Writers like to say reviews don’t affect us—especially the bad ones—but of course it is not true. Ms. Keller had a lot of nice things to say:
“He has a certain style, a punchy language that puts the reader right into the action, successfully amping up my adrenalin and leaving me on the edge of my seat. This also has the effect of driving the story forward at break-neck speed, making it hard to put the book down until the very end. And to be honest, folks, I wanted more when it was over. Call me an adrenaline junkie if you will, but the rush his writing supplies is addictive.”
I couldn’t ask for a higher honor, to have a reader say that. It’s humbling. You’d think praise like that would lead to arrogance, and writers do need to be wary not to fall into that trap. Humility is the kind of pride that steadies you from falling. And I’ll express that by considering it my duty to live up to that kind of review. To fulfill those expectations, no matter how much work it takes. I will not rush things out the door. I will not dilute the intensity of the stories I want to write. And I will write for the reader first, earning their attention with every word, every line, every paragraph, every page.
Sometimes, as my wife just remarked, it makes me breathe heavily with fierce concentration. But that’s the only way I know how to do it.
I originally reviewed this book in 2011 when it was published in e-book form. I loved it then, and I love it now that New Pulp Press has published it in a snazzy paperback. So here’s an all-new review of a book that was in my top 5 for 2011 and should be on your list, right now:
Nick Valentine is a walking liquor store who walks both sides of the law. His only code is don’t mess with his little dog Frank, and keep the drinks coming. He is one of the funniest characters I’ve ever read, the bastard son of Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson.
A title like this can be a bait & switch. When I was given the Canadian poet Crad Kilodney’s collection entitled “Lightning Struck My Dick,” I was sorely disappointed that said event never occurred within. McBride delivers the goods, and then some.
A bank job goes horribly wrong, and the Chief of Police asks Nick to put his ear to the street. Nick’s father was a cop and well, Nick isn’t, but he tries to be the good son… or a good son of a bitch. He gets tangled up with some very unsavory locals, some of whom are the closest he’s got to friends. McBride paints his colorful characters in moral shades of gray, but their motives are unquestionable, purely driven by character and human nature. English Sid and No-Nuts are two of the greatest villains I’ve read in a long while.
Nick’s only superpower is his mighty tolerance for alcohol, and his proclivity for inserting violence in the uncomfortable pauses where normal people are thinking about the consequences. There’s also an ex-Amish policeman who rings true- not played for laughs. It’s got plenty of heart and humanity in between the over the top laughs, brutality and Elmore Leonard-style double crosses.
No, despite the title and Nick’s fondness for drink, this is a character-driven crime thriller that makes me wish there was a whole damn series already written, so I could spend a week reading them. The only bad thing about this book is having to wait for the next one.
The Ramones turned me from a little nerd into a knife-wielding psycho.
Not really, but they were a factor. My friend Peter Dell’Orto introduced me to them, I think. I may have heard “Blitzkrieg Bop” on a random mixtape, but the first I remember is borrowing RamonesMania in the mid-80s and really getting into it, playing the twin discs so much that the track listing became how I expected the songs to follow. I bought the albums later, and their first four are classics. Johnny himself gives everything after that middling grades, but I liked Subterranean Jungle a lot. That album gets flak for being a little too soft, ’50s rock’n roll style, but we liked it. He was right about End of the Century, the Phil Spector disaster which practically ruined their career. I hate that album.
The book is great, and a must read for any fan. For one, the design is original. A slab cardboard notebook, because he obsessively recorded life events in little binders, including every concert and baseball game he ever attended, and every gig they played. At first, the book reads like many rock bios- a bit egotistical, and not all that interesting, but as Johnny’s voice comes through, it almost reads like a novel with a narrator who unwittingly bares his secrets. He knew the end was coming, the book was written after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so he puts his heart into it and doesn’t shy from telling how he feels about anything. And yet there is little bitterness.
It’s well known that Johnny was a staunch conservative, but what comes through is hard-nose patriot, not a hatemonger like Ted Nugent. In fact, he admits that he did a lot of it to get a rise out of people. Sort of a meta-punk, offending the rebels themselves. I can see that. He reminded me of my father in a way, someone who went out of his way to get a rise out of people and make them uncomfortable. Not defending the guy, just understanding him.
Johnny of course tells the story from his own perspective, and how the image of the Ramones was very calculated. They wanted a look, but one that any fan could emulate. They played songs that didn’t reveal their musical limitations, and they grew into it. What they had was passion and a desire to win, and they did not betray themselves. They sang about horror movies, World War 2, crazy people they knew, drugs and comic books. Politics crept through as the end came- the infamous “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” was Joey & DeeDee, which I wrote about here, and Johnny and CJ sang “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” and some later songs, but they weren’t very memorable.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book. He is brutally honest and revealing. They were not as successful as we thought, they influenced rock to a great degree by dragging it back to its roots, but their first gold record was RamonesMania, many years after release. They were prolific, they were original, their songs have an infectious energy that is unmatched, in my opinion, even today. And if you want to know what it was like to be a Ramone… let Johnny tell you.
I actually got choked up at the end of the book. Johnny, Joey and DeeDee are all dead. Joey is buried in the same cemetery as my grandmother. I visit them both sometimes. My grandmother means more to me, of course, but Joey and Johnny Ramone taught me it was okay to be weird, and to let that freak flag fly.
Now I am not sure of where Gator stands on most of the issues. I think he’s a one issue voter. With that issue being “kill the sumbitch sheriff who murdered my brother.”
WHITE LIGHTNING is the story of a bootlegger named Gator McClusky doing time in prison for running booze. They won’t let him go to his brother’s funeral, but the Feds have an idea he was murdered by a crooked sheriff, played by Ned Beatty. So they let Gator out and give him a supercharged beast of a Ford LTD, a super sleeper that no one in the county can catch. His mission? Run booze! Run it better than the Sheriff, so they can catch him at it.
Actually the mission isn’t all that clear once Gator is out of prison. He visits friends and family, he taunts the Sheriff by racing around town, he makes a few moonshine runs. He strong-arms a mechanic into sabotaging a runner’s car so he can take over, he sleeps with his buddy’s girlfriend, he shoots up a few crooked lawmen and races all over creation. This was before Reynolds got huge and let his ego take over, and he plays a backwoods boy quite well. He’s a little rough around the edges, but he can charm the bloomers off a sweet county clerk. I had never seen this minor classic, but I remember watching Gator, the sequel, on Videodisc back in the day. Yep, my father had one of those. I bought an HD-DVD player, so choosing the losing medium must be in our blood.
White Lightning was a lot of fun. It’s not quite up there with VANISHING POINT and BULLITT for car movies, but Hal Needham did the stunts, and it makes for a nostalgic and enjoyable night’s viewing. I drank an Abita and remembered a simpler time, when a fast car, a quick wit and a whole lot of guts was all you needed to wipe the county clean of evil. Movies like this, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, and Mad Max certainly inspired me to write Jay Desmarteaux.
Yes, I laughed pretty hard while reading this one morning after drinking. It cleared my headache right up. I won’t say it’ll do the same for you, but it did the job a second time when I got a call that my sister, after hours of labor, went in for a C-section with her first child. I am an anxious sort, and I was nearly done with the book at that point. The laughs were over and things got real. This is where a funny story about three guys who try to find a treasure in gold on America’s largest artillery range can take a wrong step. I am a demanding reader who expects solid story structure and few loose ends left untied, and no shortcuts or easy endings.
I said if he messes this up, the next time I see him I’ll punch him in the nuts since I’m too short to reach his face.
Let’s just say that my sister is fine, my beautiful baby niece Alyssa is in her arms, and Johnny Shaw’s nuts will remain intact (for the time being). The ending was what had to happen and he handled it with the plums of a seasoned pro. (No, I didn’t mean “aplomb”). The book is a great read and doesn’t have any “mushy” sections where the story wandered. It never rushes, either. His characters have to make some tough choices, and he never cops out and pretends we won’t notice. No, he makes them face it and the SOB gets them through it with the integrity of the story unsullied. That is not as easy as it sounds. If you’ve ever winced or rolled your eyes during a story, or said “it’s just a movie” when a movie craps the bed… you won’t have to do that here. The guy’s got chops.
If you enjoy the hilarious tales of Carl Hiaasen set in Florida (known as America’s wang) Johnny Shaw is your man in the Southwest. He crafts living characters and tosses them into a tilt-a-whirl of believable but outrageous comedy. Like a goofball Shakespeare, he sculpts the language to his own comedic ends. I never knew what a donkling was. When you find out, it will cure your hangover.
I greatly enjoyed Johnny’s first novel DOVE SEASON and found BIG MARIA
even more entertaining. If you enjoy ribald humor and stories that drunkenly stumble on the edge of belief… Shaw is your donkleberry.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Not only is Johnny Shaw’s story “Gay Street” a star among many in my anthology PROTECTORS: STORIES TO BENEFIT PROTECT, but he was present when I earned the aforementioned hangover. I don’t owe him any money and there is no reacharound expected or implied. We’re pals because I read his first book and stalked him because of it, not the other way around.
Sterling Hayden was his own, conflicted, contrary man. Born in Montclair, a town split between affluence and working class, Hayden personifies it. He is lured to Hollywood, but continually fled to sail working ships, not pleasure craft. His father died when he was a boy, and Sterling was whisked away by his mother and her new husband, a swindling businessman who spent Sterling’s inheritance on showy automobiles and then fled, leaving them in debt. Sterling escaped on a sailing ship, before his stepfather ditched them, and working on the sea was all that brought him peace for the rest of his life. The book is about his life and the ocean, and touches barely on his Hollywood experiences, except to explain his personal fears, and how he refused to be beholden to the studios. Hayden lived in fear for most of his life. It drove him to name names to the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and to make terrible decisions all through his life. He found himself attracted to unstable and overbearing women, and was never truly free of his mother. He bares himself warts and all, and shows true courage in doing so. He was an imperfect man, but a talented writer. On occasion he dips to purple prose, but some of his observations of life in America are quite astute, and expressed with deep reflection. Anyone with interest in the man should read it. He found his bravery when he picked up a pen.
He embodied his roles. Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove, Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye, Johnny Clay in The Killing, Johnny Guitar, Captain McCluskey from The Godfather. Larger than life. On screen, and off.
One of my favorite books is The Bottoms, by Joe Lansdale, about a young boy growing up poor near the Sabine River. This story is also set on the Sabine, with teenagers yearning to break free from their blood families and make one of their own. It’s the kind of tale only Lansdale can tell. Southern gothic through his unique and absurd lens, characters as big and real as the dirty Sabine river that flows through the heart of it. I loved it, and was dismayed at how quickly I read it. I’ll go back and savor it a second time. Some called it Young Adult, as if that’s a genre now. Sure, older teens would like it, but it’s just a damn good story, with a lot of heart. I haven’t said a damn thing about the story, because it’s so good, like a dark American fairy tale, except all too real. You can discover it for yourself. It’s a lot more than any synopsis can capture.
I really enjoyed this one, and not just because the story grips you. I wanted to read more about Sue Ellen, and Jinx, and Skunk. Any time Mr. Lansdale writes about the folks of the Sabine, I’ll be there. But Sue Ellen has fire, and I hope she has more stories to tell.