Thursday Reviews: The Book Of Virtue by Ken Bruen; The Ballad Of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde; The Waste Lands by Stephen King

The Book of Virtue

Ken Bruen

I always start the year off with a Ken Bruen book. This year, I started with a short story issued by Mysterious Press. The story is about a young man in New York who is never named but narrates the story. His father has died, which thrills him beyond belief. They did not have the best relationship. All his father leaves him is a book with one word on the cover: “Virtue.” Inside, his father had written several poetic quotes in an attempt to educate himself. Our protag is not impressed. He has more important things to worry about, like running the Khe Sanh Club and banging his boss’s mistress Cici. The time is approaching when he and Cici need to take down their boss, Brady. But as he reads the surprisingly sage advice of his dead father, he finds his life spiraling out of control.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde

This narrative poem was written anonymously by Wilde while he served time in Reading Prison for homosexuality. (Yeah. That used to be a crime. And America was actually the more forward thinking country on the topic back then.) During his sentence, he witnessed the hanging of a man convicted of murdering his wife. During his stay on death row, the man maintained a rather jaunty attitude for someone condemned to die. What starts out as a tale of one man’s journey from dock to gallows becomes a meditation on prison life and the effects of the death penalty on those tasked with its execution.

Though written by an English humorist (Wilde’s infamous wit is understandably absent here) at the end of the 19th century, as the tale drags on, you can almost here Johnny Cash, he of “Folsom Prison Blues” among other songs about convicts, either reciting the words or warbling them over a mournful acoustic guitar. Indeed, it might have made an interesting edition to the American recordings.

The Waste Lands (Dark Tower III)

by Stephen King

Even by Stephen King standards, The Dark Tower series is weird. We have Roland, the nearly immortal spaghetti Western gunslinger marching across time and his dying world toward the mysterious Dark Tower, which stands at the center of time and space. In Book 1, The Gunslinger, he chased a wizard named Walter across a desert and under mountains in a world that looked like a Salvadore Dali painting come to life. In Book 2, The Drawing of the Three, Roland comes to our world and picks up two new gunslingers, a recovering heroin addict and a schizophrenic woman whose legs have been cut off below the knees. Oh, and the boy Roland let die in Book 1? He saves him from his killer in this one.

Yes, King is screwing with time. And the consequences are that Roland (and the boy, Jake) remember both timelines. The paradox threatens to drive him insane. Together with Eddie and Susannah, his new companions, he retrieves the suddenly not-dead Jake from the New York of Eddie’s adolescence. And if Roland’s going mad, think about how bad Jake has it. He remembers dying. Twice.

The group presses on to Lud, a city in Midworld that bears a striking resemblance to New York in some ways, only centuries after the Apocalypse. They are in search of a train. In typical King fashion, the train is sentient. And bipolar. And a bit passive aggressive.

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Rewriting From Scratch

I used to make a big deal out of Holland Bay, that novel I’ve been working on off-and-on for years now. When I wrote the first few scenes of that novel, I lived somewhere else while married to someone else and working at a different job. I was also still a community college dropout. I had yet to do my first standup gig. The first draft checked in at 105,000 words. So…

Quick revisions, pack it off to the betas, and then send it to my agent?

Oh, that’s another thing that changed. I don’t have an agent anymore. They find it productive when you send them stuff.

Plus, the plot of this thing was absolutely Dickensian. I’d come up with a character intending to use him or her for one scene, and they’d spawn a new plotline.  I had about a dozen to wrap up at the end, which explains why it checked in at 105,000 words.

So I had to go back and start over from scratch. I’m writing partly from memory, but partly by limiting myself to two protagonists, two antagonists, maybe adding a third to each side late in the novel. In some ways, it’s too bad. I wrote a great scene about a reporter I came up with sparring in the news room with a Rutgers-obsessed sports reporter named Dave White. Had to cut the reporter and that scene. Too much to keep track of.

Part of the problem is the inspiration for this tome, The Wire. The Wire had about a dozen episodes to tell its story each season. I get 200-400 pages. I need to be more 87th Precinct, less Wire.

I’m taking my time this round. I had convinced myself I could finish it over winter break, but that didn’t happen. So now it gets done when it gets done.

It’s a whole new first draft.

The Compleat Kepler: Race Card

cover-smallerRace Card

“Race Card” is the first Nick Kepler story I ever wrote. It predates my first published story, “A Walk in the Rain,” by about a year. Before I got serious about writing, I wrote without thought to word count. There’s an incredible freedom in that, but it’s a double-edged sword. “Race Card” shows a writer used to working with larger casts than normally found in 5000-word-or-less stories. The plot is more complex.

Yet I was also world-building. I needed to get used to writing about Cleveland, a city I had left ten years earlier. And I needed to know where Nick lived and worked. I ended up introducing two characters who play a part in the three Kepler novels I’ve written: Wolf and Reese.

One of the happy accidents of this story was the character of Margo. I gave Kepler a black girlfriend to heighten his sensitivity to race, and the character kind of stuck. She holds his hand in “Valentine’s Day” and motivates him to do the right thing in “A Walk in the Rain.” Eventually, I needed to raise the stakes as high as possible for my 9/11 story, “Flight of the Rat.” Leaving Margo’s fate in the balance was the best way to torture Nick.

Because isn’t that what we do? Torture our characters?

This eventually found a home in Judas, a noir zine run by Anthony Dauer. By then, I’d already published “A Walk in the Rain” and “Valentine’s Day.” But I was glad “Race Card” found a home.

Friday Forgotten Books: He Who Hesitates and Doll by Ed McBain

He Who Hesitates

Ed McBain

This story is not about the 87th Precinct. It takes place in the 87th Precinct, and at least four of the detectives of the precinct make an appearance. But this one is about someone with a dark secret he should tell the police. Maybe. He hopes. But first he wants to take this Puerto Rican girl out on a date.

Roger Broome is a woodware maker from upstate. (Probably the same fictional state as McBain’s fictional city Isola.) He’s about to leave town when he realizes he needs to tell the police about something that happened the night before. Only he keeps getting sidetracked. Or things keep sidetracking him. A junkie invites him to a coffee shop for a hot chocolate, where Roger meets loud-mouthed, bigoted cop Andy Parker. On his way back to the precinct, he spots McBain’s first among equals, Steve Carella and follows him as he takes his wife on a date. His nerve falters, and he manages to convince the pretty young clerk at a drugstore to go out with him in his final night in the city. And yet the police come to him. Someone’s stolen his landlady’s refrigerator. He’s questioned by Cotton Hawes (once the slated replacement for Carella and now the series’ resident ladies man) and token short guy Hal Willis. Even then, with two rather friendly (and somewhat confused, as they can’t figure out who would steal an ancient refrigerator) cops, Broome loses his nerve and keeps his own secret. This is an odd book for this series. Broome is as pale and timid a character as ever graced the pages of the 87th Precinct. He’s so nervous and naive that you hope he’s done something horrible just so someone smacks him around for being a wimp. At the same time, you hope if he did that he gets away with it.

Doll

Ed McBain

A little girl sits in her room and plays with her doll Chatterbox, assuring her that everything will be all right. Only it’s not. She can hear her mother being murdered in the next room. The death of Tinka Sachs falls to Detective Steve Carella of the 87th Precinct to solve. Carella decides to use Bert Kling as his partner. Kling has gotten on the lieutenant’s nerves. Still enraged by the murder of his fiancee four years earlier, he finds Lt. Byrnes is ready to boot him from the 87th. Carella offers to work with him, but it goes horribly wrong. Carella sends Kling home after a blow up, then has an insight that cracks the case. Only Carella doesn’t take any backup. None of the detectives know where he went, and unfortunately for Kling, that means he’s up for suspension and dismissal. Kling is replaced by the tragically named Meyer Meyer (who looks a lot like a young, put upon Ike Eisenhower). But Kling stays on the case. It is the case and the recovery of Carella, whose death was faked to send the 87th off on a wrong path (this is not a spoiler. Carella is seen alive before anyone decides he’s been killed.), that will ultimately redeem the youngest of the 87th’s bulls.

Don’t be shocked by the price in this link. Doll is out of print, and some book shops are selling through Amazon for upwards of $75 as of this writing. My copy was $3.50. Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint is rereleasing McBain’s backlist slowly on Kindle and in paperback.

Favorite Bands: Marillion (Repost)

I can’t really do this feature without talking about Marillion. But what can I say about them that I didn’t say back in 2011? So I’m reposting that write-up here. Since then, they released a new studio album called Sounds That Can’t Be Made, which I reviewed here. – Jim

Some time around 1984 or so, when I was heavy into progressive rock, I became aware of a fast-rising British band called Marillion. They had a freak hit in the US called “Kayleigh,” a tale of early adulthood love and loss. The music was a throw back to a Genesis that had not existed for about ten years at that point, but that was fine. I loved the album that spawned “Kayleigh,” the trippy concept album Misplaced Childhood. The best way to describe it is to imagine a young Peter Gabriel writing and performing his own version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, only with a happy ending.

So, glomming every bit of prog rock I could find, from Yes’s psychedelic classics to the overblown Emerson, Lake, and Percussionist to the weirdgasm that was the ever-reincarnating King Crimson, I happily bought Misplaced Childhood for some semblance of normalcy. Besides, their Garbielesque lead singer called himself Fish. How could you go wrong with that?

Li’l Sis and my future ex only fed this new obsession. Li’l Sis gave me copies of their first two albums, Script for a Jester’s Tear and Fugazi. Fish and I were on the same apparent wavelength. We were both angry young men in our twenties frustrated with our lives. Fish, more so than me, as the Scottish poet made no secret of his love-hate relationship with chemical recreation (“He Knows, You Know”) and letting off screaming diatribes about the politics of the day (“Fugazi”). Yet when Marillion worked best was when the original Genesis worked best, taking that prog sound and writing broadly appealing tunes that had a sense of mischief about them. “Garden Party” and the single “Market Square Heroes” (which inspired the short story “Gotham Square Hero”) were the ones I remember best.

Here are the boys after they found their permanent drummer and before Fish’s hair left the band.

What struck me more than Fish’s voice was the guitar of Steve Rothery. Rothery is a guitar player of the David Gilmour school, feel over flash. No one puts more Gilmour through his guitar than Gilmour. Ditto for Steve Rothery. The repeat effect that “Kayleigh” is built around is probably one of the most brilliant bits of song writing from the 1980’s.

But Marillion is one of those bands that peaks in popularity before it’s actually complete. When the writing began for Script, only Rothery was a member of the band, and he had been a replacement in an earlier incarnation called Silmarillion. Fish was recruited early on, and during the writing, the keyboard player was replaced with Mark Kelly, who probably is more responsible for Marillion’s sound than even Rothery. Kelly, however, stepped the band’s game up a notch, requiring a better bass player than the one who joined with Fish in 1980. They recruited Welshman Pete Trewavas (also known as a member of Transatlantic these days). Trewavas is one of the greatest bass players I’ve ever heard. In fact, I can only name two better that I’ve heard: My nephew and John Entwistle. My nephew is an absolute freak on the bass who makes Entwistle sound like an amateur, and you can say that about such geniuses as Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, and Tony Levin in comparison to Entwistle. In short, I think Pete’s brilliant.

During their first three years as Marillion, they went through what Fish termed “a Spinal Tap drummer period” before settling on Ian Mosely, who played on Misplaced Childhood. In 1987, the band burst out with the more mainstream tale of tour alcoholism, Clutching at Straws. Marillion was becoming a smoother, more accessible group. So they were ready to buck the coming Brit pop and grunge waves brewing in London and Seattle. Right?

Um… No.

Marillion hadn’t really found its lead singer yet. By the time I saw them live in 1991, Fish had left in a huff and in dire need of rehab. Instead of looking for a guy who would sound like Fish or Phil Collins or Peter Gabriel, they rebooted with the former lead singer of The Europeans named Steve Hogarth, better known as h to Marillion fans.

But was he a poet?

Hard to say at first. Panicking that they might not find a lyricist of Fish’s caliber, Marillion hired one. It was probably a mistake. Hogarth is very much a poet in the same vein as Fish, with a more soulful voice and a bigger vocal range. But some of those early efforts lack the mix of mischief and sorrow Fish provided. Season’s End, while interesting, has less poignancy than, say, Clutching at Straws. It’s when h writes his own lyrics (“Easter,” “Holloway Girl”) that we see the wisdom of the band opting for same-but-different with a guy steeped in the 80’s new wave movement.

Hogarth couldn’t be Fish. Fish was a poet who drove the music. But what h brought was that missing fifth musician. It’s quite likely, if called upon, he could drum. He regularly plays keyboards and guitar and co-writes the music as well as writing lyrics. So how does Mr. H stack up against his Scottish predecessor?

This song, the title track to Marillion’s last major label release, was about the danger of celebrity destroying the person it is bestowed upon, drawing its inspiration from the tragedy of James Dean. The album also references speed boater Don Campbell, OJ Simpson (who was on trial when the album was released), and Elvis (“King”). The line that strikes me the most in this song, one that Fish himself might have had on his mind when Marillion’s popularity peaked and overwhelmed him in the 1980’s, was “I’m already dead. It’s a matter of time.” It captures that fear that when one’s star burns out, they’ll burn with it.

Marillion went independent in the mid-1990’s, their initial popularity fading as grunge and Brit pop took over. But it meant they could shed the shackles of being a “progressive” band. Good. Because there are no more annoying or pretentious fans of rock than prog fans. I pour myself a nice cup of smug every time I hear one whine that Marillion doesn’t sound progressive anymore. That’s a good thing. Bands that stagnate are boring. Just look at Yes after 1973.

So who do I prefer? Fish? Or H? Well, let’s put it this way. Fish and I are still of like mind (only I drink more than he does these days, if only because he no longer drinks at all). And Fish and I very much like what Steve Hogarth has done with Marillion. But while Fish is happy his old friends found someone with whom could make the music they want to make, I started listening to the latter-day Marillion when my writing career stalled, my first marriage disintegrated, and, more importantly, as I met and married Nita. Shortly after Nita and I married, they released what is arguably their best album ever, Happiness Is the Road. The title track is an autobiographical song about Hogarth emerging from a dark period in his life to some sort of awakening. Those events very nearly paralleled what was going on in my life at the time he was writing.

Happiness is the road indeed.

Your Politics Suck

People, I know the government is frustrating and infuriating and inefficient. I get that. I’m trying to think back to a time I didn’t think that. Let me think.

I was 8.

Do you know what happened when I was 8?

Watergate.

I’ve studied history. Not in college (Well, I did take the entire American History sequence in technical college.) Not guided by some pinhead with a microphone. Nope. I study history to study history, not shore up my political beliefs. Why? Well, here’s where I’m ahead of most of you on the subject. I do not serve my political beliefs. They serve me.

Seriously. When you do it the other way, you are treating your vote, your decisions, and view of how things should be done on a mentality that is fundamentally identical to how we pick what football team to root for. That’s right. There are Brits whose mental process of becoming a Liberal, a Tory, or something else entirely has more in common with whether they support Manchester United than any careful consideration of facts or questioning of the same tired assumptions we like to slap on our bumper stickers. It’s particularly onerous here in America because we have our elections on a schedule. Every two years, we are treated to campaign ads which contain slightly fewer facts than the average Greek myth. I say slightly fewer because most of those myths took place in and around Greece, which still exists.

We don’t have intelligent conversations about issues anymore. I know it’s been like this off and on throughout history, but lately, it’s pretty bad. Really, since when is listening to Glen Beck a “careful reading of the healthcare bill”? Answer: Never. Just because a moron with a radio show says he does his research doesn’t mean he isn’t lying about it. And it never means that you actually did research.

“So, Jim, if you’re so smart, what’s the answer?”

Simple. I am a political atheist. I don’t believe in your ideological gods or the false idols you watch on TV or listen to on the radio. I don’t read history or the news to confirm my beliefs. If I make an assertion about something, I know damn well that reality might contradict it. That’s why I spend more time listening to classic rock on the radio than some racist drug addict or a burned-out ex-sportscaster, either one with rage control issues.

You should do the same.