Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Lost" Gruber review...

Before Q Blog, I had a website, which vanished. I regretted the loss of only one piece, an essay and review of a work by Michael Gruber.

Recently, reading him at his excellent website (link above) and commenting on him, I found a printed copy, which I will print here. Not only does it point you at an excellent writer with an enormous body of work in print; it documents one of the strangest literary conflicts I have ever known. There is more on his blog for the curious.

After you are done, go see his remarkable political taxonomy post "Political Terms". Amidst pre- election hysteria, the old novelist and biologist has some sane observations...

Valley of Bones by Michael Gruber (thriller) ***** & Hoax by Robert Tanenbaum *

One is as good a literary suspense novel as exists, chilling, erudite, full of humanity. The other is a sad example of overreaching.

Until recently [Review written in 2007 I think], the “Tanenbaum” novels were written by his cousin (!) Michael Gruber. They were a series, set in Manhattan over nearly two decades, and featured assistant DA “Butch” Karp and his sometimes loose cannon Sicilian wife (I am not putting down Marlene, understand – if she were real and I not happily married she would be dangerous to my health) plus an enormous cast of family, lawyers, cops, criminals, and even dogs (Neopolitan mastiffs, who are sometimes given a sort of dialog, or rather monolog, on the lines of “My joy is to kill my enemies and rend their bones…”). Of particular interest and gradually becoming the character who best embodied Gruber’s ideas was Butch and Marlene’s language prodigy daughter Lucy, who also, quite seriously, communicates with St. Teresa of Avila (the old Spanish noblewoman smells of onions and is rather brusque). Lucy grows from a baby to a brilliant college student in the later part of the series, gradually tackling serious moral issues in a fascinatingly complex way.

The, apparently, Gruber asked for some shared credit and was denied. He went on to publish his first thriller under his own name, the utterly original Tropic of Night, set in Miami and dealing once again with police work and Catholicism but also with West African ritual magic, Santeria, and Siberian shamanism, not to mention ethnobotany, and featuring a Cuban-American protagonist, Detective Jimmy Paz. If anything it surpassed the Tanenbaum series. Interjection: former marine biologist and practicing – “I am practicing ‘til I get good at it – Catholic Gruber is someone who genuinely seems to have read all the books and experienced more than most. I constantly find myself saying, when he hits a subject I know a bit about like guns or dog training or how a religious order is founded or Siberia, “he’s exactly right – but how did he get it down so perfectly?"

His newest [He has written four novels since] continues the adventures of Paz as he investigates what seems at first to be an open- and- shut murder case in which the subject is an ex-prostitute who has visions. As the story unfolds it switches back and forth from her notebook “confessions” and the history of an order of nuns who administer to battlefields to the conflict in the Sudan. Could she be the Joan of Arc for the poor black tribes of the Sudan? Read and see – it is at LEAST as good as Tropic of Night – in Graham Greene country, but not as dour.

Meanwhile Tanenbaum, who owns the rights to the Karp family and company, decided to continue the franchise. Seldom in literature has hubris brought anyone so low. This is truly an awful book, one of the worst I have ever finished – I was at the end reading passages aloud to Libby in disbelief.

Where to begin? Tanenbaum can’t tell a story. He may know the law but he knows little else. And apparently, because the series is a moneymaker or because of his ego or both, he thinks he needs no editor. (He talks of a murder of COWS rather than “crows” for instance!) His cowboy (don’t ask) who rescues Lucy and Marilyn from a car falling into the Rio Grande gorge near Taos (don’t ask) is out of 1950’s – or 1930’s – westerns. His gang kids are cartoons. And his rendition of Lucy’s sexual awakening by the cowboy is possibly the most cringe-making piece of male writing on women I have recently encountered (as opposed, incidentally, to any of Gruber’s treatments of similar subjects).

As one reviewer said, it is best to mourn the Karp family, perished perhaps in 9-11. But anyone in the mood for something original should read Michael Gruber immediately.

1 comment:

Richard Anderson said...

Steve, thank-you for your posts on Gruber. I've just finished the three Paz novels (almost missing a press deadline because they're such page turners) and have ordered pretty much the rest of his work. What can I say -- exciting, well-researched reads, but more importantly for me, thought provoking. Very good stuff....