Tuesday, April 01, 2008
BLOOD TRAIL by Gary J. Cook (Note the J.)
Enough has already been said about what genre this book is. Suffice it to say that I consider it a book about “back of the moon” things: Vietnam, Japan, and Missoula. You can figure out for yourself whether it’s “noir” or “adventure” or “crime” or something else. A little bit “Legends of the Fall,” a little bit “The Spy Game.” Spies and international cartels and gorgeous, brilliant women and US government whatsises who are universally blundering pricks. Wise old men, both Japanese and Montanan. And a spook who is a spade and the hero’s shadow. Lots of inside stuff about guns and nicknames and acronyms. Plenty of well-described scenery, including quite a few snakes and a couple of bears. Many surprises that are signaled just enough to make a reader wary.
One of my pet theories is that the wave of Westerns in the Fifties were “stand down” films, meant (maybe unconsciously) to persuade WWII soldiers attuned to violence that they should put aside their weapons -- or at least use them only in extreme cases to defend the community. They were about looking for a moral center. At the same time that Americans were glued to our new black and white TV sets watching “Gunsmoke” and “Paladin” enforce justice and law, the Japanese were making movies about a far larger kind of cultural change, usually using historical and mythic material. I just watched two of them, both directed by Mizoguchi: “Sansho Dayu” and “Ugetsu.” They’re not samurai movies with people flying around in the bamboo. Both are about greed, feudal systems that treat people like “product,” and what it takes for an individual to cause change. They are on a far more philosophical, far-reaching scale than most Westerns, meant to be ideas for a whole culture, one just then stunned by defeat and the need to rebuild. It’s remarkable how modern they sound. “Blood Trail” is carefully enough written and inspired enough to -- well, not to be compared to Japanese masterpieces exactly -- but it’s more than a trashy thriller. It’s certainly as good as the better Westerns.
This book, like classic Japanese movies from the Criterion Collection, is presented as well made: bound beautifully, gold foil embossed stamp, nice paper and type. But someone didn’t shell out enough money for a proof reader who knew the subject. Little missteps like “beetle” for “betel.” ("Bloody Mary" never chewed no ladybugs.) The English spelling of judgement. (US: one “e”). If a publisher is expecting an educated reader, such glitches need to be addressed. On the other hand, Dennis McMillan, who is a publisher in the old-fashioned personal-pride way, may not realize that old English teachers ever read such books or that Spell Check is not magic. These books are sold like Western Art books: a small edition with a hundred copies bound in morocco leather and slipcased. They cost plenty. If you can find them. I had to borrow via Interlibrary Loan from Minnesota.
In Montana there are only a few ways for people who are ordinary local guys to “strike it big:” rodeo, art, writing, maybe military -- it won’t happen by ranching unless you cash the land out for subdivisions. People who write are often driving hard for success, sometimes harder than their writing or life-experience will take them. That is not the case here. I mean, this is highly commercial writing -- saleable.
Writing about violence and grisly stuff is hard because few people really experience much of it. I’ll say right here that I’ve seen a lot of destroyed animals but the dead people were mostly in photos. Beyond a certain point, once the creature is dead, it can be hard to interpret, like the furry disc I once impounded from a street -- only identifiable by a puppy paw sticking out one side that somehow escaped the tires. Or the tiny photo “Time” magazine once printed of a plastic surgeon who had altered the appearance of a mob boss and was no longer needed: the doc’s body had been packed into a steel drum that was filled with cement and thrown into a lake. Fished out months later and separated from the cement, the doc looked... well, rag and bone come to mind. Of course, nowadays, we’d pick up that photo on the Internet, enhance and analyze it until we could count his dental fillings. We have an unholy appetite for this stuff. Hard to shock us. Even the worst crimes in this book are things we see in the newspaper, no detail spared. Writing about destroyed flesh is a narrow line to walk. If there’s too much detail, it gets confused. If it’s undercut too far, the reader doesn’t get impact. If it’s too bizarre, we just won’t get it. Actual violence, if one is in the middle of it, taking and giving damage, is very hard to interpret. If one has been trained properly, training takes over and hopefully will carry one through. Otherwise, the brain goes into overload and responds erratically -- if it doesn’t freeze. It’s all BamSplatRipBoomWha?
Cook handles both violence and sex well in this book: they are intelligible, intelligent and credible. The violence gets the ritual preparation and the sex just happens, but without TOO much detail and believably. Probably for the best. His playful dialogues, whatever the context, are great fun.
There is a lot of technical stuff about weapons and modern tech gear that I’m not equipped to judge but it sounded okay to me. There was a good deal about using the landscape, all specific and sometimes scary, like the two signature cobras that stick their heads up above the elephant grass in the prologue. Both the Asian scenes and the Montana scenes were convincing. “Social terrain,” houses and towns, are laid out so we can picture them and imagine a “map” when people are pursuing each other. From Missoula bar versus a Japanese coffee shop to an old Montana house versus an old Japanese house. Photos on the wall or ratty old mounted heads on the wall -- we can see it, we smell it, and it’s not random. They are threads in the story.
Getting closer to the point:
On a higher level yet is the philosophical discussion that stays pretty much in the background until near the end of the novel. Drug-based as so much of International Asian corruption has been, how does one kick the deepest drug that can hook a person: the adrenaline that comes from killing people? How do you keep ‘em under control once they’ve been to Hell? (How do you like your employees now, Mr. Blackwater?)
So there’s all that. How does a person write such a book? I think to write it this well a person has to actually be driven by the issues under the plot, an awareness of how deeply this Death Monster has ahold of us all right now. Nowhere to go to get away from it.
But I have a phrase to offer: “defiant exceptionalism,” the belief that one can go to Hell, beat the odds through skill and heart, and come out of it not only a better self but also a better person than the clods around one. This is a bit tricky. You want those clods to feel included enough to put their money down for the book. They’re paying to participate in the ability to survive. Even I am taking notes on how to survive. Might need it. (Why do you think I’m living in Valier? Well, now that they’ve disarmed the missile silo just over the hill. I think. We DO get the occasional black helicopter at our teeny airport.) In some ways this book is preparation for Destroyed World scenarios, sci-fi dystopias. It helps us believe we can make it through and -- I hope -- it motivates us to action before it’s too late.
The irony -- and I find it a harsh one -- is that when the hero gets back to Missoula they’ve sold out. It’s a resort high-dollar town now. Giant refrigerators, slate countertops, international tourists, and Moose Drool beer. I suppose some will think that’s a happy ending.