Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Three for the Read

JULY 13, 1998: 

All the Dead Lie Down by Mary Willis Walker
(Doubleday, $23 hard)

It's not often that you want to call an author and thank her for keeping you up until 4am. Luckily for Austin author Mary Willis Walker, I passed out from exhaustion long before I could find my telephone. That's what I get for swallowing a novel in one gulp.

Walker's new suspense novel All the Dead Lie Down is among the best crime fiction to fall off the presses this year. This strong showing is no surprise since Willis has won most of the mystery and crime awards available: the Agatha, Edgar, Macavity, Hammett, and Anthony awards.

Set in Austin, All the Dead Lie Down is voiced by two narrators: homeless alcoholic Sarah Jane Hurley (known as Cow Lady because of her cow-print coat), and Molly Cates, a true crime writer and editor at Lone Star Monthly. Cates is working on two stories: one about the Texas Legislature passing the concealed handgun bill, and another following the lives of five Austin bag ladies over a year. Cates' two stories intertwine early. While Cow Lady is lying under a downtown restaurant deck she overhears two men plotting the release of a poison gas bomb in the Texas Legislature during the handgun vote. It's too bad that the men see a woman in a cow coat running away from under the deck. Meanwhile at the Capitol, Cates runs into Cow Lady in a restroom and gives her a card in case she'd like to be interviewed for the story on homelessness. Later, the card comes in handy when Cow Lady decides that the bomb threat is real and that she needs to talk to someone fast.

A second plotline concern's Cates' attempts to find out who killed her father a quarter-century ago. One of the handgun lobbyists was the crooked Travis County sheriff who didn't do any quality investigating when Cates' father was found in a local lake.

All the Dead Lie Down is more accurately called "fictionalized crime" than "crime fiction," and that is a very good thing. With all of the investment opportunities popping up in our fair tech city, can you blame me for asking if it's possible to buy a few shares of Mary Willis Walker? -Anna Hanks

The Empty Quarter by David Marion Wilkinson
(Boaz, $21.95 hard)

Austin author David Marion Wilkinson's second book, The Empty Quarter, mines fictional territory that is far removed from the Texas frontier covered in his 1996 epic tome Not Between Brothers. The Rub al Khali, or "empty quarter" of the Saudi Arabian desert, is the setting for this portrayal of the barbarities that bond but eventually cause tragic disarray among an international crew of oil rig workers.

One of the strengths of the portrayal is its realism. Before becoming a writer, Wilkinson was an oil rig worker in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and Saudi Arabia. Judging from The Empty Quarter, what most indelibly impressed Wilkinson about those experiences was the mechanics of how an oil rig operates and a more subtle mechanics - how the humans operating and working the rig survive and get along while effectively manipulating the beastly oil rig. "Beastly" is an apropos description of Momentum #127, the name of the exploratory oil rig Wilkinson's protagonist Logan, aka "Doc," impulsively runs to as an escape of sorts from his reluctance to "merge his world" with his girlfriend Caitlin's by marrying her. Momentum #127 comes alive with Wilkinson's deft ability to breathe life into this inanimate object. If Melville had his whale, Wilkinson has his oil rig. At one point, an oil rig tower "groaned, its steel buckling, its galvanized coating peeling like dead skin." The depiction of the rig is an absolutely vital force of the book, and the author makes great effort to describe its minutia. The frequent inclusion of terms like tungsten button bit, drawworks drum, and air hoist tend to bog down the narrative but those are the few moments of pause for the reader because life on the rig is measured by seconds, not days. Reading the book is a fairly physical experience; it's all about torque and the twists that have to work like clockwork to prevent the ever-present danger of the oil rig's destruction. Making it through a day on the rig seems an achievement for these characters.

Not Between Brothers readers will be pleased to discover that Wilkinson's dialogue in The Empty Quarter is often worthy of the barbed, tinged exchanges of Forties noir. About to leave Austin for Saudi Arabia, Logan reminds Caitlin that he earns a good wage. But she reminds him that "'this isn't about money. ... It's about us. I only want what's best for you, Logan. And that's me. Sooner or later, you'll understand that.'" Now there's a Texas girl. And Wilkinson has really developed his powers of character description; one rig worker, Parnell, is "as creative as a tong head. For colorful turns of phrase, he generally resorted to the hooks of country-and-western songs. All bad."

If you're searching for an antidote to the depiction of self-conscious masculinity so endemic to contemporary literature, look no further than The Empty Quarter. It's unabashedly old-school masculine through and through, and the alpha male is Jamie Strong, straight out of West Texas, an oil rig boss who's racist but generous, tough but vulnerable. He holds the fate of Momentum #127 in his unfortunately unstable hands. Here again, Wilkinson is aware of language: These good ol' boys talk in "if'n"s and "ain't"s, their steely dialogue somehow nevertheless revealing their malleable mindset in the face of the all-powerful rig. -Claiborne Smith

The Treatment by David Menaker
(Knopf, $23 hard)

So maybe I'm not alone and we all hear voices in our heads. Tiny, insistent, sarcastic Cuban voices. Well, maybe not all of us hear Cuban voices. Only the lucky ones get to hear Cuban voices. Jake Singer, he hears Cuban voices. All the time. The voice of his Cuban-Catholic Freudian analyst, Dr. Ernesto Morales, to be exact, poking and prodding Jake into a life worth living in Daniel Menaker's new novel The Treatment.

"It's funny what happens when you're in psychoanalysis," says Jake. "Your life turns into something like fiction - a precocious, callow

writers'-workshop short story - so loaded and worked with resonating themes and images that I'd never have cared about it or even believed it if I'd been reading it in a book." Except, reading it in this book is delightful. Funny, even. And definitely perfect for a summer read.

It's the Seventies, though not the Boogie Nights-Last Days of Disco Seventies, and Jake Singer's life - his miserable, pathetic, unfulfilled life - has taken the turn of many lives, toward the miserable, pathetic, and unfulfilled. His girlfriend left him; he is haunted by guilt and rage over his mother's death; he and his father have less than cordial relations; and his boss doesn't like him much at all. So he finds himself on the couch of Dr. Ernesto Morales, exile from Cuba, Freudian to a fault, and hilariously sarcastic. Biting, even. His treatment of Jake is so aggressive the reader wonders if maybe Menaker goes too far with the caricature, but no matter. The exchanges between Jake and Dr. Morales (in Morales' office and inside Jake's head) is so fresh and funny and relaxed, I started hearing Morales' voice in my head.

Throughout their sessions, Morales clears his throat and shuffles papers in feigned boredom. He files his taxes during sessions. He insults Jake, calls his girlfriends hookers, becomes upset and even jealous when Jake misses appointments or when Jake takes action without first asking Morales for permission. It's like a relationship of your worst nightmares, but oddly enough, Jake's life slowly turns around. He changes.

As the story evolves, so does Jake. He becomes involved with Allegra Marshall, mother and Manhattan socialite, comes to some kind of terms with his father, learns to deal with work, and, throwing caution (and Morales' advice) into the wind, comes to the aid of Allegra when someone threatens her and the family she's created.

The question then: How much of the turn-around was affected by the couch? Throughout the novel, Jake conducts mini-sessions with Morales inside his own head, and toward the end of the novel, it seems as if the fictitious, hypothetical Morales plays a greater, more influential role in Jake's stability and reasoning power than the all too real Morales. Menaker does a good job, though, of keeping the analysis question in the air, never settling for us or Jake whether or not psychoanalysis works or to what extent we can make sense of the mess or success our lives have become. And he does so with a clean and funny and even poignant voice, reassuring us that, despite fate or psychological mishap, there are still those in this world who know how to write. -Manuel Gonzales

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