Saturday, June 4, 2016

Book Reviews: Dead Man's Hand, Pimp

Dead Man's Hand
by John Joseph Adams
Dead Man's Hand, so named for the aces and eights or the black two pair poker hand supposedly held by gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok when he was murdered, is an anthology of short stories set in the Old West. The twist is that these tales are not just shoot em ups though a few of those exist. No the common theme that links all these stories is that they occur not in the West that was but rather the West that could have been. As the book cover indicates it is a anthology of the weird west. For those of you who read this and immediately assume that Dead Man's Hand is just another low rent horror book that you'd prefer to avoid, not being a horror fan, you are probably making a mistake. Yes, there are some traditional horror stories within though here traditional doesn't mean that you'd know exactly what to expect. But the emphasis is not on vampires, ghouls or ghosts. The emphasis is on the weird. So in one story you can read about a battle between a vampire and a righteous revered gunfighter and in the next read a feminist take on what happens when a vicious pimp tries to reclaim his "property" from the women who work in an enlightened bordello. Some of these stories work better than others but I don't think I was ever really bored reading this. As usual the best thing about anthologies is that if there is a story that you dislike it's okay because in just a few pages something new is coming along.  Other than always being set in the West these stories are often quite different in theme, tone, purpose and feel. There's something here for everyone, but I wouldn't say all of the stories are for everyone. My favorite story in this collection was Walter Jon Williams' "The Golden Age" which reimagines Gold Rush era California as something out of a Steampunk comic strip. An English sailor, unfairly cheated out of his gold claim, turns to a life of crime. He becomes known as The Commodore. He is alternately assisted and hindered by a motley crew of fellow superheroes and villains, most of whom will go out of their way to avoid killing each other outright but prefer old time radio serial favorites like leaving their enemy tied up over a flaming volcano. Other superheroes include Shanghai Susie, who uses Kung-fu to protect Chinese railroad workers or The Masked Hildalgo who fights for Mexican miners. Good or bad many of these people must put aside their quarrels when California is invaded by an Austrian madman with a blimp and an entirely unsporting attitude towards rivals. 

Mike Resnick's "The Hellbound Stagecoach" is a new twist on a very old theme. Ben Winter's "The Old Slow Man and His Gold Gun From Space" had some surprises which I don't think most people will see coming. "Stingers and Strangers" finds a boyfriend/girlfriend team investigating why some very dangerous oversize wasps have suddenly vanished. Tobias Bucknell's "Sundown" tells the story of an extremely pragmatic Black Federal Marshal who teams up with Frederick Douglass to deliver some righteous and legal retribution on some very bad people. In "Holy Jingle" Alan Dean Foster tells us the story of a man who was last seen at a Carson City brothel. When he's found he might be drained of something besides that which one would normally expect. Charles Yu's "Bookkeeper, Narrator, Gunslinger" shows us what happens when a mild mannered bookkeeper opens his mouth and discovers he's not such a bad shot. Alastair Reynolds' "Wrecking Party" informs us that a man who's smashing up the newfangled horseless carriages may not be an ignorant Luddite after all.

All in all this was a good read. Not every story was a winner but I can honestly say that the gold outweighed the dross. It's a little long but you can read it at your leisure.

by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr
One of my favorite classic movies is It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. If you're unfamiliar with that film it's a slapstick comedy that details the escapades of seemingly normal people who, upon learning from a dying gangster the location of his last big score, chase after the buried money. In the process they become more desperate and nastier. However the film was made in the early sixties. It is mostly, a few ethnic jokes aside, painfully good natured and clean. No one gets killed. There's no nudity. Violence is limited and obviously played for laughs. The movie ends with a particularly annoying brassy bossy mother-in-law slipping on a banana peel that a man has thoughtfully thrown from his hospital bed. Typical Borscht Belt stuff. This film, funny as I find it, (especially the Jonathan Winters character) wasn't edgy even by yesteryear's standards. It runs on too long and has a few flat parts. Pimp owes something to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. It shares the theme of zany screwballs pursuing a big score. Alliances are made and discarded according to people's needs. I found the book hilarious. But that is where the similarities end. Pimp is short. Pimp is MUCH more similar to Everybody Smokes in Hell, reviewed here, in that it relentlessly satirizes and mocks the entertainment industry, specifically the publishing and television/film portions of that field. There is some real venom spewed here. Pimp also lacks ANY sympathetic characters. Just about everyone is a scumbag, a killer or would-be killer. Often the only reason the would-be killers aren't killers is due to their incompetence or factors outside of their control. The cops are more interested in busting people than in protecting the innocent. If you need someone to root for this is not the book for you. This is an adult book. People have sex. A lot. Some do so because well they like sex. Others only engage in sex only for manipulation. This second group is not stereotypically limited to women. A running joke throughout the book is that one pitiful male character attempts to blackmail other men about their presence at a famous  Hollywood X-Man director's pool party where lots of gay sex occurred among males, some of whom may have been underage. His extortion attempts often fail because people ask him "Well, what were YOU doing there?" I'm unfamiliar with literary rules concerning the usage of real names and situations but either they have changed or Bruen and Starr couldn't care less. They use real names throughout the book to great comedic value. This is a black comedy. It won't appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed the absurd situations and ridiculous characters. I've discussed some of Starr's solo work before here.

This book is a loose sequel to some of Bruen/Starr's previous work but it's not necessary to have read the previous books. In fact, given that many of the characters have WILDLY different interpretations of what really happened, it might even be preferable not to have read previous books. The primary two characters are Max Fisher, a criminal jack of all trades and his former secretary and girlfriend Angela Petrakos. They have a turbulent history together which ended up with Max being sent to Attica and Angela going on the lam as an adult actress, But bad pennies always turn up. Max has escaped from Attica. Max has discovered a new designer drug (the title of the book is the drug's street name: Peyote +Insulin +Mescaline +Psychosis) which he thinks will make him rich. Despite being described as looking like Phillip Seymour Hoffman post-autopsy, Max is a very dangerous individual who thrives in the confrontational world of drug dealing. A former associate of Max's, a failed writer named Paula Segal, convinces a publishing house to option her book called Bust, largely based on Max's adventures. The book becomes a massive hit. Angela gets wind of this and decides that she is the best person to produce a Bust inspired TV series. Various people, some connected to Max and Angela, many others not, crawl out of the woodwork trying to get their piece of the pie. Everyone from a Kardashian sister to Angela's old boyfriend(s) to a particularly scummy producer shows up looking to get paid. Many of these people do not like each other. Some have previously tried to kill each other. Max initially doesn't know about these events as with typical bravado he has set up his drug empire HQ across from a NYC police station. Max did this deliberately because that particular precinct is where his relentless detective pursuer works. In disguise, Max can't resist walking by the cops. 

This is a quick thrill ride of a book. It's not deep into characterization. It's more about the moment than anything else. Consider this some really good fast food. There are lots of pop-culture and meta-fictional riffs on the nature of the publishing business, including the book's cover. If you can enjoy absurd situations without feeling that you have to sympathize or empathize with the characters you may like this book. This book parodies everyone. A woman's German accent is described as "about as soothing as a swift kick to the balls". A would be gigolo with a resemblance to the author Lee Child impersonates the author in order to live off women. Unfortunately since he can't write a lick this scam's half-life is pretty short.
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