A Sense of Place : Alex Segura – “Down the Darkest Street”

Like I mentioned earlier, I have been on some acknowledgement pages, and felt it would be a little conflict-of-interest to review those books here. One of those novels was Alex Segura’s “Silent City,” the first in the Pete Fernandez series.

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ABOVE: Silent? Not around my hood at night! Darned tomcats fighting and stuff.

That book introduced us to Pete Fernandez, a conflicted character trying to reconcile his drinking problems, his complicated love life, and his go-nowhere newspaper job with his investigation of a deadly killer. I’m not in the acknowledgments to the second book in the series, (although I do believe I caught a shout out) so I can happily review it.

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ABOVE: I do believe that’s a Raymond Chandler allusion.

“Down the Darkest Street” takes the elements of the hard-boiled novel, drops them in Miami, and makes sure everything is in place to satisfy genre fans. We find Pete in a relatively good place after “Silent City.” Even though  best friend is dead, he’s dealing with his binge-drinking and putting in AA time. His ex-girlfriend Emily is moving in with him while her own marriage is in shambles, (although that brings its own set of complications, including a jealous husband.) His friend Kathy is there to keep Pete on check with the requisite banter. New addition Dave, (a gun-toting book store owner) provides comedy relief. Naturally, there’s a missing girl and Pete must go back into investigations once again, while the bodies pile up.

As a character, Pete does not necessarily seem like the kind of tough, endlessly resourceful guy who populates the genre, but more like a commonly flawed guy driven forward by unusual circumstances and journalistic curiosity. The mystery itself could do with some distinctive spice, though: we’ve seen shadowy serial killers and women-in-danger scenarios aplenty, even in this still nascent series. Of course it’s hard to re-invent that particular procedural wheel, and most thriller writers simply add fancy rims: “Serial killer has an interest in collecting caterpillars! Women-in-danger are kept inside elaborate papier mache butterfly cocoons!” etc etc.)*  Segura doesn’t go that route: his mystery is sketchily detailed and even though we have chapters from the killer’s POV, the novel withdraws from the truly gritty descriptive details, (this might be a plus for more sensitive readers.)

Ultimately, what makes the Pete Fernandez series so enjoyable for me is that it offers a sense of place. When Pete walks, well, “down a dark street,” it will be a dark street Miamians of my generation will recognize; the restaurants he walks by are still functional and accept reservations; the bars that tempt him are open (’til closing time). I particularly enjoyed Pete’s side trip to my architecturally impressive high school, so there’s my bias. Let’s see what alley he stumbles into next round, and whether I recognize the street sign on it.

*(“Memo to Self: Idea for Thomas- Harris-like thriller: The Caterpillar Killer + Cocoon Murders! It can be called “MURDERFLY”!  Ooooh, and maybe the end scene takes place during a bizarre, Grand-Guignol performance of “Madame Butterfly”! Best-Sellah!”)

 

Dropping Shoes and Upside Down Worlds : Art Spiegelman – “In the Shadow of No Towers”

“The unmentionable odour of death offends the September night”W. H. Auden

Over a decade and a half later, September 11, 2001 remains appalling  in scale. But terrorist attacks are always on the front page. Terror and cruelty and violence and murder are constants- call them all Evil, make it an It. “It” has never taken a break in the history of the world; it merely shifts energies around, a chronic disease in the system of humanity that manifests itself in feverish fear, blisters of ignorance, episodes of war.

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ABOVE: The cover plays off Spiegelman’s now iconic Sep. 24 cover for the New Yorker- it looked a mournful black but you could see the outline of the towers if you tilted it to the light.

In 2004, Art Spiegelman (who made some of the great art comix before tackling the issue of the Holocaust, one of the great concentrated outbreaks of Evil) took a series of “funny pages” about 9/11 that had been deemed too partisan by the New York Times, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and gathered them into the oversized, short-but-dense “In the Shadow of No Towers.” (The pieces had been published by a German newspaper, of all places.)

Spiegelman lived with his family on the outskirts of Ground Zero and witnessed the event first hand. His daughter Nadja had just gone to school that morning on Canal Street. As he ran toward the school his view of the burning towers was obstructed by a billboard advertising “some dopey new Schwarzenegger movie about terrorism.” (“Collateral Damage,” it was. And who said irony would be dead after 9/11?)   In action movie parlance, shit was personal! Therefore watching as the Bush administration co-opted the attack to suit its political agenda made him as paranoid about about his own government as he was about Al-Qaeda. If the tone is adamantly anti-Bush (and Cheney and Ashcroft and the cabal whose actions fertilized the grounds from which ISIS sprouts)  who could blame him?

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ABOVE: It’s supposed to be over-sized! If you wanna read the words, you should buy the book!

Spiegelman seeks comfort in the Sunday Pages of an optimistic early 20th century- and is at least somewhat aware of his shrill paranoia as he catches pareidoliac ties between the war-mongering exaggerations of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer during the Spanish-American War – and current day Fox News; between the Katzenjammer Kids’ change of names during the First World War (from Hans and Fritz to Mike and Alek)  – and French fries changing their nationality to “Freedom” Fries in similarly absurd fashion;  between a 1905 strip in which Happy Hooligan dresses up as Abdullah Hooligan to bring down a tower (of acrobats)- and the fall of the twin towers; between Winsor McCay’s fantastical distortions of New York architecture in “Little Nemo in Slumberland”- and the alteration of the city where Spiegelman finally realizes his roots lie; between brick-throwing Ignatz in George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat”- and Osama Bin Laden. Did the Fox News pundits realize THEY were being crazy and finding absurd connections between unrelated events?

“In the Shadow of No Towers” remains a revealing snapshot of how people get shocked by – or get numbed to- acts of terrorism. It’s also funny, upsetting, and self-deprecatingly aware. People accuse Spiegelman of having one genuine masterpiece in him. It  could be true. “In the Shadow of No Towers” doesn’t ultimately amount to much but a short little personal essay on “what 9/11 meant to me.” But the way the experience is masterfully filtered through  a graphical homage to Sunday newspaper artistry of old puts this ahead of thousands of other 9/11 reaction pieces.

RATING : COOL!

P.S.:

Along the way, Spiegelman reveals the origin of the idiom “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Think of early 1900s tenements, and of being awakened by the sounds from a hard-partying Johnny Goodtime clumsily undressing after a night of carousing, and dropping one shoe to the floor as he gets into bed . You can’t go back to sleep… you know there’s another loud noise due any moment. Boots are always dropping. Evil has many feet.

P.P.S.: Spiegelman praises the ingenious artistry of Gustave Verbeek (or Verbeck, to be proper.) Verbeck was the son of a Dutch missionary in Japan, and migrated to the U.S. in the 1900s where an immigration office misspelling left him as Verbeek. Like most immigrants, Verbeek was keenly aware of the fluidity of human experience and identity, which surely plays a part in “The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo”- the ultimate graphic proof that things can look very different depending on your perspective. His brilliant little strips (64 of them were created between 1903 and 1905!) are designed to be read left to right for the first half, and then turned upside down 180 degrees for a conclusion that was already contained within the panels. As an amateur doodler, I assure you this is quite the blood-sweat-and-tears-labor-of-love out there.

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Blurbin’ : Phony McFakename – “Fast Breaks” and “Best Sellers”

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Weirdly, I’ve been on quite a few Acknowledgment pages so far. It comes with having talented, writerly friends. Up to now I felt like it was a conflict of interest to review those books (I’m IN them, darn it!) so I’d abstained, but I’ve decided to come around on that policy. After all, I read books, I review books, someone thought kindly enough of me  to put me in there – why not talk about the books?

Why not blurb?

I mean, you DO realize that all those lines of praise snaking around the front and back of books were written by the author’s buddies? That most of them didn’t even read the book before pronouncing it “a rip-roaring roller-coaster thrill-ride!  A sensational tsunami of suspense! A violent burst of volcanic vocabulary power!”

But you blurb, because you do want to get the word out about the friend’s efforts. But then you’re caught in the trap.What if the book sucks? If you give the book a positive review, you look like a fraud, flattering your friend. If you give the book a negative review, then that friend ain’t gonna be so friendly anymore.

It’s a lot of pressure!

Luckily, my friend, by the pseudonym of Phony McFakename, has written two really funny books in a row and neither sucks. I read “Fast Breaks” and “Best Sellers” on my iPhone while taking long walks and I must have looked all sorts of idiotic as I cracked up continuously, and if I did not literally roll on the floor laughing, that’s because I was outside, and the “floor” was the sidewalk, and the sidewalk was not very attractive from a hygienic point of view.

Literary humor is such a rare elusive beast. Honestly, once you tick off your Mark Twains, your P. G. Wodehouses, your Robert Benchleys, suddenly you’re down to Dave Barrys. Who’s the humor writer of the 2010s? We do have Christopher Moore. But it feels like fewer and fewer writers set out to create laughs on the page (humor is doing just fine in other media.) This is partly why “Fast Breaks” is such a joy; it doesn’t hurt that McFakename and I share similar senses of humor, so I was very much the demographic. The book compiles McFakename’s humorous flash fiction, and includes a series of light-hearted, surreal vignettes, as well as longer pieces – and even a zombie love story (zombies seem to be McFakename’s metier.)

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“Best Sellers,” an even more accomplished piece, uses a hilariously deranged narrative framework to skewer and parody pretty much every literary “phenomenon” that has plagued the New York Times best-seller list within recent memory. What I’m gonna do is let you glimpse the table of contents, and let me assure you, McFakename delivers in every instance:

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(I laughed particularly hard at “Important Literary Fiction Story,” which knocks good old targets like Jonathan Franzen down a peg or two.)

In any case, I thought I would make things easy by coming up with two blurbs, so that no one has to scramble through the post to gather one of those crudely assembled Frankenstein quotes that go like:

“I laughed…(this is an) important literary…story. Good… like Johathan Franzen.”– The Pageaholic.

So here they are:

“‘Fast Breaks’ is a fast read that goes right for your funny bone and isn’t afraid to break it.”

“‘Best Sellers’ reads like a tornado passed through your local Barnes and Noble, except that tornadoes aren’t this quotable, and aren’t likely to cause howls of laughter.”

“Fast Breaks” can be purchased at Amazon.com, and “Best Sellers” is on its way.

Mercenary Love : Daniel Way – “Deadpool Complete Collection” V. 1

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ABOVE: “Who took my chimichanga from the break room fridge?”

For a decade now Marvel has been doing a superb job of shoving Deadpool from the back rows of 90’s violent superhero excess to the front-lines of meta-comic fame. (I hear there’s even a movie or something?) Created by Rob Liefeld (the most creative anatomist since Henry Gray) and Argentinian writer Fabien Nicienza, Deadpool is Wade Winston Wilson, the Merc with a Mouth, the Regenerating Degenerate, the Sensation with a Registration, the Alliteration Assassination – all depending on how a writer for a particular issue feels. Deadpool’s barely-there sanity is really split between the Bugs and the Daffy of “Duck Amuck.” Half of him is valiantly trying to roll with the punches sent down by  whimsical, vaguely malevolent, off-panel creators. The other half is busy being the creator of his own in-panel reality, controlling it via humor, tangential hallucinations, or landscape-altering explosions.

Daniel Way guided Deadpool through self-aware adventures for 63 issues. “The Complete Collection Volume 1” covers the first 12 or so, with additional stories about Deadpool’s attempt to eliminate fellow Weapon-Xer Wolverine. Mostly Wadey battles for AND against invading Skrulls; antagonizes Norman Osborn at the former Avengers Tower; and collides with the Thunderbolts (his crush on Black Widow is hilariously pathetic.) But Way truly hits his stride with the Deadpool / Bullseye storyline. Bullseye (a.k.a. the mean Hawkeye) is the perfect soul-less mate for Deadpool, and this arc shows the emotional potential in giving the Merc an actual  frenemy, someone who operates at the same wave-length of irreverent awareness, rather than the usual dumbfounded Marvel Universe villain trying to puzzle out Deadpool’s schizophrenic utterings.

Trigger warning for the chicken soul: “Deadpool” unwittingly deals with mental health in a flippant, mocking manner that will no doubt be seen as very problematic within the decade. (You  missed out: you didn’t see me cringe with discomfort as I forced myself to type out the word “problematic,” one of the most cowardly, idiotic adjectives to ever infect our collective conversation.)

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ABOVE: He’s not crazy, he’s reality impaired.

RATING: COOL!