I was steered to Night Work–or actually its author–by a remark I read in Jon Carroll’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle. He spoke as if Laurie R. King were a household word in the mystery world, yet I’d never heard of her. Judging by the number of awards she’s won, the fault is mine. I’m glad to make her acquaintance. I speculate that one of the elements of her and her work that first got Mr. Carroll interested is that the major players in the life of Kate Martinelli, Night Work’s chief detective, are gay and lesbian. There’s a certain amount of that kind of thing going on in my family, I’m proud to say, and I know of kindred circumstances in Mr. Carroll’s family. All of w hich may seem like an aside, except that I believe it is germane to the novel’s flaws and virtues. First the flaws. King engages in a great deal of polemic and is guilty of showing off her scholarship to the detriment of the book’s pace. There’s a lot of exploration of the relationship between Yaweh and earlier goddesses, principally the Indian Kali and the Mesopotamian Ishtar. There’s an exhaustive description of a dance drama drawn from the Song Of Solomon. All well and good, since the plot concerns (believably) women in vigilante action against abusive men. But the point gets made. And made. And made again. She would have been better off to let the research sit and stick more closely to the story’s through line. And the virtues. Kate Martinelli is a savvy San Francisco police detective totally absorbed in her work, totally in love with her partner, totally true to the law even when it endangers her friends and lovers. King gives her an admirable partner, a family man who both endures and supports her unorthodox methods. It’s worth noting that each of the central characters is or has been wounded in some way. Martinelli’s partner, Lee, by a bullet (in an earlier work, I gather); her close friend, Roz’s, partner by an abusive man; her partner’s stepdaughter by a kidnapping; Kate herself by a lead pipe, an injury that still gives her headaches. Even Roz, the powerful media manipulator priest, ends this book deeply burned. Each of these characters fights her injury in her own way, ways not always admirable or just. And this aspect of the book deepens the reader’s experience and carries it beyond the realm of pure crime fiction. The relevance to my family and Mr. Carroll’s? We don’t spend a lot of time talking about gayness. We talk about love and the difficulties of life, and sometimes we get involved in matters like prop. 8. But mostly we get talk about children and jobs and the economy and all the rest. We don’t run around sermonizing. It just doesn’t enhance relationships much. And Ms. King’s preaching doesn’t enhance her relationship with me much. Although I’d wish for less preaching about man’s inhumanity to women, I credit King with balancing things out where it matters–in the action. The most horrible crime in the series of killings in Night Work is committed by a man against a woman. A girl, really. However, the vigilante killings almost allow him to get away with it. And righteous and justified as the murders sometimes seem at the moment, they are in the end self-defeating and even lead to crimes against other women. As I write, the whole work seems more complex than it did when I began, and my admiration for Ms. King has grown over the last half hour. I admit to skipping big hunks of the narrative for reasons I’ve already outlined. However, the 90% of the book I read closely paid big dividends. And I have a new author to admire now.

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William Least Heat-Moon. Our author slips in his anglo name at one point in this narrative, but only in the most sly way, as if it were a secret he uttered by mistake. He also reveals the meaning of Heat-Moon–an Indian (Osage) name for a midsummer moon. Least? I still don’t know. River Horse is that kind of book. Full of signs and portents and knowledge and suspense, always slipping around in currents or running aground in the shallows or stalled at the locks. The goals are definite, but distant, and fulfillment unsure even if the goal is reached. The road is shadowy, liquid, its source unknown and direction unpredictable. Underneath the few visible surface  inches is another world altogether, sometimes benign, sometimes dynamic, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile. Always unknown.

River Horse is on one level the non-fiction tale of a man and his boat, intent on journeying across North America by water in one season–the space between May and August when navigability is maximum. For reasons he explains and re-explains and never quite fully justifies, he wants to move east to west, to more or less duplicate a major portion of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804. It means that the upstream portion of the trip will be about twice as long as if he traveled in the opposite direction, but it HAS to be east to west anyhow.

He gathers a crew, finds a boat that he thinks will fill the bill (flat bottom for the shallows, big enough to take two motors to fight the current, narrow enough to fit between close banks and rocks), fits out a motorized canoe to fit where the Nikawa won’t go so he can absolutely maximize water miles and minimize portages, gathers a crew, and takes off from New Jersey.

Despite extensive preparation–research, advance contact with lock and dam operators, spotting fueling stations, etc.–the trip is fraught with complications and difficulties. As we travel, Heat-Moon, fills us in with scholarly and entertaining (hard combination to achieve)–often poetic– accounts and descriptions of the history, geography, geology, zoology, and sociology of the lands and cities and towns we pass through. He also delivers a healthy political/environmental commentary on the governmental neglect and commercial exploitation of our resources. Both the journey and the commentary are fascinating and suspenseful. It’s not the kind of suspense where  you wonder whether they’re going to make it. It’s the kind of suspense where you wonder how, as in how are they going to extricate themselves from this one?

As if that weren’t enough, there are sub-currents of a non-riverine  kind in the relationships among the crew and the inner life of the narrator. People are taking the journey for their own reasons, which don’t always match his, and the levels of commitment vary. So folks come aboard, then debark in mid-journey, leaving ghosts of guilt, regret, resentment. So, too, the marriage that Heat-Moon is leaving behind. We don’t glimpse too much of it, just enough to know that every mile of the odyssey is intertwined with thoughts of what worked, what didn’t, and why. All of this leaves a shadowed frame around a mostly bright and colorful painting. It sounds a bit novelistic for a piece of travel writing, but that’s how substantive this journal is, how much dimension it has.

And I should mention the vocabulary enhancements he provided yours truly. Words such “atrabilious,” “esurient,” “jactitation,” and “cliquant.” Delicious.

I don’t know a better journey book in contemporary American literature. I call it a classic, and an inspiring one at that. A good start to 2009.

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What a run. I was wondering a couple of months ago if I’d be able to get together a decent top ten for ’08, now I’ve got the wonderful task of maybe naming a top twelve or so and still counting.

The Latest wonder is Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions. Its action and storytelling is linear and straightforward; however, Illusions is nonetheless artful and complex. Oh, and by the way, I suddenly find myself with still another definition to add to my list of descriptions for Postmodernism. “Auster,” says the Powell’s website reviewer “could be postmodernism’s poster child. Structurally overt, intellectually complex, metaphorically self-conscious, Auster explores surfaces in order to dig deep and borrows classical forms in order to reveal contemporary dissonance.” Exploring what that last sentence means could probably occupy a semester’s worth of seminar without achieving elucidation. But I digress.

Professor David Zimmer loses wife and two sons in an airplane crash. Moreover, he’s the one who talked them into taking the particular flight responsible. Heavy with grief and guilt, he plunges into liquored-up isolation, eased somewhat by a sudden influx of cash from life insurance and a couple of other sources. He stumbles on  a short film starring an obscure silent film actor who disappeared at the height of his career. The man’s films make him laugh for the first time since the tragedy. Being a professor, he starts his research and, predictably, his recovery.

The predictability ends there. Zimmer publishes a book about the actor’s life and art (focusing on the art, investigating little about the disappearance/death) leaves it aside for another. Then the subject of the first book–the actor himself–emerges from the dead or disappeared. Maybe. It’s not clear which at first. The second book Zimmer has been working on is by and about the musings of a dead Frenchman circa the Revolution. It connects with events within and surrounding the first book in both subtle and obvious ways. Possibly “to reveal contemporary dissonance.” Whether all of this will result in the recovery or relapse of our erstwhile professor is unclear. Will he love again? Can he? The answers, even at the end, remain vague. It’s the search that seems to matter more than anything. And the choices. And the creation of the record of the search and discovery.

Illusions is a fairly quick read, but it leaves echoes. I keep remembering scenes, lines, ideas. Wondering about I’m not exactly sure what, but it has to do with creation and art and destruction and the futility of aspirations of immortality. Or of destroying those aspirations. It’s a work that lives with you and a work that’s nice to live with. Try it.

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Vikram Chandra is a hot new Indian writer whose latest novel, Sacred Gameshas won some critical plaudits, so I decided to take a look and found an accomplished author with some unique approaches. Sacred Games is a literary novel disguised as a detective/thriller. Chandra’s protagonist detective is a Sikh in a police department dominated almost entirely by Hindus, and so becomes a sort of litmus for all the fragmented racial, ethnic, and class elements that apparently make up modern Indian society. There are your basic Moslem-Hindu-Christian conflicts plus a long list of others I’d never heard of. There are also an amazing number of languages involved–Hindi, English, Magahi, Maithili, Urdu. In addition to the detective Sartaj, there’s a first person narrative by the novel’s primary antagonist–a street urchin cum crime lord who tells his story post-mortem. Since we already know the fact and manner of his death, it’s not a question of whodunit, but of how they done it as the detective and gangster work their ways to the collision point.

That part of the story was intriguing, even spellbinding. However, there is a host of other characters (there’s a character list at the beginning of the book) and the number of languages often broke the spell and left me puzzling about who was speaking and what they were saying. I consider myself good at picking up definitions in context and not letting the unfamiliar interrupt my “fictive dream,” but often Sacred Games got the best of me.

The little Maderchod has not even smelt a Ferrari in bhenchod district Begu Sarai. They don’t even have Chutiya roads there which are worthy of being called roads. … There was one ruptured road winding through the fields, and muddy little kachcha lanes leading off to the clumps of huts and houses. 

     Obviously there’s some cursing going on here, but it’s so heavy that you want to know some definitions. The book is heavily glossed, but only three of the four expletives in this passage appear in the glossary. Besides, having to look up that many words in such a short space of time makes for more work than even this well-written book is worth.

Too, I think the book could have used a Maxwell Perkins to trim things down a bit. It comes to nine-hundred pages as it is, which includes two “insets,” which turned out to be short stories (quite good ones) about characters who are not in the novel, but whose circumstances resemble and reflect upon the situations of the man narrative. Well and good, but the main narrative speaks quite nicely itself (though there’s still rather too much of it) and these insets could have nicely gone on to have a life of their own, and Sacred Games would have been better in the end.

Despite all the clutter, though, Chandra’s book is a rewarding read. the book’s characters are all trapped in one way or another–in their jobs, their religions, their marriages, their pasts–and they all try at one point or another to make a break. They have varying degrees of success, but none of them is able to spring out completely. In the end, Chandra seems to imply, the best thing is not just to make the best of things, but to embrace and find the goodness in them–whatever they are. Therein lies some measure of happiness, even if you can’t seem to escape from a place as nasty, smelly, and filthy as Mumbai (Bombay).

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Montana 1948. I’d never heard of this small 1993 classic until a friend recommended it, and I’m sorry it hasn’t received wider recognition. At 164 pages it could qualify as a novella, I suppose, but that’s hardly the point. On the surface, it’s among the simplest works of fiction ever in its language and structure. A brief prologue highlights some key moments in the story we’ll be reading. The narrator (an adult recalling the summer of his twelfth year) highlights his family history, then describes the central event of the book and of his life. From that point, the story seems to tell itself (one of the most difficult effects for any storyteller to achieve) and the action concludes in a manner most writers only dream about–the  surprise that in retrospect seems inevitable.

The story revolves around the illness and death of a young Indian woman, a live-in housekeeper/babysitter for family of the narrator, David Hayden. The Hayden’s have deep roots and high position in Bentrock, Montana. David’s father is the sheriff (the third Hayden to occupy that position), his war-hero uncle a respected physician, and his grandfather a domineering rancher/patriarch. There’s a mystery surrounding the death, and the mystery taints both the family and the community. Because David is only twelve, he is not directly privy to much of the information surrounding the events, but he’s a good listener–voyeur and eavesdropper–and, in addition, he happens on some key information so that he himself becomes instrumental in guiding the novel’s events.

Watkins’s choice in taking the young boy’s point of View could be disastrous for the book because there is so much the youngster cannot know that is essential for the reader’s understanding. However, Watkins uses this disadvantage to make the book even more powerful. Conversations and events are reported to David by others somewhat in the same manner as the protagonist in a Greek drama hears news from messengers and a chorus. Because of his spying, David knows more than any of these adult storytellers know he knows, so when they euphamize or ellipsize their accounts, the dramatic irony for the reader is electric.

Montana 1948 is firmly grounded in its own story, but it is also powerfully metaphorical. It’s emblematic of how this society has dealt with Native Americans. Even more, it’s emblematic of how we have dealt with  ourselves about our treatment of the Indians. “I could never believe in the rule of law again,” David declares, and so he eschews law enforcement and lawyering for teaching history.

I find history endlessly amusing, knowing, as I do, that the record of any human community might omit stories of sexual abuse, murder, suicide. . . Who knows–perhaps any region’s most dramatic, most sensational stories were not played out in public view, but were confined to small, private places. A doctor’s office, say. A white frame house on a quiet street. 

     But, though the message of oppression is not new, Montana 1948 makes the venality, corruption, and treachery of American Society’s relationship with the Indians personal in a way that no textbook ever can. One can recite the lists of broken treaties, quote the statistics of poverty and alcoholism, and describe the psychic effects of living in an isolated and smashed culture without exciting more than head shaking pity and remorse. However, to experience the effects of the psychic rot among the community of conquerors is to experience and understand the true impact of moral turpitude. We’re still living it, and if you don’t believe it, read Montana 1948.

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