Novellas in November – Part 2

Running Wild by J.G. Ballard

This beautifully crafted novella published in 1988 concerns one of Ballard’s favourite themes – life in a community that walls itself away from the rest of the world. It is set in an exclusive housing estate of just ten houses, each on a large plot. The estate is gated, has state of the art security systems and discreet guards. The ten families that live there are from the aspirant middle classes, with good jobs that pay excellent salaries, they live in comfortable, safe, luxury – an ideal place to bring up their children.

However, early one morning, in just ten minutes, thirty-two adults – all the parents, the guards, some of the helps – were murdered. The thirteen children are missing, presumed abducted. No ransom was ever demanded: the police are at a complete loss as to what happened, and where to look for the children.

Fresh eyes are needed, and in steps Dr Richard Greville, a psychiatric adviser to the Met.  Greville narrates the novel which is presented as from his notes. He reviews all the documents, comes up with a whole list of possible scenarios, and sets off for Berkshire to visit the site, where he is shown around by Sgt Payne of the Reading CID.

I shrugged at the screen. ‘Securty was important here, they were obviously obsessed by it. So the house has an input from the monitors at the gate?’
‘Every house in Pangbourne Village.’ Payne spoke in a droll but meaningful way. ‘Upstairs and downstairs. At least we know why there were no infidelities here. But think of the children, Doctor – they were being watched every hour of the day and night. This was a warm, friendly, junior Alcatraz. Swimming at eight, breakfast eight-thirty, archery classes, origami, do this, do that, watch the Horizon repeat on the video together, well done, Jeremy…’ Payne blew his coarse cigarette smoke at Dr Edwina’s dressing-table mirror. The only surprise about these people is that they found time to get themselves murdered!’

What really happened gradually becomes clear, but I will remain completely schtum! By the way, should you read this, DON’T READ THE INTRO until afterwards – there’s a big spoiler in this edition.

It is interesting and prescient that Ballard chose the quintessential and real commuter village in Berkshire, Pangbourne, which is close to Reading to site his exclusive estate. When Running Wild was published in 1988, it was only a year after mass murderer Michael Ryan had randomly shot sixteen people in Hungerford – a small Berkshire town. and Ballard brings the possibility of a copycat murderer into his story too, rather wickedly playing on the paranoia induced by that tragedy.  This was another wonderful Ballard read – loved it. (10/10)

Source: Own copy.    J.G. Ballard, Running Wild (1988) 4th Estate paperback, 125 pages including Intro etc.     BUY from Amazon UK (affiliate link)

Post Office by Charles Bukowski

The 1971 debut novel, published when Bukowski was 50, introduces us to his alter-ego Henry Chinaski, and is largely drawn from his own experiences working in the US postal service as a postman and postal clerk, with a spell spent betting at the racing track in the middle.  It begins with Chinaski getting a job as a ‘substitute mail carrier’ – having to turn up every day to see if any postmen call in sick and taking whichever route he was assigned, on what we’d now call a zero-hours contract. The ‘soup’ Jonstone takes an instant dislike to him.

…the next morning it was the same thing:
“That’s all, Chinaski. Nothing for you today.!
It went on for a week. I sat there each morning from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. and didn’t get paid. My name was even taken off the night collection run.
Then Bobby Hansen, one of the older subs – in length of service – told me, “He did that to me once. He tried to starve me.”
“I don’t care. I’m not kissing his ass. I’ll quit or starve, anything.”

We learn a lot, an awful lot, about the US postal service of the 1960s, especially it’s insistence on postmen/carriers learning the ‘scheme’ – like a London taxi cabbie’s Knowledge.  Chinaski struggles to pass the exams. He’s usually too busy drinking or chasing women.  The two main women in the novel, Betty and Joyce are also based on the real main women in Bukowski’s life, portrayed as a widowed alcoholic and a rich nymphomaniac!

This is a novel of lowlife, hand to mouth existence (except when a horse comes in), heavy drinking and smoking. Chinaski doesn’t take life too seriously, even in the face of adversity, and he rarely lets the opportunity for a shag go by. He’s a reprobate and utter slob, but not a brawler; a joker, not a schemer – he’ll shrug his shoulders and start again. It’s hard to dislike this antihero totally though, for he does show a sensitive side!

The text of this first novel is unashamedly masculine with Chinaski as our narrator, a lot of short sentences tending to be very matter of fact when not reporting dialogue. There is a definite sense of humour in the writing, a nice little paragraph tells how Chinaski sets out to bamboozle the personnel department with long words from a dictionary worked into a letter saying why he shouldn’t be sacked after being ‘written up’ too many times for lateness on his deliveries and sorting.  There was a little too much of the mechanics of the post office for my liking, but it does show how hard those at the bottom had to work to meet the nearly unachievable standards of the job.

This was the first of six novels Bukowski wrote, five of which feature Chinaski; the last, Pulp being a Chandleresque detective novel. However, he’d been writing poetry for years before leaving a large body of work including many recordings of his poems.  I’d happily read more, and if I come across his poems I’d certainly like to read them too.  (7.5/10)

Source: Own copy.  Charles Bukowski, Post Office (1971) Virgin Books paperback, 176 pages.   BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

I first encountered Cain in the 136 pages that comprise his 1943 novella Double Endemnity (reviewed here), a perfect slice of noir. Why it’s taken me so long to get to his other most famous story, heaven knows – but The Postman… which was published earlier in 1934 was notorious in its day for its overt sexuality and the violence that it brings.

The story is narrated by Frank Chambers, a young drifter who stops off at a roadside diner in the middle of nowhere in California.  He wasn’t planning to stay, but once he caught a glimpse of the woman in the kitchen, he wasn’t going to say no when Nick Papadakis, the owner offers him a job to run the repair shop alongside the diner.

Then I saw her. She had been out back in the kitchen, but she came in to gather up my dishes. Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.

Predictably, Frank and Cora fall in lust with each other, Cora being unhappy in her marriage to the older Nick, so they plan to do him in.  By page 18, they’ve tried to fake an accident with Nick slipping in the bathtub and hitting his head – but they fail thanks to a (lucky for Nick) cat on the roof fusing the lights at precisely the wrong moment and a passing policeman.  A different plan is needed, but things are going to get very complicated…

This is the story that defined the trope of the remote diner on a dusty road and combined with that the sexual tension between Frank and Cora fair sizzles on the page without any need for explicitness. The Postman… is cited as one of the most important 20thC crime novels, and is remarkable in its brevity and the directness of Cain’s writing of his narrator. Personally, I preferred Double Indemnity, but maybe that’s because I read it first, but this story is also superb, and the twistiness of the second half made my brain ache keeping track in even fewer pages – only 116 in The Postman…  (and not a postman in sight – see the book’s Wikipedia page for a discussion of its title)  If you’ve not read James M. Cain, either of these two one-sitting novellas would be a wonderful place to start. (9.5/10)

Source: Own copy.   James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) Orion paperback, 116 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

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