Book Reviews


Skinny Annie Blues

by Neal Barrett, Jr.
Kensington, $21.95

Publisher's Weekly recently said that Austin author Neal Barrett, Jr. writes like "Robert Ludlum on laughing gas." What a ridiculous thing to say. Robert Ludlum couldn't write anything like Barrett no matter what kind of drugs he took. Barrett's latest mystery, Skinny Annie Blues, is in many ways his most off-beat, outrageous yet. And, coming on the heels of his last two, Dead Dog Blues and Pink Vodka Blues, that's saying a lot.

Among Barrett's many considerable talents is his knack for Texas redneck dialogue. He's got the rhythm and rhyme and downright loopiness of it down pat; and no matter how surreal or over the top Barrett paints the scenario, you can actually hear and see these sneering, swaggering, dangerous misfits. This time out, Barrett tells a fish-out-of-water story, with the unlikely hero, Wiley Moss, an entomologist (he draws bugs for the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.) who flies down to Galveston to find out who murdered his father. It's a little hard for Wiley to decide just what his emotional reaction to the news ought to be. After all, he hasn't seen or heard from the man since his sixteenth birthday. He says: I simply couldn't picture Daddy dead. You don't know someone's alive, it's hard to get from there to dead. Daddy started leaving home in the year that I was born. I grew up thinking that's what fathers did.

Despite all that, Wiley does harbor a sliver of affection for his departed dad. Wiley recalls that on his sixteenth birthday, his father gave him a Tour de France bike. ("It had the Camagnolo components -- crank set, derailleurs, the works.") The next day, his father disappeared for good. Two weeks later, cops stopped Wiley on his way to school. Turns out that bike was stolen. Mother said I should remember that he'd picked out the best bike there was for his boy. He could have gotten something cheaper, but he didn't do that. He got the best.

Wiley probably wouldn't have dropped everything (including his relationship with a gorgeous though somewhat dizzy girlfriend) to fly to Texas to try to solve his father's murder, except for the fact that the cop who calls to give him the news is obviously trying to cover something up. After vainly trying to discourage Wiley from coming to Texas, their conversation degenerates into a surreal, long-distance wrestling match, and the cop calls Wiley "a sissy wart fuck." That does it. He's on the next flight out.

And so goes the rest of Skinny Annie Blues. Wiley comes to Galveston, ogles pretty girls who mostly give him a hard time, gets on the wrong side of bizarre criminals with names like Halfass, Pound, and Tommy Clit and a very mean, very fat stripper called Skinny Annie, and strikes up dangerous friendships with over-the-edge characters like Stirling R. LaFrance (aka "The Chicken Man"), Harry Sykes, and a waiter named Bob.

The novel is in many ways one long extended chase scene and a chain of elliptical, jazzlike conversations between the seriously off-kilter hero and the series of weirdos whose orbits he is flung into and out of with dizzying speed. There's Stewart L. Stewart, the exceedingly eccentric writer who writes his novel manuscripts on the bodies of shaved dogs. There's the girl he meets on the plane, who causes a scene after she catches Wiley staring at her foot, which she takes to mean that he's fantasizing about having wild, uninhibited sex with her. Wiley is all-guy, and he's the kind of guy who gets in trouble for just thinking guy-thoughts.

Barrett's palette of guy-thoughts is as real as Milk Duds melting in your left hand during a Saturday afternoon matinee while your right attempts to craftily negotiate the alluring frontier between her shoulder and breast. As Wiley's girlfriend emerges from the shower, the aroma is "a pleasant mix of Animal Crackers and lemon soap, vodka and Diet Coke, the heady scent of moving parts. If I touched her she'd be slick as olive oil. She might be hard to catch."

Skinny Annie Blues is not your typical tough-guy mystery novel and Barrett is not your typical tough-guy mystery writer. But when it comes to what he does, he's the best there is. Robert Ludlum on laughing gas? I'd say think about Robert Parker and Elmore Leonard spiked with cheap margaritas and truck driver jokes. Or just read the first page of this book, or any of Barrett's novels. You'll get the picture. -- Jesse Sublett


My Aces, My Faults,

by Nick Bollettieri and Dick Schaap
Avon, $25 hard

Tennis is rife with celebrities, and its lexicon of players, both off and on the court can rival that of Hollywood. Nowhere is that more evident than in Nick Bollettieri, the sometimes acclaimed, always self-proclaimed, wizard guru to rising tennis stars. Nick Bollettieri is the George Hamilton of tennis. And the similarities don't end at the tan line.

My Aces, My Faults hit the stands when the U.S. Open began and you have to wonder if the debut wasn't as much a calculated attempt to unnerve some of Bollettieri's estranged students as it was to ride the coattails of the Open's publicity. Bollettieri hangs some pretty private laundry out on his lines, and as unabashed as he may be about his "faults," Andre Agassi, Mary Pierce, Boris Becker, Monica Seles, and especially his cousin Kenny, may not have wanted to be quite so forthcoming. He reprints long-winded, pompous letters to his students that are best read aloud to whooping, disbelieving tennis buff friends. In his letter to Mary Pierce, he writes, "A. On court... You have a habit of looking to the box, raising your hands in disgust, or smiling, as well as a few other irritating habits. These must stop." Other sections of these letters, which often take the form of outlines with lots of numbers, letters and Roman numerals, include: III. Your Personal Relationships, VI. Mary Pierce's Present Game and Techniques and, VIII. (but not least) Nick Bollettieri.

Co-authored by veteran sports biography writer, Dick Schaap, the book is a tightly woven and entertaining tale. Schaap deftly manipulates time and players to create a lively picture of a quixotic character who is surrounded (at least through his perception) by controversy, betrayal, triumph and retribution. Bollettieri and Schaap spare no punches, either to Nick or to those he strips bare in his book. Even in the toned-up writing, you get a sense of the man's raw charisma and begin to understand how a law school dropout who knew very little about tennis got to be a rich man with a stable full of top players and the notoriety to match. And who couldn't love a man whose favorite thing about being the Rockefeller's family pro was the abundance of huge terrycloth towels scattered around their pools. "I took a few of those towels home with me every summer. I figured they wouldn't miss them." -- Hollis Chacona

Aaron Spelling:
A Prime-Time Life

by Aaron Spelling with Jefferson Graham
St. Martin's Press, $23.95 hard

For the purebred gossiphound, the biography of the master of such juicy on- and off-the-set TV antics as Dynasty, Charlie's Angels, and Melrose Place would seem a veritable salt lick of Sodom & Gomorrah delight. Too bad. If the smell of month-old unmentionables is what you crave, one whiff of this fabric-softened, Prime-Time laundry may be too fragrant. What was Aaron Spelling thinking? We want the dirt and he is holding out!

Where's the lowdown about Shannon and Lauren and Hervé and Farrah? Where's the gooey, nasty, sticky stuff that kept the tabloids in black ink for so long? As it becomes apparent that the man who launched so many myths and feathered hairdos has no interest in demystifying his creations, it becomes clear that this book ain't the place.

What does remain is a backlot full of future Trivial Pursuit™ (TV: The Jiggle Years edition) questions, like:

Who came up with Victoria Davey (Tori) Spelling's nickname?

What famous late Seventies TV icon had a sign on his on-set trailer that read: "The Doctor of Sex"?

Who was originally hired to play Blake Carrington?

and

Who was the 500th guest star of the Love Boat?

Hmmmm. Interesting, but not as satisfyingly twisted as half the characters on Spelling's shows.

Despite all the tip-toe discretion, the general tone of this epic is quite dishy. In fact, one might get the impression, through reading the prose of the diminutive Mr. Spelling, that he is a Total Queen. His understanding of (and albeit, total exploitation, usually to the sheer delight of) Gay America has created turning-point characters in small screen history like Steven Carrington, Doug on Melrose, that lesbo doctor on the short-lived series Heartbeat, and hell, even Kristy McNichol's Buddy Lawrence (swoon!) on Family. He must be down. Okay, maybe the pioneering producer isn't really a homo. Spelling gets off the hook, not so much for his exhaustive chapters on straight-guy philandering and eventual total devotion to his wife Candy (herself a total queen in the truest sense: The woman has a skadillion-dollar doll collection. ), but for being a good guy about queers, in general.

Personally, I lay the blame of this tame book on co-writer Jefferson Graham. Sure, the guy co-authored the bio of mega-sales genius Ron Popeil, but he also covers the TV-industry for USA Today, not exactly the bastion of butt-nekkid controversy. The life and accomplishments of Aaron Spelling deserve a more thorough dishing.

Oh, the answers to the questions? Well, don't not get the book on our account:

Barbara Stanwyck

Hervé Villechaize

George Peppard (bonus points if you knew that Dynasty was originally titled Oil) and

Mr. Andy Warhol.

-- Kate X Messer

Fernando del Paso's Palinuro of Mexico Translated by Elisabeth Plaister
Dalkey Archive Press, $14.95 paper

Many will find this great novel daunting at first glance. Del Paso has been influenced by writers from Cervantes, Rabelais, and Sterne to Joyce and Fuentes, and he employs sentences hundreds of words long, paragraphs that go on for pages. Actually, it's not that difficult; Joyce's departure from conventional grammar, punctuation and syntax in Ulysses provides readers with more of a challenge.

There certainly have been precedents for Palinuro, aside from Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake, including works by Proust, Marguerite Young, Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, and Miguel Asturias. However, their novels are not familiar to most readers, although they may have read stuff by Thomas Pynchon, the world's most overrated trivia buff.

Del Paso, a Mexican who's spent years abroad, transcends the Latin American literary tradition here, although much of Palinuro is set in his nation. Palinuro's name derives from Palinurus, Aeneas' helmsman. A young medical student, he appears in both the first and third person, partly because del Paso includes a good deal of autobiographical information and is self-referential, e.g., "And into my novel had fallen the hyperbolic and hollow." In fact, del Paso stated during an interview, "...I realized I wasn't creating a number of characters but, in fact, one character with a number of facets or masks. In that multiplicity I myself, as the novel's creator, was also included.... This all-encompassing character could at times become Cousin Walter, who ends up being another aspect of Fernando del Paso.... But this omnipresent character can also unfold into Molkas, Fabricio, and Palinuro's other friends -- Molkas representing the most vulgar, unrefined aspect of this character of characters, whereas Fabricio symbolizes his most refined side."

Palinuro's most distinctive feature is del Paso's frequent reference to medicine and medical history, using them in metaphorical contexts often. Once a medical student, he commented, "I began to understand that it (medicine) is nothing but a science of failure. It attempts to save a person's life and, although it succeeds at times, it is truly powerless in that it cannot explain the enigmas of the human body. Our body is a microcosm and is the only thing we truly enjoy in life: with the body we love and hate, with the body we enjoy and suffer." With this in mind, del Paso makes the sexual relationship of Palinuro and his first cousin, Estefania, a major part of his novel.

There are also many references here to painting, literature and political history. One chapter contains an account of what happened to Ambrose Bierce after he wandered into Mexico and supposedly met Pancho Villa. This was before Fuentes published The Old Gringo. He deliberately avoided reading Palinuro so that he would not be influenced by it. Palinuro is non-linear and the chapter order less important than in most novels. In one, del Paso, who had previously worked as a publicist and employee of the BBC in London, deals with Palinuro's Travels Among the Advertising Agencies and Other Imaginary Islands, a satire during which he refers to Gulliver's Travels. Another chapter, taking the form of a theatrical script, has to do with the 1968 massacre of students in Mexico City.

The variety in del Paso's work and his technical skill impress as much as his erudition. He loads Palinuro with gorgeous prose poetry, and also displays a consistently sharp sense of humor. For those of you hung up on "magic realism" which, incidentally, existed in Europe as well as the Western hemisphere, before the term was invented, the book does contain some fantasy content and hallucinatory passages.

Now that you're aware of this novel, don't let it scare you. Seek it out, let it seep into you.

-- Harvey Pekar

The Quantity Theory of Insanity by Will Self
Vintage, $12 paper

There's a lot of Dickens in Will Self's short story collection, The Quantity Theory of Insanity: domineering mothers, omniscient doctors, befuddled academics, urban clutter, psychiatric hospitals. But an Amazon tribe that resembles West London suburbanites? Mothers who return from the dead? Insanity that can't be cured, that spreads like toxic waste, changing hands but never diminishing? Nothing is what it seems in these interlinking stories; this is warped Dickens, Dickens on speed. And despite the many similarities to Dickens, Self's stories are highly topical. To anyone conversant with the world of psychiatric medicine, Self's fictional territory -- with its daily doses of Thorazine and Prozac, celebrity psychologists, endless smokes, conspiracy theories -- will be familiar. In "Ward 9" an art therapist discovers a bizarre collusion between doctors and patients when he takes a job in a psychiatric ward. In "North London Book of the Dead" a middle-aged man wonders if he's going mad when he learns that his mother, who died months earlier, is living in a London suburb. In the title story an academic psychologist `proves' his theory that there is a measurable amount of insanity in the world.

While Self's story-telling method is straightforward, his language can be elliptical. It's peppered with thesaurus-friendly words -- cloacal, scrofulous, sussuration, epicine -- which add a jargony, diagnostic flavor to the prose. In fact, the overall tone of these stories is clinical. This is how the narrator of "Ward 9" describes himself: "After a few weeks on Ward 9, and a generous handful of mutant M&M's, everything began to resolve itself into the patterns I had always dimly thought I apprehended. The violet swirls, purple beams and glowing coils that lie within the world of the pressed eyelid -- the distressed retina." In "Waiting" a journalist decides that a traffic-obsessed friend is turning destructively insane. Self's narrators diagnose various states of madness, but, like white-coated doctors standing behind observation windows, they maintain an uncomfortable distance from the madnesses at hand. The stories don't begin to explore the complex geography of madness. They quickly begin to feel cold, repetitious -- like a sheaf of medical reports. The concepts driving this collection are interesting, but the stories themselves left me wanting more. -- Tamsin Todd

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