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Some preamble: I was fairly daunted when I was asked to jump in and cover A Book A Day… for a post. As a habitual reader of his site, I was intent on ensuring that I got the full Emmet O’Cuana experience by following the house rules and reviewing a book that I had completed over the course of a twenty-four hour period (this was despite Emmet giving me close to a month’s notice to put this post together). With that, I diligently set about settling down to enjoy Fred Hoyle’s science-fiction standard The Black Cloud; before abandoning it in a fit of disinterest as I moaned to my wife about ‘diagrams having no place in a novel’. I’m being harsh – The Black Cloud is undoubtedly a good book, but I was struggling to keep focussed on it enough to finish it in a day.

With this realisation, things were looking grim for my contribution to ABADTICS (which is a great acronym), and I soared dangerously and embarrassingly close to turning in a review of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, knowing that I could at least cover it in one afternoon, possibly fifteen minutes if I didn’t stop for tea and biscuits. Scanning my book shelves, I was drawn to John Colapinto‘s About the Author – a book I picked up in my teens, read once and then recommended to everyone else for the next eleven years. For all the books that have come and gone in my personal library over the years I’ve never considered parting with it, based on one memorable reading of it in what seems an age ago. With that in mind, I was interested to see how an older, wiser and infinitely more cynical version of my young self would find it.

For reasons that will become obvious, I find it difficult to write about Stewart. Well, I find it difficult to write about anything, God knows. But Stewart presents special problems. Do I speak of him as I later came to know him, or as he appeared to me before I learned the truth, before I stripped away the mask of normalcy he hid behind? For so long he seemed nothing but a footnote to my life, a passing reference in what I had imagined would be the story of my swift rise to literary stardom. Today he not only haunts every line of this statement, but is, in a sense, its animating spirit, its reason for being.

About the Author tells the story of lothario bookstore clerk Cal Cunningham. Cal prides himself on his aspirations of bestsellerdom but lacks the literary inspiration to achieve it, so when the opportunity to pass his dead roommate’s manuscript off as his own work of genius, he does so with little hesitation and to wild success. In true ‘…but the  past ain’t through with you‘ fashion however, the decision haunts the rest of this story. Wielding themes of identity, envy and ambition, in hindsight it shares much in common with Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, but differs in that this thriller expands to more psychological Hitchcockian proportions. As our hero spirals further out of control in his quest to keep his misdeeds secret, he finds himself living a proxy of the life of the man whose work he stole, and refreshingly things escalate in a way that never seems forced or trite. Most of the supporting characters are lightly sketched to varying degrees of effect – a rambunctious literary agent comes across just right in his one-note shallowness, but he’s the only character that truly works in spite of not being fleshed out. That said, there’s enough conflict in our main character’’s actions and thoughts – the story is told from Cunningham’s viewpoint – for Colapinto to sink his teeth into, and it makes for a compelling read overall.

The envious and ambitious traits of the lead character certainly struck a chord with me in my latter-day blogger guise. One thing that surprised me as I reviewed this retrospectively was how I interpreted the protagonist’s actions when I was younger – Cal Cunningham is no longer some enfant terrible anti-hero as I once saw him, in fact now he just strikes me as a pretentious jerk. Whether this is a concious choice by Colapinto or not, I’m not sure, but the fact that the book works despite my dislike of its hero is testament to the author’s plotting and ability to ratchet the tension from zero to panic in a stroke. Hollywood agreed to an extent – a film adaptation has been languishing in development limbo since publication despite a script from the reliable Patrick Marber.

About the Author remains to this date John Colapinto’s sole fictional novel, and that in itself is a shame. A substantial cut above your beach holiday thriller fare, it’s well worth seeking out and heartily recommended. However, heroically reading a book in a one day and then blogging about it I’ll leave to the professionals.

Colin Bell writes over at It’s Bloggerin Time – go pay him a visit.

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.”

“What happened?”

“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.

In the middle of the afternoon, she went down to the first floor and bought a card in the greetings-card department. It was not a very interesting card, but at least it was simple, in plain blue and gold. She stood with the pen poised over the card, thinking of what she might have written – ‘You are magnificent’ or even ‘I love you’ – finally writing quickly the excruciatingly dull and impersonal: ‘Special salutations from Frankenberg’s’. She added her number, 645-A, in lieu of a signature.

Patricia Highsmith’s books are tightly plotted and emotionally jagged noir mysteries. From the chameleon-like Tom Ripley to Strangers on a Train’s Charles Anthony Bruno, the author specialized in characters with a lump of ice in their hearts. The Price of Salt is something quite different. It has the requisite Highsmith paranoia and emotional blackmail common to her other novels, but it draws upon her own life, the plot inspired by a brief period the author spent working in a department store. It is a story about an affair between shopgirl and aspiring stage designer Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Unusually for a Highsmith novel the book is ultimately hopeful, the love between the characters genuine and was considered revolutionary at the time of publication for being a story about homosexuality with a happy ending.

Therese is a young woman just out of boarding school with artistic ambitions trying to make it in New York. Estranged from her family, who packed her off to boarding school once her father died, she has become solitary and possessed of changeable moods. She is in an unfulfilling relationship with an aspiring artist named Richard, who is a lot more secure than she is, both emotionally and financially. He also seems to merely be dabbling in art, whereas Therese pounds the pavement trying to get stage designer jobs with theatre companies. To make some extra cash she takes a job working in Frankenberg’s department store selling toys in the run up to Christmas. The monotony and boredom of the job suddenly evaporates one afternoon when she meets a customer named Carol, whom she helps find a doll to give to her daughter as a Christmas gift. Therese leaps at the chance to strike up a friendship with the cool and contained woman, who is involved in bitter divorce proceedings. As the two grow closer, Therese realizes that she loves Carol and that she feels nothing romantic for the feckless Richard. However, the more she gets to know this woman who seems so self-assured and calm, the more she realizes that it is Carol who has everything to lose, as her ex-husband Harge is eager to use whatever leverage he can to win full custody of their daughter. What possible future do the two of them have together, if their love carries such a terrible price?

Highsmith writes with a singular intimacy and intensity, establishing the conflicting thoughts that rush through Therese’s uncertain mind. When Therese meets the elderly shop assistant Ruby Robichek one night for a quiet meal, the encounter proves to be a brief vignette on a life wasted by loneliness and failure. Ms Robichek is a presentiment of what could happen to Therese if she gives in to convention and abandons her desires. We also begin to understand just how pressurized Carol Aird’s life has been to date, with her husband and in-laws arrayed against her. She describes how Harge chose her to be his wife in the way he might have chosen a carpet, as an object he could possess. Her crime is not that she is a lesbian per se, but more that she refuses to toe the line and lead a conventional life as a doting wife. Richard’s confident belief that Therese will agree to marry him is also rooted in the narrative conventions of typical male and female relationships. He has put the time into getting to know her and surely this is what happens next?

This edition of The Price of Salt comes with a quote from Terry Castle of The New Republic arguing that the transgressive sex and climactic cross-country car chase of the novel inspired Nabochov’s Lolita. I feel this is a tacked on conclusion that risks equivocating Humbert Humbert’s paedophilia with homosexuality. The novel is a corrective to the dour fates assigned to lesbians in pulp fiction, (suicide; acceptance of a dutiful husband).

An underappreciated classic.

And she and Ginny laughed together, a giddy, earthy, delightful laugh, and Marian laughed too. She laughed too and it was all so grown-up. She’d never met any women so young yet so grown-up. So beautiful and no husbands around or downy babies, and if it weren’t for the tubercular rack that ripped through Ginny’s laugh as it further unpeeled, everything would seem too perfect for words.

If James Ellroy were to get in a time machine and travel back to the 1950’s to seduce Patricia Highsmith with the joys of heterosexual coupling (which, given the success of the male lead in The Black Dahlia to do just that I assume he believes is possible. Converting a lesbian that is, not time travel.) I imagine the eventual product of their union would turn out to be a writer like Megan Abbott, whose grasp of period detail and exacting plotting combines the best of both.

Is that too laboured an analogy? Probably.

Taking inspiration from actual events, Bury Me Deep is the story of nurse Marian Seeley, left to fend for herself in a small town in Phoenix by her husband, a doctor who has had to resort to finding work in Mexico due to his troubled past. Lonely and self-admonishing, she blames herself for her husband’s ‘troubles’, Marian is taken under the wing of Louise Mercer, a fellow nurse at Werden clinic. Her new friend passes on all the gossip, lets her young, naieve charge know which doctors have busy hands and how to avoid the endlessly dull Bible sermons of the more religiously inclined members of staff. She also introduces some fun into Marian’s life, inviting her to join her and housemate Ginny in their home where they host wild parties.

All the important men in the town seem to attend these hooch-fueled soirees, most arriving with an expensive gift for the two raucous hostesses. Marian thinks it strange initially, but she learns to go with the flow. She doesn’t even seem too bothered that a brisk trade in stolen pills from the hospital is carried out at these parties. In fact she doesn’t think much of anything after Louise introduces her to Gentleman Joe Lanigan, a dashing local businessman whose company sells to most of the pharmacies in town, has friends in very high places and is gifted with movie star looks. Despite her misgivings and strained loyalty to her husband in Mexico – whom she increasingly refers to as Dr. Seeley instead of by his name Everett – Marian is swept up by the charismatic Joe, their affair in her mind a great romance right out of the pictures. Little does she know that she is set on a course for tragedy that will strike at the heart of her friendship with Louise and Ginny, and reveal just how much of a gent Joe Lanigan really is.

Megan Abbott has taken the real life story of the so-called ‘Tiger Woman’, Winnie Ruth Judd, at the centre of a notorious case in 1931 in Arizona and cherry-picked the details for her own fictionalised account. In many ways I find her approach superior to James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia. For one, this is a book about women, written from the point of view of a woman, without any of the cloying misogyny that noir fiction sometimes revels in. Female characters seem often to have two roles only, the victim and the femme fatale. Marian Seeley is initially young and naieve, but Abbott invests in her the obvious survival skills of Winnie Judd, whose incredible story I find fascinating. There is also more of a sense of hope here, with the forces of corruption not nearly as monolithic. The language is very detailed and Abbott has a beautiful gift for imagery, describing Gentleman Jim’s maroon hat as having a teardrop crease, or Marian staring out of a train window into the black night and seeing nothing but the reflection of the drunk sitting next to her leering over her shoulder. Finally Abbott never claims to know the truth about the ‘Tiger Woman’, case. This is clearly a fictionalised departure from the events described in the trial. She merely takes some of the events and repositions the characters as she imagines them.

This vision of America captures the period perfectly, where an unstarched nurse’s uniform was the height of excitement and Jim Lannigan’s mayoral ambitions are kept at bay only due to his being a ‘papist’. I enjoyed this book immensely and look forward to reading more of Megan Abbott’s work.

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