So I’ve been away for a while — sorry about that. I was down much of last week with the flu (upper respiratory version this time around), which has hit the campus pretty hard of late. Indeed, my department chair was out for the entire week last week, and neither of us seem to be particularly energetic even now. Still, I don’t want you to think that I forgot about y’all, so here we go…
While I do feel significantly better, I seem to have picked up fluid in both ears, which has attenuated my hearing even more than usual. Indeed, I’m only slightly less deaf than a post on the right side of my head, and I’m basically hearing everything in mono. Sadly, I haven’t been inspired to write the Pet Sounds album. With luck, things will improve in the coming days.
The year after I completed my Ph.D. was my sole serious run at the job market. I was extraordinarily fortunate, in that I had three job offers, all of which had certain charms. (Worth noting — all of them came late in the spring of the academic year, which is rather like being picked in the late rounds of the draft, but it still counted, so I’m OK with it.) Along with Mondoville, I was offered positions at schools in South Dakota and Louisiana. We picked Mondoville because there was also a public school job for Mrs. M, and it was the nearest posting to our families in Kentucky.
I’m the sort of person who sometimes wonders where other choices in my life’s Garden of Forking Paths may have led, and consequently have imagined how my career and family life might have differed up north or on the bayou. However, when I think of Louisiana, I find myself thinking of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux mysteries. And honestly, the Louisiana he portrays always kind of makes me glad we made the choice we did. In many of the books, there’s a decadent nihilism to the setting, an overripeness that almost-but-not-quite covers the corruption on levels ranging from the petrochemically poisoned soil to the tainted bloodlines that seem to haunt most of the characters.
Still, I enjoy the novels, and Mr. Burke is an exceptionally kind and encouraging man — I met him at a signing in my magazine days and he treated me graciously. But somehow or another, I lost track of the series several books back, and Robicheaux’s adventures wound up somewhere on the slopes of Mt. To-Be-Read, the summit of which is above the clouds and almost certainly beyond the veil.
However, a couple of weeks back, I was offered a chance to check out A Private Cathedral, the forthcoming 23rd novel in the series. I said that sounded good, and my e-copy showed up shortly thereafter. However, I got sick around the same time, and it took me until yesterday to settle down with the book.
My dad would read the books as I did, and we figured out pretty quickly that the series tended to alternate fairly straight crime novels with what we called “the weird ones,” novels with elements of the supernatural, such as his famous In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. The latest falls well into Category 2, with plotlines (and characters) that may be hundreds of years in the making. Robicheaux finds himself in what appears to be a human trafficking case involving two crime families in the New Orleans area. The participants include a pair of young musicians, some neo-Nazis, and a man who may have been an executioner during the Italian Renaissance. Oh, and there’s also an ex-stripper who may be destined for much greater things, a contrary Catholic priest, and Dave’s ever-faithful psychopath-with-a-heart-of-gold, Clete Purcel.
As I said, one of the weird ones. But it works, and it entertains. Insofar as I have complaints, they stem from Robicheaux’s weird mix of Southern gentility (verging on punctiliousness at times), religious angst, guilt, and a quantity of anger that would founder a Percheron. On good days, I find the combination fascinating; on bad days, irritating.
But in the series, Burke manages to walk the tightrope between crime fiction and the supernatural to a degree I’ve only seen matched by William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel. And Hjortsberg only pulled it off once, while Burke has succeeded on a consistent basis. And in A Private Cathedral, he has done it again. It’s a good, entertaining book, and worth your time. Indeed, it’s good enough to have moved me to try catching up on the series in the coming months. But I’m still glad to be in Mondoville.
In about two and a half weeks, I’ll be heading up to Terpville, to spend part of my spring break with the Spawn and Main Squeeze. Book and music store recommendations are welcome.
Shortly after that, I’ll be part of the crew at Newberry’s second Noir at the Bar, taking place at 8 p.m. on 12 March, at the lovely Bar Figaro. El Bee will once again headline, but there’s going to be a nice mix of new and familiar faces, and I’d love to see your face there as well.
And of course, we aren’t too far from the release of The Darkling Halls of Ivy, Mr. Block’s scholastically themed anthology, which contains my short story “Alt-Ac.” There’s plenty of other terrific stuff in there as well, so why not order a copy? You can thank me later.
And now I’m ready for dinner, so I’d better wrap things up for now. I linked to this song very early in the blog’s history, but that video has disappeared, so here we go again. A nifty reminder that punk rock still had room for chops, here are The Stranglers, replete with throbbing bass and swirling organ. I think it sounds great even with just one working ear. Enjoy!
See you soon!
Bookstore recommendations: Around half an hour away from College Park are two Friends of Montgomery County Library bookstores. Because they sell donated stuff, you can sometimes find surprisingly weird or rare books for just a couple bucks. Also half an hour away from CP is the Second Story Books Warehouse, a vast, disorganized, but very cool place to browse and shop. (I’ve seen the entire libraries of dead politicians end up there.)
If you and the Spawn have time to drive an hour north, the city of Frederick has at least three vinyl stores in its bustling downtown area. (The Rock & Roll Graveyard is my favorite: It’s curated by a super-nice young guy who makes sure every record he sells is in decent shape.) Cheap parking in Frederick, lots of reasonably-priced places to eat. Just outside Frederick on one of the highways is Wonder Book and Video, which sells used books in a supemarket-sized retail space.
None of these places will compare to the Strand, but they’re still well worth a visit. Washingtonians with an elective allergy to the suburbs don’t know these places exist, and don’t know what they’re missing.
There’s also a used CD store in College Park: CDepot. Haven’t been there in ages, but I recall their selection being pretty large…
Interestingly, the Main Squeeze hails from Frederick, so thanks for the tips!