Book Review—Wolf In White Van By John Darnielle

I know I’m a little old to say that a rock band changed my life, but The Mountain Goats did. The firstwolf-in-white-van-cover time I heard “This Year” on The Mountain Goats thousandth album (No, they haven’t recorded a thousand albums, but damn they’re prolific) The Sunset Tree, something just clicked and I proceeded to listen to the song and the entire album for close to a year.  I, of course, listened to The Mountain Goats whole catalog, and loved it. John Darnielle writes about the losers you went to high school with—who really weren’t losers at all (The song, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton” is an excellent example of this kind of song), you just didn’t take the time to get to know them—the pain of growing older and being slightly disappointed with life, of loneliness, and the simple joys of being alive.

Darnielle’s debut novel, Wolf In White Van, resonates with the same verve, energy, and semi-darkness that The Mountain Goats bring to the table, and it might be that Darnielle may actually be a better novelist than he is a songwriter. (Yeah, I know, he’s written hundreds of songs, and only one novel, so the statement is a bit of a stretch)

Wolf In White Van is the story of Sean, a former high school “loser” (aka a jean jacket wearing heavy metal kid that is featured in more than a few Mountain Goats songs), who is horribly disfigured and spends his days in his generic apartment with very little personal stimuli other than visits from an at home nurse and a by mail post-apocalyptic role-playing game he created while recovering from the accident—it’s really more of an incident—which left him disfigured in the hospital called Trace Italian. (The game is also how Sean makes his meager living)

Sean’s life is extremely lonely and dejected. Along with the isolation he feels because of his disfigurement, he also feels rejected by just about everyone in his life, including his parents (Probably one of the most single powerful and telling paragraphs in the novel is when after Sean’s grandmother dies, his parents ask him not to attend the funeral because of his appearance) and former friends. Even the complex imaginary world of Trace Italian has been tainted when we learn that two of the games players decide to go live-action with the game and end up freezing to death, and Sean is now being sued for their deaths by the players families.

Despite the grievous events that have shaped Sean, I never saw him as a tragic character. I instead viewed him as an every man, who like most of us is perfectly fine with simply rolling along with his existence and living his stripped down life and running Trace Italian. Would he want his life to be different? Of course, but like most of us, he’s made missteps that he simply can’t take back.

For those readers who are looking for a novel that contains big reveals and stunning, life changing revelations which re-shape the protagonist’s world view, you should probably steer clear of Wolf In White Van. Sean does not change, he does not become a better person as his story ruminatively unwinds. (The only change Sean experiences is considering reconstructive surgery at his at-home nurse’s suggestion) However, if you enjoy dark, tender stories told in a distinctive, lyrical voice, Wolf In White Van will be a wholly satisfying experience.

10-Minute Read Review—“Ghost Story” By Victor LaValle

Back in the day when I first started reviewing and I was writing for the old BSCReview (This eventually became a website called BOOMTron, and we all stopped writing for it, and put our full efforts into Spinetingler Magazine), I used to write a column called “Short Thoughts On Short Fiction”. The column was originally started by Brian Lindenmuth, and he would pick out crime stories from around the web, and review them. It was a cool column, and when I started writing for Lindenmuth, I asked if I could take it over, and he let me run with it. I had a lot of fun writing the column, mostly because no one was really reviewing short fiction at the time and I felt like a special and unique snowflake because I was.

Fast forward six years, I don’t really feel like a special an unique snowflake anymore, but guess what, there’s still no one is reviewing short fiction outside of individual author collections and anthologies.

Now I’m not going to revive “Short Thoughts On Short Fiction”, that’s a Spinetingler thing and it belongs to Lindenmuth as far as I’m concerned. But I like the idea of reviewing individual stories. So what I’m doing is I’m going to be reviewing individual stories on a more or less regular basis. The stories will come from e-zines, anthologies, and individual author collections. And unlike “Short Thoughts On Short Fiction”, I’m not going to limit myself to crime fiction. If I read a science fiction story or western or whatever that knocks my socks off, I’m going to review it, and as often as possible, I’ll try to hunt down great short fiction that is either free or of extremely low cost.

Anyway, the first story up is “Ghost Story” By Victor LaValle


“I was at war and I was in love. Of both, the second was harder to hide, there was evidence. Like beside my bed, three liter bottle, almost full. I rolled from under my covers, spun off the cap, pulled down my pants, held myself to the bottle and let go.”

In my opinion, probably one of the most difficult states to describe realistically is a character slapboxingsuffering from severe mental illness. Most writers have more or less trained themselves to use mental illness as a ham-handed device. Their either suffering so much that they’re unable to function in society, or they’re devious psychopaths wearing a mask of kindness and affability, but secretly carrying around murderous intentions for anyone who happens to fall into their realm of influence. For those of us who’ve dealt with or suffered from mental illness on a first hand basis know that these are caricatures, and that mental illness is crafty. It hides in plain site,  and usually you don’t recognize it until it’s staring you right in the face.

What I admire most about Victor LaValle is his realistic portrayal of mental illness and not only the effects it has on the individual suffering, but on their friend’s and family members as well.

“Ghost Story” is the second story in LaValle’s debut collection, Slapboxing With Jesus, and focus’ on Sammy, an NYU student born and bred in the Bronx. Sammy is intelligent, well spoken, and has gone off his meds. LaValle never mentions what mental illness Sammy is suffering from, but from his obsessive behaviors throughout the course of the story it’s most likely a schizoaffective disorder. Early in the story, LaValle establishes Sammy’s level of obsessiveness as he describes Sammy’s bathroom rituals.

“I finished, pulled up my sweatpants and closed the bottle; inside, the stuff was so clear you could hold it to one eye and read a message magnified on the other side. I religiously removed the label from this one like I had all the others, so when I put it at the bottom of the closet with them, in formation (two rows of three), I could check how they went from dark to lighter to this one, sheer as a pane of glass; each was like a revision—with the new incarnation you’re getting closer and closer to that uncluttered truth you might be hunting privately.”

The ritualism of the act seems so normal in Sammy’s mind, despite the fact that if most readers were confronted with seeing such a thing, we would be horrified, and at this early stage in the story, Sammy still seems to cling to a bear thread that this behavior of saving his waste is abnormal.

“I would show them all to the woman I loved, one I could trust; that had been tried three times already—the two stupid ones had asked me to empty them and change my life, the smart one had dressed right then and walked out.”

Sammy’s obsessiveness, of course, extends to his friendships. Sammy and his friend Cocoa grew up in the same neighborhood, but unlike Sammy, Cocoa has matured and has moved into adulthood and is about to become a parent with his wife, Helena. Sammy views Helena with paranoid distain, and automatically assumes that she sees him in the same light and that they are in constant competition for Cocoa’s attention and loyalty.

Sammy believes that he has scored some type of victory over Helena when Cocoa starts to spend more and more time with him as the story progresses. But the fact is, Cocoa is spending so much time with Sammy out of fear for of the safety of Helena’s family, who the young couple lives with, and out of fear that Sammy will do something to himself. Finally, out of frustration, Cocoa takes Sammy to his sisters house in an attempt to rid himself of the burden of Sammy.

Sammy’s sister welcomes him with some trepidation and fear. Although Sammy seems to enjoy the visit, playing with his infant niece and making small talk with his sister. Once his sister puts her little girl down for her nap, she tries to convince Sammy to take a dose of his medication in a cup of orange juice and the brother and sister begin to struggle.

“When I got up she draped herself across the table, spilling the juice and the orchids she had in a vase, the ones her husband had bought two days ago, purple like lips too long exposed to the cold.”

“It was lucky Masai was at work. I was much bigger than Karen, and I could simply pluck her off my arm and leave, but if Masai had been there it would have been contagious, contaminating the living room, the bathroom, their bedroom. We would have been all over the place. But at some point, as I was tugging, she let go. She could fight harder, she had before. Her hands fell to her sides; she opened the door for me.”

For me, this scene is the crux of “Ghost Story”, the moment the reader realizes that not only has Sammy given up on himself, but that all those who loved and cared for him in the past have as well, and that Sammy’s future is very much in flux. He could either start taking his meds and finish his studies, or he could simply let his delusions overtake him.

Much like the stories of Junot Diaz—who LaValle was readily compared to upon the publication of Slapboxing with Jesus—Lavalle tells Sammy’s story without adoration or unnecessary language. The conversational first person narration allows the reader to see the world entirely through Sammy’s hyper aware but clouded eyes. “Ghost Story” is an uncomfortable story, and there are certain scenes which will make you squirm a bit, but it is this discomfort that it conveys that makes it an exceptional piece of storytelling.


If you would like to have an individual story reviewed (this includes your own as well) please feel free to leave a comment with the name of the story and where it appears, and I’ll make sure to take a look at it.

Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge: 100 Words Only

I’ve been in front of the computer all morning trying my best to ignore the siren song of the internet. terriblemindsNeedless to say, it’s been a losing battle. I’ve trolled the usual social media and news sites (all of which are overly concerned with Ted Cruz running for president) numerous times and have gone to the usual websites I go to when I’m procrastinating. One of my favorite I-know-I’m-wasting-time-on-the-internet-but-it-doesn’t-feel-like-I’m-wasting-it sites is Chuck Wendig’s joint.

I cruised the blog archives from last week (I missed most of last week because I was down the work rabbit hole) and saw this week’s Flash Fiction Challenge and decided to participate because 100 words doesn’t seem like much of a time suck, and I’m still writing. But, you know, not what I’m supposed to be writing.

Anyway, my story’s bellow, and I hope you enjoy.


Perserving

Deanna canned according to size. Eye lashes, then eyebrows, then pubic hair (she mixed armpit, vaginal, leg, and arm hair together), then teeth, then fingernails, then toenails (you had to keep those two separate), and now she was working on skin. With her paring knife she started at the toes of her right foot (she was a lefty) and worked her way up to the ankle. The one key component she failed to factor in was blood loss. By the time she started work on her calf, she was woozy and her hands were slippery and cold.

The New Mad Max Looks Shitty

There’s no easy way to say this, because I like all of the actors involved, and I absolutely love The Mad_Max_Fury_Road_posterRoad Warrior and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. But Mad Max: Fury Road looks like 200,000 pounds of runny shit.  George Miller should’ve left the franchise alone and should’ve just moved onto another project.

Here’s the other thing that bugs me: Did we really need another Mad Max? I mean, I get it, my generation–the generation this movie is being sold to–is all about nostalgia. We like the things from our childhoods, they give us comfort and that’s great. But come on, this thing looks worse than the Transformer and GI Joe movies combined.

Anyway, the newly released trailer is below along with the trailer that debuted at the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, and you decide.


Book Review—‘The Wilds’ By Julia Elliot

51gt5ICWOuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’m going to rip off something from Matt Bell’s Facebook page for my review of The Wilds By Julia Elliot:

“It’s easier for people to let go if the world is strange. In a realist story, it sometimes feels like you’re reading someone else’s story. In a certain kind of non-realist story, the slight unfamiliarity of events unfolding in a familiar setting can let you inhabit a story, can make you feel like its happening to you.”

The quote is from a talk writer Diane Cook gave to Bell’s undergrad workshop at ASU, and I thought is was a fitting way to describe Elliot’s excellent debut collection of weird stories. The stories in The Wilds all take place in utterly familiar environments: Suburban neighborhoods, a convalescent home, the neighborhood bar, the local high school. The settings are benign and nothing more than static in our day-to-day world, and each of these settings would make for ideal canvass’ for a contemporary writer to tell equally benign tales of lost love and broken ambitions.

But what Elliot does is twist these settings and injects them with a healthy dose of the weird, and turns them into something magical and akin to an adult fairy tale. The suburban neighborhood becomes overrun with wild dogs, broken entirely free from their bonds with humanity; the convalescent home becomes a laboratory where geneticists and robotics experts restore the memories and bodies of the old; the neighborhood bar becomes a place where frightened adults gather to gossip about the plague sweeping the country where teenagers become addicted to electronic devices and junk food and then fall into a mysterious coma, only to suddenly awaken and disappear.

The minute strangeness of these stories allows the reader to become truly lost in these odd worlds, and you can’t help but feel for the too brief of time you’re inhabiting them that this is actually the world we live in, where the impossible simply walks alongside us and we think of it as nothing more than common place.

Elliot’s prose is elegant and poetic, and her imagination seems boundless. I try to avoid using words like ‘perfect’ or ‘masterpiece’, but it’s nearly impossible for me to not use them when describing The Wilds, because each story is a miniature masterpiece, and the collection is just about as perfect a short story collection as I’ve run into in years.

Kind Of A Movie Review—Nightcrawler

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Mrs. Rawson and I went to Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler, on Saturday. Here are a few random impressions.

1) “If you want to win the lottery, you have to earn the money to pay for the ticket.”

2) I’ll flat out say it: After Zodiac, End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy (Seriously, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch it), and now Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal is my favorite actor. As far as I’m concerned, he is the go to guy for crime films.

3) Louis Bloom, holy shit is this guy creepy. He vibes like Rain Man, but Rain Man with serious personality disorders. And by personality disorder, I mean he would stab you in the neck.

4) In the opening scene of the film, Lou is caught snipping at a chainlink fence with wire cutters. He’s stopped by a rental cop. At first, Lou is very amicable with the guard. With the flashlight beam right in his eyes, he can’t tell if the man shinning it is a cop or not? Once he gets a look at the man’s uniform, though, Lou pounces. In the next scene, Lou is wearing the security guard’s wrist watch. The audience doesn’t know if Lou has killed the guard or simply beat him up and robbed him?

5) He killed him.

6) Two of my favorite character actors are Bill Paxton and Rene Russo. It’s a pleasure for me to see them act even if they only seem to play various versions of themselves from other films.

7) I’ll just cut to the chase: Nightcrawler is my favorite film of 2014. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. I guess you can skip the rest of this review if that’s all you care about hearing.

8) There isn’t a single likable character in Nightcrawler. Seriously, everyone in it is a bottom dweller. They’re the parasites of society, and it’s the reason why I like the film so much, because no Hollywood film seems to get made without at least one character you can root for.

9) Nightcrawler’s director, Dan Gilroy, must have some major fucking juice to get this one made, and god bless him for getting it made.

10) Lou’s “intern” isn’t likable. So if you’ve seen the film, and you’re saying to yourself: What about the intern, he seemed nice. He wasn’t, the dude was a scumbag, Gilroy just didn’t expand of the character so we could see his scumbaggery.

11) I had no idea there were guys like Lou and Bill Paxton’s character, Joe Loder, out in the world. I always thought news stations simply had camera crews they would send out when an accident or a murder occurred.

12) Lou witnesses an accident one night and sees Loder’s van and crew filming the scene. Lou being the morbid, industrious type asks Loder for a job. Loder tells him to fuck off. Lou steals a bicycle the next day, pawns it, and buys his own camera equipment. Lou loves competition and hates being told no.

13) Rene Russo’s character, Nina Romina, is just as much of a scumbag as Lou. She’s a driven career woman who’s in a career dominated by much younger women. She’s constantly fighting for her jobs. When she meets Lou and views his footage, she sees him as an opportunity, as a way to advance her career. Lou sees her in the same light. Nina thinks she has the upper hand the entire time. She doesn’t.

14) The first act of the film is the slowest. It drags a bit as Gilroy establishes his characters and their roles. This isn’t  by any means a criticism, because Gilroy more than makes up for it in the second and third acts.

15) Second act begins with Loder approaching Lou about teaming up and letting Lou head up his second team. Lou says no. Loder gets pissy, tells Lou to fuck off again. Lou smirks, but then Loder starts beating him to crime scenes. Lou evens the odds by cutting the break lines to Loder’s vans.

16) Second act highlights: Lou pressures Nina into a sexual relationship by threatening to take his footage to other stations and he beats the police to the scene of a home invasion and films the entire thing without the cops present, including the perpetrators and their vehicle.  He sells it to Nina’s station for 15 grand and doesn’t give any of it to the police.

17) “What if I were to tell you that I am the way I am not because I don’t understand people, but because I don’t like them …”

18) In a lesser film, the filming of the home invasion would be the highlight. Nope, not in the case of Nightcrawler. All the home invasion is is lead in for the third act, which is pure fucking dynamite.

19) Here’s the point in the review where I say if you like James Elroy and Jim Thompson or movies like Taxi Driver or Springbreakers, you should go see Nightcrawler. I’m not saying that this time. Even if you don’t like Ellroy, or Thompson, or Taxi Driver, go see this movie.

20) I usually do the spoiler thing here. Nope, not doing that this time either. The third act is just too good to ruin. Go see the movie.

Kind Of A Movie/Book Review—The Drop By Dennis Lehane

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I saw The Drop with Mrs. Rawson yesterday (The first time I’ve actually gone to a theater to see a film in awhile.) and I read the novel earlier in the month. So, I figured instead of writing two separate reviews, I’d offer up some dual, random impressions about both.

1) First off, Lehane wrote both the screenplay and the novel, which I think is cool. I also wonder how difficult the process was for Lehane? Did he write the book first or the screenplay? Did he write them simultaneously, or was the novel an afterthought? Either way, both were great pieces of storytelling.

2) In case you didn’t know, the screenplay and the novel are based off of Lehane’s excellent short story, “Animal Rescue” and appeared originally in the anthology, Boston Noir. It’s an excellent piece of writing in an anthology overflowing with excellent stories. Yeah, Boston Noir is still the best entry in Akashic’s “Noir” anthology series.

3) Yeah, I know most of the people reading this have already read the story.

4) What’s the deal with no one wanting to film in Boston? The novel takes place in Boston, but the movie takes place in Brooklyn. This seems to be happening more and more often. Example: Killing Them Softly (What killed that movie for me was the pointless political subtext and the subpar soundtrack. I mean, come on, is there anything more cliche than a couple of junkies shooting up to the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”? But I digress.), the underrated adaptation of George V. Higgins, Cogan’s Trade, was filmed in New Orleans, but the novel is set in Boston. Is Massachusetts making it too expensive to film in Boston, or are filmmakers nixing the idea because the city is starting to look more and more like a high end WASP theme park as opposed to a city?

5) Love him or hate him, you have to acknowledge that Tom Hardy is the best actor of his generation. The man crafts his characters seamlessly, sinking into them, becoming them, and his accent work easily rivals Gary Oldman. Okay, maybe he doesn’t rival Oldman (Mostly because of his massive filmography), but Hardy’s pretty damn brilliant.

6) Bob Saginowski is a great character. Humble, emotionally stunted, a child wearing a mans skin. In the novel, I never once pictured him as Tom Hardy. I pictured him as a much taller man, sloped shoulders, trying to make himself smaller than he actually is. Hardy does the same, but let’s face it, the dude’s pretty short, so he didn’t really have to try very hard at making himself smaller.

7) I miss James Gandolfini.

8) Lehane typically lets his end of story plot twists slip within the first 20-to-50 pages of every novel he’s ever written. This isn’t a complaint by any means, because when I read Lehane, I’m along for the ride. I want to know about the people he’s writing about, their backstories and how they’ve ended up in their various lots in life, so I could give a shit about the ending (This is most novels and films for me, though.). Besides, almost every crime writer of Lehane’s generation—Pelecanos, Connelly, Lippman, etc.—all of them do it. Or maybe I’ve been reading them all so long I just know what to expect?

9) Matthias Schoenaerts was a great choice for the nut job antagonist, Eric Deeds. In the novel, I pictured Eric as being much shorter and slighter than Schoenaerts. Schoenaerts is at least 6’3, but in the novel, Deeds has the whole little man syndrome going on. You know, a short little shit with a huge chip on his shoulder.  But, fuck, Schoenaerts has got the crazy eye dread thing going on and he sent chills down my spine every time he was on the screen, so I brushed off the difference just like I brushed off Hardy as Saginowski. Deeds was my favorite character in the film.

10) The only American novelist better than Lehane at writing character is Stephen King, which is what I kind of found disheartening about the film, the lack of character building. Yeah, I know movies and novels are two completely different beasts and you can only pack so much into a 90 minute film. But where were the character motivations? This is my biggest complaint about the film. But then again, this is a complaint I have about movies in general: They’re either too long, or not long enough. In the case of The Drop, it needed more time than its 90 minute run time.

11) There’s a great scene in the novel when Deeds gets out of prison in South Carolina and he goes to visit his prison protector/rapist on the outside which really provides the most insight into Deeds. He comes over to pick up a kilo of heroin, the rapist screws him over on the deal, so Deed kills him along with two other people and burns the house down without recovering the smack. Stone fucking cold killer. By the way, Deeds was also my favorite character in the novel.

12) People who don’t like, or hurt dogs, scare me. It’s like there’s a piece of them is missing, which is also what made Deeds so goddamn menacing. He beat a puppy and left it for dead in a trash barrel without a second thought, that’s as cold as it comes in my book.

13) If I had it my way, I would put Ann Dowd in every film ever, I really love her even when she only has a few scenes in a film.

14) Bob Saginowski finding and taking in the dog is also what makes him so endearing. It was like when he found the puppy, he found the missing piece of himself. The piece which gave him a confidence and humanity he was somehow missing. By the way, here’s a small spoiler, Saginowski is twice the stone cold killer Deeds is. In fact, they’re pretty much the same person, the main difference being that Bob is way, way smarter than Deeds and far more humane.

15) “They never see you coming, do they?”

16) I really like Noomi Rapace, but I have to admit I didn’t really picture her as Nadia while reading the book. I pictured Nadia as being played by Naomi Watts. But then again, ever since 28 Grams and Eastern Promises, I tend to picture most 30-to-40-year-old female novel characters being played by Naomi Watts. Watts is who Mrs. Rawson would describe as my movie star “girlfriend”.

17) So, should you see The Drop? Yes, you should, because outside of Locke(another excellent Tom Hardy vehicle, and one I hope he receives a few award nominations for) and Snowpiercer, it’s my favorite film of 2014, and the type of film I wish was more widely released in U.S. theaters. It’s atmospheric, character driven (albeit not enough character.), beautifully filmed, and packed with stellar performances from the entire cast, but particularly from Hardy and Matthias Schoenaerts.

18) And should you read The Drop? Big yes on this one. Lehane is legitimately one of our best novelists, and not just best crime novelist, either. The novel has the feel of a Fawcett-Gold Medal pulp novel, but with outstanding character development. Because The Drop is a standalone novel (Outside of Mystic Riverand Shutter Island, it’s the only non-series novel Lehane’s written.), it’s a great stepping off point for new readers. Plus, it is very much a read in one sitting kind of book. Highly recommended.