Saturday, May 19, 2012

Fraser Nixon: The Man Who Killed

Not a great quality video, but content is good, and The Man Who Killed is a great read. The best thing I can say about this book is I have recommended it to several people, including one person whom I urged to buy the screen rights. My most succinct review: I read the whole thing and it didn't irritate me. I read the whole thing and remained interested, aside from one minor hesitation that was more about my own impatience as a reader than the book itself. I read the whole thing and still liked the protagonist even though he killed and was a lout. I read the whole thing and found the sentences pleasing. I read a few paragraphs out loud to my partner. When a book insists on this generally it is a great book. I like the writing. I liked the tone. I like his sentences...and I'm thinking a lot about sentences. What makes a good one. And not.... 

Here's a bit:
An itch played in the palm of my hand. Money coming my way. I scratched a lucifer on the rough stone of the station to light a smoke. Ninety-seven dollars and change. Now what to do? Might ride a trolley across the island and back. Instead I remembered what I’d read in the ’paper yesterday and hied uptown to mooch in the little park beside the new Forum.
When the hour came ’round I dropped fifty cents for a seat in the stands at Atwater Park to see the ball game with Ruth and his ringers playing for both sides of two local all-star teams, a sort of Vaudeville turn. Assembling to watch, we were a good-sized crowd, it being the last time to enjoy outdoor sport before the weather turned completely. Before us was Ruth at home plate, warming up by blasting baseballs out of the park, one after another. Scampering children beyond the right field fence fought over each ball like dogs for a crust.
This wanting to read it out loud is not the usual occurrence when reading novels. Dare I say, Canadian novels, but also, in general, novels. Often I find the sentences so irritating I stop reading. I see the author's hand. I see the influences too readily (and perhaps not consciously enough as we see here). There is not enough paint on the canvas, or too much, too thick. I read one per paragraph, or page, thinking it may be a dull patch in an otherwise alive piece of work and I'll just skip along, entertaining myself (as I'm doing here), until I find a better patch and try again. I go on like this sometimes, like a loyal dog, and then, when no more interesting patch of words appears to be grazed upon, very abruptly, I give up. I have stacks and stacks of such books. This book isn't on that stack...

(I should write about a few of these interruptions. Most recently I put Solar, by Ian McEwan aside about half way through. Generally I am a fan of McEwan, a man who knows how to write. Sometimes overwrite, but generally he can turn out a good novel that is both thoughtful, but also structurally inhabitable. My version of beach reading. Not so with Solar, though it does possess a scene that is probably one of my favourite of the last few years....and I digress.)

The fact is I did not put The Man Who Killed aside, well, not for more than a brief skirmish. It was structurally sound. Unity of time and place, etc. though what irritated me momentarily was not quite getting the why of it, and feeling a lack of motivation for my narrator I became restless...this is normally when I fall out of a book...that Why am I reading this? moment. 

Reading can feel like being an inchworm. Or a dew worm. Dangling into someone's mind. If there are not enough branches, the wind comes up and swaying reveals a lot of cavernous thinking. 

I want gaps, yes, but when they are impossible to navigate, there isn't enough sugar to warrant the effort.

Or conversely, the sentences roll out like a floor plan for a new shopping mall. You might be temporarily distracted, but you know you'll come upon an HMV any moment and away you go.

In the case of The Man Who Kills. The writing itself is a character. It's chewing away at a lot of cliches of the genre, but it chews them well: "We hotfooted it to Sherbooke," "The puncture points along my arm gave a phantom throb," yes, he's a junkie too. As I say, he's chewing away at a lot of old turf:
I laughed and looked at him, blowing smoke. " Well, someone's always the scapegoat. He hiccoughed. I asked him his line of work. "Brassieres. A very uplifting profession." 
Clearly an ode to the noir (I'm a fan of noir...). Our narrator is hunched on street corners with his hat down and collar up. He has a thing for a dame. He muses:
Concentration became difficult. There weren't any women and I needed one to prove I could still love. A living carcass at the bawdy-house on the Mountain would suffice, or a two-dollar tumble on Bullion... 
It's about Montreal too. Packed full of well researched details about prohibition era Montreal (when the novel is set). The novel also sports a vast, and well thought out sense of the expanse of Canada and the ways in which the west feature in the development of Montreal at this time. Also the tentacles of crime networks, how long ago they settled in. the author is also an interesting character. It made me think expansively enough out of this world. It gets at the sort of corrupt underbelly of the city, and the strange ways in which politics seems divorced from its people...particularly in the scene that takes place in a whorehouse on rue Chambord (at Mont Royal) a building I know well, and walk by every day on my way to parc Lafontaine...

(Note that this is my blog, not a national newspaper. I am writing a review in a style that would never appear in a national newspaper. Nor would it appear in any major source for reviews, such as LRB or NYRB. Note also that I am aware of that. I am having fun writing this review in which I am being myself. Totally myself. I am also  being a little of other people who could have wrote reviews if they had not been busy writing their own books and also surviving major wars...)

There are many books and too few good reads, though what a good read is for one person is not necessarily a good read for another. (As a writer I wish I could get my book into the hands of those who would find it companionable and skip those who wouldn't...but that is a very unprofessional aside...). There are, as I say, too few good reads. This is one of them because it has everything in the right proportion among other things: great ration of movement to musing, of attention to language without being over-written. It's hard-hitting, and verges on too much detail here and there (I know it's well-researched, but like a good movie, the babies end up on the cutting room floor in sad piles....but those piles of images and/or words are not gone...they inform the remaining scenes/ trust your instinct and cut, cut, cut...).

I have a few more thoughts on this novel, but no more least not for awhile. So I leave you here. Oh, but wait.  Idea for a mind-altering essay? Read this book along side Gail Scott's Obituary. Discuss.

Full Disclosure. The author appeared on a short list with Nixon. Neither of us won. We met at the ceremony. We'll likely never cross paths again, but it would be fun if we did. Couple of losers. 

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