Sunday, July 31, 2016

Bordersnakes - James Crumley

"Well," Milo says, "let's see. Connie's married to a banker with shady connections. Connie's dead, crooked brother-in-law is both a banker and connected to one of the border familias. Maybe Western art and banks are good places to hide drug money...Shit, I don't know.

Warner Books Paperbacks - September 1997
Bordersnakes, by James Crumley, goes so over the top in its violence and vice that it almost turns into a satire of the blood-n-thunder-n-guts romance genre that guys over 50 who dig this sort of stuff really go for. I mean I've read some violent books in my time, but dang! this is one of the most violent. Its heroes, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue do the sort of fightin', fuckin' and drinkin' that would kill an keyboard pussy like myself. And pretty much bury any other Average Joe to boot! As far as plots go, there isn't much of one except for a bunch of drinking, fighting and fucking episodes strung together across an American Southwest roadtrip undertaken in the name of vengeance. That's really all you need to know to get into it. The quote above kind of recaps a bit of it. Mostly the "shit, I don't know" part. Someone stole Milo's inheritance, and someone left Sughrue gut-shot and left to die outside a bordertown tavern. The two detectives stew in their separate misery awhile, then collectively decide to team up and go after the motherfuckers responsible!

Don't get me wrong though. Reading this novel was a joy. I had a week of Arizona roadtrips to do myself, so I threw this book into the backpack for company. It was the right choice to suit my mood. Heads explode, guts explode, coke is snorted, tequila is consumed (by the bucketload!), fists are thrown, chicks are screwed...I mean this is Guy Shit Testosterone stuff with a capital T. There are also some brutal scenes that push the edge of squeamishness. I found myself squirming a few times in discomfort at the bad shit that is done within these pages. It's a grindhouse ride, to be sure, and none of it would work if it wasn't for Crumley's poetic writing style. He carries the novel all the way with a confidence that would crush lesser writers. Little phrases like "smiles as tentative as neon in the sunshine" snap off of just about every page. There have been more than enough comparisons to writers like Raymond Chandler in blurbs for Crumley's novels, but take it from me, James Crumley is one of a kind. I've read about half of his novels now, and I've yet to be disappointed in the kick they provide. There is an initial adjustment that needs to be made in starting one of his books however. Nice opening lines meander into digressions that seem random and pointless, but stick with it. It's worth it. I wouldn't recommend starting his works with this one. Go back to one of his earlier novels that feature Milo or Sughrue alone. Either The Last Good Kiss or The Wrong Case are great for newcomers. If you like those books you'll have a blast with this one.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Death Wish - Brian Garfield

"These young scum grow up in a welfare state where they see that violence goes unpunished and the old virtues are for stupid pious fools. What can we expect of them that's any better than this random vicious despair? These radicals keep arsenals in their attics and advocate the overthrow of an economic system which has graduated more people out of poverty than any other system in history. They arm themselves to attack honest hard-working citizens like you and me, and to shoot down beleaguered policemen, and what happens? The public is propagandized into outrage over the behavior of the police in defending themselves and the public!"

Fawcett Crest Paperback
The white man roars!

Well, it's not that simple. I pulled the passage above from a speech by one of Paul Benjamin's coworkers. It comes about halfway into the novel, after Paul has returned to work for the first time since his wife's brutal murder at the hands of random muggers. At this point in the novel, various versions of this speech have been uttered by a number of characters. They're frightened, angry and holed up in a city that is drowning in crime and chaos.

But are they really?

The interesting thing about this novel is that it's a case of strong suspicion equaling strong evidence. The upper middle class people in Paul Benjamin's circle are, for the most part, right of center on the political spectrum, suspicious of others encroaching into the world they grew up in, convinced that a fine line of defense by the police is all that protects them from the murder and rape that surrounds them. Paul Benjamin was the exception to that philosophy, The ultimate bleeding heart liberal, a friend calls him. Until a random act of violence destroys his family, that is.

Everyone has seen the movie that was based on Garfield's 1972 novel, And by now most everyone has seen the four sequels that have followed it. Those films don't bother much with the tragic psychosis experienced by Paul Benjamin. Instead, they're more feel-good flicks for the armchair streetfighter that percolates inside most of us. They're "movies for guys who like movies" as TNT used to say. The novel doesn't let us off so easily. It doesn't give us the release of getting to share Paul's retribution on the scum that destroyed his family. Instead, it's only in the final 4th of the novel that the first would-be mugger is killed. And just who is that scumbag mugger? Just a petty junkie living on the fringes in the park, as scared as the citizens he prays upon.

And more murders follow. More of life's losers that opt for the easiest opportunity to take a few dollars, or to hock a stolen TV, or to joyride in a stolen car.

There is an ugly current voiced in the novel that hasn't ever gone away. Over four decades later it's still fueling hatred inside of us. Here in Arizona we're subjected to a celebrity sheriff that has made a career of persecuting and accusing others not "like us" for the crime in our state. Arizona also boasts a semi-literate former governor (who now has designs on becoming VP of the U.S.!) who stated that our deserts were full of headless bodies. We have a community of angry retirees that would happily wall their town off to separate themselves from the "illegals" and welfare slobs who come here to either steal jobs or live off the system, it's never clear which. They've convinced themselves that they're the only generation that worked for what they have. We have a would-be political party who believes in shooting first and aiming later. We have people running for president who stoke fear in society, appealing to the worst of us for their own gain. The strongest lobby in Washington keeps banging a drum that things would be better if everybody was armed.

This book and movie tapped a nerve that's not pretty.

For more on this, check out the excellent review by Cullen Gallagher over at Pulp Serenade.

Dang! Aren't books supposed to be an escape?