Book of the Month: California Fire & Life

Cover of Don Winslow's California Fire and Life

I vaguely recall a poster for Natural Born Killers that looked almost identical to this

Bloody Predictable Or What?

That Don Winslow, what a bastard. Just when you thought you were free of him, along comes another brutally compelling book to sink you for a day. I don’t think you really appreciate compulsion in an author until you’ve got a Winslow in your hands. They’re like a race. Once you start you’re committed. You just have to continue reading, even if it’s 4am, even if your eyes start feeling like they’re being grated, no make that have already been grated and you’re using just the stubby end bits of your optic nerve to tear meaning from the pages. It’s that satisfyingly painful.

Knowledge Is Power

Steve McQueen once said, ‘I don’t want to be the guy who learns, I want to be the guy who knows’, and Winslow obviously knows. Everything he writes is suffused with knowledge, places, people, cultures. Once you start reading you start believing. Not just that he’s been there, but that you are there. I once had a friend who was fixated on Lovejoy books (crap antique dealer as mystery solver drivel) because they came away from each book having learned something. Coming away from one of Winslow’s you don’t feel like you’ve learned something as much as been there and experienced it for real, that it’s as much a part of your life as it is part of his characters’. Whether it’s the surf culture of the West Coast, the Mexamerican drug cartels or the mysteries of the insurance investigation process, you come out of a Winslow feeling like you’ve been there, done that, got the expertise.

Unlike so many crime writers Winslow doesn’t pack his pages full of action, they’re not frantic races around seemingly arbitrary destination points. Neither are they filled with ever more bloodthirsty victim porn, with crimes ramped up to ridiculously sadistic levels to satisfy readers’ lusts. Instead there’s background, depth and character. Winslow’s heroes are true American heroes. They are the men who know, whose knowledge and commitment places them to the side of society, half outcasts through their own expertise.

California Fire & Life burns with arson, murder, revenge and a justifiable contempt for property developers. It’s a tale of playing and being played, of international crime and local intrigue and down at the end a smoldering passion. It will light you up in a second.

Over on the East Coast, David Simon pulled together some of the best modern American crime writers, men like George Pelecanos, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and Ed Burns, and came up with The Wire, simply the most real TV show I’ve seen. If he was doing a West Coast version his first stop would be Don Winslow.

Book of the Month: The Power of the Dog

Cover of Don Winslow's The Power Of The Dog

Crazy title, great book

In a world full of drugs, where obsessed readers gorge down on Lee Child, Michael Connolly and James Ellroy like they were amphetamine coated candy pops, discovering Don Winslow is like getting your first sniff of crack cocaine. It’s fast, it’s all encompassing and when you’ve finished voraciously cramming The Power of the Dog down you just can’t wait to get another hit.

This is a two and a half day book, which isn’t to say it’s short, just that it’s compulsive. You’re totally hooked on Don’s decades long epic on the rise and fall of the Mexican cocaine cartels and the attempts of the authorities to put them out of business. There’s corruption a-plenty along with lashings of claret and more containerloads of coke than you can shake a nosespoon at.

But it’s not the subject matter that’s so compelling as much as it is Don’s ability to craft real, believable characters, each of whom speaks with a wholly unique, identifiable voice. You sympathise with each of them, whatever their status, and their hopes, ambitions and fears all seem thoroughly real. In this way it reminds me of Ellroy’s LA Confidential, a grand, sprawling behemoth of a novel that interlinks story after story into a powerful narrative that evokes both time and place and gives you a sense of really being there in amongst the action.

This is one of those books you just devour and, having finally consumed it, immediately want to  begin again if only to recapture the sensation of reading it once more. Depending on your character, you’re torn between immediately lending it out to your very best friend so they can share the experience and never mentioning it to anyone and hoarding it all for yourself.  I’m of the former disposition and have already lent it and by god I’m almost regretting it. There’s only one thing left to do and that’s to get stuck into all Don’s other work. Like crack, one dose is not enough.

Aunt Julia and the Surreal Nature of The West Wing

There’s a moment in Mario Vargas Llosa’s excellent Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter where your whole notion of the boundaries between the world, the book and its various fictional realities starts to go to pieces. Where the Scriptwriter’s various soap operas, which interspersed the main story of the novel, start to intertwine and characters start appearing, albeit peripherally, in the wrong stories. It’s as if the cement certainties you had when you started reading have been dissolved and are rotting away, leaving bits and pieces of the various spaces the characters (and you) occupy to bleed into one another.

Terrifyingly, these are the people who you want to run the government rather than the people who do

I mention this only because I’ve been getting into The West Wing – all seven series of it – and it’s been an interesting ride. It seems to start off almost as if the original pitch meeting was “it’s like Friends, but in the White House and with fewer laughs” only for it to develop into a Runyonesque political commentary. So there’s the spunky, irritating John Hughes chick who’s a little bit kooky, but somehow endearing and lovable (not lovable or interesting enough to make it to Season 2 though); the President who initially comes off like a cartoon Dubya Bush, but ends up redefining American politics, getting things done and achieving stellar approval points; the various policy makers who amazingly also manage to get things done and who seem to shed their initial personality quirks (like inadvertently sleeping with hookers for instance) as the seasons progress and somehow manage to make the country better; the ‘comedy couple’ who initially start as a parody of husband and wife and end up representing the humanity of the series; and the Press Secretary, who starts off all spin and flippancy, but ends up Chief of Staff, thereby defining the show’s move from spin parody to political seriousness.  By the end of Series 7 you’re left with a profound sense of the importance and gravitas of American politics. So much so that the entire final season, way the best of the bunch, is devoted to the campaign to replace the President. And it’s so enthralling, that you’re happy that one entire episode is a televised debate between the two candidates and that two are devoted to the election day itself.

But the moment that cracked it for me, the moment I saw through the glass and into the disturbing, reality blurring space beyond, was when characters from The Wire began to bleed through into individual or multiple episodes. Cedric Daniels, in a moment of pre-Wire policing, is a detective who is supervising a death scene. His wife (or possibly ex-wife by then) Marla is apparently moonlighting as the principal of an elementary school (could this explain her frigid relationship with Cedric during the early series of The Wire?). Assistant State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman obviously cut her teeth working for the Republicans up on the Hill, doing deals to secure appropriate legislation and judicial appointments prior to banging McNulty and then Cedric Daniels. Maurice Levy puts in a pre-corrupt lawyer appearance as a harassed White House adviser (obviously showing that eventually the profits of crime do entice individuals away from the honest legal system). Not even the Barksdales are immune from a little moonlighting from the running of their drugs empire. In case anyone was concerned about Brianna’s exact role in the Barksdale’s ever-expanding criminal empire and what she spent her time doing, it’s clear that she spends most of her non-crime minutes organising secret polling for political parties – the political equivalent of  highly deniable black ops missions.  I was relieved that the likes of McNulty, Bunk, Snoop and Omar didn’t make appearances otherwise I really would have been confused (or the plot of The West Wing would have taken a seriously violent turn).

It’s not that the appearance of characters from one series in another is that disturbing, after all Marcie from Alias and Commander Adama from Battlestar Galactica also make appearances (and we don’t really think it is Commander Adama), it’s just that you could believe that the rarefied world of Washingtonian politics and the crack-fuelled underbelly of Balitmorian law enforcement could collide in just such a surreal way. After all, if Major ‘Bunny’ Colvin can almost get a job running the security at Johns Hopkins (before incinerating his career prospects by attempting to legalise drugs) and President Bartlett’s daughter Ellie can study there, it’s not a great leap of faith to imagine that the two narratives could somehow link and intertwine.

Fear of Music

Fear of Music Book coverI’ve been frantically reviewing and relistening to loads of old albums since Christmas. Seeking out tracks like Mongoloid by Devo (the first song my first band ever attempted to learn – with catastrophic effects), the first Dexy’s Midnight Runners album, classic Kraftwerk and a pile of others. Why? You ask. Because of this outstanding doorstop of a book.

When I originally saw it I just thought it was a useful sort of anthology present thing that at £4 was an easy win, but on reading it I just got sucked in. Not just because Mulholland’s initial choices for albums pretty much matched my musical indoctrination, but because the writing was just so damn good. It not only gives you a sense of what each album’s like, but the conditions under which it was made and puts it into some sort of historical and musical context. That way I’m genuinely intrigued about albums I really haven’t been bothered with, like the Dexy’s Midnight Runners one or Kate Bush’s The Dreaming.

It’s not simply this, but it’s the appearance of some pretty obscure records that I can remember listening to a lot while I was growing up, like the first Roxy Music Greatest Hits album or Christina’s version of ‘Is That All That There Is’, which in the aftermath of punk were something of a revelation for me. It’s a selection that gives you that strange internal wink that says, ‘Yes I was there and even though only 3 people liked this record, it was one of my favourites’, the shared secrecy of musical obsession. And it’s Mulholland’s understanding of the year zero effect of punk on people’s musical tastes that is so impressive. His thesis that punk was about the elevation of the guitar and the intoxication of the live experience and that the mid 80’s saw a corresponding elevation of bass and rhythm hadn’t occurred to me, but seems patently obvious once you consider it.

The great thing about books like this is that you can see trends slowly appearing through time as punk collapses, pop emerges and rap and dance music evolve. It reminds us in retrospect what a divergent time the mid 80’s was, with UK indie music going all jangly and arpeggio, rap just beginning to find its feet and American guitar music preparing the way for the grunge revolution of Nirvana.

As with all these books, your own journey and the author’s start to diverge as Mulholland gets engrossed by rap. As a result he misses out of a pile of my personal favourites, The Young Gods album, Underworld’s ‘Dubnobasswithmyheadman’, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, The Stone Roses’ debut and others, classics all and certainly head and shoulders above some of the later inclusions.

Even so, as a whole Fear of Music does the most incredible thing, it makes you genuinely excited by music and, at a time when the shuffle button of your mp3 player has competely changed the way we listen to music, it makes the concept of the album as a coherent entity, rather than as a series of discrete tracks, viable again.