I read a lot of books, around 100 per year, and perhaps once a year I find an author I haven’t previously read who really gels with me. In 2014 it was Mikhail Bulgakov. 2013, Raymond Carver, 2012, Daniel Woodrell and Megan Abbott. My author of 2015 is Jim Thompson, 20th century American noir author. Pictured above is my recently-assembled collection of Jim Thompson novels, about 50% of his total output (and reputedly the better half). Hardcore, a collection of three titles (The Nothing Man, The Kill-Off and Bad Boy) arrived yesterday, and I’ve read everything else pictured here. Ideally I’d collect all the Vintage/Black Lizard editions, as I particularly like those, but financial necessities have meant that I got whatever was cheapest on Ebay, Better World or Abebooks. The only one of these I bought from a physical bookstore was Savage Night, the book that started it all for me. I enjoyed all of these titles to greater or lesser extents. My favourite novel is Pop 1280, but I also loved Savage Night, A Swell-Looking Babe and Polito’s biography, Savage Art.
I’ve also watched three films based on Thompson’s films in The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me (2010) and Farewell, My Lovely. The Grifters was far and away the best of these. I have Peckinpah’s The Getaway to watch, as well as Coup de Torchon (based on Pop 1280). I haven’t read the books in Hardcore yet, although having made a brief start on The Nothing Man I feel sure I will enjoy that one. Fireworks is an interesting if uneven volume. I was a little disappointed with “This World, Then the Fireworks” to be honest, but I loved the early work and especially “An Alcoholic Looks at Himself”.
So my question to you, Jim Thompson fans of the internet, is what else of his is worth pursuing? My reading of the biography and various bits and pieces on the internet persuaded me to pursue these books and not the others, but perhaps you have a soft spot for a particular Jim Thompson work not mentioned here? I’m given to understand that the earlier biography is superfluous, but how do I know?
A note on costs. Now that the poor old Aussie dollar is only worth about 70 US cents (and falling), I’ve had to shop around for books a bit more. For several years I was only paying $10-12 dollars for new books from Book Depository, but it seems those days are gone, not only because of the exchange rate but also them hiking up the prices a fair bit. So I am back to secondhand books again, like I was before Book Depository ever came along. These 14 books cost me in total $133, or $9.50 per book, which is about 50% of what they’d have cost new (those in print, anyway).
Anyway, it’s been a great ride. If I manage to finish Hardcore within the next couple of weeks, then I’ll have read 11 JT novels, 1 collection of miscellany, 1 biography and 1 autobiography in about three months. That ain’t bad….
The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in the Perth foothills has had an important place in my writing life ever since I was lucky enough to win the Young Writers category of the Short Fiction award way back in 1999, when I was but a callow youth. More recently, I was even luckier to be awarded a four-week Emerging Writer residency (on the fourth try), a role I undertook in April/May 2013. I served on KSP’s Board of Management from 2012-14, and transferred over to their Literary Committee in late 2014. My main task in 2015 has been working with KSP stalwart and poet Mardi May and acclaimed WA author and editor Amanda Curtin in helping to select next year’s Emerging Writers in Residence. I don’t think the winners have been formally announced as yet, but rest assured that the three chosen authors will represent KSP with distinction in 2016.
Another task I’ve had the pleasure of performing is judging the Secondary WA category of this year’s Write-a-Book-in-a-Day competition. This is a very worthy cause, raising money for the Kids’ Cancer Project, and it sees teams of writers from across the country frantically writing, illustrating and presenting picture books in a single day. There are more than a dozen entries in this category this year, and I’m just about to get cracking on finishing my part of the judging process this weekend. It’s humbling to be a part of this program in my own small way, but the real credit must go to the teams of writers themselves, who’ve crafted some stunning work and, in doing so, given me a headache in trying to decide which entry ought to be the winner.
Finally, I’ve been invited to present a writing workshop, ‘The Narrative Engine’, at this year’s Avon Valley Writers Festival, at the Northam library on Sunday 20th September. This is the third iteration of the festival after similar events in 2012 and 2013. The festival was on hiatus in 2014, but it’s back bigger and better than ever this year, and it boasts a strong line up of authors, including the likes of Ian Reid, Amanda Curtin, James Foley and Sami Shah. Here’s the blurb for my workshop: What makes stories tick? How do you create suspense? This workshop will consider the finer points of narrative fiction with reference to some of the great artists of short fiction: Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and others. We’ll zero in on thorny topics such as point of view, narration and interior monologue, and discuss how inciting incidents and rising tension make for great short stories, no matter what time or place they’re written in.
When I reflect on my writing career, such as it is circa 2015, it strikes me that the bulk of my modest achievements have been realised in conjunction with KSP. Writing is and remains a lonely business, but you could do much worse than joining the local writers’ centre in your area. You’re unlikely to regret it!
Note: this story was written in collaboration with my partner, Naomi (pictured above!) and Walter, her Humber Super Snipe.
Lara made her escape from the suffocating house and went out onto the front verandah. The sun was still high. Her singlet was soaked through with sweat from helping Chris hump that monstrosity of a four piece-suite up onto the trailer. But now it was done and they could get the fuck out, just as soon as he had finished signing the settlement papers with his soon-to-be ex-wife, Anna.
“Just for a quick spin,” Chris said, opening the front door but looking back over his shoulder. Anna followed him out, her fat fingers vainly trying to smooth out the many folds in her bunched-up tee-shirt.
“Quick spin in what, Chris?” Lara asked, wiping her brow.
“Anna has her Humber going at last,” Chris explained.
“It isn’t quite roadworthy yet, but it’s drivable,” Anna said.
Lara followed them across the dusty paddock to the shed, thinking hateful thoughts. Anna slid back the shed door with a pig-like grunt.
“It’s a ’61 Super Snipe,” Chris said, putting his arm around Lara.
Lara pushed away. “I’ll wait in our car,” she said. “I’ll have the air-con running.”
“But you’re the happy couple now. I insist,” Anna said.
Lara got in the passenger side and Anna closed the door behind her. Chris turned the ignition and the Humber boomed to life. He reversed out and drove the car past the house and onto the gravel driveway.
“We’ve got a two hour drive ahead of us, Chris.”
“I’ll just go to the end of the driveway and back,” he said. “I’m humouring her.”
Sheep watched them as they bumped along and Lara’s stomach lurched. She went to crank down the window but there was no handle. “Any aircon in this bucket?”
Lara eased back into the seat, exposed flesh sticking to the bright red vinyl.
The gate at the top of the driveway was shut.
“Can you open it, babe?” Chris asked.
Lara reached for the door handle, but there wasn’t one. “How do I get out?”
“Shit, she hasn’t put the inner door in yet.” Their eyes turned to the driver’s door. The grey, webbed panel was missing its door handle and window winder. “I’ll have to reverse back out.” He craned his neck around. Lara could barely see a thing in the swirl of red dust. And the heat.
Chris found a wider place and managed to manhandle the aged hulk around. They drove back to the house, but Anna was nowhere to be seen. Chris pressed the horn but there was no sound.
“Let me guess, she hasn’t hooked that up yet either,” Lara said.
Chris circumnavigated the house. No Anna. “She can’t have gone far.”
The heat pressed in. “I’m going to kick this fucking window out in a minute!”
“You won’t be able to; it’s shatterproof glass. Just settle down.”
Lara clambered into the back seat but found no way out there either. They were trapped and her guts were churning. “The bitch did this deliberately, Chris. Get us out!”
Lara climbed back into the front and tried to think straight. The sun burned white and the car was a furnace.
“Fucking thing corners like a tank,” Chris said, steering around to the front of the house again. His arms were trembling. “She’s on the verandah.” He waved with one hand, but Anna seemed not to see them.
Lara thumped the burning glass with the heel of her hand. “Let me out of here, you fat cow!”
Anna looked up from whatever she was doing. It wasn’t clear whether she could hear them. She raised the thing in her lap so that it came into view. It was the long barrel of a rifle and now she rested it on the frame of the verandah. She had something else, the settlement papers. She proceeded to tear the papers into strips, letting the strips flutter down over the side of the verandah. Then she raised the rifle.
As she waited for the shot to come, Lara hadn’t yet decided at which of them Anna was aiming.
I’d vaguely heard of American crime writer Jim Thompson (1906-77), but only because one of his novels, Pop 1280, was featured on a list of Southern Gothic novels on Goodreads recently. I meant to grab a copy at some point, but I intended to sink my teeth into Ron Rash first. On a recent trip to Melbourne, I came across a Thompson novel in a discount bookstore. Five bucks. The title was Savage Night, the publisher was Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and, when I read the first few chapters, I was in love.
Turns out that Black Lizard reprinted about fourteen of Thompson’s novels in the nineties, and I wanted ’em all. Most are out of print in these editions now, so I’ve had to content myself with a mixture of Black Lizards and Crime Masterworks. But I love the covers and designs of the Black Lizards best. My second Thompson novel was probably his most famous, The Killer Inside Me, and while I liked it plenty, I thought it a little tame compared to modern crime fiction.
Next came After Dark, My Sweet, which I enjoyed well enough but found even less remarkable, at a distance of 60 years since first publication. This is considered to be in Thompson’s upper echelon, but it didn’t quite do it for me.
But if my third outing into the world of Jim Thompson was a slight letdown, my fourth, Pop 1280, was the best yet. Similar in character and structure to The Killer Inside Me, this ‘last great novel of Jim Thompson’s career’ would be a great novel in anyone’s career. Dark, twisted, vulgar, revolting, and yet riproaringly funny, Pop 1280 may well be among the best satirical noir novels even written.
And that’s where I’m up to. I’ve also just finished reading Robert Polito’s outstanding biography, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson. I have no fewer than seven further titles enroute in The Grifters (I recently watched and very much enjoyed the film), The Getaway, A Hell of a Woman, A Swell-Looking Dame, The Nothing Man, The Kill-Off and Bad Boy (these last three in the Hardcore omnibus), so I expect to be revelling in the dark, dark world of Jim Thompson for some months to come. I binge on authors like this when I can, which isn’t all the time as I don’t always feel overly enthusiastic about devouring (like Nick Corey) every single available morsel. And I haven’t promised, not even to myself, to read every word of Thompson, but this enthusiasm reminds of how I felt about Philip K Dick, and J G Ballard, and William Burroughs, and Harry Crews, and …
It’s not often that you can pinpoint the reading of a particular book as life-changing. Rummaging through a box of a stranger’s discarded books in 2009, my eye was caught by the cover of Harry Crews’ A Feast of Snakes. I hadn’t heard of the author, but the reading of this, the fiercest and bleakest of ‘country noir’ novels (a term coined by Daniel Woodrell), compelled me to track down and read every book the man had written, which took me through to some time in 2010. Much of Crews’ work falls short of this standard, but some of it is very fine indeed. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Crews was my entree into the world of what is often called Southern Gothic literature. Crews, from Bacon County, Georgia, wrote the seminal A Childhood: The Biography of a Place about his early life, and the various snippets of interviews with him that can be found on youtube make for absorbing and often hilarious viewing. Crews died in 2012, a couple of years after I discovered his work, and it won’t be long before I’m ready to re-read the fifteen or so novels I devoured so eagerly in 2009-10.
In 2010 I also read my second Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men, which I enjoyed immensely (the film is outstanding too). I was less taken in by James Whorton Jr’s novels Approximately Heaven and Frankland, which I felt to be ‘Crews lite’ (to be fair, almost anything Southern could be described as such). Crews spoke reverently of his literary forebear Flannery O’Connor many times, so I obtained the Library of America edition of her complete works, but I wasn’t especially enamoured with her first novel, Wise Blood, and the rest remained unread for the time being. In 2011 I read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I found heavy going, but precious little else in this genre. Other than Crews, I hadn’t yet discovered authors I would bond with.
2012 proved to be an important year for me in this regard. As often seems to happen when you so diligently trawl remaindered book piles in newsagents and discount stores, I discovered William Gay (pictured above) quite by accident. I was extremely impressed with his stately prose in The Long Home, Provinces of Night and especially Twilight, and a couple of years later I very much enjoyed his stories in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. Gay died that same year, a month before Harry Crews, but I’ve recently learned that a ‘lost’ novel of his, Little Sister, Death is to be published later this year. Gay saw himself as an acolyte of McCarthy but, initially at least, I preferred the work of the apprentice to that of the master. Gay was born in Tennessee and much of his work is set there. 2012 and 2013 were also the years I read virtually all of Daniel Woodrell (pictured below), starting with Winter’s Bone. I enjoyed pretty much all of Woodrell, but especially Tomato Red, The Death of Sweet Mister and the author’s most recent, The Maid’s Version. Much of Woodrell’s work is set in the Missouri Ozarks, perhaps not Southern in geography but certainly in tenor.
I’d read a couple of novels by Larry Brown (pictured below) previously but, like in the case of McCarthy, I was a little less enthusiastic and seemed to read only one or two of his titles a year. I liked Joe but not Fay, and it wasn’t until 2014 that I finally read a Brown novel I fully enjoyed (his first, Dirty Work). By now I’ve read most of Brown, including Jean W. Cash’s biography. His second collection of stories, Big Bad Love, is currently enroute, and I couldn’t get through The Rabbit Factory as it reminded me of Crews’ late and not so amazing work. As mentioned above, Brown saw himself as a follower of Crews (he has an essay on this subject), but when William Gay was first published in 1999, he was seen as a ‘new Larry Brown’ (even though he was considerably older). Brown was the first of these authors to die, far too young, in 2004.
Like I’ve said, I’d been reading Cormac McCarthy on and off for years, starting with The Road in 2008, which I saw more in the context of dystopian fiction at the time. I read the ‘Border Trilogy’ out of sequence (The Crossing in 2012, All the Pretty Horses in 2013 and Cities of the Plain in 2015), and I recently enjoyed Child of God. This leaves me with three of the author’s early novels, The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark and Suttree (enroute), and a couple of recent titles. In many ways, McCarthy is the granddaddy of the writers discussed here, born earliest (1933), published first (1965), and now the oldest (81). In this regard he reminds me of another long-living writer-patriarch, William S. Burroughs, who might himself have had more of a place in this conversation were he not so widely and perhaps incorrectly known as a Beat writer.
And then there’s the rest. By the time of this writing, I’ve managed to read five novels by North Dakota native Larry Watson without enjoying his work very much. I liked Montana, 1948 and Orchard, but found In a Dark Time, Sundown, Yellow Moon and American Boy dull and staid. Perhaps it’s because while Watson is certainly a ‘country’ author, he’s by no means Southern? My problem with Ohio born Donald Ray Pollock is somewhat the opposite in that I found his novel The Devil All the Time and collection Knockemstiff too dark and horrible without any kind of redemptive feature at all. Nor did I appreciate the only James Lee Burke novel I have read, The Tin Roof Blowdown (too trashy), although I did like his early collection The Convict and Other Stories. I fully expected to take to the works of New Orleans native Elmore Leonard, but I didn’t think a great deal of Rum Punch or Tishomingo Blues and thus I haven’t yet read further. I’ve read one James Sallis (pictured below) novel, Drive, and I have a further two enroute in Cypress Grove and Cripple Creek. I’ve recently read a few of Flannery O’Connor’s stories (especially enjoying ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’) but I wasn’t at all a fan of Philip Meyer’s much hyped American Rust or John Grisham’s A Painted House.
It hasn’t escaped my attention that these authors, with the exception of Flannery O’Connor, are all white American males. It has been a source of some consternation to me for years now that 90% of my influences and literary idols are men, but try as I might, I can’t seem to find females authors I enjoy to the same extent, with the exception of US crime writer Megan Abbott and English literary author Pat Barker. Nor have I failed to notice that most of my influences are American. Of the twenty authors I consider most important to me (only some of them mentioned here), eleven are Americans, six are from the U.K., and the only ‘Australian’ author, Peter Temple, was born in South Africa. What does this mean? Am I a reader and writer out of step with the Australian society around me? Should I pack up and move to the Rough South, or is there a place for me here in country Western Australia?
Issue Nine has landed
Fiction, Poetry, Creative Non-Fiction and Interviews from our favourite writers
Fiction by Nick Marland, Ramon Glazov, Tayne Ephraim, Amelia Marshall, Anna Spargo-Ryan, Bel Woods, Laura McPhee Browne, Cathy Adams, Guy Salvidge, Katherine Robb and Jeff Meisner. Poetry by Matt Hetherington, Mark William Jackson, Anne Elvey, Les Wicks, Ica (Veronika) Gvozdeva, Jonathan Hadwen and Michele Seminara. Creative Non-Fiction by Miodrag Kojadinović, Cindy Matthews, Bastian Fox Phelan and Sean Lynch
It’s been a fairly long time between story publications – just over a year – but I’m happy to report that my story ‘Enter Sandman, Exit Light’ has just been published in the e-pages of Tincture Journal #9. Editor Daniel Young has done an incredible job of bringing this publication to life over the past two years. I’m impressed, not only with the outstanding work in these pages, but also by the fact that Tincture has continued to come out quarterly for two years while continuing to pay writers for their work. I had a story in the first issue and, to be honest, I wasn’t necessarily expecting the journal to be going strong after two years when so many others seem to fall by the wayside, but credit must go to Daniel and his team.
Each issue of Tincture Journal is available for $8 in either epub or mobi format, and you can buy the 2014 Bundle, including four issues, for a measly $12.50. This magazine is a great showcase of emerging talent from Australia and elsewhere in the world. My story in this issue, ‘Enter Sandman, Exit Light’, is a ‘Housos vs Raymond Carver’ tale of Rufus, an angry young man with one thing on his mind and Amelie, his long-suffering partner. I’m quite proud of this one!
2014 has been a watershed year for me in terms of the quantity of books I’ve read: for the first time since I started recording these things in 2008, I’ve hit 100 books completed for the year. Most people are fairly astounded when I tell them I read this many books in a year, but I do favour shorter novels and it probably only averages out to about one hour of reading per day across the whole year. That’s an hour that many other people would spend watching television, say. It’s not that I don’t waste time on trivial pursuits — I certainly do — but my commitment to hunting, buying and reading books is such that I always have an immediate to-read list of 10-15 titles.
I tend to be an ‘author reader’, by which I mean that once I decide that I particularly like the work of a certain author, I will hunt down every book by this author and hopefully read every word. It doesn’t always work out this way; at times I decide that I’m not so interested in a certain writer after all, and end up with a pile of their books that I no longer want to read. In 2014, I read three or more books by the likes of Pat Barker, Larry Brown, Mikhail Bulgakov, Michael Chabon, M John Harrison, Haruki Murakami, Peter Temple and Alan Warner. Most of these writers would normally be classified as authors of literary fiction or crime, and that’s a fair representation of where my reading interests now lie. I read a number of young adult novels as part of my job as an English teacher, some of them multiple times, which rather pads out my overall figures. My author of the year would have to be Mikhail Bulgakov. Until this year, I hadn’t read a word of him and now I’ve read his entire published prose output.
2014 may have been a watershed year in terms of quantity, but what about the quality? According to my Goodreads star ratings (which I have completed very assiduously this year), 21 books gained a five star rating. Of these, I have chosen my top ten reads for the year, limiting myself to just one book per author. Here are the ten in no particular order. All come highly recommended from me. Clicking on the covers will take you to the listing for the book on Goodreads.
Union Street by Pat Barker
I’ve now read almost all of Barker, with the exception of her novel Double Vision which I can’t seem to get into. This novel, her first, is the very best of her non-WWI output. Grim, dark and extraordinary powerful.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
In truth I possibly enjoyed A Country Doctor’s Notebook even more than this, but this is the magnum opus and the place where pretty much everyone starts with Bulgakov. I don’t regret giving this devilish satire of Stalin’s Russia my attention.
My Summer of Love by Helen Cross
A friend recommended this and I’m glad she did. I thought this was far superior to Cross’ second novel, The Secrets She Keeps. I loved the writing in this one and the plot had a couple of real kickers to it, too.
An Iron Rose by Peter Temple
Peter Temple is the Australian master of crime fiction and this is one of his very best, maybe the best of them all.
The Dark Road by Ma Jian
Ma Jian is my favourite Chinese writer and I’ve been waiting patiently for some years for a follow-up to Beijing Coma. Well, it was worth the wait. Not for the faint-hearted, the squeamish, or those inclined to depression. It’s that dark.
The Sopranos by Alan Warner
I’ve read a lot of Warner this year, probably two-thirds of his opus, but this one had me laughing the hardest and it’s not often that happens when I read. The sequel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, is a pale imitation.
Dirty Work by Larry Brown
I have mixed feelings about Brown but I have nothing but praise for this, his first novel. The book consists of two profoundly injured Vietnam War veterans chewing the fat, but it’s fat well worth chewing. Here’s a book with heart.
I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay
I love country noir fiction: Harry Crews, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Larry Brown, Larry Watson and Cormac McCarthy all write it and write it well, but in my opinion none of them does it better than Gay does in this exquisite volume of short fiction. I’d go so far as to say this is my number one book for the year.
The Master of Petersburg by J. M. Coetzee
I like Coetzee: he’s an enormously skillful writer but at times I find him overly dry and that put me off him for a couple of years. The Master of Petersburg isn’t dry and I think it’s even better than his most famous novel, Disgrace. The Russian setting helps, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that Coetzee is the greatest living writer in the English language.
He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond
In general I’ve liked but not loved the Factory novels, but this one, the first, is very good indeed. I happened to read this after books 2, 3 and 4 and in a way I’m glad that I did, because it was all downhill (admittedly at a gentle slope) from here.
Nova Swing by M. John Harrison
Now this was a surprise. I loved Harrison in my younger years, especially his sumptuous Climbers, but he’s started writing SF again and in general I haven’t warmed to it. I despised Light when it first came out and thus this has sat unloved on my bookshelf for close to ten years, which is a pity as I enjoyed it immensely when I finally got around to it. The same couldn’t be said for the final volume in the Kefahuchi Tract series, Empty Space, which I found close to unreadable.