Ellis and Hemingway, tellers of manly tales

Sometimes, you don’t want to put a book down, while on the other hand dreading the eventual conclusion because the story just has you so damn hooked. Yes, Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine, I’m looking at you.

The short review is this: Imagine CSI (and CSI Miami, CSI New York, CSI Denver, CSI Terre Haute, CSI NCIS THEGOODWIFE, etc.) didn’t suck.

I know, it’s hard to get past the way-too-stylish-for-cops clothes and hair, the over-lit outdoor shots and moody indoor lighting, the fact that the dialogue seems to have been written by a junior-high dropout nursing a 700-mg-a-day Thorazine habit, and realize that police procedurals work because the science of crime, evidence and death is fascinating and many times odd. Part of the brilliance of Gun Machine is that Ellis captures the interesting points of fact-finding without being bogged down by the heavier aspects of the science or resorting to talking down to the reader as if they are a two-year-old, a lobotomized howler monkey or a U.S. congressman.

The other part of the brilliance is the heavy, numbing noir world in which Gun Machine is set. While N.Y. Detective John Tallow drives, he eschews music or talk radio for the police band. Over the course of the novel, the reader begins to roll with him to the beat of ¬†reported rapes, murders and mindless violence that the city’s residents wreak upon each other. The image that has stuck with me since I finished Gun Machine is that of Tallow sitting in the basement of One Police Plaza, in a room covered floor-to-ceiling with photographs of patterns made of guns – big guns, small guns, new guns, damn-near ancient guns – the smell of tobacco faint in the air and the omnipresent pressure to fail or disappear (or at the very least go fuck off for the rest of his life ) pushing down on his shoulders. The final chapters of this book even got my heart racing a bit. I’m a huge fan of Transmetropolitan (comic series) and Freakangels (online comic series), and I liked Ellis’ first novel, Crooked Little Vein. (Most people probably know him from Red, his graphic novel about retired CIA agents that was turned in to a 2010 film starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Hellen Mirren.) But he hit it out of the park on this one. Gun Machine is a novel I’m looking forward to reading again.

Sometimes, you can’t help but put a book down, hoping it will end just so you can return it to the library. That’s what happened to me during my time with Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Hemingway does a terrific job – too well in fact – of mimicking the “hurry up and wait” military life. It was mind numbing. To be fair, it was also a busy time for me, so it made it harder to sit down and get into it, but Hemingway certainly didn’t make it easy. I had no such problem with the last 270 pages, when the isolation recedes and the war starts to close in on Robert Jordan and his band of Spanish rebels. It took me more than a month to finish the first half of the book, less than a week to finish the rest.

The set-up is just too slow. Many of the rebels kind of run together when it comes to personalities and roles, and the romance with Jordan and “Rabbit” seems forced and childish, especially when compared to the affair of Frederic and Catherine in A Farewell to Arms. It’s B action flick bad, like a studio exec said to Hemingway, “We need romance so we can get a hot piece of ass in the picture, sell it to teenage boys.” I think the set-up and romance might have worked better spliced into flashbacks. In media res would have been a better way to handle this story, throwing readers into the action and then looking back to see how Jordan, Rabbit, Pablo and the rest ended up where they did.

What I thought may have been Hemingway’s greatest accomplishment, to give some credit to the set-up, was the character Pablo. When Robert Jordan arrives at the rebel camp, Pablo is the undisputed – if often drunken – leader. His fall from that position and subsequent reveal of him as a pure opportunist was easily the most interesting subplot that surrounded the attack of a key bridge.

I also like the end. Jordan completes his mission, blowing the bridge, but is fatally wounded in the escape. He orders his compatriots to leave him behind, armed, so that he can hopefully slow any pursuit. For Whom the Bell Tolls ends with the image of the dying Jordan, his gun trained on a Fascist officer, preparing to drop the unknowing soldier. An American’s final gasp against the tide of authoritarianism.

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