Saturday, March 5, 2011

Book Reviews-Smoking and Savages

Everybody Smokes in Hell by John Ridley.
John Ridley is among other things, a screenwriter. He was the screenwriter for the movies U-Turn (which was based on his book Stray Dogs) and Undercover Brother. This book has a very visual element to it. I’ve read that it was originally a movie script. Ridley does not appear to be overly fond of LA or the people in the entertainment industry. As he writes in the opening “Any similarities between the miscreants in this story and the actual insipid degenerates who populate the city I hate more than cancer are purely coincidental.
The action is set in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  Paris Scott is a black thirty something loser who works the night shift at an LA mini-mart. His girlfriend just dumped him. She accurately described him as too old to be a slacker and too young to be a bum.  Paris is working one night when a severely depressed and barely functional rock star named Ian Jermaine (A thinly disguised Kurt Cobain) enters the store near closing time. Feeling sorry for him Paris takes the depressed musician back to Jermaine’s hotel room. Once they arrive Jermaine commits suicide. Paris winds up with a CD of Jermaine's unreleased final recording. He returns home and hides this in his sofa.
Meanwhile Paris' roommate has just completed a rip-off of the meanest heroin dealer on the West Coast, one Daymond Evans. The roommate flees back to the apartment where he also hides the heroin in the sofa.
Of course neither roommate tells the other what he did. Each of them proceeds to negotiate a reselling of the "stolen" material to the record company and the drug dealer.  As both men are thoroughly inept at this the record company executive and Evans each independently decide that they would just rather kill them and retrieve their merchandise. When Paris’ roommate comes down with a sudden case of death both the record company and the drug dealer send their teams after Paris. Something approaching hilarity ensues as Ridley does an accurate satire of the common predatory tactics to be found in Hollywood and the underworld. Ridley has said that this book was his version of a Preston Sturges screwball mix-up. 

Ultimately the book is sort of thin. It's quite "Tarantinoesqe" for anyone who is a fan of that style. None of the characters are at all sympathetic or the kind of person you could ever root for to succeed. If this is what Hollywood is really like then no wonder Ridley seems to hate the place. The most vibrant character is not Paris (who spends most of the book whining, wishing he had money for strippers, begging for money from relatives, boasting to himself about his big plans, getting beat up or shot at), but Brice, a hyper violent Caucasian hit woman with the psychology of Luca Brasi, the looks of Scarlett Johannson and a taste for Bachmann-Turner Overdrive.

Savages by Don Winslow.
 He is also the author of The Death and Life of Frankie Z and The Winter of Frankie Machine.
This book takes place after the events of Winslow’s masterpiece book, The Power of the Dog.  Winslow makes oblique mention of occurrences in that story. However this book takes a different and much smaller focus. It’s set in California. The three protagonists are two twenty-something former childhood best friends, Ben and Chon and the rich girlfriend that they both share, Ophelia (better known as “O”).  The laid back, liberal and guilt laden Jewish Zen Buddhist Ben and the energetic, right-wing, wired and somewhat sociopathic Anglo/Irish Chon (he's an Iraq and Afghanistan SEAL veteran) have become Southern California's largest and most successful independent marijuana  growers, dealers and wholesalers. They have, at Ben's insistence, done this mostly non-violently, though there are times when Ben looks the other way while Chon handles business. The Baja Cartel has decided that it needs to expand into retail marijuana sales. To this end it sends the two men a video showing the severed heads of men who DIDN'T listen to wise and generous merger offers.
When this fails to achieve the desired effect the Cartel kidnaps O to convince the duo to submit to a hostile takeover. But Chon doesn't take kindly to threats and even non-violent latte sipping Ben has some buttons you don't want to push. But how can two Americans outfight the Cartel?
This book got very good reviews in the NYT and from fellow writers Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, James Ellroy and Christopher Reich. Oliver Stone has signed on to make a movie based on this book.  But it didn’t impress me as much.
It wasn't BAD writing but in this book Winslow uses Ellroy's short direct punchy prose. There are lots of deliberate fragments, two sentence paragraphs, single verb sentences and so on. If you like this style you may enjoy the writing.  If not then it may give you a headache.
His father taught him a lesson about trust.
Although Winslow teases with a Sam DeStefano like Cartel enforcer as a foil for the heroes, ultimately a lot of the story relies on the Cartel leaders and members being slightly less vicious and certainly much dumber than they are in real life. This was a big problem for me. IRL organized crime cartel thugs kill people they think MIGHT be threats. They even kill people they know aren’t threats just to intimidate other folks or stay in practice.
Such folks certainly don't wait around to find proof-especially if they don't even like the person under suspicion. It didn’t make sense that the Cartel wouldn’t have crushed Ben and Chon at the first sign of any problems. That issue or the somewhat strange and graphically described triad relationship among O, Ben and Chon aside this was a so-so book. At some points it falls into the “Great White Hero” sort of storytelling which plagues a lot of American fiction and film. A century or so ago this book would have been written with Apache, Comanche or Cheyenne bad guys. It's amazing and rather bothersome that such tropes are so persistent and powerful in our culture.  It has very deliberate and obvious allusions to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I didn't think this book was as good as his other books-especially The Power of The Dog.
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