Although I no longer do New Year’s Resolutions, a common one for lots of folks is to lose ten to fifteen pounds. Mission accomplished, but alas, I did so via some sort of stomach virus that knocked fifteen off me in the course of about three days, and that’s even with having a unit of IV fluids pumped into me. Whatever it was, it was neither the Rona nor the traditional flu — I was tested for both. Clearly, I’m wasting away to enormous. But I seem to be back on the uptick; I’m still pretty tired, but I’d put myself at about 80% this afternoon, and that’s probably good enough to drop back in.
The Spawn and Main Squeeze each have overcoats we got them from Land’s End — red for the Spawn and yellow for the Squeeze. Apparently there were things we didn’t take into account. The Spawn reports that they were out somewhere earlier today and heard someone holler at them, “I see you, ketchup and mustard!” The girls thought it was funny, though, and so do I, so I’m glad they were gracious enough to let me mention it here.
While I’ve been laid up, I used some of the time to keep working my way through the stack of books I received for Christmas. In particular, I’ve continued my tour of Ross Thomas’s work, having finished The Fools in Town Are on Our Side (1970), Chinaman’s Chance (1978), and Briarpatch (1984). The last of these has recently been made into a TV series, although several of the characters have been cast cross-gender. I’ve not seen the show, although it seems to be pretty well received. The book, however, is excellent, and I can see how it pulled down an Edgar (Best Novel, 1985). El Bee observes that Thomas never wrote a bad sentence, and having read through more than half a dozen of the novels at this point, I certainly can’t argue. The book opens with an allusion to Raymond Chandler’s 1938 short “Red Wind”, but almost immediately explodes our assumptions about where it’s going to go. The book’s protagonist is investigating his sister’s murder, while also doing his part in an ongoing federal investigation. Like many of Thomas’s protagonists, Benjamin Dill is not precisely amoral, but he exists in the thoroughly amoral world of politics, and does what he sees as necessary, sometimes surprising himself a bit in the process. Describing Thomas’s political tone as disillusioned would be understatement — Juvenalian might be more accurate. If you aren’t a political cynic going into these books, you’ll likely be one when you come out.
Mr. Block also informs me that Thomas wrote Chinaman’s Chance after someone told him that books about “Chinamen and dwarfs” never sell. (Thomas’s subsequent book, logically enough, was The Eighth Dwarf, but I haven’t read it yet.) Chance is the first of what proved to be a trilogy of adventures featuring Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, but I wound up reading them in reverse order. The plot involves a missing folksinger, a murdered Congressman, and two million dollars squirreled away during the Fall of Saigon. Our heroes are engaged to find the first (who was having an affair with the second), while they themselves hope for at least a piece of the third. This brings us to another of Thomas’s strengths — most of the books I’ve read so far essentially tend to be caper novels, and the plotting is remarkably intricate, though never muddled. The stories are suspenseful without becoming unnecessarily confusing — the characters generally distrust one another, typically with good reason, and the reader is kept in suspense accordingly.
As I’ve noted in the past, though, I tend not to read these books for the puzzle elements, but for things like character and voice, and for me, the characters of Wu, Durant, and their frequent accomplice Maurice “Otherguy” Overby are all intensely entertaining rogues, perversely charming schemers who may occasionally do appalling things, but they do them to people and agencies who are far more appalling, so what’s not to like?
Finally, Fools, according to LB, is probably Thomas’s best work. It’s certainly his richest, serving as both a political caper and as an autobiography of protagonist Lucifer C. Dye. Like his namesake, Lucifer (a former CIA operative) is a tempter, hired to help subvert a city (modeled, I’m told, on Shreveport — I’m proud to say I had suspected as much before I was told) for the benefit of the People Who Would Pull the Strings. The plotline includes significant nods to Red Harvest, but again, I would argue that in its exploration of Dye’s character, it is a deeper, richer work than its model. After I finished reading it, I told Mr. Block that it may be “the best, bleakest caper novel I’ve ever read.” If that’s something you might look for, you won’t go wrong. All of Thomas’s books I’ve read so far are highly recommended.
Next on the fiction list is Steven Womack’s By Blood Written, a standalone that I hope will get me back in the mood for the long-awaited ninth installment of his Nashville-based Harry James Denton PI series. That one comes out at the beginning of February, and I’ve already pre-ordered it. You may want to do so as well.
I thought I’d step into the 1970s for today’s musical closer. Robert A. Johnson (not that Robert Johnson) is a guitarist based in Memphis. By the time he was in his twenties, he was considered as a replacement for Mick Taylor in the Stones, and was the lead guitarist for John Entwistle’s solo project, Ox, from 1974-77. This song comes from Johnson’s 1978 album Close Personal Friend, and is a nifty bit of power pop with a certain degree of pyrotechnic fretwork. The album made it into the lower reaches of the top 200, but didn’t really do as well as it should have (Honestly, I can’t imagine the haircut helped). Johnson apparently remains in the business. So from 1978, this is “I’ll Be Waiting.”
See you soon!