Showing posts with label gang wars. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gang wars. Show all posts

23 November 2022

The Wine-Dark Sea

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a big fan of Don Winslow’s.  The Force was one of my best books of 2017, if not the best, and his Border trilogy, Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border, is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

So let me tell you about City on Fire, which came out this past year.  It’s about a gang war in Providence, Rhode Island, in the latter half of the 1980’s.  It’s very specific to the time and place, and to the culture and the speech patterns of Providence, and to the inner lives of its Irish and Italian mob guys.  It’s also unapologetically modeled on the Trojan War. 

This creates a doubling effect, the dynamic between characters who imagine they can have some say in how they live their lives, and the inexorability of the Fates who pursue them.  Danny Ryan is Aeneas, the Murphy boys are Hector and Paris; the Moretti brothers are Agamemnon and Menelaus.  Liam Murphy steals Paulie Moretti’s girl.  The heat is on.  Of course, it’s all about turf, and the Irish losing ground, so at bottom it’s business, but it’s just as much about losing face, everybody on about dick size.

It’s a cool conceit, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus.  Or closer in genre, Sharky’s Machine reimagining the legend of Orpheus.  City on Fire takes the equivalencies very literally, though.  Aeneas’ mother is the goddess Aphrodite, and she rescues him from death in battle.  Winslow wondered aloud in an interview how you could pull this off without resorting to cornball trickery, but he stage-manages it convincingly.  The thing I miss, though, in City of Fire, are the improvisational riffs.  You’re too tied down to the score.  There aren’t any breakaway solos.

In other words, the same Fates that hem in Danny Ryan squeeze a lot of the air out of the story.  Achilles kills Hector, and drags his body behind his chariot.  Well, in this case, Pat Murphy gets hooked on the oilpan after a hit-and-run, and dragged a couple of blocks under a stolen Caddy.  It’s not that I wasn’t convinced, or even that I didn’t think it was a funny bit, by itself, but in honesty, I found it contrived.  

The things I liked the best in City of Fire were the local bits, the Easter eggs.  There’s a scene where somebody brings a guy in the hospital a coffee cabinet.  This is strictly Rhode Island.  Back in the day, a milk shake in New England meant syrup and milk, and that was it, at the soda fountain.  If you wanted ice cream in it, you got a frappe.  Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, you called it a cabinet, and according to the food writer Aimee Tucker, it’s because that’s where the blender was kept. 

Winslow says he’s going to quit writing fiction, and concentrate on politics.  He wants to humiliate Trump, and grind his face in the dirt – an ambition I can sympathize with - but I wish he didn’t feel the choice had to be so absolute.  Here’s hoping he can accomplish the one, and get back to the other.

13 January 2016

Seven Killings

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS, by the Jamaican writer Marlon James, came out in 2014, and won the Man Booker the following year. It isn't a mystery or a thriller, not exactly, but then again, neither is THE GREAT GATSBY. What it is, is a dark meditation, lit from below.

First off, we're talking about Kingston, which is of course one tough town, and we start by going back more than forty years, to December 1976 and the attempted murder of Bob Marley. In this telling, it's very much political, a war between two Kingston ganglords who've been bought off by each of the major parties, and a proxy fight over the next election. Marley's headlining a free concert, advertised as a peace overture, but widely seen as support for the government in power, and that this is a spoils system goes without saying. The police are corrupt, everybody feeds at the trough, devil take the hindmost.

"This is the first mistake God make. Time. God was a fool to create time. It's the one thing that even he run out of." SEVEN KILLINGS covers quite a lot of time, actually, but there's a disquieting sense that time is static, and inertia (or entropy) is the only gravitational force. This in spite of the attrition rate, and the turnover in senior management, with gangs cranking up the firepower, and killing each other off. It's not like we notice measurable improvement in the quality of life.

The story's told in many voices, most of them Jamaican, but a couple of outliers - the local CIA station chief, a rock groupie from Rolling Stone. One device is to have somebody speaking to us from beyond the grave, but that doesn't necessarily make them any the wiser. Each of these voices is individual, none of them are omniscient, Everybody takes it personally and nobody pulls back from the tight close-up, which is claustrophobic. Then again, it's total immersion. Like traffic slowing for an accident scene, you can't look away.

The use of dialect is supposedly a deal-breaker. So is using real people or actual historic situations in a fictional medium. The argument being that it removes a barrier, and the author's own voice intrudes, which spoils the illusion. You're being shown the mechanics, the levers and pulleys, you're made aware that the narrative isn't seamless, that in fact it's been constructed, built out of air. Both reader and writer agree to a pretense that the story has a life apart, and if the reader stubs his or her toe on the writer's building materials, it shakes their confidence. I see the point, but I don't entirely agree. It depends what kind of story you're telling. In the case of SEVEN KILLINGS, it's not so much that it depends on suspension of disbelief as that you're persuaded by the last voice you hear, and you soon realize that all the narrators are unreliable - which could mean the author's voice, as well. This is quite the tightrope walk. How the guy keeps his balance is what creates surface tension.

One other note. This isn't a novel that 'transcends' genre, whatever that's supposed to mean. It's a book that uses generic conventions in vigorous and unsettling ways. I've never really subscribed to the idea of low culture or high - most basically literate people know the difference between good stuff and crap, what Chesterton calls "printed matter." That being said, SEVEN KILLINGS is violent and coarse. There's nothing shy about the language. Women are manhandled with disturbingly commonplace contempt. The context is Darwinian. It adds up to a familiar noir world, although one which happens not to be invented. At least not for dramatic purposes, or a convenient shorthand. It's a world of brute force. If not the world most of us would choose to live in, it is the world many people have no choice but to live in. It isn't metaphor, or literary convention. There's no agreement to keep faith, or suspend disbelief. Human voices wake us.