Monday, November 28, 2011

Book: Lucky Bruce, by Bruce Jay Friedman (2011)

The era that Bruce Jay Friedman’s “literary memoir” covers isn’t that far in the rear view mirror. But the world that his book describes – one in which novelists had cultural currency, and a writer could sustain oneself, a family and a handful of carefully selected bartenders with a combination of short fiction and journalism – seems every bit as remote as the Middle Ages.

As is often the case in autobiography, the early years of struggle register the most strongly. Friedman genuinely means the “lucky,” though, because his version of hardship is running what used to be known as men’s magazines, replete with yarns like “G.I. King of Nympho Island.” Three of the rags under his stewardship were Male, Men, and Man’s World, which must have made trips to the newsstand confusing. His high point was editing Swank, which wasn’t pornographic when he was in charge; his boss’s edict was, “I’d like it to be classy but not too classy,” which gave Friedman license to pursue a “mix of hernia ads, starlet interviews and unpublishable stories by great authors.” My favorite incident from this period is when Friedman is visited by Leicester Hemingway, spitting image of big brother Ernest, who offered Friedman a story called “Avast.” The first line was “Hi, ho, me hearties.” Friedman passed.

Friedman would go on to the kind of long and successful career that verges on unimaginable now, spanning novels (Stern), theater (Steambath) and film (an Academy Award nomination for Splash). He considers his triumphs with the same air of amiable bemusement as his failures. Best of all are his recollections of his fellow writers, many the lions of an age of letters that still had vitality. It’s brazen name-dropping. Friedman admits it. More to the point, he’s very good at it. Mario Puzo was one of his first magazine hires; Friedman told his friend not to call his novel in progress The Godfather because it sounded “too domestic.” He feuded with Joseph Heller and got into a fistfight with Norman Mailer. Kurt Vonnegut asked Friedman to teach him “how to hang out.” The crime writer Henry Kane, “always thought of, unfairly I felt, as being a notch or two below Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in ability,” was a figure out of his one of his own stories, hiding from his third wife and sending a Chinese valet out for Scotch. And for weeks the great Richard Yates would turn up at the magazine offices, sit down at a desk as if he worked there, then head out with the staff at the end of the day for cocktails. The chapter on Elaine’s, the fabled Manhattan restaurant where many literary lights including Friedman held court for decades, is a marvel.

The book has the feel of a conversation that unfolds over several hours and bottles of wine. It’s convivial and hazy, full of digressions and tales with misplaced punchlines, sly observations that you know you’re going to forget even as you vow to remember them. Friedman is often described – and dismissed – as a funny writer, but don’t let the lightness of tone fool you. Of his first play Scuba Duba Friedman writes, “Though the play had a comic veneer, there were powerful emotions boiling up beneath the surface. Or so I thought.” The same is true of this book.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Books: Rolling in the Isles

In light of the holiday, it’s time to be thankful for two new books by two favorite authors. Neither of whom is American and will consequently be celebrating Thanksgiving, but that’s beside the point.

The first two novels by Stuart Neville prominently featured Gerry Fegan, a one-time IRA gunman plagued by unearthly visitations. Stolen Souls shifts the focus to Fegan’s pursuer, Ulster cop Inspector Jack Lennon. Galya, a young Ukrainian girl smuggled into Belfast and forced to work as a prostitute, kills one of her captors and escapes. The dead man’s brother swears vengeance. Galya, meanwhile, seeks refuge with a man who offered to assist her – only to discover that her savior has his own definition of help. And Lennon, the one person with a chance of actually doing Galya some good, is dealing with fallout from his earlier actions that threaten his family.

With this book, Neville doesn’t change protagonists so much as acknowledge that his real character is Belfast itself, a city riven by corruption and mistrust in the wake of the Troubles. The plot is complex but never confusing, the action brutal and grim, the pace lightning fast. And Neville still manages to include notes of the supernatural that feel organic and uniquely Irish. It’s a potent combination and a ferociously good book.

Dead Money, the latest by your friend and mine Ray Banks, represents something new and something old. One of the maiden releases from ebook publisher Blasted Heath, it’s also a complete revision of Ray’s first novel The Big Blind. Alan Slater has a job he’s not particularly proud to be good at (double-glazing salesman), a wife to whom he’s not particularly faithful, a dog of which he’s not particularly fond, and a best friend in Les Beale who gets on his fucking nerves. All of them will have a role in Alan’s downfall. Foremost among them Les, who hatches a foolhardy scheme to get ahead that Alan will end up participating in whether he wants to or not. There’s great sales material here, especially Alan’s “sugar sit,” that turns the book into a kind of Glengarry Glenfiddich. There’s also a steadily escalating sense that Alan is on his way to hell, and it’s because he wants to be. It’s Banks, so there’s an annoyingly perfect balance of humor and darkness. It’s Blasted Heath, so it’s yours for a song. And it’s good, so you should be reading it now.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Theater: Newyorkland

Going to the theater twice in a week? I don’t know who I am anymore.

Years ago I spent the better part of an hour running through the Firearms Training Simulator (FATS) at the New York Police Museum. An NYPD officer gave us a brief weapons course and then put us through our paces, replaying scenarios with subtle variations so that we could understand how little information cops have when they walk into a situation and how quickly an encounter could escalate out of control. It was a powerful experience – I still brood over a split-second hesitation that resulted in my partner getting shot – one that made it impossible for me to make knee-jerk judgments about the actions of law enforcement officers.

Those memories came back to me last night during Newyorkland, an intense theater piece by the company Temporary Distortion at Seattle’s On The Boards. An assemblage of live performance and film, Newyorkland aims to illuminate the challenges of police work, specifically the psychological distance cops often feel from the people they are charged with protecting.

The presentation is immersive and assaultive. The audience walks in under the disinterested eyes of the cast in uniform, the Beastie Boys thrumming overhead. Everyday squad room sounds like keyboards and telephones are amplified. There’s a roll call, a litany of radio requests, and heartbreaking monologues drawn from interviews with actual New York cops.

Inventive use of lights, sound and staging create an endlessly fluid production; Newyorkland isn’t directed so much as misdirected, the theatrical sleight of hand continually impressive. The closing moments are somewhat muddled, but the overall effect reminds you that there is an individual inside every police officer’s uniform.

Temporary Distortion will perform Newyorkland, appropriately enough, in New York in January. See it if you can. Here’s the preview trailer.

Newyorkland Trailer from Temporary Distortion on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Theater: Double Indemnity

The biggest surprise about ACT Seattle’s world premiere of the adaptation of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity was finding excerpts from my Noir City interview with playwrights David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright and director Kurt Beattie in the official program. If you want to know how the creative team approached bringing Cain’s novel to the stage while dealing with the long shadows cast by Billy Wilder’s landmark film, then join the Film Noir Foundation and get yourself a subscription to the magazine. (Or you can wait for Noir City Annual #4, coming out early next year. The interview will be included.) I attended the play last night in the company of FNF honcho Eddie Muller, whose full review will appear in the next issue of Noir City. Until then, you’ll have to make do with my thoughts.

It’s a good show, a truly theatrical experience that is also faithful to Cain’s book right up to its baroque ending. (The plot in brief: insurance agent meets femme fatale, they off her husband, recriminations follow.) The production is inventively staged, making smart use of the theater’s space as the story unfolds as a series of memories in the mind of its doomed protagonist. The sequence depicting the murder, including both car and train travel, is particularly thrilling.

The cast is uniformly solid. John Bogar makes a brash and confident Walter Huff, the salesman who has to sell his ideas to himself first. Richard Ziman shines in double duty as the ill-fated husband and Keyes, Huff’s boss. Ziman comes up with a gleeful slant on the character that never draws parallels with Edward G. Robinson’s brilliant performance in the film.

The script could have used more of the framing device established in the opening scene, with Huff on a boat making his escape. Whenever the ship’s rail reappeared, I thought, “Oh, right.” There isn’t much sexual chemistry between Bogar and Carrie Paff, who plays Phyllis, which may be deliberate; as Muller and I discussed after the show, sex ultimately doesn’t matter in Cain’s story, which is about two broken people bent on doing wrong who, once they meet, bring out the worst in each other. What the script does maintain in spades is the queasy, relentless inevitability of the novel. Double Indemnity runs at ACT through Sunday, and the production moves to the San Jose Repertory Theatre in January.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Q&A: Christa Faust

What can I say about Christa Faust? I can admit that I brazenly stole the idea for my Noir City posts from her. I can reveal that on the day we first met she told Rosemarie, “I assumed you were a fictional character.” I can remind you once again to read her latest book Choke Hold, then I can get out of the way and let the lady speak for herself in another VKDCQ&A.

Q. Tell us about Choke Hold.

It’s my second Angel Dare book. For those who haven’t read Money Shot, Angel’s a former porn star who gets raped, beaten and left for dead so she hunts down and kills the responsible men. In Choke Hold, she’s on the lam from her violent past when she runs into an old flame. Bullets fly and she finds herself mixed up with a pair of MMA fighters. One is the teenage son of her old flame, a cocky kid who’s just getting started in the fight game. The other is an older grappler who is suffering from the early onset of CTE, also known as “punch drunk syndrome.” As they so often do, complications ensue.

Q. Did you plan on bringing Angel Dare back for an encore? Will we be seeing her again?

When I wrote Money Shot, it was intended to be a standalone. After all, that ending is pretty final. I never had any intention of writing a series, but people really seemed to like the character and kept asking me when the next Angel Dare book was coming out. I like a challenge and so I found myself thinking of ways to get her out of the corner I’d painted her into and on the road to further adventures. Now I’m pretty sure there’ll be at least one more Angel Dare book, but I have no idea where (if anywhere) the series will go from there. You’ll just have to stay tuned for the next exciting episode ...

Q. What is the greatest public misconception about mixed martial arts? What impression about the sport do you want people to take away from Choke Hold?

In this country, MMA mostly means the UFC, which started off almost like a kind of wacky, sideshow offshoot of pro wrestling. You know, a guy wearing one boxing glove versus a sumo guy. The human version of a great white shark vs. a grizzly bear. It’s come a long way from that, but still retains a little bit of that naughty-but-tasty, carnival junk food flavor that it never had in countries like Brazil or Japan. In a weird way, MMA is like a hooker dressed up like the girl next door. A slut they can take home to Mama. It’s a way for men to indulge in all the trash-talking testosterone opera of pro wrestling while assuring themselves that it’s okay to watch because it’s legit and not “worked.”

Thing is, MMA can also be very cerebral. There’s a chess-like element to grappling that many casual American fans don’t even notice. They love the beatdowns, the big haymakers and showy knockouts but when the fight goes to the ground, that’s when things can get really interesting.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that all fighters are dumb-ass palookas and all fans are beer-guzzling rednecks. Kind of like the idea that all porn stars are pathetic, exploited bimbos and all guys who watch them are raincoat-clad perverts.

Q. Can you talk about the parallels you draw in the book between MMA and Angel’s former career in pornography?

Both MMA and porn involve young bodies being pushed to the edge of physical endurance and beyond to provide entertainment for the masses. Both offer the potential for wealth and stardom but often deliver the ugly reality of being ground down and broken by the time you’re 30. Some people make it through unscathed and start their own grappling school or production company. Others are pulled under by drugs, daddy issues, and low self esteem. There’s also a disturbing parallel in the fact that so many otherwise unskilled, under-educated teens see fighting or fucking as their only option, the only way out of poverty and broken homes. Their bodies are all they have to offer. I think there’s a powerful, seductive fantasy element as well. Becoming a fighter is seen as a way to be the “ultimate” man. Almost like an over-the-top caricature of alpha manhood. Becoming a female porn star has that same appeal. To become the “ultimate” woman, every man’s dreamgirl. It’s hunger for that elusive fantasy that makes so many young people ignore the warnings about brain damage or prolapsed rectums and all the other potential pitfalls of those professions.

Part of what I tried to do in my books is balance that fantasy with the harsher reality. In Money Shot, I didn’t want to portray the adult film industry as all sexy flash and glamour but I also didn’t want to make it all ugly, evil and soul-killing. Porn’s always been such an easy target in classic hardboiled and noir fiction. The worst possible fate that could ever befall a female would be to end up in porn. I wanted to show it more like it really is. A job. Some good, some bad and a whole lot of in between. I tried to do the same thing for MMA in Choke Hold.

Q. Your cult classic Hoodtown (reissued earlier this year as an ebook) is set against the backdrop of lucha libre. What draws you to sports that are a bit off the beaten path?

It’s not just sports, it’s any kind of unusual, insular subculture that has its own rules and slang. One of the things I enjoy as a reader is being invited by the protagonist into a hidden behind-the-scenes world that I may not normally get to see. Obviously, in Hoodtown, I take the real sport of Lucha Libre and turn it up to eleven, incorporating many of the fictional conceits of the Mexican Masked Hero films of the 60s and 70s, but there’s an underlying truth beneath the mask.

Q. You’ve spoken about your affection for Richard S. Prather, creator of Shell Scott and the man who dubbed you “the First Lady of Hard Case Crime.” What about Prather’s work spoke to you? How do you see his influence in your own writing? If you had to choose, what’s your favorite Shell Scott novel?

I like the fact that out of all the popular hardboiled dicks back in the day, Shell Scott seemed to be having the most fun. By proxy, it seemed like Prather was also having the most fun writing about him. Sure Scott got mixed up in all kinds of violent action, but you got the feeling that he loved his job and didn’t take himself too seriously. Don’t get me wrong – I love the darker, more serious stuff too. But there’s something really charming and addictively readable about the Shell Scott books. I think you can see Prather’s influence on my writing in my dark humor and love of the first person narrative. Strip For Murder would have to be my favorite, because of the whole outlandish naked hot air balloon business. But I also have a soft spot for Dig That Crazy Grave, because that was not only the first Shell Scott book I read, it was also the first hardboiled pulp novel I ever read.

Q. What’s next for you?

I’ve got what I like to refer to as a “toy truck” project that I’m working on right now. The kind of project that isn’t very commercial but really fun to play with. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for more than a decade, but no one was ever interested in publishing it the old-school way. When the whole eBook thing came along, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to get this little toy truck on the road.

It’s an erotic hardboiled lesbian PI series. Imagine Shell Scott as a butch dyke and all the sex is explicit. It’s a hat-tip to Prather, but not a send up. I want to keep that same wacky, light-hearted sense of humor without ever poking fun at the source material. I’m calling the series Butch Fatale: Dyke Dick.

Movie Q. You’re a New York girl now living in Los Angeles. What are your favorite movies about your adopted hometown?

In a Lonely Place is high up there, as is Sunset Boulevard. Targets is another fave that deserves to be more widely known. Mi Vida Loca is full of great pre-hipster Echo Park locations. Bad 80s soundtrack not-withstanding, I still love To Live and Die in LA. Gods and Monsters never fails to break my fucking heart no matter how many times I see it. Of course, we can’t just be highbrow, can we? I also love films like It Conquered the World and Them (okay, so that’s only half LA) or pretty much anything shot at Bronson Cave. And Showdown in Little Tokyo, because Dolph Lundgren has the biggest dick Brandon Lee has ever seen on a man.

Baseball/Foodie Q. Have you ever had a Dodger Dog?

My mom’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen is just down the block from a now long-gone garage where hotdog carts used to go when their shifts were over. Every night, they would dump gallons of nasty day-old hotdog water into the gutter. The powerful memory of that stench has kinda soured me on hotdogs. I loathed them as a kid. As an adult, I’ve learned to get over it to some degree, but that smell is always there in the back of my mind.

I’m also not into baseball, though my Pop is a die-hard fan of the Bronx Bombers. (No offense, since I know you’re a Mets man.) He took me to Yankee Stadium plenty of times as a kid, but I always got peanuts there, not hotdogs. I’ve never been to Dodger Stadium, but I’ve been stuck in the traffic around it when games let out. Does that count?

Cocktail Q. You don’t imbibe. How are we friends? And what makes for a good mocktail?

I’m not a dry drunk or anything like that. I have no moral issue with the idea of drinking, I just never cared for the taste or the effect of alcohol. Also, I have no inhibitions to shed, so there’s really no point. I’d rather spend my money on shoes.

As far as “mocktails” I tend to like intriguing, unusual flavor combos that are not too sweet or syrupy. I’ll never forget that astounding gingery concoction I got that night you took me to the Zig Zag. I have no idea what was in it, but it was the single best beverage I’ve ever had.

And we’re obviously friends because every tippling gadabout needs a reliable getaway driver.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Book: It’s All About The Dress, by Vicky Tiel (2011)

Some phrases automatically conjure up feelings of retroactive jealousy, a nostalgia for something you weren’t even around to experience. One such phrase is “jet set.” If you want a sense of the heyday of international playboys and globetrotting decadence, you could do worse than read memoirs by people in the fashion business.

Vicky Tiel went from a fairly middle-class upbringing to the full bohemian life in 1960s Greenwich Village, where she passed the hat for Bob Dylan and developed the scandalous alter ego Peaches LaTour. While studying design she met Mia Fonssagrives, whose worldly background provided an entrée into fashion circles when they moved to Paris to start their own business. Soon the twosome, credited with creating both the miniskirt and hot pants, were plucked to design costumes for What’s New, Pussycat?

What follows is a catalog of sex, food, clothes and general fabulousness, the kind of life that simply doesn’t exist anymore. A night with Vicky is the prize in a contest between Pussycat director Clive Donner and co-star/writer Woody Allen. (Read this article if you want to learn the winner, complete with great Woody Allen punchline.) She becomes part of the famous Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton entourage, wandering the world with the tempestuous couple and eventually becoming business partners with Taylor. Only Tiel could be captured with actress Romy Schneider while trying to buy caftans in Jordan in the wake of the Six Day War during production of a Richard Harris movie no one has ever heard of.

Put it another way: you know you’re dealing with a woman who has an in with the universe when she takes up painting as a hobby, develops a coffee-table book featuring her work, has it rejected by New York publishers – so Connecticut neighbor Martha Stewart can snap it up.

The book is dishy, breathless and hugely entertaining, thanks to Vicky’s flair for the dramatic. She’s convinced she warped Woody Allen for life and offers the final scene of Manhattan as proof, believes a single romantic indiscretion on her part is indirectly responsible for the entire Arquette family, and thinks that her late life successful marriage to a man outside her social circle inspired Liz Taylor to hook up with Larry Fortensky. The book is punctuated with original Tiel illustrations, recipes, and life lessons from luminaries. (Kim Novak says foot massages are key, while Ursula Andress suggests foregoing undergarments.) Vicky joins Oleg Cassini as fashion demimonders who recount their charmed lives very well.

One side note: as Tiel reels off the list of truly horrible movies that Burton and Taylor made during her time with them – Burton was personally convinced by Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito to play him in a film that would only screen in the Soviet Bloc – I realized that I have no sense of them as actors. Taylor won two Oscars and Burton was nominated multiple times, but their proto-Brangelina status dwarfs those accomplishments. La Liz is the woman who married eight times, and while I love Dickie in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold I confess my first image of him is the star of crap like The Medusa Touch. I need to change that. Maybe I’ll start with this book. Vicky liked it.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Miscellaneous: Words of Cocktail Wisdom

Anyone who has spent any time pondering the origins of the Cocktail – be it for the months or years it takes to write a book or seconds it takes to internalize a Dry Martini – will agree that it’s a quintessentially American contraption. How could it be anything but? It’s quick, direct and vigorous. It’s flashy and a little bit vulgar. It induces an unreflective overconfidence. It’s democratic, forcing the finest liquors to rub elbows with ingredients of far more humble stamp. It’s profligate with natural resources (think of all the electricity generated to make ice that gets used for ten seconds and discarded). In short, it rocks.

- From Imbibe!, by David Wondrich

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Book: Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit, by Darwyn Cooke (2010)

Cooke follows up his critically-acclaimed graphic novel adaptation of The Hunter (aka Point Blank, aka Payback) by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) with what amounts to a double dose of the steely professional thief Parker.

Part one of The Outfit is based on 1963’s The Man With the Getaway Face. Parker’s got a new look but the same old problems, forced into an armored car heist fated to go south. In the rest of the book, drawn on the ’63 novel of the same title, Parker finds himself hounded by the Mob. He responds the only way he can: by arranging for his criminal cohort to take down every connected establishment they know of.

Cooke’s illustrations are, as ever, gorgeous, steeped in period detail. One of the great pleasures of this series is seeing Stark’s flinty narratives play out in the era in which they were written. In adapting the traditional third-person section of the novel Cooke truly gets inventive, recounting multiple heists in an assortment of styles including the pages of a crime confession magazine using Stark’s prose as copy. Cooke would seem to be tacitly admitting that the words need little adornment, but then you turn the page to find a brooding double truck panel of Parker sitting by a shuttered pool at an upstate New York motel and are reminded again of what Cooke brings to the table.

Reminder: Hell & Gone Giveaway

Go read last week’s Q&A with Duane Swierczynski. Then enter the contest to win a signed copy of Duane’s book Hell & Gone. U.S. residents have until noon PST on Wednesday, November 2 to email their name and postal address to contest@vincekeenan.com with Hell & Gone as the subject line.