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Wednesday, 03 February 2010 15:01

Fitzgerald comes to life in Asheville

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The Fitzgerald Ruse by Mark De Castrique. Poisoned Pen Press, 2009. 250 pages.

Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and magazines like Black Mask are the great-grandfathers of the American detective novel. Readers, for example, can open a Chandler novel and from the first chapter hear a voice and tone that are as familiar to them as last night’s reruns of “The Rockford Files” or “Miami Vice.” These well-known lines from Chandler’s Red Wind regarding the Santa Ana winds in California make the point:

Those hot dry winds that come down through you in the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Some 70 years later, writers of the hard-boiled detective school continue to give us tales of tough men and women doing battle against dragons: the drug dealer, the murderer, the corrupt businessman, the bad cop, the guy in the black hat. This lone and often broken modern-day knight who fights the powers of darkness, who must also fight the dark places within himself, and who eventually puts wrongs right, continues to attract us. James Lee Burke, Robert Bloch, and Robert Parker are only three of the battalion of writers, male and female, who have followed this tradition with great success.

Following in their footsteps — and of particular interest to anyone living in Western North Carolina — is writer and film producer Mark De Castrique.

In The Fitzgerald Ruse, his second novel involving Sam Blackman and his partner and lover, Nakayla Robertson, De Castrique again sets his story of money, murder, and betrayal in Asheville.

The story opens when Robertson and Blackman, a former chief warrant officer who lost a leg in an ambush in Iraq and who has since recuperated in Asheville’s V.A. Hospital, open a detective agency on Pack Square. Their first client is Ethel Barkley, who presents Blackman with a mysterious box inscribed with a swastika which may or may not contain papers belonging to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

This box lies at the heart of the rest of the book. On the night Blackman receives the box from Mrs. Barkley, an intruder murders the building’s security guard and steals the box. Through the rest of the book all sorts of people pop up, looking either for the box or for the source of wealth behind Blackman’s own offshore bank accounts: former military comrades, local attorneys, rogue Blackwater employees, and ghosts from Asheville’s past.

It is De Castrique’s presentation of this past which will surely attract local readers. On these pages, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald comes briefly to life for us. Mrs. Barkley claims to have known Fitzgerald when he would sojourn in Asheville, ostensibly to see his wife Zelda, who was confined to Highland Mental Hospital, but also to drink and to philander, and to enjoy the city itself. De Castrique takes us to the Grove Park Inn, where Fitzgerald rented a room, and to Beaver Lake, where he broke a shoulder once by trying to show off his diving skills for a woman.

We also meet William Dudley Pelley, whose name is now largely forgotten but who in the 1930s founded in Asheville the Silver Legion, a copy of the Nazis’ Brownshirts. Though the Legion was a national movement and though Pelley himself was not native to these mountains, some natives of Asheville did join and support his movement. Pelley and Franklin Roosevelt hated each other, and the White House ordered Pelley to be investigated by the FBI. After Pearl Harbor, Pelley’s Legion dissolved, and Pelley himself was imprisoned for a time for his viewpoints.

In addition to these insights, De Castrique gives us many thumbnail sketches of Asheville and its citizens. In Blackman’s Coffin, his first Sam Blackman novel, De Castrique included Thomas Wolfe and the Vanderbilts in his story. This reviewer intends to read that novel as soon he can lay his hands on it.

Read The Fitzgerald Ruse and enjoy!

•••

Nicholas Baker is one of those writers with an extraordinary range: novelist, essayist, bookman, historian. Now he may account himself a literary critic and a poet as well, for in his latest work, The Anthologist (Simon and Schuster, 978-1-4165-7244-2, $25), Baker undertakes to write a novel that could serve as a handbook of poetry and as a critique of literature.

Paul Chowder, the novel’s narrator, is lost: his girlfriend Roz has left him, and he is suffering from a case of writer’s block that keeps him from completing an introduction to a poetry anthology. Chowder looks at his past, his missed opportunities, his neighbors—but most of all at poetry. The Anthologist could serve as a poetry primer, for here is a medley of lessons in poetry masquerading as a novel. On nearly every page of The Anthologist, Chowder — and Baker — give us lessons in poetics: rhyme, meter, and rhythm; the colossal and ongoing battles between those advocating form versus those who love free verse; the poets themselves with all their foibles, and strange beauty, and words as lovely as stone in a cathedral.

The Anthologist is not for every reader. But if you love poetry, you will find in Nicholas Baker’s novel a wonderful arena of verse and versifying, and how they affect our lives.

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