All posts by Lars Walker

Fury, by Robert K. Tanenbaum

I’m beginning to wonder if Robert K. Tanenbaum isn’t pulling my leg.

It’s always a treat to find a new Tanenbaum in paperback. Tanenbaum is grand opera. Tanenbaum is a three-ring circus. Everything is big and broad and beautiful and terrifying, not to mention totally riveting. You want thrill-value for your money, with a plot driven by characters (and what characters!) rather than the assembly-line robotic action of, say, Clive Cussler, Tanenbaum is the author for you. To add to the appeal, Tanenbaum grapples fearlessly with serious contemporary issues (this book addresses racial hucksterism, for instance, a subject I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot keyboard).

And yet… when Fury was done I couldn’t help looking back over it all and realizing that the story as a whole was completely, outrageously over the top.

The triumph of the book is that, even as I understood this, I didn’t care. It may be a magic show, but it’s a spectacular magic show.

If you want bigger-than-life action in a story, you’ve got to start with bigger-than-life characters. Tanenbaum has them ready to hand, with his well-established stable of regular grotesques, plus a few new ones. Theoretically, most of the characters are maturing and slowing down. Marlene Ciampi seems to have quelled some of her personal demons through art therapy. Dirty old goat Ray Guma is a gray-haired cancer survivor now, missing a few feet of gut. Even the sexually predatory reporter Ariadne Stupenagle (honest, that’s her name!) appears to have settled down (after a fashion) through falling in love with Gilbert Murrow, Butch Karp’s diminutive, buttoned-down assistant (plenty of laughs there).

And yet, when it comes down to it, Marlene is still a dangerous woman to cross, Guma still tells dirty jokes and dates strippers, and Stupenagle is even more irritating than before, cooing and calling Murrow nauseating pet names in public.

And that summary leaves out such regulars as “Dirty Warren,” the Tourette’s Syndrome newpaper seller, and The Walking Booger (don’t ask).

(By the way, if you can’t handle rough language, better avoid Tanenbaum. Dirty Warren is only chief among the many foul-mouthed characters.)

As always, the quiet center of this hurricane is New York District Attorney Butch Karp, stolid, ethical and smart. Without his character, the rest of the farce wouldn’t work. Without the others, though, Butch might be a bore.

One or two mysteries would be enough for the average novel. Not for Tanenbaum. He offers us 1) a twelve-year old rape case that’s been overturned on DNA evidence. A race-baiting lawyer is suing the city on behalf of the convicted rapists, and Butch agrees to fight the suit, smelling a rat; 2) a plot by Muslim extremists to blow up Rockefeller Center on New Year’s Eve; 3) the mysterious beheadings of several Muslim terrorists by unknown attackers; 4) a false rape charge leveled against a college professor by a female student; and 5) the advancing Alzheimer’s of Marlene’s mother.

I’m probably forgetting some.

Also on hand are two new characters from the previous book, John Jojola, the Navajo policeman from New Mexico, and the cowboy, Ned Blanchet, daughter Lucy Karp’s new boyfriend. And we are introduced to some fairly unsavory family connections of Butch’s.

Like one of those juggling acts where the entertainer keeps twenty plates spinning on poles all at once, Tanenbaum makes all this work. Also like the juggling act, we know it wouldn’t go like that in real life. But in Tanenbaum’s Rabelaisian world, it doesn’t matter as long as you believe.

Speaking of belief, one thing that bothered me in Fury was a new development in Lucy Karp’s life. Up till now she’s been presented as a faithful, devout Roman Catholic. And she still is, judging by everything she says. But Tanenbaum has chosen to put her into bed with Ned, and she makes no apologies for it. Apparently Tanenbaum is operating on the principle that True Love always justifies sex, regardless of marital condition. I can understand Tanenbaum thinking like that, but Lucy should know better.

On the other hand… there’s a splendid scene early in the book that pleased me no end. Butch (who is Jewish) has agreed to teach a Bar Mitzvah class at the synagogue. He tells the class one evening that he’s going to tell them about a Jew who changed the world. The Jew he lectures on is Jesus of Nazareth.

What delighted me was that, in speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion, Karp/Tanenbaum completely rejected the standard contemporary line (which has risen to the level of orthodoxy in most mainline churches) that neither the Jews nor their leaders had anything at all to do with Jesus’ death (it was all the Romans’ fault, dirty imperialists that they were). As Karp tells it, Jesus died because His integrity was a threat to the power structure (Jewish and Roman), as integrity always is to any power structure (and as Butch would know better than most).

That was worth the price of the book in itself, as far as I was concerned.

Keep ‘em coming, Tanenbaum. You keep hiding the pea, I’ll keep laying my money down.

A swordsman’s tale

Friends, I have found my drug of choice.

It’s live steel combat.

On Sunday I was delayed by being on the church setup team and having to stay late. But as soon as I could get away, I tootled over to Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis, where the rest of the Vikings had already been set up for some time.

Minnehaha Park (home of Minnehaha Falls, immortalized by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who never actually visited there) has a sort of dedicated service road along its length, punctuated by (inadequate) parking areas. Since the day was nice and the Norway Day festival was going on, I figured I wouldn’t get a nearby place, so I parked in about the first slot I saw.

This was a mistake. I’d forgotten how long that park is. I had already determined that the smartest way to get my armor to the camp site was to wear it (mail is much easier to wear than to carry). So I set off walking toward the festival area.

And walked. And walked.

I think I must have parked at least a half mile from the site. I passed many open parking spaces, but reckoning (inaccurately) how far I had yet to go against how far I’d come, I decided to trudge on.

I made it at last (today my feet are extremely sore from the pounding they took in my thin-soled Viking shoes). I was too tired to join in the fight that was starting just then, but I got in a while later.

They put me up against Eirik, son of Ragnar, an old hand at live steel.

I beat him. Twice.

I’m still entertaining the suspicion that Eirik threw the fights, just to encourage me.

In any case, the guys told me that I’m pretty good. I didn’t beat Ragnar Hairyfoot when I went up against him, of course. Ragnar is wily and old and a Special Forces veteran. But he told me, with a straight face, that I gave him one or two worried moments. Then again, Ragnar has been known to embellish a story.

Be that as it may, I came away tremendously bucked, as I generally do after live steel (I’ve had training before, and participated in a couple small battles, but had never done a one-on-one duel before). For a guy as geeky as I, who has never, ever been any good at any athletic activity of any kind, to suddenly find myself playing with the big kids in simulated Viking combat was tremendously affirming. It’s a common nerd fantasy – “I was born out of my proper time. If I’d been born in an earlier age, I’d have been a mighty warrior.”

It’s not true, of course, but now I can pretend it is.

I know what you’re saying. You’re saying, “He makes all these grandiose claims, but can he back it up with video documentation?

As it happens, I can. This Quicktime movie comes courtesy of the Viking Age Club & Society of the Sons of Norway. I am the guy with the red-and-blue shield on your left in the shield wall at the beginning. Note who is the Last Man Standing.

Fear my wrath.

Postal interlude

Walker wheeled his dolly through the Post Office door. A lady going out held the door for him, and he thanked her twice, embarrassed to have a door held for him by a woman.

It was a once-a-quarter chore, sending the returns back to the publisher. In order to have a variety of books to sell, the bookstore subscribed to a program by which the publisher sent them a couple cartons of overstocks, which would be displayed for three months, then returned. The bookstore paid for the invoice difference, if any. Not much this quarter. Precisely one book sold. Summer slump in a school bookstore.

He got in line and surveyed the dingy, cluttered service area. The building wasn’t very old, but the abrasion of bureaucracy had already erased any humanity the place had ever had. Walker missed the old-time Post Offices, temples of democracy with classical porticos and lots of brass. You felt like you were dealing with the majesty of the republic in those old places. You felt proud to be an American there. You scanned the wanted posters on the bulletin boards, inspired with civic zeal to ferret out wrongdoers for the good of the commonwealth.

He looked at the service windows to his left. Only two postal employees on duty, so it would be a wait. But she was on duty today. Maybe he’d luck out and be one of her customers. Maybe a Sublime Moment would happen, somehow….

Such a lovely woman. You didn’t expect to see a woman who looked like that working for the Post Office. He couldn’t guess her age. She might be in her thirties, she might be as old as fifty. Impossible to tell. With that bone structure, she’d be beautiful until the day she died. The kind of bone-deep beauty Katherine Hepburn had, though she didn’t look at all like Hepburn. A petite woman with shoulder-length blonde hair and blue eyes. A kind of aquiline face, its planes clean and perfect. If she wore makeup, it wasn’t apparent.

And no wedding ring….

Helen gave the lady her receipt and looked to the next customer, saying, “Can I help you?” That customer, a guy with a beard, seemed to be woolgathering. The guy in line behind him nudged him, and he roused himself and wheeled two cartons on a dolly up to her window.

Great. Boxes to lift. Again.

Boxes of books. She knew it was books because she recognized the customer. Some sort of bookstore employee. He came in now and then, and he always wore a tie and a hat. Even on a summer day like this. Odd bird.

Too fat, but he had interesting salt-and-pepper hair, and his face looked younger than the hair indicated. She wondered what he was like. He was always polite and well-spoken. She glanced at his hand. No ring.

“All books. Media Mail,” he said.

They went through the rigmarole. As always, he didn’t want insurance or special services. He pulled out a business check and had it filled in except for the amount by the time she had a figure for him.

“If he asked me out, would I say yes?” she asked herself. “Might be interesting to find out what a guy who dresses like this is like. Probably a weirdo, though.”

“Any stamps?” she asked.

“In a separate transaction,” he said.

“Doesn’t charge his own stamps to his company,” she thought. “Minimally honest, at least. Better than my last boyfriend.”

She lifted the plastic display page. “We have these stamps,” she said.

“I’ll take a sheet of the Reagan stamps.”

She swore to herself. A bleeping Republican.

“Thank you,” she said when he paid her.

“Thank you,” he replied, wheeling his empty dolly away.

(The story above is true, except for the lies. It’s a fair description of my trip to the Post Office today, but I made up Helen’s [not her name] thoughts [certainly wrong].

Inventing scenarios like this is one of the things that make me a novelist.

Also one of the things that make me a total dork.)

Atlanta Nights

I made my memorial to Jim Baen tonight. The family and staff had asked that in lieu of memorials, people purchase copies of the story collection, The World Turned Upside Down and give them either to young people or to libraries. I got my copy today, took it to my nearest branch library, inscribed it as given by Lars Walker in memory of Jim Baen (in the fashion of the Pharisee in the temple with the trumpet) and made the donation.

Speaking of Baen Books, my best author friend is Mike Williamson, author of Freehold, which is a very good science fiction book in the Robert E. Heinlein/Libertarian/Lots of Sex style. Mike told me recently about a book called Atlanta Nights, by “Travis Tea.”

There’s a story behind this book, and you can get the details by checking out the site. But the short version (as I understand it) is this—there’s a company called PublishAmerica (sort of a cross between a vanity publisher and a publish-on-demand house, I’m told) which is not popular with Science Fiction/Fantasy writers. Representatives of the company took a swipe at SF and Fantasy writers as a group, so a devious cabal of SF/F authors got together and decided to write the worst novel they could possibly come up with, to see how PublishAmerica would handle it.

As you’ve probably guessed, it was accepted for publication immediately.

Hilarious story, and a warning to all aspiring authors.

It’s your party, and I’ll hide if I want to

Just got an e-mail from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Kingsville, Maryland, informing me that my novel, Wolf Time, has been chosen as their Book of the Month (scroll down the page about three-quarters of the way). They state that I’m gaining “a bit of a cult following among Lutherans,” which is a surprise to me, but I won’t complain. I’m not entirely sure what it means to have a “cult following,” but my impression is that artists who’ve produced cult works generally live in their cars.

Anyway, thanks to the folks at St. Paul’s.

On Friday, while my brothers and I were working in my back yard, one of my neighbors came over and invited me to stop by for his birthday party, Monday evening.

I thanked him for the invitation, but didn’t figure I’d attend. My brothers, though, informed me that I was obligated to show up at least for a few minutes, in order not to offend the neighbor.

I really don’t get these social obligation rules. Never have. I’ve never been able to understand how anyone would be anything but relieved if I didn’t show up at their party.

Anyway, Monday evening rolled around, as Monday evenings are wont to do, and it found me genuinely terrified. I almost didn’t go at all, but I finally commended my soul to God, picked up the card and gift certificate I’d bought, and went over. I wished the neighbor a happy birthday, handed him the card, said I couldn’t stay, and rushed home as quickly as I could on shaking knees.

I suppose that wasn’t good enough. I suppose I took a year off my life and still offended my neighbor.

My advice to you all: Don’t develop Avoidant Personality Disorder. It doesn’t add much to your personal fulfillment.

…and live in that America

On June 30, 1891, my great-great-grandfather, Ole Olsen Kvalevaag, of Avaldsnes parish, Karmøy Island, Norway, wrote the following in a letter to his son, my great-grandfather, who’d emigrated to America and changed his name to John Walker (my translation):

I myself have been sick awhile, but now, thank God, I am better again; and it’s a good thing, because I haven’t had much of anyone to help me with the farm work this year…. I myself have plowed every furrow this year….

Ja, it is certainly hard to think that we, who have brought up so many as we have, are now alone in our old age. Ja, it is sorrowful to think of, that we should have two sons in America, and [they] go and work for day wages, with nothing of their own to hold on to, and will not be at home in their own home and country. Ja, it is amazing how a person can be, ja, I often wonder about it when I think of you, that you could forsake your dear home, and live in that America….

You, Jan, are scared to come home, you say, because you have to go to Madla [for military service], you say; ja, setting aside the fact that you have to, for you aren’t too good for that place, nor is anyone else; for as surely as you are, and want to be, a Christian, there is something the Lord has commanded, that we should submit to God and king. I ask you not to refuse this, for think how the Lord can lay upon you something that might be worse for you if you avoid this; for I can tell you that there are many who have been punished by God for it.

I don’t have John’s replies, but what I see in this letter (as well as the others in the collection) is the Declaration of Independence writ small (to an extent), in one family’s history. My great-grandfather resisted a lot of pressure and well-meaning warnings (not to mention guilt) in order to strike out on a new path in a new country. He left familiar things, and things that felt right, to try it the American way.

He ended up rich by the standards of his time and place, incidentally. The later letters make it clear that his father had borrowed money from him.

I’m grateful to be an American, grateful both to God and to my risk-taking ancestors.

Happy Fourth of July.

Who’s in control here?

Ever wonder what comedy was like before Christianity? Anthony Esolen has an intriguing meditation over at Mere Comments today.

Phil wonders, in a post below, why we read literature. I suspect it’s partly for the same reason a few of us miserable wretches produce literature. And that’s the main reason anyone does anything—a need to feel in control, or to feel vicariously that there is control and order somewhere.

The older I get (and I’m getting pretty old) the more I agree with the psychological theory that most of us do the things we do (wise or stupid or crazy) out of a desire to feel in control of some part of our worlds.

There are many ways to divide mankind into Two Kinds of People, but it seems to me one of those standard divisions is between the Men of Action and Creative Men (I know I’m supposed to say Persons nowadays, but being a brutal sexist is one of the ways I try to exercise control on my own part). Generally—there are exceptions, of course—people who do big things and impose their wills on others don’t produce art. And people who produce art aren’t movers and shakers in the world.

When I was a child, I learned early on that I didn’t have much power in my environment. I couldn’t make decisions and I was pretty much at everybody else’s mercy.

So I started playing with puppets. I loved puppets. They were like little people who’d do whatever I wanted them to do. Later I turned to drawing. Drawing was better than puppets, because the cast of characters I could play with was unlimited. Finally I started writing, and that was even better, because my drawing skills only went so far, while writing gave me a greater sense of mastery.

A greater sense of mastery. An arena where I could call the shots. Turn any old pile of ideas and conflicts into a coherent, rational whole.

Sounds kind of pathetic when I put it that way, but it seems to me all human endeavors are like that in one way or another. The politician tries to create or change the political order to make it conform to his own vision of A Really Good Society. The scientist tries to discover the hidden laws of the universe, and to manipulate them to achieve ends he approves of. The carpenter imposes a new level of order on lumber.

Lewis and Tolkien called this “subcreation.” Rather than seeing it as a pitiful attempt to impose order where there is none (as the postmodern critic might charge), they saw human creativity as one of God’s gifts, bestowed by Him along with His Image at Creation.

How you see it all depends on the biases you bring to your observations. And if you want to minimize it by explaining it away with psychological jargon, well, that’s another way of imposing order on the world, isn’t it?

Ignore this post

The post that follows is, as far as I can figure out, entirely pointless.

It has nothing to do with books, and it involves no stories of any detectable drama. I inform you only because I promised to, yesterday (Walker: a synonym for useless, unwanted integrity).

I live on a hillside, and a number of my neighbors have retaining walls running along their neighbors’ driveways, as I do. The difference between my retaining wall and any of my neighbors’ is that mine is much larger, and potentially more expensive to repair.

So I was distressed when a toolbox-sized chunk cracked itself out of the concrete this spring. I told my brothers, Moloch and Baal, and they offered to come up (and down, respectively) and see if we could repair it ourselves.

Since that time I’ve also noticed a tendency for rainwater to run into my basement, along the side that has not, for some reason, been equipped with rain gutters. Someone (and you know who you are) told me that putting up gutters, especially on a straight shot along one side of a house, is an easy afternoon job for a couple guys. So I asked M. and B. if they’d care to help me with that too.

They agreed. I bought supplies, borrowed a ladder at work to supplement the extension ladder I already own, and they came yesterday for the big work day.

Here’s where the story gets (even more) dull: Everything went great. We used patching cement to repair the wall, and the final result appears acceptable (at least as a temporary repair). We overcame some problems with awkward angles (since my ladders weren’t the ideal sizes or shapes), and the gutters went up handsomely. I don’t think professionals could have done that any better.

We did it all in a day. I provided the meals and basically hewed wood and drew water, leaving M. and B. to do the manly work.

They went home this morning, to resume their various duties.

And that’s it. It was a good day.

Busy day

No time to post much tonight. Brothers Moloch and Baal are both here, giving me heroic help on a couple of maintenance projects. I’ll post at greater length tomorrow, barring surprises. Short version: our projects seem to be successful, nobody got hurt, and we’re all still speaking to each other.

RIP: James Patrick Baen

The man who gave me my chance as a published author, Jim Baen, passed away yesterday. Author David Drake provides an eloquent eulogy here.

In the ups and downs of our working relationship, I never lost my deep respect for the man they used to call the “GE” (officially General Editor, though many fans preferred God-Emperor, begging your pardon).

You’ll read now and then about the great old days of publishing, when Mighty Editors roamed the earth (or at least the hallways) wielding their red pencils and showing callow authors who showed some promise how to tell a real story.

Those days are mostly gone now. Today the industry is run by bean counters who sell books by the yard. Editors flit from house to house, perpetually frustrated that they can’t get approval for books and authors they believe in.

Jim Baen was a throwback to the glory days. He ran his own shop, and he ran it his own way. He published the kind of books he wanted to read himself, and he showed the world that you could make a nice living doing just that.

He was fiercely, even frighteningly, honest. When he said he’d do a thing, he did it.

He believed in freedom of speech and, unlike many in the publishing business, he practiced it. He published me (a Christian) and Eric Flint (a Communist). He himself was an agnostic.

I doubt I’ll ever see another editor/publisher like him.

We can never know for certain the fate of any soul. I pray Jim will have found grace at the end.

Victor Immature

(OK, let’s try this a second time. As you can tell, being the conservative I am, I’m incapable of dealing with change. So this new utility throws me into a tizzy, impelling me to throw my apron over my head at the first setback, jump up on a stool and cry, “Kill it! Kill it now!”)

Anyway, I was closing up the bookstore yesterday and my gaze fell on a book of Bible stories for children. One of the prominent figures on the cover was a bare-chested muscleman whom I assumed was supposed to be Samson. And that got me thinking about that character.

You’ve almost got to put Samson on the cover of a kids’ Bible book, because he’s one of the few Bible characters who really gets their attention. No matter how good a Sunday School teacher you may be, you know you’re never going to raise the same interest in the story of Nehemiah and his walls as you’ll get with the story of Samson. Samson’s story is simple. Samson himself was simple. He liked to party and he liked to fight, and when somebody crossed him, he killed them. Spiritualize the story all you like, but basically that’s what it is.

His story is a dysfunctional saga in the Bible’s most dysfunctional book—Judges, where “there was no king in Israel, and every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

Ever see the Cecil B. DeMille movie, “Samson and Delilah,” with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamar? It’s one of those sand-and-sandal extravaganzas that hasn’t held up well with the years, imho. It opens with a common movie device for those days—an open book, and a narrator reading what’s written on the page, in case anyone in the audience is illiterate, or Lithuanian, or something. This opening explains that Samson was a heroic freedom fighter, struggling to free his people from the yoke of the oppressive Philistines.

Which is hooey.

Pick up your Bible and go to the Book of Judges, chapters 13-16. Read the story and find me any passage where it speaks of Samson fighting for freedom, or even speaking up for freedom. He doesn’t do it. He doesn’t even speak up for God (though he speaks to Him at the end). He seems perfectly happy to hang out with the Philistines and party with them, until they cross him.

The Philistines (do you say “Fill-i-steen” or “Fill-i-stine?” I used to say “steen,” but I’ve gotten all hoity-toity in recent years and have been trying to learn to say “stine”), if I remember my history properly, were related to the Cretans, who were related to the Minoans, who were related to the Greeks. In other words they were Europeans who’d invaded the Middle East and snatched some prime real estate. Kind of like Vikings (I have a suspicion that Samson went after Philistine women because, like many guys before and since, he had a thing for blondes). The Philistines controlled iron technology in the region, which gave them a huge economic and strategic advantage. They had all the money and all the neat toys, and Samson appears to have enjoyed their culture quite a lot.

It wasn’t until the Philistines broke up his engagement and murdered his fiancée and her father that he started killing them. It had nothing to do with freedom, or with the Hebrew religion. It was pure personal vengeance. God made use of Samson, certainly, but Samson’s devotion isn’t evident in the story.

So the spiritual meaning, such as it is, seems to me to be that guys who waste their gifts and talents, break God’s law (Samson violates his Nazirite vows numerous times) and live by their lusts come to bad ends. There’s some grace at the point of death, which is a comfort, but all in all it’s a tragic story.

(Needless to say, the above commentary was written by a life-long wimp.)

My fame grows

I just sent an e-mail to the guy who runs my website, telling him to note that I’ll be at the Nordic Fest in Decorah, Iowa, July 27-29. I gave him a link to their web page. I then scrolled down the page and found picture of myself playing Viking last year, handsome in a red shirt. You can see it here.

Coming: A good day to die

My local conservative talk radio station just changed their promo spot for the Michael Savage Show. Best I can figure out, the excerpt they’re using is one where Savage himself isn’t speaking, but a substitute host is.

That strikes me as brilliant marketing. What better come-on could there be for the Savage show than the promise that maybe Savage won’t be on tonight?

Sunday was a pretty good day. I went out to Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis to be part of the Viking Age Club & Society’s encampment for the annual Swedish Day celebration.

The weather started out rainy, but about the time we began setting up it cleared beautifully, and the temperatures were mild by summer standards. I sold a few books, and there were pretty blonde girls to look at. Can’t do much better than that.

I think it’s good for me to do the Viking thing. It gets me out into the fresh air for one thing, something I probably wouldn’t do at all if left to my own devices. It forces me to relate to my fellow humans, something I tend to neglect likewise. And it forces me to lift heavy objects (one of the tough parts of being a Viking is that everything’s made out of steel or wood, and the better your kit the heavier the load you have to carry around). By the way, I successfully pitched the new awning shade I made, following these directions. It’s not historically authentic, but I’ve accumulated too many sunburns portraying subarctic Europeans.

But the big news is that soon I’ll be fighting with a sword.

Eric and Ragnar did all the fighting this time, but we had some further practice, and I got more comfortable with the moves. I was waiting for them to tell me that I was ready to join in, but while we were striking camp I found out they’d been waiting for me to declare myself ready. Apparently my apprenticeship is over, and I’m ready to fight (translation: be killed) at our next event.

Can’t wait.