Thursday, September 29, 2011

52. Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins

Not good.  Probably the biggest disappointment since I've started doing this blog.  It's not like I had super high expectations, but I like football and I like the early '70s and the combination of the two is a great little slice of American culture that I've always enjoyed (Hunter S. Thompson talking with Nixon about football on the campaign trail is a great example of this).  I guess Dan Jenkins is a well-respected sports writer and Semi-Tough was quite successful, critically and commercially.  But it sucked.  I don't even really get what the point of it is.  About three-quarters of the book is the narrator, the star running back for the New York Giants, saying all this stuff that is supposed to be shocking: casual racism, sexism and drug use.  Whoopee-doo.  Maybe for people in the '70s this was some titillating, shocking revelation.  Even if it was, do we need a hundred pages of it, and always in this self-congratulatory tone?  The whole thing is narrated before a Super Bowl, though the game itself is an afterthought.  The climactic scene seems to be a big party the night before the big game where two women strip naked in front of the party.  Whoop-dee doo.  Even lamer, the whole thing ends with a weak romance.  There was just nothing here and it was boring.

I had kind of wanted to see the movie, but it sounds even stupider.

If you want to read a half-decent book about football in the '70s, go read Jack Tatum's biography "They Call me Assassin."

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

51. Hell to Pay by William R. Cox

We went up to the Laurentians for an overnight stay at a lakeside hotel with some friends during the Labour Day weekend and during a lunch stop at tourist town St-Agathe, wouldn't you know it, there was an outdoor book sale!  Most of the tables were french or local authors or recent best seller paperbacks in english, except one where the guy had an amazing collection of paperback pulps from the 50s for reasonable prices!  Unfortunately, I felt some social pressure and we hadn't eaten lunch, so I ended up only getting three and regretting not scooping up the others when I had the chance.  Turned out the seller had once own a bookstore and this was left over from his remaining inventory.  He had inherited most of the inventory and didn't know much about old crime paperbacks. The previous owner had, but also had some ridiculously marked-up prices (this one for instance, had $26 pencilled in the inside front cover).  I was actually reading another book, but Hell to Pay starts off so well that I couldn't put it down.

It's the story of  a succesful Manhattan gambler, Tom Kincaid, who is connected to the Syndicate and underworld but manages to maintain his autonomy (to everyone's displeasure).  He keeps the balance until a brief altercation at a dice game with a young punk suddenly puts him in the middle of what appears to be a generational gang war between the Syndicate and these crazy, hopped-up greasers who seem to like violence for its own sake.  The plot is much more complicated than that, with lots of twists and turns.  Right up until the end, there is a mystery as well, which is why the protagonist is so much in the middle of everything.  The reveal was pretty cool and definitely surprising, but that part of the story was not super convincing and it came out a bit soft in the end.

What was convincing and really well done, was the milieu.  This is Richard Stark's syndicate, with big, older men with last names only from out of town meeting in fancy residential hotel rooms.  All the locales—the restaurants on Broadway, the garages, the underground dice games and high-roller card games—were richly portrayed and interesting as hell.  The violence, also was compelling and intense ("Like in the Islands during the war, I kept moving, firing").  The cover over-hypes the young punks theme, but it is the central theme and they are truly hateful.  Hell to Pay echoes the conservatism of the genre, but from a strange perspective, because basically everybody is a criminal.  It's just that the older criminals have a code and are doing it for the money and the control, while the young ones are just irrational, cruel and destructive.

For some reason, the language of the action scenes reminded me of The Big Blowdown, when they corner the extortionists in the garage.  Wonder if Pelecanos has read this one?  Anyhow, despite a bit of an easy ending that didn't really fit in with the grit, tension and brutal violence that went on before, this was a solid, satisfying crime novel.