Friday, May 4, 2007

Robert Ward

Robert Ward is a novelist and screenwriter. His first novel was the critically acclaimed Shedding Skin, which won the National Endowment of the Arts award for first novel of exceptional merit. He has since written seven more novels, including Red Baker, which won the PEN West prize for Best Novel of 1985.

His latest novel is Four Kinds of Rain, which Marilyn Stasio called "Fiercely funny ... as sharp and nasty as a paper cut."

I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
It's fun to talk about what I've been reading lately because so much of it has been by young and brilliant fiction writers. It seems like my entire life -- even before I published my own first novel Shedding Skin back in 1971 -- all I've been hearing about from critics and industry analysts is that the novel is DEAD. Like NOWHERE, BABY. In the 60's we all heard how anyone with a brain wrote rock n roll tunes, or new journalism. Then a few years later it was movies. If you were at all cool you wrote movie scripts. But here's the funny thing. Now movies are almost totally brain dead crap that no one with an IQ over forty would want to write. Do you really want to write horrible, moronic junk like 300 for a living?

Most pop music has become total pap or rap, which lost it's edgy kick after 911. When the big mushroom cloud goes up it's not going to distinguish between white kids who are trying to be hip and real black gangstas. Everybody gets reduced to dust. Maybe we oughta go back to talking about peace, love and understanding after all. That's what great about books. They can be edgy, but they can also explain things. Sorry, but as an adult it's not enough for me to listen to some dude tell me how bad he is anymore. Dude, I read the paper, and news on line everyday. I already know how bad the world is. Be as dark as you want but give me some idea why it's this way for real, and show me a way ... to go toward the light. And I'm not talking about "angels."

Meanwhile dead old novels, that long lost art form have been running under the radar, and yet surviving brilliantly. There is a whole new generation of crime writers, who have inherited the mantle of the social and noir novels of the 30's and 40's. The thing about these books is that they aren't so highbrow -- think later Joyce and Proust -- that no one but university intellectuals will read them -- but they are also not so lowbrow that you can dismiss them as pulp junk either. All the smart young writers I've been reading are well aware of the great noir stylists of the 30's and 40's. I'm talking about geniuses like Cornell Woolrich, and James M Cain. Of course they're also influenced by Chandler, Hammett, and the great, underrated Dorothy Hughes. The new generation of writers knows that so-called low brow literature of the earlier era was the real art form, the one that would last. They don't give a damn about meta-fiction or any of that university sponsored academic prose of feeble, impoverished academics who hung around the student union and pretended to be excited by writers who wrote about ... duh writing. Also they're into plot, which university writers of the 60's and 760's wanted to jettison so they could soar free as birds, blah blah blah.... Item: A novel without a plot is like a jet plane without wings. If you don't learn to plot as a novelist you might as well get into the greeting card biz.

Instead the writers of the younger generation embrace the great crime writers of the past and are writing their own hip versions of the genre. They especially dig noir ... a new and exciting noir vision -- and what could be more appropriate in this dark world. Noir is back in with a vengeance. In the past few months I've read terrific books by Megan Abbott, Jason Starr, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman and Ken Bruen. Of all of them Ken is the only one much over fifty, but his spirit is younger than anyone's. All of these books are stunningly written, with style to burn, and they have deep insights into their characters, all of whom go way beyond any standard genre characters. They are all influenced heavily by the noir vision even if they aren't strictly "Noir"....

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott, a super talented young writer is a beautifully written novel based on a missing person case which took place in Hollywood in 1949. A starlet disappears. No one cares. But the hero of the novel, a PR man named Hop Hopkins goes against his own moral code of personal survival and ends up enmeshed in her case. He's a compromised hero, but he can't help but wonder if he was somehow complicit in murder. It's a terrific read, and the Hollywood hipster talk and attitude is dead-on. It's Abbot's second novel and I just bought her first one, Die A Little, which I can't wait to read.

I've also been reading Jason Starr's work. Starr is the closest writer I know to Cornell Woolrich. He writes of average people who get caught in deadly situations which they can't control and can't escape from. In the last month I read two of his unputdownable books ... Tough Luck and Lights Out. Like Woolrich's novels you can't put them down ... Lights Out is about a baseball player's return home to Brooklyn to propose to his old girlfriend. The whole hood loves him, but he's a jerk, and a narcissistic creep. His kinder but failed buddy waits to tell him that he is in love with the same girl and she's agreed to marry him. What happens next is all about the power of celebrity, and class differences. Not to mention the tug of the past, which threatens to bring both men down. The book is a wonderful read, and the themes are dead on serious.

Looks like I'm taking up too much space, so I'll just say that slightly older writers like Lippman, Connelly and Bruen are all still leading the pack of great crime fiction and all of their new books are excellent, as usual. Lippman is a brilliant stylist and plotter with great compassion, Bruen is the king of nasty comic darkness, and Connelly is the master of the great plot twist. I've been writing crime fiction myself on Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and other shows for years and I like to think I can guess most of the twists and turn but Connelly fools me every time.

When I was coming up literary intellectuals used to like to say that anything that was popular was junk. Maybe there was once some justification for that attitude but there isn't anymore. There are wonderful, entertaining and yet serious crime writers out there. Only a few of them are on the best seller list, but they do have decent sized audiences and they'll get even more readers. Crime fiction is the smartest of the popular arts now. If you haven't gotten hip to it yet, all you have to do is go to your nearest bookstore.
Visit Robert Ward's website and read an excerpt from Four Kinds of Rain.

The Page 69 Test: Four Kinds of Rain.

--Marshal Zeringue