Saturday, November 26, 2011

Book Reviews-Damballa, Breakshot, Harlem, Neverwhere

by Charles Saunders
I love pulp novelists, especially the older 1920's-1940's stories that centered on adventure, fantasy or the weird. There was a sense of wonder and imagination in those stories that has shrunken in modern times. The world grows smaller while our knowledge of the world expands and travel duration drops.

Unfortunately, from my POV, many of those classic stories also had a strong streak of racism, that ranged from the casually contemptuous to the insanely hateful, depending on the author. About the best you could hope for as far as black characters was that there weren't any. Asians, Indians, Hispanics and even whites of non-Anglo/Nordic/Celtic heritage were also stereotyped in various ways. There were some authors who were exceptions to this rule of course but not many. I may discuss them later.

Charles Saunders is a current day black author who was deeply influenced by pulp stories. He is best known for his Imaro fantasy stories. Damballa is his attempt at writing a black pulp hero who is akin to such pulp creations as Doc Savage, The Shadow, Marlowe, etc. The story is based on the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight as well as the adventures of Dr. William Sheppard, known as Congo's African-American Dr. Livingstone.

In Saunders' story, the world heavyweight champion is an American black man named Jackhammer Jackson. The German challenger is one Wolfgang Krieger, a huge blond man known as the "Aryan Adonis". Unwilling to leave anything to chance, Nazi scientists, overseen by the racist and arrogant Dr. Von Dunkel , have created a serum that exponentially raises a fighter's strength, stamina, speed and aggression. It also runs the risk of shortening his life or permanently turning him into a ravenous beast but the callous Nazis feel that the danger to Krieger is worth the glory to the Fatherland. They pump Krieger full of the juice.

The mysterious Damballa gets wind of this plot. The masked hero tries to find a way to short circuit the Nazi plan, one that does not involve Jackson losing or cancelling the fight, as Jackson is adamant that he can beat any man who steps into the ring, augmented or not. Damballa is reluctantly aided in this task by NYC Detective Bynoe, one of the city's first black detectives, and by the mysterious aged Congolese wise woman Mamadou, who has some strange connection to both Damballa and Von Dunkel.

This was a good story but not a great one. The villain lacked a little bit of well, villainy. The sense of danger that would normally attach itself to Nazis wasn't always there. I liked Damballa's origin story but would have liked to have a bit more storyline from Bynoe, as he tries to work within a racist police department. And although Jackson's girlfriend gets some time, there isn't really a femme fatale in this story nor is the girlfriend ever in any real danger. So the story missed some possible excitement there I thought. But it is set up for a sequel and I'm interested to see what Saunders does next with Damballa. Finally this book was typeset in an Art Deco font, which is cool beyond belief. I like Art Deco almost as much as I like Gothic or Baroque.

by Kenny "Kenji" Gallo with Matthew Randazzo V
As a kid I used to play Dungeons and Dragons. Each character had to have an ethos/morality alignment which was a combination of Good, Evil and Neutrality mapped against a construct of Law, Chaos and Neutrality. This made for nine possible different alignments. Now there were and still are epic flame wars about which fictional character or real-life person falls into which alignment. I've set off a few wars myself back in the day. (Ned Stark is obviously Lawful Good and anyone who feels otherwise simply hasn't read the books!!!)  But if there was anyone who could ever be said to epitomize the Chaotic Evil alignment, it would have to be Kenny "Kenji" Gallo.  A Chaotic Evil person doesn't give a flying fig about anyone other than himself, can't be trusted to honor deals, goes out of his way to hurt people, can't stand hierarchy or order or any restriction on his "freedom", and generally lives by the belief that if you're weak you deserve to be exploited. Gallo is sort of a real life Alex from the movie A Clockwork Orange.

Gallo is of Japanese/Caucasian descent. Despite having grown up upper middle class in Orange County, Gallo very early turned to violence and crime as a lifestyle.  He wasn't abused or denied anything. By his own admission he was just bored. He enjoyed the thrill of hurting people or committing crimes. Gallo was running his own crew of drug dealers, thugs and thieves before he was 21. He and his friends terrorized their high schools and neighborhoods. Gallo is the sort of person who would throw a homemade napalm bomb in your car just to see how it worked. And if he didn't like you..well that called for something more inventive.

Unsurprisingly he came to the attention of the local lieutenants for the Medellin Cartel, who bankrolled his crimes and taught him how to be even more vicious. He also popped up on the radar screen of a local lrvine police department detective, who per Gallo, mentored and protected him, in return for a cut of the profits and an occasional piece of useful information.

Ultimatey his boss runs afoul of the Medellin Cartel and gets murdered. Gallo tries to work for the new boss but finds him just too disturbing.  Gallo's best friend was also murdered. According to Gallo though he had nothing to do with it. One of Gallo's other friends, a black (and stupid) enforcer takes the fall for the crime. Right. As the 80's draw to a close and cocaine demand drops in favor of heroin, Gallo takes the opportunity to transition to a different line of business. Lacking the interest or connections for heroin dealing he becomes a strip club owner, pimp, adult film producer, and white collar criminal extraordinaire. Needless to say he also becomes a dyed in the wool misogynist.

In his new career path he moves closer to traditional organized crime and winds up becoming an official associate to the NY based Colombo Crime Family. This is something that Gallo at first avoided because of the Mafia's notorious ethnocentrism/racism. Ironically though, Gallo is just as big of a hypocrite as his Italian-American bosses. While he complains about "dog eater" or "gook" comments directed at him, he rarely misses a chance to racially insult some of his Black or Hispanic partners/employees. Gallo also married an adult film actress who shared the same warm loving feeling for black people that Pat Buchanan has.

Anyway, once Gallo got some serious charges aimed at him he of course flipped and started informing for the FBI. He saw this as no different than any other criminal act he committed-he got over on people who would have gotten over on him, given the chance. Gallo is convinced that many other criminals are rats. Gallo sent the next Colombo boss-in-waiting, a few small time hoodlums and madams to prison. On a man-to-man basis Gallo is contemptuous of most Mafia members, thinking that few of them have the brains, guts or physical skills to go head to head with him. As a result he still lives semi-openly after his "rat" role was revealed, feeling that the supposedly fearsome powers of Mafia retaliation are not what they used to be. I can't say that I enjoyed this book. I do think that the time has come to seriously reign in the ability of federal prosecutors and FBI agents to give "Get out of Jail Free" cards to snitches. Many have committed worse crimes than the people they're betraying. And they continue to commit crimes after they've flipped. I can't help but feel that Gallo got away with too much.

On the other hand if you want an inside view (albeit self-serving and questionable) of how the late 20th and early 21st century Mafia and other organized crime groups work, this is a good book. Gallo worked a lot with people who he described as the ghetto thugs of the NY Mafia. The book also has some interesting stories about real life mobster turned actor, Tony Sirico, best known for his Sopranos role as "Paulie Walnuts". Kenji is currently a mixed martial artist and gay rights activist. Go figure.

Harlem, a Century in Images
by Thelma Golden, Deborah Willis, Cheryl Finley and Elizabeth Alexander
Pictures speak louder than words oftentimes. That is probably the case with this book which is a photographic essay of Harlem and its residents from the turn of the century to now. The book is split into three parts (the first years of the twentieth century, mid-century through the seventies, and the eighties until present day). It is interesting to see how fashion styles have changed and in some cases come back full circle. Generally, until the sixties, every man is wearing a hat.

It's about 250 pages and includes people both famous and anonymous, preachers, hustlers, good people and bad, people who knew they were being photographed and people just out doing their daily thing. Photographs are in both color and black and white. It was a fun book to "read". Probably no other neighborhood is as closely associated with Black America as Harlem and this book delves into why. This is a great coffee table book and would make a nice gift for someone or for yourself if you are so inclined.
I picked this up at a Borders' closing for $15. Usual retail price is $55 but it can now be found for anywhere between $33 and $45 on Amazon. Good stuff. Again some of these photographs are quite well known, others are obscure. This is a book that can take you on a time travel trip through Harlem. Lots of joy, lots of sadness, lots of life. I may never visit the 125th Street Metro North Station, Riverside Church, or play checkers outside the Adam Clayton Powell building, but this book lets me know what all that looks like.

by Neil Gaiman
There are quite a lot of books out now that sort of combine an Alice in the Wonderland/Narnia theme in London with a very adult mystery or fantasy storyline. Someone from our mundane world is transported to a very different world, one in which completely different rules of physics and magic apply.  This other world touches on our own but generally speaking can only be reached at certain times by very special people. I won't say that Neil Gaiman was the first to do this (in some respects it is just an update of the Faerie and Tuatha De Danaan legends) but he is among the best.

There are a few authors who stand out among their kin because they can create a world so fantastic and yet so real that you get lost in it and think the characters are real people. Gaiman does this so easily that it's not until you read other authors and miss that feeling that you realize how much skill is involved in doing this.
Neverwhere is a relatively short book by the bloated standards of modern mystery/fantastic literature, clocking in at just under 400 pages in paperback form but it moves so very quickly that you barely notice the length.

Richard Mayhew is a bit of a loser, a nowhere man in a nowhere job that he hates. He is going to a meeting with his pushy fiancee's (Jessica) boss when out of nowhere he sees a young girl begging for help while she's bleeding to death on the sidewalk. Against Jessica's admonitions and threats of ending their engagement Richard takes the young girl back to his apartment to help her. Suspiciously soon afterwards, Richard is visited by two disturbing men of indeterminate age-a Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, a unfailingly polite duo who claim to be looking for their sister. The shorter Mr. Croup does all the talking.

The men radiate violence and menace and wrongness despite Mr. Croup's kind words. So Richard denies he's seen anyone fitting the girl's description. They ignore him and search his place but do not find the girl-which ought to be impossible since Richard was just talking to her minutes ago.

The girl, whose name is Door, is the last surviving member of her family. Her family was slaughtered by the inhuman and immortal (?) assassins Croup and Vandemar. She is from London Below-a magical and usually unreachable mirror of London. She possesses something which the unknown employer of the assassins wants desperately.
Door sends Richard to meet with the last noble still loyal to her family, an Afro-British man named the Marquis DeCarabas. Once the Marquis arrives both he and Door disappear.

After interacting with Door, Richard notices that he has become invisible to people in our world. Having no choice he stubbornly sets out to find London Below and assist Door and the Marquis in their quest. Words can't describe what a pleasure reading this book is. Just get it. London Below is full of magic, danger, terror and excitement. Gaiman also has a number of multi-cultural characters but doesn't make a big deal out of it. Perfect.  Door reminds me of the character Arya Stark from A Game of Thrones. They are both skilled and dangerous people who miss their families very much.
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