Wednesday, March 13, 2013
I haven’t blogged in a while because I’m working on a new book with a looming deadline and it has consumed most of my life lately. I’ll be able to discuss the project in detail soon. When I’m involved in a book, especially one that has a quick deadline, I tend to become somewhat useless. My brain never stops working on it, so no matter what I’m doing, there’s always a lot of distracting activity going on in my head. Sometimes I’m surprised other people can’t hear it. I have a tendency to utter baffling non sequiturs or spontaneously retreat into my head in the middle of a conversation, and I spend more time than usual asking myself why the hell I came into the kitchen, or the living room, or the hall closet. Does that ever happen to you? You get up, walk into the kitchen with a specific purpose in mind, but by the time you get there, the purpose has drifted away like a puff of smoke over St. Peter's Basilica and you’re left standing there wondering what the hell it was. This happens to me with more frequency the older I get, but when I’m deep in a book, its frequency becomes a nuisance.
I’ve also been keeping weirder hours than usual. I’ve always been a night person, but lately, I’m still in the office at four and five in the morning. Normally, I prefer to be asleep by then, but when things are rolling at the keyboard, I don’t want to stop. Having to set the clocks ahead an hour did not help this situation. I found myself still up and wide awake when Dawn left for work at a little after seven on Monday morning, watching old second-season Twilight Zone episodes and waiting for my brain to quiet down enough to sleep. The cats loved it, though. I’m usually asleep when Dawn leaves for work, which means there’s no one around to show them obeisance until I get up, and there’s nothing for them to do but nap or lick themselves. When Dawn left on Monday, I planted myself on the couch for more Rod Serling weirdness and was suddenly surrounded by a needy, purring cloud of pleasantly surprised cats. In spite of my preoccupation with the current project, I’ve been doing some other things lately. ...
I just finished reading Carl Hiaasen’s Star Island from 2010. If you’ve never read Hiaasen, I urge you to do so. The Los Angeles Times called him “an Old Testament moralist disguised as a comedian” because in his frantic and absurd Florida-based novels, cold, hard justice is unfailingly doled out to those who deserve it. But unlike the Old Testament, that justice comes in hilarious and sometimes delightfully gruesome forms and it always makes sense. His prose remains tight and punchy as he piles on layer upon layer of crazy characters and increasingly complex and berserk plot developments, so no matter how close the whole thing might seem to spinning completely out of control, Hiaasen is always solidly in charge. He’s a writer who regularly makes me burst into laughter that sometimes goes on a little longer than it should. In Star Island, for example, he writes that a character who’s just been zapped with an electric cattle prod “made a sound like a chicken going under the wheels of a truck.” Cracked me up. This is his best novel in some years and I strongly recommend it.
We have so many books in our house that deciding what to read next can be stroke-inducing. It’s like choosing a movie on Netflix streaming or off the shelf in our movie room. I probably could watch several movies in the time that I’ve spent trying to decide what to watch on Netflix, or standing in our movie room staring at the thousands of movies on the shelves. Sometimes I look at the pile of books I intend to read and wish there were some way I could read them all at once. No matter how long I live, I know that, at the end of my life, one of my biggest regrets will be not having time to read all the books I wanted to read.
I’ve been fascinated lately by the story of H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago as his hunting grounds. Dawn is currently reading The Devil in White City by Erik Larson, and I’ve recently watched a couple of documentaries on the subject. I vaguely remembered that Robert Bloch had written a novel based on the story of Holmes, but I couldn’t remember the title. I launched an expedition to see if we had the book somewhere in the house. Sure enough, I found it. The edition of American Gothic that I have was published in 1975 by Fawcett with one of those standard gothic woman-in-peril paperback covers that were so prevalent back then. I think I read the book ages ago when I was a kid, possibly before I was old enough to appreciate it, but I'm not sure, so that’s what I’m reading right now. I’ve only finished the first chapter so far, but once again, I am blown away by Bloch’s deft economy with words and his ability to evoke so much imagery with so little description.
Not since Boston Legal have I been as addicted to a TV show as I am to the Netflix original series House of Cards. This show is delicious, like some dark, rich dessert you know you shouldn’t eat but can’t resist. I was hooked immediately, in part by Kevin Spacey’s juicy performance as Congressman Francis Underwood. Spacey is always fun to watch, but here, he so clearly relishes his role that he’s even more riveting than usual. Underwood knows everybody’s secrets and where all the bodies are buried and he uses that knowledge to get what he wants, whatever that might be at the moment. He and his wife Claire, played by Robin Wright, are a couple of web-weaving spiders who are prepared to do whatever (and whomever) is necessary to achieve their goals. Underwood sometimes breaks TV's "fourth wall" by addressing us directly to let us in on his schemes and fill us in on how things really work in the halls of power. This device makes all the devious plotting even more fun.
I’m no Washington insider, of course, but from what I do know (combined with all the things I’ve always suspected), House of Cards feels like one of the more brutally accurate depictions of our government. Remember Aaron Sorkin’s turn-of-the-century White House soap The West Wing? It was a great show, but if it were put in a cage with House of Cards, it wouldn’t last two minutes. And there’d be a lot of blood. The West Wing was about morality, about doing the right thing. In House of Cards, corruption is the default position and it’s a given that just about everyone is on the take in one way or another.
A remake of a 1990 BBC miniseries based on the novel by Michael Dobbs, the show has some talented writers, like Rick Cleveland, whose credits include The West Wing, Six Feet Under, and Mad Men, and directors like David Fincher, Joel Schumacher, and Carl Franklin. My only complaint is the overuse of the phrase “the American people” — it’s used once in the first season. I firmly believe that phrase is never used in Washington, D.C., unless cameras are rolling, because what goes on there seems to have little or nothing to do with “the American people” and everything to do with the accumulation of power and the covering of asses. Netflix made all 13 episodes of the first season available for streaming on February 1 so you don’t have to wait a week for the next episode, and it’s such an addictive show that it’s extremely tempting to watch all 13 episodes back to back.
House of Cards is brilliantly entertaining, but it also made me angry. It should make everyone angry. Because in the United States, you and I are the government, we determine who takes office, and this is what we’ve allowed our government to become. We point our fingers and complain about all the other politicians, but for some reason, we all want our favorite politicians from our political party to remain in office because, for whatever reason, we think he or she isn’t like all the others and only the other political party is a problem. We really need to wake the hell up.
When I came into the office today and turned on the TV, there was nothing on but the goddamned papal conclave. It was everywhere. And it was being covered in a way that strongly suggested I should not only be interested but sitting on the edge of my seat biting my fingernails. I didn't even know who was competing, and I hadn't even watched the auditions — I haven't watched that show since they fired Paula Abdul. On the screen, a vast ocean of people had gathered to see who would be the next CEO of the world’s largest organization of child rapists and their protectors. By the time I joined the festivities, white smoke had already puffed out of the chimney, so a pope had been chosen and everyone was waiting for him to be introduced. I flipped around the channels looking for the coverage that was being hosted by Joan Rivers — I knew it had to be out there somewhere, because that was the kind of coverage this event was getting, like the biggest show business event since the O.J. trial, and I wanted to hear Joan had to say about what the new pope was wearing.
Given everything we now know about the Catholic church, it seemed to me that all those people gathered outside St. Peter’s Basilica should be angrily dismantling the place. But instead, they all cheered when it was announced that the new pope would be some old fart from Argentina. Afterward, everywhere I turned I found only post-game shows with everyone analyzing the whole thing. So I turned off the TV.
If you’re wondering why there is still smoke coming out of that chimney, it’s because Cardinal Snoop Dogg is visiting from the states.
Dawn and I rarely go the movies these days, and once a movie I want to see becomes available at home, it usually takes me a while to get to it, so I’m typically way behind when it comes to current movies. I only recently watched The Artist, which won the Best Picture Oscar more than a year ago. I’ll probably see the new winner, Argo, sometime next year.
I recently watched Drive, mostly because I was eager to see Albert Brooks’s Oscar-nominated performance as a villain. Brooks is a comedy genius who’s been making me laugh since I was a kid. He’s also a great director who started out making short films for Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. He’s written, directed, and starred in some of the funniest movies out there, like Real Life, Modern Romance, and Lost in America. I had to see what kind of villain he would play. I was blown away — not only by Brooks’s portrayal of a ruthless businessman, but by the whole movie.
It felt like I was watching a movie made in the 1970s or early 1980s. It quietly took its time setting up its story and introducing its characters, and then it kicked my teeth down my throat. I'd barely noticed Ryan Gosling until I saw this movie. He has some Steve McQueen in him, with a James Caan vibe, but they make up a style that’s all his own in Drive, where he plays a guy who says very little, but means what he says. It’s a very violent movie, but it’s the right kind of violence. It takes its violence seriously. It made me squirm and grunt and even look away briefly. Director Nicolas Winding Refn doesn’t wallow in the violence because he doesn’t seem to enjoy it, but he doesn’t shrink away from it, either. And it features another fine performance by Bryan Cranston. I’ve been a fan of his work since the daytime soap opera Loving, which I watched faithfully for a full year after seeing the pilot in 1983.
Drive is a hard-edged action thriller that has some real humanity. Sure, there are great car chases and plenty of violent action, but it is, first and foremost, a movie about people, which makes us care about the car chases and action because we’re emotionally invested.
I have not seen any of Refn’s other work yet, but he’s a director I will watch from now on. I’m especially excited about the fact that he’s remaking Logan’s Run. I’m hoping he will remain true to the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. The 1976 movie starring Michael York was a lot more bright and light-hearted than the dark, disturbing novel, which has a much better movie in it. I'm hoping Refn will make that movie.
What kind of writer would I be if I got through a pointless, rambling blog post like this without plugging my work? A whole bunch of my novels are now available as audiobooks! Meds, Live Girls, Night Life, Ravenous, Bestial, Trade Secrets, Pieces of Hate, Scissors, The Loveliest Dead, The Girl in the Basement, and Murder was My Alibi are all available now, with Dark Channel coming on March 29. You can find them all right here. For regular updates like this, keep checking my website, RayGartonOnline.com.