The Dangerous Life of an Art History Major

Unbecoming

By Rebecca Scherm

Rebecca Scherm has written an intricately plotted thriller that compels readers forward with curiosity about how Grace ended up exiling herself to Paris, and how she transformed herself from a Tennessee girl who wanted to please the boy and his family that she loved into a young woman who betrayed them as she turned into a pretty good, though neurotic, art thief, specifically of jewelry. It’s as much plot-driven as it is a very good psychological character study (with interesting insight into jewelry and the counterfeiting of it), both admirably accomplished and polished for a first novel.

Grace and Riley grow up together in the small town of Garland, where his family has some prominence and her family leaves her wanting. In her young teen life, she sets herself to beguiling Riley into loving her as much as she loves him and all that comes with him. She’s so successful that she even gets her own room in his house, where she is treated nearly as a daughter, particularly by his mother. More, Riley falls deeply and inseparably in love with her, seemingly what she wants.

Riley fashions himself into a painter, but of limited horizons, satisfied to chronicle the buildings of Garland, not as commentary on small-town life, but purely representational. An art student herself, his ambitions, or lack of them, disappoint Grace. While her romantic attraction to him remains solid, her passion strays.

Riley has two best buddies, Alls and Greg. Eventually, Riley, the buds, and Grace room together in a shared house. Student poor, with Riley and Grace conversant in art, and an old, artifact-filled estate, the Wynne House, practically next door, they hatch a plot to rob the place. Grace subtly takes over as the ringleader, based on the knowledge she picked up while employed in New York City, and from this springs the ever-growing tentacles of duplicity that reach to Prague and Paris.

Paris is where we find Grace at the opening of the novel, working in a jewelry restoration shop, using the name Julie. Naturally, in a world with a foundation of lies and deception, the shop is more a den of thieves. Grace, as Julie, has fled there after romantic and robbery fiascos in Garland, and an even harsher incident in Prague, seeking distance and anonymity for fear the boys will find her after they finish their prison terms. How all this transpired, how Grace changed from a girl who wanted love to a femme-fatale nervous all the time, and how she forges a life of crime, well, that’s the fun of the novel. w/c

The Outlaw’s Daughter Grows Up

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

By Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti merges two genres, coming of age and crime thriller, into a powerful tale of a daughter learning about her often absent outlaw father, then bonding with him, accepting him for the imperfect man he is, and discovering her own inner strength. Though filled with violence and plenty of death dealing, it ultimately finishes on a hopeful note, and stands as a testament to the goodness and love within even the most ruthless people.

The novel alternates between Loo, the daughter, growing up from age twelve to just shy of eighteen and the nomadic life of her father, an outlaw who freelances in crime. You have Loo and Hawley living together, learning about each other and Hawley’s criminal life centered around how he came to acquire eleven gunshot wounds. How he received these and curiosity about how he will get his last, the twelfth, plus how Loo will react when she discovers what Hawley really is, provide the propulsive drive of the novel.

Hawley has been a criminal nearly from the time he was a teen. He hooked up with Jove, an older man who claimed to be a doctor. Maybe he was, because he teaches Hawley quite a bit about field treating injuries, especially gunshot wounds. Hawley travels with a well stocked medical kit. Bad guys, after all, can’t just present themselves in emergency rooms. He and Jove see each other when they are working on a job for a kingpin named King. King deals in rare artifacts, which Hawley and Jove retrieve for him. When contractors steal from him, King dispatches Hawley and Jove to collect and mete out the criminal version of justice.

King’s a man who lurks in the shadows. Hawley meets him for the first time in a diner, where he also mets Lily, a memorable pairing. Eventually, he marries Lily. They have a baby, Louise, nicknamed Loo. Something terrible happens to Lily, reported back in her hometown as a drowning. This leaves Hawley with Loo. Hawley, though, has business to take care off, so he leaves Loo with Lily’s mom, Mabel Ridge, an eccentric and crusty character, in the coastal New England fishing town Lily grew up in. Hawley returns after four years and takes Loo back. With her, they traverse the country, dodging whatever Hawley believes wants to find them.

Finally, when Loo is older, they settle in the New England town. When she turns twelve, the start of the novel, he teaches her how to shoot. Let’s just say her upbringing bears not the remotest resemblance to that of Anne of Green Gables. She’s odd girl out at school, terrifically strong-willed, constantly rebellious, and sometimes given to violence. Marshall, a student in her school, develops a crush on her. When he kisses her, she responds by breaking his finger. He’s odd, too, and slowly they fit together.

Time passes and we readers she her relationship with Hawley change and deepen. We learn more about her mother, Lily, whom in spirit she bears a striking resemble to. And we feel a certain amount of tension, because it is quite clear Hawley lives an edgy life, waiting for something to happen, waiting for somebody to catch up with him. Then Jove reappears, surprising Hawley and Loo. And then we slid into a climax that calls on all the knowledge Loo has acquired, the astronomy she knows, what she’s learned about the ocean, and, of course, her shooting skills. The ending proves very cinematic.

While the novel contains copious amounts of crime and violence and the ending brings these together in the ultimate test of father-daughter bonding, it’s at its heart a story of girl growing and discovering herself and a father learning again how to love, this time his daughter. Tinti’s writing and mastery of criminal life, weapons, the outdoors, the sea, the sky, and human motivation will impress you, and are another reason to read the novel. w/c

The Price of Waking a Sleeping Dog

Down There (aka Shoot the Piano Player) 1956

By David Goodis

File this classic noir tale, made all the more famous by François Truffaut’s retitled 1960 film adaptation Shoot the Piano Player, under “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” As Goodis’ very dark novel illustrates, they might yawn and lick you, or, more likely in noir land, they might be wounded by the past and explode to engulf you in violence that tears your world apart.

Eddie Lynn earns his meager keep by scratching out tunes on a beat up upright in Harriet’s Hut, a dive bar in the seedy part of Philadelphia. He a quiet man in worn clothes who comes across as milquetoast. He’s tightly scribed his existence in a  tiny circle of playing, lying in his room, and occasionally paying Clarice for a bit of sex. So divorced from the world is he, he’s not aware that a young, attractive waitress, Lena, has her eye on his.

Then Turley shows up battered and a little disoriented and urges Eddie to help him. Eddie hasn’t laid eyes on Turley, or his other older brother Clifton, nor his parents, or their modest homestead in the dark woods of south Jersey in nearly a decade. Turley and Clifton have been involved in a caper that has gone seriously wrong. Two gunsels, described as real professionals, are after him and he needs to get away fast. Eddie doesn’t want any part of the action but fate dictates otherwise. The pros turn up at the bar and in the first of many violent outbursts in the book, Eddie enables Turley’s escape. Now, however, Eddie is a marked man who himself must avoid and eventually flee the gunmen.

Unfortunately for Eddie, the affair awakens his senses, especially to Lena, who helps him, and to whom he begins to become attached. He sufferers internal conflict, in fact the core of the book is about his constant internal struggle to not love again, to hide his true identity, to keep clear of his notorious brothers, all of which bubble to the surface and help readers understand the real Eddie.

Debate himself as much as he will, he can’t suppress his growing feelings for Lena, and can’t keep his previous life, love, and agony over causing his young wife’s death bottled up. It sort of replays itself when the bouncer, who is also Harriet’s husband and an ex-wrestler known as the Harleyville Hugger (specialty: bear hugging an opponent into submission) tries to take liberties with Lena. A brutal and exhausting fight ensues between him and Eddie, when Eddie defends her. It results in the stabbing death of Hugger.

Now Eddie with the aid of Lena, for whom he finally concedes his growing affection, has to lam out of Philly to the one place he’s certain nobody will find him, the family house in Jersey. Naturally, this being noir and ultimately nihilistic at heart, complete disaster engulfs every character in the novel, until Eddie reins in his emotional monster, and the novel ends on these notes: “He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard.”

Modern readers will probably find the dialogue somewhat stilted and anachronistic and Eddie’s motivations a bit overwrought, but Goodis more than makes up for these with his word pictures of a dark, brutal world, and the idea of a guy who just wants to be left alone to stew in his misfortune and, most important, not to care and love again to only enviably hurt the one loved and himself again.

As mentioned, François Truffaut brought this novel to the screen in his French classic Shoot the Piano Player. Here’s the trailer for those interested. w/c  

Excursion into 1950s’ Nihilism

Pick-Up (1955)

By Charles Willeford

Nihilism threads through most noir novels. It’s not often, though, when it dominates the plot and characters completely, as it does in Charles Willeford’s terrifically pulpy, frequently salacious, and thoroughly (in a good way) depressing tale of a death wish thwarted.

It’s San Francisco in the mid-Fifties, but this is the Frisco where the sun rarely shines and fog hangs thick and wet over cold streets. Harry Jordan trained as a fine arts painter. He was good at it. But soon enough, he judged himself not quite good enough for the art big time, and this was after he abandoned his wife and baby son to paint. He odd jobs in San Francisco as a fry cook. One night, in walks a dame like none he’s ever laid eyes on, Helen Meredith. Remember the year when you read Willeford’s description, because she sounds like a cross between a Goth and a punker. They immediately fall together as they share a powerful bond: they are admittedly and happily alcoholics.

The two become a pair and live in Harry’s rented room. They drink constantly, literally into oblivion. Harry can’t hold a job and cater to Helen’s neediness, possessiveness, and overwhelming addiction that supersedes his own. Life no longer matters to each. They decide to commit suicide together. They make the attempt and they fail. They check themselves into a psychiatric hospital, but they are out in a blink, no better off. Now they are dirt broke. Helen begins going out on her own to pick up men for a drink. Meanwhile, she gets sicker and sicker; he gets more depressed. Suicide seems the sensible solution once again. It partially succeeds.

And it devastates Harry, who really, truly loves Helen. He ends up in jail, where he pleads guilty to murder and urges the police and prosecutor to speed things along so he can get into the gas chamber. But, you know, when life hasn’t gone your way ever, why expect it to drift in your favor now? Harry lands back in the hospital consumed by fear that they will find him insane, when he declares himself perfectly normal, and deprive him of what he desires, death. Then events occur that startle Harry and jolt us readers, and the book ends on a totally unexpected reveal—which means you should avoid at all costs jumping ahead.

How to make sense of all this? you might wonder. Well, remember the era, the Fifties. We usually picture these as halcyon days of rising prosperity, growing suburban life, idyllic families, bright colors; in short, happy days. We typically don’t think about marginalized people, about the isolation of suburban life, of cities slowly abandoned, of crime, and problems with substance abuse as ways to cope with the big issue of the day: strictly enforced conformity. If a phrase can characterize an era, the Age of Conformity seems to best capture the spirit, or rather dispirit of the Fifties. In short, perfect soil for the blooming of existential and atheistic nihilism seeded in preceding decades. And there you have Harry Jordan. w/c

   

Pulp Fiction Redux #5: Horace McCoy

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935)

By Horace McCoy 

When your world falls down around you, when most of everything you believed true proves false, as happened to many in the Great Depression, then the entire idea of existence, of your existence can go from optimistic to hopeless, from rational (or at least somewhat rational) to completely absurd, in the sense of meaningless. With this in mind, you have a reasonable framework for understanding why Robert Syverten stands before a judge receiving his death sentence for the murder of Gloria Beatty. Here you have the bright eternal optimist, Robert, dancing with the ground-down pessimist, Gloria, both isolated in a ring of absurdity, the marathon dance ring (popular entertainment in the 1920s and 1930s).

Robert and Gloria meet by accident at a movie studio, where both have failed to land jobs as extras. Gloria persuades Robert, who is as down and out as she, to partner with her in a dance marathon down on a pier in Los Angeles. As the two get to know each other over the course of the five weeks they dance and walk together, readers learn about their lives.

Robert’s a farm boy who came to L.A. to become a director, a wildly optimistic pursuit as he has no training or film experience. However, he is stubbornly hopeful, always trying to look on the bright side of life.

Robert could not have found a more polar opposite to himself than Gloria if he had tried. She sees only the darkness in the world and openly and often tells him she wishes she were dead, that she would die, that once she had tried killing herself. Her parents are dead; she fled her relatives in West Texas, where her uncle attempted sexually abusing her. In addition, she is argumentative and pugnacious, calling for a married pregnant contestant to get an abortion, while herself having sex with one of the promoters to advance her chances of winning.

For five weeks, they live and dance in the confines of the dance hall. The audiences build and cheer them on, attracted by the promise of drama on the floor. Couples, pushed to and beyond their limits in derbies (extended periods of racing to avoid elimination), collapse, arguments and fights breakout, and, in the end, a fatal shooting (not Robert and Gloria’s) take place, ending the competition abruptly.

In other words, the pair, and the other contestants, exist in a pressure cooker of frustration, false hope, and fear of elimination and a return to an ever rougher, more unforgiving world. It’s enough to wear even an optimist like Robert to the nub, to the point where even the absurd seems reasonable. And the ultimate of that, Robert becoming the agent helping Gloria exit her dismal world of pain. Then accounting for his action with a remembrance of how his grandfather dispatched an injured horse they both loved, saying, “They shoot horses, don’t they?” By extension, why should suffering humans be treated any differently and allowed to linger and suffer?

Notable for transforming an otherwise inexplicable murder into an excursion into philosophical nihilism.

Adapted for the screen in 1969, starring Jane Fonda as Gloria and Michael Sarrazin as Robert.  Nominated for nine Academy Awards, as well as numerous other awards. w/c

What Is Joyce Carol Oates Hinting at Here?

A Fair Maiden

By Joyce Carol Oates

Katya Spivak, sixteen, comes from the wrong side of the tracks, Vineland, NJ, where she feels unloved and badly used, by a father who deserted her, a mother who neglects her, brothers and sisters who have little to do with her, and a sometimes boyfriend who abuses her. So, you can imagine, working as a nanny for a well-off couple in Bayhead, NJ, a wealthy summer community, would be a welcome escape from her normal life.

However, even here, though she loves the little girl and boy she minds, she feels the mother takes advantage of her and the husband, when around, leers at her. So you can imagine how the attention paid to her by wealthy and refined Marcus Kidder, sixty-eight, appeals to her, at least initially. That is, until their budding relationship, predicated on his belief he knows her, perhaps from another time, and his use of her as a model, for Marcus Kidder not only is rich, he is a painter, sculptor, composer, and writer of children’s books, strikes you as decidedly wrong. It gives nothing away to say readers will almost immediately suspect Marcus Kidder’s intentions, heightened when he tells Katya that she will one day, when properly prepared, assist him on special mission.

JCO’s writing style, here at its most affected, especially in the speech of Marcus Kidder, works superbly establishing character and building the reader’s wariness: something very bad is going to happen. You’ll easily recognize the pattern here, called grooming, and you’ll be even more suspicious of Marcus Kidder, as you observe, along with Kayta, that he has painted and lined his studio walls with numerous young women like her. But things may not be entirely as you fear them to be, and this includes your worst fears.

And, upon reflection, after journeying with Katya and Marcus Kidder, you may discover the seemingly simple tale a bit more layered and complex. This is because Oates, consciously or not, raises questions in your mind regarding moral exceptions for artists and the strictures on one’s personal control of one’s life, not to mention the involvement of others, even on a voluntary basis.

After reading A Fair Maiden, share if you see a subtext in this dark, suspenseful short novel. w/c

Florida Weird

Hammerhead Ranch Motel

By Tim Dorsey

Last Saturday, we shared our review of Carl Hiaasen’s Razor Girl. Fans of this type of over-the-top insanity should look into a lesser known practitioner of the art, Tim Dorsey. He’s written a series of lunatic black comedies featuring the indestructible and righteous serial killer of bad guys Serge Storms.

Most any of Dorsey’s Storms series with give you a serious funny bone ache. It’s just that Hammerhead Ranch Motel happens to be among our favorites.

You’ll come to love Serge Storms, Dorsey’s schizoid serial killer, a man who possesses an ocean of knowledge about Florida history and disgorges it at the oddest times, who murders the deserving artfully, and who tenaciously pursues what he wants, in this case five million dollars of missing drug money.

Dorsey loads the book with a motel’s worth of weirdly wonderful and always ridiculous characters, from grouchy old men, to Hemingway impersonators, to killer old ladies, to bobble-headed news people, to a performing dog, to hot babes, to frustrated virgins, to boiler room scammers, to reluctant private eyes, to murderous drug dealers, and to lazy civil dis-servants.

Frequent digressions from the plot, so many you sometimes forget what the plot is, are the name of the game, along with gut-wrenching, spasm-inducing, breath-paralyzing laughter. Really, at various points the book will fall from your hands. So, do not read on public transit, or anywhere you might embarrass yourself.

Great fun and a great way to brighten a gray day. w/c