Book Review – Fat Chance (AKA Deadfall) by Keith Laumer

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Sometimes a book is sort of like a Hershey bar – a good, solid choice that doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but still satisfies. For me, that pretty much describes Keith Laumer’s Fat Chance, which was adapted into a 1975 film starring Michael Caine.

Laumer dedicates the book to Raymond Chandler. For me, it recalled both Chandler and Ross Macdonald – a novel set in Southern California featuring a world-weary private eye. Laumer draws on Macdonald’s standard plot – somebody did something bad in the past and the past catches up to them (or their children) in the present. While Fat Chance isn’t quite as good as Chandler or Macdonald, I still enjoyed it. I give 7 out of 10.

Joe Shaw

Laumer’s private eye is Joe Shaw, whom a woman describes as one of those “tall, tough men with cool gray eyes” (p. 79). Shaw isn’t one of those “new-age” private eyes who started appearing in the 70s. He’s a hard-drinking, sarcastic loner in the old mode. I didn’t always find Shaw to be convincing, as he often gets what he wants to “running over” people who have no incentive to cooperate with him.

The Plot

The book starts with an aging thug named Lou Anglich who tells Shaw that he had an adopted daughter in Tampa during World War II. Anglich lost her but has reason to suspect she’s in California. He wants Shaw to track her down. Predictably, Anglich isn’t telling the whole truth. Shaw’s search leads him deep into a rich family’s murky past – that the family wants to keep hidden.

Shaw’s cynicism is a good fit with 1970s America. He describes a fallen world –

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P. 121

Drawbacks

Again, I like this book, but it has several flaws. One of the issues is that – aside from Shaw – it needs a stronger center. Anglich becomes a peripheral character and Shaw’s cynicism prevents him from getting too emotionally involved in what’s happening. Laumer needed to give the reader more reason to care.

Another concern is that the Byzantine plot is nearly impossible to figure out. Laumer wraps it up well; but as the novel unwinds, he provides few clues to the backstory that is driving the case.

Case Closed

Still, I enjoyed Fat Chance. It’s not great, but for fans of old-school private eye novels, it’s a lot of fun.

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Book Review – Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante by Stephen Cooper

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Nearly all artists toil in anonymity. Most of these unknowns must have thought that maybe they will receive their due at some point in the future. Occasionally, it actually happens. Such was the case with John Fante (1909-1983), whose novels about Los Angeles have become renowned since his death.

In summer 2018, I saw a copy of Stephen Cooper’s Fante biography, Full of Life, in one of my favorite bookstores – The Book Nook in Atlanta. They wanted $10 for a used copy, which was more than I wanted to pay. So, I filed the book away in my memory, then got around to ordering it in 2019.

Fante’s Life

Fante was born in Colorado into a family of Italian-American immigrants. During his younger years, his family spent time in both Boulder and Denver. His home life was turbulent. John escaped (to some degree) when he attended a Roman Catholic high school in Denver. In author Cooper’s telling, Fante’s difficult childhood and Catholicism combined to shape his novels.

Eventually, Fante moved to Los Angeles. With no credentials, he worked a series of menial jobs and gradually established himself as a writer. It was Fante’s novels featuring his semi-autobiographical protagonist Arturo Bandini that would eventually be hailed as the greatest novels ever written about Los Angeles.

The Book

Author Stephen Cooper, an English professor, follows Fante’s journey from beginning to end. The biography is mostly successful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Cooper’s background , Full of Life shines when it discusses Fante’s work, which Cooper knows very well.

The portrait of Fante that emerges is of a great, but tortured artist. Fante could mine the hurts and prejudices he’d endured and turn them into fine literature. But he couldn’t escape his past. Eventually, he married and had four children, and then treated his own family to many of the same cruelties he’d been exposed to as a child.

The following passage has a quote from Fante’s wife, Joyce, and a passage that he wrote. It gets at John’s dual nature –

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P. 248

Criticism and Questions

The book can be clunky in places. The sections on John’s early years in Colorado contain too much of what Cooper imagines happened to John, perhaps due to a lack of sources. Also, there are some clumsy attempts to introduce politics into the story. (A quibble – Cooper twice states that Representative Martin Dies of Texas was a Republican, which is untrue).

Cooper leaves one nagging question that probably can’t be answered – did Fante realize his potential? After his successes with novels, John primarily supported himself as a Hollywood screenwriter over the last 40 years or so of his career. Cooper appreciates Fante’s achievement, but can’t help wondering what might have been.

Sad Ending

The most-moving aspect of Full of Life is its ending. Fante became diabetic and endured a long, awful decline during which he went blind and lost both of his legs. Cooper’s account of these years will move even the most-hardened readers.

Last Thoughts

Cooper succeeds at portraying an enigmatic subject’s art and life. The reader gets a good understanding of Fante in about 330 pages. Full of Life closes on a high note that surprises the reader – a brief account of Cooper’s personal contact that Fante in the 1970s.

I give Full of Life 8 out of 10 and recommend it.

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Back Cover

 

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Book Review – A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean

2C0E1D9B-6E7B-4FC5-BE4B-A16E52C7BDA9The front cover of A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean states that author Gary Buslik is “P.J. O’Rourke and Paul Theroux in a blender.“ That sounded good enough for me, so I read it. While I’m glad that I did, Rotten Person is a difficult book to pigeonhole.

Buslik & Idi Amin

Buslik starts with a strong story titled “The Time I Accidentally Urinated on Idi Amin.” The story describes a vacation that Buslik and his wife, Annie, took to Mustique. They have one funny adventure after another until, indeed, Buslik and Idi Amin end up in the same restroom. (Though Rotten Person is supposed to be nonfiction, I’d guess that it’s “faction” – some truth with a lot of artistic license).

The story is very funny. Buslik presents himself as a bumbling everyman, similar to the way Dave Barry writes about himself. After that first story, I thought I knew what Rotten Person was going to be like. But I didn’t.

At the end of the book, Buslik’s Acknowledgments reveal that he wrote many of the pieces for magazines. Perhaps that explains why the book’s tone is all over the board. Some of the pieces are funny. But others are sad or matter of fact. The reader really doesn’t know at the beginning of each story.

“Weed Killer” & Other Successes

One of the best stories is “Weed Killer.” In it, Buslik describes how he went to Grenada in September 1983, just before the U.S. invasion. He ended up attending a cockfight with man called Bones. Buslik provides vivid descriptions of his journey to the fight, the people there, and the fight itself.

The “About the Author” states that Buslik teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Illinois – Chicago. Rotten Person demonstrates that he learned something about telling a good story during all of his years of writing and studying. Also, there is also some nice prose –

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P. 39

 

Not All Stories are Aces

Though I was positive on the book, some material in Rotten Person is not entirely satisfying.

“Papa’s Ghost” is unsettling. In it, Buslik track down Ernest Hemingway’s old pal Gregorio Fuentes in Cuba. But when Buslik meets the 104-year-old Fuentes, he doesn’t know what to do. Fuentes is near death and Buslik manages only to make a few lame comments about the situation. It’s a memorable – not necessarily bad – but unnerving.

Perhaps the one story that I really disliked was “Black Power.” The piece concerns a racist American businessman on Antigua. The man lives down to every stereotype of The Ugly American – in addition to being racist, he’s self absorbed, ignorant, and even likes country music (gasp!). The black Antiguans, on the other hand, are upstanding and wise. My sense was that Buslik was engaging in a bit of “virtue signaling” to let the world know that he “gets it.” But he created a story-length cliche, a piece without complexity or originality.

Readers will have different reactions to other aspects of the book. Buslik includes a lot of thoughts on dying and on religion. In regard to the latter, he is irreverent. (In regard to the book’s subtitle, there’s no sign he’s a horrible person. Perhaps that was just his publisher’s attempt at a hook to sell more copies).

The Departure Lounge

Fortunately, “Black Power” is an anomaly. While a few of the other entries didn’t do much for me, the collection is pretty good on the whole. I give it 7 out of 10.

Rotten Person is an easy book to pick up and put down. You can read what interests you – in any order – and disregard the rest. My bookworm mother likes to use the entries in books such as Rotten Person as “fill ins” between longer books that she reads cover to cover. Rotten Person would also make a nice beach book – whether you’re in the Caribbean or not.

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Back Cover

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Book Review – Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill

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Near the beginning of Chaos, author Tom O’Neill consider his 20-year investigation of Charles Manson’s crimes and muses –

Who cares? I’ve asked myself that a lot over the years. Was it worth investing so much of my time and energy in these, some of the most well-known, worn-out crimes in American history? How did I end up falling into this, anyway? (Pp. 5-6).

Unfortunately, the reader has to ask him- or herself similar questions. Authors of any new entries on Charles Manson’s crimes have to compete against dozens of previous efforts and the fact that the crimes recede farther into the past each day. O’Neill tries – does offer some fascinating information – but Chaos is just middling success.

Long Road to Publication

Back in 1999, O’Neil received an assignment to write about Manson’s connections with Hollywood for the now-defunct Premiere magazine. Amazingly, that assignment led to a 20-year odyssey to learn what really happened. The result is Chaos – an unfortunately-apt title.

Official Story vs. The Facts

When Chaos shines, it’s excellent. O’Neill had me for the first 200 pages; then the book derailed. Consistently, O’Neill shows that the official story of the Manson murders is not the full story. He’s particularly strong in recounting how record producer Terry Melcher’s court testimony concerning his involvement with Manson differed from some of his prior statements to police. There is a particularly strong scene in which O’Neill confronts Melcher at the rooftop pool of the latter’s Los Angeles condo.

If O’Neill succeeds at taking down anyone in the book, it’s Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who sent Manson to prison. O’Neill provides convincing evidence that Bugliosi shaped the prosecution around an “official” version of the murders that excluded many important facts.

Even more damning are O’Neill’s revelations about Bugliosi’s tawdry private life. He writes about Bugliosi’s vendetta against his milkman, which occurred after Bugliosi somehow convinced himself that the milkman had fathered his son, Vincent, Jr. Later, Bugliosi became involved in another scandal when a woman claimed that the married Bugliosi assaulted her and forced her to have an abortion after they  conceived a child together. Though both stories had been whispered about for years, O’Neill brings these facts to a wide audience.

Down a Million Rabbit Holes

Given Chaos’ many interesting stories, the book could have been a qualified success. But O’Neill fills large parts of the book with long, unrewarding stories. Less would have been more.

After the first 200 pages, the narrative veers off into conspiracy land. The book implodes in Chapters 6 and 7, rights itself in Chapters 8-10, then implodes again in Chapter 11. Fortunately, O’Neill does close the book with some interesting thoughts (in Chapter 12 and the Epilogue).

The weak material gets into a rogue intelligence agent named Reeve Whitson, the Kennedy assassination, the CIA, and other unlikely topics. (By the end of the book, I wouldn’t have been surprised to read references to black helicopters and the New World Order). What all of the weak material in Chaos shares is a low-M (Manson) quotient – the number of references to Manson on each page is very low. Perhaps this is no surprise, given that Manson probably had nothing to do with the CIA or the Kennedy assassination.

O’Neill goes off track in other ways as well. He engages in rampant speculation, accusing everyone he interviews of being involved in a big coverup. Anyone who can’t remember, or who failed to follow procedures to the letter, is guilty of nefarious conduct. (Ironically, O’Neill impugns Bugliosi for speculating in presenting the Manson case in court).

Final (?) Verdict

I have a tortured relationship with these latter-day Manson books. I’m frequently disappointed in them, but I always come back for more. Recently, Dianne “Snake” Lake published Member of the Family about her time in The Family. Lake’s book is much less ambitious than is O’Neill’s – she doesn’t claim to know anything other than her own experiences with Manson. But her book is much more satisfying than is O’Neill’s.

At the end, O’Neill seems to realize that – at least in some respects – he’s fallen short. He writes that “The evidence I’d amassed against the official version of the Manson murders was so voluminous, from so many angles, that it was overdetermined. I could poke a thousand holds in the story, but I couldn’t say what really happened” (pp. 394-5). So, O’Neill moves the goalposts, stating that “My goal isn’t to say what did happen – it’s to prove that the official story didn’t. I’ve learned to accept the ambiguity” (p. 430).

Whether that’s enough will depend on each reader’s interpretation. At its best, Chaos  is a page turner. The Manson story continues to fascinate and O’Neill manages to wring a bit more out of the old Manson sponge. But, it’s only a qualified success – that rarity, an unsatisfying page turner.

I give Chaos 6.5 out of 10.

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Book Review – Pitch by Pitch by Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler

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Back during the early-1980s, I started watching the Atlanta Braves (“America’s Team”) play baseball on Ted Turner’s WTBS. Bob Gibson was the Braves’ pitching coach and he’d often trudge out to the mound in his shiny, blue jacket to lecture faltering pitchers. “Gibby” (as the announcers called him) often urge the Braves’ starters to be more aggressive with the hitters.

About fifteen years before, Gibson had been the St. Louis Cardinal’s star pitcher. And the peak of his career was 1968. For baseball purists, ‘68 was the last “real” season before Major League Baseball changed the rules and adulterated the game. Through 1968, there were no playoffs – just the World Series with the American and National League champions. In 1969, all of that changed. The ‘68 baseball season was also notable as “the year of the pitcher” when runs were tough to come by. Finally, the World Series between the Cardinals and Tigers was fantastic, ending a dramatic 7th game.

The Book

So, I had plenty of reason to look forward to Bob Gibson and Lonnie Wheeler’s Pitch by Pitch, an account of Game One of the 1968 Series. The idea of a pitch-by-pitch account of a big ballgame is a great one. I’m surprised that no pitcher has published a book like Inning by Inning before (at least to my knowledge). I did think that Gibson should have chosen Game 7, instead. He admits that it’s more memorable to him and it was much more consequential. Or, he could have chosen Game 7 from the 1964 of 1967 World Series if he didn’t want to dwell on a loss.

One idea that comes through in Inning by Inning is that a pitcher – even one who seems to dominate – lives on a thin margin. Getting hitters out is a matter of having great pitches and educated guesses. Gibson and Wheeler surprised me by not only discussing each pitch that Gibson threw, but also breaking down each Detroit’s pitchers threw. For baseball fans, it’s amazing – a detailed breakdown of what goes into winning at the highest level. Gibson can even be a bit philosophical, as in the passage below –

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P. 41

Baseball People

One terrific aspect of the book is Gibson’s portrait of his relationship with Cardinals catcher Tim McCarver. Together, the two men made up the “battery” that tried to shut down the Tigers’ potent offense in Game One. The two men were in synch when Gibson pitched and had an amazing working relationship. Interestingly, McCarver and Gibson, had to overcome the era’s racial tension (and their largely-segregated childhoods) to become fast friends – a friendship that Gibson says endures to this day.

Gibson and Wheeler also surprised me with a number of other great portraits of the ‘68 Series’ larger than-life-cast. Among others, readers get to know –

  • Curt Flood – the Cards’ centerfielder and Gibson’s roommate on the road. Flood became famous as the man whose lawsuit helped usher in the era of free agency.
  • Orlando “Cha Cha” Cepeda – the Cards’ first baseman, who’d had a resurgence after joining the Cards in 1967.
  • Denny McLain – the Tigers’ ace pitcher (and Gibson’s opponent in Game One). In ‘68, McLain was baseball’s first 30-game winner since the 1930s. He lived in the fast lane, flying his own plane to Tigers road games and performing on the organ in Las Vegas. His career would soon crash and burn.
  • Norm Cash – the Tiger’s fun-loving, alcoholic first baseman. Cash couldn’t make early-morning workouts because he was “still throwing up” until 10 a.m. After benders, he’d drink an entire bottle of Pepto-Bismol to get himself in shape to play. (Unsurprisingly, as with McLain, life after baseball was rough for Cash).

But Gibson’s greatest portrait in the book is of himself. He was seen as a surly, aggressive headhunter who intimidated hitters. Gibson explains that his competitiveness came out of his hardscrabble childhood in north Omaha, Nebraska, and from the older brother who pushed him to succeed at sports. The reader feels that he or she “knows where Gibson is coming from” at the end of the book.

Final Score

I’m going to give Inning by Inning 9 out of 10. Following each pitch is a great idea, offering baseball fans so much more depth than does the average sports book. 

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Book Review – Secret Witness by Blaine Pardoe

1DB695D6-0439-47C7-8298-4312DB8D2D7BA while back, I saw a copy of Blaine Pardoe’s Secret Witness in a local bookstore. It looked pretty good and I added it to my “to-read” list. After ordering a used copy online, I am glad that I read the book. But I can’t rate it any higher than 6 out of 10.

The backstory is fantastic. In August 1967, a woman named Nola Puyear opened a package in the diner that she owned with her husband in Marshall, Michigan. The package exploded, instantly killing Nola. Secret Witness details the crime and authorities’ efforts to solve it.

A Soap Opera in Marshall, Michigan?

The beginning of the book is quite good. The case takes the police to Arkansas, home of the Puyears and the main suspect. While investigating, police find that some of those involved in the case were involved in a series of extramarital affairs that mainly took place in a trailer to the north of Marshall.

Of course, the material on the affairs is interesting, suggesting a hidden world behind Marshall’s “Mayberry” facade. But there’s a problem. The affairs have little to nothing to do with the case.

More Grumbles

Secret Witness isn’t bad, but a number of issues keep it from being better. One aspect of the book that baffles me is that manner in which author Pardoe writes. For the most part, he sticks to the third-person, omniscient narrator. But, at several points, without warning, he adds paragraphs in the first person – giving his own spin on events. There’s nothing wrong with this, but he provides no transitions between the different sections.

Other aspects of the presentation aren’t great, either. He goes into far too many graphic details about Nola’s death and he does so repeatedly. A bit more respect for the dead was in order. Also, I think that he places too much emphasis on some minor points, while not elaborating enough on more-interesting material. For instance, excepting the villain, Pardoe provides few updates on what happened to the people featured in the book after the case ended.

Final Verdict

In my opinion, Secret Witness is a pretty-good true crime story. Those who know the Marshall area will want to read it. Those who come across a copy might want to read it. But I wouldn’t make a special effort to search it out.

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Back Cover

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Book Review – Camelot’s end by Jon Ward

09EF1423-B131-4753-9C40-C4FDAC6C255CJon Ward’s Camelot’s End focuses on the 1980 between Jimmy Carter and Teddy Kennedy race to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President. It’s an overlooked chapter in U.S. political history. While I enjoyed the book, I don’t think that it’s outstanding. I give it 7 out of 10.

“Whip His Ass”

Camelot’s End has a long “windup” before it gets to the 1980 primaries. Ward traces the pre-1980 lives of Carter and Kennedy for over 100 pages. The Carter material was pretty good, but the Kennedy material is too familiar for politics junkies.

Kennedy and Carter had conflicts even before Carter became aware that Kennedy was going to try to unseat him. Carter knew that the challenge was coming for some time before Kennedy’s November 1979 announcement and repeatedly told aides that he was going to “whip his ass” in the primaries (a boast on which Carter made good).

Once the primaries start, Ward moves things along very quickly. There’s scant detail about most of the primaries and the reader has little sense of the ebb and flow of the campaign. However, Ward does a better job of linking the primaries to the Iranian hostage crisis, which was ongoing.

Whiplash

Ward is snarky toward both men. Kennedy’s infidelities, narcissism, and disgraceful behavior at Chappaquiddick are all recounted. More surprisingly, Camelot’s End is a nice corrective to the “Saint-Jimmy” image that Carter has promoted for himself. Ward recounts how Carter won the 1970 Georgia governor’s race by openly courting the white supremacist vote. The passage below provides an idea of Ward’s snarky attitude toward Carter –

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P. 61

Ward doesn’t do much for his credulity by making some (admittedly-small) errors. He refers to JFK’s 1954 campaign for U.S. Senate (p. 53); it was 1952. Later, he refers to George Wallace’s 1969 campaign for governor of Alabama (p. 74); it was 1970. If Ward wants to issue the final word on political issues, he needs to learn the facts.

Even worse, after 200-plus pages of snark, Ward does an about face in the book’s final chapter. Here, the tone toward both men is reverent, even fawning. If Ward had allowed each man’s staff to write the last chapter, it wouldn’t be any more schmaltz-y. This abrupt shift in tone jars the reader and leaves an unsatisfying feeling at the book’s end.

A final gripe is that Ward doesn’t focus enough on his central thesis – that the 1980 primaries “broke” the Democratic Party by dividing its liberal and populist wings. If true, there’s little sense of how it came about.

Campaign’s End

For all of my complaining, I still liked Camelot’s End. It’s consistently compelling and I was never bored. Politics junkies will enjoy it, even if they aren’t 100% satisfied.

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