Thursday, September 7, 2017

Surrender, New York by Caleb Carr

Photo: Hardcover front, from its Wikipedia page

Alternately good, and bad, well-written, and lazy, erudite, and at times pedantic, this book has got to be the most Jekyll-and-Hyde I've ever read. It really almost defies explanation. Some of the writing almost approaches The Alienist, but this book overall is nowhere near that great book, frustrating because it's the same author, and it's obvious that it could go there, but...

The book opens well enough, I guess, but it takes awhile for the crime to show itself. When it does, it's well-written and atmospheric. You won't think of a mobile home quite the same way again. One Goodreads reviewer hated it, but it's well-done. All of the crime scenes are well-written and thoroughly imagined--one of them perhaps a little too much so, involving a baby, a toilet, and a guy who gets shot 46 times. There's overkill there, and it isn't with the 46 shots. The ending is satisfying; in fact, it works better than it has any right to, but it's a case of been there and done that for me, the main character and one of the cops.

So that's all well and good. What wasn't:

--Normally long books don't bother me. I'm okay with long, leisurely strolls of a book, when it's okay that it sometimes takes circuitous paths. Some Stephen King books are like that. Lots of books 1850-1950 were like that. The Alienist and its sequel are a little like that, though they're tight and well-written a helluva lot more often than they're not. But this one is bloated solely because Caleb Carr falls in love, lazily, with his main character, his sidekick, a young boy who joins them, and a cheetah. (Yes.)  Fact is, with a little editing, the locker-room jiving between Dr. Jones and Dr. Li could've been tolerable. But there's no editing, from the publisher, the writer, or from the characters themselves--and they become sophomoric, boring and an absolute trial. Carr was maybe trying for a bit of 48 Hours-like dialogue here, but Jones and Li aren't Nolte and Murphy, and it's an eye-rolling mess. You don't like them together. You don't like how they talk. You wish they'd shut up and grow up and for God's sake shut up again. Curb some of their painful banter that Carr clearly enjoys and you lop off a good 50, 75 maybe 100 pages. After page 475 or so, I began skipping over it and just looking for the plot points.

--You'd think I was a prude when I say that the sheer number of f-bombs (and similar words) defies belief. I mean, there are hundreds of them, perhaps more, in this almost 600 page book. I'm not kidding when I guess that there's at least, on average, one per page. I'm guessing there are about 750 such bombs, and they're said by two doctors and a young kid. There are so many of them that I kept imagining Annie Wilkes's diatribe against lazy swearing in writing. Her speech perfectly fits this book. There are that many, and by God she may have been right. And I was incredibly happy to see that literally every review I read--from Michael Connelly's very favorable review in the New York Times, to other appreciative reviews, to some scathing Goodreads reviews--they all mention the sheer unbelievable number of obscenities. And we all wondered, How could Caleb Carr not hear them? How could he not notice how many there are, and how bad it is?

--The love interest for the almost 40-year old main character is beautiful, blonde--and 20. (Yes.) Need I say more? Carr's descriptions of their interactions and budding romance simply aren't believable.

--Kudos to bringing to the nation's attention the existence of "throwaway children," which in my job I've seen more often than I'd care to remember. But the (bloated, overlong) plot device of a governor, an Assistent D.A. and various other relevant law enforcement and political figures covering it up because they're afraid it'll make them look bad? It's been a problem since the 80s, and it's already made every state look bad. Simply not believable.

--Long, windy novels work when the narration is folksy and believable, or the characters are very likable. Neither is the case here. So it's not a long, leisurely walk. It's a stumble. When you agree to read a long tome, which Carr clearly likes to write, and that's fine, then you're readily sacrificing the time and you're willing to go along with a narrator, wherever he takes you, which you're aware could be all over the place. But, again, the plot has to be agreeably labyrinthine, which this isn't. Or it has to be agreeably written and smooth and light as a feather, which this isn't. Or the main character and his world have to be very likable, or at least very relatable--and they're not. Frankly, all of the reviewers I read agreed that Dr. Jones isn't all that agreeable a guy. This is bad because a) it makes it even more unbelievable that a beautiful 20-year old would fall for him so quickly, and b) because it's obvious that Jones is a stand-in for Carr himself, so in essence we're not agreeably relating to the author as a person. Makes you feel bad.

And so you might be wondering why I rated it 3 out of 5, which means I liked it. I suppose I would've given it 2 1/2, if I could have, and maybe even 2, but overall the promise of it, and of Carr's potential, kept me going, until I couldn't take Jones and Li anymore and I started skimming. I have to admit that I just read the last 125 pages to see who done it, and to see what happens to Ambyr, to be honest with you. Lucas, too, I suppose, though he was too precocious for me. The last half feels like maybe it was mailed in, though the resolution is written much better than the 100 or so pages before it.

So don't be looking for Carr's earlier, better works, like The Alienist, because you won't find it here. Though this was light years better than the one previous to this, an incredibly long, convoluted, badly-written mess about a forgotten culture in the middle of the German forest, and really one of the more clear Did Not Finish I've ever had. That one wasn't a book to be put aside lightly--it was to be thrown with great force. (Apologies to Dorothy Parker.) Anyway, here's to hoping that Carr goes back to the beginning, and really analyzes why Lazlo's books worked, and his latest hasn't.

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