Saturday, October 26, 2013

“My Notorious Life"

The best aspect of writing a blog is that nobody can shut you up. (The worst aspect of writing a blog is that nobody can shut you up.)

Contrariwise, when writing a novel there’s far more static, more white noise: or is that the loudness of blank pages waiting to be filled? Many colleagues also seem gripped by a professional jealousy that must hinder their creative way along the scenic route. How can you enjoy the unexpected diversions of a landscape if you’re worried you’re being followed?

Fortunately, I’ve never been in danger of being followed—I know nearly everybody who bought my first novel, and unsigned copies of my books are rarer than autographed ones. All this is to say that I cannot understand fellow writers who take as personal insult the fine reviews garnered by others; the life is so difficult that it makes me happy when somebody gets applause that seems even partially deserved. To quote Jorge Luis Borges on the Falklands war, it’s like two bald men fighting over a comb.

The purpose of this blog, then, is to laud a new masterpiece of fiction, just published, by a longtime friend, Kate Manning.

Back when I was a college student, many of us dreamed of becoming professional writers; some were too embarrassed to mention it, but thirty-five years ago I personally took for granted that all good things were feasible. I don’t recall if Kate was writing then, but I assume she must’ve been; I can’t believe this sort of virtuosity started late. But I doubt any would have picked her, among all our scribbling classmates, to write a novel inarguably great and profoundly American.

About eleven years ago Kate, living in New York, published a fine first novel. It got strong reviews but one brutal notice that dissuaded the publisher from putting any weight behind the book. Oh, how they must be regretting their cowardice now.

And one month ago Kate published her second novel, “My Notorious Life.” When she sent it to me, like everybody else given the privilege of reading it early on, I realized immediately that it was very special. Here is part of the publisher’s publicity material:

“Inspired by the true story of Ann Trow Lohman, a female physician who became one of the most controversial figures in Victorian New York City, MY NOTORIOUS LIFE vibrantly portrays a charismatic, passionate woman who changed the lives of countless others.

”Set in gritty late-19th century New York City, MY NOTORIOUS LIFE is the story of Axie (née Annie) Muldoon, a formidable child of Irish immigrants who works her way off the brutal streets to become one of the most successful—and scandalous—women of her time. With a quick wit and a sharp tongue, Axie recounts her separation from her mother and siblings, her apprenticeship to a midwife, and how she earns a fortune selling “Lunar Tablets for the relief of Female Obstruction.” As she builds her thriving midwifery practice with her husband, ascending from one room in a tenement on the Lower East Side to a mansion on Fifth Avenue, she finds herself on a collision course with one of the most zealous characters of her era: Anthony Comstock, whose self-appointed mission is to clean up America one ‘sinner’ at a time. It will take all of Axie’s power to outwit him and keep her family from falling back into ruin.

“MY NOTORIOUS LIFE provides a little-known historical backdrop to current debates over women’s reproductive rights. The pleas of the patients who visit Axie in desperation will resonate with contemporary readers who recognize that 150 years later, we are still fighting many of the same battles. This moving and nuanced commentary on one of today’s hottest topics is sure to fuel the fire of an already blazing debate.

“A brilliant rendering of a historical time and heated political climate, MY NOTORIOUS LIFE is ultimately the story of one woman making her indomitable way in a difficult world. Axie Muldoon is truly a heroine for the ages.”

Better yet, rather than trusting the Scribners propaganda machine, or me, you can read the smart and subtle reviews this smart and subtle book has engendered at the Nation and the Washington Post.

Kate has brought to life the grim, grimy tenement portraits of Jacob Riis (look him up) from five generations ago and—foolhardy as it may be for me to predict the future—I believe that this book will still be read five generations from now, whether or not it soon garners the prizes it deserves.

What I love most about this novel, and there is much to love, is how apparently effortlessly the past is put vividly before us, in meaningful (but never forced) detail; and the restraint with which the author handles the social and societal milieu, trusting us (by virtue of our modernity) to feel the proper outrage without any pounding at the piano on her part. We are left, finally, with the honest abrasive voice of that wonderful narrator, telling us all about herself—of what survives, and what finally does not.

Friday, April 12, 2013

"The Old Turk's Load"

As a lifelong writer, I like to tell myself that I’m a magpie collector of useful arcana about the language. (It’s as easy to waste a lifetime as an afternoon.) If you ask me, the sweetest four-word sentence anybody can ever hear is, "I love you, too."

But far and away—by many furlongs, leagues, and miles—the sucrosest, most satisfying, most viscerally enthralling four-word sentence human beings can ever utter is: "I told you so."

As a lifelong writer, I don’t get many chances to state this without lying. However, a couple of years ago I got a golden opportunity. This was when my pal Gregory Gibson—kempt-bearded antiquarian bookseller by day, superb writer by night, or is it the other way around?—handed me the typescript (a nearly obsolete word; of course it was a computer printout, but let’s call it a "typescript") of a novel, his first, and asked for my opinion.

Now, his three prior books are what’s nowadays termed "narrative nonfiction"—a memoir/walkabout/investigation of the murder of his eldest son, at college; a historical account of an infamous mutiny aboard a Nantucket whaling ship in the farthest reaches of the Pacific; the saga of an antiquarian colleague who stumbled on a cache of rare Diane Arbus African-American photographs and had a jolly time getting them authenticated and sold—in short, an eclectic mix as idiosyncratic and dynamic as the burly sexagenarian himself.

But a novel!

He prepared me, naturally, for the worst; and made it clear he wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t get very far. I read it in one happy, sunny afternoon, and thought it wonderful. Best of all, we were driving down to Hartford for a book fair early the next morning, so I got to savor his tension when I clambered into his van and casually dropped the news that I’d already read his book. I milked the pregnant pause mercilessly before telling him, in no uncertain terms, what I thought.

A few months later he informed me that his literary agent and her cohorts hadn’t liked it at all and felt it merited no chance in the marketplace. Therefore she wouldn’t be trying to sell it for him. (My insistence that he hold her feet over a fire till she relented fell on deaf ears; he knows better than I that it’s pointless trying to persuade a literary agent of fallibility.)

Instead he decided to issue it himself as a paperback (complete with a genuine pulp-art cover illustration) to send around to two hundred friends for Christmas. Luckily one of those friends was Otto Penzler, who started the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan decades ago and has his own imprint with Grove /Atlantic. In other words, an experienced gentleman who knows his mysteries and thrillers and recognizes real quality when he sees it.

Notice, of course, that the central point of all this brouhaha is not how terrific Greg’s novel is, but how I’m right, as usual.

Anyway, Otto loved the book as much as I did and offered Greg a full publishing contract immediately. (The Old Turk’s Load is out this week in hardback, and you’ll love it too, I promise.)

When he told me the news I got to relish the enormous joy of being able to say: I told you so. Now I mutter those words silently whenever I see him; if the book does half as well as advance reviews suggest it might, I may start leaving the phrase on his answering machine in the middle of the night just to rub it in. I’m reminded of the marvelous pianist and raconteur Oscar Levant, who—when asked if he knew Doris Day—remarked, "I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin." Well, I knew that TOTL was a fine novel before anyone else did, so there.

Greg’s been working on this book, off and on, since 1969. He was in the Navy then, stationed on the USS Sperry, plying the coast of California and the nearer tracts of the Pacific, reading plenty of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Frederick Exley. And starting to write. An early draft of TOTL earned a promising quasi-rejection from the paperback house of Pyramid Books and an invitation to come speak with them at their New York offices about necessary changes; he refused. Not until they came crawling, whining their miserable apologies! And he’s been rewriting it ever since, shaping and improving it as life altered him. There’s a special flavor that belongs to books worked on across the decades; like a whorled shell carried on an animal’s back, they have the vibrant personality of a cottage tended, inhabited, and loved for many years.

Here’s the dust-jacket copy:

"A tight, fast, and funny crime novel set amid the 1967 Newark riots. When a load of high-octane heroin goes missing, crooks, cops, do-gooders, and lowlifes scramble to possess it. But the heroin has ideas of its own, leading its pursuers on an increasingly deadly trail through the melee.

"Angelo DiNoto, a New Jersey crime boss, supplements his ruthless gains by importing blindingly pure artisinal smack produced by an old Turkish farmer. After a five-million-dollar shipment disappears, DiNoto can think of nothing better than to go on a murderous rampage.

"Richard Mundi, in whose lap the drugs landed, is a burned-out Manhattan developer who plans to use the unexpected windfall to revive his crumbling real estate empire. His gorgeous daughter Gloria, in bed—literally—with a band of wannabe revolutionaries, sees the heroin as a way to escape her father’s influence and impress the woman she loves.

"The Mailman is a longtime postal clerk who’s survived the worst life has to offer—until throat cancer robs him of his voice and all will to live. The drugs are his ticket to a better place. Topping off the chase is Walkaway Kelly, a private eye and Hell’s Kitchen barfly teetering on the brink of redemption.

"Stir in Kelly’s lovelorn sidekick, a pair of closeted gay hoodlums who work as DiNoto’s enforcers, Mundi’s conflicted protégé (a slab of muscle with a conscience, who also serves as Gloria’s nanny), and you have an Elmore Leonard-esque cast of characters running rampant in a convincing historical setting. Gregory Gibson weaves a twisty noir romp whose disparate threads converge in a thrilling showdown for the Old Turk’s Load."

Sadly, the dust jacket is missing a telltale phrase that bannered the original. (By the way, my copy of that "true first edition" is not for sale at any price; however, for $10 I’m willing to let visitors look at it.) That phrase? "A Walkaway Kelly Mystery." It positioned the book correctly, let us hope, as the first in a series about a hero we can believe in— a private dick with, in Greg’s piquant description, "the body of a God, the spirit of a tiger, and the brain of a 2 x 4".

The operative phrase in all this dust-jacket copy is "noir romp". Personally, I’ve never been much of a reader of mysteries or thrillers (despite a profile and appreciation of the master, Eric Ambler, that I hope to include in this space eventually). I’ve never managed to care whodunit; for me only the journey and not the arrival matters. And "noir" as a literary genre now seems utterly airless, a closed room crowded with the moldy furniture of clichés in which there isn’t space to swing an original thought. Whenever the cinematic formulas outweigh the literary possibilities, writers need to find another mineshaft.

I always feel that the noir romp has far more appeal, by dint of its tongue-in-cheek approach, than the works whose tough-guy style seems to be admiring its own trench coat and dark fedora too strenuously in the mirror. (The fake hair on the chest that e.e. cummings noted about Hemingway.) Some works I can thus heartily recommend which Greg possibly hasn’t read but which, in my limited mind, his marvelous noir romp evokes: The Tooth Merchant, by C. L. Sulzberger (one of the best opening lines I know, not suitable for a family blog); The Game of Thirty, by William Kotzwinkle; The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Kinky Friedman; and the first book in the Mortdecai trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli.

Get to them when you can; but read Greg’s new book first!