Saturday, March 8, 2014

Book Reviews: Two Trains Running, Flesh

Two Trains Running
by Andrew Vachss
I hadn't read anything by Andrew Vachss in a long time. Two Trains Running (the title comes from a Muddy Waters blues song) is a period piece and one of the hundreds of books in my library which I'm trying to finish reading before time runs out. Most of the books by Vachss I've read have been set in modern New York and are noir detective stories, often featuring his cynical damaged antihero Burke. Those are enjoyable books which I would certainly recommend. Two Trains Running is both different than Vachss' usual work and yet familiar enough to be suitable reading for those people already accustomed to Vachss' style. Two Trains Running is set in 1959 in a town named Locke City. IIRC the state is never named. It's not on the East Coast and definitely not in the deep South. But it could be a border or lower Midwest state. It could be Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Missouri or even Indiana or Iowa among others. It's not that important. This story is a noir crime novel or at least that's what you're inclined to think at first. But although the crime element does drive some of the plot, it soon becomes clear that this novel is not so much about crime as it just is about people in general, especially the various tribes of post-war America. It's a slice of life story about people who all come together in Locke City during a few months in 1959. Crime is just a catalyst here. The story could have just as easily used railroads or coal mines or steel mills to provide background. I liked that. Although there is some violence, it's not critical to the story nor is it really that common. There are at least four different love stories that bring out some pulpy sub themes.


In Locke City Roy Beaumont leads the dominant criminal organization. His sister Cynthia is his trusted partner. Roy and Cynthia have protected each other for a very long time. They've experienced some very bad things. Although Roy despises the word "hillbilly", that is who he is and who makes up his organization. Roy is crippled. He relies on his wheelchair and Cynthia to get around. But don't be fooled. Roy started his organization by personally eliminating previous gangsters. Roy knows he's a big fish in a little pond. This becomes clear when Sal Dioguardi, a formerly New York based mafiosi, starts nosing around Locke City, offering Roy "assistance" in running some rackets and blatantly taking over others. Dioguardi has a violent reputation of which he is quite proud. He's not in a business which rewards weak or retiring people. Dioguardi doesn't practice his mean looks in front of a mirror, as some real life mafia hoodlums were known to do, but he does spend a lot of time lifting weights and working out to ensure that subordinates and rivals are suitably intimidated.
But Roy won't give in easily. So, wanting some plausible deniability in case Dioguardi is indeed fully backed by the Mafia, Roy calls in Walker Dett. Dett is a hitman for hire, a white Korean War veteran who combines a quiet ruthlessness with a deep sadness and maybe even a hidden soft heart. Careful and methodical, Dett restricts his violence strictly to business. He's the very definition of professional. He's neutral or even occasionally kind to people not in the life. Despite himself, Dett falls in love with one of the few naive and innocent women in Locke City. Meanwhile Rufus Hightower, a black hotel bellhop, does his best to hide a fierce intelligence and disdain for racists while at his day job. He shows most whites what he thinks they want to see or what he thinks they need to see. Secretly Hightower leads a nascent black nationalist organization. Like Dett, he also is falling in love with an innocent woman. Vachss juggles numerous subplots and characters. Some of these include Sherman Layne, the town's only honest cop who bears hidden pain, two feuding juvenile street gangs looking to settle turf wars, a racist hotel clerk with a hidden past, a neo-Nazi organization, informers within Beaumont's group, an interracial Romeo-Juliet story, a pathetically lonely man who spies on people to feel connected, IRA recruiters, political fixers and the FBI keeping tags on everyone. These groups and people are all linked though not everyone knows it. The author goes for the kitchen sink approach.

Two Trains Running is very dialogue heavy. There's little third person description/narrative. Usually you only know what's going on because someone is talking to someone else. There aren't long explanations of key past events given, because the people speaking to each other already know about them. The style comes across very similar to the old Dragnet radio show. Each terse paragraph opens with the date, location and time. As referenced, this is really not, despite its subject matter, a book about gang violence or organized crime. It's more about post-war America and how some things have changed since 1959 and others have not. It's a meditation on human behavior, damage and longing. So if you would normally skip crime books, this might be worth reading.





Flesh
by Gus Weill
In many respects the big shocker of this short (~200 pages) little horror novel isn't really a shocker at all. The author has hints all over the place, not least of which include the cover of the novel. The somewhat dim and rather horny protagonist figures out what's really happening about 2/3rds of the way thru the story. The fun part comes from a) the fact that neither the hero nor the reader wants to believe that such things are possible and b) the hero is feverishly trying to turn the tables on his enemies while pretending that he doesn't know what's going on. This is made more difficult because the bad guys have very good reason to think at various points that the hero really does know what's going on. So this is like one giant poker game where the stakes are your life. As Flesh is told in first person there is an urgency given to the story that will keep you turning the pages to see what will happen next. I really think this book might have worked better as a short story but the ending is so fitting and the journey so breakneck that you may not mind. You could argue that this is less a horror novel and more of a satire on class relations. A lower middle class musical college student with the unlikely name of Marion Anderson, is a middling pianist (his mother had the true talent there) but a very good lyricist/composer. He is just brimming with ideas for lyrics and arrangements but lacks the ability to create exciting new music to go along with them. What great luck for Marion it is then when he accidentally meets a fellow student who has talent on the piano equivalent to that of Glenn Gould. This man's name is Justin Caeser. Justin and Marion become fast friends.


Marion is convinced that he has found the perfect collaborator for a planned Broadway musical. For the better part of a year the duo work together. When they reach an artistic impasse, Justin thinks they need some isolation and quiet time. He suggests they visit his family home. Marion agrees. Justin's family home is actually a 52 room mansion on a private island off the Maine coast  Justin's family is to say the least eccentric. Justin's father is a giant of a man given to sudden rages and just as sudden bouts of laughter and bonhomie. His mother is a tiny woman who vacillates between excessive politeness and sudden coldness. Justin's sister Annabelle Lee (the name is from the Poe poem) defines oddness but takes a liking to Marion. Justin's other sister Eleanor is so doggone va-va voom desirable that Marion immediately falls in lust with her although she already has a fiance, Timothy. Marion initially finds that he doesn't want to leave the island, especially if he can get hot and heavy with Eleanor. He's turned on by Eleanor's flirting, her low cut dresses, her beauty and her salaciousness. He's also comparing the Caesers' wealth unfavorably with his father's Social Security job. Marion refuses, as he sees it, to settle for less, like he believes his parents did. However Timothy's cryptic warnings, pleas from other people and increasingly odd behavior by Justin awaken Marion's lust damaged suspicions. A cat and mouse game is played but who's the cat and who's the mouse? This book could very easily have been a Tales from the Crypt or Twilight Zone feature. It's a fun read if not necessarily a great novel. The author has many skills. He was also a PR specialist and counterintelligence Army officer. James Carville was Weill's protege. And Weill worked for Otto Preminger back in the day.
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