Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Sam Hawken: Missing

I really liked Hawken's earlier novel, Juaréz Dance, in all its minimalism. During the last Christmas holiday, I read his later novel, Missing, which is also set in Texan-Mexican milieu. I have heard that his critical view of Mexico is not necessarily true or honest, but it makes for a gripping read. Missing is about a former Marine, who leads a pretty quiet life in Laredo, Texas. Things get sour, when his half-Mexican daughter and her Mexican friend disappear after a concert. The book starts slowly, develops slowly and builds into a violent, shattering climax that leaves you gasping for air. What's more important is that the book is also believable, with relatable characters.

A lengthier post to follow, on Jason Starr and Jordan Harper - or two posts.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Time of the Heathen (1962)

Okay, this is not an overlooked film, it's forgotten to the point of being almost non-existent. I saw the movie on 35 mm film in the screening of the Finnish Film Archive, and I bet my money it's one of the very few remaining prints of the film in all the world, since there are no signs of the film having been shown anywhere in decades. Yet it's a very interesting and occasionally a very good movie.

Time of the Heathen (Ruoho nousee jälleen in Finnish, meaning "Grass Will Rise Again") is the sole film directed by Peter Kass. The film had its premiere in 1962. Kass wasn't a nobody: he was already a director in Broadway, and later on he became known as a trainer of actors. But his film is a total obscurity. To this day, I would know nothing about the film unless it were for the Finnish film critic Tapani Maskula who has mentioned the film to me from time to time. He said he was the only critic in Finland in the mid-sixties who wrote a review of the film.

The film was shown for some 40 people on Monday night here in Turku, where I live, and the film proved to be very exciting and intriguing. It's a very short film, some 75 minutes long, shot probably on 16 mm and widened to 35 mm for distribution. It's black and white, same sort of high-contrast and stark material that Night of the Living Dead and other indie films of the sixties were shot on. (Didn't Romero also shoot on 16 mm?) Time of the Heathen was probably a university project, since the music, composed by Lejaren Hiller, was performed by the Illinois University students' orchestra. Most of the actors are amateur and they don't have any other films to their credit, except for John Heffernan who's in the lead, and Ethel Ayler who has a small but significant role as a African-American servant. Then again she didn't perform in cinema again for ten years (then she was seen in Come Back Charleston Blue).

Heffernan plays a lone man called Gaunt, who's walking somewhere on the countryside, looking and acting strange and citing the Bible, when the sheriff stops him (hence the title, from the Book of Hezekiel). Gaunt comes across an African-American boy, and together they witness a rape attempt by a young white man that leads to the death of the servant. The racist and violent father of the rapist is going to accuse Gaunt of killing the woman, but Gaunt and the young boy flee to the woods.

The story is very simple, but there are enough twists to keep this interesting for the first 30 or 40 minutes. Then the story takes a turn and becomes even more simpler, reducing the story to a minimalist level, and then comes a flashback scene that's almost a complete experimental movie inside the film! It's in colour and at times very striking. It reveals Gaunt's traumatic past during the World War II (won't give it away, though) and broadens the film's thematic scope to greater levels. This is no mere man-on-the-run story.

The experimental scene was done by Ed Emshwiller, who also produced, shot and edited the movie. Emshwiller or Emsh is better known as a science fiction illustrator, but he also did lots of experimental shorts and other films (and a friend of mine recognized artist George Dumpson in a small role - Emshwiller has made a documentary on Sampson's art!). The experimental colour scene comes accompanied by computer-generated (or electronic, it as yet unclear*) music composed and performed by Lejaren Hiller, who's probably best known for his collaboration with John Cage. This is quite an early film to use electronic music. The scene works very well inside the film, because it's made clearly for Time of the Heathen and not as a separate piece of art that's just attached to the film.

Hope this is enough to convince you Time of the Heathen is an interesting film. It has neo-noir touches here and there, and as my friend pointed out, it's actually one long chase scene, so there's also action if you're into that sort of thing. There are some clumsy scenes from time to time, and I thought the script had some inconsistencies, but I'm willing to forget them. Amateur actors perform quite well, which is no miracle, given that Kass was a director on Broadway. The harsh country milieu (the film was probably shot in Illinois, though I'm not sure - it was said in the ending credits, but I forgot already) adds very refreshing scenery to the film, and this almost feels like a precursor to movies like Winter's Bone. Tapani Maskula who hadn't seen the film over 50 years was there in the screening, and he said after the film that it could be shot even today. The themes are still there: war, racism, hatred.

The problem is only that you can't see this film. It has never been released on VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray. It was shown on Finnish TV in 1968, but I don't know of any other screenings. If you know a film or video print exists, keep noise about it. Demand it be shown and eventually digitized. Ask John Heffernan (who's still alive and active) to be guest at your film festival. (Sadly, Peter Kass and Emsh are dead. The film was mentioned in Kass's obituaries, but it was clear not one of the writers had seen it.) Here's hoping this blog post starts the Time of the Heathen renaissance!

* There's indeed unclarity as to what kind of music was used in the film. I think the opening credits say Hiller did "computer-generated music" (or sounds) for this, but when another friend of mine got interested in this and wrote the University of Illinois about it, he received this answer:

"Hiller, like many early Electronic Music composers, was rather practical. He used sounds in compositions that were originally written for inclusion in other pieces. He composed a tape loop of percussive concrete sounds for the film, "Time of the Heathen." These sounds were never used in the film, though Hiller did include them as an optional third cue in the suite from "Time of the Heathen." (...) First, I believe the music created for the film "Time of the Heathen" was created by Hiller in 1961 within the Experimental Music Studio at Stiven House, and was realized with electronic sounds (from analog waveform generators) and possibly some musique concrète sources (of which Hiller was fond of using), not computer generated."

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Thomas Berger: Little Big Man

The cover shows an Apache man,
though the book famously depicts
the Cheyenne. Photo is by Edward Curtis.
I'm doing an essay on the anti-Western Western novels of the 1960's and 1970's, mainly focusing on the latter decade. I read earlier Ishmael Reed's The Yellow-Back Radio Broke Down, which I really couldn't get into, though reading some articles about it helped a bit. It was funny enough at times. Yesterday I finished a more famous novel, Thomas Berger's Little Big Man (1964) that's known also - actually better - as a movie by Arthur Penn, starring Dustin Hoffman. Neither of the books have ever been translated in Finnish, which is a pity.

This was a great novel, epic in scope, hilarious in execution, though it's actually never laugh-out funny, though I remember the film being very funny. Maybe I didn't catch every meaning or phrase. As everyone knows, I'm sure, what happens in the course of the book, I won't go into there, so here are instead some observations. 

Little Big Man should be included in the canon of postmodern novels. Berger uses a framing device in which a young scholar named Ralph Fielding Snell who studies American Indian culture gets to meet 121-year old Jack Crabb, whom he interviews in length. I think that's basically a postmodern narrative device, and actually a bit reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov, especially when Fielding Snell's voice is a bit stuffy. 

Jack Crabb then again is a different animal. He narrates his own story in a vernacular language that's all the time slightly off, he uses "says" and "said" in a same paragraph, and words like "knowed". With this, Berger gives him a particular voice, he's intelligent, though not educated. Crabb is also an unreliable narrator. There are moments when the reader begins to suspect this, though Crabb always comes off sincere. Fielding Snell then adds a short epilogue in which he says he thinks Crabb may not have told him a true story. Really? This is interesting, since it also gives the novel a postmodern aura. Maybe nothing in the book ever took place. It's still a great story, worth telling. (Jack Crabb's voice also makes me think this book has affected Joe Lansdale a great deal, especially Paradise Sky reminds me of Little Big Man.) 

Jack Crabb is played by Dustin Hoffman in the film. It's been a while since I saw the movie, but I seem to remember he's very affable in it. In the book, Crabb is more unpleasant and more opportunist, possibly uncapable of really loving anyone, so Hoffman is possibly miscast. Am I right in this regard or did I just misinterpret everything I read? 

PS. I'm not sure whether I'll ever get back to regular blogging. Seems like time is running out, and there are fewer and fewer books I read that I don't already write about, be it for a book of my own or a review, so it feels a bit weird to write about them both in English and in Finnish. Beside the essay I mentioned, I'm working on a book on Finnish horror literature, which is taking my time. Should be out next year or maybe in 2020, so don't expect too many reviews of American noir or hardboiled here soon. I hear already someone saying I should write about Finnish horror in here... 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Jason Pinter: Fury

I read earlier (eight years ago!) a pleasant paperback novel by Jason Pinter, The Mark, and wanting to read something lightweight I picked up his later novel, Fury (Raivo in Finnish translation). I thought it was better book than The Mark, but I also have some reservations about it.

Fury reads a bit like a private eye novel, since the lead character, Henry Parker, is a newspaper reporter who narrates the story in first person. He meets a stranger, who looks like a homeless person. The stranger says he wants to speak about something important. Parker won't hear the man, but finds out next morning that the man is killed. Then the police come to him and tell him the dead man was his brother. Parker starts to dig into the story, feeling guilt and frustration, since he believes he could've saved his brother's life if he had just stopped and listened to him. And then his father is believed to be the killer and is taken into custody...

Fury is a fast-paced thriller with hardboiled overtones and with sensible amounts of grimness. It's an old-fashioned book, reminiscent of early wrong man novels and films and some classic newspaper stories, though Pinter has tried to bring his heroes into modern day, sometimes with a bit forced results. There are some implausibilities in the book (why won't the stranger say he's Parker's brother in the first place?), and some characters are a bit lifeless. There are some very talkative scenes, but still this is an entertaining book.

This is no Forgotten Book, but here's nevertheless a link to the on-going series of blog posts.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Jonathan Ames: You Were Never Really Here

I had an opportunity to see Lynne Ramsay's latest film You Were Never Really Here on big screen, and though it's shot entirely digitally, it worked at times with great verve and grim beauty. Joaquin Phoenix was very good in the lead as an emotionally wounded man, called Joe, who rescues kidnapped girls who are sold as sex slaves. Something in the ending troubled me, it felt like not everything was resolved successfully, can't really say what it was. 

Same goes for Jonathan Ames's tight novella that works as a basis for the film. The endings are different, Ramsay's is more ambivalent, while with Ames it's clear Joe is going to go on with his mission. Yet if felt a bit like a letdown. Maybe it had to do with the fact that plot-wise the book is not very original. 

There are still lots of things to like in the book: the sparse, even minimalist prose and narration, the writer's resolution not to give any easy psychological explanations or even background, save for some brief moments. Ames clearly knew what he set out to do, even though the ending was somewhat anticlimactic. And man, do I like the fact that the paperback edition I bought had only 97 pages in it! This reminded me of James Sallis's Drive that's only slightly longer. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Laura Lippman: Sunburn

I read Laura Lippman's new thriller, Sunburn, already a month ago, when we were coming back from Crete. I started it in a plane and was almost sad when the flight was so short I couldn't finish it straight away.

Sunburn is a very good crime novel, something Anne Tyler and James M. Cain would've written, if they had collaborated (Lippman cites both as influence in her epilogue): a woman, whom life hasn't treated fairly, suddenly (or so it seems) leaves her husband and three-year old child on the beach and moves to a Hicksville in Maryland and meets a tall dark stranger. I don't believe anyone can predict the twists and turns of the novel, especially the first half is very exciting and full of red herrings. The other half is totally different and moves along at a different pace, which some might think is a letdown, but I'm sure it's done on purpose.

There's lots of good and excellent in the book, but I'll mention only two things or themes. Food and making it gets lots of display, but for once this is elementary to the plot and thematics, and not just some sentimental paraphernalia of most new crime novels with food in them. What's especially great is that Lippman almost never describes what her characters look like, but still you get a very full image of them. This happens, because she writes about what kind of an effect her characters have on other people. Lippman is very skillful in this.

Highly recommended, also to Finnish (and Swedish and Greek and Italian etc.) publishers. Sunburn would make a fine addition to the other domestic suspense writers you've been translating and publishing for some years now. This is something entirely different from those dull Nordic noir serial killer doorstoppers: lean and mean and thoughtful, all this at the same time. Hardboiled with a feminist twist. You can't get more exciting than that.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Friday's Forgotten Book: Gardner F. Fox: Barbary Slave

We did a week-long trip to Chania and Gerani in Crete, and I took, as usual with our trips, my Kindle along. I didn't get to read much (who can do that with a three-year old kid on a same trip?), but I managed to get through one novel. I think that's pretty good given the circumstances. And hey, I also wanted to the beach!

The book in question was Barbary Slave that I'd loaded free on my Kindle. It was written by Gardner F. Fox who's best known as one of the more prolific writers for DC Comics and the creator of the DC Multiverse, alongside with several DC characters. I'm not really into superheroes, but Fox interests me as a contributor to pulp magazines (westerns, sports, science fiction) and as a paperback writer. His reputation hasn't been very good, seems like he could be a sloppy writer with cardboard characters. I thought, though, I might be entertained for a short while reading Barbary Slave. I'd started earlier a new thriller with an interesting premise, but given up after some pages, since there was just too much disposition and not enough action. I'd also started one of Gardner Fox's science fiction novels, but that seemed only ridiculous.

But Barbary Slave proved to be pretty entertaining. Sure, it was racist and chauvinistic as all hell, but I still enjoyed the heck out of it. The action starts from page one and almost never slows down. Barbary Slave is a fast-moving swashbuckler set in the early 19th century Tunis, during First Barbary War (war I knew almost nothing about until now), and the hero is an American navy lieutenant called Fletcher. In the beginning of the book he's already been a slave for several months and been digging food from ditches. He manages to rise from the gutter only to find himself a guardian of a harem. The queen lusts for Fletcher and tries to conquer him with all her might. The book has all the plot twists of several Game of Thrones episodes, with all the violence depicted in an old-fashioned, at times almost ecliptic style, and without the rapes. I actually thought this could've been a Conan novel, set in a fantastic setting, instead of a historically accurate (or at least one pretending to be) setting. Many of the chapters end in a cliffhanger, which kept me turning the pages, though Fox's writing style is florid. This is strictly purple prose, but it's almost never too purple. I also know next to nothing about ships or fencing, but Fox seems to have known was he was writing about.

The racism, though... almost all the Arabs and Moslems in the book are either stupid or cruel and sadistic - or both. The only heroic Arab is an armless man who's been tortured wildly by rulers. There's also no way Fletcher could fall in love with the harem's queen or another Arab woman, there has to be a white American woman who he can fall in love with safely. But given the book's age, this all is somewhat understandable.

The book was originally published as by Kevin Matthews by Popular Library in 1955, but it's been reprinted as Gardner F. Fox for quite a few times now. I noticed the e-book was free through illustrator Kurt Brugel's newsletter (for a limited time, it's not free anymore); he's bringing all of Fox's novels out as e-books. There were some formatting errors throughout the book, but not too many. Here's another review if you don't believe me.

More Forgotten Books at Patricia Abbott's blog here.