Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: How's the Pain? (2006) and Moon in a Dead Eye (2009) by Pascal Garnier

In my experience French crime writers can be divided between the relentlessly quirky (Fred Vargas, Alex Lemaitre, Pierre Magnan) and the relentlessly ferocious (Dominique Manotti, Sebastian Japrisot, Jean Patrick Manchette, Georges Simenon). The first group specializes in oddball characters and wildly improbable plots. Team number two can also craft some truly Byzantine plots, but what really makes them special is their merciless examination of the fears, beliefs and motivations of their characters. A writer who favours quirky characters is usually also a sentimentalist at heart. Sentimentality isn't in the vocabulary of the second group. They have ice in their hearts and take a vivisectionist's approach to the human psyche, showing no mercy when it comes to throwing their characters into harrowing situations and horrible fates. Pascal Garnier is the definitive ferocious writer.

How's the Pain? is about an elderly hitman, Simon, who's dying of cancer and has one last job to finish. He meets a simple-minded young man, Bernard, in a town in southern France andd hires him as a driver. Bernard is a Labrador retriever in human form: loyal, friendly, ready for anything, and eternally optimistic. Simon is a shark. He kills without remorse and for any reason. This sounds like a humorous, odd couple pairing, but it's anything but. Bernard immediately complicates what's left of Simon's life by befriending a slatternly single mother and bringing her along for the ride. The story takes a succession of left turns, usually involving death, and the ending is as bleak and sudden as a car accident. Moon in a Dead Eye strays out of the crime genre into surrealism. The setting is a newly-built trailer park in the south of France that caters to retirees. Two retired couples, a caretaker, and two single women are the only occupants of the park. What happens to them is best described as a series of psychological breakdowns of a surrealist nature that ends with multiple deaths and a forest fire. The novel's title is probably a nod to a famous scene in the film Un Chien Andalou, the surrealist classic by Luis Bunuel.

Both novels take a cold, pitiless look at aging and mortality. The elderly characters in these stories are chased to their graves by dementia, illness, sadness, and regret for things they did or didn't do in their lives. Garnier seems determined to remind his readers that not only is Death waiting for us all, but he's also in a bad mood and wants to take it out on us. As is usual in French crime fiction, the middle classes take a thorough kicking. This is particularly so in Moon in a Dead Eye, which charts the fragile, tenuous nature of bougeois dreams and respectability. In this way it's an interesting companion piece to two other Bunuel films, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. The inhabitants of the Les Conviviales trailer park descend into different kinds of madness, all laced with the blackest of humor. It's this quality that makes Moon in a Dead Eye more of a surrealist novel than a piece of crime fiction, although major crimes do take place.

Garnier's novels are so short they almost qualify as novellas, but his writing is so psychologically acute, his observations so sharp, he seems to pack more intellectual content into his novels than most "serious" writers manage in novels five times as long. Garnier's far from being your average crime fiction author, but if you like Jean Patrick Manchette, or you're just a fan of scorched-earth prose, then Garnier's your man.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Film Review: The Border (1982)

For some people Jack Nicholson is a grandstanding actor who has spent most of his career chewing up the scenery in films like The Shining, Batman and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nicholson does have that side to his acting personality, but there's also a more buttoned-version, and that's what we get in this unfairly neglected film about corrupt Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas.

Nicholson is Charlie Smith, an Immigration and Naturalization agent in L.A. who's pushed into joining the Border Patrol by his wife, Marcy, played by Valerie Perrine. Marcy wants the better things in life, especially a house, and argues that a new job in El Paso with the Border Patrol will give that to them. In parallel with the Smiths move to El Paso, we see Maria, a young Mexican woman, heading across Mexico towards the U.S. border with her infant child and teenage brother. They've been uprooted by an earthquake that's destroyed their village. Charlie hasn't been in the job long before he realizes that his job is essentially pointless; he grabs illegal immigrants as they sneak across the border, processes them, sends them back, and then catches them all over again the next day or the next week. He also learns that some of his fellow agents (Harvey Keitel and Warren Oates) are being bribed by the head of a local smuggling ring. Charlie figures he might as well make some extra money out of this pointless process and he agrees to go on the take. That ends almost immediately when he sees that the smugglers expect the agents to kill their competition. Maria is caught crossing the border and the smugglers steal her baby to sell it on the black market. Charlie befriends Maria and the film becomes a thriller as he tries to find her child and not get killed by smugglers and corrupt Border Patrol agents.

One startling aspect to The Border from a 2015 perspective is its sympathy for illegal immigrants. In these days of Mexican drug cartels and hot button topics like amnesty for illegal immigrants, it's hard to remember that Mexican immigrants were once viewed sympathetically. The film wears its heart on it sleeve by portraying all the American characters, excepting Charlie, as complete bastards. The Border Patrol is corrupt and uncaring, and the wives of Charlie and the character played by Harvey Keitel are shrieking, whining monsters of consumerism. With the exception of one oily smuggler, the Mexican are shown in a rather better light. The director, Tony Richardson, even manages to find a visual metaphor for this divide between the nationalities. Scenes on the Mexican side of the border show water being used to baptize babies, for washing up, and for drinking. On the U.S. side it's akin to a toy; something that only has value when it's used in water beds (Marcy's purchase of an expensive one precipitates Charlie's turn to the dark side) or pools. And then, of course, there's the river that divides the two countries and that features in the final shot of the film.

The Border still works well as a thriller, makes good use of its Texas locations, and reminds you that Jack Nicholson could turn in a subtle, restrained performance when he wanted to. What hasn't aged well is the treatment of the female characters. Maria is saintly and mostly silent, and the American wives are just out and out harridans, full stop. The job of proving that American culture is shallow is given to them and it's festival of sexism and misogyny. And any film that has Harvey Keitel and Warren Oates acting together deserves your full attention.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Film Review: American Sniper (2014)

Is American Sniper as morally blind, jingoistic and lacking in political context as a host of commentators and critics have described it? Yes. Yes it is. Most of the critical flak has been aimed at director Clint Eastwood, but I'd say scriptwriter Jason Hall and producer/star Bradley Cooper deserve more of the blame.

Eastwood's direction here ranges from efficient to perfunctory to downright lazy, but I'm calling out Hall and Cooper for a jaw-droppingly bad script that feels as though it was crafted by a committee comprised of PR people for the NRA and the Tea Party. The script does such a thorough job of ducking the hard and nasty truths about Chris Kyle and the war in Iraq that it should qualify as a fantasy film. Kyle's ghostwritten autobiography and subsequent revelations about his post-war life made it clear that he was a racist, a sociopath, and a congenital liar who fantasized about killing civilians. These qualities probably helped make him grade A material for the Navy SEALS, but why would a scriptwriter and producer go so far out of their way to whitewash a character who was, to put it mildly, halfway to being a serial killer? The script also cuts and pastes the historical record in order to suggest that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks. I'd say this kind of revisionism, and the film's fawning celebration of good ole boy machismo, is a calculated and cynical strategy to appeal to a specific and considerable American demographic; namely the kind of people who flesh out the ranks of the Tea Party; holiday in Branson, MO; fill the stands at NASCAR races; attend gun shows on Saturdays and pack the pews of megachurches on Sundays. This is the audience this film is tailor-made for. American Sniper glorifies, even beatifies, the values and myths they hold dear and does it with a rigorous disregard for the thorny inconveniences of irony, historical accuracy, psychological insight, and the moral and political consequences of military actions.

American Sniper also continues a tradition of  mainstream Hollywood films portraying wars purely in terms of their effect on American soldiers and civilians. Vietnam films, even politically liberal ones such as Coming Home, had nothing to say about the two million Vietnamese killed in the war. The Hurt Locker, another film about the Iraq war, is very similar in tone and subject matter to American Sniper and also shares its lack of interest in the war's impact on Iraqis. If your only knowledge of Iraq came from those two films you'd be left with the idea that Iraq was entirely filled with terrorists and their civilian supporters. The combination of two wars and brutal economic sanctions between those wars have led to the deaths, by some estimates, of a million Iraqis and the displacement of millions more. According to Hollywood's moral accounting, none of that counts for anything compared to the temporary psychological stresses suffered by one soldier, Chris Kyle, and his wife.

Looked at purely from a cinematic perspective, Eastwood's direction is robotic. The plentiful action sequences are visually dull and lack tension, the boot camp section is an afterthought, and the scenes that show Kyle suffering from PTSD make it look like it's a condition akin to having a few too many coffees. I think at some point in pre-production everyone decided this best way to approach this film was to be non-judgmental and let the facts (according to Chris Kyle) speak for themselves. That's translated into a dull, witless, nasty film that might have worked better if it had paraphrased the title of an earlier, better Eastwood film: how does White Sniper, Black Heart sound?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Less Islamophobia, More Theophobia, Please

Public Enemy number one.
The first side effect of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has been an orgy of analysis and commentary by politicians and the press, many of whom are advancing agendas (more power to the police and secret services) or grinding axes (all Muslims are crazy mofos). After reading far too many opinion pieces and analyses over the last few days, I can no longer resist adding my two cents to the glittering mountain of coins that's already out there. So here goes.

A common theme voiced by many people is that Muslims need to be, well, less religious, or at least less fanatical. How this is to be done isn't usually defined, but one gets the sense that what people mean is that Muslims should do what most Christians do; pay nominal attention to the tenets and ceremonies of their religion but ignore all the barbaric and nonsensical stuff. Advising Muslims to dial down their religiosity is something I can get behind as long as it's part of broader theophobic movement. It seems monstrously hypocritical to ask Muslims to be chill about depictions of Mohammed when in the US creationism is being taught in schools; no US president can get elected unless they loudly proclaim that they are a practicing Christian; TV networks routinely bleep the use of "goddamn" or "Christ" when it's used as an expletive; women's reproductive rights are being eroded in the name of Christian religion; the military has become a hotbed of Christian fundamentalism; and a wide variety of pressure groups and politicians are constantly attempting to erode or end the constitutional separation of church and state. In sum, any attempts by non-Muslims to lecture Muslims on religious tolerance ring hollow unless it's matched by equal fervour in putting all religions in their place, which, in my view, is out on the street with their brethren operating the three-card monte games.

Are the Hebdo cartoons offensive? If you're looking and hoping to be offended, yes. Charlie Hebdo has a meage circulation of 60k in a nation of more than sixty million, and I doubt many French Muslims, or any one of a conservative bent, would be on their subscription list. Like the people who used to rail against Playboy magazine, Hebdo's detractors don't read the magazine themselves, but they're mortally offended that other people do. Those who argue that the cartoon images shouldn't be disseminated further because they might upset Muslims are falling into a dangerous logical trap. If a cartoon, an act of ephemeral humour, is too daunting for the sensitivities of some people, where do we draw the line in criticism and commentary? If a newspaper columnist does a piece in favour of atheism should there be a warning on the front of the paper about it lest a religious person come across the column? And why should religious sensitivities count for anything? Why should people of faith be protected from criticism or satire or a contrary opinion? We don't expect politicians, their parties, or their ideologies to be shielded from scorn or commentary (unless you're living in a totalitarian state), but somehow in the early 21st century it's not seemly to ridicule religion and its adherents.

The Paris killings have also produced the usual spate of right-wing chaff that attempts to disassociate Islamic terrorism from recent political and military history in the Middle East. The usual line taken in these arguments is that Islam is existentially committed to overthrowing the West (just read what it says in the Koran!) and what's gone on in Iraq and Israel has little or nothing to do with attacks on Western targets. Since the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, the major Western powers, Israel, the USSR and, later, Russia, have terraformed, as it were, the Middle East, North Africa and AfPak into the hot messes that they are today. This does not make ISIL less of a horror show or excuse what happened in Paris, but to pretend that monsters won't arise from the toxic ecosystem that much of the Arab world has become seems ingenuous in the extreme. And if Islam is existentially obliged to attack unbelievers and spread the one faith by the sword, why wasn't the West facing Islamic terrorism in, say, the 1950s? Or the '20s? Why not the 1860s, for that matter? Nothing in the Koran has changed over the centuries, so it seems odd, unless you factor in politics and foreign policy, that the West hasn't been under siege from the Muslim world for the past thousand years.

And now for the big picture stuff. I'd argue that Islamic fundamentalism is merely one branch of a conservative counter-revolution that's been going on across the world since the late 1970s. Bear with me here. The post-war era (for argument's sake I'm going to say this extends to 1979) was marked by greater social welfare spending, the growth and influence of unions, a bigger role for government in social and industrial policies, and the political, economic and social emancipation of visible minorities and women. In simple terms, power and wealth was flowing from the top of society to the bottom. With the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 that flow began to reverse itself. The conservative counter-revolution had begun. This counter-revolution wasn't just about dollars and cents. The '60s and '70s had seen the growth of counter-cultural movements, alternative lifestyles, feminism, and gay rights. As these cultural changes gained momentum, the opposite and equal reaction was the rise of evangelical Christianity in the US and right-wing racist/nationalist parties in Europe. In broad cultural terms, what the counter-revolution was, and is, trying to do is re-establish a rigidly hierarchical, patriarchal  and mono-cultural society.

Although the West was where this struggle began, the rest of the world was not immune. The combined effects of globalization, immigration from the developing to the developed world, and the Internet have unsettled traditional societies all over world. Liberalism, in the cultural sense, has backwashed into countries and cultures that were anywhere from Victorian to medieval in their social outlook. Since the 1970s developing nations have been invaded by liberal Western values. These values have been carried there by Western businesses, immigrants returning to/communicating with their home countries, and the spread of the Internet. One sure sign of this cultural counter-revolution is the increase in misogyny just about everywhere. Women are always at the bottom of the pecking order in any kind of conservative culture, and because of this we've seen the spread of sharia law; gang sexual assaults on women in India; rampant cyber-bullying of women as seen in the Gamergate scandal; a mostly successful effort by rightists to turn the word "feminist" into a pejorative; and an epidemic of sexual abuse of women in the US military and colleges. Click here for a longer piece I did on women and religious oppression called Jim Crow is a Transvestite.

So even without the impetus of Western military incursions in the Muslim world, it's quite likely Islamic fundamentalism would have been on the rise as a reaction to liberal and progressive values arriving from the the West. But take this counter-revolution, combine with real and imagined political/religious grievances and young men who are desperate, alienated, mentally unbalanced, and you get killers like Anders Breivik in Norway and the Charlie Hebdo assassins.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Review: Europe in Autumn (2014) by Dave Hutchinson

Dave Hutchinson needs to network more. I've read any number of mediocre and crap SF novels that are covered in enthusiastic blurbs from other authors, bloggers, and online fanzines. Europe in Autumn has one measly blurb from someone named Eric Brown, who may well be Dave's downstairs neighbour for all I know. This novel deserves a raft of accolades, so for his next novel (which will surely be a sequel to this one) Dave needs to start hitting the fan conventions and standing rounds for his fellow SF writers down at the pub.

One of the chief pleasures of this novel is its unpredictable ambition. The setting is Europe in the near future and the region has spawned dozens and dozens of new states, some as small as a few city blocks. All these polities, as they are called in the book, have thrown up new borders and travel restrictions to go with them. There are always people who want to move themselves or contraband across borders unnoticed, and a shadowy organization called Les Coureurs des Bois has sprung up to serve their needs. Rudi, a young Estonian working as a cook in Krakow, joins the Coureurs and begins a career that becomes more dangerous and mysterious with each mission he takes on. The novel ends with Rudi discovering that there is, quite literally, more to Europe than meets the eye.

Europe in Autumn is shelved in the SF section of the bookstore, but it mostly reads like a great espionage novel, perhaps a forgotten title by Len Deighton. All the tropes and flavour of the spy novels of the 1960s are here: tense encounters with border guards; middle of the night frontier crossings under the glare of searchlights; double and triple crosses; dead drops; passwords and false identities; and sudden, shocking violence. One sequence in particular, set on a snowy night in the state of Potsdam, stands out as a brilliant blend of SF and old school John Le Carre-style tension as Rudi tries to smuggle a man across the border. The first half of the novel is picaresque in structure as we follow Rudi around Europe in his job as a Coureur. His various adventures are entertaining in their own right, but Hutchinson's portrait of a divided and sub-divided Europe is rich and endlessly inventive. He smartly pays attention to the small details of life, which gives his imagined Europe greater verisimilitude than is usual in these kinds of alternate reality stories.

Rudi is an excellent guide to this new Europe. He's witty, cynical, clever, but motivated by a quiet idealism to see Europe once again become borderless. Rudi more or less stumbles into his job with the Coureurs, and in this regard he's very much like one of the heroes of Eric Ambler's spy novels, many of whom are men with ordinary lives and jobs who suddenly find themselves having to cope with terrors and realities that are far outside their experience.

Although Europe in Autumn starts out as an alternate reality spy novel, by the end it's begun a seamless transition to something far stranger and more in keeping with its SF designation. There's clever future tech on display throughout, but it's always kept in the background. What's most remarkable about this novel is that Hutchinson's prose is fully the equal of his imagination. All those SF writers with big, bombastic ideas (and blurbs) rarely have the writing skills to back up their glitzy concepts. Hutchinson's writing is so good it he'd be worth reading no matter what genre he tackled. And if he doesn't use some part of this review as a blurb then he's just being difficult.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Film Review: Sorcerer (1977)

According to popular legend (or possibly revisionist history) the box office failure of William Friedkin's Sorcerer can be blamed on Star Wars, which opened at roughly the same time and sucked, as it were, all the commercial and critical air out of the room. I saw Sorcerer when it first came out and didn't think much of it, and now, nearly forty years later, I saw it again on DVD and had my original opinion confirmed: this is a poor film. I didn't like Star Wars very much, but it turns out that it was the better film.

The belated critical recognition that Sorcerer has received seems to be more about nostalgia for that brief period in the 1970s when American cinema, led by directors such as Friedkin, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, seemed to be on the verge of a golden age of auteur filmmaking. Heavily marketed, big budget, populist films like Star Wars and Jaws ended up setting the template for Hollywood in the decades to come, and for a lot of film critics and fans that represents the death of artistic American cinema. Be that as it may, nostalgia shouldn't blind any one to the fact that Sorcerer is a bloated, incoherent, and unnecessary remake of the brilliant The Wages of Fear (1953) by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

In case you haven't seen either film: four men, all from different parts of the world, are on the run from the law (with one exception) and have ended up in a hellish Central American town where the only employment is with an oil company. In order to get enough money to escape from the town the four agree to drive a load of nitroglycerine in two trucks to an oil well site that's burning out of control.  Sorcerer stumbles right from the start by giving us four vignettes to introduce the four desperate men. The original film began in the town and we learned their back stories as the story progressed through their interactions with each other. Friedkin takes the more obvious approach by showing the various crimes that caused these men to flee their homelands. So we get sequences set in Jerusalem, New Jersey, Paris and Vera Cruz. This lengthy introductory portion of the film doesn't tell us anything we couldn't have learned from the men themselves in the town; it all feels like an excuse to mount action scenes in various international locations. A terrorist bombing in Jerusalem shows some visual flair, but the New Jersey intro involving Roy Scheider's character is clumsily choreographed. The Paris sequence is dull and overlong, and the Vera Cruz episode turns out to be confusing because the character it introduces, Nilo, is given no reason to go on the run. We have no idea why he turns up in the town or why he volunteers to drive one of the trucks.

Another problem with the introductory vignettes is that once the men get to the town, no character development takes place. Friedkin seems to think the vignettes did all that work, so that means the final two-thirds of the film is virtually dialogue-free, at least when it comes to our four leads. This kills almost all the tension in the film because we aren't invested in these characters in any way. They're ciphers. Scenes that might otherwise be nail-biting become inert because it's hard to care if these anonymous characters live or die.

Some of the Central American locations are visually arresting, and a sequence involving the trucks crossing a rope bridge is impressive, but on the whole Sorcerer doesn't hold a candle to the original. The Wages of Fear, despite its vastly lower budget, is far more inventive both visually and in terms of storytelling. Sorcerer puts its big budget up on the screen, but it feels like the work of a B-movie director who doesn't quite know what to do with all that money.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best Books of 2014

Yes, it's that time of year again: time to look back through my blogged book reviews and pick the winners. In 2014 I didn't read much non-fiction, which is unusual for me, and I read a lot more SF, which is very unusual; in fact, Annihilation, an SF novel by Jeff Vandermeer, would have have been on this list but it's the first part of a trilogy so it will have to wait for 2015. As usual, just click on the titles to go to my original reviews.

The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara

The main character in this novel about scientific discovery and the exploitation of the Third World starts out as an ass and ends up a monster. That the author holds our fascinated attention with this horrible person is amazing, as is her prose and the twists and turns of the plot. Not for the faint of heart.

The Sun is God (2014) by Adrian McKinty

McKinty, a fine writer of hardboiled Celtic Noir crime fiction, makes a detour into historical mystery fiction with this tale of a cult of German sun worshipers in New Guinea. The story, as bizarre as it seems, is based on a real crime, and McKinty uses it as a framework for looking at the birth of alternative lifestyles (kooks and cranks division) in the early 1900s. Excellent wrting that comes in a very small package by the standards of historical fiction.

Alone in Berlin (1947) by Hans Fallada

Easily the best novel about totalitarianism and World War Two I've ever read. A Berlin couple mount a small-scale and futile propaganda war against Hitler in 1941, and the novel charts their pursuit and capture by the Gestapo. There's a large cast of characters, almost all of whom meet sticky ends, and despite the unrelenting grimness of the story, Fallada is such an energetic, entertaining writer it becomes hard to put the book down. It's also published under the title Every Man Dies Alone.

Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013) by Max Blumenthal

In the aftermath of Israel's recent assault on Gaza, this journalistic look at Israel's headlong rush towards becoming a fascist apartheid state provides an insight into why Palestinian lives are held so cheaply by Israel. This isn't a picture of Israel that's usually allowed into the mainstream media, and that makes it essential reading.

The Confession of Sultana Daku (2009) by Sujit Saraf

Daku was a famous bandit who terrorized the United Provinces of India in the 1920s. This novel brings that period to vivid life, but also examines the pernicious caste system that produced a bandit like Daku. Saraf is one of those great writers you've never heard of, and it'll take some work to find this novel--I had to order it from a used bookstore in New Delhi.

The Great Night (2011) by Chris Adrian

The fantasy genre is full of mashups, and this might be the most well-mashed I've come across. It's Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream plopped down in contemporary San Francisco, and it works because Adrian handles the fantasy elements masterfully while at the same time writing a deadly serious novel about the high cost of love. Be warned: these fairies are dangerous to be around, and the novel begins with a devastating description of a child's illness.

My Home is Far Away (1944) by Dawn Powell

To Kill a Mockingbird is rightly proclaimed as the Great American coming-of-age novel, but I'd place this novel a very, very close second. Powell was a literary star of post-war New York City, and this is her lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in small town Ohio. Where Harper Lee's novel is warm and sentimental in its depiction of family life, Powell is brutal in describing the dysfunctional Willard family. A nice touch is that Powell didn't bother to change the name of her actual wicked stepmother when it came time to write the fictional version. Take that, stepmom.

Hard Rain Falling (1966) by Don Carpenter

A great, existential novel that follows a thuggish personality from orphanage to street hustler to prison and finally to a ramshackle kind of redemption. It's easy to see the connections between this novel and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, including the fact that both novels go off the rails in the last act. Hard Rain Falling is so powerful and sharply written that despite its tire fire finale it still manages to make this list. The opening chapter by itself is a master class in tough, efficient, hardboiled prose.

The Centurions (1960) by Jean Larteguy

High-ranking officers in the US Army were being encouraged to read this book during the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's easy to see why. Larteguy was a war correspondent and soldier who had first-hand experience of France's conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria. His novel is both a paean to the martial spirit, but also a savage and comprehensive look at why colonial powers are foiled by guerilla armies. It's a sprawling, exuberant novel that's comparable to Zola's La Debacle; in fact, this is probably the novel Zola would have written if he were alive in 1960.

The Son (2013) by Philipp Meyer

I've saved the best for last. This saga covering the lives of the McCullough family of Texas from the 1840s to the present day is a ripping yarn and a serious meditation on the central role of violence in American history. Meyer paints a big canvas with ferocious energy, and is unflinching in showing the worst in his American and Native American characters. Not quite the Great American Novel, but certainly a great American novel.