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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Friday, July 25, 2014

Everybody’s Got The Fever

By Megan Abbott
(303 pages; Little, Brown; June 2014)
ISBN 978-0-316-23105-3

When somebody calls a book a “page-turner,” it isn’t necessarily a matter of praise; sometimes you turn the pages of a book as quickly as possible, not because you are captivated by the plot or characters, admire the protagonist or want to see how the various plot strands are resolved, but simply because it is so badly written that you want to get it over with as quickly as possible, like oral surgery or an income tax audit.

In Megan Abbott’s latest book, The Fever, this secondary reason to turn pages never comes into play because she does such a superb job with the primary ones. Abbott has written a page-turner in the best possible sense: a book in which the characters are uniformly captivating, the plot is kinkier than a San Francisco bathhouse and the story is resolved in a fashion that leaves the reader feeling completely satisfied.

I read the damned thing in four hours by simply staying up all night long. Now that’s a page-turner.

Briefly, Abbott’s yarn plunks us down in the middle of a Podunk suburban burg where a group of newly pubertal high school girls are undergoing an unsettling ritual that affects each physically and psychologically in a different way. The nature of the proceedings is not immediately disclosed, but later emerges as a central plot device that propels much of the story.

Although the story is organized as tale told by an almost omniscient third-person narrator, the point of view shifts back and forth between three main characters: Deenie, one of the high school girls; her hockey star brother Eli; and her father, Tom, a teacher at their high school who is trying to regain his equilibrium after his traumatic break-up with  the mother of his children, Georgia.

Georgia is an absent parent who fled the town after she was involved in an adulterous relationship that resulted in a pregnancy and messy miscarriage. The divorce has left Deenie alienated from her mother; she focuses her life on her friendship with two other classmates: Gabby and Lise.
Eli is less estranged, but is obsessive about hockey and is still working out his feelings about girls; his female classmates are nowhere near as equivocal in their attitude about him, however: he is universally mooned over by female classmates who consider him a rock star.

Years after the separation, Tom remains single and bitter. He engages in minor flirtation with some of the women who surround him, but seems to be seriously interested in only one of them – the high school’s mildly bohemian French language teacher, Miss Loll.

This is the situation as the story opens – homely even plebeian, like that of millions of children and their immediate families all over the U.S.  But Abbott wastes little time on this banal domestic slice of life. By page seven, Lise suffers a sudden inexplicable seizure in class that ultimately puts her in the community hospital with a coma and a mysterious medical condition that seems to be getting worse by the hour.

Then a second girl collapses in school. And a third.
The community panics. Loosely led by a pair of anti-vaccination fanatics, many blame the sudden illnesses on a series of shots the girls recently have received.  Others point to the phosphorescent algae that swirls in a nearby eutrophied lake as the cause of the frightening symptoms, even though the reservoir has been closed to the public for years. Still others look to additional environmental factors, including the run-down high school building itself.

A few people even credit the outbreak to supernatural causes – evil spirits, bad ju ju. Deenie even begins to believe the attacks may be somehow connected to her own friendship with the three stricken girls.

Arguments occur. Fights break out. Friendships fracture. The school board and hospital find themselves under pressure from the community. Lawyers begin circling like vultures over a decaying corpse, looking for some way to claw personal profit from the situation.

Deenie, Eli and Tom each struggle to understand what is happening to their community and learn the reason for the outbreak of seizures. Meanwhile other children become collateral damage, succumbing to panic attacks, bouts of depression and anxiety, and a host of other physical and psychological ailments.

To say more would be to risk spoiling the story by revealing its denouement. It is sufficient to note that The Fever is no bait-and-switch scam: Abbott does not lure us in without providing a perfectly satisfying resolution to the convoluted plot, and the solution she puts together covers every key bit of the mystery, from the initial ritual right through to a carefully constructed backstory revelation that exposes what initially set the story’s events in motion.

It would be easy to create a group of characters like those in this book who were merely cartoon versions of teenagers – collections of tics that superficially behave like the main figures in this story. I give Abbott major credit for having invested as much time and effort on the youths in this story as she does the adults.

Megan Abbott (Courtesy of MeganAbbott.com)

We do have the names and physical actions that help us wrap our heads around each character’s personality, of course: Skye Osbourne, a young woman with a gothic flair who lives with her free-spirited aunt, shrugs a lot, is forever smoking the clove cigarettes she digs from the voluminous folds of her hippie-ish clothing and prattles on like a New Age guru who has spent too much time around a Wiccan coven.

Eli has the habit of tapping his hockey stick everywhere; Gabby has big blonde hair arranged in a stylish fashion, set off with a colored swatch she changes from time to time with dye; Lise, who seems to have transformed butterfly-like from plain Jane to teen beauty  overnight, has pale skin and a stretch mark on her thigh that looks a bit like the moon.

But beyond their names and surface traits, each of these kids is unique and believable, acting in ways that range from mature and thoughtful to juvenile and hormonal. They speak to each other in voices ringing clear with  authenticity, sometimes uttering thoughts of remarkable depth. For example, after her friend Lise suffers the first horrifying seizure in the middle of a class, Deenie thinks:

You spend a long time waiting for life to start – her past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant – and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.

Although The Fever is written to maximize suspense, Abbott’s novel contains its share of sly humor, as well. When one of her classmates begins to relate a story about an exorcism that she had read on the Internet, for example, Deenie responds, deadpan, “Well, the Internet never lies.”

And when another parent begins to lecture him about the vaccination some of the stricken girls have received:

Tom sighed. There was no use talking epidemiology with Dave Hurwich, who always knew more about law than lawyers, more about cars than mechanics. And there was no use trying to explain the nuances of school-board recommendations versus forced government vaccinations of children.

One of the things that makes The Fever so good is the way in which the thoughts of each major character are lucid and intelligent in different ways. Again, Abbott receives high marks for finding ways to make them into complete, three-dimensional people, not just place-markers in the story or tools used solely to move specific plot elements forward.

Even more remarkably, she manages the same neat trick with characters that are relatively minor figures. Thus, Kim Court, a redheaded girl who is one of Deenie’s classmates, is quickly but indelibly sketched, complete with a backstory, a nickname based on the size of her teeth (“Horse”) and a lowly place in the high school pecking order, even though she exists primarily to serve as the third seizure victim and to knock down one theory as to the cause of the seizures.

The Fever has a torrid pace and an aura of dread that Abbott manages to build on every one of the 266 pages that precede the climax. But I suppose you would expect no less from an author who won the Edgar, one of the highest awards in the crime fiction field, for her 2008 novel Queenpin.

Abbott knows what she is about here. My best advice is to sit back and wait for The Fever to break.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Taking Your Inspiration from The Boss

By  Dennis Lehane, Hilary, Davidson, Chris Holm, Todd Robinson, Les Edgerton, Jen Conley, et. al.

Edited by Joe Clifford
(248 pages)
(Gutter Books/Zelmer Pulp Press, Fall 2014)

When you turn it over in your mind, Bruce Springsteen is one of the contemporary masters of noir: his songs are alive with desperate people up against the odds, their futures blighted by their own bad choices, their mistakes and their passion.

For proof, just look at "The River," a track about the travails of a young couple who live in a declining burg on the edge of nowhere in Springsteen's eponymous 1980 album. It has a tremor of foreboding in the first verse ("they bring you up to do just like your daddy done"), then brings it home at the beginning of the second, relating a mistake that destroys their dreams and robs them of their youthful innocence:

Then I got Mary pregnant
and man that was all she wrote;
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a winter coat.  
We went down to the courthouse
and the judge put it all to rest:
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle
No flowers, no wedding dress.

By the last verse, the couple is trapped in a loveless marriage, numbed by the bitter turn their life has taken and how conditions outside their control made things worse. As the song ends, the reader can't be sure that the singer -- the male half of the couple -- isn't desperate enough to dive into that river for the last time:

Is a dream a lie if it don't come true?
Or is it something worse,  
that sends me down to the river
though I know the river is dry.
That sends me down to the river tonight...

No Jim Thompson story was ever sadder or more hopeless than this song, which tells the bleak tale of how this young couple became trapped and isolated in a way that bleeds them of emotion as surely as a box knife blade across the carotid.

Springsteen's catalog is laden with this type of noirish material: "My Home Town," "Youngstown," "Lost in the Flood," "The Ghost of Tom Joad." These are desperate lyrics about desperate people living in desperate times. Some, such as "Nebraska," which was inspired by the Midwestern crime spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate, have been open in their outlaw themes. Others are less overt.

So it only makes sense for Springsteen's music to inspire an anthology of crime fiction heavily slanted toward the transgressive darkness of pulp fiction and the blackest of noir

Fortunately, this idea occurred to two people in positions to make it happen, Chris Leek (Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em) of Zelmer Pulp, a small imprint that specializes in hard-edged fiction, and Joe Clifford of Out of the Gutter Online and Gutter Books, another publishing operation that specializes in gritty crime stories.

The product of this collaboration is Trouble in the Heartland, a collection of 50 stories by some of the top writers working in contemporary crime fiction -- people such as Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island); Hilary Davidson (Blood Always Tells and 2011 Anthony Award winner The Damage Done); Lynne BarretSteve Weddle (Country Hardball), Todd Robinson (The Hard Bounce), Chris F. Holm (the Collector trilogy), and Tom Pitts (Hustle, Piggyback).

A portion of the net proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to The Bob Woodruff Foundation, an organization that helps injured veterans and their families thrive after they return home by finding and funding innovative programs that assist them.

The book is edited by Clifford, whose own work has been spotlighted here in recent weeks. As he puts it in the book's forward, "I've been a fan for years, but I had no idea so many other crime writers loved the Boss as much as I did.  Makes sense, though. Bruce, like the best pulp fiction, champions losers and loners on lost highways, those seeking last shots at redemption."

The anthology starts with a bang. First up is Lehane's offering, "State Trooper," a full-bore short story about a drug courier who is trying to get things back together after a run of bad luck that apparently started when he was born.

Dennis Lehane (courtesy Wikipedia)
The driver, piloting a stolen Honda with a cargo that is never seen but is almost certainly pharmaceutical in nature, has done everything by the numbers: he is clean and sober, driving a car so dull it might as well be invisible, pulling the speed limit and doing nothing erratic. Still he manages to capture the attention of a late night statie hopped up on adrenaline and looking to nail somebody on his shift -- And. The. Man. Simply. Won't. Let. Go.

Lehane's yarn is one of the most brilliantly engineered pieces of fiction I have read in years. He tells the reader almost nothing, but implies every critical detail of his protagonist's life -- his emotionally wounded ex-, his little son, his furtive, fearful brother.

He never tells you outright that the character is black, but lets you infer it from the man's reaction to the droning talk radio commentators he keeps channel-checking on his car's tuner. The drones make it clear that the driver's "type" has no place in their America.

I'm not a racist, one of them tells his legion of mouth-breathing listeners. I'm just someone who loves the English language. I'm just a man who wants the English language to stay the language of kings, not the language of a bunch of do-rag lovin' homies can't tell the difference between crystal and Cristal, Know what I'm saying, yo?

And there is no way the reader can escape the conclusion that at least part of the reason why the cop keys in on him in his clapped-out nondescript gray Honda is racism. One big hint is the fact that the trooper's name is Whitman. Another is the fact that, because the courier is a black man on the Interstate in the middle of the night, he obviously must be doing something illegal, right?

"State Trooper" is a postgraduate class in how to build suspense and a sense of menace in a story without being obvious. Despite the fact that no violence occurs in his tale, Lehane lets us know that the potential is there, almost from the first sentence, and grows ever stronger as the story proceeds. That all hell is finally about to break loose is obvious as the tale rolls to its conclusion and the courier puts his hand on the snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver next to his seat.

Cool. Understated. Brilliant.

Other standout stories include Hilary Davidson's "Hungry Heart" in which a beer-joint Lothario picks an inopportune time to tell the woman he hopes to go home with that he was previously married and has two children. She takes his forgetfulness unkindly, and when he tries to force his affections on her anyway, she puts a bullet through his brisket.

Hilary Davidson (courtesy of Twitter)

"Don't worry. I'll call 9-1-1," she tells him as he lies dying. "Just as soon as you bleed out."

Lynne Barrett weighs in with "Dancing in the Dark," in which a woman hires a crew to help her do yard work while her police officer husband recovers from an on-the-job injury. The crew's leader makes advances to her and she accedes -- then ends up killing him when he shows up in the middle of the night unexpectedly. 

The story takes a wicked turn in the last few hundred words -- the kind that leaves you shaking your head while wearing a bemused smile.

How the hell did she think of that? you'll wonder.

Les Edgerton gives us "The Iceman," a story about a man whose wife thought she knew everything there was to know about him -- everything except the most important thing. Tom Pitts tells us about a "Local Hero" who forgets that his glory days are behind him until an old rival reminds him in a particularly rude way. 

Tom Pitts (courtesy of Amazon.com)

And speaking of "Glory Days," in his yarn by that name, C.S. DeWildt gives us a reunion between Stimpy and Lindsay, a pair of high school lovers that ends a bit differently than Stimpy was expecting.

There are long stories and short -- with Swill Magazine editor Rob Pierce's "Rosalita" winning the prize for brevity at only 29 words. There are funny stories, like David James Keaton's surrealistic tale "The Ghost of Jim Toad." There are sad stories like Richard Brewer's "Last to Die." There are stories like Court Merrigan's "Promised Land," in which a long-planned revenge offers a new career to a young woman fresh from a stint in a state prison. And there are stories like Eric Beetner's "Open All Night," which is set in a 24-hour diner where several murderous subplots come together as messily as a dropped flat of restaurant eggs.

When Trouble in the Heartland is released in the near future, we will announce it here, on my twitter feed and on my Facebook author page. Do pick up a copy. You will be supporting a worthwhile cause, and you will find it so full of amazing goodies you'll want to throw the Boss on the box and do a little dancing in the dark, yourself.

Sorry, though: you'll have to find your own Courteney Cox to pull up on stage with you.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cold Shot

By Joe Clifford
357 KB; 218 pages
ISBN: 0615782957
( Battered Suitcase Press, April 5, 2013)
(e-Book sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.)

So, you're looking for a light summer read, something cheerful, humorous: a crime novel, maybe, with a twisted plot, a grand caper, a huge score and interesting characters. A book that ends with the perps, free and clear, making off to the Balearic Islands with their ill-gotten swag.

You want interesting characters, car chases, fist fights, shoot-outs featuring automatic weapons, and bodies stacked up like cordwood. The equivalent, in fact, of those popcorn matinees crowded with teens on any Saturday between June and September.

If that's what you're looking for, bunkie, all I can tell you is, stay the fuck away from Junkie Love, Joe Clifford's semi-autobiographical novel about his strung-out years in San Francisco and elsewhere.

Yeah, there's crime in the book. But it's the kind of sordid chickenshit that junkies do to scrape together enough cash for a fix: dumpster diving for something saleable, kiting checks on non-existent bank accounts, identity theft, petty rip-offs from hardware stores and from other dope fiends' stashes of broken tape decks, dirty underwear and obsolete black and white television sets.

And the plot is twisted, in large part because the star of the show really had no idea what he was doing. His concerns were limited to getting loaded and screwing the junkie chicks who drifted through his world like dying fish in a turgid stream.

But the perps never escape, not to the Balearics or anyplace else someone would actually want to be. The closest they ever come is stints in rehab, or the medical lockup at the county hospital, usually not from any desire to get clean but because they have run out of money for drugs and are too sick and tired to hustle more.

Admittedly, the characters in this book are interesting. They come by it honestly: most are howling-dog crazy, driven insane by the drugs they use or the demons that made them addicts in the first place.

There's no car chases -- just a seemingly endless series of yo-yo trips from one end of the country to the other in a desperate effort to outrun addiction. The fist fights are stumble-bum maulings like the drunken brawls between alcoholics in an alley outside a beer joint. And there are no shoot-outs -- just shoot ups.

Squarely in the center of the action is Clifford, literally the star of his own screenplay. Figuratively, too, when it comes to that.

Readers of Pulp Hack Confessions should be familiar with Joe by now: he and his lovely wife produce Lip Service West: True Stories, a series of readings by East Bay authors. He is one of the editors of Out of the Gutter Online , an electronic magazine that specializes in pulp fiction, and Gutter Books, a small book publishing house. He has written two other novels (one of which, Lamentation, is due out in October and was previewed here on July 19), and is the author of a host of short stories published in Thuglit, and Pulp Ink 2

Joe Clifford: I'm becoming convinced he doesn't know
how to write a bad sentence, let alone a bad book.

Junkie Love is a mildly fictionalized gloss on Clifford's life as a user of a pharmacopeia of substances forbidden by local, state and federal law.

By his account, practically the only thing you find in a drug store that he didn't shoot during this period is Preparation H. Frankly, that surprises me: I guess it's too hard to heat the stuff up in a tablespoon and load it into a syringe.

It's hard telling how much of the book is an accurate depiction of Clifford's life in the lower circle of junkie hell and how much is fantasy. He admits he isn't certain himself. As he puts it in his foreword:

Over the years, I've published several excerpts in literary magazines, journals, e-zines and quarterlies, giving readings in bookstores, at festivals and fairs, on NPR. People seem to like it. But the question is always the same: Is this story true?

And the answer is . . .I don't know.

I don't either, but it seems pretty damned true-to-life to me.

Perhaps Junkie Love substitutes artistic truth for the factual variety. God knows Clifford is blunt enough about the years he spent hustling and committing petty crimes to get his next fix that it is impossible to dismiss the book as a vanity job. 

There is little to admire about Clifford as he lies, steals and cheats his way through life, even to the point of swiping OxyContin from his dying mother.

There is little to admire as he has casual and not so casual sex with drug-addled women who seem to think only about dope and shooting gallery rutting -- except when they are obsessing about the government agents, devil worshippers and Masons they are convinced have them under 24-hour-a-day surveillance.

"In rehab, I am a rock star," he says in one passage. "A guy like me only needs two things to pick up girls on the inside: candy and cigarettes. Junkie girls going through withdrawal crave the sugar and there isn't much to do in between groups on proper nutrition, emotional triggers and relapse prevention except smoke."

In segments like this, the book reads like a how-to manual for emotional judo, complete with instructions to "use manipulation and take a person's inherent goodness and generosity and use it against him to get what you wanted."

Clifford makes it clear that he thought what was driving him into this lurid existence was his desire to emulate writers, musicians and artists he had read about, turning his vicarious understanding of how their genius was shaped by drugs and alcohol into first-hand experience.

[After all, DeQuincey, Poe, Baudelaire, Coleridge: all of those guys were dopers, right? And if he hadn't been a lifelong heroin addict who killed his wife, William S. Burroughs would hardly have had anything to write about.]

In a section describing the rock musicians he hung with on Belvedere Street in his early days in San Francisco, Clifford even invokes Hemingway:

When Hemingway was living as an expatriate in Paris in the '20s, he wrote how lucky he was to be in a city teeming with such raw artistic possibility. That's how I felt about San Francisco and the Belvedere Boys -- like something important was going to happen. This was our moveable feast.

But by the time he enrolls in his final rehab program, he confronts the fact that his search for an artistic breakthrough by means of drugs was just a sham:

I've told myself that I live for art and beauty, that I've thwarted the conventional for the sake of higher principles and have endured years of torment with the belief that a big payoff would justify the misery. It is clear to me now that no such moment is coming. I am full of shit.

His real breakthrough comes when he cleans himself up with this final rehab stay. Toward its end, he has a conversation with his therapist, Dr. Stevens, in which it is clear to both men that he has turned the corner and is ready to move on.

"I guess it's time you get out of here, anyway," Dr. Stevens says. "They're [the rehab facility] running out of gold stars."

"Funny guy."

"You know, when you first came in, I wasn't sure you'd make it through the night."

I wait. "Neither was I."

Junkie Love is not exactly an amusement park ride, full of thrills, spills and excitement. Despite this, it's a hell of a book -- and a hell of an accomplishment.

Yeah, it's depressing; but it also has passages that are laugh out loud funny, while others will make you cringe at what Clifford went through.

And it is beautifully put together; I am becoming convinced that Clifford doesn't know how to write a bad sentence, let alone a bad paragraph, story or book.

People who have no idea what addiction is about could use this book to get some useful knowledge. Those who know -- or who think they do -- should read it anyway; particularly if they've ever rolled their eyes smugly at a tweaker's paranoiac speed rap, or sneered at a junkie, needle still sticking out of his arm, nodding off in some Tenderloin alley.

Though he would probably laugh bitterly at the notion, it seems to me that Joe Clifford got a lot from the time he spent in junkie hell.

Best of all, he got out alive.