Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry is kind of an odd book. It starts out with a guy remembering one of his friends and how he died. Then we flash back to that day and focus on that friend, as well as the two people with him. The guy who starts the book makes some appearance later, but not much. That’s probably an odd way to open discussion of this book, but Under the Volcano is a strange book.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Walter Kirn.)

Geoffrey Firmin is ‘the Consul.’ Well, that’s what he’s called. He’s actually a drunk. He was a consul at one point, but still pretty much in name only even then. Consuls watch out for the business interests of their country. There wasn’t much of that in the small Mexico town Firmin was posted in, even before the UK severed ties with Mexico and pulled their people back. He was pretty much sent there to get him out of the way. When the UK pulled out, Firmin stayed.

We know from the very start of Under the Volcano that Firmin is going to die. We read to find out how, and in what manner his death occurs.

On this day, Firmin is drunk. He’s pinned between desperately wanting his former wife to return to him and wanting to be left alone to pretty much drink himself into oblivion. She comes back, wanting him to leave Mexico so they can form a life together again. However, he’s still pinned. He’s not going anywhere. His half brother is also there, making a bit of a love triangle.

But, most importantly, as I already mentioned, Firmin is drunk:

… The Consul, an inconceivable anguish of horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull, and accompanied by a protective screen of demons gnattering in his ears, became aware that in the horrid event of his being observed by his neighbours it could hardly be supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view. Nor even that he was sauntering. The Consul, who had waked a moment or two ago on the porch and remembered everything immediately, was almost running. He was also lurching. In vain he tried to check himself, plunging his hands, with an extraordinary attempt at nonchalance, in which he hoped might appear more than a hint of consular majesty, deeper into the sweat-soaked pockets of his dress trousers. And now, rheumatisms discarded, he really was running… Might he not, then, be reasonably suspected of a more dramatic purpose, of having assumed, for instance, the impatient buskin of a William Blackstone leaving the Puritans to dwell among the Indians, or the desperate mien of his friend Wilson when he so magnificently abandoned the University Expedition to disappear, likewise in a pair of dress trousers, into the jungles of darkest Oceania, never to return? Not very reasonably. For one thing, if he continued much farther in this present direction towards the bottom of his garden any such visioned escape into the unknown must shortly be arrested by what was, for him, an unscalable wire fence. “Do not be so foolish as to imagine you have no object, however. We warned you, we told you so, but now that in spite of all our pleas you have got yourself into this deplorable—” He recognized the tone of one of his familiars, faint among the other voices as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind. “—condition,” the voice went on severely, “you have to do something about it. Therefore we are leading you towards the accomplishment of this something.” “I’m not going to drink,” the Consul said, halting suddenly. “Or am I? Not mescal anyway.” “Of course not, the bottle’s just there, behind that bush. Pick it up.” “I can’t,” he objected—”That’s right, just take one drink, just the necessary, the therapeutic drink: perhaps two drinks.” “God,” the Consul said. “Ah. Good. God. Christ.” “Then you can say it doesn’t count.” “It doesn’t. It isn’t mescal.” “Of course not, it’s tequila. You might have another.” “Thanks, I will.” The Consul palsiedly readjusted the bottle to his lips. “Bliss. Jesus. Sanctuary… Horror,” he added. “—Stop. Put that bottle down, Geoffrey Firmin, what are you doing to yourself?” another voice said in his ear so loudly he turned round. On the path before him a little snake he had thought a twig was rustling off into the bushes and he watched it a moment through his dark glasses, fascinated. It was a real snake all right. Not that he was much bothered by anything so simple as snakes, he reflected with a degree of pride, gazing straight into the eyes of a dog. It was a pariah dog and disturbingly familiar. “Perro,” he repeated, as it still stood there—but had not this incident occurred, was it not now, as it were, occurring an hour or two ago, he thought in a flash. Strange. He dropped the bottle which was of white corrugated glass—Tequila Añejo de Jalisco, it said on the label—out of sight into the undergrowth, looking about him. All seemed normal again. Anyway, both snake and dog had gone. And the voices had ceased…

Firmin’s half brother hopes for things. His former wife hopes for things. Firmin has hopes of a kind, but they are disconnected from any actions he really performs in life. What is going to happen is going to happen. That’s just going to be it, tragic as it may be.

The prose in Under the Volcano is a little denser than is my preference, but I can’t fault the effects it pulls off. The images are vivid and the melancholy fatalism is beautifully stirring. Its structure is odd, but it works masterfully. Really, that’s all anybody needs to say.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain

Remember me talking about books I was familiar with but wasn’t really familiar with? We’ve hit another one, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. I was familiar with the title because of the old movie. Really familiar. However, I never saw the movie. Didn’t have a clue, not the slightest clue, what it was about. Didn’t even know there was a book. Literally, all I knew was the title. Absolutely clueless as to anything about the book, even the context.

So…what is The Postman Always Rings Twice about?

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Walter Kirn)

Frank Chambers is a drifter. Depression era. He stops in to a Greek’s restaurant/gas station and ends up being offered a job. He isn’t intending to take it, but then he catches sight of the Greek’s wife:

Then I saw her. She had been out back, in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

‘Meet my wife.’

She didn’t look at me. I nodded at the Greek, gave my cigar a kind of wave, and that was all. She went out with the dishes, and so far as he and I were concerned, she hadn’t even been there. I left, then, but in five minutes I was back[.]

Turns out, the woman (Cora) is only with the Greek because he rescued her from an even more dismal life. Faced with Frank, she is no longer satisfied with the Greek. She begins to despise the Greek, and falls for Frank. Unable to take it anymore, because Frank can only offer her the life of a drifter if they just leave, they decide to kill the Greek.

Fun ensues.

There’s actually a dark comedy of errors for a bit. However, eventually, the Greek dies. They seem locked in for conviction and end up turning on each other, but then they’re suddenly free. However, the fact that they turned on each other can’t go away. It eats them from the inside:

‘I guess so. But I thought an awful lot, Frank. Last night. About you and me, and the movies, and why I flopped, and the hash house, and the road, and why you like it. We’re just two punks, Frank. God kissed us on the brow that night. He gave us all that two people can ever have. And we just weren’t the kind that could have it. We had all that love, and we just cracked up under it. It’s a big airplane engine, that takes you through the sky, right up to the top of the mountain. But when you put it in a Ford, it just shakes it to pieces. That’s what we are, Frank, a couple of Fords. God is up there laughing at us.’

I actually dug The Postman Always Rings Twice quite a bit. Minimalistic and gritty, the words are like punches to a speed bag. It isn’t horrifically complicated, but it get the job done and does it well. It’s also much more moving than I would have expected. The Postman Always Rings Twice makes me want to read more of Cain’s work.

Norwood by Charles Portis

I got another surprise (readers of my personal blog will know what I mean by ‘another’) when I picked up Norwood by Charles Portis. I don’t know Portis, but I know he wrote True Grit. I haven’t read it, or seen any of the versions of the movie, (or realized that Kim was coincidentally going to review it the week before I posted this already written review) but I know enough about it to know cowboys are involved. For some reason, I imagined Norwood would somehow be related.

It isn’t.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Walter Kirn)

Well, perhaps just the tiniest bit. The main character wears a cowboy hat and wants to be a country singer, but that’s about it. It’s set around the Korean war. No ranches. That was a good thing for me, though. I didn’t really want to read about cowboys.

Norwood Pratt comes home from the Korean War to take care of his adult sister in Ralph, Texas after his father dies. His sister recovers herself shortly, and Norwood begins to feel trapped:

The job worked out too well. Money and position went to Vernell’s head. She stopped crying. Her health and posture improved. She even became something of a flirt. She grew daily more confident and assertive and at home she would drop the names of prominent Lions and Kiwanians. Norwood listened in cold silence as she brought home choice downtown gossip and made familiar references to undertakers and lawyers and Ford dealers. Norwood had nothing to counter with. No one you could quote traded at the Nipper station. Customers were local Negroes and high school kids, and out-of-state felons in flight from prosecution and other economy-minded transients, most of whom carried their own strange motor oil in the back seats, oil that was stranger and cheaper than anything even in the Nipper inventory. Some weeks, with her tips, Vernell made more money than Norwood. It was a terrible state of affairs and Norwood would not have believed that things were to become worse almost overnight.

Then with absolutely no warning Vernell married a disabled veteran named Bill Bird and brought him home to live in the little house on the highway. Bill Bird was an older man. He had drifted into Ralph for no very clear reason after being discharged from the VA hospital in Dallas. He took a room at the New Ralph Hotel, monthly rate, and passed his time in the coffee shop, at the corner table under the an, reading Pageant and Grit and pondering the graphs in U.S. News & World Report. Vernell took to Bill Bird at once. She liked his quiet, thoughtful air and his scholarship. She kept his cup filled with coffee and during lulls she would sit at this table and enjoy him. Bill Bird was at the same time attentive to Vernell in many little ways.

Norwood ends up taking off on an adventure when a questionable businessman hires him to drive a car to New York City, where Norwood hopes to get some money owed him by an old military buddy. Norwood jettisons the car when he finds out its stolen, and the adventures only increase from there…though at a leisurely pace.

Getting engaged to a woman on a bus, meeting the world’s second shortest midget, rescuing a college educated chicken, Norwood has an interesting journey around the country. It’s certainly a hell of a lot more engaging than my regular drives between Omaha and Denver.

Norwood was refreshingly different from what I expected. I found it unforced and plainspoken, but still interestingly odd. The reason for the drive behind the book seems a little elusive, but it’s still a pleasure to read anyway. Norwood certainly presents an interesting and vivid picture of a particular era in America.

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

If I had to describe The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, I’d say to reimagine American Psycho through a lens created by combining the works of Raymond Chandler with To Kill a Mockingbird. I know that probably sounds a little weird, but despite what I can describe you might have to read The Killer Inside Me yourself to see what I’m talking about.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Walter Kirn)

Lou Ford is a deputy sherriff in a small but growing town in Texas. He’s likeable, almost simple perhaps:

“Well, I tell you,” I drawled. “I tell you the way I look at it, a man doesn’t get any more out of life than what he puts into it.”

“Umm,” he said, fidgeting. “I guess you’re right, Lou.”

“I was thinking the other day, Max; and all of a sudden I had the doggonedest thought. It came to me out of a clear sky—the boy is father to the man. Just like that. The boy is father to the man.”

Unfortunately, that’s just the surface. Inside dwells what the calls “the sickness.” He’s an uncontrollable killer, a fiend:

“No, baby”—my lips drew back from my teeth. “I’m not going to hurt you. I wouldn’t’ think of hurting you. I’m just going to beat the ass plumb off you.”

I said it, and I meant it and I damned near did.

I jerked the jersey up over her face and tied the end in a knot. I threw her down on the bed, yanked off her sleeping shorts and tied her feet together with them.

I took off my belt and raised it over my head….

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped, before I came to my senses. All I know is that my arm ached like hell and her rear end was one big bruise, and I was scared crazy—as scared as a man can get and go on living.

He’s killed before, driven by impulses he cannot control, but that was in his youth. He was protected, but watched. Controlled. Unfortunately, that control is now gone with the deaths of his father and adopted brother and Lou meets a whore who makes the sickness again rise. He decides she has to die. People start sniffing after Lou Ford’s trail and he decides they have to die as well. Coldly calculating, he proceeds about his business.

The Killer Inside Me is a dark book. Not so much in the crimes Lou Ford commits, because though the murders are terrible I’ve certainly read worse and more graphic. The darkness for me is more in how reasonable he seems, how much Thompson gets you to like him at the same time you hate him. You find yourself rooting for Lou at the same time you want him stopped. You can’t reconcile it, and that’s the real mastery as I saw it in The Killer Inside Me. It’s certainly an impressive writing achievement…just a frightening one.