Elmore Leonard has often said that his writing was deeply influenced by the works of Richard Bissell. Curious, I searched for a copy of Bissell's work…and I am glad I did. And after reading HIGH WATER, a tale of a first mate on a Mississippi steam boat during an epic flood, it's easy to see the influence Bissell has had on Leonard's approach to character and dialog. Bissell has that same naturalistic, funny, amiable way with characters, whether they are "good guys" or "bad guys," that makes even the most minor players in the tale memorable and interesting. His plotting is loose and yet surprisingly powerful. And his eye for the telling details is sometimes astonishing in their simplicity and truth. I can see why Leonard, as a young writer, was impressed, and why he adopted some of the same techniques. HIGH WATER is well worth reading, not only for insight into Leonard's writing style, but on its own considerable merits. I loved it and look forward to devouring Bissell's other work.
I went from that pleasurable surprise to a real disappointment. I really wanted to like Kate Christensen's TROUBLE, because I have heard great things about her work in the past. But from the first chapter, I knew I was in trouble, and not the kind she had intended. The characters are literary constructs rather than characters, totally unsympathetic and unrealistic in just about every way. From the moment her heroine, a shrink in a decaying marriage, describes herself by looking at her reflection (a tired cliche and a surprisingly lazy gimmick for a PEN/Faulkner award winner to employ), and decides to dump her husband as a result, things go downhill fast.
Her decision to leave her husband is the impetus for everything that happens in the book, so it's important that we, as readers, buy into it and are invested in her and her journey. But the decisive moment is so unreal, so oblique, and the guy she is talking to at the time is such a caricature, that the crucial moment of reader investment in the heroine doesn't happen. And never does. I wanted to like her, or at least to care, but I never did. It doesn't help that what follows her introduction are pages and pages of exposition meant to establish what is, at heart, a contrivance. I never believed the relationship between Josie and her world-famous, rock star friend, nor did I care about her journey of self-discovery through sex. Her adventures are laden with exposition, contrivance, and stilted conversations that feel so written, so self-conscious, that it's maddening rather than entertaining. My advice: skip this and try one of Christensen's earlier works.
2 thoughts on “Book Reviews”
Lee, thanks for the tip on Richard Bissell. I’m such a fan of Elmore Leonard’s that I’m hugely curious to read anything he considered a major influence. I’ve ordered it from amazon: the only thing that made it tricky is that Martha Bray, who wrote the new intro, is listed as the primary author. looking forward to it.
I just received another Bissell book, A STRETCH ON THE RIVER, and am looking forward to reading it.