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.

Subjects Worth Writing About

Mark Bertrand quotes Melville’s Moby Dick on what great book should tackle: ” . . . Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” Read the rest of this short post and tell him what you think.

Mencken on Dull Writers and William J. Bryan

With the Scopes Trial Reenactment coming this weekend in Dayton, TN, I am reposted a bit I wrote back on October 24, 2004.

H.L. Mencken biographer and terrific New York drama/music/etc. critic Terry Teachout recently learned of a piece Mencken wrote for Vanity Fair in 1923 in response to a question about boring writers. The famous critical thinker (1880-1956) listed ten authors with a few additional thoughts: “Dostoevski, for some reason that I don’t know, simply stumps me; I have never been able to get through any of his novels. George Eliot I started to read too young, and got thereby a taste against her that is unsound but incurable. Against Cooper and Browning I was prejudiced by school-masters who admired them. As for Lawrence and Miss Stein, what makes them hard reading for me is simply the ineradicable conviction that beneath all their pompous manner there is nothing but tosh.”

Speaking of Terry’s biography, I saw it in an interesting rare book and memorabilia collection at my alma mater, Bryan College. Bryan is named for William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), an orator for progressive politics and Biblical principles as well as a former candidate for presidency and the secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson. Bryan’s name is known to many as the man who argued against Clarence Darrow in the trial of John Scopes. The Scopes Trial drew a lot of media attention by design; the men behind the lawsuit, the ones who recruited Scopes to take blame for teaching evolution in public school, hoped to make a name for themselves and business for the area. Publicity encouraged Bryan threw his hat into the ring for the prosecution’s side which spurred Mencken to urge Darrow to join the defense. Mencken said, “Nobody gives a damn about that yap schoolteacher. The thing to do is to make a fool out of Bryan.”

The trial did not accomplish the planners objectives. It became a media event beyond their control. Darrow did put Bryan to an interrogation on the stand in an effort to make a fool out of him, and he cheated him out of a final address, in which Bryan planned to make his rebuttal. If you want to know what really happened there, forget about Inherit the Wind. Start here.

Bryan College wants to collect Bryan’s personal books and those about him, so they have worked toward that goal. A couple years ago they were offered even more–a large Mencken collection through a friendly association with a member of the H.L. Mencken Society. Representatives of the society came south to view an annual reenactment of the Scopes Trial in Dayton, TN. One of the members struck up a friendship with one of my English professors which eventually resulted in the generous donations of Mencken-related books and many copies of American Mercury, a journal he published. Today, Bryan’s library houses a unique and ironic collection of Bryan and Mencken material, side by side. With Terry’s book on the right side toward the back of the room.

James Thurber’s Guide to English Usage

[first posted October 22, 2004] In an earlier post, I referred to this collection of useful usage articles by James Thurber. On the question of using “bad” or “badly” within a sentence like “I feel bad(ly),” Thurber advises not to use either word.

There is, of course, a special problem presented by the type of person who looks well even when he doesn’t feel well, and who is not likely to be believed if he says he doesn’t feel well. In such cases, the sufferer should say, “I look well, but I don’t feel well.” While this usage has the merit of avoiding the troublesome words “bad” and “badly,” it also has the disadvantage of being a negative statement. If a person is actually ill, the important thing is to find out not how he doesn’t feel, but how he does feel. He should state his symptoms more specifically—“I have a gnawing pain here, that comes and goes,” or something of the sort. There is always the danger, of course, that one’s listeners will cut in with a long description of how they feel; this can usually be avoided by screaming.

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.

Tell It Like It Is

I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

This spring I finally got around to reading Moby Dick. (I told you I was a bad reader.) Its opening sentence is one of the most famous in English fiction. “Call me Ishmael”—this is something strange. This is something beyond myself. And yet I’m then plunged into a story that is lavishly involved with the real world of whaling and the anatomy of whales, of ships and the anatomy of ships, of the ocean, and not least of the human heart.

And this is the most basic test for quality in fiction, it seems to me: is it absolutely faithful to the real, and absolutely faithful to what is strange and extraordinary within the real? For the Christian this is another way of saying, is it about grace? Because grace is the interruption of the unexpected in the real. Cheap stories barely touch reality—they present a simplified simulacrum of reality, a version that is easier for the storyteller and for the reader alike. And cheap stories are never really surprising. No one was ever surprised by a game of solitaire.

From Andy Crouch’s address at the 2005 Christy Awards.

2006 Christy Awards

The Christy Awards winners were announced last Saturday. Editor Terry Whalin says the event was fun and gives a list of the winners, which aren’t on The Christy Awards site or in the news sources I’ve searched. FaithfulReader.com has the list and some reviews. Editor David Long has kicked up some discussion.

According the website, “the Christy Award is designed to:

  1. Nurture and encourage creativity and quality in the writing and publishing of fiction written from a Christian worldview.
  2. Bring a new awareness of the breadth and depth of fiction choices available, helping to broaden the readership.
  3. Provide opportunity to recognize novelists whose work may not have reached bestseller status.

Book Meme

Sherry’s daughter Rachael is blogging for her next week. Her first post this afternoon is an interesting book meme which I refuse to answer at this time but will pass on to you.

  1. A book that made you cry
  2. A book that scared you
  3. A book that made you laugh
  4. A book that disgusted you
  5. A book you loved in elementary school
  6. A book you loved in middle school
  7. A book you loved in high school
  8. A book you loved in college
  9. A book that challenged your identity or your faith
  10. A series that you love
  11. Your favorite horror book
  12. Your favorite science-fiction book
  13. Your favorite fantasy book
  14. Your favorite mystery book
  15. Your favorite biography
  16. Your favorite coming-of-age book
  17. Your favorite book not on this list

Why God Couldn’t Get Tenure at a University

I found this in the Brandywine Books archives. Erin O’Connor passes on a list of reasons why God couldn’t get tenure, and reader Kris at Berkley offers up an opposite list for why He could. From the first list:

  1. He’s authored only one paper
  2. That paper was in Hebrew
  3. His work appeared in an obscure, unimportant publication
  4. He never references other authors
  5. Workers in the field can’t replicate His results.

From the second list:

  1. The one publication was a Citation Classic.
  2. The Hebrew original was widely translated courtesy of the author.
  3. Being written before journals existed, references were hard to come by.

Read on

Longest English Words

[first posted May 29, 2004] According to Ask Oxford, from the Oxford U.P., “Most of the words which are given as ‘the longest word’ are merely inventions, and when they occur it is almost always as examples of long words, rather than as genuine examples of use” i.e. ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,’ which is supposed to be a lung disease. Of course, there are real words of extreme length. A couple good examples of these superduperlong words are ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ and ‘pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism.’ They just roll off the tongue, what?

For the trivia nerd or engineer in your family, Ask Oxford explains, “The formal names of chemical compounds are almost unlimited in length (for example, ‘aminoheptafluorocyclotetraphosphonitrile,’ 40 letters), but longer ones tend to be sprinkled with numerals, Roman and Greek letters, and other arcane symbols. Dictionary writers tend to regard such names as `verbal formulae’, rather than as English words.”

Nicer Children If Possible

I love these lines from an Aline Kilmer poem:

When people inquire I always just state:

“I have four nice children and hope to have eight.

Though the first four are pretty and certain to please,

Who knows but the rest may be nicer than these?”

Even if they aren’t nicer, they will be my children, and I will love them better, I hope, than I have in the past.

Mormons Complain: “We’re Christians Too.”

A ticket agent says the movie States of Grace is “being advertised as a Christian film, but it’s really a Mormon film,” and Mormons are shocked, claiming to be Christians. Ted Olson, Christianity Today’s online managing editor, reports on other complaints Mormons have had in the news and concludes with this:

Even more [evangelicals] see Mormons as non-Christians—-or worse—-while seeing liberal Protestants as “bad Christians”—-though both groups equally deny classical Christian doctrine on revelation, the full divinity of Christ, the nature of man, and other key points.

With their strong family values, constant Jesus talk, and passion for evangelism, Mormons seem almost like evangelicals’ cultural twins. In some ways, they represent our ideal. Maybe that’s one reason why so many evangelicals are more comfortable with liberal Protestantism than with Mormonism. We like our differences stark, with red-and-blue color coding.

Is Ted being snarky here? I suggest the real difference b/w Mormons and liberals when evangelicals want to label them is a desire to avoid generalizations. Mormon doctrine is not Biblically sound, so a faithful Mormon can be safely label non-Christian, whereas Methodist or Episcopal doctrine may be sound despite what individual churches teach or what certain bishops say to reporters. You can’t broadbrush all Episcopals by calling them non-Christians. They aren’t, no matter how liberal their denomination appears to be. And you can’t call Mormons Christians no matter how much they talk about Jesus. They aren’t talking about the God/Man who words are recording in Scripture, and He never spoke to Joseph Smith either. [seen on Open Book]

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.)

Book Reviews, Creative Culture