Monday, October 16, 2017

Wiseguy [1986]

Goodfellas, without Martin Scorsese helming it, wouldn’t have been the scintillating New York Mafia film that it was. While Marty certainly benefitted from a powerhouse cast, an electric script (which took 12 drafts to reach its final version) and a throbbing soundtrack (handpicked by Marty himself), nothing would have materialized without Wiseguy, the crackling non-fiction book written by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi it was adapted from. Henry Hill, throughout his life in the world of organized crime, was an oddity and a rarity – despite not being a pure-blood Italian (he was half-Irish and half-Sicilian), he’d managed to carve a place for himself; in an organization as rigidly hierarchical as the Mafiosi, he managed to seamlessly move across layers from the upper echelons down to the streets; and despite the crackdown that finally ensued from all quarters, he was the only one who evaded both incarceration and bullet at the back of the head. And boy did he dabble in a dizzying array of illegal activities – transporting contraband cigarettes avoiding inter-state tax, bookmaking, fixing college games, dealing in stolen credit cards and counterfeit currency, shipping stolen cars, hijacking of vehicles in and around the JFK, a thriving drug business, among a host of others; and of course the spectacular $6 million Lufthansa heist which, despite the precision with which it was executed, became the beginning of the end. In Pileggi’s absorbing book, with significant portions narrated by Hill himself while in the US Government’s Witness Protection Programme, we do not just get to witness the dramatic life of this incredible hustler and schemer who entered this world at the age of 11 and became addicted to this life while also being an absolute natural at it, we also get a fascinating peek into life in the mob with its bosses and henchmen, making money and then doling them out, enjoying the good life even while inside high-security federal prisons, and most emblematically, hopping joints drinking with comrades and then being casually bumped off by one’s old buddies while on the ride back home.

Author: Nicholas Pileggi
Genre: Non-Fiction/Biography/Gangster
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Pick-Up [1955]

Charles Willeford is best known as the author of the hardboiled post-noir detective novel Miami Blues; consequently it piqued my interest when I noticed his name in the 1940s Crime Novel & American Noir anthology published by Library of America. Pick-Up, a downbeat early novel by Willeford, started off in the archetypal tradition of classic pulpy noir; Harry, a laconic, short-of-cash guy working a seedy job at a washed-out diner in San Francisco, is on the verge of leaving for the day when in walks Meredith, a lithe, strikingly attractive married lady with a bad hangover, low on dough, and high on seductive charm. A shared love for hard drinking, shoddy pasts they want to forget, and an absolute disregard for the future, get these two lost souls together, and sets this up as possibly a springboard to a Bonnie-and-Clyde tale of crime and violence. However, curiously, it changed guard when Meredith, who’s by now moved in with Harry at the sodden rooming-house he stays in, is revealed to be a self-destructive alcoholic – a classic damsel in distress, and Harry too loses any interest in eking out a living. As they hop from one squalid joint to another all over Frisco, there’s a sense of exhilaration, but things start going south as this turns into a tale of rabid alcoholism of two doomed lovers – more in the vein of the Billy Wilder film The Lost Weekend. That Harry was once a formally trained artist of considerable potential – not unlike the trajectory of the protagonist in David Goodis’ magnificent existential noir Down There, also part of this anthology – added a sense of fatalism to the tale. This mish-mash of themes, and the tonal unevenness on account of the melodramatic elements that accompanied the road downhill to hell, made this gloomy novel a curious read, only to be once again brought to a pitch by the casually explosive final two lines.

Author: Charles Willeford
Genre: Social Drama/Romantic Noir/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Farewell, My Lovely [1940]

Chandler is said to have considered his second novel Farewell, My Lovely as his personal favourite, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Written with panache and extraordinary precision, this dark, brutal and incredibly compelling work, composed through cannibalizing three of his earlier short stories, had Marlowe at his most volatile, unpredictable and psychologically complex – incessantly cynical yet with a deceptively sentimental core, assured yet quietly vulnerable, hard drinking, alienating and relentlessly self-destructive. And the deliciously convoluted story, touching upon themes like lost love and fatal attraction, widespread city corruption reminiscent of Hammett’s explosive Red Harvest, crime and comeuppance, and the irreconcilable chasm between the wealthy who follow their own laws and the poor who live and die cheap, were powerfully juxtaposed with Chandler’s tar-drenched, hardboiled prose, his bleakly beautiful, morally ambivalent world view, and his absorbing depiction of 1940s LA with its murky atmosphere and decrepit underbelly. The tale begins with Marlowe inadvertently witnessing a murder when a hulking hoodlum barges into a nightclub called Florian’s in pursuit of his ex-girlfriend Velma, and that puts into motion a series of seemingly disparate but essentially linked plot elements in this intricately narrated tale – a straightforward ransom drop-off, purportedly as a follow-up to a jewel-heist, ending in an ugly murder; the alcoholic widowed wife of the erstwhile owner of Florian’s living a shabby existence with a secret hidden in her closet; a drop-dead beaut – I wouldn’t be surprised if she served as an inspiration to the iconic female fatale in James Cain’s Double Indemnity – married to a wealthy, cuckolded older man; a host of sleazy, crooked and phony characters – racketeers, cops, dope doctors – protecting each other’s greasy backs. While one might endlessly debate whether this or The Big Sleep was Chandler’s greatest work, the terrific film noir Murder, My Sweet, directed by Edward Dmytryk, remains for me the finest Chandler adaptation; Dick Powell was marvelous as Marlowe even if Bogart ended up becoming the face of the wisecracking gumshoe.

Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Roman Noir/Crime Thriller/Mystery/Detective Fiction/Hardboiled Literature
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Exit Ghost [2007]

Having now read 11 books by Philip Roth, I can possibly say that I’ve read a decent amount of him; yet it also feels surreal that 9 of them pertain to all those featuring his incredible alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman. Exit Ghost, which Roth confirmed as his final Zuckerman novel, and where the protagonist is now a septuagenarian like the author himself, completed the loop by tying the threads with the astounding novella which’d started this saga, viz. The Ghost Writer. Having lived for over a decade in the woods, shunning human contact and public scrutiny – that this once virile person with a hyper-active libido is now impotent and incontinent following a prostate surgery might well explain that – he decides to make a trip back to New York against his better judgements. Though, purportedly, the reason is medical, he’s plunged headlong into a past that is still fresh in his otherwise faltering mind and a present that he’d deliberately been avoiding all these years. Half a century back a young Zuckerman had had had the pleasure of being a guest to the house of his fiery and reclusive idol E.I. Lonoff, and there he’d met the captivating and enigmatic Amy Bellette, who he’d recreated as the real Anne Frank; Amy, as he accidentally stumbles onto, is now an old and lonely woman afflicted with brain tumour and living in a decrepit apartment with memories of the long-dead and out-of-print Lonoff. Meanwhile, he meets and becomes infatuated with Jamie, a ravishing married lady and wannabe write aware of her effects on men. And, connecting these two dichotomous threads is a brash young man and Jamie’s on-off lover who’s hell-bent on writing his version of Lonoff’s biography. This “late” Roth, with its maddening incoherence, self-effacing wit, flirtatious ramblings, formal playfulness, and ruminations on ageing, death and the pitfalls of art-artist duality, brought to a cheekily casual closure the intoxicating Zuckerman series which, with its thematic diversity and stylistic breath, truly defies any literary typecasting.

Author: Philip Roth
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Bildungsroman
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Mottled Dawn [1948-1955]

The Partition of 1947 was a momentous event in the contemporary history of the Indian subcontinent, and, with the carnage, massacres, rapes, murders, riots and homelessness that accompanied this mass exodus, it was also an unmitigated tragedy the kind of which it’s well-nigh impossible to either fathom or comprehend. Saadat Hasan Manto, iconoclastic Urdu Indo-Pakistani writer and one of the great practitioners of the art of short stories, composed some of his best works on this scarring episode which he had the misfortune of experiencing first-hand – Mottled Dawn is a wonderfully curated collection of 50 of his most well-reckoned tales, personal sketches and musings on Partition. Filled with bemused observations, brittle humour, lacerating wit, deep-set humanism, and exquisite interplay between artistic acumen and political consciousness – facets which have earned him comparisons with Gogol, Chekhov and O’ Henry – the anthology provides disquieting, multi-faceted and surprisingly level-headed perspectives on this corrosive and deeply divisive subject, which, despite the enormous attention and reflection it warrants, hasn’t been covered as much in literature and cinema as it ought to have. The collection is filled with allegorical tales that, with their understated commentaries, darkly comic tones and allegorical plot progressions, display the event’s dehumanizing aspects on one side and its utter ludicrosity on the other, thus imbuing them with a flavor which is quintessentially East European – a mental asylum patient gets stranded in no-man’s-land (Toba Tek Singh), a hapless dog running between the Indian and Pakistani army (The Dog of Titwal), a daily wage-earner’s irrational excitement for something he hardly understands (The New Constitution), a frenzied man realizing too late the despicability of his acts (Colder than Ice), a filthy public urinal providing a mirror to the crazy state of affairs (Three Simple Statements), two former comrades forced to battle out from across the border (The Last Salute), a senile lady’s believe that her daughter is still alive (The Dutiful Daughter), reflections by a man who was once Jinnah’s chauffeur (Jinnah Sahib), the cyclical nature of violence (Bitter Harvest), among a host of other gems.

Author: Saadat Hasan Manto
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Short Stories
Language: Urdu
Country: Pakistan