I’m caught up on grading until Tuesday morning, when my upper-levels take their midterm exam. I have writing to do this month, and I will, but not having those papers hanging over me lets me get my head cleared. . . I hope.
Monday was Birthday #56. I received good wishes from lots of good folks, and even managed to tolerate the monthly faculty meeting. Mrs. M graciously prepared my favorite dinner (hamburger steaks and fries — I’m easy), and joined me for some slices of cheesecake as well. Then it was time for gifts.
This year’s haul included five books, several T-shirts, and a couple of CDs, one of which is still in transit. I read four of the five this week, rewarding myself for each day’s grading.
The first one I tackled was William Kotzwinkle’s new novel, Felonious Monk. Reviewers at Amazon seem polarized — folks who like it really like it, and folks who don’t, well, you know. I’m in the “really like it” camp. I think the polarization makes a lot of sense, because (as even the title suggests), the novel is one of light and darkness, religious devotion and violence, humor and grimness, and I might suggest nature and nurture.
The protagonist, Tommy Martini, is a former Olympic-quality wrestler and bouncer with enormous strength and an anger management problem, which culminated when he unintentionally killed another man in the course of his night job. Trying to escape from both his guilt and legal repercussions, he retreats to a monastery in Mexico. A few years pass, and he is recalled to the world to receive an inheritance from his uncle, a priest in the American Southwest who has somehow accumulated a significant fortune while being involved in church-related real estate transactions.
As it turns out, shady transactions are a Martini family tradition as well — the family is thoroughly mobbed up, and some members would like to see Tommy claim a piece of his heritage, while others would like to see him take up a career in mixed martial arts, and still other folks would just as soon have him out of the picture altogether. Meanwhile, there’s the matter of those land deals, and the thriving New Age spirituality racket (including the beautiful high priestess and acolyte of a UFO cult) in the desert town where Tommy’s uncle had lived. Complications, as they say, ensue.
Kotzwinkle’s fictive universe is about five degrees off from our own — like one of the universes on the way to Roger Zelazny’s Amber, where the gas stations are all called Ezzo. It’s almost the one we live in. . . but not precisely. This is true throughout his corpus, and from time to time it produces moments that are simultaneously horrible and hilarious. In that tradition, Tommy Martini’s adventures become a sort of screwball noir, although never feeling whimsical or twee. There are plenty of dark underbellies and enough corruption to keep things noir, but Tommy’s seeming desire to feel a vocation — whether he actually has one or not — and for the monastic life keeps things from going entirely black.
This is Mr. Kotzwinkle’s first novel in years, and a return to the mystery genre he has visited before in books like Fata Morgana and The Game of Thirty. While both of those were more traditional detective novels (historical police procedural and private eye, respectively), that sense of things being off-kilter takes them into a realm of what I think of as Zen mystery fiction, and Felonious Monk fits squarely into that. That won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay. But I liked it — a lot — and I think it warrants our attention. It certainly rewarded mine.
The middle of the week was occupied by works from Peter S. Beagle. When he visited Mondoville some years ago, he had largely reinvented himself as a short story writer. In the intervening years, he went through an extremely unfriendly split from his manager, and accompanying issues regarding publishing rights, reversions, and such. As a result, I lost touch with him, and missed some of his publications from the time since then.
But it turns out he has remained in the game, and we all benefit from that. So on Monday, I got both The Overneath, a collection of shorts from 2017; and Summerlong, a novel from 2016. Both books demonstrate that he remains one of our greatest masters of urban fantasy/magic realism. He’s working a side of the street populated by other brilliant writers, but in a manner that is unmistakably his own. He’s less sentimental than Bradbury, less angry than Ellison, less gnomic than Borges. To summarize these books would be an injustice, and better writers than I am have already copped to the fact that he’s a stylist and storyteller in a league of his own.
I’ve said before that Beagle is a writer so gifted that I can’t even be troubled to envy him (not that I’m big on envy in any case). More sensible to envy the moon — it’s just something other than we are — we can’t be judged by the same standards. What I can also say is that in many of the shorts, and certainly in the novel, he will break your heart — repeatedly — and make you grateful for the opportunity to have it broken in that way.
We never know how long we’re going to have a writer, or how many times that writer will get to go to the well. As a consequence of that, each work we get from the writers we love is a gift, and I’m glad to show my appreciation of those gifts when I can. I hope you will as well.
Finally, I spent Friday night reading Matt Goldman’s Dead West, the fourth in his Nils Shapiro private eye series. In this one, the Twin Cities-based detective finds himself on unfamiliar ground in more ways than one. A fabulously wealthy local family sends Shapiro to Hollywood to figure out what their grandson may be doing with his inheritance. Meanwhile, however, Shapiro’s home life has changed. He has a daughter and a fiancee, and while such ties are often seen as hostages to fortune in this genre, Goldman reminds us that the connections of love run in two directions, and that even heroes have to learn how to deal with the meaning of the risks they take.
At the same time, Dead West is a remarkably good satire of Hollywood. While this is hardly new territory, Goldman (who knows that of which he speaks, having written for television before turning to novels) does it in an engaging and lively way. In a way, the book reminds me of Chandler’s The Little Sister, which I’ve often seen as an underrated, neglected work.
Dead West does not end with a cliffhanger, and I don’t know if or when Goldman will return to the series — his new book may be a standalone. If this is the end of the series, it’s a very solid wrapup. If it isn’t, though, I’ll be glad. The Nils Shapiro series is thoroughly entertaining, with an engaging narrative voice and strong supporting characters. He’s a character worth getting to know, and Goldman is a writer worth following.
Well, I think I’ve done enough damage for one afternoon, so I’ll wrap this one up with some music. In my senior year of high school, I played in a hard rock cover band — a power trio. We did some songs that pretty much all the other local bands might have done — some Sabbath, some Judas Priest, that sort of thing, all at one of our three tempos: fast, faster, and ohmygodgetoutoftheway. Ah the enthusiasm and stage fright of youth. But we dug a little deeper from time to time, and I’ve always been tickled by the fact that we found this particular not-quite-a-hit to cover as the house band at a pizza joint in Union, Kentucky.
Axe were based in Gainesville, FL, and formed in 1979. They finally called in a day in 2012 after myriad personnel changes. “Rock and Roll Party in the Streets” made it to #23 on the Billboard Rock chart, but didn’t crack the top 40 on the Hot 100. Yeah, it’s loud and kinda dumb, but I still like it from time to time, and hope you will too.
See you soon!