Category Archives: BOOKS

Book Review: Joe Pernice “It Feels So Good When I Stop”

PerniceBook175bIt is perfectly fitting, and almost expected, that Joe Pernice would bring a long work of fiction into the world. The songs he has written for his pop band The Pernice Brothers are filled with vivid storylines and pointillist details. And Pernice has already proven his mettle as a fine fiction writer with his installment in the 33 1/3 book series, which used The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder as a jumping off point for a beautifully crafted coming of age tale. But whereas his first literary effort was wrapped up in the swirling emotions and hormones of high school, his novel moves to the next stage of development: the slow slide toward adulthood. In many respects, Pernice trods a well-worn path covered by countless novels and films that have focused on emotionally stunted, artistically inclined young men as they fumble through a series of events that leaves them changed people at the end. What saves It Feels So Good When I Stop is how he veers off this path with regularity, giving us a variety of wholly original scenarios that lead to a conclusion that, in keeping with his protagonist’s shiftless attitude toward the world, leaves many loose ends untied. The protagonist is a nameless 25-year-old male who has retreated to a small town in Cape Cod with little ambition other than to avoid both his uncertain future and Jocelyn, the woman he married a few weeks’ prior to the book’s opening scenes. Their tempestuous relationship is threaded through the story, letting the reader bounce back to the key moments and quick-witted banter and forward again to his shuffling attempts to get by while hiding out in a gutted home owned by his brother-in-law. As you would expect, the story follows Pernice’s character as the layers of self-interest and ego are slowly peeled away, thanks to his begrudging involvement in the life of his young nephew (a toddler that he ends up watching on behalf of his brother-in-law) and by a strange, yet emotionally affecting relationship with Marie, a middle-aged wannabe filmmaker who hires him to help her finish a work that will help her come to terms with the death of her own young son. It is compelling enough to read as this unnamed gent slowly matures, but I found the sections devoted to his past to be much more engaging. The credit for this is wholly Pernice’s as he captured the hyperaware, self-indulgent voice of this character perfectly. He’s the type of character who has to let you know what record was on the turntable on a particular day because that is all that really matters to him. He’d much prefer to pick apart the careers of Todd Rundgren or Nick Drake instead of parsing out his feelings. The only parts that didn’t ring true were the fulcrum of the story: his relationship with Jocelyn. There was little in the book to really make sense of what she found attractive in him, apart from maybe his ability to give as good as he got in their hyper realistic conversations. Those bits of banter felt strange in a book otherwise filled with honest and real dialogue. The witty back and forths between Jocelyn and the narrator glare from the page as if dropped in from a screenplay Pernice was working on in another window. But with so much else to shout about in the book, it’s easy to gloss over those moments and get caught back up in the rest of the sharp narrative that Pernice has constructed. It’s the novel as CD—you just need to skip over the plodding songs to get to the tracks you can sing along with. [Riverhead]

—Robert Ham

Posted in BOOKS | Comments closed

Book Review: David Berman’s “The Portable February”

portablefebruary200Though he’s best known for fronting the late, great Silver Jews, sardonic, cerebral country rock isn’t David Berman’s only talent. He’s also a celebrated poet (see 1996′s dry Actual Air) and cartoonist whose drawings have popped up in the margins of The Baffler and adorned art-gallery walls. The Portable February (Drag City), his first published collection of illustrations, suggests that inkwell Berman isn’t far removed from plectrum Berman; the instruments of creation may differ, but the same bitterly amused tone suffuses both endeavors. February‘s 90-plus doodles range from crushingly obvious (the protester holding a sign reading “giants” enclosed by a circle with a line drawn through it, as a giant boot approaches from above) to gleefully inane sketches titled, perhaps, to impart meaning (“The World We Had,” “Irrational 15th Century Battle Scenes”) to oblique cartoons that demand serious interpretive input from the reader. What finally emerges is a bit droll New Yorker, a bit other-dimensional The Far Side and a bit psycho-social Steven, all at once: the anonymous “A Place In New Jersey” wearing its sketchiness all too literally; one animal remarking to another “Premise? I got premise,” when there’s no premise to speak of; a menagerie of rings and trophies; a raving, distended portrait captioned “If you were New Wave in Cincinnati in 1983, I probably haunted you occasionally.” February‘s genius lies in how its rudimentary squiggles manage to haunt again and again, each time in a slightly new way.

—Raymond Cummings

Posted in BOOKS | Comments closed

Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ “Drama City” and “The Turnaround”

Don’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds

george170

10506782turnaround

Drama City / The Turnaround
Why are these two George Pelecanos books saved for last? 2005′s Drama City and 2008′s The Turnaround don’t dance with my obsessive-compulsive tendency to stuff artistic endeavors in categories based on common denominators. They are by no means weak contenders or conspicuous oddballs. Kindred spirits with The Night Gardener (a book that I happen to be a little more enamored with), these are departures from the crime-fiction norm in much the same way: Drama City (the title slang for Washington, D.C.) and The Turnaround contain crime without abiding by the A-to-B mystery-solving journey.

The great yardstick of “going straight” crime fiction is Eddie Bunker’s 1976 novel No Beast So Fierce (adapted to the screen two years later as the Dustin Hoffman vehicle Straight Time). Drama City is a worthy companion piece, with much more going on. For one, don’t expect a dire circumstantial spiral to derail the protagonist (ex-con Lorenzo Brown). There are challenges and the distinct risk of lapsing, though Brown, a Humane Society animal cop, faces danger from outside forces stronger than any internal conflict. The book deals with urban dog fighting, a festering cultural sore so powerfully loathsome that, if dwelled upon, can siphon any hope for basic human decency. The book’s co-star is Brown’s probation officer, a walking tragedy and one of Pelecanos’ better character studies.

Pelecanos has said that writing a book per year has caused confusion and conflict as to where he’s headed next. 2007 was the first year since 1999 that didn’t have a new Pelecanos title. Who does he think he is? Charles Portis? Pynchon? Fred Exley? Get it together, George! What’s next? Wandering your vast estate in a tattered bathrobe, using your millions to buy up every Mustang II in existence so the roads will no longer be tainted with their presence? Just do like James Patterson: Have your wife draw little shreds of paper out of a whirling PowerBall machine four times a year. “Alex Cross + Homeland Security + Rap Music + New Love Interest – Old Friend = Revenge Fantasy w/ Topicality” Nope, don’t like that one, draw another. “Cross + U.F.O. Kooks + Assassination of ‘Ooga Danktrillian’ (our first black president) + The Reverse of Global Warming + Navy Seals – Old Friend = Bigger Advance if Written in Two Months.” That’s more like it!

The Turnaround arrived in 2008 and is based on a real event: a violent—and in one character’s case, fatal—attack that occurred in early ’70s. White teenage race-baiting lights the fuse and things go horribly wrong in this partial period piece. Pelecanos constructs a largely fictional back story and subsequent aftermath around the incident. The Turnaround speaks volumes about life after prison, the war in Iraq, race and gentrification without defaulting to self-righteous preaching, even when three out of those four issues are known Pelecanos pet peeves.

Pelecanos has edited two short fiction collections, to which he also contributed stories: D.C. Noir (2006, part of Akashic’s fantastic Noir series) and The Best American Mystery Stories 2008. Both are good samplings, as is his contribution to 2003′s fantastic Men From Boys, edited by John Harvey. Compared to some contemporaries, Pelecanos has had few short stories published, though there’s no question as to how his fiction is best enjoyed.

This concludes our weeklong look at Pelecanos’ work. His new book, The Way Home, is due May 12.

On Monday, Pelecanos made MAGNET a mix tape; check it out here.

In 2001, Pelecanos interviewed ex-Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn for us; read it here. They got along so well that four years later, they wrote a song together (“Cindy It Was Always You,” from Wynn’s…tick…tick…tick) and also performed once in a live setting, with Wynn providing instrumental backing to Pelecanos reading from 2006′s The Night Gardener. (Download “The Night Gardener”)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Also posted in CRIME STORIES | Comments closed

Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ “Shoedog” and “The Night Gardener”

Don’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds

george170

33359256night_gardener

Shoedog / The Night Gardner
George Pelecanos has written four stand-alone books, three in the past five years. 1994′s Shoedog and 2006′s The Night Gardener are Pelecanos opposites that I’ve grouped together based on flimsy criteria: If readers want to start with a non-series, then why not pick one of the strongest two? And if the uninitiated are not only new to Pelecanos but new to crime fiction, The Night Gardener will go down smooth.

Published in the space between Nick’s Trip and Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go (both volumes in Pelecanos’ Nick Stefanos series), Shoedog recalls the classic noir trick of keeping the reader transfixed when a dead-end or unsavory conclusion becomes imminent shortly after the story commences. To this day, you can’t go wrong with a well-written drifter, and Shoedog protagonist Constantine is one of the best. Most people find drifters to be infinitely readable (more so in a bad economy). The urge may be tiny or dormant, but deep down inside every drone chained to a soul-shredding day job, every person who pays rent or a mortgage and every spouse buried under a relationship of convenience and repetition, lies an escapist’s longing to be free of any ties, to be able to pick up and leave in good or bad times. People enjoy seeing the world through migratory eyes.

Constantine is no Jack Reacher (the absurdly indestructible drifter’s drifter created by superstar mystery writer Lee Child) or transient action figure. He has the requisite stoicism of a cautious man living off the grid, with an almost childlike naivete toward potentially deadly factors of the crime lifestyle. Like Stefanos, Constantine has a certain music taste and various irresponsible habits (including poor judgment in the pursuit of women), but Constantine is too much of a don’t-give-a-fuck badass to be troubled with steady employment or prolonged residency. His involvement in a double robbery (of liquor stores) is prefaced by little to no hesitation, like it’s a welcome break in the monotony of town-hopping. The heists are planned by Grimes, a wealthy man who puts together robberies as a hobby. Constantine is a driver, and the impromptu crew is peopled with men that owe Grimes money. In true noir style, the job stinks from a mile off, so after the crew is shrunk exponentially by Grimes’ malevolent motive, the finale finds Constantine in revenge mode and predictably weakened by the wrong woman.

Many prominent crime writers wisely take advantage of a research perk peculiar to their profession: riding with cops. Pelecanos did this as research for several novels before he wrote uniformed protagonists. Funny, then, that The Night Gardener best achieves Pelecanos’ goal of writing outside the crime-fiction genre. It’s an amalgam of police procedural and Pete Dexter character study, with the serial-killer element downgraded to a subtle subplot. Another writer that comes to mind is the overlooked Andrew Coburn, who also writes character development as something more than a reluctantly mandated glue connecting scenes of action. The Night Gardener is politely aggressive in spurts and dismal throughout, but it never shucks hope and heart.

Tomorrow’s installment: Pelecanos’ Drama City and The Turnaround.

On Monday, Pelecanos made MAGNET a mix tape; check it out here.

In 2001, Pelecanos interviewed ex-Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn for us; read it here. They got along so well that four years later, they wrote a song together (“Cindy It Was Always You,” from Wynn’s…tick…tick…tick) and also performed once in a live setting, with Wynn providing instrumental backing to Pelecanos reading from 2006′s The Night Gardener. (Download “The Night Gardener”)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Also posted in CRIME STORIES | Comments closed

Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ Derek Strange/Terry Quinn Series

Don’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds.

right_as_rainhell_to_paysoul_circus33359362

george170

Right As Rain / Hell To Pay / Soul Circus / Hard Revolution
Not to scoop the story of the century or anything, but the P.I. odd couple is nothing new to crime fiction. For decades, writers have used a P.I. to complete or accent another P.I. with no uniform outcome. Examples like Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole/Joe Pike duo and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser/Hawk pairing (started out strong, became a laugh riot) bring to mind the “I have too much of a conscience to throw you into that hay-baler, but my hulking, soulless man-mountain of a partner with his mechanical prosthetic arm doesn’t have the understanding that I do” formula. George Pelecanos‘ Strange/Quinn partnership is the something the crime-fiction duo so desperately needs: subtlety. Sure, no new ground is broken with the ex-cop with a dubious/troublesome past, but whining about the use of that back story is like criticizing indie rock for being rife with Caucasians. Get used to it.

As for Derek Strange, the man exudes confidence. He’s an ex-cop, successful, respected in the community, black, cocksure, smooth, old-fashioned in ways more positive than negative, altruistic and a terminal bachelor by choice (unlike Nick Stefanos). So he likes to visit an Asian jack-shack every once in a while; at least he’s not chasing the delirium tremors with a drink each morning or perpetually hunting for the slang meaning of his surname. So he’s not the stuff of genre reinvention. Show me what is. Pelecanos didn’t set out to turn the crime novel upside down with quirkiness or weird characterization (see Jonathan Lethem‘s Motherless Brooklyn for an enjoyable if not semi-precious example); he set out to write a new series and triumphed with a superior gloss on the source material. There is a maturation from the series that preceded this one (the D.C. Quartet), but as Pelecanos has stated in interviews, he was learning his craft in public.

Read More »

Also posted in CRIME STORIES | Comments closed

Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ Nick Stefanos Series

Don’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds.

firing_offensenicks_tripdown_by_the_river

georgenewsA Firing Offense / Nick’s Trip / Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go
Somewhere between rare and cliché, there’s a particular life change that produces good crime fiction: A person follows a career path other than “published novelist” (or even “published writer”) and begins to read crime fiction. It goes from “regular interest” to “borderline Asperger’s syndrome” as this individual invades every nook and cranny with curiosity until a large amount of bad and good writing is absorbed. It’s heavy with the bad; there’s more garbage than gold in every genre of every artistic medium, yet some of the garbage turns out to be impossibly hard to put down. At some point, he says of the bad, “I can do a lot better than this.” And that’s what he ends up doing.

OK, perhaps I was projecting a little bit. Take out the implication of drooling insanity, and these are the basic building blocks of George Pelecanos’ drive to write his first novel, 1992′s A Firing Offense, in his early 30s. The oft-told story of A Firing Offense’s fortuitous publication goes like this: The book was written longhand in a spiral notebook, then picked at random from a slush pile, the final resting place for most agent-less manuscripts. According to interviews with Pelecanos, most hope had been lost when the call from the publisher came.

Read More »

Also posted in CRIME STORIES | Comments closed

Crime Stories: George Pelecanos’ D.C. Quartet

Don’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds.

big_blowdownking_suckermansweet_forever-1shame_the_devil

george350

The Big BlowdownKing Suckerman / The Sweet Forever / Shame The Devil
An excellent primer, this series is what I invariably recommend when asked what George Pelecanos material novices should read first. Four books published between 1996 and 2000 known as “the D.C. Quartet” mark Pelecanos’ transformation from a critically respected underground force to a beacon shining through the sometimes daunting and undeniably cluttered realm of mass-market crime fiction. Despite serial rules or what others may see as logic, 1996′s The Big Blowdown can be read before, after or simultaneously with 1997′s King Suckerman, 1998′s The Sweet Forever and 2000′s Shame The Devil. The Big Blowdown, set in the 1940s, is a prequel to the Suckerman/Sweet/Shame trilogy (1970s–1990s), which should not be read out of order.

The Marcus Clay/Dimitri Karras saga is magnetic, full of heart, funny and, in terms of pop-culture references, well, it depends on who you ask. The detailed accounts of what characters listen to, watch, wear, drive and read are seen by some as Pelecanos boasting of his formidable frame of reference. I seriously doubt the author cares about the public’s perception of his record collection. At first, the references are a little jarring and seem unnecessary, but screw the ninnies; I want to know everything about a character’s chosen automobile, record/book collection, clothes and taste in film. These qualities frequently say more about a character than what comes out of his or her mouth, and I challenge readers to find another crime writer before Pelecanos who gave, say, ’80s post-punk/hardcore and record-collecting culture such an attractive voice. Using music as the perfect example, many readers fail to understand that artists now believed to be underground concerns were more populist interests in the ’70s. Listening to Captain Beefheart wasn’t the tastemaking badge it is today; it was a destination for many people who cared about rock music. Great funk was more of a pop-music soundtrack to African-American culture; decades since have transformed it into elitist DJ capital. Pelecanos gets away clear from charges of plot accessorizing, whereas other writers’ work can read like a thrift shop, used record store or local Saturday-afternoon TV schedule vomited all over their books.

Read More »

Also posted in CRIME STORIES | Comments closed

Crime Stories: George Pelecanos

george550cDon’t be afraid of the raised lettering on the book jacket; a well-written crime-fiction novel deserves to be treated as high art. MAGNET’s Andrew Earles surveys the modern landscape of hard-boiled detective stories and tales of noir-colored underworlds.

For the last eight years, I’ve obsessed over crime fiction. My crusade to defend the genre as an important art form is certainly not a unique one; plenty have made it their cause to elevate good-to-great crime fiction beyond the mass-market, grocery-store/duty-free-shop stigma. My enthusiasm can be traced back to George Pelecanos. Are Pelecanos’ contributions to crime fiction a perfect place to start for the uninitiated? They were for me, but as this column continues, I’ll focus on other contemporary writers, too.

Disclaimer #1: There will be no mention of Pelecanos’ producing/writing involvement with acclaimed HBO series The Wire. Yes, it is hands-down my favorite piece of art to be recorded by a camera, and when it joined forces in 2002 with one of my favorite writers, the world temporarily made sense. An enlightened look at that part of Pelecanos’ career is the daunting job of other writers. (Pelecanos is currently working with The Wire creator David Simon on another HBO series, Treme, which is set amid the music community of post-Katrina New Orleans.)

Disclaimer #2: I have a social litmus test that generates unwavering distrust for people who dismiss Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Neil Hamburger, Thin Lizzy, The Wire, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, SST-era Dinosaur Jr, Prince, the Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and the published works of Pete Dexter, Charles Willeford and George Pelecanos.

Coming tomorrow: An overview of Pelecanos’ D.C. Quartet (The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever and Shame The Devil).

Earlier today, Pelecanos made MAGNET a mix tape; check it out here.

In 2001, Pelecanos interviewed ex-Dream Syndicate frontman Steve Wynn for us; read it here. They got along so well that four years later, they wrote a song together (“Cindy It Was Always You,” from Wynn’s …tick…tick…tick) and also performed once in a live setting, with Wynn providing instrumental backing to Pelecanos reading from 2006′s The Night Gardener. (Download “The Night Gardener”)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Also posted in CRIME STORIES | Comments closed

Crime Stories: George Pelecanos Makes MAGNET A Mix Tape

pelecanos544MAGNET has long been an admirer of George Pelecanos, a D.C.-based author who’s penned 15 crime-fiction novels and written for HBO series The Wire. As we prepare to dive into a weeklong series of posts examining Pelecanos’ literary work (starting later today), we asked the man to clue us in to his latest musical interests.

Read More »

Also posted in CRIME STORIES, FREE MP3s, MIX TAPE | Comments closed

Paul Westerberg’s Latest Super Value Record

paulw355Paul Westerberg has become the rock ‘n’ roll version of the Super Value Menu at Wendy’s. Think of the former Replacements leader as indie rock’s Spicy Chicken Go Wrap. Or maybe its Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. After releasing digital records this year costing $0.49 (49:00), $0.99 (Bored Of Edukation) and $3.99 (3oclockreep), Westy is back with the three-track D.G.T. for the bargain price of $0.74. And although the words “great” and “essential” don’t exactly come to mind when listening to it, D.G.T. is worth every penny, which is a good thing in these hard economic times. You can download it here.

Also posted in NEWS | Comments closed