My Writers: Carl Hiaasen

strip tease
Image taken, as always, from Library Thing.

I lived in Florida for six years. Before I got there, Carl Hiaasen acquainted me with the haphazard charms of the Sunshine State. More precisely, he sketched out just how much craziness resided on that over-baked peninsula.

As was the case with many of the authors whose wares I first sampled in the nineteen-nineties, I arrived at Hiaasen because of the movies. With some regularity, I bought novels that the entertainment press informed me were being adapted in high-profile films. I liked having the comparison at the ready when it came time to deliver my movie review, even if most of those exercises in criticism were mostly being delivered to friends over the phone or this new-fangled communication method called electronic mail.

Hiaasen’s 1993 novel, Strip Tease, was being made in a movie that borrowed the name but oddly omitted the space. Striptease was preemptively famous — or maybe a little infamous — because the lead role, a stripper named Erin Grant, had been bestowed upon Demi Moore, who got a dump truck full of money backed up to her house in exhange from the promise of doffing her top. As intended, that built some buzz around the project. Thankfully, enough of the chatter took pains to insist to the potentially interested that Hiaasen’s novel was quite good.

The movie proved to be a bust at the box office — and pretty lousy — but the appreciative assessments of the novel were spot on. Strip Tease is sharp, funny, slyly insightful, and plotted with purposeful expertise. It reads like a classic Elmore Leonard crime novel with a loonier edge. It’s hard to scrape together grander praise.

I return to Hiaasen’s novels from time to time after that, always engaged and amused. And, almost with fail, my perception of his native Florida was solidified with every page. I was certain the state was colorful, off-kilter, and many a little dangerous, if only because just enough people there operated as if  the very concept of consequences didn’t cross the border from neighboring states. Hiaasen’s investigative takedown of the Disney corporation, Team Rodent, compounds this thesis while showing off his reporter’s chops from his formative days at Cocoa Today and his longtime day job at the Miami Herald.

If the creative vision of Hiaasen didn’t quite match up with my personal experience in Florida, it’s probably for the best. But maybe his bracing assessment of his fellow well-tanned citizens helped me properly prepare for my days there, recalibrating the strangely sensational into comparative acceptable following my time tracing the exploits of those characters bounding across the page.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“Barbara used to say that he didn’t phrase things strongly enough when he visited his doctor. She’d ask, ‘Did you tell him about your back? Did you tell him you were in agony?’ and Liam would say, ‘Well, I mentioned I was experiencing some discomfort.’ Barbara would roll her eyes. So now he leaned forward in his chair. ‘I have a very, very serious concern,’ he said. ‘I really need to talk about this. I feel I’m going crazy.’”

Anne Tyler, Noah’s Compass, 2009

“CONFUSION CURLS LIKE A VISCOUS FOG ABOUT THE REINSTATED MIND OF DR. ALEC HOLLAND — HE KNOWS NOT HOW HIS HAPLESS FRIENDS HAVE COME TO JOIN HIM IN THIS DANK AND DARKLING CHAMBER — HE KNOWS NOT THE NATURE OF THE SCABBED AND SCALY HORROR THAT CONFRONTS THEM — HE KNOWS ONLY THAT THE ONE THING THAT CAN HOPE TO STAND BETWEEN THE TWO IS — HIMSELF…

–David Michelinie, SWAMP THING, Vol. 4, No. 15, “The Soul-Spell of Father Bliss!” 1975

My Misspent Youth: Doomsday by Marv Wolfman

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

ff doomsday

I can’t overstate how magical it was the first time I walked into a comic book shop. My age was barely into double-digits and it was an era when most comics were sold at supermarkets and drug stores, given plenty of real estate over by the magazines, so it was a strange notion, this whole storefront devoted to nothing but these colorful periodicals populated by super-powered beings.

Thrilling as it was to see the new comic books meticulous arranged alphabetically (as opposed to shoveled randomly into a spinner rack) and the piles upon piles of old issues, I think what impressed me most was the array of ancillary products decorated with popular superheroes. At the time, it was a humble lot. There were no bankbook-breaking statues or life-size replica character accouterments. Still, these were items that I’d never seen before and couldn’t imagine finding anywhere else.

On one of those first trips to the comic book shop, I picked up a slender and enticing paperback featuring my favorite characters: the Fantastic Four. It was part of the Marvel Novel Series, which gave some of the most prominent writers employed by the publisher an opportunity to try out some straight prose rendering of the wildly imaginative adventures that set the fictional universe churning. Written by Marv Wolfman, the book was entitled Doomsday. I can see with a slightly mortifying level of certainty that is the one novel that I have read repeatedly in my lifetime.

johnny

The story pitted Marvel’s first family against their chief adversary, the malevolent, megalomaniacal Victor Von Doom. The ruler of Latveria was known the world over by his shorter, more pointed moniker: Doctor Doom.

Wolfman’s tale was filled with details I loved from the Fantastic Four comics, including a pronounced sense of the shared fictional history (Doctor Doom’s staging of a college reunion figures into the plot, as does his fierce desire to retrieve his deceased mother from the netherworld) and a crackling commitment to the well-developed character, particular the familial foursome with a penchant for saving the planet from evildoers.

grimm

Wolfman was writing the Fantastic Four monthly title when this novel was published, in 1979. He structures the story with a welcome commitment to honoring who these characters are, teasing out what made them foundational to Marvel, even if they’d long since been overtaken in popularity by other denizens of the wondrous world.

As I noted, the Fantastic Four were my favorite characters, so the fully recognizable depiction of them was important to me. It gave me another avenue to connect with them, to revel in their heroics. And there was the added benefit that it was the written word rather than dialogue and narration layered atop drawn images. I’d get grouched at if I opened up a comic book in class, but this little paperback — simply by virtue of its format — represented acceptable recreational reading.

And read it I did. I lost count of the number of times I returned to the book, rereading and savoring every last bit of it. I eventually picked up other entries in the Marvel Novel Series from that same comic book shop, but none of the others commanded my attention — fully and repeatedly — like Doomsday.

back cover

The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Writers: Ann Beattie

beattie

I have a foolish aversion to short stories. I’m perplexed about its origins. It may stem from the fact that my time chipping away at an undergraduate English major forever associated the form with the toil of assigned text. (I swear “Hills Like White Elephants” was on the syllabus of every third class I took.) I also worry that I have some strange, snobbish guilt that triggers a lurking, unshakable sense that I should be working on a weightier novel when I’m reading a short story, under the so-many-books-so-little-time provision of life as a consumer of written fiction.

Ann Beattie is one of the writers who decisively demonstrates the shortsightedness of my knee-jerk rejection of the form. Although she’s written enough novels to take of a sizable portion of a shelf, it’s her short stories that totally transfix. They are about incident more than plot, the rippling of emotion more than the shock of the unexpected twist. Beattie captures people moving through mundane lives and illuminates the triumph and heartbreak of simply existing. I don’t know that I could recount the specific happenings of any of her stories, rattling off the details the link into one another. But I can easily recapture the feel of reading them, mostly informed by the sense I’m eavesdropping on individuals who have entire histories I will never know and futures I won’t see.

In her attentiveness to the intricacies of life — the moments that can easily be overlooked but often perplexingly stick in the memory more firmly that the grander tumult — Beattie reminds me of Anne Tyler, the first author who taught me that a story doesn’t need to have a big, obvious hook to be important and meaningful, that fiction’s strength is less in its invention than in its truthfulness. Beattie reminds me that it doesn’t take pages upon pages upon pages to achieve that honesty. Sometimes a few words will do.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“Barrett watched the wrangling without pleasure. It all seemed impossibly dull and dreary to him, this quibbling over the phraseology of a manifesto. That was essentially what he had expected to find here; a bunch of futilitarian hairsplitters in a draft basement room, battling furiously over minute semantic differences. Were these the revolutionaries who would hold back the world from chaos? Hardly. Hardly.”

–Robert Silverberg, Hawksbill Station, 1968

SEA-BLUE AND BLOOD RED: THESE ARE THE COLORS THAT WASH PAST THE GOLDEN AVENGER’S EYES AS HE STRUGGLES, DESPERATELY, AGAINST HIS OWN ARMOR! FOR MERE HEARTBEATS AGO, BENEATH THE CHILL WATERS OF THE ATLANTIC, THAT ARMOR HAD MALFUNCTIONED — ITS EYE AND MOUTH SLITS JAMMING INEXPLICABLY OPEN! AND UNLESS IRON MAN CAN STEM THE SUDDEN FLOW OF INRUSHING BRINE, OR QUELL THE PANIC THAT IT ENGENDERS, THE NEXT COLOR HE SEES MAY WELL BE — DEATH BLACK!

–David Michelinie, IRON MAN, Vol. 1, No. 121, “A Ruse By Any Other Name…” 1979

Great Moments in Literature

“Now he was fifty-four years old and was as intriguing to corporate America as an airplane built from mud. He could not find work, could not find clients. He had moved from Schwinn to Huffy to Frontier Manufacturing Partners to Alan Clay Consulting to sitting at home watching DVDs of the Red Sox winning the Series in ’04 and ’07. The game when they hit four consecutive home runs against the Yankees. April 22, 2007. He’d watched these four and a half minutes a hundred times and each viewing brought him something like joy. A sense of rightness, of order. It was a victory that could never be taken away.”

–Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King, 2012

 

“THE FIRST THING I LEARNED AS A KID TRAPPED IN LIMBO WAS NOT TO TRUST ANYBODY! THE SECOND THING WAS ESPECIALLY NOT TO TRUST DEMONS!

–Louise Simonson, NEW MUTANTS, Vol. 1, No. 63, “Redemption,” 1988

My Writers: Jeffrey Toobin

toobin

There are a few broad style of writing that regularly face criticism, not without justification. Academic writing is one of them. Another is so ruthlessly dismissed as impenetrable that it has its own description: legalese. It’s understandable. The fundamental nature of the writing makes it dense, thorough, and bloodless. But within the occupational impetus for the writing style lies a key to great nonfiction writing, at least for those authors who chose to properly leverage it. Legal writing shares some genes with the best of journalism. It presents facts and analyze them, then briskly, smartly, capably makes a case.

The first time I remember fully and properly taking note of Jeffrey Toobin’s talents was when he wrote about abortion. A former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Toobin addressed the supposedly touchy subject with an appealing certainty, an obvious and forceful belief that there was no need to be skittish about discussing it. He laid out the plain truth: it is constitutionally-protected medical procedure that millions of American women have had, not cavalierly but because they genuinely felt the need to do so. He finished, as his training would have it, with a compelling closing argument:

But as framed by Democrats and the President, the current debate about abortion—centered as it is around rape victims and the health exception—put women in the position of supplicants, seeking permission to end their pregnancies. Most people, fortunately, think there are circumstances where that permission should be granted. But true freedom is not freedom to ask permission—it’s freedom to make a decision. That’s what pro-choice really means, and it would be healthy for abortion-rights supporters to say so clearly and often.

I’d certainly read other articles from Toobin before that piece, but that was the cloud-breaking beam that illuminated the breadth of his skill. From there, I was ready to follow him nearly anywhere.

Luckily for me, Toobin tends to go to places and times that hold a certain fascination for me anyway. He wrote a dishy but factually serious books about the inner workings of the current Supreme Court and, most recently, a tremendously detailed history of the Patty Hearst saga. In each instance, Toobin locks in on his story, sharing telling details and occasionally deflating the puffed up myth-making of others with an expertly crafted wry aside. He lays out facts and shows how they add up to a greater truth, just like a good lawyer. And an even better writer.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.