Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Drama City by George Pelecanos


Drama City is my introduction to homegrown DC crime writer George Pelecanos, and I am mightily impressed. The crime plot is good , the characters very solid (a paroled felon trying to go straight as an animal-control officer, his very sympathetic and secretly sex-addicted female parole officer), it meshes mightily halfway through and I couldn't put it down -- but it's the Washington DC landscape Pelecanos paints that is most impressive. The Georgia Avenue-Petworth-Shaw corridor geographical and sociological detail which he provides are mesmerizing. Having just finished Richard Price's monumental Lush Life, about criminals and wannabes and yuppies and tired cops on Manhattan's lower East Side, it was easy for me to peg Pelecano's as our own Price.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jamesland by Michele Huneven

This gorgeously-written eclectic novel takes place in the Los Feliz neighborhood near Hollywood, in Los Angeles. Equal parts philosophical/religious treatise, self-help/addiction/mental-health handbook, and deep character-based fiction along the lines of a Henry James, the Jamesland of the title actually refers to Henry's older brother William James, widely credited with the invention of modern psychology, but also a well-know philosopher and religious thinker.

The three central characters: Helen Harland, a Unitarian Universalist pastor struggling to hold onto her year-old position at a new church, where she is faced with a congregation that finds her too religious, Pete Ross, forever pondering the question "How do people live in this world?", a mentally-ill, obese, renowned chef who suffered numerous breakdowns, lost his job, wife and children and is now living with his mother (who became a nun at age 40), and Alice Black, sometimes-bartender, great-great-granddaughter of William James, caring for her eccentric, sometimes brilliant, sometimes-demented great-aunt Kate, who is writing a book on William James, but alternately delusional and believing she is living in William James' time. Alice is reeling from her affair with the husband of movie star.

The plot is a series of dinners and events planned by Helen in which she gradually brings the two misfits Alice and Pete together, at the same time finding peace herself with her annoying congregation and distant husband. Pete's exotic cuisines (from his stint as an accomplished chef), Alice's aunt's detailed obsession with the religious, philosophical and extra-sensory research of Williams James also contribute to the tapestry.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Road Dogs

Elmore Leonard's latest offering centers around two men who became friends doing prison terms in Florida, who reunite in Venice Beach after getting out, to squabble over a woman, who tries to play them both and take the money and row.

Once again we meet Jack Foley fished out of the clink after serving some years of a 30-year sentence. Inside he has met and befriended Cundo Rey, a dimunitive, wealthy, aggressive and sex-crazed Cuban who pulls some of his many strings and gets them both out early.

Cundo's wife Dawn (both Cundo and Dawn are also recurring Leonard characters ). But Dawn is lovely and wily (and maybe a psychic), Cundo is a murderously jealous husband who may well think Jack owes him big-time, and Jack? Well, when you've robbed a hundred-twenty or so banks, is it that easy to go straight?

I marvel at Leonard's dialogue-writing skills. This book is fully 75% dialogue.

“What I don’t understand,” Cundo said, walking the yard with Foley, “I see you as a hip guy, you smart for a fucking bank robber, but two falls, man, one on top the other, you come out you right back in the slam. Tell me how you think about it, a smart guy like you have to look at thirty years.”

Foley said, “You know how a dye pack works? The teller slips you one, it looks like a pack of twenties in a bank strap. It explodes as you leave the bank. Something in the doorframe sets it off. I walk out of a bank in Redondo Beach, the dye pack goes off and I’m sprayed with red paint, people on the street looking at me. Twenty years of going in banks and coming out clean, my eyes open. I catch a dye pack and spend the next seven in federal detention, Lompoc, California. I came out,” Foley said, “and did a bank in Pomona the same day. You fall off a bike you get back on. I think, Good, I’ve still got it. I made over six grand in Pomona. I come back to Florida— my wife Adele divorced me while I’m at Lompoc and she’s having a tough time paying her bills. She’s working for a magician, Emile the Amazing, jumping out of boxes till he fired her and hired a girl Adele said has bigger tits and was younger. I do a bank in
Lake Worth with the intention, give Adele the proceeds to keep her going for a few months. I leave the bank in the Honda I’m using, America’s most popular stolen car at the time. Now I’m waiting to make a left turn on to Dixie Highway and I hear the car behind me going va-room va-room, revving up, the guy can’t wait. He backs up
and cuts around me, his tires screaming, like I’m a retiree waiting to make the turn when it’s safe to pull out.”

“You just rob the fucking bank,” Cundo said.

“And this guy’s showing me what a hotdog he is.”

“So you go after him,” Cundo said.

“I tore after him, came up on the driver’s side and stared at him.”

“Gave him the killer look,” Cundo said.

“That’s right, and he gives me the finger. I cranked the wheel and sideswiped him, stripped his chrome and ran him off the road.”

“I would’ve shot the fucker,” Cundo said.

“What happened, I tore up both tires on the side I swiped him. By the time I got the car pulled over, a deputy’s coming up behind me with lights flashing.”

“Tha’s called road rage,” Cundo said. “I’m surprise, a cool guy like you losing it. How you think it happen?”

“I wasn’t paying attention. I let myself catch a dye pack in Redondo Beach, something I swore would never happen. The next one, seven years later, you’re right, I lost it. You know why? Because a guy with a big engine wearing shades, the top down, no idea I’d just robbed a bank, made me feel like a wimp. And that,” Foley
said, “is some serious shit to consider.”

“Man, you got the balls to bust out of prison, you don’t have to prove nothing.”

“Out for a week and back inside.”

“What could you do? The girl shot you, the chick marshal. You don’t tell me about her.”

Karen Sisco. Foley kept her to himself. She gave him moments to think about and look at over and over for a time, a few months now, but there weren’t enough moments to last thirty years.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Poor George by Paula Fox


Poor George, Paula Fox

This is a slow-working novel, like a drink you've never had before and doubt its kick, and then you wake up with a broken tooth, a throbbing headache, lying next to a woman who doesn't speak English.