Vehicular Manslaughter : Stephen King – “Mr. Mercedes”

ABOVE: Under the Umbrella-ella-ella-ella

I wrote a rather lengthy Stephen King review not too long ago, and the literary world’s hardest-working retiree is coming out with another novel in, like, a MONTH. So I won’t go too much into “Mr. Mercedes.” It involves one of its author’s favoritest, most re-used tropes: THE HAUNTINGLY SIGNIFICANT KILLER VEHICLE.

ABOVE: CARMAGEDDON! Yes, Christine, it’s all been done by The Simpsons or Stephen King.

Retired Detective Bill Hodges gets caught in a cat-and-mouse game with a crazy killer who rammed a Mercedes into a crowd of applicants at a job fair. (“Terrorism,” “unemployment” and “technological panic of the aging individual” are the ghosts in this earth-bound thriller.)

The blurb doesn’t sound promising, agreed. It’s King’s honest attempt at at a straight-ahead, race-against-time  thriller of the kind Michael Connelly does so well. (Horror don’t sell like it used to.) But there are frequent detours and surprises in “Mr. Mercedes,” and though it is not without padding, the ending is a total nail-biter.

RATING: COOL!

SOME SPOILER NOTES FOR THOSE WHO’VE ALREADY READ IT:

1- Bill Hodges doesn’t work psychologically as a retired detective. He’s out of touch with certain realities that the police has to deal with, from computer searches to street lingo. In fact, Hodges’ behavior is much closer to “retired mystery writer,” but it’s easy to understand why King wanted to stretch a different sweater here.

2- Jerome’s unlikely “game” of  “Oh lawdy, I be a good slave, massa Hodges” had me going like: “Oh, Hell-to-the-No!” First of all, the average black teenager from 2011 isn’t as proficient with plantation lingo stereotypes as King imagines. Second of all, if Jerome did like to pretend to be a slave (WHY WOULD HE?!?), he wouldn’t be playing at it with an old white cop, no matter how buddy-buddy they were.

3- The character of Holly Gibney, who turns out to be so emotionally pivotal, is too much of a mess and added much too late to the story. King knows this, so he tries to flesh her out RIGHT AT THE WORST POSSIBLE TIME. The book is barreling to the end, our heroes are running to stop an explosion – and suddenly we go into a lengthy flashback to Holly’s teenage years? Couple of pages before the end? TOO LATE! NOBODY CARES! The only reaction is annoyance at the digression. It almost stops things on its tracks. Almost.

4-The “wrong person eats the poisoned food” twist worked so great here, that it took me a moment to recollect that King had already used it once, very memorably too, at the end of “Thinner” (which is considered minor in King’s canon, but totally enthralled me as a teen.)

5- Exciting as the ending was, King really handicapped himself by setting it in a crowded stadium during a boy- band concert.  If Brady’s explosion had meant to hurt a mixed crowd of, say, a couple dozen people at another job fair, we would have been worried. But we know the bad guy isn’t going to get away with killing thousands of sweet girls, because King himself isn’t going to dare. The days of “Pet Sematary” are long gone.

RATING: COOL!

Like “Amarcord” and “The 400 Blows” Rolled Into One : Tome and Janry – “Little Spirou”

I’ve talked before about the friendly rivalry between”Spirou” and “Tintin” magazines as being the Franco-Belgian kids’ comics version of Marvel and DC.  “Spirou” magazine published titles like “Lucky Luke,” “The Smurfs,” “Yoko Tsuno,” and “The Bluecoats,” and “Tintin” had “Clifton” and “Blake and Mortimer.”

ABOVE : Harder to draw than Tintin

Spirou’s haircut beats Tintin’s.

Lil Spirou takes us to Spirou’s hell-raising childhood. It’s a much more carnal take on childhood that American comics could tolerate. Lil Spirou is always up to some sexual crusade.

A typical joke: Lil Spirou goes to the news-stand timidly, and rapidly asks the news vendor for a “Wholesome Reading Weekly”/”Kids Comics”/”Illustrated Classics”/ “SEXY TABOO”/”Good Samaritan Magazine.” Unfortunately, the news vendor only hears half of it: “Ok, here’s ‘Wholesome Reading’ and ‘Good Samaritan.’ I missed what you said in the middle there.” Spirou sighs: “Tintin Magazine.” As he returns to his friends with the worthless magazines, he announces: “Mission failed.”

ABOVE: Playing doctor! Yeah, this would totally cause major controversy if it was in “Peanuts”…

A second typical joke: Lil Spirou has been bragging about his “Mr. Thingy” and his crush, Suzette, giddily asks Spirou to show it. So Lil Spirou takes her to the forest and introduces Mr. Thingy.  Mr. Thingy is a pet squirrel. A sexually frustrated Suzette then punches Spirou for NOT showing him the Thingy she was actually interested in.  The confused Spirou confides on the squirrel: “There goes another girl! I wonder if maybe I should have shown her something different, Mr. Thingy?”

A third typical joke: Lil Spirou tricks Suzette into thinking he’s made a machine that turns people invisible. When Suzette comes out of the machine, still quite visible, Spirou points out: “Duh, you’re invisible but we can see where you are because of your clothes. Once you take them off, THEN, you’ll be truly invisible.” So gullible Suzette strips.

RATING : I’m not the European demographic, but it’s COOL! there.

Cardinal Sins – Haruki Murakami : “South of the Border, West of the Sun”

“Rain falls and the flowers bloom. No rain, they wither up. Bugs are eaten by lizards, lizards are eaten by birds. But in the end, every one of them dies. They die and dry up. One generation dies, and the next one takes over. That’s how it goes. Lots of different ways to live. And lots of different ways to die. But in the end that doesn’t make a bit of difference. All that remains is a desert.”

ABOVE: Photographs get all blurry south of the border and west of the sun.

The eventual loneliness that engulfs our insignificant lives gets a poetic geographical location in Haruki Murakami’s “South of the Border, West of the Sun.” The title references Seasonal Affective Disorder as experienced by Siberians, and an alleged Nat King Cole recording of “South of the Border” which doesn’t seem to exist, (so naturally the Internet MADE IT exist):

Containing none of the flights of fancy of “Hard Boiled-Wonderland and the End of the World”, “SOTBWOS” is a small, straight-forward novella bolstered by the direct confidences of Murakami’s narrator. Hajime ( “beginning,” in Japanese) is an only child in love with his shy neighbor, Shimamoto, who shares a misshapen leg with the protagonist of W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” (Considering Murakami’s declaration of appreciation for Maugham, it hardly seems coincidental.)

Time separates the two children. Hajime grows up, marries, becomes the responsible owner of a jazz bar (Murakami himself owned a jazz bar in Tokyo during the 70s.) When Shimamoto reappears, the childhood crushers fall into an adulterous affair that few would qualify as “torrid”. There is little steam to their adultery: these lovers are about snow banks and half-frozen rivers and icy sadness.

Murasaki stresses the concept that people hurt each other simply by existing, answering to painful magnetic pulls. There is no real escape from that hurt, nowhere to flee to. Hajime and Mishamoto grow up believing the lyrics to “South of the Border” referred to some wonderful promised land;  with adulthood, (and properly translated lyrics) comes the realization that is there nothing magical waiting in that direction.

The song was only talking about Mexico.

RATING : COOL!

Patrick Cothias : “The Wind of the Gods” (Vol. 1+2)

ABOVE: The Gods Pass Wind? What a horrible title.

“The Wind of the Gods” is a multi-volume saga written by Patrick Cothias and illustrated by Philip Adamov, both of whom have presumably done better. (In particular, I hear good things of Cothias’ cape-and-sword opus, “Les 7 Vies De L’Epervier.”) “The Wind of the Gods” is set in medieval Japan, but it is an overly decadent, too-European take on  Akira Kurosawa’s samurai milieu. Here, no matter what claims they make to honor or bushido, every character is lascivious, blood-thirsty, marked by cupidity, or simply DRAWN TOO UGLY. The dialogue and story are neither terrible nor memorable, and I found precious little to keep me coming back for volume 3.

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH for ronin lovers, SHRUG for me.

The Ties that Bind : W. Somerset Maugham – “Of Human Bondage”

“I like W. Somerset Maugham. He’s not spectacular but he’s very readable. I’ll rather have that, than the other way around.”Haruki Murakami, “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”

“So I started reading that book, ‘Of Human Bondage.’ False advertising!” -Joke that has been around since 1915.

ABOVE: S and M stands for “Somerset” and “Maugham”

There are two ideal ages to read W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage”: at 20, when  it foreshadows what’s to come, and at 40, when it summarizes what has been. I am somewhere in between, at an uneasy point when Philip Carey’s mistakes come too late to warn me from my own, but when the happy closure still seems too far ahead to convince me.

I certainly related to the novel, which is one of the better, purest bildungsromans in the canon. As Murakami would point out, there aren’t really any pyrotechnics in either style or plot: we  follow club-footed Philip from his orphan years in a British parish; through his wanna-be artistic youth, (in a Parisian milieu straight from George Du Maurier’s “Trilby”); his badly-managed sexual relationships; his crummy career that includes a stint as a country doctor (those scenes might come from  Mikhail Bulgakov’s “A Country Doctor’s Notebook”). With Philip, we learn about love, sex, religion, art, philosophy, society- and with him we re-asses all those things. It’s hard to imagine a person of any artistic or philosophical bent (particularly, but not exclusively, males)  that doesn’t find something to relate to in Carey’s crippled passage through life.

“Of Human Bondage” also features a surprisingly deep set of female characters, not always a given in mainstream novels from 1915. Whatever you may feel about Fanny Price, Norah Nesbit, or Mildred Rogers, however little they may fit feminist ideals of character portrayal-  they’re actual recognizable humans. If you don’t agree, if you haven’t met them all in modern guises and modern aliases, you just haven’t gone out with enough women. (Less believable is the idealized Sally who finally rescues Philip from the shitty vagaries of dating. But then who knows? Maybe I’m too old believe in her or too young to have met her.)

ABOVE: Bette Davis first made a sensation in the role of Mildred. It’s always good to remember that Bette Davis used to be young and hot and have Bette Davis’ eyes!

“Of Human Bondage” is the mainstream novel at its finest. It  is indeed very readable, a trait that used to annoy the smugger critics, (the ones who feel insecure unless they’re serving as the guardian priests of cryptic codices). Maugham is not a critic’s writer. No mediators are needed. His meanings are immediately apparent, his sentences flow cleanly. Now that he is no longer a popular concern, it’s not even fun to tear him down for his heresy of popularity.

If you’re 20, read it and be warned; if you’re 40, read it and remember. If you’re any other age, of course, feel free to pick it up, but remember: there is no actual bondage on “Of Human Bondage.” If you don’t accept that, you will be very disappointed.

RATING : MASTERPIECE!!!