The Great Gatsby

img_0527Is it really The Great American Novel? After reading it twice now I still can’t say. It’s good, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. But it’s no Lonesome Dove either. It’s a dark story, permeated throughout by an air of despair. It’s shallow, bored rich people looking for lost love or the next thrill. Throw in some intrigue, drunkenness, adultery, jealousy and revenge and you have the plot. Published in 1925, the book is a vivid window into hedonism of the Roaring Twenties in and around New York City, before it all came crashing down, and that is probably my favorite thing about it. It was critically acclaimed for its “charm and beauty” when it was first published, but the novel didn’t sell well during Fitzgerald’s lifetime and he died thinking it was a failure. Fear not, old sport. Today your little book is widely viewed as a literary classic. Rest easy and be proud.   

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Yonder Stands Your Orphan

img_0404A confusing, depressing discombobulated mess, written by someone who may have been trying too hard to measure up to his stature as the master of “elegantly twisted” Southern Gothic prose. If he pulled it off I missed it, but I’ll agree the prose is twisted; twisted to the point it is often incomprehensible. The book has no discernible plot and the characters are unsympathetic at best; more often they are just plain repugnant. Barry Hannah once told an interviewer he wrote from the gut, and he believed that style was more important than content. When I read that I had already finished the book, and I thought well now, therein lies the problem. Because when you don’t stick the landing with style, and you have no content to work with or you just dismiss it out of hand, you end up with Yonder Stands Your Orphan.

This was Hannah’s last novel before his heart gave out on him in 2010. His reputation as one of the great contemporary Southern writers was obviously built on works that preceded this book, so with that in mind I plan to give him another chance.  Airships received high praise so I’ll check that out sometime soon. I gave Faulkner six chances before finally giving up on him, so I think Hannah deserves at least one more shot. I actually finished his book. I can’t say the same about any of Faulkner’s.  

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Rabbit At Rest

img_0402I finished the fourth and final book in Updike’s “Rabbit” series with a touch of sadness because I’m going to miss it. In this installment Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is 55 and semi-retired from the family Toyota agency in Pennsylvania. He spends half the year at his golf course condo in Florida with wife Janice. The day-to-day operation of the dealership has been entrusted to son Nelson, who has been ripping it off to fund his cocaine habit, the worthless fuck. Harry has a heart attack and opts for angioplasty instead of the full bypass. On the day he gets out of the hospital Harry shags Nelson’s wife, Pru. But she seduced him so it wasn’t his fault. Unfortunately, the rest of the family doesn’t see it that way when Pru spills the beans a few weeks later. Rather than face the righteous anger and disappointment of his wife and son, Harry drives to Florida, where he has a massive heart attack. Janice forgives him. Nelson whines. Harry dies. The end. Enough.

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Heart Of Darkness

img_0400A few months ago a younger colleague at my former place of employ asked me if I had ever read Heart of Darkness. When I said no he looked at me like I was some kind of dimwit and he made a comment that could have been easily interpreted as a slight upon Arkansas Public School System. Then he told me the story was the basis for the movie Apocalypse Now, which was news to me, and that got me interested so I promised him I would check it out. It’s technically a novella, coming in at a mere ninety-six pages, for which I became grateful as I worked my way toward the end. Like other books I have read written in the late 1800’s, I’m not always sure I understood completely what was going on or why. It’s the more formal use of English, I guess. Not quite a foreign language but close. Like the Constitution, right Trump? Anyway, the best part of doing it was to be able to tell my former colleague that I had kept my promise and I could feel good about myself. Don’t waste your time on this one just because it’s considered a classic. 

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The Martian

img_0365The Martian is the story of how Astronaut Mark Watney was abandoned on Mars by his crew mates, and I know exactly how he felt. Years ago I went to a college football game with some so-called friends in a city about fifty miles from where we all lived. We went to a party when the game was over, and after about an hour my friends wanted to go home, but I wasn’t ready. When they announced they were leaving someone flipped them a dime and said “Call someone who gives a shit.” I laughed. Almost everyone did. Except my friends, who got mad and split. I spent the night on the floor among empty beer cans and sticky Solo cups. Astronaut Watney was luckier than I was, in a sense, because he didn’t have a wife waiting to tear him a new one for missing his ride home. Mine refused to come get me, so the next day I left the driving to Greyhound and rode home on a bus. 

Unlike me, Astronaut Watney was not angry with his colleagues who abandoned him. In fact, he believed they made the correct decision, because all the information available to them at the time indicated he was dead. The book chronicles Watney’s struggle to survive on Mars for a year and a half while making preparations for his rescue. His version is told through a series of journal entries that are specific, technical, often funny and for the most part interesting, but sometimes the detail seemed to be a bit overwhelming. More than once I caught myself thinking, “Please, get on with it already.” His rescue in the end is suitably suspenseful even though I already knew the outcome from seeing the movie. Presumably he made it safely home to a hero’s welcome. All I got was scathing verbal abuse.

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Mississippi Blood

img_0363Middle-aged white guy Penn Cage, whom I picture as slightly balding and a little pudgy, is the mayor of Natchez, MS. Before that he was a successful novelist, and before that he was a prosecutor in Texas. In this book, Part Three of the Natchez Burning Trilogy, Cage becomes his fourth incarnation; a bad-ass killer with the gonads of an Army Ranger. He also has a trist with a gorgeous younger woman named Serenity, who is black, which is important to the story and not something I just threw out there. Speaking of women, Mr. Cage is just three months removed from the murder of his poor fiance, Catlin, who died horribly at the Bone Tree. (See Book Two of the Trilogy for details)  Oh well, I guess three months of mourning is respectfully sufficient, and besides, Cage needs a release because he has a lot on his mind; first and foremost being the murder trial of his father, a prominent Natchez doctor who is accused of killing his former nurse and lover, who was also black. This, too, is important to the story and again not something I just threw out there. I’m better than that. But worse than the trial, if you can believe it, everyday Cage lives in fear for his life and those close to him, because Snake Knox and his gang of murderous, racist rednecks are still out there and they’re coming for blood. “Those close” includes Mia, a pretty college student/guardian of Cage’s young daughter Annie. Cage believes Mia might be attracted to him, (even his mother noticed) and there is a sexual undercurrent between them; the implication being that maybe, just maybe, something naughty this way comes. But it never does, dang it. Let’s hope there’s a Book Four.  

Anyway, the whole experience is a fun ride and the author has a knack for keeping the story moving, which is good because the three books come in at just under two thousand pages total. And it’s a believable story, for the most part, except for the sexcapades with Serenity. Sorry Greg, I know we’re living out your fantasies in these pages. It’s your story and you can do whatever you want. I respect that. If I could write like you I would do the same. But I can’t get on the train with the “Serenity in bed” story-line or the idea that twenty year-old Mia spends lonely nights in her bedroom fantasizing about the Mayor of Natchez. That shit don’t happen to pudgy, balding, middle-aged white guys. Not even in fiction. You can trust me on this one.

 

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Fear And Loathing: On the Campaign Trail’72

img_0350My first exposure to Hunter Thompson was about thirty years ago when a friend loaned me Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. At the time I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read. I was disappointed a few months later when I discovered Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail’72 was not more of the wild, rollicking same. I quit reading about a third of the way through it. What I didn’t know at the time was that HST was a serious journalist and not just a writer of funny novels. Since then I have read a large portion of Thompson’s writing, but for some reason I never went back to … Campaign Trail, until a blogger I follow recommended it. (Thanks hanspostcard.) Having finished it recently after my thirty-year break I now think it is some of Thompson’s best writing, however, I will also say trying to stay interested in the unfolding of a forty-seven year-old Democratic presidential primary campaign was not always easy, no matter the writer’s talents. I will also confess to skipping two lengthy interviews; one with someone named Rick Stearns and another with HST’s “Editors”, printed verbatim. Collectively they were only slightly more interesting than John Galt’s sixty page speech in Atlas Shrugged (the majority of which I also skipped.) But this is a minor criticism, easily neutralized by the many, many instances where Thompson’s brilliant insight and biting wit shine through, making the effort more than worthwhile.  

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