Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Make My Funk the P(elecanos) Funk!

King Suckerman
by George Pelecanos
Reviewed by Anthony
5 out of 5 stars
It’s summer and everyone we know has come out tonight to see the big, new movie. It’s the one we’ve all been talking about: King Suckerman. A movie about the baaaaadest of the bad. A movie about a pimp who is taking it straight to the man. A movie that’s, in all honesty, probably going to be exactly the same as a hundred other Blaxploitation movies—but that’s okay. Like I said, it’s summer and not just any summer but it’s the US’s birthday, the bicentennial. 1976. Here we all are, all the young people, and for the next 90 minutes we’re going to be free from all thoughts, worries, prejudices, anything else that makes up that troublesome thing called reality that lurks in wait outside in the July heat.

And things start off well. The opening credits roll up on the screen and there’s that funky theme, because every superhero—even one that’s a pimp—needs his or her own theme song. (Don’t know what I mean? Then allow me to edify your eardrums, baby:

"Super Fly"-Curtis Mayfield

"Shaft"-Issac Hayes

"Hammer’sTheme"-Solomon Burke

"Cleopatra Jones”-JoeSimon) And the girls, man some of the girls are even dancing in the aisles. Digging those out of sight scratchy guitar riffs set to the pulse pound of bass and drums and there’s the singer’s voice already telling you exactly what you already know. He’s telling you about what you’re about to see: King Suckerman. This is a James Bond Movie. A superhero movie. An escape.

This is going to be fun.

But then something happens. The title character, the King, is no charmer. He is no Carl Weathers or Fred Williamson. He’s big and ugly and vicious. The crowd goes silent as up on the silver screen the King beats one of his prostitutes with a wire coat-hanger. Beats her bloody and ragged and chip-toothed. Then he sends her out to peddle her ass, the blood still dripping from her wounds, and she better not even think of showing her fucking face until she brings back enough money to prove she’s worth a fucking cent.

And so the movie continues its gritty descent into urban hell until we have the final closing shot of the big, bad King Suckerman sitting in a prison cell, rotting away from syphilis…staring right into the camera with his holocaust eyes.

People, the ones who decided to stay through the entire movie, leave the theater in silence. And somewhere among the press of people, an acne-scarred white boy with a ratty-afro turns to the large, powerful black man sitting beside him and asks, “Is that really how it is, Wilton?”

“Yeah, little brother,” Wilton Cooper says, “that’s the stone truth.”

And maybe I paraphrase here, but the nature of this scene and what these two killers say strikes a deep and dark chord that reverberates throughout the course of this book. This blaxploitation movie, from which the title for George Pelecanos’s second novel in his DC Quartet derives its name, stands as a metaphor for the whole of the novel: it’s the subliminal space where reality and fiction blur.

Wilton Cooper and B.R. Clagget are living their own warped and violent fictions. Each sees themselves as heroes in their own self-framed movie screens. But whereas Clagget, a shotgun-toting piece of white trash, sees himself as some kind of Superfly waiting to bloom; Wilton Cooper has a lizard-like understanding that, if he’s any kind of hero, then he is an existential hero burning his way to the credit roll of a nihilistic 35 mm. Not that this difference in perception matters much when the two hook up at a Drive-In in North Carolina. Cooper watches as Clagget kills a man working the film booth, using gunshots in the movie to mask his own, and decides this kid would make a good addition for his crew. Clagget joins up with Cooper almost immediately, excited by the chance that a real-deal cool character like Cooper will in turn think he is cool. And so, along with two lowlife brothers, Russell and Ronald Thomas, the gang heads on up in Cooper’s sweet ride to Washington DC, where Cooper has his sight on running a drug deal with some bikers for a small-time loser of a gangster Eddie Spags.

Eddie Spags is a from an Italian Mafia family out of New Jersey, but was sent to Washington DC so that he’d basically be out of the way of the real family business. And you can’t really blame them too much: when your nickname is Eddie Spaghetti, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be a fuck-up. And he fucks up royally here while trying to show off to Cooper and his boys. Eddie also sells premium weed to various low level pushers like Dimitri Karras. So when Dimitri comes with his friend Marcus Clay to pick up the weed—with Cooper and his thugs hanging around in the background— and Eddie sees that his dead-beat hippie girlfriend Vivian is making eyes for the rugged and athletic Dimitri Karras, he decides to put Vivian in her place with the back of his hand. On reflex, Dimitri punches Eddie and then things get out of hand quickly. Before they know it, Dimitri and Marcus are walking out of Eddie’s office with twenty grand, a pound of weed, and Eddie’s girlfriend.

Humiliated, Eddie turns to the amused Wilton Cooper and tells him to go retrieve his money. And so, Eddie unwittingly lets loose the devil this holiday weekend in DC circa 1976.

In some ways, the scene plays out sort of nonsensically. One moment everyone is shooting the shit, the next guns are drawn and insults are thrown. For a catalyst that sets the action of the book in motion, it seems almost entirely based on ego and machismo. Which is exactly the point, and is one of the reasons that this book is sort of a crazy work of genius on George Pelecanos’s part.

While the movie within the book, King Suckerman is a deconstruction of the over-the-top criminal glorification and the plastic-sheen of a commoditized idea of black culture, the Washington DC in which Pelecanos’ novel takes place stands as a counterpoint to this brutal reality by constantly merging into Hollywood fantasy, overall creating a postmodern crime novel that tackles the author’s favorite themes, such as identity and friendship in the face of various cultural and racial tensions.

These are displayed most candidly with the heroes of this book, Dimitri Karras and Marcus Clay. Marcus is a hard-working black man that owns his own independent record store (with the awesome name Real Right Records), while Dimitri makes a living off of selling weed to teenagers. Marcus is a Vietnam vet, Dimitri skipped out on the draft by getting an English degree. And the two have been best friends since they were kids. And even now, as they reach the end of their twenties, they still find time to drive around, listen to music, smoke a little reefer, and shoot some hoops. But the main difference is that Marcus is responsible and fairly straight-laced—that is, until Marcus let’s himself get talked into riding along with Dmitri for a drug deal with Eddie Spags.

The pacing of the rest of the novel even matches most of the low-budget Blaxploitation movies that I have seen. Sections of those movies will appear to be aimless at times, seeming to be an excuse to have characters do things that look cool to a backing soundtrack that is usually the coolest part of the scene. But no section in this book is placed within the narrative to stand as “cool” filler. Pelecanos uses these moments to present the allure of the 1970s and many of the attitudes that prevailed pop-culture, especially the ones hijacked straight from black culture; which, in turn, is set as a counterpoint to the very real personal decisions the characters must make within their own lives, if they are self-aware enough to realize the fact.

Are Cooper and his gang self-aware enough? Not so much. Their lives are a perpetual search for the next high, be that from an actual drug or from acts of senseless violence, all the time trying to assure every person they meet that they are the “coolest” person in the room.

But Dimitri is starting to reach that self-awareness himself as he realizes that he is getting older and that there is very little he has meaningful in his life besides his friendship with Marcus. And even though Marcus will still hang out and play with Dimitri, he is a man who has seen the real violence that flows through the world, and knows that there comes a time when one must be thankful and responsible towards the people and things in his or her life that matter.

With each of the characters’ various perspectives on display, Pelecanos once again creates a panoramic of a place in a moment in time. And here is the 70’s as he remembers it as a teenager, but with the cynical lens of an older, wiser man. He does well to neither make this book a condemnation or an act of indulgent nostalgia. Pelecanos has said before in interviews that his PI character Nick Stefanos is in a lot of ways a fictionalized version of himself. And here in King Suckerman we have Nick in a cameo appearance as a careless and headstrong 19 year-old. And I can’t help but wonder what Nick even really remembers about how it really was.

Existential Monsters

Freddy's Book

John Gardner


Reviewed by: Terry 

3.5 out of 5 stars

“I have a son who’s a monster.”

So declares Prof. Sven Agaard, an old-school historian of former glory, now an outcast at his own university. His audience is Prof. Jack Winesap, the academic star of the moment and expert in the somewhat rarefied (and questionable?) area of “psycho-history” (no, not Asimov’s). He is Agaard’s polar opposite, sitting happily on the other end of the academic spectrum in terms of both popularity and academic rigour. Despite the animosity that Agaard displays towards Winesap and his field he ends up inviting him to his home. For his part Winesap is intrigued, who or what can this monster be? Why is this obviously antagonistic man even speaking to him? Of course he accepts. Thus Gardner sets up the mystery that will lead us into the first part of the novel which plays out this uncomfortable, though enlightening, scenario.

In the course of an evening where Winesap is snowed in and forced to partake of Agaard’s ‘hospitality’ he comes to learn the answers to some of his questions. Freddy, Agaard's son, turns out to be an outcast himself. A giant of a boy, he not only has a physical appearance that sets him apart, but is apparently subject to rages that make his cohabitation with others somewhat dangerous. At the boy’s own instigation locks and bars are kept on all of the doors and windows of Agaard’s drafty old house, meant not to keep Freddy in, but to keep others out. What at first seems like a horrific confinement comes to take on a different colour as we learn more about this small family and come to see that Agaard is not just a crusty old man hiding an unwanted child from the world, he is a father sick at heart over the pain he has seen Freddy suffer whenever he has been exposed to the world at large. Freddy has thus learned to be an introvert with an intellectual bent. His entire experience of the world has come from books and his room is cluttered with them, along with the various drawings and dioramas he has made based on their contents.

It also appears, much to Agaard’s chagrin, that Freddy is something of a fan of Winesap’s and so he has called in this man, whom he views with nothing but disdain and contempt, in the hopes that he can reach out to his son who otherwise remains locked in an ivory tower of his own making. Their initial meeting does not seem to go well. Winesap is nonplussed while Freddy is virtually silent, doing his best to hide his enormous bulk from view. Ready to set the matter at a dead loss as he readies himself for bed, Winesap is surprised when Freddy creeps up to his room in the dead of night and leaves behind a present for him. It is the eponymous book of the title, and is also, perhaps, the only method Freddy has learned of communicating freely with another person.

What follows, and which contains the bulk of the novel’s content, is the text of Freddy’s manuscript that is half fable and half history, detailing the adventures of a 16th century Swedish Knight and his conflict with the devil. I’m a little uncertain of how to proceed with this review. Gardner packs so much into this relatively slim volume that to cover all of the ideas he explores would be counter-productive. Suffice it to say that this is an existential novel and as we follow the main character Lars-Goren in his travails we touch on a host of philosophical and political issues that run the gamut of human experience. Lars-Goren and his cousin Gustav Vasa begin the story watching as their kinsman Sten Sture and his fellow revolutionaries are slaughtered for their revolt against the Danes that currently rule Sweden. Lars and Gustav barely escaped this fate and long to avenge the deaths of their family and friends. At this point the devil appears and, taking Gustav under his wing, the road starts to be paved for the rise of King Gustav and the expulsion of the Danes from Sweden. Lars-Goren, a man who has known no fear in his life, suddenly becomes gripped by this unknown sensation. Of what is he afraid? Upon examination he realizes it is neither his death, nor eternal damnation that worries the knight. Just what it is proves to elude him and his search for an answer takes up the rest of the story.

Into the tale of Gustav’s rise comes another major figure: Bishop Hans Brask, an old confrère of the devil’s and a man able to easily weather the numerous instances of political turmoil his nation has undergone with equanimity and safety. He is a man ahead of his times, an ironic and disillusioned cynic in the dying days of the age of faith. The idealism of his learned youth has given way to realpolitik on a political scale and nihilism on the metaphysical.  Brask first uses Gustav for his own ends, lending his support to his rise when it suits his purposes, but willing to let him hang when he is no longer of use. Much to the chagrin of both Brask and the devil Gustav turns out to be a much wilier fox than they had anticipated. Lars-Goren can do little more than watch in dismay as his cousin moves from idealist to tyrant. He wishes for no further part in things, especially as they concern the devil, and wants only to return to his own family and demesne.

Gustav is convinced that it is only the prince of darkness that stands in the way of his true success as king, for it seems that everything he touches goes astray and every plan he makes goes awry…whose fault could it be other than the devil himself? As a result Brask and Lars-Goren get thrown together by Gustav and tasked with the impossible commission of killing the devil. Thus we have the seemingly simple, though deep thinker Lars-Goren, who still wants to believe in the good of the world with Brask, the man who has seen it all and is certain that the world ultimately holds no meaning. What will they learn from each other, and how in the world will they kill the devil?

Gardner (or, if you wish, Freddy) uses each of his characters to evaluate the different ways of looking at the world and struggling with its eternal questions. One can see in this novel a real cry of pain from the post-modern man who has at once both embraced the view that all of the old meanings no longer hold sway and that new methods are leaving even the concept of ‘meaning’ as a questionable one at best, with the nostalgic looking-back to these beliefs with a yearning that is nearly all-consuming. I’m not really quite sure what answer, if any, Gardner comes up with. I will have to think about this book a lot more before I even pretend to have an opinion on that, but there is ample food for thought here. My biggest complaint would probably be that we never return again to “our” world and see Freddy, Winesap and Agaard again. I’m fairly certain that Gardner felt that any answers we wanted about Freddy’s life, and any meaning he derived from it, were contained in the text of his tale of knights, kings and devils, but I would have liked to visit him again for some kind of closure to his own tale.

Also posted at Goodreads

No I won't be afraid, oh I won't be afraid, just as long as you...

The StandBy Stephen King; Read by Grover Gardner
Publisher: Random House Audio
Publication Date: February 14, 2012
ISBN: 9780307987570
37 discs – 1 day 21 hours 36 minutes [UNABRIDGED]

Reviewed by: Bryce

4.5 out of 5 Stars (very highly recommended)

Themes: / good versus evil / super-flu / post-apocalypse /

Publisher summary:
Stephen King’s apocalyptic vision of a world blasted by plague and tangled in an elemental struggle between good and evil remains as riveting and eerily plausible as when it was first published. A patient escapes from a biological testing facility, unknowingly carrying a deadly weapon: a mutated strain of -flu that will wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population within a few weeks. Those who remain are scared, bewildered, and in need of a leader. Two emerge—Mother Abagail, the benevolent 108-year-old woman who urges them to build a peaceful community in Boulder, Colorado; and Randall Flagg, the nefarious “Dark Man,” who delights in chaos and violence. As the dark man and the peaceful woman gather power, the survivors will have to choose between them—and ultimately decide the fate of all humanity.
I know, I just listened to Stephen King’s Carrie and now The Stand. I’ve found that reading one King book begets more just about every time. There’s something to these tragic characters that you need more and more of.

Now, I have to tell a quick story on this one and I promise this will (probably not) be the last time I tell it to intro a review for a Stephen King novel. This is THE novel I hated so I figure it has to be told here if anywhere.

A number of years ago, I was in Borders and that tells you it was a least a couple years ago. I hadn’t read Stephen King before this time, but you can’t help being an avid reader and reading King, it’s bound to happen at some point, he’s way too prolific. I was looking through his section and I decided I would either buy The Stand or The Talisman as I’d heard very good things about both. There happened to be a guy in the same section and I asked him to make the call. He enthusiastically pointed to The Stand and thus it was purchased. I was in the middle of a huge fantasy binge at the time, making up for lost time I guess since I was never a huge reader growing up. I had read The Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia and a number of other fantasy books, but it was always sporadic at best and this was a HUGE binge I’m telling you.

I had just finished The Riftwar Saga and loved it immensely. I had The First Law sitting on my shelf and waiting to be read, calling to me even. But I was determined to read this book everyone was talking about – The Stand by Stephen King. I started reading and it was compelling enough. The super-flu, or Captain Trips was interesting and it was obviously creating this world change, but the characters were almost too real. I didn’t really like any of them, maybe Nick Andros (and how do you not like him?) and it seemed to drone on and on without anything really happening. Yes, there were the coughs in the theater, the slow spread of the flu is documented ad nauseum, but at 300 pages in, I still felt like nothing was ever going to happen.

I figured, if I’m not enjoying myself at 300 pages, then when am I ever going to enjoy this book? So I stopped. This was no easy decision, let me tell you. After all the praise, I don’t even think I’ve ever heard one poor word said about this book, I had to keep pushing and 300 pages in is really a lot since I can drop a book now after 50 to 100 pages without any qualms whatsoever.

Somehow, a couple years later I was drawn into Stephen King’s world again. This time it was The Dark Tower series with the good folks at Goodreads. Everyone seemed to be reading this series a couple years back and so I jumped in. I didn’t love the first book, but it has some great moments. The second book made me rethink my whole opinion on King because it blew my mind in so many ways. The third and fourth are two of my top ten books I’ve ever read, so you know I got to thinking about my problems with The Stand and how this fantasy fan couldn’t get into it.

Thus, the reread or more like “retry.” This time, things were completely different. I loved it from just about the first page. The way the super-flu spreads is genius – one accident leads to the cough that’s heard around the world. Then we have the characters. The first time, I could hardly stand any of them. But this time, I absolutely loved them. It was simply genius to put them in situations that seemed monumental to them at the time and you just know it’s about to become the smallest thing in the world. The girl who has to tell her parents she’s pregnant, the guy who’s just had his first hit on the radio and blows all his money, the guy who works at a failing factory, the kid who just got beat up and robbed. Simply genius.

Then there’s the “bad guys” who aren’t even all that bad, who in fact have plenty of redeeming qualities, but who happen to be on the other side. Again, genius. I can’t stop using that word.

And for some reason none of this clicked the first time I attempted reading The Stand. I do have some theories, so indulge me if you would.
I don’t think I was read for King and all his King-ness. You’d think after having read George R.R. Martin I could take brutal reality, but that was more an exception at the time from all my other non-realistic heroes and villains reading that I just wasn’t ready for this kind of reality.

I didn’t really get the fantasy part of the book. I KNOW! The fantasy fan doesn’t get the fantasy! What is the world coming too? But I didn’t get it at all. We had this very realistic situation with very real people and then all of a sudden there’s this “walking dude” who embodies pure evil and even sparks some supernatural events. It just didn’t gel for me at the time and started to pull me out of the story. I knew this was considered a fantasy novel, but that wasn’t the kind of fantasy I was remotely comfortable with so it didn’t work for me at the time.

The characters. I don’t know if I’ve grown a lot as a person since then (I like to think I have), but the first time I thought Frannie was just being a brat and Larry was completely dumb. Now, I can’t even believe I thought those things of some of my favorite characters. Frannie’s giggling in awkward situations alone should have made me love her! But how else would you deal with such a situation? It was so great, I didn’t even realize it.

M-O-O-N. That spells didn’t even realize it.

Needless to say, I’m very happy I gave The Stand a second try. This is one amazing book that’s constantly compelling, especially witnessing the birth of a new civilization and the interactions of some of the greatest characters I’ve ever read. Really the only problem I had was that it felt a little too long and drawn out and that’s got to be the expanded version. For me, if there’s ever the choice between more editing and less, you should really go with less. I feel like a great book was made a little less great by adding back in what was cut in the first place. But then again … money!

I know that was the longest way in the history of anything to say, wow, what a good book. From the rise of the super-flu to the dawning of a new civilization and the ever-overshadowing and always looming confrontation, this was one epic read. Not for the faint of heart (or even close – The Kid, just think of The Kid!), but definitely an experience not to be rivaled.

Grover Gardner is just about the perfect narrator for this story. He has just the right amount of twang to his voice for the multiple southern accents and it’s gruff enough for the subject matter as well. There are plenty of characters in The Stand and he nailed every one of them.

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