Monday, October 28, 2013

The Surgeon, by Tess Gerritsen

When I selected one of Tess Gerritsen's novels to record for MAB last month, I randomly settled on The Apprentice, learning later that it was a sequel to The Surgeon.  Small matter -- they were no less riveting in reverse order.

In this, the first novel, a suave young doctor in South Carolina, Andrew Capra, has a beef with his internship supervisor, Dr. Catherine Cordell, who has informed him that he failed his surgical rotation in her ward. He comes to her house at the end of the shift to discuss the matter, and she invites him in for a beer.  When she regains consciousness, she is bound to her bed, naked, and looking at a tray of surgical instruments on the bedside table.  She manages to wrest a pistol from under her mattress (this is the US, after all), and she shoots her assailant.  Once, or twice, she can't remember, her mind still being fuzzy from the drug he'd slipped into her beer.  At any rate, Andrew Capra is dead.

Fast forward a few years, and plucky Dr. Cordell is now practising at a Boston hospital, focusing intently on her work and trying to put the trauma of her assault behind her. This proves impossible when a string of women in the Boston area show up in the morgue having been surgically maimed in the same manner as Andrew Capra's victims.  It doesn't take long for the police, including the brash, often abrasive Jane Rizzoli, to find their way to Dr. Cordell to investigate possible connections.  Clearly Andrew Capra has not risen from the dead, so is there a copycat on the loose?  Well, it doesn't seem likely, because the Boston killer seems to know things that were never part of the public record.  He must, it seems, have known Andrew Capra personally.

Since Tess Gerritsen has written two novels about serial-killing psychopaths who work as partners, I would guess there must be some historical precedent for this. It's ghastly enough to contemplate one bloodthirsty sadist, but to imagine two of them finding each other and "hunting" as a team is even more chilling. 

As she did in The Apprentice, Dr. Gerritsen inserts several passages in Warren Hoyt's own voice throughout the novel.  We quickly learn that he is obsessed with blood.  His is a bloodlust in the truest sense -- he gets a sensual and sexual frisson just thinking about the stuff.  Although Hoyt was asked to withdraw from medical school by the irate anatomy professor who found him molesting a cadaver in the dissection lab, he is not overly troubled by this temporary obstacle. His late parents left him a hefty inheritance, and with the help of his friend and former med school classmate, Andrew Capra, Warren can find other ways to indulge his desire to perform surgery.

Capra and Hoyt socialise as well as "work" together, often travelling abroad on holiday junkets to Greece or Central America. As he contemplates the Mayan ruins in Mexico, Warren wonders about the technique the priests would have used to extract the hearts from their living sacrificial victims, given the absence of modern luxuries like bone saws. With a little research, he finds his answer. It really is a pity he flunked out of med school, Dr. Gerritsen seems to be suggesting. He's a diligent scholar, if nothing else.
Books are wonderful things; they can tell you anything, everything, even how to cut out a heart using a flint knife, with a minimum of fuss. I found my answer in a textbook with the title Human Sacrifice and Warfare, written by an academic (my, universities are interesting places these days!), a man named Sherwood Clarke, whom I would very much like to meet someday.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Mr. Hoyt's life is also the most banal:  He works as a lab technician -- in a hospital.  As the police are frantically searching for Hoyt, who has kidnapped Dr. Catherine Cordell and vanished with her, they stand in his lab and struggle to grasp the scope of the situation. Hoyt had access to all the vital details on those he stalked -- their names, addresses, medical histories, and diagnoses, and what he didn't discern from his computer screen, he found in the vials of their blood.  Cell counts, pathogens, requested tests to be performed.  It would be hard to imagine any other job which would provide a serial killer with all the necessary bits of data to ply his trade.  

I tell myself that I'm likelier to die from an undiagnosed disease by refusing a blood test than I am to be eviscerated by a lunatic who works in the blood lab. But I suppose that's the point of horror fiction, isn't it? Honestly, these books scare me, and I can see. I would think life for a blind person is already quite frightening enough without reading Tess Gerritsen novels.  But no, they love them, so I have my marching orders.  I'm not complaining!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

When I was in school, The Catcher in the Rye was still a banned book, or was at least controversial enough to be excised from academic reading lists.  Now, with a new biopic of J.D. Salinger about to be released, it seemed  high time to read his best-known novel.

That voice! In a 1962 article for Harper's Magazine, Mary McCarthy credited Salinger with "a ventriloquist’s knack of disguising his voice."  As the ventriloquist's dummy, Holden Caulfield is unforgettable -- jaded yet naive, aggravating but pitiful. I can only imagine the kerfuffle this book kicked off when it came out in 1952, not only because of Holden's chronic cursing, underaged drinking and dalliance with a prostitute but also because the literary world had never met a narrator quite like him.  And for those who voiced their disapproval, you just know how Holden himself would respond:  "Goddam hypocrites."

Shane Salerno is the writer of the new documentary, "Salinger".  In a recent interview (my apologies, but I don't remember where I read it), he commented that Salinger's life was indelibly touched by his combat experience in World War II, and all of his novels, including The Catcher in the Rye, show tell-tale signs of that psychological trauma. That bit of background makes Holden an even more sympathetic character -- unable to express the grief when his brother dies, Holden lets his pain drive him from one private school to the next, each peopled with ever more "phony" teachers and students. In fact, almost no one meets with Holden's trust or approval -- Thomas Hardy and his younger sister, Phoebe are among the few.  

I do empathise with Holden's parents and teachers who see his tremendous intelligence but worry that unless he settles down and develops some self-discipline, he will crash and burn, or worse, just land in the gutter and stay there.  Holden is driven by what he likes and admires, though, and he doesn't see the point of investing any time reading books by phonies. One of his former English teachers gently suggests that there might still be some value in reading assigned books that he doesn't exactly like, but Holden is having none of it. He has his own ideas about what constitutes a good book.
What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though. I wouldn't want to call Somerset Maugham up. I don't know, He just isn't the kind of guy I'd want to call up, that's all. I'd rather call old Thomas Hardy up. I like that Eustacia Vye.
Nor does Holden have any use for his schoolmates, and it's a wonder he took only one beating from them in the course of the book. Just before he leaves his school at the end of the fall term -- he's been expelled and is not looking forward to sharing this news with his parents -- he wakes up the young man in the next room in the middle of the night.
"Listen. What's the routine on joining a monastery?" I asked him. I was sort of toying with the idea of joining one. "Do you have to be a Catholic and all?" "Certainly you have to be a Catholic. You bastard, did you wake me just to ask me a dumb ques--" "Aah, go back to sleep. I'm not gonna join one anyway. The kind of luck I have, I'd probably join one with all the wrong kind of monks in it. All stupid bastards. Or just bastards." When I said that, old Ackley sat way the hell up in bed. "Listen," he said, "I don't care what you say about me or anything, but if you start making cracks about my goddam religion, for Chrissake--" "Relax," I said. "Nobody's making any cracks about your goddam religion."
Even when well-intentioned people show Holden some kindness, they rarely get it right (by his standards), and the fact that he can't abide their failed efforts drives him into an even deeper funk.
Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.
On the train back home to New York, Holden finds himself sitting opposite the mother of one of his schoolmates who, to no one's surprise, Holden loathes. He proceeds to "confide" in the mother that her son is the greatest student to grace the school's dooryard. She seems a tad surprised to hear that he is so popular.
"Well. He's a very sensitive boy. He's really never been a terribly good mixer with other boys. Perhaps he takes things a little more seriously than he should at his age." Sensitive. That killed me. That guy Morrow was about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat. I gave her a good look. She didn't look like any dope to me. She looked like she might have a pretty damn good idea what a bastard she was the mother of. But you can't always tell--with somebody's mother, I mean. Mothers are all slightly insane.
As he imagines his father's reaction to yet one more school expulsion, Holden decides that his only hope is to head out west and find work on a ranch, but he first wants to say good-bye to his little sister, Phoebe. He arranges to meet her at the Natural History Museum.  (To his horror, she arrives with her suitcase, having guessed his plan and determined to join him.)  While he's waiting for her, though, Holden muses about the passage of time, and about change.
I kept thinking about old Phoebe going to that museum on Saturdays the way I used to. I thought how she'd see the same stuff I used to see, and how she'd be different every time she saw it. It didn't exactly depress me to think about it, but it didn't make me feel gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that's impossible, but it's too bad anyway.
Poor old Holden. You want to hug him, and then you want to deck him.  And he just doesn't give a good goddam either way.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill

As I was reading Veronica, I often compared it to some of Robert Mapplethorpe's erotic photographs,
especially those in his S&M series -- from a technical perspective, they are irreproachable, but the images are still disturbing. Likewise, Mary Gaitskill's prose is incongruously beautiful as she gives us a narrator who is, for the most part, spiritually vacuous, moving numbly through her decadent world.

Is it a case of style over substance?  Somewhat. I'm not a reader who requires likeable characters, high drama or happy endings, but apart from admiring Mary Gaitskill's talent with words, I struggled to make a connection with this book.

The eponymous Veronica plays a relatively minor role in the story, but then, no one seems to have a significant emotional impact on Alison, the narrator. Having run away from home as a teenager to work as a model, Alison is terminally jaded.  She meets Veronica, a middle-aged editor, in a temp agency, and they fall into a flimsy, insubstantial friendship.  As she narrates Veronica's decline and death from AIDS, which she had contracted from her bisexual boyfriend, Alison's tone becomes almost clinical. As someone whose own life is drifting downstream into oblivion, she -- seemingly without irony -- dispenses advice to Veronica, advice that she certainly doesn't apply to herself.
I snap open the umbrella and remember the last time I visited Veronica. She served me brownies in pink wrapping paper, fancy cheese, and sliced fruit she was too sick to eat. I remember the time I said, "I don't think you love yourself. You need to learn to love yourself." Veronica was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "I think love is overrated. My parents loved me. And it didn't do any good."
I think I'd rather Veronica had narrated the book.
She was a plump thirty-seven-year-old with bleached-blond hair. She wore tailored suits in mannish plaids with matching bow ties, bright red lipstick, false red fingernails, and mascara that gathered in intense beads on the ends of her eyelashes. Her loud voice was sensual and rigid at once, like plastic baubles put together in rococo shapes. It was deep but could quickly become shrill. You could hear her from across the room, calling everyone, even people she hated, "hon": "Excuse me, hon, but I'm very well acquainted with Jimmy Joyce and the use of the semicolon." She proofread like a cop with a nightstick.
Alison had run away, not from an abusive or neglectful household, but from a stolid, middle-class one. After a bout of bumming around San Francisco in typical, seedy, unemployed teenager mode, she goes home to New Jersey for a while, until the boredom sets in again.
Van Cliburn played Tchaikovsky in the next room; in the dining room, the TV was on mute. The months in San Francisco were folded up into a bright tiny box and put down somewhere amid the notices and piles of coupons. I was blended into the electrical comfort of home.
When she needs another excitement fix, Alison talks her parents into letting her go to work for a modelling agency in Paris. Glamour? Sophistication? Hardly, and she's too naive to know the difference.
We met for champagne and omelettes in a sunny bistro with bright-colored cars honking outside. He talked about the Rolling Stones and his six-year-old daughter, after whom he had named the agency Celeste. He asked if I wanted children. I said, "No." He grabbed my nose between two knuckles and squeezed it. The omelettes came heaped on white plates with blanched asparagus. He hadn't kissed me yet. He spread his slim legs and tucked a cloth napkin into his shirt with an air of appetite. I wanted badly to touch him. Inside its daintiness, the asparagus was acrid and deep. He said, "The first thing we need to do is get you a Swiss bank account. All the smart girls have one. First, you don't have to pay taxes that way. Then they invest it for you. Your money will double, triple. You should see!" I loved him and he obviously loved me. Love like in the James Bond movies, where the beautiful sexy girl loves James but tries to kill him anyway.
The beautiful sexy girl never kills James Bond, of course, and the agent, when he dumps Alison, sends her off without the contents of that Swiss bank account, which he had opened in the agency's name.

Nor does the beautiful sexy girl intimidate Veronica, who, in a moment of brutal clarity, tells it like it is.
There was a wondering silence. Veronica smoked with her lips in a sideways purse so she could stare at me as she inhaled; her eyes flared with each tiny facial twist. "How did you get into modeling to begin with?"
"By fucking a nobody catalog agent who grabbed my crotch." I didn't have to be embarrassed or make up something nice, because Veronica was nobody. My disdain was so habitual, I didn't notice it. But she did. She said, "Every pretty girl has a story like that, hon. I had that prettiness. I have those stories. I don't have to do that anymore, though. It's my show now." And she turned into a movie star, strutting past me while I gawked.
Alison's superficiality seems to smack her in the face again and again, yet her assessments of other people never go beyond skin-deep and never take into account that beauty might exist in a woman who is not fit material for a magazine cover. After Veronica's death, David, the man who adopted her cat, relates a dream in which Veronica appeared, and in which "her poise and intellectual grace were visible".  Alison, moved by the image in this dream, phones her sister Sara to discuss it.
When I got off the phone with David, I called Sara to tell her about it. I don't know why. When I finished describing the dream, I said, "And that's what Veronica was really like, under all the ugliness and bad taste. It's so sad, I can't stand it. She'd gotten so stunted and twisted up, she came out looking like this ridiculous person with bad hair, when she was meant to be sophisticated and brilliant. Like in the dream."
Sara was silent, and in the silence I felt her furrow her brow. "I thoughts she was sophisticated and brilliant, Alison. I thought her hair was nice."
In the end, Alison sums it up like this:
I sank down into darkness and lived among the demons for a long, long time. I became one of them. But I was not saved by an innocent girl or an angel crying in heaven. I was saved by another demon, who looked on me with pity and so became human again. And because I pitied her in turn, I was allowed to become human, too.  
By that time, though, I'd lost all trust in Alison. I don't believe she was saved by another demon, because I don't believe Veronica was one.  I question whether she was saved, human once more, at all.