Saturday, August 10, 2013

Book Reviews-Fear of the Dark, Joyland

Fear of the Dark
by Walter Mosley
Often when people operate at a consistently excellent level for a long time other people come to expect that and take it for granted. So in order to impress they can't just do their normal great work. They must go above and beyond to get people to see them in a different light. I had a boss once who told me that in pretty much those exact words. Maybe she was telling the truth that day in my performance review and maybe she wasn't. All the same though there is something to be said for getting used to excellence. I was reminded of that reading both books listed here. If you are familiar with the authors these books aren't anything new. Of course if someone else had written them I'd be raving about the strong new voice and colorful characterizations. So it goes. For me it was like sinking into a favorite comfortable broken in chair. Good story telling makes me happy.

Fear of The Dark is the second (?) in the series featuring mid century Los Angeles reluctant amateur sleuth and bookstore owner Paris Minton and his buddy, the debonair, dashing and downright dangerous Fearless Jones. As usual Paris is minding his own business (technically that's not quite accurate as he is also trying to mind the business of Jessa, a Caucasian woman who likes black men and likes the short con) when he's pulled into a world of trouble.

Paris is in his bookstore when his shiftless cousin Ulysses stops by. He's in bad trouble. Except for his mother, no one likes Ulysses. He uses people. He lies. He always has a big plan that fails. He won't pay back favors or money. Everyone calls him Useless. The last time Paris saw Useless, Useless hid stolen gold in Paris' bathroom without Paris' consent. The suspicious Paris checked the bathroom. He found and moved the gold, right before some highly unpleasant encounters with the police and an angry gangster. He's upset to see Useless. Paris is not interested in the desperate Useless' invocation of blood ties or his impassioned plea that he really needs aid. Paris shuts the door in his cousin's face and moves on.

But he can't move on because Useless disappears. Paris doesn't care. But Useless' mother arrives on Paris' doorstep, looking for her son. She knows Paris saw him. She wants his help in finding Ulysses (she always uses her son's given name). Paris dare not say no to Three Hearts because not only has his aunt always been kind and loving to him but she is also believed to have the evil eye. People who upset or annoy her seem to come to bad ends. Paris is not overly credulous but he's not in a hurry, even in 1956 Los Angeles, to go up against Louisiana hoodoo.
So, needing backup, Paris calls Fearless, who is now body guarding bail bondsmen. This kicks off an adventure across the greater metropolitan Los Angeles area, one that is full of gangsters, tough talking dames, whores with hearts of gold, racist police, horny lawyers, insurance scams, blackmail, and commentary on race, class and gender relations. Paris is more aggressive than in the first book. Fearless remarks that he thinks that Paris is the tougher of the duo. Coming from Fearless that means a lot as Fearless maintains his street reputation as a stone cold killer and defender of the defenseless. Fearless' aura as a man not to be f***** with is never more clear than when Fearless and Paris ask a favor of Bubba Lateman, who also has a certain reputation. Bubba has heard about Fearless but seems unimpressed. He asks Fearless what Fearless would do if Bubba ordered his killer wolf-dog to rip out his throat. Fearless calmly replies that it was a beautiful dog but that if it jumped him he'd snap its neck like a chicken. And then he'd proceed to teach Bubba a lesson that he'd carry down into his coffin. After a tense moment Bubba starts to laugh. I loved that scene.

There's another point when Paris is reading alone in the park. Thinking that he must be up to something, being black and all, police stop by to harass, insult, and search him. Frustrated and confused that Paris is not a criminal and they can't legally prevent him from being where he is or doing what he's doing they try to bait him into physical confrontation. It was quite reminiscent of this scene from real life. Some things don't change.

As before there's plot complexity as many different people are involved in Useless' plans but it's very engaging writing and moves quickly. The book runs about 300 pages. Despite relative cowardice, Paris has no problem with the ladies. There are two different femme fatales and three to four other major women characters. Paris is involved with three of them.


by Stephen King
In a happy accident as I was finishing Joyland last weekend I ran across this profile of Stephen King and his family, most of whom are also writers. You should read it if you're a King fan. Good stuff. Anyway Joyland is King's second(?) book for the Hard Case publishing house, which has made a niche for itself publishing crime novels, shoot-em ups, and revenge stories, either done in the style of the old pulp masters or actually written by some of the old pulp masters. The covers, as you can see, are often lurid and erotically charged. It's supposed to remind you of the dime store novels from the fifties and sixties.

Well Joyland could be described as a crime novel or detective novel if you like but it's is just as much a coming of age story, a story of a writer looking back at his life, a trip into nostalgia, a screed against the unfairness of this world where children die of cancer while Dick Cheney keeps on going strong, and of course a ghost story. King knows just which buttons to push and he does it so well that you forget that this is fiction. You get totally immersed into his world. Reading this book I almost felt compelled to simultaneously listen to Same Auld Lang Syne or American Pie. There was a very strong mix of wisdom, love, regret, nostalgia and hope mixed into this book, just like those songs, in my opinion.

The book jumps around in time but perhaps it's something that happens to us when we get older, as the narrator is. Some physics I've read suggests that time is only an illusion and that past, present and future are all one. Maybe that is the case. The narrator goes from present day describing the recent death of a close friend to detailing in present tense the day he met that friend in 1973.

It's 1973. Devin Jones is a college student, a virgin, who is madly in love with his classmate Wendy Keegan. However what's apparent to the reader immediately but unfortunately doesn't become apparent to Devin until much later is that Wendy has friend-zoned Devin. She doesn't mind messing around with Devin but certainly won't do THAT thing with him. As summer break approaches she stops spending time with Devin, is vague about her locations and has her roommate answer his phone calls. Eventually, once Devin's at his new summer job, while he's pretending not to know what it means that Wendy's roommates openly laugh at him when he calls or that Wendy never calls him, he gets a "Dear Devin" letter explaining what everyone already knew.

King writes:
"I never saw Wendy again...There wasn't even a final phone call filled with tears and accusations. That was on Tom Kennedy's advice and it was probably a good thing. Wendy might have been expecting such a call [from me], maybe even wished for it. If so she was disappointed. I hope she was. All these years later, with these old fevers and deliriums long in my past, I still hope she was. Love leaves scars."
Devin's new summer job is at Joyland, a North Carolina independent amusement park/carnival. Joyland is almost defiantly old school carnival. It is not corporate owned. It lacks modern rides and events. In fact it's a struggle each summer for Joyland to stay in the black financially. But Joyland does have loyalty from its workers. Against the odds Devin finds that not only does he like the work but that he's good at it, especially the draining and dangerous task of putting on a dog costume in hot southern summers and entertaining the kids.

But Joyland has secrets. A ride is supposedly haunted. A few Joyland employees have unusual abilities which the thoroughly skeptical Devin can't entirely ignore. But it's when Devin meets Annie and her chronically sick son Mike, that he's inspired to look further into the history of the Joyland ghost as well as a string of murders that have occurred across the southeast. Devin also makes friends with fellow college students and co-workers Erin Cook and Tom Kennedy. Sadly for Devin, the beautiful Erin only has eyes for Tom, but unlike Wendy, Erin is honest.

This is a very good book. There are no gross out scenes in it. Supernatural elements are very muted. I hate to keep going back to this as an example but once again this story reminds me of what I think of as King's masterpiece "The Last Rung On The Ladder". Joyland is not about things that go bump in the night. It's about the darkness in the human heart. Pick this one up. It's just under 300 pages.
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