Saturday, August 22, 2015

Thoughts on "Go Set a Watchman" by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman is the debut novel by a young southern writer named Harper Lee.  Written and set in the middle-1950s, it tells the story of Jean Louise Finch, a woman in her mid-20s who returns to her sleepy little hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, after spending several years in wide-awake New York City.

Maycomb has not changed much, but Jean has. Though she seems unaware of it, her years beyond the small rural southern horizons surrounding—over the edge of the earth—have made her a modern woman, broadened her already big heart and mind and added fire to her high spirits. And because of this, she sees her town and its people anew.

The one she sees most anew is her beloved father, Atticus Finch, Maycomb’s most prominent lawyer and the moral touchstone in her life, the one she looks up to most of all, and a god. He’s always been the “watchman” of her conscience.

But the scales must fall (especially when he grow up). And fall they do like a house burning down when Jean Louise (known as “Scout,” her childhood nickname) suddenly—very suddenly—discovers a monster in the basement of her father’s life, a room she somehow missed during her golden years as a mischievous youngster in small town in the heart of Dixie Americana.

The monster in the basement is Atticus Finch’s racism. Not the redneck kind, all beer-bellies and shotguns on the track of a pickup truck, the antennae ornamented with Klan hoods, but the genteel, educated, eloquent sort, spouting pseudo-wisdom about how “. . . our Negro population is backward…”—nonsense never worth considering, but taken very seriously during the years leading up to the 1960s (and not only in the South, as my own dining room table memories in upstate New York remind me. No, the South was never that separate a country, was it?).

How Jean Finch faces and deals with her disillusion regarding her father while struggling with her love for him (and others) (while learning to become her own watchman) constitutes the core of this lumpy, bumpy novel.

Go Set a Watchman starts out nicely as Jean returns to Haycomb, dipping into it like an old swimming hole or a strolling a garden from long ago. The best parts by a country mile are Jean’s flashbacks to her Halcyon childhood in Maycomb: Rollicking episodes in which she frolics in and out of mischief with her brother Jem and best friend Dill, all under the watchful eye of Calpurnia, their black maid and real mother (their biological mother long since passed away). These are warm, funny lyrical memory vignettes that cast a charming poetic glow, winning portraits of the best side of rural life.

But when Atticus’s secret crashes like a meteor through the ceiling in the present, the narrative and drama turn both jagged and lumpy. Jean and everyone leap upon their soap boxes, hollering across the room at the top of their lungs. The rhetoric flies thick, fast, and all but incoherent. There’s a whole lotta smoke, a whole lotta noise, but not much fire.

Like perhaps many readers, I dislike political grandstanding in fiction—I still believe non-fiction and journalism to be better, more effective “message delivery systems.” But occasionally good writing can slide past my objections, provided the debating turns into something like real drama, where the characters and the context of what they believe, the world in which they believe, almost weaves and shimmers.

Not in this novel, though. The angry arguments between Jean and various other characters are like watching a bunch of incompetent swordsmen hack away at each other without ever landing a real blow. They stereotype each other and themselves.

Jean is shocked shocked to find her father and lifelong friends are racists, is unable to find the core of what they and she believe. The dialogue in these scenes is terrible, sounding ripped from overnight opinion columns and fulminous letters-to-the-editor. The question of what might make people racist and why they hang onto prejudice in the face of overwhelming evidence and moral sense—things that fiction is good at revealing--remains out of range.

The book feels inchoate as though Lee is too close to her subject to get perspective on it. The problem of loving people with terrible flaws is one of the great themes of fiction, but here it seems unresolved in the author’s soul and at the surface. The risky decision she makes would be understandable and admirable if it didn’t feel so slapped on, a sudden reversal out of lesser fiction.

Atticus Finch seems a pasteboard of attitudes plastered together. He's in no way a unified character. (For what I believe a more rounded portrait of the bigot as a human being and vice versa see All in the Family).

And so, Go Set a Watchman is like a lot of first novels I’ve read: lumpy and bumpy. But I still recall an old saying from long ago: Anyone can write a first novel. It’s the second that really counts.

I’ll bet that for Ms. Harper Lee, the second one will be the charm.

(Re edited 8/24/2015)

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Longmire by Land, Hansmalch by Sea


Dry Bones, by Craig Johnson, is the second Walt Longmire novel I’ve read (following Hell is Frozen, discussed a couple years back). I know comparatively little about the 13-novel Walt Longmire universe, but I still liked Dry Bones even better, if for different reasons.

Here, Walt, the compulsively erudite sheriff of Absaroka County in Northern Wyoming, is called in to pull the corpse of Danny Lone Elk, a Cheyenne rancher, from a reservoir on his sprawling property. Lone Elk ranch also happens to be where the largest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton on record was recently discovered, the ancient past uncovered by the human present.

The T-Rex’s bones are being picked over by several competing interests: the fractious Lone Elk family; the High Plains Dinosaur museum, the dino diggers who actually discovered it; the Cheyenne Conservancy , a tribal land-trust organization; and the U.S. Government, represented by an ambitious, but intellectually barren U.S. district attorney, name of Trost.

It’s up to Sheriff Walt to maintain a certain peace among these contenders while he investigates Danny’s suspicious death and its connection with them dry bones.

In the background, Walt has family problems to deal with when his daughter’s husband meets a bad end in the bad Big City, a crime he suspects was committed by an offender whom Walt locked up some novels back.

Sorry I can’t be more specific. The fact that I’ve read only a couple of the Longmire novels left me clueless now and then. I caught a couple of seasons of the Longmire cable series, before A&E dumped it off its schedule (leaving Netflix to rush in for resuscitation). But the novels, to me, seem to exist quite apart from the series, which has been markedly more serious and solemn in the manner of prestige cable series (and being that we’re still grazing on cable at the Bar T&E, we won’t be catching up to the herd too soon.)

Hell is Frozen was an action-packed, over-the-top high country chase epic with a pleasurable dash of the supernatural—which I liked for those very reasons. Dry Bones reads quieter, almost like a cowboy cosy, concerned with the small things of rural life.

Walt’s wisecracks seem less forced less this time and I like the annoying way he wears his book-readin’ like his sheriff’s arm patch. He’s not too good a good guy. He seems happily resilient in the face of it all, not one to turn bitter and brooding like warm stale canteen water. Living in some of the most beautiful country on God’s Earth, why wallow in despair?

Dry Bones is a colorful, absorbing and entertaining contemporary western yarn. Craig Johnson’s love of the stormy Wyoming landscape he calls home tumbles across every page. The western novel may be in permanent eclipse, but I’m thankful Johnson (and others like Loren Estleman) are around to keep it alive. There really was and is an America outside our great cities. It does neither our nation nor our literature any good to forget that.


Research on an upcoming high-seas novel has led me on voyages to many far-flung literary shores. Among the latest distant islands is S.S. Silverspray by John Langdon, a novel published by MacMillan in 1958. (Langdon worked on many ships as an electrician before finally coming ashore as a reference librarian at San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Library.)

S.S. Silverspray is so forgotten, its presence barely registers on Amazon or any other maps. I however was lucky to dig up a copy of it at, I recall, at Bibliomania in downtown Oakland.

S.S. Silverspray is a link in the chain of Skippers Gone Bad books, a row that includes Moby Dick, The Sea Wolf and The Caine Mutiny. Bad captains are always a good hook. While the law of the sea has the captain going down with his ship, in these stories the danger is the ship going down with its captain.

The S.S. Silverspray is a 1950s freighter bound from San Francisco to the South Seas. Its master is Milo Hansmalch, a man whose know everything about ships and nothing about people. He possesses a stupendous bigotry and brutish outlook that leads to clashes with his multi-ethnic crew and into a variety of storms both human and natural.

Silverspray is not a particularly ambitious fable in the vein of Melville or London. It’s more of an exercise in social-realism and focuses on the day-to-day life of its crew of fifty. There’s a plenty of precise detail about the workings of a freighter of that era and the various challenges faced by a big ship on the high sea. It made for invaluable research for my purposes.

On the negative side, there’s seems to be little relationship between the men and the environment they’re sailing through. Hansmalch’s problems, while serious and morally fatal, never impact the fate of the ship itself—the final drama takes place in port. Its close focus and realism makes it closer to say a Frank Norris story than a Herman Wouk epic.

Langdon’s knowledge of and respect for the ship’s crew members leads him to give equal time to all the characters from the utility man number one on up. On a humanistic level, that’s commendable. On a fiction level, it makes the novel feel unfocussed and adrift. Nor is the writing very good, with awkward dialogue that includes poor stabs at authentic dialect that, as they often do, lead to the kind of stereotyping the author sincerely tries to avoid.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo of S.S. Silverspray by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Mercy, Mercy Me, Book Publishing Ain't What It Used to Be.

Phelan Tierney, the well-named hero of David Corbett’s excellently written new thriller The Mercy of the Night, is a new variation on the contemporary genre hero: one who’s more like a social worker.

Tierney, a civil attorney, is disbarred for slugging one of his clients for disparaging his terminally ill wife. After his wife dies, he seeks to ease his pain by volunteering as a GED tutor at a halfway house for former prostitutes, girls and women who are struggling their way into the mainstream of life, many of them for the first time. (Corbett’s knowledge of mourning is both wide and deep, captured with ghostly poignancy.)

Tierney finds a bookend to his trauma in a former teenage prostitute named Jacqui Garza. An outcast among the outcasts, Jacqui’s life has been more harrowed by trauma than most: ten years before the story begins, she was kidnapped by a serial child murderer but, unlike his other victims, escaped to help send the villain away for life.

So Jacqui—the most real and interesting character here—survived, but for what? While most street girls are estranged from their families, Jacqui remains all too close to hers. Their criminal roots claw at her ankles. What most of us think of as normal life is alien country for her.

The halfway house is nowhere near far away enough from those ugly roots. Its emotional demands are crude and unbearable. Everyday life compels us to keep secrets. At a halfway house secrets are strictly forbidden. Further, Jacqui is a reactive, reflexively cynical, angry, impulsive woman, operating almost purely on instinct. She’s also selfish and deluded. She gets the idea she can heal her pain by a change of scenery, namely a beach in Mexico. So she flees the house, hitting the streets again, in pursuit of a vague dream

Jacqui’s muddle of bad luck and poor decision-making lead her far away from Mexico and into new danger when one of her tricks is murdered before her eyes, soon after he proposes that they run away together to Visalia. She knows him as “Fireman Mike” while the rest of the city of Rio Vista knows him as a man important, powerful and corrupt. (Bay Area readers will recognize the town as based in part on the North Bay city of Vallejo.)

Now everyone is after her: Some want to save her life; others are eager to end it.

Like other Corbett novels I’ve read, this is a beautifully, lovingly written novel, a smooth blend of suspense and tenderness, action and keen observation, not only on the bitter path of grief, but also on the collapse of a 21st-century city and how its impact its citizens. It moves adeptly from the small and personal to the epic.

Jacqui Garza is a pip: a vivid portrait of a girl at torn ends. The novel inhabits her knee-jerk nihilism without becoming devoured by it. (She’s also a cousin to Roque Montalvo, the young hero of Corbett’s superb Do They Know I’m Running? a hemisphere-trotting epic from 2010, a novel I loved for its broad sweep, bright hard colors and keen-eyed adventure.)

As Phelan Tierney tries to track Jacqui down to save her both from herself and the wolves on her trail, there’s another dog in the hunt—Skellenger (yet another cool name), a compromised homicide detective. He’s not as cold-hearted as you might suspect, but his steely pragmatism has sullied his integrity and put his career at risk. He and Jacqui share a mysterious history. And while they only meet in flashback, until the end, I sensed their shadows wandering near each other. They make worthy adversaries who might cross paths again someday.

The Mercy of the Night takes place in a smaller landscape than Do They Know I’m Running?  I must admit, it took awhile for it to gain traction with me. Phelan Tierney seems too nice a guy--so full of tenderness and compassion, so self-effacing, that he lacks a bit of sand.

Beyond an occasional naiveté regarding the underworld, Tierney’s human flaws don’t seem particularly compelling. That client he punched out? He had it coming, regardless what the California Bar decrees. When Jacqui accuses him of exploiting her as a personal recovery project, I thought, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”

One thing I’ve noticed about grief is how the grief-stricken often feel a bitter resentment at how the rest of the world goes on, seemingly without them. I wanted Tierney to snap, to lash out more.

You’d definitely want to take Tierney home to meet Mom, and even date your sister, but put him in the shark-infested waters of a suspense novel an avatar of PC-male virtue, with the surrounding characters shining more brightly.


David Corbett’s novel took me over three weeks to track down in its analog trade paperback after it came out. (Corbett is one of those few writers whose new work I try always to read in paper. Even Herman Melville and Jack London get the digital read with me.) Three weeks I spent wandering from bookstore to bookstore, placing orders, being told “Sorry chum. Distributor sez not available.”

David Corbett is a major writer. Since his 2002 debut, every novel he’s published has been greeted by bright, well-deserved fireworks.

Not this time though. I saw Mercy of the Night on the shelf of the library where I work, but still have yet to see it on any bookstore shelf anywhere, even in the Bay Area.

Along the way, I noted it was published not by Ballantine, as Corbett’s previous novels were, but by a company I’d never heard of: Thomas & Mercer, located in Seattle. A web search revealed Thomas & Mercer to be a division of Amazon. Meaning, among other things, Mercy of the Night is only available within the Amazon universe, from where I finally ordered it.

(And then, as the drone flew away, I opened fire on it and sent it crashing to the ground in a delightful burst of flames to cheers from the entire neighborhood … JUST KIDDING!)

(I later found out that it may have been a problem between the particular bookstore I approached and the specific warehouse it ordered from. Maybe I should have dug deeper, but given that Corbett is also a noted Bay Area writer as well, I expected--and he deserves--greater visibility than I saw.)

But this is not yet another attack on Amazon, but more of reflection on the state on the mindful literate genre fiction that David and I both write and advocate for.


Someday, genre masters such as John le Carré, Peter Straub, Martin Cruz Smith and others veterans who can still be found on the lists of the Big Five, will pass into the Great Shade. And when that happens, it’s highly doubtful the Big Five will replace them. The “New Economy” that sprung up in the last twenty years won’t allow for it.

Publishing used to be an industry of low margins, where say, Danielle Steele’s profits would pay for the publication of "mid-listers” like Donald Westlake, and others who were writing much more interesting, strange and exciting books.

“That window is closing,” David during a talk he gave a few years back. Sure, the smart readers are still there and still willing to pay for something different, something more than the routine helter-skelter, something more like literature, the kind of novels you can read again and experience anew.

But the high profits now demanded by various parties in the industry are too high to cater to them: like, say, Thoroughbred racing, discriminating readers and the authors who seek them are “niche” to the world’s big players.

So Danielle Steele pays for more Danielle Steele. J.K. Rowling pays for her imitators—most of whom are expected to hit a best-seller home run on their very first effort and if not, there’s not even a minor league to get sent down to. (One story has novelist George Pelecanos being sent to this Outer Darkness by his publisher for selling “only” 40,000 copies of a novel.)

There’s only independent DIY publishers, like my own Ambler House, and a few small brave outfits like Subterranean Press, who can only handle a few authors. For new genre writers, or those trying something different, there are few doors to knock on.

Publishers once, good and bad, right and wrong, served as gatekeepers. Now that most of them have been kicked out or swallowed by the Whale, leaving only the Whales. The rest of us have to go DIY.

It’s a new world all right, but where is all this glory promised? Serious writers and serious readers of genre fiction are being shunted to the side.

Yeah, I guess it’s “freedom.” But it feels like a different kind of tyranny to me. I’m not the first to point out that Web 2.0 is not leading to increased freedom for everyone, but freedom only for the ruthless, the unrepentant, and the merely lucky.

With a million writers publishing on their own, there’s not much point in searching among the bytes in the hope of finding a book I can even call “well-crafted.” Why should I, or anyone with a modicum of taste, have to read fifty or a hundred unreadable e-books to find even a halfway decent one?

Life’s too short. And getting shorter.


Outside of horse racing, I’m terrible at predicting the future. (“Ten bucks says they put George W. Bush on Mount Rushmore!”) Still, I wish to venture a small vision for the future of literate genre fiction, and that’s the possible reemergence of the old paperback houses, such as Bantam, Dell, Fawcett, and Gold Medal, where Westlake, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford and others got their start. This time in the guise of e-publishers.

That’s what professional publishers are for, to take the time and money to pick among the garbage, to find the nuggets in the muck. And once the lump is shined up, do all the rest of the work that, to be honest, most good writers are incapable of doing for reasons of time, expense, and ability. (I’m a good writer but my marketing skills are only okay, and I couldn’t distribute a box of used books at a low-grade second-hand store.)

Here’s where I predict evolution may kick in; that a new breed of publisher evolves to fill the vacuum left behind by the old. E-books are the new paperbacks now. I’d like to think that the e-book distributors, among them Bookbaby and Smashwords, could evolve into more active and involved companies that the old houses used to play.

Bookbaby (my distributor of choice) seems to be evolving in this direction with various services, (though their pricing framework needs improvement.) Amazon, whatever we think of them, is also showing the way with their Thomas & Mercer imprint.

There are too many books in this short life. Someone needs to sort through them for the rest of us. Readers and writers could both use a little mercy.

[Updated 7/30/15 to include new information about book distribution issues, and miscellaneous corrections.]

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest novel Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up, will appear later this year. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.