Thursday, August 31, 2006

Superfolks

In the 1960s, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko revolutionized the world of comic books by casting as their superheroes real people with real problems, private lives, and even neuroses. In 1977, New York journalist Robert Mayer took their revolution one step farther: he let his hero get old, sunk in middle age and retired from adventuring, watching the urban world get old and run-down and dark around him.

But since he did it in a novel, Superfolks, rather than in a comic book, pretty much no one noticed. But a few creators (and future creators), such as Alan Moore and Kurt Busiek, did, and Mayer’s vision of a superhero and his world both stripped of their innocence stayed with them, providing one of the sparks for the darker-themed, more realistic comics of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Superfolks, meanwhile, went out of print and stayed in obscurity for decades. But it was reprinted a couple of years ago, and my friend Jeremy gave me a copy for my birthday. It’s by no means great literature: it suffers from frequent journalism-style single-sentence paragraphs, the descriptive prose is frequently perfunctory, and the plot, as appropriate to a novel about comics, is a shade beyond absurd. But the merits of Superfolks easily outweigh those complaints. Along with Mayer’s creative rethinking of the concept of the superhero, he also paints a surprisingly vivid picture of decayed, downtrodden mid-70s New York (That’s the New York I imagine when I read the plaques on the statues in Central Park that read, “This statue fell into disrepair in the 1970s.”)

Mayer throws a lot of jokes and references at the reader, so though some, inevitably, fall flat, Superfolks is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. At a bar called the Mafia Club, for example,
The topless dancer called herself Bermuda Triangle. She had auburn hair, and a bored expression. Her breasts were shaped like Florida. There were gleaming silver pasties over Miami.

And
The Mafia Club was known by the organized crime section of the police department as a hangout for the mob.
At a table in the corner sit Mario Puzo and Gay Talese, while at another Frank Sinatra and Spiro Agnew chat up two blondes.

The best of Mayer’s jokes also include an element of social commentary. Here’s a Long Islander (called Swansdown island) thinking about mid-70s New York:
Most of the inhabitants of Swansdown Island had grown up in the streets and alleys and brick tenements of the city, and had moved to the suburbs after their children were born. The only people who still lived in New York were Negroes, Puerto Ricans, artists, writers, Eli Wallach, old people waiting for death, and the ultra-rich.


But for all the social commentary, ultimately what Superfolks has in common both with the old-style comics whose conventions it’s defying and the more self-aware comics that would appear in its wake is that it’s great fun. It’s clearly a labor of love, the culmination of a childhood spent immersed in comics, followed by an adulthood wondering about them. If you’ve ever studied the Marvel Chronology Project with awe or corrected an error in the Wikipedia entry for the DC multiverse, Superfolks is for you.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Selimovic again, and the concept of answers from on high

From Mesa Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish (1966)
For a brief moment I had been separated from everything and returned to my childhood, under someone’s protection, freed from years, events, and painful decisions. Everything had been placed in hands stronger than mine, and I was wonderfully feeble, with no need for strength, protected by omnipotent love.
. . . .
I went off to school when I was a small child and have been a dervish for twenty years, but I know nothing more than what they wanted me to learn. They taught me to be obedient, to endure, and to live for the faith. Some were better than I, but few were more faithful. I always knew what I should do. Although the dervish order thought for me, the principles of its faith are firm and thorough, and nothing of mine existed that couldn’t fit into them.


With these statements, Sheikh Ahmed Nuruddin limns the form of his moral weakness: he wants to be told what to do. Faced with difficulty, he wants someone else to make decisions, and he doesn’t even care why they’ve made their decision, so long as the onus has been taken from him.

Such an approach to life is not uncommon, which is one of the reasons the Sheikh is such an interesting character. And I’ve never quite understood it. Not that I’m any kind of hero, or rebel—god knows I’m as timid and boring as the next person, as likely to quail in the face of danger, or even discomfort. But I’m curious, and even as a kid I didn’t like doing things just because I was told to. If I’m going to follow rules, if I’m going to think or live according to some group of ideas, I want to know why. I want to know how the ideas work, why they work the way they do, and what their effects are. Such questioning is a large component of the complicated batch of reasons I couldn’t imagine ever having religious faith.

For Ahmed Nuruddin, and many other believers, however, such acceptance—submission, even—to the power and expertise of another is a comfort, possibly even the greatest in the world. The faithful surrender the power to God, try to live according to a set of laws they believe he has set out, and assume he’ll see things right. They exhibit an odd mix of trust and mistrust, their willingness to trust in a higher power in part a product of their distrust of their own selves, their decisionmaking, discernment, and willpower.

Expanding a bit (to the point, I’ll admit, of wild generalization), this strikes me as a basic difference between the progressive and conservative mindsets, religion aside. The very nature of conservatism is to assume that there are eternal truths, and we should focus our energies towards holding on to them, or getting back to them. It’s backward-looking, and never mind that those cherished verities are frequently an incoherent blend of wishful thinking and nostalgia. Conservatives know what they know, and they have always known it—even as the world has become a different place from what it was in the past, when it was already a different place from what they thought it was then.

On the other side, one of the many reasons progressive politics has been such a fitful, stop-and-start enterprise for a hundred years is that progressives are not easily marshaled: we all want the why to be simultaneous with the what. Active, thoughtful disagreement is our m├ętier, and thus we both take a long time to hash out positions and, when we put those positions to the public at large, we refuse to pretend to unanimity or certainty. I’m not the first to point this out, by any means, and it’s generally agreed that it’s lousy politics, and something the Democratic Party, the closest thing to a party we progressives have, is only just now learning to get past (while not giving up on its ideas). Serious, hard-fighting partisanship can arise from internal disagreement, but it’s not natural—it takes hard work, talent, and determination.

But if your party relies for its votes largely on people who are accustomed to believing in an overall set of rules, handed down by someone (whether government or God), you start well ahead. You can set out a message and trust that it will be believed, your calls to action followed. No, the Republicans don’t ever get all their members to agree, and the conservative, rule-abiding tendency of their base is no proof against the real pressures of policy failure (as we’re seeing, ever-so-slowly, right now). But they start from a point of more natural cohesion than progressives, and, knowing it, their leadership uses that to its advantage.

So progressives have a built-in disadvantage, but it’s one that I think is essential to live with if progressivism is to remain what it is at its best: a belief that we can improve the situation of life on earth, through our own power, working together and putting forth our best effort. We trust in what we’ve learned and what we see, we put our faith in the ability and knowledge of people themselves.

At our best, we’re the party of honest uncertainty, unwilling to pretend to know. We're the party, in a sense, of Doubting Thomas, or Moses when he smites the rock, or even Job when he cries out:
Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would know the words which he would answer me, and understand what he would say unto me. (23:3-5)

Oh that one would hear me! behold, my desire is, that the Almighty would answer me, and that mine adversary had written a book. (31:35)

The difference is that we don’t even hope for an answer to come from without. Instead, in the absence of given truths, we keep moving forward, aiming at making things better, and we’ll keep doing so until we’ve created the answer ourselves.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Words

Because another post I’m working on kind of stalled last night, I’ll go back to something I was half-consciously thinking about while I was running the other morning. For your Friday night enjoyment: a list of words I like. Some I like for their sound, others for their meaning, some, even, just for how they look on a page.

It’s a completely unscientific, non-rigorous list, but I enjoyed putting it together. Take it for what (little) it’s worth.
discomfiture
mephitic
caliph
Hezbollah
gaijin
dun (v.)
Krakatoa
brunette
Torquemada
snafu
conversant
arboretum
salonnierre
de moda
Spinoza
pragmatic
militant
bemoan
hedonism
Tamerlane
mercurial
laconic
sub rosa
de facto
shortstop
denizen
tsar
cooper
tournament
implication
Kalashnikov
frack
Westphalia
sword
sweven
Guelphs
Ghibellines
intermittent
pestilential
Byzantine
signal (adj.)
diktat

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Rereading Selimovic

Usually, when I re-read a book, I have a vague idea of when I first read it. I know exactly when I first read Mesa Selimovic’s Death and the Dervish (1966), however, because stuck in my copy is a bank receipt dated September 2, 1997 for a deposit I made on behalf of the bookstore I worked for at the time. I remember the book distinctly: it was powerful, full of ideas about duty, justice, action, and self-interest. I was captivated for days, and I’ve thought of it frequently over the years since then. So last week I read it again.

Set in eighteenth-century Sarajevo during the Ottoman occupation, the novel is narrated by Sheikh Ahmed Nuruddin, a dervish at the head of a religious order, whose brother has been imprisoned by the corrupt local government. Knowing his brother faces death, Nuruddin wavers, unable to decide how to react. A friend offers to break the captive out of the fortress, but the sheikh, holding out hope that he will be able to appeal in some way to the concept of justice, remains unwilling to act. Even his father he puts off with false reassurances. While he dithers, his brother is put to death, and that death eventually galvanizes Nuruddin into action, with surprising results.

In Nuruddin, Selimovic chose for a central character a man of weak character (modeled, it seems, at least in part on Selimovic himself, whose brother was executed under similar circumstances). Placed in an extremely difficult position ,he is uncertain to the point of ineffectuality. He speaks of justice but clearly fails to understand its reality: he is the sort of man who will not give away a fugitive’s hiding place but will have few qualms about revealing it to another person who he knows will do so. He is purportedly a leader among his people, but, especially in the first half of the book, as he ponders and questions and worries, he is so wrapped up in his own problems and his own perspective that other people barely register. General injustice does not move him to any real protest; it is only the personal that goads him into action. When he does begin taking notice of others, as he is making his move against the town’s leadership, it is only their instrumentality that concerns him; he thinks only of how he might use people in order to pursue his agenda. Early on, we learn that he is willing to betray a friend to serve his own needs; we eventually are reminded that such a person will not hesitate to betray a friend for the sake of an ideal, or that ideal for the sake of self-preservation.

These are heady concepts, and Selimovic’s storytelling style suits them. In the first half of the book, he plunges us deep inside Nuruddin’s self, to the point of claustrophobia. The occasional patch of dialogue is like a hazy light in the distance, the only relief from Nuruddin’s incessant wavering between self-justification and self-accusation. As the action picks up in the second half, a sense of tragic inevitability pervades the story. Nuruddin, despite knowing that his nature is essentially cowardly, never understands just how far he has misunderstood—and actively perverted—his ideal. Justice, in his hands, is frighteningly malleable. While the story is not allegorical, Selimovic leaves a lot of the details vague, and he clearly intends to draw some parallels to contemporary totalitarian states. Even a good, strong man would have trouble fighting alone against such a system, he seems to say; weak men, which is what most of us are, have no chance of avoiding becoming what they profess to fight against.

Despite its many merits, I wasn’t nearly as taken with Death and the Dervish this time. I found the first half slow going, as Nuruddin’s dithering seemed almost overplayed. And while I remembered finding interesting similarities to some of Kafka’s work the first time around (as have many others), this time I kept thinking of how much more sharply and memorably Kafka would have drawn Nuruddin and his oppressors. The faster pace of the second half helped, and I finished the book alive with thoughts about it—but even so, it wasn’t nearly as impressive as I’d remembered.

Is that fair? Was it ever as good as I remember it being, or have my memory and my thinking about the book for nearly a decade so altered that original reading that the actual book can’t match up? If I re-read its sort-of sequel, The Fortress (1970), the only other book by Selimovic that’s been translated into English, will it disappoint, too? I don’t know.

But I do know that such questions are part of what makes re-reading so interesting, and so important. As many books as there are that I’ll never get around to reading, there are just as many that I’ve read already that I look forward to re-reading. Even as I make my way through A Dance to the Music of Time a fourth time, for example, I notice things I’d previously missed; Anna Karenina, meanwhile, might as well have been a totally different book on my second reading, it was so full of previously unnoticed wisdom and compassion. I’ll keep re-reading it for the rest of my life. Who knows how many different books it will present itself as, how it and all the other books I’ll re-read will alter with the changes in my life, my knowledge, and the world itself? If, along the way, I find that a few books can't live up to my memory of them, that's a small price to pay.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Three dreams

1) I dreamed that one of the editors at my workplace had arranged for some prominent authors to give lectures on their craft to the entire office. First up were Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad. They took turns speaking, and they actually had fairly interesting things to say about each other’s work. Hemingway was surprisingly self-effacing, and Conrad was exactly as I expected: formal, precise, and thoroughly serious.

It was only after I’d returned to my office following the lecture that I remembered that both Hemingway and Conrad were long dead. “Of course!” I thought. “Those must have been professional impersonators!”

I ran for the front desk, hoping to catch them before they left. Conrad was gone by the time I got there, but Hemingway was just stepping into the elevator. “Wait!” I shouted. “Who do you do when you’re not doing Hemingway?”

Hemingway turned. Then, smiling, he ripped off his mask, held it aloft, and jauntily shouted, “Yourcenar!”

2) I dreamed that I was reading—and greatly enjoying—Anthony Powell’s biography of Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). It was only after I woke up that I remembered that Powell never wrote a biography of Burton; that was Nick Jenkins, the narrator of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, who serves as Powell’s stand-in.

Realizing that I would never get to read the book I’d been enjoying so much in my dream was substantially disappointing and not a good way to start the day.

3) This one is Stacey’s dream. Friday morning, before we left to visit my parents for the weekend, she told me, “Last night, I dreamed that you were bringing fifty books on this trip.”

From Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)
Against fearful and troublesome dreams, nightmare and such inconveniences, wherewith melancholy men are molested, the best remedy is to eat a light supper, and of such meats as are easy of digestion; no Hare, Venison, Beef, &c. not to lie on his back, not to meditate or think in the day time of any terrible objects, or especially talk of them before he goes to bed. For, as he said in Lucian after such conference, I seem to dream of Hecate, I can think of nothing buy Hobgoblins; and, as Tully notes, for the most part our speeches in the day time cause our phantasy to work upon the like in our sleep, which Ennius writes of Homer: as a dog dreams of an hare, so do men dream on such subjects they thought on last.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Comfort food

Last night, I was reading Ron Suskind's The One Percent Solution while cooking, and I reached my limit. I couldn't read any more about the Bush administration right now without losing my mind.

So, laying the Suskind down, I went for my literary version of comfort food, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. Back in January, I read the first volume for the fourth time, though I didn't write about it. I opened the second volume, which begins with the novel At Lady Molly's (1957) and immersed myself once more in Powell's world. I only read a few pages before moving on to something else, but those pages, like a bowl of warm oatmeal or a saucepan of mac and cheese, were just what I needed. A line like this can make me smile every time:
This taste for being in the fashion and giving his opinion on every subject was held against him by some people, notably Uncle Giles, no friend of up-to-date thought, and on principle suspicious of worldly success, however mild.

It's true that one of literature's jobs is to discomfit, to make us question, to force us to look at the familiar with a sharper eye. But another of its jobs is to comfort, to help us escape, and last night that's what At Lady Molly's, nearly fifty years after Powell wrote it, did for me.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Gratitude

From George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (2005)
Richard Perle asked me rhetorically, “What would be accomplished by having patrols up and down the highway? The point of our presence there, it seems to me, is not to make sure that the highways are open all the time. That isn’t how this is going to be won, in my view. This is going to be won when we have a flow of intelligence that identifies the guys we’re fighting.”

Unless you had an ideological stake in it, this controversy didn’t survive your first contact with Iraqi reality. There weren’t enough troops to patrol the road between Baghdad International Airport and the city center so that visitors didn’t have to take their lives into their hands upon arrival. There weren’t enough troops in the city streets to act as a deterrent to someone who wanted to steal a car or shoot up a convoy or assassinate an official. There weren’t enough troops to guard a fraction of the million tons of munitions which were left lying around in dumps all over Iraq that were being steadily looted by insurgents. There weren’t enough troops to provide a token presence along Iraq’s borders with Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, which might dissuade some jihadis and intelligence agents from infiltrating across. There weren’t enough troops to prevent militias from gaining control of entire provinces. There weren’t enough troops on the major highways to keep bandits and insurgents from terrorizing the truckers carrying essential goods, such as reconstruction materials, or even food for the Green Zone. There weren’t enough troops to allow CPA officials to do their jobs.

Perhaps the connection between patrolling highways and winning the war was too abstract for those supporters of administration policy who never went to Iraq, and for a few who did. It shouldn’t have been that hard. Why would Iraqis join the American effort when their personal safety, or even a minimum of public order in their country, couldn’t possibly be upheld by the occupying forces?


Now, three years later, the situation is much, much worse. And while all sane people are deeply frustrated by the situation, until this week we hadn’t gotten any indication that our Derelict in Chief felt any of that frustration. Now, however, we know: he’s just as frustrated as we are . . . but he’s frustrated about something else:
President Bush made clear in a private meeting this week that he was concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq and frustrated that the new Iraqi government — and the Iraqi people — had not shown greater public support for the American mission, participants in the meeting said Tuesday. . . . More generally, the participants said, the president expressed frustration that Iraqis had not come to appreciate the sacrifices the United States had made in Iraq, and was puzzled as to how a recent anti-American rally in support of Hezbollah in Baghdad could draw such a large crowd. “I do think he was frustrated about why 10,000 Shiites would go into the streets and demonstrate against the United States,” said another person who attended.

Those ungrateful Iraqis. But maybe he’s got a point. Maybe the Iraqis should thank us—for not somehow screwing up this war and occupation even more. Hell, I’m almost to the point of being grateful for every day that Bush doesn’t decide to nuke someone.

Oh, but I should give the Derelict in Chief his due. From later in the New York Times story:
Participants said Mr. Bush appeared serious and engaged during the lunch, which lasted more than 90 minutes.


He was serious and engaged! He did his job for 90 whole minutes! And don’t forget: it’s August, when by right he should be on vacation! That brush isn't going to clear itself, you know.

Now don’t you feel more grateful?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Back to Iraq

From George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (2005)
General Franks’s innovative strategy used enough troops to take the country but nowhere near enough to secure it.


You know, I was going to go on and run a long passage, but as I typed that sentence, I had to stop. Enough troops to take the country, but nowhere near enough to secure it. Nowhere near enough.

Yet no one has gone to jail over this debacle. No one has even faced serious Congressional inquiry over this debacle. And of course no one has been fired over this debacle. While those who created this nightmare evade accountability, our grandchildren will still be dealing with the deadly repercussions of the Bush administration’s criminally bad planning and execution of the Iraq war.

I promise I’ll be over this, and back to literature and history and such by next week. But right now, I can’t get away from it. Hate is not healthy. Hate is not productive. But hate is what I feel.

Back to the book:
Even so, a concerted effort could have stopped the most egregious looters and warned off others with a show of force. It never happened. In vain, employees of the museum begged the leader of a nearby tank platoon to park one tank at the museum entrance and scare off the pillagers who were making free with the country’s antiquities. . . . Afterward, some Iraqis insisted that they had seen soldiers not just permitting but encouraging and helping looters, as if the mayhem were joyous celebration of the fall of the regime. This was the secretary of defense’s view. Only the Ministry of Oil was protected.

Martial law was not declared; a curfew was not immediately imposed. No one told Iraqis to stay at home or to go to work.


Here, I feel like I should take a break to warn you that you’re about to encounter a level of detachment from reality that is astonishing even coming from a member of the Bush administration. You may want to go to stuffonmycat.com for a minute to calm yourself before forging on.

You’ve been warned.

Later, Douglas Feith would insist to me that, technically, the American military asserted its authority early on. “When the Saddam government fell, it was going to be necessary to issue a first proclamation,” Feith said. “But there had been an Iraqi history that whenever there was a coup, somebody issued Proclamation No. 1. So we decided that we didn’t want that, which is why it was renamed ‘Freedom Message.’”

You’re probably beginning to see why General Tommy Franks, no stranger to cravenness and stupidity, called Feith “the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth.” Not only did Feith actually believe that his "Freedom Message" was going to make a difference to the chaos enveloping Baghdad—he still wanted to make sure Packer gave him credit for it a year later! As The Assassins' Gate continues:
The implications weren’t lost on Iraqis, including potential adversaries. “We’re incompetent, as far as they’re concerned,” said Noah Feldman, the New York University law professor who went to Baghdad as constitutional advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority. “The key to it all was the looting. That was when it was clear that there was no order. There’s an Arab proverb: Better forty years of dictatorship than one day of anarchy.” He added, “That also told them they could fight against us and we were not a serious force.”

I know it’s probably getting old, but you can never say it too many times:
Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach Richard Cheney. Do it now.

Now that's what I call a Freedom Message.

Derelict in Chief

From Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (2006)
The alarming August 6, 2001 memo from the CIA to the President—“Bin Laden determined to strike in US”—has been widely noted in the past few years.

But, also in August, CIA analysts flew to Crawford to personally brief the President—to intrude on his vacation with face-to-face alerts.

The analytical arm of CIA was in a kind of panic mode at this point. Other intelligence services, including those from the Arab world, were sounding an alarm. The arrows were all in the red. They didn’t know place or time of an attack, but something was coming. The President needed to know.

Verbal briefings of George W. Bush are acts of almost inestimable import in the affairs of the nation—more so than is the case for other recent presidents. He’s not much of a reader. . . . But he’s a very good listener and an extremely visual listener. He sizes people up swiftly and aptly, watches them carefully, and trusts his eyes. . . . The expert, sitting before him, has done the hard work, the heavy lifting, and the President tries to gauge how “certain” they are of what they say, even if the issues may be unfamiliar to him. Do they seem nervous or unsure? Are they fudging? Why do they think what they do . . . and what to they think of him? That last part is very important.

The trap, of course, is that while these tactile, visceral markers can be crucial—especially in terms of handling the posturing of top officials—they sometimes are not. The thing to focus on, at certain moments, is what someone says, not who is saying it, or how they’re saying it.

And, at an eyeball-to-eyeball intelligence briefing during this urgent summer, George W. Bush seems to have made the wrong choice.

He looked hard at the panicked CIA briefer.

“All right,” he said. “You’ve covered your ass, now.”


Here, as a reminder of what I covered in yesterday's post, is sense four of The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "dereliction":
4 Reprehensible abandonment; wilful neglect. Chiefly in dereliction of duty.


If I ever find myself in the unenviable position of having to write a dictionary, the second thing I'll do (the first being to put that line drawing of the arms-akimbo guy next to the definition of "akimbo") is put that passage in place as example number one of sense four of "dereliction." Can you name a better?

Impeach George Bush. Impeach Richard Cheney. Do it now.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Bush + Iraq = Quagmire

I’ve been reading George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq (2005), which is about as infuriating a book as I’ve ever read. Packer begins by making a surprisingly strong case that the invasion of Iraq might have been justifiable simply on humanitarian grounds, and that it might, with careful planning, lots of luck, and clear-eyed realism, have been possible to prosecute successfully. It was an extremely long shot, and even Packer's case at its strongest doesn't convince me. But it was possible.

However, Packer follows that case with example after example of how the Bush administration, through its fecklessness, hubris, and incompetence, managed instead to more or less guarantee failure, with all the death, destruction, and instability that has accompanied it. Packer’s been everywhere, it seems, and talked to everyone—former Baathists, Defense Department officials, U.S. Army Captains on patrol, and ordinary Iraqis. Many of the ordinary Iraqis and most of the U.S. soldiers come across as real heroes—working incredibly hard in terrible conditions to attempt to rein in chaos, improve the country, and stay alive.

By the end of The Assassins’ Gate, it’s hard not to conclude that the Bush administration has failed on nearly every front. I started with what I thought was the lowest possible opinion of the administration; what I’ve learned reminds me that Brad DeLong has yet to be proved wrong when he says, “The Bush administration is worse than you think, even after you’ve taken into account that the Bush administration is always worse than you think.”

All of which has me thinking about a particular word—here’s The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary’s take on it:
Treason: 1 The action of betraying a person, etc., betrayal of trust, treachery. 2 Law Violation by a subject of allegiance to the sovereign or the State, esp. by attempting or plotting to kill or overthrow the Government. Formerly also high treason 3 An act or kind of treason. Now rare.


Hmm. That doesn’t seem quite right. I don’t think anyone in the Bush administration is actually trying to overthrow the government,; in fact, I’m sure they think they’re working on behalf of the government. They’re just disastrously, criminally incompetent.

That gives me an idea. How about:
Dereliction 1 The state of being abandoned or forsaken, dilapidation, neglect. 2 The act of deliberate abandonment. Now rare exc. Law, of a chattel or movable. 3 Failure, cessation; esp. sudden failure of the bodily or mental powers. 4 Reprehensible abandonment; wilful neglect. Chiefly in dereliction of duty.


Here’s just one of the countless examples. I could almost have picked this at random—seriously. See what you think:
By the end of the summer [of 2003, Paul] Bremer understood the extent of the problem and its political urgency. He went to Washington and let the White House know that Iraq was going to cost America tens of billions of dollars. Iraqi oil money and seized assets wouldn’t come close to covering it. The reassuring forecasts of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz went into the dustbin of history.

President Bush broke the news to the country on September 7, 2003, and Congress quickly passed an $87 billion appropriation bill that included $18.4 billion for Iraq’s reconstruction. Much of the money was earmarked for the huge infrastructure projects—power plants, water and sewage treatment, telecommunications—that only large multinationals could carry out. . . . By August 2004, ten months after the appropriation, only $400 million of the $18.4 billion—barely two percent—had been spent. By the time Iraqi subcontractors saw any of the money, all but a small fraction had been lopped off in overhead, security (as much as 40 percent of any contract), corruption, and profits. The CPA kept promising Iraqis that the spigot was about to be turned on and the country was going to be flooded with lifesaving cash that would put tens of thousands of people to work. It never happened.

Part of the problem lay in the business-as-usual attitude back in Washington. Rumsfeld, still technically in charge of the postwar, set the tone: In mid-September, just a few days after Bush’s televised speech, the defense secretary said, “I don’t believe it’s our job to reconstruct the country. The Iraqi people will have to reconstruct that country over a period of time. “ He even offered the Iraqi people a reconstruction plan of sorts: “Tourism is going to be something important in that country as soon as the security situation is resolved, and I think that will be resolved as soon as the Iraqis take over more and more responsibility for their own government.”


Let's look at "Dereliction," sense four again:
4 Reprehensible abandonment; wilful neglect. Chiefly in dereliction of duty.
I think we have our winner. It’s time to jail Donald Rumsfeld on a charge of dereliction of duty and criminal negligence.

But let’s not forget his bosses, who through all of this have found no reason to fire—or even publically reprimand—him.

Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach Richard Cheney. Do it now.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Kiss Her Goodbye, one more time

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I like about this medium is that it enables me to revisit my opinions about books if I feel like I haven’t quite conveyed what I meant, or if I’ve changed my mind about a book through further thinking about it or through conversations with friends or commentators. And that’s what I’m doing today.

A week ago, I wrote a post comparing the leg-breaker protagonist of Allan Guthrie’s Kiss Her Goodbye (2005) and the hit-man protagonist of Max Allan Collins’s The Last Quarry (2006). As part of that comparison, I wrote,
I want to know why Allan Guthrie chose to make Joe a leg-breaker; Kiss Her Goodbye could have been written, with essentially the same plot, with Joe as a burglar, or a safecracker, or any sort of petty criminal. So what does the leg-breaking add other than another level of seaminess and violence to a story that could have had plenty of both without it? I finished the book still a little unsure.


Well, this being the Internet, sometimes you get an answer. This morning, Allan Guthrie himself commented:
In answer to your question, I decided to make Joe a 'legbreaker' because the entire book is about a violent man trying not to be violent in the face of extreme provocation. If he was a safecracker, the whole point of the book would have been missed. It wouldn't have interested me. Violence interests me. The psychology of the hard man is what I wanted to explore here. As for Joe's lack of qualms: he has qualms aplenty--he holds Cooper back in that opening scene you mention, he's terrified of Park, he's sexually dysfunctional, he's a borderline alcoholic (as you mentioned)--maybe I didn't state it overtly enough, but it's all connected to the job.


Nothing like a word straight from the source to send you back to the book. He’s right about the opening scene—I described Joe as having few qualms as he and his friend/boss Cooper beat a guy with a baseball bat. What had stayed with me from that scene was the visceral impact of the violence, but I’d forgotten that Joe does at least attempt to restrain Cooper:
“We’re going to kill you now, you little tosser.”

“That isn’t necessary.” Joe put his hand on Cooper’s elbow.

Billy was sobbing. He started screaming again.

Cooper said, “Two minutes at most.”

“He’s got the message.”

Cooper shook Joe’s hand off and took a swing. Something crunched when the bat hit Billy’s face and Billy stopped screaming. Cooper said, “Now he’s got the message.”

Joe’s restraint is subtle, in comparison to the violence surrounding it, but it’s definitely there. And Guthrie will get no argument from me about Joe’s overall dysfunction. I traced his alcoholism and sexual problems to his desperately unhappy marriage, but I can accept that the wrecked marriage itself is just another component (and result of) of his overall self-destructive impulses, fueled by frustration and anger about the violence of his job—and his nature.

That violent nature, Allan Guthrie argues, is what he was interested in all along in writing this book. Because I was looking at Kiss Her Goodbye in conjunction with The Last Quarry, I was thinking about both protagonists in terms of plot first—did they need to have the jobs they had order for the plot to function? Guthrie’s saying that instead I should look at it in terms of character: sure, you could have a book with similar plot mechanics whose central character was a safe-cracker, but it would be an essentially different book, and one that he wouldn’t be interested in writing. He’s interested in Joe himself and how the person he is drives the events of the book; if they’re to have any meaning, the man and the plot are inseparable.

When I look at Kiss Her Goodbye from that angle, I see what he’s getting at: the essence of Joe (and his problems) is the violence inherent in him and his job, and that’s what drives both the action and his relations with the other characters. I still think the book isn’t entirely successful, but, as I said in my original post, Guthrie’s aiming high. He’s written a book more emotionally and psychologically complex than Collins’s The Last Quarry; the fact that I prefer the Collins says at least as much about me and my taste in crime novels as about the books themselves.

This revisiting also serves as a reminder that I frequently latch onto one way of thinking about a book and have to be jarred or pushed into looking at it from another angle. It’s one reason I like talking with people about books—and writing this blog, which in itself forces me to think and rethink, if only to achieve a coherent explanation of my opinions.

So thanks for the comment, Allan; I appreciate you taking the time to explain. And this gives me a chance to mention something that I left out of my original post, because it didn’t really fit anywhere: for all my questions about Kiss Her Goodbye, I did like it enough to go looking for Allan Guthrie’s other novel, Two-Way Split. It’s coming out in paperback in the United States in October (with a really sharp cover design), so I’m sure you’ll all hear more about it then.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A man, his dog, and some other men with Kalashnikovs

From Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between (2004)
“Peace will come only when all the foreigners have left this country,” snapped a new arrival. “Are you a Muslim?”

I began to explain again. He spat on the ground, turned his back, and walked off, followed by five others. The Taliban head, however, took his leave gracefully, embracing me and wishing me luck. I hugged him with a show of respect and affection I did not feel.

I was left with the original three men.

“Why don’t you go down to the river there and examine the spring,” suggested the one who had asked me for money.

“No, thank you,” I said, “I am in a hurry . . . I have to get to Maidan Shahr before dark . . . I must keep going.”

“Go on.”

“No, thank you,” I said seriously. “I must keep going.”

They all laughed.

“Why are you laughing?” I asked.

“Because if you had gone down there, you would have been killed,” they replied.

I lead a quiet life. I like to stay at home. I like to read in my chair by the window, watching the birds and petting one of our cats. I like to get to bed at a reasonable hour and get up early to run along the quiet lakefront. I like to cook dinners and serve them to friends. I like to see my wife at the beginning and end of each day. I enjoy traveling, but I freely admit that I’m not an adventurous traveler, usually opting for the familiar, or places where I know I’ll see friends. And that’s okay. Day to day, I’m contented, happy to live what is a remarkably peaceful, stress-free existence.

But without people like Rory Stewart, my quiet life would be much, much less interesting. Because Rory Stewart is insane, and Rory Stewart is daring, and he doesn’t like to be home in the same bed night after night. He doesn’t mind danger—in fact, he seems to court it; then, after courting it (and, fortunately, having it spurn him), he writes about it, well. As I said, I think he might be insane.

The evidence? In January of 2002, mere months after the fall of the Taliban, he walked the length of Afghanistan. He had no reason to do so, other than an interest in the region and a desire to complete the central leg of a walk that had already seen him cross Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. He took nothing but a pack, a walking stick, a knowledge of Arabic, and the hope that the historically generous Muslim hospitality remained in force in the region. He survived the walk, and the product is The Places in Between, a travel book that holds its own against Robert Byron’s and Peter Fleming’s classic works on the region.

It’s of course a trip I would never even contemplate. And even if I did, my wife, or my friends, or my parents, would surely dissuade me. They would point out that I was insane. Stewart has parents, with whom he’s apparently close, for he mentions them frequently. He acknowledges that they worry about him, but that worry doesn’t stop him from making his trek. In the face of freezing temperatures, snow-bound mountain passes, minefields, and the constant threat embodied by gun-toting men in remote, essentially lawless lands, he trudges on, talking to strangers, sleeping on floors, and sketching portraits in his notebook (many of which are, thankfully, reproduced in the book). Worries that would stop me in my tracks merely force him to be a bit more alert.

And because he’s undaunted, we get to learn up close about a region that is most often reduced to accounts of military actions and high-level political maneuverings in Kabul. Afghanistan appears in Stewart’s narrative as a land steeped in the minutiae of local history, where a young man can recite his genealogy going back fifteen generations, where places are remembered and described by the acts of violence that occurred there,and where decades of war have left a mixture of convoluted, overlapping loyalties that defy quick understanding. More ancient history remains fully present, as well. Stewart walks the route taken by Tamerlane’s descendant, Babur, founder of the Mughal empire, and he is able to plot his journey so that each night he is at a new town largely because medieval caravans traveled about the same distance in a day, and many of the caravanserai that sustained them each night still stand. Mosques and minarets from Tamerlane’s time dot the landscape, as do more ancient monuments, like the carved niches for the giant stone Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Sometimes, Stewart walks alone, but for much of the book he is saddled with three agents of the Afghanistan security service, foisted upon him at his entrance into the country. They are violent, argumentative, brave, fascinating, and infuriating, their rapid-fire mixture of threats, boasts, and complaints forcing an ever-changing view of Afghanistan, its people, and its future. At other times, Stewart walks alone, accompanied only by a dog he adopts halfway through the journey; occasionally he picks up temporary companions of dubious intentions, like the men at the opening of this post. They are not by any means the only people to jokingly threaten Stewart’s life; nor are they the only ones whose actual intentions are difficult to divine. But plenty of other people, despite their poverty, are generous beyond belief to this stranger who appears out of nowhere, and their kindness and conversation helps sustain Stewart’s enthusiasm for his project.

Throughout, he remains, as the best travel writers do, quiet, open, friendly, and, somehow, unafraid. That poise means that by the end of the book, he’s still somewhat of a cipher (though he displays clear passion about human life and human rights, and about history and artifacts). Yet I think his sublimation of the self is probably necessary to this sort of journey; a more engaged, more forceful personality—someone less able to subdue his frustrations, confusions, and even, at times, anger—would have been far less well-equipped to handle the rigors and privations of the walk. At times, such equanimity enables Stewart to reach a state of peaceful communion with the land that is positively enviable.

So maybe he’s not insane after all. Maybe he’s as contented as I am. Maybe the open air and an uncertain future are his version of my chair by the window. Regardless, I am grateful, and I selfishly hope he keeps traveling and writing and drawing.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World

When I read a biography of someone who lived recently, I’m extremely greedy: I want to know everything, from bare facts to gossip. I want to come away from the book feeling like I’ve actually known the subject, to feel like I know the choices he’d make in a given situation, what kind of people and things would amuse or infuriate him, the sorts of things he’d say at a dinner party.

It’s asking a lot—essentially, I want a biography of a fairly recent figure to have the perceptiveness and breadth of a novel. But talented biographers are able, to my surprise every time, to pull it off. Michael Barber’s biography of Anthony Powell succeeds (though one could argue that Powell, despite his reticence, had laid bare the most interesting aspects of his personality), as does Celeste Alberet’s memoir of Proust and Nancy Milford’s biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Peter Conradi’s book on Iris Murdoch, on the other hand, doesn’t ever quite penetrate her layers of privacy, while Peter Guralnick’s life of Sam Cooke runs up against Cooke’s own seeming uncertainty about who he wanted to be.

But when a biography subject lived further back in history, my standards shift a little. I have little hope of finishing such a biography with a sense that I really know the subject. Too much time has passed, the sources are fewer, the ways of thinking and being have changed so much that, barring Pepys-level self-disclosure, we can’t legitimately hope for a probing psychological portrait. So my requirements for such a biography are necessarily different: in those cases, I’m looking to learn in detail the course of the life and get a sense of what the surrounding world was like. And I want to hear from original sources; I want to be surprised—as I perpetually am—by the amount of first-hand information that does remains available about people who lived hundreds of years ago.

All this is leading up to praise for Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane (2004), which meets all those criteria and is a fascinating, readable introduction to Tamerlane, whom most Western readers only know from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. Marlowe seems simultaneously attracted and repelled by Tamerlane,
That treadeth fortune underneath his feet,
And makes the mighty god of arms his slave,
for while he emphasizes the conqueror’s viciousness (the towers of skulls he left in destroyed cities, the merciless slaughter of women and children in cities that defied him), he also presents a Tamerlane who is supremely self-confident, the only character in the play who knows his destiny and lets nothing stop him from achieving it. In other words, he’s a fairly typical Marlovian semi-hero, the one person on stage you can’t take your eyes off of.

As for the real Tamerlane? Well, though Marlowe exaggerated, he wasn’t totally off the mark. Tamerlane spent more or less his whole life on campaign, winning and holding an empire that, by his death, stretched from Delhi to Cairo. He was by all accounts a brilliant tactician, and having created a fighting force that was the equal of any in the world he understood that he must keep it fighting—that inactivity was the source of boredom, intrigue, and insurrection—so Tamerlane continued fighting until he died of old age while attempting to expand his territory into China.

In victory he was as vicious as Marlowe paints him. Marozzi relates a contemporary account of his conduct after defeating the town of Zaranj in Afghanistan:
Temur granted [peace] on the condition that they surrender all their weapons. “And as soon as they had given this guarantee, he drew sword against them and billeted upon them all the armies of death. Then he laid the city waste, leaving in it not a tree or a wall and destroyed it utterly, no mark or trace of it remaining.”
He followed that by destroying the city’s irrigation canals, turning a thriving agricultural community into a desert that persists to this day.

But if Tamerlane favored a city, it truly flowered, and cities throughout his empire became cosmopolitan centers of trade and intellectual exchange at a time when Europe was deep in the dark ages. Tamerlane’s cities were known especially for their stunning architecture, some of which stands, dazzling, to this day. He continued his ancestor Genghis Khan’s tradition of relative religious tolerance at a time when such a position was rare. In present-day Uzbekistan (our authoritarian, human-rights-abusing ally in Bush's warmongering) where Tamerlane’s capital, Samarkand, was located, he is honored as the founding father, and has been since Uzbekistani independence rendered moot the Soviet prohibition on speaking well of him.

In other words, he was a complex figure, and one of the strengths of Marozzi’s book is that he doesn’t shy away from presenting Tamerlane’s many facets in all their respective horror or glory. He draws from sycophantic court histories and from justifiably hostile accounts written by the conquered, and he adds an unexpected perspective through accounts of his own travels in the region, which allow us to see up close how Tamerlane’s legacy continues in a part of the world Americans rarely find reason to think about. That exploration of Tamerlane’s empire as it now stands in some ways brings us as close as we can get to the essence of Tamerlane himself. Like Homer’s heroes, he knew that posterity would sit in judgment of him; I think he’d be satisfied with his place in his home state of Uzbekistan, if somewhat disappointed with his reputation elsewhere.

We may not be able to know Tamerlane, but through Marozzi we learn tremendous amount about his life and his world, and there’s not much more you can ask for from a biography that reaches so far into the past.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Two jobs

Quarry, the protagonist of Max Allan Collins’s The Last Quarry (2006) is a retired contract killer. The protagonist of Allan Guthrie’s Kiss Her Goodbye (2005), Joe Hope, is a leg-breaker for a loan shark. Neither job is one you’d want to tell your mom about. And if you were, say, Saint Peter, you’d probably put the contract killer at least a few places in line behind the leg-breaker, right? Yet while I enjoyed The Last Quarry despite Quarry’s profession, while reading Kiss Her Goodbye I couldn’t get around the problem of Hope’s job. I’m not sure there’s a defensible explanation; hell, I’m not entirely sure of the explanation at all. Maybe I’ll figure it out by the end of this post.

Kiss Her Goodbye is by no means a bad novel: in telling the story of the suicide of Joe’s daughter and the death of his wife it paints a detailed picture of the seamy side of Edinburgh, and Guthrie’s created some memorable characters (particularly good is a young lawyer who is drawn to the dangers of Joe’s life). But then there’s the leg-breaking. Joe explains how he got into being an enforcer, recruited by his best friend when he was about to become a father and his job prospects were poor. Now he’s a borderline alcoholic in a deeply troubled marriage, desperately unhappy with life—but I didn’t get the sense that his relationship to his job itself was as complicated as I’d have liked. The opening scene features him and his friend messing a guy up with baseball bats, and he seems to have few qualms as they inflict tremendous pain on the man.

Given that Joe’s job is to seriously hurt people, I’d like a little more complexity, and at least as much inner turmoil related to his job as to his marriage. I want to know why Allan Guthrie chose to make Joe a leg-breaker; Kiss Her Goodbye could have been written, with essentially the same plot, with Joe as a burglar, or a safecracker, or any sort of petty criminal. So what does the leg-breaking add other than another level of seaminess and violence to a story that could have had plenty of both without it? I finished the book still a little unsure.

I probably wouldn’t have thought about this at all had I not soon after read and enjoyed The Last Quarry. Collins has written before about Quarry, though this is the first I’ve read, and this novel finds him recently retired and managing a small resort somewhere in Minnesota. A chance encounter in a deserted convenience store leads him to a contract to kill a young woman in Colorado, a job that quickly begins to get under Quarry’s skin—via, of course, his heart.

This all ought to be at least as unacceptable as Joe Hope’s leg-breaking. But Quarry operates with a degree of open introspection that in Joe Hope is submerged by anger and self-pity, and while Quarry’s potted defense of his occupation (essentially, the “if I get hired to kill you, you’ve probably done something to deserve it” defense) is unconvincing, he clearly operates according to a code. It’s a code that would, I think, hold leg-breakers like Joe in low esteem. In addition, his role as a hit man is essential to the book; it’s what drives the entire plot.

Is all that sufficient to make the difference, to justify my enjoying Quarry while judging Joe? Well, no. Not if I’m making a strict argument about ethics, and not even if I’m limiting the discussion to fiction, where one of our most important jobs as readers is to make judgments about the characters we’re being shown, their decisions and actions.

But Quarry is a convincing character and good company—funny, self-effacing, and cynical, with a skilled barroom raconteur’s narrative style—and that carried the day. It enabled me to concentrate not on what he did for a living, but on what he was attempting to do now that emotion had made his job more complex.

That’s where these books’ role as entertainment takes over: an affable hit man is flat-out more fun than a dour leg-breaker. Allan Guthrie may be aiming higher—trying to show us some real darkness—but Collins’s touch is more sure, and The Last Quarry ends up a better read.

But I do have one request for Collins: please, please, please never describe a man’s penis as a “blade of flesh” ever again. Please. I have to go cleanse my mind now.

Friday, August 04, 2006

H. M. Tomlinson, the Arabian Nights, and Donald E. Westlake

From Christopher Morley’s introduction to the 1928 Modern Library edition of H. M. Tomlinson’s The Sea and the Jungle (1912)
It was the Putney bus that did it. Mr. Tomlinson admits it himself. There he was, a newspaper man, in his middle thirties, with a family, taking the 8.35 to town every morning, “dutifully and busily climbing the revolving wheel.” He looked up from his desk and the Skipper was grinning at him.


And just like that, H. M. Tomlinson unexpectedly finds himself ditching his workaday life and taking ship for Brazil to sail up the Amazon into deepest jungle. He faces peril after peril, but he comes through his journey alive and reasonably well, still a bit surprised at the way that, in the midst of a perfectly ordinary day, he had fallen through a door to adventure.

I think of such moments as Arabian Nights moments, when a seemingly innocuous decision transforms a life. The quotidian origins of such fantastic tales are a big part of their appeal. It could be any of us who falls asleep under a tree in the backyard and dreams of a treasure under another tree in another backyard, or who gives alms to the beggar who happens to be Harun al-Rashid. That’s the way many, if not most, good crime novels begin, too: a salesman at the end of a long day talks to the beautiful woman who sits next to him at his local bar—and fate takes over. Soon the man finds himself not just with a seductive lady, but with a gun and enemies as well, and it’s all he can do to keep his wits about him and his head above water.

I was thinking about Arabian Nights moments as I read Donald E. Westlake’s 361 (1962), out from Hard Case Crime, which opens with a newly demobbed airman, Ray Kelly, arriving in New York to meet his father. At 22, he’s come out of the Air Force without any plans, and he’s mostly looking forward to seeing his family again while he figures out what to do with his life. But without any warning, that all changes, as an unidentified gunman kills his father and seriously injures him. Baffled and angry, he sets to work unpeeling layer after layer of his father’s past, learning that the man did, indeed, have secrets worth killing for.

It’s a fast-paced revenge tale, featuring gangsters, Lake George summer homes, shady lawyers, and plenty of surprises. But the best part of the book is Westlake himself—or how his eye, and his sensibility, filters through the character into the narration. Here’s the narrator getting on the bus after being demobilized:
Another guy with two suitcases came on, and he and I kind of avoided looking at one another. I’d never seen him before, but he was another new civvy. We acted like we’d both just been circumcised, and if we talked to each other everybody would know.

And here’s a bit of his train ride into the city:
There were some kids on the train, maybe fourteen years old, writing on the posters and screaming about it. I kept looking out the window, down at the neighborhoods. After a while it was all crummy residential—stone buildings, four and five stories, lots of windows, baby carriages and old kitchen chairs and Baby Ruth wrappers on the sidewalk. Then it went down into an open trench, and there wasn’t anything to see. The kids got off at a stop called Newkirk. Then a little later it went underground all the way, and I read the ads above the windows. There was one I couldn’t believe; a drawing of a hand with spread fingers, and surprinted over that in green block letters BELCH. Underneath, it said something was three times faster with stomach gas.

That level of observation is upheld throughout the book, as we see the aging mobsters trying to keep abreast of both the vice trade and the vagaries of fashion, or the shabby office of a low-rent private investigator whose curiosity turns out to be stronger than his courage. It’s the work of a top-notch observer of people, their behavior and detritus, and it makes what should be a fairly ordinary crime novel something stronger.

The other Westlake novel from Hard Case Crime that I’ve read recently, Lemons Never Lie (1971), which was written under the name Richard Stark, is a heist novel starring Alan Grofield, a sometime partner of Westlake’s better-known thief, Parker (on whom, in part, Max Allan Collins’s Nolan was modeled). He joins heist crews in the winter, working just enough to keep afloat his real passion, a small summer stock theatre in northern Indiana that he runs with his wife.

The casual pace and somewhat episodic nature of Lemons Never Lie reminds me a bit of 1930s movie noir—say, The Thin Man—where, as the mystery perks along in the background, you might get a song or some comedy; there’s no hurry to get back to the action. In Lemons Never Lie, that plays out in a scene of Grofield painting backdrops for his theatre, a digression about why doctors finance robberies, and a patiently planned and executed heist that is peripheral to the main plot. Though later films, such as Double Indemnity or Kiss Me Deadly, might be tighter and more propulsive, the looser approach is a nice change of pace.

What’s also fun is Westlake’s clear appreciation of work itself, be it criminal or otherwise. Here’s Grofield, dressed as a grocery clerk pretending to do late-night stocking, just in case police drive by the store:
Grofield thought, I must be crazy. What the hell am I stamping the prices on these things for?

But he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t knowingly do a bad job; stamp the wrong price on each can, put the canned goods on the wrong shelves, put them up with no prices stamped on them at all. He had found the spot where Hal [the real grocery clerk] had been working, and had simply continued where Hal had left off. Spaghetti sauce. Twenty-two cents. Therefore: 22 22 22 22 22 22 22.

Actually, while I think literature in general has done a surprisingly poor job of representing work (some exceptions, off the top of my head: Tolstoy, Richard Russo, Wendell Berry, Michael Ondaatje, and Penelope Fitzgerald), crime novelists frequently—and often lovingly—describe the minutia of their characters’ occupations, bringing us just that little bit farther behind the curtain each time.

Grofield’s work, of course, carries with it the constant threat of violence, and just when Westlake has lulled us into enjoying the afterglow of a well-executed heist, he reminds us of that, slamming us back into the midst of the background plot and raising the stakes. Grofield hits the road on a mission of revenge, and suddenly the book is as fast-moving and hard-edged as 361.

The Wikipedia lists ten pseudonyms used by Westlake. He's been doing this long enough—and well enough—that he's welcome to use as many as he wants. Two more Hard Case Crime books to write about tomorrow, then I’ll be caught up and ready to tell about the books I read on my trip to L.A.