Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Jim Thompson, Benjamin Whitmer, Daniel Woodrell, mood-breakers, a question for readers

I wrote earlier this week that Benjamin Whitmer's novel Pike reminded me of Daniel Woodrell with a tougher edge, maybe with a bit of Jim Thompson mixed in. I had never seen those writers mentioned together, so I was pleased when I picked up a copy of Thompson's Pop. 1280 yesterday and found that it came with a foreword by Woodrell.
"Sheriff Nick Corey is Jim Thompson's greatest creation," Woodrell writes. "Pop. 1280, set in Texas, is so directly a southern novel, so clearly from that tradition, that it would stand high on the Southern Lit shelf (which means high on the Lit Shelf, period) if it were not so consistently misidentified as a work with its roots genre, and therefore arbitrarily reduced in stature. ... The vision is dark but the writing bizarrely hilarious, utilizing the strain of downhome joshing I love so well and learned at the knees of my old ones."
Now, I've been to Texas just once in my life, to Houston and Galveston, and, while my charming hostess does like to say, "Y'all, hush!" I can claim only the most cursory acquaintance with the state, the region, and their quirks and folkways. But I have to think Woodrell is right because fourteen chapters in, Pop. 1280 is dark, hilarious, a stunning performance that sustains its mood in every word, far and away the best of the limited amount of Thompson's work that I've read (Savage Night,  The Getaway, part of The Grifters).

I may have more to say on this astonishing book later, but for now some thoughts on why hard, dark writing may the most difficult kind of crime writing to do well. Here's what I mean: I've read plenty of the hard stuff recently, Thompson, Whitmer, Jedidiah Ayres' Fierce Bitches, Crime Factory's Lee Marvin-themed short-story collection Lee, Eric Beetner, and Blood and Tacos. Lots of that writing is good, some better than that, but what interested me were those stories where a not-quite-right word threw the atmosphere off just enough to take me out of the story, if only for a moment. No author wants to do that, but I suspect the stakes may be especially high in noir, hard-boiled, Southern Gothic, or any other genre that depends heavily on mood.

The slip-up need not be large; all it takes is a bit of jargon or psychobabble, a grammatical error ("Lying still, strapped down tight, the hostage's eyes meet his."), or some annoying quirk of contemporary speech creeping in (level, say, as in "his confidence level" rather than "his confidence.")  

That's me; What are your mood-breakers? What lapses will take you out of a story?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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19 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Woodrell is right about most things. The French naturally dont consider Jim Thompson to be a pulp writer but a realist. They turned Pop 1280 into the fine film Coup de torchon directed by Bertrand Tavernier.

April 03, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read too little Thompson to say with confidence what he is and what he isn't. You may recall that I criticized his prose in The Grifters. The writing here, on the other hand, is just stunning: elaborately set up and apparently effortless at the same time.

So, among other things, I'd have to say he was both an artist/craftsman and a hack, depending on the book. This makes me want to read Robert Polito's biography of Thomson. Have you read that or any other books about him?

And yes, this reading has made me want to seek out Coup de Torchon.

April 03, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well if you were writing in the john well lubricated by Jim Beam with the typewriter on your knees maybe you wouldn't be knocking it out of the park EVERY time.

Like another one of my favourites from that period Philip K Dick you have to separate the stinkers from the good ones. I think Thompson bats about .333, Dick bats about .250.

I havent read the bio, no, but I think the Kubrick chapters are probably pretty interesting.

Incidentally to keep with the baseball theme, I'm predicting and half hoping actually that the Yankees have their first losing season since 1992.

April 03, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, I have read a few references to alcohol having played a big role in Thompson. I liked The Getaway better than I did The Grifters, and Savage Night was about as scary a piece of horror as I've ever read, but nothing prepared me for anything as good as Pop. 1280. It's a real eye-opener to me that his production could have varied so widely. I guess I'm more aware of the range of possibilities than I was before.

As for the Phillies, I can't believe that any good or recently good team has ever entered a season with so much uncertainty. Cole Hamels is about the only reasonably sure thing for this year, though with two wild-card teams and the Mets and the Marlins in their division, they could sneak into the playoffs.

April 03, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

It's kind of sad that the older you get or the more you read, the more critical you become. So you're talking about specific things that pull you out of a story, but it doesn't really even have to be that, it can just be a structural thing, where the write has gone on too long about something. Or you don't like the way they write sentences, or their attitude towards women, or anything. I have to say that working in a bookstore, one of the things I like most is the kind of humility a lot of people bring to reading. They are rewarded with their sheer enjoyment. They don't really care of Patterson writes simply or formulaicly, they just enjoy the ride.

Well, that's how I feel about it tonight, anyway.

April 04, 2013  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

PKD published something like 40 novels in a 16 year period. That's a crazy pace.

Having been through a nasty divorce and custody battle personally when some of those details are presented wrong it bothers me. I've read a couple of stories over the years where, for example, the mother withholds visitation because child support is behind (when in reality they are two separate issues), and this is the reason the male protag needs to pull the heist.

April 04, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, one might also say that the older one gets the more finely calibrated one's judgment becomes. As for your remarks about humility in reading, I would say that correcting the sorts of lapses I had in mind when I wrote this post would not make stories any less enjoyable. Of course, I am not talking about making the narrator and all the characters speak the Queen's English. But eliminating anachronisms or obtrusively dangling participles will not make stories less accessible.

Of course, my profession, which is being downgraded, phased out, or eliminated, may affect my judgment. It is tough to confront the possibility that one's field of work simply no longer matters.

April 04, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I can well imagine reading right over a divorce detail that would drive you nuts and not being at all bothered by it. One answer to your objection would be: Relax, Most readers won't notice. Another answer would be: You're right. Even if only a few readers will notice the mistake, it never hurts to get the details right.

Thompson wrote twenty-nione novels and a couple of acreenplays. I don't know much about the circumstances of his life, though. I assume, that is, but dpn't know for sure, that he brought more care and maybe more time as well to Pop. 1280 than to some of his other books.

April 04, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"it can just be a structural thing, where the write has gone on too long about something. Or you don't like the way they write sentences"

Seana, that's the sort of thing that will take me out of a story. Whether the story pulls me back in depends on other factors.

This talk about bad sentences and dangling participles and anachronisms might intimidate or repel some readers. But, again, I don't think they'd be repelled or turned off by a book that was free of those problems.

April 04, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

One "mood breaker" that derails my reading is not substantive but typographical. Whenever a writer (or editor) decides that long portions need to appear in italics rather than the conventional font, I hear a switch being flipped in my head, and an inner voice says, "Oh, crap, not again! Why must writers annoy me with this silliness."

Yeah, I know the writers (and editors) will argue that they have sensible narrative reasons for the font perversion, but I remain hostile to the device. Faulkner was a big offender, and plenty of modern detective fiction also offender (but I cannot put my hands on an example at the moment.)

In any case, when I see long sections of italics, I and the book soon part ways.

Now, how is that for being irrational!

April 04, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Oops! The final word in "and plenty of modern detective fiction also offender" should be "offends."

If I only had a good copy editor looking over my copy, such dumb errors would never see the light of day.

April 04, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I agree with you on italics, with the addition that long passages of the stuff can not just break a mood, they can prevent it from ever getting started. As if most prologues in crime writing were not bad enough, ones in italics scream: "Look at me!" even louder than their Roman relatives.

I am decidedly a substance-over-form guy when it comes to fonts.

April 04, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lack of copy editing is always my answer when someone finds a mistake in my own writing.

April 04, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I don't really mean that it's a bad thing to calibrate your judgment--hopefully, it's inevitable. But I do remember being a kid and just enjoying the premise of a novel without getting stopped by weaknesses of the author's prose. Of course, there was probably better editing back then, too.

R.T., you do remind me how easily to get jarred by any number of things that break the flow of the story, and they aren't necessarily even flaws. Changes of point of view will do that to me sometimes. Going back in time can be another. A good writer can keep me going by making the new story equally interesting, but that's a big challenge. It's hard to make all the segments equally interesting.

April 04, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, hell yes. Outside of looking up a piece of information, is there any reason to read a book other than for enjoyment? And don't say for moral improvement, because if you're not having fun, you won't be improved. The highest praise I can accord a novel or a story is that it was fun.

I have a theory about prose, though obviously one I can't prove. My theory is that prose style is supremely important even to readers who might not realize this. I might say an author's prose style is weak, or his grammar is bad, or her story is full of anachronisms. A kid (or an adult who has never been a copy editor and would find the prospect frightening) might say the story was boring or the main character was bad or he didn't care about the villain. But quiz that person in great detail about parts that he didn't like, and I suspect in a significant number of cases you'll find the offending passages are the same ones I would find weak. Or maybe I just hope so.

April 04, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I think you're probably right, and yet it still doesn't explain the James Patterson phenomenon. Although I am probably being unfair to him and his co-authors, as I haven't actually read any of them. Perhaps they are master stylists of English prose.

April 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think of it as the Dan Brown phenomenon, since I've read part of the first sentence of The DaVinci Code. Whatever is responsible for the success of these massive bestsellers, I can't believe that they would sell that much less if the prose were made a little better. I mean, all I've read of Stephen King's is "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," so I know the man could wrote.

On the subject of bestsellers, I saw a blog post recently about antiquarian bookstore in Toronto. According to the post, young neighborhood hipsters said the shop looked like something out of Harry Potter. So maybe the megabestsellers tap nostalgia for something or other, even on the part of people who may never have experiences the original.

April 05, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Stephen King is kind of an exception. I haven't really read any of his horror novels, but I have read a short story or two, and he definitely can write good prose.

I think with a lot of the bestsellers, there is a 'fast read' audience that is catered to. I don't really fault anyone for this, because a lot of people want something that they can read on their commute or before they go to sleep that doesn't ask too much of them. It's like other people doing crossword puzzles.

April 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Stephen King also has nice things to say about crime writers. He wrote the introduction to the edition of The Killer Inside Me that I'm reading now, and he's written two books for Hard Case Crime.

But surely it's possible for quick, undemanding prose to be free of mistakes. Besides, that horrible opening sentence of The DaVinci is clumsy--not what I think of as quick and undemanding.

April 05, 2013  

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