I’d Better Off (In a Pine Box)

I love Patricia Highsmith, and one of the great joys of the last twenty years or so in my reading life has been slowly working my way through her canon.

Is there anything more fun and exciting than discovering a new writer whose work you enjoy? I think not! And it’s always fun to start working your way through their canon. I’m not even remotely close to being finished reading Highsmith; I’ve been enjoying my occasional forays into her work, and if you’ve not read her short stories….well, you’re really missing out. Her short stories are just as quirky and dark and pessimistic as her novels; although I’m really not so certain that I should use the pessimistic label with Highsmith. From everything I’ve read about her, she was a terribly unpleasant person with a cynical world view and a not particularly high opinion of her fellow human beings; although I think I can honestly say right there with you, Patricia! most of the time. Highsmith’s dark, cynical view of the world and her fellow human beings is partly what makes her books so terrific, so amazing, so suspenseful and so entertaining. I think the first of hers that I read was Strangers on a Train, which was a Hitchcock film I’d always loved; imagine my surprise to discover that it was based on a novel (as so many old films were; not many people knew, for example, that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? was also a novel first, and it’s actually quite a good novel, at that). The book was amazing (and I should probably reread it as well), and I became aware of The Talented Mr. Ripley when the Anthony Minghella film version, starring Matt Damon, Jude Law, and Gwyneth Paltrow, was released. The same author as Strangers on a Train?

I was so in. I actually read the book before I saw the film–which I think we rented, or watched when it made its way to HBO–which I also really enjoyed; Matt Damon did a great job as Ripley. But as more time went by my memories of the novel became supplanted by memories of the film–and as I knew there were differences between the two, I always meant to get back to the book but never did. I also never read the other books in the so-called Ripleyad; I never saw any point. I thought the first novel stood perfectly well on its own with its self-contained story and I worried that reading the others might spoil the first. There are five novels about Tom Ripley in total; written over the course of twenty six years, from 1955 to 1991. (There’s a lovely but expensive boxed set of them available; I may treat myself to that for my birthday, but whether I do or not remains to be seen.)

Over the past few years (probably a decade, I literally have no concept of time anymore) I’ve read some other Highsmith novels; The Blunderer and The Cry of the Owl, neither of which are as well known as the Ripley books or Strangers on a Train, which is a pity; both are truly fantastic–I particularly love the way she flips the narrative in The Cry of the Owl and turns it into something completely different from what the reader is expecting at the beginning; it’s absolutely genius, and mandatory reading for anyone who wants to write suspense novels, frankly.

But I wanted to reread Ripley, and possibly even go on to the other four books in the Ripley series, primarily because I am now rereading some of these older works with an eye to how male sexuality is presented; Ripley  was published during the highly repressive 1950’s, which was a horrible decade in which to have an alternate sexuality as well as to write about them; often they were coded. (I also want to reread Strangers on a Train for that same reason) When the Minghella film was released, there was a lot of talk about Ripley’s sexuality and its possible repression; there’s probably a similarity there between it and A Separate Peace; books in which I recognized something when I read them about male relationships, friendship, and intimacy that resonated with me. And I also realized, as I said earlier, that my memories of the book had become blurred by my memories of the film–which I also want to watch again; I can never forget that image of Matt Damon’s so-pale-it-almost-glowed skin on the beach in his yellow bikini when he awkwardly meets the Jude Law/Gwyneth Paltrow portrayed characters, and I wanted to reread that scene again in particular, to see how Highsmith handled it.

the talented mr. ripley

Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eying him carefully from a table, as if he weren’t quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.

At the corner Tom leaned forward and trotted across Fifth Avenue. There was Raoul’s. Should he take a chance and go in for another drink? Tempt fate and all that? Or should he beat it over to Park Avenue and try losing him a few dark doorways? He went into Raoul’s.

Automatically, as he strolled to an empty space at the bar,  he looked around to see if there was anyone he knew. There was the big man with the red hair, whose name he always forgot, sitting at a table with a blonde girl. The red-haired man waved a hand, and Tom’s hand went up limply in response. He slid one leg over a stool and faced the door challengingly, yet with a flagrant casualness.

“Gin and tonic, please,” he said to the barman.

The book opens differently than the Minghella film; which immediately changes the dynamic of who Tom Ripley is. In the film, Dickie Greenleaf’s spots Tom performing at a high society party with a music combo; he’s wearing a jacket that identifies him as an Ivy League alum–so Mr. Greenleaf, seeing that he’s about the same age as his son, thinks Tom might know Dickie and be amenable to an expenses-paid trip to Italy to retrieve him; only later do we learn he’d borrowed the jacket and probably doesn’t know Dickie at all.

As you can see from the above, Highsmith opens with suspense. Someone is following Tom, and it’s making him nervous–why? And why would someone be following him? We soon find out that he’s nervous because he’s been pulling a tax scam; he’s been calling random people, pretending he’s from the IRS and telling them they need to send more money because they didn’t pay enough taxes; it’s just for fun, as the checks aren’t made it out to him and he can do nothing with them. This is our first anticipation, as readers, that Our Hero may not exactly be your traditional-style suspense hero. But it’s only Mr. Greenleaf, not a treasury agent, and Mr. Greenleaf explains his situation to Tom–wanting Dickie to come home, as his mother is dying of leukemia and Dickie needs to get it together, give up his Bohemian life as a painter in Italy and come back to the US to take up his rightful place in the family business.

Soon Tom is on his way to Italy, funded by the Greenleafs, and tasked with bringing the recalcitrant heir home. He does find Dickie on the beach in Mongibello, and has to somehow make his acquaintance–and he doesn’t have a swimsuit:

He hadn’t brought a bathing suit with him, and he’d certainly have to have one here. Tom went into one of the little shops near the post office that had shirts and bathing shorts in its tiny front window, and after trying on several pairs of shorts that did not fit him, or at least not adequately enough to serve as a bathing suit, he bought a black-and-yellow thing hardly bigger than a G-string.

ripley

In the film, the awkwardness of the scene–and Tom in the bathing suit (which, in this case, is a lot more than a G-string; but then again, Tom has buried a lot of shame deep inside himself, and not just about his sexuality) he is clearly uncomfortable wearing, as well as the pasty whiteness of his skin amongst all the tan bodies on the beach, instantly induces sympathy for him–and in the book, it’s much the same. Highsmith takes us into Tom’s mind, in a tight third person point of view, so that we know what he is thinking and what he is feeling–but Highsmith is such a master writer, so good at making we the reader identify with Tom…that we soon forget that she is also dropping little hints along the way about just who he is. He is often refreshingly honest–he is very quick to tell people that he is good at forgery (he is) and mimicking other people (again, he is) and freely admits to many not quite moral talents; the great irony is that Tom has learned that you can quite often tell the absolute truth to people and they won’t believe you. He’s charming in his way, because he has learned that to get what he wants out of life, he has to be. Soon he is quite obsessive about Dickie–and disliking Marge, to the point of hating her for never letting him be alone with Dickie.

And this exchange:

“Marge and I are fine,” Dickie snapped in a way that shut Tom out from them. “Another thing I want to say, but clearly,” he said, looking at Tom, “I’m not queer. I don’t know if you have the idea that I am or not.”

“Queer?” Tom smiled faintly. “I never thought you were queer.”

Dickie started to say something else, and didn’t. He straightened up, the rubs showing in his dark chest. “Well, Marge thinks you are.”

Ah, some self-loathing a teenaged Greg can certainly identify with. Deny, deny, deny.

I loved the book even more than I did on the first read, and perhaps there’s a much longer, more in-depth piece I could write about this book (I certainly tagged a lot of pages as I read), but I am now interested in reading the rest of the Ripleyad; to see how Tom comes out–he certainly wound up ahead of the game at the end of The Talented Mr. Ripley, having lied, forged, stolen, and killed his way to get there.

And I do want to watch the film again–it’s on Netflix. Maybe something to watch while on the treadmill at the gym? Perhaps.

The First Noel

Merry Christmas! And if you don’t celebrate, HAPPY DAY OFF WITH PAY! Huzzah!

Later today we’re going to see The Rise of Skywalker in IMAX 3-D; I am very excited. I’ve managed to avoid spoilers completely on social media–an accomplishment only rivaled by my ability to do the same with The Force Awakens many years ago–it was out for weeks before we finally saw it, and I managed to completely avoid spoilers the entire time. And while I’m certainly sad that the Skywalker story is coming to an end at long last–some forty-two years or so since I first sat in a movie theater in Emporia, Kansas, to see the first one–The Mandalorian and Rogue One have proven conclusively that you don’t need a Skywalker to tell a great Star Wars story.

I spent Christmas Eve mostly relaxing. I finished reading Laura Benedict’s The Stranger Inside (it’s fantastic; blog post about it soon to come), and then watched a documentary about Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis–it mostly focused on Dark Shadows, of course–and that was nice. I also decided that my next read is going to be an actual reread of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which I’ve only read once–back when the film with Matt Damon was released, back in the late 1990’s, whenever that was. I’ve not read any of the other books in what is commonly known as the Ripleyad (Ripliad? I don’t know how they spell it), but I’ve slowly been working my way through the Highsmith canon over the years since (if pressed, I think I’d pick The Cry of the Owl as my favorite of those I’ve currently read; her short stories are also quite marvelous), and have not regretted a single moment of reading her. I decided to reread the first Ripley for any number of reasons–but primarily because I honestly don’t remember much of it, and what memories I do have are mostly of the film, and I am mostly curious to see how Highsmith handled his sexuality in the actual text; was it coded, or was it more obvious?

I also kind of want to watch the Netflix true crime documentary on Aaron Hernandez–also curious to see how they handle the sexuality issues involved with him.

For the record, RWA continues to throw gasoline on the dumpster fire they started on Monday, in case you were wondering–and each new story emerging makes them look even worse. I am so happy I never bothered joining that organization–which I considered, since I was leaning towards writing romantic suspense (The Orion Mask). But its history of problematic treatment of minority writers made me shy away from it, and again, so glad I listened to my gut.

I do have to work tomorrow–and Friday–these middle of the week holidays are a bit disconcerting. I also am taking off New Year’s Eve (Commander’s Palace luncheon, as per tradition) and New Year’s is a holiday, so next week will wind up being the same as this week: work Monday, two days off, and then back in for Thursday and Friday. Weird and unusual, yes–but also discombobulating a bit and will need to recenter and refocus.

And now I am going to retire to my easy chair with Ms. Highsmith for the rest of the morning. Happy day, everyone!

christmas wish

Midnight Train to Georgia

Thursday morning, my first cup of coffee and there’s condensation all over my office windows. There’s mess everywhere in the Lost Apartment this morning–which means, of course, that it’s Thursday. My Monday thru Wednesday work days are lengthy and exhausting so I rarely have the energy to do much of anything on those nights when I get home from work, other than watch a little television, write a bit, and possibly read some. Last night I got home from work, moved a load of laundry from the washer to the dryer, started another load in the washing machine, wrote six or seven hundred words, than escaped to my easy chair. I’m watching a lovely documentary in bits and pieces–Tea with the Dames, on Hulu, which is just Maggie Smith, Judi Densch, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright, talking about their careers, their long friendships, and gossiping about other actors and directors they’ve worked with. It’s quite charming, actually, and then Paul was ready to watch another episode of The Boys, which continues to amaze and impress me.

It’s also now August this morning, so that means there are only nineteen shopping days left before my birthday, so I strongly suggest and recommend you get started looking for my gifts now, okay? It’ll save you so much stress if you do it now, and beat the inevitable crowds that are certain to form the closer the actual day comes.

The big project I’m working on that dropped into my lap lately moves closer to completion; or at least, closer to my part being finished; I’ve acknowledged that after a certain point my assistance is moot and would be useless, but I can get a lot of the groundwork finished to begin with, which is in my wheelhouse, and we’re almost there.

As I said earlier, I only managed 700 or so words on the WIP last night, which isn’t terrific, but there are certainly worse things. Writing this book has been like pulling teeth almost from the very beginning, and doesn’t seem to get any easier the closer I get to the end. But that’s okay; I like the way it’s all coming together, despite the roughness of the words and the writing, it’s just taking me a hot minute to get everything finished, and that’s fine. I’m not so sure I know how to make the Kansas book–which I’ll be revising for the final time once I finish writing this draft–go faster than this; I am doing some heavy revisions and heavy lifting with it (I am literally stunned–and glad I waited on it–to see how many high school tropes and stereotypes I played into with this particular manuscript; I mean, literally–pick one and I can almost certainly let you know that it was included in this book), but I am confident I know what to do with it and am hoping I’ll get through it relatively quickly. I’m kind of glad another project I was scheduled to start working on today has been moved back another couple of months–dealing with it while trying to get this other stuff done (especially the one that dropped out of nowhere into my lap) would have sent me straight to the Xanax bottle. As it is, I have some other odds and ends I need to get done that I don’t seem to have the energy to get to once I do everything else for that day; perhaps one morning this weekend I’ll simply focus on those things and get them out of the way once and for all. I have three short stories promised to write, two of which I haven’t the slightest idea of what the story actually is; I definitely need to set aside some time to brainstorm those as deadlines are looming and drawing nearer and nearer.

And I really need to clean out my email inbox once and for all.

I also agreed to participate in a round table discussion about an aspect of writing–you know me, I never say no since I’m always flattered to be thought of and included in the first place–but yesterday I took a look at the questions and JFC, they are way over my head and slightly too smart for me; answering and participating is going to probably make me look stupid. (Shut up, Bryon.) But I agreed to do it, so I am going to print out the questions this weekend and look them over, because they do require thought rather than off-the-top-of-my-head answers. (Let me put it to you this way; the very first question revolves around an Octavia Butler novel…so you see how far it’s over my head already.)

This morning I feel very rested and very good; I feel like I can conquer the world today, which is always a plus and it’s also been a hot minute since I’ve felt this way.

I got some more books yesterday–Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith (I am literally drooling to start this); Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Murder by Cutter Wood; and The Women of Dauphine by Deb Jannerson, a queer y/a set in New Orleans by a local writer; I don’t recall how I heard about this book, but I did and now I have it. I’ve not read a New Orleans novel in a while, and it might be fun to read another writer’s take on our diverse, vibrant city. I’m actually not sure how I heard about any of these books, to be honest–other than Sarah Weinman was talking about the Highsmith on Twitter last week and convinced me I needed to read it. I generally don’t read how-to-write books anymore (other than John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which I primarily read, and reread, for enjoyment because Gardner was such a pompous, pretentious ass, which comes through loud and clear with every sentence–it helps whenever I want to create a character who is a pompous ass literary writer), but Sarah (who has to date never been wrong with recommending something to me) said it’s not only a writing guide but also sort of a memoir, and Highsmith was not only an unpleasant person but she embraced her unpleasantness, which is kind of lovely and fun and admirable–and probably fun to read. I love her novels–I’ve not read the entire canon, and I never finished the Ripley series other than the first one–and I should probably start working my way through the canon at some point. I’ve never been disappointed with a Highsmith, and the last two I read–The Cry of the Owl and The Blunderer, were simply genius and devilishly clever).

I also want to finish reading Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, which I’ve been recommending to all my co-workers.

Okay, that’s enough morning reflection. I need another cup of coffee, and I think I’m going to do some chores around answering emails this morning.

Have a lovely Friday Eve, everyone!

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The Safety Dance

Labor Day.

Paul and I went out for a while yesterday–the first time we’ve “done” Southern Decadence in years–because it was one of my co-worker’s birthdays and we ended up staying out WAY later than I’d thought we would. I was a little sick at first–I took a Claritin-D before leaving the house and then drank a beer on top of it and felt really nauseous and had to sit down for about an hour, but it was entertaining seeing the passing spectacle and then meeting my co-workers later. I’d never actually spent time at the 700 Club; a gay bar that opened in the twilight of the going out portion of my life. It’s a nice bar, if small, and of course they were playing some fun music–you can never go wrong with either classic Madonna or Gladys Knight & The Pips–and it was nice. I enjoyed myself tremendously, but also don’t feel the need to go out again anytime soon. It was…different, I suppose, in a way that I can’t truly explain. I guess the easiest way to say it is that I’m in a different place now, if that makes sense. There’s probably an essay in this; one that right now is amorphous and ethereal, dancing just outside my conscious self and perhaps will come to me so that I can write it down.

But for now, it just is, and I can leave it as I had a lovely time, and I am quite fond of my co-workers, and it was lovely to spend time with them outside the confines of the office and work.

Before we went out yesterday, I spent the morning finishing reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl.

the cry of the owl

Robert worked nearly an hour after quitting time at five. He had nothing to hurry home for and by staying on at his desk he avoided the chaos of employees’ cars that left the Langley Aeronautics parking lot between five and five-thirty. Jack Nielson was also working late, Robert noticed, and so was old Benson, who was usually the last. Robert turned off his fluorescent lamp.

“Wait for me,” Jack said. His voice sounded hollow across the empty drafting room.

Robert got his coat from his locker.

They said good night to Benson and walked toward the long, glass-enclosed reception hall, where the elevators were.

“So, you got your space shoes,” Robert said.

“Um-m.” Jack looked down at his big feet.

“You didn’t have them on at lunch, did you?”

“No, they were in my locker. You’re not supposed to wear them more than a couple of hours a day at first.”

They got into the automatic elevator.

“They look fine,” Robert said.

Jack laughed. “They look awful, but boy, they’re comfortable, I had something to ask you. Could you possibly loan me ten bucks till payday? Today happens to be–“

“Oh, sure.” Robert reached for his wallet.

“It’s Betty’s and my wedding anniversary and we’re going out to dinner, but could you come by for a drink with us? We’re going to open a bottle of champagne.”

Robert gave him the ten. “Wedding anniversaries–You and Betty out to be by yourselves.”

“Oh, come on. Just for a glass of champagne. I told Betty I’d try to get you to come over.”

“No, thanks, Jack. You’re sure that’s all you need if you’re going out to dinner?”

The book opens with this innocuous conversation between two co-workers who are friendly, but not close. Robert, as you can see, comes across as considerate and thoughtful, if a little bit unemotional. But Robert has another reason for not wanting to intrude on Jack and Betty’s wedding anniversary besides simple courtesy; he has become a bit obsessed with a young girl named Jenny, who lives in a small house out in the country. Robert is in the midst of a divorce, and has had problems with depression in the past; observing Jenny through her kitchen windows–doing dishes, making food, the little domestic chores every woman does in her kitchen–has a calming effect on him. He’s what used to be called, at least during the time the book was written, a ‘peeping Tom’; what would be called a stalker today. Jenny has a boyfriend named Greg; sometimes Robert watches the two of them interact in her kitchen. Robert knows what he’s doing is wrong, yet he is compelled to go there and risk exposure. Several times Jenny and Greg hear him make a slight noise, which concerns and worries them; but he never is caught until one night when Jenny, alone, catches him–and invites him in.

Before long, Robert is enmeshed in the troubled relationship between Jenny and Greg, as well as trying to get his own divorce from his wife settled–a wife who becomes more and more horrific as the novel continues. In fact, in a typical Highsmith switch, Robert–first seen as mentally troubled and damaged, might be the most sane person in the story. Jenny’s growing attachment to him, along with her obsession with death (a younger brother died as a child of meningitis), the equally troubled relationship with her violently dangerous fiance, Greg–continues to build in typical Highsmith fashion, using one of her favorite themes–the besieged innocent whom no one quite believes.

The book is also incredibly dark; Highsmith’s pessimism about her fellow human beings is evident on nearly every page. It’s quite wonderful, yet quite disturbing at the same time. It’s been filmed twice; one in the 1960’s, a French film (many of her works were made into French films) and an American version from 2010, with Julia Stiles.

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of hers; I look forward to reading still more.

And on that note, I’d like to get some writing done today. Have a lovely Labor Day, Constant Reader!

Der Kommissar

Yesterday was, for want of a better word, odd.

Driving to work the city was a ghost town. Driving home from work, the same. This morning the sun is shining (we did have thunderstorms during the night) and while everything outside is wet and dripping, according to the forecast we have about a three hour window of heavy thunderstorms this afternoon. We might flood during that time, but when I drove home last night there wasn’t much standing water anywhere, other than around Coliseum Square, the lowest part of the neighborhood and where all our water seems to drain.

I woke up after a good night’s sleep to see that wretched Harvey has come ashore again, battering and flooding yet more of Texas–Beaumont and Port Arthur; I’ve not researched enough yet to see how things are around the Texas-Louisiana state line. It’s almost too much; I’m not having Katrina PTSD, thank God, as so many others here seem to be suffering; but I just keep donating what I can and sharing links to places where donations can be made.

Human suffering on such a large scale in our country is horrific; it’s occurring on an even larger scale in Bangladesh right now as well.

I haven’t written on the new book, or worked on inputting the line edit, as much as I should have these past few days; I know I need to focus and get on with it, but it’s difficult to not watch the Weather Channel or the news.

I did start reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl last night, it’s quite good and melancholic, which kind of suits the mood I am currently in. I also reread some history last night (Leckie’s The Wars of America, one of my favorite comfort rereads) while watching the news.

Tickets for this Saturday’s LSU game go on sale to the general public today at 4; I am going to try to score some tickets for us.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines. Here’s a hunk for you, John Cena:

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You Are

It’s raining this morning here in New Orleans, and very dark outside my windows. We’re in a flash flood warning through Thursday, but from everything I’ve seen on-line this morning the eye of Harvey is going to pass far to the west of New Orleans; but a lot of Louisiana is going to be impacted. Not to the extent Houston and Texas were, of course. Just thinking about what’s happened to Houston (still happening, actually) here is terrifying. I saw on Weather.com that three times the water pumped out of New Orleans after the Katrina levee-failure has dropped on Houston…although it’s a much bigger area. Houston is going to need us all, everyone. It’s the fourth largest city in the United States; a major port and contributor to the economy, and a major cog in the oil/gas industry. Most everyone I know and love and care about in Houston has surfaced somewhere on social media, so I know they’re all okay, but the images are absolutely horrific.

It’s odd that today is the anniversary of Katrina and it’s raining, with a hurricane heading for the western part of the state. I’ve thought a lot about the post-Katrina flood these past few days as Houston has been ravaged, and my heart breaks for all the lives that are going through what so many here experienced. So many New Orleanians evacuated to Houston and stayed there, and now are going through the same experience all over again. It makes my heart hurt. I don’t doubt that Houston will rebuild; I lived in Houston for two years and have spent a lot of time there. Houstonians and Texans are, no matter what else you may think about them, are a hardy, tough lot who can’t be kept down.

HOU DAT.

The LSU-BYU game, which was scheduled to be played originally in Houston this Saturday, has been moved to the Superdome; I think we may try to get tickets. It’s going to be interesting trying to drive to work today, and even more interesting trying to get home later this evening after a day of incessant rain. Heavy sigh.

Oh, the wonderful Paul D. Marks did a blog piece about us Macavity Award finalists; you can find it here:

http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2017/08/2017-macavity-award-short-story.html

I started inputting the edits on the WIP yesterday–I stand corrected; that is more tedious than doing a line edit–and have decided my next read will be The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith, a writer I love and admire and haven’t read enough work by; I’ve read some of her short stories (wonderful) but I think the only novels I’ve read (and loved) are The Talented Mr. Ripley (which I need to reread) and Strangers on a Train.

And on that note, ’tis back to the spice mines with me. Here’s a Tuesday hunk for you, Constant Reader:

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