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Posts Tagged ‘Carl Hiaasen’

Mixed reception for Carl Hiaasen’s Stormy weather (1995) at September’s Book Group, meeting as it did in the immediate aftermath of the far from fictional Hurricane Irma, which provided a bit of context.  It was a re-read for me, but I was happy to do it.  Some thought the book ‘over the top’, which really, it has to be said, for Carl Hiaasen, rather misses the point.  Given Donald Trump’s political ascendency and his personal and business interests in Florida exactly how much over the top Hiaasen is – a native Floridan, investigative journalism came before the novels – how much he indulges himself becomes debatable.  Here’s a trademark Hiaasenism, taken from Stormy weather’s hurricane’s aftermath, “The death of Tony Torres did not go unnoticed by homicide detectives, crucifixions being rare even in Miami“.   That ‘even in Miami’.  You laughed, right?  Don’t worry, in context it is righteous.

Basically Carl Hiaasen is a moralist, a savage Swiftian humourist with harlequin bells on.  But he is also a relativist, so what happens is that in the end the bad guys usually get it in spades, but the nuanced bad and so not so bad guys and gals can sometimes get the breaks, while the good, suffering, people of his world will lean towards purity of heart if not deed.  His books start out with 5 or 6 people, maybe a couple of them paired up in some way, at a certain stage in their lives – something criminal, new or odd going on therein – whose lives get not so much thrown together as entangled in various ways by a triggering event (in Stormy weather a destructive hurricane) as the narrative unfolds apace with many interesting twists and turns along the way.  Again, some nay-sayers in the Book Group complained that Hiaasen’s characters are stereotypes; they may well be, but they are also magnificent living and breathing examples of their kind, complete with quirks and the potential to surprise; like, um, skull juggling.

Stormy weather also strongly features one of the great creations of late twentieth century literature; this was his third appearance.  Skink, an anti-superhero (not that he’s a force for bad, just no cool costumery or scientific backstory) who, Hiaasen subsequently, I hazard to suggest, resorts to when he needs something to help the plot on its entertaining way, along the lines of Raymond Chandler’s apocryphalWhen in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand“, except he transcends this usefulness to the extent one is disappointed when he doesn’t appear in a Hiaasen novel.  Skink, the ex-politician previously known as Clinton Tyree,  is big enough to have his own Wikipedia entry.

Here he explains himself to a tourist he has kidnapped (there are reasons):

My name is Tyree. I served in the Vietnam conflict and later as governor of this fair state. I resigned because of disturbing moral and philosophical conflicts.   The details would mean nothing to you.

Having failed to change the system from within he has retreated, gone native in the Florida Everglades.  Another kind of Swamp Man, he’d had high hopes of the hurricane.  Here are some of the details:

Clinton Tyree’s only political liability was a five-year stint as an English professor at the University of Florida, a job that historically would have marked a candidate as too thoughtful, educated and broad-minded for state office. But, in a stunning upset, voters forgave Clint Tyree’s erudition and elected him governor.

So far, so good.  But the “barkers, pimps and fast-change artists who controlled the legislature” weren’t unduly worried: “He was, after all, a local boy. Surely he understood how things worked.”  But when he won’t take bribes, they begin to doubt his sanity.  “Save the rivers. Save the coast. Save the Big Cypress. Where would it end?”  He might as well be a ‘damn communist’.  They use every trick in the book to foil him:

So he quit, fled Tallahassee on a melancholy morning in the back of a state limousine, and melted into the tangled wilderness. […] He moved by night, fed off the road, and adopted the solitary existence of a swamp rattler. Those who encountered him knew him by the name of Skink, or simply “captain”, a solemn hermitage interrupted by the occasional righteous arson, aggravated battery or highway sniping.

Imagine a beach or two with no ugly high-rises. Imagine a lake without golf courses,” he suggests towards the end of the tale.  Donald Trump makes an appearance in the capacity of a negative character reference, the kidnapee as it happens, who “was into ditties and jingles, not metaphysics. “And he doesn’t read much,” she added. “The last book he finished was one of Trump’s autobiographies.””  (Trump has ‘written’ more ‘autobiographies’ than David Beckham and Wayne Rooney).

Carl Hiaasen is deadly serious and laugh-out-loud funny.  He can drive a narrative, paint a vivid picture and delivers great dialogue.  Because I’ve given space to Skink here I’ve hardly touched the riches elsewhere to be found in Stormy weather.  He’s a highly quotable phrase maker too: a 160 home housing development (called Sugar Palm Hammocks) is “platted sadistically on only forty acres of land”  (yup, definitely ‘platted’, not ‘plotted’).  The damaging avoidance of building regulations is, someone bemoans, “exactly the sort of thing that gave corruption a bad name.”  How masterful a scene-setter is “after a day of inept drinking“?  Enjoy! 

A Scribal interval

As it happens, poster-girl Naomi Rose had a song called Hurricane in her immaculate October Scribal Gathering set.  She described it as ‘a worksong’.  Contains the lines “Know that you can never be good enough” expanding as the song progresses to “None of us … ”  (Thinks: is she singing about OFSTED investigations here?).  Naomi is a much more than good enough singer-songwriter and an intriguing guitarist.  Hear for yourself with a link https://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2/hurricane .  She also did her “song about football” which for all its “Smiling David Beckham’s on your wall” and damnably catchy chorus (says this Arsenal supporter) of “I love you Manchester United / and I would be delighted / to dance with you tonight / for the rest of my life” is not about football.  It’s a challenge i) not to sing along , and ii) not to be tripping the light fantastic in your waltzing head; you might find yourself agreeing if you go to:   https://soundcloud.com/naomi-rose-2/manchester-united .  I’ve said it before: sad (mostly) rainy day songs delivered with a sunny smile, queen of the earworms.  This was a Scribal with a difference, with Pat Nicholson ably MC-ing and Mitchell Taylor ending proceedings in fine voice, songs punctuated with a heartfelt spoken word anti-imperialist flourish.

Doesn’t time fly?

And so October’s Book Group book divided the team too, though thankfully not along the same lines as to Stormy weatherGeoffrey Household‘s extraordinary 1939 thriller Rogue male certainly took me by surprise.  In attitude and feeling it’s a revealing period piece, both cringe-worthy in places yet prescient in others – both ancient and modern, you could say.  As a founding genre classic of the better class of contemporary thriller it has lost none of its power, while retaining all the drive of a simpler enterprise.  One of the Book Group members said she was reminded of the excitement of reading as a child again, engrossed in the adventure.

It’s a first person narrative:

I will not mention who I am. My name is widely known. I have been frequently and unavoidably dishonoured by the banners and praises of the penny press.

That ‘dishonoured’ by the ‘praises’ tells you a lot about our man – sardonic, charming, socially aware.  This is on one level is his confession, decently left in case someone innocent might get the blame (and to let the government off the hook), on another a journal of self-discovery, replete with philosophical meditations and asides on the nation-state and Englishness among other things.  Given his affinity with the land and nature in general, the book’s title, Rogue male, has to take some of its meaning from the wild animal kingdom – the solitary, dangerous animal, adrift from the herd – an ‘anarchial aristocrat’ (yes, ‘anarchial’) as it is put to him at one stage, and he doesn’t demur.

Our man an experienced hunter, is captured in a foreign land with a dictator in his telescopic gun-sights.  Could be Hitler or Stalin; we are never told.  Claiming he was only doing it to see if ‘a sporting assassination‘ was possible.  (Was he really? – you’ll have to read the book).  Interrogation and a punishing, gruelling escape.  In London, accurately guessing that wouldn’t be the end of it, he puts his affairs in order, and goes to ground (literally, in an elaborately constructed burrow) in Dorset.  As if this were not gruelling enough, the agents of the totalitarian state find him and he becomes a prisoner in his own hiding place, interrogated at length, over days, through a ventilation space, with a subtlety out of a John Le Carré novel.  No big spoiler to say he escapes again – some tense moments indeed – and lights out for new territory.  It’s riveting stuff.

But as I say, there’s this weird mix of snobbery and decency, of one-ness with the natural world, and personal detachment.  It’s beautifully written, a wonderful mélange of by turns the calm, charming, candid and disingenuous; keenly literate observation accompanies the  enthralling, gruelling and scornful yet nicely self-deprecating prose.  A few tasters to whet your appetite.  After his first escape:

Glaring back at me from the mirror, deep and enormous,, it seemed to belong to someone intensely alive, so much more alive than I felt. My face was all pallors and angles, like that of a Christian martyr in a medieval painting. – and I had the added villainy of bristles. I marvelled at how such a beastly crop could grow in so poor and spiritual a soil.
[but then later, on a foray to buy materials in Lyme Regis]: 
I had a straggly beard that was quite as convincing as most of those one sees in Bloomsbury.

A couple of Ouch! moments.  Here he considers the ‘modern’ incarnation of the ‘hiker’ :

A hideous word – hiker.  It has nothing to do with the gentle souls of my youth who wandered in tweeds and stout shoes from pub to pub. But, by God, it fits those bawling English-women whose tight shorts and loose voices are turning every beauty spot in Europe into a Skegness holiday camp.
[and here’s another contemporary holidaymaker]: 
She was a sturdy wench in corduroy shorts no longer than bum-bags, and with legs so red that the golden hairs showed a continuous fur. Not my taste at all. But my taste is far from eugenic.  [Did I really just read that? – yes you did.]

Here, a couple more encounters with the common man:

There was a man on the fence, meditative and unbuttoned, and obviously digesting his breakfast while mistaking that process for thought.
[and of a naval man]:
I calmed his suspicions with two double whiskies and my most engaging dirty story, whereupon he declared that I was a Bit of All Right and consented to talk about his officers. [tell us the joke!]

And yet he has interesting things to say about class and class consciousness, and, in settling his affairs before disappearing makes plans to turn over his lands to a ‘Tenants Cooperative Society’.

The edition I read has a worthwhile introduction from by Robert Macfarlane, author of Wild places and another celebrated book on walking the old tracks and pathways, which enhanced my reading (always read such introductions last!).  Our man’s first escape involves resting up in a tree to convalesce: “I was growing to my tree and aware of immense good nature …”.  Then there’s the Dorset experience:

It was a disgusting day. The flats of England on a grey morning remind me of the classical hell – a featureless landscape where the peewits twitter and the half-alive remember hills and sunshine. And the asphodel of this Hades is the cabbage. To lie among cabbages in my own country should have been nothing after the pain and exposure I suffered during my escape, but it was summer then and it was autumn now. To lie still on a clay soil in a gentle drizzle was exasperating. But safe!

Asphodel? – “Old World herbs of the lily family with flowers in usually long erect racemes” the dictionary tells me.  And it’s no fun down in the bunker either: “I have no chance even of illusion. Luck has reached a stage of equilibrium and stopped.”  He befriends a feral cat, who plays a crucial role in his final escape, who he names Asmodeus.

There is a revelation near the end of Rogue male, conjured out of our man down in his wretched temporary abode as his interrogation progresses, but I’m not going say anything more about that other than that it prompts an outbreak of the most wonderful technicolour prose, a passage that is like nothing else in the book.

Rogue male is a great adventure story and so much more.  I leave you with what would be a great exam question for students of twentieth century history – discuss this!  Our man achieves a certain understanding with Quiver-Smith, his interrogator, that deep spy from a totalitarian state with the well-constructed English identity, but:

I didn’t tell him that natural leaders don’t have any will to power. He wouldn’t have understood what I meant.

 

 

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Augustus

How do you oppose a foe who is wholly irrational and unpredictable – and yet who, out of animal energy and accident of circumstance, has attained a most frightening power?”

It’s a problem, right?  In  this instance – John Williams‘ brilliant historical novel Augustus (1973) – they’re talking about Mark Anthony.  I am so in awe of this novel that I feel the need to escape from hyperbole by slipping into anecdotage.

One of those significant moments of advance in one’s intellectual life: an A-level essay on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which I kick off with a quote from Dylan’s recently released Maggie’s Farm – “Well I’ve tried my best / to be just like I am / But every body wants me / to be just like them.”  Turns out in the end he was a bit of a tosser “who did not even perform his own suicide well …

It is often suggested that life in Ancient Greece and Rome – events, ideas, dilemmas that I have skipped over – have in essence anticipated pretty much everything that has gone down since.  It seems a reasonable notion, and one I’m a lot more likely to explore after reading Augustus.

It’s an incredible story.  When he was 19, Octavius Caesar, Julius Caesar’s nephew, JC’s recently adopted son and successor, was off on a Greek island doing student stuff with his mates (and being educated).  No long after, in 44 BC,  JC was famously assassinated, and Octavius – like Brazilian footballers he took to being known as Augustus a bit later, as Emperor and, um, god – hastened back to a Rome that was in chaos, with civil war in prospect.  No-one expected him to pick up the reins, but he did.  When he was 19.  Diversionary tactic 2: cue my mate Naomi Rose’s song Nineteen because now it’s there it won’t go away:

By the time Augustus died he had left an economically prosperous Roman Empire at peace within itself and secure within its extensive borders – the era that is known as the Pax Romana.  But not without huge personal cost.  The story is told in a patchwork of lletters, memos and memoirs, petitions and poems, senatorial proceedings, reports, military orders, and journal notes – chronologically, but with the dates of the sources jumping backwards and forwards, providing a commentary on events. 

As the book progresses more and more space is given to the journal of Augustus’s daughter, Julia, whom he loves, but who has been callously, strategically, used over the years, and is sentenced to a lonely exile by him, for treason.  She has been on a hell of a journey.  Ordered by her father, “I returned to Rome in the consulship of Tiberius Claudius Nero … Who had been a goddess returned to Rome a mere woman, and in bitterness.”  Furthermore “I was not to be free. One year and four months after the death of Marcus Agrippa [an old, gay, mate of his] my father betrothed me to Tiberius Claudius Nero. He was the only one of my husbands whom I ever hated.”  Her fate: “So I am once again to be the brood sow for the pleasure of Rome.”  Hers is a tale that could easily stand as an outstanding work of its own.  She achieves a certain liberation, experiences sensual pleasure and ultimately reaches a peace in her situation:

Father,” I asked, “has it been worth it? “Your authority, this Rome that you have saved, this Rome that you have built? Has it been worth all that you have had to do?”
My father looked at me for a long time, and then he looked away. “I must believe it has,” he said. “We both must believe it has.”

The books ends with an astonishing 36 pages, as a lonely dying Augustus, voyaging out at sea, looks back over his life in a sequence of letters to the only surviving friend of his youth, a scholar.  It is one of the most powerful sustained passages I have read in a long time.  It’s fiction, of course, so one doesn’t know, but … well, try this:

Thus I did not determine to change the world out of an easy idealism and selfish righteousness that are invariably the harbingers of failure, nor did I determine to change the world so that my wealth and power might be enhanced; wealth beyond one’s comfort has always seemed to me the most boring of possessions, and power beyond its usefulness has seemed the most contemptible. It was destiny that seized me that afternoon at Apollonia nearly 60 years ago, and I chose not to avoid its embrace.

Compared to Alexander the Great, he opines that Alexander had it lucky, dying so young, “else he would have come to know that if to conquer the world is a small thing, to rule it is even less.”
“… I have never wished to conquer the world, and I have been more nearly ruled than ruler.”

He puts in a good word for the poets, whose company was often held against him:

Of the many services that Maecenas performed for me, the most important seems to me now to be this: He allowed me to know the poets to whom he gave his friendship. They were among the most remarkable men I have ever known …

I could trust the poets because I was unable to give them what they wanted …

Horace once told me that laws were powerless against the private passions of the human heart, and only he who has no power over it, such as the poet or the philosopher, may persuade the human spirit to virtue.

Great book.  Capital G.

Razor Girl

And now for something completely different.  I love reading Carl Hiaasen, just gulp his books down.  What it says on the cover.  He specialises in outlandish, yet I thought the actions of the woman of the title of his latest book were too much, even for the Florida of his oeuvre.  And then I read the disclaimer to Razor Girl (Sphere, 2016):

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. However, true events in South Florida provided the lurid material for certain strands of this novel, beginning with the opening scene. The author also wishes he’d dreamed up the part about the giant Gambian pouched rats, but he didn’t. Those suckers are real.

There’s a lovely rhythm to his writing that just pulls you along.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

That ‘He nearly made it’, if you’re familiar with Carl Hiaasen, is no harbinger of doom for Coolman, but rather an invitation to the reading treat in store.  He keeps a handful of narratives going and works seamlessly to intertwine them with calamitous and desperate irony.

There‘s the central character, Yancey, a disgraced detective who now, busted to public hygiene inspector, works the roach patrol in local restaurants, is anxious to get his old job back.  So he involves himself in what starts as a mistaken kidnapping which introduces into the plot a top-rated scripted fake reality TV show called Bayou Brethren about a hillbilly family business breeding speciality chickens for fly-fishing flies.  Enter a psychopathic fan of the show who has bought into its conceit – including unofficial dodgy right-wing rants on YouTube –  wholesale. Then there’s the out-of-his-depth guy running an eco-destructive con providing sand to hotel beaches who owes money to the mafia, who ends up mid-chase electrocuting himself trying to recharge a stolen Tesla.  Not to mention the tangled love lives and Yancey’s real estate problem of how to get rid of potential next-door neighbours threatening to build big and destroy his view. Among other things.

Hiaasen is basically a moralist, appalled at what big money has done and is doing to Florida.  Razor Girl displays less of the eco-warrior than usual – and it’s hard not to rue the non-appearance of Skink, the ragged one-eyed wild man ex-governor of Florida who’s gone native in the Keys, who features in some of his other books, but Hiaasen is still rooting – relatively speaking – for the good guys, albeit with many degrees of grey on the way.  The mafia guy is appalled to discover that the beach con man has been using a fake Helper Dog jacket on any old mutt to milk the privileges that one brings.

Carl Hiaasen is a master of dialogue and pushing the action along.  And he can be very very funny.

The reader on the 6.27

Weird, touching on desolation, yet charming, Jean-Paul Didierlaurent‘s The reader on the 6.27 (Mantle, 2015), translated by Ros Schwartz), is one of those shortish books that seem to only ever appear in translation.

Guylain Vignolles has not had it easy with a name that, subjected to spoonerist manipulation, gets him called ‘Ugly Puppet’.  He has a soul-crushing job in a factory pulping books.  He rescues random pages that escape the machine and recites them out loud next day to commuters on the train to work.  Some even look forward to it.  At work there’s a bossy boss and a jealous assistant.  There’s a sub-plot that takes in his reading for an hour, by invitation, at an old people’s home.

A while ago there had been an accident at work and a friend had lost a leg to the grinding machine; he, the friend, had traced how the pulp produced that day had been used, and was buying up copies of the cook book printed on that paper; he’s buying copies up.  Guylain helps him by pursuing second-hand copies at weekends, looking to help his friend get some sort of closure from a full set on his bookshelves.

One day on the train home Guylain finds a USB stick and discovers thereon a quirky document written by a woman working as a concierge in a public toilet in a shopping centre.  Enchanted, it is from this he now reads to his fellow commuters, and makes it his mission to find the writer.  And in the end, a drawn out love story.  Weird, charming, and highly recommended.

Scribal Gathering

You’d think the energy, industry and invention that went into The Antipoet would be enough for most mortals, but no, Paul Eccentric (“the mouthy half of … the beatrantin’ rhythm’n’views act” as estimable host Jonathan JT Taylor described him in the events page for the evening on FB) is an accomplished solo spoken word performer and, after a change of jacket, seated vocalist with the entertaining Polkabililly Circus,  who variously rocked, folked, emoted and mixed it up as you’d expect from their name. (Not to mention his other side projects:  http://pauleccentric.co.uk/ ).  Another fine way to spend an evening with Scribal: other poets and musicians were standing.

Archivists please note: JMD was unable to attend.

YorkieFest 2017

Best for me at YorkieFest this year, the fifth no less, were tucked away in the middle of the day.  Innocent Hare‘s repertoire draws masterfully from a number of folk traditions and the trio – a family affair – ebulliently led by Chloe Middleton-Metcalfe, went down a storm with the modest collection of souls in attendance at that time.  The ever immaculate harmonies and musicality of The Straw Horses followed, and in retrospect it was a mistake on my part to try to eat a vegetarian crepe (from La Crepe Franglais) – delicious though it was, it required concentration with that plastic fork – while they were on.  The continent-wide African guitar work from Safari Boots impressed. 

Special mention should also be made for my introduction to the sport and art of Tea Duelling from The Order of the Teapot, aka the local Steampunks.  It involves biscuit dunking, judgment skills and a lot of nerve.  Shame a few more didn’t come given all Pat Nicholson (one half of Growing Old Disgracefully, or GOD) and others’ hard work, but glad to say, money was made for the charities supported.

Chloe gave me a sticker to stick on an instrument to spread the word. I guess this my instrument. And I’ll stick it on the notebook I carry.

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Carl Hiaasen - Bad monkey

Bad monkey

He wasn’t elated to see me. I won’t lie. There were harsh words and gunplay.

Thus Andrew Yancey, Florida detective busted down to restaurant inspector (‘on roach patrol‘; it’s put him right off his food) telling of his unofficial pursuit of a crime, hoping it will help him get his proper job back, in Carl Hiaasen‘s Bad monkey (Sphere, 2013).  The monkey in question is a failed show business Capuchin called Driggs whose dad was Marcel, Ross’s pet monkey in Friends, but who misbehaved as stand-in to Johnny Depp’s monkey in Pirates of the Caribbean.  He’s a bit of a catalyst rather than a central character.

I love reading Carl Hiaasen.  His books are full of grotesques – quite often including the good guys – and the bad guys (invariably involved one way or another with property developers or corrupt politicians intent on destroying the natural habitat of the Everglades and the Florida Keys) always end up getting theirs righteously and hideously in some of the finest displays of poetic justice to be found in crime fiction.  This one starts with an arm being caught by a rube tourist fisherman and ends – without giving anything away – with:

… a karmic symmetry you’ve got to appreciate. Not quite Shakespeare, but close.

That’s Yancey’s conclusion at the denouement of this tangled and finely woven tale in which he suffers mightily – but not without the consolations of a good woman – and the reader has a lot of fun.  The comic episodes just pile up, all told in beautifully easy flowing prose (even if you might have to look up an American brand name or two).  Hiaasen’s also got a decent ear for music too:

She ordered him to be quiet while she sewed up his gnawed butt cheek. To take his mind off the intimate unpleasantries, Yancey told the story of how he was conceived during side one of Abbey Road.
You mean side two,” Rosa said. “The medley.”
No, side one. According to my mom, the big moment happened during ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.’ “
It’s all starting to make sense,” said Rosa.

Is resistance possible?

A decent interval

Simon Brett - A decent intervalSomewhat less frenetic, but nonetheless absorbing in its own way, is Simon Brett‘s 18th Charles Paris novel, A decent interval (Severn House, 2013).  I picked up on this through the happy chance of hitting a treatment of an earlier volume when I turned on the car radio a few months back; with Bill Nighy in the lead role it was infectious and I shall be interested to see, when I get my hands on some of the earlier titles, whether that has affected Brett’s writing – à la Dexter and Morse – because I certainly couldn’t not imagine Nighy in my reading of A decent interval.  I don’t know whether the success of the radio series is what prompted Simon Brett to feature Paris again – he has had his Fethering series on the go since 2000 – but it has been 16 years – a decent interval no less – since the last Charles Paris.  During which time, given the considerable quantity of Bells’ whisky his hero consumes here, one is amazed his liver has held out.

Charles Paris is a jobbing actor who has, over the years, found himself an unwilling sleuth in the cases of various theatrical fatalities.   He is one of those who “never hitting the heights, never getting the big break,” whose “default setting was the anticipation of bad news” and for whom the reply to the question, “Any work?” was usually a “No” that was instinctive. But also accurate.”  Of the old school, he’s still struggling not to call actresses ‘actresses’ and A decent interval is peppered with quotes from previous provincial newspaper reviews like “With Charles Paris as Julius Caesar, I was surprised Brutus and his cronies didn’t take action earlier.

He’s in a (maybe pre-West End) touring production of Hamlet, doubling as the ghost and first gravedigger.  The stage design is a representation of Hamlet’s skull, Hamlet is last year’s winner of a tv talent contest who has a record coming out, while the part of Ophelia was cast from a talent show created specifically for that purpose, both shows the mastermind of the same svengali.  Paris’s normal “Carapace of cynicism” is severely challenged in its adequacy as the drama is thus played out against a backdrop of ‘fame’ culture and an uncouth mammon clashing with theatrical tradition, with a side order of the rise of new acting generations – tweeting, physically fit and healthy graduates – and he ends in despair, his on/off living apart marriage now off for good, “more desolate than he had at any time in his life.”  Indeed, one worries for him.  Is there a way back for a man who chooses to drink in a pub he dubs The Pessimist’s Arms?  (Many -me included – will need there to be another book for a happier closure; for all his faults, he deserves it.)

On the way, though, there is still much to enjoy.  The solution of the mystery of Ophelia’s death is a shifting one, its denouement surprisingly compassionate, while the broad-brush satire and scorn about the current state of the entertainment business, alongside some neat little cameos from Paris’s fellow cast members backstage, in rehearsal and performance – not forgetting Charles’s self-deprecation – are a source of much delight, even if tinged with a sadness at the passing of something from English life (which I suspect Brett might be feeling about publishing too).  I’m still sticking with the original description of ‘comic crime’ but feel the chill of this – we’ve met its subject at the start of the book in a demistifying sequence about filming inserts for a tv history documentary:

One day, a few months after Hamlet closed in Newcastle, Charles Paris opened his Times to see a photograph of Tibor Pincus looking out at him from the obituary page. The text was lavish in its praise for the director’s groundbreaking work in the early days of television drama. There were fulsome tributes to his talent and skill in radio and television, many of them from the very broadcasting executives who had failed to give him any work for the final two decades of his life, or even to answer his calls.

MK Calling at MK Gallery

PrintBefore I go, just a brief word about Milton Keynes Gallery’s continuing and welcome efforts to become more involved in MK rather than just an outpost of the Art world.  This summer sees a whole series of events involving local artists, film makers, cake makers, musicians and poets.  And there’s an interesting exhibition in the main gallery curated from an open call for work from artists with any sort of connection with MK.  I’ve spent time there twice now; lots of paintings, drawings and photos hung on the walls, which is nice.  My best in show has to be Boyd & Evans big, beautiful and haunting Cannock Chase – trees in daylight with just a hint of mystery – a direct photo print on dibond.  There’s much to admire in the exhibition (more than specifically mentioned here) but I’ll not go on too long – I know my limitations.  Not a dog person, me, but I liked Karen Parker‘s dog photos, the ultrachrome prints reeking of those old Dutch oil dark interiors, while Lance Fennell‘s oil on wood including the frames, landscapes of MK grid roads (one with swans in flight, the other featuring the V6 aqueduct), looked good (and not just because I’m a sucker for painting on frames á la Howard Hodgkin).  Keelertornero‘s John Wayne of the stag beetles hit a certain spot, which is not to say I’d have it on a wall of mine, but I’d happily house their large pencil on paper Bird tree, which has an awful lot going on; at first glance a variety of birds – large in proportion – sitting on a bare tree’s branches, they become wittier, more disturbing, more intriguing the longer you are drawn in.

 

 

 

 

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“You got a blog, right?”
Ann snapped her fingers. “That’s what’s been missing from my life.”
Carl Hiaasen: Star island

I’ve always been partial to a game of Scrabble, deeply frustrating though it can be when you’re stuck with a rack full of vowels or, indeed, consonants.  But never mind that.  It’s just that Scrabble has made an appearance in the last two books I’ve been reading.  Synchronicity or what?  What, probably.

A game of Scrabble is an illicit pleasure in the Republic of Gilead in Margaret Atwood‘s classic dystopian novel ‘The handmaid’s tale‘ (1985), while in the State of Florida it’s a sardonic throwaway line from kidnappee Ann DeLusia, pretty much the only decent, sane and grounded character in Carl Hiaasen‘s inspired tales another kind of American excess in  ‘Star Island‘ (2011).

It has always struck me there’s a problem with fiction set in the milieu of popular entertainment, the music industry in particular.  Apart from the art, something else is always missing.  The supper-realism.  The real thing just cannot be beat.  How to successfully invent someone like Mick Jagger, say, never mind Macca’s marriages, Madonna’s career, or that meat dress?   Hiaasen is up to it; that meat dress could have been one of his.  ‘Star Island‘ is a grotesquerie concerning itself with – or at least this narrative is hung on – celebrity culture, with a girl singer who can’t sing and her entourage; think Lindsay Lohan, Britney, Paris all rolled into one.  All in the context of Hiaasen’s regard for his native Florida and his ongoing environmental, social and political concerns.  It is so righteously funny I read it twice straight off and laughed louder the second time.

I’ll try and be brief.  There are basically two nicely interwoven narrative strands, united by the involvement of  one Skink.  Those familiar with Hiaasen’s work will be delighted to hear that Skink appears early in this book and that the remarkable aforementioned Annie – “She enriched my outlook on humanity” – even manages to get him into a designer suit and a night club called ‘Pubes’ at the climax.

For those who’ve not had the pleasure of his acquaintance before, let me tell you about Skink.  Born Clinton Tyree, he was a college football star and authentic Vietnam war hero before briefly getting himself elected Governor of Florida, shortly after which political success, 30 years ago, he took refuge in the mangrove swamps:

Decades of hermitage had kept him barely on keel but his turbulent aversions never waned. He’d fled the governor’s mansion with his values intact but his idealism extinguished, his patience smashed to dust. Politics had scrambled his soul much worse than the war, and he left behind in Tallahassee not only his name but the discredited strategy of forbearance and compromise. The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – hijacked by greedy suck-worms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose, and the message was never ambiguous.

One of the story lines concerns the fate of a crooked land developer – and it would have been bad enough if he’d been legit – who, for his sins, ends up tied to a poisonwood tree, naked bar a nappy securing to his person a source of further exquisite swollen torture.  I say ends up – that is actually just the beginning of his troubles.

Briefly [Skink] thought of Jackie Sebago, the turd merchant, and wondered if the doctors had kept count of all the sea urchin quills they’d pulled from his necrotic ball sack. The photos must have been glorious, Skink mused. Maybe they’ll show up in a surgical textbook.

This is top-notch writing, a righteous revenge fantasy for us to gloriously share.  I’ll not say anything else about the main story line (“This is the most ridiculous kidnapping in history”) and denouement – the sassy and suss Ann, the wretched ‘star’ Cherry Pie (a BLS brand: ‘Barely Legal Slut’), the poor old paparazzo Bang Abbott (gross indeed, but you feel for him in the end), Cherry’s management teams’ stratagems, and many other seriously funny characters and side stories (like a brief hilarious episode in rehab).

I’ll leave ‘Star Island‘ with Chemo, bodyguard – main task to stop her from partying – to the awful Cherry.  Chemo’s physical details are something else in themselves.  However:

“I’ve been making a list in my head,” Chemo said. […]
“Like, what kinda list?” Cherry asked, and he touched the end of the cattle prod to her bare thigh. She made a noise like a chicken going under the wheels of a truck, and pitched over sideways in the patio chair.
“Every time you say like, I prod your ass,” he explained. “Also on the list: awesome, sweet, sick, totally, and hot. Those are for starters.
She stopped writhing for a minute or so. Her first breathless words were: “What the fuck, dude?”
“That’s another one – dude. Consider yourself warned.”

Don’t you just wish? 

Margaret Atwood‘s ‘The handmaid’s tale‘ (1985)  is a fine, chilling and (maybe) heartening novel.  I read it for the Book Group; some of us liked to think the ending was optimistic.  Classic dystopian/totalitarian moments – I immediately recalled the smell of real coffee from Orwell’s ‘1984’ – handled beautifully, from significant eye contact, little human moments and things, through to the realisationof the existence of a resistance movement, joining and jeopardy.

The setting is one region in North America (Canada – Atwood is Canadian – has escaped the madness, as has the UK).  What has happened is the result of a strange mix of environmental disaster (and consequent falling birth rates), patriarchal Christian fundamentalism and the Andrea Dworkin strand of feminism (remember ‘All men are rapists’?).  It is the handmaids’ role to formally do their appointed duty and procreate with their allotted master, taking no pleasure from the act, in a set of  bizarre rituals coldly and brutally played out.  I was miserable and elated, up and down, gripped, as the tale progressed.

Atwood gives a wry take, too, on ’60s and ’70s excesses in describing how this state of things came to pass.  As well as the formal societal relations of men and women she does not fail to address the personal in recollections of the past.  In the Reading Group someone asked if I – the only male in the group – felt I was under attack in this book.  My response: no, her sympathies are there for us all.

As it happens, apart from Scrabble, the books share another tangential and obscurely personal link – two of my favourite recordings, no less.  ‘A handmaid’s tale‘ is set in the Republic of Gilead; I love Nina Simone singing ‘Balm in Gilead‘, real aural balm from the emotional ‘Baltimore‘ album, the production on which she reportedly denounced – don’t trust her, trust your ears.  Added poignancy to the reading, that beautiful rendering of the tune never far from my mind’s ear every time Gilead is mentioned.  And in ‘Star Island‘, the name Ann DeLusia, once seen: how to keep the beautiful melodic swell of John Cale‘s sublime  ‘Andalucia‘ from his exceptional (and he white-suited on the cover) ‘Paris 1919‘ album out of one’s head, especially as she grows (“scrappy and funny and proud“) and wins Skink’s and Chemo’s (and our) hearts.

Oh yes, and mention of a white suit reminds me.  Carl Hiaasen, a true campaigning heir to the spirit and vernacular genius of Mark Twain.

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