Tuesday, February 18, 2020

15. Odd Man Out by F. L. Green

I can't remember where I found this but it was cheap or free and has been sitting on the far right of my on-deck shelf for quite a while now, because of its small size.  I was expecting a terse, noir thriller, possibly dated.  Instead I got a florid, wordy asymptotical meditation on life, death and Belfast during the post-war Troubles.  (Asymptotical is my term for books that never seem to end, the pages on the right get thinner and thinner but the ending seems infinitely far away.)

The book starts out in medias res, though the text was already heavy and spilling over with excessive clauses, adjectives and adverbs.  Four men pull up outside of a laundry mill, ready to execute a well-planned heist of its payroll.  This was somewhat promising, but right away we go into the getaway driver's head.  Okay, fine, it is a stressful job.  But the thoughts in his head are beyond stress.  He is on the verge of completely freaking out: "...his mind would fracture and admit impulsive, hysterical factors which were already advancing from indefinable sources in his spirit"  And this is on page 3!  I thought that maybe the getaway driver was particularily nervous, but then we get to the ring leader, Johnny, we learn that he is along time member and leader of The Organization and this heist is to get funding for their political work (terrorism for some, liberation for others).  He is freaking out even more!  It's like he is on acid.  Seriously, everything is described like a bizarre dream and he completely loses touch with reality.  It's really weird because this guy is an experienced pro.  His state is attributed to him having been holed up in an apartment for months, but soon I realized that everyone is like this in the book.  One person saying something to another person launches some metaphorical, metaphysical reaction in that other person's brain.  It's really weird.  I don't know if this is just the way Irish people write thrillers because they are so tragic and poetic or something.  The whole book could have been about a third as long as it actually was.

Just to give you an example of how practically every description in the book spins off into excess, here is one sentence from a paragraph (of which there are many) describing the activity of patrons in a bar near the waterfront:
At corners, they broke into shrill chatter; and parting, they sped off to dart into deserted entrances or to pour wildly into the gutters or the dank foundations of walls oozing with slime and guarding a hollow silence into which the incessant breathing roar of the city dropped occasionally as the wind veered.

So because Johnny is tripping balls, the heist goes sour and he kills a cashier in a struggle.  The driver of the getaway car freaks out and drives too fast, spilling wounded Johnny off the running board. The first half of the book is then the story of the three other heisters making it back to their hideout, the recriminations, the getaway and tightening police cordon.  The second half of the book is Johnny, who is basically almost dead but somehow stumbling from place to place, person to person.  In this part, Johnny is really a vehicle for all these other characters to reveal themselves.  The neutral Protestant women who try and heal him until their husbands come home, the underworld barman freaking out because of Johnny's presence in his bar, the painter who wants to create a masterpiece by capturing the look in Johnny's dying eyes. Johnny is basically dragged around from Belfast locale to Belfast locale meeting a bunch of characters.  Call it Weekend at Belfast's.  It's not uninteresting but everything is so heavy and wrought.  It really was a slog to get through to the end, which was more or less predictable.  I really don't see how they could have made an entertaining movie out of this.

Speaking of movies, I did have a moment of amazing synchronicity.  My wife and I were watching the trailer for this documentary about New York bookstores called The Booksellers.  Though it looked annoyingly precious and utterly NY-centric (so typically navel-gazing New York, a city with probably the worst used bookstore scene in North America makes a documentary celebrating it), there was one very brief scene of the kind of used book table that excites me and others of my ilk.  I paused it to take a closer look.  Zoom in and you will see Odd Man Out, one of the more legible titles!  How crazy is that.  I was about a third of the way through the book at the time.

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