The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder

51cQBVzxKCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Read the The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder this past weekend. It’s good. Smart. The book is about a group of men who have been getting together for years to re-enact the gruesome play where Joe Theismann had his leg broken by Lawrence Taylor on Monday Night Football. It’s a funny idea, and the object of satire here is less football or fandom than  middle-aged men, always a ripe target for comedy. The book reads like a literary cousin to a m Gaffigan stand-up routine (I mean this as a compliment, FYI. Although if the book’s punches drew more blood, I might have compared it to a Louis CK special.)

Bachelder will have you reading his best bits out loud to the nearest person. I recommend a graffiti-ed story that one of the characters writes on the hotel’s pristine bathroom wall. Much is great here, even though many of the 22 reenactors blur into one another, and as do their disappointments. Also, the book, at a brisk 224 pages, takes care of its business a little too quickly.

But Bachelder captures well that feeling of arriving at an age where you see your letdowns more clearly than your possibilities. For these characters the break didn’t manifest as sharply as it did for Joe Theismann, but they know they’re on the other side of it all the same.


Dark Passage, by David Goodis

My novel HANGMAN’s GAME is dedicated to my parents and brother, and in that dedication I thank them for their reading recommendations. One recent recommendation from my dad: an anthology of David Goodis novels from the 1940s and ’50s.

DarkPassage_Messner_1946_tnMy dad actually gave me the book last year, but I only cracked it recently, in part because I don’t like the anthology format, specifically the way it condenses distinct works into a homogenous run. Also, I don’t like to read books by the same author one after the other, because in my mind they tend to blur together. Currently I am slow-reading my way through the works of Patricia Highsmith, and also John McPhee’s five geology books, but I am limiting myself to one a year of each.

I will now also be slow-reading Goodis as well, because I read Dark Passage, the first novel in the anthology, and I loved it. The book has the misanthropic energy of the best noir novels, and a hammering, repetitive prose style that presages David Mamet.

Also, this book has to have been read by Stephen King, as the closing grafs are clearly echoed by certain lines in The Shawshank Redemption. Except King has given the lines a cheerier spin.

Which should tell you all you need to know about how dark Dark Passage is.

And the reading list grows…

Came back from this weekend’s Annapolis Book Fair (so well run, Liz Klein Glass!) with a complimentary tote bag and plenty of books to add to the reading list. Including:

51-lAVO3v2L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_One Man Against the World, by Tim Weiner. I mention Tim not just because, like my wife, he has the last name Weiner and once worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer. There’s more! In college I read (and loved) Jonathan Schell’s book about the Nixon presidency, The Time of Illusion. Tim’s new history has received great reviews and is supposed to go even deeper into some of the strangest days ever in White House.

Also, after the festival Tim and I ended up on the same train home and he told me stories that had me spellbound from Amtrak’s BWI stop all the way to Philadelphia. That ride will be my most vivid memory of the weekend.

51HoWdUtuUL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Bourbon Empire, by Reid Mitenbuler. A history of the bourbon industry, which contains enough drama that the book has been optioned for a television series. Reid and I were lodged at the same hotel and shared many rides together in Annapolis. He came across as thoughtful, decent, diligent, and best of all he assured me that, because the process of creating bourbon is relatively simple, there isn’t great difference between the high-end gourmet bourbons and more reasonably priced brands such as Wild Turkey and Jim Beam. I don’t drink a ton of bourbon, but I am a cheapskate, which means I welcome any information which reveals luxury to be a myth.

Run, Don’t Walk, by Adele Levine. Ms. Levine is a physical therapist who spent nine years working with amputee soldier at Walter Reed. The stories she told at her panel were eye-opening, and I have a selfish motive in reading her book, which would be: I hope that stories of people coping with genuine hardship can maybe help me deal with my own melodramas.

9781632862167Thirst, by Benjamin Warner. A literary thriller in which all the non-bottled water vanishes from the Earth. Benjamin was on my panel. He was clear-eyed and calm and just seemed like a guy who would write a good book. This may seem like an inane way to judge literary possibilities—according to the histories, a great many masterpieces were penned by asswipes. But I would like for my theory to be true, and so I am going to act as if it is.

I’ll be talking page-turners at the Annapolis Book Festival


gong-show-inlineOn Saturday April 16 at 2:30 p.m. I will be appearing at the Annapolis Book Festival, on a panel titled “Page Turners” with authors Benjamin Warner and Allison Leotta.

Or, to put it another way, is literature like The Gong Show? I think it is, and that’s why I write with a bag over my head and two holes cut out for eyes. The Unknown Comic is a major influence for me.

As a reader I always have a gong at the ready, especially in those opening pages. I’ve dropped more mysteries than I would care to admit after the first chapter, because when the “whodunit” question was presented, my brain answered, “I don’t care.”

the-unknown-comic-2But with a mystery or thriller, if I make it past those early pages I’m usually in until the end, whereas in literary fiction, there’s a greater chance I will drop out midway through. More than once I’ve begun books dazzled by a writer’s talents, only to bang the gong because I felt like I was unlikely to get anything at page 456 that I hadn’t experienced by page 118. These books felt more like a flavor than a story. And I need a story.

My favorite books—from canon classic Don Quixote to Patricia Highsmith’s thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley—had me invested in their characters’ fate even as they presented narratives of great depth. It’s the standard to which every book should be held.

If you’re near Annapolis, please come out on the 16th. The festival’s entire slate looks great. It should be a fun day.