Friday, February 20, 2009

Allan Guthrie's "Hard Man"

When does violence cross the line into so-called "torture porn" and exploitation? Not in Allan Guthrie's novel Hard Man, I don't think.

I don't know the substance of the debate about torture porn and crime fiction, but I know the debate exists or existed, and I know Guthrie's name has come up. So here's why I think that whatever torture porn may be, Guthrie's not guilty of it here.

First, the book does contain a scene of torture that may be unpleasant reading for some, but it does not invite the reader's prurient interest. It is neither gratuitous, frivolous nor out of character. The lengthy narrative of escape from the torture is refreshingly low-key, straightforward in its detailed description of the agonizing lengths to which the characters must go to effect their escape. And those lengths are great, which makes the scene heroic.

And violence in this novel, torture and otherwise, has its consequences. Guthrie told Spinetingler Magazine that:
"I believe that writing's about creating sensory experiences. If a character's eating a hamburger, I want the reader to taste it. So if a character's in pain, I want the reader to feel it. Violence in my books always hurts. And it always has a lasting effect. None of this getting knocked unconscious and waking up two minutes later with a little bump that's completely forgotten about ten seconds later. That annoys me almost as much as gratuitous scenery. I also try to write from the point of view of the victim where possible. But even my aggressor's get hurt. Hit somebody with your bare fist and you're liable to break a finger. In my books, anyway."

I'd say that makes Guthrie a pretty morally serious guy — especially considering how much (dark) humor the book contains.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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16 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Did you ever read Crash? Lots of faces through windscreens and gear levers shoved into abdomens. And tons of sex and car crashes. That's an entire book of torture porn and its a very good thing indeed.

I've never seen the Saw films or Hostel or Wolf Creek or the other controversial torture porn movies but I doubt they have the subtlety of Ballard or the wit of the 70's exploitation movies.

And I dont know AG's books, but I'll correct that.

February 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have not read Crash, but I did enjoy its listing in the catalogue of the Free Library of Philadelphia, particularly the list of terms under whicn it was indexed:

Crash
J.G. Ballard

Traffic accidents, sexual deviancy, fiction


Torture porn, perhaps, but maybe witty commentary on our fixation with cars and highways as well?

I'd actually shied away from Guthrie for a while because I am neither especially fond of violence nor interested in debating the question. In any case, it's no shock I like his writing because it transpires I have read, met or corresponded with a number of the authors he represents as an agent, including, as you know, his newest client.

Ran into my pal from Derry at the Pen & Pencil Club tonight. He was the one who introduced me to the expression "Ya ganchy mother------."

February 20, 2009  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Adrian - Here's a sample chapter from one of Allan Guthrie's novels.

Al's the man!

gb

February 20, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

This is such a difficult subject to evaluate. I tend to err on the side of the author's intent (meaning that if he's trying to show how bad violence is, I'm more likely to give the work a pass). But I'm also aware of the existence of sick folks who get their jollies from various books and movies in ways that would appall their authors. Care is always warranted.

That being said, the first thing I thought about when I read this was Scotchy's demise in Dead I Well May Be. Seat-squirmingly intense and yet not exploitative in the least. If anything, it was humanizing, if that makes any sense.

February 20, 2009  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I'm also (not surprisingly, I guess) a big fan of Al Guthrie's books.

I've never seen any of the torture porn movies, so I don't really know the genre, but the use of the word "porn," makes me think that the movies lack any real characters or thematic development.

Hard Man is a great story of dysfunctional family relationships, and at the risk of sounding way too geeky, explored a lot of the themes of power dynamics in relationships that Michel Foucault spent his life studying.

(I can actually hear Al laughing over my comparison of Hard Man to Foucault, but if I was back in school I could write an amazing term paper, get myself an A).

February 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerard, I think I'll take another look at that chapter, too. The violence had always left me a bit wary, but I like the suggestion that the story will take a character who seems like an evil, violent guy, and put him in a situation that would normally gain sympathy from readers. Something like that happens in "Hard Man," I'd say.

February 20, 2009  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

I've seen some of the Saw films and actually found the first two to be enjoyable for what they were, if you can overlook the atrocious acting.

I have not seen the grindhouse films that Tarantino is always droning on and on about, though, so I don't know how today's torture porn holds up to what they were doing during the second golden age of cinema. Violence in film and literature has never bothered me much because if it's necessary to the story, then it's usually fine by me. If it's not necessary to the plot, then I don't take the story seriously and either stop reading/watching or accept that the story is not to be taken too seriously.

February 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, care is always warranted on the reader’s part. My quarrel is less with readers who don’t like intense violence than with anyone who might judge on the acts depicted therein. The violence in Hard Man makes sense for the characters Guthrie has written. These characters are, God help me, somewhat likeable. They’re just screw-ups and victims of circumstance who may not know how to solve their problems any other way.

I find it easy to accept that squirm-inducing violence can be humanizing. Why? Because humans really do act in such ways.

February 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, is he your agent, too?

Guthrie’s violence is thoroughly in character for his characters, and it has consequences. Even though it might make me wince, it’s artistically and morally acceptable.

Torture porn makes me think of a scene in a Steven Seagal movie in which Seagal’s character snaps a guy’s spine over his (Seagal’s) knee, and the soundtrack amplifies the act with a loud crack. That’s sick, and it’s gratuitous. One just might be able to accept such an act if the context made it clear that the violence was all cartoonish, but that was not the case here.

Foucault is acceptable on this blog, but I’ll worry if you start invoking Lacan.

February 20, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, my next task, should I choose to accept it, will be to figure out the ways violence can be necessary or at least important in fiction. It's arguably necessary in just about any crime writing, since crime does not generally involve passive, welcoming acquiescence.

February 21, 2009  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

Do I have to fess up first and admit Al's my agent (now - he wasn't when I did that interview)?

Anyway, I found the notion of Al writing torture porn ridiculous. Every work by him I read he seems to get better and better. Read SAVAGE NIGHT - there was a section of the book that literally had me writhing in pain, but it's certainly not gratuitous. He writes brilliantly some of the hardest stuff to write. You can't compare a movie to a book when it comes to describing these types of scenes.

February 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No fessing necessary, at least not for me. I knew you were on his list.

At least one superb scene in Hard Man might be difficult to translate into film wihout becoming too distractingly graphic and also because such action as there is is on such a small scale as to make for a static scene. It would take superb acting, too.

February 21, 2009  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

No Lacan, gotcha.

I remember the first time I felt that a movie was being gratuitous was Death Wish in the camera seemed to linger over the most graphic violence. I guess it would be tame now, but at the time it seemed to cross a line.

February 21, 2009  
OpenID krimileser said...

Isn't it a pity that there are far more words about the violence in Had Man than about the quality of Guthrie's writing. Some scenes are really good and the whole book demonstrate that he is far more than a "violent writer".

February 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Isn't it a pity that there are far more words about the violence in Had Man than about the quality of Guthrie's writing. Some scenes are really good and the whole book demonstrate that he is far more than a "violent writer".

You couldn't be more right. I wrote the post that I did because that's my pattern with posts. Rather than put up a review, I seize upon some aspect of a book and hold forth on that. Hence Guthrie and violence.

There's far more to Hard Man than graphic violence. John McFetridge cited examples in his comment. At the same time, there is much about Guthrie's handling of the violent scenes that is subtle and interesting, and I may make at least one future post on that subject.

February 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I don't have much to say about gratuitously violent movies because I haven't seen many of the films that have made headlines in that respect. Books have the advantage of being able to leave violence to the imagination. Hell, you're reading and not seeing or hearing the violence, so everything is imagination.

Gifted filmmakers probably understand this. I remember how effective the famous coffee scene is in The Big Heat. I knew in advance about this notorious scene, about Lee Marvin flinging the scalding coffee in Gloria Grahame's face, and I had every expectation of being disappointed by it. I expected the fifty or so years that had elapsed between the film's release and the first time I saw it might have eroded any shock value. But they did not. If you don't know the scene, rent the movie, and pay attention to how Fritz Lang handles the scene, what he shows and what he doesn't.

February 22, 2009  

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