Two books I don't recommend

On my first visit to the new (almost twenty years old, but it's new to me) and surprisingly ugly downtown Seattle library, I found Small g, by Patricia Highsmith. She wrote Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley, both of which I adored, so I immediately bought the book ($2 from Friends of the Library) and started reading it on my bus ride home.

Here's a surprise: Highsmith's other books were firmly tethered to the noir era, but she wrote this one in the 1990s, when I would've assumed she was already dead. There are no computers in the story, but it's inarguably set in our era — most of the characters are gay, bi, or questioning, and they're all quite open about it. The titular Small g is a gay-friendly nightclub where everyone comes to drink and dance and be seen, even the homophobes.

Set in Zurich, the novel opens with a botched robbery that becomes a murder, which would be the beginning, I thought, of a grand crime noir, but no. Chapter one's murder is never solved, or seriously investigated. It's only intended to set a somber mood, as the book's two key characters react to the victim's death. 

Rickie, the dead man's lover, is a gay playboy who works in advertising and graphic design. He's self-employed, so the hassles of his work read like only slight intrusions on his life, and there's not much of a life presented. He's aging a bit, no longer wrinkle-free, but still spends his free time at the bar. He's nice, and likes being nice to people. Highsmith says he has AIDS, but later we learn that maybe he doesn't. And that's just about all there is to Rickie.

Luisa, the dead man's girlfriend, is pretty, the book repeatedly says, which isn't really a character trait but it's the closest we get. She's an apprentice dressmaker held virtually prisoner by her boss. She wants to see a boy, but can't, because her boss won't let her. She wants to give you her number, but can't, because her boss won't let her take calls. Why Luisa doesn't simply quit her job is never clear, so after several such episodes I decided she's either unintelligent or an accomplice in her victimization.

I became impatient reading the book, because very little actually happens over the course of the story. Someone gets attacked and injured, but the man who did it gets away with it. There are many scenes with folks tinkling their drinks and making small talk at the Small g and elsewhere, many instances where Luisa's boss is an ass, and there's an uncomfortably inappropriate affair between Rickie and a cop who gave him a ticket but tears it up. 

The novel has two disabled characters, both presented stereotypically as bad guys, working in tandem. The story resolves itself with an accident, not a decision, and then all the loose plot points are tied together so neatly and optimistically that the whole book feels like a gay, lesbian, and questioning fairy tale. Small g should be subtitled, How Pretty Luisa Escapes from Her Boss without Quite Quitting Her Job.

Highsmith was a great writer, and I'm just a schmuck with a blog, so it's weird to be criticizing her work. I might have liked the book more if it someone else had written it. It's not particularly bad, just lacking in everything I'd expect from Patricia Highsmith. It's not a thriller, not at all noiry, not complicated, not deep, and not plausible. It feels more like a better-than-average soap opera on the WB.

Wikipedia says the novel was rejected by her publisher, and published by another house posthumously, probably to cash in on her name. Well, they squeezed two bucks out of me.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Flying Sorcerers is 50-year-old sci-fi, a favorite from my teenage years, so I tracked down a copy to see how it's held up since the '70s. Must've read it a dozen times back in the bellbottoms era, and I was hoping to write a rave review after re-reading it.

The book's premise is that explorers from Earth arrive on an alien planet, with the twist that the story unfolds through the locals' eyes. You and I know that the pudgy guy called 'Purple' is an astronaut, but the superstitious locals decide he's a magician of unknown origin, and the village's wizard sees him as competition, and as a threat, so these sorcerers must duel!

It's an amusing and entertaining if not quite planet-shattering story, which I've always thought could make a terrific movie, with some nebbish actor playing Purple. When I first read it, I pictured Richard Dreyfuss. That's how old this book is. Now, maybe Christopher Mintz-Plasse.

There's one big problem, though. This novel despises women. In its fictional world, females are almost literally chattel or cattle — they're shackled to their work, rarely speak unless spoken to, and are absolutely forbidden to disagree with their husbands, who are their masters in all ways. Women and girls aren't even allowed to have names, which seems impractical to me, even in an ass-backwards society.

It's clever and well-written, but all the important characters are male. Every 10 or 15 pages a woman is mentioned, usually in passing, and it's always, always in an insulting manner or as a joke. I'd forgotten the story and the sexism, so I read to the end, hoping that perhaps a smart woman would emerge in the plot to turn the jokes around on the men. Alas, no.

It was co-written by a big name in science fiction, Larry Niven, and a comparable newbie named David Gerrold. I've tried and failed to read Niven's acclaimed Ringworld novels, but Gerrold became a favorite of mine (When Harlie Was One, The Man Who Folded Himself, The Martian Child).

I know it was the 1970s and all, but honestly, the book's enthusiastically awful treatment of women makes me think less of its authors.


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