Saturday, August 16, 2008

Something awesome and something awful

Let's start with the awful, which is actually kind of awesome. It's this year's Bulwer-Lytton Prize winner, penned by a guy with the delightfully implausible name Garrison Spik. Here's his entry:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped "Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J."

As I think I've said before, I'm actually not a great fan of this contest--they generally pick something too absurd to be funny. The ones I like are the ones that seem as though they might actually have been written in earnest, and are earnestly bad. Mr. Spik's fits the bill, at least until the mention of Piscataway. That's too Borscht Belt for my taste, I'm afraid, but the rest I like.

The awesome is Tana French's debut crime novel In The Woods, which was recommended here by reader Elizabeth. This book has a striking cover, and for weeks I had picked it up over and over at Rhian's store, hoping it would be good. But it opens with what I thought was a terrible piece of writing--a gratuitously lyrical, pretentious two-page preface--and I couldn't make it past. Elizabeth's recommendation sent me back to it, though, money in hand, and as it happens, the preface is not only pointless--it isn't remotely like anything else in the book. Indeed, the writing in this book is superb, and the novel is literary above all, by which I mean it is most concerned with the mental journey of its narrator, a detective-in-denial named Rob Ryan who, at age 12, was the victim of a crime he can't remember. When a new, creepily similar crime occurs in the same place, and it falls to Rob and his partner Cassie Maddox to investigate it, they decide to keep Rob's past a secret and let the case take them where it may.

It takes them places they don't want to go, of course, and French unravels both mysteries (to varying degrees of completeness), and their complicated relationship, with the skill of a seasoned veteran. The characters are marvelous, the plot is thrilling, the sentences are focused and agile, and the ending is audaciously maddening.

There's a blurb from USA Today on the back of the paperback, BTW, that ought to have been deleted in the pipeline. "Readers who like their hard-boiled police procedurals with an international flair will love In The Woods." Actually, no. The book is not remotely "hard-boiled"--it's humane and nuanced; and there is no "international flair" at all. The book takes place in Ireland, but what it's about is local politics, small towns, and the universality--and banality--of evil. There is no gratuitous travelogueing, nor divorced alcoholics listening to bebop. The reviewer seems to have randomly picked some cliches out of a marketing manual. It reminds me of the time I was given some flap copy for a book of mine, which described as "beautiful" a female character I myself had described, in the actual novel, with the word "unbeautiful."

In any event, French's new book, The Likeness, is on my bedside table, and Piscataway is in my travel plans.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you posted about this book. I could not put it down, and yes, the ending is maddening. I can't wait to read her next. Perhaps I'll make a stop at the bookstore on my way home...