The atmosphere is thick and heavy in this dense Florida, the story is tangled as if it were an ancient root ball of histories and relationships, and there is another, weightier element here: the clotted fear and rage of poor people struggling to survive. And in the tropical heat, where the “swamp angels” swarm, a moral dilemma arises, gathers mass, and tests the spirit of the town, sweeping it to a grim conclusion. The dilemma is in the dark question the townspeople must answer: Just what will be done with Mister Watson? Is he a good neighbor, a prosperous and powerful farmer? Is he a ruthless serial murderer? Could he somehow be both? The several gritty answers to these questions, and the aftermath of those answers, form a powerhouse story. We are held by that moral dilemma, but the weight of the story is born by our tracing, root by root, through the tangle of the Hamiltons, the Houses, the Smallwoods, and the Tippinses as they bring events through twenty years to a conclusion.
Peter Matthiessen died just recently and the idea I had of him–that he was exclusively a naturalist–is now greatly enlarged and I’ll be looking forward to reading At Play in the Fields of the Lord and Far Tortuga, two of his other novels.
Years before the Beatles came into view,, a grand Irishman named Flann O’Brien (O’Nolan, in other contexts) gave us a magical mystery tour of his own. The Third Policeman is a tale told us by an unnamed, hapless dupe, (a “heel” according to the author’s account of his writing). He is joined by a platoon of sturdy,incomprehensible policemen who become the genial, bizarre mentors on his journey to a day of reckoning. A wonder of this wonderful book is that we share with our louse of a narrator his wistful longing as he looks at the crystal blue sky, watches the trees breathe and the birds sing–out the window of his jail cell, as his gallows are being hammered into shape.
I remember the first time I laughed out loud while reading, nearly 40 years ago. It was the riotous “The Onion Eaters”, by J.P. Donleavy that vigorously tickled me to such a point, with his tales of testicle-pulling contests, enormous and delicious breakfasts (with those “rashers of bacon”), scoundrels and wistful love, all gathered into a grand shambles of a leaky mansion in a fantastical Ireland of a magical time.
The Third Policeman is not the slap-stick performance of The Onion Eaters, but both books share the root of an enormous fund of humor. The warm and quirky charm of O’Brien, and his perfectly startling, fresh way of describing things, will bring me back to read some more. Here is a Slate article on O’Brien that I enjoyed and will, hopefully, be a little sign-post to point the way to more. i’m going to look forward to At Swim-Two Birds, and The Dalkey Archive.
When I was a boy, I’d lie on my back on the summer grass and watch the massive clouds form and reform, slow and silent, and I’d try to grasp the story I imagined they were telling me. I’d watch the jester’s head that gradually opened its mouth to become a devouring monster, inexorably moving to engulf the frog or flower that bobbed nearby. I read Haruki Murakami’s magical tale the same way I watched the clouds. The Windup Bird Chronicle changes shape as it moves along, and the prosaic apartment life of Mr. Okada morphs into a dream, a dark and magical journey. Within that darkness, we see some of the gruesome days of Japan’s modern history, as Mr. Okada, who set out to do no more than find his lost cat, encounters powerful villains, the saving graces of psychic helpers, and the ominous, mysterious stuff of nightmares. At the end of the story, in spite of the unreal nature of his journey–or maybe because of it–I was surprised to find how very warmly I felt toward Mr. Okada, whose great ordeal was behind him. He had attained some sense of peace, and I was glad.
In that great casting agency in the sky, there is a grand population of the stock characters of the British mystery. There is the Old Military Man, the gay guy (who dares not speak his name), the sturdy lady (sometimes likewise forbidden to speak her name) who bicycles through the country in her sensible shoes, the exotics who speak with a foreign accent of some generic, unidentifiable variety, and many others. While there are always good parts for these folks, I’m sure they are most happy to be cast in a production of Ngaio Marsh. She writes the smartest, crispest lines for everyone to say in wonderful stories that are solid as a country vicarage. I liked When In Rome a lot.
I’m still moving through the world’s detective stories, country by country, and Bangkok 8 was a great stop on the trip. The story is populated by flamboyant characters and moves down a road of incidents that is startling, but believable. The Buddhist backdrop to the story is a very interesting one, and I found the detective to be very attractive. He is not, in any way, a stereotype–either of a detective or of a Buddhist–and I’m looking forward to meeting him again. I’m now starting a story set in Italy by the English writer, Ngaio Marsh, When in Rome, and then I think I’ll look at one of the Japanese tales I’ve come across.
There is a great, gray and gritty wave of detective stories set in Sweden. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become an icon and Kurt Wallander has captured us as well. I’m reading The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser now, and it is quickly gathering steam as I turn the pages. A delightful, subtle intelligence and frank humor are found within this detective division and several more novels to look forward to in the series.
Like Hitchcock, who crafted a formality and dignity that cloaked a devilish (some have said fiendish) sense of humor, Georges Simenon was often pictured as a genial pipe-smoker. He was actually a master of the Dark Side, and explored motivations and behavior that lay on the far side of noir. The Accomplices is a gray and gritty novel that I nevertheless read in two sittings.