Friday, October 21, 2011


I just had the weirdest experience reading a short story. It was wonderful at first. Then it went from being great baseball fiction to really bad thriller writing.

The story is "Beanball" by Ron Carlson. I think he heads the MFA fiction program at UCI, where I got my MFA years ago.

"Beanball" was first published in One Story, a literary magazine that puts out one story per issue and never publishes the same writer twice, according to its website:

I read "Beanball" in "The Best American Mystery Stories" of 2009. At first, it didn't seem like a mystery at all.   

Our hero, Driscoll, travels all over the world scouting for talented young pitchers for a major league team, a job I've always thought would be great.

The fictional Driscoll used to be a catcher in the majors, but he was hit in the head by a pitch and almost died. So now he is a scout. OK. So far, so good.  

He finds a talented kid in Guatemala, and the kid goes to the majors and is hugely successful, until he beans a batter who dies. At that point, the story still had me.  

Then it turns out that things are not as they seem. A kidnapping. A girl's finger is cut off. Money exchanges hands. Dirty work. Huh? WTF?

I don't want to give away too much of the plot. But Driscoll goes back to Guatemala, buys a gun and stalks the bad guys. 

Turns out, the bad guys forced Alberto, the young pitcher, to kill the batter on purpose. But why? I never figured that out. Apparently, it’s not just for money. That would make too much sense.

The thriller stuff here didn't make any sense to me.

Why does Alberto show up at the end at just the right time? Apparently, just for the convenience of the plot. Did Driscoll set this up? Beats me.

And then Driscoll's old coach, mentor and good friend turns out to be another bad guy. WTF? This is like a bad Hollywood ending to a bad movie.

There are too many convenient details. The second driver in Guatemala just happens to have a gun that he is willing to sell. How does Driscoll know the gun works? He doesn't. I would not trust that gun. And it is way too convenient for the plot.

Suddenly Driscoll goes from being a baseball pitching scout to a black ops killer. He kills a man in cold blood and has no reaction. Huh? Where did that come from? Again, too convenient for the plot.

This could have been a great story. It is a good idea to have a story about the corrupting influence of money. But is that true in baseball? I have no idea. I would believe it. Unfortunately, that is not what this story is about.

What is it about? I don't know. It seems to be a weird hybrid of baseball fiction and bad thriller writing. Maybe a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do

My verdict? A good story gone horribly wrong.

-- Roger

Copyright © 2011, Roger R. Angle

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I recently finished reading "Hayduke Lives!" -- Edward Abbey's sequel to "The Monkey Wrench Gang."

It's another rompin', stompin' hell of a good ride. I loved it. (I recommend reading "The Monkey Wrench Gang" first, to get the continuity and the whole picture.)

For me, the first issue these two novels raise is values. What do these two writers care about, and what role do their values play in their fiction?

If we take these writers seriously, what do they tell us about how we should live our lives?

I realized, several years ago, when I read "Anna Karenina" by Count Leo Tolstoy, that people like to read about characters like themselves.

In other words, readers like to identify with the characters and the way they live, their issues, problems, and values, the things they care about. I think the same thing is true today in popular culture: TV, the movies, fiction.

"Anna Karenina" is a huge sprawling portait of Russian life in the 1870s. Tolstoy covers the peasants, the aristocracy, the bureaucrats, the armed forces, the land-owning farmers. He even does a scene from the point of view of the family dog. There is something for everyone.

One theme is the contrast between a healthy relationship (Levin and Kitty) and an unhealthy one (Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina).

Anna and Vronsky, a dashing young cavalry officer, have an affair outside her marriage and outside society. They can't hobknob with other artistrocrats in Russia, so they go to Italy, where they find themselves even more isolated. They never recover their social bearings, and finally Anna commits suicide, throwing herself under a train.

In contrast, Levin and Kitty fall in love, get married, have children and live a gregarious social life, in symbol the very center of Russian society. They have dinner parties, have friends over, run a farm, raise their kids, fulfill their responsibilities to society and keep things running among their employees and families. Theirs is a full, rich, enviable life. 

In these Edward Abbey novels, there are also two kinds of people, those who love the Earth and want to protect it (Earth First! Earth--Love It Or Leave It), and those vicious, careless developers, cattle ranchers, mine owners, and politicians who exploit the Earth for profit and care nothing about nature.

The people with bad values don't come to a bad end, but they do have their defeats. This is a constant battle, worth doing, and worth reading about. Bishop Love, a total horse's ass, and his ilk are mostly clueless. They ride roughshod over the Earth and over the decent people who want to defend it. They are fools.

I enjoyed both Tolstoy and Abbey, partly for their values, but also for the good writing and their story telling abilities.

Their values are the same as my own: family, healthy society, healthy planet.

Abbey is still important now, although he died in 1989. His villains (developers and those who would destroy the biosphere) are much like the Tea Party extremists of today who want to dismantle the federal Environmental Protection Agency and make unlimited money while destroying the envirnoment that sustains us all.

I say let us read Leo Tolstoy (also spelled Tolstoi) and Edward Abbey, and learn something of their values. They each have something to teach us.

-- Roger

Copyright © 2011, Roger R. Angle

Monday, October 10, 2011


The Los Angeles Times published a letter to the editor of mine yesterday:

     I got all excited, at first, when I saw a novel excerpt on Page E9, in Oct. 2's Book Review.   

     Then I started to read it. What bad writing. Most of it is clunky exposition and awkward back-story. The rest is lame story and poorly done description.  

     Why should we care if Richard wears boots or cross-trainers, or if anyone would notice?     

     Shotguns don't "stomp" people. That is ridiculous.

     I wish you would look for better writing to reprint. 

     If this book is a bestseller, that's sad. 

     As Flannery O'Connor said, “There's many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

     This one should have been prevented. 

     Roger Angle
     Culver City

It referred to a novel excerpt that they had printed:

What do you think? Is that stuff crap or what?
-- Roger

Copyright © 2011, Roger R. Angle

Saturday, October 1, 2011


I've been hoping to get published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, so I've been trying to read some stories published there.

You know, get the lay of the land.

I got, from the library, a book called "The Cutting Edge," a collection of short mysteries published in EQMM.

The first one is by Lawrence Block. In "Looking For David" a retired detective is on vacation in Florence, Italy, and runs into an old criminal he arrested for murder years ago. The bad guy tells him why he killed and carved up his gay lover.

As I read it, I got the feeling that Block didn't care about any of this. He didn't seem to care about the characters or the story or the writing. The whole thing is lackluster. No oomph. No pizazz. No jazz. No music. No depth. No energy.

So when I read it, I didn't care either. I quit about halfway through and skipped forward to the end. I cared even less when I finished.

On the other hand, I just started reading "Hayduke Lives!" by Edward Abbey, a sequel to "The Monkey Wrench Gang," one of my favorite novels.  

The writing is completely different. I get the feeling that Abbey cared about everything: every line, every description, every cactus, every blade of wild ricegrass, even an old turtle, every word, every character.

The writing is full and rich. Full of imagery and detail and insight. Full of energy. The prose dances, and rocks and rolls, and puts the pedal to the metal and drives ahead. It illuminates the characters and brings the story to life.

It's a treat to read, and a startling contrast to the dull, lackluster writing of the genre mystery.

I think caring is part of the game. Like any art form, or any profession, if you don't care, it shows.

One time I went to a doctor who told he had been retired in his mind for ten years. The work just didn't interest him anymore. Boy, I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.

That's how I felt about this mystery story by Lawrence Block.

My advice: Whatever you do, especially if want to get paid for it, and if you want other people to participate, you better damn well care about it, and you better do your best.

Otherwise, your work will be dead, and that will show.

-- Roger

Copyright © 2011, Roger R. Angle