Book Review of The Barkeep by William Lashner

Justin Chase is an ex-law student turned traveling bartender who follows the teachings of The Tibetan Book of the Dead to numb the pain of his mother’s murder, the murder that Justin’s father is now rotting away in prison for. One night while tending bar, Chase makes the acquaintance of Birdie Grackle, an alcoholic hit man who claims to have killed Chase’s mother. For a price, Birdie is willing to tell Chase who hired Birdie to kill Chase’s mother. Instead of paying the hit man for the information, Chase begins investigating his mother’s murder, and aside from crossing paths with some well-drawn characters–a beautiful but self-loathing mistress, an aging detective obsessed with doing jumbles, and a borderline-retarded yet effective killer–Chase makes some shocking discoveries about the case, and his father.

This is a page-turner, but what I really enjoyed was the characterization and the shifting narration. Every character has a clear voice and is uniquely flawed, which made them all compelling. Too, the dialogue, particularly the scenes at the bar with Justin and his regulars is fantastic. There is something very cinematic about Lashner’s writing, but it is also literary as well. I really enjoyed this one, and I will definitely pick up another of his novels.

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MacGuffin Revisited

Far be it from me to disagree with Alfred Hitchcock, but I believe the concept of the MacGuffin has evolved sense he first popularized the term with his 1935 film The 39 Steps. Below is a brief definition of the term from the excellent literary magazine The MacGuffin, which is published out of Schoolcraft College:

The moving force (and sometimes the solution) of a work of mystery fiction is referred to as a MacGuffin. . . Alfred Hitchcock used the term and said, “No film is complete without a MacGuffin because that’s what everybody is after.” . . .in short, the MacGuffin is any device or gimmick that gets a plot rolling. The MacGuffin itself has little, if any, fundamental importance, and, according to Hitchcock, is nothing in and of itself.

Now, I am a fan of Hitchcock’s films, especially Rear Window and Psycho.  AIthough I cannot be sure what precisely he means by “fundamental importance,”I interpret it this way: the MacGuffin is purely a way to kick start a story’s plot, and it has no real significance beyond that. Working from that interpretation, I must offer an alternative thesis on the subject: in films and books, the MacGuffin does much more than just get the plot moving. When used by skilled artists (including Hitchcock himself), the MacGuffin has both symbolic and thematic significance.

malteseTake mystery novels, for example.  More specifically, let’s examine The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett for a moment.  The valuable black bird figurine–a.k.a. the maltese falcon–does exhilarate the narrative, but it also becomes a symbol for greed (the figurine is worth a bundle) and trickery (the figurine turns out to be a fake); it becomes a tangible representation of human weakness. To take the idea a bit further, the maltese falcon also not only propels the plot forward, but it helps develop layer upon layer of characterization in the novel. In this sense, the figurine reveals (or helps to reveal) the uglier sides of basically every character in the narrative, sides which would have remained hidden without the introduction of the maltese falcon (the MacGuffin).

dude How about an example from the movies? The Big Lebowski, a personal favorite, has arguably two MacGuffins: the alleged kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski and/or the theft of The Dude’s favorite rug. But let’s discuss the rug as it is the more interesting MacGuffin of the two. When The Dude is employed to give the money to the kidnappers and get Bunny back, he isn’t so much motivated by the fee he will receive; he is more interested in recovering his beloved rug, the one that “really tied the room together.” Because the rug belongs to The Dude, who has precious little interest in material possessions, it takes on an added layer of meaning when he is willing to risk life and limb to recover it, and he does so in such a humorous and imminently watchable manner. Go a step further: I would argue that the rug has a metaphorical significance as well, for The Dude’s life before his rug is taken is tranquil; after the rug is “swept out from under him” so to speak, his life is chaotic and, in many ways, not nearly as happy.

hitchcockBottom line, I think Hitchcock’s definition of the MacGuffin is limited. In many ways, the MacGuffin contributes to a more deeply satisfying narrative in both film and books. I recently turned in my second Eli Sharpe novel to my publisher, and the MacGuffin in that one is a valuable baseball, which has been stolen. I intentionally tried to make the stolen baseball mean something different to every character in the novel, and, in a way, the baseball becomes a character in and of itself. Hitchcock did this also, made MacGuffins more than just plot devices. What’s more, I suspect he did it deliberately. How else would he have become such a master of suspense?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eli Sharpe: Enter the Mind of my Fictional Private Detective

Question: Why is Eli Sharpe, the PI featured in my debut novel Go Go Gato, fascinated by and/or obsessed with Richard Nixon, seersucker jackets, baseball, psychology, detective novels, George Dickel whiskey, guns, the Rolling Stones, his complicated relationship with his father, and lie detection?

Answer: Because I am fascinated by and/or obsessed with those things. I write for two main reasons. First reason: I love to read, and by writing, I can write the kind of stories I prefer to read, which, primarily, are detective stories. Second reason: wish fulfillment. I’m never going to be involved in a shootout or fistfight.  I’m never going to track down a missing person or say witty, off-the-cuff remarks to a femme fatale.  I’m never going to interrogate a suspect, or go on a high speed chase, or a stakeout.  I’m never going to break into a car or house, or any of the other incredibly cool stuff that happens in detective stories. I can, however, write about those things. What I can do is create a fictional world based on my own experiences and tastes, construct an interesting cast of characters to inhabit this world, and then–this is the fun part!–I can shove these characters into a dicey situation…just so I can watch what happens. The truth? The characters I create are the adult versions of imaginary friends; they’re who I “hang out” with instead of going golfing with buddies or drinking with colleagues.  And best of all? They don’t talk at me; they talk for me.  (Pretty sure Stevie Ray Vaughn said something similar about his guitar.)

Bottom line, Eli Sharpe is an amalgamation, a Frankenstein I cobbled together out of spare parts just lying around the junkyard in my brain.  From television, I constructed my detective from Atlanta Braves games circa mid-1980s, reruns of the Rockford Files,the first season of The Wire, and the Fletch movies.  From hard-boiled PI books, I borrowed elements from Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, C.W. Sughrue, Archy McNally, and dozens of other fictional detectives. From my own life, I drew on half-remembered conversations between my father and me, fragmented images from my time in Asheville, and god-only-knows what else. But, in the end, Go Go Gato is the kind of story I would like to read, and Eli Sharpe is the type of detective that I, as a reader, would become obsessed with. Hopefully, other readers will share my obsession.  rockford_files__120417170500

 

 

 

 

 

Eat More Vienna Sausage, Listen to More Phish: Why Writers Should Go Back to Their Childhoods

Proust had his madeleines, but when I want to remember something from my childhood, I reach for a tin of Armour’s Vienna sausages. There is something about the taste of mechanically separated chicken, pork, salt, corn syrup and hydrolyzed soy that floods my brain with images from my misspent youth. . .me in my Little League uniform, looking out the bay window in my parent’s house, cursing the storm clouds on the horizon, knowing that the game would be canceled. I’d stomp my cleats on the wood floors and call Mother Nature horrible names and slam my head against the wood paneling in the living room until the anger subsided. (What can I say? I was an angry child, and I loved baseball.)

Now when I want to remember something from my so-called adolescent years, I queue up Phish on Spotify, and suddenly, I have bleached blonde hair and a face full of acne and a chip on both shoulders.  Suddenly, once again, I have a head full of dreams of becoming a granola-chewing, psychedelic-drug-taking guitar god a la Trey Anastasio, or Jerry Garcia before him. The songs–“Bouncing Around the Room”; “You Enjoy Myself”; or “Sample in a Jar” for any fans of the band–transport me back to how I felt dancing (horribly!) at their shows, how I felt driving around and around listening to live shows on my cassette deck and wondering if I could one day create music that made people feel the way I felt at that moment. The music was an escape from the (then) purposelessness of my existence. . .

Which brings me to my point: I love to write, to turn pain or pleasure into stories, and sometimes I need a tangible trigger to get me reacquainted with certain emotions from my past. Otherwise, how could I write convincingly about anything? I suggest that writers who might be stuck with a piece of writing try going back to their childhood and rediscovering a favorite food or favorite band.  Or, you could go the other way and revisit the sight of an embarrassing moment, the location of a cringe-worthy failure. (Believe me, I have enough of both of those to last three lifetimes).  In my opinion, writers need to be jarred out of their comfort zone from time to time, and what better way to do that than by eating over-processed foods that will cause hypertension and strokes, and listening to Hippie music with nonsensical lyrics and never-ending jam sessions.

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Creative Writing Exercise

So I’m teaching a creative writing class this semester, and one of my students, who is only twenty and already a talented writer, asked me two very astute questions about character development.  I recorded them here as well as my answers.

Question #1: I have an idea for a character, but he’s based on someone I actually know. What should I do?

Answer: Two things. One, write a brief character sketch that focuses on the physical attributes of the character. I find it is easiest to get to know a character from the outside in, not the other way around. Feel free to make up some details about this person; just remember to change the name to protect the unsuspecting. Here is a sample character sketch that I wrote for my student:

Coach David Lash was a short, stocky black man in his mid-seventies. Crowned the first ever African-American North Carolina State Tennis Champion in 1962, he wore a burgundy track suit, a black fishermen’s cap and black horn-rimmed glasses every day of his life.  His lower lip stuck out constantly, whether he was angry, which was rare, or happy, which was often.  During our tennis practices, he used to walk (actually, he hobbled as if one leg were slightly shorter than the other) onto the court in the middle of a point to give instruction, sometimes tennis instruction but more often it was life instruction. When he did this, his wife, a woman with iron-gray hair and perfect dentures, would yell at him to stop fussing, but he would stick his lip out farther and grab my racket and show me, for the one-hundredth time, the correct form for a crosscourt backhand.  As he repeated the proper backhand technique, racket back, shoulder turn, swing low to high, finish behind the ear, he would explain that if one refused to strive for perfection and grace on the tennis court, one would surely turn to drugs, meaningless sex, and petty crime. Up close, I could see Coach Lash’s mottled skin and dark bloodshot eyes. Up close, I could smell him: a mixture of Vasoline and stale coffee and some other scent I couldn’t place at the time, what with me being an upper-middle-class white teenager with my very own bedroom, car and ample allowance.  But later, after my acne faded and my voice changed and the world kicked me in the gut a few too many times, I came to realize that Coach David Lash, whose grandparents were freed slaves from Kentucky, had the smell of experience on him, experience and lessons harshly but wisely learned.

Two, answer all the questions in a character questionnaire. This will allow you to get to know the character’s quirks, habits, tastes, and, most importantly, his motivations.  Here’s a questionnaire that looks pretty good: http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/106

Question #2: When writing a novel, should you load the opening chapter with the protagonist’s back story, or dole it out little by little throughout the narrative?

Answer: Dole it out little by little. Try to reveal character back story through bits of dialogue, or very brief flashbacks. Avoid long flashbacks and long monologues as these clog up the narrative, slow down the pace, and pull the reader out the story. But hey, don’t take my word for it: read what the late-great Elmore Leonard had to say about prologues and back story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html

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Book Review of The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

After twenty years together, Jodi and Todd have come to a bad place in their relationship. Todd, a successful real estate investor and serial cheater, has impregnated his oldest friend’s daughter, Natasha, who is twenty-five years his junior. But unlike his other dalliances, Todd is in love with and wants to marry Natasha; he wants (or thinks he wants) to start a family. Meanwhile Jodi, a part-time therapist, is kicking herself for never agreeing to marry Todd, something he proposed many times over their more than two decades together. In the eyes of the law, Jodi has no legal rights to anything, like, for instance, the couple’s expensive condo in downtown Chicago, or Todd’s sizable real estate holdings. After much reflection, Jodi realizes that everything she did for Todd–the cooking and cleaning, the emotional support, the looking the other way on his trysts–mean nothing to him, and she must do something about it. The whole sordid affair comes to a head when Todd serves Jodi with eviction papers, and from there, his violent demise is imminent, and, at least in this reader’s mind, somewhat justified.

Regarding the question of “Will Todd be murdered?,” there is no suspense. You learn practically in the first ten pages that he will meet a violent end. And yet, this an incredibly suspenseful novel, well-paced and gorgeously-written. The chapters alternate between Jodi’s voice and Todd’s and are each labeled HIM and HER. How the author completely inhabited the minds and bodies and souls of both Todd and Jodi is a marvel and was a true pleasure to read, but even more impressive is how she managed to make Todd hate-able and likeable at the same time, how she portrayed Jodi as both victim and perpetrator.  The author’s prose, the way she develops character deliberately, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter reminds me of the writing of Henry James and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen.  There were passages in this novel that were so lovely, so true, and so unflinchingly honest they demanded to be read aloud.

Bottom line, while this isn’t a mystery in the Whodunnit sense of the word, it is by far the best novel I’ve read in the last six months. The character development, the pacing, the prose, and yes, even the plot manages to, in the end, surprise the reader. I’ve read reviews of this book that compare it to Gillian Flynn’s work, particularly Gone Girl, and I can certainly see the similarities.  However, I do think The Silent Wife has one major difference: Gillian Flynn’s books are really, really good, and Harrison’s novel is great. Tragically, Harrison died recently of cancer, and I can’t help but feel a sting of selfish anger, for there will be no more books from this fantastic author.

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Salinger Documentary

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Salinger, a documentary currently on Netflix streaming, upset me so much, and I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, it made me incredibly sad to learn the famous recluse built a brick building about two hundred yards from his house in New Hampshire, and he’d hole up there for days, sometimes weeks at a stretch, and just write, ignoring his family. I imagine his son and daughter looking out their bedroom windows and being able to see their father, but they couldn’t go talk to him; they couldn’t go visit with him unless they wanted to provoke his ire. Ditto Salinger’s wife. Now, on the one hand, I found myself envious of the man’s dedication, not to mention of the amount of free time he had to write and think and read. On the other hand, it sickened me to learn he (almost) completely ignored his family in order to write. Although I do live in my head, I still need connections with people, especially the two most important people in my life: Harry, my son, and Libby, my wife. Not only have those two made me a better person, they have also made me a better writer because I have experienced love through them. For that, I am lucky. Perhaps Salinger wasn’t so lucky.

Another thing that upset me was the man’s peculiar (I’m being kind) interest in young women and girls. Putting aside for the moment the unspeakably horrible things he witnessed during WWII, Salinger maintained a lifelong fetish for females who were not quite women but not quite girls anymore either. The film made it seem as if he wanted to live vicariously through these girls while also instructing them on how to live. This type of narcissism and self-righteousness can be found in Salinger’s later works, and yes, it is definitely present in Catcher in the Rye. 

I suppose what struck me the most about this documentary was that I, unfortunately, identified with Salinger. That instinct to hide from the world and indulge in writing and movies and books and daydreams and forget everything else is very real to me. At thirty-four years of age, I still haven’t shaken the romantic notion of the artist recluse, and it is a fantasy that I indulge in weekly, sometimes daily if I am particularly depressed or anxious. I, like Salinger, have impossibly high standards for myself and the world, and it truly bums me out when I don’t meet them; when the world–that beautifully-flawed orb I often times curse one second and marvel at the next–disappoints me, I want to escape, I want to retreat back to my favorite books and movies and TV shows and poems where there are fleeting moments of perfection, where the artist revealed something indelible about the human experience, and, not to sound adolescent, but you’re just not quite the same afterwards. Whatever else Salinger was or did or thought, he was also a guy who wrote Catcher in the Rye, a book that has more than its fair share of perfect moments. That book inspired me at a particular time in my life, made me comprehend certain things about the adult world and about myself.  But if you ask me if those perfect moments in that one book–a book I now have little patience or use for–excuse all his other transgressions, the answer is a resounding NO.. .

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http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1596753/