Monday, October 4, 2010

Shotgun Alley Kicks It Into High Gear

Growing up on a farm meant I often had summer jobs others might consider unenviable. Mucking out stalls. Weed-wacking endless feet of fencerow. Clearing the poison oak from the front field. Not everything was drudgery. Such occupations did instill in me a desire to excel in higher education so I could avoid them at all costs in the future. Also, sometimes I got to drive The Toyota, an ancient, stripped-down pickup with an odometer seeking its furthermost limits. I remember the foreman teaching me how to work the manual transmission. For long stretches, I'd growl The Toyota along in first gear, working up the nerve to shift, and when I finally stomped on the clutch and yanked back the stick -- wham! -- it would leap forward like a pitbull straining at its chain. That sense of sudden, surging speed came back to me when reading Andrew Klavan's Shotgun Alley, the sequel to his somewhat uneven Dynamite Road.

By all accounts, the new case should've made Scott Weiss smile. Of late, Weiss Investigations had been saddled with unpleasant, penny-ante stuff, including that business with the Women's Studies scholar at Berkeley. Yes, a case was a case, and Weiss felt badly that professor Brinks had a harasser who was sending her obscene emails. But low-profile conundrums didn't bring in the bucks. Then Philip Graham called, a wealthy political candidate with one eye on a Senate seat and the other on a personal problem -- his daughter Beverly. Not content to stay home and out of trouble, Beverly has dubbed herself Honey and hooked up with a nasty biker called Cobra who has a penchant for philosophizing and armed robbery. Graham wants Beverly back home, and Weiss knows that it means more business if he can pull it off. There's the rub. Weiss has his best operative, Bishop, on the case, a man as rough and tumble as they come. But Honey is hardly powerless herself, and as soon as she sees Bishop, she sets on sinking her claws into him.

The reason why Dynamite Road felt a bit off to me was Klavan's penchant for popping out of Serious Thriller Mode and into Over-The-Top Romantic Action (both of the lovelorn and simply adventuresome varieties). It felt like an odd combination, a strange mix of realism and the fantastic. Fortunately, Shotgun Alley more than solves the problem by scaling back the verisimilitude and opening up the novel's action for even more outlandish stunts. This might sound like a left-handed compliment. It isn't. Flat characters and foregone conclusions might be writerly sins in literary fiction, but not in fables, which is exactly what Shotgun Alley is, a Brothers Grimm tale for the hardboiled set. In between the motorcycle chases and fisticuffs, Klavan delves into deep themes like academic intimidation, literary theory, the composition of the human soul and radical feminism. He also deals a lot with sex. Sex and love, sex and psychological manipulation, sex and the secret longings of the heart -- all consume quite a bit of the page count, albeit in a typically not-quite-explicit form. It's encouraging when an author revs up his game during a second installment, and Shotgun Alley kicks the pluses of its predecessor into high gear.

(Picture: CC 2009 by
Omer Wazir)


AidanF said...

That was a powerful introduction to this review. Very nice.

Loren Eaton said...

Thanks! Alas, it also shows how bad I was (and still largely am) at driving stick.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

It was an interesting book.

I think you're right about the second book being better (because less realistic) than the first, although I think the first would have been better if it had been more realistic. But the second, while it hit higher highs, always felt off a bit to me--probably because Klavan's understanding of women, even 1980's radical feminist women, is not his forte.

But then again, my love for fable is often balanced by a distaste for grotesque satire.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Oh, also, speaking of good books, you really should check out the latest Diner (I got my copy today.)

I'm not a disinterested voice (I worked on the thing), but I am certain that it is our best volume yet.

Loren Eaton said...

I actually didn't mind Klavan's treatment of campus feminism. I remember during my undergrad years when I (unwittingly) opened the door for the president of the feminist club. Mistake.

By diner, I assume you're referring to those of the midnight variety that are run by coaches?

Chestertonian Rambler said...


Though while the current Diner is still very much Midnight (particularly so, this issue) it has a bit of a new editorial team--and a rather large jump in submitted stories.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, I think I'm going to have to submit there at some point.