Boulevard ~ A Capsule Book Review

Boulevard book cover 1
Boulevard, a Novel of New Orleans
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Jim Grimsley’s novel Boulevard is a coming-of-age story set in New Orleans in the 1970s. A young man named Newell is the main character and the novel’s protagonist. Coming from a small town in Alabama, he’s naïve and inexperienced, as we would expect him to be. Life in New Orleans is a revelation to him.

Alone in the big city. He only has a little money. He needs a job, fast, and he needs a place to stay. He walks the streets, going from restaurant to restaurant, hoping to find work as a waiter or a dishwasher. Finally he finds a job as a busboy, even though it’s not exactly what he had in mind. After checking many newspaper ads, he finds a room to rent. The room, located above a junk store in the Latin Quarter, is owned by an odd lady named Louise who turns out to be a lesbian (she also owns the junk store).

He’s delighted with the money he makes as a busboy. He furnishes his little apartment (more just a room) with purchases from the junk store. He’s doing well, until a snit among his fellow restaurant workers causes him to get fired. (Call it office politics.) Now he’s back where he started from.

He doesn’t have to wait long before finding another job. This one is in an “adult” bookstore that sells sex toys, pornographic books and magazines. In the back of the bookstore is a room where dirty movies are shown, via coin operated machines.

Newell thrives working in the bookstore in unexpected ways. He was hired by the crude manager of the bookstore because he’s “cute,” and because he’s cute he becomes a favorite with the (mostly gay) customers. He has some original ideas about presentation and organization of merchandise, bringing in more customers, and soon he is made manager and wears a dog collar.

More importantly, he discovers his own sexuality. He becomes a favorite in clubs and bars and makes some new friends, including Henry, a promiscuous, middle-aged homosexual, and Mark, a young man with whom he has a semi-serious affair. Another interesting character is Miss Sophia, the “cleaning lady” in the bookstore who has a silent crush on Newell. As we come to know Miss Sophia, we discover she is a transgender who used to be a lawyer living as a man. Also, there’s Jerry, a lonely, older, married man with whom Newell has an intense sexual encounter.

Boulevard is a story about New Orleans (and the seamy side) but is also about a sexual awakening and the loss of innocence. As the novel shows us (and is traditional in stories of this kind), you can only go so far with loss of innocence, and if you step over a certain boundary, you will find yourself in serious trouble.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Lunch at the Piccadilly ~ A Capsule Book Review

Lunch at the Piccadilly novel cover

Lunch at the Piccadilly 
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Lunch at the Piccadilly, by Clyde Edgerton, is a serio-comic novel set in a North Carolina nursing home in the 1980s. Carl Turnage is a timid bachelor in his thirties whose profession is making metal awnings. He was raised by his mother and her two sisters, Aunt Lil and Aunt Elizabeth. His mother and his Aunt Elizabeth have both died, but there’s still Aunt Lil Olive. She’s in her nineties and has recently taken up residence in a nursing home called Rosehaven. She hopes to return home to own apartment in a month or so but, with her health in decline, that might never happen.

Carl couldn’t be more attentive to his Aunt Lil. He indulges her in all her whims, including her desire to continue to drive her ’89 Oldsmobile, long after she should have given up driving. He wants to have that little talk with her about surrendering her car keys, but he just can’t seem to get around to it.

A man named L. Ray Flowers is a resident in the nursing home on a temporary basis while he recovers from knee surgery. He’s a sort of self-proclaimed minister. He wants to start a worldwide movement in which nursing homes and churches are merged into one entity called “nurches.” (He seems to know nothing about separation of church and state.) He’s in his early sixties, much younger than most of the other residents.

Most of the ladies are all aflutter over Mr. Flowers; all except one, a woman named Darla Avery who remembers him from high school, some forty-five years earlier. What Darla remembers about him isn’t a pleasant memory. She had a crush on him in high school. He asked her out on a date and when he got her alone in the car he masturbated in front of her. Darla then tells the other ladies in the nursing home that Mr. Flowers exposed himself to her, forgetting to mention that it had happened all those decades earlier. Mr. Flowers is then asked to leave the nursing home by a manager who doesn’t bother to find out the truth. They simply can’t have any old man in residence showing his private parts to any of the ladies. Does he get the benefit of the doubt? Of course not.

Clyde Edgerton’s books are what might be considered “light” reading, but that doesn’t mean they are lacking in substance or literary merit. They are speedy reading, effortless reading. If you read books and you want fast, easy, and as effortless as breathing, you might give ol’ Clyde a go. You won’t be hit over the head with political correctness or pretentious, “with-it” bullshit.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

 

The Night Train ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Night Train book cover
The Night Train
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~ 

Clyde Edgerton’s 2011 novel, The Night Train, is a coming-of-age story set in 1963 in a small town in North Carolina. The South is roiled at this time by the Civil Rights movement. It seems that race relations are on everybody’s mind. There are “whites only” establishments from which black people are barred, such as restaurants, hotels, and movie theatres. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get this changed.  

Larry Lime Nolan is a black teenager living with his family in the town of Stark, North Carolina. He works in a small furniture refinishing establishment and wants to be a jazz musician. Dwayne Hallston is white. He also works in the furniture refinishing factory and is a friend of Larry’s. Some people believe it’s not a good idea for a black boy and a white boy to be friends at this time and place, but friends they are.

Larry Lime, aspiring to play piano like Thelonious Monk, takes impromptu piano lessons from an old jazz musician called the Bleeder. He thinks learning the piano will help him make his way to a better life so he won’t have to refinish furniture his whole life.   

Dwayne Hallston and Larry Lime are big fans of James Brown. They both greatly admire James Brown’s album, Live at the Apollo. They decide they will mimic the album the best they can and perform exactly as James Brown performs. (“The Night Train” is a track on that album.) Their plan is to get a on a local TV music show and from there launch into big-time showbiz.

Flash Akers is the owner of the furniture refinishing establishment where Larry Lime and Dwayne Hallston work. Larry and Dwayne try to keep out of Flash’s way because when they are at work they are engaged in a lot of non-work. Flash is a middle-aged white man living with and taking care of his mama, who is in her seventies. When she has a stroke, Flash has to call in someone to help him take care of her. Will he get a white woman or a black woman to help out? This is an important decision. A lot of old white woman don’t like taking care of stroke victims, especially if they aren’t “ambulatory.” If he gets a black woman, his mama probably isn’t going to like it. “I just want to die!” mama says. “Don’t say that, mama!” Flash says. “It isn’t nice!”   

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

 

The Bible Salesman ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Bible Salesman book cover

The Bible Salesman
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

The year is 1950. Henry Dampier is a twenty-year-old traveling Bible salesman, living in the Southern United States. He was raised in a small town by a loving aunt and uncle. His father was killed when he was hit in the head by a tree limb on a passing truck. His mother is…well…she’s unavailable. Henry sells the Good Book because he believes in its message. He is innocent, gullible and too young to know what the world is really like.

When Henry meets Preston Clearwater (not his real name), Henry is taken in by him. Preston tells him he’s working undercover for the FBI, while in reality he’s working for an auto-theft ring. Preston offers Henry a job. Henry is the perfect dupe for a professional criminal like Preston because he believes what he is told and doesn’t ask too many questions. He accepts Preston’s job offer, believing he is entering into an honorable profession that involves the FBI. He will travel around with Preston from place to place, always on the go, driving stolen cars to wherever Preston wants them. He will, however, continue to sell Bibles.

In his travels, Henry meets a girl named Marlene Green, working at a fruit-and-vegetable stand in a little country town. He is instantly attracted to her, as she is to him. After a couple of dates, he decides he wants to marry her. That won’t be so easy, since he is a criminal and doesn’t know it yet.

One a brief vacation with his family, Henry introduces his attractive sister to Preston Clearwater. Preston is taken with the girl’s beauty and grace, even though he is about forty and she is considerably younger. (People say he looks like Clark Gable, with his stick-out ears.) The sister already has a fiancé, but she falls in love with Preston and is willing to forget about the boy she has said she will marry.

Henry always seems to be protected in life by his innocence and goodness, regardless of what criminal practices he is (unknowingly) engaged in. Life will be good to him because that’s the kind of book this is.

Clyde Edgerton (born 1945) is one of America’s best writers. His novels are decidedly “light” reading, but that doesn’t diminish their literary merit. They are breezy, fun to read, and beautifully written. When you see Mr. Edgerton, tell him I’m a big fan and have read all his books and most of them more than once.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Plague ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Plague book cover 2
The Plague
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Oran is a large French port on the Algerian coast (Northern Africa) with a population of 200,000. The Plague by French writer Albert Camus is a novel (a fictional account) of a plague that inexplicably strikes Oran in the 1940s. It begins with an influx of dead and dying rats into the city that nobody understands. The rats are found everywhere, in the streets, on the stairs in buildings, in private homes.  

Rats, of course, have fleas, and the fleas bite people and spread disease. The plague (pneumonic or bubonic) is an especially nasty disease that usually leads to agonizing death. As the death toll mounts every day, Oran has no choice but to close itself off from the rest of the world. Nobody can leave the town and nobody can enter. (How this is accomplished is not explained.)

The town is understandably thrown into a panic. How does a town quarantine the sick from the well? How can the sick be cared for with a limited number of people to help? How does the town keep people who might be infected from escaping the town? How can people in the town communicate with the outside world since letters might be infected with the disease? How long will the plague last? Is there any reason to hope the plague will go away as unexpectedly as it arrived? How much help can the town expect from the outside world? How can the people of the town be expected to carry on in the face of such awfulness?

Dr. Bernard Rieux is the main character in The Plague and the narrator of the story. His life every day is a living hell. He stands by helplessly as his friends and neighbors die of the disease. People look to him for answers he doesn’t have. He’s an unassuming man not given to heroics. His wife is ill (with something other than the plague) and in a sanitorium in another location.   

The people of the town behave the way people usually do in a crisis. There are acts of bravery and sacrifice, while many people in the town try to enjoy themselves any way they can, because who knows who will be the next to go? One man plots his escape from the town to return to his lost love. Another man is happy, somehow, for the plague and thrives during the epidemic. Others go the fatalistic, religious route, believing the plague is a judgment from heaven. Some of the very good people die from the disease, while some of the bad people go unscathed. Isn’t that always the way?  

The Plague, first published in 1947, is one of the most celebrated novels of the twentieth century. It’s a timeless and relevant story that might be set in any country in any time. It’s not always easy to read. Not for the faint of heart. After you’ve read it, you’ll feel like you’ve been to hell and back.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

 

 

 

Fatherland ~ A Capsule Book Review

Fatherland book cover

Fatherland
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Imagine that Germany has won World War II. The Third Reich has absorbed many countries and extends all the way to the Caspian Sea. Berlin is the largest city in the world with ten million people, filled with magnificent monuments and buildings. German military might has never been equaled anywhere in the world. Adolf Hitler is 75 years old. He is revered as a God. His birthday is a national holiday called Reichstag. This is the “alternate history” premise of Fatherland, a novel by Robert Harris.

Xavier March is the principal character of Fatherland. He is a police inspector. Though a member of the “establishment,” he is a less-than-enthusiastic party man. He is always under suspicion. His ex-wife and his ten-year old son have both denounced him.

When the body of a high-ranking Nazi, Josef Buhler, is found on the banks of the Havre River outside Berlin, the plot is set in motion. As Xavier March investigates the death of Josef Buhler, he uncovers a conspiracy: Nazi Party officials are systematically being murdered. What do these men know, what did they see, and why are they being “removed?” Xavier March is the perfect police investigator to find out the answers because he isn’t a very good party member anyway. A truly loyal investigator would scuttle what he discovers and make sure the world never knows.

Divorced as he is, Xavier March needs a love interest. This is where Charlotte “Charlie” Maguire enters the scene. She is an American journalist. She and Xavier March make the romantic perfect pair to investigate the mystery. After many twists and turns, the two make a startling discovery: the Nazis who are being murdered all attended the Wannsee Conference in 1942, in which the “Final Solution” of the Jews was planned. The world doesn’t know about the Final Solution. It is a closely guarded secret that was never supposed to be made public.

Fatherland by Robert Harris is a (rather tedious at times) detective story (not exactly Agatha Christie, though). We have bad Nazis doing terrible things. (Are there ever any good Nazis?) We have an unseen Adolf Hitler, adored by his people. His birthday is a national holiday lasting several days. Our main character, Xavier March, is an individualist, and we know that individualism doesn’t go over very well with Nazis. Our message to him is this: Get out of Nazi Germany if you want to go on living.

The thing I liked best about Fatherland is the unreal quality of Nazi Germany having won the war and lording it over the whole world. In the alternative reality of Fatherland, Berlin is unequaled anywhere in the world for splendor and magnificence. In reading Fatherland, I was reminded of another alternate-history story, The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth, in which right-winger and Nazi appeaser Charles Lindberg becomes President of the United States in 1940, meaning that America never enters the war. After Lindbergh screws up the entire country, the lefties move in and save the day, however. This is truly alternate reality.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Book of Daniel ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Book of Daniel book cover 1
The Book of Daniel
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

The Isaacsons are a middle-class Jewish family living in a rented flat in the Bronx in the 1950s. Paul Isaacson owns a small radio repair shop. Rochelle Isaacson is a housewife. She is a devoted mother, taking care of her and Paul’s two young children, Daniel and Susan. While the Isaacsons might seem, outwardly, to be a “normal” American family, there’s something a little funny about them. They are Communists. Their political views are Radical with a capital R. They attend Communist meetings and are heavily involved in Party activities. Communists are not popular in post-WWII America. There is a movement afoot in the 1950s to remove all Communist influence from American life.

Through an associate they believe is a friend, Paul and Rochelle Isaacson become implicated in spying or “espionage.” Before they know what’s happening, they are accused of selling American nuclear secrets to the Soviets. They are jailed and not allowed bail, even though there is no hard evidence against them. The case against them is all circumstantial.

From the beginning, things do not look good for the Isaacsons. The political climate is such that nobody is willing to give American Communists a break, or to give them the benefit of the doubt. After a lengthy trial, they are, of course, found guilty. The penalty for what they are supposed to have done is death by electrocution.

So, what happens to Daniel, age eleven, and Susan, age six, while their parents are in all this trouble? They live for a while with a put-upon old aunt, and when that living arrangement doesn’t work out very well, they end up a shelter, what used to be called an “orphanage.” What Daniel and Susan want more than anything is to be restored to their family life with their parents, but we know that’s not going to happen.

The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow is not always an easy book to read. The politics aside, you can easily sympathize with Paul and Rochelle Isaacson and their two children. When it comes to Paul and Rochelle’s guilt or innocence, the novel doesn’t take sides. We never know for sure if they were really guilty or if they were just “set up” to protect somebody else.

The story is told, mostly in Daniel’s first-person voice, in two different time frames: in the 1950s, when the story is actually unfolding, and in the 1970s, when Daniel is a disaffected hippie with a teenage wife, and Susan is a suicidal mental patient. It’s a story that can’t have a happy ending.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

Depraved ~ A Capsule Book Review

Depraved cover
Depraved
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Herman Webster Mudgett was born in a small town in New Hampshire in 1861. In young adulthood he became a doctor and changed his name to Henry Howard Holmes (or H. H. Holmes). He then embarked on a criminal career that included kidnapping, murder, arson, bigamy, insurance fraud, swindling, check forging, theft, grave-robbing, etcetera.

Because he was attractive, well-groomed, a stylish dresser and well-educated, he could easily ingratiate himself to people, men and women alike. The victims of his crimes never saw what was coming. Do you think he’d lock you in a bank vault and let you suffocate to death? No, he would never do that. His suit was too expensive, his mustache too neatly trimmed, his English too refined.

After moving to suburban Chicago, he purchased a drug store and became a druggist, but soon moved on to other business ventures. He built a block-long building nicknamed the Castle. It was a four-story mixed-use building, with apartments on the second floor and retail spaces, including a new drugstore. Reports by the sensationist press of the day called the building “Holmes’s Murder Castle,” claiming the structure contained secret torture chambers, trap doors, gas chambers and a basement crematorium. None of these claims turned out to be true. After he became well-known for his highly publicized crimes, much of what was written about him was untrue or exaggerated. Horrific, gruesome, bloody stories sold lots of newspapers.

By his own count, Dr. Holmes murdered twenty-seven people. Others claimed the number was much higher. He murdered a former college classmate in an insurance scheme. He inadvertently killed one of his girlfriends in a botched abortion. Because of his connection with the medical profession, he provided cadavers and skeletons to medical schools. Most of the people he murdered he did so to silence them. They knew too much about him or had become inconvenient to his plans.

What finally tripped him up was an insurance-fraud scheme. He and a “business partner,” Benjamin Pietzel, set out to defraud an insurance company of $10,000 (a fortune in the 1890s.) The plan was that Dr. Holmes would insure Benjamin Pietzel’s life, fake his death, collect on the policy and then the two of them split the profits. Dr. Holmes really did murder Pietzel, however, so he could keep all the insurance money for himself. He also murdered three of Pietzel’s five children to silence them.

He was tried and found guilty of the murder of Benjamin Pietzel. The police only needed to prove one of his murders to nab him. During his trial, he vehemently professed his innocence. He had done some bad things in his life, he said, but he never killed anybody. (His “confessions” about what he did or didn’t do might change daily.) He was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896, just short of his thirty-fifth birthday.

Depraved, by Harold Schechter, is the true-life story of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a man who became famous in the late nineteenth century for unspeakable murders and other crimes. He was, probably, what later would be called a sociopath or a psychopath. He himself said that, when he was born, Satan was there beside him and guided him through his life. At times he could sweetly profess shining innocence, but right at the end he admitted he was getting exactly what he deserved. Some people claimed he had supernatural abilities. After his death, several of the people who were instrumental in his capture and conviction met with unexplainable illnesses or had other misfortunes befall them.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Alienist ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Alienist cover
The Alienist
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Caleb Carr’s 1996 novel, The Alienist, is set in New York City in 1896. It is about a fictitious serial killer, the hunt for him, and the people doing the hunting. Dr. Laszlo Kreizler is the unorthodox “alienist” (psychiatrist) who takes it upon himself to find the killer. (The police are not interested in pursuing the case, for whatever reasons.) Dr. Kreizler enlists the aid of long-time friend John Schuyler Moore, a fashionable police reporter and man about town. Helping them is feminist Sara Howard, one of the first women to be employed by the New York Police Department (on an experimental basis, of course). She proves herself more than capable of doing whatever the men can do. She doesn’t want any of them to think she is inferior in any way because she is a woman. Rounding out the group are the Isaacson brothers (Lucius and Marcus), a pair of detective-sergeants trained in all kinds of detection arts that the others in the group aren’t privy to. Also offering support whenever it is needed (such as a fast getaway) are Cyrus and Stevie, a couple of loyal servants of Dr. Kreizler’s that he rescued from his mental-health practice.

New York in 1896 was a city of contrasts. Rich people lived in glittering palaces on Fifth Avenue, while, just blocks away, the poor lived in rows of squalid tenements. The serial killer could be just about anybody. No matter who he is, though, he is a definitely troubled. He selects his victims from children, but not just any children: they are “boy prostitutes.” He tortures and mutilates each of his victims in a certain manner that the group of investigators must try to make sense of. They assemble a psychological profile of the killer, based on little bits of information they can glean about him as they proceed. After much work and diligent research, they emerge with the information they need to apprehend the fiend. It is a triumph of good over evil.

The Alienist is meticulously detailed, atmospheric, and well-researched. It is a story about time and place as much as anything else. If you pick up the book and hold it in your hands, probably the first thing you will notice is that it is five hundred pages long. It will keep you turning the pages, but while you are reading it, you may well think it will never end. A little too long and too detailed? You decide.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp  

Young Mungo ~ A Capsule Book Review

Young Mungo cover
Young Mungo
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~

Mungo Hamilton is named after a saint. He lives in a tenement in present-day Glasgow, Scotland, with his irresponsible mother, Maureen Buchanan (Mo-Maw); his sympathetic but odd sister, Jodie; and his thuggish brother, Hamish (nicknamed “Ha-Ha.”)

Mungo is sixteen. He and his brother and sister frequently have to fend for themselves because Mo-Maw isn’t any kind of a mother at all. She is frequently absent, an unrepentant alcoholic. She is a slattern who cares more about attracting men than taking care of her three children. The men she attracts, of course, are hardly worth having. Her latest boyfriend’s name is Jocko.

Mungo’s sister, Jodie, is a sort of surrogate mother to Mungo. She cuddles Mungo as if he was a baby. She despises her mother, with good reason, and tries to protect Mungo from her ignorance.

Hamish, Mungo’s brother, is eighteen and a junior-league criminal. He is the head of a gang of boys who wreak havoc in the streets. He is violent, unpredictable, unsettling. It is easy for the reader to imagine that he will soon end up dead or behind bars. He is the father of a small child with his fifteen-year-old girlfriend. Mungo is afraid of Hamish and doesn’t want to be like him.

Mo-Maw gets a couple of men from her alcoholics’ group to take Mungo on a hellish weekend fishing trip. She hardly knows the two, so she couldn’t know that they are convicted child molesters. This is just one example of her egregious parenting skills. The fishing trip turns out to be predictably traumatic for Mungo.

Mungo meets an older boy in his neighborhood named James Jamieson. James owns a “doocot” (a large pen or a small shed for keeping pigeons) and welcomes Mungo’s friendship. They begin spending a lot of time together at the doocot and make plans after a while to run off and effectively escape their unhappy lives. With James, Mungo experiences happiness for the first time in his life.

Young Mungo is a coming-of-age story that might be set anywhere, in any country, but this one happens to be set in Scotland. It features a young protagonist who is better, finer somehow, than the circumstances of his life. He has a sensitive nature but is misunderstood by all those around him, who only believe he should be more like other boys. The only person who understands Mungo is his sister Jodie, and she has problems of her own, including getting pregnant by one of her teachers.

Young Mungo is a very effective, very readable, novel by Scottish writer Douglas Stuart. One of the most remarkable things about Young Mungo is that it comes just a year or so after Douglas Stuart’s previous novel, Shuggie Bain. They are a most impressive one-two punch by a new, young writer. (My review of Shuggie Bain is here: https://literaryfictions.com/2021/12/09/shuggie-bain-a-capsule-book-review/)

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp