Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Bordersnakes [1996]

James Crumley’s fascinating post-Vietnam hardboiled oeuvre is centered around his two anarchic, violent, war-scarred, unpredictable, self-destructive, glibly amoral, alienated, borderline alcoholic and closet romantic PI’s Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue; if that makes his bibliography rare, what makes it rarer still is that he even wrote a book with both in it. I was absolutely blown away by the respective debut novels for the 2 Montana gumshoes, viz. The Wrong Case and The Last Good Kiss, respectively, and hence, unable to control my urge, I conveniently, if tad unwisely, skipped (albeit temporarily, though), the next couple of novels (1 of each) as I drove straight for Bordersnakes. The Korean war vet Milo, who finally inherited his long-dead parents’ wealth after turning 50, has been robbed off his millions through fraudulent banking transactions – he’s so bloody pissed that he’s ready to do whatever it takes to get his money back. In order to pull that off, he travels to the Mexican border, in his cherry-red Cadillac, to join forces with his on-off comrade, the Nam vet Sughrue, who, in the meantime, was gut-shot at a tavern by unknown assailants; he’s now recuperating at a non-descript trailer in the company of his newly wed wife and adopted son, scared and humbled, and yet also hankering for revenge. What ensues is a booze-guzzling, coke-snorting, all-guns-blazing ride through hell involving some of the nastiest people imaginable either side of the border. The brutal episodes and serpentine plot were complemented with a lovely road trip (a demented version of Kerouac perhaps), crackling dialogues by the two tough guys (Sughrue was often the more pragmatic of the two, while Milo, the principal lead here, was unabashedly badass), loads of unbridled machismo, and a surprisingly affecting, if disturbing, vision of a greed-addled, hyper-violent America irretrievably bursting through its seams. Crumley, the prose stylist that he is, turned what could have become a low farce, into a darkly funny, boldly subversive, harshly lyrical, and gloriously overblown work.

Author: James Crumley
Genre: Crime Thriller/Hardboiled Literature/Western/Action
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Drowning Pool [1950]

Early Ross Macdonald has often been classified as derivative of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, before he established his distinctive voice starting with the likes of The Doomsters and The Galton Case. Irrespective of which side of the fence one stands on with regards to that, there’s no denying the sheer joy of reading them, thanks to the mordant wit, sly humour, terrific buildups, deliciously noirish atmosphere, ensemble narratives, pervading ambiguities, duplicitous characters, sordid family secrets, etc.; The Way Some People Die was a terrific example of that, and his 2nd Lew Archer novel The Drowning Pool, which preceded that, too, remains a good piece of classic hardboiled served straight up. When Maude Slocum, a startlingly attractive lady married into a wealthy family, approaches Archer to investigate an anonymous note insinuating her of adultery – a potential prelude to blackmail which might have catastrophic implications for her if her oppressive mother-in-law gets a whiff of it – he delves into it with customary gusto despite her strange unwillingness to share details that might help him. He meets her “mamma’s boy” husband who’s disturbingly close to the couple’s teenaged daughter, a roughneck chauffeur who’s brazenly chasing the girl, a gruff cop with whom Maude might have had a past, a powerful oil company desperate to take over the Slocum estate because of vast oil reserves underneath it, and, of course, the powerful family matriarch who, after a brilliantly staged house party peopled with the eccentric rich who Archer observes with a wry smirk, ends up dead floating in a swimming pool face down – a death that is sure to prove convenient to many, and hence any one could have murdered her. Even if the plotting isn’t as intricate as some of his later works, it’s filled with discomfiting themes, a signature episode of Archer getting kidnapped by a sleazy mobster and having a close shave with death, revelation of murky truths, crackling wisecracks, and a lot of good, old-fashioned thrills along the way.

Author: Ross Macdonald
Genre: Crime Thriller/Roman Noir/Detective Novel/Mystery/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Old Masters [1985]

Thomas Bernhard is considered one of the most important voices of post-War European literature, while (ironically) often being despised in his homeland Austria. This curious dichotomy can easily be understood through his iconoclastic, lacerating, modernist and surprisingly infectious penultimate novel – and one of the weirdest books that I’ve read – Old Masters. 82-year old Reger, a renowned musicologist and critic who’s recently lost his wife, has been visiting Kunsthistorisches Museum nearly every other day for over 3 decades, and all that he largely does there is sit on a settee and stare at Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. Atzbacher, a middle-aged private philosopher who’s never published his works and one of Reger’s closest friends, has been summoned to the celebrated Viennese art museum for possibly an important discussion. He arrives 1 hour early to silently observe Reger lost into the Tintoretto, and that’s followed by a conversation between the two men, leading, finally, to what Reger wants to ask of him. Written without any chapter or even paragraph breaks, the single para stretching over the novel’s 250-page length comprises, almost entirely, of the dominant, irascible, deeply embittered, troubled and exceedingly opinionated Reger’s rambling rant against everything from lousy art and phony intellectualism to destructive politicians and short memory of people to even bad toilets, interspersed with his catharsis over his wife’s tragic death, revelations about his suicidal impulses, and pugnacious rumination on his absolute loss of hope and faith in human race. With the tone alternating between vitriol, mock-anger and self-pity, and a bellicose stance against nearly every aspect of the Austrian socio-politics surrounding him, and, in turn, the world at large, it was difficult to say when the novel has moved from deep disillusionment to underhanded satire and back. While the stultified translation and deliberately repetitive prose can be irksome at times, the sheer absurdity and exuberance of  this impish, meandering, free-flowing work is bound to keep one intrigued – and alternately exasperated and amused – till its disarmingly deadpan finale.

Author: Thomas Bernhard
Language: German
Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire/Modernist Literature
Country: Austria

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Radetzky March [1932]

The Radetzky March, illustrious Austrian-Jewish writer and journalist Joseph Roth’s celebrated magnum opus and one of the great masterpieces of Central European literature, is a tour de force work of staggering breadth and ambition, and mesmeric beauty and depth. Mixing fictionalized characters with semi-fictionalized incidents and historical backdrops, Roth created a richly detailed and stunningly evocative tapestry of the once mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire as it, irrevocably, crossed its point of inflection – from its apogee in mid-19th century, through a period of steady but imperceptibly gradual decline, and ending in devastating rubble and disintegration upon the breakout of the First World War. With its title derived from Johann Strauss’ lively composition honoring the eponymous Hapsburg Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky, the book portrayed the mammoth reign of Franz Joseph I through the seriocomic and symbolic fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family. The grandfather, Joseph Trotta, a Lieutenant of Slovene origin, spectacularly saves the life of the Emperor in the Battle of Solferino, thus making him a much decorated individual, and in turn, an almost mythical parody of his actual self. The father, Franz Trotta, becomes a well-placed District Administrator in Moravia, who, through his curt expressions and mundane existence, moulds himself to the image of the Emperor his father had saved and who he reveres beyond compare. The son, Card Joseph, follows his grandfather’s footsteps and becomes a Lieutenant at a young age, only to be perpetually distracted, disillusioned and ultimately doomed, through his inopportune romantic liaisons with much older and married women, tragic friendships, and his proclivity for 180-proof liquor while stationed at various locales. The delightfully chronicled trajectory of the Trottas, and in turn that of the Empire itself, was done through a deeply affecting sense of nostalgia for an era and a time lost in space, and a running streak of brittle irony, deadpan satire, and whimsical humour, which brilliantly complemented the melancholia and fatalism of this thematically complex, structurally sprawling and dazzlingly realized masterwork.

Author: Joseph Roth
Genre: Drama/Historical Novel/Political History/Family Drama
Language: German
Country: Austria

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Innocent [1990]

Berlin, for large parts of the 20th century – from the rise of Nazism after WWI till the fall of the Soviet Bloc – was, quite literally, the center of the world; hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise to see how it has intrigued and fascinated completely divergent authors who've made this the backdrop and thematic reference point for their works. For The Innocent, which was written just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and published as the German reunification was underway, Ian McEwan evoked the bleak, gray, fragile, murky, paranoia-laden, politically charged and morally ambiguous world (read: Berlin) of John Le Carré’s Cold War spy thrillers (I wouldn’t be surprised if McEwan used fellow his Britisher as a point of reference); it reminded me also of Greene, as well as Mario Puzo’s hugely underrated debut novel The Dark Arena. Set a decade after WWII, in a dilapidated Berlin in the process of, ironically, arduous restoration and increasing division as the two dominant, distrustful superpowers are aggressively vying for control, the book, despite it’s backdrop, was in essence a tale of doomed, obsessive romance. Leonard Marnham, a gauche young British engineer, arrives in the city to be part of Operation Gold – a clandestine CIA/MI6 operation to build a tunnel under the Soviet sector in order to tap into their communication systems – falls desperately in love with Maria, an older, divorced lady with a troubled past and a violent ex-husband… and just when he starts finding a piece of heaven in this freezing, rubble-strewn, compelling city, things take a bizarre turn that might not just jeopardize the unlikely love story that neither his glibly bourgeois parents nor her jealous, alcoholic ex would ever approve of, but might also force him to become a turncoat in a time when loyalties can be bought and sold in a dime store or at a gin joint. The gradual build-up, which eventually leads to a farcically grotesque finale, was chronicled through terse, deadpan, fatalistic prose.

Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Political Drama/Romance
Language: English
Country: UK

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Bad Girl [2006]

Unlike the 3 other novels by the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa that I’d read thus far – the saucy, freewheeling semi-autobiographical masterpiece Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; the politically charged multi-POV bildungsroman The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, and the ambitious multi-POV recreation of Trujillo’s assassination, The Feast of the Goat – which were all dizzying in their formal audacity, The Bad Girl seemed considerably less adventurous. Filled with a mix of disarming levity, infectious zeitgeist, globetrotting spirit, a Hitchcockian sense of suspense and the unexpected, and a grand scope in terms of time and space, this tale of obsessive, unrequited love, however, made up for its lack of political and formal complexity through charming storytelling and a delectably cinematic premise. The basic tenet involves Ricardo, an affable and linguistically gifted Peruvian who fulfills his ambition of becoming a Parisian by becoming an interpreter and subsequently translator, falling in love over and over again with presumably the same girl who keeps reappearing in his life over a period of over four decades – as an enticing yet aloof Chilean teenager during his days of growing up in the Miraflores district of Lima, as a mysterious Communist revolutionary passing through Paris on her way to a guerilla training camp in Cuba, as the vibrant spouse of a French diplomat, as the bored wife of a wealthy English businessman who’s crazy for racehorses, and as the mistress and moll of a twisted Japanese Yakuza boss. Set largely in Paris, with stretches in Lima, London, Tokyo and Madrid, and with an engaging chronicling of the changing sociocultural mores and the key events that defined the passing decades, the seriocomic novel comprised of an enigmatic, unpredictable, unapologetically amoral and fabulist heroine – a femme fatale if you will – whose unflinching desire to continually rise the social ladder and the resultant misadventures, is matched only by the protagonist’s tenacious and unfailing efforts to have her as his lover / fiancée / wife even though, inevitably, it always ends badly for him.

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Drama/Romantic Comedy
Language: Spanish
Country: Peru