Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Boil Them Alive


In 1958, director Keisuke Kinoshita released his masterpiece The Ballad of Narayama. Set in a Japanese mountain village in the 18th or 19th century (it’s difficult to say), Kinoshita’s film blends emotional realism with blatant kabuki theatrics – so blatant that, though seen only in silhouette, at times the sets can clearly be seen being rearranged, to transfer from one scene to another, as though we were watching a stage piece. Which of course on some level we are, except that usually when a movie wants to call our attention to its artificiality, it will do so in movie terms: the camera pulls back to show the crew, or the director steps into frame to coach an actor, and so on. But in The Ballad of Narayama, Kinoshita underlines the artificiality of an artform other than the one he’s at that moment engaged in. Or is he, etc.  In any case, unusual as it is, The Ballad of Narayama is part of a tradition of using the devices of the theater to enhance whatever it is you happen to feel like enhancing in a film – the most recent (to my knowledge) and probably best-known example of this is Lars von Trier’s Brechtian Dogville, with its chalk-outline floorplans standing in for actual rooms and buildings.
This is all very interesting, to me anyway, though for some reason this device is less often used in films where it would make the most immediate sense; that is, films set in or around the theater world. I would argue that Birdman does this with its long takes, there being no cuts in live theater. It was also done, less grandly, in 1963 by Kinoshita’s more celebrated peer, Kon Ichikawa. His film An Actor’s Revenge, which has just been released on home video by Criterion, and a very odd film it is, is a revenge story starring Kazuo Hasegawa as Yukinojo, a kabuki actor who specializes in playing women. His specialty is such that even off-stage his effeminate on-stage manner persists – whether this is his natural self or a facet of the larger performance of his life, and much of his life is that, is unclear. Yukinojo’s growing fame catches the attention of the three men he has been seeking all of his life. They’re three wealthy rice merchants who, when Yukinojo was a boy in Nagasaki, betrayed and ruined his father, destroying his family and leading to the deaths of both his parents. As Yukinojo ingratiates himself to these men, he draws closest to Sansai Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), who, being the most powerful, we can safely assume is the worst of the bunch. While visiting Dobe, he helps the old man’s most cherished concubine, Namiji (Ayako Wakao), overcome a long illness, by the end of which she has fallen in love with him.
Yukinojo’s revenge plot continues to boil, and violence eventually ensues. It is, underneath everything, a rather pulpy affair. The script by Natto Wada, is based on an old Japanese newspaper serial, which must explain the inclusion of a colorful group of thieves led by Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto), who also falls in love with Yukinojo, and Yamitaro, a philosophical, noble, and evidently all-seeing crook also played, just to shake up the gender issues further, by Hasegawa. Neverthless, pulpy as its various pieces are, Lady Snowblood this ain’t. Most of the action scenes occur outdoors, and at night. At these moments, Ichikawa drops all the lights save those that would illuminate the primary actors, so that sword fights often occur against a background of pure black – a theater effect (also from the stage is the device of having the thief Yamitaro talking to the camera/audience). However, the fights themselves are cinematic, though they’re not shot as traditional movie action scenes. In one fight, we hardly see the participants; instead, Ichikawa’s camera focuses on close-ups of the blades clashing together. Other scenes of not just action, but any sort of physical exertion, employ similar shot choices. One scene of Ohatsu throwing a tantrum cuts to her feet pounding the floor. Another scene that shows a character scaling a wall cuts to close-ups of climbing hands, feet, and parts of the wall itself. This is all very Bressonian, in a film that, otherwise, decidedly isn’t.  
This is fitting, as ultimately the components that make up An Actor’s Revenge are both all of a piece and somehow disparate. There is tragedy and regret, and the revenge is of a melancholy sort. The film is practically Victorian in its drama, but reminiscent of American Westerns in its final stoicism -- the film that the ending of An Actor’s Revenge most vividly calls to mind is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which of course it predates by thirty years. It’s pulp with that form’s signature visceral impact largely drained out of it. It’s kabuki released from the stage.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Review Round-up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hi. I don't know what I'm doing with this blog anymore, but if I'm going to request screeners, and if I'm going to accept those screeners into my home, I should probably try to earn them. Here are reviews of five of them!


Kameradschaft (d. G.W. Pabst) – From best to worst, is the order I have chosen. This 1931 film, released this week by Criterion, takes a true story about a coal mine collapse that trapped a crew of French miners that occurred in 1906 and transplants it to the then-current day. There’s a great power to this idea, because the miners who survived were rescued by their German peers, thereby turning the story from one of mere heroism to a moving plea for healing between countries. Of course, given what the 1930s had in store for France, Germany, and the world, Pabst’s film is unfortunately imbued now with a deep, bittersweet melancholy. At least the possibility for something different was there.
As for the film itself, I should say, first of all, that the restoration is beautiful. There’s a brief section late in the film that is missing; this is certainly not uncommon with films this old, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lost piece of a movie surrounded by images this impeccable. And of course, it’s a great looking film – check out the scene shortly after the mine explosion, when news of it has made its way to the German miners across the border. The miners are in a massive shower room, their clothes hung above them on wires, their bodies pitch black with coal dust. It looks like some infernal gymnasium, but this is where the plan to save the French miners, with whom the Germans have a somewhat fraught relationship, is hatched. Or the explosion that leads to the collapse, and the very real fire that crawls along the mineshaft ceiling. Films in the 1930s used music far more sparingly, if at all, and its absence here lends that fire a deadly eeriness.
Otherwise, Pabst is surprisingly languid – which isn’t to say dull – in his telling of this story about disaster and rescue. Once the roof has fallen down around everyone’s head, Pabst refuses to panic. Kameradschaft moves purposefully through its scenes of planning and salvation, as determined but casually professional as the Germans lowering themselves down into danger.
The Diabolical Dr. Z (d. Jess Franco) – Somewhat less languid than Kameradschaft is this one, freshly released by Kino Lorber. This 1966 film is part of what as far as I know might well be known as Franco’s Orloff Cycle, though Orloff – played in previous and subsequent films by Howard Vernon – doesn’t appear. He is, instead, mentioned, with a mournful tone, by Dr. Zimmern, who allows that Orloff had his faults, but insists that his work in the field brain surgery experimentation has paved the way to a real breakthrough in the battle to defeat evil. With brain surgery. Before Dr. Zimmern can fulfill his own goals in this realm, after bringing all this up at a medical conference he is, essentially, booed to death. Then his daughter Irma (Mabel Karr), who is somewhat less stable than her dad, decides to use what her father taught her to create murderers out of otherwise more or less reasonable humans so that she can get revenge on the doctors (one of whom is played by Howard Vernon, because why not) who booed him (to death).

There are those who insist that Jess Franco was a great filmmaker, in roughly the same league as Mario Bava and Jean Rollin. Though my early, quite bad, experiences with relatively late-in-his-career Franco have been trumped by my eventual enjoyment of his early thrillers, like this one, I still can’t find anything in his work that deserves that kind of praise. He doesn’t have the visual imagination, either in terms of pure cinema or insane macabre nightmare design, of those guys. He does, though, sometimes get to Rollin’s dreamy eroticism, and Bava’s Gothic starkness. I’d say The Diabolical Dr. Z is fair-to-middlin’ Franco. If he’s your kind of guy already, you’ll have already picked this up anyway.


Old Stone (d. Johnny Ma) – Also this week, Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist films released to home video this 2016 socially-minded thriller, the debut feature from Chinese director Johnny Ma. It stars Chen Gang, who’s excellent, as Lao Shi, a cab driver who gets into an accident caused by his drunken passenger, severely injuring a bicyclist. Finding himself waiting for an ambulance or police who aren’t coming, Lao Shi has to decide to take the injured man to the hospital himself or watch him die in the street. He chooses to take him to the hospital, which, due to some ludicrous Chinese law or other, somehow makes him responsible for the man’s medical bills, barring someone else stepping in to take responsibility. Which, needless to say, no one does. And as the man is in a coma, his medical bills soon begin to crush Lao Shin and his family.
I must say that taking this infuriating situation as the subject of a thriller, rather than a social drama, is a pretty slick idea, even if Ma does play it as a social drama for much of Old Stone’s brief run time. As the bills steadily mount and no one takes the burden from Lao Shin’s shoulders, in what way precisely this is going to turn into a thriller becomes nauseatingly clear. There is great power in that, though reaching that moment is not always engaging. The viewer knows Lao Shin isn’t going to be saved, and watching him continue to not be saved for an hour, without much variety in the scenes, can only grip so hard. But Old Stone does finally deliver the gut punch its set up promises, and what disturbs the most is the complete understanding one has of how it could have come to this.
Vacas and The Red Squirrel (d. Julio Medem) – And so it’s come to this. Listen, I had no axe to grind going into these, Medem’s first two features, which have just been released by Olive Films. All I knew about the guy prior to watching these was that he’d directed Sex and Lucia, thereby springing Paz Vega onto the wider world. So I had nothing but positive feelings, indirect and vague as they may have been, about the man. But I have to tell you that, speaking as a lover of film whose relationship with the artform has become a bit combative, Vacas and The Red Squirrel just about broke me.

In both films, Medem employs a kind of bright, consciously and colorfully melodramatic style that put me in mind of Leos Carax, if Carax had no control over his own technique, or taste. This came through especially in The Red Squirrel, Medem’s second film, which finds him asking “What if Carax wondered what it would be like if Hitchcock remade Overboard?” A woman (Emma Suarez, who’s also in Vacas) gets into a motorcycle accident on the very same bridge from which a man (Nancho Novo) was just about to suicidally heave himself. Snapped out of it by the plight of this, so it turns out, beautiful woman, the man follows her to the hospital where he learns she’s lost her memory. So because he’s sad and she’s pretty, he convinces her that they’re married, and then they go camping.
Medem is, I suppose, a little bit more aware of the ethical diciness, to put it mildly, inherent in what this guy’s doing than the makers of the Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn comedy appeared to be, but only just. The whole thing is still finally looked upon as sweet, and between the beginning of their camping trip (at a campground full of other characters and such) and the part where her psychotic ex shows up to commit violence, etc., The Red Squirrel meanders thoughtlessly, with bizarrely misjudged sexuality (Suarez’s teasing relationship with a young boy, for instance; but hey, Europeans, right?) and bad shot choices that seem to exist only because Medem incorrectly believed they would be cool, or because on that day he was bored – see the sudden, worthless cut to an overhead shot of Suarez telling a story to their camping neighbors over dinner. And then the ending is just nonsense, full of the kind of willed strangeness that young filmmakers believe equal a unique artistic stamp.
Vacas is, I guess, a bit better. It shouldn’t be, since Medem made it first, it’s full of that same willed strangeness to which I just referred. And it’s also somehow superhumanly unengaging after the first ten or fifteen minutes. But the film, which is generally about two rural Spanish families who don’t like each other in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, does seem, I suppose, a bit more fully imagined. It swings at a lot, but less wildly than The Red Squirrel, and it does have its moments here and there. A cow’s death late in the film, for example, and early on a log-chopping contest between two men. Then again, twice in Vacas Medem shows that he very specifically does not have a way with battle scenes.  In these scenes, he seems to have deliberately chosen to not tackle the challenge such a complicated sequence presents, and the results are as perfunctory as you might imagine. For such an overheated film, Vacas becomes tepid just when it should be boiling over.
So I’m not a Medem fan, I’m afraid, and I can’t imagine a world in which I suddenly become one.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Beneath This Sea is Sea: The Books of 2017


I feel like no matter how long my fallow periods in the writing of this blog last, this one, my annual list of The Best Books What I Did Read, will always draw me back. I’ll spend most of one day at the end of every year writing it.

Anyway, if I ever don’t, it won’t be on a year such as this one, in which I almost doubled the number of books read in my previous best reading year, and almost tripled what I would guess my average to be. Because of this, while much of what’s to follow should be familiar to anyone who has read these lists of mine in the past – these books are not necessarily listed in an order of preference, until the last few, which I do consider the third, second, and first best books I read this year, etc. – you will find a whole new second thing here: the entire list of books I read in 2017. I include this entirely and only out of boastfulness; you’ll notice that I include no indication, outside of the main list of separated “best” books, what I thought of any of these, so other than saying to you “Lookit all these books I read,” what possible purpose could it serve? It should go without saying that not every book I liked can make the list of “best” books, so many of the uncommented-upon titles I liked very much, indeed. Others I hated down to my bones. I’ll let you guess which are which! And if you see a book on there that you count as one of your favorites, just assume that I despise it, and you, and all you represent.

All right, let’s get this fucking nonsense rolling! I’d like to be finished by dinner-time.


Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King – For many years, after Cell, I was out of the habit of reading Stephen King, and this had been a habit I’d maintained as avidly as a smoker for many, many years. A few years back I decided to take it back up again on a limited basis, and it has provided me with limited, but real, enjoyment. This book, which I skipped even during my more passionate years due to my callow assumption that it would be dull, has by far been the most rewarding. The title character tells the entire story, the book written as though she were speaking to the cops who have arrested her for the murder of the old woman she worked for, and King finds greater success with this conceit than I expected. Dolores is a full person, her life and story equally so, with all the suspense and rural Gothic you could want from a book like this. That it’s sister novel is the nebulously, mysteriously, but unmistakably, and thematically, linked Gerald’s Game, also published in 1992, just makes the whole thing more powerful.


The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally – This year was supposed to be my big Keneally year, but this, also the first book I read in 2017, is the only one I got to. Based on the true story of aborigine in 19th century Australia who after years of being treated unjustly by white Australians, suddenly embarks on a rampage of violence. Harrowing and at times genuinely shocking, Keneally doesn’t make the mistake of glorifying what Blacksmith does. He’s simply saying, if one must simplify this complex novel, that that led to this.

Cops and Robbers by Donald E. Westlake – I wrote about it, briefly, here.

The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath – One of several novels I read this year that actually came out in 2017, and one of several by writers I rank as favorites, McGrath’s unusual pseudo-ghost story about a woman dealing with the death of her actor husband, a few years after the end of World War II, and some alarming revelations that follow, may suffer from an ending that, while perfectly fine as far as what actually happens goes, feels so rushed that I wondered if McGrath’s manuscript was due later that afternoon. But that’s ultimately no big deal, because the rest of the novel is so sad, and so unnerving, and so full of little bits about the English theater at that time, the environment, and bombed out London. I think it’s McGrath’s best in years.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill – The story of a marriage teetering on the point of collapse, told in a meticulously assembled series of incidents and digressions and thoughts on whatever subject happens to seem relevant to the protagonist, even if she’s  unable to articulate why all this makes sense together. I don’t think I could articulate why this all works together myself, but it does. It’s like being inside the head of a sane person: everybody’s head is a jumble, even when it all makes sense.

Othello by William Shakespeare – It’s good! Also, I think Othello being a Moor might actually be relevant.

Dearest by Peter Loughran – Sort of like The Collector by John Fowles, but less ponderous, and written in a way that evokes actual life as it’s lived by some. It’s all the more disturbing for it. Relegated to the genre bin and therefore “disposable.”

Go Tell It On the Mountain  by James Baldwin – One of three books written by James Baldwin I read this year (as with Keneally, it was supposed to be more), along with If Beale Street Could Talk and The Fire Next Time. This novel, Baldwin’s first, stands out for me in the way it tells the story of John Grimes, a young boy living in Harlem, by telling the story of his mother, his father, and his step-father, each of whom lives completely here, and each of whom lives to create this heartbreaking little kid. Some knowledge of Baldwin’s life will help tell part of the story that the censors wouldn’t allow Baldwin to tell in 1953, though certain dots are probably not that hard to connect anyway.



Dead Air by Matthew M. Bartlett – I wrote about it briefly here.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher – An epistolary novel comprised entirely of letters (and e-mails, etc.) of recommendation written by one crushed-by-life English professor would seem to promise nothing but repetition, but Schumacher’s novel, which won awards and everything, is one of the funniest I’ve read in years. That the bitterness of Jason Fitger, the central academic, is predictable, because there is a tradition of such novels in English literature, means nothing because his bitterness is so pointed and eloquently nasty. I think the ending takes a too-sharp turn into the realm of “emotional weight” and so forth, but that’s fine. It’s one of the most satisfying and entertaining novels I read this year.

Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai – Conspiracy, death, animal cruelty, vast emptiness, endless alcohol, loneliness. It’s sort of a comedy. Hungary as the end of the world.


Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case – A true crime comic book about Jensen’s father, the lead detective in the hunt for Gary Ridgway, and the decades of his life he gave to finding a monster. The climactic moment between Tom Jensen and Ridgway is more frightening than any cinematic serial killer you could name.

At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien’s famously askance, let’s say, look at the Irish spirit, as well as Irish myth and stories, is very odd, and very funny, but at the end it suddenly put me in mind of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in the most unexpected way. A dark cloud persists when I think of it now.

Ill Will by Dan Chaon – The thriller of the year, as far as I’m concerned. Wrote about it here.


An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge – Speaking of post-war English theater, this novel, perhaps Bainbridge’s best-known outside of her masterpiece The Bottle Factory Outing, approaches that world with a touch more warmth than McGrath did in The Wardrobe Mistress. But just a touch. Once again, Bainbridge strikes a tone of skepticism regarding people and the way they go about things, and by the end that skepticism is proved to have been warranted. It’s good, and fun, until it’s not.

The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob – One of the key works of early French surrealism, Schwob’s 1892 collection of stories also shows how inherently linked that movement is with weird horror fiction. Not that that’s what Schwob was writing by another name, but he sure did write it sometimes, and helped mark a path. The title story seems clearly influenced by Poe, elsewhere there’s devil worship and horrible violence, and there is no story here that isn’t imbued with the terrible unease felt when nothing feels right, or when everything is certain to go wrong.

Poor George by Paula Fox – Fox’s first novel is about a miserably unhappy teacher who meets a troubled kid when that kid breaks into the teacher’s home. The teacher then, against his wife’s objections, hopes to take the kid under his wing. Less a comedy of errors than a full-on disaster, and less a satire than the state of things delivered with a sad, heavy sigh.

The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard – Wrote about it briefly here.


Point Omega by Don DeLillo – One of four DeLillo novels I read this year, an easily my (unexpected) favorite. This very short novel is political in its inspiration, but the power of the story – about a scholar with government connections being interviewed in the desert by a documentary filmmaker, about the scholar’s daughter who visits, and what happens then – is in its ultimate inexplicability. What’s unsettling isn’t what’s immediate about it, but what’s timeless.

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf – More true crime, more serial killers, more comic books. This approach to the subject is truly unusual, though: Backderf went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, and hung out with him, and saw the budding psychopath without realizing what he was seeing. This perspective allows for an element of the everyday that accounts of the lives of serial killers often lack – it’s all nightmare, all horror, either inflicted on the killer as a child, or inflicted by the killer as an adult on others. Which isn’t to suggest that My Friend Dahmer isn’t chilling, because it is. It’s just that for once we, who will hopefully never face something or someone like this in our lives, are forcefully reminded that these things happen in the same world we wake up to every morning.


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer – The first of VanderMeer’s Souther Reach trilogy, this short novel is about an expedition of women (not irrelevant) scientists, both hard and social, sent to explore a section of America that has been transformed, mysteriously and lethally. What they discover there is frightening and mystifying, otherworldly but somehow, seemingly, rooted inside this very planet. Though I have enough faith in VanderMeer to expect the trilogy to end well (I’ve also read the second book, Authority, which I liked, though not as much), I think Annihilation could have stood alone, brilliantly.



Holidays from Hell by Reggie Oliver – This, Oliver’s most recent collection of stories, would be a great place to start for anyone new to his brand of classic, yet nevertheless unique, horror fiction. Oliver is able to take premises that, if you think long enough about them, seem unsupportable, as he does here in the title story, which is about mysterious visitors at a seaside inn (that’s all I’ll say) and infuse the proceedings with puns before casting a genuine pall over the reader. Which isn’t to say this is his only mode, but rather an example of what he can do. My favorite horror book of the year.

Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser – Wrote about it here.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion – Life in California as existential nightmare spiral. Which was my guess, anyway.

Quake by Rudolph Wurlitzer – Speaking of California, nightmares, spirals, and so on, Wurlitzer’s novel about a massive earthquake turning Los Angeles into a fast-evolving Apocalypse really is just one damn thing after another, told with a lack of affect that seems, well, telling.

The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas – My first Thomas novel, and it’s a blast. It’s curious to me how this novel, about the kind of men who hunted Nazis immediately after the war ended, and what the rest of the world did about that (not that I think this is a work of reportage, mind you) comes in at under 300 pages, whereas a similar novel written today would easily crack 500. I’m also interested in the fact that the title character is literally a dwarf but there really aren’t many jokes about that fact, nor is he, to be honest, the main character. I’m also interested in books like this which characters the author chooses to kill off and which he spares. There is much here to be interested in and amused by.

An Artist of the Floating World  by Kazuo Ishiguro – Lots of post-war shit in my 2017 reading, apparently. This, Ishiguro’s second novel, and one of the last two of his books I needed to read (I have The Unconsoled on deck, finally, for 2018), is about a Japanese artist and illustrator who, in the years following his country’s defeat, has to reckon with – or choose not to reckon with – his place in the war effort. It’s a bracing, complicated, and damning novel.



The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns – Comyns takes the titular fairy tale and turns it into a story of class, love, friendship, and freak tragedy. Comyns was a genius, seemingly without effort.



In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass – “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass’s novella about violence, numbing cold, and a particularly grim sort of freedom, is as good as you’ve heard, and is without question the centerpiece of this 1968 collection. But everything his is exhilarating in its way – though Gass’s prose is often very dense, certain passages have a striking clarity, like this from “Icicles”, about a realtor’s crisis (look, I have to describe it somehow, and I ain’t got all day):  

So he’d hear Pearson preach the power of imagination: Fender! think what you’re selling! happiness is is our commodity! you want to dream for them – dream! But Fender remembered how a Baby Ruth wrapper had ruined a sale, it had gone through their dreams like a brick…

Everything is worthwhile, including the preface, which is long, and reads like a writer’s autobiography.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – Yeah, it’s not bad. I’m not sure what I can add, other than to say it is, or should be, the model of moral fiction that neither condemns nor glorifies, and of fiction that creates an entire community of not just people but buildings, houses, trees. It has also instilled in me what I expect will be a lifelong distrust of apothecaries.



The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis – A mad, romping smear of a kind of autobiographical something, soaked along the way with a bathtub-full of mortal dread. It’s a very odd book, in other words, and the comedy may not always lay easy upon it, but God is it absorbing.

Hell Hound by Ken Greenhall – Finally back in print, thanks to the good people at Valancourt Books, I’ve wanted to read this book for ages. It doesn’t disappoint. About a chillingly smart pit bull named Baxter that enters a suburban neighborhood and takes what it wants. Which is not all Hell Hound is. This novel is ultimately more disturbing, even sleazy, then I’d expected, but never dumb or pandering or cheap. It left me feeling very uncomfortable.



Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – Robinson may be the finest writer of prose currently alive in America. As all such proclamations are, this is arguable. But Gilead, about a minister named John Ames as he nears the end of his life and reflects on his faith, his family, his neighbors, war, the land, life, and death, written as a long message written by Ames to his young son, is more full of exquisite language and imagery than any other five contemporary novels you might choose to squish together into one volume and throw into the pit with it.

Last Look by Charles Burns – Another comic book (oh yeah, that’s another difference in the list this year: this one has some comics in it), and possibly my favorite one. In Black Holes, Burns used horror as both metaphor and as literal presence in the world of the story. With Last Look he doesn’t something different, and harder to pin down. Last Look may seem smaller than Black Holes, but like his magnum opus it is entirely impossible to shake months, and I suspect years, after putting it down.

The North Water by Ian McGuire – Wrote about it a little bit here. Suffice it to say, comparing it (in incident if not in language) to Cormac McCarthy at his most violent wouldn’t be inaccurate. Truly blood-drenched and horrifying. It’s a good book!

Nutshell by Ian McEwan – With this strange take Hamlet, McEwan has written his liveliest, most vivid prose in ages. In terms of tone and content, it’s like a throwback to his more genre-ish early work, but with the spark of a great writer who has found new life. Terrific fiction.

Indignation by Philip Roth – This novel, in addition to being a real honest to God novel, is an argument. A moral and political argument, more specifically, and, this being Philip Roth, it’s so mad it spits. The conclusion it ultimately comes to after considering the events of the novel is not the one I came to as a reader, and I feel confident that if we ever met, Philip Roth wouldn’t like me. But rarely, if ever, have I read the side of an argument I myself would have represented expressed as clearly and as intelligently and as eloquently by someone who rejects it utterly. Philip Roth is a great writer, and Indignation is a great novel.

Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson – When Johnson died unexpectedly earlier this year, this is the novel I immediately wanted to read. Johnson seemed able to write anything, and seemed to want to. This is his post-Apocalyptic novel, and is the most believable, authentic-seeming novel of this kind I’ve ever read. In Fiskadoro Johnson imagines a world that is far away from what we currently know, but understandable in its primitive struggles toward something familiar. It is as sad and as beautiful as anything Johnson ever wrote.

Some Came Running by James Jones – Wrote about it here. And while it may not be the best book I read in 2017, it is certainly the one I lived with the longest, and will continue to live with probably forever, and the one I know best. I know it like it’s alive inside my house. (Just don’t, you know, quiz me about it or anything.)

In the Money by William Carlos Williams – The second, after White Mule, in Williams’s trilogy of novels about the Stecher family and their rise (so far) to relative affluence. Set during the early 20th century, In the Money is ostensibly about how the Stecher patriarch, Joe, launches his own printing business after snatching from his former employers a major contract to print money orders for the government (FDR has a cameo!). But as a novelist, Williams was primarily concerned, as in his famous poem “This is Just to Say”, with the things that make up someone’s day. Especially if that someone is a child. No writer I can think of has a better eye or ear for the way children are, what frustrates and frightens them. One chapter, all about the two young Stecher girls going to the park with their mother, includes a moment so heartbreaking that I don’t like to think about it. And though Joe Stecher’s climb towards success may be difficult, and his wife Gurlie’s attitude towards it all may seem uncomfortably mercenary, what I’ll remember most about In the Money, what matters most, is the chapter about the youngest Stecher, Flossie, and what it’s like, and why it’s so awful, for a baby to be alone in a dark bedroom.

The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes – Each of the three novels about Harlem cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones were absolutely berserk, and, not incidentally, completely wonderful. But nothing I read in 2017 made my jaw hang open like The Real Cool Killers, Himes’s second novel in the series. It begins with an insane knife attack in a night club, the consequences of which spill out into the street and lead to the plot’s central murder, and climaxes – that is, the beginning of the novel climaxes – with Gravedigger Jones fatally shooting a teenager because the kid...well anyway. If I told you, you might decide this is all just too ridiculous. But somehow it isn’t, and somehow Himes is able to maintain this pace, and somehow The Real Cool Killers becomes, by the end, deeply moving, deeply sad and world-weary, and weirdly open-hearted, given a lot of factors you’ll notice and think about and bring into the book when you read it. It’s the crime novel as novel of absurdity. It’s the novel of absurdity as a kind of mourning.
Okay, here's the full list. In reverse chronological order because it would be a pain in the ass to do it any other way.
141. Jizzle by John Wyndham
140. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass
139. Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball
138. Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough 
137. Authority by Jeff VanderMeer 
136. In the Money by William Carlos Williams 
135. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
134. In the Middle of the Night by Robert Cormier 
133. Who is Rich? by Matthew Klam 
132. Matchbox Theater by Michael Frayn
131. Ratman's Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert
130. The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath
129. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
128. The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns 
127. The Eighth Dwarf by Ross Thomas
126. Nothing by Henry Green
125. The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills
124. Nutshell by Ian McEwan
123. Smile by Roddy Doyle
122. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
121. The Ballad of Typhoid Mary by J.F. Federspiel
120. The Black Spider by Jeremias Gotthelf
119. Fear is the Rider by Kenneth Cook
118. Cops and Robbers by Donald E. Westlake
117. The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons
116. Othello by William Shakespeare
115. Experimental Film by Gemma Files
114. The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer
113. The Snowman by Jo Nesbo
112. The Tragedy of Brady Sims by Ernest J. Gaines
111. Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert
110. You're All Alone by Fritz Leiber
109. Play Things by Peter Prince
108. Dead Air by Matthew M. Bartlett
107. The Poor Mouth by Flann O'Brien
106. The North Water by Ian McGuire
105. The Big Bounce by Elmore Leonard
104. Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser
103. Ill Will by Dan Chaon
102. Some Came Running by James Jones
101. Strange Monsters of the Recent Past by Howard Waldrop
100. Lunar Follies by Gilbert Sorrentino
099. Young Adolf by Beryl Bainbridge
098. Poor George by Paula Fox
097. Indignation by Philip Roth
096. You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann
095. Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson
094. Journey of the Dead by Loren D. Estleman
093. The Crazy Kill by Chester Himes
092. Conscience by John Skipp
091. The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales by Angela Slatter
090. Idaho Winter by Tony Burgess
089. An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge
088. The Changeling by Victor LaValle
087. The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty
086. Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman
085. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
084. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa
083. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
082. The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob
081. The Happy Man by Eric C. Higgs
080. The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
079. The Lake by Yasunari Kawabata
078. Backflash by Donald E. Westlake
077. Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind by Michael Fessier
076. The Monster Club by R. Chetwynd-Hayes
075. The Silent Gondoliers by William Goldman
074. Pictures of Fidelman by Bernard Malamud
073. Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
072. Kubrick by Michael Herr
071. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle
070. Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson
069. The Pistol by James Jones
068. So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
067. The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
066. The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge
065. Players by Don DeLillo
064. Neonomicon by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows
063. Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter
062. Green River Killer by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case
061. A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr
060. Stranglehold by Jack Ketchum
059. The Fisherman by John Langan
058. My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf
057. Red Lights by Georges Simenon
056. Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai
055. Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages by Manuel Puig
054. Devils' Spawn by Charles Birkin
053. Last Look by Charles Burns
052. The Dinner by Herman Koch
051. Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly by John Franklin Bardin
050. Junky by William S. Burroughs
049. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
048. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin
047. Hell Hound by Ken Greenhall
046. Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee
045. The Fates by Thomas Tessier
044. Where Furnaces Burn by Joel Lane
043. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
042. I Should Have Stayed Home by Horace McCoy
041. The Hero Pony by David Mamet
040. The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
039. Shadow of a Broken Man by George C. Chesbro 
038. Death Poems by Thomas Ligotti
037. The Sensitive One by C.H.B. Kitchin
036. Quake by Rudolph Wurlitzer
035. Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
034. Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
033. The Man Who Collected Machen and Other Weird Tales by Mark Samuels
032. Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin
031. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
030. Project X by Jim Shepard
029. All the Little Animals by Walker Hamilton
028. The Patriot Game by George V. Higgins
027. Ray by Barry Hannah
026. Holidays from Hell by Reggie Oliver
025. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
024. White Mule by William Carlos Williams
023. Universal Harvester by John Darnielle
022. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
021. The Scarf by Robert Bloch
020. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
019. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
018. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
017. The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes
016. A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes
015. The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
014. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
013. Swift to Chase by Laird Barron
012. Dearest by Peter Loughran
011. Street of No Return by David Goodis
010. I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas
009. Dog Eat Dog by Edward Bunker
008. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig
007. Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
006. The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
005. Point Omega by Don DeLillo
004. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
003. Hogg by Samuel R. Delany
002. Running Dog by Don DeLillo
001. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally 

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