American Writers: George Pelecanos / Willy Vlautin

When I first started reading George Pelecanos – the Nick Stefanos Mysteries – and later when we met and I had the opportunity to interview him, it was clear that his chosen form, the crime novel, was going to be, for him, much more than an entertainment – though his books are certainly that. As became even more evident with some of the later, more substantial titles – Right as Rain, say, Hard Revolution or The Night Gardener – Pelecanos sees himself very much in the role of social chronicler, as well as – sounds a little pretentious, but I can’t help it – a chronicler of the lives of men. Men and women inseparable from the society into which they are born and in which they live. Cause and effect.

Going back over Pelecanos’ work I’m reminded of a statement by the Australian writer, Peter Temple. ” … those are the issues [questions of morality, of behaviour and of simple human decency] you should write about (and) if you are a crime writer you have more licence to write about them than anybody else.”

From the time Pelecanos became involved, as writer and producer, in the television series, The Wire, and later, Treme and The Deuce, novels have been relatively few and far between. So news of The Man Who Came Uptown was greeted with pleasurable anticipation.

Uptown

It is, in some respects, a simple morality tale. Will Michael, on release from prison, go back to the life that put him there, responding to the pressures of those around him, or have the courage and strength of will to step aside and make an honest life of his own? That he is even considering the latter is in no small part due to the prison librarian, who has successfully introduced him to books and reading and, through them, an alternative set of choices.

One book that affects Michael strongly is Northline by Willy Vlautin, which tells the story of a young woman who gradually finds the strength to have hope and trust in the possibility of a new life, despite years of serious abuse. A role model, for Michael, of sorts. If she can do it, if she can even try …

Pelecanos’ opinion of the novel is clear from the rear jacket of the Faber edition of the book …

Northline shines with naked honesty and unsentimental humanity. The character of Allison Johnson, and the wounded-but-still-walking people she encounters on her journey, will stay with me for a long while. Vlautin has written the American novel that I’ve been hoping to find.

Northline

Vlautin, author of five novels so far, is also a song writer and musician, initially with the band Richmond Fontaine and, more recently, The Delines, for whom he plays guitar and sings as well as writing most of their material. I was aware of Richmond Fontaine, liking some of their songs without going overboard [the exception being the marvellous Inventory from the 2011 album, The High Country] but The Delines are, as they say – or used to – something else. A friend – actually, my agent – the two are far from inseparable – gave me a copy of their 2014 album, Colfax, for a recent birthday and it’s scarcely been off the stereo since.

Not surprisingly, the songs are stories; moments, often, taken from the centre of broken down lives; their protagonists drawn from an itinerant American underclass . No surprise that amongst his favourite writers Vlautin cites John Steinbeck and Raymond Carver.

But what makes the songs on Colfax and the more recent  The Imperial really work is the voice of singer Amy Boone, sometimes barely rising above the level of everyday speech, which conveys the experience and pain of the characters she inhabits with weary fidelity. Aware of this, when Boone had a serious accident after making Colfax, Vlautin waited several years until she had recovered and could sing again before making another record.

 

Delines

 

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Peter Temple Interview

I just wanted to draw attention to this interesting and to the point interview which Bob Cornwell did with Peter Temple on the publication of Peter’s final novel, Truth.

Peter’s wife, Anita, by his definition, “a hard marker”, called it “the best Q&A with me she has ever read.”

You can read it here, along with a link to Bob’s review of the novel.

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Peter Temple 1946 – 2018

Peter Temple 1946 – 2018

The Australian writer, Peter Temple, died on the 8th of March; he had been seriously ill for some little time. I first got to know Peter’s work through his Jack Irish novels and was fortunate enough to get to know him a little personally, initially meeting him at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and then, later, in London, at the home of Sarah Lutyens, the agent who represented us both. Peter was, as someone recently suggested, one of the last great curmudgeons of our time, and great company, as long as, if his caustic ire was aimed in your direction, you were prepared to duck.

Peter’s last two books are, I believe, two of the best, if not the best, contemporary crime novels of this century. The Broken Shore, published in 2005, won the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel. That was followed in 2009 by Truth, which was the first ever crime novel to win, in 2010, the prestigious Australian Miles Franklin Literary Award. They were the first pair in a planned loosely linked trilogy, the last of which will never now, all too sadly, appear.

After reading The Broken Shore, the novelist and journalist John Lanchester wrote …

Ever since I read The Broken Shore, I’ve been hopping up and down in anticipation of Peter Temple’s next book. The Broken Shore is a masterpiece, as good as any new novel I’ve read in the last ten years. I had a sneaking thought that it might prove impossible to follow; I’m delighted that Peter Temple has and I can’t wait to read Truth.

I felt the same and I have to confess that when I first got my hands on a proof copy of Truth and read it greedily, too much so, I was vaguely disappointed. It wasn’t as good as its predecessor, surely? Then I read it again and realised I was wrong. I had been wanting something the same and this was different; it was tighter, tauter; a trap for careless readers. Each sentence, each conversation, however brief, however truncated, holds meaning; the things unsaid, unexpressed, hold meaning. I’ve read it now at least half a dozen times and each time with pleasure and still a sense of another writer’s wonder: how does he DO this? How does he do this so bloody well? Peter, you cantankerous old bastard, you were just, bless you, too bloody good!

When John Connolly and Declan Burke asked me to contribute an essay to Books to Die For, in which 119 authors choose and write about their favourite crime novels, I jumped at the chance to write about The Broken Shore. This is how my piece ends …

… there is one further thing that, for this reader, anyway, resonates from the title: the echo of Robert Hughes’s 1987 account of the founding of Australia, The Fatal Shore. For this novel is not just expertly set in a particular country – a particular area of county, a particular place – permeated by generations of history; it shows both the shifts and virtual disintegration of some communities, and the rabid racial discrimination – shockingly outspoken in some instances here – that demonises the Aboriginal people as belonging to a feral underclass.

When it was published, I was happy to be quoted as saying: “Put simply, Temple is a master, and The Broken Shore is a masterful book.” Nothing, in the four or five times that I have since read it, has given me cause to change my mind.

What was it Raymond Chandler said about Dashiell Hammett? Something about him taking murder out of the Venetian vase and dropping it into the alley. No longer the candlestick in the library, but the sap to the back of the head going the wrong way up a dingy one-way street.

Real crimes committed by real people.

Chandler didn’t do a bad job of that himself.

Neither, closer to hand, did Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo with their ten books featuring the Swedish policeman Martin Beck; nor William McIlvanney in his brilliant and inspirational 1977 novel, Laidlaw, set in Glasgow.

Whether Temple has read McIlvanney or Sjowall and Wahloo, or whether he’s read George Pelecanos, say, or Walter Mosley, is neither here nor there. What is relevant is that they all utilize the crime novel in similar ways: telling a story, yes, and a story about people, some of whom you come to care about, care deeply, but also – more importantly? as importantly – they use it as a tool, a tool with which to open up and expose a small area of society for us to examine and understand.

“I am drawn to the sparse and the dry and to the idea that if you concentrate you can do powerful things with a few sticks and stones.”

Peter Temple’s own words. The Broken Shore is very powerful indeed.

Peter’s obituary in the Australian newspaper, The Age, ends …

When his Miles Franklin-winning novel Truth was published, British crime writer John Harvey told The Age that Temple used the crime novel to strip away layers of hypocrisy. ”Truth was a pretty apt title for one of Peter’s books,’’ he said. ”He has a knack of pinning down the day-to-day nature of people’s lives and laying bare their weaknesses and obsessions.’’

The whole business was about truth, Temple once told me, creating the illusion of truth.

”If there’s going to be truth in it, it’s about the emotional response, it’s not about the accuracy of the detail. It’s about the fact that it spoke to you.’’

Sadly for readers everywhere, Temple will speak no more truth.

Temple 1

Temple 2

Top 50 Books of the Century (so far …)

 

DruryLike all lists, this is biased, of course; partial, of necessity; it’s intended to be something to argue over, disagree with vehemently, send you to your local bookstore or the library shelves – or on line if you must: these are the books – fiction and non-fiction but not poetry – that have given me the most pleasure in the past sixteen (almost) years; the ones I could most look forward to rereading – and, in some cases, already have.

Hunts in Dreams : Tom Drury (2000)
Assorted Fire Events : David Means (2000)
Mystic River : Dennis Lehane (2001)
The Lovely Bones : Alice Sebold (2002)
That They May Face the Rising Sun : John McGahern (2002)
Sons of Mississippi : Paul Hendrickson (2003)
The Master : Colm Toibin (2004)
Runaway : Alice Munro (2004)
Eventide : Kent Haruf (2004)
Gilead : Marilynne Robinson (2004)
The Ongoing Moment : Geoff Dyer (2005)
The Broken Shore : Peter Temple (2005)
The Year of Magical Thinking : Joan Didion (2005)
The Lay of the Land : Richard Ford (2006)
Watch Me Disappear : Jill Dawson (2006)
This Book Will Save Your Life : A M Homes (2006)
Winter’s Bone : Daniel Woodrell (2007)
So Many Ways to Begin : Jon McGregor (2007)
Home : Marilynne Robinson (2008)
Red Dog, Red Dog : Patrick Lane (2008)
American Rust : Philipp Mayer (2009)
The Children’s Book : A S Byatt (2009)
Truth : Peter Temple (2009)
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It : Maile Meloy (2009)
The Good Soldiers : David Finkel (2009)
Even the Dogs : Jon McGregor (2010)
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter : Tom Franklin (2010)
How to Paint a Dead Man : Sarah Hall (2010)
The Summer Without Men : Siri Hustvedt (2011)
Hemingway’s Boat : Paul Hendrickson (2011)
The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright (2011)
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You : Jon McGregor (2012)
May We Be Forgiven : A M Homes(2012)
N-W : Zadie Smith (2012)
The Testament of Mary : Colm Toibin (2012)
Dare Me : Megan Abbott (2012)
Benediction : Kent Haruf (2013)
10th December : George Saunders (2013)
Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel (2013)
Lila : Marilynne Robinson (2014)
Fourth of July Creek : Smith Henderson (2014)
The Blazing World : Siri Hustvedt (2014)
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing : Eimear McBride (2014)
Another Great Day at Sea : Geoff Dyer (2014)
Our Souls at Night : Kent Haruf (2015)
Between the World & Me : Ta-Nehisi Cotes (2015)
Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin (2015)
The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson (2015)
Willnot : James Sallis (2016)
Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett (2016)

Woodrell