Book Review—The Hunter By Richard Stark and Darwyn Cooke

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“He hated her. He hated her and loved her and he’d never felt either emotion for anyone before. Never love, never hate, never for anyone.”

-The Hunter, Richard Stark

I loved Illustrated Classics when I was a kid. My elementary school had tons of them ranging from Treasure Island-to-at least a dozen adaptations of various books of the bible. (Remember, folks, this was the late 70’s-early 80’s and I went to a small, conservative rural school of about two-hundred.) I was a comic book kid; my love of reading straight text didn’t really start to blossom until I was around eleven, and pretty much the only way my mom could get me to read was if the book was illustrated and the main character was either Batman, Spiderman, or the Hulk. But my parents weren’t around while I was at school, and since we had library period on a daily basis, I chugged my way through the illustrated classics and ended up loving them, even though I wished the Silver Surfer would make a guest appearance in Moby Dick to warn Captain Ahab that Galactus was making his way to earth.

I’m sure Darwyn Cooke, the artist behind the graphic adaptations of Richard Stark’s (née Donald Westlake) Parker novels, is getting a little sick of hearing the comparisons that his adaptations are the hardboiled crime equivalent of the Illustrated Classics; but, simply put, they are, and denying the connection is pointless.

In case you’ve never read The Hunter—which, if you haven’t, you’re missing out. The Hunter (along with The Friends of Eddie Coyle By George V. Higgins) defined hardboiled crime fiction for multiple generations of writers—is the first book in Stark’s long running series featuring the original hardpan, Parker, the plot is straight forward: Parker gets screwed over and left for dead in a double cross after a heist by his wife, Lyn, and his partner, Mal. Parker survives the double cross and then comes looking for Lyn, Mal, and his end of the heist money. Needless to say, Parker leaves a long string of bodies in his wake.

The comic version of The Hunter—unlike the long string of mediocre film adaptations of the book—is a word-for-word adaptation of the novel. So does this mean you shouldn’t read the comic if you’ve already read the novel? No, not in the least. Cooke’s illustrations add a whole new element to Stark’s morally ambiguous, hard driving prose. Each panel is rendered in monochromatic blues and blacks, giving the comic an almost cubist feel. He draws Parker with an all consuming coldness and rage; his past emotional connections to his victims are null and void, all that matters is Parker’s money.

Fans of Ed Brubaker’s ‘Criminal’ and Brian Azzarello’s ‘100 Bullets’ are going to find a lot to love about The Hunter, because without Stark and Parker, neither of the comics would exist. Simply put, The Hunter is a must own for fans of Stark and crime comics.

Book Review—My Work is Not Yet Done By Thomas Ligotti

tumblr_inline_n8tleyHykR1r5pisdQuick raise of hands: How many of you have worked for a massive, soulless corporation?

You know, the kind of place that makes you wear a tie and funeral shoes to work even though the only people who see you on a day-to-day basis is your fellow cow-towed and dour co-workers? The kind of place where the managers pace the rows of the cubicle farm making sure your head’s buried in Excel spreadsheets and headset is clamped too tightly to your skull. And God forbid if you’re checking your personal emails during office hours! God help you!

I think in this day and age just about anyone who’s an urban dweller has had to clock in at job like this. Hopefully, if you had sense enough, you only wasted a week or two on such a place before you left the micro-managers and crop-dusting co-workers in a wake of profanity and the smoldering stench of burnt bridges. I, unfortunately, spent six years in such an environment, and I was stupid enough to stick around until they had to drag me out of my box and throw me out onto the street. (Fear of being without medical benefits is a hell of a motivator when you have a young family.)

But for those of you who’ve never had the distinct displeasure of working in the modern equivalent of a salt mine, count yourself lucky, because it’s a crap way to live. But, I will say the environment of the cubicle farm can help inspire some truly rich material for fiction, particularly if you’re a horror or crime writer, particularly revenge stories.

Thomas Ligotti’s short novel, My Work is Not Yet Done, is very much in this milieu, and it being  Ligotti, it raises the bar of revenge fantasies by turning its protagonist into a Lovecraftian unknowable.

Frank Dominio is an anxiety driven cubemaster who seems to have spent his entire life driven by routine and the desire to not rock the boat. He gets up, goes to work, eats at the same restaurant every day, goes home, and restlessly goes to bed with thoughts of what dreary tasks he’s forgotten to accomplish that day. Like most Ligotti characters, Frank is almost a non-entity, a face in the crowd and perfectly happy with his station in life. He has achieved a certain level of success with his company, rising to a middle management position and being apart of a group of managers that he has nicknamed the 7 Dwarfs (No, not a very inspired nickname/slight, but then again, Frank in his corporeal form isn’t exactly an inspiring individual.), led by the enigmatic Richard.

Frank briefly forgets his station, creates a new product for the company, and like all good middle managers, brings the idea to his daily managers meeting. The group all feigns disinterest, a few members even going so far as to openly mock the idea, while all of them are secretly drooling over the money making possibilities of the idea.

Things start to quickly go downhill for Frank within the company when he is reassigned to participate in the “restructuring” of the company along with another one of the 7 dwarfs, but instead of returning to his previous assignment as a manager, he’s instead demoted, and placed under a very young, petulant supervisor who almost immediately asks for Franks resignation when a stack of Frank’s work is “misplaced”. Frank knows that his demotion and forced resignation is all a ploy to gain his idea and to quickly shuffle him away so that Richard and the 7 Dwarfs can profit it from it. Frank quickly decides to end Richard and the dwarfs, and visits a gun shop to purchase seven guns and a massive hunting knife—a scene which is probably one of the most surreal of the book—one for each of the dwarves and one can only assume the knife for Ricard, and an office supply store for paper to write his Unabomber style manifesto on why he decided to massacre his co-workers.

As Frank makes his way back home to his dismal apartment to write, he realizes that he’s forgotten something at the office supply and he turns back, the world fades into nothingness and Frank becomes something beyond human.

As with most of his stories, you never really know what to expect when you start reading Ligotti. Yes, you know that the writing will be of exceptional quality and that it will have supernatural bend to it. But with My Work is Not Yet Done, I was honestly surprised by the supernatural element. From sentence one, Ligotti plays the story like it will be nothing more than the breakdown of a little man who flew too close to the sun and becomes enraged that he’s been burned. Frank Dominio is almost entirely unlikable as a narrator. Perhaps ‘unlikable’ is too harsh of a description for Frank, as I’ve mentioned before, he is very much a nonentity, white noise made flesh, at least until he starts to dispatch his co-workers.

For first time readers of Ligotti, My Work is Not Yet Done will make a great jumping off point, because although the premise of a ‘wronged’ employee and ensuing violent rampage may seem to be a rather worn premise, in Ligotti’s hands and his grim, deadpan delivery, it takes on a new life and originality. And as with most Ligotti stories, there is never a happy ending, never a clear resolution of what becomes of Frank other than that only more suffering awaits at the end of his journey.

Book Review—Bad Sex on Speed By Jerry Stahl

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Rail thin, bad greasy skin, rotted horse teeth, receding gums, inflamed scratches on the forearms and hands, mile a minute talk, talk, talk, talk, talk for hours and hours and hours on end, until they finally bottom out and collapse into a coma like sleep…..

Meth has been a national obsession over the last fifteen years. Dozens of writers, songwriters, filmmakers, and television folks have used it as fodder to one degree of success or another. But the one fault of most artists when trying to capture the lives of methheads has been their inability to capture the frantic, frenetic life of the dedicated tweeker who will eventually turn into toothless spoiled apple people with jaundiced yellow skin and eyes and a willingness to do anything to get high. (Vince Gilligan and the gang managed to so in season 4 of Breaking Bad.)

Of course, the one writer who has been most in touch with the mind of the addict is Jerry Stahl, and he tackles the tweeker head on, unblinking and with zero fear in Bad Sex on Speed.

As expected, Stahl’s writing is razor sharp, and spot on detailing the world of the speed freak. Certain passages—such as a puppy slurping up acetone run off, or a rotting, constantly naked, child molesting step-father—are cringe inducing, and to certain readers may seem over the top, but Stahl’s deft observations ring true and without sentimentality or glorification, letting the reader experience brief, ugly glimpses of this all too disturbing world.

Book Review—Annihilation By Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeerArea X is a contaminated region of the continent of the Southern Reach. It has been quarantined for seemingly decades, the human presence of the region has been nearly erased for the exception of a small, crumbling township and an ominous lighthouse. Otherwise, nature has completely eradicated the memory of civilization. The government of the Southern Reach has sent twelve unsuccessful exhibitions into Area X to gather information, and all of have either disappeared, degraded into paranoid violence, or have abandoned the exhibition entirely and returned to civilization shadows of their former selves and eventually succumbing to a radical form of cancer.

Annihilation is the story of the thirteenth exhibition, a group of four women who have been all stripped of their identities, and for the purpose of the exhibition, simply go by their job titles: The anthropologist, The surveyor, The psychologist, and the narrator of Annihilation, The biologist. Like the previous exhibitions, they’re charged with surveying the region, collecting specimens, recording their observations of the region and of each other, and most importantly, avoid the trappings of Area X that the previous exhibitions fell to. But like the prior parties, the thirteenth exhibition is destined to fail and be devoured by Area X.

Annihilation marks the return of Jeff VanderMeer as a novelist after a long stint acting as an editor and publisher, and it is a very much welcome return to form. VanderMeer hasn’t lost his touch as a storyteller, and if anything, has actually improved. VanderMeer’s voice through the biologist is clear and engaging; the character has a near autistic detachment from her strange surroundings, with chapters alternating between the events of the exhibition and glimpses of the biologists previous life and what led her to Area X. VanderMeer instills an intense sense of dread and claustrophobia from word one as the story of the thirteenth exhibition and their predecessors unfolds and the long established lies of the Southern Reach are exposed.

If you’ve never read VandeerMeer before, Annihilation is the place to start and is easily his most accessible novel to date. Annihilation is the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy, all of which will be published in 2014, and I am chomping at the bit for the next two volumes

Book Review—Savages By Don Winslow

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It’s either one of the campiest opening chapters of a novel ever written or one of the most innovative.

Time will tell.

But it sets the tone perfectly for Don Winlow’s masterful novel, Savages.

Savages is the story of Ben and Chon, two high end pot dealers whose personalities are a literal yen and yang—Chon is an enraged ex-navy seal and Ben an unfocused world saving progeny of two wealthy psychologists—who, realistically, have nothing in common other than their expertise at growing high end herb and their unflappable devotion to their slacker (I really could find no other word which more appropriately describes her) shared girlfriend Ophelia, but for one reason or another their partnership works and has made them both very wealthy.

Not long after Ben returns home from one of his `humanitarian’ trips to an impoverished 3rd world nation, Chon shows Ben a video of six decapitated drug dealers. The video is sent by a ruthless Baja drug cartel. They want Ben and Chon to become partners with them and if they don’t…..

Headless.

Neither Ben or Chon want anything to do with the cartel, so instead of partnering with the cartel, they decide to walk away with the vast amount of money they’ve earned and move on with their lives. The cartel’s response to Ben and Chon’s counter offer is to kidnap Ophelia and force them into working for the cartel, or to pay off what the business may gross over its life time.

20 million dollars.

The boys decide to go for the pay off by ripping off the cartel which has taken Ophelia.

The novel’s clipped, ultra fast paced language perfectly captures the new dialect of a generation weaned on the Internet and text messaging. The stylized prose is vastly innovative for an American novelist, bringing to it a staccato rhythm (I don’t think most reviewers have pointed out that certain passages and chapters very much mirror the writing style of Ken Bruen.) which drives the narrative with neck break precision, forcing the reader to turn pages as if they were scrolling through an absorbing website. Although Ben and Chon are the focus of the novel, it is Winslow’s supporting cast which, for me, drive the novel. Ophelia is vacuous, an almost non-entity who is looking for someone—anyone—to provide some sort of direction in her life, and yet she is the force who drives Chon and Ben. The head of the Baja cartel, Elena, has the feel of someone who has had the violent legacy of her family laid upon her shoulders and she has no choice but soldier on despite her lack of desire. And Elena’s U.S. enforcer, Miguel Arroyo aka Lado—a character which Winslow could’ve allowed to easily slip into parody—in every way mirrors the American capitalism at its most perverted.

Winslow has been a long time favorite (The Power of the Dog is absolutely classic and in my opinion ranks as one of the all time great modern crime novels alongside Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and Bruen’s The Guards) and with Savages he’s cemented himself not only as great crime writer, but as a great contemporary novelist, and out of all the fantastic crime novels I’ve read this year, it is the one which I have pressed into the hands of casual readers of crime fiction the most.