Reading Lawrence Block’s The Girl with the Long Green Heart, about two dudes working a “long con,” gave me some solid tips for the main grift I’m working right now. It’s a good one. A few years back, I stumbled upon my mark, a beautiful woman. I figured I could score really big on this one, especially because she was sweet and nice in addition to being generous, delightful, and a good cook. Like me, she likes to run, bike, and swim. The basic hustle was that I would get her to marry me. In return I would love, protect, and provide. I started slow, letting her think up her dreamy dreams and big ideas. Then I started following through on them. She wants a house? Fine, we got a house. Needs a car? Bang—there’s your new car. And it’s going great—I don’t even think she’s aware she’s being conned. I have it made, dude! In about 40 years, I’m thinking it will pay off and that my goal will become a reality. That goal is to grow old and die happy with this woman. Sucka!
Block, Lawrence. The Girl with the Long Green Heart. Hard Case Crime: Titan. 2011. 224p. ISBN 9780857683656. pap. $6.99. F
“I got out of prison a little less than a year ago, Evie,” explains main character John Hayden to Block’s femme fatale. “It was the first really hard time I’d ever served. And I decided I wasn’t going back. Not ever. I took a square job and stuck with it.” But then what happened? Well, “…Doug Rance turned up with a proposition.” Soon John and Doug are smoothly working a long con on an unsuspecting businessman myopically hellbent on real estate profit. Written in 1965, this is one of the most rollicking and captivating noir tales that I’ve read, mostly on the merit of the propulsive, steady plot. It has everything, including the classic “one more job” trope, and a dame that will set your imagination absolutely wild. A master at allowing readers to paint the picture on their own, like Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard, Block doesn’t spell out every teensy detail. Some Block stories come in series, like the “Keller” novels about a lonely, likable hit man, and the “Matthew Scudder” books about an ex-alcoholic PI in the Big City (e.g., Time To Murder and Create, etc.). While the con here doesn’t go according to plan, it’s not exactly unhappy. “I thought about the dream. And I thought about the girl. And about all dreams and all girls. No dreams come true I guess. And no girls are as perfect as the heart would have them.” VERDICT Dudes will be nodding along with the road-tested wisdom that John Hayden exudes.
Friel, Joe. The Triathlete’s Training Bible: The World’s Most Comprehensive Training Guide. VeloPress. 4th ed. 2016. 352p. illus. ISBN 9781937715441. pap. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781937716844. SPORTS
Just as Walt Whitman kept writing and rewriting Leaves of Grass year after year, so does Friel continuously ponder, tinker, and rethink each bit and piece of his advice. Sure, Transcendentalism may have helped a few dudes intuit their way through the world, but triathlon helps them swim, bike, and run their way through it. This new fourth edition contains all the building blocks of the previous three with some added twists; six sections deal with the various aspects of the sport and are labeled broadly (e.g., “Mind and Body,” “Training Fundamentals,” etc.). Throughout each section, Friel drills into specifics about the “how-to” amid the “why.” “Purposeful Training” will, for example, change “going for a run” into teaching your body to run faster. Similarly, “Stress, Rest, and Recovery” clearly explains the difference between “overreaching,” a careful balance of training stress and focused rest, and “overtraining,” a serious condition with symptoms that mirror Lyme disease or mono. New material is incorporated seamlessly and is focused on individualization of training. In the “Muscular Force” chapter, for example, readers learn that the sport isn’t all heart and lungs but muscle, too; it provides exercises, explanations, and illustrations of particularly helpful ones. The end of the book contains several appendixes to help athletes of all levels create workable training plans with periodization (cycles of increasingly intense drills broken up with rest) and various kinds of workouts to develop all-around skill and fitness in each of the sports’ three disciplines. Thus, you’re not just “going swimming,” you’re swimming in any of six various modes in order to get your body to swim faster overall. VERDICT Essential. In fact, it was Whitman who wrote, “Every man has to believe in something. I believe I will go swimming.”
Hayes, Chris. A Colony in a Nation. Norton. Mar. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9780393254228. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393254235. SOC sci
This’ll pop yer eyes open a lot wider. This admirable gut-check on race relations and sociopolitics will be deservedly cataloged near Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. As a document that speaks to normal, open-minded dudes like you and me, however, this is on fire. A naturally persuasive writer, Hayes is editor at large of the Nation and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes. Though he does his best to downplay “liberal vs. conservative” polemic, there is a clear topical relationship to President Donald Trump’s “law and order” campaign plank. And therein, as Frank Zappa would say, lies the crux of the biscuit: Hayes’s central argument shows how those two words are not synonyms. Whereas the law is a code, “order” is subjective. Say you’re upset about something you see, and you call the cops even though you’re not sure “…what law was being broken, what crime was being committed.” Hayes’s argument is that this exemplifies people trying “not to enforce the law but to restore order.” And since the culture at large (e.g., white people) defines what “order” a.k.a. “normal” looks like, guess who usually gets screwed on stuff like this? ? Not-white people. The upshot, Hayes quite convincingly posits, is that there is no universal “American” experience, that black and white people live in different countries, that sometimes this amounts to a colony of some (black people) living under the thumb of others (white people). Repellent? Unbelievable? Hayes’s facts illustrate why race is central to issues of law and order, politics, sentencing, almost everything. Improbably, Hayes points to muse Richard Nixon as an early manipulator of the law-and-order stratagem (though he skillfully worked both sides). VERDICT This is gonna make ya indignant, so please: read responsibly.
Jemc, Jac. The Grip of It. Farrar. Aug. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9780374536916. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780374716073. F
This contemporary haunting is unsettlingly plausible. Seeking a break from the city rat race, youngish couple James and Julie break for rural Wisconsin by purchasing a large house gone to seed. The townies keep them at arm’s length, and their sole neighbor is a creepy, uncommunicative old man. It doesn’t take long before the two are finding weird written scribbles inside the home, rife as it is with secret chambers and odd spaces. One inexplicable event after another cause the couple to lose will power and slide into fearful exhaustion that essentially traps and isolates them from each other. The house interior is covered in fur, dust, and sticky liquids, and while Julie’s unhinging is deeper, it is James who is weaker. Short chapters alternate narrative viewpoints and contribute to the feel of a ritual being played out. In a larger sense, James and Julie represent an ordinary couple going through a rough patch. Maybe they’re depressed, not taking care of themselves, maybe they had too much to drink last night. Disoriented, sleep-deprived, preoccupied—is this you most days? And without any support close by, they are left to rely on each other—and each other’s ever-growing instability. Jemc makes readers ask: What happens when walls go up—in a house, in a relationship? What’s the difference between being trapped and being free? Just as Julie cries about the gap that has formed between the couple, the two find physical holes in the house similarly impossible to bridge. VERDICT This must be what mental illness, infirmity, or major depression can be like. The loss of dignity, of control. “What is worse?” Julie wonders, “[t]o be confronted with an obvious horror, or to be haunted by a never-ending premonition of what’s ahead?”
Khong, Rachel. Goodbye, Vitamin. Holt. Jul. 2017. 208p. ISBN 9781250109163. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781250109156. F
One of the many curses of being a dude is a voracious appetite for almost any “good” book. It doesn’t have to have fights, car crashes, and boobs—though those things are certainly welcome, bro. GV is pretty far from “dude” reading, but super quiet and ponderous as it is, it’s great. Khong crafts a narrative from bare bones of a plot in which Ruth, 30, keenly observes the gradual disintegration of her father, Howard, a history professor retired to a faceless Los Angeles burb, from Alzheimer’s. There’s not a lot for Ruth to do, really. “What do I do all day? I don’t even know. I dig hair out of the bathroom drain with a chopstick.” She reads messages in online forums about Alzheimer’s support—and also about finding your life’s passion. Artsy, with little snippets like “…it comes as a relief to me that my best friend is in a not-dissimilar boat – the unmarried and careerless boat. Which is more like a canoe,” Khong makes moments out of vignettes, often hilarious. Still, the sadness is palpable, as when Ruth’s snooping unearths distressing details about her parent’s marriage. When graduate assistant Theo devises a scheme to cheer and stimulate Howard by faking a seminar—plenty of students, no credit—the action picks up. Theo is a peaceful type who buys doughnut holes with doughnuts because, he explains, they “have their holes punched out of them. Not buying them feels like being part of the problem.” Romance? Well, maybe as Ruth is also processing and healing from a breakup. VERDICT Q: Can sadness be sweet? A: Yes, in the hands of Khong, who turns a swirl of lemons into lemondrops.
Kope, Spencer. Collecting the Dead. Minotaur: St Martin’s. 2016. 320p. $25.99. ISBN 9781250072870; ebk. ISBN 9781466884830. F
This is one propulsive mothereffer of a novel. Magnus “Steps” Craig is a star bad-guy tracker for the FBI. After particularly heinous crimes, or when the Authorities suspect a serial killer, they fly in Steps in from wherever and set him a-go because he’s just as good as Horace the bloodhound from Carl Hiaasen’s Scat. What he sees is like a substance—he calls it “shine”—on whatever the killer has touched. Sort of like glow-in-the-dark paint that only he can see. Could be green, could be blue, but there are a lot of particulars to each one that makes it unique to the person Steps is searching out. He has a minder, Jimmy, who serves as a footman of sorts and who injects healthy doses of humor into everything. Of Jimmy, Steps says, “He’s like all the PE teachers I’ve ever had rolled up into one and sprinkled with Nazi dust.” But Steps is pretty torn up by the times he has failed, with “too many nightmares competing for my sleeping hours. The bodies are stacked like cordwood outside the door to my dreams….” Steps has become preoccupied with one killer who has, so far, eluded him for ten years. At the same time the team is frantically on the trail of the “Sad Face” killer, a nasty dude who has offed a lot of women in Northern California and has a young girl under lock and key. Do you like action? Kope skips details in favor of movement, unless it’s CSI-type procedures. VERDICT It’s like Cheetos. You want more.
Rekulak, Jason. The Impossible Fortress. S. & S. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781501144417. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781501144431. F
Three 14-year-old boys in northern New Jersey cook up increasingly, needlessly elaborate schemes to obtain the May 1987 issue of Playboy featuring Vanna White. These go from “lemonade stand” to “I’ll create a distraction while you light a fire and stuff them in your pockets” to “we’ll steal it.” Why not, “I’ll create a thermonuclear reaction and in the ensuing wrinkle in the space time continuum”? Just stop. Alf is the team’s alleged mastermind, Clark is a handsome boy with a malformed arm, and Billy is our hero, the kid who gets hooked on programming out of sheer boredom. So far Billy has programmed a poker game that features a nude Christie Brinkley depicted in ASCII-characters. He meets Mary Zelinsky, a big girl, by accident; her dad owns the store that the Playboy is in. Mary and Billy share some sparks and an interest in coding. Soon Billy is trying mightily to code an adventure game to win a big geek contest. Turns out, though, that Billy is a classic, distractible ADHD scholastic fucktard with a GPA of 0.83 (he’s *failing* “Rocks and Streams” class). Though mom confiscates his C64 brick, he sneaks it out to keep coding. It’s one shitty choice after another. After another. He eventually decides to break into Zelinsky’s for the magazine by romancing the alarm code out of Mary. VERDICT The boys’ slim charms soon vanish as they fail to possess any believable innocence, stupidity, or wisdom. Dull and sentimental.
VanderMeer, Jeff. Borne. MCD: Farrar. Apr. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780374115241. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374714925. SF
Sf so undeniably imaginative it has reinvigorated my cold, dead heart, this book tells of humans remaining alive in a world decimated by The Company, who scavenge for scraps in a dystopian cityscape contaminated with sick rains of salamanders and a Godzilla-sized roving monster-bear named Mord, who carries a trove of biological life forms on his fur like a whale’s barnacles. It is a place where “[n]ames of people, of places, meant so little, and so we had stopped burdening others by seeking them.” Rachel’s compatriot/mate is the suspicious, cautious Wick and the two have carved out some hard-won safety in an urban cave-cum-safe room amid a landscape of “atrocity,” where human life is cheap. One “sunny gunmetal day” Rachel salvages Borne, a creature neither fish nor fowl—and the catalyst for a conflict of trust between the couple. He grows quickly, and is soon protecting Rachel and talking to her. This is a cleverly told tale that hooks readers early, told from deep within the personality of a permanently damaged woman. But it is the imaginative details that make this notable, like Rachel and Wick getting drunk on “alcohol minnows.” And it’s full of massively cool sf. The level of detail is at once both marvelous and tantalizing. For example, Borne “developed a startling collection of eyes that encircled his body. Each eye was small and completely different than the others around it. Some were human—blue, brown, black, green pupils—and some were animal eyes, but he could see through all of them.” VERDICT Magnificently realized, this story is painted with both a tiny detail brush but also in fat, broad strokes that allow the reader to add more colors and shapes. A great amalgamation of detail and its lack.