Good Time.

Good Time is the newest film from the Safdie brothers, whose last project, Heaven Knows What, was based on the memoir by Arielle Holmes, who starred in it and then played the Darth Vader-obsessed character in last year’s American Honey. Good Time is a straight-up heist film, with Robert Pattinson tremendous as the main character, in the vein of a Jim Thompson novel but less successful than Thompson was at tying up the loose ends of an intriguing plot setup. It’s out now on iTunes and amazon.

Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, who robs a bank with his developmentally disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie), only to have a dye pack in the bag of cash blow up on them in the getaway car. This leads to an extended chase sequence where the brothers are separated and Nick is arrested, leaving Connie free but desperate to free his brother from Rikers, where he knows Benny isn’t likely to survive. Connie’s attempts to pay his brother’s bail drive the rest of the film, aided by the fact that Connie is about half as smart as he thinks he is – I don’t think the word “contingency” would be in his vocabulary.

Pattinson is absolutely great in this, the second excellent performance I’ve seen from him this year along with The Lost City of Z. He’s a magnetic presence, and he plays Connie in a constant manic state that keeps the tension high and also makes it clear to the audience that he’s liable to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. His concern for his brother is palpable, maybe the one sign of humanity we see in Connie, who otherwise is somewhere on the sociopath-psychopath spectrum and seems destined to get a lot of people maimed or killed. Several critics, including A.O. Scott, accused Safdie of overdoing his portrayal of someone a little slow and a little hard of hearing, but I didn’t think it was exaggerated or offensive in the limited time he’s on screen.

No one else in the movie even seems real, and there’s no depth at all to any character. Pattinson ends up in the apartment of an older woman he met on a hospital bus and befriends her 16-year-old granddaughter, but those two are largely ciphers in the film – you expect a back story, a connection, even a metaphorical one, but there’s none there. I found nothing at all beneath the grimy surface of Good Time; it’s a heist gone wrong story, with a dark-hearted character at the center, who ends up teaming up with a feckless idiot in a last-ditch attempt to raise the funds he needs. Once those two pair up, the energy of the film sputters out, and doesn’t return at all until the final sequence before the credits when the story gets its resolution.

One aspect to recommend the film, beyond Pattinson’s performance: The score from avant-garde composer Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, is banging, and props up the film in several moments when the engine starts to stall.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

My last post from Arizona went up yesterday for Insiders, with notes on four prospects: Dylan Cease, Anderson Espinoza, Luis Almanzar, and Scott Blewett. My annual breakout players column goes up Thursday – but if you subscribe to my newsletter, you already knew that.

Also, some great boardgame apps from Asmodee are on sale till March 26th. Here are the ones I recommend, each of which is $2:
* Ticket to Ride (iOSandroid)
* Splendor (iOSandroid)
* Pandemic (iOSandroid)
* Small World (iOSandroid)

Just 34 more days till Smart Baseball is released. You can still preorder it now via Harper-Collins’ site.

Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 with his sprawling novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a story about comic books, magicians, Jewish mysticism, homophobia, fascism, and a few other themes, one that garnered universal praise but that I thought could have used some serious editing. That experience steered me away from Chabon, figuring if I couldn’t love his acknowledged masterwork then I probably just wasn’t a fan, until I picked up his Hugo Award winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union earlier this year in a used bookstore. It’s still very much Chabon’s voice, but the story here is so much more focused and the side characters more developed, which spurred my “hot take” tweet the other day that I preferred this novel to his magnum opus.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternate timeline where the real-life proposal to create a homeland in Alaska for displaced Jews went through, and where the state of Israel was overrun by Arab attackers, so that the city of Sitka – population in our timeline: about 9000 – is a bustling metropolis of over two million people, mostly Jewish refugees and their descendants. (For comparison’s sake, the entire state of Alaska has fewer than 750,000 people right now.) This protectorate comes with an expiration date, like the United Kingdom’s agreement in Hong Kong or our agreement in Panama, where the autonomy of the local Jewish population over their municipal affairs will end two months after the time in which the story takes place, with the fate of all of these Jews unknown. They may lose their citizenship, and will certainly lose their socioeconomic status, with federal agents lurking, ready to come in and throw the Jews out.

Set against this backdrop is an old-fashioned noir detective novel, one that begins with a dead junkie in the flophouse where alcoholic cop Meyer Landsman lives (and drinks). The junkie has been shot in the head, execution-style, but left behind some very strange clues, including a miniature chessboard left in the middle of a difficult problem and Jewish prayer strings (tzitzit) that the victim appears to have used to tie off when shooting heroin. The victim turns out to be someone fairly significant in the local underworld, which spins Landsman and his partner, the half-Jewish/half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, into a traditional hard-boiled detective storyline where they bounce in a sort of circle around the same handful of suspects and sources to try to unravel the core mystery. Of course, Landsman gets knocked out, kidnapped, nearly killled, and drunk over the course of the novel, because Chabon is at least true to the form to which he’s paying homage.

Chabon creates a fun cast of eccentrics to populate this novel – which was also true of Kavalier and Clay – even though he has to cut them all from the same basic cloth. They’re all exiles facing the potential end of their safe haven, all brought up in the same semi-closed community, all coping with the same existential doubts. Even those who’ve spent time outside of the enclave, such as Meyer’s ex-wife and now boss Bina, share the same core experiences and are facing the same sort of countdown-to-extinction questions. Chabon gives them surprising depth given the limitations he’s placed on himself with this setting.

He also wrote a cracking good plot; at the end of the day, detective fiction lives and dies by two things, the main character and the story, so while Chabon’s prose can be spectacular, it’s lipstick on a pig if the story isn’t good. I was drawn into the story fairly quickly, and he manages to peel back the layers in a way that feels realistic, while also infusing just enough of a conspiracy to keep the reader guessing – and to give some meaning to the general sense of the Sitka population that the world is really out to get the city’s Jews.

The characters in the book are all supposed to be speaking Yiddish, with a glossary at the end of the book for Yiddish terms that Chabon chose to keep or that lack an easy translation, a detail that makes sense for the setting but that gave the book the only real distraction, especially when Chabon would tell us that a certain character had switched to English or, on one or two occasions, Hebrew. It fits the setting – a refugee population moving en masse like that wouldn’t just adopt a new tongue – but detracted slightly from the flow of the story.

As for the ending … I don’t think Chabon intended to satisfy the reader here, because this isn’t a traditional hard-boiled detective novel, but an updated one that respects the tradition, and because the conclusion here has to mimic the fate of the Sitka population. They’re not getting the resolution they deserve, so the readers should at least be left with some ambiguity to reflect it. With the rest of the story as tightly woven and written as it is, that’s a compromise I can easily accept as a reader.

Next up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo winner Mirror Dance, part of the Vorkosigan series; I read and enjoyed The Vor Game in November but skipped the review because I was on vacation.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.

So I’m told that the new movie I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore isn’t technically a movie, because Netflix bought the film at January’s Sundance Festival and released it directly to its streaming service, bypassing a theatrical release entirely. That means it’s ineligible for annual movie awards and (most) critics’ lists. I don’t think the movie was going to end up earning Oscar nods, but it might have been on some top ten lists given its indie cred and noir-farcical feel, along with a pretty great performance by Elijah Wood.

Melanie Lynskey plays the protagonist, Ruth, a frumpy, meek post-op nurse who lives alone, is constantly put-upon or merely stepped-on, and comes home from the Worst Day Ever to find that someone broke into her house and stole her laptop and her grandmother’s silver. The police are indifferent and even blame her* a bit for the break-in, giving zero reason for her to expect to ever see her stuff again. She had location-tracking software on her laptop, however, and when her phone tells her the laptop has been turned on and is located about a ten-minute drive away, she recruits her martial arts-obsessed neighbor, Tony, to go get it back … which leads them into one semi-incompetent escapade after another until people start getting shot.

* Unrelated: last year, we had a false alarm at our house for unknown reasons, but the police ended up getting to the house before we could return and call them off. The officer who went through the house was really unpleasant to us after, saying we’d left “every door unlocked,” and all but calling us idiots. While we have certainly made the mistake of leaving one door unlocked, there’s one door that we never open and that is always locked, one he claimed was left unlocked … which it wasn’t. So I probably related to Ruth a little more than usual when the cop was talking down to her.

I keep seeing references to this film as “neo-noir,” but it’s noirish, at best, and is too comical, with protagonists and antagonists too inept, to really qualify as noir. Ruth and Tony are just amateurs, and they get drunk on the success of the laptop retrieval mission. When they get closer to the bumbling, violent idiots behind the burglary, things get more serious, except that the gang literally can’t shoot straight, and we get a Fargo-esque screwup that leaves a few people dead and Ruth running for her life from the big baddie, played by David Yow (lead singer of the Jesus Lizard). The tone definitely gets darker as the film goes on, but less in a Touch of Evil sort of way, more in a Pulp Fiction holy-shit-people-are-dying-horrible-deaths way.

There is a broader theme underlying I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore that takes it beyond mere indie black-comedy territory – that people today are losing their empathy. Ruth views the burglary as the greatest violation in a day of minor violations, and thinks the problem is just that people are assholes (her word for it, not that I disagree). And when she confronts some of the people who were assholes to her, only one, Tony, actually sets about proving her wrong. There’s no answer to the questions of where our empathy went, or how to get it back, but as the foundational observation for an inept crime caper film, it works quite well.

By the way, Lynskey’s first major role in anything was in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, where she played Pauline Parker, who murdered her mother with the help of her friend Juliet Hulme. The director of that film was Peter Jackson, who later directed the Lord of the Rings films, starring … Elijah Wood. Hulme was played by another then-unknown actress, Kate Winslet. And you probably know who Juliet Hulme is, but not by that name: She was released from prison after serving her five-year term, changed her name to Anne Perry, and became a best-selling author of historical detective fiction.

Hell or High Water.

Hell or High Water (available to rent on amazon and iTunes) earned Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominations for this month’s Academy Awards, which perplexes me no end because it’s just not that kind of movie. It’s incredibly entertaining, very well shot, but there is nothing in this story you haven’t seen before, whether we’re talking characters or plot. It’s cowboy noir, and while I love noir (and did really enjoy this movie), this iteration changes nothing of the noir formula except putting the action in west Texas.

Jeff Bridges, who earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his work here, plays Texas Ranger Marcus (not Josh) Hamilton, who’s – wait for it – just a few weeks away from retirement when a string of small-time bank robberies, all of branches of the same bank, crosses his desk and gives him one last ‘big’ case before he heads off to his porch. The robbers, played by Chris Pine (Toby) and Ben Foster (Tanner), are a pair of brothers who are robbing banks solely of the small cash in the drawers, and are working up enough money to pay off some specific debt that becomes clear around the midpoint of the film. Pine plays the sensitive brother who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, while Foster is the ex-con loose cannon who seems to enjoy robbing banks for the hell of it. Bridges’ partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), is a younger cop of both Mexican and Comanche descent, and bears the brunt of Bridges’ unending stream of bigoted “Injun” humor.

It’s two against two, and you can certainly guess how this is going to end if you’ve seen a few movies in your lifetime. That doesn’t make the trip less enjoyable, especially since the dialogue between the cops is snappy (other than the racist humor, which has a little shock value at the start and quickly overstays its welcome as a device to mask the affection Bridges’ character feels for his partner) and the scenery is stunning, with panoramic shots of the west Texas landscape. I haven’t been to that part of the state, but I’ve been to Arizona and New Mexico, even out of the metro areas, and it has that same feel of desolation between the arid climate and the lack of anything resembling civilization – buildings, paved roads, people, even animals.

The characters, however, are all straight out of Noir Central Casting. Foster plays his character turned up to 11 the entire film, and while he seems to be having a blast, it means the character has no nuance. He’s a psychopath and his only redeeming characteristic is that he loves his brother, although that’s just kind of a stated fact, with nothing resembling an explanation or a background. (He shows incredible empathy for his brother, but thinks nothing of shooting strangers, security guards, cops, and so on.) Bridges does everything he can with his character, although the cop who’s one case away from retirement is about as hackneyed as the hooker with a heart of gold, and it’s pretty easy to figure out who’s going to survive this movie and who’s not.

Where Hell or High Water really clicks is the dry humor, much of it around Texas playing a bit to stereotype. When the brothers rob their second bank, there’s an older gentleman at the teller; one brother asks him if he has a gun on him, and the man replies with a combination of shock and indignation, “You’re god-damned right I have a gun.” A young punk at a gas station who can barely hold his pistol correctly gets what’s coming to him for mouthing off to the brothers. Albert gets a few zingers back at Marcus that show him to be the more erudite of the two, despite the way Marcus talks to him as some sort of noble savage.

Was this script just a noir story, though, or was writer Taylor Sheridan trying to make some bigger points about evil banks and a dying way of life on the ranch? If the latter was true, it didn’t work at all for me; it was there but entirely superficial, and if the plot itself was familiar, the Big Bad Corporation aspect is downright bromidic. Sometimes a good guys/bad guys story is just that. Let them shoot it out for themselves and leave the bigger meaning to other films.

(By the way, two “where I have a seen that actor before?” moments for me from Hell or High Water: The brothers’ lawyer is played by Kevin Rankin, who played the priest on Gracepoint, and Toby’s ex-wife is played by Marin Ireland, who briefly played an Islamist terrorist on Homeland.)

I’ve seen five of the nine Best Picture nominees so far, and this would easily be at the bottom for me, and behind a few other movies I’ve seen this year, including Loving, which I saw Saturday and will review this week as well.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

For Insiders, my recaps of the drafts for all 15 NL teams and all 15 AL teams are up, as well as my round one reactions and a post-draft Klawchat.

David Hadley Chase was a prolific British author of American crime fiction, writing numerous novels (under this pseudonym) that were, for the time, controversial for their graphic violence and implied sexual content. His first novel, the grim No Orchids for Miss Blandish, remains his best-known work, and it’s just $1.29 for the Kindle through that link (or just £4.99 in the UK). It’s gripping despite an almost nihilistic view of its characters, the rare story where the venal criminals are more compelling characters than the hard-boiled detective attempting to find them. George Orwell was a fan of the writing, but Raymond Chandler was not, calling it “half-cent pulp writing at its worst” in a letter to Cleve Adams. (Chandler later won a lawsuit against Chase, accusing the latter of plagiarizing a section of a later book.)

Miss Blandish is the heiress at the center of a theft and ransom kidnapping plot that involves two different groups of crooks, the latter, the notorious Grissom Gang (reminiscent in many ways of the Australian Pettingill family), run by a sociopathic matriarch and her mentally challenged, ultra-violent son Slim. Their plan is to steal her new diamond necklace, collect a ransom for her from her wealthy father, and then dispose of her rather than risk her identifying them … but then Slim takes a fancy to her, complicating their plans even after they get their money and try to use it to run a slightly more legitimate business.

Miss Blandish’s father hires reporter-turned-private detective Dave Fenner to try to track his daughter down several months after he’s paid the ransom without any word on her whereabouts or even whether she’s alive, and Fenner – about as cliched a detective character as you’ll ever find – uses his knowledge of the town’s underworld to find the one lead police didn’t uncover. Chase spends most of his energy and the bulk of the verbiage on the interactions between Slim Grissom, his mother, and the other dissolute members of their gang, including how they respond once it becomes clear that their faĉade of respectability in their new venture has been cracked.

The violence in the book is par for the course for the era, although No Orchids was apparently one of the first to raise the violence to this level; I don’t enjoy violence for its own sake, but to paint the picture of the Grissom gang as unrepentant and likely sociopathic killers, the violence serves a literary purpose. Less necessary and much harder to stomach is the largely off-screen rape of Miss Blandish by Slim, repeated over a period of months. When Fenner finally finds her near the end of the book, however, all of the dialogue seems to indicate that there is no recovery from this sort of trauma, both from the extent of the crimes committed and from the shame of being a victim of kidnap and a presumed rape. It’s true to its era, but fortunately we live in an era that is both more enlightened and better equipped to help trauma victims recover from their ordeals, which gave the novel’s resolution a very antiquated and somewhat misogynistic flavor. A female author would never have written this ending – or at least I’d like to think one wouldn’t. (For the record, I don’t agree with either of Orwell’s interpretations of the ending; I think he’s ignored or dismissed a third possibility, that the motive was shame.) However, for fans of noir fiction, No Orchids offers a swift, exceptionally dark take on the genre, one where the payoff is less important than the way there.

The Wounded and the Slain.

American author David Goodis’ work has largely been out of print since his death at age 49 in 1967, but the author of pulp novels and short stories in the noir and crime-fiction genres has seen a modest resurgence in popularity in the last decade as a few of his works have been republished. The Library of America has printed five of his novels in a single collection, including Dark Passage, which may have been the inspiration for the TV series “The Fugitive.” (A lawsuit was settled out of court after Goodis’ death.) Hard Case Crime brought The Wounded and the Slain back in 2007, part of their ongoing effort to revive those once-scorned pulp novels by introducing them to a modern audience – and I, as a fan of noir in general but a reader unfamiliar with Goodis’ work, can add my recommendation to theirs.

Wounded isn’t really a crime novel, earning its noir designation from its themes and setting rather than from its plot, even though there is a crime within the story. James Bevan is the drunk at the novel’s center, on a disastrous vacation with his wife, Cora, as their marriage threatens to dissolve in a highball glass of gin. James can’t stand to be sober, yet his self-destructive tendencies increase exponentially when he’s under the influence, which leads him to wander the slums of Kingston at night, eventually putting him in a bar where a riot breaks out and he’s drawn into the melee even though he’s too drunk to comprehend what’s happening around him. Cora shows vast patience with James, blaming herself for much of his licentiousness, but ultimately drifts into a flirtation with another guest at the posh resort where they’re staying. The novel concentrates more on James’ death spiral – and his reluctance to resist it – until Cora is forced to decide between fighting for her husband or pursuing her own happiness elsewhere.

Goodis paints one grim picture after another, both in scenery and in mood. The Kingston of this novel is filthy, poverty-stricken, drug-riddled, a den of thieves waiting to pick any errant tourist clean of all but his skin should he leave the safety of his hotel. The handful of sailors on shore leave we encounter don’t come off a whole lot better. James wanders into this world in an alcoholic stupor, trapped in a mind full of catastrophic thoughts, grappling with questions of suicide until he finds himself about to die – twice – and has to choose to live, only to see that the life he’s returning to isn’t worth that much. That these experiences prove disillusive for James underscores the stark existential nature of Goodis’ writing here, a prime example of noir without a hard-boiled detective.

Where Wounded lost me a little was the denouement, where Cora’s and James’s stories intersect in somewhat unlikely fashion, although Goodis saved himself with an ambiguous resolution that avoids tying anything up too neatly, which would have de-noired the book. I didn’t like how James ended up in that specific situation, as it seemed too far-fetched for a novel that often danced at the edge of the mundane in its realism. In James, Goodis has even created a compelling character who is miserable and whose mimesis is limited to the less palatable aspects of the human character, whose treatment of his wife should repulse us yet whose Appointment in Samarra-esque hurtle towards destruction will not let us turn away.

Many of the details about Goodis come from his entry in Wikipedia, and we know Wikipedia is never wrong.

The Killer Inside Me.

I’m off to Arizona for some Fall League scouting this week, so barring a rainout there won’t be a chat or podcast, and dish posting may be sporadic.

I’m a huge fan of noir films and novels, starting with the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler but, having finished both of their canons, moving on to darker crime novels like those of Jim Thompson, whose The Killer Inside Me is the third and most unsettling of his novels I’ve read so far. The basis for a 2010 movie starring Casey Affleck and Jessica Alba, the novel delivers exactly what the title promises: It’s a first-person account of a sociopathic deputy sheriff whose solution to almost every problem is to kill whoever’s causing it.

Lou Ford is the narrator and killer in question, a cliche-spouting officer of the law who has a troubled background that has limited him to low-level police work, even though he has the intelligence of his father, a successful doctor who may have recognized that his son was mentally unstable. Ford’s narration is of dubious reliability, and he only gives us glimpses of his history of violence, but is more transparent when describing his predicament when an attempt to exact revenge on the town’s wealthy industralist backfires on him (in part through his own duplicity). Every solution he conceives involves violence, usually committed by him but pinned on someone else. After a few deaths too many, however, the facade he’s constructed starts to crumble as he realizes his bumpkin act isn’t fooling the powers that be any longer.

Thompson utilizes violence as a literary tool, as a window into “the sickness” inside of Ford and as a physical manifestation of the character’s inability to properly process negative emotions such as frustration or insecurity, largely avoiding lurid descriptions of Ford’s actions. Thompson largely avoids the question of a first cause, other than a hint that Lou may have been abused when he was a teenager, and focuses instead on the character’s almost robotic responses to difficult situations. He’s the pre-Anton Chigurh, but with a complexity that McCarthy’s arch-villain lacked, showing glimpses of emotions directed at others (through the lens of his own well-being, of course) and a wry sense of humor in between the spasms of violence.

The Killer Inside Me functions as a perverse character study, but its main appeal is its suspense – will Ford continue to kill with impunity, or will the various authorities stop him – and if they do, what kind of fight will he put up before he’s caught or killed? Ford even confesses to another murder he believes he has to commit – whether for practical reasons or due to “the sickness” is unclear – well before it takes place, then takes his time getting around to it, as if he’s enjoying toying with the reader’s emotions, or merely enjoying reliving the murder in his own mind.

The hazard of any novel that uses first-person narration where the narrator is the central character (and probably an unreliable narrator too) is that other characters become two-dimensional because we only see what the narrator sees, or what he wants to tell us. Thompson conveys the sense of a net closing in on Ford in part through the sheer number of characters whom Ford suspects have figured out his ruses, yet none of them has any depth because of the limitations of Ford’s own perception of others and their emotions. Ford is textured and at times opaque, but Thompson gives us a character who doesn’t describe other characters well because he can’t understand their emotions other than fear.

I didn’t enjoy The Killer Inside Me as much as the similar pop. 1280, which is more nuanced in its portrait of a ruthless killer, or The Grifters, which revolves around confidence men double-crossing each other in a study in sociopathy. Thompson’s ability to portray these half-people, consumed only with themselves and unable to feel anything for others, is disturbing in its realism, but that darkness is an essential ingredient in noir and, I admit, part of what I find so compelling in his novels.

Next up: I’m about a third of the way through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and knocked off Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native last week.

The Ministry of Fear.

My quick reactions post to the Futures Game went up last night for Insiders.

I’m a huge fan of Graham Greene’s works, having read more novels by him than any other writer not named Wodehouse or Christie. Greene is probably best remembered today for his “Catholic novels” – a group that includes The End of the Affair, The Heart of the Matter, and my favorite of them, The Power and the Glory – and if you look for his works in any bookstore, independent or big-box, that’s mostly what you’ll find. Yet Greene also produced suspense novels he derided as “entertainments,” mostly spy novels, which varied from straight-ahead intrigues (The Confidential Agent) to parodic works with serious themes below the humor (Our Man in Havana, which is on the Klaw 100).

The Ministry of Fear is one of Greene’s entertainments, a serious spy novel that revolves around a bit of mistaken identity to delve into existential questions of identity and memory and the morality of crime and murder in wartime. It is tremendously entertaining, with an everyman protagonist who becomes a hunted man when he inadvertently wins a cake intended for an actual spy at a local fair, and well-paced, while avoiding the sense of empty calories you might find in a more formulaic, pulp-fiction spy story.

Arthur Rowe is a bit of a sad-sack widower who enters a fortune-teller’s tent at that local fair, a brief decision that lands him the cake and a significant amount of trouble, especially when he refuses to give or sell the cake to its intended recipient. This coincidence puts Arthur on the run after an attempt on his life and a frame-up for a crime committed with his own schoolboy’s knife, bringing him into conflict with a past of his own that he’s trying to escape, even as his mind refuses to give him freedom.

A good spy or suspense novel needs its share of twists, and Greene gives us several, most of which I haven’t mentioned here to avoid spoilers. There are at least five major plot points that might count as surprises, although I thought the denouement was rather predictable given what came before – mostly that we run out of culprits, but also because the genre teaches us to look for the most shocking answer to the novel’s main question. Greene sustains The Ministry of Fear in spite of that one foreseeable outcome because of the depth of his characterization of Rowe, a more complex man under the surface than Greene’s initial presentation of him would indicate. Rowe is emotionally exhausted, looking for closure, careening from moments of great inner strength to severe defeatism. He can be clueless, but in crises shows quicker resolve and remarkable deductive reasoning skills. He’s full of pity, but is not as pathetic as he’d seem, even flashing a cold streak when that will get him what he wants or needs. He’s neither hero nor antihero, a protagonist whom the reader wants to ‘win’ but whose terms of victory are not quite what we’d want for him.

The Ministry of Fear can’t succeed as a spy novel unless it gets the “spy” part right, and I believe that it does so with a plot that moves quickly with sufficient narrative greed to pull the reader forward, as well as enough twists and turns to keep the suspense level high (until that one climactic twist). It works as a novel because Greene was almost completely incapable of writing a novel, even an unserious one, without creating at least one strong character, while using the same voice and phrasing that made him a master of English fiction.

In between the last blog post and this one, I read three classics from the Bloomsbury 100 list: Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami, Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. None seemed worth a full post; Franklin’s book was the most interesting, a very early work of feminist literature where the young protagonist chafes under the societal restrictions that prevent her from receiving the same education or opportunities as men her age. Written when Franklin was just 21, the book describes the efforts of her stand-in main character to develop her independence when her fate is determined by others around her, nearly all of them male. She has but one decision she can make for herself, and makes it even if the world around her would view it as foolish.

Next up: Herman Koch’s 2013 novel The Dinner.

pop. 1280

My draft reviews are all up now – full recaps for every NL team and every AL team, plus my chat from early on day two, my day one recap, and Friday’s Behind the Dish podcast where I talked a bit about day one.

When I reviewed Jim Thompson’s The Grifters a few weeks ago, a reader said I should read his Pop. 1280 next, as it was his best work. It’s much tighter, definitely funnier and yet in ways far more fitting of the “noir” label, setting up the reader again and again for twists that turn a situation that seemed almost silly into a vision of paranoia and sociopathy.

Nick Corey is the narrator and protagonist of pop. 1280, the apparently hapless sheriff of the sparsely populated county of Pottsville in an unnamed state (probably Texas). Corey finds himself disrespected by the local criminals, including the two pimps at the town’s whorehouse, and verbally abused by the haughty sheriff of the more populous neighboring county. His manipulative, domineering wife Myra rules the roost at home, where they live with her simple-minded peeping-Tom brother. Nick presents himself as the amiable dunce, but the reader learns quickly that he is anything but friendly or a fool, and is either coldly rational and without empathy or is delusional and psychotic.

Thompson’s portrayal of the character is skilled and precise, crafting boundaries and expectations for the reader and then knocking them down as the character develops before the reader’s eyes. I don’t know if Nick is actually a sociopath – he might have a personality disorder, like narcissistic p.d., although that’s a better question for a psychiatrist who likes to diagnose fictional characters with mental illnesses – but he commands your attention. I found myself hanging on his words; I was eager to read what happened next, because he was unpredictable and his schemes were clever, but also because I wanted to hear what he said next because his words were less predictable than his actions. One by one, Nick identifies his problems and “solves” them, without significant regard for the consequences because he seems to believe that the rightness of his actions will protect him from any negative results.

One question the book didn’t and likely couldn’t answer was whether Nick’s standing in the town was a function of the public’s fear of him – did they recognize how dangerous he was, and leave him in office out of fear? I couldn’t view Nick as a reliable narrator, but at the same time we receive no other information beyond what he tells us, leaving us with no choice but to accept his version of events. Myra manipulates Nick, and cheats on him, and yet there are times when her demeanor towards him changes from condescension to fear, as if she’s witnessed a change in his personality from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. He’s one of the most interesting antiheroes I’ve come across in any genre.

Next up: Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef.

The Grifters.

I’ve got a draft blog post up on Braden Shipley and Aaron Judge, as well as a post with predictions for the 2013 season.

Jim Thompson’s 1963 novel The Grifters is my first encounter with his work, a neo-noir novel that draws from the prose style of hard-boiled detective novels but brings it outside of the detective genre, instead focusing on the cons themselves with barely a shamus in sight. The three main characters are all tied together in simple ways, but Thompson develops them each so deeply that the result is like a modern, dark Greek tragedy, written by someone who read too much Raymond Chandler. (Note: One cannot read too much Chandler.)

Adapted into the 1990 film of the same name by Donald Westlake, The Grifters centers on Roy Dillon, a mid-20s artist of the “small con,” little tricks designed to yield up to $100 that won’t attract too much notice from the police. His indifferent, manipulative mother Lilly is herself involved with the mob, as she has been for years, now helping them rig the betting against longshots at the track. Roy avoids most lasting relationships, as part of the life of the grifter but also a consequence of a childhood with a sociopathic mother, yet ends up involved with Moira Langtry, who is also on the make but whose motives aren’t immediately clear. When one of Roy’s small cons leaves him nearly dead and in need of convalescence, his mother makes her move to reestablish herself in her son’s life – for her own purposes, of course.

Roy is the far more developed character in the book, working from an independent sense of morality, wary of his mother yet unable to fully sever ties with her, but Lilly is far more fascinating – the mother who’d eat her young and who only views others as tools for her own advancement. (It cracks me up that the actress who played Lilly in the film, Anjelica Houston, is now the voice of the overly sweet Queen Clarion in the new Tinker Bell movies.) We get Lilly and Roy’s backstory through flashback chapters intertwined with the present time, which tracks Roy’s injury and recovery, and which allows Lilly to introduce Roy to the seemingly innocent nurse Carol, an immigrant who is reluctant to discuss anything of her past.

Thompson had to have been at least somewhat thinking in terms of Greek tragedies, especially Oedipus, when writing The Grifters, as the elements are too obvious for this to have been inadvertent. The incestuous undertone to Lilly and Roy’s relationship becomes clearer the more we watch the two interact, especially since sex is Lilly’s primary way of manipulating men, either to get what she wants or to get out of trouble. The three elements Aristotle identified as critical to the tragic plot – reversals of fortune, recognition, and suffering by one or more protagonists – are all present, especially in the two-part conclusion, the second half of which even surprised me. Greek tragedies often come across today as pedantic and dull, but Thompson uses both the plot and taut syntax to keep the tension high from the hit Roy takes the stomach in the first chapter to that final confrontation that lays everyone’s motives bare.

The style and subject matter reminded me of Chandler and Hammett, as well as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which I read in February, but the strongest resemblance was to James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Crumley’s novel is more violent and has less of the classical elements of The Grifters, but I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that Thompson had influenced Crumley’s work, especially since Crumley was in college and graduate school when two of Thompson’s most significant works, this novel and Pop. 1280 were first published.

Next up: B.S. Johnson’s manic metafictional absurdist novel Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry.