Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Grind Joint

I started a new project this week and have a readable draft of the first chapter. Any comments or suggestions are appreciated. (I promise not to post the whole thing like it was a friggin serial; I'm just curious to see if people would want to read more after reading this.




Kenny Czarniak scraped ice off his windshield before he drove work, middle of April for Chrissakes. Punch in by five, get the lights and heat on and do an inspection before the work crews arrived at six. Lots of work to be done, less than a week before the Grand Opening of the Allegheny Casino. Even Kenny thought it was a shitty name. The joint wasn't that close to the river, and the town of Penns River was in Neshannock County, not Allegheny. The creative thinkers who put the deal together wanted to call it Penns River Casino, but the Rivers Casino people in Pittsburgh had a shit fit about trademark infringement and confusing consumers and half a dozen other things, so they changed it. Calling it the Allegheny Casino made it seem closer to downtown than Neshannock, which most people in the Burgh thought was redneck, anyway, and wouldn't come there to gamble. Like they wouldn't figure out where it was once they got directions.

Kenny was on the rag because he was a little hung over, his back and feet hurt from walking around all day, and he was tired of getting up in the middle of the goddamn night to watch other people work. He'd worked twenty-eight years at Osteen Tool and Die until they laid him off a year-and-a-half ago. His boy showed him an article in the Post-Gazette, how a lot of guys his age might reach retirement age before they found jobs, never work again. Every day the mayor was on the news, talking about how Pittsburgh's focus on the education and health care industries made the area recession-proof, which didn't pay Kenny's mortgage during the weeks at a time when Congress held back on unemployment extensions for political reasons he didn't understand. Mostly over whose dicks were bigger, he guessed.

He drove once around the building, looking for anything out of place. He was supposed to walk it, but fuck them. It was too goddamn dark and cold and he didn't feel like it. Thought about how excited Michelle had been when he saw the ad. Join the exciting gaming industry right here in Penns River. Hundreds of jobs. Kenny thought maybe he could be a dealer. He heard they made nice money and good tips. Hell, tending bar would be fine with him. Instead he got the 5:00 to 1:30 shift as a watchman making half of what he made at Osteen's. The good jobs all went to "gaming professionals" from out of town.

The building used to be a mini-mall. Penney's on one end, Monkey Ward's on the other, with a handful of little local shops in between. Nail salon, barber, wing joint, liquor store. They closed years ago, boarded up the windows. The Blockbuster in an outbuilding went tits up last year. The toy store next door saw half a dozen re-inventions before it managed to scrape by as one of those joints where everything was five bucks or less. That and the bank all that were left. Kenny had no idea who had money to put in the bank.

He parked fifty yards away from the service door in back. Room for at least a thousand cars in the lot, the constructions crews wouldn't take up ten percent of the spaces, but casino management wanted the employees to get used to parking remotely so customers could have the good spaces when the doors opened next week. Pulled his gloves on with his teeth and fished the casino keys out of his jacket pocket.

Some assholes had left bags of trash by the door again. Not everyone was in love with the idea of a casino in town and some thought it was funny to pull some half-assed harassment like piling trash in front of the doors. Didn't occur to them the only person they inconvenienced was Kenny, who was just like them and didn't give a shit whether there was a casino in town or not, so long as someone opened a place for him to work.

He looked down to find the key he wanted and when he looked up he saw the pile of trash for what it actually was, a bum sleeping one off. They rarely came this far from the old business district. Too spread out here, a five mile walk to the shelter where some of them took a bus into Pittsburgh to bum quarters off shoppers. Kenny'd nudge him awake and tell him to keep moving, point him west on Leechburg Road, town's that way.

Eight feet away and Kenny saw the off color of the skin on the guy's face. Leaned over and realized the strange coloring was ice crystals. Then he saw the bullet holes, one above each eye, and dropped the keys grabbing the cell out of his pocket.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Man Who Wasn't There

This movie is a gem, one of those films no one but the Coen brothers would make, certainly not with this kind of panache. Perfectly cast, drearily lit, and leisurely paced, it violates every Hollywood rule and shows why those rules are as limiting as they are.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, truly the man who wasn’t there. He rarely speaks, except directly to the audience through voice-overs, of which this film may use more than any other. He has gray hair, and his grayish clothing (this is a black-and-white film) always blends into whatever is behind him. He’s the perfect noir hero: a unassuming man leading one of Thoreau’s lives of quiet desperation. His one indiscretion—poorly choosing the means through which he tries to improve his life—brings down everyone around him as well.

Frances McDormand, a Coen favorite, plays Ed’s wife, Doris. McDormand is a wonderful actress, whose ordinary looks mesh perfectly with how the Coens make movies. Best know as the chief of police in Fargo, she’s also the femme fatale in their first effort, Blood Simple.

James Gandolfini (with hair) plays a crucial supporting role, as do several other members of the Coens’ repertory company, including Jon Polito, Michael Badalucco, and Richard Jenkins. A very young Scarlett Johansson also makes an appearance.

The Coens’ greatest skill here is to make watching things crumble around Ed both fascinating and entertaining. This is a movie not to be missed, the anti-action flick.

One side note: There is not a better living actor than Tony Shalhoub. Best known as TV’s Monk and from his earlier stint as Antonio Scarpacci in Wings, Shalhoub can do anything. His performance here, as fast-talking and -thinking attorney Freddy Riedenschneider is unrecognizable as Shalhoub if you aren’t looking for him. No one has greater range, nor more of an ability to submerge himself into a character. The best character working today.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hitter at A Twist of Noir

A new short story, "Hitter," has been posted at A Twist of Noir. Stop on over and check out the other good stuff there.

Many thanks to Christopher Grant.

The Hustler / The Color of Money

I’ve long wanted to watch The Hustler and The Color of Money back-to-back. I didn’t quite get to do it—a couple of weeks intervened—but close enough.

I’ve probably seen The Hustler ten times now; every time I find something else to like about it. The story, the acting (Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, and the often overlooked Myron McCormick) is superb throughout. Robert Rosser’s decision to film Walter Tevis’s novel in black-and-white was inspired. The somber tone and dingy surroundings that make the movie would not have worked as well in color.

A few scenes will always stand out. The first marathon pool game with Fats. Eddie’s getting his thumbs broken. His speech to Sarah about his feelings when he’s really on, what we’d now call “being in the zone.” The resignation on the face of Minnesota Fats when he tells Eddie, “You better pay him.” I’ve long thought Sunset Boulevard was my favorite noir film; The Hustler might be better. (The vitriolic discussion as to whether either of those films are noir may begin anon.)

The Color of Money is good, not great. Scorsese was smart to go the opposite route: where The Hustler is all dark and shades of gray, The Color of Money is flash and dash. Nine ball instead of straight pool. He pays proper homage to his predecessor in various ways, thanks to an excellent screenplay by Richard Price, adapting Tevis again, though the film is, apparently, radically different from the written sequel.

The telling differences are just as the older Fast Eddie describes the differences between nine ball and straight pool. Straight pool is a thinking man’s game, every shot sets up the next. Nine ball is for bangers, you can slop the balls in and win. It’s quicker and flashier and better for TV. There’s not as much heart in The Color of Money. Maybe the emotions than come with the sense of loss felt in The Hustler are more powerful than the sense of gain at the end of TCOM. Whatever, it’s a fine movie, but The Hustler is a great one.

A couple of side notes. It’s often said Newman’s Oscar for TCOM was delayed payment for the one he should have won in The Hustler, his lifetime achievement award. Maybe. It’s still a hell of a performance, a mature actor taking the edges off of an older character and showing everything he’s learned in the interim.

And Tom Cruise. Cruise made TCOM during a stretch when I really thought he was about to become the next Paul Newman; I originally saw the movie as passing the torch. Cruise made Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July at about the same time, and he was on his way to becoming the sex symbol who could actually act. No one—no one—confuses Cruise’s career with Newman’s now. Cruise really is Vincent Lauria, immense talent, but an incredible flake too much in love with his perceived persona to realize his full potential.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Nothing Is Easy

I sucked it up this week and sent out four email queries, to four hand-picked agents. One was a referral. One is an agent whose blog I read regularly. Th other two represent authors I like a lot, and whose styles aren't horribly different from mine. Then I waited.

The nice thing about e-mail queries is you usually don't have to wait too long. Delays in physical mail (The Sibling Correspondent is a letter carrier, so no derogatory "snail mail" references here) are eliminated with e-mail queries. That's why I do them first. I never have to worry about the limbo of wondering if an agent will get back to me only if they're interested, because I don't query those agents.

I heard back from one the following morning. Thanks, but she's not accepting new queries until mid-November. She didn;t say to re-submit, but she didn't say not to, either. I'll remember her if I'm still in the market then.

Today's reply was a puzzler. It was blank. The agent hit Reply, then Send. No typing intervened. What I have here is my original query e-mail, then, at the bottom, her e-mail signature block.

Cryptic, eh? Was she in so much of a hurry to get this rejection out she just skipped the "get lost" part altogether? Or was she so eager to get the full manuscript she got ahead of herself like a stammering child who just learned of something he wants so badly he can't get the words out? Or is it just sloppy work?

Most importantly, do I care enough to find out?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The American

I was going to spend a chunk of this beautiful morning (I'm off work, extending my Labor Day weekend) writing an insightful review of the new George Clooney film, The American. My morning blog scan shows The Outlaw Vern has beat me to it. He has everything I would have mentioned, and he's far more entertaining, so you might as well read his. (There is one mild spoiler, but he warns you well.)

One note: The Beloved Spouse agrees with him about Clooney's occupation; I disagree. He dispatches a couple of people too well just to be the armorer.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Best August Reads

August was a good month for reading.

Clockers, Richard Price. Even better than Freedomland. Price writes crime fiction that makes the crime—especially its solution—subordinate to what happens to those even peripherally involved. If you like The Wire, get thyself to a bookstore and pick up one of Price's book now. I'm going to have to read them all.

Ghosts of Belfast, Stuart Neville. The original title (The Twelve) was better, as Gerry Fegan tries to exorcise the ghosts of twelve people he killed during The Troubles in Ireland and stirs up political turmoil all the way to London. Written in a style that resembles Adrain McKinty channeling John Connolly, Neville has written a tight, perfectly paced thriller that never disappoints or takes the easy way out, deftly avoiding what Hollywood would turn into a sappy (and inappropriate) ending.

Road Dogs, Elmore Leonard. The reviews were tepid at best; maybe that's why I liked it more than I expected. Leonard combines three characters from previous books (Jack Foley from Out of Sight, Cundo Rey from LaBrava, and Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap) into a stew with a plot that ebbs and flows not unlike Get Shorty, though not as funny. The writing doesn't have the hard bark of his early crime fiction, but his voice is like finding snuggling into a favorite pair of sweats and slippers. Even the few self-referential asides work, winks toward long-time readers.

The Night Gardener, George Pelecanos. I'm still not sure what it is about Pelecanos that I'm missing. Like Ross Macdonald, I can appreciate everything that makes him great—and he is great—but he doesn't wrap me up like McBain or Leonard or Price. I've seen him speak and read his blog and like and respect him as much as you can anyone you've never actually met. The story, characters, and dialog are top notch, and the pacing is excellent, though his characters do occasionally succumb to a political speech. Don't be deterred by my lengthy list of caveats; this is a hell of a book.