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Fiction

Paul Vidich’s The Good Assassin raises a number of questions, some of which have to do with the action in this “Cold War spy fiction” that just happens to be set in Havana, on the eve of the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Revolution; and others that have more to do with why we read in the first place.  In other words, what is any particular reader looking for when they open a book?

 

As far as this particular novel goes it is entertaining, to a degree, pacey enough, although it does not have much depth.  There is little or none of the subtext that I personally prefer to deal with in the books I read.  The characters are pretty flat, rendered with little nuance, and therefore not complex.  And the portrait of Havana in 1958 is limited, and almost stereotypical, the sense of the place tinted by the lens of the genre.  More than once I thought that The Good Assassin could be located just about anywhere, at any time, it really didn’t matter when and where. 

 

On the level of language Vidich strains more often than he accomplishes, and it shows.  Some lines strike cold and hard and fast and true, and others are practically unintelligible:

 

Mueller didn’t agree to the assignment at their lunch, but his silence was confederate to the director’s request.  He knew one week was an impossibly optimistic estimate of the time he’d be in Cuba, but the idea that he would escape campus lethargy had tart appeal.  His sabbatical was upon him, but he’d lost interest in his research on the puns and paradoxes in Hamlet, a lively but binocularly narrow topic, and he was out of sorts with his life. 

 

Despite pretty much everything in this novel being clichéd to some degree, this paragraph early in the story—which goes on in this vein—provides the reader with a pretty good idea of who and what Mueller is, even if Mueller’s character, as developed throughout the book, remains basically two dimensional, and therefore unrealized.

 

Of course Mueller is going to bed Katie, the plucky free-lance photographer he’s hired as part of his cover.  But what, really, does this mean?

 

They found themselves tempted by the idea that they were more interesting and spontaneous than the physics of a professional calculation.

 

Or:

Self-deprecation was a strategy too.  He knew better than to allow spite to jeopardize a deceit.

 

There are plenty of these presumably witty but not-entirely-clear affirmations, lines that must sound good to Vidich’s ear and that do sound like the sort of thing that might come out of Humphrey Bogart’s mouth—in voice over, if necessary—but are, unfortunately, closer to gibberish.  Later Vidich will write, “Sunlight flushed shy thoughts from his mind” followed by this:

 

Mueller felt in that part of his mind that calibrates threats before they are obvious the risk of being made complicit in a crime.

 

This, at least, is straight forward and comprehensible and it has the necessary crime-thriller beat.  But too often Vidich forgets Ezra Pound’s dictum that “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the sole morality of writing.”

 

This lack of fundamental accuracy applies not only to his language, but to the observations of his characters and the action.  At the very beginning of the novel Mueller flies from Connecticut to Cuba, presumably passing through Miami.  And yet he looks out the window as they begin their descent towards Havana and sees the Sierra Maestra, where Fidel Castro launched his efforts to overthrow Batista.  Unfortunately for the reader who knows anything about Cuban geography this is impossible:  the flight from Miami usually enters from the west and the Sierra Maestra is located east of Havana:  over 400 miles away, as the crow flies.

 

In terms of a sense of place, twice in the space of four short pages Vidich describes the landscape—from Havana to Camaguey—as “unchanging:”

 

The four of them were driving through a monotonous section of the Carretera Central several hours into their journey to Camaguey.  Fields of sugar cane and thorn brush filled the view, and ahead, still a ways off, the russet hills of their destination…They smiled at Mueller’s comment, but their eyes drifted back to the unchanging landscape.

 

After winding through more “thorn brush,” whatever that might be, specifically—what this brush might actually look like, or how looking at so much of it might make someone feel—Mueller looks at Liz and sees a “sad expression” on her face “that was a window onto a terrible grief,” as “she gazed out at the barren, unchanging landscape of dry red earth on the passing hills.”

 

Just as the landscape, and setting in general, is treated in this offhand manner, so too are the characters handled, not as if they were individuals leading unique lives, but as if they were stereotypes of the brusque heartless American rancher-businessman and the pitiful adulterous-of-necessity wife.  Katie—the spunky photojournalist—actually has a bit of character, but her role in the story is minor.  Nothing about this story carries the conviction of any kind of truth, either of place or character.

 

But the story is full of these baffling lines, that might make the reader pause and puzzle over Vidich’s intent:

 

He began to see there was a way to think about Graham’s life as spun from a single filament of fact woven loosely into a fabric of sheer audacity.

 

The jeopardy of the moment deepened and turned profound.  Smells of rain drifted to them and branches ripped from trunks flew into the air.  A woman with wounded memories finds it helpful to succor the pain by sharing thoughts with a friend.  And so it happened.

 

Perfect weather at the start of All Saint’s Week provided the opportunity to honor the promise of the day.

 

One of the major problems of this novel is that nothing is believable.  Not that a reader can’t or won’t follow the action and wonder what will happen next, without disbelieving what they’re being told.  But rather the reader is being told too much, and too little is demonstrated in this novel.  We are supposed to believe this conversation is taking place during a hurricane, but nothing Vidich does with his prose suggests the experience of a hurricane.  The threat of violence is supposed to be all around these characters, but the reader never feels this threat of violence. 

 

Vidich writes, at the beginning of Chapter 9, near the end of the novel, and shortly before its climax, “The little party was using the charm of a fisherman’s shack to escape the oppression of the war.  They all wanted to embrace the trip as a way to lighten the day, contain their drama and preserve decorum, but Mueller felt jeopardy in the fragile peace.” 

 

Vidich uses the word ‘jeopardy’ here as above to try to convince the reader, via the use of a single word, and by relying almost exclusively upon that word’s definition[1] that his characters are involved in a dangerous situation.  But the reader—or I, at least—never feels this.  There is no sense of threat percolating beneath the surface of this novel, no subtext of real danger.  Everything is almost distressingly obvious and obviously fabricated. 

 

So it shouldn’t have been any surprise to me to see how Vidich used—or usurped—certain motifs and characters from The Great Gatsby to generate his own characters (Jack is almost interchangeable with Tom, although the portrayal of the latter is much more sophisticated) and the climax of his novel, in which Mueller—after a scene almost identical to the scene in Fitzgerald’s novel in which Gatsby tells Tom that Daisy loves him and she finally encourages everyone to go into town in order to relieve the tension created by her dilemma—hits and kills Jack’s lover with the car while he drives a distraught Liz home. 

 

There is also the issue of the stilted speech.  At the fisherman’s shack, where Jack chose to confront and expel Graham, presumably from their home as well as their lives, Liz says to him, her husband, “You let the garden of our marriage go to seed.  There were flowers we planted to remind us who we used to be, but they’ve withered.  Dried up here in this place.  All our sunshine days of memory are not enough to let us ignore the weeds.”

 

The Good Assassin is a quick easy read, that could have been set anywhere, at any period of history.  Just as the setting is immaterial, so are the characters, because they never come to life, and instead remain two-dimensional cardboard stereotypes of characters incapable of devising their own story.

 

To match and balance the impossible sighting of the Sierra Maestra at the beginning of the novel there is the shootout in the belfry of the church where Graham had arranged to meet Liz so that they could leave on a DC 3 at the end of the novel.  Mueller notices two green Oldsmobiles parked outside, to indicate that Pryce—the FBI guy—has not only come with Alonzo, head of SIM, the Cuban Military Police, but is in cahoots with him.  But how can a reader believe this?  These guys are there to take down Graham, who is suspected of delivering arms to the rebels, and they take two cars, each driving one of them, and bring no reinforcements?  Talk about jeopardy!

 

I’ve said enough.  This novel requires some real suspension of disbelief, but that’s precisely what many people read for:  in order to ‘escape reality.’

 

 

[1] Danger of loss, harm, or failure, a term originally used in chess and other games to denote a problem, or a position in which the chances of winning or losing were evenly balanced, hence ‘a dangerous situation.’



By Cuban revolutionary movement – http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/william-morgan.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73744225

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Fiction

The Maids of Havana covers a period of time in which the magnitude of political events could not have been greater, and yet these political developments are presented in a way that indicates both how much and how little the lives of people like Marta were affected by the changes brought about by the triumph of a Marxist Revolution on the island.

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Fiction, Story Collections

Those Cubans who have stayed behind and endured—and endurance has certainly been required!—the vagaries and adversities of the Cuban post-revolutionary experience tend to write from the point of view of within, inside, whereas these other writers tend to offer their readers a view, informed as it may be, from without, looking in, and back at the island.

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Fiction

It isn’t as if no dark currents course through this novel. Instead, it’s as if Greene, while allowing brief glimpses of the background for his ‘entertainment’ manages to always deftly turn his readers’ attention away from the dangers lurking in the bush.

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Fiction

The measure of a great novel is its resonance in the reader. Sometimes the reader remembers and never forgets very specific details. But when a sense of the whole story and the experience of reading that story endures, long after the book has been finished and put away on the shelf, long after more forgettable books have been read and replaced on those same shelves, that story has demonstrated its achievement: to live on in the life and imagination of the reader, the only place where any story ever matters.

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Fiction

Dirt Music is a highly orchestrated chronicle of at least three lives that intersect the way roads in the vastness of Western Australia must intersect: at unlikely junctions that might be long anticipated but even longer, sometimes, regretted.

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Fiction, Story Collections

Boyd’s work is extremely competent, smart, well-wrought in every way, with fine writing too. Boyd is particularly masterful at employing very short sections to quickly establish and deftly and economically build up his narratives. Some of these stories are composed of paragraph-long sections representing distinct points of view that together produce a sort of pastiche of sensory data and information, and in this way lay out the drama involved.

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Fiction, Story Collections

It is a world of true revolutionary fervor and desperation in this country that McGrath recreates in the short space of sixty-one pages, as well as visceral and ideological animosity—the kind people are willing to kill and die for—towards the English masters, a time when Americans (that is, North Americans, or estadounidenses) were treated with the same brand of disdain that the European descendants in this country tend to reserve now, for example, for Latin Americans.

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Fiction

Robert Stone’s Outerbridge Reach is a magnificent book.  And magnificent—with its roots in magnus, great, and facere, to make—is just the right word, le mot juste.

 

This novel is large and ambitious and although there is a point in the story at which the tension—that tautness in the long line that has been pulling the reader along from the very beginning—slackens a bit, and the reader is asked to accept one single almost cliché but largely inevitable development in the narrative, the story is otherwise almost flawless.

 

The first thing that impressed me was Stone’s command of the nautical idiom, not only the vocabulary, both nouns and verbs, for all those sailing and boat terms—auxiliary, mainsail, genoa, way point, sloop, swells, running lights, companionway ladder, rig, lifeline, unreef, hatch, the sea slight, wallow, bilge pump, back-siphon, seacock; and all of this within the first two pages—but the way Stone managed and applied this language to the many tasks of his narrative.

 

Accompanying this skill and accomplishment—and growing on me impressively as both reader and writer—were Stone’s command of both dialogue and character generally.  And more specifically some truly marvelous juxtapositioning of observational lines for the most revealing and effective of psychological insights.

 

Strickland, the jaded film maker, for example had always wanted to make a film about just one person.  Thinking of the starlet of a film he had made about the Manhattan underlife he muses:

 

With her…it would be a knotty work.  How to penetrate that busy swarm of verbiage and gesture and find the shiny animal within?  How to bring it stunned and dripping into light?  But what a worthy lesson for the world to glimpse what thrived in the airless inner life of just one particular whore.  It would be every bit as striking as your pet cemetery films.  There would be the same uneasiness at what teemed there, under the crust.

 

Or at the beginning of the reader’s understanding of the marital stalemate and general malaise that Owen and Anne have accepted and almost come to terms with, a fundamental dis-ease with their lives and coexistence that has led her to drink and will lead him to solitude and death at sea, we are told of the origin of their love, from her point of view:

 

Years before, in a different world, they had met on the island…They had started dating the summer after plebe year and the ferry figured in their courtship…They had spent whole crossings necking on the same gearbox, starboard aft.

Now side by side, not touching, they seemed to be avoiding each other’s eye…For a moment she felt the remnants of that breathless romance strewn about her, demystified and ironical with time, exposed to the gray rain.

 

Later, when Stone starts setting us up for the inevitable affair with Strickland—the artist-at-all-costs—who begins to fall under Anne’s spell (which is probably as much a consequence of his narcissism and the film he has been hired to make as it is of her slightly faded charms) Strickland watches Anne at a party, flirting with another man.

 

Her presence made him feel irritable and frustrated; he had to consciously resist looking at her all the time.  It was not usual for him to be reticent with women.  Generally, he was happy to let them notice his attention and figure things out for themselves.

 

But later that same night, once he’s alone with Anne in a chauffeured car, “Strickland felt that she was wary of him.”

 

He regretted coming along now and being at such close quarters with her and so outside her life.  He was taken with the thought that he might never, ever get any closer.  The thought made him feel both lonely and angry.

 

That sense of simultaneous loneliness and anger, or Owen Browne’s own sense of estrangement from his wife and daughter as he climbs the stairs in the familiar house—“Things had a peculiar novelty that was both invigorating and unsettling”—might seem contradictory to some readers; but instead the paired emotions reported by the narrator conjure up a more complex and nuanced and therefore more visceral and true emotion that is easy for me at least to recognize and identify with as not only convincing but real.

 

In the space of a limited impression-piece I can’t do this novel justice.  Robert Stone is a strong sure writer and just going through the book again and looking up the citations I also see the way he has so carefully and thoroughly layered in the supporting threads of narrative:  Anne was probably a more capable sailor than Owen could ever hope to become; her father was a bastard who made his wealth by being ruthless, and though she doesn’t like him she will need him and his thugs in the end; the way Owen’s own father always complained about some unjust accusation that had sullied his honor; or the way that some of the best of the relationship between Anne and Owen dated back to the Vietnam War, when he was thousands of miles away from her and both of them were able to believe in themselves and their love for one another more easily, given the distance and the continual threat they lived under.

 

Once Owen sets sail on his doomed craft in a race he doesn’t really care about winning I felt as if Stone had written himself into a corner.  I think this happens sometimes, while we work on stories that present such wonderful potential and excite us so much as writers and yet, sometimes, the place where the story wants and needs to go can become problematic. 

 

In this case Owen alone at sea with only the well-established portent of the shabbily constructed craft and his lonesome thoughts sets up a narrative situation in which—until that negligent craftsmanship begins to actively threaten Browne—we are left with the dilemma of a single player standing alone on the stage.  The pattern of the alternating chapters depicting Browne and Anne vs. Strickland and then, once Browne sets sail, Anne and Strickland vs. Browne obliges Stone to keep returning to the man in the boat, even if the chapters are necessarily briefer now. 

 

But what can we watch him do?  Or say?  Or even think?  Unlike Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea Browne is too much alone on the Nona, and doesn’t even have the fish he is fighting as antagonist, and someone he can talk to in ways that are dramatically effective.  So that is one problem. 

 

The other—and I think this is why the book didn’t win a major prize—is that Stone early on suggested and prepared the reader for the almost inevitable bedding of Anne by this very strange man Strickland.  Though we have been prepared for this outcome, it feels to me a little too stereotypical:  Anne obviously loves Browne a great deal but the marriage has run dry; Strickland is simultaneously presented as a very weird creature, almost misanthropic, and yet he easily finds women who want to sleep with him (the tiresome male fantasy); but Anne is not only alcoholic but deeply lonely, and therefore easy prey to Strickland whose motives for sleeping with her are conflicted. 

 

That much though I can accept because the portrayal of Strickland as something of a die-for-his-art predator willing to take advantage of anyone and always looking for the means of doing this, despite his belated empathy for Browne, both the man and his perilous mission, is convincing enough.  Strickland’s almost nihilistic ambivalence is something I can accept and relate to in a character.  Browne’s character is obviously more solid, and even Anne comes across as believable in every way.  Until she declares her love for Strickland, soon after they start fucking:  “I do love you, you know.”

 

By this time we have passed through the inflection point of the novel, the point at which Browne enters the storm and discovers that his craft is being ripped apart as a result of the shortcuts the Korean manufacturers took and Strickland and Anne are simultaneously acting upon their pent-up desire for one another.  For the space of several short chapters the book could barely hold my interest. 

 

Once Browne sets out on his ill-conceived voyage to circle the earth in a race we never expect him to win there are only a couple of possibilities:  he dies at sea, or stranded on some island, or he returns, eventually, to a life that was not made any better by his foolhardiness and stubborn determination to do something he had no business doing in the first place (or so we think).  Or perhaps there is a third option:  he really does discover that thing about himself that he set out to find and no matter what happens to his body he is vindicated with a strengthened soul?

 

After the lag in the drama, while Browne decides what to do, Stone takes command of his narrative once again.  The novel finishes well and the last quarter or eighth of the book has the same power as everything leading up to that inflection point I mentioned.

 

And once again we have Stone’s remarkable observational prose, revealing of both surface and depth at the same time:

 

He let her gentle and flatter him into making love.  Wanting to satisfy him, she applied herself.  She could feel him trying to excel, to impress her and bind her to him.  Her own pleasure made her feel affectionate and uncritical, almost hopeful that they might somehow go on.  But in the dark she knew better.

 

Robert Stone seems to be one of those writers who learned to write by actively living and loving in the real hard true world, where every apparent contradiction points to a fundamental axiom of being.  The sort of writer I love to read.



Image by Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=518022

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