Sunday, April 3, 2011

New Reviews of Gischler & Smith, Sands, and Prunty

Apologies for not getting the chance to post this last weekend. If you follow my twitter feed - and you should - you know it was because I consumed so much wine that I ended up having to officially register myself with the BATFE. Which I know is not exactly an excuse, since it wasn't like Donald Pleasance had me strapped to a table and was pouring it down my gullet while he demanded to know what I did to the exploder button. But it's what you get.

First off is Victor Gischler and Anthony Neil Smith's To the Devil, My Regards. I forget exactly how I discovered Gischler but the samples of his books that I downloaded to my Nook were great and I can't wait to read those books. To the Devil was helpfully offered for 99 cents and I was able to jump on that real quick and check it out. I was interested in it because of the unusual southern setting - I think Gulf Shores and lots of the so-called Redneck Riviera is a great setting for detective stories, but too many who try it go the Carl Hiassen route and do it mostly for comedy, like life down here is a joke compared to New York or Chicago. And while Gischler hasn't been known for taking things too seriously (I apologize that I'm not super-familiar with Smith), To the Devil mostly plays it straight. Z.Z. DelPresto, the PI hero of the story, is a dirty sonofabitch, and not necessarily in the lovable way. I really liked how, instead of making him a lovable scamp, the authors just make him a scumbag loser in most ways - expressed best by how he starts up a sexual relationship with a teenage girl (ZZ swears he thought the girl was of age but I don't buy it), AND hopelessly falls in love with her. This guy would be a supporting character in just about any other noir PI story as the Scumbag PI to show contrast with the hero, who would naturally be more of the Rockford or Hammer type. His character is strong throughout and the writers do a good job of getting you to root for him even though you probably wouldn't let him housesit for you.

The plot is pretty straightforward even though all the angles the writers set up make it sound super-complicated as any good noir story should be. This book is a novella-length piece and as a result it actually ends up to not have your typical noir (or if you prefer, the "Shyamalamadingdong") twist at the end. When I, drunk off my ass and finishing up the book while my wife hollers at me to come help her move some furniture, can solve the mystery - well I hope they weren't shooting for an Edgar. But it's okay. I actually liked that, because this book, even though it basically follows the standard formula, wasn't typical in that it had no pretensions. It was more like, you got a buck, you want to read a detective story, BAM, straight to the Nook. This to me is one of the best things about ebooks.

Overall, it was an enjoyable read and confirmed my interest in these authors, so I'll be checking out more of their books. I'd like to see another ZZ DelPresto story, maybe to see what the hell is up with that funky name, who his momma is, that kind of thing we like to know in the south. Maybe even a full-length book as I think Gischler and Smith, if they had a chance to really stretch their legs, could do a good southern noir story with lots of lurid descriptions and hooker decapitations and people smoking meth and stuff like that.

Money quote: ZZ DelPresto is the essence of the noir PI, cunning, ruthless and always looking out for himself, the biggest catfish in a dirty, dirty river.

I'll post a non-cussing review of this book later on the BN website. Check it out here, that's the Nook version.You can also find it on Amazon if you speak Kindle instead.

Next up is Bradley Sands' RICO SLADE WILL FUCKING KILL YOU. I was made to understand that the title is intentionally in all caps because Rico Slade is that intense.It is technically not available in ebook format yet, but I got a review copy emailed to me through my connections and now post my review. He promises that Eraserhead will get an e-version out soon.

I liked this book, but it's kind of a mixed bag. The promotion for the book makes you think it'll be one thing and it turns out to be another. Maybe the problem was me, I tend to be very literal-minded when I'm reading though to hear me talk you'd think I was a fan of magical realism. I guess there's just a fine line that comes through in the writing technique you use that either gets readers to go along with your illusion or leaves them grasping for reality to try to figure out what the fuck is going on.

The book's opening is great and exactly what I was expecting - an over-the-top tribute to 80s action movies starring the indomitable Rico Slade, who kills every living thing in his path for no good goddamn reason as he attempts to stop a terrorist takeover of the flight he's on. In the first couple of pages he kills a man with a trophy-stuffed swordfish, though to be fair the hijacker brought it on board as part of a clever scheme to sneak a weapon past security. What follows are some great comic turns and some good head-messing as we see that this is a movie and Rico Slade is played by an actor, watching the same scene once or twice as his director tries to get it right, but actor Chip Johnson is just not feeling it. (This particular part made me laugh so hard I dropped my Nook, fortunately it landed on my cushy ottoman.) What proceeds is Chip Johnson's really bad day as his mind fractures. Rico Slade is seven feet tall with a huge blond pompadour and given to dressing like Simon Le Bon's stunt double (but manlier). Chip Johnson is balding and likes to wear crappy clothes like sweatpants and flip flops so people won't recognize him. He's still in great shape, though, so I imagine him as kind of like Bruce Willis. This, though, is one of those things that makes the book a bit hard to read for my caveman head. Sands plays with the duality of actor and role and how fantasy and reality mix in Johnson's mind. Is Chip Johnson really in good enough shape to backflip onto a store counter and start kicking the ass of a Best Buy employee (it's not Best Buy but that's how I imagined it because I liked the image)? It's debatable.

As the book goes on, Chip roams around L.A. hallucinating that he is Rico Slade and causing a general commotion, becoming convinced that the archnemesis of his films, Baron Mayhem, is plotting doom for the city. His psychologist goes after him, somewhat to stop him but mostly to try to either keep him as a patient or somehow make money off him to satisfy his nymphomaniac wife's gangster-style jewelry habit. There are a lot of funny moments, but I was a little disappointed as I signed up for Rico Slade. Sands will let Chip Johnson run wild for a chapter or two but will quickly pull you back to his version of reality, which, while it's weirder than our world, pales in comparison to Rico's all-action-all-the-time lifestyle. This tends to give the book a more depressing feel, sort of like if you signed up for Charlie Sheen's twitter feed and instead got to experience his life Being-John-Malkovich style. Sometimes it can be tough to tell what's really going on outside of Chip's head, just because it's so weird.

In other words, the story Sands wants to tell is about a man who loses touch with reality over his inability to come to grips with his relationship with the love of his life. Sort of like Falling Down but if it were kind of sad instead of just plain awesome. This is not to denigrate the book by any means. In a way I wonder if this was really Sands' game, to imitate the marketing style of the movies. Get your ass in the seat with an awesome poster and trailer and then give you something different that maybe you wouldn't have necessarily shown up for but ends up being decent anyway. Can you blame me? When you have Arnold Schwarzenegger on fire on the cover of your book I don't think the reader can be blamed for expecting a rocket-launcher duel somewhere around the second act, especially when it's coming from a bizarro author.

But CHIP JOHNSON IS LONELY wouldn't have been as good of a title, and Sands correctly goes for the ballyhoo, which works with his overall milieu very well. I think he could have told the same story without so many callbacks to what is "really" happening and his readers would've been smart enough to figure it out - if you're reading bizarro, in my opinion, you're probably a little smarter than the people that pick up the latest mass-market thriller.

I think bizarro in general and the reality-fucking-with subgenre in particular (call it RFW, I guess) work best when you have a baseline to work from. A good example of how this can fail is the underappreciated but still mediocre Michael Douglas vehicle from a few years back, The Game, where he signs up to participate in a crazy game of adventure that turns his life upside down. Throughout, the movie wants you to believe that the game has gone awry and that Michael Douglas is in real danger, but it never quite convinced me and probably not many others considering it wasn't much of a success. If you just keep saying "It's really the game" you're usually right. Instead of being a surprise at the end - it was all just the game! - it's a disappointment because they didn't keep enough track of the real world to draw the distinction.

Still, from beginning to end, even through the parts you weren't expecting, Sands gives the book the overall feel of a low-budget 80s straight to video action movie - including the weird end that seems to deliberately make a sequel possible. Yeah, I said it, which may surprise even the author, but I think it could work and I'd love to see how he did it. Sands' sense of comic timing is excellent and I laughed out loud often throughout the book. Even now that I've told you you won't exactly get Commando on crack, the book is still worth the trip. It's the ultimate celebrity trainwreck, from beginning to end.

Money quote: In a world where Rico Slade has to save the world, are you a bad enough dude to go along for a bizarro thrillride?

Bowdlerized review forthcoming on Amazon.

Finally, the delay in my posting allowed me time whilst recovering from my hangover (a rare event for me) with the help of my showerbeer to finish and enjoy Andersen Prunty's Fuckness.

I'm not too widely read in the bizarro genre, I'll admit, but it seems to me that a lot of bizarro authors have a strong affinity for the "young adult" genre of fiction, at least in their general themes if not in the actual content of their books. Fuckness is the best example I've read of this in that it is completely couched in the terms and tropes of this genre, but done in bizarro style and written for (in my opinion) the people that YA books are really written for, grownups.

The story of a young boy growing up in Prunty's familiar landscape of twisted, industrial Ohio, horribly abused by parents, teachers and his fellow students alike, Fuckness' hero makes Oliver Twist look like a celebrity adoptee by comparison. But, going along with the way Prunty plays with the genre, there is nothing particularly special about Wallace Black. In fact, he's had to repeat the 8th grade a few times. Not that that helps him any in dealing with the kids around him, in fact they regularly kick his ass and his emotional development seems to have stopped a few years before.

Wally talks a lot about the titular "Fuckness" - an amorphous mass of everything that can make life bad, a cross between bad luck and a curse that is like a fog surrounding him and pressing him down. Prunty does a good job through the main character of making this seem less like classic teenage angst and self-pity and creates the Fuckness as a mysterious, malevolent force that is always waiting just over the next hill to crush our hero. It's never made clear and Wally never has any kind of apocalyptic confrontation with it, which is why the device works so well - it's all the horrible feelings of adolescence made into a force of nature.

Not that you could blame Wally for feeling bad for himself. After a particularly horrible beat-down at school, prompted by his cringe-worthy encounter with a backstabbing vixen over a piece of candy, Wally returns home to endure the horrible punishments of his parents. Quite a bit of the early parts of the book are devoted to the fiendishness of these punishments, from things like not letting Wally sleep in a bed to making him mow the lawn with a lawn mower that is more a death-device than a yard tool. As final punishment for being sent home from school as as "molester", Wally mother affixes a set of ugly horns to his head with a leather belt.

But the horns have a terrible, mysterious power, and this is what sets Wally on his journey through the rusted-out wasteland of his hometown and out to the wild, beautiful countryside. Along the way he will have been cut off from everything in his life, and totally alone, he falls in with other drifters, bums and losers as they all try to make their own way in a world that doesn't seem to be made for them.

Prunty does a great job of not giving you what you'd expect, but giving you something more enjoyable instead without straining the reality he's created. As usual Prunty's world is well-defined in it's weirdness, and the childlike quality of the way Wally and the people he meets live and interact in the world is heightened by the books YA feel (the pee race scene is hilarious). You almost never know what to expect because it seems like anything is possible, from flying bicycles to mass murder. And not just that - but maybe Wally doesn't know as much about his life and his family as he thinks he did. That to me was a real treat and what sets the book apart from the YA genre crap I keep comparing it to.

I say almost because unfortunately the ending seems to lose this quality a bit. It goes from a series of events that are all pretty much what you'd expect once it starts happening and then goes into a bit of weirdness at the end that I was still trying to wrap my head around. I was left feeling like Wally's journey wasn't really done yet, but to be charitable this thing could've just kept going and going and it had to end sometime (especially in it's novella length). The final scene, where Wally returns home, does wrap things up pretty well so I think Prunty managed to pull the story out of the stall it's in. Despite what I said above the whole ending is well-written and very evocative from the graphic violence to the little touches.

I mentioned YA fiction a few times above and I think the comparison is apt because I'm pretty sure that's what Prunty set out to write. I, however, don't think it's fair to make what seems an obvious comparison to Joe Hill's Horns. This would be solely based on the plot device of the horned hero. Really they are two completely different books, writing about different subjects. I think it's important to point out that, in Fuckness, Wally Black has the horns inflicted on him as a punishment and when he is free of them he is finally free in every sense. I actually like this better than what goes on in Horns as Fuckness avoids doing the easy thing that springs to mind the first time Wally unleashes their power, since even that is its own curse.

Overall this was a compelling read and I enjoyed it all the way through, my notes above about the ending notwithstanding. Prunty fans will enjoy this Kindle-exclusive book as he keeps powering along giving you more of what you're looking for when you read his books.

Money quote: Fuckness is all the awkward griminess of your teenage years writ large in true bizarro style.

As usual, Amazon review coming soon.

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