Friday, November 28, 2014

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse November 2014

This month's meeting of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, chaired by Armchair Squid, falls on Black Friday.  Spend some time reading!

This month I began tackling my recent Jerome Charyn order beginning with his first book, Once Upon a Droshky, released fifty years ago this year, and then The Isaac Quartet, collecting the first four Isaac Sidel crime novels.

My history with Charyn began in 2008 with the release of Johnny One-Eye, set in the Revolutionary War, characteristically a picaresque journey across a turning point in history.  I fell in love with the author immediately and began a picaresque journey of my own through his backlog.  I wasn't aware of the significance of Sidel (much less that the whole series even existed) until the release of his latest adventure, Under the Eye of God, in 2012, which is the eleventh in the series.

Until Isaac Quartet I was far more familiar with the crime genre in movies than in books, which is to say I was only familiar with crime movies.  Crime novels are normally shelved with mysteries at a bookstore and as such are easy to lose in the shuffle.  Crime comic books are perhaps easier to find, and the most famous example would be Frank Miller's Sin City, a series that has been adapted into a couple of Robert Rodriguez movies (Sin City, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For).

Charyn is an unabashed fan of Quentin Tarantino (he wrote Raised by Wolves, tracking the filmmaker's career through Kill Bill), but his style probably has more in common with Rodriguez, whether depicted in the Mariachi trilogy (El Mariachi, Desperado, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico), the Machete movies (Machete, Machete Kills) the From Dusk Till Dawn franchise (From Dusk Till Dawn itself and various spin-offs, including a new TV version on Rodriguez's own channel, El Rey), Planet Terror.

If you're not too familiar with Rodriguez (I would watch Desperado to get an idea of his style), you might also consider Martin Scorsese (I know Squid is familiar with Goodfellas, which would be a nice primer to understand the Guzmann family that causes Sidel so much misery in the early books) or the Bad Lieutenant films (Bad Lieutenant, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans).

Isaac Quarter follows the legacy of Sidel's trusted underling, the eponymous Blue Eyes of the first book, Manfred Coen, who becomes a Billy Budd figure, one of many literary references (James Joyce abounds in Secret Isaac, the last book in the volume).  Much of how Charyn constructed the premise of Sidel's world comes from the author's own life.  Coen's obsession with ping pong comes from Charyn's.  Charyn's brother is a New York cop.  Although hopefully he has no firsthand experience with a worm in his gut, what Sidel acquires after half a year undercover with the Guzmanns.

Charyn is most comfortable exploring the various ways his characters rationalize their lives, often in the midst of considerable turmoil (Mel Gibson's Riggs in the Lethal Weapon movies is probably another good example).  The reader's challenge is to separate these self-justifications from the circumstances that have created them.  Actually, that's a good summary of Once Upon a Droshky.  As a series, the Sidel books have a way of putting an extreme focus on Charyn's tendencies.  The longer he spends with a character, the less excuses they have to hide behind.  Often Charyn's characters have unhappy fates (his latest book, I Am Abraham, may make that most clear: the lead character is, after all, Abraham Lincoln), making Sidel the rare instance where despite everything he does he keeps coming out on top, the infinitely evolving good luck of a bad luck guy.   

I'm currently reading Darlin' Bill, featuring Wild Bill Hickok, which was released in 1980 and seems to suggest both the later Secret Life of Emily Dickinson and I Am Abraham.  More value from following Charyn's career.
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