Consider this an expanded version of the piece in the last Austin Chronicle of 2014 on my favorite books of 2014.
Sometimes it feels like I’m too busy reading research source material and proofing my own writing to keep up with current books, but as it turns out, I had a big list of favorite books of 2014. I’m still reading a couple of those listed here, and several were published a year or two ago. One of my absolute favorites was The Good Rat, by Jimmy Breslin, which knocked me out… How does he do it? He writes beautifully about terrible people who do terrible things, and leaves out all the extra words and boring parts. Hitchcock would approve. Another oldie (from 2011, that is) The Manly Art, written by the late, great George Kimball, a master chronicler of the art of bruising, again shows what you can do with wit, expertise and stories about the fight racket.
Andre the Giant, a graphic novel treatment of the life of wrestler Andre Roussimoff and Slayground, Darwyn Cooke’s graphic adaptation of the great Richard Stark novel, were my two favorite graphic novels of the year, and I don’t read that many of them. In fact I liked them more than most of the other novels of the year. Even more books that I should’ve read years ago: The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, by William S. Burroughs is one that I’ll be reading again and again. If you’re thinking of the random beat junkie poetry of Naked Lunch and Junky, you’re not in the room with me on this one. True, this one is also quite bizarre and druggy compared to, say, a Nicholas Sparks novel, and basically a screenplay adaptation of the actual last words of the famous mobster, who was dying, gut-shot, and the FBI was there, hanging on every word, trying to get a straight answer from the guy. It’s a screenplay with precise stage directions, and I cannot believe this has never been filmed. The book is illustrated with public domain shots from the Prohibition era–flappers and whisky stills and booze warehouses and Dutch on a slab, dead as a door nail.
Making the list of this year’s best is Blood Aces, Douglas Swanson’s fine biography of Benny Binion, which was one of the best books of the year about a real turd of a man, just the kind of greedy, murderous asshole they lionize in Vegas, or in the modern GOP. Put this one next to II’ll Do My Own Damn Killin’: Benny Binion, Herbert Noble, and the Texas Gambling War, the Binion bio by Gary Sleeper, also a good piece of work.
The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves and Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier both happen to have been written by veterans of the Great War, and they both wrote great books after fighting in that human meat grinder of a conflict. Missing from the photos of my stack of books is Many Rivers to Cross, the excellent Katrina novel by my friend Thomas Zigal, and I don’t know where I put it but you need to find it if you haven’t read it yet. I also couldn’t find Past Tense, by Jean Cocteau, so maybe Cocteau and Zigal ran off together, maybe to do an adaptation of Cocteau’s quitting opium memoir… I really, really loved Past Tense, the first volume of Cocteau’s journals of making his crazy surrealistic films and plays, writing in that crazy, bitchy French tone of his, and then just two weeks ago saw Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast on TCM, the first time, ever, and was like getting hit in the head with a brick by Sonny Liston, and I mean that in a good way. Speaking of people I know, people whose word on the best chicken fried steak in town you can take to the bank, David Marion Wilkinson’s Where the Mountains Are Thieves is damn good, will break your heart, make you laugh out loud and slap your mama. And I blurbed Nine Days, the debut by Minerva Koenig and I also blurbed Painting Juliana, by Martha Louise Hunter, and if you’re cynical about authors praising their friends, bear in mind that Walter Moseley has used my blurbs on his novels, too. And if you don’t know what “blurb” means, it has nothing to do with getting your car painted at Earl Scheib. By the way, Moseley has resurrected his Easy Rawlins series, which I am catching up to, reading Little Green and digging it, although he seems to have lost a bit of the fire that he was famous for in the early novels, not just Devil in a Blue Dress but Little Yellow Dog and the Fearless Jones novels as well, and although I loved The Man in My Basement, don’t even talk to me about his sci-fi stuff. Steve Davis and Bill Minutaglio won the PEN award for their book, Dallas 1963: The Road to the Kennedy Assassination, one of those cases where you go, OK, it’s about time somebody worthwhile won something. Minutaglio and Davis are really good writers writing about a really mean, mean town in a bad, sad time. The book is superb, heartbreaking, enlightening, lyrical, and outrageous. The worst/best thing about the narrative the authors have woven here is that it’s almost a mirror reflection of the right wing wacko Tea Party evangelicals of hate that are resurgent today — yes, in Dallas, but also all over Texas and other rancid corners of the USA.
Hard Bite by Anonymous 9 gets a groove on for paraplegic serial killers and their pet monkeys, with a sequel coming out in 2015, and then there’s Swollen Red Sun, Matthew McBride’s second novel after Frank Sinatra in a Blender, which blew everyone’s mind (everyone who pays attention to cool crime novels, that is), and proves that Matthew is a hell of a writer and if he (Matthew McBride) chose to move from his meth-and-white-trash-infested stomping grounds in rural Missouri, even if he chose to move to Indonesia, how could we blame him? And he did, in fact, move to Indonesia. OK, yes, there’s a woman involved, but isn’t there always? Somewhere in there, over the year, I read Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, along with a translation of The Oresteia, by Sophocles… and one or two Anne Carson books I just acquired. Denis Johnson put out Laughing Monsters and James Ellroy published Perfidia. And did Robert Draper write a book this year? I guess he didn’t, but he’s a killer writer and he’s making plenty of dough writing for New York Times and other magazines, so why should he bother? When I spotted him at the Texas Book Festival Author’s Party in Eddy Safidy’s fine apartment downtown, I had to hug the guy and later on I asked myself: Look, I’ve known this guy a long time, going back to the Raul’s days, in like 1979, and he hosted my bachelor party in 1984 and everything, but why did I feel this need to hug the guy? The answer is, I really like him, and every time I read something he’s written, he takes over my mind. I find myself arguing with him, because he’s such a damn forceful writer, but then after a bit, I settle down and I have to admit, dammit, Draper is right. Again. He’s that kind of a writer. So I had to hug the guy. Look forward to seeing him again.
In Guy Town By Gaslight, Richard Zelade tells you pretty much everything you need to know about whores in Austin in the Victorian age, and Sarah Bird’s second Okinawa novel, Above the East China Sea, was one of last year’s hits of my wife Lois’s book club, and I’m finally reading it now because I was on one hell of a grind, promoting my last book, Broke, Not Broken: Homer Maxey’s Texas Bank War, and doing a ten-chapters-ten-weeks-Death-March to deliver my next one, 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime that Rocked the Capital, which will be released by History Press March 9, 2015. Look for that one, expect parties and noise, probably involving heavy beer and surrealistic blues. If you’re not cool you probably won’t be there. Let me put it that way. OK, I just did.
Ah, yeah, before I forget, there was also the Warren Commission Report, which I’m rereading… immersed in it, actually, and expect to be immersed in the terror report book, also, and speaking of the US and terror policy, let me ask you this: Every time you hear Dick Cheney say, It worked, and I’d do it again in a minute… Don’t you picture him as Pontius Pilate, crucifying Jesus, saying, “I’d do it again… it works… it’s legal… arrrgghh…” What a shit bird, what a Darth Vader wannabe… But anyway, I meant to say, there were also two really fine Jim Tully novels that I caught up with this year, what a great, great writer and character. Like every author, he wrote books that were autobiographies, but the thing with Tully is that he lived so many different lives, lived them to the fullest, hoboing, boxing, riding the rails, writing in Hollywood and hanging out with the Tinseltown crowd back when Hollywood was up in Los Feliz and Whitley Heights. This summer I read Shanty Irish and Beggars of Life. What a guy. If you haven’t read The Bruiser or Circus Parade, you don’t know a damn thing, but at least you’ve got something to look forward to, which is, by the way, getting hip.