Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa

Last week’s news that Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature led to me pick up “Who Killed Palomino Molero?” Llosa’s version of a hard-boiled detective mystery translated into backwater South America.

What permeates this whole work is a feeling of listless indifference. The first chapter describes the body of Palomino Molero - an bony young airman in the Peruvian Air Force who is later found dead, virtually emasculated. Lieutenant Silva and Officer Lituma begin their investigations in a lackadaisical fashion - not by choice, but because of their limitations. They need a cab to the crime scene. They walk long distances when they cannot get a ride. Though witnesses mourn the loss of Molero’s singing voice, they don’t seem all that interested in who killed him, or why.

Llosa does something interesting here with pace and tone. This novel is only 150 pages long. Descriptions are spare. Dialogue dominates the narrative. There are the usual tricks of the mystery in that information we glean may only be momentarily correct. But action is, like the setting, listless and slow. Suppositions often lead to recalibration. Palomino Molero, for example, is not a draftee but an enlistee. The reason for this becomes clearer when Silva and Lituma uncover the reasons he joined. As a barmaid says, “He brought on his own tragedy.” Silva and Lituma must then navigate the no man’s land between military and civilian justice.

The reason for everyone’s indifference, outside our two lawmen, is the corruption one sees on every page. Molero’s murder is an outrage because “in these parts, people kill each other fair and square, man to man. But crucifying, torturing, that’s new.” Whatever solution Silva and Lituma find is discarded as being a cover story to allow the real guilty parties, shadowy higher-ups, to escape unnamed and unpunished.

As with all good hard boiled noir, Llosa gives you as much atmosphere as mystery. But instead of a big city with the corruption of politics and technology, instead we get the sweat from the sun in a mostly rural, corrupt backwater fetid with the scent of chicken droppings and endless toil.

Even Silva does not seem to care so much about catching a murderer as catching the barmaid whom he spies on at the riverside during her morning bath. Llosa gives, in the middle of a murder investigation, a playful, laughing regard for life. Life - which eludes easy definition and promises mystery once the first question is asked.

As Lieutenant Silva says, “Only death is definitive.”

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Morality by Stephen King

Tucked away in Stephen King's recent mini-book "Blockade Billy" was a disquieting little story called "Morality," worthy of a 19th century Russian author.

In a few short pages, King introduces us to Nora and Chad, a couple living in New York in the midst of the recession, scrambling to pay bills. Chad is an aspiring writer who hopes to finish a non-fiction collection and bring in some extra money. But this is just a prayer, and even though our young couple are earnest and believe in each other, reality rarely yields up the answer to a prayer the way one hopes. The solution to their money problems, though, comes through Nora, a nurse who works with a retired minister, Winston. The old clergyman, who conveniently has a horde of ready cash, is a stroke victim who has had a lot of time to ruminate on what he's been missing out in his life.

The story contains a few tropes familiar to any longtime King reader. Chad is a smoker, and when Nora asks him for a puff, he knows she's been shaken, since she constantly harps on the money going out to pay for his habit. Not only is this a well-documented crib from what we know of King's early married life as a struggling writer, it is also a hallmark of King stories that the passing of a cigarette is a symbol for temptation or moral laxity. The other easily recognizable King image is Winston himself, for he comes in the form King has sometimes used in the past for his men of the cloth - that of the tempter. Winston, with his "long sheep's face" and sheep eyes, is a wolf, or a dog "that bites and runs away." The biography he recounts, of simple selfless service, seems like a spectacular lie in light of what he reveals about himself later through his actions.

Nora reaches for a cigarette because Winston has offered an ungodly amount of money to Nora if she will help him do something his condition denies him - he wants to commit a sin. "This is not about sex," he assures her, and King slyly waits until the moment the sin occurs before he reveals just what it is Winston wants her to do. With Chad standing nearby holding a video camera to record the event, Nora is to go to a playground, pick out a child, and punch the child hard enough to draw blood. The meaningless act of violence will satisfy the terms of his bargain, and give the couple enough money to restart their lives away from the city, pay all their bills, and chase down Chad's dream of publication.

King's choice of "sin" is interesting. Strictly speaking, it is assault. Motiveless violence. The fact that a child is the victim touches on the violation of innocence that is the heart of this story. We like Nora, and we like Chad, because they are familiar, striving, young people who are beginning to feel the injustice of life, where no one will pay them for their good intentions but reward criminals in skyscrapers who make millions on empires of lies. Winston, obviously, is no ordinary clergyman, but he is diabolically good at this sin business. And he knows forgiveness is open to him even after the deed is done. But Winston, though it is never stated in the story, seems to miss the power of the pulpit. "We hold out heaven, then make people understand they have no hope of achieving it without our help," he tells Nora, and we see that his bet is a weird, negative recreation of his years of ministry. He warns her that he doesn't want to wallow in sin, but dive headlong in, regardless of whether he is chained to the life of a walking invalid. Winston perceives innocence in his nurse, and he means to destroy it.

The offer has the desired effect. Chad calls it a "bridge to nowhere," but during a sleepless night, the two contemplate how they might carry it out, and what they can do with the money. And suddenly, this proposition does indeed seem to be about sex, because the two of them are aroused by it. The effect, though, is that they are being spiritually violated by Winston, with the consequences to come. Nora delivers the punch, much harder than she intended, and releases something inside her in the process.

The child who receives the punch isn't seriously harmed, but Nora nervously keeps rewinding and watching the image of her delivering the blow. Chad and Nora's relationship is now rougher, coarser, harsher toward each other. The hostility they have unleashed is now aimed at each other. Winston revels in the damage he has wrought. After he watches Nora watching herself punch the child, he asks "is feeling dirty always a bad thing?" Nora, an agnostic, asks Winston how he intends to square this with God.

"If a sinner like Simon Peter could go on to found the Catholic Church, I expect I'll be fine."
"Did Simon Peter keep the videotape to watch on cold winter evenings?"

The sin of Simon Peter was denial - the denial of Jesus at the moment of his betrayal and condemnation. What we can glean from the Bible is that Peter needed forgiveness is order to be useful to God with the founding of the church. He understood that his faith was his only means of salvation. Winston, the only believer in this story, sees faith merely as a diving bell - which allows him to view the depths of human experience while still within a life-sustaining cocoon. Though this story is very old in its sensibilities, it's interesting that King uses the motif of the video image - record, rewind, rewatch, commit to memory - to facilitate the sin. This sort of spiritual pornography is what Winston wants to gorge on, with the help of his accomplices.

Once the deed is done, Nora leaves her job with the money in hand. In the end, Winston either dies or kills himself, but Nora wonders if he had set up a video camera to record his own exit. She indulges in wild sex with anonymous men and her marriage dies as Chad's bookish ambitions run aground. They have fled the city, but the money has not fulfilled them - not as much as their brush with iniquity. They are not happier. We understand, at story's end, that Nora knows something about the nature of morality, but King chooses not to tell us what it is. We don't know whether he expects us to know, or believes each individual reader will find an answer.

Other posts about Stephen King's work here and here

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Nemesis by Philip Roth

There is a classic air to Philip Roth's "Nemesis." The sun is evoked like an object of veneration. Children worship momentarily a man who hurls a javelin in a display of manly athletic power. Stories of ancient rites and ancient men are told around campfires to wild-eyed, bewildered listeners.

The style of "Nemesis" is similar to the other books in this ongoing series, which a Roth works list at the book's beginning helpfully describes as a cycle entitled "Nemeses: Short Novels." Like "The Humbling," "Desperation," and "Everyman," we are presented a male main character who faces an emasculating life or death trauma. "Nemesis" is written with long, complex sentences that wind through characters and situations back upon themselves. The story is told briskly, in less than 300 pages.

"Nemesis" follows Bucky Cantor, a Jewish gym teacher in New Jersey in the year of 1944, when life and death dramas are played out daily in Europe and the Pacific. Bucky, a 4-F, was denied glory on the battlefield because of his eyesight, and he struggles against his vision as do the other protagonists of Roth's late short novels - their aspiration forever frustrated by reality. Bucky, however, cannot escape the feeling that his misfortunes are his own fault. In this case, the problem is a polio epidemic in the Jewish neighborhood, and as the children Bucky watches over begin to succumb to disease, and death, he feels a growing sense of responsibility.

An obvious conclusion is that Roth is returning to the New Jersey of his childhood for this particular story. But one is conscious of the backdrop - World War II - and the ongoing liquidation of Europe's Jews in the concentration camps. Instead of fighting that menace, Bucky instead fights fear that begins to grip his community as families and children begin looking for the secret sources of the growing contagion, which robs the limbs of power and the lungs of breath. When one frantic parent asks, "Our Jewish children are our riches...Why is it attacking our beautiful Jewish children?" one has the Holocaust in miniature. A grief stricken father says for the whole planet, "The meaninglessness of it! A terrible disease drops from the sky and somebody is dead overnight. A child, no less!"

Which brings us to the other feature of "Nemesis," which is the feeling that stirs in Bucky that what follows him may not be a horror of his own making but a supernatural one. As Bucky begins to wonder at the purpose of innocent children suddenly being robbed of life, he begins to suspect that God is behind it all. This feeling grows in him, as tragedy piles on top of tragedy, both at home among his children and on the battlefield with his friends:

"Bucky's conception of God, as I thought I understood it, was of an omnipotent being whose nature and purpose was to be adduced not from doubtful biblical evidence but from irrefutable historical proof, gleaned during a lifetime passed on this planet in the middle of the twentieth century. His conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one God-head, as in Christianity, but of two" - a sadistic soul and an evil genius.

It's interesting that Roth gives his character a sentiment C.S. Lewis expressed in "A Grief Observed" - that God can sometimes feel like a cosmic vivisectionist, that His power is not perfectly displayed in His grace, but instead in His ability to torture creation. Roth, who does not believe in an afterlife, God, Christ, or otherwise, creates a character who feels the presence of God in the negative, and presumes a God intimately involved in our day-to-day lives, for the purposes of destruction, like a child who destroys the sand castle he has spent the last two hours creating. This proof is not comforting, for how does the created hope to last against the Creator? The feeling that one strives against a Being who will not bless him even if he should grab hold of Him dogs Bucky and haunts the reader.

In mid-story, Bucky flees the playground to the summer camp where his girlfriend works. He feels secure in the mountains, and enjoys the love of the woman he intends to marry. His girl sings "I'll Be Seeing You" to him, a song that he resurrects later in life, the story of a lover who is reminded of the beloved in the familiar places of life that they have shared. But one wonders if this love song isn't instead a more menacing reminder that God is always watching. It falls to the book's final third act, where we see our faceless narrator revealed as one of Bucky's grown playground children, to allow events to reveal Bucky as he existed before and as these fears are realized, in his mind. Whether they are, in fact, so, is yet one more question for the reader to navigate.

"Nemesis" of course, was the Greek goddess of retribution. But the word also means an antagonist who brings punishment, or the cause of inevitable downfall. Whatever Roth's intent, he has created a universe of possibility in the chaos that forms, like a contagion, in the air of summer camps and summer romances where danger is thought to be distant but secrets itself behind our desperate longings, and in a negative faith that offers no consolation.