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04-06-12: Tim Dorsey Tosses the 'Pineapple Grenade'

Storms Warning

Certain skills cannot be denied; comic timing, word density and the balance of language, manic inventiveness, the ebb and flow of plot and character to keep the reading lively. These are the skills that decide whether the book will make you smile or force an inadvertent laugh-out-loud response. But beyond these it's a matter of taste. Because, I have to admit, you've got to be a certain sort of person to enjoy Tim Dorsey's comedic mysteries. Here is the opening phrase of his latest novel,' Pineapple Grenade' : "A prosthetic leg with a Willie Nelson bumper sticker on it..."

If that image makes you smile, or better yet, laugh, you're in. If you haven't read Dorsey's Serge Storms novels, you might want to choose this moment to start with 'Florida Roadkill.' But don't let mere chronological order deter you, because chaos and disorder are the order of the day when you start messing around with Dorsey's Serge Storms. The short version is, he kills people (generally bad guys) in very inventive ways, and manages to make a living at it, even in this rotten economy. It might inspire you, but if it does, it's probably best not to admit it. Storms rights wrongs but commits so many of the latter himself, in a Hunter Thompson-esque oblivion, that the whole "Robin Hood" vibe is pretty well undermined. But if you're looking for a funny, violent, profane novel, then Dorsey's your man.

'Pineapple Grenade' finds Serge Storms and his pot-smoking sidekick Coleman signing themselves into the world of espionage while they take a whack at tourist crime. What starts out seeming like a series of random choices on the parts of both Serge and the author entertainingly coalesce into a shaggy-dog plot with South American dictators, gun runners, inept American spies, Big Oil, drug tests and one set-piece after another involving means of killing that would make Rube Goldberg green with envy. Dorsey is a master at injecting events into his plot that at first seem so random as to be humorously absurd. But over time, those random events become intrinsic plot points. While it all seems very fast and loose, the level of skill Dorsey brings to the novel is really quite impressive. 'Pineapple Grenade' is first-class hyper-violent farce.

Serge and Coleman are our guides through a wild, upside-down anti-tour guide to the weirdest parts of Florida you can hope to see only in your imagination. Serge is almost childlike in his wonder and enthusiasm, and the latter is infectious, so long as you don't mind all the violence. He dives into every day, every moment, every task with a gusto that is alarming and out-of-proportion, but almost innocently charming — even if he's figuring out a way to remove the internal organs of a victim without leaving any external evidence of having done so. Coleman is a pot-smoking goofball whose spacey oblivion provides the perfect counterspin. Beyond these two, 'Pineapple Grenade' sports a series of characters who are farcically outrageous but have enough stuff to seem real and fit in well with Serge and Coleman.

Prose and language itself are the real stars here. Dorsey makes the novel look so easy you'll not question what he's doing or how he's doing it. Now, the level of violence is quite high, and if that's a showstopper, then this is not the book you are looking for. But if those words bring a smile to your face, prepare to be thoroughly satisfied. Dorsey is a skillful writer with a rather laconic style of delivery, other than those times when Serge gets to go off on one of his rants. It's only after you finish the novel that you might, just might realize that Dorsey has been ranting, with a surgical precision. 'Pineapple Grenade' is an indication of just how versatile the mystery genre can be, and just how funny violence can be — so long as you're not one of the folks that Serge Storms sees as the starting point for his next DIY project.

04-03-12: Archive Review: T. C. Boyle 'Drop City'

Utopia, Easier Said Than Done

Editor's note: Those who caught last week's podcast of the conversation between Karen Joy Fowler and Terry Bisson may have heard this book mentioned. It makes a great companion piece for Bisson's 'Any Day Now.'

You can hear my conversation with TC Boyle about 'Drop City' by following this link to the MP3 audio file.

Utopia is a tough act to follow. What's more, it's not usually what it's cracked up to be. When we think of the perfect society, it is inevitably something different from that in which we currently reside. It usually involves less work, more wealth, less responsibility and more freedom. The presumption is that these aspects of life are not mutually exclusive. But the dearth of working utopias in our world suggests that utopia is a lot easier to write about in theory than execute in fact. TC Boyle's latest novel, 'Drop City', visits a working utopia not of the future, but of the past. Set in California and Alaska in the year 1970, Boyle's vision of utopia is not particularly utopian. The grubby and spoiled children of America, given the chance to do exactly what they want to do, spend their time having sex and taking drugs. This naturally leads to conflict. Given this utopian vision, the world of the present seems a lot less surprising. Boyle's vision is centered on his characters, however, and their humanity exhibits power and beauty as well as sordid pettiness.

Drop City is a big chunk of farmland in Northern California, inherited by Norm Sender and inhabited by Sender and a group of drop-outs. Star and Ronnie — who calls himself Pan — are émigrés from the East coast, hippies of the first order who drove across the country and ended up in Norm's commune. They are sometimes an item and sometimes not an item. Star is strong-willed and open-hearted. She falls for Marco, a recent arrival to Drop City. But as the numbers in the community swell, the land itself begins to rebel. Sewage becomes a problem that requires hard work to resolve, and hard work isn't part of most of Drop City's residents' vision of utopia. When the situation gets dire, it becomes easier to relocate to a remote part of Alaska than it will be to remedy the havoc wreaked upon the farm and the community.

Boynton Alaska is the sad, last mud hut at the tip of American civilization. Boynton's residents, and those who live outside in homesteads, are able to live off the land only by virtue of back-breaking work. Sess Harder and his wife Pamela have created their own rough piece of heaven in this forbidding environment. They've made friends and enemies along the way. The arrival of Drop City will bring with it an ample supply of both.

Boyle's vision of the times is decidedly un-satiric and unsentimental. There's no editorializing on the excesses of the inhabitants of Drop City, just an icy clear vision of excess, success and rewards reaped by both. In creating a utopian society, the inhabitants of Drop City studiously ignore how dependent they are on the tools and comforts provided by the society they are rejecting. Boyle's perspective on the environment is fascinating and complex. The very people who are trying to live in harmony with the land are quite unaware how thoroughly they are trashing it.

Readers who come to Boyle expecting a broad farce will be disappointed. Boyle's writing and vision is carefully reigned in. But there is lots of humor here. It's just not at the expense of the characters, but rather developed out of the contrast between the reader's perspective and the character's perspective. We know how this all turned out. Communes went the way of the eight-track tape; which, yes, does still have a few aficionados. But his characters are not by any means reigned in, and the huge cast spills out over the pages. It takes a while for them to settle down in the readers' imagination, to acquire form and face. In fact, there are many junctures when the readers will wish that Boyle had gone into greater detail about the adventures of these fascinatingly flawed people. Boyle definitely opts to leave the readers wanting more, not less of the novel.

Boyle's strength in 'Drop City' is his ability to orchestrate a huge cast, and an intricate plot in a very naturalistic fashion. This novel is the written equivalent of intimate cinema. All the characters are allowed to simply be themselves, to their detriment or their betterment. To Boyle's credit, the characters who turn out to be dishonest and despicable are every bit as compelling as those who prove to be worthy of their own utopian ambitions — and vice versa. Every character in 'Drop City' commands the respect and the interest of the reader.

Boyle's plot is fairly straightforward and still very compelling. He creates two complex casts of characters — each containing conflict in isolation, and they are isolated, from one another and in general from the world at large. Both would like to disregard the world at large, though both depend on it at the base level of food and fuel. Boyle then literally rolls one huge batch of characters at the other and the pull of the novel is seeing how the chaos that will surely follow plays out.

Our fascination with the 1960's and 1970's may tend to obscure what Boyle achieves with this novel. We're all still very close to that time, so it's difficult to realize that Boyle is writing a historical novel. While Boyle himself clearly lived through these years, he writes about them as if he were merely very, very well informed about them via historical research. It gives 'Drop City' a sense of power and distance, while Boyle's characterizations and descriptive talents lend it the sense of immediacy. 'Drop City' will definitely leave you with an entire and entirely imperfect world in your grasp. Utopia eludes those characters who search for it outside of themselves. As a reader, you may feel that Boyle's novel creates just such a place.

04-02-12: C. J. Box Creates a 'Force of Nature'

Drawing and Erasing a Lines

The line between man and nature is the only artificial creation of man that is not part of nature. Our cities, our technology and in particular our selves are all natural, as much as we would like to think otherwise. It is in our nature to create nests that destroy the landscape, and build transport to carry our fragile bodies farther and faster than the bodies themselves can move. In C. J. Box's latest novel, man is indeed the greatest 'Force of Nature,' and as well, a victim of his own nature.

The novel begins the day after the previous book, 'Cold Wind,' ended. Bodies are discovered and Joe Pickett's off-the-grid ex-Special Forces friend, Nate Romanowski, is involved. All the times readers and Joe himself have been teased in the past about Nate's mysterious past are about to pay off, and the payout won't make anyone richer. Ignorance will beget violence. The chase is on and there is little room for miscalculation. But mistakes are an integral part of human nature, even for the most sophisticated predators.

'Force of Nature' is darker and more violent than other Joe Pickett novels. Box's plot reaches back into Nate's past to find humans who make Nate's falcons seem beneficent in the manner and reasons by and for which they kill. Box has also set himself up a very difficult and delicate problem; Joe Pickett is the main character in a book where he has to take a back seat to his friend Nate. That's a balancing act that is very difficult to pull off, but Box's careful plotting and genuinely likeable characters make it possible. When the first bodies are discovered, Joe, who has a new trainee, is pulled into the investigation by Sheriff McLanahan, an oily incompetent. Joe's buddy Nate is the obvious suspect. The race is on to find Nate, as Nate has to find those ultimately responsible for the violence, and confront his past.

Box writes with a crisp prose that reflects the glory of his environment without elaboration. He can frame a scene of action with the expertise of a motion picture director, and there are plenty of examples in this novel that demonstrate his skill. The dialogue is passionate when it needs to be and terse when required. Only rarely will readers be cognizant of anything other than the story and the characters.

Box's approach to handling the split in this novel is to examine the ethics of his characters, as Joe and Nate are forced to make difficult, life-threatening choices. Joe has always been about family, which is for him a force of nature, one that includes Nate. And as Nate reveals his past, Box cleverly brings in a bit of real history to force readers to think about choices they have made, and those made for them. As easily as it reads, it is also both poignant and thought-provoking.

Box does not short us on the mystery aspects of what we're reading. Clues and suspects are offered then revealed in a manner where your participation as a reader is fully rewarded. You will get to yell at the characters, and yes, you will find them surprising you back. All this plays out against the backdrop of big country, magnificently described with falconry expertly intertwined and integral to the plot.

'Force of Nature' is a well-earned and well-wrought reward for readers of C. J. Box' series. Without sidelining his main character, Joe Pickett, or taking him out of character, Box gives us an involving and very intense Nate Romanowski novel. That Box pulls off the inclusion of the bit of history in Nate's background is every bit as exciting as the falcons swooping down on their prey. But he does so in manner that will leave readers satisfied with a "regular" Joe Pickett novel sometime down the line, and that in itself is an accomplishment.

In the novel, Nate refers to the state of yarak, in which a falcon, or any other predator, is fully engaged in his world and his pursuit of prey. Box clearly reached that state himself as he wrote 'Force of Nature,' pursuing his story without fear, ultimately killing the question of Nate's past with power and grace.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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