Page Right: Summer 2008 Roundup

Worst pun ever. I’m so sorry. After the jump, you can read my extended thoughts on some of the new books I read this summer…

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow (Knopf, 2008)

This may be my favorite book by Don Winslow yet, and I didn’t think it was possible to be more fun than The Winter of Frankie Machine. For those of you who don’t know, Don Winslow is probably my favorite crime writer today, and definitely one of my favorite writers going. Unfortunately — and many of us Winslow fans hoped this latest would be the one — he hasn’t had the big breakthrough hit that’s put him at the level of a James Patterson or a Harlan Coben or any of the other airport writers he’s way more talented than. There were parts of his mistaken identity thriller The Death and Life of Bobby Z that made me laugh very, very hard. Frankie Machine is like the missing final chapter in the American mafia saga that can be traced from The Godfather to Goodfellas to The Sopranos, and again, is funny as hell. Read him. Read him right now. I’ll wait.

<waits>

I would almost say read Frankie Machine before Dawn Patrol (which I blazed through in about three days as I do with most Winslows), because the latter is a refinement of the style he started playing around with in the former and even in Power of the Dog (which I’ve started about three or four times). He’ll go on these semi-long digressions about San Diego and California cultural history, but it always has a point and it never goes on too long, always bringing it back to the action.

When I read Frankie Machine, I realized that most modern crime novels (and really, most genre novels) are like jazz and variations on a theme. The same basic form is there, the themes are repeated, and in order to set yourself apart, it’s how you riff on those themes. It’s the singer, not the song. The same’s true for private investigator/detective novels — the girl will always go missing, and there’s always someone who wants to find her. Winslow is one of the best guys riffing today. Even more than that, Winslow understands that the best P.I. novels, whether it’s a single novel or a series that goes on for thirty years, are wish-fulfillment at their core. They can be violent and disturbing at times, but they’re supposed to be fun. And Dawn Patrol is a lot of fun, a great book for the summer season. My only hope is that we don’t have to wait five years for the next one.

Oh, and it made me work surfing into the script I’m writing. Suburban surf noir, indeed.

Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America by Richard Zoglin (Bloomsbury USA, 2008)

This book serves as a nice compliment to Peter Biskind’s book about the seventies film generation Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which I reread a week before starting this one. It’s not quite as gossipy and doesn’t have as strong a through-line as Biskind, but it’s still very entertaining. Each chapter devotes itself to either one comedian or aspect of stand-up (like the Improv/Catch a Rising Star rivalry) from roughly 1966 to the early 1980s as a way to illustrate how that time period not just changed stand-up (starting with, believe it or not, Carlin), but changed how we think about comedy in America. I’m about halfway through it and really enjoying it so far. A book like this you read for the stories and hope that there’s some cultural commentary as well. And there are some great stories, including one about the mob beating up Joe Piscipo.

The Last Campaign: Robert Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America by Thurston Clarke (Henry Holt, 2008)

Relevant, inspiring, and depressing, all at the same time. I can see why he calls it “the last campaign,” as it presents Kennedy as a passionate, principled man who deeply cared about the issues, and was willing to sacrifice political ground if it meant educating Americans about them. It’s a little too fawning at times for my taste, but I’m coming away with it with a greater respect for Kennedy, and a desire to learn more about the man. And it is very well-written, full of detail, and great stories, although it kind of shoots its wad early when it covers the MLK assassination and Kennedy’s reaction to that. Plus, it makes Ronald Reagan look like a dick*. Always a plus.

Of course, any book about Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign has this giant cloud of doom hanging over it from page one, because we all know how it ends, so it’s hard to get too excited over his triumphs. But I think that’s kind of the point.

On a related note, however, my love for The West Wing is well-known, and after reading this book, I can see how Bartlet is much less “Clinton with a soul” and much more “if RFK had lived.” Of course, Bartlet is of the generation that would have voted for Kennedy, but I was struck at how “similar” the two of them are, beyond surface things like the youthfulness and the Catholicism. Something to ask Sorkin about if I ever meet the guy. (Yeah, right.)

Another thing about reading this book is that it gave me greater insight into my dad, who was a McCarthy kid (although he wasn’t old enough to vote in 1968, he remembers watching the assassination on TV very clearly and credits it as one of the moments that may have led him towards a career in television criticism and history. This was in the blog now set on private.). Understanding that McCarthy was popular among suburban intellectuals and college/prep school kids helped me sort of think about what kind of kid my dad must have been. I bought him a copy of this book for his birthday, and I’m curious to hear what he thinks of it.

The thing that struck me most about how this was the “last campaign” was it seems like the last time a candidate eschewed television for whistle-stops. Kennedy was a guy who, time and time again, proved his success was in getting in front of a crowd of people, thousands of people, and engaging them, arguing with them, responding to them — and more importantly, engaging and responding to his detractors. It’s something that you just don’t see today, not on this scale, and so I think one of the conclusions the book makes is that Kennedy’s campaigning style was one of the factors that led to his assassination, and is one reason why candidates don’t campaign in this style anymore.

Useless Geek Shoutout: The book is meant to inspire “what ifs,” and it does its job, but like most of the internet, I have Watchmen on the brain, because my “what ifs” were followed by “Well, what if it was RFK and not Nixon during the events of Watchmen, and what would have had to transpire for those events to take place.” Then I wept for thinking that.

*The chapter on King’s funeral includes this comment by Reagan, who chose not to attend:

“[He] issued a statement blaming King’s assassination on his philosophy of nonviolent discourse, calling his death ‘a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order and people [i.e., King] started choosing which laws they’d break.'”

Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates (Da Capo, 2004, paperback edition)

I’m not going to say that Oates is one of my all time favorite writers, although she’s in that rare class of authors who have managed to thoroughly get under my skin (read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” if you don’t believe me**) and is an author whose stuff I started reading at an age when I wasn’t quite mature enough to handle it. A good example of this is We Were The Mulvaneys, which I read in high school and whose elements of vigilantism appealed to me and my slightly flawed sense of honor in ways which were not that great. I’d like to re-read that one again, now that I’m older and I’ve read this one, which forms a nice compliment to what I remember of Mulvaneys.

Rape: A Love Story isn’t as good as some of her others — for a book about a gang rape, it feels pretty slight — but I’d say it’s worth reading. I can’t really discuss it without going into big spoilers, but I was surprised how the “love story” developed. Oates also gives the “rape-revenge” storyline a couple of nice spins and kind of explores how that story would actually play out in real life. There are a couple of unrealistic moments, but Oates does a good job of establishing the city of Niagara Falls and its blue-collar population in the first few sections, so you buy into it. It’s actually the kind of book I wish more people had read so I could talk about it — especially the ending.

**Useless pop culture tidbit II: One of my annoyances that Joan of Arcadia got canceled way back when is that they didn’t have a third season to do their “Joan vs. The Devil” (Wentworth Miller, who worked at the same place I do) storyline. I always felt that rather than doing it the way they were setting it up, an angle similar to this short story would have been the tits.

LAbyrinth by Randall Sullivan (Grove Press, 2003, paperback edition)

When I read this, I thought “This shit is insane.” After a few weeks, I stand by my assessment. It’s very much like the film Zodiac, in that while there’s never a smoking gun against Suge Knight’s and LAPD officers’ involvement in the murders of Biggie and Tupac, it definitely presents a lot of pretty damning evidence. The biggest one for me involves the lead investigator, Russell Poole, finding the same make of car and the same unique type of German bullet in the house of a cop suspected of armed robbery as the make and bullet involved in the Smalls murder. You come away with it being “99 percent sure,” and thinking that it’ll probably never be solved.

It’s definitely got an epic feel, as Sullivan goes on long digressions about not just the history of its characters but of rap music, South Central, the LAPD, and gang warfare, and by the end, you’ve heard so many different stories from so many different characters that it left me a little drained and my mind a little blown. I came away thinking “it needs to be a movie,” but as the story’s basically about a white cop investigating a series of crimes where all the ‘bad guys’ happen to be black, I can see why it hasn’t been made yet. That, and the lawsuits.

And there are problems with it, sure. Sullivan seems a little too concerned with the racial/ethnic aspects of the case (there’s one part where he makes reference to a character’s religion that was completely unnecessary), and he’s obviously not a Johnny Cochrane fan at all — blaming the racial tension caused by Mark Furhman and the OJ case for the lack of proper investigation into the murders, among other things. But these criticisms were so minor that I wonder if I was just projecting. My other complaint with it is that it’s so ‘dense’ with so many characters, it really suffers from the lack of an index.

A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans (Three River Press, 2008, paperback edition)

I don’t read a lot of horror that isn’t written by Stephen King to begin with, and I don’t read a lot of Stephen King these days anyway, but this is probably one of the best horror novels I’ve read, on a level with Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. In fact, I think this is the first book to give me that deeply unnerved, over-the-shoulder looking as I walk to my apartment at night through the dark and the woods feeling since I read Girl Next Door.

While my status as a lapsed Catholic who still believes in evil as a real if not tangible presence in the world had me buying into the book’s supernatural elements and my part-time Southern upbringing helped put my mind in the setting, I found myself very affected by the relationship between George, his father, and his infant son. They got at my personal life and the “happy” resolution to the novel, made the book incredibly satisfying. The novel evoked those feelings of a young child dealing with the tremendous grief that occurs after the loss of a parent. I, also, found George a great central character, and I admired how Evans was able to hold my interest him even though my empathy for him went back-and-forth, especially in the novel’s early stages.

It’s the kind of novel that I find the most inspiring as a writer, in that it has the challenge of a good story well told without the overwhelming pressure of the classics. It’s a really fantastic book, and I look forward to buying Evans’ next one in hardcover.

And oh yeah — parts of it fucked me up but good.

Wow, that was a way longer post than expected. Congrats if you made it this far. Now go read some Don Winslow.

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