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
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?
Back to Archived Short
The White Death
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
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
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.
Back to Archived Short
Village of a Million Spirits: A Novel of the
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.
Back to Archived Short
Robert B. Parker
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 you...here
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
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.
Back to Archived Short
Douglas E. Winter
Alfred A. Knopf
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
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
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