About Me

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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. . .

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Hilary Davidson's Latest has a Soft Beginning, But Grabs the Reader After 100 Pages

By Hilary Davidson
(321 pages)
(Forge Books, April 15, 2014)
ISBN: 0765333546

I’m not sure whether Hilary Davidson’s latest novel is a classic mystery with noir touches, or a noir novel that functions as a whodunit.

All I am really sure about is that it is up to her usual high standards with a pair of villains noteworthy for their evil, two major characters whose background is tainted by crime, and a surprise life-saving heroine who emerges at the end to answer key questions about what has happened.

The mechanics of the plot are complicated: Dominique Monaghan, a former fashion model, has hatched a scheme that will ruin her ex-boyfriend, Gary Cowan, a former prizefighter who is married to an heiress. The scheme involves drugging Cowan with a muscle relaxant that will dull his senses and make him malleable, then coaxing him to confess how he has violated the terms of his prenuptial agreement.

There is a touch of racial exoticism that makes the relationship interesting: Dominique is statuesque and black; Gary is muscular and white.

Dominique plans to turn a recording of Gary's admissions over to Zachary Amberson, the lawyer who represents Gary’s wife, Trinity Lytton-Jones. The attorney will use it to break the prenup and leave Gary penniless. For this, we discover, Dominique stands to earn a million dollars.

The ex-model’s desire for revenge springs from her adulterous boyfriend’s pathological dishonesty. Though Gary poses as Trinity’s well-to-do trophy husband, he is a hustler who has pissed away a sizeable chunk of his wife’s money by living well beyond his means.

“He had to have the best of everything,” Dominique observes early in the book. “But if he couldn’t secure that, he’d settle for a hopeless fraud.”  

The first third of the book lays out Dominique’s scheme and a series of events that puts her and Gary under the control of a pair of kidnappers in an isolated house in the Pocono Mountains. Up to this point it seems the story is going to be told from Dominique’s point of view, which is unfortunate because she and Gary are two of the most superficial and least interesting characters in the novel.

But Davidson, a Canadian-born author who has written short stories for publications ranging from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine to Thuglit, as well as three novels in the Lily Moore mystery series, has something else in mind: after a surprising plot twist that introduces Desmond Edgars, Dominique’s pilot brother, the point of view of the novel is completely recast and an even more complicated story emerges – a multibillion dollar criminal scheme that Desmond must work out in order to bring the book to closure.

Hilary Davidson (courtesy of Amazon.com)
Even the most superficial explanation of what that scheme involves would reveal critical elements of the story. Suffice to say that in order to solve the mystery, Desmond must track down the kidnappers, figure out what motivates them, confront a crime in his own past that has secretly shaped his life, fight off an assassin who tries to strangle him and take a gunshot wound to the stomach.

To me, the biggest flaw in the book lies in how Davidson portrays two of the primary characters: Dominique and her adulterous lover, Gary.

Neither character is particularly attractive. From an objective point of view, both are liars and schemers whose motivations are base – in Dominique’s case she is driven by her desire for revenge, while Gary’s actions are occasioned by his greed. For this reason, I found both less than compelling as primary characters in the story.

My antipathy to the two characters was also due in part to the superficiality with which they were portrayed. Readers are offered little more than a two-dimensional sketch of Gary and he is portrayed in such an unflattering way that it is difficult to understand what Dominique sees in him in the first place.

As for Dominique, she behaves in a peculiarly naïve fashion for a 30-year-old woman who has been around the block at least once. In part her naivety seems to be deliberate, a way to explain her otherwise inexplicable attraction to Gary and her failure to make any serious effort to extricate herself from the dangerous situation in which she finds herself.

But as the primary characteristic of a central figure in the story, it is not an attractive personality trait.

Don’t get me wrong: I can appreciate a character who misbehaves, particularly an original villain such as Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), or Walter Huff (Double Indemnity), but if a primary figure in a story is is a rotter, I want him or her to have enough personality to hold my attention. I simply didn’t feel that was the case with Dominique and Gary.

Fortunately, by the time the reader is around 100 pages into the book, the weakness of these two characters no longer matters: Dominique's brother Desmond becomes the protagonist and his quest for answers is the machinery that drives the novel forward. 

Once the focus is on him, the plot solidifies and the mystery of his traumatic past begins to suck the reader into the story. Corpses pile up and Davidson establishes that Desmond is seriously at risk – both from the killers and the police. At that point the novel becomes a classic page-turner.

Believe me, the remainder of the story is good enough to justify sticking with Blood Always Tells.

The final two-thirds of the book are more sharply plotted and its characters far more interesting than those introduced at the novel’s beginning. Even relatively minor characters spring off the page, conjured deftly without wasting a gesture.

In describing a New York police detective, for example, Davidson writes, “The man was white, with hair the color of a dirty bristle brush cut into short spikes. He reclined in a chair with his chest puffed out under a shiny blue dress shirt that surely had a disco somewhere worried about its absence.”

And while searching a murdered lawyer’s office Desmond finds sloppy disarray:

“The mess inside the top desk drawers suggested pathological hoarding. Desmond didn’t think he’d seen so many sugar, salt and soy sauce packets outside an airport food court.”

As he searches a closet in an apartment, Desmond finds shoes lined up in its bottom “like little soldiers.” The closet’s owner, he thinks, “had loved those Italian designers whose names sounded like money when they came out of your mouth. Gucci and Pucci and Prada, hanging together like spoiled little princesses.”

It’s Davidson’s razor-edged observations like these that make Blood Always Tells so enjoyable and fun to read. Give it a try, but stick with it: you’ll be glad you didn’t let yourself be put off by the book’s weaker beginning.

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 Barrette (Magpies), Steve 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.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Gritty Story About Brotherly Love

By Joe Clifford
(310 pages)
(Oceanview Publishing; Oct. 7, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1608091333
ISBN-13: 978-1608091331

Full disclosure: my brother was a junkie like Chris, the protagonist's sibling in Lamentation, Joe Clifford's new novel. My sibling Tony was ten years younger than me; despite this, I spent my 58th birthday putting him underground.

He was a needle-sharing speed freak who couldn't stay out of trouble and ended up spending time in jail and at least two California prisons. I stopped by the jail in Placerville to visit Tony when our father died, but he refused to leave his cell; he said he was ashamed to have me see him dressed in county orange.

He didn't die of an overdose. Like a lot of needle-sharers, he used contaminated spikes and became a Hep C victim.

My point is, I think I know a little something about being the straight brother of a crank shooter. And from that perspective, I can tell you Clifford's book gets it exactly right: my brother may have been a dope fiend like Chris, but he was still my brother -- with all the heartbreak, love and disappointment that entails.

Lamentation is told from the perspective of Jay, Chris's younger brother. The novel is set in the fictional community of Ashton in rural New Hampshire and revolves around Jay's attempts to deal with Chris's addiction and protect him after he becomes a "person of interest" in the murder of another doper, Pete, with whom Chris operates a rag-tag computer recycling business. 

Jay has had a love-hate relationship with his older brother since their parents were killed in a car wreck. When they were younger, Jay attempted to get Chris into rehab, to clean him up and help ease him back into society; but after Chris repeatedly lapsed back into drug abuse, Jay all but wrote him off as a dope fiend and loser.

Superficially, at least, his assessment is valid: Chris is essentially homeless, augmenting his meagre earnings from the computer business by turning tricks at a local truck stop, and pulling in enough occasional income to take a room at a sordid truck stop motel that specializes in rentals by the hour.

Not that Jay is exactly a success story, himself: he makes a hand-to-mouth living clearing houses whose occupants have died, boxing up dead people's furniture and knick-knacks for his boss to sell to area antique dealers. He has a two-year-old son, Aidan, by a woman named Jenny that he is deeply in love with, but he's messed their relationship up so completely that his ex- has shacked up with a former motorcycle outlaw rather than go on living with him. His social circle consists of one really close friend -- even though he lives in the kind of pissant town where everyone knows everybody else and no one ever leaves -- and a big night out is a couple of beers at a local pub while a Bruins game flickers on the TV.

It's a lot like Placerville, California, the burg where I was born and spent my teenage years. Spend a year or so in a place like Ashton or Placerville and you stop wondering why people get strung out on drugs.

As bad as things are, they take a turn for the worse when Chris and his partner get hold of a computer hard-drive that contains compromising information someone wants buried. First Pete, the partner, is murdered, his body dumped in a pool of storm runoff. Chris tells his brother about the drive, but Chris's frequent paranoid delusions make Jay skeptical.

Then Chris goes missing, the squalid shack Jay lives in is ransacked and Jay gets his head cracked by an intruder. The responsible younger brother soon finds himself searching for his irresponsible sibling in a world populated by biker gang members, skanky truck-stop prostitutes, crooked politicians and incompetent police.

Despite its no-nonsense, hardboiled veneer, Lamentation is surprisingly tender. While the novel is essentially a crime story, at its core is the uneasy relationship between the two brothers, a relationship so fraught with doom that it colors everything else in their lives.

Renaissance man Joe Clifford (courtesy of joeclifford.com)

Clifford is the author of two other novels, Junkie Love (which will be reviewed Sunday, July 20) and Wake the Undertaker. He has written numerous short stories, is an editor at Out of the Gutter Online, and produces Lip Service West: True Stories, a regular series of readings by local authors.

He is deft in his use of description to bring his characters to life. He succeeds in making each major figure in the book unique and believable, even relatively minor ones like the local county sheriff, or the former biker who is living with Jay's ex.

And he serves up some delicious Chandleresque writing in the process. While visiting his friend Charlie's house, for example, he paints the scene indelibly:

"Charlie hadn't redecorated since his mom died, and the house retained that old-lady feel, all decor left over from the 1970s -- paisley print sofas and wagon-wheel coffee tables, shitty paintings that you could buy for a quarter at any garage sale up here because at one time or another every retiree in New Hampshire tries their hand at painting."

In another section, he describes the cheap homemade version of methamphetamine available in New England as "a science project for sleep deprived zombies," concocted from a laundry list of toxic ingredients that includes "gun bluing and industrial strength ammonia, miner's coal and jet fuel, corrosive chemicals you find under a sink. Basically, the very last kind of ingredients you want to put in your body, and this had been my brother's primary diet for years. No wonder his brains were oozing out his ears. In a few years he'd be draped in garbage bags and talking to beer cans at the bus station."

In describing Ashton, the tiny town where he lives, Jay notes that the place has legitimate businesses like Jiffy Lube and Best Buy, but adds "in between all the department outlets and national chains were still the places no one really wanted to be: cheap motels, dollar stores, military surplus shacks, knickknack and consignment shops, The Salvation Army, fast food drive-throughs, all-night gas stations."

I have had the pleasure of reading a lot of really good stories by new authors working in the neo-pulp tradition this year and Lamentation is one of the best: the writing is crisp, the plot sufficiently complex to hold the reader's interest and keep him or her off-balance, and the characters believable and fully-developed.

There is even enough mystery about what is actually going on that most the book functions as a legitimate whodunit, and the actual motive for the mayhem is not revealed until the story is nearly over.

But while Clifford's novel is a crime thriller, it is really much, much more: it is a truly excellent story of the troubled relationship between brothers, a topic that gives it additional value outside its literary genre.

Lamentation is a treat. This was one of those books I was sorry to see end.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Is Amazon Trying to Bury Hachette?

As the war over e-Book pricing between Amazon.com and Hachette Book Group grinds on, many writers have thrown in with Hachette, calling Amazon a voracious giant that is bullying the traditional publishing house.

What a load of bollocks! 

According to its own webpage, Hachette has nine publishing groups, probably the best known of which is Little, Brown. It is a subgroup of a much bigger conglomerate, Hachette Livre, the largest publisher in France and the third largest in the world, and it is getting bigger every day: last month, in fact, it vacuumed up the Perseus Books Group, the sixth-largest trade publisher in the United States. 

The Hachette Book Group and its various tentacles publish more than a thousand books a year and in 2013, it had 290 items on the New York Times bestseller list, 52 of which reached number one in sales for various periods of time.

That's a function of marketing, not quality: some of the biggest bestsellers in Hachette's catalog are collections of jokes produced by the gag-writers for celebrity authors like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, while others are the second-rate sausage that is ground out by fiction factories like James Patterson.

The point I am trying to make is simple: though it has been portrayed as fighting a desperate battle with a gigantic competitor, Hachette is hardly a mom-and-pop operation. Pretending it is some tiny David fighting Amazon's Goliath is simply a crock of steaming bullshit. 

How did Hachette get so big? Not by putting out high-quality literary products; after all, this is the company that publishes James Patterson, a man who hasn't written a book worth reading for years. No, Hachette got big the old fashioned corporate way: by buying other companies or being bought by them. 

How did Hachette get so big? Not by putting out high-quality literary products; after all, this is the company that publishes James Patterson, a man who hasn't written a book worth reading in years. No, Hachette got big the old fashioned corporate way: by buying other companies or being bought by them. 
Little, Brown, Hatchette's U.S. predecessor, was purchased by Time, Inc. in 1968; it merged with Warner Communications to form Time Warner in 1989; It bought Macdonald & Co. in 1992; Time Warner was absorbed by Lagardère [Hatchette] in March 2006; Its Warner Books subsidiary renamed itself Grand Central Publishing at the same time.

The result? Number one in France and third in the world as a whole.

An astute reader may have noticed that all this corporate hopscotch makes Hachette look like some sort of monopoly itself. In fact, it is: in April 2012, the United States Department of Justice filed United States v. Apple Inc., naming Apple, Hachette, and four other major publishers as defendants. The suit alleged that they conspired to fix prices for e-Books, and weaken Amazon.com's position in the market, in violation of antitrust law.

(For the uninitiated, antitrust violations are a corporate method of cheating the public, a type of white collar crime. So your "mom-and-pop" publishers at Hachette are actually flim-flam artists and grifters straight out of a Jim Thompson novel, not the put-upon victims of a corporate bully.)

Despite the anti-trust action filed against it by the federal government, Hachette continues to grow: in March 2014, Hachette acquired Hyperion Books from Disney Publishing Worldwide and renamed it Hachette Books. Last month it glommed up another publishing operation, Perseus Book Group, in a move that was clearly intended to give it a bigger share of the publishing industry and strengthen its hand against Amazon.

If this is a David v. Goliath fight, it is hard to tell who is supposed to be the little guy with the slingshot.

The issue in a nutshell? Not the domination of the publishing industry. Not the elimination of competitors by means of unfair business practices. Not freedom of the press. And damned sure not the future of literature. No -- the only issue is how much writers should get back for their hard work.

Which is why it is worth pointing out what is really at issue in this battle: Despite all the mewling and whinging by people like Patterson, Phillip Pullman and Stephen King, the central issue in the dispute between Amazon and Hachette is how much to pay the writers who produce the e-Book content publishing outfits like Hachette peddle. Amazon gives writers a good deal -- up to 70 percent of the royalties earned on a title. Hachette, like most trad houses, pays around 25 percent. And Hachette charges a hell of a lot more for an e-Book, too: up to $15 a title, most of which goes into Hachette's pocket.

The worst of both worlds, you see: a high price that discourages sales and a minuscule royalty per unit when you find somebody who is actually willing to pay the premium.

That's the issue in a nutshell. Not the domination of the publishing industry. Not the elimination of competitors by means of unfair business practices. Not freedom of the press. And damned sure not the future of literature. No -- the only issue is how much writers should get back for their hard work.

Period. End of fucking report.

Amazon says the writers who produce the e-Books Hachette sells should be getting a lot more. Hachette wants to hold onto that money and says the writers can go piss up a rope -- unless they happen to be Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson or some other millionaire.

Don't misunderstand me: I am not saying that Amazon is right and Hachette is wrong in the current dispute. What I am saying is that I think that it's ironic writers who have been cheated or ignored by traditional publishers (and sometimes both simultaneously), are siding with a publishing model that has oppressed them since Gutenberg devised movable type.

However, my mind remains open on the matter; if somebody can convince me Hachette is supporting  writers by jacking up the prices on their e-Books and writing them a smaller royalty check than Amazon, I will carry the company's flag. So far, nobody has. Until they do, the 70 percent in royalties Amazon pays looks pretty good compared to the 25 percent Hachette does. Save me a seat on the Bezos bandwagon: I'm ready to climb on board.


P.S.: The media have almost without exception taken Hachette's side in this dog fight, sucked in by celebrities like Patterson,  Pullman and Colbert, all of whom are pimping the publishing giant's line. If you are interested in an alternative point of view, check out the following links:

Amazon-Hachette fight deepens as authors take sides

Amazon v. Hachette: Don't Believe the Spin

Amazon v. Hachette: Annals of Dopey Battles

Amazon a Friendly Giant as Long as it's Fed