Can you hear me now? A Review of “The Listener” a novel by Robert McCammon

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 A Review of “The Listener” by Robert McCammon

I just finished reading The Listener by Robert McCammon. Though I enjoyed it, I wish there had been more to the plot and more shading given to his characters.

***Some Spoilers***

McCammon's The Listener

Robert McCammon’s novel “The Listener”

This was unexpected. I have read sixteen McCammon novels. Whether involving the supernatural, an alien invasion or the exotic criminal world navigated by 18th Century New York detective Matthew Corbett, The Listener, like all Robert McCammon novels, offers detailed settings and lots of characters in a good story.

The Listener takes us to the Deep South of the 1930’s.

A charming grifter, John Pearly, a bible salesman with the face of a choirboy and the soul of a snake intends to fleece a widow and her children.But the steely-eyed widow knows a liar when she sees one and sends him on his way.

In a rage, John kills a litter of puppies belonging to the widow’s children. No redemption there. And time to move on. Destiny calls when John stumbles in to a “sex education” course in another county.

A voluptuous woman named Ginger is doing illustrations on a blackboard, information much appreciated by a crowd of horny farmers who give her their rapt attention. Ginger’s waiting for the seriously intoxicated “doctor” to show up and continue the “lesson” when she spots John, a kindred soul of the grifter persuasion.

When it comes to evil, meanness and all related concepts, Ginger was at the front of the line when the Devil passed them out.

So of course, John is somewhat smitten, though he knows that she is like a black widow spider, and wouldn’t hesitate to enjoy him as a tasty meal after sampling his smarmy charms. In all his evil deeds, John has never murdered anyone other than puppies. With breathtaking efficiency, Ginger completes John’s bad guy training. The doctor’s last appointment is with the business end of a gun. John is officially a murderer. What could go wrong?

Soon after the doctor’s demise, Ginger ditches John. Outraged, he tracks her to New Orleans and a new identity. Ginger is impressed enough to clue John in on a get-really-rich-quick project.

There’s a wealthy businessman with two children. What if someone kidnapped those rich brats?  Their rich father would pay a lot to get them back. If John helps her, he can go to Mexico and live like a king.

Okay then. We’re introduced to Curtis, a sweet natured nineteen-year-old black kid who works as a red cap for the Union Railroad, helping passengers with their bags.
Curtis is a “Listener,”

a term he learned when he was a small child. His mother took her strange little boy to a local shaman (or is it shay-woman—the shaman was a she). Regardless Curtis kept talking to people in his head and his mother feared he was hallucinating. We learn that Curtis is telepathic. Throughout his life, Curtis has linked minds with other telepaths. Occasionally, when encountering someone less than hinged, he would leave his telepath receiver off the hook.

When he links minds with Nilla, an eleven-year old girl, he knows he has a friend.

His mother, a widow in her thirties, has become a childlike hypochondriac who demands too much of his attention. When a girl breaks Curtis’s heart, it is Nilla who comforts him.

And it is Nilla and her little brother Jack who are the rich man’s children, soon to be kidnapped by Ginger and John Pearly.

I’ll leave the spoilers there.

If this were any other writer, I would end by saying that The Listener was a pleasant read,

a perfect way to spend the weekend on the couch. But it’s Robert McCammon and there’s something missing for me. There’s very little depth to any of it.

Curtis lets nothing deter him in his efforts to rescue Nilla. In the process, he endures a savage beating, a byproduct of the racism of the 1930’s South. And he still keeps going. Curtis is angelic, self-sacrificing and a perfect hero. He does finally set his mother straight, telling her she’s not sick and that she should get a life. Other than that,

Curtis’ unrelenting goodness puts me off.

John Pearly resembles a character from McCammon’s alien war story, The Border. Pearly’s character reminded me of the preacher who becomes a sex slave to an alien whose cartoon sexuality reminds me of Ginger’s hyper-nasty but seductive black widow venom. And like The Border characters, they engage in ritualistic twisted sex.

Although Pearly is given an abusive childhood that explains his character, I never did get a sense of what drove Ginger’s hate.

If you’re looking for something good to put on your kindle, a straightforward story of good and evil, consider The Listener, a pleasant way to spend  an afternoon.

Robert McCammon’s Swan Song: Apocalypse Then, a review

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Robert McCammon’s Swan Song Apocalypse Then, a review  ***Spoilers***

Swan Song

In Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, it’s World War lll and a thermo-nuclear death for billions.

 

Colliding worlds, epidemics, vampires, aliens, zombies–writers just love ending the world and we just love reading about how it all goes down.Everyone dies, except us–or those characters who are our surrogates. One particularly gruesome ending has fallen out of favor. In Robert McCammon’s Swan Song,We all die when World War III brings its mushroom clouds. The President is in the War Room, agonizing on whether or not to take the Ruskies with us into that bad night of a nuclear winter. He always does.

An 1980’s nuclear nightmare

Because the world is different now from the world of the mid-eighties when McCammon wrote Swan’s Song. What limited appeal this novel possessed has all but evaporated. I’m a boomer and all boomers relate to the fear of global nuclear war; we grew up with it. McCammon renders the nuclear nightmare in vivid detail. He focuses on characters struggling to free themselves from environments that saved their lives but now threaten to become tombs.

One particular bit of irony is a survivalist enclave dug into a mountain.

There’s a gym, a movie theater, apartments, etc. and as always happens–the best laid plans fall flat. A whole mountain collapsing on you–take that survivalists. No control of your fate–all luck of the draw. Unlike Stephen King’s The Stand, another end-of-the world scenario, we’re not invested in McCammon’s characters. I think that’s because he devotes so much of the novel to showing us how devastating an all out nuclear war would be.  Not just to humans, but almost everything dies.

It’s hard to say who the protagonist is– I guess it would be Swan–a young girl who can talk to plants.

It is Swan who will save the world by giving pep talks to trees, grass, crops etc, spreading seeds and re-growing where ever she goes–a kind of “Swannie Appleseed.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The antagonist, similar to The Stand’s Randall Flagg is a devil with a small “d.”

The devil keeps whining about how it’s now “his” party and he gets to decide what happens, which is everybody and everything dies.

I kept wondering–if he gets his way, what will he do for entertainment when everyone is gone. Of course he doesn’t win–Swan has his number and puts him in his place. This novel was long–way too long–over 800 pages. McCammon could have carved out at least two hundred pages of that fruit and nut ingredient necessary to every apocalypse mix–the military mad men, the crazies and the religious zealots. The battle scenes were detailed and endless.

In terms of characters–there’s lots of pat psychoanalysis but not much in the way of real people to care about.

Like King’s The Stand, McCammon’s Swan Song indicates he doesn’t care a lot for the military or much in the way of government. I know McCammon can write–I read Boy’s Life years ago and it was such a pleasure. I intend to read some of his other novels and expect I’ll enjoy them. One thing–I’m glad that threat of a nuclear winter is diminishing. On top of everything, there would be nothing to eat–unless of course you’re a zombie.

Since I first posted this review, I have read several books by Robert McCammon.

What an amazing body of work! I particularly liked the premise of The Border, the way he used setting and culture in Stinger and I loved his Matthew Corbett mysteries, set in the New York of the 18th Century. Fascinating! I look forward to the next installment.

The Last Werewolf: Moonlight becomes you; it goes with your lair

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The Last Werewolf: Moonlight becomes you; it goes with your lair, a review

***Spoilers***

last werewolf  THE LAST WEREWOLF, written by Glen Duncan, was published in 2011.

THE LAST WEREWOLF is the eighth novel for Duncan and a sequel, TALLULAH RISING followed in 2012. As might be expected, Marlowe, the protagonist of THE LAST WEREWOLF, is a werewolf.In a first person narrative,  He informs the reader that he is “the last weewolf.”.

The opening sentence announces that second to the last werewolf (“The Berliner”) just bit the dust courtesy of Grainer, a “Hunter.”

Grainer, a man with small hard eyes who has Native American ancestors works with WOCOP. WOCOP keeps track of supernatural shenanigans, including vampires (down to fifty “families’) and werewolves–down now, to only Marlowe.

Marlowe killed and ate Grainer’s father, so it’s not just business; it’s personal.

Marlowe is funny, literate and when it comes to the low down on the lupines and the vamps, very informative. Even though, by his own admission Marlowe has killed and eviscerated thousands. He delights in the terror he causes before he chows down on his victim. Marlowe is shaken by the news that Grainer beheaded “The Berliner” rather than just shooting him with a silver bullet. Why so squeamish?

I wished I liked Marlowe and cared whether or not he lives to feed under another full moon. I don’t.

Besides creating Marlowe’s vivid dark humor, Mr. Duncan’s use of language is dazzling. “The hand I lifted to wipe my face was the impatient ghost of the other hand, the hybrid thing, heavy, elegant, claw-tipped.” He employs numerous allusions, including quotes throughout- such as Blake’s “Did He who made the lamb make thee?” There’s a semester’s worth of literature in these nods: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“We’re like Connie and Mellor’s at the end, apart, chaste,…”) The ill-fated Harley, Marlowe’s “familiar” tells him “You’ll actually be flying private charter as Matt Arnold.” Duncan’s style is “Literary” with a capital “L.”

Marlowe is over two hundred years old–middle-aged by werewolf standards.

Werewolves can live to be four hundred or so. Along with literature, there are nods to what’s current in 2012–Obama’s “Audacity of hope,” “American Idol,” and so on. Duncan also gets the jump on his critics by having Marlowe say, “I can think back to a time when something like this would have annoyed or at least amused me, that the democracy Westerners truly got excited about was the one that made every blogging berk a critic and every frothing fascist a political pundit.”

I particularly liked Duncan’s knack for boiling down complex concepts into a sentence or two.

In describing his state of mind after meeting Tallulah, a “she” werewolf, Marlowe says “I’ve stopped abstracting. This is love. You stop bothering about the universal, the general, get sucked instead into the local and particular. When will I see her again? What shall we do today?” His prose is lush–so lush that at times I found it intrusive–then plain annoying. “The little combat flurry had left me with a post-adrenaline heaviness, worsened now by the predictability of the picture revealed by joining the dots.” Sometimes you say wow and other times–enough already.

Okay–so here’s where I get all “Church Lady” (a 1980’s Saturday Night Live character for those of you who don’t know) on you.

Marlowe takes pains to provide us with his sexual preferences–detailing the ins and outs of his encounters with prostitutes–especially the “ins.” He describes various orifaces–“the moist crinkle of Madeline’s anus,’ “I had oral, vaginal and anal sex with her (in that order; I repeat, I’m not a misogynist.)” After meeting Tallulah, his she-wolf-dream-girl–“I wanted to go back to her clean and put my nose in her cunt and my tongue in her sweet young asshole.”

All righty. I think we get it! I’m not a prude. My second book has a considerable amount of erotica.

But, in my opinion Marlowe’s obsession is a tad overkill, pardon the pun. TMI people! You get the feeling that Duncan’s put a lot of himself into the old wolf-man. Whatever. I suppose that you can make the case that dogs greet each other by sniffing rear ends so it stands to reason that Marlowe might find them a particular focal point.

I have two structural issues with this book and one on theme.

Duncan introduces the idea of “Quinn’s book.” Quinn’s book might have information on the origin of werewolves. Written by a 1930’s archeologist named Quinn, Marlow has been seeking it for years. After using it as a carrot to lure Marlowe into cooperating with vampires who now have it under lock and key, Duncan just drops the device, having Marlowe decide that to know how werewolves originated is pointless. No fair–Duncan. Marlowe may not care, but we, the readers do.

Marlowe, as a character, doesn’t change.

Although he finds in Tallulah a reason to live, she’s really an extension of him. It’s self-love and the same narcissism that allowed Marlowe to choose to live by inflicting gory horrifying death on thousands enables him to be “in love” with someone who can share his hedonistic existence.

By creating an antagonist like Grainer, Duncan fails to have Marlowe come to terms with his prolonged existence.

The monotony and the cost to his humanity can be avoided because Marlowe’s wits and resources are engaged by being the object of “The Hunt.” This book was very interesting and at times, engrossing.

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Duncan was slumming.

He’s showing the genre world how it’s done. In the process, he engaged my brain, but never my gut. I just never cared, and in fiction, that’s what keeps you turning the pages.