Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. Frank Bascombe’s back with another installment of his AICN BOOKS column. We’re starting to see more people submit material for this part of AICN, including Adam Balm, but it’s Frank who’s been consistently working to bring you guys worthwhile tips on what to pick up at the bookstore, and it’s always a pleasure to see a new column show up in the inbox. Enough from me. Check this out:
I’ve met a bunch of really cool people through this column. And from time to time I get emails from writers who want me to read and review something they’ve had published. Normally I pick my own books and hardly ever sway to outside forces. St. Martins has gotten nice ink here, as have Random House and Riverhead, probably because they take what goes on here seriously and reach out to me with requests to review forthcoming titles. I’ve had the great fortune to meet two different people who travel the ether that is Hollywood. The first is the screenwriter & novelist Joe Gangemi (wrote the novel ‘Inamorata’) who introduced me to Ken Kalfus and is part of the team that wrote the upcoming movie ‘Wind Chill’. The other is Michael Lent who wrote the amazing how-to guide about getting a career started in the film business in L.A. entitled ‘Breakfast with Sharks’, and is one of the producers behind a movie I loved called ‘Hard Scrambled’ as well as the soon to be released pulpy and scary ‘Witches Night’. It’s nice to hear from people who are doing solid work in the movie business who crossover to the book side.
It’s Not A Secret Until I Tell Someone…
Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris Little BrownHardly a day goes by when I don’t see praise heavy catalog copy for a new novel, or blurbs on the back of an advance reading copy hailing the arrival of a new literary talent, usually with hyperbolic quotes about their first book, or mentioning emphatically that this is the voice of a generation…So I don’t take it seriously when I do read this stuff as it’s really only put forth to grab my attention and the finished product hardly ever lives up to the advance billing. Publishers are desperate to make money, and short of kidnapping something you care about they’ll do anything to get your hard-earned dollars. This book’s advance praise came to me via Ron Hogan over at Galley Cat, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to shelve my preconceived notions and read a new book by an unknown writer as I have with this great book, ‘Then We Came To The End’. Fight Club defined a certain period of time in my life and signaled a new voice in American fiction and I dare say that this new novel is on that level and far and above anything that’s been written lately. If you’re a reader then you read a lot of reviews, some good, even raves of the highest order, and yet you still won’t care about the book. That’s too bad for all those other books you don’t read. But you’ll read this one, buy it, read it, tell your friends about it. If you were twenty-something when you read Fight Club, then that story took your head off. If you’ve worked in an office with other people, for a company that doesn’t really care about you and only their bottom line, then you’ll get ‘Then We Came To The End’. Fortunately I’ve worked in several offices, cube farms, what have you, and this story is nothing more than a magnification of that experience. An evisceration if you will. Ferris divides the world into two places, where you work and where you live, or more precisely, why what you do outside the office doesn’t really matter, it’s your office life that’s your life, and nothing else exists. To talk about the characters Chris Yop or Tom Mota, or the boss with breast cancer or the guy with the totem pole buried in his yard, would be foolish of me. Or to describe the incredibly poignant and painfully brutal outside of the office life of a young mother who has suffered a… Offices offer a wide variety of interesting people; which is an embarrassment of riches for any writer and Ferris mines this experience perfectly. The advertising agency that he so aptly portrays is nothing more than a framework to hang his unforgettable characters on. But I can’t spoil these people for you. I will however share with you a new style of writing that is breathtaking to say the least. When Ferris has his characters gossip with one another he tells the story with his unseen narrator, you know, narrating the action, and then he has the person telling the story, or gossip to others and has them get interrupted by other people hearing the gossip, and he has the gossip spreader stop and tell you what they’re thinking now and what they were thinking when said gossip happened. So you’re confused, the audience for the gossip in the book is confused, but riveted by the gossip and you’ve just gone pages and pages through the story completely engorged in the sand pebble details of whether or not someone has the right chair in their office, or if they’ve stolen it from another coworker who’s been fired recently or as Ferris likes to say, borrowing from Tom Waits, gets walked Spanish down the hall on their fateful day. It’s something to behold, this book, and if you identify with a sentence of what I’ve written then seek out this breathtaking debut.
The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski St. Martins MinotaurAnother email, another author trying to get me interested in their book. At first, like I’ve always said, I read what I like, and this didn’t move me one way or the other when I heard the pitch. At first; then I got the book, and well… As my man Turkish would say, “He’s harder than a coffin nail.” I liken Mr. Swierczynski to that description because he certainly knows how to streamline a story, keep the pace break neck, sucking all the oxygen out of the room while he tells you this very gritty and nervy story about a pick up gone wrong. Tell us only what we need to know, leave all the bullshit outside, that’s a good motto for any writer to subscribe to and the characters of ‘The Blonde’ do nothing to each other, others, and anyone who might be unfortunate enough to be in their way, that doesn’t propel the story down the air shaft to certain doom. Our hero, well, there are two of them, okay, three, one mercenary, one journalist and one blonde. The first, he’s a killer because that’s what he does, and we meet him as he’s wiping the floor clean with bodies of the Philadelphia Mob that wronged him savagely somewhere in his past. There’s a moment in James Elroy’s, ‘Blood on the Moon’ where you learn something about the main character which is so heinous and terrifying that you can’t really look away, but you have to. And this happens with this guy. The second, Jack, is a reporter stuck in a dead-end marriage with a daughter he loves, and he’s in town for what he thinks is a simple meeting, (by the end of the book we find out it’s not) and bumps shoulders in the airport with a hot blonde who claims to have poisoned his drink while they chatted at the bar. W-e-l-l, from here we go minute by minute, slashing back and forth between Jack, The Blonde, and our nasty man who becomes very efficient at taking out the trash. They’re carefully woven together in the detailed framework of Philadelphia, which is presented like an Emerald City for the crooked. It’s in this fast-moving portrait of a city and its grubby inhabitants that we’re treated to delicious dialogue, funny realizations, and a new tracking device with which Jack has been unlucky enough to be infected with by said Blonde. Boiled together by Mr. Swierczynski, and you’ve got one hell of a ride. It will be obvious to anyone who reads crime fiction that this book has been honed and sharpened down to a fine point. If you blink you might have missed the marketing campaign, if there was one. That aside, I don’t think I’ve spoiled the details, and this book is worth a look.
A Disorder Peculiar To The Country by Ken Kalfus EccoI missed this book completely when it came out, then it got nominated for the National Book Award and I still ignored it. It became that book I couldn’t remember the title of. But it’s not a complete loss as I’m here to tell you that it’s probably one of the best books of last year, to be mentioned in the same breath as ‘The Road’, ‘Lay of the Land’, ‘What is the What’, and ‘Eat the Document’. Actually this is a great companion to that last book, and a revelation of the pain and suffering that took place in the moments after 9-11 and the year that followed. ‘Eat the Document’ imagines the 70’s and the strange feeling you get when you haven’t showered for a week and seem to look over your shoulder at everything suspiciously. They could be carried in the same book bag, reviewed in the same book review. They take place at radically different times, but they’re saying a lot of the same things. ‘A Disorder Peculiar To The Country’ is an eviscerating portrait of the divorce of two people directly affected by the attacks and proceeds flawlessly through the next year of their lives. Marshall and Joyce are two very typical urban professionals going through the day-to-day machinations of life in the Big Apple and have front row seats to the events of that fateful day in September 2001. On her way to the airport to jump a flight which was one of the planes that was flown into the towers, Joyce gets a last minute call that the meeting she’s going to attend has been cancelled and so luckily her plans to fly out that day evaporate. Marshall is at the very center of the attacks and he’s in the lobby of one of the towers as the plane hits, and the moments that follow are so brutally realistic that I could hardly read it or tear myself away. Marshall has an ‘oh shit’ moment after he emerges from Ground Zero, alive, and finds out his wife was on one of the planes that hit the towers, or so he thinks. His reaction to the news is the most appalling thing I’ve read it a long time. It’s brave and ballsy. I didn’t think anyone could get away with saying what Kalfus wrote, or hell, even writing what he wrote. Joyce and Marshall are going through a knock down drag out divorce. Two kids, a great apartment in Brooklyn and lots of money are involved. Joyce’s office is bombarded by anthrax and her life is turned upside down. Marshall’s office is relocated and the office manager who works with Marshall is spending time posting pictures of the missing members of their office on street corners all over the city. If you lived and worked in NYC at that time you know how brutal it was to see that everyday. Marshall’s company collapses. Joyce, void of intimacy, sexually barren and nearly dried up, tries to resurface emotionally through an agent investigating the anthrax scare at her office (who turns out to be more trouble than he’s worth), all while Marshall internalizes his experience at Ground Zero and exudes so much static that I can’t begin to describe it. The kids fall in-between the parents and while everything in Mom and Dad’s life comes undone they become human tape recorders to it all. Kalfus writes poignantly about parents getting fed up with their kids, piss and vinegar being the drink of choice and coming to their collective wits’ ends when they realize how much they hate each other and derive incredible pleasure out of inducing pain in their spouse. It’s dreadful to read these events because they’re not sugar-coated. This novel is a hard act to follow and will most likely stick in my brain for a very long time. In just two hundred and thirty seven pages Kalfus spans an entire year of two peoples lives, a divorce, 9-11, anthrax and the pain and suffering of everyday life, and makes it look as easy as falling out of a boat. This book has already gotten huge heaps of praise, so I’m telling you nothing new, except to go out and buy it…right now. For those of you keeping track at home, the film adaptation of the Ken Kalfus novella/ short story collection PU-239 has just played the silver screens of the Toronto Film festival and will come to a theater near you soon, with the title ‘The Half Life of Timofey’. Got something you want to tell me?