Modern American Gothic

If I could praise Carol Goodman for one thing alone it would be for updating the modern gothic. With so much bad writing and worse plotting being inflicted upon readers of popular fiction these days it is a joy to find a capable writer who wants to entertain. Goodman chooses to entertain in a genre I’ve loved since I was eight years old and my older sister started reading me her gothic paperbacks.

As any fan of Doris Miles Disney, Mary Stewart or Phyllis A Whitney knows, Gothics have their requirements. There must be dark secrets from the past, a seemingly all-powerful woman, a large house and a landscape that acts almost as another character in the story. Goodman ticks all the boxes in Arcadia Falls while updating them for the 21st century. The large house is a private school, the powerful woman is the dean and the dark secrets are investigated as part of the heroine’s PhD dissertation. Goodman does all this and for most of the book maintains a narrative drive equal to de Maurier’s Rebecca.

This is an accomplished and entertaining book. When it comes to creating atmosphere Carol Goodman is one of the best popular writers today. Her depiction of the the competing claustrophobia and security of a closed community (both the private school and the artists colony it once was) is as effortless as it is effective. I read Goodman’s first book, The Lake of Dead Languages, a few years ago and its obvious that her skills has only increased in the interim.

Unfortunately, as with her first book Goodman’s biggest challenge remains her endings. The ending is not as satisfying or engrossing as the first three-quarters of the book. I’m sure I won’t be the only reader to spot the twists a mile a way. It’s not awful, just not as good. The romance element feels a bit forced and definitely rushed – I half-wished Goodman would forgo the romance this time. But these minor disappointments compared to the overall strengths of the book.

A highly enjoyable Gothic/Mystery that will satisfy discerning fans of either genre.

Get Yer Ya-Yas Out

The 70s are an unloved decade. Even while they were on there weren’t many who proclaimed them a golden age. Looking back the most common reaction of survivors seems to be “Dear God, I actually wore that?” There’s so much more to the 70s than gas shortages and discos. Surely no other decade had so many deeply disturbed individuals playing prominent roles in public life.

Francis Wheen's Strange Days Indeed tells the stories of several of these off-kilter individuals and tells them as they deserve to be told: deadpan and in detail. He offers us a veritable smorgasbord of loony tunes behavior and lets us savior every silly detail. Wheen starts off with a few stories familiar to American readers, such as Nixon’s famous late night trip to the Lincoln Memorial to chat with the protestors. Nixon may be one of the more famous examples of paranoia but for sheer insanity nothing beats the inhabitants of Number 10 Downing Street and their wacky band of cohorts. From the chief civil servant who circumvents imaginary listening devices by conducting meetings in the nude to Prime Minister Wilson, his political secretary Marcia and her all powerful handbag there’s plenty of side-splitting entertainment. The Wilson and Marcia saga may be the most horrifically funny political saga ever, what with Marcia’s fears of being lured unawares into orgies, Wilson’s bizarre acceptance of whatever abuse she threw his way and some staff members wondering if offing Marcia might not be the best for England. There’s are still more crazies – mentalists, Bobby Fischer, the Weather Underground and Red Army Faction, Madame Mao, Idi Amin and on and on.

Wheen has plenty of material and he uses it brilliantly. This isn’t history, however. This is Wheen’s impression of the 70s, his take on events. It is neither comprehensive nor unbiased. Wheen has tangled with the all powerful Marcia before and lost, for instance, so it would be silly to pretend that Wheen is dispassionately reporting events. He makes some assertions that I would prefer to see sourced (like his repeated references to Nixon being a drunk; I’m not disputing this, I’ve simply never read about it before). He also has a habit of referencing fictional works as if they offer unassailable authority. It’s easy for me to forgive these shortcomings because the book is so entertaining and because Wheen admits to knowing by heart all the words to two epically stupid songs. Anyone who can sing Gimme Dat Ding and quote Balzac is entitled to a few foibles.

This is a fun, fast read recommended for anyone who possesses a love of the absurd.

Vineyard Chillin’

Philip R. Craig’s reliable murder mystery series is essentially a cozy with a Stateside setting. Small town? Check. Cast of characters featuring a few eccentrics? Check. Non-professional regularly embroiled in murders which he/she solves because of his/her insight into the human condition? Check. At the heart of each installment, however, is a story about the haves versus the have-nots.

This time (A Vineyard Killing) the haves are a group of rapacious land developers from Savannah who also happen to be world-class fencers. Before you can say, “what are the chances”, there’s an attempted murder and J. W. Jackson is right in the middle of it. The mystery itself is satisfying and the main subplot is interesting if a bit predictable toward the end. The pace is as slow as life in a resort area but that’s as it should be. My only quibble is that I would be entirely happy without any more scenes with Jackson’s children. Having them refer to their parents as “Ma” and “Pa” as if the action were taking place in that fabled small abode on the prairie doesn’t fit and the whole “Diana, the Huntress” routine is old. Just how charming is it that a father is constantly remarking on his daughter’s intake of food? But these are minor quibbles.

All in a all a solid installment in a solid series. Recommended for mystery series fans.

“Brains Don’t Have Picture Windows”

Among true crime fans there are those who love Ann Rule and those who don’t. I’m proud to let my Ann-Rule-fan-flag fly. She’s written some truly great books (Small Sacrifices and Bitter Harvest, to name two) and some that are merely better than most in the genre. Rule does have a tendency to over praise the dead – the “beautiful wife and mother”, etc – but I’m willing to overlook that. I see it as part of Rule’s determination to keep the victim front and center, to avoid lavishing undeserved attention on the killer. Ann Rule wants to understand the forces that make a killer and how we as a society deal with those who commit the worst crimes.

Her “Crimes Files” series doesn’t allow for much space to deal with either question at any length nor to demonstrate her flair for original reporting. This is only my second book from the series and while I’m getting used to the limitations, I’m also beginning to appreciate these books for what they are. By telling a series of stories, Rule can paint a broader picture. Rule is as fascinated as ever with how normal, how plausible killers can be every other area of their lives. But I Trusted You is packed with failures of the criminal justice system. Case after case show sociopaths freed from prisoner to commit more heinous crimes. Most of the cases are from the 1970s – the land before DNA – and several are either unsolved or unresolved. Time moves on, Rule shows us, but the questions are never answered. Two (The Voyage of the Spellbound and Dark Forest) are truly haunting in their lack of answers.

If you’re an Ann Rule fan, this book will tide you over until her new book is released this fall. If you’re new to Rule, start with one of her classics (I’m partial to Small Sacrifices as a starting point) to see what a true crime master can do.

Recent Acquistions

Courtesy of Amazon Vine:

Strange Days Indeed by Francis Wheen

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

For my hardworking Kindle:

But I Trusted You by Ann Rule

The Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed

The “someone you thank for the party”

One of the pitfalls of reviewing a biography is that of finding oneself reviewing the life and not the work of the biographer. In the case of Cheever this danger looms especially large because John Cheever was a wreck of a human being from beginning to end. His voluminous journals were filled with what his own daughter described as “the gloomy, relentless sexual stuff” topped with a thick icing of self pity. It’s material that is so depressing it makes Sylvia Plath’s journals a comparative lark.

Yet Blake Bailey turns the life story of a drunken, depressive, self-loathing, verbally abusive and deeply closeted man into a compellingly readable, life-affirming book. Bailey not only makes the creative process interesting, he keeps Cheever from turning into so vile a being that the reader can’t bear another page of him.
He also gives us the story of Cheever’s times, evoking the lifestyles of Westchester suburbanites so vividly that I found myself looking around my home county looking for the places and people Bailey (& Cheever) described. I’m glad I didn’t meet any of them behind the wheel, however, since this was one hard drinking crew, drinking themselves into oblivion at least once a week like a bunch of frat boys. The fact that any of them is a) alive and b) in possession of their factory issued liver is nothing short of a miracle.

On the other hand, reading about Cheever’s personal relationships made me want to drink. When he’s not being heinous to his wife and children he’s writing in his journal about his genitals. Which is impressive since he’s impotent for large swathes of the book. The short version is that Cheever was gay (or bi) and didn’t want to be. It’s not as simple as that, of course, but after a few decades I got the feeling that even Anita Bryant would have beseeched him to just be gay already. Sympathy for Cheever is hard to come by when he’s so homophobic himself.

The final years of Cheever’s life saw him accepting (to a degree) his own nature. Not that his relationships with his lovers were any more humane than those with girlfriends, wife and children. His relationship with Max Zimmer actually made me nauseous on occasion. Oblivious to Zimmer’s own feelings or desires, Cheever wrecks his life with nary a twinge of regret.

So where’s the life affirming part, you ask. In the day to day details with which Bailey builds his narrative. It’s most apparent in the final chapters when Cheever’s long suffering family rallies around him in death. Their loves and forgiveness along with Bailey’s clear-eyed and compassionate view of his subject elevate this tale far beyond any individual sordid detail.