Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith

Sometimes you read a sequel and find yourself half-incredulous of where you find the protagonist when the curtain rises. Granted, I wasn’t surprised that Tom Ripley, the sociopathic forger/imitator/high-class fraudster who got away with a couple murders in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, was living the good life in the French countryside and enjoying some steady income from a few rackets. What threw me was his being married, for one, and also his now having co-conspirators.

And the award for murkiest jacket design goes to...

This is the guy who spent months on his own European Grand Tour after murdering his acquaintance and assuming the victim’s identity. Part of the intensity of the first Ripley novel was that 25-year-old Tom was so utterly alone. He was the killer Raskolnikov was trying to be– nearly unflappable in his scheme to hide his crimes and faintly misanthropic to the end.

Now he has a practical Ocean’s Eleven of Idiots.

Tom is orchestrating a great art scandal: the famous painter Derwatt, once thought dead from suicide, is alive and producing pieces that continue to sell for the highest sums. In reality, Derwatt is dead, and Tom has another painter, Bernard Tufts, forging his former mentor’s work. The only other individuals in on the con are the two boobs who run the gallery and the man who oversees the Derwatt art school/supply arm of the operation.

Donning a fake beard, Ripley is called upon to assume the role of Derwatt in public (we’re going off the assumption that growing a beard would make you unrecognizable), because along comes an American collector who is convinced the new Derwatt paintings are fakes. The facade doesn’t hold up, and Ripley is interestingly more pissed that the American sees through his Derwatt performance than the forged paintings. Well, one wine bottle to the head later, Tom’s killed somebody.

Perhaps Tom has changed enough in the last five years that he can tolerate the meddling and dependence of a wife and some partners-in-crime, but even allowing that, Ripley Under Ground becomes a slightly different book from what I wanted. The crime caper of this sequel may not be as fun and inventive as the first novel’s, for reasons aforementioned, but there’s still some fascinating stuff going on.

Digging Himself Deeper

The forger Bernard is the hapless pawn in all this, which doesn’t go unappreciated by Tom: being himself a forger of identities, Tom sympathizes with the painter who must commit his artistry to being something other than himself. At one point Tom argues that the forger must be more skilled than the original artist; great art comes naturally to the artist, but the imitator must sweat and toil harder to produce the convincing fake.

What kind of painter would Bernard be if he didn’t have to be Derwatt? What kind of man would Tom be if he could live an honest life? Could he?

“Tom could have wept for Bernard… Bernard was as miserable as someone, who was not an actor, trying to act on a stage and hating every minute of it.”

Bernard is more like…us, and he cannot handle the identity crisis inherent in spending several years being someone else. Not only is Tom trying to keep the Derwatt operation from being exposed, he’s trying to keep his Talented Mr. Tufts from snapping and confessing everything to the authorities.

The Tom-Bernard interaction is a fascinating one, and it becomes darkly amusing when Tom cooly demands the neurotic artist to help him exhume a body and lie to the cops. But they are two false halves of the same dead artist, each with authentic skill that begs reevaluation of creations we dismiss as “fakes.”

The book’s events are far more morbid but somehow less disturbing: Highsmith is playing Ripley’s callousness for laughs now, having him literally rise from the grave to go take a bath and fix himself a sandwich. This robs the story of the gravity it otherwise deserves. People have toyed with the idea of canonizing Highsmith not only as one of the 20th century’s crime novel greats, but the American literary fiction greats. If she wanted to, she probably could have been. But in this second Ripley book I felt her shying a bit from the dark, personal cellar that made The Talented Mr. Ripley impossible to confine to a genre.

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House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

Listen, if you buy this book, take the dust jacket off and throw it away. Because if you glance at the author’s head shot from time to time like I tend to do, that will cause problems with House of Holes. You don’t want to finish a story about a woman pleasuring herself on a penis tree and then be reminded it was written by Burl Ives.

If you stare at the hole long enough, then everything around it starts to move and... oh, never mind.

Nicholson Baker is no stranger to erotic fiction (Vox, The Fermata), and in the publishing world, his is qualified as literary. More on that later. He took a break from that with a nonfiction book on WWII and then tribute to poetry called The Anthologist, which I went sort of apeshit over. With House of Holes he returns to what I guess his calling always was as a writer.

The titular House of Holes is an eccentric compound where visitors are indulged in even their most ridiculous fantasies, especially some they didn’t know they had, ranging from sex with a headless person (for those who fear being judged by their partner) to crotchal transfers, where volunteers have their genitals exchanged with another’s and basically go from there. And then there’s a cinema multiplex known as the Porndecahedron. It’s fun. The whole book carries the tone of that scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” when Sir Galahad stumbles into Castle Anthrax.

People usually find this place by being sucked down some random “Being John Malkovich” portal that happens to be a tumble dryer or even a hole punched in a business card.  A complete stranger might ask a character if she may de-pants him and watch him manhandle himself, or something to that effect, and the guy invariably says, “Okay.” Everyone has few, if any, reservations toward the bizarre sexual opportunities presented to them and the effect is hilarious. Would you like to go pussysurfing? Sure, why not? There’s little to fear in the world of House of Holes beyond a clitoris-stealing madwoman known as “The Pearloiner.”

Ironically, No Climax

It’s filthy without ever being nasty. Unless you like nasty. Do you like nasty? Do you? Well… maybe you should read a different book or something. This is like a silly, faintly sentimental version of Letters to Penthouse. So don’t expect any kind of character development or plot trajectory across the stories. It is what it says it is– “a Book of Raunch”– just one smutty tale after another, but still, part of my giddiness waned as this became more apparent. While there are some interesting things going on here, like the old question of whether sex can engender love as opposed to vice versa, it probably has more value as a collection of some pretty stupendous dirty talk. You’re likely to find more substance in a Christopher Moore novel and with almost as many impressive moves on the prose dancefloor. This doesn’t make House of Holes a bad book, but any “literary” designation is wishful thinking on the part of highbrow readers who in reality just like the sexy, funny stuff here.

This was enjoyable, but if I ever get the opportunity to attend a book signing where Baker himself reads from it, I’ll pass.

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

People want Nick Hornby to be a better author than he really is. As far as I’ve read/heard from fellow readers, he’s an unfailingly likable voice whose novels still tend turn out meh. Granted, these are other people’s opinions and not mine, a fact I’m slightly ashamed of since Hornby’s the kind of guy I should have already delved into ages ago. (In a way I have: in his regular column at The Believer, he was the nicest devil-may-care book critic I’ve ever read.)

Utterly fails to deliver on engrossing promise of its title.

Whether it’s his best known books adapted to film (High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch) or his other screenplay work (An Education), Hornby’s exposure is more cinematic than literary. His primary gig is the Messy Romantic Dramedy, and if I may weigh in after reading Juliet, Naked, I’d say he’s damn good at it.

Annie is finally breaking up with Duncan, the obsessed webmaster of a site dedicated to 80’s folk rocker Tucker Crowe. Tucker Crowe produced a landmark breakup album in 1986 that is still dissected daily by a handful of music snobs, with Duncan being king snob. Annie commits the ultimate betrayal in their relationship by listening to a to-be released demo version of the album (“Juliet Naked”) before Duncan can, and she doubles her transgression by not finding it to be unparalleled genius. Duncan allows her to post her lukewarm review on his site, and soon she is emailed by someone claiming to be Tucker Crowe. The artist, himself, agrees with her that Juliet Naked is lousy (and it later it becomes apparent he only released it for what little money it would pull in.). “The idea,” writes Tucker, “that a person with ears could listen to those two sets of recordings and decide that the shitty, sketchy one is better than the one we sweated blood over is baffling to me.” Thus begins Annie’s correspondence (and schoolgirl crush) with the former cult icon who lives across the pond in America.

Industry Fun Fact: Nick Hornby, Jonathan FranzenJennifer Egan, and other literary novelists apparently colluded last year to write about Washed-Up Musicians as the theme of some sort of workshop contest I was unaware of.

The early stages of this book nagged me. Of course, Hornby must establish that Annie and Duncan are as dynamic as boiled liver, but that doesn’t make reading about them any less dull. The worst part is that their lives, or at least Duncan’s, revolve around a rock album that doesn’t exist, making them less relatable than garden gnomes. It’s difficult to immerse myself in a book that seems to center around a fictitious celebrity, and as in this novel’s case, one that’s supposed to occupy the same dimension as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Leonard Cohen, and I was expecting that no amount of authenticating detail was going to make Tucker Crowe seem like a real person.

Until, of course, I met Tucker Crowe the person. Somehow that sold the illusion. Seeing the musician’s fall from grace and his campaign of redemption through his six-year-old son led me not only to accept that his legendary album “Juliet” was real, but I wanted it to be real.

Juliet, Naked is quite fine as a romantic novel, but it’s also pointed study of the relationship between artists and their work, as well as artists and their “experts.” The tendency of a fan to over-analyze of a piece of work (as Duncan realizes, “Maybe he’d spent too long translating something that had been in English all along”) and its artist to despise said work just rings true through these characters. The ironies are fun– especially watching Duncan react to his ex dating his musical idol– without one iota of meanness. Because Hornby’s a nice guy, you know.

In terms of plotting a relationship, Hornby will trade cleanliness for awkwardness at every turn. I dig this commitment to authenticity, that Annie and Tucker are tentative and wobbly with each other, but it makes the whole plot seem tentative and wobbly. A less “authentic” romance plot has more clear-cut direction– here they grow closer, grow apart, then closer again, etc.– that’s honestly more gripping fiction albeit a less accurate depiction of how relationships actually progress. That being said, Juliet, Naked’s ending, especially, could have benefitted from a little less ambiguity. To wrap things up more tidy-like, you know, with a nice snog.

What?

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

I kind of liked Christopher Moore after reading Fool, but that’s saying I kind of liked pizza after eating a Totino’s. Fool’s not a good book, but it was my first exposure to a damn good, damn funny comic novelist, so what it gained for me in novelty was immediately lost in retrospect when I found something better. Better being A Dirty Job, which, if you ask someone their favorite Moore novel and they don’t say Lamb, they usually name this one.

Sell-out Fun Fact: I feel sorry for long-time fans of this author considering the new direction he’s taking. Moore appears to be embracing a completely different fan base: the readers who like his lousy vampire series. Seriously: Fucksox?

It glows in the dark! The cover glows in the dark!

Charlie Asher, a San Francisco thrift store owner, thinks he’s Death. Or something close to it; ever since his wife died after giving birth to their baby Sophie, it seems random people around him are biting the dust, starting with a guy getting “creamed” by the number forty-one bus. He later learns via a mysterious gift called The Great Big Book of Death, he is what is known as a Death Merchant. When someone dies, his/her soul inhabits an object, like a CD or piece of jewelry, that was very dear to him/her in life. This object then needs to end up in the hands of its next owner who will then receive the soul. Death Merchants are the middlemen in this cycle, collecting the soul objects and keeping them safe until the buyer comes and unknowingly inherits the soul. Death Merchants can be anybody, including, say, a seven-foot-tall black man in a pastel green suit named Minty Fresh.

Charlie eventually accepts his new role, strolling the streets of San Francisco wearing dapper suits and carrying a sword cane, being exactly the kind of Death Merchant I would like to be. But under the streets lurk demons who seek to acquire the souls, which would give them the power to manifest above ground and sweep the world into darkness. And Sophie can apparently kill something by pointing at it and saying “Kitty.” Trouble is brewing.

What surprised me most about A Dirty Job wasn’t that it was heartfelt, but that the heartfelt sequences actually worked. Moore never seems satisfied just writing a silly book, and for better or worse he tries to construct touching moments within his batshit hurricane. I’ve wondered if there’s a serious literary novelist in Moore trying to get out, and only after reading A Dirty Job do I think there is. But this is a book that’s rooted in loss and grieving, not just regarding the deaths of those around Charlie, but Charlie of course, who is himself a widower struggling to let go of Rachel while his life goes bananas. To even attempt sincere sentimentality in the same book that has Frankenstein animals scurrying around in period costumes is… audacious. But Moore earns it.

I don’t have many complaints with this book besides it being a tad overlong, and that the soul object rules, which are supposedly Buddhist-based, aren’t terribly coherent. This dampens the tension as the story goes on: the demons are steadily gaining strength, but nobody ever knows what’s going wrong or who’s dropping the ball. The novel spends significant time hashing out rules that by and large don’t seem to matter.

Great Moore Lines With No Context Whatsoever

  • “Mrs. Ling couldn’t help but do a quick appraisal of the monetary value of the slippery red dogwoods currently pummeling her landlord’s oxford-cloth shirt like piston-driven leviathan lipsticks.”
  • “The image of a well-dressed older woman macking on a goopish spoonful of artificial boob spooge was running across the lobes of his brain like a stuttering nightmare.”
  • “He checked the toast, not trusting the pop-up mechanism because the toaster people sometimes just liked to fuck with you.”

If you’re looking for a “funny” novel, I can’t point you to a better place. It’s packed with a smorgasbord of likable characters (the San Francisco setting enables Moore to believably assemble an absurdly diverse cast), and the jokes are consistently great.

Even the parts that “aren’t funny” are so thoughtfully written, you could imagine them in a decent literary novel about mourning. Yet these can be followed by a scene where the main character gets humped by two 400-pound hellhounds named Alvin and Mohammed, and it’s still okay.

Guys Reading Girls

You could argue that I typically don’t. (Pssh! Typical guy!) Looking at my Books Reviewed page is telling in this regard.

Books I reviewed: 55

Books I reviewed that were by women: 10

Books by women that I highly recommended: 2

So maybe you’d find it hypocritical of me to praise the existence of this list I found, but here it is:

250 Books By Women All Men Should Read

This was compiled by Joyland in response to Esquire’s recently re-posted “75 Books Every Man Should Read”, which drew some ire because it has fewer chicks than a Star Wars movie. According to Joyland“The problem was that the list was all male writers, save for lone lady Flannery O’Connor. This really does imply that men don’t/can’t/shouldn’t read women and we were pretty sure that wasn’t the case among readers.”

1 woman out of 75 writers! Bet my ratio looks much less piggish now. You can practically hear Esquire smashing Miller Lite cans against its forehead.

Naturally, I find Joyland’s list a lot more interesting, and it contains more authors that I haven’t already read. Ironically, though, their list actually includes… a couple guys (apparently since David B. Feinberg and Christopher Isherwood were gay, they count as women). Since it’s compiled of several people’s suggestions, some books appear multiple times, like Middlemarch and Beloved. And there’s more representation by actual male contributors than I expected.

This gets one thinking about one’s own contribution to said list, being a gentleman who has certainly enjoyed his share of literary works by ladies. I’ll name here my five best female-written books for dudes to read–a couple of which I think are actually better enjoyed by dudes.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

Depending on the day, this is my all-time favorite novel. Regeneration’s brilliance shines on nearly every aspect of masculinity in the face of war, including generational strife between sons and fathers, the reality of bravery and heroism, and insomnia-inducing moral conundrums. The third book in this trilogy (The Ghost Road) is the one that got the Booker, but the first installment is #1 with me.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

One of the manliest books I read last year– in the way I’ve always thought The Prince to be a manly book. It could be read as a political survival tale in Henry VIII’s England: a time where anyone can die any way for any reason. Cromwell takes care of shit.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I tease the death- and flower-obsessed Woolf sometimes, but the God’s honest is I truly enjoyed this one. And like Regeneration, a large part of it concerns the horror of the Great War: through Septimus Smith, Woolf showed infinitely more understanding of shellshocked war veterans than the male experts of her time.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

May well be the best psychological thriller I’ve ever read.

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

I haven’t read a Cather that I wouldn’t recommend to a dude (don’t let this cover mislead you, though). Her writing has an irresistible quality on its own, but what lodges these books in my memory is her ability to write from the perspective of a boy in love. I almost put My Antonia here: I’m not sure if I’d like it quite as much on a reread, but I do know I’ll always love the more vibrant A Lost Lady.

And when you’re done with those, read some Emily Dickinson and Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie and then come back when you need more suggestions.

As for myself, I’ll be getting to some Edith Wharton real soon, bro, after I do some pullups and go drive a tractor.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

To me these people are Amish, so to make Olive Kitteridge endearing would be no small feat. Small-town USA, particularly northeastern USA, inflicts a sort of narcoleptic apathy on me as I read about it. As if that weren’t enough of a disadvantage, the book’s stories predominantly concern the town’s more Cracker Barrel-y aged citizens; to them, I’d be a member of the younger generation that abandoned them for more exciting things. And, honestly? Abandon them I would.

Ah, the Pulitzer-Oprah combo. But don't be fooled: this book is nothing like The Road.

In real life, Elizabeth Strout was one of these emigrants who’d eventually left for New York City and is fully aware of this cultural chasm. She takes it upon herself to make Olive and the rest of Crosby, Maine’s denizens relatable to book clubs across America.

The book is a collection of stories: thirteen slices of Americana depicting the lives of people bound together by their suicidal ruminations and shared addiction to doughnuts. The town’s center of gravity (and almost in a physical sense) is of course the titular character, and whether Crosby’s citizens remember her as an intimidating math teacher or as a critical over-sized hen, Olive’s presence is felt nearly everywhere.

We wouldn’t look back on a traditional novel saying, “I liked it, but it did have some shitty chapters.” The story-collection-as-novel is so much more likely to feel uneven.

Good ones here:

“A Little Burst” — The first piece that actually got me to notice Olive, and then like her in a peculiar moment of pettiness she has at the end.

“Winter Concert” — An elderly couple with a perfect-seeming relationship is tested when a past betrayal is suddenly unearthed. What makes this story so powerful to me is how believably (yet not obnoxiously) ideal The Houltons are, with such touches as when Jane looks at her dozing husband and still recognizes the face he had as a boy.

“Ship in a Bottle” — You know a story’s good when you wouldn’t mind seeing it expanded to a full-length novel. I’d rather read about the Harwoods than the Kitteridges.

Not so good ones:

“Incoming Tide” — Shockingly banal with an “It’s a Wonderful Life” resolution to boot.

“The Piano Player” — Not terrible, but its connection to the rest of the stories is too tenuous for it to be here.

“A Different Road” — Olive suffers a bout of “explosive diarrhea” and makes her husband pull over at a hospital so she can use the restroom. Then the staff wants to examine her in case she’s life-threateningly ill. Then two gunmen in ski masks storm the hospital and take everyone hostage. The unmistakable WTF quality of this piece nearly derails the entire book.

Suicide Sounds Nice

Death turns out to be an unexpected coda throughout Olive Kitteridge. Whenever someone isn’t thinking of offing herself, it’s because she realizes she hasn’t long to live, anyway. With every new character that’s introduced, I’m anticipating the off-handed mention that she’d like to hang herself from the marina dock but not before these chrysanthemums get planted, because when I saw Marlene Bonney at the grocery store she said it’s only going to get colder and she’s usually right about these things, so yup, better do ’em now while it’s nice.

Does Podunk, Maine produce such an unbearable existence, or are we to assume that this nearly unanimous ennui is transferable to the rest of us? Say it with me: AMERICANA! The “This Is Us” insinuation of Olive Kitteridge is further validated by the Pulitzer sticker on the jacket. If you don’t feel the resonance of this book, it’s merely an average reading experience.

So what’s Olive like? An insufferable shrew who manages to endear herself as the book goes on? Not exactly. Mostly, she’s impulsive and salty. And yes, she does undergo dramatic development in response to family tragedy, but she’s never what I’d call loathsome, and the softening of her character gets underway too quickly to have much impact. Not that Olive isn’t interesting, but I’m not seeing what the major book reviews are seeing, which is a dynamic literary personage to remain emblazoned upon my psyche from here to my deathbed, that I should recall, “Ah, that Olive Kitteridge! Such humanity– in her human humanness that is us all!”

I never truly disliked this book until the cute, self-congratulatory “A Conversation with Elizabeth Strout and Olive Kitteridge” in the back matter:

ES: “You are the most fascinating [character] to me. You are ferocious and complicated and kindly and sometimes cruel. In essence, you are a little bit of each of us.”

[Interviewer]: “That is gorgeously said, Ms. Strout.”

(Jesus Christ. Okay, Later…)

Olive: “You know what else is amazing? This book… I thought it was pretty damn good.”  

Well, I’m glad you did, creation of the author who says whatever the author wants.

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland

A middle-aged spinster is sought out by her prophetic son who is dying of multiple sclerosis, and he teaches her that there’s more to life outside her four walls.

…I’m sorry. Give me a minute to…wow.

I see no reason for Canadians to be such a modest people now that I see they have levitating mattresses.

Typing that sentence, I was seized with gurgling nightmare visions where I have a job writing copy for Nicholas Sparks novels, but that sums up the plot of Eleanor Rigby concisely. This is a book I nonetheless enjoyed a lot. So once again I’m wondering how Douglas Coupland did it, how he took a sticky bottle of syrup and converted it to a nice rum and coke. Alchemy?

In case you’ve never read him, Douglas Coupland exists somewhere between a Canadian Nick Hornby and a Canadian Chuck Palahniuk. I like him because in the only other novel of his I’ve read, Hey Nostradamus!, he’d also pulled off something pretty amazing. It centered around a Columbine-style school shooting, and somehow he managed to write it four years after the Columbine massacre without the thing carrying any scent of exploitation. I sniffed it as thoroughly as a narcotics unit K-9. It was clean.

Here Coupland plays to his strength of first-person narration that wins you over. Liz Dunn is single, in her forties, overweight, and plain. Her most remarkable quality is her unremarkableness.

It has to be said: this is an especially hard sell to a male reader. At least to other women, a spinster is a figure worthy of sympathy or condescension. But, as Liz admits, “to men I am a fern.”

While Liz is assuredly self-deprecating, she’s not a whiner. She’s resigned to her fate as an old maid, if anything, and is actually a bit relieved to be sitting out the exhausting social games her attractive sister, Leslie, must play on a daily basis. Family members comment on the depressingly spare decor of her condo, but Liz shows little desire to change. There’s almost an unspoken pride in her blandness because it ironically distinguishes her from everyone she knows. While she’s not what you’d call unhappy, she’s seems too eager to convince others that her life is exactly how she wants it.

As you could tell from the title, this is also a wry meditation on seclusion. And Liz’s aphorisms on loneliness are so pointed and numerous that unless you’re Derek Jeter you’re likely relate. Once Liz made the observation that sunsets are the most depressing time of day when you’re alone, that they “put italics on your loneliness,” I said, okay book, you got me, you win.

It doesn’t take long until Liz encounters the son she’d given up for adoption, and she takes him in. Jeremy is a 20-year-old charismatic drifter who is, as Liz can’t help but notice, Adonis-ly handsome in spite of all genetic likelihood (eventually revealed is the night she apparently conceived him–on a class trip to Rome). They bond over Law and Order reruns and seeing through other people’s bullshit. But she discovers that he’s wasting away from MS and is having genuinely creepy “visions” of the apocalypse.

It’s one of those stories of a wild-card character who shows up to shake a satisfied protagonist loose of her routine. Again, its premise is potentially saccharine enough to induce Type II diabetes. But even the characters of Coupland’s who aren’t rebellious and disaffected still say things like, “Let’s open those godawful curtains. Where’d you find them–a Greek bingo hall?” or “My tits are killing me.” Sometimes they seem all-too-deliberately written as non-conformist, and occasionally its quirkiness hits a shrill note, like when Jeremy awakens Liz’s latent talent for backwards singing.

Even though Eleanor Rigby tells a Hallmark Channel story in a hip, funny voice, it’s still just as predictable. Yet it feels honest, even wise, and it’s a pleasure to read. Coupland seems once again hell-bent on making a normally manipulative story turn out anything but. He’s really, really good at that.