A long-overdue poolside March Mexican vacation. Dilemma: what to read?
These are valuable reading hours, my friends – especially (for me) between the hours of 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., before the alcohol muddles everything up. So I didn’t want to waste them reading just any old thing.
In the end, after much consideration (books by J.G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood and Patricia Highsmith made the shortlist) I decided on two fiction and one non-fiction selection. One was a book I’d already read by a favourite author, one I hadn’t read by another fave, and one by an author I’d never read.
In the first category: Clockers, by Richard Price. Price is a writer I’ve been reading for over 25 years, and a new novel by the New Yorker is always cause for excitement. I loved his last book, Lush Life (2008 – was it really that long ago?) and 2003’s Samaritan but hadn’t been so fond of Freedomland (1998).
I chose Clockers because though I’d already read it around the time of publication (1992) I’d pretty much forgotten most of it and because I wanted something fat and meaty that I could sink my teeth into. (If the title sounds familiar, it could be because of Spike Lee’s movie adaptation.)
At his best, Price brings a complexity to his crime thrillers that is rare (he spent the first part of his literary career writing compact, coming-of-manhood-type books). The dialogue seems real, as though overheard on the street (Price has also gone on to write for The Wire, that torn-from-the-streets-of-Baltimore series), the relationships and motivations are complicated, and just about every character gets a fair shake. And it’s never about who did it, but why.
However, in Clockers the action seemed to flag, and even become repetitious by about the 400-page mark (the book is over 600 pages). It seemed as though Price was spinning his wheels being literary and detailed when a little more action was called for. At a certain point you grow weary of reading about one of the main characters’ ulcer and Yoo-Hoo craving. I gave up two-thirds of the way through because I wanted to read other books, and time was running out; but I’m not sure if I’ll go back to Clockers.
Next up: The Sisters Brothers. I hadn’t been planning on reading it – I had a George V. Higgins novel, Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years lined up – but since my sister brought it and loved it I decided to give it a go. I’ve been seeing the reviews for the novel, the second by Vancouver Island-born, Portland-dwelling Patrick DeWitt, and even read the first few sample pages offered on Amazon.
But I was unprepared for how much I liked the book. There is some fabulous writing here, just some great lines that burn on the page. DeWitt’s voice here is both naturalistic and mannered, and the characters almost always behave in unpredictable yet (for them) perfectly reasonable ways.
Apparently the movie rights have already been sold; we can only hope that the Coen Brothers get to it. The Sisters Brothers is for fans of Charles Portis (True Grit), Elmore Leonard, Deadwood, Lonesome Dove, and any other modern Western writers or series. (I’m thinking too of Cormac McCarthy, but I’ve only read The Road so I don’t feel comfortable including him here.)
Finally, Double Down. This was an interesting read after The Sisters Brothers because it, too, is about two siblings, Steve and Frederick Barthelme. Their Wild West isn’t the West Coast (as in The Sisters Brothers) but the Mississippi casinos where, in the mid-’90s, they blew a modest fortune. The 200-page volume is also a memoir about their family, especially their mother and father (a pioneering American architect) and a little about their more famous older sibling, post-modern American literature hero Donald Barthelme.
Both Steve and Frederick, who co-wrote this book, are gifted writers (they’re also creative writing profs, or were at the time they wrote this book), and nearly every line of Double Down seems effortless, the poetry of everyday speech. (I’ve found this to be true of the two novels I’ve read from Frederick Barthelme, including Bob the Gambler – which I discovered while going through the discount bin in the now-deceased Vancouver downtown Virgin Records store for 50 cents!).
Like The Sisters Brothers, Double Down has lines that stop you on the page. (I wish I could quote them but hey, I was on vacation and not taking notes!) It’s also got a momentum that makes the book hard to put down. I read it nearly in one sitting, on the plane trip home. I was as unhappy to finish it as I was to land, vacation over.