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Lo Mein
Robert Eringer
Corinthian Books
224 pp.


Robert Eringer gets done in the first ten pages of Lo Mein what most thriller writers would take a book to do: Willard Stukey, dissatisfied with the world's indifference to his artistic efforts, buys a 9mm machine pistol, catches a train to Disney World and opens fire on the unwitting crowd waiting for Disney's nightly Electric Parade.

Sound like a psycho thriller? It's not. A thriller's aimed at your gut and goes for visceral emotional reactions (caring inordinately for the good guy's well-being and fervently wishing various catastrophes on the bad guys), page in and page out. Eringer, on the other hand, is a satirist aiming for your head--or, uh, brain, rather--in ways that a thriller writer would never see fit to think economical.

Lo Mein has its thriller elements, of course, but they are brilliantly ironized. After seeing himself described on CNN as a 'failed' artist, for instance, Stukey calls CNN and declares (spontaneously) that "This is just beginning, guy. Donald Duck is next. And after that, Goofy. And after Goofy, Snow White, and all seven of those fucking dwarfs. If my demands are not met." The Electric Parade shooting, it seems, was "a live art exhibit," but now his demands are straightforward: the Museum of Modern Art in New York must give him an exhibit, and the New York Times has to review it--full page, minimum. "Until that happens," Stukey tells CNN, "I'm gonna keep knocking off Disney characters."

But it's not going to be easy because Jeff Dalkin, Eringer's recurring detective-with-Tourette's-Syndrome, is advising Michael Eisner, Disney's CEO, on how to make Stukey go away. What? Oh, yes: Tourette's. As in, spouting uncontrollable profanities when prompted by certain words (million dollars: "blow me"; CNN: "turds and maggots"; lawyers: "lying labonzas"). Throw in the fact that Dalkin looks exactly like Bruce Willis and you're guaranteed a lot of surprised looks from the characters who bump into the profanity-spouting Dalkin.

Crazed psycho vowing to kill and kill again...outsider detective (ex-FBI agent, no less) vowing to track him down...and wouldn't you know it: Stukey becomes a CNN call-in celebrity like that. And--does this never stop?--to their joy and dismay, MoMA and the Times decide that Stukey's art is the work of a genius. The van Gogh of his times.

So what do you do with the guy, assuming you can catch him? Kill our era's van Gogh or give him enough money to keep painting blissfully into old age?

With Eringer hurtling through his story at hilariously cartoonish pop-art speed, readers will certainly not find themselves bored. Or thought-free. For all the broad, subversively dark comedy, Lo Mein is a book with a message. And who says you have to be bored by exposure to goodness to learn something redeeming?

--Charlie Onion

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The White Death
McKay Jenkins
Random House
230 pp.



In late December 1969, five young men (the oldest were twenty-two years old) set out to be the first to climb the north face of Glacier National Park's Mount Cleveland. At 10,448 feet, it certainly doesn't measure up to many of the taller peaks of the southern Rockies (Colorado has fifty-three peaks over 14,000 feet tall), but it was still a difficult climb, particularly in winter. As McKay Jenkins writes in his new account of the 1969 attempt,


The mountain itself is, in parts, utterly steep and bare. The grinding of glaciers and the ceaseless polishing effects of snow and rain have left the mountain looking severe, sharp-edged, barren. There are no pockets of trees, no places for climbers to hide, especially on the north face, which at its upper reaches is essentially a striated vertical wall. Even the most experienced climbers who had attempted the north face left shaking their heads.


Perhaps most troubling, the mountain was prone to avalanches and had no trees above the timberline to slow down a sliding wall of snow; the chances of being rescued alive in such forbidding, remote conditions were awfully slim. But as the park ranger who tried unsuccessfully to talk them out of the attempt says, "They were young fellows who had all kinds of energy, but a little more head was what they needed."

Inevitably, the climbers didn't show up by their expected return date, and a large group of searchers were sent out after them. Many of the searchers were former members of the rugged 10th Mountain Division (an elite alpine outfit formed during World War Two), and the rescue mission was therefore being conducted by some of the most backcountry-savvy men in North America. But bad weather, uncertainty about the climbers' actual direction and the risk of avalanches slowed them down, and six months would pass before the young men's bodies were found and recovered from the deep snow of a massive avalanche.

The 1969 tragedy is historically significant for a couple reasons-- it was one of the worst avalanche accidents in American history and it happened when mountaineering was reaching newfound popularity in this country. But for all the story's worthiness, Jenkins faced a troubling problem: no witnesses to the avalanche survived, and the only documents that show us the climbers after they arrived on the mountain are photos taken from a camera found during the search. While poignant, they do little to indicate what the boys were thinking or why, exactly, they chose to alter their route up the mountain. (For quick comparison, think of how many eyewitnesses were available for Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and how well they served to focus Krakauer's account minutely on the various stages of the Everest disaster.)

Jenkins's solution is inspired, if somewhat troubling in itself. While documenting the rescue efforts at length (a wise move, given the number of sources he could draw on), he uses the 1969 avalanche as a jumping-off point for a variety of avalanche-related issues--everything from extended examinations of the physical dynamics behind snow and avalanche-making conditions to grim, intoxicatingly well-written descriptions of what, exactly, an avalanche does to a human unfortunate enough to get caught in one. Along the way, he manages to include some shocking accounts of avalanche survivals (perhaps the best is about a man who was blown 2,200 feet into the air by a fierce avalanche's winds--and survived).

The side stories are often fascinating, and they deserve to be told. But one can't help feeling that the central story of the Mount Cleveland tragedy is stretched too thin at times by Jenkins's telling them. Nonetheless, The White Death is an admirable work in many ways, and his exhaustive research yielded enough fascinating facts and stories to keep autodidacts and bibliophiles as well as outdoor enthusiasts reading happily.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Village of a Million Spirits: A Novel of the Treblinka Uprising
Ian MacMillan
257 pp.



On August 2, 1943, six hundred prisoners of the Treblinka concentration camp did something unthinkable: they staged a riot and escaped. The uprising is astonishing to consider today, given the seemingly unimaginable obstacles stacked up against the rebels--lack of food, weapons, money, familiarity with the Polish countryside, etc. Oddly, we can fathom a person's doggedness and will to survive a death camp; but to escape from one seems impossible. As one of the characters in Ian MacMillan's brilliant novel about the escape says, "Survival is a habit, revolt is a fantasy."

From a nightmarish kaleidoscope of characters--indifferent, thieving Ukrainian guards, sadistic Nazi officers, and the Jews who arrive at the death camp naively expecting merely to be repatriated to lands occupied by the Germans--Janusz Siedlecki emerges as the character who comes closest to acting as the novel's hero. Arriving in Treblinka as a sullen teenager with his grandmother and siblings, he survives because he is a hard worker and, more importantly, because he is nondescript enough not to draw the guards' attention. Slowly, we see his innocence and insolent youth mature into hardened survival skills and--ultimately--a belief that he can not merely survive in the camp but actually leave it by force. But Village of a Million Spirits is too sophisticated to give us a hero who both dreams up a plan and lives to execute it, necessarily, and the fact that MacMillan thwarts our expectations of a clean, easily processed novel (here and elsewhere) is one of the book's great achievements.

Indeed, some of MacMillan's most skillful (and moving) work in this regard comes in the passages that introduce us to the victims riding the train to Treblinka. The character sketches are beautifully executed, and given MacMillan's attention to individual detail, we assume that the characters are going to play some undefined role in the plot. Instead, we follow them through the woods to the gas chamber or--once the pattern is known--we simply ride the train with them and watch from the platform as they roll up to Treblinka and blink, uncomprehending, at the train cars' doors. The more traditional aspects of the novel, with recurring characters who grow and advance the plot, are certainly well-done, but it's the tragic portraits of the ones who jarringly don't survive long enough to justify MacMillan's extended attention (in traditional narrative terms) that are perhaps most moving.

The documentary-like facts themselves--the gassings, the beatings, the rapes--are almost too grim to read, but it is MacMillan's portrayal of his characters' voices and complicated, hidden thoughts (which can never be captured by a documentary, of course) that will linger the longest for most readers, I suspect.

--Doug Childers

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Hush Money
Robert B. Parker
323 pp.



Robert B. Parker's fans need read only this, by way of review: There's a new Parker novel in paperback. Buy it. For the rest of goes.

Hush Money, which marks the Spenser series' twenty-fifth year in print, shows Parker at his quiet best. An English professor has been denied tenure because his name has been linked--without evidence--to a gay student's apparent suicide. True to form, Spenser doesn't ask the professor if he is in fact gay (it's really none of his business, after all), but he does realize fairly quickly that the student almost certainly didn't commit suicide. Coming up with a list of suspects isn't all that hard either, but staying alive long enough to gather evidence is. Throw in a second case with a stalking victim who seems set on stalking Spenser himself and our favorite detective has his hands full.

Yeah, I know: it doesn't sound like much of a plot, does it? (Oh, ye of little faith.) It's certainly quiet, but 'subtle' and 'patient' are certainly better descriptions than merely 'simple.' It's a slow burn, and holding onto your readers with a quiet plot takes at least as much talent as keeping them at bay with relentless explosions, doesn't it?

But forget, for a moment, that Hush Money doesn't involve anything as big as taking an island hostage (as Parker's latest Jesse Stone novel, Trouble in Paradise, does). Here are three things that make Robert Parker such a delight to read. First, he does for the detective novel what Oscar Wilde did for the Victorian stage: he writes witty dialogue that is wonderfully, diabolically surprising, line by line. And that, as far as I can tell, is at least half the battle.

Second, Spenser (for all his redeeming moral certainties) is a gratifyingly ambivalent character: as fast and sure as he is with his fists, he quotes Samuel Johnson casually and more than holds his weight against the intellectual snobs he despises (honesty is important to him, and academics--let's admit it--are as driven by petty deceitful conceits as the rest of us). Further to his credit, he has a predisposition for parking in spots reserved for other, more privileged groups (university faculty, particularly), readily acknowledges his various appetites and has a refreshingly modest expectation that he have a plan before acting, particularly when it comes to detective work.

Finally, there is Parker's writing style. He writes with a speed, concision and--perhaps most importantly--an austerity that borders on religious enlightenment for other writers looking for guidance, I suspect.

So there we have it: There's a new Parker novel in paperback. Buy it.

--Woody Arbunkle

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Douglas E. Winter
Alfred A. Knopf
265 pp.


It's not unusual for a book reviewer to point out how strong a thriller would be if it were made into an action film. With Douglas E. Winter's Run, though, it might be more appropriate to think of it as a whoppingly fast video game with a backstory.

Burdon Lane, Run's loquacious narrator, is gearing up for a gun run that he assumes will be business as usual: "A run that was nothing special, the same old same old: Guns for money, money for guns. A run from Dirty City to Manhattan and back, count the dollars, drink myself to sleep, and wake up bleary and weary on another Monday morning. Business as usual." Only--as you might guess--it doesn't happen the way he imagines. Throw two hardened gangs on either side of a sizeable arms deal and you're bound to have trouble, right? Sure...but not exactly the way you--or Burdon Lane--would expect it to go. By the time this multi-state, book-length chase scene is over, you'll agree with one of the bad guys who shrugs off Lane's conspiracy question ("How far up the fucking chain does it go?") and says, "it doesn't go down. It doesn't go down. It goes around. It goes around and around."

Run is one of those books whose narrative voice is so distinctive that you will either immediately fall in love with it or find yourself hating it very quickly. It's certainly a highly mannered voice, with all the speed and loquaciousness of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, but without Tarantino's quirky, original dialogue. Where Tarantino's characters wander through a fecund garden of brilliant non-sequitors, Winter's characters pretty much stick to your garden-variety ultra-macho tough-guy talk.

At heart, of course, there's a nagging question that always floats near the surface of such stories: do tough guys really talk and think like this? Raymond Chandler's voice for Marlowe had some considerable swagger to it, but his Hemingway-styled understatement kept the series from sounding over-the-top. But Winter often teeters on the edge of overblown prose, and you have to wonder how the protagonist manages to keep quiet around his tight-lipped friends.

Strip away the language and the arcade-speed chases and shootouts, though, and Run becomes a standard (if sped-up) crime thriller, and as such, it's superb. But you can't shake the feeling that the book should come with a joystick and a good pair of Dolby speakers.

--Woody Arbunkle

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