Having spent four days bingeing on the 8 episodes of HBO’s True Detective (season 1) I was left bemused by the weak finale but otherwise in awe of the faultless acting of this superbly sustained TV drama.
The contrasting personalities of homicide cops Martin ‘Marty’ Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rustin ‘Rust’ Spencer (Matthew McConaughey) create a genuine sense of tension.
The mismatched pair travel down the lost highways of Louisiana on the trail of a demonic cult and ritualistic murderers.
Their long running investigation takes them into the twisted underbelly of American life where superstition and old-time religion hold sway. The moody atmosphere is helped by a magnificent soundtrack of traditional blues, folk, alt-country and hard-driving rock overseen by the ever reliable T.Bone Burnett.
Brilliantly scripted by Nic Pizzolatto and stylishly directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the power of the gothic drama is undermined by a ludicrously contrived happy ending which sheds false luminosity onto this journey into the heart of darkness. Continue reading
The fifth in a series of 13 book reviews from my pre-blogging years.
STEPPENWOLF by Hermann Hesse (1927)
The Steppenwolf of the title is Henry Holler, a tired intellectual living a solitary life in an attic flat in a cosy bourgeois home. He is 50 years old and weary of life to the point of contemplating suicide. The nephew of his landlady observes that “the root of his pessimism was not world contempt but self contempt”.
Holler thinks of himself as a kind of Jekyll & Hyde figure with the wolf in him representing the pleasures of the flesh. Despite his book learning he finds no enjoyment in the spiritual life and finds himself “outside all social circles, beloved by none”.
In this desperate state he meets Hermine who is a member of a Magic Theatre advertised as being ‘For Madmen Only’. She teaches Holler to laugh, dance and enjoy sex without guilt.
Above all, she despises his patronizing attitude to those he regards as uneducated: “You learned people and artists have, no doubt, all sorts of superior things in your heads, but you’re human beings like the rest of us, and we too have our dreams and fancies”.
Through Pablo, who plays in the theatre company’s band, Holler learns that music is not something to be felt with the heart not something to analyse or philosophise over.
The moral of Hesse’s novel can be summed up by the criticism of what he calls the “never-ceasing machinery” of everyday life which can prevent people from being “the critics of their own lives and from recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead”.
What he advocates as an alternative is to “learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest”.
I second that emotion.
THE MOTEL LIFE (2006) + NORTHLINE (2008) by Willy Vlautin.
I got interested in the novels of Willy Vlautin after seeing a tower of his latest novel,The Free, piled up in an ace bookshop called No Alibis in Belfast this summer. That a cool store would order so many copies made me think this was worth checking out.
I soon realised that I know Vlautin already, not as a novelist but as the lead singer and driving force behind a fine Alt.Country band called Richmond Fontaine whose songs are like miniature stories. A track and album of their has one of my all time favourite titles; it’s called We Used To Thing The Freeway Sounded Like A River.
After writing great tunes like this, there are probably lots of listeners who told him “Gee, I bet you could write a great novel”. I’m sure many said this to Bob Dylan too and then he came up with Tarantula which is kind of cool if you don’t mind stories that are cut and pasted in a random sequence. This demonstrated Dylan’s debt to the Beat poets and also gave an insight into how much acid he was on. In comparison, Vlautin’s writing is more conventional. His novels have a beginning, middle and end; more or less in that order.
Critics have generously compared Vlautin to John Steinbeck which tends to happen a lot when the characters are those that have slipped through the safety net of life. Typically they come from dysfunctional families, have dead-end jobs, drink a lot of beer, smoke like chimneys and eat shit food. They live from pillar to post, eking out a living and trying their best to stay on the straight and narrow. They spend a lot of time in bars, diners and cheap motels. They are exasperating but real.
William Bell wrote a Blues song for Albert King in 1967 called Born Under A Bad Sign and the lyrics sum up the plight of these lost souls. The chorus goes: “if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all”.
Willy Vlautin was born in Reno, Nevada and that’s the main setting for both his first two novels which I decided to read before tackling his latest.
I only know Reno from Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues (“I shot a man from Reno just to watch him die”) and my mental image of it as a tough, uncompromising city is largely borne out by Vlautin’s fiction. Continue reading