Monday, September 30, 2013

The Great Gatsby

I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, of course, and because it was forced on me I did not pay great attention to it. Only later in life when I started studying Hemingway did Fitzgerald's name come up again, and I decided to read the book all the way through. It was the only Fitzgerald novel I was familiar with, so I figured it was a safe bet. Low and behold the story, the characters, the cynicism and the sense of hopelessness that lives in the book swept me away. I wasn't reading about America in the '20s. I wasn't reading about the excess of the Jazz Age. I was reading about my time, my friends, and me. I'm Gatsby. I'm also Nick Carroway. Reading Gatsby is like looking into a mirror, or, as Hammett described in the Flitcraft parable, lifting the lid off of life and getting a look at the works.

It's hard not to identify with Nick Carroway, struggling to find a place in the world only to discover your plug may be in the wrong socket, and what do you do when you learn that? We like to say today that if you don't like something, change it. But bumper sticker slogans don't take genuine human behavior into account. It's hard to change once you've started on a path, invested years of effort, and thought you had made the right choice. It's hard to let go of a dream. It's tougher to find a new one, because they don't appear out of thin air. What about  the connections you've made? It's hard to walk out on people when you're not sure you'll find others to fill the space.

And then there's Jay Gatsby himself. There's a guy who couldn't find a new dream, who stayed attached to the old one, and spent his life trying to recapture something that was never his to begin with. His tragic ending robbed us of seeing his story through to the very end, a happy ending, perhaps. Instead of cynicism of the age--coming to terms with the shock of WWI, dealing with the excess that only caused more emptiness, the "what do we do with this thing called life"--fulfilled its role in the process, showing that what's left in the past truly belongs there and we have no chance of recapturing it. If you could see how that very story line is playing out in my life right now, in real time, the impact of that observation would carry even more weight. In other words, I lost my Daisy too. Like Gatsby, I live near her (a wild coincidence I didn't notice at first), separated by a range of hills, which may very well stand for the invisible walls that separate us now. If I may borrow from Dokken, in my dreams she's still here, and it's the same as it used to be. I understand Gatsby.

I'm more than ready to declare Fitzgerlad better than Hemingway, not because of his tight writing and minimalist style, one actually tighter than Hemingway and more coherent and to the point, but because nothing Ernest has written has had the impact of Gatsby. No other literary work has lived so long in my head after reading.

I will say the same of the 2013 film starring Leonardo DeCaprio as Gatsby. While the film is too busy and too colorful from the visual standpoint, the film captured
the heart of the story perfectly and I will say it is the best interpretation of the film ever done. I hated it during the first few minutes when they jettisoned the greatest opening lines of a story ever written, and instead substituted something with less impact, but they used, verbatim, the last monologue of the book to great effect. It was mesmerizing.

Fitzgerald and I were actually born in the same city, albeit many years apart, so in a way I feel a connection to him. We both did some drinking to cover up problems only to find they never went away but were, in fact, intensified, because you can't escape your subconscious. And while he said that there are no second acts in America, I can't help but argue with that. Dreams may not be easy to find, but they're out there, like a carrot on a stick, and if you run fast enough maybe you stand a chance of grabbing one.

Monday, September 16, 2013


Eventually I always keep my promises. You may remember me saying in an earlier post that I would like to go through the James Bond books written by John Gardner once again. I read them all as they came out in the '80s and '90s but never held onto them. Now that we have access to wonderful reprints, I have started going through the books and I am very pleased indeed.

I've already mentioned License Renewed; now I'm reading Gardner's second Bond, For Special Services. This is the book which reintroduces SPECTRE as the villain of choice, with a new Blofeld taking the reins of the organization. It's a great set-up, and Gardner makes the connection to the Fleming novels by giving us a terrific background update which really makes the series feel like a whole story. I liked that bit of detail. Gardner was truly a student of Ian Fleming and it shows.

The scope of the story is also good, taking us from one location to another. Gardner had to write longer stories than Fleming, so we probably get a little padding and extra details that Fleming left out, but they are value-added details and one shouldn't quibble about them. What I like about the extra stuff is that it shows Bond as part of a larger organization. Fleming always sent Bond off alone and we never got the feeling that MI6 was the big organization that it is; Gardner changed that. His Bond feels more like a genuine working man who takes on extraordinary assignments.

Bond is teamed with Felix Leiter's daughter, Cedar, a decent bit of plotting, but one I would have avoided. Bond treats her like his own daughter so we get no raunchiness here. Cedar, of course, falls for Bond. Other than giving the book another link to the past, I'm not sure she does anything a different character could provide. It's neat to see Bond able to control his urges, though.

Without going too much into the story, I will say that Gardner provides a terrific outing for OO7, with a twist that thrilled me back in the day and one I'm sure will still deliver, even though I know the Big Reveal going in.

Gardner's writing is very business-like. Just the facts. He doesn't engage in a lot of hoopdedoodle. He puts you in the action. If he had quit after For Special Services or even after the third book, Icebreaker, his place in Bond history would be secure. I didn't care for where he took Bond in the later books. Before his tenure was done, Bond seemed tired, going through the motions, and maybe he had too many girlfriends get killed. We'll see if my opinion changes as I read the rest of the series.

Of course, I have to nit-pick Gardner's choice of weapons for OO7. Was the Walther PPK really so bad? In this book Bond is issued a Heckler & Koch VP70, certainly an interesting piece in the history of firearms, but not very cool. In Icebreaker Bond gets a deserving gun, the HK P7, and Gardner finally issued him a permanent piece in Role of Honor, but I wish he'd have stayed with the PPK. Or, at least, given Bond the P7 from the start, or, better, a Walther P5. Once again he isn't around to answer those questions. But he wrote some good books and we can be glad for that.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Abominable Thirty-Nine Steps

You can't read or write thrillers without coming across a book entitled The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. You probably first encounter it because of the Hitchcock film, or maybe another author or reviewer mentions it. I think I first came across it as an OTR adaptation, and later Buchan's work was mentioned as a precursor to Ian Fleming's novels. The Thirty-Nine Steps is touted as the "original thriller" that sets the table for every thriller that followed. By that, the critics are correct, first is first; however, it's not a good book.

The hero, Richard Hannay, in one of the strangest introductions ever written, is told of a sinister plot. The teller of the tale is murdered, and poor Dick is on the run. He has to stop the dastardly villains before they strike, or all is lost. Instead of taking direct action, Hannay spends 99% of the book running through the Scottish countryside hiding in bushes. He's being hunted by the villains, but not terribly efficiently. Every person he comes across is able to somehow assist him, and the string of coincidences Buchan expects us to swallow along the way are too much. Compared to The Thirty-Nine Steps, the television series 24 is the epitome of logic. In one sequence, for example, Hannay is captured and put in a farm shed. A mining engineer by trade, Hannay quickly deduces that there is material in the shed with which he can make a jolly good bomb! Right-O, let's blast our way out so we can go back to running through the bushes! The book is loaded with such "it just so happened" events that strain your sense of disbelief. It becomes a joke.

At 118 pages (in my Collins Classic edition), the story is thin. It's generic by today's standards, but there's a reason for that. Buchan may have been a pioneer in what we call a thriller today, but, in this book, he did nothing but lay a foundation upon which the rest of us have built the house. Pioneers may set the stage, but it's those who carry on that really take the creation and do something with it. Pick any of the old masters, and their modern counterparts do it better. The Mike Hammer novels may have been huge in their day, but they lack the scope and creativity of the Nate Heller books. Max Allan Collins took what Spillane built and greatly improved the concept. When you read Spillane afterwards, you wonder why he kept repeating the same ideas. Count how many "best buddies" Mike Hammer has to avenge to see what I mean. If you only have Kiss Me, Deadly and One Lonely Night, you have the best examples of Spillane available. Meanwhile, Collins always does something fresh. Not one Heller book is the same as another.

If I may borrow Raymond Chandler's opinion regarding the mystery story, no thriller has yet been written that can be considered so perfect that it cannot be surpassed by another. This is why we continue to assault the citadel. For that, we can thank John Buchan. We like to read thrillers, and a lot of us like to write them. They're fun and exciting. There's nothing better than a good thriller, and nothing worse than a bad one. While I appreciate Buchan's effort, I'm afraid The Thirty-Nine Steps is simply a decent beach book, but hardly a classic.