The publisher kindly provided an advance copy of this book as part of a book tour. The rating above and the thoughts below are all my own.
I’m not generally known as a sensitive soul who gives thought to authors’ feelings. I tell you – I’m only interested in their writing. I like my fiction dark, chock-full of suffering and evil, just like the world. So thank you authors, I am interested in that stuff. I like to think about it. I’m trying to find my way through it, to make sense of it. Your writing is useful to me. But I don’t generally worry whether the author suffers. That’s their lookout, I’ve got problems enough of my own.
Here’s a book that broke me though.
Most of the book is a series of short stories. At the end there are some poems. It’s a slow burn at first, because the author can really write and for a while that deceives you. He puts you in each moment with seductive intensity . The stories are varied, full of voices and colours, vivid places, different lives. Men mostly: it’s a boys’ book. Not misogynist, but women appear almost exclusively as lost objects of desire or comfort, as fruit that has gone sour, as humiliation. It’s all beautifully observed, wryly funny sometimes. Moments of real life, skewered.
But after a while you start feeling the weight of its darkness. There’s the dull darkness of men whose lives never shone, never got lit up, who maybe thought for a moment there was brightness ahead, but found they were wrong – there is plenty of that. Also the darkness of sudden extinction, of disrespect for life, of casual criminal killing – even more of that. But some of it explodes with yet sharper darkness. War stories. I think this author has probably been a soldier.
He writes with chilling passion. Real passion. That’s a fashionable word of course – everyone has to be passionate these days. You’d never get a job as the person who interfaces the cutting edge between corporate composition and future-proofed transition (empties the waste paper baskets) if you don’t declare yourself to be passionate about it. But no, I mean something more old fashioned. I mean passion like THE Passion. Like Christ on the cross. Feeling every second. Knowing, every second, that it has come to this, and it’s going to get worse. Your friends have betrayed you. You never had a wife or kids and you won’t now. There are nails through your hands and feet and an unsurvivable wound in your side. You thought you could save the world. You were wrong. You trusted someone – god perhaps – and they abandoned you. This is all you ended up with. Vinegar on a stick. Thorns in your hair. Soldiers down below, laughing at you. Your eyes drying out and burning.
In the end it got to me. Somewhere between the last few stories and the first few poems. (Why did I have to read the poems? Didn’t I see the warning signs?)
As I thought how to review this book, I discovered it had broken me. I wanted to say something sharp and rather clever. It’s a brilliant book, and they’re the best to be mean about: a book this good deserves a bit of excoriation.
Instead I found myself thinking about the author’s pain. Worrying about where these stories came from, what hurt had so blinded him to the possibility of comfort. I wanted to put an arm around him. Give him a hug and make him some hot chocolate. Find a nice girl who would adore him and never let him down. Put a log on the fire and something silly on TV. Point him to a job in some gentle NGO, maybe Scandinavian, with a well filled budget for corporate healthcare and trauma counselling. Somewhere where his kids can grow up safe and he can grow old and fat and happy, with no one carrying a gun. Whatever it was that wounded him, I wanted to help him to forget.
I tell you, this is seriously not healthy, this thinking about the author.
So, yes, I do suggest you take the time to read this book. The stories are brilliantly well written and the poems (though please understand I don’t do poems) are probably pretty talented too. But I’m warning you, don’t think about the author. No good will come of it. If you feel the need, let me reassure you. He may be a perfectly happy chap really. Smart enough to make a living out of the dodgy proclivities of people like you and me, who like our stories dark; grinning while he knocks out another couple of pitch black fables, amused to be extinguishing a bit more joy, while all the time he’s waiting to get down to the pub with his mates, or planning a cosy night in with his missus. Tell yourself that. Don’t think about him, he doesn’t matter. Just read the stories. You might like them.
You might suppose from my reading behavior in the last few weeks that some unfortunate accident of Covid had locked me down in a basement with only one book. I have read the same book three times. I have read nothing else. (I admit it, not even those friendly emails that my creditors might have sent me: I am rather hoping they will be blaming Covid, too…)
But no. I have been, as always, surrounded by books, many of which I am supposed to be reading and yes, I really want to read them but… first I must go back to the beginning with this one. And again. Distantly at least, I have heard my inbox going ping-ping-ping, but the usually-sweet prospect of deleting my emails has been insufficiently compelling. Nothing has competed with this one exceptional, intricate, deeply satisfying bit of noir. (OK, OK. It gets worse. I got the audiobook too. Wonderful. We won’t talk about that.)
Even as I write this I am banging myself on the head. In the mirror of my mind another narrative is forming. This is a tawdry, derivative piece, filled with every cliché in the crime writer’s canon. There is the hard bitten hero, a cop married to his job, (you know the one – curiously incorruptible though breaking all the rules). There’s the mystery of a beautiful dead blonde pulled out of a river. The bad cops, corrupt and cynical, in the pay of Mr Big. The beautiful sad prostitute with a heart of gold. Some bad pimps. A serial killer on the loose. A hitman. Some fights in which the good guys – much outnumbered and outgunned – do implausibly well. An inevitable one night stand with aforesaid prostitute. Men are strong and do a lot of fighting. Women are vampish, vulnerable or victims.
Pah! What use have I of such hackneyed material? Even if I were locked in a basement with nothing else to read, wouldn’t I have more self respect?
I was entirely seduced by this book.
Partly it was all the other reflections that rippled through this author’s beautiful writing – the classical and religious echoes particularly, though we usually dignify such ancestry with politer terms than ‘derivative’ or ‘clichéd’. This is a novel about Hell, a depiction whose roots trace back through Bunyan, Milton, Dante, Vergil, Homer… It is even (dare I say it?) a novel with echoes of the New Testament.
No, on second thoughts I dare not say that. How could I hold up a mirror to this grumpy, foulmouthed, sharp-shooting cop, who does, eventually, get it briefly together with his Mary Magdalene, and in his reflection see even for a second the chaste hero of that other book? What sane person would trace a line of descent from St Peter, that fallible mortal sidekick, the first pontiff of a church that dreamt up the inquisition, all the way to the Pope in this story: a devout, reflective, unforgiving hitman? And yet, and yet…. I found myself wondering: if Jesus had really been a man, if he had not escaped at 32, with all that razmataz, but was forced to remain, unredeemed, mortal, abandoned to grow old in the hell of some dark American city, never able to leave, still trying without hope to rescue hobos and prostitutes, might he not also have become such a figure? Not saintly any more, not glowing with righteousness, now infected by everything around him, yet still, somehow, a martyr, taking on the sins of the world?
Don’t hold up that mirror. Perhaps there are moments when the author invites you to do so, but unlike me, I suggest you resist. If you ignore my advice, well don’t blame me. You may go mad.
So let this be simply a wonderfully written book about a hard bitten cop in pursuit of a serial killer. That’s more comfortable. And it works very well as such. It’s a great crime story. Its plotting is rich and clever. All of its characters are precisely and engagingly drawn. Its dense depictions of place, culture, atmosphere – utterly mesmerizing. And at the end, if you manage to dodge the metaphysical question that heaves from the denouement to punch you between the eyes, you will at least find a kind of closure: you can be pretty damn sure that there won’t be a sequel.
If the metaphysical question gets you, on the other hand, you may never leave The City. But don’t worry. You were probably already lost.
This brave, delicately written book is an unexpected counterpoint to the recent celebrations of Victory in Europe, 75 years ago. It recounts the downfall – and the fightback – of an affluent family whose wealth was unlawfully plundered by the victorious French resistance around the time of the liberation of France. It is a book about money and privilege and entitlement, and about the loss of these. At its heart, driving the narrative from start to finish, is the protagonist’s outrage at a terrible injustice: his immense wealth has been stolen from him.
As a general rule, the financial misfortunes of the fabulously rich don’t trigger much sympathy in me. Since there is rarely anything very “just” about wealth, and the wealthy are overwhelmingly the ones who dispense injustice, my default reaction to such circumstances (may God forgive me, I am a bad person) is a little flash of schadenfreude. To compound matters, the ultimate villains in this story are more familiar as heroes: the great Charles De Gaulle, leader of the French resistance, and the Swedish humanitarian and peacemaker, Raoul Nordling. (What? They are to blame? These are the good guys, dammit!)
The author of this story does not want me to respond in this way. Although the book reads like a thriller, it is in fact a family memoire, recounted in old age by the protagonist’s daughter. She plays a bit-part in her own narrative: the quiet, solitary, watchful child, whose presence weaves through the story, a little face peering from behind her mother’s skirt. I loved this little girl – at once feisty and fragile, full of imagination and yet clear sighted, secure in being loved though oddly neglected in her parents’ stern world. At the start of the story she is five – just old enough to remember some of the scenes. And she loves her father. What happens to him – and by extension to her mother and herself, though she makes little of this – is utterly terrible. She wants us to know this from the start.
The book opens in 1948, with the clanking of doors as a guard in a French concentration camp escorts her father through the night to his execution as a collaborator and a traitor.
He is not, of course, a collaborator or a traitor.
After its grim introduction, the book swings back a few years, to happier times. A society party in the family’s opulent Paris home: her parents holding court, fine wine, fine food, palatial surroundings and a little girl who wants to stay up late amongst the pretty dresses. This is a dazzling bubble of privilege – the more so since this is 1944, when outside, the French resistance is at war with Germany and the population of Paris is suffering. And before this first chapter is over, all the fault-lines which are soon to fracture around our protagonist are already in evidence.
Frosell’s exceptional wealth makes him a target not only for envious “friends” but also for high ranking officials who see opportunities for gain. His complex background (by nationality Swedish, but born in Canada to an Italian mother, raised in Greece, educated in Britain and Germany) marks him out as “other” and leaves him vulnerable and unprotected. A thin sliver of tangential connection with the hated Vichy regime provides enough of a foothold for whispers of collaboration which escalate into a succession of increasingly absurd accusations and charges.
And so the world changes. The family home is commandeered, and their possessions are seized. Refusing to confess to trumped up charges, the protagonist is repeatedly imprisoned, and ultimately tortured. His health fails and the last of the family assets are lost. In his stinking prison cell he is reduced to the vile undeserved tags – “sous-merde”, “collaborateur”, “connard”.
This book well deserves its place in this blog, whose mission is “to celebrate dangerous writing in any genre: writing that challenges, that goes to dark or unexpected places, that doesn’t repeat the familiar platitudes”. Of course this book is heavy with the treachery of so-called friends, with cynical decisions by self-serving officials, with complicity by public authorities. These bitter, painful ingredients are common in stories about war-crimes, even though the victims of such stories are usually rather different from the wealthy businessman, Oscar Frosell.
But there are also other shadows in this story. It is such a gentle, lovingly impassioned narrative that one could almost miss this other darkness. One feels that the author only reluctantly lets it in. She is loyal. She presents her father, always, as a man of absolute integrity. I was reminded of the rigidly incorruptible father in Wild Swans, Jung Chang’s memoire of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. That father also refuses to collude with the lies of a “liberator” and his family suffers for it, as Frosell’s family does. But the darkness in Frosell comes from somewhere more uncomfortable.
What cannot be escaped in the narrative – though the author presents it without evident rancor – is that it is the loss of his personal wealth that obsesses Frosell. His sense of entitlement is absolute and unwavering, as is his belief in a constitutional legal system that should protect him. He has access to the best lawyers. His appetite for litigation is relentless and corrosive. (Does not the law exist, after all, to protect the interests and entitlements of the wealthy?) At intervals throughout the story he has the option of cutting a deal: he can split his wealth with the French authorities, and all his troubles will go away. These are desperate times after all, and even half of his stupendous fortune would be wealth beyond the imagining of most French citizens –certainly enough for a comfortable life with his wife and daughter. But he refuses. He wants it all, and he knows he is entitled to it all. Against better advice, he keeps returning to the legal system, action after action. There are courtroom victories – yes, there are several. But pyrrhic, all of them.
The result is material hardship : for Frosell in prison, certainly, but also for his wife and his daughter. By the time she is six, they are living in one room, barely scraping by. Yet reading between the lines – perhaps I do this too much, but his wife and daughter are innocent characters and I am angry on their behalf – there is the deeper huft of dereliction. Frosell’s wife is devoted to him, as is his daughter. Yet from the moment Frosell loses his wealth, his life is progressively consumed by the desire to recover it. Both wife and child are sacrificed to this obsession. In his rhetoric there is a certain amount of “I’m doing this for Heddy, for her future”, and the author almost never writes as if she doubts it, but for me it soon wears thin. In the intervals when he is out of prison, all his hours are devoted to his legal battles, while his wife exhausts herself in menial work and his daughter tags after in clothes donated by charity. (I could not help noting, meanwhile, that throughout these passages Frosell always has a cigarette in his mouth…) He has no time for his daughter, who is always there, present at the edge of the room. Her childhood drains away as she watches him, in awe, compliant, respectful, until eventually she is old enough to be useful in court as his unthanked amanuensis.
No. I did not like him. I felt in the writing that I was asked to see the heroism of a courageous fighter against a corrupted system, a bastion of integrity in even the most dehumanizing of places. I did see some of this. But in the reading I also found darker things, which stick in the mind and don’t let go. Beside the corruption of the system – and that was there certainly – I could also see the corrupting forces of wealth and entitlement. Beside the dehumanizing impact of prison, I saw also the dehumanizing impact of arrogant obsession. And through it all, I found the loss – and yes we all have this, all of us – of precious unreturnable years, sacrificed to things that ultimately don’t matter.
This is a slender volume, so well written that it carries one through a day of reading with deceptive ease. It lingers though. With each day thinking of it, its message seems less easy.
This review was undertaken as part of a Blackthorn Book Tour. I would like to thank them for giving me this book in exchange for an honest review.
Well here is a truly wonderful hall of dark mirrors.
Sitting somewhere betweenThe Great Gatsby and Doctor Faustus, Slow Down is a story of desperately flawed people, burning at terrible speed through a landscape of drugs and depravity, with barely a decent thought to share between them. It is set in some near-present in the privileged, entitled, drug-ridden world of the Hollywood film industry, where frauds and hangers on and ruthless ambitious wannabes jostle to rub shoulders with those who have “made it”, whilst those who have “made it” struggle to keep their precarious position at whatever human cost. There is no affection here. No loyalty, no fellow feeling. Decadent, drug-fueled parties are playgrounds for the powerful in which the weak are abused and discarded. What masquerades as friendship is merely a competitive dance of power and exploitation. Every exchange will have a winner and a loser. The losses may be severe – reputation, career, health, even life – but they are par for the course, and only the loser will care.
The cleverness of this story rests in the author’s consummate manipulation of his audience (or was it just me?) Noah, Goldberg’s quasi hero, is a repulsive character. He is young – still living at home with teenage siblings – but certainly no ingenu. Privileged, ruthless, ambitious, self-regarding: his relationships are cynical and instrumental; he is cruel to animals, to his brother, to an unwanted girlfriend. Even his elusive object of desire, a girl from schooldays now ravaged by drugs, is ultimately disposable. He declares to the reader his undying love, though it does not escape us that when this unappealing soulmate cries for help in the throes of an overdose, our hero switches off his cellphone and continues his date with a more useful contact. Goldberg cuts no corners in letting us know the depths of Noah’s moral bankruptcy, yet still he dares the reader to engage with him, identify with him, even want him to succeed. Personally, to my shame, I rose to the challenge. Don’t tell anyone, but this author has me firmly by my hair, so when he whispers that I should root for this monster, I dutifully do so.
Noah’s opposite number, Dominick, is possibly worse of course – a little older and further down the path to which Noah aspires – and he has lost the vestigial traces of conscience that occasionally trouble our hero. His psychopathic disregard is a little more polished. But Dominick is only an older face in the mirror: we never doubt how cynically Noah will destroy him, or how hungrily morph into his vices.
Everything in this book is a mirror of something else. Goldberg has hooked me before with a story within a story and he hooked me again this time. Dominick is a mirror of Noah. Actors play themselves, art mirroring life, life mirroring art. Everywhere the story is transected by the lenses of hidden cameras. And as with all mirrors, the depth of Noah’s life is an illusion. There is nothing but a flimsy surface that could shatter any moment.
At times, as I watched myself in some other inner mirror, being mesmerized by this Rake’s Progress, it struck me that I should not, really, be reading this book. It’s misogyny is chilling, its characters depraved, its moral compass points to the gutter. I wondered what stopped me from drawing back from the screen and pressing “delete”. It would have been easy enough and I certainly had other things to do. I could not have supposed that continuing this book was a creditable use of my time. Perhaps I felt virtuous satisfaction in the certainty that it would all end ill for Noah, and wanted to see it (good Christian people always love an edifying hanging). Or imagined (except I didn’t) that some desperate event would jolt him into repentance and redemption. But no. I don’t think so. Really, I think it was the exquisite writing that held my finger back from that virtuous little X at the top right corner of my screen, as the hours passed and the plot spiraled into nightmare and I still had no excuse. Goldberg’s prose is consistently well-judged and at times quite breathtaking. Throughout the book there were little turns of phrase so delicate and delicious that I sucked on them like candies. Unhealthy candies, some of them, but candies all the same.
I certainly cannot recommend this scandalous dark book to you. But if you read it, you may well enjoy it as much as I did.
How far would you go to make your dreams come true? For budding writer and filmmaker Noah Spaeth, being a Production Assistant in director Dominick Bambach’s new avant-garde film isn’t enough. Neither is watching Dominick have an affair with the lead actress, the gorgeous but troubled Nevie Wyeth. For Noah’s dream is to get both the film and Nevie in the end, whatever the cost. And this obsession may soon become a reality once Dominick’s spurned wife Isadora reveals her femme fatale nature with a seductive plot to get rid of her husband for good. Slow Down, a cross between the noir styling of James M. Cain and the dark satire of Bret Easton Ellis, is a thrilling page-turner that holds a mirror up to a media-saturated society that is constantly searching for the fastest way to get ahead, regardless of consequences.
Lee Matthew Goldberg is the author of the novels THE DESIRE CARD, THE MENTOR (reviewed on this blog earlie this year), and SLOW DOWN. He has been published in multiple languages and nominated for the 2018 Prix du Polar. The second book in the Desire Card series, PREY NO MORE, is forthcoming in 2020, along with his first Sci-Fi novel ORANGE CITY.
His new endeavor will be as the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Fringe Press and Fringe Digital, dedicated to publishing fiction that’s outside-of-the-box.
His pilots and screenplays have been finalists in Script Pipeline, Book Pipeline, Stage 32, We Screenplay, the New York Screenplay, Screencraft, and the Hollywood Screenplay contests. After graduating with an MFA from the New School, his writing has also appeared in the anthology DIRTY BOULEVARD, The Millions, Cagibi, The Montreal Review, The Adirondack Review, The New Plains Review, Underwood Press and others. He is the co-curator of The Guerrilla Lit Reading Series and lives in New York City.
Sangre: The Wrong Side of Tomorrow, is the second novel by author Carlos Colón. Set in Newark, New Jersey, it features vampire Nicky Negrón, living out his death as a chilled, undead vigilante with a lot to prove and some troublesome adversaries.
Long ago, as one of the more daring pupils in my School for Respectable Girls, I was quite, shall I say, transfixed by Le Fanu’s Carmilla – an 1872 lesbian vampire novel that for some reason was not included in our school curriculum. It predates Bram Stoker’s fussy and derivative Dracula by a whole generation and is an intensely engaging exploration of desire, sexuality, repression, possession, death. OK. In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to treat it as a “how-to” manual, but happily none of us died and we were perfectly thrilled by the clandestine (and even now unspeakable) investigations to which it led us. And that, I always thought, was the point of vampire novels.
Secrets. Repression. Deviance. Desire. The unspeakable.
Sex as death. Death as sex. Blood as life and sex and death. Consummation. Submission. Possession.
Sadly, after all the glorious transgression, we had to emerge into the tedious Sexual Revolution of the late 20th century – so I have lived the rest of my life imagining that vampire novels were firmly a thing of the past. Now that nothing is taboo and every sexual possibility is, as it were, on the table (with the lights on and nobody particularly interested because there’s something more interesting on the cell-phone) I assumed that the yearning excitement of vampirism must have longago turned to ash. I was therefore rather surprised to be asked to review a vampire novel that was published only last year.
History may have locked me out from this modern story – something that happens quite often to older people. (Readers: please be more careful when purchasing dodgy books as presents for your aunts.) I needed to find a way in, but it was by no means clear to me how this piece related to anything I knew or thought about vampires. True, the protagonist is a vampire – but there is a certain “so what?” to this status. In his case it appears to be something of an embarrassing medical condition rather than – as in the grand old days – a seething eruption from the darkest crevices of the unconscious. Yes, the condition still makes him dangerous to others and, as a result, at risk of some nasty social exclusion – a bit like having HIV before triple therapy. (Yes, I know you’re thinking about another virus too, but I’m just too bored to mention it). Vampirism also still demands significant changes to one’s lifestyle (no, I’m still not going to mention it) like keeping out of the sun and sleeping in a coffin – but sufferers of alopecia also have to keep out of the sun and people with heart failure may need a special bed, and nobody glamorises that. And like irritable bowel syndrome, or one of those terribly fashionable “food intolerances”, the sufferer turns into a diet-bore. There are compensations of course. Our modern vampire still gets some magic tricks, though they’re different now. (I used to like the one where they turned into bats…) Like Harry Potter, Nicky Negrón can make himself invisible and hurl things around like a poltergeist. Like Tom and Jerry, he can have a hole right through his chest and recover almost immediately. And he still has some sex – though now it’s the modern, compulsory, perfectly-satisfactory-but-nobody-cares-either-way sort of sex. And since this is America, even this frissonless activity is underscored by Good Clean Family Values. Our protagonist, after all, is a decent sort of vampire. He cares about his offspring, visits old friends in hospital, frets about his impact on the environment, feeds his neighbor’s cat, and only murders bad people. Poor fellow: despite all this, the public still doesn’t like him! (There are clearly some diversity issues here. We should start a #VampireUnlivesMatter movement.)
So where is the smouldering in this modern vampirism? Where is the shocking, intense, unspeakable electrical charge? This is vampirism reduced to a set of arbitrary narrative constraints. One could use the same plot whilst substituting some other sort of paranormality, say a tendency for water to become wine in one’s presence (good at wedding parties but awkward in school swimming pools) or a special whistle that makes all the rats in Hamelin jump into the River Weser. This is the vampire as yet another sort of X-Man – not as a signifier for the most overwhelming, appalling secret at which any book could surreptitiously gesture.
In the end I gave up the attempt to find in this book even the ghosts of the vampirism that fascinated me long ago. I shrugged and decided to read it simply as another crime romp, a boys’ book, full of peril and adventure and lots of juicy American violence. It works pretty well when taken like that. The flashbacks to our protagonist’s youth provide some warmth and depth to the story as a whole. They allow us to see our hero as a troubled individual with a difficult backstory, rather than a psychopath who just likes beheading people. (Fear not, gentle reader, these are cheerfully anodyne beheadings, not the horrific variety practiced by ISIS, of which we definitely disapprove: no American servicemen were harmed in the making of this novel). There are some good fights, some surprising paranormal impersonations (no need for the old latex-mask trick now!) and a lot of fun characters.
Yes, fun. This is (once I gave in and let myself get into it) a clever and witty book, and I liked it more as it went on. Perhaps, ironically, it even started to “speak” to me. It ends (no particular spoiler here) in an old people’s home. As a vampire, our hero never ages. (But hey! This is me as well! Just like Nicky Negrón, I now have a regretable “death face” , prone to appearing at inconvenient moments, but the face in my mind, though nevermore in the mirror, is still the girl of 16, which – let me think – just happens to be the age when Carmilla first bit me…) And despite our hero’s agelessness, he finds the friends of his youth have definitely aged (That’s weird! This afflicts my friends too!) and his children have grown up, and look much too old to him. (Hmmm. So many parallels, it is becoming uncomfortable…) It was only with these thoughts that the grimmest of truths occurred to me. Perhaps this really is a book that gestures at the great taboo of our time. Deep in our DNA, in the darkest corners of our being, there is a terrible inexorable force that compromises all our high ideals and turns us into something monstrous.
But, alas, it’s not sex we’re frightened of any more. It’s not desire that stalks and turns us, changing us into something alien, something hideously undead, so we leach the life-blood of those we love, until they are turned too.
Born in Spanish Harlem and raised by Puerto Rican parents in the South Bronx, Carlos Colón drew attention from his high school teachers with his penchant for storytelling. Before long, they nicknamed him Hemingway. After graduating from CUNY’ s Herbert H. Lehman College, Carlos dabbled in screenwriting for a few years before settling into the insurance business. Several decades later, Carlos returned to the entertainment world when he formed the retro rock ‘n’ roll band, the Jersey Shore Roustabouts. After twelve successful years performing live and producing two albums, the band moved on after their farewell concert in 2018.
Prior to that, 2016 saw the release of Carlos’ first novel, “Sangre: The Color of Dying”. It was later that year named as one of the Top Ten novels written by a Latino author. After receiving extraordinary praise from literary critics and the unexpected devotion of readers to his foul-mouthed, yet oddly endearing anti-hero, Nicky Negrón, Carlos knew he had little choice but to begin working on a sequel. In 2019, the follow up “Sangre: The Wrong Side of Tomorrow” was released and it received just as much praise as its predecessor. Readers are already hoping that there is a third installment in the works.
When not busy with his multiple projects, Carlos enjoys his private time living in the Jersey Shore area with Maria, his wife of 40 years, and their cat, Tuco.
Well here’s a timely book! Just the ticket, as we all settle down for a season of Corona Virus, when we won’t be able to leave the house because an alien organism is quietly taking over, breaking through our locked doors, turning our loved ones into creatures we’d really rather not meet (let alone get close to), seriously compromising our ability to go to work or hold dinner parties and generally threatening the future of civilization…
But take what comfort you can, dear readers, (since even if you fill up your freezers, invest in industrial quantities of hand-wash and tape up all the doors, you’ll probably still catch it). Corvid 19 is a pretty little predator. It wouldn’t look amiss on a micro-biologist’s Christmas tree, so just focus on the pictures if you catch it.
The disturbing creatures who plague the little town on Highway Twenty have a much more repulsive aspect– all claws and teeth, with nasty reptilian skin and insectile eyes – not at all the kind of thing that you’d want inside a loved one.
It is also much more murderous. Our Corvid 19 may be really very nasty, but it’s not in the same league. Moore’s infection has a kill rate nearing 100% for anyone affected – so 50 times worse than Coronavirus. It’s actually worse than Ebola even, unless ‘having your body and identity permanently recycled as a host for a parasite’ counts as recovery. Its incubation period is only 48 hours and its spread rate is such that by my calculation (allowing for the most modest version of the organism’s appetite) the entire mammalian population of the planet could be wiped out within 46 days. (Yes, I did the mathematics: please understand that my nerdy dedication is limitless. The intriguing thing – Moore isn’t wrong – is that it would take most of this time just to knock out a modest size town and its animals. For most of its course, the graph moves almost imperceptibly – then boom! The last few days clear the rest of the planet – after which all the food has gone and the party is over. Oh how I love exponential numbers!)
Enough of this! I distract myself. What I wanted to say is that I really, really loved this book.
This is supposed to be a review, so let me get the mechanics over. Michael J Moore knows how to write. His writing intoxicates before you even notice it, leading you hypnotically between mundane reality and dreams and nightmares. His dialogue is superb – he clearly spends a lot of time listening to how people really speak, and (which is equally important) has the craft to make you believe that the very different speech that makes sense when you read it, is a scrupulous reproduction of this. In the same way he creates a town that seems entirely solid and plausible, a place you might think you remember driving through, at the rag end of some unsatisfactory road-trip – yet which comfortably accommodates his fantastical story.
And the characterization: beautiful. I hadn’t expected this. As a general habit, I don’t read ‘orror stories (I only came to this one because an old friend pestered me). So I was rather expecting a reprise of those comic book characters I recall from my last few horror dabblings. But not at all. Each of the characters in Highway Twenty seems sculpted from flesh and blood (quite a lot of that): not a cardboard cut-out or superhero in lycra amongst all of them.
In particular, of course, I was struck by the lead character and his girlfriend (and while I am here, let me pause for a moment to award a special prize for the mentioning of her period. That blood is marginally functional in the story – though he could have copped out and given her a nosebleed – but the mention is refreshingly real and uncomplicated, so well done Michael J Moore, and well done Conor and Shelby). I love this couple, both of them, though neither on their own is wholly likeable. The relationship between them is drawn with an aching honesty about the human heart and its self-deceptions, even as it passes from the troublesome bickering of ordinary living, into some romantic nether hell.
This isn’t a two horse show, however. Moore is equally meticulous in his other characters, even the ones tangential to the plot. They all have depth – one imagines they have lives reaching back out of sight of the narrative – any of them could have been at the centre, if the land had lain a little differently.
This leads, crab-wise, to one of the most interesting things about this book, considered as ‘craft’: it dispenses, most pleasingly, with a lot of the lying tropes that guide our expectation of a ‘disaster plot’. This is not ‘Independence Day’: we are not left at the end, after all the contributory sacrifices, with the usual happy resolution in whichthe inevitable survival of our hero means that none of the preceding matters. Nor does the final scene offer us the happy reappearance (oh-but-we-thought-you-were-dead!) of his personal loved ones, to give all the gratification of recovering a misplaced iPhone. And this story – though it builds and drives with relentless pace – doesn’t stick to the pyramid structure in which secondary characters function only as hardcore and scaffolding – footholds for the hero’s narrative ascent.
I did read one tedious reviewer who was really quite miffed about this, and suggested that Moore just lacked the concentration to put a proper story together. I think this reviewer quite missed the point. Life isn’t like that, and neither is this story. This narrative makes space for a number of characters who clearly could have been the hero – even dangling the possibility (getting away with it not once but three times!) that we might be encountering the ‘Final Girl’ so beloved of horror writers. A spoiler here – they miss the boat. Michael J Moore looks full-on at the lie: the soothing capitalist myth, that the one who ‘makes it’ is the one who naturally deserves to. Be honest: don’t fool yourself: the awful truth. Plenty of great heroes aren’t going to make it. In life, as in disasters, winning is random. There is no teleology.
I’m wriggling a bit here, as I write this. As one who avoids this genre, I’m shying away from the fact I was engaged – much too engaged I think – by the horrible parasites. I finished this book three weeks ago, and they’ve nestled in my mind ever since. (I rather fear I might have been infected…)
Perhaps it is because we are mammals that we have this enduring fascination with the parasite that takes root and grows within us, consuming us from within, permanently changing us. (Certainly, I never quite recovered from being taken to Alien in the final stages of a pregnancy: who are these foreign creatures who grew their bodies inside mine, tore brutally out of my flesh and ended up eating my life? And more of a problem: why is it when I look in their eyes I see both their terrifying otherness and myself? And how come, given this, I would urge anyone I meet – just as Moore’s ‘changed ones’ do – that this is the best thing I have ever done, that this is a transformation not to be avoided, that this is what happiness is?)
I was hooked by the way that Moore gets inside his creatures‘ minds (or is it ‘mind’?) creating a haunting hybrid consciousness, part alien, part human, a consciousness that thinks it knows itself but doesn’t. Do any of us? Really? Are we not all, like his monsters, stamping through the landscape as if we owned it, consuming remorselessly, destroying all we touch, sentimentally dreaming as we march in our sleep towards the moment when we’ve used up everything and the conditions of our survival are gone – all the while imagining ourselves to be reasonable, rational, entitled?
(No, this isn’t a selfie by one of Moore’s monsters: it’s a Desert Locust. One of the characters in Highway Twenty refers to the creatures as ‘locusts’ and surmises that these might have been the creatures referred to in the Biblical plague. To judge by the descriptions in the text, I think that character may have been correct.)
The monster consciousness is horrible; have no doubt of it: perhaps Moore makes it recognizable but he doesn’t make it sympathetic. These creatures have not the slightest compunction as they destroy their human victims – any more than humans, tucking into Sunday lunch, mind at all that their nourishment rests on the enslavement, imprisonment and slaughter of other species. As the monsters set about preparing their terrified victims as fodder, they chide and chat to them affectionately, as one might cajole some wayward child for resisting bedtime – or perhaps as the hardworking vets (such a kindly profession!) cajole the resistant cattle in the abattoir.
But I’m only a parasite on the planet myself, not a god, so such insights did nothing to change my mindset. I was as relieved as the next woman each time an alien copped it: I certainly felt no tragedy in the explosion of their heads or their black blood spilling on the carpet. Nuke the lot of them, I say! Spray DDT into the ants’ nest, get an airgun to the rats. (And why stop there? What about the squirrels? And the feral cats… And while I’m on the subject – what about those hoards who are creeping into my continent by boat, with their different-coloured skin and their unfamiliar voices and their manifest intention to live in my country and breed: aren’t they threatening me and my children too? The plot of Highway Twenty raises no objections to drowning its intruders…)
Dislike of aliens is by no means unfamiliar and the opposite brings no easy solution. Do humans think so differently from the alien parasites in Michael Moore’s book? What if there really aren’t enough resources for everyone? The future favours the winner, and (say it quietly) this should naturally be me.
As I said, three weeks on and I’m still thinking on this book. For me, (tired old reviewer of too many novels), this is somewhat unusual. Especially for a book in a genre I don’t rate. Personally, though, I wouldn’t have branded this as horror: I am reminded of the classic novels – before science fiction shattered into a host of sub-genres, horror included – Mary Shelley, HG Wells, John Wyndham … I still think of their stories too, and that’s decades later.
So thank you Michael J Moore. Great book. Keep writing. Look after Cait. (And I hope you steer clear of Corvid19.)
(and Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul and others)
On Crime and Justice
I dedicate this post to the lawmakers of the State of Mississippi, Senators and Representatives and Governor, who carry a heavy burden and have a long season of criminal justice legislation ahead of them.
This Book Site, as a celebration of difficult and dangerous writing, should probably have considered The New Testament rather sooner. I mostly read dark fiction. The New Testament is pretty dark (a psychopath massacres some babies at the start, and its climax is the state execution of an innocent man) but all the same it is a little distant from my usual genres.
It wasn’t a book I’d thought about for years. Having been force-fed it at school, I viewed it rather like those plates of uncertain stew that they delivered at lunchtime – for which we had to close our eyes and plead with the Lord to make us truly grateful. Unwelcome, overcooked, far from fresh, and a recipe I wouldn’t aspire to. I was happy to leave it all behind. (I’m European. There’s not much obligation in Europe to cleave to the church. Mostly we don’t.)
So why go back? The call of Mississippi, a Christian country…
I have returned to the New Testament now, because I want to understand the good Senators and Representatives of the State of Mississippi, who in this session, in the Spring of 2020, are faced with a raft of legislation about Criminal Justice. In your hands, dear Senators and Representatives, rests the future of many thousands of Mississippi people.
One percent of your population is in prison right now. Many of these citizens are serving long sentences – thirty, forty, fifty years. I don’t know if there are any ‘decent’ prisons in Mississippi, but recent riots have resulted in plenty of exposure for nightmarish ones. Prisoners in cage-like cells in solitary confinement that goes on for years. Some prisoners in cells without electricity, without water. Many with no access to daylight, activity, education, books, visits, conversation even. Decrepit buildings, inadequate food, mold and vermin. And overarching this, a legislative framework which prohibits parole for most offenses, gives longer sentences than almost anywhere in the world, and allows the death penalty even for minors.
This session there are many Bills before the Senate that would, if you passed them, change this framework. I am told that such a raft of Bills comes to you every year, and every year they are thrown out, for lack of majority support. I’m wondering whether this year, woken by recent events to think more deeply, you lawmakers of Mississippi might depart from this tradition. So I wanted to understand what values might drive you.
I have read your brief biographies on the government website. I was struck by how many of you declare your allegiance to various churches. You are Christian people. This book is important to you so I want to understand it. Breaking with the negligence of several decades, I have therefore read the New Testament from cover to cover.
I was profoundly shocked.
The New Testament I read this month wasn’t in any way the book I thought I had been taught at school. How could my teachers have rendered it so anodyne? How did they manage to enlist it to the service of the status quo? What I find now are writings – of which the gospels are the beating heart – which are clearly amongst the most radical, subversive and challenging to have come from the western world. How could I have missed this?
What The New Testament proposes is nothing short of a new way of being human. The New Testament demands that we rewire ourselves.
The Old Testament wiring
The Old Testament wiring is so familiar to us all that we barely notice it. In its core are evolutionary forces that work on all social animals: ants, wolves, apes. Survival. A power structure based on control of resources (let’s call it wealth), strength, status. Stratification. Enforced by rules and sanctions and ultimately violence: teeth, claws, horns, armies, a police force, a fair bit of smiting, a prison system. Modest rewards for compliance. Retribution for stepping out of line. Major rewards – though also major risks – for being at the top.
One of the many resources that the powerful co-opt to themselves (though not always without a struggle) is virtue. Godliness. Goodness. Right. Entitlement to salvation. Kings and priests and Pharisees (dare I also say Judges and Senators and Representatives? Dare I look in my mirror and say ‘over-educated white people with comfortable incomes’?) are generally confident in moral superiority. We are guaranteed a place in heaven, surely. And from our position of superiority, virtue, morality, we have the right – no the duty even – to stand in judgement over others. To approve or condemn. To punish. To imprison. Even to kill.
I have put it rather brutally. I’m sorry. It’s not ugly like that. We aspire to high ideals, we have nice houses, write nice books and wear attractive hats.
So what did the New Testament change?
I will not speak here of all the ways that the New Testament tries to change the social order. Others have done that. My interest here is only in Crime and Justice. What does the New Testament tell us about that?
Everyone knows that much-quoted bit about turning the other cheek, a departure from the ‘eye for the eye’ of the Old Testament. Forgiveness is big in the New Testament.
‘Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’
Familiarity renders it mild. But think about it for a moment. Really think about it. Resist not evil? What? Is this a joke?
And there is more. A little less-quoted, but still familiar: we must not judge.
‘Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven’.
At this point it’s only advisory – you’ll do well if you don’t judge others. Later it becomes more emphatic: if you do judge others, you’ll suffer for it.
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
Again, one does a double-take. It’s all very nice but this cannot be serious. What you dish out will come back to you? Seriously? That Judge meting out a life sentence to a criminal ….? He’ll get that back? WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
There’s a great deal of judgment and punishment in the Old Testament, most of it recorded with grim approval. But The New Testament is quite emphatic in its turnaround. We are simply not to do it! Only God can judge a human being. And just as we must not judge, we must not exact retribution. Vengeance is forbidden to humans: we have to leave that to God: Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. We, mere humans, have no right to it.
I hope, lawmakers of Mississippi, that you are still with me. I know, if you have generously read this far, you are probably thinking ‘Yes, well that’s all very well, this forgiveness thing! But we actually have laws to make, a country to keep in order. And no judging? No retribution? This doesn’t get us far when it comes to managing criminals!’
Big sigh. That’s exactly how I feel as well! Not resist evil? Not judge? Not punish? What do you want, dear Jesus? Murderers left running around? Lawlessness? Anarchy?
Wrongdoing in the New Testament
Reassuringly, the gospels are quite firm about wrongdoing. The words of Jesus demand the highest standards of behavior. The Sermon on the Mount sets it all out in detail.
– Every jot and tittle of the law must be obeyed.
– Every debt must be honored
– Whoever even thinks of doing wrong is guilty of that wrong.
– It is better to cut off your arm or pluck out your eye than let it commit a sin.
– And every last wrongdoing will in due course be punished, God will see to that.
This isn’t, in any way, a gospel about anything goes. But there is a shocking message buried here.
When Jesus talks about wrongdoing, it has a weirdly homogeneous quality. He doesn’t talk of big wrongs and small ones, only of wrongs. The message is spelt out distinctly, in case we don’t get it. As a reversal of the old law, the following passage is even more radical – though more difficult, dangerous, and correspondingly less quoted – than the one about turning the other cheek.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say a word of contempt to his brother shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool’, shall be in danger of hell fire.
Sin is unitary. Everyone sins. Here on earth (a sociologist would say ‘in society’) we make a meal of the idea that there are gradations of sinning, and we have a whole criminal justice system nicely set up for weighing and measuring it: the scales, after all, are the very symbol of justice. There are good people (as a start, let’s say judges and State Senators and Representatives, but personally I think I’m in there too) who are just and right (or at least we don’t do the really bad stuff). And there are others who are criminals – the whole gamut of them, too many to list, and they are different from us. So of course it’s perfectly proper to stand in judgement. Some of our most talented and respectable people make a good career from it.
But Jesus shakes his head. It’s all the same, really, whether a man kills his brother or just treats him disrespectfully. It’s all sin and none of us is innocent. All of us stand to be punished in the end. None of us is better than anyone else. We all need exactly the same forgiveness. And this is why no one is entitled to stand in judgement over another: whatever we think about the matter, our sins – and we all have sinned – are just the same as theirs. Only God, who is perfect and without sin, is entitled to judge. We have no right.
The Gospel of John offers the limit case here. The scribes and the Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman who has been caught in the very act of adultery – a capital offense according to their law. They are entitled to stone her. The law suggests that they ought to stone her. Will Jesus gainsay that?
‘Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?’
Jesus thinks for a while, staring at the ground and fiddling in the dirt as if the very question embarrasses him. Then his reply.
‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’
Take note he does not say ‘Let him who has not committed adultery punish her’, or even ‘Let him whose crimes are not very big…’ or even, as we might prefer, ‘Well show her a bit of lenience, dammit! She’s a woman after all, and it takes two to tango, and maybe we’ve got it a bit wrong about adultery…’ No. He says ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. She has sinned. The stoning is in the law. But who is entitled to do it? Everyone has sinned. One by one, the accusers melt away.
When they are finally alone, Jesus turns to the woman and asks ‘Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?’ She said, ‘No man, Lord’. And Jesus said unto her, ‘Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more’.
Don’t miss the flip side of the message. It is not an instruction that anything goes, that everyone sins so it does not matter. He does not tell her to behave a little better. He tells her to sin no more. There’s no compromise here.
Kind Senators, I have tested your patience. You have laws to make, taxation to worry about, voters to woo. And in the midst of this you have the Mississippi Department of Corrections to sort out. A problem of mass incarceration. A problem about needing to rebuild your prisons. You can’t afford it. And there’s the rioting. You have a federal investigation on your hands about the conditions in your prisons. And here is this ridiculous woman on her fanciful website, talking to you about Jesus. It’s just not helpful.
I’m sorry. Let me try to do better. Jesus wasn’t such a bad man, and the Bible’s not a bad book, so perhaps if I look a little harder I will find some help there for you. You clearly have to do something about crime and criminals. You can’t just fiddle in the dust a bit, wave your hands and tell your criminals to sin no more. That may have worked for Jesus, a couple of millennia ago, but it’s not going to cut the mustard in your line of business, today.
So what can you do, as good Christian men and women charged with this responsibility, facing a load of potential legislation?
Where to, Criminal Justice in Christian Mississippi?
I’ve talked about the ‘criminal’ bit – what about ‘justice’? The need to do something about wrongdoing is hard-wired into human beings. It gives rise to the concept of justice – a desire for balancing out. But retribution – balancing the suffering of the victim by piling suffering on the wrongdoer – is clearly ruled out by the New Testament message. What then?
‘Provide and Promote Public Safety’ is embroidered on the badges of MDOC. Jesus doesn’t object to people being controlled, to keep others safe. When a person is dangerous and violent– like the man inhabited by devils – it is taken for granted that he may be bound and fettered to protect other people.
But only for as long as strictly necessary, this one: once the devils are cast out, then the man is unfettered, no matter the violence that he carried out before.
How about restitution? Jesus doesn’t seem to have a problem with that, either. What we have done wrong we need to put right. To the man in the debtors’ prison, he says I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence, till thou hast paid the very last mite. We do need to pay for wrongdoing – but we can do this not by fruitlessly adding to the suffering in the world but by restoring the value that we have taken from the world. Crimes can rarely be undone: life isn’t that simple. But restitution is about giving something back, restoring value where one has previously destroyed it.
A criminal justice system based on restitution needs to find ways for offenders to make amends – not by the waste of their lives, but through productive work, through repentance, and ultimately through returning to society and making a contribution. If one rules out retribution, which the New Testament certainly does, there is no place for sentences without access to parole. There is no justification for continuing imprisonment once the offender has reformed, repented, and is ready to make amends.
There are many references in the New Testament to prisons. Jesus accepts prisons as part of the social order. But most of what he says is about visiting the prisoner: kindness which is without condemnation, a duty as straightforward as visiting the sick. In the Sermon on the Mount, he describes the Day of Judgment.
The King shall say unto them on his right hand… For I was a hungry, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me…. Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was hungry, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
That’s a pretty strong reaction to a failure of compassion towards those in prison. Think about it.
The Senators of Mississippi have been visiting their prisons recently. I am pleased. It’s a privilege that the families of prisoners too rarely get: prison visiting is regularly cancelled and every obstacle is placed in its way. Many prisoners, even those with families, have been unable to have visits for years.
Reform and rehabilitation
In the Mississippi Department of Corrections Mission Statement (almost at the end, rather grudgingly) there is a single reference to rehabilitation, (the stated object of which is only to protect good people from harm, not to redeem the criminal). There is no reference to reform or redemption. But prison, in a Christian world, should always be about that. Jesus was very clear about the need to bring the wrongdoer back to righteousness, whatever the resources required to do this. The prodigal son. The lost sheep. The duty is enduring. There is no option to give up on those who have gone astray.
What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
The State of Mississippi has given up on a lot of its prisoners. They have no programs, no access to education, no books, no hope of parole, no visitors, no promise of redemption. That abandonment is what ‘good people’ have given them.
Respect and Humility
A criminal justice system under the eye of the New Testament would remove the gulf – material and moral – between offenders and those who sentence and control them. Jesus has plenty to say about Pharisees, who view themselves as so much better than sinners, and are so confident of winning the race to heaven. They are oh-so-wrong about that!
We are all sinners, from the most deranged or depraved of prisoners to the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections and even you, dear Senators and Representatives. (Even me – who’d have thought it?) God won’t notice any difference between us, unless we dare suggest that we are better than the criminal, as the Pharisees do, in which case, at best, we return to the end of the queue and at worst we face damnation for our pride.
(Like I said, the New Testament is dark and dangerous and difficult. I didn’t tell you it would be comfortable).
So, here to finish, is one last quote from this radical book. Dear Senators and Representatives, as you plough through the mountain of criminal justice legislation that you face this session, I hope you find it helpful. The whole chapter is worth a read – I’m serious here, it’s Romans 12 – but this is a flavor.
For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think… Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Recompense to no man evil for evil. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay’, sayeth the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
Subversive stuff. But I’m relying on you.
The New Testament is available from Amazon, bookshops, and hotel bedrooms, pretty much everywhere in the Western world. I chose the King James Version here, which I grew up with, but others are perhaps more accessible. I enjoyed reading it on a Kindle.
Lee Matthew Goldberg is a writer of novels, short stories, pilots and screenplays. He is the author of the novels The Desire Card, The Mentor, and Slow Down, with a second book in the Desire Card series, Prey No More, forthcoming in 2020, along with his first Sci-Fi novel Orange City. He has been published in multiple languages and nominated for the 2018 Prix du Polar.
His new endeavor will be as the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Fringe Press and Fringe Digital, dedicated to publishing fiction that’s outside-of-the-box. He is the co-curator of The Guerrilla Lit Reading Series and lives in New York City. Follow him at leematthewgoldberg.com.
I have always been troubled by the infinite regress. The child on the biscuit tin, holding a tin of biscuits, on whose lid there is a child holding a biscuit tin, and on its lid…. Or (much more terrifying) the Robert Graves poem, Warning to Children. This is one reason why I tend to avoid those lifts with double mirrors, in which the traveller disappears into an eternity of reflected reflections. Plays about plays – not interested. And the novelist (such a fascinating man) writing a book about a novelist (such a fascinating man) who is possibly writing a book about a novelist… I don’t want to be fascinated. Does the novelist not see that every iteration is less substantial than the last? Does he not know that this is where we all end up – a memory of a memory of a memory? I am equally leary about the paradox of self-reference: Alice going through the mirror, the Escher hands drawing each other, the snake eating its own tail…
Stop! You cannot be nourished like this! Isn’t this why one should spend one’s life living, not writing novels, not even reading them?
If I’d known, therefore, that The Mentor is a novel that plays with both these tropes, I would have passed it up and not offered to review it. (Thank you, Blackthorn Book Tours, for failing to mention this. I’d have missed a seriously good read if you had.)
The hero of this novel (not, I have to say, particularly interesting – in this novel, as so often, the devil gets the best lines) is a nice enough young man. Perhaps he has a slight problem with commitment, perhaps his childhood wasn’t all it might have been, perhaps there was a moment in young adulthood when he might have plummeted into crime, addiction, madness. But that’s all right: it didn’t happen. Just in the nick of time, just as his troubled adolescence was about to take a turn for the worse, his college professor stepped in to help him out. His mentor.
Kindly, avuncular, rescuing a talented but troubled young student of literature and setting him back on track. Our hero has a lingering disappointment (though I did not) that this didn’t lead to a career as a novelist – but what’s not to like about a career as an editor in a successful publishing company? He has recently discovered a bright young ingénue whose talented output has won him a promotion. He has a nice and adequately interesting girlfriend to whom he is devoted, a nice flat, a nice job… He almost (but not quite, not ever) has a nice pet cat even. What more could an upwardly mobile young millennial want?
He certainly doesn’t need his old mentor to return, though the suggestion of a meeting is quite flattering, and the old professor is charming. And of course, behind the self-effacing charm, there is a favour to call in – the professor has a novel, ten years in the writing and only half finished, that he’d like his old protégé to take a look at. It could be a best seller: perhaps our young hero would be willing to look at it? Surely not too much to ask, given all the previous obligations?
Such requests are generally irksome, embarrassing, and make people in gatekeeping professions quite reluctant to hold dinner parties. Ah, you work in publishing: will you read my novel? Doctor, could you look at my boil? But our hero is in awe of his old mentor, and ready to believe that the book might be a masterpiece.
It is not. It is a shoddily written, mountainous, grotesque, horrifying, sordid pile of obsessive depravity.
The situation is awkward, embarrassing, and in the working out of this embarrassment one comes to feel a certain sympathy for our hero. But it is the anti-hero who makes the novel gripping. The fine old professor is a wonderfully drawn character – smooth and bitter, obsessively manipulative, undoubtedly psychopathic, and (like all good psychopaths) compellingly self-regarding, confidently self-justifying, relentlessly vengeful. The passages written from his perspective (and I do like books where every character has their point of view exposed) are chilling and yet quite irresistible.
I don’t like spoilers – for goodness sake, buy the novel, don’t look for it here! – so I won’t reveal more of the plot. Let me say a bit more about it however. It is a self-consciously intertextual story, as one would expect from a novel at whose root there is a relationship between a literature professor and his student. Some of the references I recognised and enjoyed, and perhaps when I get round to those works which I didn’t know, I will say “aha!”, and remember this novel with the satisfying sense of a jigsaw more complete. But the story wasn’t vitiated by my ignorance: Lee Matthew Goldberg avoids the pitfall of being too clever and putting the reader down.
In fact the layered and mirrored qualities of the story – the very things that would have made me turn away had I been warned in advance – are nicely done. There is a story within the story, and within the story-within-the-story there is a story about the story, a story about the writer, a story about the reader…. There are nightmares within nightmares, nightmares that are not nightmares, apparent realities that are…. There are moments when our hero and our anti-hero threaten to merge, and occasionally I was not sure which one was really Alice and which one was through the looking glass. Repeatedly the author pulls off the trick of tugging the reader into a dream, then throwing them back. In its final chapters it descends from its dizzy heights of psychological suspense into a level of gothic improbability that verges on horror. So I ought to have closed the book in disgust – but I didn’t at all. I was hooked by then.
It’s a great novel, but not a perfect one. Occasionally I felt it was too greedy. It is shameless in recyling familiar tropes and characters from the broad crime genre, but at times throws them into the mix without clear function. A pair of creepy twins, neither properly developed nor necessary to the plot; a hint of ‘Notes from a Scandal’ in the serially predatory old professor, with his latest victim as another unnecessary character. There’s an irritating pretty girl, who crops up a few times, flagged up as if the author meant to use her, but who then disappears.
Equally, there are familiar plotlines that the author takes up, and then discards, not to surprise us but as if he’s lost interest: the hero increasingly isolated as loved ones and colleagues fall for the villain’s lies (but then they realise that they made a mistake and apologise); the malicious revelation of a secret that ought to have resulted in our hero losing everything, triggering a progressive ‘carry on down’ (but doesn’t). Perhaps this is not greed but insecurity: this isn’t a first novel, but maybe it has something of the ‘first-novel’ tendency to throw everything in to make sure the reader is satisfied, like an insecure chef adding more and more ingredients.
I can forgive this. I had a good meal with this novel. There were bits I could leave at the side of the plate without going away unsatisfied.
(Its delicious antihero should have done the same.)
Since I started reading what I think of now as ‘boys’ books’ (think crime with lots of guns, knives, explosions – perhaps killing as an alternative to ejaculation) I’ve made a habit of doing a body count as I go along. Some of the books I read are pretty hard work, and tallying up the bodies is sometimes the only thing that keeps me going. I did think, as I finished the third story out of twenty in Beech’s Bullets, Teeth and Fists 3, (two thugs, one pleading father and a couple of lovers down) that perhaps it was working up to being one of those.
It wasn’t yet an impressive body count, but the theme, I felt, was settled. This was going to be a jolly collection about killing.
I was wrong. It turned out that it wasn’t that sort of book at all.
Bullets Teeth and Fists 3 is a curious, certainly dark, sometimes quite troubling, generally intriguing collection of stories. There’s a hell of a lot of zombies (re-)killed in one of the stories, and a bit of a massacre in another, but discounting those, the body count averages out at less than one per story, and in some of the most interesting stories no one dies at all.
In fact if there’s a recurring theme in the stories – looking past the form and the darkness and the clever twists – it might be parenthood. There’s a kidnapped pregnant woman whose partner only wants the child; a man pleading for the life of his delinquent son; two mothers trying to find friends for their difficult boys, a son trying to connect with a father he never knew, a store employee shoplifting to feed her sons. That’s only the first six stories – there are some exceptions, but I could go on. Even the zombie story that brings the book to its rip-roaring conclusion is driven by a quest for parenthood. And although there are a few daughters in the mix, you might have noticed that it’s mostly sons. There’s a lot about the relationship between parents and sons, and – the most haunting story in the book for me – a tour de force about a quasi-parental relationship between a retired boxer and his reluctant protégé. The bond between parent and child is always destined for struggle. There is always, necessarily, a lurking betrayal in it: the most powerful bond, vitiated by the imperative of breaking it. It has to be so. Beech captures that.
One of the things that Jason Beech has always done well – I sometimes wonder if he notices this – is problematise masculinity. The characters in his dark crime stories are never those boring James Bond heroes, let alone cheerful ‘Smitty-the-hitman’ types (don’t ask – I read some terrible books). Beech’s characters are never uncomplicated, never very heroic. They wear their masculinity with discomfort – a skin that they couldn’t live without, a skin that fits quite differently at different stages of their life, but which never fits completely. Sometimes it’s a skin that strangles them. Violence comes into it, certainly: but the violence is never unproblematic, either for the character or the reader. It’s always violence that comes from somewhere and cuts both ways. In several of these stories, exploring the lives of sons, one is taken to where it starts.
Beech is exceptionally good at writing children, particularly boys (in his recent novel Never Go Backthere are a couple of boys who still send prickles up my spine, many months after closing the book). He neither sentimentalises them nor demonises them. His children are raw and vulnerable and feisty and frightened and sometimes wicked. His boys are on their way to becoming men, and several of the stories in this collection capture the burden of this challenge.
He also – and this is a little unusual in dark crime – has some interesting women. Some of them, being neither vamps nor victims, seem almost out of place in this genre: heck, they are almost like real women! He writes from their perspective sometimes: he even seems interested in them! (And yes, as a woman, I was interested in them too.)
For me, the above are all recommendations, but by now, the author, reading this review, is possibly livid. I’m making his book sound like something a social worker might read, or a psychologist on holiday.
I’m sorry, Jason Beech. Let me try to make amends.
This is a very dark book. The stories are violent, bitter, traced against a background of mean streets, tough lives, ruthless decisions. There is plenty of blood. Some cruelty. Some horror. Some mutilation. There are no happy endings, no easy answers, no romance, no pretty dresses, no erotica. None of the people in it, as I recall, are particularly nice and a lot of them are seriously unpleasant. I’m OK with all of this: I like dark fiction (though if anyone knows a crime writer who writes more engaging sex, feel free to send them my way…) So if dark crime is what you like reading, don’t worry, you’ll find what you’re looking for here. You won’t regret buying this book.
But if you also (even secretly, without ever wanting to be a social worker or a psychologist) like thinking about motivation, about what people really want, about how people end up doing terrible things, then you might like this book even more.
This latest novel, Sinner’s Cross, won the 2019 Best Indie Book Award for Historical Fiction.
Sinner’s Cross goes to places I didn’t want to go. It goes to places you won’t want to go either. Tough. Go there.
It’s a book about War. OK, it’s a book about World War II. No, not even that: it’s a book about a single terrible battle, in a single, pitifully unimportant, little stretch of the Western Front at the end of 1944; a book that focuses on a handful of soldiers, some American, some German. If you want to know, it’s about the Battle of the Hürtgen Forest / Schlacht im Hürtgenwald, and you can look it up on Wikipedia and reassure yourself that the battle really happened.
As a European, born in the second half of the last century, this is the war that serves as my reference point for what war is. It was a line drawn always just behind me as I grew up: the terrible time-before-time whose memories haunted all the adults. There was always the background roll-call of loss – through family albums and holidays and grown-up conversations : …he was killed in the war… it was bombed in the war…before the war wehad… this is just where… And always the same litany: it must never happen again.
So out of respect to those who fought that war, I am glad that this book has been written by a meticulous author. I have no doubt that Miles Watson has done justice to the setting, to the place, even to the details of uniforms and equipment and military procedure. I don’t want this review to undermine the terrific literary achievement, sixty-something years on, of writing so faithfully about a particular historical moment. This book has, after all, just won the Best Indie Book Award for Historical Fiction. But beyond the issue of credibility, and my personal distrust of lazier writers, I don’t think that’s what is important about it.
It’s a book about War.
It’s a book about how War works. What it does to human minds, morality, relationships, living bodies, corpses. Miles Watson dissects, unflinchingly, the essential mechanics of what war demands, day by day, as it actually happens, to the people who must fight it. To my mind, versis vertandis Miles Watson could have written this book about any war you like. The first war in recorded history was almost 5,000 years ago. He could have placed it there.
Obviously – which is not the same as ‘it hardly matters’ – War demands that soldiers live with the constant possibility of violent death. In war you will find friends and see them killed or mutilated. You may be killed yourself. If you are only terribly mutilated, you might count yourself lucky. That’s the nature of soldiering; we all know that.
Deaths in reports or telegrams may be cleaned up and made heroic, but on the battlefield it won’t be like that. Death will generally be cruel, painful. Deaths from hideous trauma; perhaps lost, alone, cold, exhausted. Perhaps in some field hospital, with only primitive attempts at remedy. Slow perhaps. Or quick, catastrophic, a body torn apart, unrecognizable. True to the reality, there is a lot death in this book, and Miles Watson doesn’t pull his punches. In the early chapters I found myself stopping quite often as he described the battle – fetching another pointless coffee to go cold beside me, skimming down the page a bit. The deaths are not muted. Unlike the cameras in a traditional war movie, he is clearly not someone who looks away.
Miles Watson does spend more time than I wanted recording the horror of his subject, at the level of fighting and the body. He is very talented. It’s all very vivid and cinematic, though none of it welcome. Several times in the early part of the book I thought “OK, I’ve got it. In a very nasty war, this was a very nasty battle. Everything is grim. Enough already! I got all this several pages back. Let’s move on.” If that had been all that Miles Watson was doing, then certainly I would have discarded this book: it’s a boys’ book, I would have said (deploying my most contemptuous line of criticism to spare myself the need to read more, filing it in my mind alongside the artistically talented but mind-numbingly boring battles-with-orcs which appeared to take up several hours in the final Lord of the Rings film).
But of course Miles Watson is doing more than that, and I could not dismiss it. He quickly dismantles the idea that these men are simply ‘soldiers’. Each one is framed, if only for a moment, and there is nothing homogeneous about them. A few of them are military professionals, but most are accidental soldiers tipped into war out of ordinary lives, each of them painfully individual, many of them manifestly unsuited for the work of war, and differently damaged by it.
Rattling around the back of the narrative, as these motley men press on through the execution of military orders towards increasingly inevitable destruction, there is always the question For what purpose?
‘Giving one’s life for one’s country’ is a metaphor that plays well among those untouched by the battlefield. From some distant place of comfort, Generals demand that the battle be won, ‘whatever the cost’ – as if somehow each of the human sacrifices were merely coins contributed to some marvellous patriotic purchase. (Let us pretend that in such a time, the value of a human life is nothing compared to the incalculable value of the victory for which it is laid down: each victory part of a wider patchwork, each patchwork part of a great and noble plan…) There are no such illusions in Sinner’s Cross.
For the most part these soldiers are following orders that they know have been translated from battle plans made far away by senior strategists with no idea of the terrain, little concept of the battlefield, and often with no evident interest in either the reason for the battle or its outcome. Is this strip of forest worth fighting over? Probably not. Can it be realistically held or taken? Probably not. Will anything much be gained if it is? Probably not. But the battle must be won, whatever it costs. In the course of following their orders, some of these soldiers achieve heroism, some don’t, but there is never the comforting promise that this is useful.
This backdrop insists on the further question So how can they do it? Miles Watson is uncompromising in his reply. With very few exceptions – and of course the exceptions are crucial to the story – what drives them is not principle or conviction or even any meaningful ‘patriotism’ but only the co-ercion of military discipline and circumstance, whether drilled into their personality by years as professional soldiers, or imposed on powerless subordinates through the imperative of obedience. Occasionally they are driven by loyalty to comprades or even friendship. Often they are merely trying to survive.Beyond the empty platitudes, none of these soldiers really knows why they are fighting. Whatever their rank or role, it is not their war.
Miles Watson tells his story from the perspective of three officers, two of them American, one of them German. All of them are flawed, but each is attempting, constrained inevitably by their different histories and abilities, to do the right thing – in circumstances not of their choosing, following orders that make no sense, obliged to make decisions without essential information, battle shocked or injured, coping with chaotic, unintended, almost random consequences.
I assume it is deliberate that the author does not, at any point, pull back and look at the wider context of the war – ask why it happened, why it was necessary, what it achieved. This silence is brave and in its own way powerful. It pre-empts any invitation to smugness as to the virtue of one side, the wickedness of the other: those narratives, however important earlier or later, had little to do with the war as it was fought. It also reflects the lived reality for the soldiers on either side – none of whom is offered the luxury of picking a side or consulted on the objectives.
Miles Watson is American, but elegant in capturing the distinctive culture of the German military. He does so without judgment and it is the similarity rather than the difference in perspective that shines from the narrative. The moment of personal heroism that most stands out – albeit compromised and complex – is by a German soldier, and his nationality does not seem to be the issue. From a European perspective this doesn’t seem problematic. In the immediate bitterness of a war one can demonise any enemy, but sixty years on there is a different perspective. Was this not basically a European civil war, a war against neighbours whom we recognised, nations whose monarchs were related, trading partners with a shared intellectual heritage? We weren’t all on the same side, we weren’t all on the right side, terrible things were done and we are sorry, but we are friends again now…
From his comments, however, both appended to the book and elsewhere, Miles Watson seems to feel that his even-handedness is a slightly risky tack. The war was won because of the American intervention (a fact not widely dwelt upon in Europe) with the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives, in a war that was not theirs. If this sacrifice – so profound, so costly and so far from home – is to be appropriately honoured, is there not an obligation to make the battles worthwhile, the allies heroic, the enemy despicable? The decency and professionalism of the German soldiers – only depicted here as soldiers, the mirror image of their American counterparts and not as evil Nazis – may indeed not play well in the USA. The involvement of the USA in other people’s wars has been contentious for generations, and certainly no less so at the current time.
Because this is a war story, and because it was a painful read, I asked myself at the end if it was really necessary. Hasn’t this story already been done to death? Haven’t all the messages been laid out before us, over and over? Do we really need another book about this? I wouldn’t have asked this question if it were a crime novel or a romance or science fiction, so the question is inherently unfair. But in any case, as I reflected, I had no doubt that we do need this book. Humans never, in any final way, learn the lessons of war. Every generation forgets. We constantly have to find new ways of keeping the old truths alive. My parents’ litany – it must never happen again – seemed meaningful at the time, but it hasn’t influenced history. National wars have never stopped, and the threat of global war is never far away. The many petty nationalisms that are currently driving countries inward and apart all make war more likely. So does climate change, whose impact on resources will probably lead to global instability. So does terrorism, population growth, increasing inequality… In the pendulum of history we are living in terrible times.
And it is always easy, against the frustrations of all the alternatives, to imagine that war would be an easy way of solving disputes or punishing recalcitrant neighbours, a shortcut for dealing with failed negotiations or responding to atrocities. We do need to remember – and we need our children to learn – that there is nothing easy in war.