Saturday, August 24, 2013

Book Reviews-Erasure, Hell to Pay, Tough Luck

by Percival Everett
This book is by turns funny, sad, hilarious and sobering. It is reminiscent of Vonnegut in many aspects. Very mordant. I bought Erasure at a going out of business book sale. I had heard good things about this author and his wife, the author Danzy Senna. I couldn't find her work but picked this up, one of Everett's older novels. Well I'm glad I finally read the book. I may never finish my reading list before I shuffle off this mortal coil but it's a good thing that I was able to cross this story off my "to read" list. It's a satire of among other things, ghetto lit. It also sends up the arrogance of many writers and their total divorce from real life concerns.

WEB DuBois wrote of "double consciousness".
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
You shouldn't judge yourself using metrics that weren't designed for you. To use a different paraphrasing of a hoary joke, if you tell a credulous turtle that it is a failure if it can't outrun a cheetah, that turtle may accept its inferiority. If faulty beliefs become widely accepted, then for all intents and purposes they are real. Then it is a brave man or woman indeed who can reject the perceived reality for the actual reality. And yes that is a reference to Plato's Allegory of the Cave, which along with double consciousness provides a critical theme in this story.

Thelonious Ellison (for obvious reasons everyone calls him Monk) is an African-American novelist. He has had little success not just because he's black but because he's chosen to write intricate dense novels. His novels are novels about writing, retellings of Greek myths, parodies of French poststructurialists,  investigations into reality. They are literary works, not popular ones. But Monk is being true to himself. He wasn't born to a single mother. He didn't grow up on welfare and hearing gunshots. He doesn't have multiple children by multiple women. He graduated from Harvard summa cum laude. His grandfather, father, brother and sister were/are all doctors. He prefers woodworking and fly fishing to basketball and football. White book reviewers snidely tell him that his work has nothing to do with the black experience right before praising performance artists who pose as lawn jockeys on politician's lawns.
Monk is having a midlife crisis. His father's suicide seven years prior is increasingly on his mind. His unpleasant brother Bill is coming out of the closet (and undergoing a divorce). His sister Lisa needs help with their mother who is showing signs of Alzheimers. Lisa runs a women's health clinic and is in constant danger. Publishers have rejected all of Monk's recent novels. His agent is hinting that it might be time to part ways. Monk can't even find energy or interest to have sex with an angry groupie/even less popular writer at a conference he's headlining.

But Monk doesn't hit bottom until after having applied for and received the cold shoulder about a low paid English lecturer position, he reads fawning reviews about and sees a television interview with the author of the bestselling novel We's Lives in Da Ghetto, Juanita Mae Jenkins. The college educated Jenkins has never lived in the ghetto. The book allegedly comes from her memories of a brief childhood visit to some Harlem relatives. Nonetheless her book has become the definitive tome on black American life. The heroine is Sharonda F'rinda Johnson. She lives "the typical black life ". She is fifteen and pregnant with her third child by a third father. She lives with her mentally deficient brother Junebug and her drug addict mother. Junebug is a basketball player who is killed in a driveby when bullets pierce his autographed Michael Jordan basketball...
"Yo Sharonda, where you be goin in a hurry likes dat?" D'onna ax me when she seed me comin out da house.
"Ain't none you biznis. But iffan you gots to know, I'se goin to the pharmcy"

"The pharmcy? What fo?" she ax.
"You know", I says.

"Naw", she say. "Hell naw. Girl you be pregnant again?"

"Mights be"
A thinly disguised Oprah character tells Jenkins that this is really good writing. When Monk sees this he screams. Angered and frustrated beyond human understanding, Monk writes a parody response to Jenkins' book. He titles it My Pafology. He uses the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh and submits it to his agent. My Pafology is so crude and SO FAR over the top that no one in their right mind could miss that it's a (very angry) parody of black pathology porn and racist expectations of the "real" black experience. However things go awry. The agent sells the novel for a sizable amount of money, enough to allow Monk to take care of his mother in her last days. A Hollywood producer wants to meet the mysterious Mr. Leigh. The producer's attractive assistant wouldn't mind (ahem) "getting to know" the apparently virile Mr. Leigh. NOBODY understands that this was a parody. Monk must decide how far to take this and if in his attempt to send up racist stereotypes he's actually helping to perpetuate them. Excellent book and very very funny. It reminded me of the movie Hollywood Shuffle and Dave Chappelle's experiences.

Hell to Pay
by George Pelecanos
With a few missteps this could have been just the sort of book that Everett is railing against. I don't think it got there but it came close a few times. Certainly some people (Ishamel Reed anyone?) might think that it had. Pelecanos also had a parallel career as a writer and producer for The Wire, which is what made me pick up this book. I'm not a huge fan of dialect in my reading. It always feels as if the author is making fun of the people he's created. That wasn't the intent here by any means, I don't think but everyone has different sensibilities. You'd have to read the book for yourself and/or be familiar with the vernacular and tones of inner city Washington black youth circa 2002 or so to make that call. Decide for yourself I always say.

Anyway this book continues the story (I have not read the previous books in the series) of salt and pepper private investigator team Derek Strange (black) and his associate Terry Quinn (white). Both men are former cops. They aren't quite tough guys any more. Strange rarely carries a gun. Quinn does on occasion but likes to settle things peacefully if he can but with his fists if he must. They also volunteer as football coaches for the neighborhood youth. This gives them, mostly Strange as Quinn's race sets him apart, the opportunity to dispense some wisdom, straighten a few hard cases out, and provide a male role model to those boys who lack one. This is very very important to Strange.

Strange and Quinn met each other under difficult circumstances but found that they have a lot in common, especially a taste for old school music and style. They're analog in a digital world. They're dinosaurs and they know it. But this doesn't stop them from doing or trying to do the right thing. This last is an ongoing issue for Strange as despite being in love with his girlfriend (and employee) Janine, he occasionally gets his physical needs met in Asian massage parlors. This bothers him a great deal. A major subplot is if he will find the strength to stop and the decency to be honest with Janine.
A trio of young drug dealers, Potter, Little and White decide that a man named Lorenzo Wilder who owes them money must be taught a permanent lesson about the dangers of not paying his debts. Meanwhile an interracial distaff detective duo, Karen Bagley and Sue Tracy, are looking to rescue a young girl from the notorious pimp Worldwide Wilson. They hire Strange and Quinn to help them. Quinn is quiet but he's not shy. He immediately starts making a play for Sue. They're both Irish Catholic and Quinn uses that as a pickup line. Smooth. But in a rescue attempt of the young prostitute, Wilson unmans Quinn in front of Tracy. Quinn can't be having that. He's looking for some payback. Lorenzo Wilder is the ne'er do well uncle of a boy on Strange's football team. But Potter, Little and White don't care who's around when they kill Wilder. And they don't know or care  to whom Wilder or his nephew are related. And they certainly don't realize who Strange is. These are all serious mistakes.

This is predominantly sad yet ultimately optimistic book. It was quick reading. Strange and Quinn are realistic in that the years are starting to catch up to them. They're not superheroes. They make mistakes and have blind spots. Pelecanos gives a better characterization of Strange. Quinn is not really a cipher; he's definitely the secondary character though. It's just under 400 pages and would be a decent book to read if you have to travel or spend time in a hospital lobby or something similar.

Tough Luck

by Jason Starr
This book is very similar to the previous Jason Starr book I reviewed here. So if you liked that one you will like this. It's only about 250 pages. I don't want to give spoilers but this is quite formulaic. I don't mean that in a bad way. I'm just saying that this book follows the time honored pattern of a guy who thinks he's got it under control and is a bit nicer than he should be, getting mixed up in a situation where he's not in control at all. In this book the protagonist is one Mickey Prada, a young man just on the verge of adulthood. He works at a Brooklyn seafood market and has decided to delay college for some time to help his sick and possibly dying father. He has a Jewish boss Harry who doesn't pay very much and messes with him all the time. He's good friends with his black co-worker Charlie, something that causes the Italian-American Mickey some issues with his tribalistic racist Italian-American buddies, Fillippo, Ralph and Chris. Despite the normal issues that any desperate young man might have, Mickey has been able to put some money away and is looking forward to going to college and getting in the pants of his new girlfriend, Rhonda...not necessarily in that order.

In his Brooklyn neighborhood, you can hardly avoid knowing people who know people. Mickey's no different. From time to time to supplement his income, Mickey will take bets for a bookie. He places these through an old family friend Artie. He's never had any problems as he keeps things low key. However a new customer named Angelo Santoro starts placing bets through Mickey. Angelo loses but refuses to pay. It seems that Angelo is a made man in the Mafia. Artie doesn't care about that and neither does Artie's boss. Artie starts to show his less than pleasant side to Mickey, insisting that Mickey is responsible for the losses. But Angelo won't take no for an answer when he stops by to place more bets. Are you ready to tell a mafiosi to go f*** himself? Because that's what would be necessary. On the other side of things ultimately Artie answers to people who are also connected. They have no patience in hearing Artie's explanations of Mickey's sob stories.

Mickey is in a hard place. He decides to go along on a caper that Fillippo and Chris have planned, so that he can pay Artie back. And you can probably guess how that caper turns out. This was a trade paperback of about 250 pages. It didn't take long to read however and felt real enough. The characters are not very deeply drawn but they don't have to be. It's the plot which moves this book.
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