This week in book reviews.
The Power Of The Dog, by Don Winslow
This book is a far-reaching epic that covers over 25 years in the lives of numerous characters who start out having nothing to do with each other and in some cases never do encounter each other. The thing they have in common, the reason that this book tells all of their various stories, is the drug war. This is an ambitious chronicle of America's War On Drugs, beginning with a successful covert effort to take out Mexico's reigning druglord in the wake of the Vietnam War. At this point, the government assumes that Mexican drug trafficking is a thing of the past, and that they can concentrate their efforts on other countries in Latin America. Art Keller, an agent of the newly-formed DEA who, unlike most of the law enforcement types in the DEA, has a CIA background, thinks this train of thought is deeply flawed. As the book goes on, it will prove him right. But it's a long road from those opening scenes to the final climactic moment in which all that's been set up finally comes together, and the book takes its time getting there. We are given complicated portraits of many different characters in the meantime, from an Irish hitman from New York to a California prostitute to a left-wing archbishop in Guadalajara, all of whom play important roles in the plot. This book has less of a storyline than a complicated web, in which the paths of many different characters spread out and converge at various points. I don't really want to get heavily into describing the plot, as much for reasons of space as anything, but I will say that all of the characters are well-described and sympathetic, and all of their stories are equally gripping and enjoyable. What can be the toughest part, in fact, is deciding who to root for. Often, central characters who were at another point in the book friends are pitted against each other, and as both have been sympathetically described, the reader sympathizes with both. And this isn't the only complicating factor--making it even tougher to decide who to root for is that none of the characters in the book (with the possible exception of the left-wing archbishop) have clean hands. All of them do morally ambiguous or even outright terrible things at one point or another.
And this brings us to the question of Don Winslow's overall goal here. As epic and ambitious as "Power Of The Dog" appears to be purely in terms of its goals as a novel, its scope is even wider and more ambitious than that. Put plainly, Winslow is using this fictional chronicle to tell the story of America's drug war, its various inconsistent motivations and covert actions, and explain exactly why all of the players involved in the struggle did what they did. While a non-fiction chronicle would be more trustworthy in terms of factual details, it's my opinion that "The Power Of The Dog" succeeds in communicating the complicated nature of the drug war, from both the American and Latin American government perspective and from that of the druglords themselves. Furthermore, it succeeds in making the various motivations of all involved clear and understandable. But as I said before, no one's hands are clean. I personally find the idea of America retaining an anti-Communist agenda in their covert interferences with government of various Latin American countries despicable, especially in light of its ramifications for the working class of those countries. On the other hand, knowing that left-wing revolutionary groups who did care about the workers and making sure they were treated justly often funded their efforts through the sale and distribution of cocaine and other drugs doesn't make me feel very good at all. And knowing that the CIA and other covert government agencies facilitated drug-dealing in the U.S. in order to make it easier to manipulate the political situation in Latin America is pretty appalling too. I know that these things happened from my various readings, but "Power Of The Dog"s fictional narrative helps bring it home for me in a way that no footnoted statement in a Wikipedia entry can.
I've written about Don Winslow before, concerning his excellent novel "California Fire And Life", from 1999. That book still seems great to me having read "The Power Of The Dog", but "Power Of The Dog" is obviously on a completely different level than is "California Fire And Life". It's Winslow's followup to that book, but there was a 6 year period inbetween the publishing of the two books, and it's understandable in light of just how much work must have gone into the writing of "Power Of The Dog". Fortunately, it was effort well spent, and anyone who reads this book will come away having gotten the kind of reading experience that one always hopes for but is rarely fortunate enough to find. It's the kind of book that, when one puts it down, makes picking up any other book seem trivial. "The Power Of The Dog" demands a decent amount of quiet reflection before moving on, and may very well change the way you look at America's War On Drugs. It will definitely be one of the better reading experiences you'll have, this or any year. If you haven't read it, do so now. Trust me.
Black Sabbath: Master Of Reality (from the 33 1/3 series), by John Darnielle
I've read a bunch of the 33 1/3 series over the last couple of years, and I've enjoyed all of them to varying degrees, though some more than others. This book, though, may be better than all of the ones I've read before. It's only about 100 pages long, so really more of a novella than a proper book, but it manages to combine the more character driven fiction/memoir elements of some books in the series with the straight up detailed reviewing of others, and in so doing, become superior to both approaches on their own.
"Master Of Reality" is told from the point of view of Roger Painter, a high school student who has been committed by his mother and stepfather to a mental institution. He's either just turned 16 or is still not quite 16 yet, and he's the sort of kid who has spent a lot more time skipping school and smoking weed in his basement than he has doing any sort of studying. His crude journal entries make this obvious. See, the book is his journal, which he's forced to keep by the employees of the mental institution where he's staying. He knows they read his journal, so he's unwilling to write anything of substance in the journal. At first, his entries are just expletive-filled tirades, but after a few days of this, he switches tactics and starts trying to convince the man reading the journal, Gary, to give him back his Walkman and tapes. He swears to Gary that the tapes will make him feel better than any pills or therapy could, and that he'd really be ok if he could at least listen to Black Sabbath's "Master Of Reality", his favorite of all the tapes he has with him. This leads to enthusiastic if rough and uneducated descriptions of how great "Master Of Reality" is, in which Roger dissects each song and explains why they're so important to him.
But before he gets through the entire album, the journal ends, only to be picked up 10 years later by the now-adult Roger, who leads a solitary existence working as a restaurant manager and living in the tiny apartment in a beat-down part of town that his restaurant wages earn him. He's just broken up with his girlfriend, and in going through all of his stuff in order to move out of their shared place into his new solo apartment, he found his old journal from his time in a mental institution, where he apparently stayed until his 18th birthday when they had to let him out. He decides to write a letter to Gary, and tell him all of the things about Black Sabbath and about Roger himself that he never got a chance or had the words to explain back when he was younger. The earlier parts of the book are affecting, depicting as they do the emotional struggle of a kid locked in a mental institution on a very visceral level. If anything, though, this later section is even more affecting, as Roger has matured enough to learn how to express himself more accurately and more in-depth. I don't want to go too into the adult Roger's attempts to fully explain himself, as I fear it will spoil the ending, but I did think that he (and John Darnielle, the actual author) hit upon a powerful and important truth about why it is that teenagers--and adults--who don't fit in with their peers and with mainstream society often turn to music that appears outwardly negative for solace.
I had heard, when I first read about this book, that it was a sequel to "The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton", a song by Darnielle's band, The Mountain Goats. Having now read the book, I would say that this is true in a spiritual if not literal sense. Both "Master Of Reality" and "The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton" explore the topic of misfit kids finding solace in angry and negative music. However, "Master Of Reality" goes far more in depth on the subject, and it's the kind of book that I'd hope anyone could understand. For me, I felt like it allowed me to understand something about myself that I'd never really been able to comprehend. I would like to think that I could also loan this book to someone like my dad, who never seemed to get me when I was a teenager, and maybe it would help him understand who I am and where I'm coming from, and why I'm into the things I'm into. That said, I doubt it would work out that way. My dad would close his mind to the concepts discussed in this book the same way he closed his mind to my Slayer and Black Flag records when I was growing up. But if you are someone with an open mind, if you have found yourself wondering over the years why you or people you care about might find some really positive inspiration in music that seems outwardly negative, abrasive, and anti-social, you should really read this book. John Darnielle has answered some important questions about fundamental subjects within it. I feel that reading this book enriched my life, and it would probably enrich yours too.
Dingo, by Charles De Lint
This was good stuff, if a bit slight. I guess I shouldn't really have expected A-list material from a half-sized $12 hardcover that was marketed to young adults. Although De Lint has occasionally done some of his best work when writing for young adults ("The Blue Girl" being a prime example), so you can't really rule it out either. But yeah, "Dingo" is more like a novella than a full-on novel, and the plot of "normal boy falls in love with new girl in town who is not what she seems, boy becomes involved in quest as a result" is nothing new or groundbreaking. However, De Lint's writing always has certain qualities that attract me to it, principal among them his obvious understanding and empathy with the sort of people who don't fit into the framework of mainstream society--the artists and street buskers and punks and bikers and mentally disturbed homeless. "Dingo" has plenty of this stuff going on, and therefore it struck a chord in me despite the plot itself being pretty standard (not to say cliche). The best part of it was probably the ending, and I will now attempt to explain why without spoiling the story. See, the end to the whole quest comes about 50 pages from the end, but there's a long denoument in which the relationships between various characters are explored in more detail. Things didn't exactly leave off in the best of circumstances at the conclusion of the "quest" portion of the story, and afterwards, various characters attempt to repair relationships between each other, with varying rates of success. While the plot itself is, as I mentioned, pretty standard, all of this post-climactic exposition is quite original and very different from the normally expected "happy ever after" ending in fantasy literature--especially fantasy aimed at children or young adults. Were it not for the depth and originality of this ending section, I probably would only have given this book three stars. As it is, this stuff makes up for some of the less original elements of the main plotline, and does a good job of showing why Charles De Lint's work is always worth checking out, even when he's not quite on top of his game.
Signal To Noise, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean
My store received a copy of this new hardcover edition of "Signal to Noise" just the other day, and before shelving it, I decided to read it. We were slow, and it's short, so I figured I could get through it in an hour or so. I'd read the story once before, though as an internet download of scanned pages rather than in an actual bound edition. At the time, I didn't really get it, and I hoped that reading it in this new edition might make it easier for me to understand. Boy, did it. The second time through, I really connected with the story Gaiman and McKean were trying to tell. The more overt plot concerns a film director who has learned, at the age of not quite 50, that he's got a malignant, cancerous tumor, and will almost certainly die, and soon. He reacts to this by refusing all treatment and going home to wait for death. While sitting around his house, slowly growing sicker, he sketches out the idea for his final film, one that he now assumes will never be made. The film is about the pre-milennial tensions and social unrest that gripped Europe in the year 999 AD. He's fascinated by the idea of a culture preparing for the end of the world, one that quite obviously did not come. This dovetails with his thoughts and fears about his own death. He seems to regret having lost the opportunity to do more, to have as long a life as he'd always planned to have. This is where the concept of the title comes in--the director spends a lot of time thinking about clear ideas and plans being drowned out by the chaos and randomness of the world. McKean's cut-up illustration style on this particular book underscores this thought process to dramatic effect. What helps even more is the inclusion in this edition of a final epilogue called "Milennium". The rest of the book takes place in the early 90s, and this chapter is the thoughts, upon the arrival of the year 2000, of the woman who produced the director's movies. This chapter adds a different perspective to the rest of the book that helps make sense of it, and gives certain parts greater clarity.
I was deeply moved by this book. I don't know why I didn't understand what Gaiman and McKean were going for with it upon first reading, but all that's important is that I got it this time. I feel like I'm dancing around it in this review, rather than saying straight out what their point was, but I partly feel like I couldn't say it straight out if I wanted to, and I also feel like even a concentrated attempt to spell it out might ruin the book for future readers. I don't want to do that, so I'll leave it here. This is one of the better graphic novels I've ever read in my life. Anyone with concerns about life and death and the eventual result of all our plans and ambitions should read this book.
The Player Of Games, by Iain M. Banks
I don't know how true this is for his more mainstream fiction as Iain Banks, but the science fiction novels Iain M. Banks writes always function on multiple levels. As a result, they can often be a bit daunting; in particular, I remember taking two weeks, during which I had to put it down multiple times, to finish "Excession". I loved it every bit as much as I usually love Banks's sci-fi work, but there was just so much information to absorb that I sometimes felt too overloaded to continue. "Player Of Games" is probably the first of Banks's science fiction novels where I didn't feel that way. That may be due to the fact that I did end up taking short breaks in my reading to read other, shorter books ("Master Of Reality" and "Signal To Noise"), thereby giving me the respite I needed to avoid getting overwhelmed, but I don't even think that's true. It's my honest impression that "Player Of Games" works better than any of the other Banks science fiction novels I've read, and as much as I hate to slight "Excession" and "Use Of Weapons", it's nonetheless true as far as I can see it. I wouldn't say I love it more than those other two, but nonetheless I'm pretty sure it's a slightly better book.
As is often the case with Banks's science fiction novels, "Player Of Games" is character driven, and focuses heavily on the growth and changes a man named Jernau Gurgeh goes through in the course of taking on a years-long epic quest across the galaxy to play an extremely important board game. Gurgeh is a citizen of the Culture, a society that many of Banks's science fiction novels revolve around, in which artificial intelligence has long been more advanced than is possible for the human brain to achieve. Therefore, the Culture is controlled by the sentient, artificially intelligent supercomputers that operate their enormous, planet-like starships. The humans (and artificial intelligences, which are considered the same as people where citizenship is concerned) that live within this far-reaching society live in a near-utopia, in which there are almost no laws, but in order to do so they must accept the fact that all of the truly important decisions for the Culture are made by artificial intelligences. The citizens of the Culture are, in the vast majority, content with this arrangement, but many of the societies that the Culture encounter in their explorations of the galaxy find this entire concept abhorrent in the extreme. One such society that regards the Culture this way is that of the Azadian Empire, which is structured entirely around an epic, sprawling board game, the playing of which determines social and political standing in the Empire. It is this game that Gurgeh travels across the galaxy to play.
Most of the book focuses on Gurgeh's experiences with both the game and the society in which the game takes place. The Azadian Empire is the polar opposite of the Culture--sadistic power struggles and ubiquitous violence, for its own sake more often than not, is not only normal but seen is desirable by the Azadians. Gurgeh is puzzled and disturbed by this, and the Azadians react much the same way to him. They expect him to do terribly in their game, as he has not grown up in their culture (which is almost entirely based around the game), and for the sake of their society's ability to continue, they fervently hope for this result.
To tell any more of the plot would be unfair, as Banks's surprising plot twists are a great deal of the fun of "Player Of Games"; however, it is notable that plot twists exist at all in such a character driven novel. Actually, though, this is much more common for Banks than one might think, having observed how much he cares about and spends time developing his main characters. Generally, plot-driven novels cannot also be character-driven novels, but Banks manages to make many of his books both at once, perhaps nowhere more successfully as with this book. I was familiar enough with his style to expect the plot twists to eventually arrived, and I even guessed one of the more dramatic final twists, but really, I only got it half-right, and it was still handled so well that the fact that I guessed it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the moment it occurred at all.
Overall, Banks does a great job with his Culture novels of updating the old-school space opera paradigm of the science fiction genre and adding in the questioning, insightful analysis of modern cyberpunk without losing the better qualities from either approach. His constructions are bold and, thus far, always greatly successful. This helps to make him one of the best writers of science fiction currently working in the genre, and means that "Player Of Games" should appeal to a wide variety of science fiction fans, from those who love Asimov and Heinlein to those who most appreciate William Gibson or Neal Stephenson.