One Night Rebellion

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with America.  I find some of its politics frightening and bordering on the absurd, but as a cultural influence, its had an enormous impact. Most of my favourite movies are American.  Bands, too. And when it comes to writers, I’d say the vast majority of those I can’t live without are from the States.

It was probably crime fiction that got me into the American writers. Starting with Chandler (technically a Brit but who’s counting), Hammett, James M. Cain, through to Ross Macdonald, John D. Macdonald, James Crumley, and up to the present day greats like Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. It’s difficult to band this disparate group together, but I’d say they write with a dark, existential hardness that is unique to the American psyche. I’ve thought a lot about how to define this, and I think it partly comes from the vastness of the landscape and the themes of alienation, loneliness and desperation that can come from living an isolated life in the often forgotten heart of the American continent.

The images of the American interior, tumbleweed and hot desert air, run-down shacks and ramshackle bars, and the people who live in these places, hard-working but falling through the cracks, holding on to the remnants of the frontier spirit. This is what fascinates me.  I’ve read it in countless books set in opposite ends of the country, from Don Carpenter to the brilliant books of the underclass by Willy Vlautin. And it’s tradition is firmly set in American history, going back to Huckleberry Finn, the whole western genre, Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry, the Beat Generation of Kerouac and Ginsberg and reaching a nadir in the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S.Thompson. I’ve been enthralled and intimidated by these authors, and have always wanted to try and make an attempt to offer a take on the downside of the American dream.  The short story that follows is that effort.

The final push I needed to write this piece came from reading Norman Mailer’s brilliant The Executioner’s Song, one of my books of 2017. The book is based on the gruesome life and death of murderer Gary Gilmore, but at its heart it is an exploration of a man unable to live outside of prison, a highly disturbed, forgotten individual in a Utah town who turns to murder almost out of boredom. The backdrop of small-town America is brilliantly sketched by Mailer and the book discusses through the life of Gilmore some of the themes I’ve tried to sketch out above. The isolating, unstable figure of Gilmore seemed to encapsulate the negatives of rural American towns and set off a ton of thoughts in my head, trying to figure out how I could say something about this subject, one that I had wanted to for a long time.

As tends to happen with me, a couple of songs helped to crystallise these thoughts into something more tangible. I am a sucker for more modern country music, the Americana stuff of the Southern and Midwestern states, and loneliness, grief and pain are pretty much the default themes.  All of which helped me to find the tone and atmosphere I was searching for. I allowed the story to bubble and boil up in my imagination whilst working on my latest novel, and once that behemoth of a first draft was complete, this story came rushing out and was completed in less than a week.

So, here it is. It’s called ‘One Night Rebellion.’ Hope you enjoy it, and as always, any comments are most welcome. As an aside, I have entered this story in Booksie’s online short story competition for 2017/18. One of the finalists is chosen partly based on the number of reads their story chalks up, so if you fancy reading it on Booksie and helping my cause, I’d be grateful. Thanks. Otherwise, read on…

 

ONE NIGHT REBELLION

I clocked off and stepped into the entrails of the evening, following a steady trail of my co-workers as they streamed out to their cars. There were few conversations. Everyone had a purpose, places to be.

As cars started to pile out of the lot, I took a slow step forward and meandered towards my truck. There weren’t many cars left now. Beyond the lot, the red and green glare of the adjacent service station shone like a Christmas tree. The sky was a beautiful salmon pink colour, one of those long sunsets that made you feel small and ineffectual. Although the lot was virtually deserted, less than a mile away traffic sped up and down the interstate, a constant rush, day in, day out. Everyone was in an awful hurry.

I patted my shirt pocket for my cigarettes, then remembered I had chain smoked the last two at break. I was getting into the habit of doing that. Cursing, I vowed to pick some up on the drive home. Maybe get a six-pack, too. A cold beer to finish up the day. That sounded good.

The vehicle next to mine was also a pick-up. It was in a much worse state. I could see rust flaking off the undercarriage. There were dents all over the bodywork and the tyres didn’t look in great shape. A man was leaning against the truck smoking a cigarette. As I got closer he came up off the car and spoke to me.

‘You’re Gus, right?’ he said. He blew out a long stream of smoke. He had a large gap in his face where his middle teeth should have been. The teeth that remained were yellow, turning to brown in patches.

I shrugged. ‘Yeah. That’s me.’

The man nodded, then shook out a cigarette and offered it to me. I took it and bent forward to accept his light. There was a powerful odour coming off him, more than the sweat of a hard day’s graft. It made me want to throw up.

‘Heard a lot about you.’

I couldn’t think what. I didn’t even know where he’d seen me before. Must have been a new employee. The turnover was huge at that place. But I wasn’t a high flyer. There was no reason he should have picked me out. I forced a smile. ‘That’s nice.’

He returned the favour, showing more of those horrible teeth. ‘Hey listen, you want to grab a beer?’ He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. ‘We can go in my car, if you want. She’s not much but she knows how to run.’

I didn’t think about it much. ‘OK, sure.’

He flicked the cigarette butt to the floor and ground it under his foot. ‘Gotta make a quick stop at mine first. You cool with that?’

‘Sure.’

He walked to the other side of the truck. I looked over my shoulder at my car. Fuck it. Would still be there in the morning. And sure as night followed day, I would be there too.

‘Good man,’ he was saying. He smiled over the top of the truck at me. ‘My name’s Corey,’ by the way. Pleasure.’

‘Likewise,’ I said, and got into the truck.

‘So, how long have you been working at that place?’ Corey asked. He lit another cigarette. I wasn’t offered one this time.

I shrugged. ‘Long enough.’ Truth of it, I was struggling to remember. I had only planned on it being a short-term thing, whilst I looked for something better. The days had kind of melted into one from then on. It was years, I knew that much. And since Charlene had given up work, there wasn’t any chance of a way out.

Charlene. ‘Hey, I’ve got to make a phone call, OK?’

Corey nodded. He cracked the window and a hot blast of air buffeted my face. We were heading away from the interstate, into the desert. towards the foothills. I flipped open my cell and stared at the screen. Battery running low. I scrolled to Charlene’s name. My fingers hovered over the call button. I stared at the mountains hovering in the distance. Then made the call.

It rang for an age. As I was about to hang up, she answered. ‘Hello?’ As if she didn’t know who it was.

‘Hi. It’s me.’

She didn’t respond. I just listened to her breathing, slow and ragged. She’d probably fallen asleep in front of the TV again, plate of cookies resting on her belly.

‘I’m going to be late,’ I said. ‘A couple of the night shift failed to show, so they asked if I’d stay on. I’ll be home soon, I’m sure.’

‘Fine,’ she replied. I started to respond, but she was already gone. Corey was staring at me as I placed the cell back in my pocket.

‘Nicely done,’ he said, and grinned. Like we were kindred spirits. I wanted to wring his scrawny little neck. Instead he leaned forward and switched on the radio. An old, miserable country song was playing. But at least I didn’t have to talk. I turned to the window and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains, the road turning from tarmac to dirt track, wondering where the hell we were fucking going.

After ten minutes of driving we came upon a small adobe building set back from the road. There was no driveway to speak of, just a more worn patch of dirt that we pulled into. A child’s tricycle lay overturned in front of the porch, its red wheels spinning in the wind. I got out and wished I had a cap with me. The heat was dry and stifling, even at dusk. Corey walked to the porch, opened the screen door and went inside without inviting me in. He disappeared into the back of the house as I stepped through into a long corridor, rooms branching off left and right. I could hear voices in the nearest room to the left, so went in there.

It was only the TV, turned up far too loud. A woman lay on the couch, taking turns flipping through a magazine and looking up at the screen. An ashtray by her elbow was full of roach butts, and she had one on the go. The room reeked of marijuana smoke. I coughed politely.

‘Hi,’ I said.

She raised a hand, then went back to her magazine, blinking with bloodshot eyes as she turned the pages. Jeopardy was on TV, but she wasn’t paying any attention to the questions. I had a feeling she might struggle to find the answers. I heard a yell and looked beyond the room to see two small boys in the back yard. One of them had a model aeroplane and was running around the tiny garden with it. His brother was jumping for the plane, trying to get his turn, and failing. He yelled, loud enough to be heard through the glass of the back door. The boy with the plane laughed and pushed him away. He sat down on the grass and began to cry. I turned my attention back to his mother. She was oblivious.

Corey came back in. He’d changed into a fresh shirt but hadn’t managed to rid himself of that stink. He carried a six-pack of Schlitz under one arm. ‘Shall we?’ he said, and we left the room and headed back to the truck.

We drove away, Corey spinning the tyres, shrouding the house in a cloud of dust. He laughed and popped the tab on a beer, taking two long swallows, then threw me the six pack. I took a can and did the same, feeling the cold beer hit my throat. I already felt settled, relaxed. Corey was drinking like a fish, the first can already gone and out the window of the truck. I drained mine shortly after. He handed me another and I opened it and placed the can between my legs. I hadn’t done that for years. I had a flash of a memory, Charlene and I headed to the drive-thru when we first started dating. Planning to watch a movie but getting too distracted by each other. Getting a buzz on from slow beers, when we had the invincibility of youth and whole world stretched out ahead of us like a delicious promise. It made me crestfallen, to think of it. And how different it was now. How much I dreaded going home. I took a long drink, trying to drown the memories in booze. Dusk had fallen and the lights of the truck bobbed and weaved as we headed back to the highway.

‘Hey,’ Corey said. He lit a cigarette. Without asking, I took one when he replaced the pack on the dashboard. He frowned at me. ‘Gus. You have anything against tits?’

‘Excuse me?’

He grinned. ‘You know, tits.’ He took both hands of the wheel and made that awful grabbing gesture. ‘You into ’em or what?’

I looked at him, face in shadow in the gathering dark. ‘Sure,’ I said. As far as I could remember. ‘Who isn’t?’

Corey smiled, the cigarette glowing red as he inhaled. ‘Exactly, my man.’ We went past a sign for the interstate, one mile away. ‘That’s what I figured.’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Why do you think?’ He shook his head as we approached the turn-off. ‘What else is there to do in this town?’

I didn’t have an answer to that.

We took the first exit off the interstate. Corey took a few turns as we headed deeper into the rougher end of town. I just had time to finish my beer before we pulled into the sparsely lit car park of the Chameleon Club. From somewhere near the entrance I heard the sound of breaking glass, and beyond that, the low thumping bass of music. An empty takeway carton blew in front of me as we got out of the car and headed for the club. The neon chameleon sign had the reptile outlined in garish green, with its flicking tongue blood red. A big guy in an ill-fitting suit and white shirt stepped out to greet us.

‘Corey,’ the doorman said. ‘Must be Friday, seeing as you’re here.’ His massive frame dwarfed Corey, who was grinning up at him.

‘I like to be regular,’ Corey replied.

‘Brought a friend along,’ the bouncer said, holding the door open for us. The noise level went up a notch. That’s new.’

‘Gotta keep you guys in business somehow.’

The doorman looked me up and down. ‘Well, you know the drill. Keep your hands to yourself, don’t have too much to drink, and we’ll get along fine. You got that?’

I nodded. ‘Yessir.’

‘You know me,’ Corey said, laughing nervously. ‘Always on my best behaviour.’

‘OK,’ the doorman said, turning away. ‘Enjoy your evening.’

We made our way inside. The noise was deafening. Corey went directly to the bar, which ran in a C shape to the right of the club. In back, under a blue glitterball, a girl went through the motions of dancing, clutching the pole and throwing her head back as men grouped around tables looked on with gaping eyes. To the left of the stage was a velvet red curtain which presumably led to the private area. As I took stock the curtains parted and a woman wearing not very much escorted a man back to the bar. Up close I could see she was barely out of her teens. She whispered something to a barman and a glass of clear liquid appeared in front of her. She drank it in one swallow and before she had time to turn round a man had settled in beside her. After a few seconds of conversation they disappeared behind the curtain. On stage, the girl had finished her performance and there was cursory applause as she exited the stage. The glitterball continued to spin forlornly. I felt a twist in my gut and closed my eyes. I opened them to find Corey gesturing at me from the bar.

‘This place is great, isn’t it?’ he said, sliding a bottle of Bud down the bar to me. I took a sip. There was an accompanying shot of whisky with fingerprints on the glass. Corey held his up in a toast and we drank. I shuddered getting it down. The knot in my stomach ratcheted tighter.

‘And the women!’ Corey said, ogling a blonde as she worked a table close by. ‘More tail than you could shake a stick at.’ He showed me the hole in his face again. ‘So, you wanna get a little private action?’

I was about to shake my head when the blonde poked her face in. She was wearing enormous heels and a short dress that left nothing to the imagination. She was even younger. The thought of her dancing for a leering idiot like Corey sent bile to my throat.

‘Either of you fine young men interested in a little dance?’ she drawled. Her accent was fake and embarrassing.

‘I could be tempted, sugar lips,’ Corey said. ‘You gonna make it worth my while?’

She did an exaggarated twirl. Her dress was so short I noticed a vaccination scar on her inner thigh. Corey was eyeing her small breasts. ‘You like what you see?’ she said.

Corey reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of notes. ‘You betcha, darling. How about it?’

She smiled and took his hand. ‘You’re my type of guy,’ she said, and led him away. He grinned as he brushed past me. I turned back to the bar and stared straight ahead, waiting for the disgust and self-loathing to subside. When it didn’t, I picked up my Bud and drained it in one. Corey had left his drinks behind, so I had them too. Then I turned and walked out.

The alcohol had gone straight to my head. But I needed more. Enough to forget. There was a liquor store on the next corner, where I bought a fifth of Four Roses. Outside, I unscrewed the cap and drank until I started to cough. I stumbled crossing the street, but kept going, and kept drinking. The bottle was half empty went I careered into a shop doorway and stood, trying to catch my breath. I took out my phone and stared at the lit up screen. Battery at 12%. Still enough life to call Charlene. But I knew I couldn’t.

I managed to walk another block before it all hit me at once and I slumped down in an alleyway next to the bank. The world was starting to spin, big time. Perhaps lying flat would make it stop. I did and it had no effect. I looked up at the stars, willing it to go away, thinking that there had to be more than this, that this couldn’t be all that life had to offer. I imagined Charlene asleep, a wide space in the bed where I was supposed to be. A woman whose bed I shared but whose life I no longer did.

I shuffled onto my side and vomited, a steady stream that was all liquid and singed my throat. I watched it trickle into a storm drain. Then I passed out.

I woke up with an axe splitting my forehead. The sunlight hurt my eyes as I checked my watch and groaned. Only an hour until the next shift started. I inspected myself and found that miraculously I hadn’t benn sick on my clothes. Standing up took guts. It took everything I had. I wished for a pair of sunglasses to shield my eyes from the penetrating sun. My mouth was dry, my body crying out to be rehydrated. Sharp pain hit my kidneys with every breath. Putting one foot in front of the other was difficult, but I made it to the mouth of the alleyway. Somehow, I was only a ten minute walk from work. Wherever I went I felt its pull, a job that meant nothing yet took forty hours a week from my life. Nuts for Donuts was en-route. I had time. I stepped into the day and got out of there.

‘Jesus, Gus,’ Brenda said when I reached the counter. ‘Rough night?’

I just nodded. I didn’t feel up to conversation.

‘What can I get you? You could do with an aspirin, if you ask me.’ She tittered and tapped her pencil on the pad in front of her.

‘Coffee. Black. That’s all. I’m going to use the bathroom, OK?’

Brenda frowned. ‘Sure, Gus. I’ll bring it to your usual booth.’

In the bathroom I took a leak, then drank long and hard from the cold tap. I splashed my face and inspected it in the mirror above the sink. Dark lines around my eyes. Little scratches on my forehead from sleeping on the rough ground. Angry purple veins prominent across the bridge of my nose. A middle aged man, drunk in a cheap bathroom. For an act of rebellion, it didn’t seem like much. Felt like a drag, to be truthful. A weight around my neck that wasn’t heavy enough to pull me down, but was always present. And had been for a long time.

Brenda shoved the coffee in front of me as I sat down. ‘Sure I can’t get you anything else?’

I nodded. I was incapable of food at this juncture.

‘All right, then.’ She hovered by the table. ‘Charlene was in here yesterday morning. How’s she doin’?

‘She’s fine,’ I said. I could tell Brenda was keen to say something more, but a sharp glare put paid to that. She forced a smile and left me to it. The coffee was hot and strong, burning my insides as I drank it down. I finished the cup and left a couple of bills under the saucer. I didn’t leave a tip. It was even hotter outside. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day. I staggered the last few blocks to work and punched in two minutes before my shift was due to start. Almost like clockwork.

The truck was where I’d left it when I clocked off. As it should be. The shift had passed without incident. I got some strange looks and was avoided by just about everyone. Which made it a normal day. I didn’t see Corey. He’d probably called in sick. Whatever. I didn’t want to be around him, anyway. I got in the truck and crawled home as slow as I could, the hangover fully kicked in now, and it was punishing. Sweat poured down my forehead as I finally pulled in at home and parked up. I sat in the truck and smoked a cigarette. There wouldn’t be any row. That would mean she cared. More likely silence, or worse still, pretending it had never happened. I smoked the butt all the way down to the nub, then went inside.

She wasn’t in the lounge or kitchen. Dirty dishes were piled up in the sink. I found a beer in the fridge and twisted off the cap. Took a swallow and grimaced. Then slowly climbed the stairs.

Charlene was in bed, facing away from me as I sat down and placed a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t turn around or do anything. I whispered her name. Still nothing. I looked over and saw that her eyes were closed. I didn’t think she was asleep. I said her name louder, and again there was no reaction. So I gave up. As I stood up a tear escaped from beneath her eyelids. Or maybe it was a trick of the light. I killed the lights and went back downstairs.

I took the beer out to the porch. The view was spectacular of the desert plain and the grand swirl of the mountains. We had fallen in love with it on our first viewing of the house, just after we were married. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d enjoyed it together.

I thought back over the night’s events, thinking of that girl bathed in blue, dancing with the world’s weight on her young shoulders, already wondering where it had all gone wrong, how her life had been snatched away before it had even started. And it brought back another memory, one I’d long forgotten. Charlene and I, in the early months as a married couple, in the honeymoon period. Driving back from a weekend in Austin. Somewhere just before the Texas border, she spotted a bar doing karaoke. She urged me to pull over.

‘Sounds like fun, huh?’ she said. Late afternoon sun flashed through her sunglasses, her teeth bright white as she smiled. ‘Whaddya think?’

‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘If you want to.’ I never said no to her, back then. It was a time when I would have done anything.

She clapped her palms together, then leant across and kissed me. ‘Let’s do it, then.’

The air-conditioning in the bar was a godsend. We ordered beers as Charlene flipped through the songbook. ‘Here’s a good one,’ she said.

‘I don’t think you’ll have much time to wait,’ I said. It was still early, and the bar was deserted.

‘Well, wish me luck.’

‘Knock em’ dead,’ I said, and moved to a nearby table, clambering onto a stool. For an empty bar, the stage was big and imposing. Charlene grabbed a microphone, and as the lyrics began to scroll across the screen, started to sing.

It doesn’t matter what the song was. It’s a personal thing I’d like to keep to myself. But she was amazing. For its duration I stared at her, transfixed. She kept her eyes on me too, smiling, making me feel like the luckiest man this side of the Gulf of Mexico. How she revelled in the spotlight. When the song ended, rapturous applause broke out. I turned and saw to my astonishment that the bar had filled up whilst she sang, and they were on their feet. I put my fingers to my mouth and whistled. Charlene did a theatrical curtsey and laughed, and all eyes were on her as she jumped off the stage and strode to my side. I put an arm around her and she kissed me, her eyes shining bright. She pulled back and held her hands either side of my face.

‘You and me,’ she said. ‘Always you and me.’

And we smiled and laughed and held each other tight as the applause thundered in our ears.

 

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2017: The Reading Year

After my attempt in 2016 to read a century of books, I decided this year to reduce the target to a more manageable 80. Still over a book a week, but with a little more breathing space to wade into some longer books. And I failed, coming in at 71 for the year.  Not sure how this happened really – I had a couple of unintentional breaks during the year when I got a bit burnt out, but I finished the year strongly and have regained that enthusiasm for reading again. Still, it’s a decent enough haul. So, without further ado, here’s the Top 10 books I read in 2017…

Norman Mailer – The Executioner’s Song.  An extraordinary, 1000 page ‘non-fiction’ novel (as Truman Capote put it) detailing the crimes and execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah in the 1970s. Mailer gets into the skin of Gilmore, and the detailing of the loneliness and desolation of small-town America surely makes this a Great American Novel.  He writes such compact, brutal, yet beautiful prose that takes your breath away.

William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury.  I’ve tried to read more classics this year and this is the best of those. The stream of consciousness prose will not be for same but I found this novel amazingly powerful and very brave in its subject matter for a book written in the 1930s. Worth persevering with.

Patrick Dewitt – Undermajordomo Minor. Sisters Brothers is one of my all-time favourite novels and this follow up is also exceptional. It has that strange, hypnotic fantastical element that marks a Dewitt novel, plus the brilliant, sometimes hilarious, other times poignant prose that is his trademark.  Just a superb writer who always does something unusual and captivating with every new work.

Herman Koch – Summer House with Swimming Pool.  I got into Herman Koch through his brilliant novel The Dinner. He has a great knack of making controversial, almost repulsive characters both believable and compelling. This book is perfectly paced and keeps the tension at fever pitch throughout. A sense of dread runs through his novels which is unsettling but brilliantly addictive and this novel is no exception.

Daphne Du Maurier – Rebecca. Another classic to tick off the list and one that lived up to all the positive reviews I’d seen and read beforehand. A masterpiece of Gothic literature with all elements expertly woven – mystery, drama, psychological suspense, and some knockout twists and turns.  A stunner.

John Williams – Stoner. This book’s pitch is that it is a novel about nothing at all, and that is it’s great strength, bizarrely. The Everyman quality of its hero draws you in and suddenly you are feeling every emotion of this simple man’s journey through life. A very clever piece of writing and one that deserves to be more widely read and acclaimed than it currently is.

Jane Harper – The Dry. I don’t read much contemporary crime fiction, but this one I did pick up on a whim, and it’s great. A proper page turner set in the Australian outback, which gathers pace from page one and never lets up. And for a debut novel, really a masterful achievement.

Graham Swift – Waterland.  I wouldn’t read this type of book ordinarily, but my sister raved about it and I thought I’d give it a go. Very glad I did. Part of history lesson, part family saga, Swift tells a tale of eels and incest (and a lot of other things too!) that is both enchanting and thrilling. A great book.

Ray Bradbury – Dandelion Wine.  Bradbury writes about childhood and the power of nostalgia in a magical, dreamlike way which no toher writer can match. This novel is almost a series of interlinked vignettes, which some readers may find lack a coherent plot, but the poetic prose sweeps you along and some of the sentences really do break your heart with their pure power.

Lawrence Block – A Long Line of Dead Men.  Read a lot of Block again this year, he’s my go-to when I’ve nothing else in the pipeline. Got through a number of the Matt Scudder series and this is one of the best. It’s theme of coming to terms with  mortality lingers in the memory long after completion. Add in all of Block’s usual compelling prose and pitch-perfect dialogue and you’re onto a winner.

Before writing my Top 10 I had the feeling that the books of 2017 hadn’t hit the heights of last year, but looking at this year’s list, I’ve read some exceptional books. For 2018 I’m looking to read more contemporary stuff, continue to fill in some more crime gaps (I read a number of 87th Precinct novels this year and I’m going to try and boost my McBain collection), and branch out into some neglected genres. I think my reading target will come down again, and I hope I can finally complete one! But as long as I’m reading, I’ll be happy.

 

Hubris

One of the joys of modern life is that someone somewhere has probably started a podcast on your favourite topic.  Literature is no exception, and I’ve found recently than one of my favourites is The Moment, hosted by Brian Koppelman, co-creator of the TV series Billions.

The reason I like it is because it endeavours to get under the skin of the guest and find out how and why they do what they do.  It’s not just committed to writers, there have been actors, even politicians, but I find the author based episodes the most revealing, and the latest, with Don Winslow, author of The Force and The Cartel (one of my books of 2016), to be one of the best so far.

Writers talking about their creative routines are an endless fascination for me, despite everyone doing it differently and there being no magic bullet. Winslow started on yellow manuscript paper with nothing more than a title for his first book, no outline, nothing. Now he writes for ten hours a day starting at 5.30am, which makes me feel positively lazy.  And a phrase he used really hit me between the eyes – write like you’re afraid of getting caught.  Exactly how it is.

What really interested me is when the discussion moved on to hubris.  Because wanting to be a writer is very much a tale of opposites.  You need the ego to say with confidence that your writing is worthy of the readers money, and more importantly, their time.  When you are struggling, as I am now with my latest novel, it’s difficult to approach your work with this confidence, almost arrogance that your work is worth it. Once you have success under your belt, which Winslow does (and well deserved it is too), it is easier to come to the page with less fear, and he talks really well about this.  The danger of course is when this slips into hubris. Hubris is interesting because it doesn’t necessarily stem from high self-esteem, it’s more an inflated sense of self-importance compared to a perhaps more modest reality.  The conflict between these two extreme states is a pitfall many writers experience and is one I can really relate to.

There are tons more titbits to chew over from this episode and all I want to do really is give the podcast my whole-hearted recommendation.  Two writers talking candidly about the craft is a joy to listen to. The back catalogue of episodes has some great archive material too – Salman Rushdie and Lawrence Block are two that stand out in my mind.  It’s a podcast that makes you think, and best of all for any budding writer, helps you realises that a) you aren’t alone and b) the bad times and the rejection letters are something every writer goes through. Which is nice to hear when you really need it.

2016: The Reading Year

When I joined Goodreads earlier on this year, I decided to set myself a reading challenge.   For no reason other than it’s a nice round number I went for 100 books for the year.  And though I didn’t quite get there, I’m still pretty pleased with 94.  I did it more to gain a yardstick for how much I do actually read, but undertaking the challenge did have an effect on my reading habits.  100 books equates to nearly two a week, so unless you’re both voracious and very quick, anything of length is out of the equation.  So I found it a bit limiting, and the reason I probably did fail is because I got caught up in a couple of 700+ page books which slowed me down considerably.

I did enjoy doing it, as it is nice to have something to focus on, it sharpens the mind.  But I don’t think I will be attempting to read as many books in 2017.  I already have a couple of hefty tomes in the queue for January and it will be pleasant to be able to immerse myself in them without worrying about falling behind.

So, of those 94 read, here are my ten favourites of the year, in no particular order:

Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings.  A bit of a cheat this one as I started it in December 2015, but what a book for my first completed novel of 2016.  A sprawling epic of Jamaican society set against the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.   Multiple characters drawn expertly by James, stunning dialogue and patois, and some intense scenes of violence that take your breath away. A masterpiece.

Cormac McCarthy – All The Pretty Horses.  I had the pleasure of reading the entire Border Trilogy this year and for me the opening novel of the three is the best.  McCarthy’s descriptions of landscape in the American West are breathtaking and break your heart at the same time.  The love story at this book’s core is beautifully written and tinged with a sadness that left a lump in my throat.  Take a couple of weeks and read all three, you won’t regret it.

Willy Vlautin – The Free.  I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen about this bloke since I read his first novel The Motel Life many moons ago.  Why? His books talk of the American underclass with a kindness and compassion that is incredibly uplifting.  Which is something we can all use at the best of times.  His band Richmond Fontaine are great, too.

Michel Houllebecq – Submission.  This novel about an Islamic takeover of the French political system is everything you want this type of fiction to be – controversial, amazingly prescient, thought-provoking and angry.  Best of all for me is amongst all this is some of the darkest, funniest prose I’ve read in many a year.  A stunner.

Raymond Carver – Elephant and other stories.  He’s not the best short story writer there’s ever been for a laugh, you know.

Donald Ray Pollock – The Devil All The Time.  Discovering a new writer when they are as good as this is always a joy.  This dark, ultra-violent slice of American Gothic hit me like a sledgehammer when I read it, such is it’s visceral force.  Pollock worked in a paper mill for over 30 years before being published which gives me hope, too!

James Crumley – The Last Good Kiss.  Resdiscovering Crumley has been a highlight of the year. I read some of his books years ago and filled in a couple of gaps in 2016.  This, the first of the C.W Sughrue novels, is a bona-fide classic which contains possibly the finest opening paragraph in crime fiction history.  Read it with alcohol.

Ross Macdonald – The Galton Case.  I thought long and hard before including this but it deserves a spot.  Macdonald’s books are briliantly plotted and run so perfectly you can’t see the joins.  Couple this with stark, lovely description and brilliant dialogue and you have some of the finest detective fiction ever written.

Ryan Gattis – All Involved.  The Los Angeles riots of 1992 provide the backdrop for this multi-dimensional novel.  The narrative voice is exceptional, and the sixteen characters never become repetitive or blur into each other.  A great, great book.

William Boyd – Any Human Heart.  The novel as journal can provide an intimacy that can hook the reader immediately.  This does that and more, and the life of Logan Mountstuart draws you in and chops away at your heart bit by bit.  I think about this book a lot –  a really tremendous read which I would recommend to anybody.

It was also good to tick off a couple of classics in Anna Karenina and The Three Musketeers, and I also delved into Lawrence Block’s back catalogue and had an enjoyable few weeks with his unique style of noir.  Hhhh by Laurent Binet was a highlight that just missed out, and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was also close.  All in all reading has been the same comfort this year as it always has, and I continue to be very grateful for the unadulterated joy it gives me.

 

 

The Master of Splatterpunk

Over the last few months, in between reading for my book club, I’ve been having great pangs of nostalgia for the books that first set my literary wheels spinning when I was a teenager. I’ve written a little on this blog before about my formative years of reading, which were a great source of pleasure. As always in life, time moves on and a novelist or genre that was once captivating moves into the background to be replaced by newer tastes. Those early likes retain a special place in the heart of the reader but generally are not revisited too much, perhaps for the fear of ruining an early memory or discovering that perhaps the writer wasn’t as good as originally thought.
It’s for this reason that I rarely go back to those writers. Some, Stephen King being the most obvious example, are writers I’ve picked up in my teens and carried them with me ever since. With King it’s due to his sheer variety and amazing ability to write disturbing, compelling fiction that always contains an ‘everyman’ quality. His originality always kept me coming back too, the man has an incredible imagination and is never constricted to the horror genre as some of his critics might suggest. Basically, you never know what you are going to get.
Others though I grew out of pretty quickly. I was a voracious reader of Dean Koontz back in the day, and devoured his early mysteries and suspense thrillers. He wrote about serial killers and some pretty disturbing characters with a cool, calculating eye which I found fascinating. A lot of his early work had a sort of ‘Area 51’ flavour, where a group of characters stumbled across some secret that had the chance to change the world, and not necessarily for the better. He wrote a few like this but Strangers is the one that I remember most vividly. I loved how Koontz built up the suspense until the big reveal where the secret was unveiled, and his characters, though plentiful, were always drawn with emotion and background.
But I just stopped reading his books after a while. I can still remember when it happened – I forget the name of the novel but it contained the sentence ‘Fric in a fracas.’ Just one sentence, which jarred with me that none of his writing had before. My reading experience had widened substantially by then and I just thought, ‘this is poor prose,’ and put the book down. Maybe you don’t notice these things as a teenager, or you don’t care. You just get swept up in the story. But once I had gained more knowledge of the craft of writing and read more widely little bits of prose started to wind me up when I read them. ‘Fric in a fracas’ is by no means the worst of it, but I hated the unnecessary cleverness of it and still do. Sadly, I haven’t returned to Koontz since.
But the one writer who I have gone back to is the US horror and splatterpunk writer of the 80s and 90s Richard Laymon. This guy was barely known in his home country but had a small cult following in the UK, which is where I first picked him up in the mid 90s. I know why I enjoyed his books back then, for they are extraordinarily graphic in every sense of the word. Firstly, the books are drenched in gore. Laymon had a no-holds-barred attitude to scenes of violence. Characters are decapitated in any number of ways by a range of mostly insane serial killer types. The villains were sadistic and more often than not no explanation was given for their insanity. I genuinely couldn’t believe what I was reading when I first got into Laymon. There are arguments all the time about violence in video games and films and their effect on impressionable youths, but very little is ever said about books. I was astonished that he could get away with it, and as a 15 year old, thrilled that he was. It felt like my little secret when I read Laymon, the fact that my Dad didn’t have any idea what I was reading gave an extra layer of excitement to proceedings.
And boy oh boy, the sex scenes. There are some extremely graphic passages in Laymon’s work, too many to mention. Group sex, masturbation, lesbian scenes, extensive descriptions of foreplay, you name it. His novel Body Rides is the most explicit book I have ever read. Again, for a hormonal teenager this was an intoxicating thrill, and again, I was staggered that this sort of writing was free and available. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no advocate of censorship, but to discover this sort of stuff was out there waiting to be read was an amazing discovery at the time and a little bit scary, too.
The morality of the villains towards women in Laymon’s work is pretty disgusting, too. His novel Resurrection Dreams was basically about a teenage boy trying to resurrect the corpse of a dead female classmate who he was in love with, so he could have sex with her. To put it bluntly. In much of his other work women are subjected to horrendous torture, rape and violence that is described in frank detail that is not for the faint-hearted. Re-reading him now I am still struck by the horrific nature of these scenes.
I appreciate I have now created a picture of Laymon’s work that will be outrageous and off-putting for most, and you may be thinking that I am some sort of degenerate being. So, why did I go back? And why do his books still effect me so much? The main reason, and one that came through loud and clear second time around, is the emotional core of the books. The villains are disgusting for sure, but for every villain there has to be a hero. Laymon wrote some horrible stuff but he always countered it with heroes who you knew would win through in the end. He wrote brilliantly about adolescence and the first stirrings of love and made his female characters strong, independent women who still had an air of vulnerability and a desire to be loved. I remember I developed a huge crush on the lead female character in Come Out Tonight and for a few months after was almost in love with her myself. Such was the emotional punch. A lot of the male leads were teenagers who you always knew would have a chance with the beautiful heroine and for a shy bloke who had trouble even talking to girls at that age this was my opportunity to be that guy, at least for the book’s duration.
Obviously those days are long gone now, but I still have a respect for Laymon’s writing style too. His books proceed at a frantic pace, with very little exposition. Characters are thrown in at the deep end from Page 1 and left to get on with it. Keeping an even pace throughout is a difficult accomplishment and Laymon does it with aplomb, building the suspense perfectly before the final climactic scenes. The dialogue is great too, dark in places but very funny at times. He was clearly a talented bloke.
Sadly Laymon died in 2001 and his posthumous releases tainted his work for me, with all of the violence of his previous work but none of the heart. Still, his novels were very important to me as a young man and re-reading some now only reinforces that view. If you have the stomach for it, check him out.

Hello, My Lovely

Unusually, I didn’t receive any books for Christmas just gone. It’s a welcome fallback present for anyone stuck for a gift for me, as I’ll pretty much read anything. Obviously I hadn’t been a good boy in 2014 and Santa left me empty of reading material. Having had a few days off work I was desperate for something to pass the hours, so I was forced to dig into my collection and dust off some old tomes.
Which, as often happens, led me to Raymond Chandler.
I’ve written a bit about the great man already on this blog, as he is a massive influence on me as both writer and man. This holiday was the first in ages that I have gone back and read any of his books straight through (this time it was Farewell My Lovely and my favourite, The Long Goodbye) and the pleasure I get from it is as strong as ever. I read his books with a smile on my face and every time I finish the desire to write is overwhelming.
I think the reason for this is that Chandler’s writing style seems so easy, so effortless. He was a master of writing dialogue and had a way with similes that will never be surpassed, in my opinion. Here’s a couple of my favourites, just for the hell of it:

‘He had a heart as big as one of Mae West’s hips’
‘He looked at me like a horse looking over a fence’
‘It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.’

(That last one not strictly speaking a simile but I can’t help but add it – one of my favourite pieces of writing anywhere, ever). What I love about all of these is not just their originality but how fun they are. I read work like this and it seems so easy to emulate, sending me rushing for the computer to try. Of course genius like this is impossible to replicate, which is probably why the vast hordes of pulp fiction that have sprung up since Chandler began in the 1930s has paled in comparison.
What’s most incredible to me is that Chandler began writing pulp almost to order. He only decided to get into writing fiction after losing his job with an oil company during the Great Depression (unfortunately his love of booze was also a contributory factor). He wrote to Erle Stanley Gardner:

I learned to write a novelette on one of yours about a man named Rex Kane…I simply made an extremely detailed synopsis of your story and from that rewrote it and then compared what I had with yours, and then went back and rewrote it some more, and so on. It looked pretty good.

I find it extraordinary that a man so talented who has become an all-time literary great started essentially plagiarising someone else’s work. But his writing method, particularly in the early years, was not one of free-flowing imagination. A number of his novels were almost completely rewritten and the first of them, The Big Sleep was an amalgamation of earlier, published short stories.
His expert use of dialogue can be found also in his screenplays, most notably in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. I remember a friend of my father’s recommending the film to me as a teenager and I sat through it, spellbound. The way Chandler ramps up the tension scene by scene is thrilling, and the chemistry between the two leads is mostly underpinned by the superb dialogue that Chandler wrote.
The one that really hit me hard though was The Long Goodbye. I think the opening few pages where we first meet Terry Lennox and his showpiece wife are among the finest every written. Full of humour, pitch-perfect dialogue, expertly drawn characters and suspense. The plot is incredibly complex from then on but Chandler never loses grip on it, even though the novel runs to nearly 250,000 words. His portrayal of the alcoholic Roger Wade is utterly convincing (based in part on Chandler himself) and flavoured with a hint of sadness that sends chills through me on every reading. In his later years Chandler was an unhappy guy, crippled by alcoholism and the failing health and subsequent death of his wife and this sense of sorrow really comes through in the novel. I really believe it’s a masterpiece and that Phillip Marlowe remains the quintessential private eye and spawn of a whole new genre.

Elmore Leonard Rules

Considering I’m one of his biggest fans and believe he was one of the greatest writers of the last 100 years, I can’t specifically remember when I first picked up an Elmore Leonard novel. I can’t even remember which one it was. It could have been Freaky Deaky – which I vaguely recall reading on a camping trip to Cornwall in my late teens. (In my opinion, the opening sequence of that novel is one of the finest pieces of writing of modern times. It’s that good). Or possibly The Big Bounce, one of his earliest crime novels. Anyway, whenever it was, it had a profound effect on me as a man, and as a writer.

Why? Well mostly because of how alive his books made me feel. It’s a tiresome cliche to say that characters ‘leap off the page’ but in this case it’s true. Most of the reason for that is the dialogue. If you want to learn how best to write the way people talk, look no further than Leonard. And if you can’t take my word for it, Martin Amis agrees, saying Leonard’s prose ‘makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy.’ (That link is a terrific interview by the way – tons of fascinating titbits on the art of writing). His dialogue brings so much depth and humour to the prose, and is far more to-the-point than vast swathes of characterisation. Dialogue should tell the story and the characters’ ambitions and Leonard is a master at it.

Somewhere along the way he also noted the ’10 Rules of Good Writing’. I have the feeling that some of this was tongue-in-cheek but I genuinely find these 10 rules more helpful than anything else I’ve read on the craft.
Of particular use are numbers 3 and 4. I do try when writing to use ‘said’ as much as possible and I never use an adverb to modify the word. Reams and reams of fiction do it and I’ve never understood why. If you are writing good dialogue you should know how a character has spoken the words without having to quantify it with an adverb. Sadly this dislike of adverbs turned me off Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. A wonderful story but I just couldn’t deal with the adverbs. Of course in this matter I’m just an ordinary sinner like everyone else (I’ve used a fair few in this post), but I never use them in dialogue anymore (he said hopefully).

Rules 8 and 9 go against most of what you hear in writing classes and the like. Character description and setting description are the nuts and bolts of any novel really. But I know what Leonard means – the dialogue and actions of the characters should tell you what they are like without the need for tons of description. Similarly with descriptions of place, a flavour is all you probably want. Anything else gets in the way of the story.

Even in these 10 short rules you can see Leonard’s way with words. Rule 10: ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’ sums it all up. And his final rule, ‘ If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,’ is just genius and goes to the heart of what writing is all about. So easy to say, so hard to do.

Leonard died last year aged 89. He was still writing books well into his 80s, and still running rings around writers more than half his age. His books brought me immense pleasure and on his death the knowledge that there would be no more from this great man was a source of real sorrow. If you haven’t read any of his stuff, I urge you to do so. There is a vast back catalogue out there and it will change your life, I’m sure of it. RIP Dutch.