Book Review: UnAmerican Activities

UnAmerican Activities, by James Miller, is a collection of ten interlinked short stories set in contemporary America. They tell of drug users and porn stars, college kids and religious fanatics, vampires and republicans. The dark, beating heart of the book explores the ingrained beliefs that drive so many to behave irrationally. Despite the perversions depicted the stories are somehow highly entertaining. It was an unexpected delight to find this such a captivating read.

The book opens with an ‘UnPrologue’ which explains the origins of the stories that follow. It sets the tone and is a story in itself. The reader is then introduced to the first of a cast of characters who will appear intermittently throughout the collection. Each story stands alone but it is the wider plot arc that kept me so engaged.

The first, Eat My Face, is a tale of drug users and gun toting criminals. Their backstories may garner a degree of sympathy but they do little to help themselves with the choices they make. High on meth, crack and alcohol they stoke their paranoias, sharing stories of vampires invading the higher echelons of influence, decrying those they blame for the sorry state of the world as they perceive it to be.

“Usurping the white man’s power. Taking our place. Overturning the order.”

Hope’s End takes an ex-pat Professor of Ancient American Cultures at Cornell on a road trip alongside a young student with whom he is having an affair. In Iowa they are arrested for indecency, thus preventing the academic from reaching his destination, an archaeological discovery in Dakota where a strange sickness is afflicting those involved in the dig. There are strange goings on at both locations, a pastiche of Midwestern American values and beliefs.

Exploding Zombie Cock completes the trio of introductory stories. It is set among wealthy students in New York playing host to a marine due to leave for a tour of Afghanistan and looking for a good time before he faces life threatening combat. When the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend shows interest in the personable young soldier jealousy rears its head. A potion from a witchdoctor in Haiti that has been gathering dust in a cupboard is deployed, with unexpected effects.

Pour Out The Vials introduces a family of religious extremists who believe the goings on in Dakota signify the coming of Armageddon. This is not the first time they have seen such signs and their teenage daughter has grown inured to the prophecies her mother makes through an alcoholic haze. With her father at church and her mother in a stupor she watches videos posted on a cultish blog, of strange happenings that are not explained.

The Kiss Of The Nephilim brings a vampire into the cast of characters. After everything that has gone before this makes sense, bringing to the fore the dark humour of these tales. The fantastical beings and events appear no more ridiculous than the recognisable actions and prejudices of the more everyday population. Behaviours are disturbingly familiar.

With five stories remaining there are still plenty of characters to get to know: a bounty hunter with a sideline in vampire slaying; an internet porn star convinced she can retain ownership of her body; a hellfire preacher decrying the wider population’s fake churches, determined to drive these false Christians back to what he considers righteous ways, by whatever means.

The final story offers a humorous dig at the author’s own circle and neatly rounds up what has been a clever, incendiary, ludicrous in places but always entertaining wider tale. There is an UnEpilogue which confirms that this was never meant to be of a work of fiction in the style taught in creative writing workshops.

“there’s no clear trajectory from beginning through middle to crisis and then on to acute crisis – you know, the moment in the story when all seems lost and from where things go on to climax and resolution, the five acts”

It is undoubtedly stronger for its originality, clever without being clever for its own sake.

This is a rollicking ride through the hinterlands of America – I suspect the author loves the country whilst recognising its many hypocrisies and failures. As a work of literature it is impressive in its lightly presented depth. A subversive, deliciously indecorous, gratifying read.

UnAmerican Activities is published by Dodo Ink.

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Book Review: Black Dahlia Red Rose

Black Dahlia Red Rose, by Piu Eatwell, is a re-examination of a brutal murder that occured seventy years ago in America which has never been officially solved. Told as a true crime story it offers a snapshot of Los Angeles, its police department and citizens, in an era that will be familiar from film. As the author writes in her preface:

“This era is commonly visualized through the movies, as the era of film noir: a time of corrupt cops and gun-toting gangsters, cynical heroes, and bottle blondes doling out deadpan one-liners. But the slick film noir repartee belied the brutal inequalities of reality. In truth, it was a tough time after a tough war in a tough world.”

This tough world was being navigated by beautiful young women with stars in their eyes who descended on Los Angeles looking for fame. What they found instead were predatory men who viewed the aspiring starlets as expendable game.

The Black Dahlia was twenty-two year old Elizabeth Short, whose body was found dumped on waste ground in an LA suburb. She had been beaten, slashed, bled out and cut in two. The newspapers of the time were allowed access to evidence and potential suspects that would be unthinkable today. Often it was the journalists who moved the case forward. As evidence mounted it seemed that key figures within the police wished to stifle the investigation.

Unusually for the time, the LAPD employed a forensic psychologist, Dr Paul De River. He produced a profile of the killer and was subsequently contacted by a man who appeared a potential fit. There were other suspects but the most likely had powerful contacts who routinely paid the police for their cooperation. Corruption ran deep throughout the city and the Black Dahlia was one of many murders in a society that regarded its young women as objects whose purpose was to provide pleasure for others.

The story is structured in narrative form but is written using facts gleaned from documents produced throughout the original investigation. The LAPD continue to refuse to release key evidence, some of which has mysteriously disappeared. The book provides a detailed account of the crime and those tasked with apprehending a murderer. It is a search for the truth, suppressed on the remit of powerful individuals, now dead.

From the discovery of the body through to the case being finaly shelved, the reader is offered insights, fully cross-referenced and explained in footnotes, a bibliography and detailed endnotes. The story told is a lesson in the sham of 1950s supposed values, and in the lack of value placed on certain lives. The photographs at the end, drawn from evidence, are chilling.

The author has studied this evidence, consulted with experts, and drawn a conclusion as to the likely killer. As a lawyer she is well placed to undertake this task. She offers a cinematic retelling of the case that is evocative and compelling. An example of fact being even more shocking than fiction.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Coronet.

Book Review: Anything is Possible

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout, is marketed as a novel but reads as a series of interconnected short stories. Each of the nine chapters introduces the reader to a new protagonist with links to a small town in Illinois, USA. Many of the characters are related and briefly referred to in each other’s stories. Also mentioned with a regularity that irked is Lucy Barton, a successful novelist who grew up in the town and got away.

The author received much critical acclaim for her novel My Name is Lucy Barton which I have not read. By referring to this character so frequently it sometimes felt promotional. Lucy does make an appearance in one of the chapters but in that story is no more important than anyone else. The townsfolk would likely be interested in the minor celebrity of their former resident but the number of references made gave her an importance that felt overplayed.

Each of the nine stories explores the private lives and intimate thoughts of a middle aged or elderly resident over a few days in their lives. The writing style brought to mind that of Kent Haruf although is rougher around the edges. It tries to be gently perceptive yet portrays mainly the unpleasant aspects of character. In particular, the grown up children appear selfish and needy, blaming their parents for not being willing to put up with unhappiness in order to perpetuate the myth of family desired.

Progressing through each chapter the reader is shown how characters are viewed through other’s eyes. The starving children who hunt for discarded food are reviled for not showing sufficient shame at their predicament. When they raise their standard of living later in life there is little admiration, rather an expectation is voiced that they should remember their roots and not look to be accepted as equals by those who always enjoyed plenty.

Obesity is regarded as a self inflicted failure. A husband’s affair is more shocking for the size of his mistress compared to his wife than for the infidelity. The depictions of married life are, in places, deeply disturbing. Even when abuse is recognised the reaction of neighbours is to look away.

While appreciating the unpleasant truth of the views portrayed the lack of balance detracted from my enjoyment. Kindnesses were shown in places but always, it seemed, with a degree of resentment. Perhaps I am naive in believing that people are not as self-obsessed as portrayed here. The writing may be piercing, the style fluid, but I did not derive pleasure from reading.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Viking.

 

Anything is Possible has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. It is the final book on this shortlist to be reviewed and the only one to have been selected by a panel of judges rather than by public vote.