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.

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Blogger Graham Powell said...

"Neo Nah". I somehow missed the coining of that one, but it's perfect! I suspect that Neo Noir is especially susceptible to errors of excess because a lot of its force comes from excess in the first place.

In the hands of, say, Anthony Neil Smith or Scott Wolven (or proto-neo Joe Lansdale) this can work well. In lesser hands, not.

1:45 PM, June 11, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Or Duane Swierczynski, whose humanity leaks through no matter how outlandish the proceedings get. I think that's really what turns me off about so much of what is being passed off as noir these days -- that there's so damn little recognizable humanity in it.

What's more troubling, though, is that so many of its "lesser hands" perpetrators don't seem to realize that there is no apparent awareness that there is no recognizable humanity in their work, most of which lacks the gritty realism of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Instead there's a lot of self-defensive flapping of the gums about literary parody and existentialism and how the bourgeoisie can't get their little middle class minds around the wonderful intellectual intricacy and class politics of the new noir.

Most of which is written (and probably read) by members of the bourgeoisie anyway, I suspect. I mean, Flexer claims to be a thirty-something school teacher. Not exactly selling blow jobs for crack, is he?

Or else he works at one helluva school.

Anyway, glad you liked the "neo nah" crack. I'm still hoping the phrase catches on, so I can collect royalties.

3:48 PM, June 11, 2009  
Blogger Graham Powell said...

I personally had a definite middle-class upbringing, so I wish there was more John D. Macdonald noir, featuring real people doing things real people can do.

From the little I've read, Charles Williams was also good at this sort of thing.

8:57 PM, June 11, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

Gotta disagree with you on your review of The Disassembled Man. Maybe my sense of humor is on the juvenile side, but I thought the book was funny as hell. Flexer reminds me a lot of a modern-day Jim Thompson, and to me that's a good thing.

10:46 AM, June 12, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

When exactly did comparing some writer to Jim Thompson become an excuse for crude, cartoonish, sloppy writing that bears absolutely no relationship to the real world? It seems every time I stumble across a poorly written book full of awkward self-conscious "tough guy" writing, someone trots out the Thompson comparison to defend it. It's almost a Pavlovian response among the neo nah brigade. And the writers themselves are usually the first to use it.

It sorta makes you wonder if any of these people have ever read Thompson. Or if they understood it?

10:21 PM, June 12, 2009  
Anonymous charlie stella said...

Charlie Williams is BRILLIANT at this sort of thing.

2:06 PM, June 13, 2009  
Anonymous Jack Holbrook said...

"...crude, cartoonish, sloppy writing that bears absolutely no relationship to the real world"

You just summed up my whole complaint with so much modern writing. Is it the publishers that are pushing writers to be so extreme that it becomes ridiculous? Or do they really think readers want this now?

I'm a pretty conservative writer myself but that's because I think if a story doesn't deal with real people in plausible situations, it isn't worth writing.

4:38 AM, June 20, 2009  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

I don't necessarily think publishers are pushing this stuff as a whole, although I do think what's "acceptable" in film, literature, TV, etc. is definitely expanding almost daily. Some publishers might be pushing it, but some of it is from small, niche and even vanity presses. And it's society as a whole that's accepting it -- after all, an awful lot of people seem to think torture is fine as long as "WE" are doing it. So what's a little chainsaw vivisection in a novel?

And really, if a writer can make it work,maybe I'd have no kick. But I've come across too much of this stuff where the writers don't seem to be able to make it work... without characters, it's just one-handed showmanship.

11:35 PM, June 20, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with your rather subjective review which seems more tainted by your squeamishness regarding bodily functions than any reading of the text. I found the novel deeply nihilistic bit utterly fascinating. The scene you point to Illustrates this point completely-we follow the protagonist as he prepares to meet his mother in law to help him hunt down his wife. He shaves, buys new clothes, actions we can understand, he enters his car and, finding it too hot, urinates on the steering wheel. How bizarre, how awful an image and this is the power of the book; we understand we are following the life of a mad man, a man for whom no plan will succeed, no scheme will work because he is a man trapped in a mind that does not and cannot function, a mind that can not create, only destroy (perfectly symbolised in the later discovery concerning his anatomy) and the bodily functions you so criticise for their crudeness are integral to the story- the crumbling of his mind is illustrated through the ruin of hid body, he truly is a disassembled man-we know he cannot survive either physically or mentally. You talk of Thompson as a source and I imagine this is because of the surface similarities, a hard drinking unstable man in a remote crumbling town but personally I think the book stands as an antithesis to Ellis' American Psycho - here we see the other side of the American nightmare - the yuppie is replaced by the slaughter house worker, evian water replaced by warm domestic beer, the high class restaurant with dominoes, the hard body with the hard face, but both centre around the same mind-violent, terrified and shut in, there is no exit for either Patrick Batemen or Frankie Avicious but the wicked thing is, they both enjoy it

4:07 PM, January 14, 2013  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Oh my goodness! I've been accused of -- wait for it -- a "rather subjective" review!!!

Imagine that? Really, Anonymous, you really should leave the Amazon reviews alone and find out what book reviews are supposed to do.

Yes, I didn't like the book. I even had the balls to sign my own name to it, and try to explain why I felt the way I did.

You can trot out all the two-cent pretentious literary gobbeldlygook ("deeply nihilistic") and anonymous five-star reviews you want, but no matter how much you gold plate a turd, it's still a turd.

Yes, all the misguided little boys in the neo-nah schoolyard enjoy this sort of thing (the more offensive it is, the more "real" it must be), but some of us have grown up and want a little more in our reading than facile gross-outs and toilet paper-thin characterization.

But the saddest part of so many books like THE DISASSEMBLED MAN is that so many of us are not so much shocked by those sorts of scenes as bored by them.

Mutilation. Perversion. Cannibalism. Eating feces. Yawn.

It seems to be a truism that when it comes to the darker end of the crime fiction field, those who can't write credible characters go for these sort of shock tactics instead, in much the same way so many writers who can't plot and have problems creating believable villains or motives end up writing serial killer novels.

And self-publishing them.

By the way, I'm actually rather fond of many bodily functions. You may feel the same way once you get a little older.

1:23 PM, January 15, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a man who criticises the works of others, you certainly seem to have a rather thin skin when dealing with negative appreciations of your own Interpretations. Certainly your suggestion that my publishing my previous statement without including my name had some sort of sinister or cowardly motive seems bizarre-I am simply defending a book I believe has true artistic merit, not defending the holocaust or advocating the slave trade!

Before your blood begins to boil again I agree with your sentiments regarding villains and serial killers, but believe this refers more to television than fiction (luckily I have not had the misfortune to read a Dexter novel). Your comments certainly don't apply to Flexer's book, Frankie is a very real character- consider his conversation with the lawyer, his first conversation with his father in law, the passage in which he cuts the strippers name into his chest (a brilliant image of his passion and his self-made destruction) and the action of the novel rises to, rather than exceeds, the extremes of such a life, the life of an alcoholic dying low income slaughter house worker. Rather than focusing on the gore and shock tactics, Flexer develops this theme of, not neo nah, but raw horror, it's Frankie's real environment combined with his mind which is truly revolting and, as readers, we know he will never rise above it, even his fantasies, his dreams repel us - the stripper, his mother and these are the closest he has to a happy ending! The images you label shock tactics are rather the only environment that surrounds him, there is nothing else in either his world or his minds eye which provides a point of reference and this makes it such an unsettling work.

I think by looking at earlier authors such as Thompson, you do both Thompson and Flexer a disservice, Flexer's world is one in which the protagonist is attacked by everything - people, family, his environment, his own body. Life is a struggle we must all lose but is it really worth fighting for? Flexer constantly challenges us throughout the text with this theme and provides images which are both grotesque and fitting. If I were to relate it to a cannon, I would suggest you look away from neo nah, and relate it more to McCarthy's Child of God, Crewe's A Feast of Snakes or Evenson's Alltmann's Nose.

Tom Paley

9:42 PM, March 16, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Altman's Tongue sorry- for some reason I always remember it as Nose (a reason I found it so hard to buy from a book shop!)

9:47 PM, March 16, 2013  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Hey, Tom or whoever you are,

So sorry you still disagree with a four-year old review.

But it wasn't me who first compared the book to Jim Thompson. That's entirely on the publisher, the author and some of his blurb buddies. And some of his defenders, including one in these very comments.

As for my "thin skin," you're kidding, right? You're barely even a prickle, and at no point did my blood ever come close to boiling. I've heard much worse and more on-target remarks from other defenders of the book. And a few even sillier ones, like an exchange from one of the well-respected blurbers who couldn't even quite remember what he'd written about it, and ended up embarrassing himself on a rather public forum.

But the author himself had far less trouble and responded far more graciously to my review. We've since corresponded a few times over the years and while our views on crime fiction don't always line up, I have no problem with him or, I assume, he with me. I think he has real talent -- despite his first salvo -- and I wish him well.

It's all about integrity. I was asked to review a book, and I gave my honest opinion at the time. Under my own name. That's what critics do. You disagreed? Fine. But guess what? Your opinion is every bit as subjective as mine.

Or possibly more so, given that I've never boasted of not reading a series, and then summarily dismissing it, as you just did with the Dexter novels.

4:08 PM, March 17, 2013  

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