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.