The Last Whites

For 2016 I have been undertaking a reading challenge on Goodreads. Up until now this has had little effect on my reading habits, as I read voraciously at the best of times. But one problem that has arisen is that I am reading my book club choices weeks in advance, and when the meetings come around, I am trying to conjure up talking points from a book I read over a month ago. Which makes writing these blog posts a little more difficult, but I will endeavour to carry on regardless…

A few months ago I brought along my copy of Richard Price’s The Whites to book club, his latest crime novel written under the pseudonym of Harry Brandt. I bought a copy as soon as it came out, for I have been a huge fan of Price ever since Clockers, his era-defining novel about New York drug culture, which indirectly spawned The Wire, arguably the greatest TV series ever made. (Price wrote a couple of episodes for it, too.) Without prompting, I found that it had been chosen as this month’s first choice. Which I was very pleased about, as I think Price is one of the most important writers of his generation.

So why the love? Firstly, Price can write dialogue like no other. Some writers are unfortunately afflicted with a tin ear when it comes to the way people talk, but once a while someone comes along who just have a knack for it. Elmore Leonard did, and Price is up there with the great man. He knows the language of the street and his characters interact with a truth and zeal that just zings off the page. This novel is his first set more in the police procedural genre, and he has no trouble with the hard-nosed black humour that flys between the Wild Geese, the core group at th novel’s heart.

I suspect Price chose a pen name to represent this change in genre, although the edition I have is shorn of the Brandt moniker. The plot is too labyrinthine to go into in great detail, for the world Price has created contains at least 50 major and minor characters. Even those with one or two pages of screen time are well-drawn and you never get the sense that they are extraneous to proceedings. Price’s ability to juggle all these balls in the air and still create a frenetic pace that keeps you turning the pages is a strength few could manage. There is a lot of violence and hurt here, but the relationships are embued with an underlying tenderness, particularly between Billy and his dementia-riddled father. These scenes give the prose its heart, and remind us that the ties of family can rise above the ugliness and desolation of the seedy underbelly of New York city. It’s a triumphant work and one that proves Price is still at the top of his game.

Miranda July’s novel The First Bad ManĀ  is unlike any novel I’ve ever read. Having read it a while ago, I still don’t know what to make of it. The main character Cheryl is one of the most interesting protaganists I have read in a long time – owner of some exceedingly bizarre sexual fantasies, a vivid imagination, and aching vulnerability. Her relationships are nothing short of strange, especially with philanderer Philip, a man she shares erotic text messages with as he explores a new relationship with a teenager.

For the first hundred pages or so I found Cheryl tiresome and impossible to relate to, and other book clubbers had similar reservations. But around this point the novel takes an unexpected twist with the arrival of Clee, Cheryl’s bosses young daughter. Their relationship begins with some utterly bonkers bouts of wrestling which borders on domestic violence before blossoming into a lesbian love affair involving a baby which allows Cheryl’s maternal fantasies to flower and grow.

Now I’m sure this plot explanation makes little sense, which goes some way to describing the off-beat, quirky nature of the novel. Some of the ideas are nonsensical, the story develops in unexpected ways, and the whole things teeters on the brink of the absurd throughout. But if you go with it Cheryl’s character takes on an endearing quality, particularly in the scenes after the birth of Jack, which have an affection completely different from the almost random exchanges in the early parts.

This surreal type of fiction has shot up in the last few years and there are a few female writers writing this sort of stuff – A.M Homes is another I can think of. Its a world of cosmetic surgery, strange relationships with therapists and a frankness of sexual ideas. It’s something that is a bit out of my comfort zone but this was a worthwhile read into an alien world for me.

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