Welcome once again to Fiction Wednesday, the weekly book blog where the reviews are made up and the points don’t matter. I started this ongoing series as an extension of – and companion piece to – my Goodreads challenge for 2013. Each year I challenge myself to read just a little bit more, and this year I’ve bumped my challenge to a robust 62 books. I’m currently sitting at 15, which Goodreads tells me is 6 books ahead of schedule, so I’ll take that as a good sign and hope that I can keep up the pace. This blog certainly keeps me honest, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts.
This week I have my review of Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs, which ultimately turned out a bit disappointing (I’ll get to that). I’ll also talk about A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and give an early take on James Sallis’ Drive, which of course inspired the Ryan Gosling-driven flick.
Standard disclaimer: this is just one writer’s opinion. This is meant to examine the books not just for how much they sucked me in but also the nuts and bolts, the ‘engine’ of the stories, if you will. It’s just my way of getting as much out of these stories as I possibly can, and sharing those findings with the world. Now on with the show…
Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs.
So close. So, so close. The elements all seemed fantastic: ancient gods, secret wars, evil moving through the airwaves in the form of forbidden music, and even a noir protagonist sent on a doomed mission into the backwoods of Arkansas.
Somehow it all just…fell apart. It almost feels as if the second half of the novel has nothing to do with the first half, as if the author had two separate stories that didn’t add up to an entire novel on their own and somehow fused them together. Let’s pick through the wreckage and figure out what went wrong.
I’ll start with the premise. The owner of Helios Records hires “Bull” Ingram to track down Early Freeman, the company’s A&R man who has gone missing in the backwoods of Arkansas. The owner also asks Bull to find the source of a mysterious radio station that has been broadcasting R&B music that can drive people to violence, in hopes of signing their artist, John Hastur. Bull takes on the job and heads into Arkansas with a wad of money and a handful of leads. Promising stuff so far, and it gets more promising as he discovers that Hastur’s music has the ability to raise the dead and potentially do even more fantastic things. There’s also a side-story about a woman named Sarah and her daughter Franny moving back to Sarah’s home town to escape an abusive husband and father, but early on it’s not quite clear how these pieces fit together.
Things begin to go off the rails when Bull finds an invite to a John Hastur performance and talks a man into both driving him there and acting as a sort of de facto bodyguard. During the performance, Bull learns what happened to Early Freeman and finds out about Hastur, all at one go.
This is where I think Jacobs ran into trouble: he pulled both of his aces at the same time, and it left him with little to drive the second half of the book.
And the second half…well, I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s driven by a series of coincidences (or. are. they.) that pull Bull and Sarah together. We never again hear from the record company owner, and as far as I can tell, Bull never reports back to him despite, you know, FINDING EARLY FREEMAN. What follows is an exercise in handwaving as we learn about some ancient texts that may relate to John Hastur’s ability (though John Hastur himself is quickly transformed into someone else entirely, something that never quite satisfied me). Ancient gods, profanities and blasphemies, and possession all come and go. I can’t go into too many details without spoiling it, but the back half gets more and more confusing the longer that I think about it.
Instead of spoiling it, I’ll just tell you what you can NOT expect to find here: 1. A resolution to the Helio Records plotline; it’s hinted that maybe the owner wanted the power for himself, but that goes nowhere. 2. A coherent resolution to Bull’s plotline. In the end, he makes a choice that feels kind of cheap because it’s based on about 20 pages worth of events that are supposed to change him. I didn’t buy it. 3. A satisfying villain. The target kept shifting so much that as soon as you get invested in one villain it becomes another, then pulls a but-wait-there’s-more on you.
I gave it three stars because it does have a lot of promise, and the first half of the book is interesting. If you’re a fan of this genre, it might be worth looking into if you’re prepared for frustration and missed opportunity; I’d say anyone else should probably stay away, lest the abyss stare back into you. Oh, and the Onion AV Club wrote up a great review on it that pretty much concurs with my analysis. Check it out here.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
Strange thing about this book: I hate almost every character in it and yet I’m compelled to keep going with it. It’s fascinating, because the reviews that I’ve read, even the folks who one-starred the book, all seem to agree that the characters are mostly hateful people, but that’s the thing: they’re supposed to be that way. It’s part of what makes the book so damned amusing. I’m sure I’m treading on well-worn territory here, and it’s why I’ve hesitated to read some “classics” as part of this challenge, but I’ve meaning to read this book since the mid-90s and figured there would never be a better time than right now. I’m a little more than halfway in, and while there are some elements that I don’t like (if Burma Jones says “whoa!” or “woo-ee” one more time I may murder someone), but I’ve had quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. The one truly offensive thing has been Toole’s portrayal of LGBT folk – the men are all flaming queens and the women brawling, crew-cut butch types – but I chalk that up to being a product of the time. At least the African American people in this book aren’t TOO stereotypical, though there are a few cringe-worthy moments.
Drive by James Sallis. Just started this one, but it looks to be a quick read. I loved the movie and pretty much purchased the novella as the credits rolled. I wonder if the story itself will end up being my cup of tea; I’ve enjoyed plenty of other neo-noir stories and thrillers, but I haven’t made a habit of reading them in the recent past. We’ll see, though. So far the writing is sharp, but I do see some issues that could have used revision.
And that’s all for this week. As always, I’m interested in hearing what you’re reading these days; I’ve found a few additions to my TBR pile from these posts. Let me know in the comments!