Journey to the End of the Night – 4/5 Stars
This one is a bitter pill. Not for me, but for the writer and character. I don’t know how much of this is a roman a clef, a veiled memoir, or a persona allowing the writer to hide within the text. But the novel itself is drenched in sarcasm, irony, cynicism, and disgust. We begin with our narrator finding his way into the army right near the beginning of WWI. This of course is not really a great way for someone to build trust and love for one’s country. We very quickly find that our narrator reaches the conclusion that killing someone who just happens to be German and dying because he just so happens to be French is hardly a way to live. He begins to recognize himself as a kind of dead man walking. This state of being and nonbeing instills in him a deep revulsion for institutions and governments. But we don’t stop there, as this is not entirely a war novel. We then move with our narrator to a colony in Africa. Here, now a doctor, our narrator works in a colonial clinic, lives like any other colonial official — drunk and angry, and tries mostly to avoid venereal diseases. After this we follow him through Paris, New York, and other locales. All the while our narrator gets friends, loses friends, gets women, loses women. You know the deal.
The novel feels like a blend (and I only mean this in sense of parallels, as this book is contemporaneous to the following) of Down and Out in London and Paris, Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer, and other books like this.
The Black Dahlia – 4/5 Stars
The first of the four LA Quartet novels by James Ellroy, which also includes The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz. This novel centers around the famous Black Dahlia murder, in which a woman was found dead, eviscerated, and cut in two in 1947. Like LA Confidential, the only other James Ellroy novel I’ve read, this one focuses on the LAPD, namely our narrator, Bucky Bliechert, a 30 year police officer who is working his way up the hierarchy en route to sergeant, and hopefully, for him, detective. Bucky is a former pro boxer who also 4f’d from the war. At the beginning of the novel, we find Bucky 36-0 and being set up to fight another soon to be cop, Lee Blanchard, a little older and a little bigger, but more or less in the same weightclass. This pairing with take us throughout the novel as they fight, become partners, fall in love with the same girl, and work the Black Dahlia case together. As you might imagine happens, this case ends up being too traumatic and emotional for either to come out unscathed, and their connections also become too entangled for them to come out of their friendship unscathed.
Not immediately as gripping as LA Confidential, but the ripped from the headlines elements, the close narration of Bucky, the setting, and the Hollywood connections, this is a solid novel and a good mystery. It’s a lot like plenty of other LA noir, especially Chinatown and the Long Goodbye. I have to say though that it’s incredibly loose with the misogyny and racism, through the lens of the characters and narration, but it’s still a lot. It’s also very bloody and violent, not just in the plot, but in the action as well.
Sabbath’s Theater – 3/5 Stars
A mid to late career Philip Roth novel that won the National Book Award, and I am not entirely sure why, but maybe they didn’t realize that a) you don’t just have to reward Roth for writing a long novel in his 60s and b) he was about to write four straight very good, much better novels. So I can’t help but feel like this was a career prize, not realizing his career was long from over.
The novel centers around Mickey Sabbath, a finger puppeteer. If that sounds like an avenue for grossness, it is; if it sounds like a euphemism, it isn’t. Mickey is around 60 and his wife is about to leave him. She’s four years sober, way healthier and clear-headed after two decades of drinking, which includes the whole of their marriage. Mickey’s mind is only partially on this as he’s processing the death of his beloved mistress, a Croatian immigrant with whom he shared a greater love than he and his wife could ever have. The novel then zips back and forth along several time periods and gives us the months following these dual events as he contemplates suicide, while wishing for death, because he can’t seem to make it happen.
The novel is Roth by way of Milan Kundera, but very much Roth all the way. This is more of the David Kepesh, or most indulgent of the Zuckerman novels, which is frustrating because of how good the previous few novels were. Maybe for some this is Roth just clicking, but this feels to me like a crass departure from a significant 15 year run.
American Psycho – 4/5 Stars
This is a reread and I liked it better than I remembered. I do remember liking it plenty with I was 21 or so, but it’s much different experience now for a couple of key reasons. For one, being older gives me a lot of perspective on a 26/27 year old compared to when I was a few years off. Two, just having seen the movie a few times, and knowing what I know about Bret Easton Ellis, the 1980s/90s, and recent financial collapses, the satire is a little more rich for that reason too. Three, the novel centers a lot around Donald Trump, and Patrick Bateman’s adoration for him, and well, we ALL have a little more understanding and context for that.
What strikes me in rereading this is how much the movie is actually a lot different. I kind of remembered the movie as a distillation of the book, and in plenty of ways it is. But more so, there’s a heavier emphasis in irony in the movie, and in the book, there’s less affectation, and a lot more hatred in the forms of racism, misogyny, and homophobia, and the interplay among those three. In this way, the satire is less rich, but the characterization is more so. So for example, in treating Patrick less as a satirical figure, and more of say, an actual person, there’s more to work with here, and the book is around 400 pages, which means it doesn’t fit carefully into a movie.
So one of the things that comes through very strongly in the book that I don’t as fully recall in the movie is how much of Patrick’s character is formed through received opinion on fashion, food, vacation, financial products, real estate, music etc. How much is a persona that he’s developing, not to mask his internal self, but to create an external self. In addition, there’s more Patrick there than in the movie. We learn that he’s from a rich family, that he’s been killing and raping (and there’s a LOT more rape in the book, be forewarned), and that he’s deeply unnerved by the possibility of being gay. This comes up a lot in the book, and less so in the movie. So while there’s still a lot of satire, there’s also more there there, than the presentation in the movie. I love the movie, and in a lot of ways it’s better than the book. But there’s still a lot to work with in the book. By the way, the book is truly awful at times. The violence is way more horrifying than the movie by a factor of ten. But it’s also not like….a little violence leading up to big explosions of violence, but a steady stream of it.