Wednesday, August 9, 2017
Two Authors' "First Novels": one Noir and one, just plain Dark
James Anderson is a regional, Pacific Northwest writer of fiction, poetry, reviews as well as an editor and teacher. "The Never-Open Desert Diner" is his first novel.
I have mentioned my local book exchange often provides 'uncorrected proof; not for sale' books for advance readers, reviewer and I guess, the library. I love these editions and always give them "a look". I find authors I never would have. This book was one of those.
The Hero, Ben Jones, has an interesting business: he has a short haul (200 miles round trip everyday) truck service over an isolated desert route in Utah, south of Salt Lake City. His route is so remote that the Majors in the business hire him to carry their packages. Often, he's the only vehicle on the road.
Against this blank desert canvas, Anderson begins sketching the outline of various weird, eccentric characters Ben supplies with the things they need to survive, packages, things he sells from the truck, etc. (He is not a drug dealer.) The plot centers on an old man who runs a small but notorious diner-style restaurant with a violent, tragic history; it has been used in Hollywood films, we learn, due to its evocative appearance and location. So old Walt, the owner, has friends among the stars.
There is an interesting mystery woman who plays the cello, a cute sassy young juvenile girl who will become Ben's sidekick later in the book (an probably in novels to follow; this novel is intended as the beginning of a series). I will not discuss much of that: spoiler.
The writing is good, the main character is likable and evokes our sympathy, the plot is a little contrived (but aren't they all?), the atmosphere is camp and kitschy, as advertised, so if a person enjoys modern, slightly off-beat stories, this would be a "first novel" to try. The publication date was March 2016.
Just Plain Dark:
The late Mario Puzo, I have read, thought that "The Fortunate Pilgrim" was his best novel; I agree. As everyone knows, his best known work was "The Godfather"; between the novel and the films, that story is an American Iconic Classic.
The book I read recently was his first novel, The Dark Arena. He certainly titled the novel correctly!
Walter Mosca, a former American GI, once repatriated to the US directly after WW II, is unable to settle. He cannot re-bond with his family or fiancee; he has been through too much to simply get a comfortable American job, marry and have kids, as so many did. He has an emotional connections still in Germany, we learn. His mother has received mail from a German girl.
Walter Mosca joined the Army at 17 and stayed for the duration. He is 22 years old when the plot of this novel unfolds. Walter had fought in real battles, he witnessed but did not participate in atrocities, he was nearly killed in a landmine explosion (though the scars cannot be seen when he is clothed.) The book was published in 1953; PTSD was not in the vocabulary in those days, but Walter was surely a victim.
He reconnects with friends from the service who are working in the German reconstruction effort; he signs on as a civilian contractor to work in Bremen, a large German city in the industrial region of Germany, totally destroyed by bombs. His job concerns relations with German civilians working for the Americans. Mario Puzo used his own war experience as basis for the location and atmosphere of the novel. It's bleak: a year after the War, bodies are still entombed in the rubble and place still smells a little of death. About the only services available to the people is the street car line. It is winter and all is cold, grey and dark.
Walter is pulled into an illegal, Black Market money making scheme by one of his American bosses; Walter is used for "muscle" in this operation; it is dangerous.
But Walter has a love interest, Helle. She was pregnant with his child when he left Germany; she had resolved to wait a year or so for him, then raise the baby herself and find another mate. But she lost the baby and she has documents to prove to him she is telling the truth. The two love one another, so they rekindle their affection, live together (illegally). She becomes pregnant again. They are happy, with plans eventually to return to the 'States.
But this is The Dark Arena, after all. Forces, the dark forces of the post-war rules and the Black Market economy and deep, dark despair and desperation of the German people to survive close in upon them slowly, like a vise.
Of the two novels in this post, "The Dark Arena" is the better quality: the writing a very good, the scene and the characters seem so true; you are totally transported to this awful place and time. The book reminded me of "Lie Down in Darkness" by William Styron (not an enjoyable read, but well done) and Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury".
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