitriol for the "big boys" -- those firmly entrenched best-selling writers who are beyond reviews (and the sniping of frustrated wannabes in the peanut gallery). But the author doesn't strike me as the sensitive type. In fact, he goes out of his way to prove he's about as sensitive as a hockey puck.

In trying to establish his tough guy bona-fides, he crams every sentence, every paragraph, every clunky, self-conscious bit of dialogue with over-boiled similes ("red as a used tampon"), blatantly obvious metaphors, dime store psychobabble and prose so tortured only Dick Cheyney could love it.

So what might have been a tight and effective, albeit obvious, tour through hell ends up just another neo nah entrant in the schoolyard spitting contest.

Nor is the plot strong enough to pull the reader over the rough spots.

Despite all the huffing and puffing, the story goes pretty much from A to B, with nary a detour along the way: disgruntled slaughterhouse worker and unhappily married man goes psycho nuts about sums it up.

And talk about obvious. The cover itself is so unapologetically amateurish and crude, I just felt it had to be ironic. But no irony was intended -- or even evident. What you see is pretty much what you'll get. The protagonist, a vicious little slug of a specimen, is named -- I kid you not -- Frankie Avicious. Meanwhile, the "twist" ending (and the "surprise" rationale for his crimes) is pretty much blown by its own title. If you've read enough Jim Thompson (or enough Jim Thompson wannabees) you already know what's coming.

Not that anyone would be reading this for the plot, anyway. It's the writing, the publisher and the blurbers and Bruce Bassoff (no relation) assure us, that's supposed to be the real treat here.

One reviewer even called Flexer an explosive writer. I'm not sure about him, but Frankie sure is explosive. Or maybe just gaseous. At the least display of stress or suspense, he vomits. Or pisses his pants. Or craps in them.

A typical sentence construct is "I was so (angry/upset/nervous) I (pissed my pants/threw up/shit myself)."

Repeat ad nauseum.

Although Frankie does on rare occasions exert some control over his bodily functions, as in the memorable scene where his car, left sitting in the sun, is so hot he has to piss on the steering wheel before he can touch it.

Yeah, people do that all the time.

But mostly he seems unable to control any part of his digestive system, as when, trying to gain access to a rendering plant, he writes:

"I pulled (the) keys out of my pocket. The first two didn't work. I panicked. The third key did the trick. I farted with relief."


Maybe, in smaller doses, if the excesses weren't run into the ground, this gaseous sort of prose might have worked. Obviously some people think this is very funny stuff.

And, to be fair, there were several times I found myself chuckling despite myself, which is why I said I was disappointed by the book; not just pissed off. The author, despite himself, does show promise. Sometimes, out of the blue, something pops out of his protagonist Frankie's mouth that is so incongruous it's hilarious.

Like, when in the middle of everything, just as he's about to murder someone, he starts spouting off about the Electoral College and universal health care to his potential victim.

It's a head snapping twist. Totally implausible, of course, but very funny, in that context. But Flexer's not content to stop there -- he works it into the ground, riffing on education, government spending and other pet peeves for almost a page, like some junior high student padding out his overdue civics paper. What should have been a quick snappy one-liner becomes a WTF?-like rant that flattens the humour pretty effectively. It's the sort of thing an editor should have reined in.

The whole book is riddled with scenes like that. Unexpected excess can be funny, but when the excess goes way past the funny point, the reader is left with just excess.

A friend suggested I made Flexer seem like G.G. Allin, but I was thinking more along the lines of Robert Leslie Bellem, whom I like quite a bit in fact, but yeah, that's exactly the type of "alternative" writing I'm talking about. But whereas I think (I hope) Bellem was putting us on, I'm not so sure that's the case here. There was something sort of good-natured and goofy about Dan Turner, but Frankie Avicious just seems mean-hearted.

To each his own, I guess. But the real irony, of course, might be that for all the flag waving of the publisher and Bruce Bassoff (no relation) and some of his relatively well-known blurbers have done, my more negative view of the book may actually entice some readers just as effectively as they did.

So, all in all, a debut done in by its own enthusiasm, with the editor (if it was edited) showing as little restraint as the author. Yeah, this book is memorable, all right, and definitely "a bit special." Sorta like watching a grown man (the author is supposedly 33 years old) play with his own turds.

Though that might be taken as a compliment and even a selling point in some quarters. Maybe the New Pulp Press will peg me to blurb Flexer's next book.

Labels: , ,