Jess Walter: Beautiful Ruins
Obeisance to the idea of "story" is by now the central piety of almost every one in film and everyone in publishing, but only a few films and novels each decade manage to make us think in new ways about narrative itself, about narrative as a form of knowledge, narrative as the royal road to understanding.
Jess Walter, who has won various prizes for his earlier novels, gives us alternating stories in this, one set in a small fishing village on the Italian coast near La Spezia in 1962, and the other in today's Hollywood. These two eventually meet up, but along the way we get a number of other stories, and other ways of telling them. There's the text of a movie pitch, a bit of a script, part of a play, and manuscripts of a novel and of a book being written by a movie producer. (This last is clearly based on Robert Evans, and his book, The Kid Stays in the Picture, right down to an occasional 'You bet I did!')
1962 is the year that Cleopatra, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was being filmed in Rome, the making of which is a story itself – the film came in twenty times over budget, and is the most expensive film ever made (over $350 million in today's dollars). And that is not a coincidence.
There is a lot of fun to be had by film buffs, and plenty of, well, story….
Deanne Stillman: Desert Reckoning
Deanne Stillman is an award-winning nonfiction writer from Los Angeles who really knows her deserts. She has an earlier book called Twentynine Palms that is about a muder in the high desert north of Palm Springs. This book anatomizes the killing of a cop by a desert hermit in the Antelope Valley. Stillman is a great writer, and one of the few who fully capture the sparse culture our California deserts, the kinds of people who are drawn to live there, the reasons they, like the plant life, thrive only at a certain distance from any other living things.
Desert Reckoning follows the full story of everyone involved, from the killer's youth in the Inland Empire to the fiery conclusion of "the largest manhunt in human history." She has enormous sympathy for everyone involved, and yet never lapses into sentimentality or melodrama. The text rocks along like a good novel.
David Goodis: Five Noir Novels of the 1940's and 1950's
The Library of America is the closest thing we have to a literary canon at this point, now that the power of arbiters like the New York Times or prize committees seem to have less power than ever before. But if you are published in a Library of America edition, you are in.
David Goodis, who like many noir writers has a life straight out of a pulp plot (dead at 49), is as unlikely a candidate for canonization as anyone they have published yet. He was loved by French directors like Francois Truffaut (Shoot the Piano Player) and Hollywood (Dark Passage with Bogart and Bacall), but he wrote a lot of terrible novels, and his best are not at the Chandler-Hammett-Thompson-Highsmith level. But these five, selected by NYU's Robert Polito, one of the real experts in this tradition, are all fun examples of the ultra-hard-boiled mode, where characters do not, as in Jess Walter's case, shoot people for good reasons, or as in Deanne Stillman's, shoot them for complicated reasons – they do it, and worse, out of simple greed, lust, and nastiness.