Welcome once again to Fiction Wednesday. Something of an ambitious schedule this week, as it’s one of those weeks where I finished up a couple of books and started a couple of new ones. Four books! Whew, it’s going to be a toughie, but
This week I offer reviews of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and James Sallis’ Drive, with a nod toward C.S Friedman’s Black Sun Rising and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness.
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…
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. That’s that; finally read through this one, after many years of delay. A book that engenders mixed emotions but, in the end, left me strangely wanting more. The characters are, for the most part, loathsome, and their misadventures almost entirely of their making, and yet I found myself wanting more. No idea what that says about either the story or me, but I think it means that this is a good book despite it all. It has some flaws, no doubt about that; Toole fell back on catchphrases far too often (though Ignatius J. Reilly’s “Oh my God” will never get old), the writing is a bit stilted in places, the plot is…bizarre, and some of the characters are paper-thin to the point of self-parody, though I suspect that’s the point. The relationship between Myrna Minkoff and Ignatius is singularly fascinating for being something of the ultimate war between damaged souls on either end of the political spectrum. It’s a fascinating study of what happens when change is pursued not for a better life or virtue but rather a continuing matter of one-upmanship, tied more to the ego than any noble goals.
If this review seems scattered, consider it a reflection of the book itself. The scattershot approach to plotting can be quite confusing; it’s not that it’s difficult to follow, but more that the reader finds him or herself questioning just where this is all leading, and whether it will make a lick of sense in the end. Why should we continue to care about the owner of a business that fired Reilly? At least one eventually pieces together that Toole intended the angry, senile old woman Trixie as some sort of living symbol of the same hubris that drives Myrna and Ignatius; that is to say, she’s a woman who is perceived as an eternal victim and project by another character, an object for ego rather than a person in her own right.
Toole does tie the loose ends of the plot together, but at times it just doesn’t feel satisfying. It’s not clear that he ever properly answered the question of “why”, except to say, perhaps, that even those of us who most desire to have no life whatsoever still have an impact in their own way. It’s a valid point, but the book tends to bash one over the head with it.
So, misgivings? Yes, and it’s a difficult book to pin down, but overall enjoyable enough to earn four stars, though it may be the first four-star book that I eventually re-read.
Drive by James Sallis. You can learn just about everything you need to know about this story through understanding why Sallis never chose to bestow the protagonist with any other moniker than “Driver”. It sounds like a gimmick at first blush, an attempt to a throwback narrative reminiscent of pulp works, and there may be something to that notion, but it’s not the whole story. One grows to suspect that Driver’s name is intertwined with the truth of Driver’s life, that of a man with no real sense of identity and purpose, a living machine of sorts. This is an important point to understand his growth through the novella.
The story unfolds in a non-linear format, but we learn that Driver came from a dysfunctional background, one in which he learned to survive by divorcing himself from everyday, “common” life. Sallis shows this through Driver’s recollections of his increasingly insane mother, a woman lived “just to the right of the life that everyone else lived”, to paraphrase. These memories are key to understanding the character, and the character is key to the plot itself.
Let’s reiterate that: without Driver’s coping mechanisms, there is no Drive, or at the very least we read a drastically different tale. So much of the plot’s action originates with Driver’s attempts to live not just outside of mainstream society but even his own life. As with Ignatius J. Reilly, Driver experiences the consequences of attempting to sidestep life and live in the shadows. As the story progresses and Driver is drawn deeper into the underworld, so too do we see hints of a personality under that machine – a man that exists almost entirely in the shadows. It’s no coincidence that his driving jobs begin to taper off as his personality (and the attendant emotions) emerge.
Even the most powerful members of the criminal underworld are crushed under Driver’s wheels as he plows forward, relentless and unstoppable, a machine driven by long-repressed emotion. This is a hard-boiled crime story, and a violent one at that, but it’s also quite a good character study and worthy of your attention.
Black Sun Rising: The Coldfire Trilogy, Book One: 1 by C.S. Friedman. Talked about this one not too long ago, so no need to belabor the point too much here. Let’s just say that writing about it as an under-recognized gem brought it back to my consciousness. I hadn’t read the book in ages, so why not go through it again to see if memory held up to scrutiny? Honestly, no, the story doesn’t quite hit me where it once did. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good, likely four-star book (not the five it once earned), but it seems I’ve advanced more as a reader than I anticipated and can see some of the wires poking out on this one. It’s not that surprising; it has been something like 15 years since the last read-through. Still, there’s a lot to like about the book, and I’ll be discussing that as I progress through it once again. Side note, though, it’s quite fascinating to see a common thread running through all of these books: that of the character who lives on the fringes of society and gets drawn into the wider world just the same. I’m not sure what that means or whether it means anything at all.
The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking) by Patrick Ness. Literally just started this one and have little to offer, so here’s the description:
“Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd’s gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.” (Amazon.com)
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!