Warning: profanity follows. I’m not exactly the epitome of discretion myself when I speak, and I’ve been known to have characters who explode with the occasional socially awkward expression, but usually my expository writing is clean. But there is really no way to write cleanly of this particular novel. Fair warning.
I read a review that said this was a ‘great’ book. Hellfire, Charlie Sheen liked it! (I discovered that after the fact.) I read it. I have read more sensationalist, exploitative works. I am no literary virgin. But this was on the edge of what I’d call entertaining, in a ‘secret sin’ sort of way.
Frank Sinatra in a Blender is an engaging read, and it certainly has character. It also has very little shame or self-consciousness. In fact, if books had a human expression, this would be a brash, loud, tout from a bawdy house in 19th century Barbary Coast San Francisco, capering in a torn frock coat and showing nicotine-stained teeth. Perhaps even opium stained teeth. It is entertaining but being a torrid, roaring send-up of the pulp/noir detective genre, it is a bit limited in scope, as is its target. No big deal there. We’re not reading this for great insights into character development, social commentary or gender roles. Far from it. The characters are men, strippers, more men, a dancer, a pretty receptionist (natch) who immediately falls for the protag, who is battered, bloodstained, and, of course, reeking of vodka at the time. What 21-year-old blonde babe could resist? You get the idea. Not for the Birkenstock crowd, this. I mean, *not at all.* It is pulp fiction, and it revels in the violence, gore and testosterone-oriented bravado of the genre.
McBride has come out of the gate with a very different book than the frenetic (and fun) pinball game that was Frank Sinatra in a Blender. That was a wild ride, focused set of characters, brash, loud, gory as heck and gleefully so. A carnival ride. In Red Sun, McBride establishes an entirely new genre: Southern Literary Tweaker. That’s not a slight nor is it sarcasm – the mood and descriptions in ASRS are finely crafted, and where the character set and pace in FSIAB was about right for a Tarantino-styled Sam Spade noir takeoff (which it was), this has all the breadth and slower pace of Faulkner. There’s cousins, wives of cousins, lovers of wives of cousins, cops, convict brothers-of-cops/nephew of someone else, young, old, older….everything but a jimson-weed slobbering mute. And dogs. And they are all presented in an unrelentingly unforgiving lack of flattery. These are People of Walmart: rotten gums, overweight, unclean, beer-swilling, rampantly crazy or drug-crazed. Their unifying characteristic is crystal meth and the book could be called a Tweaker Procedural — lots of detail on smoking meth, some on production, logistics, etc. McBride opens with a beautiful presentation of the country life, in all its down-home, poverty-wretched glory and builds tension nicely. We get into the mind of the chief protag and quickly stumble across the catalyst of one of the main story lines, and we are off.
There are a number of parallel threads in the book, but by keeping the focus on characters and actions, McBride keeps it together. There are some nicely apocalyptic scenes with the kind of uncomfortable, intimate dooms (reminiscent of Garp at times) that are not for the squeamish, but it is not the relish of gore that FSIAB was at times. In fact plethora of deaths are handled with a light hand….if anything, a bit too light. If I can fault McBride for anything, it was the lack of impact in a couple of scenes where characters died. Also, the threads don’t end in one all-encompassing orgy of doom and violence, they just end up dead, a la Game of Thrones (for those who have READ that, you know what I mean.) . Some of the characters get their comeuppance as we go along, which is OK, I would have liked a little more of their own shock & awe illuminated to the reader.