Country Noir: My Journey to the Rough South

June 7, 2015 2 comments

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 RedThe 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 TimeSundown, 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?

 

 

‘Enter Sandman, Exit Light’ published in Tincture Journal #9

February 28, 2015 Leave a comment

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!

Get yourself a Tincture!

2014 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 21, 2014 2 comments

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.

Four of my PKD reviews see the light of day (again!) in Big Sky #3

August 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Well, this is gratifying. I wrote an awful lot of reviews on the novels of Philip K. Dick from 2009-2011 and published them on this blog. For a long time it seemed I was writing in a vacuum, but in 2012 all 40,000+ words were collected in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83, for which I was (and am) very grateful to Bruce, that pioneer of PKD studies. 

Some months ago I was contacted by Peter Young, who said he’d like to include some of my PKD reviews in a fanzine he was compiling for the upcoming Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. Sure, go ahead, I said, and promptly forgot about the whole thing. Today I received an email from Peter informing me that the fanzine, or rather two of them, Big Sky #3 and Big Sky #4, were now available on efanzines, the same website where Bruce publishes SF Commentary. This afternoon I’ve downloaded the fanzines and they look utterly amazing. Even better, the fanzines feature reviews on every single SF Masterwork (published by Orion starting in 1999). If you are even remotely interested in SF, then I suggest you get thee to efanzines immediately and download this amazing resource. Thank you so much to Peter Young for his labour of love in producing this project. It makes me feel like I wasn’t writing in a vacuum after all, and surely that’s the goal of any writing project. 

It’s M. John Harrison Appreciation Week

July 28, 2014 2 comments

Things that never happen: I loved the work of M. John Harrison when I was in my early twenties. Some of the Viriconium stuff I found a bit tedious, but I delighted in his final novel in this series, In Viriconium, as well as his literary novels The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. But my favourite of them all was his least fantastical novel of all, Climbers, which may have been the book that turned me from a reader of speculative into one of realistic fiction.

I was working in the now-defunct Supernova Books in Perth in 2002 when a review copy of his brand-new SF novel Light came in. I read it immediately, but hated it intensely. What exactly it was that I loathed about the book so much I no longer recall with much clarity.  I’m yet to re-read it to find out if my opinion on it has changed.

Twelve years passed, and in that period the only M. John Harrison I read was Climbers, for the third or fourth time, in 2008. I picked up a copy of Nova Swing, his sequel to Light, at around that time, but I didn’t immediately read and then I mislaid my copy somehow. I finally bought a replacement about two years ago, and there it sat unloved until Friday just gone.

Now, this is not to say that I think Nova Swing is the best thing going around, but I read it in two days and found it very enjoyable indeed, and exquisitely written. Either it’s different in some crucial way than its predecessor or I’m different in some crucial way to the person I was in 2002. I don’t read very much SF at all these days, but I will make an exception for Harrison the same way I’ll make an exception for Vandermeer (and yet Vandermeer’s new novel, Authority, has already been castigated to the back burner, unread).

I enjoyed Nova Swing so much that I immediately started re-reading The Course of the Heart, which I finished in less than a day (it was a wet weekend). This one I liked somewhat less than I remembered it, but I’ve just now finished re-reading Signs of Life, which I like somewhat more than I did way back when. So after a twelve year hiatus, I can say I’ve read three M. John Harrison novels in the past four days.

It could have been four novels in five or six days, had it not been for the fourteen books by other authors that just arrived from Better World Books today. I’ve got my eye on giving Light another try, and I’ve ordered a new copy of the third novel in this series, Empty Space, which came out in 2012.

Harrison is close to seventy now. He was the youngest punk of the British New Wave and now he’s a grand old man of SF. He deserves it; he clearly loves the genre a lot more than me, and he can write better than almost anyone. He’s an infuriating writer at times, obsessed with ill women, vomiting, ill women vomiting and all manner of bizarre phantasmagoria, but he’s a gem.

forever wrapped up in books – a new reading list

July 26, 2014 2 comments

I’m up to 51 books read so far in 2014, so I’m on track to match or better the 82 books I read in 2013. I always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but in fact the volume of books I read has actually increased in recent years. Since I started keeping records of every book I read in 2007 (because, you know, wrapped up in books) I seem to read a little more each year than the one previous. 47 books in 2009, 55 in 2010, 66 in 2011, 71 in 2012 and 82 in 2013 – where will it end? At the current rate, I’ll better 2013’s figure by a handful of books, and then onward toward cracking the ton in 2015, I guess.

Books are pretty damn expensive in this country, which is my poor excuse for not really supporting the ailing Australian bookselling industry. If I paid retail price (like, at least $20) for every book I read, I’d be looking at $1600 just for this year, and that’s if I could buy the books I wanted in the stores, which invariably I can’t. Oh yes, I could order them in. What a quaint concept! I remember this from the pre-internet days. But why on Earth should I do the research on a particular book I want, trundle into the bookshop (100 kilometre drive away), ask them to order said book, drive home, wait several weeks or months for them to get the book in, drive 100 km, just to pay retail price, i.e. including the bookseller’s 40% markup? I just don’t do it anymore. On occasion I will buy a book from Dymocks, the only half-decent Aussie bookshop chain left in this country, but invariably it will be from the $5 or $10 discount pile at the front. The other week I scored a copy of Megan Abbott’s new novel The Fever from Big W in trade paperback for $19. I had a look in Dymocks afterwards to see if they had it. Nup. And if they had, it would have been $30-33. Sorry, Dymocks will be next to die, following Angus and Robertson and Borders.

Back to a cheerier subject, as in the books on my current reading list. About two weeks ago I ordered 14 books from Better World Books, which I strongly suggest you check out if you aren’t aware of it. Those 14 books cost me $96 in total. Yes, they are secondhand and no, the author won’t receive any royalties. Guess what–I’m an author too (of three novels and several short stories) and I haven’t made a brass razoo out of my writing. And the other day, after picking up a copy of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood for $3 in a charity shop, I’ve ordered two more of his for under $20 in total from Book Depository. That’s 16 books for $114 at $7.12 per book. Yes, most of them are secondhand. But therein lies the problem facing the bookselling industry today. If someone like me won’t support the domestic industry here in Australia, then who will? Answer: no one. If books were substantially cheaper here, let’s say $12 per book instead of $20-23, then I’d buy a heap more locally. But I see absolutely no sign of that happening.  And the market wins.

So, let’s have 16:

Auster, Paul – The Invention of Solitude: A Memoir

Barker, Pat –The Man Who Wasn’t There,  Blow Your House Down, Liza’s England

Brown, Larry – On Fire, Dirty Work

Chabon, Michael – Manhood for Amateurs, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

Cross, Helen – Secrets She Keeps, Spilt Milk, Black Coffee

Murakami, Haruki – Kafka on the Shore, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Raymond, Derek – He Died with His Eyes Open, Dead Man Upright

Whorton, James – Angela Sloan

 

I haven’t read a lot of Auster but I’m trying to persevere with his often dry prose and I have an inkling that I will like his nonfiction. Pat Barker, on the other hand, is a favourite of mine and these three early novels are the only ones I don’t yet own. I’m a bit ambivalent about Larry Brown but again I’m keen to read his nonfiction (On Fire) as well as his first novel. Chabon is another of my favourites and these are the only books of his I don’t own aside from his YA novel Summerland. Helen Cross is an author new to me. I very much enjoyed her My Summer of Love earlier this year. These are her other two novels. Murakami I mentioned above. Derek Raymond’s Factory novels are very grim and harrowing. This is the first and last in the series; I’ve previously read the middle three. And lastly, I’ve previously read James Whorton’s first two novels, so now for the third.

 

Finally, here’s the song that this blog is named after. Happy listening. Feel free to post your own reading lists in the comments, recommendations etc.

 

’tis the season for writing short stories

images

I’m between novels at the moment. Thirsty Work is completed and on the publishing merry-go-round and my next novel Opprobrium/The City of Rubber Stamps isn’t yet underway, so I thought these past two weeks of holidays would present a fine opportunity for writing two or three or four shorter works. I’m happy to report that by today, day 15 of 16, I’ve managed to produce no fewer than four short stories (all under 3000 words), all of which have now been submitted to various competitions around Australia.

Writing at this length is pretty liberating, I’ve found. The short form allows you to try things that you wouldn’t dream of undertaking at novel length. For example, one of the stories I’ve written, “when the jellyfish rule the oceans”, is my take on future fantasy in the style of Jeff Vandermeer and, long before him, Brian Aldiss (especially his novel Hothouse). “jellyfish” features one young child, one technologically advanced robotic bird and one big dash of weirdness, including, you guessed it, a swarm of jellyfish. I wouldn’t dream of writing a novel containing these parts (I’ll leave that to Vandermeer), but at 2000 words, I’m game to try. I also found that using visual stimulus was actually helpful in dreaming up ideas, something I haven’t really found useful in the past. I set the image below as my desktop wallpaper while writing “jellyfish”. A cliff and those steps feature in the story.

House-on-the-Edge-of-a-Cliff-500x657

My other stories were more quotidian, but hopefully no less fun to read. What started me off on the ‘visual stimulus kick’ was the image below, which is a photograph called Destroy (Sandman). The photo, and seven other visual stimuli, are part of the Albury City Short Story Award 2014Looking at that photo, I dreamed up the seamy character of Rufus (the guy in the hat), who ended up being the main character in not one but two stories, “Enter Sandman” (which I’ve entered into that competition) and “X T Cee”. I was also listening to a lot of Metallica while writing these stories, something I haven’t done in close to twenty years. This is something I started doing fairly recently with Thirsty Work, in which I’d listen to a particular You Am I song, “Secrets”, before each day’s writing session. In writing “Enter Sandman” I listened to the Metallica song of the same name each day, but by the time I started on “X T Cee” I’d moved onto “Master of Puppets”.

patricia piccinini, destroy (sandman)2002, photograph on chromogenic paper

The fourth and final story, which I completed today, is “Killjoy”, a dorky little crime story about a couple plotting to murder their next-door neighbour, with inconclusive results. I worked out recently that prior to these school holidays I’d written no more than seven stories in four years, almost all of which have now been published in some form or another, so it was gratifying to be able to complete these stories over this past two weeks. If a novel is like a baby (and it certainly is, the author its doting parent) then a short story is more like a relative you only see once or twice a year. It’s nice to catch up, have a beer, share a yarn and then get out of there. Short stories require less commitment on the part of the author, and when they are rejected or don’t win prizes it’s far easier to be sanguine about it. Novels, on the other hand…

 

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