Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Watchful Gods and Other Stories - Walter Van Tilburg Clark 
The Watchful Gods is a short novel. A boy wakes up on his twelfth birthday; he very much wants a rifle. He gets his wish and immediately goes hunting; after he kills a rabbit he feels remorse. Buck comes across as a normal boy in his interactions with his family and his fantasies about a girl, but he’s quite out of the ordinary. He has a strong spiritual/mystical side; he feels the presence of gods who are directly involved in his life. Some are good, some are malevolent (there’s also an indifferent god presiding over all). And there are sprites – spirits of happiness. By killing the rabbit, Buck believes that he has sided with the malevolent god; he tries to right the wrong he’s committed in an elaborate burial ceremony. Buck’s spirituality is linked to nature, for which he has great affinity; large portions of the novella are made up of descriptions of the natural world. Clark had something to say, but he layered so much onto his character and situation that they got buried under too many words (along with any point he wanted to make). Not helping matters is an indeterminate ending. In the stories Clark also had a larger purpose in mind; most are good, and one unobtrusively rises to greatness. “The Indian Well” opens with a long description of nature, but here the words relate to living creatures – road runners, lizards, coyotes, rabbits, antelope. And then man. A man and his mule arrive at the spring; they’re the latest in a long line of travelers, stretching back to time immemorial. Clark describes the ordinary events and the drama of this lone man’s stay. After a year he leaves (this time more alone than when he came); at his departure “the disturbed life of the spring resumed.” This story evokes the great and harsh cycle of existence, and man’s uneasy place in it. 

Red Harvest - Dashiell Hammett 
There’s a grimy feel to this novel, and that’s its main virtue. Hammett’s unembellished prose efficiently captures the disreputable denizens of Poisonville. Dinah Brand stands out, fascinating and formidable; I almost kept reading just to get more of this tough dame. Almost. I quit the book at the halfway point, after a couple of ridiculous shootouts. Actually, my doubts began early on, when the nameless private eye states that he knows who murdered a guy. Huh? I had no clue who did it (things had gotten complicated quick). It turns out to be a character who appears for only two pages and who’s presented (by the author) as the most unlikely suspect of all. This isn’t playing fair with the reader. Then a boxer knocks out an opponent who’s supposed to win (the fix is on) and immediately gets a knife in the neck. This knife is thrown from somewhere in the back of a crowded arena. I’m supposed to swallow this nonsense? The real crime that needs solving is why the Library of America devoted two volumes to the work of Hammett. 

The Radiant Way - Margaret Drabble 
I consumed this book like comfort food – and it wasn’t junk but carefully-prepared dishes like smoked salmon with morel sauce. It gave me a warm feeling of comradery, which is the strength of TV series featuring an enduring set of friends (though this novel’s three female characters are too discerning to waste their time watching sitcoms on the telly). Alix is the most grounded; Esther is otherworldly and enigmatic; Liz vacillates between contentment and turmoil. The novel opens with a New Year’s Eve party given by Liz and her husband at their posh Harley Street home; as 1980 is rung in Liz learns that her husband is leaving her for another woman. What follows covers a span of five years; the women’s lives are altered in many ways, some good, some bad. England itself (there’s a strong element of social commentary) is greatly changed, much for the worse. This is an ambitious, complex, intelligent book. It’s also a messy melange. But I have no desire to go into its faults. For nearly four hundred densely-packed pages it kept alive in me those feelings of comfort and comradery, and feelings sweep aside criticism. I thought Drabble might be going seriously off course in the book’s last fourth, but she righted the ship and sailed it into its berth – to the very place where it belonged. * 

Death of a Doxy - Rex Stout 
Archie takes center stage, and he’s as lively and engaging as ever. My problem with this Nero Wolfe outing is that the murderer’s identity is based entirely on an alias he uses in an extortion note. Does the name Milton Thales mean anything to you? It didn’t to me, but to Nero Wolfe it pointed directly to one person. If this character hadn’t chosen that particular name there wouldn’t be a scrap of evidence against him. That’s flimsy. A mystery should present a preponderance of evidence that enables the attentive reader to identify the bad guy. Stout usually does this, but not here. Also, in the three Wolfe mysteries I’ve previously read the guilty party commits suicide; in this one he’s murdered, though the police rule his death to be a suicide. Case closed.

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