Thursday Reviews: Shoedog by George Pelecanos, More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman, Five Weeks In A Balloon by Jules Verne


George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos’ second novel (after 1992’s A Firing Offense) shows the author as a work in progress. In a nutshell, the story is about a drafter named Constantine, who wanders back into DC after 17 years. He’s picked up by an old geezer named Polk. They’re going to head for Florida, but first Polk needs to make a stop. The stop results in them taking part in the heist of two liquor stores setup by a man named Grimes. Grimes is a scumbag who likes to collect people by making them beholden to him, including a beautiful young woman named Delia. The whole thing goes horribly wrong, as it always does in the best noir.

The story has multiple points of view with characters who could easily be dropped into Reservoir Dogs (which came out around the time this was published.) There is Valdez, who is ready to kill for his boss as long as they don’t interrupt his soap opera. There is Weiner, an older man lusting after a bookstore clerk to the point of buying a $3000 ring just to get her to go out on a date. And there is Polk, whom we never find out much about.

The elements of Pelecanos’ other work is here: DC outside the Beltway, classic rock and old soul music, and Detroit muscle cars. The story’s main flaw is it comes off as disjointed, with a lot of scenes seemingly designed to indulge GP’s interests in music, cars, and the 1970’s. I suspect this was actually written before A Firing Offense, which was smooth as glass. The elements and the promise of Pelecanos’ best work are all there, but GP is still figuring out how it all fits together. Recommended for Pelecanos fans, though interesting enough for others.

More Information Than You Require

John Hodgman

The Daily Show‘s resident expert in fake facts, John Hodgman (aka “PC” from the old Macintosh ads with Justin Long), offers his follow-up to his first book, The Areas of My Expertise. I’m linking the audio version because he takes advantage of the medium to put out a completely separate work from the printed version. The book begins with Paul Rudd reading it, and you think this is another audiobook read by an actor. Then Hodgman comes in to upset the apple cart, announcing that he was going to read the book, but Paul could sit in the corner and chime in occasionally. And he does, along with Zack Galifiankis, Ira Glass, Dick Cavett, Rachel Glass, and Sarah Vowell. Because this is an audiobook, Hodgman delivers his fake trivia with musical accompaniment from frequent partner in crime Jonathan Coulton, who manages to give the original theme to Battlestar Galactica lyrics (which oddly refer to the Ron Moore version of the show. Maybe because Hodgman had a cameo on the latter show.) Find out all there is to know about the Electoral College, what is was like to do those Macintosh ads, and the ins and outs of Mole Men culture.

The audiobook is hit or miss. The print version features a day-by-day calendar called “It Happened Today in the Past.” Hodgman decides to do this in audio, which can get a bit tedious if listened to for long stretches. On the other hand, he finishes with “700 Names for Mole Men and Their Occupations” as a live recording. What is probably amusing in print but could be mind-numbingly dull in audio is actually quite funny when you can hear the audience’s reactions. Hodgman, with Coulton playing acoustic guitar in the background, warns the audience that they might hate him by the time this is over. Each time Hodgman reads off a hundred names, the audience applauds wildly only to be informed that he’s not stopping just because they clap.

I would recommend listening to the calendar only in snatches. In small doses, the jokes are funny. Hodgman gets good marks for poking fun at the audio format, but the result is spotty.

Five Weeks in a Balloon

Jules Verne

Science fiction pioneer Jules Verne started off with a balloon fetish. His first published work was a novella, A Voyage in a Balloon, followed by this lengthier work, Five Weeks in a Balloon. Clearly, the book begins as a parody of some of the travelogues coming out of Africa at the time of publication, 1863. Verne also gets plenty of digs in at British society. His protagonist, Dr. Samuel Ferguson, is the typically unflappable British scientist who greets every crisis by having another spot of tea. His manservant, Joe, reminds one almost of Rochester from the old Jack Benny Show. The only difference is that Rochester’s character existed to poke some well-timed holes in his employer’s ego. Joe seems to be a fawning idiot that would sound racist if I didn’t remind myself that this guy is actually English. (And even that doesn’t help matters, does it?) Rounding out our intrepid group of explorers is Dick Kennedy, a Scottish big-game hunter who has an itch to shoot at everything in sight, whether or not he can haul it into the titular balloon, the Victoria.

Many of the elements of Verne’s later work are in place here. There is the self-assured scientist who ultimately comes up short and has to struggle to meet a crisis in the end. There is the loyal, if somewhat slow-witted manservant, and there is the brawny he-man. But there is also Verne’s meticulous crafting of a scientific future that seems incredibly prescient for its time. In this case, Verne’s balloon exploration of Central Africa is feasible for 1863, and much of the technology later went into zeppelin and modern blimp technology. Ferguson, while at the mercy of the winds for locomotion, raises and lowers the balloon simply by heating and cooling the gas while the balloon is still in good shape.

But this is clearly an early effort. The characters are cartoonish, and the plot is almost non-existent. Verne isn’t really trying to write 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or From the Earth to the Moon. He’s lampooning British arrogance (admittedly somewhat playfully) and a style of literature popular in his day. If you haven’t read Verne yet, I suggest by-passing this one until you have a few of his classics under your belt.