Monday, October 10, 2011

Smiley's People (1979) by John Le Carre

I liked it. I liked it a lot.

The final book of the Karla trilogy that started with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

I liked it, because every character has a back story and a motivation. I understood why everyone did everything (at least by the end). I liked the tradecraft and the anecdotal observations of it (see especially chapter 21).

I liked the moral ambivalence of it. Maybe the bad guys were always bad, but had the good guys been corrupted in the long fight?

I liked the prose. Le Carre is at the height of his powers. Fresh, powerful, lyrical...transparent. You don't even notice it. You glide along with it, all in the service of the don't even realize you're reading.

This is better than Tinker, better than The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. That's saying something.

Monday, October 3, 2011

In a Shallow Grave (1975) by James Purdy

I liked it. I liked it a lot.

Told in the first person by Garnet Montrose, a horribly disfigured Army veteran. Garnet describes himself as having been turned inside out; people cannot look at him without wretching.

Garnet returns to his Virginia home and lives alone in the house of his grandfather and great-grandfather. He seeks the aid of an assistant to nurse him, read to him and to carry letters to the Widow Rance, a childhood friend, with whom he is desperately in love.

Garnet winds up with two assistants. Quintus is a young, intelligent African American who reads to Garnet and Daventry who ministers to Garnet and with whom Garnet forms a Platonic relationship. This unpromising mix of characters results in a surprisingly engaging story in which Garnet is transformed.

In a Shallow Grave is allegory, call it Southern Allegory (as opposed to the misnomer, Southern Gothic). It follows in the tradition of Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms and even earlier antecedents.

Being allegory, even the characters must be viewed in that light. Garnet, having been turned inside out, by being in an explosion that killed his comrades, views himself as horribly disgusting to others. Perhaps he believes his inner self has been revealed. Quintus, from the Latin name to his habit of reading the obscure and archaic books that seem to litter the house, reads aloud to Garnet those passages the Garnet needs to hear and functions as sort of a Greek chorus. Daventry is a beautiful outlaw, but missing his front teeth.

There are many twists and turns, all with hidden meaning and what starts out one way has, by the end, turned out as quite another. This is a novel about the outsider, the dispossessed, and his journey of self discovery.

Purdy's prose is spare, unornamented and free of unnecessary digression. Gore Vidal has called him "an authentic American genius." He has been called the best 'unknown' American writer.

Shallow is a quick read, 140 small pages of not small print, but a long ponder. I find myself returning to it at odd moments. It is instantly recognizable as a great work of fiction.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The classic mole hunt by John Le Carre.

I liked it.

I liked it because it seemed more complex than it was. I liked it for its casual fear and resentment of America.

"You hate America?"

Not at all. America is all I have ever known. I love its out-sized sloppiness, its unending variety, it's energy. Its intelligence and stupidity in equal measure.

"But it's the French who hate America."

And the Americans hate them back for it. Like children in a kindergarten. But always remember, there is that same strain of hate, perhaps more virulent, among the British intelligentsia, the last true outpost of French existentialism. They hate the French too, though. They have that strong belief in their divine right to rule and have found themselves instead on the last bus to Hampstead Heath.

This was a very enjoyable read. There are few spy or detective novels that hold up all the way to the end and Tinker is one of them. Usually I become a little disenchanted about 2/3 of the way through. Plot holes surface, explanations become a little too pat, there is a drawn out 'chase' at the end. None of this for Le Carre.

What he did right by me:

He had a great story. Seemingly complex. Mole hunts are tailor made (forgive the pun) for complexity. The way in which a mole is even suspected must be a bit round about otherwise the mole hunt would have already commenced (Le Carre has it both ways - genius). Catching a mole is tricky because great measures have been taken to conceal his identity. A ruse is required (Le Carre uses two).

Character development. Early spy/detective novels were mere puzzles - you have seen the clues afforded our detective, can you solve it? Some contained elaborate summaries to help the reader. This kind of thing got old fast, enter Hammett, Chandler, et al. Le Carre works at characterization and there is no ham-fisted explanation at the end for why the mole did it (rather, more than one explanation offered by the characters involved).

Good, clear prose. Fresh and descriptive, very serviceable. I liked the way he interspersed dialog with brief summaries of digressions. It makes it all very natural without having to wade through the irrelevant bits.

The weaker bits:

Plot is inseparable from motivation which is inseparable from character. We understand the characters when we can explain their motivations for ourselves.  This is forever and always a hugely difficult undertaking and almost no one carries it off completely (please comment if you know an exception). Le Carre did work at characterization, just not enough.

A novel, a good novel, is made up of many things. A good novel has a story and a theme and Tinker has a theme. It is betrayal. Gerald the mole's betrayal of his country, his colleagues, and his lovers. Ann Smiley's serial betrayals of her husband, George. I do wish Le Carre would have done a little more with it.

Would I recommend this? You bet. To anyone. It's a must read.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Post Office

Charles Bukowski's first novel, published in 1971. I liked it.

John Martin of Black Sparrow Press offered Bukowski, at that time noted more for poetry than prose, $100/month to quit the post office and write full time. As poetry did (and does) not sell, Bukowski wrote Post Office, which is a fictional account of Bukowski's life from the early 1950's to 1969 when he quit the post office once and for all.

Bukowski transforms himself into Henry Chinaski and the women in his life into beautiful nymphomaniacs, tragic alcoholics, and free living hipsters. Chinaski is no sucker, he detests the work ethic and the colateral death march. He enjoys pretty girls, the race track and plenty of liquor with which to chase it all. He has no real philosophy, no selfless ambition, cares for everyone, but mostly for himself.

Post Office is written in very short chapters, many only a half page long, slices of life. Bukowski's prose is simple, fresh and direct. The tone never changes, the essence of the experiences never changes, yet Bukowski kept me reading, reading 'til the the very end. I didn't feel disappointed; I didn't feel cheated.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Bridge in the Jungle

I liked it.

Written by the mysterious B. Traven as a short story and serialized in 1927, subsequently published in a longer book form in 1929.

I had been trolling the used book stores looking for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927) also by Traven and came upon this for $2. I took a chance.

It is indeed a short story - about the death and burial of a little Indian boy in the jungles of Mexico, 176 pages of small print, perhaps 45,000 words. I had to put it down over the course of several days to do those things we all must to keep body and soul concomitant, but I kept picking it back up, kept on reading. It is a tribute to Traven's ability as a writer.

It is clear that Traven had that love and respect for indigenous peoples that afflicts the idealist, but in his case is tempered by a realistic appreciation of ignorance and poverty. Most writers of indigenous peoples fall into two camps: the noble savage or the carefree children. The noble savage is proud, lives at one with the land and has a mystical communion with the universe. The carefree children are good-hearted, irresponsible, comic emulators of European sophistication. Traven travels a more realistic middle ground.

I could not but help seeing in The Bridge in the Jungle the seeds of a magical realism, subtle and restrained - not the careless mixture of fantasy and reality encountered so often and so much later. And this in 1927, well before Borges' Ficciones in 1944.

Traven was revered in Mexico, at one point his literary representative was Esperanza Lopez Mateos, sister of a future President of Mexico, until her suicide in 1951, the same Year Traven was granted Mexican Citizenship.

I'm going to keep my eye out for more Traven. If you ignore the anti-capitalist rants (actually, I found them to be lots of fun), Traven writes with a certain degree of subtlety. And how can a story so simple be stretched to 45,000 words and still keep the reader interested all the way to the end? He did it pretty well.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Herman Scofield is a loser. A loser at love and a loser at the poker table. But Herman's luck is about to change thanks to Lightspeed, an order of magnitude more powerful than crystal meth. Read Lightspeed for free.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

First Paragraphs

Amazon books and Google books.  They let me read snippets.  I like reading the first few pages; they tell me whether the author can write; it's important to know.

Go to Amazon and:

Read the first paragraph of Places in the Dark by Thomas H Cook.
Read the first six pages of Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer.
The first paragraph of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (utterly brilliant - you could sustain an academic thesis on it).
First page of Angels Flight by Michael Connelly (the always reliable Connelly).
And for comparison:
The first few pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.  You'll have to scan down for a searchable edition.  The real writing begins about five pages in with "Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it."  Shame on Harper Lee for those first pages (heresy!).
Google has the first few pages of The Great Gatsby.  Shame on Scott Fitzgerald (even more heresy!) for those first few pages.
Surely an amusing diversion, but also something useful.
Raymond Chandler set the hook in the first paragraph. (How good is that!) He introduced his character, established a voice, and made us wonder why a fabulously rich man wanted a private eye. I don't know about you, but I was hooked.

And that's what the first paragraph is for. 

Know a better first paragraph? Leave a comment.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I like sex. It's good, clean fun. Except for that AIDS thing...and those other things. Sheesh, how to wreck a good thing.

Sex absolutely makes the world go round. (I know, you thought it was money or power - what do you think those are for?)

Just think of all the petabytes of porn on the net. Porn MADE the internet; it was the first successful internet business. Followed up by gambling. Hmmm. If I could just combine porn with gambling....
I like casual sex. It seems so much more sophisticated than the other kind - the sweaty, furtive, anonymous kind. Casual sex has a sort of bored, take it or leave it vibe. It's the kind of sex Hollywood types have. Maybe.'s the kind of sex I like to imagine they have.
And I like the idea of gay sex except it can be a bit of a cruel joke on heterosexuals. Imagine you're a guy trying to hook up with this hot chick and you're on the edge, the cusp of sealing the deal. Then along comes another hottie and she gives the the first one the LOOK and you can see the first chick go into full up response mode. Okay, so hope springs eternal and there's the off chance of a three-way until you notice that they have left without giving me you a second look.

And turn it around. Suppose you're a chick and you're putting out the VIBES to this hot guy. Then along comes another rather ordinary looking guy and gives the first guy the LOOK. Oh man, how bad is she going to feel?

I always wanted to be bi-sexual. I just couldn't handle that sex with men thing - I couldn't even bring myself to try, how pathetic is that? After all, remember what your mother said: "You don't have to like it, you don't have to eat it, but you do have to try it." Bi-sexuals are sort of like the apex predator in the sexual jungle. The bi-sexual predator is choking down all the nookie he/she can handle. Funny thing though, I never knew one who wasn't deep down unhappy. Unhappy with the old conquests, soon to be unhappy with the new. Geeze, some people are never happy.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


I like everything about drugs except addiction and the fact that I feel like a potato. I like to drink (can't you tell by this post?) and I like MaryJane (remember, good sex has to be awfully good to be better than any kind of sex on grass), just haven't had any in a while. Oh sweet mother of pearl! MJ not sex!

I'm looking through the blinds at some strange car parked out front. Maybe I should flush all my crap. NO! It's gone.

I once sat stoned in the Rock Chalk Cafe. On acid. 
"Sunglasses or beads, man. You can't have both."
I could see to the very core of human...something.
"Give me the beads man, give me the beads."

I know you're out there. Watching.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Naked and the Damned

I like science fiction. More accurately, I like the idea of science fiction. I'm never really happy with what I find. It's geeks, mostly, that write sci-fi and geeks don't understand the relationship between men and women. (Well, neither did Hemingway.)

And they can't write prose for sipping bananas:
The thrumming rhythm of the turgid detectors squinted at half second arcs during the momentary optical shift of the stochastic resonators. Suddenly my sensor buttons detected a quiffburger.
See how the words 'detectors' and 'detected' are used in consecutive sentences?

Or dialog:
"Jeepers Professor, how does it work?"
"Well, Jimmy, it's like a hot tub on spin dry..."
Good dialog would have read:
"Well, Jimmy, it's like a hooker on spin dry..."
See the difference?

Oh, I've read Stranger in a Strange Land, Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Flowers for Algernon and more. I just noticed that I have omitted Philip K Dick and William Gibson and yes, I've read them as well.

 In frustration I decided to write a little sci-fi just to see if I could do it, so I wrote a few short stories. One of the earliest was The Naked and the Damned

Two worlds communicate and exchange genetic sequences. A human constructed on one world, a human-alien hybrid on another. It has a rather abrupt ending. Abruptness is my strong suit.

Warlock (1958, Oakley Hall)

[EDIT: This post was pretty boring so I added a lot of images to pep it up. If it was me, I'd just look at the pictures and skip to the next post. LF]

Tombstone, Arizona Territory, 1881
Oakley Hall borrowed a few legends of the Old West and assembled them into a riff about honor. Men live and die, but they achieve nothing. It is only in the attempt to achieve something that man is ennobled. 

Big Nose KateThe town of Warlock is a thinly disguised Tombstone circa 1881. The outlaws are the Cow-boys. Ike Clanton, Old Man Clanton, Curley Bill Brocius, Johnny Ringo, Pony Diehl, the McClowry's, all have counterparts in Warlock. Kate Dollar is Big Nose Kate, the gambler and gunman Tom Morgan is a version of Doc Holliday and the town taming gunman, Clay Baisedell, is Hall's version of Wyatt Earp. Deputy Sheriff Johnny Gannon, Jessie Marlow - the miners angel, and Dr. Wagner have no real parallels.

Warlock is  about character. The back shooter, Jack Cade, and a few others apart, Hall's characters endeavor to act nobly within the constraints of their circumstances and personal value systems. They often fail, but it is the attempt to act nobly that ennobles them. Hall allows us to understand the motivations of his many characters and this is the great strength of the novel (it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1958).

Western novels are usually action and adventure with feats of daring-do where character is synonymous with grit. Warlock has it's fair share of gunfights (including the gunfight at the Acme Corral), stage coach robberies, cold-blooded killings, a knife fight and even a miner's strike. And many of the characters show a good deal of personal courage. But in Warlock, the hero does not ride into the sunset with his sweetheart; Hall's characters die violent and futile deaths. It is a dark vision of the Old West.

Kind of slow. Not sure I liked it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

What's It All About, Johnny Bone?

I claim to like Southern Gothic. You know, that whole Flannery O'Connor/Carson McCullers vibe. But my vision is a little different from theirs.

Classic Southern Gothic requires a religious zealot or a sexually repressed hillbilly to run amok in a mid-sized southern city. (Hey, what do you expect - country folks loose in the big city.)

I tried my hand at a few short stories. In What's It All About, Johnny Bone?, the hillbillies have only a scatological notion of religion, are sexually advanced and run amok in a honkytonk.

See the difference?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Later, at the Bar

(2007) by Rebecca Barry. A short story collection, a novel in stories. Set in a small town in upstate New York.  The characters are denizens of a neighborhood bar. This collection is all about characterization and I would recommend it to any aspiring writer and any creative writing class.

Later, at the Bar is what WInesburg, Ohio should have been. I remember reading Winesburg in college. I was greatly impressed. All of these supposedly dull, small town people fizzing over with emotion. I read it again years later and wondered what I had seen in it.

I'm sure Later, at the Bar will never suffer that fate. I was sorry when I came to the end. Rebecca Barry left me wanting more. I'm still wondering how she did it.

Elmer Gantry

I finally got the notion to read Elmer Gantry (Sinclair Lewis, 1927) and a fine notion it was.

I had always thought I had a copy somewhere. No, it was Babbitt.  I vaguely remember reading Babbitt in the muddy feedlots of freshman English.  Lewis, an ugly troll, had a remarkable run:  Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), Dodsworth (1929) and the Nobel Prize for Literature  in 1930, the first American author so distinguished. The acceptance of the Prize ended this enchanted run. The rest was rather undistinguished and he spent the next twenty years drinking himself to death. He died in Rome in 1951 at the age of 65.

Elmer Gantry was the high water mark of Lewis' literary career. It is a great rambling thing with many enchanting story elements. Richard Brooks took the best of them, changed them 'round and made a fine movie of it. I watched it again and it has lost nothing.

Lewis' prose was uncluttered and would rise infrequently to the level of poetry. I rather liked him.

Raymond Carver and Stephen King

I presume you are familiar with Raymond Carver, short story and poetry specialist, darling of academe.

Raymond Carver died of lung cancer at the age of fifty about twenty years ago. Now, finally, as I lay upon my lily pad sunning myself in my own obscure backwater, multiple scraps from the past have drifted, whirled lazily by with Raymond Carver's name upon them. All of a sudden, it seems, I am to be made aware of Raymond Carver.

Carver, like almost every writer and certainly every poet, was unable to support himself by writing. After a life of odd jobs, a certain amount of fame attached itself to his name and eventually he was at least able to teach writing. In that capacity he seemed to move around every year or two.

In a shining coincidence of luck and fate, I found a collection of his stories at the local library.

Carver writes in Standard Prose; you know, what was left after Hemingway et. al. stripped the silliness out of the nineteenth century stuff. Standard Prose is almost always better than any other kind of prose except that written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen and other such literary luminaries. Carver's prose is perfect in that it commits no sins. If he had submitted a story to me for a dose of the machete and the gas can (I do lean, just ever so slightly, toward my criticism), I would be forced to return it without a mark.  Mind you, the luminaries commit no sins either; they're just better.

Carver writes about ordinary life. In ordinary prose. (I must admit that my own prose is rather ordinary, though perhaps not quite as good as Carver's.) I wonder what all the fuss is about? But I do, honestly and unreservedly recommend him to any student of writing. Maybe that's what all the fuss is about.

I had cast a wide net at the library and came away with a book on writing by that master of popular fiction, Stephen King. Where Carver died early and broke, King is still with us and made immensely wealthy by the product of his pen. For the ardent student of Reader Psychology, the pull is irresistible. (And even King mentions Carver.)

I must confess at the outset that I have never read any King. King is a popular writer (and I am a snob, surely - and unwisely), and he writes books that could easily double as door stops. I was sufficiently deterred. I have since at least sampled King's prose and found it entirely serviceable. I shall be forced to read one. (Something manageable I hope.)

Kings advice on prose is entirely within the confines of that standard on writing, Strunk and White. Strunk and White do offer credible advice which boils down to: don't confuse the reader, eliminate redundancies, avoid the passive voice and avoid sentence inversions. To their credit, Strunk and White offer guidelines and not rules. Every student of writing should peruse it at least once. (I have no doubt you are thoroughly familiar with it.)

King believes there are four kinds of writers: bad, competent, good and great.  He believes that bad writers cannot be made competent and that good writers cannot be made great.  He does believe that a competent writer can be made good  (by Strunk and White?). Who knows.

King says that plotting doesn't work for him. The result is stilted. He just let's the characters and story carry him along; he's never certain where it will end up. (Perhaps this accounts for the rather thick books.)  I sympathize with him; I have written more than one piece in just that manner - letting the characters decide what happens next. I have also had some success in writing summaries first. This let's me emphasize theme more fully. Whatever works.

He has some interesting advice on themes and symbols. He always grinds out his first draft as quickly as possible so as not to lose character and story. He then edits this draft (essentially a Strunk and White edit). While he's doing this edit he notices if anything looks like theme or symbol and tries to take advantage of it by reinforcing it in the next draft.  

He shows this second draft to his circle of readers. King is slightly sensitive to the criticism that he lets his readers drive how he writes. (Hell, Dickens avidly followed the readers in his serializations and made use of it to change them on the fly! Dickens was no fool. King mentions Dickens, but not in this context.) Kings says that if a writer isn't writing for his readers he may as well be quacking at the moon. He writes for what he calls his Ideal Reader which is his wife, Tabitha. (Hopefully, Tabitha King did not study at the machete and gas can school of criticism.)

King had a few words to say about writing classes and workshops. He studied creative writing at university and subsequently taught high school English (poor bastard!). He says that in both cases, the students/writers are expected to show excerpts of work in progress for the rest of the class to comment on. He holds that this is not an especially good thing. He doesn't let anyone see his stuff until after the second draft to keep his vision uncompromised (otherwise, he may give up on it - my surmise). He also says the comments are almost without exception vague and useless. By this account, it would appear that those who cannot make a living at writing are at the least complicit in keeping the students of writing from making any progress. Poor Raymond Carver.

King had more to say and I've probably left out something important.

I sincerely hope that I do not have to undertake a study of Reader Psychology by way of popular trash. I have read some and it isn't pretty. Then again, I have read stuff the critics raved about and come away disgusted.  Hmmm. On reflection, I may have spoken too quickly. I bet popular trash - for that very reason - is a gold mine.

Still lost in words.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

(1970) George V. Higgins.

It was a quick read, maybe 45,000 words (it was as long as it needed to be and no longer - a resoundingly good thing). The focus of the novel is Eddie Coyle, a small time criminal, his efforts to mitigate a forth coming prison sentence, and the subsequent impact on his acquaintances and associates. The novel is 90% dialog through which the reader discovers the storyline (a method of storytelling I greatly admire). Most of the dialog occurs between no more than two characters at a time. In the novel the persona of each character changes depending on who he is speaking with (just as in real life). This is a wonderful mechanism for "rounding out" a character.

The novel is not without its imperfections (trifling as they are). It is a bit gabby. The speech of some (most) of the characters extends into redundancy and excessive anecdote. One entire chapter is virtually a monologue. Another chapter documenting a conversation between a Federal agent and his boss seemed both irrelevant and unconvincing. In short, the novel would have benefited from a bit of the blue pencil. Not a lot, nothing too radical; where a short story is a tightly written sprint, a novel requires a looser writing style in order to let the reader breathe a bit (even in thrillers).

Creative writing classes should be all about reader psychology.  Since even writers have the barest, mostly intuitive understanding of said thing, second best is the study of selected works.  I commend The Friends of Eddie Coyle to creative writing classes for both its strengths and its flaws.


(2005) a novel by Craig Clevenger.

It has been referred to as puzzle-fiction or transgressive fiction. Classification seems to be a major function of criticism. Phylum, genus and species. I suppose it has its uses.

The novel had been on my list for sometime and I despaired of finding it. I had high hopes for The Contortionist's Handbook also by Clevenger and these were largely fulfilled by Dermaphoria. The novel in trade paperback is 241 pages. I remember approaching page 140 with some trepidation (I would be two-thirds of the way through and I have a pathologic tendency to become disenchanted with novels - and movies - at about this point). Clevenger managed to sustain the mirage all the way to the end.

It is about a designer of illegal drugs who samples his own product.

I will view the novel from three perspectives: the storyline, the manner of its telling and the prose. I shall try to do this without giving too much away since it was constructed to hold the reader all the way up to the last line of the last chapter.

"What about character and setting? A novel needs engaging characters and a setting that resonates with the story."

True on both counts. Dermaporia is told in first person and Clevenger has managed to make the protagonist engaging. He did this by the usual method, namely by what the character says and does. Is there something new that we can learn about characterization from this novel? Not really, so I find no reason to dwell on it.

"Okay, how about setting?"

Clevenger does make use of his settings in Dermaphoria; he is not heedless of them. There are many changes of setting and it is this change which contributes to the atmosphere of the novel. It has become part of the manner of telling.

The storyline: Eric Ashworth, our designer of illegal drugs, finds himself injured and in custody, but without memory. The story follows Eric's attempts to recover his memory for his attorney, the police, his employer and for himself. True, this kind of thing has been done (haven't they all), but Clevenger has a good variation here.

The manner of telling (such a clumsy phrase): Amnesia lends itself to a nonlinear telling and when done deftly, can avoid a problem depressingly common to novels and movies. With some determination on our part, we can parse most novels into the setup, the climax, and the anti-climax, the climax occurring two-thirds to three quarters of the way through. The fundamental problem is that everything after the climax is...well...anticlimactic. The obvious solution is to save the climax for the last word of the last line of the last chapter, i.e., eliminate anticlimax. But there is a problem:  consequences and other loose ends.  Readers do not like loose ends. Once we have learned that climactic thing, whatever it may be, characters think differently, villains are caught, life changes. Clevenger has managed to construct his tale to essentially finish at the climax with no (or few) loose ends. Rather well done I must say.

And, lastly, the prose. The prose is very clean, with few redundancies and actually has a minimalist feel to it, but Clevenger makes very extensive use of metaphor and simile. Clevenger needs the protagonist to convincingly describe his drug addled state (remember, it is a first person account) and so all of this 'flash' works beautifully. The first paragraph is a good example:

     I panicked and swallowed a handful of fireflies and black widows the inferno had not. Shiny glass teardrops shattered beneath my teeth while the fireflies popped like Christmas bulbs until I coughed up blood and blue sparks, starting another fire three inches behind my eyes and burning a hole through the floor of my memory. A lifetime of days, years, minutes and months, gone, but for a lone scrap, scorched and snagged on a frayed nerve ending and snapping in the breeze:

Clevenger needs the prose to conceal (camouflage might be a better word) as much as it reveals and to do so in sympathy with the story. He pulls it off (mostly) for 241 pages.  

There are some weaker spots and stock characters, but overall quite a success.

I have only one substantial criticism. There are some books that I cannot put down; I feel compelled to keep reading and if I am interrupted, I try to get back to it as soon as possible. Not this book. I could put it down at any time, no problem. I could leave it for days and then decide to pick it back up.  I would say off hand that this indicates a lack of dramatic tension. I attribute this to dilution; the book is forty or fifty pages too long. This slows the pace and dissipates tension. Judicious cuts would have improved things, but I suspect publishers demand (perhaps an unspoken demand) page count and authors comply consciously or unconsciously.

Ham On Rye

(1982) by Charles Bukowski

Bukowski, Bukowski, Bukowski.

Refreshing your memory, Ham on Rye is a volume of the fictional autobiography of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's alter ego. It covers the years between his birth in 1920 until Pearl Harbor. My paperback version had 283 pages and 58 chapters (about 85,000 words). A little less than five pages per chapter. Each chapter is a short story (a little under 1500 words each). The stories are related and in chronological order.

First and foremost, Bukowski writes flawless prose (Hemingway-esque, straight forward, short sentences). He tries to make each story interesting. I call them stories, but they are reminiscences (as appropriate to autobiography) in which the narrator explains what happened, how it made him feel, and what he did in response. It is difficult to believe that he could pull this off 58 times in a row, but he does, mostly.

I am prompted to a short digression here. At some point, during our younger days, the short story died.  Raymond Carver and others are credited with reviving it in the 1980's. Raymond Carver wrote good prose.  I read 300 pages of Carver and found little to quibble with. I also found little of interest.  His stories, by and large, were slices of life; they started off someplace and ended up somewhere else.  They were subtle.  They were too subtle.  If the short story was indeed revived, it was only in the desiccated brains and crusted hearts of academics.

Bukowski expended the imagination and effort to make his stories interesting. He eschews subtlety while still, somehow, retaining it. He embraces adolescent fantasy (well, it does cover Chinaski's adolescent years, so he gets a by here). Young Chinaski is boorish, violent, ignorant, unsophisticated, ugly and repellant.  Bukowski has Chinaski make the case for him (Chinaski) as best he can.  He lies, rationalizes and excuses - but after all, these are the standard tools of autobiography.  He succeeded in making the essentially uninteresting interesting. Carver et. al. could have learned something there.

I have read a few pieces of Bukowski's poetry. I find it adolescent and unremarkable (this probably says more about me than about Bukowski's poetry). He grabs hurriedly for the cheaply sensational; his rebelliousness is that of the adolescent; his lamentations on love are the cheap lovesick musings of youth. He never grew to emotional maturity. (I say this as though I grew to emotional maturity myself. What chutzpah!)

I find parallels with Ellroy's adolescence. Bukowski/Chinaski and Ellroy are social outcasts, miscreants, substance abusers, pointlessly rebellious, and sexual retards. But, they both can write and hold your attention. Bukowski's prose is far superior - Ellroy can be wordy/redundant.  I regard Ellroy as a little more emotionally advanced. Neither can be accused of being too subtle.

And that's the way it is (Walter Cronkite is rolling in his grave).

Tokyo Year Zero

by David Pearce

The first installment of the Tokyo Trilogy. Dark, utterly brilliant, stylistic tour de force. The best thing I've read in a very long time. Peace fulfills the promise of Ellroy.

The Aspern Papers

I happened upon an old movie the other day entitled The Lost Moment (1947). I noticed that it was based on The Aspern Papers (1888) by Henry James. I was immediately taken with the film for its mood and atmosphere (though a plot device was introduced of which James had not availed himself). I remembered The Turn of the Screw and what a master of the subtle tale James really was. I undertook to read the Aspern Papers.

And was immediately reminded of what I have never liked about James, his prose. Long winded, circuitous, Latinesque. It was a story of 40,000 words (a novella) that could have been told in half that amount while not losing a thing. I suppose that was the fashion in 1888; a real writer couldn't use ordinary English in a straight forward manner and still call himself a writer.

What a shame, as James had the gift of story. 

On Writing Commercial Fiction

I write an essay at irregular intervals to display the bankrupt state of my knowledge on the writing of fiction. It is an exercise in humility.

Writing is all about the reading experience. In the best case the writer and the reader share a mystical bond. This is the immortal essence of writing and reading. I can not say if there is a written work for every reader or a reader for every written work; reading and writing are intensely personal experiences. Perhaps there are voices that will never find a listener and there are those who listen for voices they shall never hear.

There are ready made readers for particular literary tropes: detective, thriller, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, et. al. There are narrow readers who venture within a few tropes and there are the magnificent, omnivorous readers of voracious appetite and nuanced taste who span the breadth, scale the heights and plum the depths that fiction has to offer.

There are writers who labor like lonely monks offering prayers to an indifferent god, iconoclasts that care not for readers or publishers, but there are many who wish the approbation and confirmation offered by that critical mass of readers that can turn a profit for a publisher. And they do not write for the money - only a very, very few make more money per hour than a burger flipper at McDonald's. A universe of trenchant commentary on the sad state of commercial writing can be can be summarized by simply noting that most writing associations consider a piece to be professional if it sells for at least a nickel a word. [In a wonderful little movie from 1947, a publisher tells an aspiring writer who has just turned down a generous offer: "You know, some of the boys are writing for only a nickel a word." A nickel in 1947 is probably worth more than a dollar now.]

Writing for mass readership is ultimately an exercise in reader psychology. Psychology in general is a "science" in which almost nothing is known. Lost in Freud and Jung and other "personality cults", psychology possesses a slender claim on science, reader psycholgy even less so. In that little tome called The Elements of Style, Strunk and white make the  assertion that the passive voice is less dynamic and forceful than the active voice and should therefore be avoided. This is an assertion about reader psychology and is one of the few extant. Anything that can be said of commercial writing excepting its physical act is a claim about reader psychology. Everything that follows should be interpreted in that light.

Story is paramount; story is king; story can carry a work of fiction despite shortcomings in style. Story is not omnipotent; difficult prose, a sufficiently irritating voice, or large amounts of tedium can all destroy a good story, but good writing (whatever it might be) begins and ends with a good story. (But what makes a good story? Ah....)

Writing, in its entirety, is the story and the manner of it's telling. The manner of telling includes everything that ain't story: voice, prose style, the order of the telling, things unnumbered. The best manner of telling is that which allows the reader to become immersed in the story, oblivious to all else. 

Of course what separates good fiction from the truly great is theme. It can be an obvious comment on social injustice (Dickens) or something definite but subtle, just out of reach (Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby). Where is theme, you ask. There is a simple answer; it's in the story.

So, what is my advice for the aspiring writer?

1. Don't quit your day job.

2. Spend all your thought and effort on story. Make sure you have a really good story.

3. If you discern an underlying theme, enchance it, but don't beat it to death.

4. Use good serviceable prose that's simple and direct. Avoid anything that focuses the attention of the reader on the prose instead of the story (e.g., intricate or inverted sentence structure). The reader should glide unimpeded through the prose. Henry James would be much more widely admired for his wonderful stories if had told them in something other than tediously Latinesque prose.

5. Avoid tedium. Commercial fiction is written for entertainment (tedium and entertainment are antonyms). Sufficient tedium can destry even the best story (e.g., Du Maurier's Rebecca - you could cut a hundred pages out of it and leave it brilliantly intact but more focused).

So there we have it. Now we can all be good commercial writers. Oh...except for that story thing...oh yeah, and that reader psychology thing and...who knows what else.

On Literary Criticism

I know as little about criticism as I do about writing. And since I have not humbled myself sufficiently, I shall reveal my thimble full of knowledge in this arena in pursuit of a new nadir.

Literary criticism casts a wide net into waters shallow and deep. It is the province of English professors (pardon my Anglo-centric bias, I have even less experience elsewhere) and book reviewers. There is of course that curious brand of criticism practiced in writer's workshops where the jackals 
offer vacuous and faintly damning remarks on some poor soul's work in progress in tones meant to be supportive. I have not experienced this first hand, but merely imagine it so - oh, and I've read second hand accounts. All three types of literary criticism can be useful either to writer or reader.

Criticism of an unfinished work is almost useless except to the most inexperienced writer, but criticism can be very useful even to the experienced if done on the second draft. The first draft is to get the story on paper. The writer then makes all "obvious" improvements in the second draft. This includes fixing the prose, deleting the unnecessary, and enhancing the theme. It makes little sense to submit a draft to criticism that contains things the writer knows he should fix; it's just a waste of the reviewer's time and effort. Thus the second draft needs to be as good as the writer can possibly make it.

These considerations prompt an obvious change to the manner in which writer's workshops operate. Writers should not be writing during the workshop, but rewriting. The writer should show up to the workshop with a portfolio of second drafts. The workshop participants use their time to read and criticize the nearly finished works of others and rewriting the next work in their portfolio based criticism of the previous work in their portfolio. And it should all be anonymous perhaps, given human nature, somewhat impractical). But, I digress.

What does the writer need to hear? 

Firstly, all criticism is personal because that mystical link between writer and reader is personal. Criticism can often reveal more about the personal foibles of the reader than the work being criticized. In fact, I will go one step further and say that this ALWAYS true. I used to read every work through to the end. Always. No more. It is a disservice to yourself and to the writer to continue reading a work you have mentally given up on. But when and why did I give up on it? That's what the 
writer needs to know. "Well, it was a story about dreams and I find dreams uninteresting." An honest admission by the reader if not very useful to the writer. "Well, it was a story about dreams and I have read altogether too many stories where visions obtained in an altered state of consciousness 
(dreams, drugs, starvation, what have you) were central to the story. A plague be upon them." A criticism at least a little more useful. I have seen e-zine websites where the editors have supplied a helpful list of story types likely to be rejected because the tropes in question have been thoroughly worked over. But a reader new to a trope may find the work in 
question absolutely fascinating. As I say, it's all personal.

The reader having been able to read a work all the way through, the writer would like to know what you liked and didn't like about the story, not the mode and manner of telling it, but the story itself since the story is king. And then what you liked and didn't like about the manner of it's telling.
If you add the likes and dislikes mentioned above with a synopsis of the story, you have the essence of a book review. I love reading the customer reviews at Amazon. Not just books that I'm thinking of reading, but those I have already read. Most of the comments relate to the story (a good thing 
indeed) and most of the reviewers are conscientious enough to go on to the manner of the telling. I often find the most interesting and insightful remarks in the one- and two-star reviews (out of five stars total). I find that the customer reviews in aggregate are at least as informative as a 
single review in the New York Times (and often more so).

The academic shade of literary criticism varies from absurdist 
deconstructionists to biographers. I have found common sense thematic analysis entertaining (e.g The Great Gatsby) and also the efforts of literary biographers (e.g Scott Fitzgerald and Eugene O'Neill). It is always interesting to contemplate the play of life experiences on a particular 
work. All writers draw on life experiences as raw material for their work, there is no alternative. That is not to say all fiction is biographical, but rather the pieces of it reflect the human experience of the writer.

And so, what have we learned of literary criticism? Little indeed.