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Henry told Carson about Marleen.
Carson wanted to know if he got into her pants.
Henry told him no, but that he probably would before long.
“What? You probably will?”
“I don’t know. I’ve changed my ideas about a lot of things.”
“I started reading the Bible.”
Have you ever read the Book of Revelation? It’s top. Like many bookish teenagers I suspect I first sought it out because it is quoted so liberally in poorly written sf dystopias. See also for Yeat’s The Second Coming. This is what the apocalypse was for me – an entertaining mythological fantasy. It’s got monsters and vast armies and cataclyms. Great stuff.
Of course the Bible on the whole, as observed by both Douglas Rushkoff and Alex Droog, is filled with fantastical creatures and horrific violence. Not quite the stern moral text familiar to us from childhood religion classes.
This novel touches on the ambiguity of the Bible itself as an analogy for the seeming innocence of its principle character, Henry Dampier, a young Bible-salesman. Henry is picked up by Preston Clearwater, a professional car-thief and con-man on the look out for a gullible mark to help him rip off a number of cars. With his polite Baptist manners and folksy stories about his family, the criminal believes he has hit the jackpot.
He tells Henry that he is an undercover FBI operative, on the trail of a car-theft ring, operating between North Carolina and Georgia. The young man swallows the lie whole and excitedly promises not to reveal to anyone Preston’s secret. Together they scope out likely targets, steal cars and divide the proceeds – all, Preston assures his young ward, in the aid of preserving their cover.
What he does not realize is that Henry is actually quite a deep thinker. For one thing, he’s been reading his Bible and begun to notice a number of inconsistencies. His whole moral compass has become thrown out of skew. When he meets the charming Marleen Green, a girl working at a fruit-stall by the side of the road, he figures if sex outside of marriage is good enough for Abraham, it’s good enough for him.
I really enjoy how this book plays with stereotypes of the naieve young man with devout beliefs and then turns them on their head. Henry is introduced to us as this simple-minded Bible salesman, but slowly as he comes to question the word of God, we learn more about his past and his complicated family history. His Baptist background, once again, is assumed to be dominated by religion, but he is encouraged by his Uncle Jack, for one, to notice how people who identify religious curiousity as blasphemy generally don’t know the answer to the question.
Cleverly the judgement call made by Preston Clearwater is linked to the reader’s initial perception of poor Henry. By challenging this, Clyde Edgerton transforms a seemingly simple yarn about a con-artist and his dupe into something more thoughtful.
Personally it called to mind my own adolescent hero-worship of Bill Hicks, born in Georgia, fiercely intelligent and fond of claiming that he was not just a comedian, but a modern-day preacher. When he died at age 32 he had single-handedly created a critical ethos that transformed contemporary political satire.
The book is written with a dry sense of humour, with several comical moments notably involving cats. The character of Mrs Albright enjoys ventriloquism and throws her voice so that her many cats, named after the apostles, seem capable of speech. There is also a hysterical burial scene, which gives an early hint at Henry’s powers of improvisation.
However, at times the narrative is too dry, the plot progression too sedate. I never really felt Henry was in any danger. Everything just resolves itself quite nicely, as if in a easy-going Biblical parable set in the American South. What starts as ostensibly a two-man story about Henry and Preston quickly comes to concern the former almost entirely, with the con-man shoved to the narrative margins.
To my mind this creates an imbalance in the story and I found myself wondering what Patricia Highsmith would have made of similar material. Something more poisonous no doubt, but wickedly funny.
All in all this is a pleasant and diverting satire, with a wise young hero whose inquisitiveness introduces much of the humour. Good fun.
That night, back in my office. I say office – it’s actually my bedroom, but I think of it as an office. It sounds better if you say to a client, ‘I’ll need to run a few tests back in the office,’ rather than, ‘I’ll have a look at this with a magnifying glass after I put my PJs on.’
From Australian children’s authors let’s skip across the planet to Ireland. If that makes you feel slightly dizzy, try to imagine how I feel! Wexford-born native Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series was a breath of fresh air when it first arrived. A modern, witty take on Irish mythology and contemporary society….with farting leprechauns, just to make sure kids paid attention. Half-Moon Investigations is a new series from Colfer and I am happy to report, is also a very successful humour book for children.
Fletcher Moon is the town joke in the small community of Lock. A twelve year old boy who likes to ‘play at detective’. He even insists on showing off a detective’s badge, which he insists is genuine. His kind parents indulge the fantasy, but hope he’ll grow up and notice girls some day. The other children are not so understanding and have branded Fletcher with the nickname ‘Half-Moon’. He’s a weirdo, a nerdy kid with delusions of grandeur.
What most people don’t know is that Fletcher is an accredited private investigator. Sure he used his dad’s birth date and credit card to apply for the two year course. Nevertheless he has a real detective’s badge and know’s the course books off by heart. He dreams of one day working for the FBI as a forensic investigator, like the kind on CSI. In the meantime he’s hoping to score a real case and maybe even a real fee. Mostly the school kids he has helped pay him in chocolate.
Fletcher soon learns to regret his ambitions when popular ten-year old April Devereux hires him to investigate a series of mysterious robberies. The prime suspect is one Red Sharkey, the heir apparent of Lock’s local criminal gang lord Papa Sharkey. He doesn’t appreciate the attention Fletcher is drawing to him and does not hesitate in letting his feelings on the matter be known. What’s more, the boy detective soon discovers the danger in becoming too involved in a case, after he finds himself first assaulted and then framed for a serious crime. Is April Devereux ten Euro retainer enough to cover his growing legal fees and bail?
This is winning, fast-paced stuff, a kiddy version of a Sam Spade mystery. There is even, in the classic detective format, two mysteries that overlap for Fletcher to resolve. In many ways this resembles an Irish take on Rian Johnson’s Brick, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, with all the tropes of detective fiction entertainingly inserted into this schoolyard adventure. There’s even a tween stool pigeon and a pink loving femme fatale.
On the weekend I happened to catch five minutes of a television series based on Colfer’s novels. Not only was the action relocated to England, but I felt the spirit of the novel was lost, with the usual generic and insipid child actors standing in for the preternaturally worldly-wise heroes and villains of this yarn. A real shame and a missed opportunity I feel for the Irish film and television industry not to have kicked Colfer’s door down for the rights (but then, that is not an unusual error on their part).
I would strongly recommend these books for children between the ages of 10 – 15 and adults who enjoy a wry chuckle. I am looking forward to gobbling down the rest of these books like I did the Artemis Fowl series.