Sunday, January 1, 2012

Stella's altar boys turn into tough guys too

Wow, just after finishing Pelecanos' The Cut, I come across someone writing in a similar vein, Charlie Stella. I've read two of his novels, Cheapskates and Jimmy Bench Press, set in Brooklyn, and sharing many of the same characters, though not the same protagonists, which is Pelecanos's style too.The heroes are ex-altar boys, which Stella himself was, and was the case with the Cut.

There are important differences, but happily these relate to style not quality. Pelecanos provides more description. Stella is into the parallel vernaculars of New Jersey Italian mobsters and cops.

Stella's heroes are both ex-altar boys. In Cheapskates, the hero, Reese, is a lapsed Catholic with a grudge against God for not answering his prayer (more of a deal sealed by a minor vow of good behaviour)for good fortune for his family. But his mother and would-be girlfriend are both practicing Catholics. And by the way, Reese is Black: as with Pelecanos, this is a minor matter in this book for the author, though many of the characters make much of one another's ethnicity. Neither books carries a torch for racial justice. The ethnic differences are matter more of authenticity and interest, even richness.Interestingly, both Stella and Pelecanos alternate between white and Black heroes, which is faily unusual, I believe.

The plot of Cheapskates is like that of The Cut. The hero, Reese is just out of jail, as is his cell mate, an Italian American who wants the money his ex-wife cheated him of. Reese, unwittingly duped into taking the rap for a cousin's crime, continues with innocent determination to press for the money;s return, unleashing all kinds of mayhem. Suffice it to say, he re-examines his faithlessness in the course of the action.

In Jimmy Bench Press, the hero is a cop (and ex-altar boy) with an uncontrollable temper, fixated on bringing down a particularly cold-blooded con just out of jail and eager to become a "made-man" in the Mob by killing someone. There is less religious content in this one, just a positive encounter with a priest the hero knows from the old days.

Both books were exciting; the police procedural and Mob stuff authentic-feeling (Being neither a cop nor a mobster, I can say no more). The bad guys nuanced and cut from different cloths; the good guys individualized and sympathetically drawn. AS i think about my own tastes, I don't ask much, but early on I want to like and care about the hero.

The presence of a positive religious element is a bonus for me, though a definitely anti-religious slant is a show-stopper. Some authors--James D. Parker, for example, or Dennis LeHane--may take a positive attitude to the institutional church but their heroes like them have lapsed in the faith. These disappoint but don't repel me. Stella's books, so far, are slightly more positive than that. They are church-friendly, which is good enough for me because they are otherwise quite engaging.

As soon as the library opens, I'll be borrowing more of Stella's books.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pelecanos' The Cut: an unusual Orthodox Christian tough guy

I’ve read several novels by George Pelecanos, all dark, all thrillers, all set in poorer parts of Washington D.C., but I never expected to be reviewing one of them for this site. That’s because Pelecanos has never shown much interest in the Christian faith, neither as a belief of his protoganists or his villains nor as a background to the action.
His heroes are usually Black, often private detectives, sometimes players on the edge of criminality. But Pelecanos is Greek American (the producer of The Wire TV series of which I know nothing). Several characters in his earlier novels and the occasional hero are Greek Americans too.
This time, in his latest book, The Cut, the hero is not only Greek American, a young private eye, but he’s a church-goer, a Greek Orthodox, a former altar boy. Pelecanos doesn’t make explicit how his hero Lucas integrates his faith with his life, but the inference is that it provides him with his own personal moral code, which he needs since he’s doing something illegal throughout the book (so the man-made laws aren’t any help) but not immoral.
He’s taken on the task of getting back some drug money stolen from a jailed drug dealer. For this he will get a 40 per cent cut. In this Noir world, things go badly from the start. The bodies of the innocent and the culpable pile up, and everyone underestimates Lucas’ determination to deliver on his obligation. The money is dirty but Lucas is as honorable as he can be under the circumstances and tries to do as little damage as possible waging as he fulfills his contract. He especially tries to save the life of one young Black student who witnesses the theft in the first place, a boy with the dream of making movies.
At the same time he is the dutiful son of an ailing mother, he visits his beloved father’s fresh grave and he has good times with his brother.
One of these exchanges exemplifies the subtlety I like Pelecanos for. His brother is wearing a shirt with a folksy pattern he identifies, when mocked by Lucas, as gingham. “It looks like you a wearing a table cloth,” says Lucas.
A few days later, Lucas is challenged by a friend about his shirt. “It looks like a table cloth,” says the friend. “I am looking for spaghetti stains.” That is all the information we are given for us to know that he imitating his big brother by wearing the same pattern shirt. Anyone who has a big brother he admires knows immediately how much Lucas admires his older brother.
In other Pelecanos books there are similar touches. In one, several groups of bad and good guys cruise Washington DC, listening to the same music groups, but drawing different conclusions about them based on race. Something that happens makes them all think of the Tony Curtis-Sidney Poitier movie, The Defiant Ones, which, for the Black characters, is the movie with Sidney Poitier is a jailbreaker chained to what’s his name, and for the White characters is that movie where Tony Curtis was a jailbreaker chained to some Black guy.
Lucas and his brother are both adopted. One is Black and the other White but Pelecanos doesn’t say which. You have to guess from other’s reactions. His point is that for his parents, him and his brother, color is not a factor. On the other hand, there are two other adult children who are absent from this novel, but I bet will appear and provide plotting in future novels about Lucas. I think they are natural children of their parents so the race plus adoption issues may arise.
The religious context is understated. Two scenes in church, one at the end and one at the beginning, a reference by his brother to what “Father so and so taught us,” in the moral plane, with the implication what he taught us must be followedThis is a book I recommend strongly. And, as always, I’d be interested in anyone’s comments who reads Pelecanos.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

William Kent Krueger’s matter-of-factly Catholic action hero

By Steve Weatherbe
William Kent Krueger is a Minnesota writer responsible for an enjoyable series of detective thrillers, all featuring “Cork” O’Connor, the part-Ojibway, sometime sheriff of the resource-turned-tourism town of Aurora. He’s an appealingly flawed hero, an impulsive hothead, briefly an adulterer but generally faithful, doting father of three, and an on-again, off-again Catholic.
His latest book, just out and as-yet unread by me, is Northwest Angle, the title being the name of a remote corner of Minnesota cut off from the rest of the state by Lake of the Woods (down the middle of which runs the international boundary) and by the Canadian landmass.
Like many of the series, a lot of the action takes place in the “Boundary Waters” (title of another book in the series) that lie along the Canada-USA border and was a canoe route for the French and Scottish Canadian voyageurs and fur traders from Montreal to Winnipeg and the prairies (the Pays d’en haut as the voyageurs called it). I know all this because as a young man I padded along the same canoe route from lake Superior to Winnipeg over hundred of portages and along many creeks, rivers and lakes, providing nourishment for thousands of mosquitoes, black flies and no-see’ems.
Doing some back-filling, I just read an earlier book in the series, Heaven’s Keep, in which Cork’s wife goes missing along with a small plane full of Indian leaders (she is lawyer for the local tribe). Typically, Catholicism features incidentally in the plot: a priest provides a crucial link in the chain of evidence that leads Cork to his wife; an important meeting with two others looking for kinfolk on the plane is scheduled for “after mass” –through Cork’s subsequent attendance at mass with his son is taken for granted and not described.
His family’s faith is sometimes just background; at others, such as when Cork’s wife goes missing, it is challenged. Some in his family pray; others lose faith. One will go on to become a nun. I expect Cork will someday go down to Nicaragua to investigate her murder or someone else’s murder at her behest.
In the next book in the series, with his children grown and moved away, he has stopped attending church, but showing continued interest in native spirituality—dreams, quests and so on.
So without making a big deal of it, Catholicism is presented as a legitimate means of dealing with the spiritual dimension, and one not in conflict with native religion. But it is not preached as a certainty by the author, but merely included as part of the makeup of some of the characters, and as a feature of life, mostly positive. I don’t think any non-Catholic or non-Christian readers would be turned off.
Meanwhile, the writing is good: brisk, with good description punctuated with hot action, that together move the stories forward in a pleasing rhythm. There are plenty of interesting characters, and heartwarming and realistic family interactions.
I recommend the series.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Heroism within a Christian moral code

Allan Mallinson’s Matthew Hervey series

Reviewed by Steve Weatherbe

My purpose in creating my own Christian fiction blogsite and in writing for Catholic Fiction is not to exercise my own wit or to amuse others with it but to recommend writers and books whose works I enjoy because of their mastery of a particular genre I enjoy and because of their Christian world view. For me, the Christian content need not be in the foreground. Nor need it be the theme or the subtheme. It is enough that it be the philosophical framework, unstated, for the work, and therefore tends to support rather than undermine the Christian beliefs of the reader.
I am happy to recommend the Hervey series to all who enjoy military or naval series such as those of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series about the British navy during the Napoleonic wars ( on which the movie Master and Commander was based).
There are many such series and the so-called Age of Fighting Sail provides a perfect framework because its hero can fight for a lifetime against the French, starting in 1759 if the author chooses, and ending only in 1815.
Mallinson selects a more difficult period seemingly, by starting his hero’s military career with the Battle of Waterloo, at the end of the Napoleonic era. But this is the beginning of the golden age of the British Empire, and young Hervey advances slowly through the ranks of the British cavalry while pushing the Empire into India, Africa and British North America, fighting Indians, Red Indians, Zulus and such.
Far more than Cornwell’s Sharpe series, whose hero is also an army officer, Mallinson is attentive to the conventional responsibilities, preoccupations and pleasures of his protagonist’s class and rank. This is surely because Mallinson was himself a British Army officer, who commanded his own regiment for several years retired as a brigadier, though I doubt he actually commanded a brigade at any time. The regiment is the heart of the British Army (as the division is the heart of the American army) and Hervey’s goal throughout the series is to command his home regiment, the 6th Light Dragoons.
In Cornwell’s novels such questions as who looks after the horses after the battle id over are simply ignored. Mallinson not only lovingly details the care of the horses, such care often forms a subplot, and indeed the hero’s relations with his horses carry on from book to book. The officer’s responsibilities for his men, as well as his personal relationships with many of them also carry on through the series. This is an aspect of the hero’s character which distinguishes him from some fellow officers (who make a point of not knowing their men) but not from others.
Mallinson’s treatment of Hervey’s character is what differentiates the series from many others. He is the son of a High Anglican cleric who wrestles with moral and theological questions and seems to be moving slowly towards Catholicism (I have just finished the 11 and most novel and the topic has only been explicitly raised for the first time).
Mallinson himself trained for the Anglican priesthood before stumbling more or less into his military career. I wonder naturally whether he has “poped” as the Anglicans put it.
Hervey’s social life is interesting: he has dalliances and a genuinely romantic and healthy marriage that ends tragically and grotesquely (wife tomahawked by American Indians!) and a second marriage that, after three books, I am still not sure has even been consummated. I think Mallinson is intentionally mimicking Victorian conventions in leaving his hero’s marital problems to our imaginations while describing in detail, for example, the artery-clogging seven-course meals he consumes with his friends.
But I recommend the books because the action is well-described, the historical, social and moral context for that action is also well-told and seems authentic, and because the moral and theological framework for the writer and the hero is Christian.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz

What the Night Knows, by Dean Koontz

Reviewed by Steve Weatherbe

Long after I read the Lord of the Rings the first time, the point of it became clear: it is all in the response Gandalf gives to Frodo when the hobbit laments the task given him and cries something like : Oh why should such horrible things happen and why couldn’t we hobbits and me especially be left alone?
It is Tolkien posing the theodicy question, the problem of pain. And Gandalf replies: wrong question, buddy (or words to this effect): you should be asking, what do I do about this horrible evil
Lord of the Rings consists of telling how dozens of major and minor characters responded to the question. Some answer the call of evil, some answer the call of good, but many simply exploit the chaos for their own good, while many more remain neutral. Think of the elves. We expect them to enlist on the side of good. Most of them simply opt out of the conflict, like, say the Swedes or Swiss in WW2. One group of elves, however, sends an army to aid one of the embattled human kingdoms on the brink of ruin. What a great scene in the movie this makes: I cried, as I did when I read of the Plataeans coming the aid of the Athenians just before the Battle of Marathon.
Which brings me to my latest Catholic read: What the Night Knows by Dean Koontz. Koontz writes gothic or supernatural thrillers which get him lumped into the horror category sometimes—and I never read these kinds of books, except the ones he writes.
He’s written a lot of books and there is a certain sameness to them, I admit. But what is undeniable is that there is good and evil, not just dysfunction and emotional maturity. In some, the evil is implicit. At the forefront are power-hungry government scientists or psychopathic psychiatrists. But in others, God, or more usually, angels and demons take major roles, if not center stage.
In What the Night Knows center stage is occupied by Koontz’s usual protagonist, a couple bound by love and, in this case, matrimony, with children. They are attacked by a demon who must get at them through other humans. And other humans are more or less vulnerable to the demon’s attempts at possession, depending on the degree to which they have already given themselves over to selfishness and depravity.
The three children are also variously susceptible to the demon: the most vulnerable is a dreamy girl who loves fantasies involving magic doors to faerie kingdoms.
Some characters are possessed by the demon but fight back from within.
There is a well-delineated failed priest in the novel, the only character who believes that a demon is haunting the hero; but he is disqualified from helping: he is a pedophile, struggling with the compulsion but failing so regularly he cannot assist with an exorcism. No demon made him abuse children, he notes. He chose evil with no outside help.
But the hero’s own parish priest fails him too: the Church doesn’t do exorcisms anymore, he says, it does food banks and social justice. At the book’s end, the family finds a new parish with a priest who believes in the reality of evil.
God calls to Koontz’s characters but so does Satan. Each is free to choose. The underlying moral seriousness of the book may offset for some Koontz’s preference for wealthy, witty protagonists living in dream homes with cloyingly brainy children, people with no problems in the world-- except for having become the target of an evil mastermind.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Road to Jerusalem by Jan Galliou

I am just starting on The Templar Knight, which is the second book of Jan Guillou’s Crusades Trilogy to be published in English, just this year. The Road to Jerusalem came out maybe two years ago in English. The whole trilogy was first published in Swedish a decade ago and I think it is fascinating, judging from The Road to Jerusalem, that a book so favourable to Medieval Christianity should come from writer such as Guillou.

But maybe his positive view of Christianity will become more negative in the second and third books as the book moves from pagan and primitive (brutal, short) Scandinavia to the Holy Land.

As a stand–alone swashbuckler, Road is excellent. But it is more. In recounting the nurturing, and spiritual and martial training that Arn Magnusson receives at the hands of French monks who have only just established themselves in Sweden of the 12th Century, he provides what I take to be a quite accurate, detailed, (anecdotal rather than systematic) description of the process of Church as civilizer, humanizer and light-bearer.

We see the monks introducing basic sanitation, harnessing of wind and water power, advanced musical forms, literacy and so on. In the schooling of young Arn, we listen in as the precocious youth debates just war theory with his learned abbot.

We see the baneful effects of hard living in a rugged environment on the Swedes’ economic thinking. Why improve sanitation? the nobility wonders. That will simply mean more serfs survive, meaning more mouths to feed. The monks’ idea that more serfs mean more production and more wealth all-round is shown at the beginning of its revolutionary spread into Scandinavia.

From what I have read (most recently, in The Triumph of Reason, by Rodney Stark) this is a a valid depiction of the monastic movement’s impact on Europe: the foundation layers for capitalism, in his telling) Of course, this is a swashbuckler. One of the monks is an ex-Crusader and a master of many weapons. I’m not so sure about how likely such a martial artist would have been in that culture; it seems a more Asian model,a nd a Hollywood Asian model at that. The Crusaders were practical and classist. The knights were heavily-armoured lance- and sword-bearers. Archers were for yeomen who fought on foot and wore little armour. Occasionally a strong leader and wise tactician—Richard the Lionhearted, for example—correctly combined the two elements on the battlefield: but their combination in one and the same person, I’m guessing, was not so common in the West. (However, the Turks and Saracens quite happily employed horse-borne archer/knights and, to fight them, so did the Byzantines).

Guillou interweaves his story of Arn’s upbringing to full knighthood and proficiency at arms with a social history the bloody, vengeful competition for power among rival nobles, in which marriages were arranged for policy and murders justified by the slimmest of moral technicalities.

Arn of course finds himself a love match but (this is a trilogy, after all) it is thwarted by powerful forces. So far.

In all of this the Church appears as a mostly benign, uplifting force. This would be surprising enough these days, but Guillou’s own background makes it doubly so. A left-wing investigative journalist, he exposed a Swedish government domestic spy ring (infiltrating leftwing organizations) and went to jail for a year. Later he was himself exposed as a paid operative of the Soviets; not quite a spy himself. In another series of novels, his hero is a contemporary Swedish special ops agent who counters activities of the Americans.

Any mature Swede who thought the Soviets were his country’s friends and the U.S. its enemies would, on the face of it, seem deeply delusional.

And yet, there is this book suggesting a different way of thinking entirely.

Whether Guillou avoids stereotypes in the Holy Land (which his hero reaches in Book Two) I will let you know. But he does so impressively in The Road to Jerusalem. It is a well-researched, well-written adventure story with the bonus of giving the Church its due.