Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Crime Fiction Canon: Edward Bunker, Richard Stark & Charle Willeford

Crime Fiction Canon:
Edward Bunker, Richard Stark & Charle Willeford

No Beast So Fierce ((1972) by Edward Bunker
Cockfighter  (1972)by Charles Willeford
I Was Looking for a Street (1968) by Charles Willeford
Point Blank (1963) by Richard Stark
The Outfit (1963) by Richard Stark

  A co-worker of my gf- he manages the Kills and PRIESTS, among others- lent me a selection of books from his crime fiction library.   It's important to be specific about the genre here- crime fiction arises out of detective fiction.  Essentially it works as the dark triplet of private investigator centered detective fiction and police centered detective fiction.   Stylistically, crime fiction is directly related to "hard boiled" Detective fiction as well as the cinematic language that was established by classic film noir after World War II.   Essentially all crime fiction was published as "pulp fiction"- a status it shares with other genre-canon representatives in science fiction and in detective fiction.

  The main difference between private investigator/police detective fiction and crime fiction is, of course, the nature of the protagonist.  Crime fiction is about criminals planning and executing crimes, with a side-order of hard boiled/existentialist philosophy.  There is a range- Parker, the protagonist of Richard Stark's Point Blank and The Outfit, expresses his personal philosophy entirely through his attitude towards crime.

  Parker is the proto-type of the "hard man" of Hollywood action films, cold, unfeeling, amoral.   Spells of liability are upset by moments like the one in Point Blank, where Parker accidentally murders an innocent, female officer worker because he wants to use her office to spy on a target.  She chokes to death on the gag Parker uses- he later realizes she was asthmatic, but was unable to tell him because of the gag, which also choked her to death.  Parker pauses a moment to rue the pointlessness of it all, but he's hardly troubled.

   The major action in both Point Blank and The Outfit is Parker's vendetta against the mafia-stand in (called The Outfit.)  Except for innocent bystanders like the woman in her office, Parker is entirely concerned with killing other criminals and Point Blank and The Outfit and it is a particularly memorable dynamic for crime fiction.

   Charles Willeford is an epochal figure, represented here by his 1972 masterpiece, Cockfighter and his depression era hobo biography, I Was Looking for a Street.   Willeford has a semi-canonical status as the favorite crime fiction writer of other crime fiction authors, and Cockfighter is an excellent example of his southern influenced take on crime fiction.  Cockfighter is filled with realistic details to the point where the reader is inclined to take it as a kind of semi-documentary of the south east Cockfighting scene circa the late 1960's.   This is a scene out of time- illegal in 40 states, but legal and sanctioned in the south east.  The action of Cockfighter is enough to make an animal-rights advocate sick, made more so by the grim-matter-of-fact Willeford prose style.

Image result for mr blue reservoir dogs
Edward Bunker as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs
   Both I Was Looking for a Street and No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker both escape the narrow boundaries of "straight" crime fiction.  I Was Looking for a Street is a hobo memoir by the author Cockfighter.  It keeps the style of crime fiction and includes crimes, but youthful hobo type crimes.  I Was Looking for a Street is a uniquely hard boiled memoir, and Willeford's description of inter war Los Angeles is haunting.

   No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker would be my choice for a canonical title from this era of crime fiction.  No Beast So Fierce was written by San Quentin prison inmate Edward Bunker during the mid 1950's, but was considered unpublishable until the early 1970's.   This two decade delay in publication is a good explanation for why it remains a "cult" book in 2017.  There is a strong argument for canonical status.  First, there is the actual merit of the work, which surpasses the "executing a heist" mode of storytelling for a deeper look at a man trying to make a go of it after release from prison.  Second, there is it's post-publication history as a stylistic reference point for several generations of Hollywood action films.   Bunker memorably portrayed Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.  He was also the inspiration for the Jon Voight character in Heat, and the central heist of Heat bears a strong resemblance to the denouement of No Beast So Fierce.  Finally there is the author himself, who acted in multiple films besides Reservoir Dogs up until his death.

   No Beast So Fierce has a solid case for canon status and the rest make for pleasant, easy reading on a summer day.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (2013) by G.W. Bowersock

Image result for kingdom of himyar
The Yemeni-Arab Jewish Kingdom of Himyar
Book Review
The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (2013)
Emblems of Antiquity Series by Oxford University Press
by G.W. Bowersock

I'm very interested in the history of the ancient (i.e. before Christ) world and the time after that until the emergence of Islam in the 700's.   The history of the ancient near east after Rome and before Islam is obscure on a number of levels.  First, the super powers of the time, Byzantium and the Sassinian (Persian) Empire, aren't themselves particularly well known in the West, and any kind of English language historical interest is essentially non-existent.

  The story that The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam, takes place on the fringe of that Byzantium/Sassanian opposition, in what is today Yemen and the horn of Africa.  The time period describe is the mid 6th century.  The players include a Greek-Ethiopian speaking Christian King who invaded an Arab-Jewish state who were oppressing their own Arab-Christian minority.   The fact that any of this places of things existed in this time and place might well come as a shock to anyone familiar with modern day Yemen and the horn of Africa.  In fact, scholarly consensus on the existence of the Arab-Jewish state located in modern day Yemen is itself a matter of some controversy.

   Bowersock treats this Arab-Jewish state as historical fact.  It was called the Kingdom of Himyar and the population- not just the rulers- converted to Judaism around 380 AD.   Other inhabitants of Himyar converted to Christianity at the same time.  The Jewish state was concentrated in the south, and the Christians in the north.  Meanwhile, what we would call the "Ethiopian" Kingd Com in Africa was Christian, but a different kind of Christian then the Byzantine's, so they had an awkward relationship.  The Jews of Himyar were a proxy for the Persians- the Persians being perceived as the historical "good guys" (vs. the Bad Guys of Rome and Byzantium).

   The point of this book is to assert the historical truth of the massacre of hundreds of Christians at the hands of the Jewish ruler of Himyar, Yusuf, in 522, which ultimately provided justification for the invasion of Arabia  by the Ethiopians in 525.  The point of this book is to point out that all this actually happened.  Bowersock stitches together the evidence from a variety of disparate and obscure sources- basically stuff that is just impossible to look at and often written in other languages.  Bowersock is also trying to make the point that this geo-political situation MUST have influence Muhammad and the development of Islam, which took place north, in the still pagan tribal areas of mid Arabia.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Butcher Boy (1992) by Patrick McCabe

Book Review
The Butcher Boy (1992)
 by Patrick McCabe

  I remember watching the film version of this book in theaters.  It was frightening and surreal, about the turmoil surrounding a neglected/abused boy-man growing up in rural Ireland in the mid 1960's.  Francis "Francie" Brady is the narrator and main character, speaking to the audience in a modified stream of consciousness which drifts between reality and fantasy without so much as a how-do-you-do as to which is which.  Initially, the combination of stream-of-consciousness and Irish dialect is confusing, but as the book moves through it's 220 pages, Brady's narration style becomes familiar.

  The plot of The Butcher Boy is like the photo-negative of a bildungsroman/coming-of-age novel where the character, instead of growing up, becomes gradually less mature and eventually criminally insane.  There are legitimately shocking moments in The Butcher Boy, which, aside from terrorism in the north, would seem difficult to conjure given the milieu of rural 1960's Ireland, but critics have postulated that The Butcher Boy is "about" the struggles of Ireland to become psychically integrated in the aftermath of Irish independence.

  It should be said that The Butcher Boy makes for incredibly sad reading.  It also contains disturbing descriptions of violence and sexually motivated child abuse.

Black Water (1992) by Joyce Carol Oates

Book Review
Black Water (1992)
 by Joyce Carol Oates

  Black Water is Joyce Carol Oates' take on the Chappaquiddick incident involving the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at the (negligent) hands of Ted Kennedy.   Oates took several steps to fictionalize this well known event- she moves it from 1969 to the 1990's, the scene from Cape Code to the Booth Bay area of Maine and of course the characters have different names.  Black Water is a novella, expanded from what was originally a poem, and the prose reflects the poetic background.  Narrated entirely by the victim as she drowns, waiting for the Kennedy-figure to rescue her from the car,  Oates employs a familiar light touch.  Surely Black Water is a meditation on politics, gender and celebrity but obliquely, without rubbing the reader's face in the harsher edges of the events.

  Like many selections in the 1990's portion of the 1001 Books 2006 edition, I was left questioning if this was even one of Joyce Carol Oates best efforts, let alone worth including in the 1001 Books project.  I think Oates fits into the category of a writer whose best work lies outside the traditional novel, making it hard to find representative works to include in a project centered on the novel. 

Jazz (1992) by Toni Morrison

Book Review
Jazz (1992)
by Toni Morrison

   Every Toni Morrison novel on the 1001 Books list is a breath of fresh air.  It is genuinely refreshing to read books that aren't about wealthy white people and their sad problems.  Character in Toni Morrison's novels grapple with real life.   Her writing style has always been realist with a touch of magical realism, but Jazz is more experimental, as reflected by the title, which both refers to the popular style of music and the location- 1920's Harlem.  It also reflects the more experimental style, as Morrison flits between characters and time to tell a complete story in a fractured way.  Like JAZZ itself.

  The themes of Jazz are familiar for Morrison fans, but her shift in technique gives everything a fresh vibe.  As in other works of contemporary post-modern embracing fiction, there is a jig saw puzzle aspect to the plot that differentiates it from other books (even those by Morrison herself) concerned with the same subject matter.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Underground Railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead

Book Review
The Underground Railroad (2016)
 by Colson Whitehead

   Published in August of last year, The Underground Railroad has done just about as well as a serious work of fiction could hope.  He won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a 2016 National Book Award.  Last month, The Underground Railroad was long-listed the Man Booker Prize and it seems like a reasonable candidate for both the short list and the actual prize itself.   Now that the 1001 Books project is in the end stages, I'm trying to turn my attention to contemporary fiction so as to develop an actual critical voice.

   I'm a semi-fan of Whitehead.  I enjoyed his first novel, The Intituionist (1999), checked out until 2011, when he published his zombie book, Zone One (2011) and then put The Underground Railroad on my "to read" book back when it was published last year.  Whitehead's career tracks many of the themes that I follow here- the border between "genre" and "serious" fiction, for one, and the decisions that a would-be canonical author needs to make during the course of his or her career.

  Whitehead has several advantages that would weight towards his establishing canonical status within his lifetime.  There is his background (Harvard University), his publication track record (regular but not overly prolific) and his choice of themes: historical fiction, genre fiction and mixing those two things with African-American themes.   Whitehead is fashionable, relevant and politically correct, all at the same time.

  Prior to The Underground Railroad you could say that the only thing his would-be canonical status lacked was a world-beating hit.   The Intitutionist was a great first novel, but not very thematically interesting.   Zone One was a best-seller, but c'mon- a zombie book?  That's too genre for canonical status, even in 2017.

   The Underground Railroad, on the other hand,  has got it all.  It is thematically fashionable, blending speculative fiction with the African American experience during slavery.  It's only become more relevant since it was published last year.  Recent events in Charlottesville Virginia have brought the pre-Civil War south back into the news.  Like all of Whitehead's books, The Underground Railroad eschews the rough edges of post-modernism for an approach that aims to include as many readers as possible.  Call it the Oprah approach to canon.

  I found The Underground Railroad a satisfying read, and I am not surprised at all the acclaim.

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