How did last week go for you? The objectivity of time is losing its battle against the subjective interpretation of time during the quarantine, last week was both fast and slow for me. No prose recap this week, only links collected throughout the week. There are articles, book reviews, assorted other media links, and a few featured books. My one complaint — oh, I have many —, but my one complaint I’ll voice here was my inability to carve out some space to read more short stories. Maybe this week. Maybe not.
“Men love women who hate themselves. And most women do. We’re taught to from the age of nine or ten: you bleed, you’re weak, ick, ack, you’re disgusting. A great many women fight their self-hate, though, by hating other women more.”
Rainy Cain is just about the world’s most self-aware teenager, to the point that referring to her as a girl seems like an insult considering how much she’s packed into her seventeen years. In Gina Wolhsdorf’s BLOOD HIGHWAY, Rainy has a long list, beginning with her beginning as the product of bank robbers, one of which went to prison and one of which went crazy. When Sam Cain breaks out of prison in pursuit of hidden robbery loot in the millions—money that Sam is convinced Rainy knows how to find—it’s time for Rainy to say goodbye to her fragile façade of a normal teenage life in Minnesota and hit the road. But not only does Sam want her, so does a creepily solicitous young cop, and it’s an open question as to who ultimately represents the bigger threat to Rainy.
Wohlsdorf knows how to keep the pages turning, not just with plot but with Rainy’s deliciously acidic (and accurate) observations about men: “My appearance had conferred its usual set of advantages and disadvantages: adult male meets adolescent girl with big lips and a lot of hair and is titillated, so he’ll be nice out of shame but he’ll also fight a flare of anger, sweetmeat he knows he won’t get to taste.”
That wild momentum sometimes cuts against the grain of the voice. Rainy drifts from her unreal reality to flights of fever dreaminess, and it takes a more careful read than the story encourages to be sure of what’s actually happened—and what’s happened only in Rainy’s overtaxed mind. That’s a small quibble, though about this unflinchingly violent and uncomfortably truthful novel.
I got onto the on-ramp of BLOOD HIGHWAY with a lot of hesitation. A previous Algonquin Books dip into crime-fiction waters, Tim Johnston’s DESCENT—a kidnapped-girl thriller mostly concerned with the inert, cigarette-smoking brooding of the manly men in her family—was one of the worst “literary” crime novels I’d ever read, pretentious, pandering and paternalistic in equal measure. I’m pleased to say that BLOOD HIGHWAY is much better, if only because it takes the seemingly radical step of letting a snatched girl tell her own story. I still can’t believe that such things still need to be specially noted in 2018.
I went into Randy Kennedy’s debut novel PRESIDIO with a lot of ambivalence, and emerged with the same, and, well … I didn’t regret the effort it took to get there.
I was intrigued by Lee Child’s review of it in The New York Times, in which he praised the authenticity of its early 1970s Texas noir and its intriguingly alienated main character, an itinerant motel dweller and car thief who does what he does for survival more than profit. And I was annoyed by the review, which seemed to say that its blurbs from a couple of noted Texas literary heavyweights were reason enough to read the book, which to me strays outside the bounds of a reviewer’s scope. Every once in a while, A-listers come together to lift up an author, having decided on their own that the author’s time had come for promotion into their elite, and in my view the books they chose were usually not the right vehicle for it (i.e., the worthy Steve Hamilton and the less worthy THE SECOND LIFE OF NICK MASON, which read to me like the quickie novelization of a story created to be a screenplay).
Also, PRESIDIO stumbles out of the gate with its split structure: half narrative and half extended epistolary matter. The latter renders the novel so heavy with italics that you may find yourself racing past things you need to know just to get back to a typeface that doesn’t piss off your eyes.
Another alienating early feature is PRESIDIO’s occasionally overreaching prose, which reads like that of an uneducated small-town Texan scamming his way into the Iowa Writers Workshop and seemingly desperate to assert a place among its overweeners: “Sometimes I sit in a hot bath, one leg crossed over the other, thinking about the world at work while I watch the pulse of my heartbeat in the hollow of my ankle.” Ugh.
But, well … there’s something more there. Something that works in spite of the sluggish interiority and the soggy but apparently mandatory meditations on the sparse south Texas landscape. For me, that something is Troy Falconer, the main POV voice of PRESIDIO, a man of equally profound and pointless alienation, a man who lives in cheap motels and steals cheap cars not so much because he’s bad but because he’s good at it, and doesn’t want to do anything else even as he’s dimly aware that at some point he probably should.
Maybe because I’m sort of a solo drifter on the margins myself, lines like this really stuck the landing for me: “My real profession is the careful and highly precarious maintenance of a life almost completely purified of personal property” and “He had an uncommon capacity for two things: lying and enjoying his own company.”
The plot is somewhat beside the point, and it shows in PRESIDIO’s rushed and uninspired ending. But it’s sturdy enough to keep readers on the hook: Troy and his brother Harlan undertake a road trip to find Bettie, a woman of intimate history with both men who stole Harlan’s money. Troy steals one car after another to keep them moving, and one—a station wagon belonging to a mother in a grocery store—turns out, hours after the theft, to contain a young girl half in and half out of the Mennonite world. Troy, who usually operates well below law enforcement radar, is suddenly a major target.
PRESIDIO isn’t as good as its A-lister praise would suggest. It’s a novel that demands more of the reader than, as a debut, it’s earned the right to ask, in my opinion. But if you hook on to what’s good about it, as I managed to, you might be glad that you did. After I read a book, I always ask myself: “Would you read the next book by this author?” And despite my ambivalence, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
THE CYCLIST is billed by Anthony Neil Smith, long a respected dweller in the hardboiled underground, as his bid for entry into the mainstream thriller market. It succeeds at the thriller basics—putting its characters in an unholy mess and making you burn through the pages to see who survives and how—but it takes what sometimes feels like a needlessly wobbly ride to get there.
The story: Judd, a failed Marine unhappily stuck in a Minneapolis office-drone job, finds escape online in the form of Catriona, a seemingly adventurous young woman in Scotland. Their longings become reality in the form of a planned bicycle trip through the Scottish Highlands, but what Judd hoped would be a fresh chance at happiness is soon thwarted by folks with darker agendas.
I wasn’t prepared for—nor could easily stomach—a hard and unsignaled turn off the paved path into the thickets of torture-porn. (Your mileage may vary, of course.) And I found the prose lumpy for a thriller, a subgenre whose entrants usually traffic in the sleek, smooth simple declarative. Short emotional bursts of run-ons and fragments are interspersed with long sentences waylaid by parenthetic asides and nested clauses, making this literary bicycle trek a less comfortable ride than it could have been.
(An example: “They passed an ancient-looking hotel and pub, this one very much alive, and several newish [let’s say nineties] storefronts on buildings from long ago –cafes, an Indian takeaway, a small grocer, more pubs.”)
Smith is a standout storyteller, and he’s got some fine work in his backlist and likely better stuff in his future, but THE CYCLIST is, to my mind, not the ideal showcase for gaining a mainstream-thriller audience. As a gut-clenching tale to pass the time, however, it more than gets the job done—I never stopped caring about who would survive, and how and why, no matter how splattery the story got.
Half the fun of re-reading Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series is its retro ridiculousness. The twenty-five novels are set in the 1980s, and as real time increasingly separated from Kinsey Time, that was a smart move, because they couldn’t have possibly taken place any later, not for a private detective who succeeded at her work by doing what she couldn’t possibly do today.
Kinsey gets the clues she needs by talking apartment managers into letting her rummage through the units of missing people, by getting cabbies and hotel clerks to spill private, proprietary info about possible suspects, by getting chatty clerks to hand over confidential customer and patient records. Can you imagine a PI being able to work that way today in an era of paranoia, of HIPAA and histrionic cybersecurity? (Do apartment managers even live on-site any more?) You find yourself wistful for a time when people could talk to people without first assuming the worst of them as a measure of basic self-protection.
The things that are annoying about Kinsey are there as well. Funny how a character who is held up as a feminist icon is so hatefully judgmental about almost every woman she meets. (Examples: “She was chunky through the waist. What is it about middle age that makes a woman’s body mimic pregnancy?” and “She was small, with a dowager’s hump the size of a backpack. Her face was as soft and withered as an apple doll and arthritis had twisted her hands into grotesque shapes, as though she intended to make geese heads in shadow on the wall.”) What is a “dowager’s hump”?
Her physical descriptions are often bitingly funny, but also shot through with what I see as a deep self-loathing disguised as second-wave feminism and uncommon comfort with herself. There’s just something a bit sad and un-self-aware that undercut assertions like “I’d rather grow old alone than in the company of anyone I’ve met so far. I don’t experience myself as lonely, incomplete, or unfulfilled, but I don’t talk about that much. It seems to piss people off—especially men.” (Maybe I think that because I sometimes say things like that and know I’m semi-full of shit.) Though as a man I find it is a malicious sort of fun to watch Kinsey and her contemporaries consistently talk about men as faceless, replaceable entities who exist to be used and discarded: “I figure guys are like Whitman’s Samplers. I like to take a little bite out of each and then move on before the whole box gets stale.” (Maybe because I wish I’d be used like that more often.)
Also, B IS FOR BURGLAR takes place just two weeks after the events of A IS FOR ALIBI, and the second novel harks back to the first just enough for us to know that a) Kinsey’s still struggling with having killed someone, and b) she chooses to make no mental room or time for the struggle.
It’s that shadowy glimpse of Kinsey’s hidden self that keeps readers on the hook for the series, much more than the sturdiness of the plots, which are mere scaffolding for the entrancing and elusive study of Kinsey’s character. There’s nothing cozy about this series: Santa Teresa is a town of transition and turmoil, and Kinsey Millhone is a heroine who is in turmoil primarily because she resists transition.
Jim Thomsen is a writer and editor who divides his time between Florida and his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more at jimthomsencreative.com.
Thanks for stopping by and reading Jim Thomsen’s Shoulder Wounds at Unlawful Acts.
Anthony Neil Smith is the author of many books two of which I have reviewed here: “Castle Danger: Woman on Ice” and, most recently, “The Cyclist”. Smith is also the Chair of the English, Philosophy, Spanish & Humanities Department at Southwest Minnesota State University. Smith answered some question via email.
David: Congratulations on your latest book, “The Cyclist”. That was a terrifying read. The book is much more a horror book than a crime book and its influences seem to come from horror movies. What were some of the influences (literary or film) for “The Cyclist”? Also, where did you come up with the germ of the idea?
Neil: I think that most of the neo-noir writers of this century are inspired by horror. I don’t think we can escape it. The styles bleed. What we think of as noir is a lot “worse” than what it had looked like during the Golden Age (if there ever was one). So I think torture-porn movies like HOSTEL and SAW play a part, and also the serial killer novels of Mo Hayder. As for the idea, I guess my love of cycling and my two trips to Scotland blended together in my mind. When we were driving around the highlands, at one point we got a little lost and ended up in the middle of nowhere, but there were a lot of trees around, making the path a little claustrophobic, and I immediately thought of the horrible things a crazy person could do out here in all that isolation.
David: In Ben Lelievre’s Dead End Follies review of “Castle Danger: Woman on Ice”, he wrote that it took “a little while to warm up” and then you pulled the rug out from under the reader. In “The Cyclist”, you point the reader in one direction and then everything changes, nothing is what the reader thought it was. Can you talk about setting up the reader’s expectations and then changing on a dime?
Neil: That’s the expectation of this genre (or any genre), seems to me. Movies, too. At the end of the first act, everything goes topsy-turvy and heads off in a different direction. Aren’t we all waiting for that moment? Maybe I try to avoid what that exact expectation is. Don’t want it to be too easy. It’s one thing to invert expectations, but what about perverting them? Is perverting a word? No one should read the book and think “That’s exactly what I expected.”
In CASTLE DANGER, I don’t want anyone to trust Manny’s voice too much, since he’s not so sure about his wants and needs anyway. I wanted the whole narrative to be shifting beneath the reader’s (and Manny’s) feet.
David: Genre vs literary. One doesn’t find anyone particular genre talking smack about another genre, but authors of literary fiction seem to revel in their disdain of genre fiction––Stephen King is a good example of getting the brunt of this. Since you are knee-deep in the literary world as a professor of English and a department chair, are the lines still drawn hard-fast between literary and genre fiction?
Neil: I want to say “not as much” because I know a lot of people who straddle the lines between those two areas, but I guess there will always be a thin hard line, but most of the younger generation of literary writers seems to accept and enjoy genre work, and appreciate anyone blurring the line. I know some crime writers hate the phrase “transcending the genre,” but I never mind it. After all, the main works of most genres that stand out and are the milestones are the exceptions. They end up becoming the roadmap for genre even if they deviated from the expectations of it. I tend to gravitate towards those people always trying to buck the genre while still being in love with it.
David: Are students more accepting of genre fiction than the professors?
Neil: Oh, god yes. My only disappointment is how much they lean on fantasy or sci-fi clichés. I would like to see some students try for something new, but I understand that they are just learning and need to go through those early phases. I don’t see as much love for the crime or thriller genres with undergraduates, though. They like epics.
David: I mentioned in my review of “The Cyclist” that you’re a bit prolific. You’ve had three books published in the last year. I’ve only read two of your books and I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of your work. What’s your writing routine like and how you generate so many words in an almost Stephen King-like flood? That’s the last Stephen King reference I promise.
Neil: I’m prolific? I feel frozen a lot of the time. I wish I could write two books a year, but I usually end up around one-and-a-half. I was on a strict deadline for the recent three from BE ebooks, and they were released quickly, so it’s all an illusion. I just abandoned one novel and am starting another, so it might be awhile before the next one. I’m amazed at King’s output and quality, even if I’m not a big King fan. I really only write about a thousand words on a good day, and I don’t write every day. I tend to get lazy. But somehow I’ve published 14 novels since 2005 (plus two novellas and a lot of short stories). I like to write in the mornings, between about 10 and 2, or during my office hours when things slow down at work. At the moment, I’m trying to do a page a day until I get some momentum. Just always moving forward.
David: In a recent interview with Tom Leins, you talked about that it’s okay to want to be read by the masses and that “The Cyclist” was a step in that direction. Any hints on how a writer can put food on their table and pay rent. How do you stay true to yourself and still reach for a mass appeal audience?
Neil: Get a job. Lucky for me I went to grad school, got a PhD, and became a creative writing prof. I love my job. That allows me a lot of time – since writing is part of the job – to work and always think about craft. My friends have had better luck with larger publishers. If I put the advances (very few of them) and royalties from my books together, I’d still have a lot less than some friends have gotten for two or three book contracts. It’s more like a bonus than a way to make a living. I heard that only 5% of novelists make a living at it, something like that.
Here’s home I stay true to myself and still reach for a mass audience: I don’t know. So far, I haven’t been very successful at it, so maybe I will never know how. I am still a student of bestsellers, trying to figure out how I can write a book *I* like that will also reach hundreds of thousands of people. My friend and longtime editor Allan Guthrie is always teaching me more about structure, plotting, and character in order to make a breakthrough book, but I always end up messing it up somehow. I get bored and just follow my own interests instead.
So I’ve got the freedom, because of my university job, to write whatever I want and find indie presses to publish them. It’s a great feeling. But I would love to find the story that would reach many more eyes.
David: Give me five books to read, genre doesn’t matter.
Neil: Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor, WHITE JAZZ by James Ellroy, THE REAL COOL KILLERS by Chester Himes, STAR TREK MOVIE MEMORIES by William Shatner, IGUANA LOVE by Vicki Hendricks.
Thanks for reading this interview with Anthony Neil Smith. Make sure you go and buy his books.
There is a thin line between crime and horror, Stephen King’s Misery and Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series spring to mind. You can now add Anthony Neil Smith’s The Cyclist to this list. Smith’s latest book tells the story of Judd, a washed-out Navy SEAL in the US, who falls in love with Cat, a co-worker who lives in Scotland. Judd’s dismissal from the Navy was, shall we say, due to a colossal fuckup – in a panic, he fired live ammunition at his SEAL instructor and hit him several times. Dealing with this pain of being unceremoniously discharged, Judd returns home to Minnesota where he tries to bury his problems by cycling hundreds of miles at a time.
Cat asks Judd to visit and he abandons everything in Minnesota meet up with Cat for a cycling vacation of Scotland. It’s his final act of desperation as what better way to deal with his problems than to run away half-way around the world.
This is the second book I’ve read of Anthony Neil Smith and his third book published since August 2017. Smith may be more prolific than fellow crime writer Eric Beetner, but probably not. Like Castle Danger: Woman on Ice, Smith’s The Cyclist takes a strong turn half-way through as Judd goes from a shell of a man grasping for some sort of meaningful existence to a man desperately fighting for his life and others.
As I wrote at the beginning, Smith’s The Cyclist blurs the line between crime and horror. Smith had me turning my head away from the pages and wincing in pain at the terror. In a recent interview with author Tom Leins at Dirty Books, Leins asked, “Given the right break, The Cyclist feels like it could resonate with a mainstream audience – was that intentional?”. Smith replied:
Absolutely. I’ve written thirteen previous novels, all of which have attracted a “cult” audience, I’d say, and some of the early ones were really rough “gonzo noir.” And I love those books! However, I’ve always dreamed of a larger audience enjoying my books, the same way I enjoy a lot of mainstream thrillers and crime novels. So that’s a goal of mine: to learn how to write a book that can reach out and grab a very large swath of thriller readers. THE CYCLIST is another step on that journey. I mean, some writers may scoff at James Patterson or John Grisham, but they must know *something* I haven’t figured out yet in order to have so many people love to read them.
Not only do I agree with Leins that The Cyclist could, even should, connect with that mainstream audience, it can keep those fans of Smith’s earlier work happy as well. Currently selling for $2.99, The Cyclist is a steal compared to the $14.99 for Baldacci or Patterson’s latest thrillers. Pick it up, read it and then recommend Smith’s The Cyclist to your friends that only read Stephen King, Lee Child and the rest.
In the beginning of Anthony Neil Smith’s Castle Danger: Woman on Ice there are incidents that tell you that this book might just be a little off, a little off in a good way. Could it be a cop shooting his partner and that cop in custody dressed as a woman? Or maybe it is the narrator Hermann Jahnke’s obsession with hard-core porn? There are hints everywhere that Castle Danger: Woman on Ice is different than any other book you’ve read this year.
Though Castle Danger: Woman on Ice falls easily into the mystery genre, specifically the police procedural, it is Anthony Neil Smith’s examination of Jahnke’s life that moves the book forward. Sure there is Jahnke’s investigation of a woman’s death, her frozen corpse pulled out of and then reclaimed by a Minnesota lake, but it is Jahnke we want to learn about. As we start to get to know Jahnke, he is on the fringes of the police force, not wanted back and not wanting to go back. Bad goes to worse as Jahnke burns off his junk and then his girlfriend leaves him. Jahnke tells us his story as best as he can, trying to pick out those meaningful vignettes of his life that shaped him into the man he is today. Often times he doesn’t even understand what is happening to him, he just knows that that part of his story is important.
As each day goes by in the investigation, Jahnke makes difficult decisions about himself and what direction he is headed. Sometimes Jahnke denies the obviousness of who he is and at other times he simply enjoys the ride he finds himself on. It’s complicated.
There was a woman, tall and thick, with her hair dyed black. Mid-fifties, I would guess. Barelegged in a dress riding up as she struck a pose like a cowboy about to lasso a calf. I was the calf. She was handsome. But she was a woman. You could just tell. Everything about her. I fought through the crowd to her. She was taller than me, and she wrapped her arms around my neck, sashayed with me, took it down low.
She was a woman.
A manly woman, but a woman.
These days, I think “a woman is a woman, trans or not,” but at the time I was only thinking about this woman, acting like she was horny as all fuck, grinding on me, mascara running, hands on my ass. Thinking “this is normal. This is good. I’m dancing with a woman. Not a man. This is okay.”
When she was close enough to my ear, she shouted, “You okay with this? You uncomfortable?” Slurred to hell.
I should’ve been. I wasn’t. I shook my head. She smelled good, whatever her soap and sweat mix was, it was easy on the nose, and she reminded me of high school teachers I had admired — and jerked off to — and women who worked at the library and women who worked at the place where I bought my car insurance.
Anthony Neil Smith’s Castle Danger: Woman on Ice is a character study of a man examining who he is, who he was, and who he is going to be. It is Jahnke’s exploration of his sexuality that motivates the reader to press on. The mystery is of no matter, it is Jahnke we care about and we continue on reading to see how he makes it to the other side.