You must forgive me. I’ve been on a bit of a reading roll lately, ripping through these five books in three weeks, along with a couple other more technical works I’ve been reading bits and pieces of between. Honestly, I kind of forgot all the details of the first. So shorter comments this time. I’ll try to keep up with my books better going forward.
The Thousand – Kevin Guilfoile.
A pretty solid murder-mystery set against the backdrop of a secret group called The Thousand, who believe the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras discovered the secrets of the universe through his studies 2500 years ago. I liked it but I’ve seen some people call it too similar to some of Dan Brown’s nonsense.
American Tabloid: A Novel – James Ellroy.
Not many books that push 600 pages can be called quick reads. But this one is the exception to that rule. I absolutely scorched Ellroy’s rollicking tale of the Kennedys, J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, the American Mafia, and the three (fictional) men who tied those forces together from the late 50s until JFK’s assassination. Some of that is because of Ellroy’s writing style, which sucks you in and doesn’t let go as it barrels along. Which is fine, but if you don’t attach that style to a great story, I’m not knocking out 600 pages in three days. This is a great freaking story.
Ellroy doesn’t pretend to be solving the mystery of the first Kennedy assassination, but he sure brings all the particulars in and sets up a scenario – the Mafia kills Jack to pay him back for turning his back on them after they help him win the nomination and then election in 1960, and to end brother Bobby’s efforts to gut them from the Justice Department, all with the tacit approval of Hoover – that is as believable as any other JFK theory out there.
The Devil All the Time – Donald Ray Pollock.
My brother-in-books Dave V. gave this his highest recommendation, and for good reason. It is dark, dark, dark, recalling Daniel Woodrell’s Ozark Noir but set in southern Ohio and West Virginia. It is loaded with twisted characters who commit terrible violence. And, like Woodrell, the writing is so good you forget some of the horror and pour through it.
Pollock worked as a laborer in a factory for nearly 30 years before he earned an MFA and began publishing. Knowing that makes this work even more remarkable.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: A Novel – Ben Fountain.
I had intended to include this in my Modern Warfare cycle earlier this year, but needed a break. Dave V. also gave it a lukewarm recommendation, so I didn’t mind putting it off. I think I ended up liking it more than him.
Here the focus is on an Army unit whose battle with Iraqi insurgents was caught on camera and became a point of intense pride amongst pro-war Americans during the worst days of the Iraq War. They are flown home for a "victory tour," and spend their final day before redeployment as honored guests at the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game. All while trying to negotiate the rights to make a movie of their story before they disappear in Iraq again. During their day at Texas Stadium they are wined and dined, hang out with the cheerleaders, and sit in the owner’s box.1 Throughout their time at the game, the squad sees a nation that is aware of their service and the war, but has not had their lives change dramatically because of the war. The folks they encounter are quick with platitudes about their service, but don’t seem to be making any sacrifices for the cause.
Every war story is about something more than the actual fighting. Billy Lynn is about the hollowness of pro-war patriotism in the age of sub-contractors and the “all-volunteer” army.
Bad Monkey – Carl Hiaasen.
Most Hiaasen novels are a variation on the same theme. Some half-wit Floridian gets a grand idea to make money the old fashioned way – by ripping people off – only to see their plans go ridiculously, hilariously awry. A well-meaning, if slightly off-kilter, civil servant works to bring the evil doers to justice, only to run into the mass of corruption and incompetence that is government in south Florida. And the good guy always gets the girl.2 But Hiaasen always makes the books fun and entertaining, even if you kind of know what to expect. Good for beach/plane reading.