Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge – No sex, lots of drugs and a bit of rock’n’roll

October 19, 2019 8 comments

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge (1987) French title: Not Fade Away. Translated by Nathalie Bru

Not Fade Away by Jim Dodge is a road trip novel with a soundtrack of 1950s rock-‘n’-roll and a driver who pops Benzedrine into his mouth as if they were M&M’s.

We’re at the end of the 1950s. George Gastin operates a tow-truck in San Francisco and participates to insurance scams, mainly wrecking cars and making them disappear. One day, his employer asks him to get rid of a brand-new Cadillac Eldorado. This car was bought by an eccentric old lady as a gift to the Big Bopper, who died in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens before his fan could give him the car. Now the lady passed away and her heir wants to get money from the insurance.

George decides not to destroy the car but to drive it to Texas, where the Big Bopper is buried. He leaves San Francisco with a few clothes, some cash and a huge bag of Benzedrine. He takes us to a road trip from San Francisco to Iowa.

Early in his trip, he meets Donna, a mother of young kids, married to a useless husband and who struggles to stay afloat. She has a collection of old 45s from the 1950s and George buys them from her to help her financially They will be the soundtrack of his road trip and of our reading trip.

As you imagine, George will meet several colorful characters during his travelling. The most engaging one was Donna, lost in a small town, struggling to survive in her trailer, trapped in a life she didn’t truly want and overwhelmed by motherhood. She met her husband on the song Donna by Ritchie Valens, married young and didn’t truly know what she was getting into. She was not ready to be an adult.

I liked the passage with Donna but I got bored later with the other crazy characters George meets along the way. Reverend Double-Gone Johnson and the world’s greatest salesman weren’t as convincing as Donna. I guess that the three of them represent America: women at home (we’re just before the feminist revolution of 1960s), self-proclaimed preachers and crazy salesmen who could sell ice to an Inuit.

To be honest, I thought that Not Fade Away was too long. 420 pages (in French) was too much in my opinion. I really enjoyed the early moments in San Francisco, the description of the nightlife and the jazz clubs.

George has a blue-collar job but spend his time with artists and books. He struggles to find his place in the world. His life unravels when his girlfriend Kacy leaves him abruptly to embark on a trip to South America. This is when his boss assigns him the Cadillac job and he decides to get out of Dodge with the Cadillac. Not Fade Away had a good start but I got tired of reading George’s drug induced trips, his hallucinations and his crazy driving. The visions and the jokes aren’t that funny if you’re not under influence yourself.

I suppose that Jim Dodge wanted to describe a short period of time, the turning point between the 1950s, the beat generation and the 1960s. I imagine that he wanted to take George to some sort of mystical journey that I didn’t understand, just like I didn’t get Naked Lunch. I’m a Cartesian, a no-nonsense person who’s a bit impervious to soul-searching trips that involve recreational drugs or alcohol. I am not fascinated by On the Road.

Besides the get-high moments, the bits about the beginnings of rock-‘n’-roll are nice. I had a lot of fun making a playlist with all the 1950s songs George mentions as he goes through Donna’s 45s and more. That’s not my usual kind of music but it was nice to hear the songs he was referring too.

The story of the 1950s singers is mentioned and of course, the plane crash that killed the Big Bogger is part of the book. Incidentally, it brought me back to my own adolescence, because I was a teenager when the movie La Bamba went out. (In 1987, same year as Not Fade Away.) New versions of the songs La Bamba and Donna were released at the time and they were big hits.

I’d say Not Fade Away is a nice read but not a must-read. I often associate a book with a song that pops up in my mind while I’m reading. Even if Not Fade Away is full of cheesy songs of the 1950s, I’d say that it goes well with a darker song like Les dingues et les paumés by Hubert-Félix Thiéfaine or with Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan.

PS: It’s amazing how different the French and American covers are.

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson – Another trip to Wyoming

October 9, 2019 9 comments

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson (2008) French title: Enfants de poussière. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Another Man’s Mocassins by Craig Johnson is my fourth trip to the fictional Absaroka County in Wyoming. This is where Sheriff Walt Longmire is law enforcement. After his investigation in Philadelphia, he’s back in Durant, Wyoming, with his daughter Cady who is in PT after her accident.

His quiet routine is broken when the Dunningam brothers find a body by the road while they were baling grass. Longmire isn’t thrilled by the news…and not just because it interrups his diner:

“No matter what aspect of law enforcement with which you might be involved, there’s always one job you dread. I’m sure at the more complicated venues, it’s the terrorists, it’s serial killers, or it’s gang related, but for the western sheriff it’s always been the body dump. To the north, Sheridan County has two unsolved, and Natrona County to the south has five; up until twenty-eight minutes ago, we’d had none. There you stand by some numbered roadway with a victim, no ID, no crime scene, no suspects, nothing.

Not a great situation. The body is a young woman with Vietnamese features. She’s scantily clad, has no shoes and lays there without any information about her identity.

When Longmire’s team eventually finds out who she is, they discover that her name is Ho Thi Paquet and that she has a picture of Longmire with her. The photo dates back to 1967 when Longmire was in Vietnam as a marine inspector. He had befriended Mai Kim, a prostitute who worked at a bar full of American customers. This photo of him playing the piano with Mai Kim in the background brings back memories from the war.

What’s the connection between Mai Kim and Ho Thi Paquet? Why did the victim come to Wyoming, apparently looking for Longmire?

The story goes back and forth in time, as Longmire reminisces his days in Vietnam, a particular investigation on drug trafficking and Mai Kim’s death. In a way, it reminded me of The Black Echo by Michael Connelly. Harry Bosch and Walt Longmire both face an investigation that bring back their time in Vietnam. In both cases, they have a connection with the victim.

I enjoyed the fourth opus of the Longmire series. He’s good at picturing Wyoming and life in Durant. I was glad to hear about the recurring characters and what’s going on with their lives. There’s always a lot of humor in his text, like here in the name of the bar in Vietnam, the Fun Boy-Howdy Beau Coups Good Times Lounge. For French speaking readers, there’s no typo. Beau coups is not beaucoup misspelled. It mean good hookups.

Johnson keeps building his characters, showing Longmire in a new light. There’s his affectionate relationship with his daughter. He supports her during her PT, pushing her with her exercises and disclosing the functioning of their two people family, since Longmire’s wife and Cady’s mother Martha passed away.

Cady never gave up. It was a family trait, and in our tiny family, stories were the coinage of choice, a bartering in the aesthetic of information and the athletics of emotion, so I answered her.

His long-life friend Henry Standing Bear was also in Vietnam in 1967, even if it was in another unit. We know more about the two men’s friendship. I recently learnt that Henry is named after the Ponca Chief Standing Bear (1828-1908), a Native American Civil Rights leader. Chief Standing Bear recently had his statue inaugurated in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the US Capitol. He and Willa Cather represent the State of Nebraska.

Other billets about the Longmire series: The Cold Dish, Death Without Company, Kindness Goes Unpunished

PS: As always, Sophie Aslanides’s translation is impeccable.

The House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien – Disorienting

October 1, 2019 5 comments

The House Of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien (1994) French title: La maison du splendide isolement.

History is everywhere. It seeps into the soil, the sub-soil. Like rain, or hail, or snow, or blood. A house remembers. An outhouse remembers. A people ruminate. The tale differs with the teller.

I’m terribly late with this billet since I read The House of Splendid Isolation by Edna O’Brien in June. Fortunately, I have some notes and some quotes because I don’t have clear memories about this novel set in Ireland. It’s blurred with an overall impression of Irish landscapes, customs and intricate politics.

Josie is an old lady who lives alone in a big and isolated house and who mulls over her past. McGreevy is an IRA activist who is hiding from the police. He decides to invite himself at Josie’s house. He “kidnaps” her house and imposes his presence. The two will start an odd relationship.

Josie was married to an alcoholic, their marriage fell apart quite fast. They lived like strangers. Her marriage was a failure and muddied by her inability to adapt to her new life. On one side, we see her reflections on her life, now that she’s old and fragile. On the other side, we see McGreevy’s life, his actions as an IRA activist. We see him during missions, and hiding.

When I write this, you know about the setting and the two main characters but you still have no idea about the atmosphere of the book.

Edna O’Brien takes us back and forth in time and there were not enough time stamps in the book for me. I was lost. I got lost in time, I got lost in Irish politics.

Josie is not a character you’d like to be friend with. She’s tough and indirectly responsible for her husband’s death. She married too young and was not very mature at the time, even if she had spent several years in Brooklyn. She should have grown up there but didn’t. Edna O’Brien’s mother had the same life journey: she used to live in Brooklyn, working as a servant for a rich family. She came back to Ireland to start a family and married a peasant who was alcoholic and violent. Since Edna O’Brien was born in 1930, that Josie is really old in the book, I guessed that Josie was born around 1910.

The novel is also full of references to the fight of the IRA, the consequences on civilians, the exactions on both sides. Honestly, you need to be Irish to fully understand this book. O’Brien shows the violence on both sides and tries to give a voice to the IRA and to the Guarda. To be honest, there were too many subtitles that went way over my head because I’m clueless about Irish history but I could feel the helplessness and the bitterness in O’Brien’s tone.

The way they train them is probably macabre. To be invincible. No chinks. Out in isolated places shooting targets, reading up, mettling themselves, taking the oath. Once they cross that divide they’re never the same again, like iron put into a fire. They cannot return to their old shape or their old ways. The saddest bit is that we’re the same stock, the same faith, we speak the same tongue and yet we don’t. Language to each of us is a braille that the other cannot know. Words like justice or love or bread turned inside out or outside in.

She seems to tell us: how will we move forward? How can we go past this? Will we ever find peace? Will this violence ever stop?

I also noticed the constant presence of religion in the novel and its power. It appears at the oddest times, like here, during an ambush where someone gets killed:

‘I got him,’ he says to Ned who is trembling beside him. ‘We should say an act of contrition.’

And later:

‘We’ll get an ambulance over here,’ the sergeant says, getting into his own car. ‘And a priest,’ Ned says as they whiz past him,

I have trouble reconciling the idea of being a fervent Catholic, which supposes that you do not kill people and these off-handed comments, about asking for forgiveness for the murder and have a priest come over to bless the body. What is wrong with them? It seems so twisted and I couldn’t help thinking that the Church covered murderers on both sides. It didn’t endear me to the institution.

To lighten the mood, I’ll mention the French words and expressions I found here and there. I found this quote amusing:

‘Canapés …’ someone else shouts and the second clue is written into place. ‘What the hell are canapés … Are they a fruit?’ ‘You’ve never heard of canapés … You’re a bog man.’ ‘They’re things with things on them … My favourite is a prawn …

Indeed, we don’t use the word canapé anymore for that. The canapés that you eat at a cocktail party…we call them toasts! (or bouchée) A canapé is usually a couch. So, don’t worry if a French wants to sit on a canapé instead of eating it.

French fun apart, what’s the verdict about The House of Splendid Isolation? Same issue as for Dubliners. I wondered if you needed to be Irish to really enjoy it…Since I’m not, I found it frustrating and sometimes disturbing. If anyone has read it, I’d be interested to discuss it with you.

Literary escapade: Proust and the centennial of his Prix Goncourt

September 29, 2019 16 comments

In 1919, Proust won the most prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt for the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Gallimard was Proust’s publisher.

To celebrate this centenary, the Gallerie Gallimard in Paris set up an exhibition around this event. Did you know that Proust’s win was a scandal at the time?

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was in competition with Wooden Crosses by Roland Dorgelès, a book about the trenches and WWI. The public was in favor of Mr Dorgelès and his patriotic novel. (I’ve never read it, I can’t tell anything about it)

Proust was considered too old for the prize. There have been arguments about the Goncourt brothers’ intentions when they made the prize for a “young talent”. Who’s young, the writer or the talent? Proust was too rich and the 5000 francs of the prize would have been better spent on a poor writer. Proust was too involved in the high society, even if at the time he wrote In Search in Lost Time, he was mostly living in solitude. Proust was too odd with his strange living habits, his book was too verbose and he did not fight in the war.

There were a lot of arguments against his winning but none of them were about the literary quality of his novel. And the Académie Goncourt, in charge of picking the winner, concentrated on the literary aspects of the book.

After the 1919 Prix Goncourt was awarded, the press went wild against Proust. The exhibition shows a collage of press articles of the time, all coming from Proust’s own collection.

According to Thierry Laget, who wrote Proust, Prix Goncourt, une émeute littéraire, (Proust, Goncourt Prize, a literary scandal), the violence and the form of the attacks against Proust were like a campaign on social networks today. I might read his book, I’m curious about the atmosphere of the time and what Laget captures about it.

There was a wall about Gaston Gallimard who founded what would become the Gallimard publishing house in 1911. Gallimard convinced Proust to let them publish In Search of Lost Time and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was Gallimard’s first Prix Goncourt.

The exhibition displays the letter that the Académie Goncourt sent to Proust to officially inform him that he won. I found it simple, unofficial looking.

There were two previously unreleased drawings of Proust like this one by Paul Morand in 1917. It was made at the Ritz and it represents Proust, Morand and Laure de Chévigné, one of the women who inspired the Duchesse de Guermantes.

And the other one was of Proust on his death bed in 1921.

It’s a small exhibition that lasts only until October 23rd, rush for it if you’re a Proust fan and are in Paris during that time.

Newhaven-Dieppe by Georges Simenon – All Along the Watchtower.

September 26, 2019 10 comments

Newhaven-Dieppe by Georges Simenon (1933) Original French title: L’homme de Londres.

L’homme de Londres by Georges Simenon was our Book Club choice for September. It is translated into English under the title Newhaven-Dieppe.

Louis Maloin works the night shift at the coastal train station in Dieppe, France. He’s a switchman, in charge of all the trains that liaise the actual Dieppe railway station and the ferry harbor. When the book opens, we’re with Maloin in his watchtower over the harbor and the ferry from Newhaven is about to disembark its passengers and goods. The arrival of passengers is organized in such a way that they cannot escape custom before going on land.

Maloin is looking out the window, observing the passengers who arrive. He has a privileged view on the ferries and trains that come in and out of the harbor.

He notices two men disembarking from the ferry. One of them, a man in a grey suit, swiftly gets around the line to customs with a suitcase in hand. Nobody had seen him but Maloin. The man goes to stand with the people who are on the quay, as if he were waiting for a passenger instead of having just stepped out of the ferry. Maloin is intrigued, wondering what kind of contraband the man carries in his suitcase. He doesn’t say anything, he too would try to avoid customs if he could.

Later that night, he sees the two men again and the one in the grey suit pushes the other into the sea while attempting to keep the suitcase. He fails. The other one falls into the water, drowns, taking the suitcase away with him.

Maloin witnesses everything and instead of going to the police, he dives into the harbor and fishes the suitcase. Back in the safety of his glass tower, he opens it and finds the equivalent of 540 000 francs in British pounds. He decides to keep the money and hide it in his closet in the tower.

The man in the grey suits stays in Dieppe. He and Maloin see each other in town. They both know about the suitcase and don’t act on it. The Englishman doesn’t confront Maloin and the latter almost wishes that he did.

Maloin doesn’t know what to do about the money but he never really thinks that he witnessed a murder, that this is ill-acquired money and that he should contact the authorities.

The hesitation of the two men will be fatal. Indeed, it leaves enough time for Inspector Molisson from Scotland Yard to arrive in Dieppe. He starts digging around. He knows the thief in the grey suit and he’s after the money. His presence will set the rest of the events into motion.

Newhaven-Dieppe can be easily read in one sitting. It’s one of the romans durs and Maloin is a strange character. Maloin’s motivations are hard to pinpoint. We never understand why he made that impulse decision to pick up the suitcase and not report the murder.

He’s married with two children and he has a stable job with the railroad company. We’re in 1933, the times are difficult and the family struggles to make ends meet. Is it because his wife comes from a wealthier family and because his brother-in-law looks down on him? Is it the shame he feels that his daughter Henriette has to work as a servant at the local butcher because her family needs the money?

Maloin doesn’t know himself why he acts that way. Simenon seems to tell us that we never know ourselves completely. The ending of the book and Maloin reminded me of Meursault, in L’Etranger by Albert Camus, although it was written decades later.

This is a very atmospheric novel. It is set in Dieppe, in winter. Simenon excels in the description of the foggy shores, the little town with its shops. The sea, the tides influence people’s lives. We see a bit of the life in the seaside town in winter, when the hotels and the casino are closed for the season. Only the locals are there, and the only strangers in town are the occasional salesmen and business men who come through Dieppe. Simenon describes the streets, the lights, the cafés and the local life with the fishermen and people picking up seafood at the shore. I didn’t know that trains rode like tramways between the main station and the ferries embankment in order to make a connection between ferries and rail. It worked for goods and passengers.

Simenon’s style is fluid and easy to read. I noticed that he used English words like banknotes, policemen and meeting instead of billet de banque, policiers or réunion when he was referring to something British. The French readership of the 1930s would have been less exposed to the English language than nowadays. How was this perceived?

I also picked a slightly misogynistic vibe. Poor Madame Maloin only gets a first name in the last minute, when Maloin finally acknowledges her as his equal. Otherwise, she’s just a wife, she has no other identity. I suppose it goes with the times.

Newhaven-Dieppe is a cleverly crafted novella about a man who acts out of character, doesn’t know why and wrecks his life. Noir is the color.

Highly recommended.

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie – Disappointing

September 22, 2019 12 comments

Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie (2013) French title: Sidney Chambers et l’ombre de la mort. Translated by Patrice Repusseau.

I have a rule for Book Around the Corner: write a billet about every book I read, even if I don’t finish it. I have a rather long backlog of billets and I see that I only have three months left to catch up before 2020 starts. Phew! Combine the rule and the backlog and you’ll have a quick-and-dirty billet about Sidney Chamber and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, a crime fiction book I couldn’t finish.

I’d never heard of Runcie but it is published by Babel Noir, a good reference for crime fiction and the cover called to me. It’s the first volume of the Grantchester mysteries, featuring the vicar Sidney Chambers. He plays amateur detective and feeds his friend inspector Georgie Keating with information. I see that there’s a TV series made out of it.

How can I say this? I was looking for a so-British cozy crime mystery, something that smelled of old spinsters, gossips and church ladies. Sidney Chambers is a thirty-two-year of vicar who has been appointed to the town of Grantchester. Runcie draws the setting, introduces us to his main character. At Stephen Staunton’s funeral, a woman approaches Chambers to speak with him privately. She was Staunton’s mistress and she doesn’t believe that he committed suicide. She asks the vicar to dig around, since he can go where the police are not welcome.

I started to get into the story, thought the plot was developing and suddenly, wham, bam, thank you reader, mystery is solved and now we’re off to a New Year’s Eve dinner party where jewelry is stolen. I thought “What?! That’s it?”

I tried to read further but I couldn’t find any interest in the plot or in the characters’ company. I thought that they were caricatures. I disliked the weepy hostess of the dinner party. Why did she have to be a blubbering mess because something happened in her house?

Long story short, I abandoned it and I was disappointed because I expected a light and entertaining read. Has anyone read this series or watched it TV version? Did I read it at the wrong time or was I not the only one unconvinced by Sidney Chambers?

PS: Don’t you think that the title sounds like Harry Potter?

Choke Hold by Christa Faust – sex, drugs and MMA.

September 20, 2019 4 comments

Choke Hold by Christa Faust (2011) French title: L’ange gardien. Translated by Christophe Cuq

Do the things you’ve done in the past add up to the person you are now? Or are you endlessly reinvented by the choices you make for the future? I used to think I knew the answer to those questions. Now, I’m not so sure.

Angel Dare, former porn star is under witness protection. She’s a waitress at a diner in Arizona, hiding away from the men who want her dead. Her old life barrels into her new one when her ex-lover Vic Ventura comes to her diner with his son Cody. They don’t have to really catch up that Vic is shot dead right in front of her.

Angel doesn’t know if the killers are after Vic or her. No time to think, she just takes Cody under her wing and flees the scene as fast as she can.

Cody is 18 and recently reconnected with Vic. He is raised by his single mother who struggles with mental illness. His daily support system consists in Hank Hammer, former MMA champion and Cody’s MMA coach at a local gym.

Cody’s only goal is to become a MMA champion and he’s on the right track to achieve it. The kid is gifted and already participates to underground MMA fights in Mexico, all organized by the owner of the gym he trains at. That’s how Cody got involved in drug trafficking, thinking he was carrying steroids across the Mexican-American border.

Cody is young, idealistic and single-minded. He wants to be an MMA champion and go to Las Vegas to be casted in an MMA TV reality show. After Cody takes Angel to Hank’s trailer, the most sensible thing to do seems to leave Arizona and get Cody to Las Vegas on time for the show.

Our trio of misfits engages into a perilous road trip with a dangerous team of hitmen hot on their trail. Angel, Hank and Cody have all been thrown into the sea of life and have banged themselves on rocky shores. There’s a terrifying scene in My Absolute Darling where Turtle and Jacob are snatched by the rising tide of the Pacific Ocean and struggle for their life. That’s how I imagined Angel, Hank and Cody: taken away by events with no control over what happened to them and coming out of it bruised and battered.

Angel used to be a porn star, famous enough that people could recognize her on the street and that puts her in danger. She has to live with the memories of her former life and how it went to hell. Hank keeps Cody safe and straight and acts as his substitute father. He has a poor health, consequence of too many punches and concussions. Taking care of Cody gives him a purpose and it’s a win-win situation. Cody had a tough childhood with a mother unfit to raise him and forcing him to grow up and take responsibilities at a young age. Hank is his anchor.

And now, the three of them stick together for the better and the worse and despite Angel’s gut feeling that she’s better cut them loose.

Christa Faust’s style is punchy and catchy. (no pun intended) Choke Hold will appeal to readers who enjoyed Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller. Angel is the same kind of kickass heroin, full of sass, of resources and of courage. Faust spent a decade working in peep-shows and for the porn industry. She knows her stuff and her Angel sounds real. Choke Hold is the sequel to Money Shot and while I still enjoyed Choke Hold, I think it’s better to read them in the right order.

Recommended to crime fiction lovers and readers of Virginie Despentes. (In France, published by Gallmeister)

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