Posts Tagged ‘Jim Thompson’

A Spectre is Haunting Asia: the Spectre of 1970s Pop Legends

Saturday, November 7th, 2009

The Ghost of Neil Diamond The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Why do we review other publishers’ titles? Because we like to, that’s why! There are a lot of good books out there, and we think you should know about them.


The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes is the best novel I’ve read in years. I’ve not experienced fiction like it since Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky.

Novelists can succeed at their craft four ways: story, architecture, painting, and poetry. You almost certainly know what I mean by “story.”  A great story is exactly that: a tale that holds the reader’s interest. It can be an account of high-school angst or interstellar war. Regardless, the writer spins a yarn that keeps your attention, one that you’re glad you made the time to read.

Architecture refers to a novel’s intricacy, staging, and development.  War and Peace, a book I don’t like, is impressive in its sheer breadth, the swath of time, space, and people it covers. While the grandeur of its architecture is undeniable, its story is abysmal. It’s a hideously boring book. A novel doesn’t have to be epic in scale to exhibit fine architecture. While a book might cover a single day spent alone in a protagonist’s life, through its exploration of actions, memories, and psyche it could be as vast as The Odyssey.

A novelist can paint portraits, scenes, and images so striking that it doesn’t matter whether the novel’s story and architecture are weak. Jim Thompson‘s The Grifters and The Getaway are like that. As a stories go, they’re not terribly interesting, but Thompson wields his pen-brush with such artistry that it doesn’t occur to you until later that the plots were pretty threadbare.

Poetry and painting are closely related, but not the same. “Painting” for a novelist is the creation of singular, beautiful, or shocking people, places, or events through words. The word choice itself doesn’t have to be remarkable. With simple, unassuming brushstrokes, the writer can limn memorable language-paintings. Charles Bukowski was like that.

It’s very rare to find writers who can imbue their prose with poetry. And by poetry I don’t mean sonnets and the like. I mean language that conveys that which can only be communicated through words. Plenty can be told through multiple media: think of books that have been made into plays, movies, comics… Poetry is different. It expresses experiences—layered, ephemeral moments—that are language’s sole domain.

A few rare novels excel in all four categories. The Ghost of Neil Diamond, like Suite Francaise, is one such book.

Honestly, I had a good feeling about Ghost right from its opening:

Amen to all sorrows.

With a few splashes of cold water Neil washed away his sins. He watched them slip down the plughole, one by wretched one. The wrongdoings and the wrong turns, the bad debts and the bad memories sank beyond the U-bend, and his soul lay empty and prepared. A whiff reached him from the urinals, the stale reminder of the catalogue of men who had fallen short just this point—the last call, the swan song. Well, forget them, he decided. They had their lives and this is mine. He lifted his aching head to the mirror. This time. Maybe this time.

As Sinatra once said, “If you don’t like that, you don’t like ice cream.” It’s as simple a scene as one could imagine: a man washing his face in a public lavatory. But the painting (the meticulous details, the imagery) coupled with the poetry (the character’s inner dialogue and the artistry by which it’s expressed) is exquisite.

“So what’s it about?” you ask. Set roughly ten years ago, Ghost chronicles the (figurative) death and rebirth of Neil Atherton, a middle-aged English folk musician. Well, more like former folk musician. Atherton has spent most of his life touring “the shabby pub rooms, the British Legion Clubs, cellar bars, back rooms, church halls,” struggling, waiting, plying and honing his art, waiting for folk’s revival. But sadly, unlike rockabilly, big band, and ska, no acoustic phoenix has risen from the cigarette ashes. Folk died years ago, is still dead, and almost certainly will remain dead. (Now to all you hipsters who are about to write angry emails on how there’s a vibrant folk scene in your town, chill. I’m sure there are some swell singer-songwriters warbling in basements near and far. But unlike the hip-hoppers, their music ain’t paying the bills. Day jobs at offices, libraries, and department stores are.) Neil’s wife, Angel, in a last-ditch effort to escape destitution, takes up a lucrative job selling shipping space in Hong Kong, dragging Atherton along.

In Hong Kong, Atherton transforms from an anti-establishment, gypsy troubadour to a kept man. The thing is, Mrs. Atherton isn’t so keen to keep her man. She’s taken to Hong Kong’s restlessness, ruthless meritocracy, and itches to trade Atherton in for a newer, sleeker model. Jobless and purposeless, Atherton keeps his self-esteem on life-support by singing karaoke, much to unsympathetic wifey’s disgust.

One night, a local shady businessman, Elbert Chan, catches Atherton performing “Reason to Believe” as Neil Diamond. Chan, sensing a hot property ripe for the plucking, gives Neil his business card. “If you want to fix up some dates, some bookings,” he offers, “just call or stop by… I think you’re terrific. Terrific. I really do. Any time. Open door. Perhaps I can be of service.”

(Minor point: I can find no mention of Neil Diamond performing “Reason to Believe” under its Wikipedia page or that of its composer, Tim Hardin. What does that mean? Any number of things. Maybe Diamond did cover it–Wikipedia is far from infallible. Maybe the author made a mistake; certainly not an important one. Perhaps this is an instance of a writer rewiring reality ever-so slightly to fit better his novel’s architecture.)

What’s Atherton’s reaction to such a promising overture? Disinterest, of course. But Angel (now that’s an interesting name choice) pushes him to take up Chan’s offer. (“Losers can’t be choosers, Neil.”) And thus begins Atherton’s initiation into Neil Diamond’s world, or more accurately, the world of Neil Diamond impersonation. Initiation into a literal cult of personality. Suffice to say nothing is as it seems, or as Atherton hopes.

Chan becomes Atherton’s second wife. The relationship isn’t intimate or loving, yet it’s very sexual in that it’s driven by lust: specifically, lust for recognition and money. (Neil Diamond.) Like a shrewd shrew, Chan alternately encourages and belittles Atherton, ignores and lavishes attention, knocks him down only to build him up again.

Ghost, though quite original, follows the noir trope of the basically innocent man suddenly swept into a strange and corrupt world. Although there’s no gangsters or violence, the underworld pulsates just below story’s surface (forgive the pun).

I could reveal more of the novel’s masterful architecture, but that would be unfair to you. If a family tells you they’re making a pilgrimage to a beautiful cathedral, you don’t show them photographs of its interior. No, let the church’s stained glass, carvings, and sheer vastness astonish them. And at the risk of sounding effusive, you should make a pilgrimage to The Ghost of Neil Diamond.  It’s that superb.

Ghost is about a lot more than one man’s venture into show-business’s fringes.  It tackles authenticity versus imitation, generations of duplication, identity, art versus commerce, representation, and transformation. (Andy Warhol would’ve loved this book.) Atherton is both a ghost of Neil Diamond and haunted by the vocalist’s spirit.  It’s not for nothing that Ghost is set in the Far East, where factories churn out products originally made in the West. The output’s quality varies from shoddy knockoffs to substantial improvements:

A beautiful Chinese girl came on, dressed in a silvery sixties slip that was little more than a nightdress… She delivered a flawless Downtown. Petula Clark had to stay on the opposite screen the whole song. But Petula Clark was ignored, irrelevant. She’d been upstaged. Against her beautiful Chinese impersonator, Clark—in her mid-thirties, in dowdy black and white, 1965, couldn’t compete. Not even with her one and only British hit. There was a discipline about this girl’s performance that was unsettling to Neil… It was like watching a mirror image to Clark, except that she was so much prettier and sexier and more exotic.

Oh, and if that’s not enough, The Ghost of Neil Diamond is also about culture clashes; performing; music; ambition; success; failure; desperation; home and homeless; music; sex; desire; flatulence…

When he looked down, everywhere he looked, the thighs were trapped under the overflowing buttocks of European, Australian and American men, in their Thai silk suits or linen chinos… And trapped deep and tight between those overflowing buttocks were arseholes that had farted and shat on long haul flights to and from every capital in the world. Arseholes that had shat in Hyatts all around Asia, broken wind in conference rooms scented with rosewater, in Macau and Shenzen and Guangzhou.

That’s a hysterically funny passage, but it’s also an example of Ghost’s poignant—yes, I said poignant—poetry.

If you can’t see the lyricism in farting—although, hey, passing gas is as much a part of life as work, eating, and sex—savor this passage from late in the novel, when Atherton and Chan have a business breakfast at a swank hotel’s cafe. Atherton contemplates the restaurant’s stunning vista:

Now, sipping his second glass of coffee, Neil came to understand what gave the view its power. It wasn’t just the beautiful panorama itself, with all its gliding reflections and deceptions. It was the silence of the scene beyond the glass. The silence underscored it all, as it were. The wash in the harbor was heavy from the weight of traffic—the ferries, barges, crane barges and liners—yet they all went by without a sound, not a hundred yards away. In the closeness of the sea traffic to the massive glass walls there was a danger, a recklessness, but it was suppressed, silenced, there was not a word about that. The risk had been taken and forgotten, had sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Like the hotel, Atherton seizes Hong Kong’s spirit of risk and takes a gamble, perhaps the first real one he’s ever wagered.  Does he win?  That’s for you to find out. But Ghost itself takes a gamble—a story about an English folkie in Hong Kong impersonating Neil Diamond? Really?—and it pays off brilliantly.

Can I find any faults in Ghost? A few, but again, like Sinatra said, too few to mention. I would’ve liked a blurb about the author, David Milnes: who he is, his past, and how come he writes so Goddamn good.

Incidentally, if you think it’s far-fetched that a veteran of the cellar bars would take up Neil Diamond impersonation, I draw your attention to Phranc, an “all-American Jewish lesbian folk singer,” who for awhile wowed audiences with her tributes to the Brooklyn Gemstone, complete with fake sideburns and chest hair.  Now that’s art.

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Stephen King, Max Allan Collins, and Me

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Last week I also read Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid and Max Allan Collins’ Deadly Beloved, both published by Hard Case Crime.  Honestly, neither really blew me away, and perhaps that’s not the point.  Hard Case books provide quick, diverting reads: they’re first and foremost entertainment.  That’s fine, and I’ll be quick to say both had me compulsively turning their pages.  They’re competently written and executed.  But they’re both one-dimensional.  I wasn’t surprised that Deadly Beloved was originally a comic strip—it had that simplistic quality of comics that never translates well into books or film (and that’s coming from someone who loves the offerings of Marvel and DC, not to mention Hergé).


I want more from my noir.  I like crime literature that reveals and ponders on the sordid details of life, particularly life beyond the respectable and the law.  That’s why I like Jim Thompson’s books.  Frankly, the plots themselves don’t knock me out.  (I haven’t yet read The Killer Inside Me yet; I understand that’s great on all counts, including story.)  But I’m drawn in by Thompson’s descriptions of people, places, and mood; his artistry of language and imagery; and the subtle yet deliberate way he conveys his worldview.  I didn’t get that from either Deadly Beloved or The Colorado Kid. Contrary to what you might think, I have found it Mickey Spillane’s words.  And not to constantly blow Dissident Books’ horn (that sounds obscene), but Don’t Call Me a Crook! delivers it too.


But all that said, there are two things I appreciated about The Colorado Kid.  It commits the delicious sin of breaking that most holy of compacts with the reader: it leaves the mystery unresolved.  I like that.  I like that a lot.  As the two crusty newspaper editors in Kid intimate, that’s life—an unresolved mystery. 


Stephen King also writes something outstanding in his afterword:


I ask you to consider the fact that we live in web of mystery, and have simply gotten so used to the fact that we have crossed out the word and replaced it with one we like better, that one being reality.  Where do we come from?  Where were we before we were here?  Don’t know.  Where are we going?  Don’t know.  A lot of churches have what they assure us are the answers, but most of us have a sneaking suspicion all that might be a con-job laid down to fill the collection plates.  In the meantime, we’re in a kind of compulsory dodgeball game as we free-fall from Wherever to Ain’t Got A Clue.  Sometimes bombs go off and sometimes the planes land okay and sometimes the blood tests come back clean and sometimes the biopsies come back positive.  Most times the bad telephone call doesn’t come in the middle of the night but sometimes it does, and either way we know we’re going to drive pedal-to-the-metal into the mystery eventually.


I would add to King’s rhetorical questions “What’s it all for?”  And again, the answer is “Don’t know.”  It brings to mind a wonderful passage from Mencken’s Chrestomathy:


Yet we cling to [life] in a muddled physiological sort of way—or, perhaps more accurately, in a pathological way—and even try to fill it with a gaudy, hocus-pocus . . . .   Why?  If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes . . . .

 Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic.  So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror.  He works. He plays.  He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property.  He strives for the coy eyewink called fame.  He founds a family, and spreads his curse over others.  All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to escape the tragic-comedy that is himself.  Life, fundamentally, is not worth living.  So he confects artificialities to make it so.  So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.

 Perhaps my talk of agonies and tragi-comedies may be a bit misleading.  The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore.  It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.  The objection to it is not that is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking sense.  What is ahead for the race?  Even theologians can see nothing but a gray emptiness, with a burst of irrational fireworks at the end.  But there is such a thing as human progress.  True.  It is the progress that a felon makes from the watch-house to the jail, and from the jail to the death-house.  Every generation faces the same intolerable boredom.


Final thought:  It was Mencken together with George Jean Nathan who started The Black Mask, the famed detective magazine.  True, Mencken and Nathan began it as a means to subsidize The Smart Set, their prestigious literary magazine, and sold it after eight issues.  And yes, it was the subsequent editor, Joseph Shaw, who recruited great hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner.  And Mencken even wrote in his preface to his collection that those who criticized his use of Chrestomathy were “ignoramuses” who “recreate themselves with whodunits.”  But I like to think (keywords “like to think”: not “know” or “certain” or even “have reason to believe”) that Mencken had a soft spot for noir.  Consider his repeated use of criminal and prison imagery, as in the passage above.  I bet noir’s lack of sentiment and harsh view of life on “this lugubrious ball” spoke to the Sage of Baltimore.