Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

The War Inside

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As a writer, there is a war going on for soul my right now.

And I don’t misuse the metaphor. Shit is flying everywhere. Things are getting destroyed and built and rebuilt at a frantic pace. There’s a lot of waste. And it’s going to take me years and many History Channel documentaries to figure out what the hell happened.

It’s kind of satire v. suspense, but not exactly. Let me describe the front to you by providing a few examples.

In the same way that every Western Story descends from The Virginian from Owen Wister, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, P.G. Wodehouse, S.J. Perleman all descend from from Jerome K. Jerome. In 1889 his book, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog)” was published. It was such a success that the sales of boats in England went up 50% in 1890.

Here he is talking about landowners along the Thames who block off the shoreline so people can’t stop there while boating.

Where it is really the owners that are to blame, they ought to be shown
up. The selfishness of the riparian proprietor grows with every year.
If these men had their way they would close the river Thames altogether.
They actually do this along the minor tributary streams and in the
backwaters. They drive posts into the bed of the stream, and draw chains
across from bank to bank, and nail huge notice-boards on every tree. The
sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I
feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man
who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and
put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them
worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who
caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the
whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

“Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.”

I was vexed to hear Harris go on in this blood-thirsty strain. We never ought to allow our instincts of justice to degenerate into mere vindictiveness. It was a long while before I could get Harris to take a
more Christian view of the subject, but I succeeded at last, and he
promised me that he would spare the friends and relations at all events,
and would not sing comic songs on the ruins.

You have never heard Harris sing a comic song, or you would understand
the service I had rendered to mankind. It is one of Harris’s fixed ideas
that he _can_ sing a comic song; the fixed idea, on the contrary, among
those of Harris’s friends who have heard him try, is that he _can’t_ and
never will be able to, and that he ought not to be allowed to try.

When Harris is at a party, and is asked to sing, he replies: “Well, I can
only sing a _comic_ song, you know;” and he says it in a tone that
implies that his singing of _that_, however, is a thing that you ought to
hear once, and then die.

“Oh, that _is_ nice,” says the hostess. “Do sing one, Mr. Harris;” and
Harris gets up, and makes for the piano, with the beaming cheeriness of a
generous-minded man who is just about to give somebody something.

“Now, silence, please, everybody” says the hostess, turning round; “Mr.
Harris is going to sing a comic song!”

“Oh, how jolly!” they murmur; and they hurry in from the conservatory,
and come up from the stairs, and go and fetch each other from all over
the house, and crowd into the drawing-room, and sit round, all smirking
in anticipation.

Then Harris begins.

It’s madcap. It rips, the fun of it is in the reckless feeling of movement and freedom and playing with the language. It’s joyous, it’s free.

Like this quote from Terry Pratchett.

Build a man a fire, and he’s warm for a day. But set a man on fire, and he’s warm for the rest of his life.

Here’s Jerome again

What I am looking for is a blessing not in disguise.

P.G Wodehouse

He was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when!’

Douglas Adams

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

S.J. Perelman

I guess I’m just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation’s laws.

And here’s one of mine, from How to Succeed in Evil

“He is called Excelsior. In Latin the name means “ever higher”. This impossible man does not know this. To be fair, there are a lot of words he doesn’t know.”

So, that’s one side in the war. Call it the Comic Entente.

The other side is summed by Elmore Leonard, who said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

He also said

Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit.

And it’s not that Elmore Leonard isn’t funny. He’s hilarious when he wants to be. It’s a stylistic thing. But go ahead and google Elmore Leonard Quotes. You find quotes of him talking about writing, but precious few quotes from his books. He’s just not pithy in that way. And he’s not trying to be.

But make no mistake, he’s a shit-hot writer. This is from the Colonel’s Lady — a western he wrote in 1952

“MATA LOBO WAS playing his favorite game. He stretched his legs stiffly behind him until his moccasined feet touched rock, and then he pushed, writhing his body against the soft, sandy ground, enjoying an animal pleasure from the blistering sun on his naked back and the feel of warm, yielding earth beneath him. His extended hand touched the stock of the Sharps rifle a few inches from his chin and sighted down the barrel for the hundredth time. The target area had not changed.

Sixty yards down the slope the military road came into view from between the low hills, cutting a sharp, treacherous arc to follow the bend of Banderas Creek on the near side and then to continue, paralleling the base of the hill, making the slow climb over this section of the Sierra Apaches. Mata Lobo’s front sight was dead on the sudden bend in the road.

He flexed his finger on the trigger and sighted again, taking in the slack, then releasing it. Not long now. In a few minutes he should hear the faint, faraway rattle of the stage as it weaved across the plain from Rindo’s Station at the Banderas Crossing. Six miles across straight, flat desert. And then louder—with a creaking—a grinding, jingling explosion of leather, wood, and horseflesh as the Hatch & Hodges Overland began the gradual climb over the woody western end of the Sierra Apaches, and then to drop to another white-hot plain that stretched the twelve miles to Inspiration, the end of the line. The vision in the mind of Mata Lobo shortened the route by a dozen miles.

Every foot of the road was known to him. Especially this sudden bend at the beginning of the climb. He had scouted it for weeks, timing the stage runs, watching the drivers from his niche on the hill. And through his Apache patience he learned many things.

At the bend, the driver and the shotgun rider were too busy with the team to be watching the hillside. And the passengers, full and comfortable after a meal at Rindo’s, would be suddenly jolted into hanging on with the sway of the bouncing Concord as it swept around the sharp curve, with no thought of looking out the windows.

It was the perfect site for ambush, Apache style. Mata Lobo was sure, for he had done it before.

And then it began. He raised himself on his elbows and cocked his ears to the sound that was still a whisper out on the desert. Two miles away. Then louder, and louder; then the straining pitch to the rattling clamor and the stage was starting up the grade.

The Apache pivoted his rifle on the rocks in front of him, making sure of free motion, and then he lined up again the five brass cartridges arranged on the ground near his right hand.

Man, something bad is going to happen. And it’s this:

“When he looked back to the road the lead horses were coming into view. He waited until the stage was in full sight, slowed down slightly in the middle of the road, and then he fired, aiming at the closer lead horse.

The horse’s momentum carried it along for the space of time it took the Apache to inject another cartridge and squeeze off at the other lead animal. The horses swerved against each other, still going, then four pairs of legs buckled at once, and eight other pairs raced on, trampling the fallen horses, but to be tripped immediately in a wild confusion of thrashing legs and screaming horses and grinding brakes.”

There’s no whismy about the language. It’s just what happened. Told with great precision.

I trace this back (and it must go back farther) to Georges Simenon — a prolific Belgian writer who, wrote over 200 novels, many featuring a detective named Jules Maigret. And even though he wrote in French. the translations are really great. There are no colorful and striking metaphors to be mistranslated. There’s just what happened.

Here’s an excerpt from Dirty Snow, it’s about a guy who just decides he’s going to kill somebody and what happens.


So wasn’t it natural that—since he had to kill someone sometime—he would choose the Eunuch?

First of all, he knew he had to use the knife that had been slipped into his hand. It was a handsome weapon, and you couldn’t help wanting to try it out, to feel what it was like when it sank into flesh and slipped between bones.

There was a trick he’d been told about—you twisted your hands a little, like turning a key in a lock, once the blade was between the ribs.

The gun belt was on the table, the automatic smooth and heavy in its holster. The things you could do with a pistol! The kind of man you became just having one in your hand!

And then, of course, the guy who got me on this vein in the first place, Richard Stark/Donald Westlake. Here’s one of my favorite bits from the Hunter. Parker’s wife betrays him and leaves him for dead. He returns and kicks his way into her apartment and roughs her up.

“Are you going to stay?” she asked him. Fear and desire were mixed up together in her expression. “Will you stay?”

“I’ll stay.”

He turned away from her, crossed the living-room and pushed into the bedroom again. She followed, the tip of her tongue trembling between her lips, her eyes darting from him to the bed.

He circled the bed, knelt beside it, in front of the nightstand. He reached in under the nightstand and ripped the telephone wires loose. Then he straightened again.

She had opened her robe. He looked at her, and the desire stabbed him once more, stronger than the last time. He remembered her now.

She said, “Will you stay in here?”

He shook his head. “For you, that tree is dead.”

He went over to the window, pushed the drapes aside and looked out. There was no fire escape, and no ledge.

She whispered his name.

He crossed the room again, headed toward the door. She took a step toward him, her arms coming up. He stepped around her, and went on to the door.

The key was in the lock, on the inside. He took it out, stepped through the doorway, closed and locked the door.

On the other side, she called his name, just once.

He switched out the living-room and kitchen lights, and lay down on the sofa. In the dark, he stared at the window. He had lied. The tree wasn’t dead: he was afraid of her.

So that’s the other side. The Tragic, or Realistic Powers, if you like.

Right now I’m editing a book that is not funny. It’s suspenseful and tense and full of action. But while I’m doing that. I want to write the other way. At the end of last year, I wrote 70k words on a draft of another evil book. And while I was doing that, I wanted to be serious.

It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing.

But I found at least one guy who played both sides of the conflict and did it well. Donald Westlake, Richard Stark.

See, he wrote the Parker novels serious caper novels, but he also wrote the Dortmunder novels, which are comic caper novels, with plenty of fun, satire and social criticism. Here’s an excerpt from Drowned Hopes.

They turned and found themselves facing a bullet head on an ICBM body lumpily stuffed into a black shirt and a brown suit. It was as though King Kong were making a break for it, hoping to smuggle himself back to his island disguised as a human being.

But this is the same guy who, writing as Richard Stark, started novels with lines like these, “When the phone rang parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

In an interview, Westlake explained that, on sunny days he wrote Dortmunder. On the rainy days, Stark wrote the Parker.

I don’t know if have a tight little wrap up for this piece, other than to say, I feel like I’m playing both sides against the middle. And it scares me. That’s probably a good sign.



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