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The “best Norwegian crime novel” is set in Minnesota

Norwegian crime novelThe Land of Dreams (Minnesota Trilogy #1), by Vidar Sundstøl

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Some 4.6 million Norwegian-Americans live in the United States, about half of them in the Upper Midwest. Nearly 900,000 can be found in Minnesota alone. These numbers compare with the total of 5.3 million people who live in Norway proper. Oslo, the capital, is home to only some 650,000 people—far fewer than the number of Norwegian-Americans who live in Minnesota. So, maybe it’s understandable that a novel awarded the title “best Norwegian crime novel” should be set in Minnesota. In fact, the state is the setting for three novels, the Minnesota Trilogy by Vidar Sundstøl. The Land of Dreams, the first, was described by Dagbladet, the country’s second largest tabloid newspaper, as one of the top twenty-five Norwegian crime novels of all time. Imagine that!

The Land of Dreams introduces us to Lance Hansen, his family, coworkers, and neighbors in a small town on the shore of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota. Hansen thinks of himself as a “forest cop.” He’s a 46-year-old police officer whose beat is the sprawling Superior National Forest near which he lives. Hansen lives in the town of Tofte, which was “one of those places where people called to tell you to get better before you even knew you were under the weather.” Though he’s divorced from an Ojibwe woman who now lives on a nearby Indian reservation and is the father of their active seven-year-old son, his life is generally uneventful.

Then Hansen stumbles across the badly beaten body of a young Norwegian man in the forest. The FBI has jurisdiction, assisted by a Norwegian homicide detective flown in to assist them. Hansen himself is not officially involved in the investigation, but his curiosity moves him to press his friends in law enforcement for details and to look into the circumstances of the murder himself. To his horror, he discovers that his younger brother, Andy, must be considered a suspect. Out of love for his brother and fear that he might actually be guilty, Hansen conceals from the FBI the evidence of Andy’s possible guilt that only he knows about. Meanwhile, to discover whether the young man’s murder was the first ever to take place in the region, he digs deeply into the historical archives he maintains—and discovers that a distant relative may have been murdered locally more than a century earlier. Hansen suspects a connection of some sort between the two killings.

The action in The Land of Dreams advances at a slow pace. There is suspense, but it’s muted. The book is a murder mystery, but it’s better thought of as literature. Sundstøl dwells at length on the history of Norwegian immigration to the area and on his protagonist’s troubled inner dialogue. The translation by Tiina Nunnally is artful, easing the reader’s path along the way despite the slowly unfolding action.

About the author

Vidar Sundstøl wrote the Minnesota Trilogy “after he and his wife lived for two years on the shore of Lake Superior,” according to the note about the author at the back of the book. An interview in the blog Scandinavian Crime Fiction in English Translation explains the background and the circumstances to Sundstøl’s stay in the U.S. (For starters, he met and married an American woman.) He is the author of six novels to date.


A terrifying vision of the future in an award-winning young adult novel

award-winning novelFeed, by M. T. Anderson

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

M. T. Anderson’s award-winning novel, Feed, is one of the scariest books I’ve read in many years (and it was written for teenagers!). Yet the terror it evokes emerges only slowly, as Anderson reveals, chapter by chapter, additional details that demonstrate the hopelessness of the future society he envisions.

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.” This opening sentence sets the supercilious tone, signals the idiomatic language Anderson employs throughout, and introduces Titus, the teenage narrator. It’s a brilliant lead.

Feed tells the tale of Titus and his friends, six teenagers who hang out and party together. Like a majority of their fellow citizens—those who can afford the cost—they access all their news, advertising, education, games, “m-chat,” and money through implants in their brains—not just embedded chips but multipurpose devices that are fully integrated into their nervous systems. Theirs is a world of constant distractions. Fashions may change by the hour. (“Quendy and Loga went off to the bathroom because hairstyles had changed.”) A powerful future version of Virtual Reality allows them to experience novelty and excitement at any time without special equipment—and without pausing for reflection. (One presentation is “based on the true story of a clone fighting to save her own liver from the cruel and ruthless original who’s farming her for organs.”) This is a world you and I would not want to live in, yet there’s much, much more to make life little worth living.

Corporations are the dominant force on the planet. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing have killed the oceans. Past wars have left a blanket of radioactive dust all across the surface. Human settlements on Earth exist underground under domes to shield people from the intolerable heat and unbreatheable atmosphere. Massive numbers have migrated off-planet to Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and nearby star systems. This is truly a dystopian society.

The Feed of the title is the experience generated by the implants in people’s brains. As Titus notes, “the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. . . [A]ll you have to do is want something and there’s a chance it will be yours.” Those wants and hopes are manifested through personalized sales pitches that constantly bombard the teenagers’ consciousness. If they have any purpose in life, it is to consume indiscriminately in a constant search for novelty and acceptance by their friends.

To compound the misery, one’s feed can be hacked by a shadowy entity called the Coalition of Pity. Titus and his friends fall victim to such an attack. While they resume their lives unchanged after brief hospitalization, Titus’ new girlfriend, Violet, learns that her life is in danger as a result. She is unable to recover completely.

The language has degraded to the colloquial dialect that is spoken by Titus and his friends, but it’s not limited to the young: their parents speak the same way. There is no public education. Now, children attend SchoolTM, the corporations’ for-profit answer to public schools, which clearly doesn’t teach much at all. “Everyone is supersmart now,” Titus reports. “You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and sh*t.” When Violet asks Titus whether he can read, he responds, “A little. I kind of protested it in  SchoolTM. On the grounds that the silent ‘E’ is stupid.”

About the author

M. T. Anderson (Matthew Tobin Anderson) is an L.A.-based author of both science fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults. Feed won the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. In 2006, Anderson won the National Book Award in that category for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume 1: The Pox Party. He has written 14 books to date.


Rereading Brave New World with a would-be dictator in the White House

Brave New WorldBrave New World, by Aldous Huxley

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s seminal works of dystopian literature. Critics today tend to group it with George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and other highly respected novels that depict a grim future for the human race. However, the books by Orwell, Atwood, and Dick appear to have been intended as social commentary, whereas Huxley’s is essentially a philosophical reflection on the human condition. As a novel, it’s far less satisfying.

Brave New World was published in 1932, and it shows. The society Huxley describes is grounded in the conflicts and technological debates of the 1920s: the rise of fascism and the prospects for sleep learning (hypnopaedia) and in vitro fertilization, in particular. More telling still, the names of many of the characters in the novel are derived from Huxley’s contemporaries and historical figures whose influence was still active at the time. These include the society’s deity, “Our Ford” (Henry Ford); Lenina Crowne (Vladimir Lenin); Benito Hoover (Benito Mussolini and Herbert Hoover); Morgana Rothschild (J. P. Morgan and Lionel Rothschild); George Edzel (Henry Ford’s son, Edsel); Bernard Marx (Karl Marx); and Sarojini Engels (Sarojini Naidu, President of the Indian National Congress, and Friedrich Engels); and others. Clearly, Huxley was having fun.

The novel is set in the 26th century (AF 632 or “After Ford”). Society is governed by the motto COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY, an ideal enforced by the universal use of a tranquilizing drug called soma and the encouragement of unrestrained promiscuous sex. Pregnancy and motherhood are crimes; babies are raised in “bottles” thousands at a time in massive creches. The story revolves around the relationship between psychologist Bernard Marx and a young woman named Lenina Crowne. Both work at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center. There, babies are born,  “hatched” or “decanted,” and conditioned through sleep learning from childhood through adolescence in enormous numbers.

Bernard is an Alpha Plus, a member of the society’s intellectual elite; Lenina is a Beta Minus, a subordinate employee at the Hatchery, but far more favored than the Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, who have been conditioned to possess lower intelligence and to perform the less skilled and less desirable jobs. But Bernard is mocked by his fellow Alphas for his short stature, which causes him to overcompensate through arrogance and misplaced assertiveness, while Lenina is a strikingly beautiful young woman who is constantly sought after as a sexual partner. The contrast leads Bernard to shrink in fear at the prospect of asking Lenina for a date. When he finally does so, the date leads them to a Navajo Reservation, where Native Americans live in abject poverty within high walls that insulate them from contemporary society. There, the two encounter a young Englishman who had been raised as a “savage” after his mother was trapped many years earlier, pregnant, behind the walls. The story reaches a climax not long after Bernard and Lenina return to London with “Mr. Savage” in tow. If this is all satire, the references are lost on me.

Brave New World abounds with quotations from Shakespeare. The title itself is from The Tempest: “O brave new world
That has such people in’t!” says Miranda to Prospero. The device Huxley uses to introduce most of the other quotes from the bard is The Complete Works of Shakespeare, which is the book “Mr. Savage” used to learn to read English on the reservation. Of the many elements in the novel that I find difficult to understand, this is one of the most extreme: most of Shakespeare is impenetrable to me, because the language is so archaic. However, it makes for colorful conversations in this novel once the young transplanted Englishman becomes involved in lengthy discussions with the Director of the Central London Hatchery.

Similarly, Huxley’s characters engage in philosophical discussions that no doubt reflect debates then underway in English intellectual circles. Maybe he just felt the need to show off. In any case, he wasn’t simply out to tell a story.



The master of Louisiana noir

Louisiana noirCadillac Jukebox (Dave Robicheaux #9), by James Lee Burke

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Veteran detective Dave Robicheaux of the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Department is reluctantly drawn into a case involving the decades-old assassination of Louisiana’s leading NAACP leader. Aaron Crown is serving time for the murder but protests his innocence, and a Hollywood film crew seems bent on exposing the injustice of the case. Crown wants Dave to investigate. Simply visiting the man in prison opens up a hornet’s nest of mobsters, crooked politicians, and other assorted lowlife. This is Louisiana noir by James Lee Burke, the masterful stylist of the craft, who can equal anything written by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Elmore Leonard.

In Cadillac Jukebox, the ninth in the Dave Robicheaux series, Burke’s familiar characters all reappear. Dave’s second wife, Bootsie, and their adopted Salvadoran daughter, Alafair, now 14, and the three-legged raccoon she keeps as a pet. Batist, Dave’s African-American partner in the bait and boat-rental business they operate on Dave’s bayou-facing home property. His violence-prone former partner on the New Orleans Police Department, Clete Purcel, now operating on the fringes of society as a bond enforcer and private investigator. As always, the notorious Giacano crime family lurks in the background. But the novel features a host of unique new characters as well, from former KKK member Aaron Crown to the probable new Governor and his wife to a large collection of lowlife characters with names like Mookie Zerrang, Short Boy Jerry, Mingo Bloomberg, No Duh Dolowitz, and Wee Willie Bimstine.

Burke’s facility with the English language never falters, whether describing the lush landscape of his home state or musing about Dave’s lot in life. “As a police officer,” he writes, “you accept the fact that, in all probability, you will become the instrument that delivers irreparable harm to a variety of individuals. Granted, they design their own destinies, are intractable in their attitudes, and live with the asp at their breasts; but the fact remains that it is you who will appear at some point in their lives, like the headsman with his broad ax on the medieval scaffold, and serve up a fate to them that has the same degree of mercy as that dealt out by your historical predecessor.”

And here is Burke describing the family of an incidental character in the tale. “His twin sister achieved a brief national notoriety when she was arrested for murdering seven men who picked her up hitchhiking on the Florida Turnpike. The mother, an obese, choleric woman with heavy facial hair, was interviewed by CBS on the porch of the shack where the Hatcher children were raised. I’ll never forget her words: ‘It ain’t my fault. She was born that way. I whipped her every day when she was little. It didn’t do no good.”

No wonder Stephen King gushes about Burke’s prose style! The Dave Robicheaux novels transcend the bounds of the detective novel. If anything can properly be called literature, this is it.



An Indian novelist celebrates cricket

Indian novelistSelection Day: A Novel, by Aravind Adiga

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Aravind Adiga entered the literary world with a splash in 2008 when he won the Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger. Although I frequently find Booker Prize-winning books to be unreadable, I picked up The White Tiger, anyway. My interest in India trumped my hesitation about the self-important “literary” Booker jurors. Imagine my surprise when the novel enthralled me. I found it insightful, timely, and occasionally hilarious. (I read the book two years before I began writing reviews, so no review appears here.)

That experience with The White Tiger led me to pick up Adiga’s second novel, Between the Assassinations. Structured as a collection of fourteen interconnected stories set in a small town on India’s west coast, Between the Assassinations was very different from his debut effort. Like so many second novels that arrive after a hugely successful debut, it didn’t measure up to The White Tiger. Still, I enjoyed the book. I found it a fascinating look from the inside out of India’s caste and class system.

By contrast, Selection Day, Adiga’s fourth novel, is a disappointment—for three reasons.

First, it’s all about cricket. The book teems with cricket terms that are nowhere explained. (There’s a glossary in the back of the book, but it’s sketchy and obviously an afterthought, probably included at the insistence of the publisher.) It’s boring to read sentence after sentence that makes no sense.

In any case, the contrary views of my British friends and the author notwithstanding, the game of cricket itself is boring. Over the centuries, the game has acquired such a massive collection of rules that no one can possibly understand them all. For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would put up with that. Admittedly, in fairness, I also find baseball and American football to be boring. But at least the rules are reasonably transparent. (Well, more or less reasonably so.)

Second, though I’m a fan of English-language novels written by Indians, Indian-Americans, or in this case an Indo-Australian, I can usually navigate through the occasional word in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, or one of the other of India’s hundreds of languages. Adiga uses far too many in Selection Day. I frequently found myself baffled, since many terms weren’t clear in context.

Third, I got the impression that Adiga has come to take himself too seriously. Maybe that Booker Prize went to his head. Apparently, he wrote the book to prove he could write “literature.” At times in Selection Day—too many times, for my taste—his meaning was impenetrable even when written in plain English. Take this sentence for example: “A son’s true opinion of his parents is written on the back of his teeth.” Excuse me? (Yes, I grabbed that sentence out of context. But it still stopped me in my tracks.)

Selection Day spans a fourteen-year period. It begins three years before the day when seventeen-year-old Mumbai cricket players audition for a place on a prestigious citywide team and ends eleven years after the day. The story centers around two brothers, Radha and Manju Kumar. They live with their father in a hovel in one of Mumbai’s endless slums. Both are extremely promising cricket players forced since infancy by their brutal father to conform to his rigorous, unorthodox, and undoubtedly insane methods to train for stardom in the game. Other key characters are a third boy, a Muslim, unlike the Kumar brothers; an aging cricket scout who writes an embarrassingly self-congratulatory column for a leading Mumbai newspaper; and a wealthy Mumbai businessman recruited by the scout to sponsor the two boys in exchange for a third of all their future earnings from cricket.

Enough said. If you follow cricket, you might enjoy this novel. I have my doubts, though.

What? Literary critics I agree with?

literary criticsI never thought I’d say this, but here it comes. I have discovered that there is, indeed, some overlap between my choices in reading and those of some of the country’s top literary critics. On December 16, the New York Times published lists of the ten top books of the year as chosen by each of its four book reviewers: Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner, Jennifer Senior, and Janet Maslin. To my amazement, I found three books I’d reviewed on each of the lists of Senior and Maslin. Does this mean I’m becoming . . . gasp! . . . a literary critic? Good grief, I hope not!

Here’s the tally: Jennifer Senior included Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, and High Dive, a novel by Jonathan Lee, on her list. (I’ve linked each of these titles, and the three that follow, to my review.)

Janet Maslin’s list of ten top books included Noah Hawley’s novel, Before the Fall; Joe Ide’s IQ; and The Trespasser by Tana French. All three fall into the category I term “mysteries and thrillers.” Admittedly, I wasn’t hugely impressed with Tana French’s latest effort. But I greatly enjoyed the other two.

Something very strange is happening here. Out of the hundreds of thousands of books published in the course of the last year, I found myself largely in agreement with fifteen percent (15%) of those picked by two widely followed professional literary critics. I never thought the day would come.

For solace, all I can say is that the other two Times critics, Michiko Kakutani and Dwight Garner, listed books I either tried and failed to read or ones I would never think of reading. And, of course, both Senior and Maslin each included seven such titles on their lists of ten. Maybe things aren’t quite as dark as they seem.

For the record, whenever anyone disparages my reading choices as “lowbrow” or “not serious,” I point to the plays of William Shakespeare and the novels of Charles Dickens. Those two icons of literature in the English language wrote not for literary critics but for popular consumption, much as Stephen King and thousands of other authors do today. Of course, I recognize that book shelves around the world are crowded with really bad mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, and historical novels. I do my best not to read the junk. But in every genre there are great stories told and great writing to tell them — even though they may never show up in The New York Review of Books.

OK, I’ll get off my hobby horse now.

A fascinating Chinese detective novel

Chinese detective novelA review of The Chinese Maze Murders (Judge Dee #1), by Robert van Gulik

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Robert van Gulik’s series of 16 Judge Dee mysteries are set in China sometime during the era of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They’re grounded in his intensive scholarly study of ancient Chinese detective stories, some of which he has translated into English. The Chinese Maze Murders was the first novel in the series.

The book’s historical basis

In a postscript to the book, Van Gulik explains that the character of Judge Dee is loosely based on a Chinese magistrate who achieved fame as a detective some hundreds of years before the Ming Dynasty. Judge Dee was a favorite protagonist in detective novels written for hundreds of years thereafter. He also explains that “In most Chinese detective novels the magistrate is engaged in solving three or more totally different cases at the same time.”

Many mysteries in a Chinese detective novel

In The Chinese Maze Murders, there are six interwoven mysteries that Judge (magistrate) Dee must solve with the help of his four trusted lieutenants. However, the judge himself recognizes only “three real cases. First, General Ding’s murder [in a locked room]. Second, the case Yoo versus Yoo [over an inheritance]. Third, the disappearance of [blacksmith] Fang’s daughter. [The other three] must be viewed as local background. They are separate issues and have nothing to do with the substance of our three cases.” Nonetheless, every one of the six cases posed a puzzling mystery.

Oh, and by the way, there are two additional problems confronting Judge Dee and his colleagues: a criminal has seized power in the border town where Judge Dee has been assigned and is terrorizing the populace, and a conspiracy is afoot to enable the hostile “barbarian” tribes to invade and plunder the town. In other words, The Chinese Maze Murders is unlike any present-day detective novel. No contemporary writer of detective fiction would attempt to maneuver through so many plots and subplots in a single volume. But Van Gulik pulls it off.

Assessing the book as literature

Van Gulik’s depiction of the customs and the criminal justice system of ancient China is fascinating. As a mystery story, it’s less successful, if only because Judge Dee proves to be impossibly discerning, combining the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes with the combat skills of a Special Forces officer. The author’s writing is also annoying at times. The book is laced with typos and hard-to-explain grammatical errors, and Van Gulik has the exasperating habit of placing an exclamation mark after almost every sentence uttered by Judge Dee.

About the author

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) was a Dutch novelist, diplomat, and musician who authored 16 Judge Dee novels after translating an 18th century Chinese detective novel on which he based the series.


Another winner from James Lee Burke

James Lee BurkeA review of Burning Angel (Dave Robicheaux #8), by James Lee Burke

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series transcends the bounds of detective fiction and deserves the title of literature. Burning Angel, the eighth book in his time-tested series, proves the point. These novels are worth reading for their prose style alone. They’re written as well as anything I’ve read that is deemed Southern literature.

Lyricism and brutality in James Lee Burke

Burke’s prose is lyrical when describing the lush environment of rural Louisiana, brutally graphic in passages that describe the ever-present violence. Burke’s not for the squeamish. But if you can stand the heat, you’ll be well rewarded.

In Burning Angel, as in so much of the series, Dave Robicheaux tangles with the New Orleans mob when its tentacles extend into his own territory, New Iberia Parish. This time the Giacano crime family takes a bow. The wounded Vietnam veteran, former New Orleans police lieutenant, now deputy sheriff, and future private investigator finds himself face-to-face with the family’s predictably violent and probably deranged soldiers. Key among them is a crafty local thug named Sonny Marsallus, whom Dave knew as a child growing up in Iberia parish.

A cast of characters, familiar and unfamiliar

The series’ familiar characters are all present. Dave’s second wife, Bootsie; their adopted daughter, Alafair, now thirteen; the elderly Black man, Batist, who works with Dave in the bait-and-sandwich shop in his back yard; Dave’s predictably unpredictable former NOPD partner, Cletus Purcel; and an elected sheriff who had no prior police experience. The novel introduces a fresh cast of bad guys, including a corrupt cop, a bent wealthy lawyer, brothel owners, poor local African-Americans, and an assortment of psychopaths associated with the New Orleans mob.

In any one of the Dave Robicheaux novels, you can safely expect that not just Dave but everyone around him, including his wife and daughter, will be threatened with danger. You can also expect Dave to exhibit physical courage to the point of foolhardiness. Clete Purcel is even worse. At times, it appears that the two of them are more violent than the criminals they’re chasing. But it’s all in what might, at a stretch, be called fun.





Was politics during the Great Depression really like this?

Great DepressionAll the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel, All the King’s Men, is widely regarded as one of the best American novels ever written. Seventy years after its publication, it appears on high school and college reading lists throughout the country. Partly because of the Academy Award-winning film of the same title in 1949 and several different stage adaptations over the years, the book has taken on iconic status and has come to be regarded as a classic, perhaps the classic, story about American politics. I’m not sure it deserves that distinction.

Politics during the Great Depression

Anyone familiar with American history in the 1930s will recognize the name Huey P. Long. Nicknamed The Kingfish, Long was the demagogic governor, then U.S. Senator, from Louisiana who roiled the American political scene for many years until he was assassinated in 1935. His “Share the Wealth” program, aimed at bankers and the rich, threatened to upend the New Deal, which by necessity was far more moderate. In All the King’s Men, a Southern populist named Willie Stark resembles Long in a few, but far from all, ways.

Huey Long was one of several larger-than-life characters who emerged to prominence in the United States during the Depression. At a time when the stability of the capitalist system was called into question and the future of democracy was uncertain, demagogues like Long gained immense followings. The radio preacher Father Coughlin, an anti-Semite who openly supported many of the policies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, attracted thirty million listeners to his tirades against “Jewish bankers.” A faith-healing Pentecostal evangelist named Aimee Semple McPherson founded one of the first megachurches and, like Father Coughlin, gained a following of millions through the radio. In California, the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair, author of the classic The Jungle, gained nearly a million votes when he ran for Governor in 1934 on a platform to “End Poverty in California.” Meanwhile, though fascism was far more popular, the Communist Party was also gaining hundreds of thousands of members and sympathizers. Revolution was in the air. Though I’m quite certain there are many today who would disagree with me, I’m convinced that FDR really DID “save capitalism.” And amen to that.

Is All the King’s Men really about politics?

All the King’s Men conjures up a narrow slice of this reality, depicting the rise of Willie Stark to the governorship of an unnamed Southern state (not Louisiana) amid the poverty, ignorance, and blatant racism of the time. However, the book dwells much more on the life story of its narrator, the former journalist Jack Burden, than on Stark’s career. Warren, betraying his essential nature as a poet rather than a storyteller, repeatedly devotes page after page to Burden’s ruminations about life, nature, truth, love, happiness, and other abstract subjects. The political story becomes a subplot.

A story marred by racism

No contemporary reader of the novel can fail to recognize the deep-seated racism it reflects. Unfortunately, it’s not just the characters who take racism for granted. The author appears to do so, too. In telling the story, Burden, the narrator, routinely uses the N-word to refer to African-Americans. It’s difficult not to conclude that the author shared this view. Reading it made me uncomfortable. Readers in 1946, when the book first saw the light of day, may have felt differently. After all, that was seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, and the civil rights movement had not yet gained a foothold in the national conscience.

About the author

Though he never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Robert Penn Warren was one of the most celebrated writers in American history. He wrote nearly fifty books spanning the years 1929 to 1989, the year he died at the age of 84. Three times he won the Pulitzer Prize, once for All the King’s Men and twice for poetry. He also won the National Book Award, the National Medal for Literature, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1986, he was named the country’s first poet laureate. Warren also co-founded the influential literary magazine, The Southern Review.



A brilliant and witty novel about dirty politics

dirty politicsA review of The Porkchoppers, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you’re looking for insightful writing about dirty politics, the novels of Ross Thomas have no peer.

Dirty politics, union-style

In The Porkchoppers, Thomas portrays the behind-the-scenes reality of a high-stakes labor union election, and it ain’t pretty. The picture is likely to be exaggerated through the lens of the author’s cynicism, but not by all that much.

Now in his 60s, Donald Cribbin has served for decades as the president of a million-member international union headquartered in Washington, DC. He is bored with his job and regularly turns to the bottle for solace, leaving his much younger wife to seek sexual fulfillment in the arms of Donald’s loyal but dumb sidekick.

For the first time in years, Donald now faces a serious challenge. His protege, Sammy Hanks, the younger man he rescued from obscurity and appointed as the union’s international secretary-treasurer, is running a strong campaign against him. Sammy has problems of his own, of course. Big ones. Not only is he unnaturally ugly but he has a tendency to fly off the handle in a tantrum at the slightest provocation, often throwing himself to the floor and obsessively pounding the surface until someone manages to distract him.

They’re called “advisers”

Each of the two candidates has both a retinue of loyalists inside the union as well as outside advisers, and the rub comes with the outsiders. They’re the forerunners of today’s political campaign professionals — the ones who put all those negative ads on TV — but the comparison is weak. These guys are what might better be called “fixers.” They don’t play nice. As I said, dirty politics.

On Donald’s side, there’s a Washington-based firm named Walter Penry and Associates, all former law enforcement officers. “What Walter Penry and Associates, Inc., actually specialized in was skullduggery, the kind that stayed within the law” (though just barely). Penry secretly takes direction from a shadowy old millionaire who appears to know everyone and everything. (Of course, there are such people who seem like they do.)

Sammy’s campaign connects with a Chicago political operator who is said to have stolen the 1960 presidential election for John F. Kennedy. (Somebody actually did.) The man attempts to do the same for Sammy. But Sammy’s main man is Mickey Della. Among political “PR agents,” Mickey was “without doubt the most vicious one around and just possibly the best.”

When all these colorful characters converge in a single dramatic election campaign, sparks fly — and that’s not all.

The signatures of Ross Thomas’ writing

You can count on at least three things in a Ross Thomas novel. First, the writing is witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Especially the dialog. Second, the novels reflect Thomas’ well-informed and all-too-realistic rendering of politics as it’s actually practiced. He’s clearly cynical, and he certainly exaggerates for dramatic effect, but he clearly knows how stuff gets done in high-stakes political campaigns. And, third, Thomas manages to people every book with a large cast of characters — and only rarely leave the reader confused about who’s who or what’s happening. Every character is vividly pictured. It’s quite extraordinary, really. This is a great example of what truly deserves the monniker literature, academic critics notwithstanding.

About the author

The late Ross Thomas wrote twenty-five novels and two books of nonfiction. As Wikipedia notes, “He worked as a public relations specialist, correspondent with the Armed Forces Network, union spokesman, and political strategist in the USA, Germany, and Nigeria before becoming a writer.” The man knew his stuff!



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