Book Review: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

May 27, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

By Allison Hoover Bartlett

Published September 17, 2009

Riverhead Books

288 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48891-6

Reviewed May 26, 2010

In the Rare Book Room of Powell’s City of Books, sealed behind a glass door and bordered by two faded brown texts, sits an unassuming blue-covered copy of John Keats’ complete poetry. While it may seem indistinguishable from volumes you’d find on a garage sale card table, this book is worlds above them for the name scrawled on the inside page: Jack Kerouac. This volume was owned by Kerouac in 1949, the same year he and Neal Cassady drove across country in the journeys that would become “On The Road,” and contains various underlines and marginal comments the great author made. It’s a book saturated in history – and kept out of my hands by an $8,000 price tag.

But as much as I eye the book and lovingly run my fingers over the glass border, thoughts of larceny never once cross my mind. Even if all the store’s employees were on a smoke break and no legal consequences existed, the thought of stealing this book – or any book – is abhorrent to me no matter how deep my passion runs. It’s a moral code that many serious book lovers share, but one that sadly doesn’t extend to everyone. Allison Hoover Bartlett’s discursive “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” explores how that bibliomania drives the lives of thieves and collectors – and what happens when the two go into conflict over one volume too many.

The titular man who loved books too much is one John Charles Gilkey, a California native who was gripped at an early age by the fever of book collecting. Unable to afford the titles he wanted and furnish the grand library of his dreams, Gilkey moved into the world of fraud, using bad checks and stolen credit card numbers to defraud sellers. Establishing a system – harvesting credit card numbers from his job at Saks, calling ahead to order titles as gifts and picking them up “in a hurry” – Gilkey soon became one of the most successful operational book thieves, filching over $100,000 worth of first additions and rarities from rare book dealers.

Such a string of thefts eventually gained attention in this passionate community, and the growth of “pink sheets” (dealer theft reports) became the pet cause of Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America security chair/Utah rare books dealer Ken Sanders. In the process of modernizing the ABAA’s theft system, he brought Gilkey’s efforts to the attention of other dealers – an effort not helped by the police’s apathy what they saw as petty book thefts, and Gilkey’s utter refusal to turn away from his habit after being caught.

Bartlett presents her narrative from a first-person perspective, interviewing both men extensively and casting herself in reactions to their stories. In the case of the fiery Sanders, Bartlett is drawn into the world of book collecting, painting the immersion of antiquarian book fairs and stores with towering shelves. The dealers she meets offer all the right war stories: their start in the field, the joy of a Holy Grail title discovered in a back drawer or brought in by an unknowing seller, the deep betrayal felt when a previously trusted customer liberates titles without paying. It can be a dry subject for the non-bibliomaniac, but Bartlett keeps it relevant by discussing her own reactions, experiences in collecting and volumes that mean something to her. She may not care as deeply as Sanders, but she does care, and her enthusiasm for these stories carries over.

The varied anecdotes on book sales and book thefts keep “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” interesting, but it is the inclusion of Gilkey’s stunning amorality with his bibliomania that makes it compelling. Gilkey is a fascinating figure – very knowledgeable about his passion and completely swept up in the image of “his library,” paradoxically wanting to show off a collection that would land him back in jail if the right person saw it. His complete lack of regret for any of his thefts, as well as his often childish conviction that going to jail for stealing books he can’t afford is a personal slight against him by the booksellers, will set any librarian’s blood boiling but make him a character worth studying. His brazen nature also allows for some particularly memorable scenes during the interviews: in one, Gilkey casually wanders the halls of a bookstore he’s robbed before, firing off random details on titles for sale as the owner and Bartlett look on with respective suspicion and horror.

Similar scenes do provide “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” with tension, but it lacks the grip of other true crime stories. Some of this stems from the fact that this story isn’t a traditional cat-and-mouse structure of two men purposely trying to outsmart each other (though Sanders spearheaded a sting effort to catch Gilkey the two have never met, and Gilkey can’t even remember Sanders’ last name when asked), but there is a feeling that Bartlett could have dug deeper. She never seeks a concrete answer from Gilkey on how deeply his father was involved in the thefts despite mentioning her curiosity more than once, nor does she take Sanders’ advice and try investigating where Gilkey stashed his ill-gotten library. True, such efforts would have likely destroyed the rapport she built with Gilkey, but that aspect feels like it would have been improved by more interactions outside the two men.

But that will likely only disappoint readers looking for a taut crime thriller, and “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” has far more to offer than that. Gilkey and Sanders represent two very different sides of the same obsession, and Bartlett as intermediary stirs up not only the deep allure books represent to them but a plethora of stories perfect for anyone who has more than a passing interest in maintaining their bookshelf. If you’re like me, it might even make you take a more serious look at how you value your own collecting elements – at time of writing, I’ve got a mason jar collecting coins so that Kerouac/Keats might move into my own hands in due time.

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Book Review: Pacific Agony

May 24, 2010

Pacific Agony: A Novel

By Bruce Benderson

Published October 30, 2009

Semiotext(e)

183 pp.

ISBN 1-584-35082-2

Reviewed May 24, 2010

At the time of writing this review, I have been a resident of Portland, Oregon for nearly two years. Desperate to get out of the Midwest I chose the city based on random whims and recommendations, and have since fallen completely in love with the Pacific Northwest. Bordered by mountains and forests, containing a hodgepodge of architectural styles and rife with solid beers and bookstores, it comes across as a welcome change from endless farmland. As much as I love my adopted homeland, however, I’m not blind to its varied faults, most of which center around how smugly self-satisfied it seems with itself as forward-thinking despite being overwhelmingly suburban and Caucasian.

I’m certainly not alone in writers pointing this out: Christian Lander of “Stuff White People Like” dubbed Portland “a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario … whereby a homogenous group of people is left in an area with no one to keep them in check,” and local author Katherine Dunn said in one “Slice” column from Willamette Week that she sees the city as “a swamp of cracker bigotry dotted by islands of attempted sanity.” And now, with his novel “Pacific Agony,” Bruce Benderson has presented possibly the most brutal evisceration of the Pacific Northwest’s culture – and presented it so well residents will have a hard time taking too much offense.

Benderson’s voice for this criticism is Reginald Fortiphton, a writer of middling success who is contracted to write a travel book based on his impressions of West Coast hubs such as Seattle, Portland and Vancouver. However, Fortiphton’s penchant for aggravating his hosts, popping morphine tablets and lusting after dangerous young men quickly prove he’s a poor choice to write positively of anything. The novel – presented as Fortiphton’s final manuscript to his editor – presents a caustic and biting assessment of the region, as he blasts its suburban comforts with unrestrained vitriol.

Despite having a name more at home in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, Fortiphton is a character with little in the way of good humor or even likability. He treats his assignment of viewing the region’s landmarks as a license to assault them, dismissing Seattle as “a squeaky-clean dormitory for fledgling dot-com-ers” and Eugene as a “minor city… true to that stunning, almost contemptuous neutrality.” When forced out into the rain to smoke, he takes a morbid view of it, proud of his “lethal weapon” and spitting at the restrictions such a supposedly liberal region implements. It’s unapologetic, and very refreshing.

This might make the book seem like nothing but railing, but “Pacific Agony” is special more for what it says about its characters than the region. As I mentioned in my review of his excellent “Sex and Isolation,” one of the things that distinguishes Benderson as a writer is his unabashed support and sympathy for a lifestyle most people would cross the street to avoid. Fortiphton disregards the touristy locations to seek out anarchists, primitivists and street hustlers, and Benderson affectionately offers up some prime examples – an anarchistic street hustler named Judas, a heroin addict descended from the Quileute tribe, a Finnish centenarian with a Communist past. As in “Sex and Isolation,” there is palpable nostalgia for a more dangerous past, as when Fortiphton bitterly curses the monotony of his whitewashed surroundings:

“Wasn’t anyone aware that the incestuous urges, Oedipal hostility and sepulchral disciplines of family life could only implode if they were kept in such an isolated state? Didn’t anybody but me miss the glory days of public transportation and public space when the city was indeed a spectacle to walk through and provided the flâneur his wonderfully tainted bath?”

And bathing in this environment leads Fortiphton to become even more depressed and delusional, eventually becoming convinced a conspiracy of Interzone proportions is being spearheaded by his editors. The last chapters of “Pacific Agony” take on a more surreal edge, as Fortiphton completely abandons his schedule and takes up residence with the homeless of British Columbia and supplanting his morphine reserves with “other substances that I will not describe in detail.” It does make the book feel somewhat unfocused, but the language also becomes more haunting as he weaves Native American myth and natural beauty into his “great, sweeping gestures of fatality.”

The book’s acerbic tones and harsh themes may be off-putting to some but Benderson cleverly balances them through the use of footnotes, presented as manuscript comments by Fortiphton’s editor Narcissa Whitman Applegate. A proud historian and descendant of Oregon pioneers, Applegate grows more and more outraged as the book progresses, to the point where she almost gloats when his lusts get the better of him. Her defensive remarks clarifying the thriving industries and historical culture in Eugene and Oregon City forms a hilarious contrast to Fortiphton’s rants, and the haughty tone she takes serves to unintentionally prove her author’s point on the region’s collective stick-up-the-ass.

In her closing remarks, Applegate lambastes the book as “A compendium of perversity and viciousness, full of distortions, sarcasm – and even obscenities!” That’s certainly all there in “Pacific Agony,” but what she clearly misses is the fantastic phrasing Benderson displays, and how the cracked lens he holds up to the region also cuts to the core of his narrator’s soul. It’s certainly not a book that will serve as an argument for moving to the Pacific Northwest, but it’s a stirringly well-done character study and a wake-up call our staid culture could use more of.


Book Review: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

May 18, 2010

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter

By Seth Grahame-Smith

Published March 2, 2010

Grand Central Publishing

352 pp.

ISBN 0-446-56308-0

Reviewed May 18, 2010

It’d be hard to find a classic monster more annoyingly reinvented in the last few years than the vampire. Thanks to novel series like “Twilight,” “The Vampire Diaries” and “The Southern Vampire Chronicles” (better known by its TV incarnation “True Blood”) the public perception of vampires has shifted away from the shadowy children of the night into gleaming fashion model types with more concern for snark and sexual tension. The quiet power and authority of Dracula has been supplanted with the brooding of Edward Cullen, and the archetype has suffered as a result, inspiring dread for all the wrong reasons.

Despite the genre’s bad reputation, the announcement of “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” remained intriguing to me. First of all, it was written by “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” author Seth Grahame-Smith, who proved that he is capable of smartly meshing a historical time period with fantasy elements beyond a good title. Additionally, it promised to do something new with the fledgling mash-up literary trend, emulating the biographical styles of authors like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin for some potentially deeper fiction. It was a title rife with potential – unfortunately, the result shows only about half of that potential was in reach.

“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is exactly what it promises on the title – a retelling of the life of the sixteenth President of the United States, with the added caveat that the great orator and wartime president was also an accomplished dispatcher of the undead. After losing his mother to a vampire’s power, he cultivates himself into a slayer without peer, hunting vampires with axe and stakes as they move secretly amongst us. As he uncovers proof of their deep influence, Lincoln finds himself carried to the highest office in the land, forced to enter a war to keep the fledgling United States from turning into an exsanguinatory buffet.

The Quirk Classics series (“PPZ” and its spiritual successors) proved that there is an important balance that needs to be struck between the established setting and the mythological construction, and Grahame-Smith once again finds that niche. Vampires hide in plain sight – their dark glasses and parasols the only indicator of their true nature – and have found a ready-for-purchase source of food in the slave markets. They pull the strings of the politics between North and South to keep the institution legal, serving as undead lobbyists who support Southern politicians to the point that vampires are whispered about in the halls of Congress as a political concern. It’s an argument that extends its premise logically, and serves to further justify Lincoln’s political decisions.

But while the book does competently weave vampiric mythology into American history, the method in which it tells its story disappoints. While branding itself as a biography, “ALVH” comes across more frequently as a pulp fiction dime novel, given to some overwrought sentences for suspense’s sake (“Too frightened to warn his father that it was coming. Right above him. Right now”) and moving rather quickly over the political climate Lincoln had to navigate. It’s also willing to indulge in some historical crossover fan fiction, making Edgar Allen Poe an occasional friend of Lincoln and a friend of vampires, who are impressed by his skill in capturing death on the page.

None of these additions is a deal-breaker by itself, but “ALVH’s” meshing of history with fantasy make it seem continually uncertain about what kind of book it wants to be. At times it seems to be going for solid biography as sections of Lincoln’s journal or letters from his vampire-hunting allies are reprinted to give hints as to his motives and mindset, and footnotes allude to political figures or Shakespeare references. To his credit Grahame-Smith does manage to establish Lincoln’s voice in these entries, and the language feels appropriate for the time and the author.

Almost immediately after these sections though, this capital is squandered as “ALVH” segues into traditional suspense, with lines like “These are the last seconds of my life” and “Judge us not equally” cropping up in constant fight scenes. Conversations between Lincoln, his vampire-hunting allies and his political rivals are presented as straight dialogue a biographer would have no way of knowing, and there’s an annoying over-reliance on presenting Lincoln’s dreams, showing plantation manors as houses of torture or a demon staked through the heart in his son’s crib.

(Particular admonishment goes to the book’s prologue, where a fictionalized version of Grahame-Smith is given the diaries of Lincoln by a vampire who wants the story told, and he emphasizes how the quest to write this book nearly destroyed his sanity. It derails the historian’s voice a book should have possessed before it even gets started, and adds nothing to the core narrative.)

These complaints don’t make “ALVH” necessarily a bad book – the fight scenes are competently done and Lincoln’s journals do have their tense moments – but it fails to make the lightning strike in the same way “PPZ” did. It restores some subtlety to vampires but completely removes that subtlety in the rest of its presentation, choosing to indulge itself in purple prose rather than paying serious homage to the books that inspired it. The upcoming film version is likely to be entertaining (despite Tim Burton’s track record on literary adaptations) but one can’t shake the feeling that if done right this idea would have inspired its own miniseries.

It’d be hard to find a classic monster more annoyingly reinvented in the last few years than the vampire. Thanks to novel series like “Twilight,” “The Vampire Diaries” and “The Southern Vampire Chronicles” (better known by its TV incarnation “True Blood”) the public perception of vampires has shifted away from the shadowy children of the night into gleaming fashion model types with more concern for snark and sexual tension. The quiet power and authority of Dracula has been supplanted with the brooding of Edward Cullen, and the archetype has suffered as a result, inspiring dread for all the wrong reasons.

Despite the genre’s bad reputation, the announcement of “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” remained intriguing to me. First of all, it was written by “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” author Seth Grahame-Smith, who proved that he is capable of smartly meshing a historical time period with fantasy elements beyond a good title. Additionally, it promised to do something new with the fledgling mash-up literary trend, emulating the biographical styles of authors like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin for some potentially deeper fiction. It was a title rife with potential – unfortunately, the result shows only about half of that potential was in reach.

“Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” is exactly what it promises on the title – a retelling of the life of the sixteenth President of the United States, with the added caveat that the great orator and wartime president was also an accomplished dispatcher of the undead. After losing his mother to a vampire’s power, he cultivates himself into a slayer without peer, hunting vampires with axe and stakes as they move secretly amongst us. As he uncovers proof of their deep influence, Lincoln finds himself carried to the highest office in the land, forced to enter a war to keep the fledgling United States from turning into an exsanguinatory buffet.

The Quirk Classics series (“PPZ” and its spiritual successors) proved that there is an important balance that needs to be struck between the established setting and the mythological construction, and Grahame-Smith once again finds that niche. Vampires hide in plain sight – their dark glasses and parasols the only indicator of their true nature – and have found a ready-for-purchase source of food in the slave markets. They pull the strings of the politics between North and South to keep the institution legal, serving as undead lobbyists who support Southern politicians to the point that vampires are whispered about in the halls of Congress as a political concern. It’s an argument that extends its premise logically, and serves to further justify Lincoln’s political decisions.

But while the book does competently weave vampiric mythology into American history, the method in which it tells its story disappoints. While branding itself as a biography, “ALVH” comes across more frequently as a pulp fiction dime novel, given to some overwrought sentences for suspense’s sake (“Too frightened to warn his father that it was coming. Right above him. Right now”) and moving rather quickly over the political climate Lincoln had to navigate. It’s also willing to indulge in some historical crossover fan fiction, making Edgar Allen Poe an occasional friend of Lincoln and a friend of vampires, who are impressed by his skill in capturing death on the page.

None of these additions is a deal-breaker by itself, but “ALVH’s” meshing of history with fantasy make it seem continually uncertain about what kind of book it wants to be. At times it seems to be going for solid biography as sections of Lincoln’s journal or letters from his vampire-hunting allies are reprinted to give hints as to his motives and mindset, and footnotes allude to political figures or Shakespeare references. To his credit Grahame-Smith does manage to establish Lincoln’s voice in these entries, and the language feels appropriate for the time and for the author.

On the next page though, this capital is squandered as “ALVH” segues into traditional suspense, with lines like “These are the last seconds of my life” and “Judge us not equally” cropping up in constant fight scenes. Conversations between Lincoln, his vampire-hunting allies and his political rivals are presented as straight dialogue a biographer would have no way of knowing, and there’s an annoying over-reliance on presenting Lincoln’s dreams, showing plantation manors as houses of torture or a demon staked through the heart in his son’s crib.

(Particular admonishment goes to the book’s prologue, where a fictionalized version of Grahame-Smith is given the diaries of Lincoln by a vampire who wants the story told, and he emphasizes how the quest to write this book nearly destroyed his sanity. It derails the historian’s voice a book should have possessed before it even gets started, and adds nothing to the core narrative.)

These complaints don’t make “ALVH” necessarily a bad book – the fight scenes are competently done and Lincoln’s journals do have their tense moments – but it fails to make the lightning strike in the same way “PPZ” did. It does well in restoring some subtlety to vampires but completely removes that subtlety in the rest of its presentation, choosing to indulge itself in purple prose rather than paying serious homage to the books that inspired it. I’m optimistic that the upcoming film version will be entertaining (despite Tim Burton’s track record on literary adaptations) but one can’t shake the feeling that if played smarter it could have inspired its own miniseries.


Text-to-Screen Ratio: Dexter

May 12, 2010

(Editor’s note: there will be spoilers here, but the only things I intend to spoil are plot threads that deserve it. Don’t worry, I’ll keep the good stuff hidden in a rosewood box inside the air conditioner)

Due to the difference in each medium’s scope, it isn’t often you see books adapted for television. Novels – and films to some extent – are self-contained works with a set beginning and end, while a television series that airs multiple episodes a season is a living entity that often evolves weekly with changes in cast or writers. Additionally, books aren’t usually facing up against yearly battles for renewal, and shows rarely have the luxury of limiting themselves to one source of material unless they’re committing themselves to a limited run or miniseries.

Consequently, mainstream television shows that do use books as their inspiration have a few options if they want to stay alive. They can either leap away from their origin story and create a new world to operate in, such as FOX’s “Bones” (based on Kathy Reichs’ series of novels); they can rely on an extensive library of source material to keep a story rolling, such as the “Jeeves and Wooster” series; or they can bank on a really interesting main character to push it through, as is the case with Showtime’s “Dexter.” Likely the most successful contemporary show based on a book (specifically, Jeff Lindsay’s series of thriller novels), “Dexter” is interesting because it manages to show not only how an adaptation can be hampered by its source material but also how it can rise above it.

Both versions of the story maintain the core plot structure. Dexter Morgan, a forensic scientist with the Miami Metro Police Department, is a completely normal citizen except for one rather glaring difference: he kills people. Traumatized in his youth by an unknown horror, Dexter is a sociopath devoid of emotion who only feels alive when taking someone’s life. Nurtured closely by his cop father Harry, Dexter has channeled these urges into a form of community service, only killing those who are themselves killers, and arranging the events so precisely that he is never even considered a suspect.

Only the first season and the first book “Darkly Dreaming Dexter” have major similarities and plot threads, focusing on an uprooting of Dexter’s status quo when a new serial killer enters the picture who seems to have very detailed knowledge of his bloody activities. Dexter’s chameleon-like life and bloody extracurriculars are adapted faithfully, though (understandably) with a bit less emphasis on torture – kills are handled swiftly and mostly out of sight, with a more orderly cleanup rather than the improvisation of the book. All main characters are also present, including his foul-mouthed ambitious sister Deborah, his loyal and damaged girlfriend Rita, the suspicious Sergeant Doakes, man-eating Lieutenant LaGuerta, dutiful homicide detective Angel Batista and smarmy lab assistant Vince Masuka.

But fittingly for a show and novel with a titular character, it’s that character that makes or breaks the story – and it’s hard to think of how “Dexter” could do better than Michael C. Hall. I’ve preached on his merits in my Capturing the Voice column, but suffice to say he continues to prove his worthiness to stand alongside the strongest central male leads. Slightly goofy when interacting with the rest of the world, coldly brutal when hunting and detached in inner monologues, Hall delivers on each side of Dexter’s persona in a very convincing manner. The monologues in particular exhibit the flow of words that make Lindsay’s novels devourable, particularly the first book and its sequel “Dearly Devoted Dexter.” In fact, Lindsay has gone on record as saying that seeing Hall’s performance was “a jaw-dropping experience… he really nailed it” and that he consults the actor while writing new books.

Of course, Hall’s position as the show’s center has also been accentuated by a frequently limp supporting cast – an issue that highlights the core problem with making a TV show (or even a movie) out of a first-person book. The novel focuses solely on one character’s views and actions, with other characters defined only in their interaction to the narrator, while the B story and C story subplots that form the structure of conventional television have to develop those characters independently. As a consequence, characters have to branch out in ways their creator never intended them to, and in “Dexter’s” case they never quite seem to escape their one-dimensional nature.

The show makes an effort to expand these characters beyond the templates Lindsay created, but the results tend to be hit-or-miss. Dexter’s sister Debra, portrayed as a more soured individual in the books, is carried competently by Jennifer Carpenter as “dearly damaged Debra,” her constant swearing betraying the damage of an absentee father. However, when they try to push her too heavily out of her comfort zone, such as her dalliance with a much older FBI agent in season 2 that has some seriously cringe-worthy scenes (I don’t need to see Keith Carradine smacking the ass of a woman half his age).

Again, the characters that work do so because of their defined reaction to Dexter and how much that relationship diverges from the book. Erik King as Doakes makes an excellent “panther” stalking Dexter (if only because I feel he needs his own blacksplotation film on the strength of how he says “motherfucker”), and Dexter’s fellow lab tech Masuka (C.S. Lee) is smarmy enough that he matches Dexter’s book observation that he also seems to be pretending to be normal. Conversely, David Zayas and Lauren Velez never seem to have enough to do as Batista and Masuka respectively, and their subplots feel scattered like bags of body parts thrown into the Atlantic. Julie Benz as Rita probably gets closer to him than others, but when her ex-husband or mother come in there’s a lot of angst that seems to detract from the way the character works.

But while “Dexter” as a show has its share of storytelling cracks, in many ways it’s still stronger than its source material, chiefly because that source material has been on a downward slope. The “Dexter” novels, after two very entertaining outings, fell victim to what video game journalist Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw dubbed Indigo Prophecy Syndrome in his video review of “Condemned 2: Bloodshot”:

“The main and most obvious symptom of Indigo Prophecy Syndrome is a plot that in the second half goes what is medically known as ‘snooker-loopy,’ with lesser symptoms including total abandonment of subtlety, the introduction of ancient mystical cults, and the main character pulling hitherto unknown superpowers out of their ass.”

This description could almost verbatim be defining the critical failures of “Dexter in the Dark,” the third book in the series, which decides on a new twist for the “Dark Passenger” metaphor Dexter gives his murderous urges. In this book, it turns out that his Dark Passenger is in fact a shard of the dark god Moloch, and a cult that worships the god is tracking him in an effort to recapture this entity, and they do so by bringing him to their temple on an island to be sacrificed in a flaming pit – okay, I’m going to break character and stop here because now that I’ve typed it it sounds even stupider than it did upon first reading. Anyways.

The fourth book “Dexter by Design” tried to remedy this by treating the earlier book as if it didn’t happen, but Dexter felt like he’d lost something as a character, stumbling when he came to difficult circumstances and without the cool patience and resourcefulness that had been one of his strengths in the earlier books. Plus, with a fifth upcoming volume that will be using cannibalism as a main plot point (titled “Dexter is Delicious”), the books are quite clearly trying to push the envelope a bit too far in an effort to keep the character interesting.

“Dexter” on TV, meanwhile, never took that tact with the character’s homicidal leanings but rather took on aspects of a psychological study. Season 2 dealt with several jars to Dexter’s previously unflappable perception of himself and his code, while Season 3 saw him dealing with his impending fatherhood and the fact that another man had discovered his secret. Thanks largely to Hall’s performance, the show takes on elements of a character study that deals with questions of addiction and parental obligation, never divorcing itself from reality or going to the pulp extremes of the book. Dexter feels more like a character that can be rooted for despite his horrific acts, someone you want to come out on top and keep doing what he does – a depth his novel incarnation always felt divorced from.

At the close of “Dexter’s” second season finale, Dexter makes the observation that his experiences have changed him from the template killer he always saw himself as, “an idea transformed into life” – and that descriptor applies neatly to what the show has done for the character and storyline. Despite the burdens of poor plotting, Hall and the writers have carried Dexter to a new dimension past the alliterative killer the books introduced him as. Several critics have complained that the show feels somewhat strained the longer it goes on and the more situations Dexter gets out of, but it’s a world worth immersing oneself in – as long as they can avoid the Babylonian gods.

Extra Credit:

  • For exceptionally solid writing on “Dexter” the show (including examples of that critical complaint I mentioned in the last paragraph), check out Alan Sepinwall’s blog and the A.V. Club’s reviews. Spoilers abound, so be cautious.

Book Review: Mercury Falls

May 7, 2010

Mercury Falls

By Robert Kroese

Published July 13, 2009

St. Culain Press

350 pp.

ISBN 0-578-03214-7

Reviewed May 7, 2010

The central problem one finds with explaining life, the universe and everything – beyond the fact that thousands upon thousands of people have killed each other over the centuries to prove one viewpoint or another – is the fact that it all seems so dramatically inconsistent depending on what happens. On one hand you have the miracle that is existence, with new life created every minute and countless expressions of joy and color; while on the other you have just as many disasters of the natural and human variety with no regard to what others hold dear. The devout try to explain it as “part of God’s plan,” while others attribute it to the fact that there is no God and therefore no hand on the tiller.

But there’s another possibility: the idea that the Universe may not be random or planned, cruel or benevolent, but just so tangled up in managing itself that all options could appear true at any given time. Existence is a fairly vast concept, after all, and you have to consider the chance that the ones who keep it running aren’t the all-powerful and all-knowing, but the anal, the stressed and the frivolous. Robert Kroese’s debut novel “Mercury Falls” explores this possibility by studying the contractual obligations of Armageddon and the Antichrist, and the result is a hilarious and frequently insightful tale of the proper procedures between Good and Evil.

These particular procedures, hammered out through centuries into a thick legal document known as the Apocalypse Accord, dictate how the coming and denunciation of the Antichrist will herald the End Times, provided they happen according to plan. Unfortunately, the Antichrist’s appointed executioner has skipped out on his duties, agents of both Lucifer and a third party are trying to work their way out of the contract, and the Antichrist happens to be a 37-year-old loser living in his mother’s attic – all of which could destroy the world, and not in the way it’s supposed to happen. Tangled up in this mess is Christine Temetri, a religious news magazine reporter who’s spent too much time amongst failed cults to believe Armageddon is actually real – that is, until the demons come through her kitchen linoleum.

On the surface, “Mercury Falls” has a lot of similarities to Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” simply trading religion for science fiction. Theories on the identity of the Antichrist run parallel to Adams’ theory on the ruler of the Universe (mostly the massive disconnect between expectation and reality), and Heaven’s bureacracy could contract out to the officious Vogons in how determined they are to make sure no one does anything without the right forms. And though Christine is more reminiscent of Cayce Pollard in William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition” than Arthur Dent, she does have her very own Ford Prefect in the form of Mercury, a cherubim who in the tradition of John Travolta and Ben Affleck is more concerned with Earth’s trivialities than the divine plan.

A lot of authors have gone to great lengths to emulate Adams’ style, but “Mercury Falls” is one of the rare books that deserves to be called a spiritual successor to the “Hitchhiker’s Guide.” First of all, the writing is almost universally solid and funny, making its cross-talk witticisms feel natural as Mercury leads Christine around in verbal circles while constructing a three-story snowman. Then there’s characters who are a mix of bad puns and crafty logic, such as the angel that works for tips (like how to open a frozen car lock). A few moments go for the Adams connection a bit too self-consciously – such as Christine suggesting an angel turn a rocket into a bowl of petunias – but with so much of the dialogue and observations flowing smoothly they’re easily dismissed as the rough edges of a debut novel.

But while writers can create the technical framework of an Adams joke, there needs to be something legitimate behind it, and “Mercury Falls” has some very clever supporting philosophy. Synchronicity – the theory that events causally independent are connected in some deeper way – plays a large part in how Christine and others keep bumping up against the forces of Heaven and Hell, and a debate between determininism and free will comes down to the theory that we are all so many “subatomic coin flippers.” The tropes of Armageddon are also tweaked in contemporary ways with a hidden meaning – for example, the Four Horsemen aren’t mounted knights but miracle-working laptops with a design flaw that makes humanity architects of their own destruction, creating a disaster one out of three times.

These comparisons may make it seem like “Mercury Falls” only deserves to be seen as an Adams heir, but that’s not being fair to how well Kroese constructs this book. Each of his characters come across as legitimate beings, with the third-person voice allowing Christine, her employer, the Antichrist and a slew of angels the chance to go on internal tangents. It also includes some contemporary satire by incorporating a “Harry Potter” doppleganger that proves those who claim the series as Satanic correct, though far more nuanced than what your average book-burner would suspect. And while some might miss this, it also pulls a neat trick by taking its epigraph quotes (a trio from Woody Allen, a 90s reverend and the King James Bible) and turning them into plot points by the first page – a transition I found rather quick and clever.

As I said in my “Tomato Rhapsody” review, every so often it’s important to find a book that is simply fun to read, and “Mercury Falls” belongs solidly in that category thanks to its quick wit and well-conceived plot. If Kroese does turn out to be right, and we are all doomed to perish as soon as Heaven receives all the right forms in triplicate, it’s a comfort to know we at least have books like this to whittle away the time until then.


Text-to-Screen News: HST Returns to Cinema

May 6, 2010

Hunter S. Thompson at a "Free Lisl" rally in Denver, 2001.

As anyone who has even a passing familiarity with me knows, I love Hunter S. Thompson. I’ve read the great majority of his books, I’ve dressed as him on three Halloweens, I can quote him at will, have a font of trivia at my disposal and do more than a passing impression. The reasons why I love the Good Doctor are long and detailed and far more impassioned than that I simply like yelling about golf shoes in hotel bars, but will have to wait for another time. I mention this now because an interesting bit of Thompson-related news came out on Sunday, and I feel it’s important to cast light on potential bias before discussion.

As the Hollywood Reporter noted on Sunday and which I heard about through The A.V. Club, the Motion Picture Corporation of America has optioned “Prisoner of Denver,” an article Thompson wrote for Vanity Fair in 2004 in collaboration with contributing editor Mark Seal. The article concerns the imprisonment of Lisl Auman, a 21-year-old who was charged with murder despite already being in police custody when the crime occurred – an accomplice who committed suicide did the actual shooting. Thompson became pen pals with Auman and took up the fight for her freedom, rallying several of his celebrity friends to the cause to help earn her release in 2005.

“It is not in my nature to be polite to people who want to hurt me, or to turn my back on a woman who is being brutally raped right in front of my eyes, especially when the rapists are wearing big guns and Denver Police Department badges. And that is why I am telling you this disgusting story about how notoriously vicious cops buried a provably innocent young woman in a tiny cell in the concrete bowels of a Colorado state prison for the rest of her life with no possibility of parole. That is a death sentence, pure and simple, and those rotten, murdering bastards are still proud of it. Proud. Remember that word, because it is going to come back and haunt every one of those swine. The Lisl Auman scandal will whack the Denver law-enforcement establishment like Watergate whacked Richard Nixon.”
– “Prisoner of Denver,” Hunter S. Thompson and Mark Seal, Vanity Fair, 2004

I have not read “Prisoner of Denver” myself as it has yet to make it into a Thompson compilation, and a cursory search couldn’t yield a link on Vanity Fair‘s website or any other site (though the first few paragraphs can be read here), so I can’t comment on whether or not it’s an article that deserves filming. What I will say though is that it opens up room to portray an aspect of Thompson many people overlook. Despite making a career chronicling “the death of the American Dream,” Thompson loved America fiercely, and in his later years perceived violations of her principles sent his fighting spirit into overdrive. “Songs of the Doomed” depicts an excellent example of this, chronicling Thompson’s arrest for sexual assault and drug possession which he soon turned into an assault on his Fourth Amendment rights.

As Ralph Steadman put it, “he felt this deep outrage, because someone was fucking with his beloved Constitution,” and that’s an attitude I think would be good to see on screen to clear up the image of drugs and hyperbole that too often colors Thompson’s public image. Plus, the Doctor as aged patriot might make a great excuse for Bill Murray to step back into the role.

That said, I’m not approaching the release with wide eyes. I think The A.V. Club makes a legitimate point about how it has the potential to be somewhat mawkish, considering Thompson has been dead for five years now and not around to make sure the swine keep him in the right light. Plus, according to the Hollywood Reporter, MPCA are looking for screenwriters “with a focus on Thompson and Seal acting as a couple of gonzo Woodward and Bernsteins,” and that phrase just makes the bile rise in my stomach. Few things do more damage to the Doctor’s reputation than shoddy imitators.

Of course, given that the film adaptation of “The Rum Diary” languished in development hell for a decade and Thompson’s third collection of letters “The Mutineer” delays its release date more than its author did turning in articles, I don’t expect to hear too much out of this project for at least a year or two. A close eye will of course be maintained on proceedings, to see if the eventual ride is worth the ticket price.

(As an aside, the article also states that the long-delayed “Rum Diary” film will be seeing release in September, a fact confirmed by IMDB and Wikipedia. I’m an eternal cynic on this film making it to the big screen, given that two incarnations were killed in development, but it’s more concrete than anything I’ve heard in years. Show me a trailer, then we’ll talk more.)