Saturday, October 6, 2012

Book Reviews-Charisma, The Long Fall

by Steve Barnes
Charisma is both a thriller (but NOT a horror novel) and a hidden essay on nurture vs. nature and success or failure. If you've read Barnes' blog or listened to his radio show this book will seem extremely familiar. Barnes has an intense interest in self-improvement, intelligence, and the process by which boys and girls become men and women with healthy self-images and strong vibrant bodies. Evil, for lack of a better word, is whatever seeks to retard, pervert or prevent that maturation. Evil creates adults who have warped internal messaging and faulty reality maps. There are also a few characters who seem to be fractured reflections of Barnes himself. Across the country a group of mostly minority children at, approaching or just past puberty are showing signs of advanced intelligence. This is not expressed solely in terms of book smarts, but in the ability to read people, to anticipate future events and to swiftly solve real life problems.

The kids also have unnatural reflexes and a certain physical grace normally only found among peak level professional athletes. Many were involved in a day care scandal years ago. They remember little and their parents don't seem to know what happened either. The children have similar nightmares. They are almost psychically in tune with one another, even when they've never met. Many are devotees of the legendary Japanese Samurai Musashi and try to apply his teachings to their everyday life. I hadn't heard of Musashi before I started reading Barnes some years back so it was interesting to see a novel posit a realistic method for how the knowledge contained in Musashi's The Book of Five Rings can apply to the lives of people today. For example:

Those who sincerely desire to learn my way of strategy will follow these rules for learning the art:
  1. Do not harbor sinister designs. Think honestly and truthfully.
  2. The Way is in training. One must continue to train.
  3. Cultivate a wide range of interests in the ten skills and ten arts. 
  4. Be knowledgeable in a variety of occupations, and learn the thinking of people who work in them.
  5. Know the difference between loss and gain in worldly matters.
  6. Nurture the ability to perceive the truth in all matters. It is important to build up an intuitive judgment and understand true values.
  7. Be aware of those things which cannot be easily seen with the eye. Develop intuitive judgment and a mind that freely controls one's body.
  8. Do not be negligent, but pay attention even to the smallest details. Keep them in mind all the time, so as to avoid unexpected failure.
  9. Do not engage in useless activity. Do not argue about useless things. Concentrate on your duties.

This is not (just) a coming of age story. There are many different protagonists. Renny Sand is a print journalist and would be novelist. After his story about CIA involvement in inner city drug dealing fell apart in lies and bad sourcing, he was demoted to his newspaper's backwaters, one step above gossip columnist. Renny is frustrated and lonely. He thinks he's missed his chance to make his mark. He covered the day care scandal. He decides to do a follow up "where are they now" human interest story. His motives are not 100% professional. Renny is attracted to Vivian Emory, a beautiful Washington state costume store owner who is the mother of Patrick Emory, a perceptive boy who was involved in the scandal, and the soon to be ex-wife of Otis Emory. Otis is a huge dockworker who accepts that he's losing his wife but remains extremely protective of his son, Patrick. Otis has had a few run-ins at work with the even larger Cappy Swenson, a violent racist and criminal biker. Patrick is on Cappy's radar. This is not a good thing.

Renny learns that his newspaper's late owner, one Alexander Marcus, may have had some connection to the day care scandal. Alexander Marcus had almost superhuman accomplishments. He was a black business mogul, war veteran, civil rights financier and adviser, supreme athlete and warrior who was considering a Presidential run before his untimely death in a plane crash. His elderly mother and a few trusted associates keep his memory alive and run his various businesses and foundations.

In a small Arizona town a retired elderly Secret Service agent named Kelly Kerrigan, who was assigned to Marcus' security detail and knows a few things about him doesn't get along with Tristan D'Angelo, who is town Mayor and served in Vietnam with Marcus. D'Angelo is the type of person who looks at you in a certain way and makes your kidneys stop working. D'Angelo doesn't like Kelly and likes her husband even less.

Renny discovers some things about Marcus which he doesn't want to know. Guardians of Marcus' legacy will kill to keep these secrets. There are conspiracies within conspiracies here. There is nothing supernatural. Charisma examines some personal horrors, including but not limited to racism and child abuse. The book's biggest question is how do we improve human performance? Are some people just dumb by nature? Can environment and training make people grow and change? Whatever your thoughts may be I doubt that this book will change your mind. You may be more open to ideas though.

Charisma reminded me of some of Stephen King's or Dan Simmons's works because much of the story takes place from children's POV. If you are sensitive to depiction of endangered children be aware that that happens in this story. The book was ultimately worthwhile but was just a tad longer than I liked.

The Long Fall
by Walter Mosley
The Long Fall is a metaphor for the protagonist's life. The title immediately reminded me of Milton's Paradise Lost. What if the Devil wanted to repent? Could he?

Now Leonid Trotter McGill (L.T. to associates) isn't the Devil but he's still in a moral pit. He's an amateur boxer and NYC private investigator who has spent most of his professional life working the shady side of the street. He probably wouldn't have pulled the trigger on you himself but if a Mafia captain wanted you found, Leonid would find you. If an unscrupulous prosecutor (or defense attorney) wanted evidence planted or removed, Leonid would arrange it. If someone wanted their spouse compromised, Leonid would happily produce an apartment, seducer and camera. You want an anonymous quote placed in an investment journal or on a website in order to move the stock market? Talk to Leonid. Leonid knows all of the slimy fixers, attorneys, mob hitters, pimps, etc that exist in Gotham. Money is what interests Leonid. He's got a million aliases, thinks fast on his feet and packs a mean left hook.

But now he's trying to go straight. After a scheme victim killed herself, Leonid's long dormant conscience awakened. He's having bad dreams and ruefully remembering what his father, a Black Nationalist and Communist, tried to teach him about brotherhood and solidarity. Leonid resolves only to take straight investigation jobs-those that don't involve breaking the law (very much), harm innocent people or help kill anyone.

So when a new assignment ends in a murder, Leonid won't shrug and move on. He wants to find out who hired him and why. He calls in a few solids owed and pulls the strings of some important people. When someone tries to kill him in his own office it becomes very personal.

I like Mosley's style. In his books the hero often has a naturally violent and rather unstable partner he can call upon in his hour of greatest need (Mouse, Fearless Jones, etc.)
Here that partner is Hush. Hush is white and skinny where Leonid is black and stocky. But Hush also happens to be the most feared assassin on the East Coast, someone who makes other vicious killers mess their pants. If Hush wants you dead, you will be dead. You may go quick and easy or you may go slow and painfully but you will go. Hush never misses. Capriciously, Leonid once did Hush a tremendous favor. Hush has not forgotten. He is a man that Leonid can rely upon. All the same, Hush makes Leonid very nervous. Mosley writes "Sitting next to Hush was like sitting next to a King Cobra who had slithered up to the bar stool and declared that you were his friend. You might not like the company but you certainly weren't going to turn your back or make any sudden moves".

Leonid also struggles to do right in his personal life. From moral obligation he remains in an almost totally loveless marriage with his wife, Katrina, who is repeatedly described as blonde, Nordic, and beautiful (I imagined Heidi Klum or Christie Brinkley) and completely incapable of fidelity. Katrina has produced three children during the marriage but only one of them is Leonid's. Snicker. It's unclear as to which spouse started cheating first. Leonid still maintains a friendship and maybe more (?) with his own girl Friday. The only reason that Katrina still remains with Leonid is because her last sugar daddy fell on financial hard times. At Katrina's age, Leonid might be her best remaining option. Can you imagine a spouse or significant other looking at you and pretending sincerity while you see through them? To keep the peace you then pretend not to notice their falseness. That's Leonid's marriage.

Ironically the child with whom Leonid is closest, Twilliam (Twill), is not his own. The teen aged Twill is going down the same amoral path that Leonid travelled. Leonid works to keep an eye on Twill's schemes and keep him out of deeper trouble. Meanwhile, ignoring Leonid's desire to go straight and unconcerned with who tried to kill him, some organized crime "friends" want Leonid to do a favor for them, just like the old days. And these aren't the sort of people who like to repeat themselves.

This is a quiet descriptive book that is occasionally punctuated with bouts of conflict and violence. I liked it but could have used a bit more action. It's written in first person. Leonid constantly describes himself as somewhat short and a tad overweight (he's 5-8) but he never backs down from a fight. He grew up in an orphanage after his parents died and from his description anyone who tried to punk him or push him around ended up either missing a few teeth or worse. He works out daily and boxes weekly. There aren't really any classical heroes here. Leonid, despite his turn towards the light, remains a morally gray person, but then protagonists in these stories usually are. Good stuff.
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