Don Quixote by Kathy Acker

I’ve been a long time coming to Kathy Acker, finally pushed into reading this by Sarah Schulman’s recommendation. Acker re-imagines herself as Don Quixote, the modern version, galloping into the rotting husk of NYC, watching junkies use razors instead of needles, her sidekick St. Simeon turning into a dog, seeing filth everywhere and being kicked pummeled punched flogged.

It’s not for the faint of heart. Dream state stream of consciousness interspersed with clever poems or recreation of the dialog at the end of the perfect film, The Women, zipping to St. Petersburg and back, discussion of politics Regan Nixon, Nazis, Oedipus, Waiting for Godot, sex, madness, drugs, rats, rotting. Surreal.

Selected Stories by Frances Bellerby

A delightful collection of somewhat creepy stories that linger around death, children, etc. The first story is a delicate exploration of how a father breaks the news of his young daughter’s death to his slightly older son. Another has a pair of siblings explore the roof of their new house and leave a surprise at the summit for someone else to discover when they’re gone, which shocks the sister, not able to comprehend where they will have gone, before they slide down to check on their sick mother. A father gives up his young daughter after the death of his wife, tries to forget about her, but Fate drives her to his door, he almost scares her away but realizes who she is, shows her a picture but all she can see is the gigantic spider scurrying away. Great writing, but some of the pieces aren’t as top notch as the others.

A Suspension of Mercy

One of Pat’s best books, pub’d in 1965 when she was in her full powers and had yet to slide into decline. It’s a story about a fiction writer (Sydney Bartleby) who hates his wife Alicia and keeps thinking about ways he would murder her. She’s an artist and takes time away from him, ostensibly to paint but in reality it’s just to get away from him. After a few days, she returns, and then after a major fight departs again, this time for a much longer time. Sydney is pleased to not have her around and begins producing great crime plots that he collaborates on with his pal Alex for television treatment. The day after Alicia leaves on her longer stay, Syd thinks he’d like to see what it’s like to raise suspicion that he’s murdered her, so early one morning carries a rolled up carpet that he goes and buries four feet underground. Alicia has actually flown into the arms of another man, Edward Tilbury, and in various disguises she stays away, raising alarm and suspicion when she doesn’t cash her monthly trust fund check. Syd jokes with Alex that he pushed her down the stairs and buried the body in a carpet, and the police come sniffing around. Eventually the carpet gets dug up, no body. Syd thinks, the body is deeper in the hole, keep digging, but there is no body because Alicia is still alive and in hiding. Eventually Syd’s publishing prospects are held up by people suspecting that he did in his wife, so he spies on her, discovers the affair, and telegrams her to return to her parents. Alicia panics, gets drunk, chases after Edward, and falls or is pushed off a cliff. Syd’s off the hook for her murder, but he’s not satisfied, he goes to Tilbury’s flat and forces him to eat sleeping pills which later kill him.

A Dog’s Ransom

Back on the Highsmith horse with this 1972 story about a crazy NYC neighbor who delights in sending poison pen letters finally kidnapping a dog and sending a $1000 ransom request. The Reynolds are the victims, and they’ve received three other nasty letters before the ransom note. Instead of going to the police, they tie up a bag of $1,000 and hope for the best. The money is taken but no dog, since it was killed the night it was stolen by the limping Rowajinski, disabled from a construction accident that has him on permanent disability. Now the Reynolds head to the police, which is where Clarence, the bright-eyed college educated cop, overhears their story and follows up on it of his own initiative. He tracks Rowajinski down, gets a confession, then oddly leaves him to go confer with the Reynolds about next steps (Rowajinski says the dog is still alive but at his sister’s house and will be killed if anything happens to him). While Clarence is gone, R’s landlady kicks him out and he recedes to a hotel in the Village. He gets another $1000 from the Reynolds and proceeds to burn half of it so he can say that Clarence took it as a bribe. Mixed up in all this is Marylyn, Clarence’s reluctant girlfriend who he’s asked multiple times to marry him. R gets caught by one of the other officers in Clarence’s unit and immediately accuses him of the $500 bribe, but ends up in Bellevue for a few days. After he’s released, he begins to haunt Marylyn, dropping notes and threats to her that make her fed up with Clarence who ultimately chases R down one night and beats him to death with his gun.

He confesses to Marylyn and the Reynolds, who have nothing but sympathy for him, but holds up under intense questioning by the police. In the end, it’s the “wop cop” that was harassing Marylyn who shows up and shoots Clarence after he refused to confess. Bizarre tale.

Mermaids on the Golf Course

Will I ever find a Patricia Highsmith book that I don’t enjoy? Unlikely. This is another collection of short stories decidedly less murderous and creepy than the last batch. Perhaps she mellowed as she aged, this one coming out in 1985. The stories are mostly of deteriorating relationships plus death this time.

Mermaids on the Golf Course is about a man recovering from brain injury from hurling his body in front of the President who was shot at. He makes inappropriate comments and jokes and leers at one woman journalist who he asks for photos of, to the dismay of his wife.

The Button follows a man who is pissed that his son has Down’s Syndrome, but instead of harming his son, he goes out and strangles a random stranger, saving the button on his coat for a souvenir.

Where the Action is – a photographer at a small town newspaper captures a photo of a woman with her parents immediately after she has been attacked, raped. His reputation skyrockets while hers diminishes, and many people don’t believe she was attacked.

Chris’s Last Party – an aging Broadway actor joins a group of friends around their benefactor Chris’s deathbed and decides to kill himself. He survives, finds that Chris has left his house to him.

A Clock Ticks at Christmas – a rich woman gives a street urchin some change, then invites him up to her apartment, and things start to go missing. She buys him some shoes, he steals a clock that has sentimental value to her husband. The couple divorces a few months after Xmas.

A shot from nowhere – an artist witnesses a murder in Mexico but, when he demands that the police be called, is hauled away as the prime suspect. Eventually he’s released, thrown across the border, goes back to NYC and paints pictures of the dead boy.

The Stuff of Madness – a man becomes upset when he finds that his wife is being interviewed about her odd habit of displaying all her dead pets in the garden, post-taxidermy. He wishes he had left her for the other woman he was having an affair with, then goes off to find a mannequin and dresses it up as the other woman, stages it in the garden. The wife sees it while giving a tour to the journalist and photographer, has a stroke, recovers. The man kills himself with his head laying in the lap of the mannequin.

Not in this Life, maybe the next – a woman sees a goblin that only she can see, has it help out with yard chores. Her friend insists that she see an eye doctor, but instead she kills herself.

I am not as efficient as other people – A man lacking handyman skills becomes enraged by his capable neighbors’ home improvements. He attempts to pull his own house down around him, ends up in the hospital.

The Cruelest Month – a woman’s main enjoyment in life is in corresponding with famous authors. When she invades one of their privacy by trespassing in search of an autograph, she’s devastated to see that he was repulsed by her, so she throws herself in front of a taxi becoming hideously scarred.

The Romantic – a woman spends her youth nursing her mother through the final stages of cancer, then decides she enjoys her pretend dates more than the real dates she goes on.

 

Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

A collection of creepy short stories published in 1979 by the reigning champ of psychological tales, Patricia Highsmith. I couldn’t resist dipping back into her oeuvre and this collection did not disappoint. A tremendous story starts us off, The Man Who Wrote Books In His Head, a concept I might try getting away with. Once Cheever figures out the complete plot and flushes out all the pages in his mind, he sits down to write it:

 

He procrastinated, and lit another pipe. He had put a sheet of paper in the typewriter, but this was the title page, and as yet he had written nothing. Suddenly, at 10.15 a.m., he was award of boredom – oppressive, paralysing boredom. He knew the book, it was in his mind entirely, and in fact, why write it?

The thought of hammering away at the keys for the next many weeks, putting words he already knew onto two hundred and ninety-two pages (so Cheever estimated) dismayed him. He fell onto the green sofa and slept until 11. He awakened refreshed and with a changed outlook: the book was done, after all, not only done but polished. Why not go on to something else?

And so he begins to “write” other books in his head. The second story, Network, is the other one in the collection that doesn’t involve something devious and criminal. It’s the story of a woman, Fran, who’s on disability leave from her job and who becomes the spoke of a network of friends all calling to give and take news of each other. They help a young man get started in the city, a grand-nephew of one of their own, and in the end he offers Fran flowers.

The other tales involve death, murder, stabbings, the usual Highsmith fare. A woman kills an intruder, another woman witnesses her toddler’s drowning in a pool in the backyard before joining him, a delivery boy executes a triple murder in a wax museum but no one believes that he did it.

One of the gruesome stories that sticks with me is the eponymous one, Slowly, Slowly in the Wind. Skip, a retired businessman with tons of money, buys a farm and tries to acquire the fishing rights to a piece of the river nearby. Foiled, he ends up murdering his enemy and sticking his corpse up as a scarecrow in his field.

Ripley Under Water

The last of the Ripleys, believe it or not. Highsmith kicks it into high gear with the ludicrous close calls that Ripley endures without being caught. This time, it’s a meddlesome rich American (David Pritchard) who arrives in the small French town to torment Tom by prank calling as Dickie Greenleaf and insinuating all sorts of crimes were committed by Tom (rightfully so). Creepily following Tom and his wife to Morocco, Pritchard endures a beat down from Tom and returns to their small village to begin sweeping the local rivers and dredging the waterways for any sign of the missing businessman who was going to expose Ripley’s art fraud in book 2. Hilariously, he finds the skeleton! And then deposits it on Ripley’s doorstep! But then Ripley removes the ring and throws it back into Pritchard’s pond, causing Pritchard and his wife to slip in and drown while trying to retrieve it. I think Tom calls it his easiest murders yet, which weren’t really murders, just not assisting the drowning figures. All of it is highly unlikely, and he gets off Scot free in the end, per usual.

Now that I’ve overdosed on Ripley, I have a few thoughts. Highsmith has an impeccable touch conveying the banality of evil. Throughout the series, Tom is more bothered by his perception of the screams of live lobsters being boiled to death by his housekeeper than by the many murders he accomplishes. You hang on every detail of domestic life, every mundane mention of a cocktail pour, a cigarette lit, because you’re never quite sure when the hammer blow of an unexpected Ripley-violence will occur. His propensity for confessing murder to his friends is unparalleled, yet does not get him busted. It’s mesmerizing, and some of the best crime/mystery I’ve read in awhile. On to headier and more substantial reads!

The Boy Who Followed Ripley

It’s almost as if Highsmith wants to see how much nonsense we can take. Book 4 of the Ripley series is almost completely unbelievable from beginning to end, but extremely entertaining. I think readers of the series gave up hoping for realism in book 2, happily trading their bullshit radar for an enchanting tale that takes them anywhere but here.

This one is about a young American boy who pushes his rich, disabled father off a cliff and flees to France, enamored with Ripley based on some newspaper accounts he’s read. The boy takes a job as an underpaid gardener and gazes longingly at Ripley’s house until he’s discovered and invited in. Then, kidnapping! For a ransom of $2M USD! And Ripley doesn’t find a way to weasel any of the money, simply rescues his pal after dressing in drag (WTF!) and only killing one of the kidnappers. The ransom money is dutifully sent back to the various Berlin banks it came from, and Ripley’s paternal attitude toward Frank continues all the way until Frank jumps off the very cliff he shoved his dad from.

None of it is remotely believable, but it’s easy on the eyes (and the brain).

LaRose

This book exhausted me. I thought I’d take a quick sojourn out of my complete immersion in Patricia Highsmith to read this novel, which came highly recommended from a friend with spectacular literary taste. And yet, I didn’t feel any connection to the characters and plodded along dutifully for hundreds of pages past my usual expiration date. It’s a tangle of characters and emotions, all swirling around the main story of one man shooting another man’s son by accident, and then donating their own son to the victim’s family to raise. Throughout the present day narrative there are specks of an older story of ancestors which bogged it down further for me. I can appreciate the sparkle of the writing, but it lacked the necessary oomph to reach into my chest and pull out my heart. A hollow feeling came across, and I dreaded reaching for it in between gorging myself on Highsmith.

Ripley’s Game

The third book in the series is more interesting than the second. Highsmith realizes our devotion to Tom flags a bit, so she devises a way that he can fade a bit into the background. Tom is snubbed by a local Englishman (Jonathan) and decides to get back at him by planting a rumor that his blood disease is worse than expected and sicking his pal Reeves on him with an offer to earn a bunch of cash in return for offing 2 Mafiosa. Jon can’t resist the easy money, as expected, and this otherwise upstanding citizen finds himself mired in criminal activity. The first murder goes off without a hitch, a gunshot in a busy subway terminal, but the second is fraught—Reeves wants Jon to use a garrotte which he shies away from. On the train as he’s contemplating how exactly he’s going to muster the courage to go through with it, lo and behold here comes Ripley to the rescue! I actually laughed at the reappearance of Tom, so eager to help Jon with the killing. Jon’s wife becomes suspicious about all the cash he’s bringing home, and ultimately he gets killed in a shootout while Tom walks away unharmed back to his charmed life.

Ripley Under Ground

Tom Ripley returns, now happily married to a rich French woman, comfortably settled on the outskirts of Paris, yet involved in various schemes to make illegal money. He’s the brains behind an art forgery ring out of London that starts to unravel, and also participates in lifting items off various targets for a fencing organization. The art forgery spawns yet another murder, Tom luring a man who suspects the forgery into his wine cellar where he beans him, then carelessly decides to dump the body in a shallow grave nearby (which ends up being emptied and the body tossed in a local river, but the grave also reused to house Ripley himself when one of his cohorts attempts to kill him). It’s all the usual muddle that you’re amazed he can get away with, you have to completely suspend disbelief that all the cops aren’t locking him up immediately. Bodies start piling up, and yet he escapes… or does he? The book ends as he’s about to get a phone call and we never know, until the next book in the series begins.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

I’ve figured out the way to eradicate Matt Damon’s face from wafting up from the pages of the Ripley series—by re-reading the first book, Highsmith’s character has reverted back to her own description and Damon fades to black. My recent Highsmith kick got sent into hyperdrive and I’ve been reading the entire Ripley series. This one is covered elsewhere, and fans of the movie know the basic plot—Tom Ripley gets sent to Italy to convince Dickie Greenleaf, a man he barely knows, to return home to America. Instead, Ripley insinuates himself into Greenleaf’s life, and eventually kills him, boldly taking his possessions and writing a will that leaves everything to Tom. This is the first of many murders, and Freddy Miles gets knocked off along the way. Marge almost gets killed in Venice but Ripley thinks better of it. It’s completely amazing that no one connects the dots and he gets off scot free, with all of Dickie’s money.

Those Who Walk Away

I could read Patricia Highsmith morning, noon, and night and not get enough of her. I was recently reminded of her after reading about Marijane Meaker, supposedly the inspiration/source of Highsmith’s Price of Salt. Worming my way into the mystery section of the local branch, I found this gem and alternated between slurping it down and having to take a break when the suspense notched too high.

The story revolves around Ray, a widower whose wife killed herself only a year or so into the marriage. Ray’s father in law, Ed Coleman, tries to kill him multiple times and Ray never turns him in, following him to Venice in fact to try and explain further why Peggy slit her wrists in the tub in Mallorca. Ray’s an art dealer from a wealthy family and has seemingly been untroubled by any hardships in life until Ed shoots him (grazes his arm) then in Venice tosses him into the canal after supposedly knocking him unconscious (Ray swims to a buoy and is rescued by Luigi).

After the second attempt on his life, Ray decides to lay low, doesn’t go back to his hotel, holes up in various rooms across the city. He attempts to live a second life as someone else, but keeps running into people who knew him as Ray. Eventually Ed comes at him one last time, smashes his head with a rock, but Ray flings him off and leaves Ed immobile on the sidewalk (although not dead). Ed goes underground and tries to draw suspicion of Ray murdering him, but the jig is up when he sees Ray wandering around trying to find him. Enraged, Ed comes after him with a lead pipe in broad daylight with plenty of witnesses. Ray doesn’t press charges, Ed escapes prison, and happily ever after?

Mules and Men

This 1935 publication of African-American folklore is groundbreaking—the first compiled by an African-American and not some derisive white male. Instead, Zora Neale Hurston returns to her hometown in Florida to gather stories—lies, as they’re commonly called—and then pokes around various spots in the South, ending up learning Hoodoo (voodoo to us whites) in New Orleans. The whole trip was funded by Mrs. Osgood Mason of NYC, giving Hurston enough runway to gadabout for a year collecting stories.

Lots of Brer Fox/Rabbit/Dawg/Gator stories, along with tales of John (Negro hero) vs Ole Massa. Hurston settles in and is trusted right away by her old townfolk, invited to listen to some lies and take them down. She follows groups to work at the mill as they lie along the way, or to fishing holes spouting lies, etc. None of the tales jump out as being particularly memorable, but there are some great lines:

“Don’t never worry about work. There’s more work in de world than there is anything else. God made de world and de white folks made work.” This spawns a tale about how blacks ended up working so much—God put down two bundles on the road and the white man raced the black man to see who would get there first; the black man arrived first and claimed the big bundle, leaving the small sack for the white man. In the big bundle was a pick, shovel, hoe, axe, and plow. In the small bundle was a pen and ink. “So ever since then de n— been out in de hot sun, usin’ his tools and de white man been sittin’ up figgering’, ought’s a ought, figger’s a figger; all for de white man, none for de n—.”

The Nakeds

Well done, Lisa Glatt! A very enjoyable read that weaves strands from various characters into a cohesive tale that just works. A young girl (Hannah) gets hit by a drunk driver (Marty) who flees the scene, necessitating years of a cast on her leg. Most of the story revolves around Hannah and her mother, who divorces her father for cheating on her and then remarries a much younger Arab man, Azeem, who lures her into the nudist lifestyle. Marty quits driving his car and eventually leaves town for Vegas, coming back at the end when his dad dies to help his mother run their restaurants. After many years, Hannah finally gets her cast off and the family goes to Marty’s restaurant to celebrate, the chef’s face wild-eyed when he recognized her as the girl he hit. Perfect pacing and structure, very readable.