Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Jason Heroux, Good Evening, Central Laundromat

Heroux, Jason. Good Evening, Central Laundromat. Quattro Books, April 2010.

Good Evening, Central Laundromat at Goodreads
Good Evening, Central Laundromat at Quattro Books

This review was salvaged from oblivion by author Jason Heroux. It appeared in the online cultural journal The Rover in July 2011, and, as is the fate of many web journals, The Rover is a thing of the past. Since unlike print we don’t have copies floating around, it is left to readers to print or repost content in order for the review to remain in circulation. Luckily for him, and Mr. Heroux himself, he posted the entire review on his blog.

And now I am reposting it here.

The novella, little read it seems, is worth hunting down, and I am looking forward to a re-read.


Cameron Delco’s girlfriend Viola is losing her voice, his friend Ray has asked him to attend his assisted suicide, and a pigeon has taken up residence in the Laundromat he and Viola own and operate.
Cameron is the narrator of Jason Heroux’s surreal novella Good Evening, Central Laundromat. Though a fairly average guy, Cameron proves to be an appropriately passive narrator for these events. He takes things in stride, acknowledging the odd occurrences but unwilling or unable to consider their significance. The world around him seems to be changing, yet Cameron himself is slow to develop.
Cameron is the glue holding his world together. Simply by maintaining his routine — from running the Laundromat to attending to Ray — a strange new reality takes shape around him. Though he refers to Ray as a ghost, it is in fact Cameron who is wandering through life without leaving a solid impact on the world. Ray, on the other hand, is obsessed with his own place in the world. “I know I’m already dead and everyone’s just pretending I’m alive,” he tells Cameron after failing at his first suicide attempt. “I was hoping if I went through the motions and killed myself I could finally end it all.”
Good Evening, Central Laundromat is an attractive and slim little book, part of the Quattro Books novella series; a great series that has allowed this unique and highly entertaining read to find an audience. It is a surreal work filled with healthy ambiguity, dealing with notions of existence, of going through the motions of living, and of our impact on the world and the people around us. The prose is simple and straightforward. This allows the odd elements to appear natural so that, like Cameron, we are able to accept these events at face value and move ahead. Of course there is a great deal happening beyond the surface and we read on intently, wondering whether Cameron can awaken and break the tired cycle that has become his life. The Laundromat, with its own cycles, is emblematic of both Cameron’s routine and his unwavering commitment to that routine. The title itself is ambiguous, referring to Cameron’s telephone greeting while also evoking his daily presence at the Laundromat, as though he were greeting it.
The dialogue is excellent, the conversations natural whether the topic is infused with the commonplace or by weighty observations. There are some nice touches to enrich the mostly straightforward prose, from elegant similes to ambiguous statements: “I couldn’t hear any traffic,” Cameron says when trying to sleep. “The roads were clear. Everybody was where they had to be and no one was going anywhere.” The greatest irony is that the only character seemingly going somewhere is the one who believes he has already died.
With Good Evening, Central Laundromat, Heroux has succeeded in creating a unique work that is simultaneously thought-provoking and entertaining. It is great to encounter a work that is not only unique but refreshingly well written.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Thomas Tryon, The Other (1971)

Tryon, Thomas. The Other. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, May 1971.

The Other at Goodreads

Rating:     8/10

The tagline to the 1976 Fawcett Crest paperback edition of Tom Tryon's first novel reads: "You have never read a novel like this one." The proclamation, as bold as it is, is fairly accurate, even as we near 2020.

Image result for Tryon, Thomas. The Other.Well into the economic depression of the 1930s, the Perry family lives in relative comfort, subsisting on the meager yield of their aging farm. During this particular, sweltering summer, thirteen year-old twins Holland and Niles pass their time playing imaginative games and guarding their little secrets. Yet the atmosphere is heavily strained, and their relationship seems to be deteriorating as the family is dealing with the tragedy of their father's recent, violent death. It is the story of a family suffering from depression, amid a broader societal Depression.

An incredibly well written novel, whose suspense and horror is overshadowed by genuine family tragedy. Stripped of its horror, The Other would be just as effective as a family drama, as its characters are excellently drawn, including the bit players in the New England town. As with most successful horror novels, we feel the tragedy that the members of the family experience because these people are so very real, and even if we do not like them, because they are so real we nonetheless empathize with what they are going through. The mother who is practically bed-ridden in grief; the preferred son who feels the need to minister to his mother; the grandmother who must care for that fragile boy whose entire family has, in some way, abandoned him; the guilt-ridden groundskeeper who suffers for an act of which he is not guilty; the grieving aunt and uncle; the pregnant sister about to bear her child.

These characters live in a contained environment that becomes so vivid as we read, Tryon might as well have drawn us a map. Sheltered in this wide open yet nonetheless claustrophobic environment, we see the events, both minute and tragic, through the eyes of the good twin. Niles, sensitive and caring, looks up to the cruelly mischievous Holland. Because Holland appears to have distanced himself from his brother and the farm, Niles is left to wander near aimlessly around home and town, immersed in his imagination and watched by his Ukrainian grandmother. Alongside his meanderings, we learn of family history and family dynamics.

Whereas many suspense novels of the period, including Tryon's strong 1973 follow-up, Harvest Home, have in the modern era become fairly predictable, The Other retains much of its initial power. It is not just the effective ending, but other unexpected revelatory incidents throughout the novel that strain our emotions. Because the novel is patiently paced, the build-up and end-result creep up on the reader, and I found myself to be more immersed in this world than I thought I was while actually reading. It's as though we were placed in a slow-boiling cauldron, comfortable at the outset, unaware that we are in fact being cooked alive. (With apologies for the analogy, but I recently completed Shogun.)

Well worth a read, even if your copy is as dilapidated as this one.

For additional information on The Other and its author, Thomas Tryon, please read this enjoyable and informative article by Grady Hendrix.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Aside: Now that was a good book! The Pleasures of Reading Dilapidated Books

Finished the novel at the local Tim Horton's & took a snapshot. It'll soon be in my recycling bin.

Recently I've been rummaging through books I've been hanging onto only because I want to read them. Most of these I've obtained as rejects from an annual book fair at which I volunteer, while others came from odd, random sources, including found lying in the streets. These books are so beaten I have no wish to keep them, nor to pass them along, no matter how rare they might be. (With the exception of Joan Samson's The Auctioneer, which, despite its dilapidated condition, I gave to a colleague I knew would appreciate the read and not mind the state of the book. A rare quality.)

In some cases I tear off and keep the cover. Either the cover is in surprisingly good condition (as was the case with The Other), or the edition is an old one, or I simply like the cover. Years ago a friend confided that she tore the covers she liked off old paperbacks in order to make boxes. At the time I was appalled: why would someone willingly ruin a book? But in cases where the book is already ruined beyond repair, I have come to realize that keeping the cover is, in its own way, a continuation of the use and memory of that book.

Besides the logical reasoning of this practice of hoarding torn books, keeping covers and recycling the rest, there exists a guilty pleasure I have recently come to acknowledge.

Since I was a child I was taught (rightfully) to respect books and treat them well. "Books are among my best friends," my lovely mother used to say. No matter their age, current state or to whom they belonged, I treated books with respect. I have always been careful even with library and school books. I do not eat while reading and am very careful with my coffee or tea, which I enjoy in the evenings while I read at home or in coffee shops.

Yet this recent practice of reading torn books has come with an unexpected sense of relief. Being  careless with these books, I feel that I am somehow letting go, dropping that rigid, near obsessive care with which I have always treated all books. Instead of the book itself, I can focus on the content. (Actually, I genuinely enjoy the combination and frequently a good edition can enhance the reading experience.) Rather than feeling guilt in damaging these already damaged books, I am instead receiving pleasure from stuffing a paperback into my back pocket, folding pages over as I read, and even carry a pencil with me as a threat of underlining! In short, I have become mad.

Yet before handling these books with careless abandon, I had already decided they were slated to leave me via a blue plastic sac, properly sorted with other paper products. Not as useless, perhaps, as that torn envelope, but like a cracked glass, they have served their usefulness and can continue being useful by being transformed back into pulp.

Not to mention I own too many books, and looking into moving soon, need to begin clearing out the house.

Other recent crumpled, coverless books read:

The Auctioneer, Joan Samson
Shogun, James Clavell
Digits and Dastards, Frederik Pohl

Thursday, December 5, 2019

James Clavell, Shogun (1975)

Clavell, James. Shogun. US: Delacorte Press; UK: Stodder & Houghton, 1975.

Shogun at Goodreads

Rating:     7.5/10

Shogun. A Novel of Japan
Like a feudal lord of old, Clavell manipulates this pawn of a book into the coffers of mainstream western society.

The historical romance that is Shogun, features English sailor John Blackthorn infiltrating the culture of imperial Japan, intermingling with the nation’s trade, religion, internal politics and international affairs. A kind of super man, Blackthorn is described as the greatest of sailors, able to commit to the complex internal politics of the country, alter its impression of western religion, and win the heart (and body) of its loveliest and most intelligent & respected interpreters. Seemingly, this sailor’s only fault is his temper, since even his ability to love (and the size of his “manhood”) is also described as unique. What grounds this character, other than the typhoon he encounters, is his ability to adapt to Japanese culture, and reject many of his former, European habits and thinking, which essentially tells us he is a mere mortal striving to become a better person. Clavell’s respect for eastern culture is evident, and we are reminded that this Englishman, though he is made samurai and does embrace Japanese customs, will always be lacking for his being European. The final sequence of Toranaga’s internal monologue proves this, as it turns out (no real spoiler here) that Blackthorn has always been a part of the plotting of Japan’s future landscape. He is essentially one among many instruments used by Toranaga in navigating the political landscape, and his destiny is pretty much settled by the Japanese lord even before the war of Crimson Sky takes place. The novel finishes with Toranaga, and the last vision of Blackthorn is him hopping away like an obedient puppy, clearly unaware of the scope of Toranaga's thinking.

Historically, Toranaga is based on Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became the military leader (shogun) of Japan--a difficult feat, rarely achieved. This achievement was made possible not only through his political guile and military prowess, but by his being open to Japan's involvement in international affairs. At the time, Japan was sought out and visited by European nations, who were seeking religious converts and economic trade, and while most of Japan was reluctant to open up to the world, Lord Tokugawa used these outsiders to best position himself internally.

Similarly, Clavell uses the outsider John Blackthorn (based on British sailor Will Adams) to position his novel in the American marketplace. Japan was a nation steeped in mystery, and Clavell's exaggerated depiction of feudal Japan, largely through the eyes of the westerner, awakened interest of Japan in the general public. This, of course, was helped by the widely successful TV miniseries phenomenon of 1980, in which Clavell himself was very much involved. And so, like a feudal lord of old, Clavell manipulates this pawn of a book into the coffers of mainstream western society.

Certainly, like the scheming Toranaga, Clavell worked hard on attaining grandeur. Shogun was the ninth best-selling novel in the US of 1975, according to Publisher's Weekly, and the highest rated American miniseries of 1980, according to the Neilsen TV Ratings (it was the second highest rated miniseries at the time, following the 1977 production of Alex Hailey's Roots). The popularity of the miniseries no doubt helped Clavell's 1981 novel, Noble House, to attain the top spot on PW's list of best-selling novels of that year. Apparently, following the airing of the miniseries, Shogun's paperback reprint attained stratospheric sales at the time, though I don't have specific stats or sources.

Despite its mainstream popularity, I enjoyed the book immensely. It was engaging and highly entertaining, written in a straightforward and linear narrative, bogged down only occasionally by the political dealings as the reader tries to keep track of the impressive cast of characters. Sex and violence were piled throughout, which all added to the entertainment. Though a hefty book, it does little dragging.

The initial draft of Clavell's novel is reported to have been well over two thousand (about 2,300) pages. At 1,210 printed small font pages in its initial paperback print, I doubt that an uncut version will be released (yet in this age of re-visiting the past for profit, it is improbable without being impossible). It is difficult not to discuss the novel without mentioning its length, as length alone has become as embedded in the novel as its setting or main characters. This single book has more printed words of fiction than the entire printed oeuvre of the likes of J.D. Salinger. And yet, the length is only daunting in appearance and not in fact, as the work is nonetheless a quick read. Therefore, I cannot pride myself in reading these twelve hundred-plus yellowed pages of small print, a copy of the 1976 paperback so used before I even opened it up that it quickly lost its cover, since many smaller books have proven to be a far greater time commitment.

For more of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

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