Monday, July 07, 2008

23. 5:45 to Suburbia by Vin Packer

5:45 to Suburbia pictureI snagged this one in a box of super-cheap paperbacks at one of the larger used bookstores on Bloor street in Toronto (the one that is open quite late; the bookstore scene in Toronto is quite thriving, it seems). I got it mainly for the cover, which as you can see is quite awesome. The back cover blurb reminded me of a John D. MacDonald novel, without the violence. The lack of violence is usually a deal breaker for me in a book, but something about the set-up, with the guy commuting from the suburbs into the the city in the '50s called to me.

This book is what you'd call a "novel", you know, one of those books that isn't really about anything, where nothing actually happens, but they aren't classics by recognized names where you can at least pretend that there is some kind of "theme" to pull out of them, the kinds of books grown-ups used to read for reasons that were unfathomable to me at the time (the time being most of my life). My aunt flipped through it and aptly labelled it a "Harlequin romance for men".

The protagonist is the second-in-command of a magazine publishing house in New York. He was the right hand man to the president, but his position of power is threatened by an aggressive young newcomer who uses cheap psychology and modern methods in a bid to reshape the company and take power for himself. Another important character is an older, single, female executive (a "C-cup bitch" as the bad guy labels her) who had her day in the company but has now become an alchoholic and is in the upstart's sights as dead wood to be cleared away. She and the protagonist had also had a long-running affair.

That's the basic plot structure, but a lot of the book concentrates on the protagonist's emotional history, his humiliations in high school, his first love in college, the early years of his office affair, his relationship with the boss. It is actually a fairly thorough and believable portrait of a middle-aged, upstate New York, white guy in the '50s. The book overall was quite enjoyable. I got caught up in it and found the resolution very satisfying. The conclusion was a bit on the easy side, but done in an intricate and intelligent enough way that it wasn't until you got there that you realized it was all going to work out in a cool way. So I guess it was kind of a male Harlequin romance. I don't think I need many more of them, at least not with some good punching and shooting in between, but it kept me happily reading for a few days.

I also note that this book would have made a perfect storyline for the current hit TV series about '50s ad executives, Mad Men, an episode of which I happened to watch with the same wise aunt the week before.


Unknown said...

That's so funny - as I was reading through your review I was formulating my response as to the fact that it sounded a lot like Mad Men and then you kicked that right in there at the end.

BTW, that show is a lot of fun at least in the first season. Season 2 starts in a couple of weeks so let's hope that they aren't undone by their own success.

That Hank said...

I once picked up "Thrill Kids" by Vin Packer. It was about a small gang of boys who use jazz slang, beat up homeless guys, sexually assault women - very pulp. So I looked up this Packer guy, and come to find out it's one of Marijane Meaker (aka M E Keer)'s pen names. Very interesting history there involving the difficulties women (not to mention lesbians) had getting published back in the day.

Chris said...

The thing is, Mad Men is absolutely nothing new--in the 1950's they were doing much more advanced stuff--heavily analyzing the office culture, talking about sexuality, dealing with the things people didn't want to talk about, but still wanted to read about.

Rod Serling wrote something called "Patterns" that was an absolute sensation on television, and then became a movie. That was more about office politics, and this was more about personality conflicts.

You remember that condescending letter the daughter writes to her dad, about how "You can't understand, our generation is so much more advanced." Every single generation feels that way. Every single one. And every single one is wrong.

How is this different than Mad Men? It's better. It's more honest. It's more perceptive. It's more compassionate. The people don't have to look like TV stars.

I mean, how realistic is a show where the dowdy smart girl is played by Elisabeth Moss?

Mad Men is just series TV belatedly catching up with the 1950's, and pretending it's about the 1960's.

Call her Packer or Meaker, she was (and I'm sure still is) one hell of a writer.