Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Not Too Picky

I don't want to nitpick too much about this one, but I think it's interesting not to make note of it.

Last week, I finished Hangman, by Chris Bohjalian. It's one of his earliest books--his second or third, it's kind of unclear. An it was pretty mediocre, to tell you the truth--actually bordering on bad. But there were a few things that were really interesting about reading it. I guess you could put them into two categories: ways in which this otherwise totally different book is similar to his other work, and ways in which it's different.

The different is, of course, the most striking. It's not that startling to find a Chris Bohjalian book that reads like it was written by Chris Bohjalian. It is fascinating, however, to find a book that's written by someone who seems pretty clearly to have sat down at his keyboard and said, "If Stephen King can do it, I can do it."

You can see the skeleton of a Stephen King book here, and maybe a good one. You've got the spooky house, the unexplained suicide, a very King reveal at the end. But he's a realist at heart, and he missed a few beats when dealing with the supernatural. A number of characters buy the "evil house" explanation with way less proof, reluctance, and skepticism than anyone at all would have displayed. The sage old Vermonters who know about the house's history are more overtly credulous than any sage old New Englanders I know.

More surprisingly, though, there are other notes that Bohjalian hits wrong, ones that should be right in his wheelhouse. Most of his books take place in Vermont, and I've never seen him lay on the accents and the countrified talk so heavy-handedly. I have to doubt that a cop--a detective who investigates murders and presumably has been around a good number of grieving people--has actually never seen someone who responded to grief by shutting down, staring into space, having trouble focusing. He claims never to have seen that response.

And I'm sorry, but I don't care how gorgeous she is, or how unusual it is--a good, solid, professional cop does not throw all judgment aside because he's got the hots for the murder (?) victim's widow, the prime suspect. I had a hard time even liking the character after that, even though I was supposed to.

So: not a successful King book, but not a successful Bohjalian, either. I found the resolution to the story to be somewhat satisfying--at least not as unsatisfying as an ending with more realism would have been. It was just a weak story, though, all around.

I almost find it heartening, though. Bohjalian is a polished, skilled writer, a master at what he does. I haven't liked all his books, but I've never found them clunky. It's pretty exciting to see that he didn't spring full-grown into the world with these skills. Early work sucks sometimes. Practice really does make perfect; revision really can improve mediocre work. There's hope for the rest of us.

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