Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Matter of Taste: Road Dogs, by Elmore Leonard; Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart; and This Time Together, by Carol Burnett

Summer is almost over and in my fury to make it through the stack on my overflowing shelf of library books, I found three titles that, for various reasons, didn't hit the mark. It's purely a matter of taste. Here's my take. Maybe you'll feel differently.
On the drive home from my recent trip to St. Louis I was finally able to fill in one of the embarrassing gaps in my literary knowledge: I had never read or, in this case listened to, a single book by Elmore Leonard. Crime novels? They're not what I like to read. Still, Leonard is touted to be a master of the genre, and because I think I can always learn something by reading anything that's well written, I decided to give this one a try.
In "Road Dogs," Jack Foley, a cerebral bank robber, is released from jail and begins his new life as a free man by entangling himself in the dealings of with his friend, the Cuban gangster Cundo, and Cundo's psychic girlfriend, Dawn. Because I'm not a crime fiction fan, I can't wax poetic about the gritty plot details of murders and bank robberies. I read to learn about people's inner lives, of crimes of the heart. Although Leonard is a great storyteller and endows his characters with a complexity that lends them verisimilitude, the nature of the genre dictates that the story is saturated with testosterone. This might be one for my non reading husband.

One of my brother-in-law's favorite truisms is that if anyone tries to convince you of something, but has to tack on a modifierin order to make the statement accurate, then whatever they're trying to convince you of isn't all that great. My brother-in-law likes to site examples from when he had to relocate. Realtors and head-hunters attempted to "sell" their small towns by saying, it's a got a great (fill in the blank: symphony, library, park system, etc.), but then modify their proclamation by saying, "for a city this size." It's the telltale modifier "this size" that voids the proclamation. And so it goes with Gary Shteyngart's third novel, "Super Sad True Love Story." I wish I could simply say SSTLS is a great novel but, in order to be accurate, I have to say that SSTLS is a great novel, for a satirical story about modern consumer culture and globalization as seen through the eyes of Eastern European misfits. Here, as in his two previous novels, Shteyngart plays on his strength, his outsider-ness. He brings a clear focus to the crazy world we live in because he is the quintessential alien. I enjoyed "Absurdistan," Shteyngart's second novel, and SSTLS has the same over the top, sarcastic, dyspeptic tone. Still, there's only so much Eastern European-inflected, futuristic dystopia I can take before, well, I'm ready to move on.

I was excited to get my copy of "This Time Together" from the library. I still remember the Saturday nights of my childhood, wearing footie pajamas while sitting on the floor and looking up at the TV watching my favorite shows. The Carol Burnett Show was one of them. Burnett's humor was outrageous and slapstick, but somehow, amidst the hokey accents and goofy costumes she conveyed a sensitivity, a down-to-earth, I'm-one-of-you-ness. I wondered if Burnett's humor, like that of other comedians, was born of her inner struggles. I was curious. But TTT is more like a traditional autobiography than a memoir, and it was a disappointment. In TTT Burnett gives us a series of breezy vignettes about her path to stardom and the famous folk she befriended along the way. Her stories are entertaining, but Burnett only shared half-stories. Her tales were sanitized, and fairly one-dimensional, and in her language she often reached for the easy cliche. I'll have to read Burnett's memoir of 2003, entitled, "One More Time," which tells of her early struggles amidst alcoholic parents who left her in the care of her grandmother. "This Time Together" wasn't time well spent, but I'll always love Carol Burnett.

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