Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Reviews: The Caretaker, The Ballad of Black Tom

The Caretaker
by Thomas William Simpson
This is a mildly entertaining thriller that starts out with a lot of promise but loses it a bit about halfway through. It remains an ok read but I felt it was stretched out a little bit longer than it needed to be. 
The ending was hugely melodramatic but it wasn't like that wasn't telegraphed. In a book that is almost 600 pages I am going to expect something a little bit more epic than what The Caretaker turned out to be. That could be in part because of a decreasing patience or declining attention span on my part. I'm not sure. 
I can definitely say that if you are stuck somewhere for hours with no mental stimulation at hand this book could come in quite handy. You know the sorts of arenas of which I speak--places like auto dealerships, hospitals, corporate headquarters-- where all you can do is hurry up and wait. One thing which the author did which I wasn't too crazy about is to end sentences by alluding to the fate of major characters or letting you know who the bad guy is. If he did it once or twice that would be amusing or even exciting. 
It might make me curious. But there were constant references to wondering how a major character would be enjoying prison right now or explaining that it's too bad that another major character didn't know that he was dealing with a sociopath. Part of the joy in reading a book like this is in figuring out who the bad guy is, who the mark is, what the con is and what the motivations of the bad guy are. 
So much of that was given away so early that instead of being sucked in by the con, figuring it out and identifying with the so far clueless heroes and heroines, I felt a little separated from the protagonists and villains. Either they were too stupid or too obvious in their evil. The joy of being conned by stories like these is in figuring it out for yourself. Would you really enjoy a magician who instead of doing a trick for you explained in detail exactly how the trick worked even as he was doing it? Well some people would.

Perhaps if while the magician was explaining the trick you were watching, he did another magic trick that you didn't even see until the end, then that might be ok? You could argue that that's what Simpson did here. Yes that might be the book's saving grace. But as I said I just thought it was a bit too long. 

Gunn Henderson Jr. is a tall stereotypical WASP Alpha Male salesman. He works for an unnamed shoe company (think Nike). 
Gunn is the kind of man who doesn't feel that his day is complete unless he has proven that he's better than you at something.
Gunn's a sharp dressed ultra competitive man who doesn't take any s*** off of anybody. Anybody. That includes his marks clients, other salesmen, his bosses, women in general and especially his attractive wife Samantha or Sam. Sam is, if not quite a desperate housewife, getting pretty close to that status. 
Sam likes all the benefits and lifestyle that her successful husband provides. She likes that Gunn is tall, well built, handsome and dominant. Unfortunately, for Sam's tastes, Gunn's dominance too often slides over into bullying domineering behavior. Sam likes a man who leads. 
But she doesn't like Gunn's control freak tendencies. Gunn comes by his persona naturally. Gunn's father, a retired banker, is the same way. Both of the Henderson adult men view life as something where they win and everyone else loses. Gunn does provide materially, sexually and occasionally romantically, but he's self-absorbed. Even Sam must accept that it's Gunn's world. Sam's just living in it. 
When Sam gets a phone call from someone offering Gunn a new job she breaks her husband's rules and opens his mail containing the job offer. This new sales job, which Sam helps convince Gunn to take, offers a tremendous salary, bonus, incentives and the possibility to be in on the ground floor of something big. The Hendersons could become overnight multi-millionaires. 
The Hendersons and their two children sell their home and move into a mansion on an estate provided by their new employer. Their kids will attend a fancy private school. Gunn won't be able to enjoy too many of the benefits as he will be on the road at least 6 days a week trying to sell the new product. 
And even for a master salesman like Gunn, this product will be a tough sell. But never fear, the house comes complete with a housekeeper and cook, Mrs. Griner and a caretaker and handyman, Brady. 
Brady appears to be a patient, solicitous, careful, shy man, everything that Gunn isn't. While Gunn is off pounding the pavement, Sam finds herself growing more attracted to Brady. 
It probably helps that Brady, who is in even better shape than Gunn, likes to start off his day with a morning dive in the nude. Sam likes to watch that.
Brady's a great listener and true gentleman. Sam slowly starts to confide in Brady.  There is an old quote which may or may not have been said by the actress Lana Turner which is "A gentleman is merely a patient wolf." I really liked the setup and early execution. I just thought it dragged in the middle. 
There is a certain Perils of Pauline aspect to this story. There's also an investigation of exactly how a marriage, or really any intimate relationship can come under deadly strain and either blow up or hold together against the odds. Gunn is an occasionally brutal jerk but he is a hard working one. I liked the examples of the stress a salesman is under. Sam may be the primary protagonist but she's not necessarily always sympathetic.

The Ballad of Black Tom
By Victor Lavalle
The writer H.P. Lovecraft (HPL) was a racist. HPL believed wholeheartedly in White Anglo-Saxon supremacy. He ignored any contrary evidence. 
He appears to have been completely unaware of the Harlem Renaissance which occurred during one of his most productive periods. In the rare cases where HPL conceded that white supremacy wasn't obvious he had no problem with others (he was something of a shrinking violet himself) employing violence to maintain white status. As late as 1936 HPL was praising Hitler. 
The groups HPL didn't like initially included just about everyone who wasn't Anglo-Saxon, Celtic or other Western-European descended American. HPL had special contempt for black people. He barely accepted blacks as human. 
HPL wasn't crazy about Jews, despite a brief marriage with a Jewish woman. During that short marriage, HPL moved to and lived in Brooklyn, NYC. HPL didn't enjoy his Gotham sojourn.  During his infrequent job searches HPL discovered that even his whiteness did not prevent would be employers from demanding experience and references, neither of which he had. HPL didn't like crowds. 
He certainly didn't like being around numerous non-whites, which by his reckoning, was a category that included Arabs, Turks, Persians, Central Asians, East Asians, South Asians, Italians, North Africans, Kurds, Blacks, -in short all the people who were moving to NYC at the time, often from overseas. HPL would actually step off the street to avoid being in close proximity to those he considered to be his lessers. 
His friends said that the sight of minorities or mixed crowds could drive HPL into a rage. HPL was also one of the greatest horror writers of the 20th century. HPL often placed his real life fears in his fiction. 
So it's unsurprising that all of HPL's then current New York City derived xenophobia, bias and racism was reflected in his short story "The Horror At Red Hook."  (THRH)
This story was a fever dream about non-white immigrants in NYC who are committed to some sort of devil worship. An Irish cop opposes them. A Dutch dilettante helps and directs them, though he may fall victim to the cultists or something they call up from Outside. THRH was not a very good story, even by pulp standards. The plot is weak. But plot is not where HPL made a name for himself. Where he excelled was atmosphere, mood and description, of which THRH had plenty. As stated, in THRH HPL let loose with some bile. These are typical passages:

The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. 
It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles..
Hordes of prowlers reel shouting and singing along the lanes and thoroughfares, occasional furtive hands suddenly extinguish lights and pull down curtains, and swarthy, sin-pitted faces disappear from windows when visitors pick their way through. 
Indeed, it would not have been too much to say that the old scholar’s particular circle coincided almost perfectly with the worst of the organised cliques which smuggled ashore certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island...
Their squat figures and characteristic squinting physiognomies, grotesquely combined with flashy American clothing, appeared more and more numerously among the loafers and nomad gangsters of the Borough Hall section. 
Suddenly the leader of the visiting mariners, an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth, pulled forth a dirty, crumpled paper and handed it to the captain... 

Lavalle is a writer who counts HPL as an influence but was apparently troubled by HPL's racism and xenophobia. He writes that he dedicates The Ballad of Black Tom to HPL "with all of my conflicted feelings".
The Ballad of Black Tom is a retelling/reworking of THRH. It's mostly told from the point of view of the titular character Thomas Lester, a young black man who's not very good at either music or the art of the con. Lester mostly makes his living by playing music on the street for cash. However since he only knows three or four songs and can't even play those well he usually has to leave Harlem to make any money. Lester also earns a living by doing odd jobs for people, finding things which they can't find or can't reach. He lives with his sickly father. 
When the amateur anthropologist Robert Suydam runs across Lester on the street he invites Lester to play for him at a party Suydam's putting together. Despite Suydam's offer of employment Lester doesn't like Suydam, who can barely conceal his contempt. But a gig is a gig. The police officer Thomas Malone and the private detective Howard (a fictionalized stand-in for author Robert E. Howard?) steal the money that Suydam gave to Lester as an upfront fee. 
Howard sees no reason a black man should have that kind of money. At the request of Suydam's family Howard and Malone are keeping a watch on Suydam. Suydam's family thinks he's mad. Intrigued and still needing money Lester has no choice but to attend the strange gathering at Suydam's house.
He also needs to avoid Howard, Malone and other racist cops or white people who are quick to harass, insult or even assault him should they find him in the wrong neighborhood. There is some sort of supernatural power out there which Suydam, no matter how ineptly, may have tapped into. 
Lester will need to decide what to do about that. Lester, not Suydam or Malone, is the moral center of this story. Although he's not a good musician, Lester is much smarter than anyone realizes. Lester knows that people see what they want to see. Spiritual blindness is a recurring theme in the story.
This is a quick read at about 150 pages. It is not necessary to know of or have a liking for HPL to enjoy this story. The issues raised in the story are still vibrant today. I really liked the story. I will look for more work by the author.
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