I picked up Dorothy B. Hughes' The Expendable Man on a whim, forgetting, actually, that I had added one of her other books, Blackbirder to my 'to-read...moreI picked up Dorothy B. Hughes' The Expendable Man on a whim, forgetting, actually, that I had added one of her other books, Blackbirder to my 'to-read' shelf some time ago. Primarily I was interested because it is a crime novel (by a woman) set in Arizona and from the cover description, it sounded like the main character was in some way dubious or not what he seemed--I love those unreliable narrators. About 60 pages into the book, however, my expectations were completely turned on their head in one of the cleverest narrative twists I've read in some time.
I'm often not too troubled by spoilers, but I'll not ruin this for anyone by going into the aforementioned twist in detail. Suffice to say that Hughes' revelation is partially a revelation because it shouldn't be one at all, and yet the dropping of one small fact changes everything you've read up to that point and contextualizes the rest of the novel in a far more meaningful way than your average 'wrong-man' scenario. She's a gifted writer--her prose is spare, but really descriptive when it needs to be, and she puts a great deal of empathy into her characterizations, which I think is pivotal in a good crime novel. Through her characters in The Expandable Man she not only effectively conveys a sort of looming paranoia and tension--and the agonizing feeling that the person one most needs to escape is, perhaps, oneself--but also ably places both herself and her readers in the same frame of mind, which makes for a rather jittery reading experience. (In a good way, of course.)
I'll also say that this is one of the best evocations I've read of Arizona since Betsy Thornton's High Lonesome Road (makes sense--Hughes lived in New Mexico), and it's particularly touching to read her descriptions of Phoenix on the verge of becoming the sprawling, overdeveloped, contentiously urban city that it is today. I loathe Phoenix as it is now--as it's been since my childhood--and in some ways, that's just the Tucsonan pride coming out. But in the 60s, when the book is set, Hughes describes a city which is not yet large enough that one can easily hide there, a city which is only just starting to raze the natural landscape for suburban housing developments and which still lays claim to meandering country roads winding next to canals shaded by mesquite trees.
I wasn't totally sold on the way the plot wrapped up--there's some last minute amateur sleuthing that is a little contrived--but this is beside the point. I will certainly be tracking down more of Hughes' books soon--maybe next In a Lonely Place, which was turned into a movie with Humphrey Bogart.
Had it not been for some unfortunate connotations that I had with Hillerman (he was the author of choice for a particularly Wicked Stepmother), I woul...moreHad it not been for some unfortunate connotations that I had with Hillerman (he was the author of choice for a particularly Wicked Stepmother), I would have most likely read his whole oeuvre by now. When he died earlier this year, I decided to make like a good Southwesterner and rectify this omission in my reading list. The problem was I didn't really know where to start. (I was told by an enthusiastic library volunteer in Oro Valley, AZ that I should just start at the beginning and work my way through, but that seemed a little more time consuming than I was ultimately prepared for.) In the end, a discount book rack in Portland, Maine made my decision for me. I started with Listening Woman because I was able to buy it for a dollar.
This ended up being a good introduction, I think, even if it was pretty arbitrary. A little further research and I now know that this is one of the few Hillerman mysteries featuring just Joe Leaphorn; his counterpart (and subordinate) Sgt. Jim Chee is introduced relatively early on in the series. It's also not one of the more high profile (read: multi-awarded, movie-versioned) novels. This combined leads me to believe that I had a rather organic introduction to the Leaphorn series.
Listening Woman had a number of things to recommend it--good characterization, evocative descriptions of the harsh and beautiful landscape of the Navajo Reservation where the book takes place, and snappy pacing. On the flip-side, the plot was, from the get-go, unnecessarily complicated--involving three separate cold-cases that come together to form one master crime scenario, the ending (though exciting) drug out far too long, and descriptions of action (dynamite exploding and killing people, notably) was rendered in such a way to make it unclear to the reader where people were and what exactly was going on.
In the end, though, two things about this novel stuck out to me. Firstly, there's the empathetic descriptions of Navajo culture and traditions (especially when contrasted/dramatized against the background of 'White' culture). About mid-way through the novel, Leaphorn visits a Navajo clan during a Kinaalda--a sacred coming of age ceremony for a Navajo woman. The description of the ceremony itself is rather moving, but it was Leaphorn's reaction to it that really struck me:
"Leaphorn found himself, as he had since childhood, caught up in the hypnotic repetition of pattern which blended meaning, rhythm, and sound in something more than the total of all of them...A girl becoming a woman, and her people celebrating this addition to the Dinee with joy and reverence. Leaphorn found himself singing, too. The anger he had brought--despite all the taboos--to this ceremonial had been overcome. Leaphorn felt restored in harmony.
He had a loud, clear voice and he used it...The big man glanced at hime, a friendly look. Across the hogan, Leaphorn noticed, two of the women were smiling at him. He was a stranger, a policeman who arrested one of them, a man from another clan, perhaps even a witch, but he was accepted with the natural hospitality of the Dinee. He felt a fierce pride in his people, and in this celebration of womanhood."
It's a short passage, but so much is conveyed in it--not only about Navajo customs that many would be unfamiliar with, but about Leaphorn as well.
The other thing that stuck with me about this book is that contrary to my usual preferences, the amazing amount of coincidence and eventual connectivity of various, seemingly unrelated plot elements didn't bother me at all. In part, this is due to Leaphorn's own ethos: "Leaphorn didn't believe in [coincidence:]. He believed that nothing happened without cause. Everything intermeshed, from the mood of a man, to the flight of a corn beetle, to the music of the wind. It was the Navajo philosophy, his concept of interwoven harmony, and it was bred into Joe Leaphorn's bones." This alone might not have satisfied me, however--it's all well and good for Leaphorn to believe in "interwoven harmony," but in fiction, such connectivity generally strikes me as heavy-handed and simplistic. But Hillerman makes a practical point early on that though obvious, perhaps, wouldn't have occurred to me otherwise: "If two white strangers appeared at about the same time in this out-of-the-way corner, one headed for the Tso hogan and the other aimed in that direction, logic insisted that more than coincidence was involved."
Definitely a promising start for me. I think I'll try Skinwalkers next, but if anyone has other recommendations, let me know. (less)
My stepmother was the type of woman who painted the walls in our house eighteen different colors and wore turquoise-encrusted Kokopelli jewelry to sho...moreMy stepmother was the type of woman who painted the walls in our house eighteen different colors and wore turquoise-encrusted Kokopelli jewelry to show how in tune she was with the local culture. She hung Frida Khalo prints on the bedroom walls and thought that speaking ‘Food Spanish’ to waiters made her nearly fluent. She also compelled my sister and me to read a lot of Tony Hillerman paperbacks and other ‘local literature,’ which I am now almost positive included The Bean Trees. Because after reading the first chapter of this book, I got the strangest sense of de ja vu.
This is probably appropriate in its way, given that the reason I picked it up in the first place was to suppress a bit of homesickness. Because a couple times a year—amidst the April snowstorms and one too many guys on the subway who splay themselves across two seats while playing audio-enabled Snood on their cell phones—I start pining for the homeland. I turned to this book hoping to get a good dose of Tucsonan flavor to keep me going until I had the time and money to go home and remember why I left in the first place.
I have to say, though, The Bean Trees didn’t really do the trick. Because even though I appreciate details about the Sun Tran bus line and the way it smells in the desert when it rains (the thing I miss the most about Tucson), there’s more to invoking a landscape than just listing of things that are really there. A good book about New York, for instance, isn’t good because it mentions the Empire State Building or talks about people taking taxis. It is a major (and frequent) misstep in novels to try and just be factually accurate about a place, without ever getting into how it really feels there.
To be fair, though, while the landscape wasn’t terribly reminiscent of Arizona, the writing style really was in its own (probably accidental) way. Because Ms. Kingsolver really illuminates that deep Southwestern flare for ‘characters’ and ‘culture’—a fondness for highlighting how darn quirky desert folk really are, and a gringo’s deep and abiding love of all things latino.
(As a side note, though: if we’re going to just start dropping real places into the book for authenticity, I would have swapped the ‘Jesus Is Lord’ tire place for the church that has ‘Happiness is Submission to God’ painted on it—a slogan which often gets altered to ‘Happiness is Submission to Godzilla!’ by persistent neighborhood delinquents…) (less)