Crossing Off Names In Notebooks

I have a notebook that I keep lists in. I have 'to-do' lists full of things that never seem to get done. I have lists of records I'd like to hear but very rarely get round to. And I have lists of authors I'd like to read. This last one tends usually to be the longest one, mainly because I am forever jotting down the names I find mentioned on the back of books, names dropped as references by whatever bright thing is upping the book I've just read. There's nothing I like more than to strike one of those names off the list, more often than not, thankfully, with an imaginary tick next to it. And naturally the tick means the name was worth checking out. Not that I would doubt someone like George P. Pelecanos, who seems to be flavour of the month somewhat for donating opinions for book jackets (at least for the kinds of books I read), but you know...

Daniel Woodrell was a name on the list for a long time. I was glad to finally catch up with him with the recent arrival of two new titles published in the UK by No-Exit. The Ones You Do is a kind of sequel to Under The Bright Lights. I say 'kind of' because I've only just started reading the earlier title, so I don't really know. That's me all over of course, doing things ass-backwards, but what'cha gonna do? The Ones You Do winds its way from Florida up to St Bruno, which I'd guess is in Louisiana. Certainly it's bayou country, and the geography of the place is expertly captured; you can almost feel the sweat seeping out of your pores as you read, pooling in the small of your back. And being a Woodrell novel that involves the Shade family, the journey from Florida to St Bruno turns essentially on theft, desperation, murder and, in an odd manner, which is the way of such things, love. It's love in the oddest of familial manners; old John X Shade, ex-pool ace riding with a teenaged daughter who sounds for all the world like some demented but ultimately loveable New-Metal fan, trying to find some kind of peace with the other family he deserted for the road and the lure of the baize. Naturally he's being pursued, and naturally the pursuer is a psychotic sociopath, which of course adds spice to the proceedings.

The Ones You Do is a novel of love's lost and found, ending and beginning. It's a novel of desperate characters raised in a land that demands extremes, and it's a novel about how that desperation breeds both wild-eyed violence and dew-eyed tenderness. It's a novel that makes me place a great fat tick next to the name Daniel Woodrell.

Even better though, and also through No-Exit, is The Death Of Sweet Mister, which Jack Boulter described back in November 2001 after reading its US publication as being a new Catcher In The Rye. It isn't, of course, because nothing ever is, should pretend, or indeed want to be. But it is one of the most magnificent novels about innocence lost that I've ever read. Its strength, I think, is in its relentless chase down to utter darkness; the very obviousness of the outcome so bare and compellingly inescapable. It's a tale of cracked and broken apart lives, of the inevitability of hopelessness, with the darkness all the deeper and repugnant for the deftness of touch Woodrell has with language. Not that it's wilfully dark or repugnant; Woodrell never unduly draws out the bouts of suffering and casts magnificent shadows by a dramatic use of light. Again, the geography is beautifully drawn, particularly in the details of the graveyard home that overweight 13 year old Shug finds himself sharing with his mother and, when he decides to drop by with his violent redneck tendencies, Red (who may, or may not be his father). The Death of Sweet Mister is a classic tale of summer as a key turning point in life, a wonderfully accomplished depiction of lives turned sour by warped family structures. As George P. Pelecanos says on the jacket, 'with this one, Mr Woodrell has earned a piece of immortality.' I wouldn't argue about that one little bit.

On a similar theme of the inevitable descent brought about by damaged childhoods is Jason Starr's Hard Feelings. Also published by No-Exit, Hard Feelings pieces together past abuse and then lets the flashing memories build to the point where they unravel the present. Again, the appeal in this book is following the steamroller inevitability of events to the obvious conclusions: adults fuck up kids and the kids grow into fucked up adults which leads to a fucked up world. At least in part. It's also a story of obsession and in particular of obsessive exploration of locked childhood memory, and the way such obsessions can destroy adulthood, can drag it down into the swamps of vengeance. Stuffed full of paranoia, Hard Feelings is additionally a darkly funny novel about cotemporary (American) work ethics, and paints a fairly brutally vile picture of being a salesman in ICT. Something which I guess might not be terribly hard to do, but nevertheless Starr pulls it off without ever becoming supercilious or overly vicious. I read Hard Feelings in just a couple of sittings, which is pretty unusual for me (always having to break off and do something else you know, like, uh, go to school...) and which probably proves the point that this book is indeed, 'gripping'.

I mentioned Pelecanos earlier, and his new book Hell To Pay is in the pile on the shelf waiting to be read. He also has some comments on the jacket of the newly republished (thanks to Serpents Tail) cult classic To Die In California by Newton Thornburg. Thornburg is perhaps better known for his Cutter and Bone novel (also republished by Serpents Tail) which was filmed as Cutters Way, but as Pelecanos notes, in To Die In California he 'delivers the thriller goods while reaching for, and achieving, something higher' and is certainly its equal.

Set in the early 1970s in an America at war with itself, To Die In California is another novel in which vengeance plays a central role. Here, it's a cattle farmer from near St Louis who finds himself going West to Santa Barbara, desperate to find the truth about the alleged 'suicide' of his son. 'Going West' of course is a classic American theme, and one that Thornburg here neatly twists inside out and turns back to front. Because for David Hook, California is not some promised land of beauty, milk and honey, but a cess-pool of decadence and corruption; the breeding ground for a plague that he sees spreading across the continent. This of course means inevitably that he himself cannot escape the disease; that he finds himself drawn into the machinations of sexual and political power struggles which, although he survives them, leave him feeling just as infected as any he has struggled to fight.

To Die In California is a haunting, existential novel that plays with the dark side of the great American Dream. It is as poignant, pertinent and thought provoking now as it was when it was first published nearly thirty years ago, and as such is essential reading.

© Alistair Fitchett 2002