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Our Last 50 Referrers

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September 22, 2003


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

I remember you as a grumpy undergrad at our Lousy Ivy University, hating the profs and their stuffy reading lists, and wallowing in Chandler, Hammett, and Spillane. Do you still follow crime and P.I. fiction? If you do and you're in the mood for something fresh, I've got a recommendation: Jack Kelly's '50s-set, noirish private eye novel Mobtown (which is buyable here). I loved it.

Probably the most striking thing about the book is how straight it plays the P.I.-novel game. As you know, these days the usual thing for a writer considering a P.I. novel seems to be to look at the genre and think: "Hmm, tired and squaresville. Gotta bring it back to life somehow. Gotta figure out a new way to make the form sizzle. Otherwise, what remains, right? Just the routine. Just ... genre. And we don't want that! So where's the angle? Where's the edge?" The upshot? Po-mo shenanigans, literary grandstanding, attitude-copping, and newfangled updates -- Regional! Feminist!

And why not, eh? I've enjoyed some of those books myself. But what Jack Kelly has done with "Mobtown" strikes me as deeper and more exciting; he's gone ahead and written the standard thing unapologetically, as though there were no reason not to do so. He does it so well and so eloquently that he makes you wonder: "Why don't we see conventions and forms as full of potential rather than as played-out?" (And, hmmm: "Perhaps we're projecting our own spent-ness on them.")

Kelly plays the classic game in a classic way, in other words -- and the result is classic in the good sense (respectful of form in a way that brings out the full body of the material) rather than in the bad (ie., dead) sense; to my mind, an example of classic in the bad sense would be the movie of "L.A. Confidential," which though well-done struck me as embalmed in its own self-consciousness. (How did you react to "L.A. Confidential," by the way?) Kelly's a sophisticated guy, so this isn't a matter of someone naive lucking out -- it's an act of high-wire art daring.

I picked the book up not knowing anything about Jack Kelly, and simply because it's set in Rochester, NY, the city near where I grew up. There aren't many novels set in Rochester, to say the least, and running into such proper names as Webster, Lake Avenue, the Red Wings, and Sodus Point was more than reason enough to keep me reading.

But I also kept feeling knocked-out by the book's quality; it's a big, rumbling 18-wheeler full of fiction pleasures. For one thing, it's colorful -- surprising, given the ultra-whitebread setting. To me, growing up in the '50s and '60s, that part of the world meant vanilla, cornfed, nice people being tirelessly sweet to each other -- life only 20 miles from downtown was like "Hoosiers," if with the occasional David Lynch-esque interlude. Kelly looks at the same world, heads straight downtown, and finds something bruised, stormy and ominous there.

But who do I think I am, anyway -- a reviewer? Why not cut directly to some of what I enjoyed the book?

  • It's a virtuoso combo of flamboyance and control.

  • This is noir, and Kelly is working an Irish (or Irish-like) vein of hardbitten poetic eloquence -- the embittered but still starry-eyed poetry of disillusion. Characters are forever comisserating about what a mug's game life turns out to be, if not actually crying in their beer. Nearly all the major characters get a chance to sing a sad, heartfelt, can't-let-go-of-it song. I normally tire of this kind of pity-of-it-all thing quickly, but Kelly writes awfully good lowlife arias, and he knows how to spice them with surprises, naughtiness and wit.

  • What a writer! There are three or four dazzling touches, moves, or word choices on every page. Kelly throws away more fabulous writin' in a chapter than most writers come up with in an entire book. Yet you never bog down in the writin' or the voice (or in Kelly's very impressive period research), which are always there to help set off the book's other elements.

  • Tonewise, the book might be described as a cross between Ross Macdonald and "A Moon for the Misbegotten" -- lyricism and despair together, and all of it suffused with a conviction that though life is a thankless crock that'll rip your heart out, nonetheless you gotta tough your way through it.

  • The book is full of poetic touches and lyrical flourishes, yet there's nothing precious about it. It's big-hearted and generous in a they-don't-write-'em-like-this-anymore, conventional-novel way.

  • I enjoyed the way Kelly uses glimpses of the suburbia-and-station-wagon '50s to contrast with a sense of postwar hangover and destructiveness: there's racial tension around, as well as the kind of overreaching and bullying that resulted in the gutting of too many cities. You read the book knowing, of course, that the the '60s aren't far in the future. Kelly lets them hang over his book's action like storm clouds.

  • I enjoyed the book's ambition, which resembles the ambition of "Chinatown." (The title "Mobtown" seems meant to evoke "Chinatown.") Which, in a word, is to be specific, true to a period, and metaphorical at the same time; to use the story of the corruption of a city to give a vision of the rich colluding with the criminal -- a metaphor for postwar America. Legit or not as a vision, Kelly sells it effectively and enjoyably. As a writer he's part pugilist, part poet.

  • Last but not least, I felt proud of Rochester, doing its darned-est to stand in for that nameless, small, Edward Hopperish city so many of these no-hope novels are set in. Hey, Rochester! Good job!

A warning here. I often seem to prefer what's straightforward to what's brilliant, or to what gets celebrated as brilliant, anyway. For instance, I despised the most celebrated example of the true-crime genre, Capote's "In Cold Blood." It struck me as brilliant and literary at the expense of the people it portrayed and the story it told. I much preferred Darcy O'Brien's Murder in Little Egypt (buyable here). O'Brien's sentences and paragraphs may not glitter as aggressively as Capote's, but he was a damn good writin'-writer in his own right, and (what was more important) he had a bigger soul. His book has a human component -- a respect for people, and a sense of perspective -- that's entirely lacking in the Capote. Reading O'Brien, you don't sense real people being made subordinate to the writer's ego.

So my enthusiasm for "Mobtown" may have something to do with my own bizarrenesses, tastes, and quirks. Still, what can I do but be honest, eh? And, to be honest, I was dazzled, amazed and moved by "Mobtown," which struck me as tense, brutal, fully-fleshed-out and poetic. Was it "Anna Karenina"-change-your-life great? Nah, but what is? Was it juicy and fab? Was it "Who is Jack Kelly and why isn't he more celebrated than Jonathan Franzen and Don DeLillo" sensational? I certainly thought so.

I can't resist quoting a typical passage:

She took me by the hand and pulled me onto the dance floor. Her summer dress wasn't right for a nightclub, and it had a little tear opening up in one of the seams. Her lipstick had worn off, her hair was all over the place, and she was sweaty around the edges. But, man, could she dance. Every part of her went in a different direction as she jitterbugged across the floor. She spun and dipped and and jumped and twisted, keeping time to three beats at once.

My joints were not as well oiled as hers, but I managed to let loose and throw my hips around. She was the kind of woman who made you oblivious of what you did or who saw you doing it.

What a lovely evocation. And "sweaty around the edges"? Four words that say a lot.

Here's Jack Kelly's own website.



posted by Michael at September 22, 2003


Darcy O'Brien was one of my undergrad professors -- a terrific Joycean scholar, a fine writer of true crime, and a proud survivor of Berkeley in the '60s. I think his book Two of a Kind, on the Hillside Stranglers, is far and away his best. (Alas, it's out of print.)

O'Brien would never have claimed he was better than Capote, though he'd say he was better than Mailer in a heartbeat. (And he was, too.) He died much too young.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 23, 2003 3:11 AM

Good lord, Tim, is there any writer I admire who wasn't a teacher of yours? And did you ever try his novel, was it called "Margaret in Hollywood"? I thought it was a lovely, minor thing. But his true-crime books were something else -- meaty, moving, humane ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 23, 2003 9:51 AM

I was a grumpy undergrad? I was more than grumpy, I was irritated like someone who was getting the shaft by a bunch of self-satisfied jerks and unable to get out from under.

Moreover, I don't recall "wallowing" in anything during those days, except possibly dirty laundry. I read the classics of hard-boiled literature with a fine and discerning eye.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 23, 2003 3:52 PM

O'Brien published "Margaret in Hollywood" shortly after I finished his class. It's based on his grandmother, but I didn't think he got her voice right. Margaret always sounded just like Darcy.

I'm with you -- I think O'Brien did his best work in true crime. His books were more meticulously researched than the genre demands, and the writing was more carefully crafted. He was never better than when he chronicled the lives of policemen.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 24, 2003 3:47 AM


Why didn't you tell me that Anna Karenina changed your life?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 24, 2003 11:31 AM

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