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Austin Chronicle Book Reviews

AUGUST 23, 1999: 

L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais (Doubleday), $23.95 hard

Writers who change risk alienating their readers, who often simply want more of the same. But there are great rewards to be found in writers who have the skill and tenacity to truly grow and don't sacrifice their unique voice on the altar of change for the sake of change.

With L.A. Requiem, his eighth Elvis Cole mystery, Robert Crais, L.A.'s reigning grandmaster of the hardboiled detective novel, showcases the sophisticated plotting and whip-smart characters that sometimes played second-fiddle to his laugh-a-minute dialogue. He stakes out his theme early -- loyalty and betrayal -- and then sets about proving how truly complex those simple attributes are. Acts of seeming betrayal prove to be the ultimate test of loyalty. And wrong-minded loyalty sometimes appears as unadulterated evil.

To be sure, Crais still serves up a two-fisted helping of the irresistible and irreverent Cole -- as self-deprecating and self-directed as ever. But the wise-cracking outsider of now-classic early outings like The Monkey's Raincoat has acquired a worldliness and a weariness that one only sees in a ... "grownup" is the only word for it. L.A. Requiem represents a sea change in tone but it is all for the good. While some little snappy banter has disappeared, big feelings have filled the empty places. Where Crais might have once played every scene for laughs, he now refracts his characters' interplay into a full spectrum of emotion.

In many ways, this is Joe Pike's book: Cole's imperturbable partner is squarely at the center of the story. For the first time in the series, Crais offers up Pike's bio and the background whereby he reinvents himself as a meta-warrior scout: from awful childhood through Marine training and eventually a flirtation with normalcy (including a brief career with the Los Angeles Police Department and an even briefer brush with romance).

By way of prologue, Crais sends LAPD Officer Joe Pike and his partner into the Islander Palms Motel in pursuit of a known child molester. Only Pike walks out of the room and he carries with him the secret of the violent minutes that left his LAPD partner dying and the suspect dead. The day's events lead to his resignation from the force and plant emotional landmines that begin to detonate dozens of years later and begin to crack the protective walls he has built around himself. Finally, he winds up in jail -- the prime suspect in a series of killings -- and it's left to Cole to clear him.

Cole and Pike, lock-stepped to the end, watch their personal and professional lives spiral further and further downward, seemingly beyond retrieval. Their fierce brand of loyalty becomes a form of betrayal to those around them, and the consequences seem grim and unbearable.

L.A. Requiem is a masterful piece of work by a true master. It tugs at the heart without showing you the strings. It weaves laughs and tears out of the same thread. And, finally, it gets under your skin and lives with you until you turn the last page and put it back on the shelf.

Comparing early Elvis Cole to L.A. Requiem is like comparing Meet the Beatles to The White Album. The earlier work is fresh, frisky, and leaves a stupid grin on your face. The later is wizened, weary, and leaves a pale scar on your heart. -- Mike Shea

Mosaic Man by Ronald Sukenick (FC2), $14.95 paper

For decades, Ronald Sukenick has been among the significant avant-garde literary figures, as well as an important promoter of forward-looking in his position at the Fiction Collective Press and as a founder of the American Book Review. Sukenick uses an arsenal of modernist devices including stream-of-consciousness technique, unusual page layouts, varied typeface, Joycean lists and wordplay, the incorporation of crude drawings into his text, and unattributed dialogue, sometimes without quotation marks. All of these can be found in the impressive Mosaic Man. It's among his most accessible works, however, because he has historical, social, political, aesthetic, and ethical points to make, and presumably is aiming at an audience, including those who do not usually read the sort of challenging prose he writes.

Here Sukenick reflects on Judaism. One of his themes has to do with being nonobservant but still identifying as a Jew. Jewish culture obviously has a religious component that makes it distinct, but has evolved its own secular traditions and institutions as well. Sukenick doesn't think that Orthodox Jews should be viewed as more Jewish than he is.

However, this theme is more implicit than explicit, and it's not necessary to recognize it to enjoy Mosaic Man. The book's title refers not only to Moses but its mosaic-like construction. It's loosely put together and its chapters can pretty much stand on their own. They vary quite a bit, as does Sukenick's prose, in that he uses street language (obviously he was immersed in popular culture as a kid in Brooklyn) as well as poetic, "highbrow" passages. The locations here include Paris, Brooklyn, Berlin, Venice, and Israel. Much of Sukenick's writing is autobiographical, though some is surrealistic. The tone of the book ranges from informally humorous to sober and thoughtful. There are references to Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, who appears here as Uncle Benny, and the Golem/Frankenstein, as well as the comic and radio character Captain Midnight, and a section that parodies The Maltese Falcon.

Many Jews are obsessive about their culture, which doesn't have to but sometimes leads to shortsightedness, bigotry, and bad literature. However, Sukenick is too skilled a stylist, too humane and too broadly educated to write as if non-Jews are non-human, even as he laments the awful fate of Holocaust victims. He obviously objects to the way Jews have persecuted Arabs since the modern state of Israel was founded and sometimes refers to Arabs as "[ ]s," as if writing the word "Arab" itself was thought by right-wing Jews to be an unclean or corrupting act. And he's obviously grateful to gentiles, who've risked their lives to save Jews, not blowing their heroism off as the exception that proves the rule or on some kind of guilt trip. He also notes that "[Although] The death rate in East Harlem approaches that of wealthy areas in New York, infant death is more than three times as high. A black man in Harlem is less likely to reach sixty-five than a man in Bangladesh. ... In Sao Paulo they're shooting homeless children in the streets like rats."

Some of Sukenick's humorous writing I enjoy, such as when he's dealing with his relatives and Captain Midnight. His Maltese Falcon parody is sometimes strained, though. He tries too hard to be clever. But that's no big deal in view of Mosaic Man's virtues. Sukenick takes risks; he has substantive ideas, fine technique, and his own voice. He's amusing and moving. -- Harvey Pekar

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