Looking over my vintage paperback loot from the recent 32nd Annual Paperback Show, I found myself reading the first paragraphs of each book in succession just to get a taste of the writers style. They were surprisingly different. In fact, the one book that I bought on a whim (The Mark of Pak San Ri) with little expectation of the book being any good or not, actually turned out to have the best opening of all six books (see below)
I did cheat a bit with Nobody Dies in Paris as the picture makes more sense with the first two paragraphs (sue me). All of the books are interesting and I hope to read them in one big jag over some lazy weekend. McGivern is probably the most accomplished of the writers listed (justifiably so) with Odds Against Tomorrow being made into a fine movie with Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan. I'm also intrigued with the Jack Ehrlich title (Parole) as his name keeps popping up in lists by other writers and booksellers of paperback crime.
I was also attracted to the covers of the books. All of them are colorful and striking. I love the old graphic/painted design style of fifties and sixties cover design. Something I think publishers like Penguin are getting back to (thank God). Gunman's Harvest front cover is particularly interesting with a great dramatic pose and use of muted greens and golds. Even the back cover is nicely done. The front cover painting is by Mal Thompson.
Published in 1965 by Book Company of America, #10
No cover artist listed
"The taxi careened out of nowhere. The little man crossing the street with the bundleunder his arm never saw it. It caught him dead center and flung him a good twenty feet.The bundle flew from the man's arms and broke open. then the hit and run taxi, a rattling monstrosity which looked like it had been built out of a hundred junkers, sped on,screeched around a corner and was gone".
From Nobody Dies in Paris by Jerry Weil
Published by Signet, #1449. 1967
No cover artist listed
There was a girl lying on the bed midst a pile of undone sheets and blankets. She was wearing green silk pajamas that were faded by too many washings. She was smoking a cigarette."
From Stop Time by Frank Conroy
Published by Dell, #8211, 1969
Cover art by James Bama
"When we were in England I worked well. Four or five hundred words every afternoon. We lived in a small house in the countryside about twenty miles south of London. It was quiet, and because we were strangers, there were no visitors. My wife had been in bed for five months with hepatitis but stayed remarkably cheerful and spent most of her time reading. Life was good, conditions were perfect for my work"
From Gunman's Harvest by James Keene
Published by Dell, #A205, 1960
Cover artist Mal Thompson
"As ranchers went in South Texas, Jim Asher's place was small, only four thousand acres, but he liked it because he was the kind of man who held dear the things he had to work hard for. Six of his thirty-two years had gone into the place, and four years of that at a loss or barely breaking even. These last two, there had been some profit, but the scent of trouble was on the wind, a whisper in the warning venters of his mind."
From By-Line for Murder by Andrew Garve
Published by Dell, #765, 1961
Cover artist Robert Stanley
"At the wetter end of Fleet Street, close by the Crown Inn and not far from the famous Cheshire Cheese, there is a five-story, red-brick building which houses the London Morning Call, a national newspaper with a certified daily net sale of nearly two million copies. Though the paper is popular, no one has ever been known to say a good word for the building in which it is produced - a late-Victorian monstrosity of classic ugliness which an incongruous flesh-pink filling where a hole blown in the structure by a delayed-action bomb in 1941 has been repaired."
From Odds Against Tomorrow by William P. McGivern
Published by Pocket Books, #C-316, 1959
Cover artist not listed
"For what seemed like a long time he couldn't make himself cross the street and enter the hotel. he stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and frowned at the revolving doors and canopied entrance, indifferent to the nighttime crowd drifting past him, his tall body as immobile as a rock in a stream. People edged around him carefully, for there was a look of tension in the set of his shoulders, and in the appraising frown that shadowed his hard even features"
Although Lisa and I were still depressed over the lost of our much-loved store cat, Zola, we decided to stop by the 32nd Annual Paperback Collectors Show in Mission Hills on Sunday, March 27th. Run primarily by Tom Lesser, a great promoter and collector of paperbacks himself, along with Rose Idlet, owner of Black Ace Books in Los Angeles.
"The show began as part of my collecting hobby but gradually developed into
a large show which is now held for collectors and members of the public who
just want to come, walk around, maybe get some books signed and meet the
We've been going to the show for over a decade now and have always enjoyed meeting collectors and pouring over the tables and stacks of paperbacks. However, this year we just didn't feel the spirit of the show all that much and only came away with a handful of books. Nothing to do with the show (which was active and actually crowded a bit this year), it was more to do with our somber mood. Still, we got to see a lot of friends including author Christa Faust, who was excited about the show and seemed to be spending way too much money.
The Paperback Show takes up three rooms at the Mission Hills, CA., Valley Inn and Conference Center. The main room is where you enter and pay the 5 bucks to get in. Then there is a smaller room off to the side and another large room where most of the authors appear to promote and sign their books.
Most dealers display their books face up or spine up on long tables. Some dealers have additional boxes of books underneath the tables which makes for a lot of people on their knees browsing and going through endless stacks of paperbacks. The more organized sellers list books by publisher or have selections of authors works all together. And, of course, there are related paper ephemera like pulp magazines, posters and magazines.
I got a chance to see three or four of my favorite paperback people. James Madison who sells via Ebay and via mail/email, always has the best organized table with lots of good vintage paperback bargains. He's such a great guy and a top-notch paperback dealer, too.
Also got to see Lynn Munroe, who is a primarily a private dealer and historian. He has done so much for vintage paperback history and I've enjoyed every book he's ever recommended.
Ron Blum of Kayo Books always has some of the rarest and most interesting paperbacks. He had a sleaze paperback with the original painting used for the cover on display (see pix below). His San Fran store is a must see if you visit that town. The store website is pretty cool, too. Ron's wife, Maria, is always at their large dealer table while Ron's out looking for deals. It was pleasure to see her again and chat a bit. Their store is doing well, glad to say.
There is always a long list of authors signing at the Paperback Show every year. This year there was Ann Bannon, Bill Pronzini, Donald Glut, Bruce Kimmel and William F. Nolan just to name a few. I snapped a pix of Donald Glut, a very interesting author/screenwriter who in addition to his long and varied writing career is an expert on dinosaurs. I wish I had had the time to chat with him a bit.
I had a enjoyable chat with Gary Lovisi (stupid me for not taking a pix) who edits the Paperback Parade (a semi-annual mag that covers vint pap authors/history), runs Gryphon Books and is a noted hard-boiled author himself. He's done so much to bring forgotten authors to light. In the current issue of PP #77 he covers the jazz musician and paperback writer Charles Beckman, Jr.
I came away with only 6 books this year and Lisa picked up three nifty James M. Cain paperbacks. I just grabbed books that interested me. Picked up only one book by an author I've been looking for, Jack Ehrlich. Looks like a good book. I plan on posting the first paragraphs of each of the books just for fun and perhaps doing an reading of them as well for fun.
You can find out more information about the annual Paperback Show here. I took some video of the event and will edit it together in a week or so. Will post here and on Vimeo. Nothing special, just a short simple documentary of my time at the show. Here's a little snippet:
If you happen to be in Los Angeles in late March sometime, I highly recommend the annual Paperback show. Bring two 20 dollar bills with you and you'll walk out with a bag full of great vintage paperbacks, plus a lot of new friends.
Ugetsu Monogatori 1953 (picnic scene)
This hardback edition is beautifully designed featuring an inked version of an old woodblock print from, presumably an early edition of the book. Several other b&w versions of the original prints are included as accompanying illustrations for the 9 stories that comprise Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Click on the image above to see a larger version. It's from "Bewitched", one of the stories Mizoguchi adapted for his film.
And here's another woodblock illustration from "Bewitched". In this scene, you see the two vengeful spirits disappearing in the waves.
Ueda Akinari (1734-1809) is a highly regarded writer and scholar whose life ran the gamut of experience. He was born to an Osaka prostitute never knowing who his father was. Adopted by a wealthy merchant at a young age. His father cared for him and gave him a good education which set Ueda with an inquiring mind for the rest of his life. He survived a small-pox infection as a young man and felt that his parents prayers to the god of the Kashima Inari Shrine are what saved him. This, perhaps, is what fixed a live-long fascination with the supernatural and the occult.
Ueda AkinariTales of Moonlight and Rain (1776) was a departure for Ueda, who was primarily known for light comic sketches of contemporary life. His movement towards these supernatural stories reflected his increasing knowledge and love of Chinese literature which is rich in other-worldly tales. According to the translator, Kengi Hamada, who also wrote the fine "About the author" for this edition, Ueda the source material came from "ancient vintages". He states that Ueda "adapted, reshaped, and retold his stories in his own peculiar settings, representing interactions of history, mores, maxims, superstitious beliefs, and personality conflicts of an altogether different milieu".The modern reader of Tales of Moonlight and Rain might miss some of the originality of this work since it's central to Japanese literature and has influenced world literature, but is not as well know in America. We so see some of the tropes re-produced in these stories in our own horror/gothic fiction of the present day. Somehow, the social conscience of the original tales is missed in our re-telling of the story-tropes. What struck me in reading Tales of Moonlight and Rain (aside from the wonderful poetry and characterizations) is how masterfully the tales are woven into a moral and social construct. It's as if Ueda is saying "people are always going to mis-understand the supernatural; always going to be a victim because of their lack of knowledge of history". I'd also add "because of their lack of humanity". In some of these stories, for the modern reader, the spirits of the dead are often more sympathetic than the victims. The female ghost in Ugetsu (film)Ueda is a powerful writer even in this slightly antiquarian translation. Of course, I very much enjoyed the stories adapted into the Mizoguchi film, but two other stories were equally as captivating: "Demon", the story of a priest who takes on the cannibalistic demon who is haunting a local temple, and "Reunion", which is the story of the power of friendship and commitment. I believe "Reunion" also contains a self-portrait of Ueda in the character of Hasebe Samon, the scholar who loves nothing more than to read and be with his books.One of the stories ("Exiled") requires a knowledge of Japanese history to fully appreciate, but even here the writing is so striking and the situation so poetic/gothic that it hardly matters. All of the stories are sharply drawn with an eye towards a combination of the mundane and the macabre. I savored each story reading one a day at bedtime. I found that familiar shadows in my room started looking strange and disturbing after I finished a story and put the book on my bedside table.Tales of Moonlight and Rain is a remarkable collection of stories written by an imaginative and intelligent man whose love and fear of the supernatural are caught in his words like fireflies in the darkness. This collection is highly recommended as is the film adaptation.Note: Columbia University Press has a new version of Tales of Moonlight and Rain with a new translation and introduction. I haven't read this version, but will be doing so very soon. In the meantime, you can find out more about it here. There's also an attractive edition by Routledge that looks interesting. Well, there goes my paycheck again.Editions of Akinari's other works are hard to find and expensive. Also, books about him are not easy to find in English. I hope that my favorite publisher Reaktion Books will consider doing a new book on Ueda Akinari in their "critical lives" series. It certainly would be welcome by this reader.
Cover by Thomi Wroblewski
patrols always behind them, bullets thudding into flesh, bombs in Middletown bars
and theaters and restaurants. A wake of glass, blood and brains and the hot meaty
smell of entrails remind Audrey of a rabbit he had once seen dissected in biology
class. A girl had fainted. He could see her slump to the floor with a soft plop.
Shatter Day always closer..."
Before I jumped feet first into the kaleidescope of drugs, piracy, private eyes, homo-erotic sex, hangings and boys adventure pulp parodies that is Cities of the Red Night, I read a terrific short biography of Burroughs written by Phil Baker and published by a very cool British publisher Reaktion Press. Part of their "Critical Lives" series (I've read their books on Gertrude Stein and John Luis Borges...excellent books), William S. Burroughs packs as much biographical/critical information as you can in 192 pages. I like how Phil Baker writes and he, for the most part, is pretty even-handed and objective about wild boy Bill. Some parts struck me as new even though I read the huge (and probably definitive) bio of Burroughs by Ted Morgan years ago. Burroughs infatuation with Scientology, his continuous search for alternate reality/possession systems and theories (including attending a weekend seminar on "out of body" travel) and his discovery of the deep joy of living with cats late in life, all added dimensions to his personality that made reading Cities such an interesting, but frustrating experience.
Cities of the Red Night is the first book of a trilogy of novels Burroughs started writing in the early 80s (the other two books are The Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands) while living in "The Bunker" in New York which, years before, had been the locker room of the YMCA building at 222 Bowery. Windowless and without any natural light, Burroughs liked the vast space and entertained a growing coterie of punk followers given celebrity status as a Beat icon. He also became addicted to heroin again, which he found preferable to the curse of alcohol.
One fellow who showed up at the Bunker was James Grauerholz, who after a short affair with Burroughs, became his amanuensis and eventual literary executor of the Burroughs estate. One of the dedications in Cities of the Red Night is "to James Graueholz, who edited this book into present time". How much James actually kept and/or cut from this novel is anyone's guess. It's an already fragmented novel, so you can't really tell. Certainly it's not easy to write when you are stoned, although Burroughs had learned to manage his habit over many, many years of his addiction. Still, it's important to remember he wrote it in the Bunker while living the life of a cult figure and coping with renewed heroin addiction. That sex, drugs, youth, addiction and disease figure prominently is no coincidence. Burroughs was writing his life out on the pages.
There's really no way to capture the "story" of Cities of the Red Night. Ostensibly it winds three strands of story which take place in different time periods: one is a boys-adventure pirate story taking place in the 18th century where the pirates are attempting to live their lives and seek freedom based on the "articles' written by a real-life Captain Mission whose community died out; another is a modern day (80's) story of a private eye (Clem Snide, Private Asshole....Burroughs has great wit with names) who's investigating the ritual sexual murder of several boys. There are also other plot strands including the CIA and Virus B-23 which sounds very much like an AIDS-like plague, although this book was written well before AIDS became widely known. Add to the mix, Burroughs speculation on the origins of various races (red, white, yellow) and his obsessions with hanging as an erotic act, plus the many and varied uses of male semen and you have a very funny, strange, fascinating, repulsive and occasionally boring novel that is beautifully written and, well, perhaps not that well edited.Reading Cities of the Red Night is an on-again, off-again experience. I actually began another book while I was reading Cities. This was around the middle of the novel where the book is the weakest. It's also very strange that the book starts out somewhat traditionally (after an invocation to a God and the story of Captain James Mission; all unneeded in my view) and then proceeds to become more incoherent and scatological as it progresses. Eventually, you feel that Burroughs is just trying to insult you or shock you. Perhaps this worked in the 80s, but it is just boring for contemporary readers.Then the novel starts catching fire again right around the time of the big battle between ancient cities starts (whose names were created by Brion Gysin, long time influence on Burroughs). Zipping back and forth between times and various story strands, Burroughs eventually winds everything up in a great ending that had me turning the pages as quickly as I could. Something I think Burroughs would have enjoyed hearing about.The ending is a ironic and twisted and utterly perfect. I was left with an odd mix of feelings at the end of the novel, but mostly admiration for it's daring and a certain amount of sadness for several of the characters, most specifically Audrey.I recommend this novel for anyone who has already read Burroughs and want another fix. New readers may struggle unless you have some reading stamina, an open mind and a good sense of humor. Burroughs likes to fuck with the reader and sometimes it's uncomfortable reading. But maybe that's just me.On to The Place of Dead RoadsPS be sure to check out the Reaktion books site for the Burroughs bio and the rest of their excellent books. Also, the edition I read was published by Picador (UK publisher) in 1982 with a cover design by Thomi Wroblewski, who has designed other Burroughs covers in a fantastic style that perfectly matches Burroughs own. So if cover design means anything to you, get this edition. Shop at the abebooks.com site and put Picador in the publisher category for copies of the this edition you can purchase.
Here are a few recent additions to my growing vintage paperback collection. These came into the Iliad Bookshop today and caught my eye. (Note: you can click on the image for the original size which is quite large). All of my book covers are available on the Booklad "Book Covers" page.
Lancer Books 74627-075 (1970)
Pyramid Books R-1170 (1965)
Cover painting by Jack Gaughan
Lancer Books 75346-095 (1968)
Pyramid Books F-794 (1962)
Daw Books No. 206 (1976) Cover art by Deane Cate
Monarch Books 297 (1963) Cover by Ralph Brillhart
Zenith Books ZB-14 (1959)
From Mark Frauenfelder at boingboing.net: a very cool post on designer Jim Tierney's designs for Jules Verne book covers. Here's the link (and pix below):
Jim Tierney Book Covers
I love the strong contrast in colors matched with the whimsical design. Perfect for Verne's books. Unfortunately, as the blog post states they are design projects and not commercially available. You can see more of his work at his main website here:
Jim Tierney Website
I also follow a wonderful book blog on cover design called:
The Caustic Cover Critic
From this blog comes an interesting Edwardian take on HP Lovecraft designed by Travis Louie.
I recorded a very short piece from Grace Krilanovich's wonderful novel The Orange Eats Creeps reviewed here at Bookland. Published last year by Two Dollar Radio, I urge you to buy this very unusual and imaginative novel.
I hope my reading will give you a taste of the novel's style. Definitely check out the novel's page at the publisher's site.
Short Reading of "The Orange Eats Creeps" by Grace Krilanovich by rickygrove
The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction, cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender.Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction............................................................... from Iain-Banks.net
Iain Banks first novel Wasp Factory knocked me out when it first came out in 1984. Dark, poetic and sharp-edged prose made the book so powerful it lingered for years (literally). Read it and you'll see what I mean as it's one of my favorite first novels. Hell, it's one of my favorite novels.What I can't explain is why I never read any more of his novels. Certainly, I had many of them in my library and even on my bedside table, but just never started them. Even when Mr. Banks began a series of SciFi novels that received thundering reviews, I still waited and waited. "What for", I ask myself. Just too many other books that demanded my attention.Well, all of that's changed with Consider Phlebas, the first of Mr. Banks "Culture" novels. Determined to get back to reading Mr. Banks, I spent last week enthralled by his imagination and ideas. Described as "space opera" in the blurbs on the back of the book (it's not), this intelligent novel follow an unusual man, Horza, who comes from a race of "changers" and can adjust their bodies to look like other races. He is a perfect spy and the bulk of the novel follows his efforts to retrieve a "Mind" (sentient AI) who has isolated itself on a "Planet of the Dead" (world where all life has been destroyed due to war).
Horza is in competition with Balveda, an agent from the Culture, a race dominated by technology and artificial life. There is a strange respect and attraction between these two diametrically opposed characters. The story that Mr. Banks weaves with them is the real heart of the book. The climax of the story is the last line of the book (sans the brilliant Appendices).The book is filled with striking visual imagery and fascinating (and at times horrifying) situations that keep you glued to page. It's one of those books where everything goes silent around you and your mind is filled with the world of the book. Mr. Banks take on traditional SciFi themes like war, race and nationalism is fresh and, at times, moving.This is first of the Culture novels. I've got all of the others coming in the mail. I'll be writing more as I progress in the series.Be sure to check out Iain-Banks.net for lots of interesting info. Here is the first part of a recent interview with Iain Banks (it's a radio interview)
The title: working title was "Slutty Teenage Hobo Vampire Junkies", but as the author began to see the book was "transcending it's Roger Corman-esque origins" a song from a forgotten lo-fi band named Unicornface popped up called "Woof Eats Creeps" then a friend suggest "Sun Eats Creeps" which the author thought too obvious and riffed to "The Orange Eats Creeps".
"When a sleeping cats paws twitch it's dreaming of running away from you
You know, these are weird times, marked by a non-specific dread that rests
in nights of brown fog at the center of my bones. Everything in life is determineda machine fueled by the tones emitted by digging a fresh grave. Horrific eventsare set in motion in this occupied territory, activated by movement, but I can'tstop moving."-page 105
The author: according to the wikipedia entry on Grace Krilanovich she "moved to the Los Angeles area from Santa Cruz, California in 2003. She attended San Francisco State University for her undergraduate studies, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies. She then went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Writing at the California Institute of the Arts, where she graduated in 2005. She currently works at The Los Angeles Times"
"These were antique thoughts, marked by a non-specific dread...My first impulse
is to go to sleep. My second impulse is to have sex with it and my third impulse
is to eat it. That's how my mind works. But the three are not quite as fixed as
you might think; they've been boiled down, chiseled out, and refined,
painstakingly handcrafted over three centuries resting at the bottomof my brain. The three are like the finest three-line poem chiseled in gold at thefoot of a roaring majestic waterfall and I'm sure as hell not giving them up, notfor the world. I need them."-page 131
The publisher: Two Dollar Radio is an indie publishing house established in 2005 by Brian Obenauf, Eliza Jane Wood, Eric Obenauf and Emil Pullen to "
The writing of this book wouldn't have been possible without the antics, abandon and illegal proclivities of bands I hold near and dear spurring me along in my artistic endeavors, safe in the knowledge that somebody out there was pushing the limits, truly alive in their mind, even though they may have been out of step with the rest of world."
She also tried the Burroughs "cut-up" method and used her own set of "cards" which she threw to create unusual combinations of setting, character and afflictions. Here's a nifty vid of here discussing some of here writing methods in OEC:
Watch live video from Two Dollar Radio on Justin.tv
My thoughts: a quote from Mortimer Adler came back to me as I was reading deeply in this truly strange and wonderful novel; "In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but how many can get through to you". How many readers will allow Orange Eats Creeps to get through to them? Most of us read every book the same way: for entertainment and escape. You can't read OEC this way as you'll end up like this Amazon reader: "What do I wish I had known before I purchased this? This novel is all junkie and no vampire (really I couldn't tell you exactly what the main character was because the entire story is incoherent)".
Serious readers will recognize that Grace is channeling a tradition of writing that goes all the way back to Baudelaire, Celine, Ginsburg and Burroughs. It's a literature whose goal is to "connect" (as Forester puts it). So what is Grace connecting with? It's the idea that language creates it's own reality and that words can be combined in ways that are unique and strange; that consciousness can be imitated with words and that we do this every day in our own lives.
In a sense, OEC approaches the quality of music, an art form which can be completely abstract and still move the listener with sound/tone combinations. Grace did what creative artists do; she combined everything she could remember, think and feel into a form and then shape the form to her conceits. In this case it's words combined in familiar/unfamiliar wasy to create a mind/world. It's also to kick the readers ass a bit like every good punk rock band does. You just have to let go to get it.
Perhaps this song "With Teeth" by the Melvins (part of her own "set list" for OEC) shows better than words what Grace Krilanovich is up to:
So let's cut to the chase: most people aren't going to get this book and that's fine because there are sevenbazzilion writers out there crankin out the copies of copies of popular sentimental melodrama that will keep their readers happy. And, hell, I read some of that shit, too. But Orange Eats Creeps is the real deal. It's unapologetic, uncommercial and like it's main character, it doesn't give a fuck about you except to suck your blood. Men don't come off well in this world because there are pretty much all bastards who think only with their cocks. A lot of women don't come off well in this book as the House Mom character is smothering and distant, Kim is lost and our young female hobo vampire carries the bones of some dead animal in her apron to jiggle for guidance. Ok, maybe the women at least have a shred of conscience. The whole world is filled with...well...creeps.
Perfect? No. The book bogs down in the middle and you have to tough it through a bit. Perhaps it could have been shorter, but who the hell knows. Borrows too much from Burrough? Probably not. Let me read it 5 more times after reading Naked Lunch and I'll tell you then. Posterity will love this book like a lost kissing cousin. I sure as hell loved it and will read it again and again.
You should too.
Notes: Two Dollar Radio has a great deal on buying their books. If you buy 5 of them (your choice) it will cost you $30 which is a big savings over the normal price of $12 a piece. And there's some great, great stuff in their catalog. Definitely head over to the site and have a look.
As you can imagine, OEC has created quite a stir and there are lots of reviews and discussions all over the net on the book. Most of them better than my poor efforts here. Here is a short list:
-excellent interview with Grace at the Twodollarradio blog
-Grace's music playlist
-best review is by Tobias Carroll at Vol 1 Brooklyn
-wonderful conversation between Richard Thomas and Blake Butler that covers just about every angle you can think of about the book/author.
-Orange Eats Creeps page at Two Dollar Radio where you can read some of the book.
-Steve Erickson's introduction is a bit over the top, but right on in several points. Give it a read here:
"I believe all of THE TOY COLLECTOR is emotionally true, however only part of it is based on my real life or people I know. It is, in essence, a work of fiction"
The Toy Collector is the first novel by the well-known screenwriter and filmmaker James Gunn. Published in 2000 by Bloomsbury, US, it's become quite a cult novel and is currently available new trade paperback (with a crappy "oh, I'll get it done in an afternoon" cover/ see bottom image) and at good used bookstores in hard-back (with a much better cover above).
I've been flirting with this book for years. Initially drawn to the cover art, I had built up an idea of what the book was about long before I cracked the covers and dug in. Boy, was I way off. Thinking I was sitting down to the story of the toy-collecting racket in new your, what I got was much, much better. Didn't take more than the first 10 pages to kick my preconceptions out the window. Instead of a cute, funny little novel like I imagined, what I got was a blistering portrait of lost childhood, desperate addiction to toys/sex and masochism set alternatively in the 70's and in present day New York City.
The narrator (called "James" in the book) is selling pharma stolen from the hospital where he works as an orderly. His life is desperate, funny and violent. He is suffering from some sort of trauma and collecting toys (sp. 70's toys and toy in particular) is one way he has of covering over the pain. Remembering is another way of coping. Half of the novel is a portrait of the author as a young boy with his brother, Tar, his non-existent and hapless father/mother, and a close circle of misfit friends whom he comes to love. In fact, it's these friends that give him his only true sense of love and belonging. One friend in particular, Gary, is the focus of the small group because he just can't seem to fend for himself at school and is troubled with fears and phobias. It's Gary who the narrator truly loves and protects.
But a terrible tragedy occurs in the past. One that cripples the narrator and all of his friends. An event so violent and tragic that they are all scarred for life. This chapter in particular has some of the finest writing I've read in years. My hands were literally trembling as I read it. And I couldn't come back to the book for a day or two; it's that powerful.
The book is darkly comic. Jet black, in fact. The early scenes of the two brothers and their friends playing with their toys is told realistically, like the adventures are actually happening. The fate of their heroes is often sadistic and horrifying (as are their enemies). The "Bob and Oscar" section early in the book is laugh-aloud funny and sick at the same time. I found myself nodding in agreement with the playing, like I'd been there myself. Any boy who played with toys will pick up on the mix of humor and cruelty. It's perfect writing with a fucking amazing amount of heart.
Eventually, fate brings a woman to James in New York. Her name is Evelyn and they seem to have a relation ship that might just save James's ass. Nope. This is a novel with no mercy. James hates himself too deeply and although he loves this woman, he fucks her over good, too (in more ways than one). Some of the sex scenes in the book are so personal and intense that it's hard to read them through. It's no pornography because the descriptions are particularly arousing, but because the sex is obviously so desperate and needful. Sex breaks through James's barriers to his wounded soul which is why the scenes are so necessary (and so passionately remembered/written by the author).
In the present, James visits his folks for the first time and takes Evelyn with him (they have hot sex during the Christmas party in his old room) and everything falls apart again. Despite trying not to drink, James needs alcohol and meds too much. After getting the shit kicked out of him by his sober and successful brother, he leaves everything to go home and buy toys and sell drugs. Everyone around James, including his street friends and roommate Bill, all see what he's doing to himself and they care for him anyway (well, most of them). Only James can't put it together.
Finally, in a scene that plays like the opening of Apocalypse, Now and Little Miss Sunshine, James comes face to face with one specific toy in his past. But it doesn't work; the magic is gone. And James has his dark night of the soul, but at great cost to his body and mind. No happy ending, but a real ending. Enduring, like in Beckett. "I can't go on, I'll go on".
The writing is remarkable. The pain and passion put into this book is off the scale. This is a no-holds-barred novel that won't let go of you. Especially if you had similar friends or events in your childhood (as I did). I deeply admire this book and wish the author would write another novel soon (it's been 10 years).
I'll be posting a short reading from one of the chapters in the next day or so. Highly, highly recommended.
NOTE: For more info on James Gunn's film career check his IMDB entry and his own personal website.
"Hold it. If I dream about someone, ask that person a question, I won't know what that person has said until he has said it. Yet that someone is a product of my brain, a brief and momentary extension of it. It happens almost every day, or rather every night - in dreams, when the self splits up, divides, and begets pseudopersonalities. These dream persononalities can be invented, or taken from real life. don't we sometimes dream of the dead? Carry on conversations with them?"
........from "Terminus" story
I've come late to Stanislaw Lem. Although I read Solaris in my youth the novel is overshadowed by the great Tarkovsky film adaptation. Now, after reading Tales of Pirx the Pilot and The Invincible I'm glad that I waited. Lem, a polish writer who lived a full and eventful life, writes the kind of science-fiction adults want to read. And although he draws a good deal from the hard-sci-fi tradition (one that emphasizes the science in science-fiction), he has such a talent for writing about important ideas without losing the fact that people, their desires, dreams, fears and mistakes, are at the center of science. Too often sci-fi writer forget this and end up writing page after page of their science essay on "hyper-realities" or "nano technology". The technology is interesting, yes, but it's questions about the motives behind creating the tech and how it affects people that are more important. And that's what Stanislaw Lem does so well: he wants to try to work out how people and technology affect each other, especially technology and/or beings that are alien.
Tales of Pirx the Pilot (check out the beautiful Turkish cover for the book above) was written in the middle of his career in 1973. Lem grew up in Poland and went through the Soviet takeover there. Much of his notion of government and bureaucracy comes from this experience. The character of Pirx, a loner with no family or sweetheart is a kind of everyman fool thrust into strange situations that are highly stressful. He has to use common sense to solve problems that others, because of their rigid scientific perspectives, fail at. Pirx is also a very funny character one that I think is probably autobiographical.
Tales of Pirx the Pilot consists of 5 novelettes (slightly longer that a short stories) which start with Pirx in the Flight Academy and end with him taking over command of his own ship. All of the stories are interesting, but the final story is a real work of art. "Terminus" shows Pirx dealing with an obsolete ship which has a very ancient robot taking care of the atomic reactor. Lem's depictions of the ship and it's history (and Pirx's reaction to them) are masterful. But it's the robot (named Terminus) and how Pirx interacts with him that are remarkable. Here is a short reading of one of the Pirx/Terminus scenes from the book.
Audio Book selection "Terminus" by Stanislaw Lem by rickygrove
I thoroughly enjoyed Tales of Pirx the Pilot and have Lem's More Tales of Pirx the Pilot on order so I can read "Ananke". I also urge you to go to the Stanislaw Lem official website to learn more about this remarkable author.
Quick note on The Invincible: this novel was an exciting account of a rescue mission to another planet where the rescuers discover that their is an alien presence that exists as an extreme threat to them. Lem handles this fairly worn theme with panache. Again, his emphasis on character leads to some remarkably poetic moments. This is an engrossing novel, but not quite up to the depth of the Pirx stories. Still, highly recommended. Love the Czech cover for this enjoyable novel.
(covers and quote taken from Stanislaw Lem's official site: http://english.lem.pl