No Surprises, but still Surprised

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Title: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a tough book to rate. On the one hand, it’s clearly a classic tale of horror and suspense. On the other hand, I’ve known, ever since I was a child, that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the same person (spoiler alert!). Therefore, it’s really hard to judge the book by its genre.

However…

There still are many fascinating aspects to it.

First of all, and most obviously, there is the duality of good and evil. Dr Jekyll, that most gentle of doctors, admits of evil violent urges that he acted upon in his youth. This paragon of virtue has more than a touch of evil (don’t we all). He discovers a way to separate his good self and his evil self; naively he thinks for the betterment of both. His evil urges get to act out and while his pure soul can somehow be untainted by the actions of this ‘different’ person.

Clearly this cannot stand. Mr Hyde, starting off so small and relatively weak, grows in stature and monstrosity over time (as evil inevitably will if left unchecked) and eventually takes over the gentle Dr Jekyll, who ceases to exist. If good lets evil go unchecked, evil will triumph.

I also found it interesting the fact that it was a potion that turned Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. Could this be an allegory for alcoholism? Taking the potion turns Dr Jekyll into a uninhibited monster lacking impulse control and judgment. This sounds like me on many a Saturday night. It falls apart because he apparently drinks that same potion to turn back. Oh well, it was a good try.

There are obvious Freudian aspects here. Mr Hyde would seem to be the classic id while Dr Jekyll acts as the superego. This story was written in 1886, which is, interestingly enough, the very year that Sigmund Freud started his private practice in Vienna. Clearly, this work was developed independently of Freud. Was there something in the air during that time? It’d be interesting to do a deeper analysis to determine if there is some common thread of thought that ties Stevenson and Freud together.

Finally, having just finished Heart of Darkness (written in 1899, barely ten years later), I see connections between Dr Jekyll and Kurtz. They both start off on a humanitarian mission with the best of intentions. Over time, their dark side takes over to the point where they commit despicable acts. Once they’ve gone over to the dark side, despite their attempts they cannot come back and they both end up perishing as a result. They both end up with a witness to handle their estate and to tell their tale (Marlowe for Kurtz and Utterson for Jekyll).

So, for a story that, however it might have once been, is now completely lacking in suspense and horror and shock, it still provokes thoughts and fresh ideas that still resonate over a hundred years after it was written.

 

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What’s up with Cheese?

Several years ago, I went to see Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine.

I’d first heard of him on iTunes.  For a time, Radiohead (or their label) would not allow their songs on iTunes.  Every couple of months or so, I’d do a search on Creep to see if it’d come up.  It didn’t, but there was a version of it by Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine.  Curious, I clicked on it.

And what do I hear, but a lounge act version of the Radiohead classic (think what Creep would sound like if Sinatra sang it).  Even more curious, I did a search and it turns out that they do a whole bunch of covers (Freak on a Leash, Hot for Teacher, Sunday Bloody Sunday, and many, many more). For fun, I bought several of the songs and then forgot about it.

One day I was perusing the Showbox calendar and I saw that they were coming to town.  I had to see them in real life.  Now, having seen them, I’m left wondering, are they strictly a novelty act, or is there something deeper taking place?

First of all, they open with Too Drunk to Fuck, the Dead Kennedys classic.  The Dead Kennedys are the seminal angry political punk band.  In Richard Cheese’s version, it’s a light peppy swinging number.  Assuming that he’s as serious about his image that I’m guessing he must be, if he heard it, Jello Biafra would be furious.

He segues (after saying, “this one is for the ladies”) to Nirvana’s Rape Me.  He somehow manages to turn it into a frothy love song.  If Kurt hadn’t already killed himself, he might well have wanted to after hearing this.

In a similar vein, he took a couple of hard core rap songs and sweetly crooned them like love songs, making it obvious how horribly misogynistic they really are.

He next asks us to judge the existential dilemma felt in the next song by Lady Gaga.  I’m not sure what song it was, but it was a vacuous song about getting drunk and lost at a dance club.  He sang it slow as if it was a torch song, full of feeling.  If she heard it, Lady Gaga probably would have wanted to run and hide, or at least take a creative writing course.

Is he just poking fun or is there something more to it?

Is he actually deconstructing these songs, showing how dependent upon context the lyrics are?  How all cultural meaning is removed by just swapping out guitars and kicking in a different drum beat?  Stripped of the music, what seems violent, rebellious, or sexual becomes vacuous and banal. Is he making a deep social statement or he is just clowning around?

I’d lean towards the social comment, except for the vulgarity.  Not only in the song lyrics (which is to be expected), but on-stage he makes rude, blatantly sexist comments.  At one point, he had  a well-endowed bra-less woman come up on stage and jump up and down for him.  Of course, what that says about the woman that she willingly complied is another thing (well, besides the obvious statement that she was wall-eyed drunk).

Again, is this part of the shtick or is he making a deeper statement?  Is he making a cultural back-reference to previous lounge parody singers, most obviously to Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton or to Bill Murray’s SNL lounge singer?  Or is he reaching even further back and actual parodying the real thing, the old Rat-Packers themselves with their suave, sophisticated manner belying their cruel, egocentric, misogynistic lifestyle?

And what about the audience?  The audience was just eating it up.  Not only the previously aforementioned woman jumping up and down, there were people (many of whom in their fifties) who were laughing, waving their arms, even as he turned on them and mocked their drunkenness.

Were they in on the joke?  Or were they themselves just a parodic manifestation of the previous Rat-Pack audiences who laughed and egged on the on-stage singer even as the singer mailed in his performance and treated them with ill-concealed contempt?

Sitting there, watching the show, I was lost in a sea of thought.  What is real and what is the irony?  Does it matter?  Was I entering some aural door of perception?

Or maybe it was just a fucking concert.

Heart of Darkness

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Title: Heart of Darkness

Rating: 3 Stars

I’ve read this now several times. I find it slightly confounding.

First of all, there is the style of it. The entire story is Marlowe sitting in a boat with some friends telling a first hand story of an incident that happened to him years ago. All but five pages or so of the novel is this first hand story of an adventure.  What was the purpose of doing this as a literary device? Proof that someone can come from darkness and emerge back into the light of civilization?

Also, nothing much really happens. Marlowe signs on to captain a riverboat in Africa. He travels to Africa (slowly) and finally lands at his station. He finds that his boat has sunk and spends several months waiting for parts to show up so that he can fix it. He then goes on a voyage (slowly) down to an inner station. There he picks up the dying station master (Kurtz), who dies as Marlowe is heading back. Marlowe then himself heads back to Europe where he meets Kurtz’ fiance.

In a nutshell, that’s the plot. However, within that plot are several ideas worth thinking of.

There is the relationship of civilization to colonization. The Europeans are the educated and enlightened ones, but they do absolutely disturbing, torturous things to the Africans, who they really don’t even acknowledge as existing, let alone acknowledge them as human.

There is civilization itself. As the thin veneer of civilization is torn away as Marlowe goes deeper into the heart of Africa, the trappings of civilization fall away and only the violent savagery of humans remain (notice the mounted heads pointed inward at the lodging at the inner station).

Once you discover that darkness, how do you emerge from it? Kurtz does not. He ventures to Africa, daring to be different, daring to bring enlightenment to those trapped in darkness. By the time he’s leaving, he’s virtually enslaving the populace, taking their ivory, and is recommending their extermination. Marlowe almost dies in the process, but somehow does emerge to tell his cautionary tale.

Finally, there is always the challenge of reading a novel written a long time ago that is dealing with race relations. Here there are the discordant notes of racism that inevitably inhabits such works. On the one hand, you have to understand the context in which it was written and understand that it’s a stunning indictment of colonization, but still, in the year 2016, such books become ever so tougher to admire and difficult to read.

 

Doing a Backstroke for a Doughnut

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Race: Top Pot Doughnut Dash

Time: 26:36

This is the second race since I’ve re-started running races this year. I did the St Patrick’s Day Dash last month. At that race, it was overcast and pretty much the second that the race started, the downpour started and I ended up soaked.

Today was the Top Pot Doughnut Dash. It is also a 5K race. The course circles Green Lake. As I’m driving to Green Lake, it starts to rain slightly. By the time that I’m parked, it’s raining steadily. I wait as long as I can, but parking at Green Lake sucks, so I was probably parked a half mile from the starting point. Finally, with no sign of letting up, I get out of my car and jog to the starting line. I tried to get to the start line about fifteen minutes early so that I can get a reasonable starting place.

I really didn’t need to worry much about finding a good place to start. By the time that I got to the starting line, it was positively pouring. A couple of minutes after that it picked up even more and was raining heavily sideways. Runners were desperately seeking refuge under trees in a futile attempt to escape. No one was in the runner’s shoot.

It really is quite amazing how wet you can get when you have to stand in a driving storm for fifteen minutes waiting for the race to start. Rivers of water were running off of my face. Both my outer and inner shirts were not just soaked but hung heavily on me, providing me no warmth but adding significant weight.

This was one of those occasions where I ask myself exactly what the fuck am I doing? I came so close several times to just walking away to the warmth of my car. I just kept telling myself that once the run started that I would almost immediately feel better.

To the organizers’ credit, they understood that we were miserable and started us off exactly on time.

I did warm up, even though I had to shake my fingers occasionally just to make sure that they wouldn’t stiffen up on me. I tie my car keys to my shorts drawstring and after the race had great difficulty getting it untied again as my fingers just were not responsive.

There were puddles everywhere that you just had to power through. Luckily, unlike some of my fellow runners, I did avoid the major ones. There were several many inches deep that runners would have to forge through. A lot of the run was on the road, so I stayed near the middle because of the natural slope of the road. That worked well, but you had to worry about oncoming cars in the opposite lane spraying you as they passed.

However, all that aside, it is a fast course. It’s a very flat run. The congestion was nothing at all like the St Patrick’s Day Dash, where I often found myself trapped behind a group of slower runners all running abreast. For this run, there were far fewer runners. It’s probably a smaller run anyway, but the deluge probably also helped dampen participation.

My time (8:34 pace) was pretty good (for me), especially compared to the nine something pace that I ran at St Patricks. My goal (as modest as it is) is to finish in the top half of my age group. I was excited to finish in the top 15 percent. Perhaps the course was easy enough that the more serious runners did not bother showing up, but I’ll take it regardless.

An Evening of Pain, Anger, and Beauty

I’d never attended a poetry slam before. This was the grand slam for Seattle. It was the final competition from which the winner will go on to the national finals in Georgia (apparently the heart of poetry in America; who knew?).

Not surprisingly, all eight of the contestants were pretty young. I’m guessing that all were under forty and probably most were under thirty.

The rules were that the poems had to be original and under three minutes long.  No props were allowed (sorry Gallagher).

Five people in the crowd were randomly selected to be judges. They graded on a score of 0.0 to 10.0. The low score and the high score were tossed out. There were three rounds of poems. The winner obviously would have the highest collective score.

The first interesting thing is that the time limit seemed to force a very consistent style; namely talking fast in an almost rap rhythm.  All poets took a moment to collect themselves, and then launched into their poem at breakneck speed. This reminded me of the Radiolab episode that discussed college debate. College debate has devolved to this state where all participants shout out facts as fast as they possibly can, not sounding like any debate I’ve heard.

Secondly, these are not Robert Frost poems. They were all, at least as far as I can tell without actually knowing any of the poets, intensely painful, personal experiences. For example, the so-called warm-up poems (to give the judges practice in scoring) were centered around a Jewish grandfather that survived the Holocaust turning his back on the Civil Rights movement and a man trying to break a multi-generational cycle and be gentle with his son.

Most of the poems were intensely moving. It was if the poets were trying to tear out their still beating hearts out of their chests and show them triumphantly to the audience. There were poems about being an illegal immigrant, raising a black son during the time of Trayvon Martin, a sister with breast cancer, several about the difficulties of being transgender, and several about being black in a white dominated world. The poet that spoke of immigration and one of the transgender poets were particularly eloquent, earning standing ovations, and scores of 10.0.

The audience was hugely responsive and encouraging.

I did find it interesting that all of the poets were men of color, women of color, or transgender. The audience, since this is Seattle, was pretty overwhelmingly white, and considering that most people brought dates, was at least majority straight.

So, you had poets primal screaming their pain, anguish, and despair to the very people that at some level are representative of the systemic environment that brings about those very emotions. The audience was supportive and empathetic, but the dichotomy of the poets and their message and the audience that they were passing the message on to seemed incongruous.

Of course, I myself am a white male. I paid a grand total of $10 to listen to eight marginalized artists cathartically (hopefully?) express their marginalization. Did they even get paid to do this? How much could they have been paid? Sure, I’ll probably donate some more money to help pay their way to go to the nationals in Georgia, but still, is this truly helping or this just another way to assuage the white guilt that I feel when I’m face to face with the systemic oppression of the marginalized that still takes place today?

There was one poet that was actively heckled by the audience. His first poem was not warmly received, so perhaps he thought, fuck it, if I’m going down, I’m going down in flames. His second poem was about a teenage girl’s abortion, told from the viewpoint of the teenage boy that impregnated her. As you can probably imagine, this did not go down well. Women were yelling and hissing at him throughout the poem. He received virtually no applause and received several scores of 0.0. It was interesting because the poem was as well constructed, as emotionally intense as the others, and was clearly an honest expression. This was clearly not a night for such a poem, and I had to think that the poet knew it and did it anyway. Was he taking the risk of honest expression knowing that he’d be shouted down or did he knowingly troll the audience?

The final interesting thing is that the Town Hall is an old building. It has a very limited number of bathrooms. With such older buildings, the usual case is that the men’s bathroom moves along fairly briskly while a serpentine line forms for the women’s bathroom. Tonight, next to both bathrooms were paper signs stating that both bathrooms were gender neutral. Therefore, both bathrooms had pretty long lines. I did not go myself so I do not know if the urinals were somehow now concealed or women had to stand waiting while men openly urinated in front of them. I also don’t know if this was a one time deal or the new normal for the Town Hall.  I do know that we are certainly not in North Carolina.

The Happiest Place in the World is…Any Ska Concert

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Show: Seattle Ska Fest

Venue: The Highline

Is there any happier music than ska? No matter what kind of day you had, if you go to a live show featuring ska bands, you’ll leave smiling.

The Highline hosted an annual ska festival. Considering the fact that there were seven bands on the bill and the tickets were $9, I was not expecting Reel Big Fish. However, I expected to have fun and I was not disappointed. Also, given that the average ska band size is usually around 10 and that the Highline is a small club that probably has maybe a couple of hundred for capacity, I’m guessing that this was a labor of love and not a huge payday for anyone.

Unfortunately, I was only able to hear one act. I got a late start, made even later by lovely Apple Maps, who deposited me a mile away from the actual club. I’d thought that, after a couple of bad years, that Apple Maps had largely resolved its mapping problems, since its sole purpose is, after all, to provide a map and instructions to an address.  Be that as it may, I used it as an opportunity to ride the new Broadway trolley, which worked nicely.

The band that I heard was Skablins. They were probably around 10 people on stage, including a trumpet, a trombone, two saxophones, two guitarists, a keyboardist, a drummer, and of course, the singer. Although there was barely room on the stage to move, they did jump around and the singer was drenched in sweat by the time it was done.

The crowd was completely into it. People were pogo’ing, people were skanking, people were doing that circle dance thing. The Highline is on the second floor, and all of the jumping made the floor shake and shiver noticeably.

Ska’s been around so long that it was certainly an all ages crowd. I saw couples in their 50’s skanking right next to another couple in their 20’s jumping.  Even in the band, the trombonist looked to be in his 20’s while right next to him the trumpeter appeared to be pretty deep into his 50’s. Everyone was smiling and having fun.

I wished that I had gotten there earlier and that I didn’t have to get up early the next morning. I would have liked to have seen another act or two.  Be that as it may, as always, I left smiling and with laughter in my heart. It was a great way to start a weekend.

 

The Shawshank was a Puff Piece

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Title: Animal Factory

Rating: 5 Stars

I don’t remember under what conditions I first read about Edward Bunker. I’m almost positive that it was in the context of Reservoir Dogs. I vaguely remember looking up all of the actors that played the various colors (eg Mr Pink was Steve Buscemi, Mr Orange was Tim Roth, Mr White was Harvey Keitel). Towards the bottom of the credit list, because he only had a couple of lines and he was shot at the robbery so never made it to the warehouse, was Mr Blue, played by Edward Bunker.

For some reason, I looked up Edward Bunker. He led a, shall we say, interesting life. He had a traumatic childhood and turned to crime at an early age. He ended up going to prison at sixteen. At seventeen, he became the youngest ever inmate at San Quentin (in 1951). While in solitary, he met Caryl Chessman, who was on death row for over 10 years, was a published author while in prison, and became a cause celebre until he was ultimately executed.

Inspired by Chessman’ example, Bunker began to write. He had some supporters on the outside who encouraged him. He was paroled after five years in San Quentin but returned to a life of crime. He was in and out of prisons from 1950 through 1975. He spent about 18 years in various institutions.

Starting around 1973, his books began to be published. In 1978, Animal Factory was published.

It features two main characters. The first is Ron Decker, a newly convicted drug dealer going to prison (San Quentin) for the first time. The second is Earl Copen, a career criminal deeply experienced in prison ways. He takes Ron under his wing and over the course of the novel they develop a deep friendship.

It’s clearly autobiographical. As I was reading it, I almost felt as if I was reading someone’s diary or watching a documentary.

Interesting points:

  • Animal Factory is deeply unsparing in its criticism of the jail system. The title says it all. However men come to the prison, they come out as animals.
  • There is a real division among the races. The prison officials encourage it as a tool so inmates fight amongst each other instead of uniting against the system.
  • The men engage in rough horseplay with their buddies as a substitute for the affection that they no longer have access to.
  • Earl, who is clearly intelligent, thoughtful, and well-read, is ready at any moment for acts of violence if the situation calls for it. The prison is his world and he is clearly at home.  I believe that at one point he quotes Milton, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven”.
  • Roy, who starts off relatively innocent, quickly hardens and becomes a real convict.
  • The guards are part of the system just like the convicts. The prison system dehumanizes all that it touches.

I found out later that Steve Buscemi (remember, Mr Orange from Reservoir Dogs) directed the movie version of Animal Factory. Edward Bunker plays a bit part (he’s appeared in several movies, pretty much always in a bit part). Danny Trejo plays a major character in the film. Bunker originally met Trejo when they were both serving time at Folsom.

So, someone that Bunker met from a movie made a movie about spending time in prison starring someone that Bunker met in prison. There is some weird symmetry / order to this universe!

 

Christopher Nolan – The Early Days

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Title: Following

Rating: 4 Stars

I, like probably most white men of a certain age, am a huge Christopher Nolan fan. I remember seeing Memento in a small theater. I’ve seen enough movies in my time that I am seldom surprised. Within the first couple of minutes, you can make a fairly accurate guess regarding the overarching narrative that the film will take.

Well, Memento blew that out of the water. I was transfixed by the screen, unable to look away, worried that if I quit concentrating for just a couple of minutes, I’d become hopelessly lost. Its portrayal of confusion, grief, and revenge, all told in a sideways manner, was simply brilliant.

I’ve seen all of his movies since. Although none of them matched that feeling that I got from Memento, I have enjoyed all of them (OK, Interstellar was a bit of a stretch, but other than that, all interesting).

I had not had the opportunity to watch his first film, Following. It’s barely an hour long, made with his own money (a grand total of a $6,000 budget).

At the risk of being a total fanboy, I loved it. It’s a classic film noir (which I have a serious weakness for, having just recently watched the Lana Turner / John Garfield version of The Postman Always Rings Twice). You have the protagonist, a fairly normal person slightly down on his luck who thinks he’s too smart for his own good. You have the love interest, who wraps the protagonist around her finger with effortless ease. You have the villain, an appropriately bald man oozing bad intent. And you have the charmer, who makes the game look so easy that the protagonist can’t help but to fall into the trap, all the time congratulating himself on how lucky he is.

It completely tells a story in 70 minutes that most movies would spend at least 100 minutes on. The movie is simple and spare in line with its budget. It is what it is and does not aspire to be more.

There were several proto-Memento themes. The movie itself is told in a somewhat non-linear manner. In one scene, the protagonist takes the contents out of the woman’s keepsake box and rearranges them in his room in a naturalistic manner, much like how the protagonist from Memento occasionally places keepsakes from his deceased wife so that when he wakes up, he momentarily believes that she’s alive again.

Clearly this was a sign of greatness to come.

You Have a Point, But Why So Shrill, Bro?

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Title: The Age of Acquiescence

Rating: 2 Stars

The book is separated into two parts. The first describes the first gilded age. The second describes the second gilded age starting in about 1980).

First gilded age:

The nation went from 80% making their own living to 30% making their own living.  This was the birth of the wage slave, which then was a term of derision.

Farmers raised up against bankers. They protested against the gold standard, which meant that manufactured goods were artificially expensive while their debt stayed fixed.  This left farmers perpetually in debt.

The urban poor were fighting against the oligarchies.

Farmers and the working poor never found common cause. Bosses could turn the poor against each other by playing races off of each other.

The workers did fight back. The farmers had the Populist party. The working poor had unions and the Socialist party. The establishment legitimately feared the power of these parties.

Post WWI, the hunt for radicals (Palmer raids) did the job of weakening the worker parties.

Labor unions became trapped in their success of unionizing up North. They utterly failed in the South (racism and essential one party rule), so they became focused on winning more rights for the workers that they were already strong with. Ultimately, this led to other potential union workers to view unions as favoring the relatively privileged, mostly white workers.

Second gilded age

Shareholder value trumps all.

Financialization of industry led to its deindustrialization (sucking out value resulting in layoffs and shuttered towns).

Repealing of Glass-Steagall and deregulating Savings & Loans led to massive increase of risk and financial disasters.

Businessmen were lionized as the new warriors. They were pictured as Horatio Alger rags to riches who made their way to the top solely through their own hard work and smarts.

Greed was legitimized as a positive moral value.

Businessmen remained in power and were respected despite their fairly regular disasters (1987 stock market, Savings and Loans, Long-Term Capital Management, implosion of Asian economies and Latin American economies and so on).

The myth of workers being free agents choosing their own destiny gave companies the freedom to take away benefits and hire temporary workers.

The consumer culture gives everyone the sense of wide choice and the possibility of luxury.

All of this has led to the diminishment of workers rights with no one actively protesting what has been lost.

So why 2 stars? It was a slog to read. I enjoyed the discussion of the first gilded age. The second was just a weird combination of turgid and shrill, pointing the finger at the usual enemies with no apparent shades of grey. I’m in sympathy with the argument, but reading this made me understand why those on the right despise those on the left.

I do give him points for correct usage of hoi polloi. Usually, people say “the hoi polloi”, but hoi is a definite article, so that is equivalent to saying “the the masses”. So, there is that.

Florida Turned Up To 11

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Rating: 4 Stars

I have a weakness for Florida crime novels. I remember reading Double Whammy by Carl Hiassen and being blown away by the insanity of it. It was in many ways a transgressive example of crime fiction, which I had never encountered before.

Now, as with a lot of transgressive fiction (<cough> Chuck Palahniuk <cough>), once you read several examples of an author’s work, it loses its transgressive nature and just becomes the author’s style. So it became with Carl Hiassen. I’ve read most of his stories, but either due to my getting used to his style or because of the authorial pressures of having to crank out a novel every year or two,  the newer works just did not have the same effect on me.

A friend recommended that I read Tim Dorsey. As is my way, I started with his first novel.

And yes, he out Hiassen’d Hiassen. His Florida is a circus sideshow where aberrant characters abound. It’s a cartoon, but it’s a gory, glorious cartoon. Florida Man is alive and well and living in Dorsey’s world.

I really should caveat that previous statement somewhat. It actually is a cleverly plotted and constructed novel. There are many characters and they flit in and out of each other’s plot arc throughout.  It’s just that, with three or four possible exceptions, there’s not a social redeeming character among them. In fact, the closest thing to a protagonist is Serge Storm (featured in several subsequent novels), who is manically insane and homicidal.

Just like the manic Serge Storm, every stereotypical aspect of Florida flits in momentarily here, from guest appearances  of Carl Hiassen and Dave Barry to a space shuttle launch to the Marlins World Series win to a stampede of Hemingway lookalikes. It goes without saying that there are drug dealers, corrupt doctors, corrupt real estate dealings, and corrupt politicians.

After all, this is Florida.