Tag Archives: James Lileks

‘The Casablanca Tango,’ by James Lileks

City Hall is a full block of rough stone with a thick finger pointing up at God. It’s like something that was left standing after wind and water wore away the weaker stone. Used to be purple, but it wears a coat of coal dust like most of the buildings downtown. A thing of glory when it went up, but forty years of cops and politicians will rub the polish off the nicest cuspidor.

That’s Minneapolis City Hall. I know it well – I used to work about two blocks away, but about 25 years after 1947, the time of this novel.

James Lileks, who’s rather popular in these parts (speaking both culturally and geographically) is producing a series of mystery novels set in Minneapolis over a period of decades. They’re not coming out in chronological order, for reasons which will doubtless be made clear in the fullness of time. The first book, Graveyard Special, which I reviewed here, was amusing but perhaps not entirely successful. The new one is Casablanca Tango, and I think it’s even better, though not perfect.

The Casablanca, to which the title alludes, is a bar across the street from the Citizen-Herald, the newspaper where the narrator works. The narrator is John Crosley, a photographer, who plays Watson to the Holmes of Harold Holman, ace reporter. They’re both veterans recently back from WWII. They’re the first on the scene when several men and a girl are murdered in the Casablanca one day. Three lines have been drawn with blood on the girl’s forehead. Soon after, another girl is murdered, with four red lines drawn on her body, and soon the police are on the hunt for a serial killer. But Harold and John are curious about mob ties and a political plan to raze the Gateway District, a run-down downtown neighborhood.

The greatest pleasure of The Casablanca Tango is the immense amount of research Mr. Lileks has put in to recreating a city only barely recognizable today (the clearing of the Gateway District here was just the start). Even if you don’t know Minneapolis, you’ll feel like you visited it. He mentions more than one restaurant I ate in myself, decades later but before the concrete wave of redevelopment obliterated them.

The writing and dialogue are good, and there’s an authentic hard-boiled flavor to them (“I’ve seen flies land on eyes that had more life than hers”). Unfortunately the author seems to lose sight of the forest for the trees sometimes – he has a disconcerting way of losing track of his characters’ hair color, for instance (he describes one woman in a single sentence as being a blonde with black hair). He introduces a peripheral character named “Cecil,” who is obviously standing in for Cedric Adams, a newspaper columnist and broadcaster who pretty much owned the town in those days (I remember him). Then, about half-way through the book he drops the pseudonym and Cecil openly becomes Cedric. He also identifies Hawthorne as the poet of the “Song of Hiawatha.” He really needed an editor, or at least a better one.

I’ll say this though — the culprit was not who I expected, and not who most writers would have fingered.

On balance I give The Casablanca Tango four stars. It’s as good a voyage through time as you’re going to get for $3.99

In which the world is upside down, and there is no justice

James Lileks, to the grief of millions, has announced a short hiatus from his Bleat blog. He attributes it, with commendable frankness, to a bad review of his novel, Graveyard Special.

Someone whose opinion matters a great deal gave a rather brutal review of “Graveyard Special.” I admit it has its deficiencies, and had hoped that the $4.00 price and general spirit of fun would carry it along, but man. Aside from a note that it had occasional patches of “brilliant” writing, there wasn’t a single positive thing said. Not much said at all, really, beyond just “I’ve been dreading this” and “do you really want to know?”

I’d say that we all know the feeling, but I’m not sure I do. I’ve gotten bad reviews to be sure, but never from anyone whose opinion mattered a lot to me. I suppose this is the sort of thing that happens when you get into the big leagues and the sharks start noticing your scent.

In any case, I wish Lileks well. If this can happen to him, who among us is safe?

I, on the other hand, have an almost embarrassingly positive review to report. Novelist and opinion writer Hal G.P. Colebatch sent me the link to a review he did almost a year ago in the Australian News Weekly. I think I’ve got a new blurb somewhere in there.

Graveyard Special, by James Lileks

…Two people + their problems < hill of beans. Not an equation we understood. And he shot the guy, too: the soundtrack seemed extra sharp – it echoed in the bare room, and I felt Tatiana jump when roscoe barked, saw her smile when Claude Raines threw in with justice and liberty. I wanted a cigarette. I wanted to snap a match and smoke and sneer at a dying Nazi and make a remark he’d carry down to hell. But the Minnesota Clean Air Act forbade these things.

For some time, James Lileks of lileks.com (I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this, but I did a half hour of radio with him once) has been telling us about a series of interconnected mystery novels set in Minneapolis he’s been working on. Graveyard Special, the first of these, is out at last, for Kindle users. Other formats will be forthcoming.

Graveyard Special is a semi-autobiographical book, loosely based on Lileks’ student days, when he worked at the Valli Restaurant (dubbed the Trattoria here). There are lots of familiar landmarks in this story for me, because although I didn’t live in the University neighborhood of Dinkytown myself, my friends and I used to head over there quite often to eat in our own college days, a few years earlier. We liked to dine at Bridgeman’s or Best Steak House, but we never patronized the Valli. I know exactly where I was when this story is supposed to have happened too (fall of 1980). I was a few miles away, in south Minneapolis, attending Brown Institute of Broadcasting on Lake Street.

Robert Thompson, the narrator, is an art student from Motley, Minnesota (a real town, I swear to you) whose life at this point revolves around his shifts at the “Trat,” where most of his housemates also work, and where they love to hang out in their off hours to play the arcade machines. He’s waiting tables one night when the night manager takes a break to huff some propellant from a Redi-Whip can and dies, shot by a bullet coming through the restaurant window. Being a witness gives Robert the chance to meet a very attractive reporter for the University student newspaper, and when he begins to notice suspicious behavior on the part of some of his housemates and some denizens of the Trat, he brings them to her, just as an excuse to get to know her better. Which eventually gets him in over his head, and involves him in bombings and a bloody Zamboni ride at a Gophers hockey game. Continue reading Graveyard Special, by James Lileks

Falling Up the Stairs, by James Lileks

You’re probably aware that I’m a major fan of Minneapolis writer James Lileks (though you probably don’t know—because I’ve been so discreet about it—that I once did a half hour of radio with him in studio). So when he re-released his first novel, Falling Up the Stairs, as a Kindle book I snapped it right up.

How shall I express my reaction? It’s not a bad book. If you’re a fan of Lileks, you’re likely to get a lot of entertainment from it, as I did.

But it’s not a particularly good novel.

It suffers from a congenital disorder of first novels—too much showing off. The author is eager to throw everything in, to demonstrate his range and complexity. And this being Lileks, the range is broad and the complexity variegated.

But the book can’t figure out what it wants to be, and the reader ends up with narrative whiplash.

The story’s narrator is Jonathan Simpson, who when we meet him is “social editor” of a newspaper in a small Minnesota town. He’s depressed because his career is going nowhere and his girlfriend (whose career is going somewhere) has left him to move to New York.

His life gets quickly shaken up when, almost all at once, he gets fired from his job and learns that he has inherited a Minneapolis mansion from his eccentric aunt, whom he never much liked. He drives to the city in his AMC Pacer, throws his parasite cousin out of the house, and comforts his senile butler and motherly cook. Then a series of fatal poisonings begin, the work of a health food terrorist group (!)

You may have intuited the problem. You start with a comic premise and comic characters (I thought the beginning fully worthy of Wodehouse), and slide into terrorism and the death of the innocent. Wodehouse morphs into Saki, who becomes James Patterson. I’m not saying such a transition is impossible, but it’s pretty hard, and a debut soloist should probably stick to one or two octaves.

There’s also a serious problem with the classic Kindle formatting glitches. Lileks announced the other day on his blog that he was pulling the book temporarily to fix the problems, but it’s still up on Amazon. So I’m not sure what you’ll be getting if you buy it today. My copy had serious problems with paragraph breaks in the wrong places, something that interferes with dialogue passages. There were also a couple points where stretches of text got duplicated.

So I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Falling Up the Stairs. On the other hand it’s only three bucks for the e-book, and it’s Lileks, so it’s probably still good value for money.

Upcoming: The weekend, and a Thor movie

I approach another weekend with some anticipation. I suppose I’ve gotten spoiled, but the last three weekends have all held good surprises for me. Three weeks ago I did the radio show with Mitch Berg and James Lileks. Two weekends ago my car broke down, which wasn’t pleasant in itself, but it allowed me to spend a blessed time with my former boss, and to get (on top of the unwelcome work) my car’s four-wheel drive fixed at a very reasonable price, so that I’ll be ready for the next snowstorm (which is surely coming). And last weekend I got ushered into the wonderful world of the Amazon Kindle.

God may well have decided I’ve had enough treats for a while. But there’s no harm in hoping.

Transposing my thoughts to lower case gods, here’s the trailer for the upcoming Thor movie:

Now I’ll admit it looks kind of cool. I may even go to see it.

But I’m an amateur Viking scholar, so I can’t help but be bugged by some things. The particular thing that troubles me most is the image of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) talking seriously about peace.

That’s no Odin I’ve ever met in the sagas. Continue reading Upcoming: The weekend, and a Thor movie

Comic Ads, from Lileks

James Lileks, the chariots of the Blogosphere and the horses thereof, has added a new section to his Institute of Official Cheer, over at lileks.com. It’s called Comic Ads in Comics.

In the past James has made us wince through revealing the amazing awfulness of pictures of food in old recipe books, and interior decoration as practiced in the 1970s (apparently entirely by blind people). But I think this new section may be the most painful of them all. Ugly, mendacious and pathetic all at once, the old comic ads from comic books are like one of those hypnotherapy sessions on TV crime shows, where the traumatized victim screams “No! No!” as the police hypnotist tries to pull some horrible, suppressed memory out of his subconscious, like a dentist yanking a healthy tooth. Anybody who spent any time with comics in their childhood (and I read a few, though only when they were given to me. The folks wouldn’t let us spend money on the things. I see their point now) will recognize those ads. Post-traumatic stress ensues.

I think I’ve mentioned previously that, before I set my personal sights on immortality through literature, I dreamed of being an artist. I drew incessantly as a kid. I had no high-brow pretensions. I wanted to draw stuff that looked like stuff. I wanted to be another Norman Rockwell or Howard Pyle. I thought I might be a cartoonist, or a commercial artist.

So I can imagine myself snagging an entry-level job with Marvel or DC, and being assigned to draw these abominations as part of my apprenticeship. It reminds me of something I used to say, when I was contemplating (theoretically) what it would be like to try to be a professional actor—“If you’re really lucky, you get to prostitute yourself.”

All in all, I think I prefer being a failed novelist to being a failed artist.

(I mean, “Captain Tootsie.” Nothing could justify that. Nothing.)