Seriously, if you’re one of those people who loved True Detective but was disappointed its resolution didn’t actually involve cosmic, eldritch horror, you need to read Broken Monsters.
“Richard Lange’s stories are a revelation. He writes of the disaffections and bewilderments of ordinary lives with as keen an anger and searing lyricism as anybody out there today. He is Raymond Carver reborn in a hard cityscape. Read him and be amazed.” —T.C. Boyle, author of San Miguel
There are so many great ones on the big screen. But the small screen usually gives us the added twist of a kiss perhaps taking years to come--like this one.
What is your favorite on screen kiss? Big or small screen.
DOWN IN THE VALLEY. Element Films, 2005. Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse, Rory Culkin, Bruce Dern, John Diehl, Geoffrey Lewis, Elizabeth Peña, Kat Dennings. Screenplay and Director: David Jacobson.
To call Down In The Valley a contemporary Western doesn’t really do it justice. It’s a daring movie, one that both conforms to, and subverts the Western genre, all the while pretending to be a love story between a drifter and a bored, rebellious suburban teenage girl. In that sense, it mocks the audience, playing with the expectation that this is going to be just another misbegotten romance.
Sometimes the effort works extraordinarily well; others times it falls flat. Pancake flat, leaving the viewer wondering whether it was worth the time. And I grant you this: the movie doesn’t always make perfect sense. It certainly won’t appeal to all tastes.
But with beautiful cinematography, terrific acting by Ed Norton and Evan Rachel Wood, and a poignant reminder that those who stay true to the mores of the Old West simply can’t function in the contemporary West, Down In The Valley remains an overall thoughtful, if imperfect, story about the perils of taking escapism and national mythology a step too far.
Ed Norton portrays Harlan Fairfax Carruthers, a drifter working at a San Fernando Valley gas station. He says he’s got a background in ranching, is from South Dakota, and speaks with a drawl. And he says he doesn’t drive a car.
It doesn’t take much for the restless Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) to fall for the mysterious stranger, who also takes a shine to her younger brother, Lonnie (Rory Culkin). The siblings’ stepfather (David Morse) however, doesn’t much care for Harlan. White trash loser, or something like that, is what he calls him.
Harlan’s a complicated character and we never really learn exactly who he is, or who he is supposed to be. But one thing is clear: he’s from modern suburban Los Angeles. He is definitely not a gunslinger from the Old West. Tragically, however, that is what he imagines himself to be. I say tragically, because Harlan’s flight out of reality, and into a celluloid daydream, ushers in a wave of violence and tragedy for the people with whom he comes into contact.
Norton is exceptional in his role, portrays the dangerously unstable Harlan so convincingly that one cannot imagine another actor playing this bizarre character, a man so fundamentally broken by the modern world that he chooses to live out his life as if he belonged in a dusty 1880s street, rather than in a 1970s gas station. He’s an outlaw gunslinger in a realm of jam-packed freeways, strip malls, and dingy motels.
Let me repeat: Down In the Valley doesn’t always work. For example, it sometimes makes far too much use of symbolism and metaphor when subtlety would have done the trick. Sometimes too much pop psychology isn’t good for a movie and grates on the nerves.
The movie definitely has a message, although it’s not exactly clear what it is. That the Old West was, at root, a violent society and that we shouldn’t miss its passing? That suburbanization results in alienation from nature? That society will always have drifters who pose a menace to the community?
Thankfully, the movie eschews a happy, tidy ending where everything is set aright. It leaves the viewer with a somewhat disconcerting vision of the ability of one man, one psychologically bruised, lonesome gun toting drifter, to wreak so much havoc on an already dysfunctional family. At times clichéd, others poignant, Down In The Valley is a romance, neo-noir, and Western wrapped in a character study. It’s certainly worth a look. Just don’t go into it expecting a totally coherent, flawless narrative.
So I suppose it was inevitable. My wife is a teacher. My mother was a professor. I’ve always loved to speak in front of people (my friends reading this are rolling their eyes). When I was in baseball in my previous life, I spent a huge amount of time talking to kids (mostly about Derek Jeter, it turns out). It was only a matter of time before I got a gig teaching something somewhere.
This morning I submitted my final syllabus for NYU’s Master of Science in Publishing PUBB1-GC 3015 002 course, The Role of the Literary Agent, which I’ll be teaching for seven Monday evenings this winter. It’s a second semester course, and gives the agent’s perspective on how authors get represented, submitted, and published. It’s going to be 17 ½ hours of query letters, contract analysis, ethics, and the basics of Publishers Marketplace and royalty statements. My students will be second semester masters students, and they will presumably understand all the basics of the publishing industry in this changing era of digital rights and contracting houses.
When I was thinking about this evolution, one of the things that came to mind was the summer I spent in 1990 at the Radcliffe (now Columbia) Publishing Course. It was right after I graduated from college, and I knew I wanted to be an editor. I went to Boston to live in a (very warm) dorm at Radcliffe, where for three weeks I was going to get a crash course in book publishing and for three others, a primer on the magazine world.
I’d interned for a summer with an agency, and a semester with Philadelphia Magazine, but the information crammed into my head between cocktail parties and trips to Walden Pond was fascinating. At the end of each unit, we spent a week working as a group planning a season’s “list” of books or one month’s issue of a magazine. My publishing house was going to be called God and Mammon Press, but we were told we could include the Deity in our name (copyright?), so after a highly adolescent snit of a memo to our advisor (written at 2 AM after, if I recall, some extremely delicious burritos and perhaps a little tequila), we called ourselves Demiurge Press. We were clearly doomed. But very clever. And if you’d asked us we would have told you just HOW clever we were.
I was thinking about this because so many of our strategies and assumptions are no longer relevant in the marketplace today. Print advertising? Not unless your name is Danielle Steele and you continue to insist on the NYT Book Review Centerfold twice a year. Author tour? How’d that work for you, Jeff Cohen, from the perspective of moving the dial, sales-wise? (Not to say that author tours are useless—just different.) And, well, it was long enough ago that the internet didn’t yet exist outside academia. Mark Zuckerberg was six years old.
And yet, many of the aspects of selling books that we discussed in 1990 are evergreen, and my students will be discussing them in February. How do authors earn out their advances? How are books discovered in the market? (OK, so now we are sometimes looking at virtual bookshelves instead of physical ones. But then, Barnes & Noble was the Juggernaut, taking over the industry and putting smaller retailers out of business through economies of scale and lower price points. Sound familiar?) Is the Midlist going to disappear? (Been talking about it for at least 50 years, and still there are small domestic novels and cozy mysteries selling for $5,000 advances.)
My hope is that my students will get one thing that I got from my teachers that summer, and which my wife’s student’s get from her and my mother’s got from her: The thrill of learning something that the instructor loves. I hope that my enthusiasm for this industry shows up, and that I can hear in 23 years that one of my kids is still (back?) in the business, trying to keep publishing going for another generation.
Don’t wait for the grim reaper to drag you to your first PulpFest. By then, it will be too late! That’s what this fine young woman is about to find out, courtesy of the magnificent brush strokes of artist Rudolph Belarski, created for the December 1945 Popular Detective, published by Standard Magazines.
Why not resolve to make PulpFest 2015 your pulp destination of the New Year? We’ll be back at the Hyatt Regency Columbus beginning on Thursday, August 13th and running through Sunday, August 16th. Our themes for the 2015 convention will be H. P. Lovecraft and Weird Tales and Ned Pines’ Standard Magazines, also known as the Thrilling Group.
In the meantime, the PulpFest organizing committee–Jack and Sally Cullers, Mike Chomko, Barry Traylor, and Chuck Welch–would like to wish everybody and healthy and happy holiday season.
ERLE STANLEY GARDNER – The Case of the Lazy Lover. Ballantine, paperback, 1981. First published hardcover by William Morrow, 1947. Subsequently reprinted in paperback by Pocket many times over.
Perry Mason it was, who introduced me to “adult” mystery fiction — assuming you can exclude the inevitable batch of Sherlock Holmes stories that everybody read as a kid, didn’t you? — and I’ve had a weakness for his cases ever since. It’s been a while since I actually read one, though, so I read this one with a little bit of a question mark in my mind. Have my tastes changed? Is Gardner’s sometimes bare-boned writing style now slipped beneath me?
Nope. Not really. I notice it, his writing style, more now, and I can see more clearly what he’s doing when he does it, but I can assure you that the formula still works. I enjoyed this book, and I’m going to start reading more of them.
Start with a mystery, grab the reader’s attention right away, and don’t let go until you’re done. That was Gardner’s motto, and here’s a fine example of the kind of results you can get from that sort of story-telling philosophy.
Mason gets two checks for $2500 from the same person, previously unknown, on the same day. One proves to be a forgery. Add a possible amnesia victim. Various corporate power struggles and legal shenanigans follow. Then a murder, complete with detailed map. Perry Mason once again shows that circumstantial evidence is shown to be worth what it is, about the same as any other pack of lies. And the beginning chapter’s events are not explained until the very end.
Except for minor details and occasional changes in the law and police procedures between then and now, the Mason stories are very nearly timeless, and I’m glad to see them back in print again. [This review was written right around the time that Ballantine started their program of reprinting most, if not all of the Perry Mason novels.]
[UPDATE] 12-16-14. I no longer feel the same way, I’m sorry to say. The formula Gardner used to wrote the Mason books, which were extremely popular when he was still writing them, has worn thin, and now 33 years later, I don’t believe there that any publisher is going to start reprinting them soon.
It isn’t so much the lack of characterization that has bothered me the last few times I’ve read a Mason story — that’s a given — but I’ve begun to believe that the intricacies of the plots don’t really stand up to close examination all that well. Or perhaps I’ve been reading from the tail end of the series. Maybe I should try choosing from the earlier books, the ones from the 30s that made Gardner’s reputation what it was from the start, and see how those read today.
• The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown):
Harry Bosch is like a fine bourbon: you taste the complexity but you’re not quite sure what produced it. Except in this case, you can go back to all of Connelly’s previous 16 Bosch novels and learn exactly what made him the finest cop protagonist in literature today … and maybe for a lot of tomorrows. In The Burning Room, we find the Los Angeles homicide detective just a year away from retirement, and now teamed up with novice Lucia Soto, or “Lucky Lucy,” who’s become a hero for having shot it out with the armed robbers who subsequently killed her previous partner. Soto has an immediate appeal and depth not seen in a Bosch cohort for some time, not since the days of Jerry Edgar and Kizmin Rider. Bosch and Soto go on to work a 10-year-old cold case involving the murder of a mariachi musician, as well as a decades-old day-care fire that claimed the life of Soto’s childhood friends. No matter how long he’s been at his job, Bosch still manages to piss people off. A cameo appearance here by FBI Agent Rachel Walling is a welcome touch. Connelly does in this novel what he excels at: weaving together two complex cases, upping the tempo and stakes of each one. Bosch and Soto make a dynamic duo and one laments the team’s short shelf life. But at least in these pages, it’s sublime.
• Murder in Pigalle, by Cara Black (Soho Crime):
Cara Black’s Parisian private-eye heroine, Aimée Leduc, is a complicated woman. Five months pregnant with her first child, fashionista Aimée finds herself embroiled in a serial rapist case that becomes personal. The victims are teenage girls, and when the daughter of Leduc’s café-owning friend goes missing, the P.I. races against the clock to find her. Author Black is perhaps writing her finest prose these days, and this particular novel has a gravitas that pulls the reader in--if the sensory-infused writing doesn’t do it first. The topic here is difficult; yet in Black’s hands, it avoids the gut-wrenching for the practical: finding the man responsible. Although this tale is set in 1998, Leduc is the embodiment of the modern woman: keeping her business afloat and her love life thriving, and doing what she does best—solving crimes. Every time I read one of Black’s novels, I want to book a flight to Paris. The only disappointment would be not finding Aimée Leduc in residence there; she’s one of the best things the fictional City of Light has to offer.
As of this afternoon, the fronts from Kim Cooper’s The Kept Girl, Benjamin Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake, and Tod Goldberg’s Gangsterland were holding down the top four slots. Those rankings, though, could change dramatically over the next five days. Voice your own opinions here. But do it soon!