Thursday, June 30, 2011

False Starts - Malcolm Braly
It couldn’t have been easy for Braly to write this “Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons.” He had to look back at the wreckage of a life spent mostly behind bars. He was first incarcerated at age eighteen and was released – this time for good – at age forty. During his previous brief interludes of freedom he was unable to hold a job and his relationships with women were fraught with difficulties; he turned to meth and petty theft. These thefts were so inept that he was inviting capture. As he engaged in a self-inflicted wasting away of his life, he aspired to do something noteworthy, thinking that “afterwards I would always be defined by this affirmation and I would never again feel useless and stunted and soiled.” He would finally, in his own eyes, be “worthy of love.” If he had never found a talent his life would have been bleak indeed. But in his thirties he began to write crime novels; his ability to make a living as an author was a factor in his being released from prison. He would go on to produce something that met with serious acclaim: On the Yard. His memoir closes with him basking in success: “That evening our apartment was filled with friends who came to watch me watch myself on the Tonight Show . . . I had found a life here in the Magic City, a life among peers, and I had also found some part of the love I had always yearned for.” So there’s a happy ending to this autobiography. Yet, though I found Malcolm Braly to be perceptive and honest (and a good writer), I felt remote from the boy and man. The parts I’ve quoted show intimacy, but there’s an emotional detachment – or, more likely, an evasiveness – in the way he tells much of his story. The book’s main value lies in its study of prison life (though, as Braly acknowledges, that life has been replaced by something far meaner). He gives us the day-to-day routines, the toll prison takes on one’s spirit, the people he interacted with in the cells and mess halls and on the yard. Though he may have found peers in his new life, for many years his peers were cons like him.

Sudden Rain - Maritta Wolff
This isn’t nearly as successful as The Big Nickelodeon, though it has that novel’s readability. Again Wolff uses a lot of dialogue, but this time the characters sound alike, and they use language that’s gushy. I wonder how many times the word “marvelous” appears. Or “absolutely.” Things are “absolutely marvelous” or “absolutely fierce,” and a person is an “absolute love.” “Divine” also rears its ugly head. There are too many modifiers; someone can’t just be imposing, they must be “terribly imposing.” You get the idea. The novel is about relationships in and outside of marriage, but the characters often struck me as coming straight from central casting. The ending leaves everything – every last one of the conflicts – unresolved. I felt mildly gypped – not terribly and absolutely gypped, because I didn’t care that much what happened to these people. But, despite my gripes, I did read all four hundred pages. And I need to note an extraordinary chapter, one which shows how skilled a writer Wolff could be. A character is murdered – a random killing – and the economy and force with which this event is portrayed make it stunning.

Without a Hero - T. Coraghessan Boyle
Another one of my forays into modern literary fiction, another example of how freakishness has become the new gold standard. An offbeat or bizarre idea comes first, then it’s developed into a half-baked story. Real people in real situations don’t interest authors like Boyle. His characters merely serve their freaky roles in a freaky narrative. I started about half the stories; some I didn’t finish because I was overcome by boredom. One I abandoned was “The 100 Faces of Death, Volume IV” (the title of a video that shows people being killed in grotesque ways). At that point I had my fill of Thomas John (T. Coraghessan’s given name). I was left wondering what motivates him – a mercenary cynicism? He certainly plays the freakishness angle for all it’s worth, using that unpronounceable moniker and trying to look like Dracula for his book jacket photos. When I consider how highly regarded he and others of his ilk are in today’s literary world, I think of Kevin McCarthy’s frantic words at the end of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”: “They’re here! They’re here!”

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