Blood & Whiskey #15
Patent lawyers in Texas, courtesans in Lahore, and a bunch of "Rogues" - plus an ode to Walter Tevis, the Venetian Spritz, and Maggot Brain
Hello friends and readers…
Welcome to this month’s roundup of books, booze, and tunes. I’m excited to share a special guest essay, a beautifully written homage to the overlooked author Walter Tevis from Dan Conaway — literary agent, cyclist, New Jersey guy, fan of the cocktail and the pool table and a good bar, and all-around good dude.
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But first, a few books I read and dug this month…
The Local (Doubleday) — Joey Hartstone
A debut from a TV/film writer, The Local is set in Marshall, Texas, home of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, which has become a prime destination for patent cases, largely because its juries have a reputation for handing out huge settlements. James Euchre, widowed smoking-and-drinking son of a famous criminal attorney, works as a local patent attorney (“the local”) assisting large, out-of-town law firms with their cases. He reluctantly takes on a new client, Amir Zawar, the erratic CEO of an Uber-like tech firm whose patent case soon turns into a murder case: Zawar is accused of killing a local judge, who had been Euchre’s friend and mentor. Despite disliking Zawar, and despite Zawar’s shaky alibi, the evidence doesn’t smell right so Euchre agrees to defend Zawar — immersing himself in the world of criminal law that had been his father’s domain. It’s a Grisham-like small town legal thriller with taut courtroom scenes and great characters, including my fave: a smart-ass female investigator and ex-high school placekicker known as “The Leg.” A grabby page turner.
The Return of Faraz Ali (Riverhead Books) — Aamina Ahmad
I love a fun, gritty murder mystery set in an unlikely (for me) locale, a place I don't often read about w/r/t beat cops and elusive killers. Faraz is sent to a new post in the neighborhood of his youth by his politically powerful father. In Mohalla, the red-light district of Lahore’s ancient inner city, courtesanship is passed down across the generations. Faraz’s mother had been a prostitute in Mohalla; his father a john. Now, Faraz has been sent back to run the Mohalla police station, with implicit instructions to cover up the murder of a prostitute's daughter. Faraz soon starts to wonder: Why is his father protecting the men who seem to be responsible? And what would happen if he didn't do as he was told? Ahmad is a beautiful writer, her sentences a mix of color and darkness, hope and gloom. (The New York Times called it “a quietly stunning debut novel.”)
Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks (Doubleday) — Patrick Radden Keefe
Keefe has become one of my favorite nonfiction writers. His books (especially Say Nothing) and New Yorker stories strike the perfect balance: investigative chops, crisp and compelling prose, a hound dog’s nose for great characters, many of them creepy, weird, menacing, dangerous. Rogues is a collection of New Yorker pieces that, in Keefe’s words, “reflect some of my abiding preoccupations: crime and corruption, secrets and lies…” As in: perfect Blood & Whiskey stories. My faves in this collection are the profile of Mark Burnett (producer of The Apprentice, i.e. Trump’s secret helper); the story of the fake “Jefferson Bottles”; the saga of a Dutch gangster and the sister who testified against him. Also the poignant closing profile of Anthony Bourdain, published a year before his death.
“Where have you been all my life, Walter Tevis?” — By Dan Conaway
How the hell is this guy not a household name? That’s question has been running through my head all summer, ever since I made the humiliating discovery that four cinematic marvels that I mostly adore—THE HUSTLER, the iconic 1961 drama (starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, and Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats); its sequel, THE COLOR OF MONEY, a quarter-century later; the 2020 Netflix sensation THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT; and two different versions of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH—had all existed first as novels, all by an author heretofore unknown to me.
Given that his book-to-film batting average in Hollywood is surpassed only by the likes of Stephen King, one might wonder why Walter Tevis is not better known. I had never even heard his name until a few weeks ago. I was standing in a B&N checkout line and noticed a stack of stylish paperbacks with a moody, MAD MEN-adjacent cover; a brooding young man stands, mostly in shadow, surveying a pool table… In my youth I’d shot pool three and four nights a week, in billiards halls and old-man bars, first as a traveling salesman in the deep South, later as a Manhattan newcomer on the Lower East Side. Pool was both my passion and my social crutch, a way of being proximate to, and engaged with, other humans without having to admit to actually craving their company. And though nobody ever confused me with, say, a Fast Eddie Felson, I didn’t suck. More important, though: much of what I’d absorbed about pool-hall etiquette—about posture, decorum and protocol, about projecting cool, win or lose, as a person living in those spaces—traced directly back to Paul Newman’s example in THE HUSTLER…
Now, though, it dawned on me that my real inspiration hadn’t been Newman at all, but Tevis, an American novelist who’d died in New York City in 1984 at the age of 56. I bought that handsome Vintage edition, rushed home—and fell, hard. Walter Tevis—what can I say, he’s an absolute master. His writing is spare, crystalline—tough at times (thumbs are broken, and hearts), but not hard-boiled. His descriptions of the explosive movement of a cue ball across green felt, or a boxwood rook down the right edge of a chessboard, or even the complex mechanical systems of an (actually) alien technology, they are at once poetic and precise, spare, and absolutely beautiful. His protagonists—well, they’re hustlers, gamblers, they’re drug-addled drunks—but really they’re artists, ambitious and big-hearted, vulnerable virtuosos struggling against their darker natures. And an essential pull of these books, I suppose, is watching these complicated souls try to convince themselves that their essential frailty can, through some combination of grit and genius and luck, be forestalled just long enough to pull off one miraculous thing.
[Dan Conaway is a literary agent at Writers House. He represents such authors as Megan Abbott, Ace Atkins, Megan Giddings, Greg Iles, Stacy Willingham. Find him on Twitter or Instagram.]
Watching: The Offer, about the making of The Godfather, was an absolute blast. I’ve been working on my Bob Evans impression, bubee.
Listening: I binge-listened to the first season or Dr. Death, the podcast series by Laura Beil about the horrifically incompetent and dangerously egotistical neurosurgeon, Christopher Duntsch. I’m diving into Season 2 now.
Wife! — She read and liked Hernan Diaz’s Trust and (a longtime fan of Ian Fleming) she crushed another James Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, one of two Bond paperbacks we scored from a Little Free Library on Lopez Island. (Pictured below with my Venetian Spritz - scroll down for the recipe).
Assorted Book News:
Two previous Blood & Whiskey books were just named to the longlist for the Booker Prize: The Trees by Percival Everett, and Small Things Like These, by Claire Keegan. Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby made Obama's Summer Reading List (as did Le Carre's Silverview, which I haven’t read.)
You probably read the news about Salman Rushdie. Thankfully he’s doing better and is on the mend. Here are a couple good stories about the attack and the history of the fatwa against Rushdie: The Atlantic & NPR.
Finally, two books about girls in peril (both meh for me, but you be the judge):
The Overnight Guest, by Heather Gudenkauf — While holed up at a farmhouse to work on a new novel, crime writer Willie Lark one snowy night finds a small child outside. Lark’s search for the child’s identity criss-crosses with her investigation into the double murder that occurred two decades earlier at the farmhouse — and the disappearance of a young girl. Gudenkauf is an excellent writer, great with pacing and mood and atmosphere. It’s a solid read, just not my sweet spot.
The Girl Who Died, by Ragnar Jónasson — Readers have recommended this Nordic noir writer to me for years, but I found this standalone oddly slow and flat. The setup was promising: a struggling woman leaves Reykjavík to work as a teacher in a remote fishing village on Iceland’s northeast coast. Maybe it’s the translation from the original Icelandic, but the story felt oddly clunky, the characters less than believable, and I found myself speed-skimming to the end. Also: not a fan of the dead girl trope.
Cocktail of the Month…
Sticking with a summery, bubbly drink this month. (Sorry whiskey fans — we’ll get back to the brown liquor next month, I promise.)
The Venetian Spritz*
bottle of presecco
1-2 cups Aperol
a hefty tablespoon of bitters
sliced lemon or orange
Mix everything into a pitcher full of ice. Garnish drinks with a slice of lemon and a green olive. (Or get fancy and fold a lemon peel over an olive and toothpick it.) If you’re just making one or two drinks, use 4:1 Prosecco-Aperol proportions.
(* The original “spritz” dates to the 1800s, became popular in Venice in the 1920s, and was initially made with the aperitif Select. Some recipes introduced Aperol or Campari, and in the U.S. it mostly came to be known as the Aperol Spritz.)
Playlist of the Month…
Includes a few inspirations from Obama’s Summer Playlist, but mostly inspired by my obsession with song #4 (which keeps popping up this summer — on KEXP and a couple TV or movie soundtracks, though I can’t remember which).
I’m headed to Ireland in a few weeks to dicuss THE FIRST KENNEDYS at a cool event — the Kennedy Summer School — in New Ross, County Wexford, former home of JFK’s ancestors. Obligatory pix of me with a pint of G coming in Sept.
Until next month…
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And it's a battered old suitcase
To a hotel someplace
And a wound that will never heal
No prima donna, the perfume is on
An old shirt that is stained with blood and whiskey…
-Tom Waits, “Tom Traubert’s Blues”
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I really liked The Local. Hoping we get more books about Jimmy and The Leg.
Really enjoyed the Conaway essay. I've been thinking the same thing about Walter Tevis since I saw Queen's Gambit, but haven't yet bought his books. Doing that now. Maybe Dan could suggest which one I should hit first?