Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Gun Man and the Arsonist

Right after I hoisted Don Quixote back to the bookcase, I sprinted to my homely orange paperback shelf and grabbed Gun Man (Fawcett/Ballentine, 1985) by genre veteran Loren D. Estleman. Estleman is known mostly for his crime novels set in Detroit, but he also writes excellent historical western novels that work as both ripping old-style entertainment and historically acute, tough-minded, observant and funny novels with a contemporary edge. His own shelves sag with many awards and he’s even been nominated for a National Book Award (now the American Books Award) for The High Rocks.

Gun Man’s protagonist, John “Killer” Miller, is drawn from the brutal myths of numerous notorious Old West gunfighters, Will Bill Hickok likely among them. His story is bristling, grim, and tersely told. My copy is only 212 pages but, like all the best genre novels, there’s always a sense that here’s more going on beyond the page count. Readers will find a pungent, sophisticated portrayal of the culture and politics of the American Midwest before, during, and after the Civil War, that bloody ground that was the mulch so many murderous American myths (like Jesse James). Action fans will soak up the gunplay; history and political buffs will find plenty to ponder.

But a good novel is more than the tale; it’s also the telling. Estleman, like another genre master
Donald Westlake, rarely puts a word wrong and makes it all seem fresh. Each chapter opens with song lyrics—written by the author—that set the yarn-spinning tone of what follows:

His pa he worked the dirt and dust
a-strainin in the sun;
But John he let the plow grow rust
And practiced with his gun.

Estleman’s stir of history and biography cooks up a bitter, ironic campfire yarn, full of character
and incident. The gun battles are written a terseness that conveys a hard and bleak pity for all
those involved, killer and, in the following passage, victim alike:

“There was no surprise on his face, only a sudden knowing, and in the black eyes a flatness that
was more flat than the flatness that preceded it.”

You can smell the death intertwined with the gunsmoke. This is a tale of a how twisted brutal world creates a twisted mythic life. I’ve liked all of Estleman’s novels that I’ve read so far. He hasn’t done me wrong yet.


Yes, I do I hate it when swell ideas wind up down the tubes. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007) sounds like um surefire stuff: a lonely geeky teenager accidentally burns down the home of American poet Emily Dickinson’s, killing two people.

Years later, out of prison, he creates a new respectable life for himself and thinks he’s buried
his past . . . then one day the son of his victims shows up at his door. Not long after, a series
of sudden mysterious blazes consume the homes of other famous New England writers, poet Robert Frost among them (Odd coincidence: Frost’s home was actually recently vandalized by a bunch of dissolute teenagers).

From the typewriter of Donald Westlake, Arsonist’s Guide would have been an ingenious, fast-paced, whooping farce of obsessed, addle-brained characters bumbling their winding way to hell and back. A reader would also be the recipient of witty and graceful insights on the fate of books and literature in a post-literate world where some fear that, as related in a recent New Yorker article, reading may someday become an “arcane skill.”

Unfortunately, we are not in the hands of Mr. Westlake, but of a writer named Brock Clarke of whom I know little and, guessing from this, will likely not learn much more.

The protagonist is a self-admitted, chronic bumbler named Sam Pulsifer. Sam is also a self-obsessed ditherer, which may be why this story never seems to really catch fire, like the houses. Though accused of heinous crimes he didn’t commit, Sam seems more interested in other aspects of his life—namely his tortured relationship with his parents and his nonrelationship with his wife and children--even when taking the wrong action. It’s not that he bumbles the quest to prove his innocence and save his reputation--in a comic novel, he darn well better bumble it—but that this goal seems to be almost a distraction. A bumbler has to bumble like his life depended on it. The idea of being accused of burning down our monuments to our national literature strikes me as a blazing metaphor for something, but that’s not where this book seems to be headed.

Instead, we get long strings of such non-insightful insights as this one:

“Because this is also what it means to be in a family: to have two of its members break the family
and then wait around for a third to make it whole again.”

OK, I guess so . . . but it’s one of many insights that float around in the narrative with no
place to nestle in to. All the characters appear to be listless and poorly motivated. In the end, Sam is revealed to be so disconnected and indifferent to his own guilt or innocence and to the fate of literature that he makes, what strikes me as a pointless unbelievable act of self-sacrifice. If family is what this novel is really about, why burn down Robert Frost’s house to make the point?


For you writers who read this blog, John Hodgman, the guy you root for in those Apple v. PC commercials and who appears on the Daily Show viewers, also blogs on this service too, and has provided a link to this You Tube video by a Minneapolis writer named Dennis Cass that provides a hilarious illustration of the perils of the literary fame I so cravenly crave. Mr. Cass has published a book called Head Case. Judging by the video, I will probably buy it as soon as certain ships dock. But I will not stop my vain and ruthless quest to get you all to buy my book.

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