Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Toronto" "Noir"... Again

A while back, I ranted about what I felt was the, um, dubious selection process employed by the editors of Toronto Noir, Akashic's first foray into the Canadian crime scene. At the time, I was disappointed that so few "crime" writers had been chosen for the project, the editors instead opting for more "literary" writers.

One of them claimed he'd tried to include more genre writers; at least a couple of crime writers told me their queries had been ignored. What the hell, as Dan Turner might have said.
But that was long ago and far away. Recently, I've read two noirish books by Toronto -- or at least Toronto-area writers -- that have stuck in my craw. Hell, they might even be accused of being "literary." But don't let that scare you. They're actually readable. So maybe the editors were on to something.

Although, going back to my copy of Toronto Noir, I see neither of these two writers made the cut, either. Still, in a better world, maybe they'll be allowed to participate in Toronto Noir II.

Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall (could he sound any more Torontonian? He sounds like a subway station) is an award-winning journalist from the Queen City, and while there is a crime novel of sorts in Ghosted, his first full-length stab at fiction, it’s buried under the rubble of a crazy, blackhearted maelstrom of desperation, suicide, drugs, Bob Seger, memory and delusion.

Fortunately, there’s enough gloom and doom and crime here – everything from gambling and drugs to murder and horse theft -- to keep noir fans happy, but this is, more correctly, a novel of bleak self-discovery and dark redemption. Mason Dubisee, a Toronto journo and would-be novelist whose life went off the rails years ago, staggers home after years of gambling, booze, drugs and squandered talent to be taken in by childhood friend and drug dealer Chaz. The action follows Mason’s quixotic struggle as a vendor of hot dogs near Toronto's City Hall, a coke-fuelled gambler on a major losing streak, an addict sweating through recovery and eventually, a potentially lucrative career as a professional writer of suicide notes. It’s the latter that ultimately puts Mason in the crosshairs of Seth, a charming but sadistic sociopath – and finally lights a fire under the sputtering plot.

Lucky for us, the finely rendered rogues’ gallery of memorable but damaged characters -- the beautiful wheelchair-bound junkie Willie; the sad, shy, guilt-ridden Warren; the unloved, obese Sissy; the suicidal performance artist Soon, and Chaz, the always amiable criminal, among others – and a barrage of pop culture namedropping (hey, it’s a Toronto novel, after all) will keep patient readers turning the pages. In fact, with its lovingly drawn but fucked-up characters, ruminations on the act of writing, the fragility of life, the lies we tell ourselves to keep on going and a GOTCHA! climatic confrontation between Mason and Seth that finally KrazyGlues all those disparate threads together, this bleak, frequently nasty literate novel comes off like a film noir pounded out by a pissed-off John Irving suffering from a nasty hangover.

Shaughnessy will be touring the States, hitting NYC, Philadelphia, Chicago, Iowa City, San Francsco and Portland and who knows where else in the next few days, and I'll warn you right now: he's a man who likes to talk to a man who likes to talk. If you'd like to download and view his full itinerary, click here.

But I digress...

I'm not even sure if London, Ontario qualifies as "Toronto area" (certainly not to anyone who lives in London, anyway), but since at least a few, mostly American reviews have tagged fantasy author R. Scott Bakker as a "Toronto" writer despite his residence a couple of hours drive west, that's good enough for me.

And Bakker's foray into crime fiction should be good enough for you. Disciple of the Dog introduces private eye Disciple Manning, and it's one hell of a debut. Because, you see, Disciple's not your average gumshoe.

As though being named Disciple (and living in Newark) isn't enough of a handicap, he's also cursed with perfect memory.

Cool, right?

But it t'ain't necessarily so. As Manning puts it, "You wonder why I'm cynical. I've literally seen it all before. The truth is we all have, every single one of us past the age of, say, twenty-five. The only difference is that I remember."

There's a price to pay for all that total recall, you see. It seems you can't forget anything. Even if you want to. And it's left poor Manning with a pretty dim view of not just humanity, but life itself. "We keep waiting for something Shakespearean to happen," he explains, but we end up with "the Jerry Springer Show. Squalid. Cheap. Mean-spirited."

Which probably explains his disastrous relationships with women, his periodic substance abuse binges and the occasional suicide attempt. Only pot-smoking, the task of journal-keeping that his latest therapist has foisted upon him and the slight chance that a case will expose him to something new that will actually challenge his "mangy capabilities" keep him from just turning out the big light.

So when Jonathan and Amanda Bonjour ask him to look into the disappearance of their missing daughter, Jennifer, who had recently journeyed to the small, one-horse town of Ruddick, Pennsylvania to join a doomsday cult, Disciple jumps at the chance. Not because he's heroic or noble or even because he gives a "fawk" but simply because it might not be boring -- and there might a sizable fee. Drugs and bimbos don't come cheap, after all.

And while Disciple may not always the most likable of human beings and the book runs a little long, there's something rather enjoyable about watching this self-destructive scuzzball square off against small town cops, assorted true believers, a slew of neo-Nazis, a sexy journalist who sniffs a career-changing story and the charismatic but possibly insane psychology professor turned cult leader. Toss in a few clever, pulpy plot twists, and Disciple's constant stream of occasionally nasty wisecracks, put downs, wry observations and philosophical asides (and shout-outs to The Tragically Hip) and you've got one of the more memorable P.I. characters of the last year. You might even say unforgettable.

Both Ghosted and Disciple of the Dog are fine, dark stabs at the beast we call noir -- check 'em out!

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Anonymous Steven T. said...

The second novel reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges' short story "Funes el Memorioso." Funes also has perfect recall - every leaf he'd ever seen and how they moved and how the sunlight and shadows played on them, etc.

2:47 PM, November 04, 2010  

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