Saturday, May 11, 2013
It took some months before amiable Wyomingite Craig Johnson, who friended me out of the Twitter/Facebook blue (as have David Morrell and Peter Straub), emerged to me from the Internet’s blizzard as the novelist Craig Johnson, the one behind Longmire, the very popular, well-regarded, A&E cable crime series with a modern West setting.
I had earlier caught a couple of episodes of Longmire on the fly and liked it fine, especially for its outdoor Western setting and themes. But due to the tsunami of good TV these days—plus the need to get outside, like its title character--I pass on plenty of shows I might like (e.g., two new IFC series, Top of the Lake and Rectify.) And so, I let Longmire slide off my viewing plate.
To make up for my tardiness, I decided to read a Longmire novel. At the time, I was just finishing The Inferno of Dante when I noticed that canon classic was a central motif in the seventh novel, Hell Is Empty. I thought I’d give that horse a ride. I’m glad I did. (Another thread in this uncanny pattern: I gather the novel has also been adapted for Longmire’s second season, starting May 27.)
Walt Longmire is sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, in remote, rural north-central Wyoming, a great setting for adventure and imagination: wide-open spaces, rolling prairies, beckoning high blue mountains in the distance; peaceful on the surface, but occasionally turbulent, even more so when evil steals its way through the hills like a cold winter wind.
As Hell is Empty opens, Sheriff Walt is transporting three very bad criminals to a rendezvous with the FBI and a private security firm with security issues. The baddest of Walt’s passengers is Raynaud Shade (a nicely eerie name, maybe drawn from the European trickster myth of Reynard the Fox). Shade is a child-murdering sociopath with mystical pretensions and the teasing enigmatic manner of Anton Chigurh.
Walt and his two deputies play their part professionally, but the other teams do not. Quickly the bad guys break free, take hostages, and make for the snow-covered Bighorn Mountains. Walt Longmire, armed with pistol, rifle, and his deputy’s copy of the Inferno, singlehandedly sets off to track them down one by one through a series of hair-raising, ripping confrontations, through roaring blizzards and a really exciting and vivid forest firestorm, until he and Shade meet for the big showdown on an icy windswept summit in the Bighorn Mountains, a place empty like the Hell described in the epic poem.
While the manhunt plot seems routine, Hell Is Empty is refreshingly strange and eccentric. We urban folks tend to stereotype rural folks as redneck reactionary blanketheads, but, as anyone who spends enough time “out there” knows, they are often much more interesting—and smart and kindly--than anyone you meet on Internet comment boards, or the seedy alleys of big city America.
Certainly, that’s the case here: Walt and his posse are a mixed-raced band of eccentric autodidact bookworms, exurban outcasts, and even a Basque-American. They are “liberal” in some ways, not so in others. Native Americans, of course, figure largely here, but they are neither stone-faced suffering noble plaster saints nor drunken miserable savages. Johnson portrays them with common humanity, from very good to very bad, the whole range of human types.
The supernatural occasionally gleams pleasingly in the air, especially later on, when Walt is joined in his quest by his own Virgil, a mountain hermit with a ghostly manner, who seems to slip in and out on every gust of wind, between the curtain between life and death, like the mythic Wendigo.
The comparisons with Inferno are, fortunately, not overly neat. The writing is at its best in picturing the landscape, but it’s a bit confusing in the second chapter and also often baggy and overwritten in places.
The prose once in a while strains for effect ala Zane Grey, where the barbwire, frontier stoicism of Luke Short (my favorite western writer, with Clifton Adams and Larry McMurtry) might serve better emotionally. I also wish Walt would rein in his wisecracks a little. What, I’m wondering, would a modern literary genre hero who wasn’t such a compulsive wiseguy be like?
Walt (a direct descendant of Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon), is an especially pigheaded, go-it-alone hero: no matter how often the dispatcher pleads with him to wait for backup, as any modern police officer would, Walt plows on alone through ice, snow and fire, no matter what.
At first, this make Walt appear to be a rigid, overused Western stereotype, the man who’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, and a bit of ego-driven bonehead on top. But the fact that Walt is also a recent widower adds a tinge of despair and suicidal wish fulfillment that could be the real spur driving his questionable tactics. It makes him an involving character.
As much as Walt is the hero, Death also keeps turning him away, sending him back down the mountain, away from this frozen Hell, not to his lost Beatrice in unknowable Heaven, but to the people he belongs with, whom he still needs and who still need him, the life still worth living in the beautiful land he calls home.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Friday, May 3, 2013
When I read fiction, I’m seeking experience apart from mine; an island, a ship, afloat from everyday life (wondrous as the everyday can be in its own terms.) I want a trip to the other side of what I know.
I’m on a quest for adventures that I wouldn’t otherwise have (or even want to have). Reading fiction is a way of wearing and walking in the shoes of others; of thinking with another mind, seeing with other eyes, in another time and place. In the work of Vladimir Nabokov, you can almost caress the world with your fingertips. (If you gather I lean away from contemporary realism, such as the kind Jonathan Franzen writes, you’d be right.)
I don’t read fiction like a mirror, looking for my face (though when it happens, it is an amusing surprise; nevertheless, the room behind the face is never mine; no shower curtain, for example).
Nor do I read fiction for moral uplift, education, or noble ideas; even the most vivid and skillful historical novel should be read with salt sprinkled across its pages. (Nonfiction is still best door into the realities of human history, no matter how bitterly deconstructionists mutter otherwise as they crouch over their laptops at the coffee shop.)
Good fiction comes about through alchemy; a stirring of elements, all chopped, stirred, boiled, blended, basted, baked, and braised: setting, story, plot, thought, outlook, style, and imagination. There is calculation and discipline involved, but there is no science to it and hence no “formula.” There are no absolutes. The godly author can strangle a man in his bed on page one or let him doze for twenty-plus languorous pages as he dreamily muses over a favorite sugary confection. Either approach may work or it may not. (I’d go with strangling, but that’s just me.)
One more alchemical element is character—the inhabitants of the world within the book. While some writing teachers and workshops emphasize character as though it were all that matters—often leading to the kind of twee, static, lugubrious explorations of the heart that can freeze-dry mine—character in fiction does count for gold. Characters are the ground-fire of emotion.
Yes, my hero Nabokov loudly and publicly disdained such claims, but you only have to read Pnin—short, elegant, lovingly thin—to realize you should shake yet more salt across such comments, especially when made by a mischief-maker and gamester like him.
Somehow, the souls on the page, and the soul who put them there, have to clasp hands, even if only briefly and indirectly, with the soul with the book in his lap.
And so, at last, I come to David Corbett’s new book The Art of Character. David (logrolling alert: I know him personally) is the author of several acclaimed, acutely imagined, superb thrillers, including most recently Do They Know I’m Running? He now wields his adroit pen in nonfiction with The Art of Character, his generous and eloquent writer’s “toolkit” for creating the characters, the inhabitants of the fables, tales, and stories we tell.
This is a guide for serious writers, for those whose goals reach beyond the bestseller lists, that fleeting monument to notoriety and mediocrity (though I’d sure like the money); for writers ranging from the genius whose fingertips spark with fire to the genre chef who makes the best damn burger and fries you could wish for.
David provides a chapter-by-chapter array of approaches to nurturing and growing captivating fictional characters, mostly from novels with occasional examples from theatre (The Prize), film (Chinatown), and cable TV (The Sopranos).
You don’t have to read The Art of Character from cover to cover (as I did for this review); yet no single method discussed here stands completely alone. All of them are threaded in varying ways to varying degrees. “You don’t know yourself by yourself” David quotes a relative as advising him.
The same can apply to the techniques he offers here. Like Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens, it’s a good book to turn to when you’re up to your ankles in mud; or your weave seems too thin. It can shake questions out your head that needs asking.
His first chapter, with the eerily apt title “Fingering Smoke,” discusses how characters are created through a blend of conscious creation and discovery. He warns against starting from archetypes, because of how they represent mere ideas rather than uniquely mysterious human experience and often become mere mouthpieces for the author’s opinions on things.
While an archetype can be a starting place, eventually the serious writer has to dig deeper to find the fuzzy border where archetype and humanity meet. (An example might be Richard Stark’s indelible thief, Parker, a representative of untrammeled individual freedom who is, if not appealing in the sentimental sense, is at least unnervingly understandable.)
The richest wells to draw from are the people in your own life, both those you know well and those you don’t. Genre writers have done this: Sherlock Holmes was based on one of Conan Doyle’s favorite med school teachers; John le Carré created Alec Leamas, the angst-torn Spy Who Came in from the Cold after a brief, wordless encounter with a stranger at an airport bar. Carla, from my novel Dragon’s Ark, is a blend of several women who have bounced and flown in and out my life, for moments and for hours, romantically and not, impossible to live with, impossible not to love.
Subsequent chapters propose exercises and techniques for mining your characters from your own life; probing your own psyche and emotions in the way some Method actors are trained, too (though, as a more comic writer, I resist this tendency); the five cornerstones of characterization; and more matters than I can fit comfortably here without you all clicking back to Kim Kardashian.
The Art of Character is big-hearted, fluid, rich, busy, well-worth keeping at hand. And a delight to read throughout for its patient and intelligent voice.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield is the author of the contemporary Dracula novel, 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, all are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, Scribed and at the Red Room bookstore. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and reads at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Heavens to Bilbo, Peter Jackson does go on, doesn’t he? Ever since his masterful Heavenly Creatures (1994), he seems to resist the idea that brevity might be the soul of excitement. Take, for now, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (now available on DVD)
I like parts of many of Jackson’s movies more than their wholes: for example, the giant spider sequence in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was, to me, the best horror movie of 2003, all by itself; the initial arrival at Skull Island in his lumbering King Kong remake--after an unnecessarily long set up--was so atmospheric and exciting, I grumbled when we were strenuously force-marched into the jungle after Kong.
I went to see the full-frontal, IMAXxed, 3-D’d version The Hobbit on New Year’s Day with muffled expectations. Word of mouth had been gray and crumbly. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the brittle, mirthful heart of The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane was melted by The Hobbit, I would have insisted on an afternoon in front of the TV with Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid (cheap, short, and unpretentiously bad).
I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit many years ago while in college and recall liking it very much, though not enough to venture into The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
My wife was enchanted through the film’s 169 minutes. I, however, a troll, a goblin, a vicious naysayer who seeks only to cynically crush the hearts of wide-eyed fanboys everywhere under my spiked and bladed heel, felt less enchanted.
But I’m grateful to say I didn’t dislike it.
More than once, though, my butt fidgeted at me to get up and loosen my circulation; more than once I pawed at my pockets for my cell to check the time, only to remember I’d shut it off like a good patron. Before long, the caffeine in the cola started to wear off.
The Hobbit is often ponderous like a 1950s biblical epic, not a good path to follow for an adventure film. For all the rightful admiration Jackson and other fantasy filmmakers have expressed for the Ray Harryhausen, the Great and Legendary, not one of them have ever caught on to an essential quality of his films—they move fast, with great energy and dash, and never overstay their welcome.
(I also still mysteriously prefer Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects to today’s gleaming unblemished CG, but that’s a ramble down another path.)
The dialogue is often pointed and excellent, especially the scenes between Gandalf and Thorin, but the scenes themselves seemed stretched beyond the bounds of wisdom. Every scene seems to be given equal dramatic weight. The final action sequence is interminable, every possible bit of suspense squeezed out of it, until it becomes like over-chewed gum.
I also wondered how many viewers got the allusion to the Three Stooges. No one under 40, probably. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I load my own work with allusions no one will ever get and it’s fine with me that they don’t. I suspect writers and filmmakers slip them in mostly to keep themselves interested and make the work worth a second or third look. The only crime is when the allusions become the work itself, a post-modern grab bag of allusions to other and better films, with nothing underneath, not even a heart. Call it Geek Pretentiousness.
I really did love Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, as much as I do his Dr. Watson on the Sherlock! series. (Though, I sadly confess, Benedict Cummerbatch’s performance-capture cameo slyly slipped right by me, as he would, the impish devil. Previews indicate he will be front and center in the upcoming Star Trek sequel, enough reason to go.) And of course, the appearance of Sir Christopher Lee (as Saruman) has brightened movies great and terrible for over fifty years and does so again here.
The Hobbit was filmed at a high frame rate of 48 frames per second. Some critics complained that this led to too much clarity—that making every bristle of Hobbit hair visible was distracting and cheapening. I even watched for this, but didn’t find it troublesome. The film is a visual feast throughout.
Diehard fans of the novel may find the lengthening of the story objectionable, but that seems to be Jackson’s way—to pile on as much as he can draw from his fertile imagination, even more than the material calls for. I simply sometimes wish he would clear away the dross to allow the bone, muscle and heart to show.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
It happened last year, and it has happened again this year: I have stumbled on a book by a favorite author that stumbles; a book that’s not as good as other of his works that I’ve read so far; a narrative that, for a few reasons, did not work for me, and I suspect may not work for others.
The novel in question is The Nightcomers by one of modern thriller fiction’s founding parents, Eric Ambler, whose novels I visit every year. Published in 1956, The Nightcomers (available in the U.S. as State of Siege) stands midway in the Ambler oeuvre, following The Schirmer Inheritance and preceding Passage of Arms.
Here, Ambler leaves post-World War II Balkan Europe for new territory, Southeast Asia and the island nation of Sunda, apparently a stand-in for Indonesia, which was entering into a brutal Communist insurgency at the time.
(Interesting personal history: during this same period, my father, accompanied by my mother and two older brothers—but not I, as yet unborn— lived and worked as a scientist on a rubber plantation on the Indonesian island province of Sumatra. This took place, as I heard later, in a jungle of dangerous conditions, from foot-long scorpions hiding in shoes through near-fatal malaria to Communist insurgents.)
Ambler’s protagonist this time out is Steve Fraser, a British consulting engineer heading up a government-sponsored, an American and British-funded dam project in the steamy northern jungles of the country.
Fraser seems somewhat more level-headed than some other Ambleresque heroes, less desperate than say, the unemployed Nicholas Marlowe in Cause for Alarm. His project, though challenging thanks to numerous cultural misunderstandings, has gone well. Fraser will be sailing home on a comfortable bed of cash.
After a very weedy setup of his circumstances, Fraser has only one more night to spend in the nation’s capital, housesitting for an Aussie pilot friend who’s out of the country. And, he figures, why not start celebrations early with one night of whoopee with a high-class hooker named Rosalie whom he meets in a high-class bar (frequented by various dubious types)?
Unfortunately, there’s a little matter of a military coup d’état—who, interestingly, with an Islamist bent--to keep him from safely leaving the country at dawn.
The coup leaders strike just before Fraser is about to leave the apartment for the airport. They take over the building he’s been bunking in because it’s also the only communications center in the capital. As a result, Fraser and his paramour become prisoners in the apartment bedroom.
And prisoners they stay for the bulk of the novel. Rockets and mortars crash around Fraser and Rosalie and a heated romance blossoms between them. Fraser is forced by his captors to help fix the basement generator so they can continue to broadcast their propaganda. Alas, while the revolutionaries have much passion, they don’t have as much sense and cunning as the government they’re rebelling against. Soon they are under siege and, in addition to a traitor in their midst, they’re also at odds with each other.
There are the usual apt and interesting perspectives you find in Ambler novels including tart observations regarding cultural miscommunications and the strains of post-World War II colonialism for the colonized and the outlook of those caught in the middle: “We did not win our independence from the Dutch,” one wily pragmatist says. “Force of circumstances delivered it into hands which were unfit to receive it.”
The romance between Fraser and Rosalie the prostitute is touching and the atmosphere often vivid and humid—we learn that, among other things, starvation is one problem Southeast Asia didn’t suffer from, at least back in the 1950s. But The Nightcomers, in addition to being didactic, is a trifle boring, especially for an author as charged up and engaged with the world as Eric Ambler.
The action is static, the forward movement lacking. This may be problem inherent in with a siege scenario. In this novel, Ambler appears to have stacked the deck too high against Fraser, painted him into too tight a corner, leaving him nearly helpless to make his own escape or rescue. He reacts, but is unable to convincingly cross the hurdles that block his way.
Ambler’s best novels, such as Cause for Alarm, are cat-and-mouse chase novels through the backwaters of twentieth-century intrigue, but with The Nightcomers, the mouse is almost completely walled up and the cats have about covered every hole. As result, the novel also feels limited in its perspective on the world it wants to know. It needs to get out more.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield is 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, all are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, Scribed and at the Red Room bookstore. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and reads at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.