So, the first month of parenthood seems to give one a lot of time to read–at least, I found it to be the case that I was able to read more this month while feeding or holding our son. That probably won’t continue to be the case. Anyhow, in April, I read:
- A Cold and Broken Hallelujah by Tyler Dilts
- The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
- Countdown City by Ben H. Winters
- The Hot Rock by Donald E. Westlake
- Bank Shot by Donald E. Westlake
- No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker
- World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters
That was more books than I expected, but some of them were brief. They’re all crime fiction as well, so I’ll be focusing on another genre in May.
First, Tyler Dilts’ book was terrible. You can read a brief summary of my frustrations with his books on last month’s post.
As I also mentioned last month, Dilts’ flaws were all the more obvious in light of Ben Winters’ wonderful trilogy.
The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble follow Henry Palace–a young, rookie detective–through a series of increasingly desperate investigations set against the backdrop of a certain, impending apocalypse. A 10km-wide asteroid is scheduled to hit the earth within a year, and throughout the series, Winters manages to balance the genre’s strict requirements of plot with a thoughtful, humanizing treatment of the tragedy as it plays out in individual lives and communities. Many times, Henry Palace takes up the question: “In the face of death, why do anything? Why not eat, drink, and be merry?” And his answer is usually unsatisfying: “It’s who I am. This is what I do. I detect. I look for answers.” Ultimately, he’s distracting himself from the coming doom (though with work rather than pleasure), and he knows it. But then, that’s probably a pretty fair assessment of how most folks live.
Between the second and third book by Winters, I read a pair of “Dortmunder novels” by Donald E. Westlake. The Hot Rock and Bank Shot were amusing caper novels from the early 1970s, and they followed John Dortmunder as he and his fellow felons attempt to pull off various crimes. They’re hardly successful criminals, and though I expected the humor would arise from their failures, I found Westlake to be a master at striking a hilarious tone through dialogue and human interactions. Aristotle once said that true comedy presents men as much worse than they really are, and Westlake understood that well.
Here’s an example that had me laughing out loud. This takes place just after Dortmunder breaks into an insane asylum with a train in order to kidnap a lawyer. (You really have to read it, I suppose.):
In his office on the opposite side of the building, Chief Administrator Doctor Panchard L. Whiskum sat at his desk rereading the piece he’d just written for the American Journal of Applied Pan-Psychotherapy, entitled “Instances of Induced Hallucination among Staff Members of Mental Hospitals,” when a white-jacketed male nurse ran in shouting, “Doctor! There’s a locomotive in the garden!”
Doctor Whiskum looked at the male nurse. He looked at his manuscript. He looked at the male nurse. He looked at his manuscript. He looked at the male nurse. He said, “Sit down, Foster. Let’s talk about it.”
Apparently they made a movie from this one, starring Robert Redford and George Segal. I’ll be looking for that soon.
And No Beast So Fierce is the tragic tale of a man who seeks to reform after prison, who nearly accomplishes it, and who has his hope crushed by a merciless parole officer. After this, he commits himself to a life of unrepentant crime, and spirals into further and further destruction. The author, Edward Bunker, wrote it as a semi-autobiographical account of his own life in crime. I don’t recommend it, but I found it to be fairly thought-provoking.
Two things stuck out: first, Bunker has a really strong grasp of language. He mixes literate, sometimes flowery prose with offensive, staccato dialogue to good effect.
Second, the fatal turning point for his protagonist was–after serving several years in prison for crimes he did commit–being sent to jail for a crime he did not commit. He felt, whether rightly or wrongly, that he would continue to be treated as a criminal regardless of whether or not he reformed, and so he jumped back into crime without apology. This was gut-wrenching to read. The protagonist (and the many who come to similar conclusions and make similar decisions) made the wrong decision. At the same time, those who the state had assigned to help him in the process of reform approached that job with such a lack of grace that–apart from the movement of the Holy Spirit–it would have been surprising for him to have come to any other conclusion.
The takeaway is pretty simple: as Christians saved by grace, as those for whom Christ died while we were still his mortal enemies, we need to diligently show grace to those who have destroyed their lives. If we treat them with a complete lack of grace, we should not be surprised that they continue to live without hope.
So, anyhow, that’s April. I am turning to short fiction in May, and starting with Tolstoy. It’s hard to go wrong with Tolstoy.