CBR #66 – Today I Learned About Coonasses and Tushhogs

Muscle for the Wing by Daniel Woodrell

It’s not what you tell as how you tell it, and goddamn does Daniel Woodrell tell it good.  The town of St. Bruno has it’s own language, like reading foreign slang in Junot Diaz.  The second of the Bayou Trilogy tells us the tale of robbing stealing from the gangsters, a story that’s been done tons of times.  And yet Woodrell is able to make it seethe with chaw spit and moonshine.

A trio of robbers who are part of a prison gang called The Wing are hitting poker games all over St. Bruno, much to the consternation of Mr. B, the head honcho in town.  So Mr. B calls in his chips, and the captain assigns Shade to work with Shuggie Zeck, his childhood pal now turned shakedown boss.  Both are disgusted with each other and what they’ve become, but they work together to try to find out who’s knocking over the games.  And killing people.  Including a cop who was working security for the game.

The story steeps itself in double crosses and bloodshed, wife beatings and infidelity. The visceral murders are just simply gruesome, from someone getting double barrels sawed off in the face to the point his head looks like a “frayed mop” to a man getting the contents of a scalding deep fryer emptied onto his stomach and hands.  This one was the shortest and easily accessible and I really enjoyed it.  The bookamajigger has demanded I run through my Woodrell backstock, so I’m going to have a nice chaser to all this Goodkind.

CBR #65 – It’s All Been Said Before

The Third Kingdom by Terry Goodkind

As tempted as I am to just cut and paste phrases from all of my early reviews to demonstrate exactly what Goodkind has done here, I’m not gonna stoop so low.  Honestly, Goodkind continues his odious trend of basically taking four chapters to say what a paragraph could handle.  And then he repeats those four chapters later in a different four chapters when two different characters meet and have to discuss this.  If The Omen Machine was the first in what should have been a small section in a single book, this one is barely a chapter or three.

The plot is simple. Richard awakes inside a wagon listening to two men discuss whether they should eat him and Kahlan now, or wait to sell them.  Richard barely fights his way free, only to get rescue by some cave dwelling folks.  All of their magic users have been killed or kidnapped, except Sammie, their fifteen year old healer.  Because of legend, Sammie realizes that Richard is the ONE and he must close the gates in the Northern Wall to prevent the evil folks from lurching through.  Which they’ve already done.  Richard discovers all of this walking through a single cave.  For nineteen chapters.  NINETEEN.

An advertisement for Goodkind’s self-published prequel the First Confessor informs him of the plot.  I’m not even going to jovially cross that out for a larf.  I was going to skip First Confessor until I realized that Goodkind has woven that story through these last four books.  Because the emperor that Magda Searus must become confessor to stop is Sulachan, who is the leader of the Shun-Tuk, the Mad Max looking motherfuckers who are one of the many tribes from beyond The Wall who eat people.  So Richard, even though he and Kahlan have DEATH in them, must somehow make his way to the wall to save his friends because that’s where they are because of course.

I don’t want to rehash what happens.  Basically, Sulachan comes back to life thanks to Richard Juice and has joined Hannis Arc is heading to the People’s Palace to take over the D’Haran empire.  Hannis realizes that Abbot Dreier is a turncoat, and so he tries to kill him, but Dreier escapes.  Richard has rescued everyone, and now he and Kahlan are headed to the People’s Palace to be healed.  This gonna get awkward!

There are two more books left in the series: Severed Souls and Warheart, which comes out in September.  So I’m going to have read shit out of sequence.  I’m stopping this series to read First Confessor, because that gives backstory on how Sulachan became a mummy and on what they did before.  Then I’ll read Severed Souls.  THEN, I’ll read The Law of Nines, because I am nothing if not a glutton for punishment.  And then I’ll wait to see if Goodkind continues with his Magda Searus prequels, does a sequel to Law of Nines, or if he totally manages to write something new and even more boring.

CBR #64 – Crawdaddy Issues

Under the Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell

Goddamn.  Since Winter’s Bone came out cinematically long a time ago, I’ve fallen in love with a genre I’ve deemed Midwestern Gothic.  I mean, I’ve devoured Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor, who kept things southern.  But through those flyover states, have some truly gruesome goodness been birthed.  Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell, and Gillian Flynn have become some of my favorite authors, penning these sinister tales of shitkickers and sketchy criminals.  Small town as seen through the scope of some truly fucked up cracker asses.  And I eat it with a goddamn spoon.

Under the Bright Lights is the first in what Woodrell deemed the Bayou Trilogy, since these stories all take place in the town of St. Bruno, which is either north Louisiana or south Mississippi.  For once, this nebulousness works for me.  I know it’s swampland shitheels, and I know that it takes place somewhere in the 80’s or 90’s.  But it could easily be the 1960’s.  It’s strange.  Men wander around, drinking all day and shooting pool and committing low level crimes.  There’s no cell phones, but there’s kids in Air Jordans.  People listen to music from the way back on record players, drinking beer and screwing on their back porches.  Sometimes even with their wives or girlfriends.

The first story deals with Rene Shade, of the Shade family, a former boxer/criminal who’s now a cop.  A local councilman, a black man, is executed in his home.  Shade and his pudgy partner How Blanchette are tasked by the mayor and the captain to pin this on a burglary, even though it all points to a murder by someone he knew.  Meanwhile, the local criminal element has hired a young tough to shotgun the man they blackmailed to commit the murder.  And so begins this supreme double dealing.  Shade’s a good guy who has a tendency towards being a little bad, and he’s dealing with bad guys set in their ways.  It’s not quite as compelling as Winter’s Bone, but it’s got a terrific style and feel reminiscent of Ellroy.  Racist small town seedy underbelly done up as a cop story.

CBR #63 — Uncle Stevie’s Very Own Dick!

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Stephen King wrote a goddamn procedural. A straight up detective mystery!  There’s no reason he can’t or shouldn’t, and he did a pretty damn fine job of it.  I keep trying to tell people that not every Stephen King story is straight up horror.  There’s almost always elements in there, but he writes more small town life than anything else.  That’s why my recommendation for people looking to break into his work is always Different Seasons.  Three of the four novellas have been made into movies:  Apt Pupil, The Body (which is Stand by Me), and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, which of course became the movie Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties.

Mr. Mercedes is the first in what is going to be a trilogy.  It’s kind of a fascinating recreation here.  I’ve read a LOT of mystery/detective stuff.  King’s doing the story from the perspective of the detective and the perspective of the titular killer. Been done before, and naturally, King’s great at getting in the headspace of a psychopath.

Bill Hodges is King’s hero, a retired detective who has gained weight while sitting in front of his television, snacking on daytime television and pondering snacking on his service revolver.  He’s depressed, when suddenly he receives a letter in the mail from The Mercedes Killer.  A year prior, a man drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd waiting for a job fair, killing eight people and injuring more, and managed to get away scot free.  It was one of Hodges’ cold cases, and now he’s energized.  He wants to catch this son of a bitch, and so he starts working towards that end.

Meanwhile, Brady Hartsfield is living creepily with his alcoholic mother, working as an ice cream man and a tech guru at a version of Best Buy called Discount Electronix.  He was the maniac who drove over all the people, and his sociopathic nature has him craving more. He terrorized the old woman who’s Mercedes he stole into committing suicide, and now he’s trying to do the same to the fat ass cop who retired.  Reading the Brady parts is like biting into an apple, while the hand holding it sinks into the rotted moldy part.  It’s fucking horrifying.

King does an admirable job with the detective story, which kind of dances this line between small town Midwest (no Maine for this story) and dime-store hard boiled. I personally think JK Rowling does it better in her Robert Galbraith costume with Cormoran Strike, but I think Hodges’ horrible ghost is what makes this work.

The biggest issue I have with the story — and this is a common complaint levied against King, so I tread lightly — is that there’s this weird racism. I’m reading Daniel Woodrell now, and I’ve read plenty of James Ellroy, so there’s ways to portray racists who sling slurs and hideous mindsets without seeming terrible.  Brady Hartsfield is a fucking nightmare when it comes to Hodges’ boy-Friday, Jerome and Jerome’s family.  Jerome is a super bright, intellectually savvy seventeen year old who mows Hodges’ lawn and helps him with his computer.

The problem is, Jerome likes to break into this fake Stepin Fetchit patois where he slurs stuff like, “I’s is one gooooood cho doer, massuh!”  He’s clearly doing to make fun of stereotypes, but it’s just….no.  NOPE.  King’s had trouble writing for teens since about when his sons became them, and coupled with Jerome’s banter — especially when Hodges plays along and sasses him back with it.  It’s just problematic.  It’s like an older person saying on fleek or speaking in emoji.  Again, I’m not saying Stephen King is a racist. I’m saying that this gimmick he’s adopted is really uncomfortable and unnecessary.

Still, it’s a neat departure from the usual horror, and I’m excited to see what happens with Finders Keepers, which is released Tuesday along with every other goddamn book in creation apparently.

CBR #62 – I Guess That’s Why They Call It Dope

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

I have no fucking idea what happened to Jonathan Lethem.  He’s the fucking Avril Lavigne of hipster fiction.  She started out country, and then went punk-poop, and now she’s Gwen Stefani?  Lethem’s early works were this ethereal science fiction, this kind of otherworldly absurdist fabulousness.  And now he’s gone all Record Store Day.  It’s like if Rian Johnson spent too much time with Harmony Korine.  I don’t know what that means either.  THIS FUCKING BOOK.

It takes place in a New York that’s not quite real.  It splits the difference between including actual references to real media and people, but then fictionalizes other real media. For example, Marlon Brando is real and did On The Waterfront and Apocalypse Now.  But then he also did The Gnuppet Movie for a director called Florian Ib, who he hated and kept making fun of when he made the later films.  So Muppets, Frank Oz and The Score don’t exist.  But Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a real Steve Martin movie.  He riffs a couple times on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which is hilarious because this is it’s caffeinated, less ponderous second cousin.

I cannot explain to you what this book is about.  It’s so many disparate elements that are pastiched together into this kraftwerk AIDS quilt.  A former child star becomes friends with a former cultural critic, where they spend their days smoking pot and expounding on pop culture at large. The child star is engaged to an astronaut who is stranded in space, unable to return because the Chinese have mined the sky.  The critic’s protege is a ghost writer who fakes biographies and is engaged in a love affair with the child star.  There’s also a giant tiger destroying part of the city, a riff on Second Life involving eBay and pottery, and an apartment building for dogs.  It might take place in 2005.

It works, and then it stops working and then it starts again.  It’s such a ponderous rambling carefuly crafted fucked-off.  It loves the smell of it’s own farts.  It doesn’t deserve a Pulitzer, but maybe a PBR.  My only comparison is the word dope.  Dope in old parlayance meant a dolt or an idiot.  Now, in more modernized slang, it means hip or rad or awesome.  It also is a slightly out-of-fashion term for marijuana.  That sort of sliding, repurposing of terminology is the bread and butter and butter sandwich and buttered bread on a cat’s back of this book.  I wasn’t enamored with Lethem’s last few offerings, and I respect this one without really enjoying it either.  I don’t know.  I just don’t fucking know.  Maybe I needed to be high to unlock the higher echelons or some sort of sweatervested bearded bullshit like that.

CBR #61 – The Begending of the Endginning

The Omen Machine by Terry Goodkind

I thought I quit you.  This was to be the last book of The Sword of Truth.  But by last book, it’s needless broken into four parts.  Four interminable parts.  Thankfully, they read faster than the other tomes.  But it feels like some kind of DLC content, slapped on to score more points.  I also learned that he’s since inserted a prequel (that fearfully appears to be part of a possible larger series) and some kind of modern day story that involves the mythology of D’Hara and The Rahls and numerology.  I’m sure it’ll turn out to be some sort of Objectivist manifesto as to why robots make you pay taxes.

But I digress.  But there’s not much to talk about.  Omen Machine picks up right after Confessor ends.  And I mean right fucking after.  Like seconds. And immediately, everyone is miserable.  This time, all the nobility wants to know about prophecy.  And Richard hates prophecy because he’s Lord of Free Will.  But they claim that he’s keeping prophecy that they need to know because otherwise the world will end.

SKKRRRREEEEEEETTTTTTT.

Literally.  Literally five fucking seconds before the fucking wedding.  He tore the world in two and threw all the evil people into the other world.  He saved the fucking universe.  He is the most powerful sorceror in the land.  He can cast both kinds of magic, wield a sword like a whirling dervish, and carve a fucking fully functional alarm clock out of a tree.  He’s also a good cook.  But no.  LORD RAHL WE NEED PROPHECY!

Why?  Because of the Dark Lands.  What are the Dark Lands?  It’s the new land that just opened up when you downloaded Sword of Truth: Four More Books.  But there, they are ruled by Hannis Arc, and he controls prophecy.  He’s also apparently a real dick and does black magic.  So he’s using black magic — different from the other two types of magic or four or whatever the count is now — to make everyone hate Richard.  Because decades ago, his father got killed by the old Lord Rahl, and so he must. HAVE. HIS. VENGEANCE.

Ugh.  And so we go through this long process where basically, a machine spits out little metal fortune cookies which come magically true by people dying.  And then a Hedge Maid — a wicked evil witch — uses magic to kidnap Kahlan.  And Richard rushes in and saves her.  That’s the entirety of the book.  It’d be fifty well wrought pages of a compelling story in another author’s hands.  It’s a conflated travesty in this one.  And it sets up all this ridiculous shit for the later three.  It’s so bad, I’m just ready to not even fucking bother with First Confessor or Law of Nines.  I just want to stop but I’m a devoted sociopath.

CBR #60 – Lotta Miles On The Road Still To Go

Christine by Stephen King

I think it’s infinitely appropriate that Uncle Stevie is my sixtieth book on this journey.  On my Kindle are several King books, newer ones and the ones I’m not sure that I’ve read or not.  I got into Stephen King when I was ten or twelve.  Always fascinated with horror stories, it was whenever in school we were given The Raven by Poe.  So I devoured Poe.  And then some sinister and wicked-hearted librarian steered me towards Stephen King.  It was definitely in those formative years.  I know the first sex scene I ever read was from The Tommyknockers.  I read that motherfucker until it was burned into my retinas and it wasn’t even particularly salacious — a desperately fumbling where a pretty young thing reached under a plaid skirt and pulled down her Woolworth’s panties.   But this from a generation that would stare fixated at scrambled porn signals for the prayerful glimpse of a tinted nipple.  So I cut my teeth on Stephen King.  But I can never remember which I had gotten to.

I knew the tale of Christine.  A teenage boy’s car comes to life and kills his enemies.  Stephen King loves his murdercars.  Maximum Overdrive.  From a Buick 8.  Hell, his son even has The Wraith in NOS4A2. And they both did a killer trucker versus biker tale in Throttle.  It’s hard not to think about killer cars.

But Christine is so much more than that.  It’s a coming of age story in the most brutal fashion.  A loser who finds a car, who finds his backbone and his energy in an automobile.  He fights back against his parents, against his cooler friends, even against the girl who eventually falls for him.  Too bad he’s fighting back because he’s haunted by the vengeful and bitter spirit of a complete shitter from WWII.  It’s very much a young man’s tale.  In fact, I was fascinated at the dichotomy between Christine and King’s later From a Buick 8, which is also about a murderous classic car.  Only, in Buick 8, King has a bunch of old cops sitting around a picnic table, telling tales of the killer car.  It’s the Portrait of an Artist in his Sunset Years.  It’s compelling to compare the two stories, one from when King was still a young man starting out, dwelling on those teen years that were still within fingertip brushing reach, and the other from when he was much older and had birthed his own children fostering their tales.  Both stories are excellently told, though truth be told, I probably prefer the seasoned Buick 8 slightly better.  Christine is narrated through the unreliable eyes of Dennis, Arnie Cunningham’s footballer best buddy, and so it’s kind of got a dimmer patina to me.  That’s how the story had to be told, and it thankfully doesn’t go for the happily ever after finale.  But it’s still got a bit of a burr on it.

It actually made me realize how much — without having read it first — King’s influence has seeped into my own writing.  The novel I’ve been working on for several years now, A Well-Oiled Machine, is very similar to Christine.  I’m walking a different path, but it’s the same neighborhood.  I’m inspired and pleased to have that grounded for me.