51DyswFSq-LThere are a couple of small things to note before I get to the substantive part of this review. First, there’s a smattering of typos and spelling errors in this book. I know firsthand that this is practically inevitable in indie books–my loyal readers alerted me to some in my own work when it was first published. But I know it’s something that will bother some people.

The book also hit a pet peeve of mine: the protagonist and narrator of the story is a former U.S. Army Ranger. At one point, he refers to a weapon’s “clip” when he obviously means its magazine. You might excuse this by saying (a) this is a pretty common mistake and (b) sometimes soldiers say “clip” simply because it’s shorter and easier to bark in battle than the three whole syllables of “magazine”. These are fair points, but it still grated on me. (To be fair, the rest of the descriptions of weaponry are quite accurate and logical.)

Now that’s out of the way and I can tell you how much I enjoyed this book, because it really is terrific. The protagonist’s voice is instantly engaging, and his sardonic humor fits the grim circumstance in which he finds himself–a brutal war between rival drug gangs in Mexico.

Make no mistake; this book is extremely dark. I praised Goats’s mystery novel Houses on the Sand for its memorable blend of witty prose and violent subject matter, but this book takes it to another level. The protagonist gets plenty of opportunities for gallows humor–as well as gun humor, knife humor, helicopter gunship humor and so on; because implements of death abound in these pages, and they are put to use frequently.

The style reminds me a bit of Chris Avellone, whose name long-time readers may recognize as one I always mention when discussing all-time favorite fiction writers. Like many an Avellone plot, On the Other Side of the River involves someone trying to play rival gangster factions against one another, and the prose consists of dark musings on mortality and morality, written with tremendous wit.

And the pacing! The pacing is incredible. It’s fast, but not too fast, and there wasn’t a moment when I felt bored. Even during the relative “lulls” in the story, there was tons of tension as I wondered what would happen next. A few times, I got so nervous that I skipped ahead a page or two to see how the situation would be resolved. I just couldn’t take the suspense. I do most of my reading while I’m on the bus to and from work, and when I was reading this I’d get so absorbed I nearly missed my stop more than once.

It’s true that part of this is due to my personality as a reader. I’ve come to realize that I’m incredibly easy to manipulate when reading fiction. Put somebody in danger, and I just have to know how it works out, even if it seems a bit contrived. And if it’s a woman, then I’m really hopeless; the woman-in-peril trope gets me every time.

What’s funny is, I was thinking about what an easily-manipulated reader I am when this very topic came up in the book itself. One character mentions to another how he feels about being manipulated by movies. It was an interesting meta-moment. Incidentally, this scene reminds me of another thing I loved about the book: the repeated references to classic films, including two of my favorites, Lawrence of Arabia and Jason and the Argonauts.

It’s the little touches like this that make On the Other Side of the River so engaging. Goats is great at going the extra mile to really lavish detail on small things. I’m rather in awe of his skill at this, actually, because I’ve often been guilty of impatience in my writing. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but I’ll give a brief and fittingly macabre example of what makes his writing so good: there’s a scene in this book where some people are in a confined space and moving around a corpse that’s lying on the ground. If I had written this scene, I would have treated the corpse as merely an obstacle to be mentioned briefly and then dealt with only as the living characters needed to navigate around it.

But Goats lavishes more attention on it than just treating the deceased character as part of the scenery–he has his narrator describe him almost as a character in his own right. And that adds something to the story–granted, it’s something very grim, but it’s important to give the reader these details. “Meat on the bones of the story,” as my friend Patrick Prescott would say. (And see; didn’t I tell you this thing is dark?)

This is one gripping page-turner, and I say that as someone who normally doesn’t go in for those types of books. This one worked for me; and all the double-crosses (and triple-crosses, and etc.) kept me guessing right up until the last page as to who was good, who was bad, and how it would all end up.

So how does it all end up, you ask? Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! Even after I thought I was ready for anything after all the twists that had come before, the ending still surprised me, and while it’s not the direction I thought it would go, it absolutely works in the moment. I don’t want to say any more than that, but just know that it’s the kind of ending that you can talk about at length with your friends after you all read it.

And this brings me to an important point, which is that people need to read it. Seriously, according to the author himself, this is his least popular book, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I would have expected it to be a great hit–it grabs you from the first page and just keeps building the tension from there. I could easily see this being made into a big-budget movie; it’s not like Hollywood has any qualms about violence or dark plots.

Oh well, the book’s usually better than the movie anyway. So I suggest you “get in on the ground floor”, as they say, and check this one out before it becomes such a hit that some studio snaps it up and makes a film of it. They might be able to do the dialogue and fight scenes all right, but they’ll never be able to capture Goats’s witty descriptions on the big screen.

donavons_reefThe title is a quote from the Roman politician Cicero, meaning something roughly like “Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!” He was bemoaning corruption in the Roman senate, and the refusal of the senators to punish an obvious criminal conspirator.

Fortunately, we have no problems like that in the modern-day United States. So this post isn’t about politics. It’s about a 1963 movie called Donovan’s Reef. A friend of mine lent it to me the other day. This isn’t going to be one of my movie review posts, though. I’m going to talk instead about what the movie says about culture.

Donovan’s Reef is a comedy about a sailor named Donovan, played by John Wayne, who has been living on a Polynesian island since World War II. Several other sailors live there as well, including one, William Dedham, who had several children with a native of the islands.

Dedham’s daughter Amelia arrives from Boston, seeking to prove that her long-lost father is not a “moral” man, which will allow her to claim his shares of the Dedham Shipping Company.

Donovan gets word of this plan and pretends that Dedham’s children are his own to deceive Amelia. Although the prim Boston lady and the rough sailor initially clash, they eventually–shocker!–fall in love. And Amelia ultimately finds out the truth, but although she fights with Donovan about it, in the end, they still get married.

There’s one hilarious scene where Donovan and Amelia race each other to the shore from Donovan’s boat. It’s mainly an excuse to show Amelia in a swimsuit, but what I found funny is that right before diving in, Donovan has to extinguish his cigarette–and yet it’s apparently supposed to be a surprise when a young, fit woman beats him to the shore?

The ending of the movie is bizarre: throughout there has been a running joke that Amelia and Donovan will fight about something, and then make peace by saying “pax”. The movie ends with them arguing about what they will name their son if they get married, and ultimately Donovan says “From now on, I wear the pax in this family!”, before grabbing Amelia, spanking her a few times, and then kissing her. She resists at first but then kisses back.

Yeah.

(Keep in mind that John Wayne was 22 years older than Elizabeth Allen, the actress playing Amelia, and honestly, I would have guessed he was more like 40 years older. That doesn’t help matters at all.)

There are also some racial slurs, some jokes directed at the Chinese and the Polynesians, and other stuff that would typically shock modern audiences. It’s not all mean-spirited; there’s even a rather sweet scene where the island’s inhabitants–of all different ethnicities and nationalities–celebrate Christmas together. But still, it wouldn’t pass muster today.

At this point, some readers are probably thinking, “Wow, we’ve come a long way since 1963.” (Well, maybe some readers are thinking, “Ah, for the good old days, when men were real men, and women were men’s property real women!”)

I don’t mean to pick on Donovan’s Reef specifically here. I’m sure there are lots of old comedies with elements that people nowadays will find cringeworthy, or even downright offensive. But these were completely invisible to moviegoers in 1963. And there are probably things in modern movies that will strike subsequent audiences the same way.

I actually don’t think we’ve come a particularly long way since 1963. Human nature evolved over millennia and so is about the same as it was in 1963. (There are still plenty of people who were alive then, for one thing.) We just have different taboos. Audiences in 2073 will probably be watching our movies shaking their heads and thinking, “Wow, and they thought that was OK in 2018? We’ve come a long way.”

Who knows what it is the 2073 audiences will find unacceptable. Maybe it will be all the violence.  Or maybe they will be neo-Victorians, and find the idea of seeing so much as an ankle to be too much nudity. Or maybe they will just wonder why people in 2018 had such a fondness for washed-out blue-grey color palettes.

Strange as this may sound after I’ve gone on an Ignatius J. Reilly-style rant about a 1960s comedy, this is why I enjoy watching old movies, and why I like history generally. It’s a way of getting perspective. The first part is the shock of discovering all the weird stuff people in the past did. The second part is the realization that people haven’t changed that much.

220px-Bandidas_(movie_poster)I happened to see the end of this movie on TV the other week. I’d never heard of it before, but I like Westerns, so I decided to watch the whole thing.

Maria Álvarez (Penélope Cruz) and Sara Sandoval (Salma Hayek) team up to get revenge on Tyler Jackson (Dwight Yoakam), a sinister land baron who is taking control of huge swaths of Mexican land. In the course of the land grab, he murders Sandoval’s father, and nearly Alvarez’s as well.

Initially, the two women fight with one another about various petty disputes. (Maria is an unsophisticated farm girl, Sara is wealthy and educated.) But both want to avenge their fathers and help their countrymen, so they begin robbing banks to give back to the people, after training for time with a “retired” bank robber. (Sam Shepard.)

The fame of “las bandidas” grows, and eventually they team up with a detective named Quentin Cooke (Steve Zahn), after they convince him of Jackson’s immoral methods. The trio pulls off increasingly daring and complicated heists, until finally Jackson tries to flee the country by rail with all the gold from the bank of Mexico.

It seems hardly necessary to say it, but of course, the bandidas foil him, having learned to work together as partners, and respect one another as friends. They are a little disappointed when Quentin returns to the U.S. with his fiancee, but they still happily ride off into the sunset together.

It’s a fast-paced and funny film, with over-the-top action sequences and complicated bank robberies that don’t make much sense (e.g. where did Sara find the ice skates she uses in one heist?) but it doesn’t matter, because they are fun to watch, and Cruz, Hayek, and Zahn are all likable heroes.

A few times, the bickering between the two women does get a little tiresome–but the film moves so fast it’s hard to complain about it too much. The other thing that annoyed me was a scene where, to demonstrate his quick-draw prowess, the former bank robber shoots the hat off Maria’s head. I hate it when movies make it seem like guns are toys for doing magic tricks. Granted, this is an over-the-top action comedy, so it’s in keeping with the overall tone, but it still grated on me.

It was interesting to watch this so soon after writing this post about female characters. On the one hand, this film doesn’t shy away from cheesecake-y shots of the stars. If you want examples of “male gaze” in cinema, there are plenty in Bandidas. At one point, Maria and Sara dress up as burlesque dancers and pose sexily with Quentin. During their bank robber training, they do push-ups in a river while wearing low-cut blouses for… some reason.

But despite this, it never felt like they were being objectified. Sara and Maria aren’t driven purely by a desire to please men, and their friendship isn’t destroyed by their attraction to Quentin. They are fully-realized characters in their own right. The movie easily passes the Bechdel test–not only do they have conversations that are not about men, they even have one that’s about the rudimentary principles of gold-backed currency! (I propose a “Gambrel test”: do characters in a film have at least one conversation about economic theory?)

In short, the film seemed sexy without being sexist. At least, that’s how it struck me. It’s a lighthearted, somewhat cheesy Western comedy that never takes itself too seriously. It’s not a deep, thought-provoking film that you’ll think about for hours afterward. But it is a lot of fun while you’re watching it.

51PDEHPzjpLI don’t usually read mystery novels, but I enjoyed Goats’s comic novel Incomplete Works so much that I gave Houses on the Sand a try in spite of the different genre. And it turned out to be just as good—indeed, maybe even a bit better, because it has as much wit as Incomplete Works, but also some gorgeous descriptions of the desert landscapes in which the story is set. Interludes about the winding canyons, or the beauty of the night sky, are interspersed with the fast-paced development of the plot, and it all works extremely well.

The book also has a greater emotional range than I was expecting. The protagonist, Quincy Logan, has come to the small town of Harper’s Knob to bury his grandfather, with whom he was not terribly close. There are some poignant moments when he thinks back on awkward boyhood visits to his grandfather, when he was too young to appreciate the old man’s ranch or surrounding desert. These passages, though brief, injected some real emotion into the tale.

Now, lest I scare off anybody who doesn’t care about landscapes or pathos-filled backstories, I want to be clear: this book is a tightly-written mystery, and it can be enjoyed as that alone. I admired how Goats was able to succinctly introduce these literary elements without killing the pace and tension of his central plot. And all of it was filtered through Quincy’s witty, often sardonic narration. 

I don’t want to spoil the mystery, but I will say that it kept me guessing right up until the identity of the perpetrator was revealed. Maybe experienced mystery readers will solve it faster than I did, but I found it to be a very enjoyable ride.

kreia
Kreia, from Chris Avellone’s “Knights of the Old Republic II”. Possibly my favorite fictional character, and a great example of a well-written female character.

A.C. Flory wrote a brought up a good point about Theresa Gannon, the protagonist of my book, The Directorate:

“I couldn’t relate to the main character… I simply don’t see her as female… to me, Gannon could be a he just as easily as a she.”

I know exactly what she means. Honestly, I’m surprised more readers don’t mention this, because I feel the same way. There was never much of anything distinctively female about Gannon.

“Well, you’re the one who wrote it!” you are no doubt thinking. “Why didn’t you fix that, dummy?”

Good question. As a male, writing a good female character is something I find difficult, for a number of reasons.

Stereotypes

The lazy, quick-fix approach to make a character seem distinctively gendered is to resort to stereotypes. I could have made Gannon interested in things like clothes, or shoes, or something like that. That would be stereotypically feminine.

But I hate stereotypes. It’s not that there isn’t any truth to them; most people are stereotypical in one way or another. That’s why stereotypes exist, after all. But the point of writing fiction is to give people something new and surprising. Stereotypes are, by their nature, not new and surprising but old and familiar. So in general, I think it’s good to avoid them whenever possible when you’re writing stories.

This is another way of saying that it would just feel ham-handed and rather disrespectful to have my space soldier run off to go shoe shopping. Other, more skilled writers probably could pull that off, but I couldn’t.

Writing From A Female Perspective

You don’t have to resort to stereotypes to write plausibly feminine characters, though. You can write plausible, relatable, well-rounded characters who are also distinctly women.

The big problem I see in a lot of female characters written by men is that they tend to be distinctly women first, and characters second. Usually this manifests itself in female characters being preoccupied with sex in one way or another, or else being described largely in sexual terms. I’ve read way too many female characters who seem to exist solely as sexual beings, and it gets tiresome. With Gannon, I consciously strove to avoid this. In doing so, I think I made her too non-sexual, and that makes it hard to relate to her.

The Miranda Lawson Problem

Making a character sexy is a risky proposition. If done right, it can make a character that much more memorable. But more often than not, I feel like the risk outweighs the reward, and you can end ruining a character by trying to sex them up.

Miranda Lawson is one of my favorite characters in the Mass Effect video game series. Part of it is Yvonne Strahovski’s performance (I love Australian accents, OK?), but she’s also a pretty well-written character. She’s been genetically engineered to be the “perfect woman”, and as a result, she feels a lot of pressure to be the best–pressure that sometimes makes her do morally questionable things. All in all, a really good character.

But! There’ s a major “but” here (pun not intended): for some reason, BioWare designed many of the game’s dialogue and cinematic scenes to focus, ridiculously, on her backside. Miranda wears a white catsuit, and the animators missed no opportunity to show her from the back, the most egregious example being a dialogue scene where the view “pauses” there for as long as the player wants until they choose to advance in the conversation.

BioWare defended this by saying it’s part of Miranda’s “character” that she’s genetically-engineered to be beautiful, and supposedly all this was to underscore just how sexualized she was, and how that impacts her personality.

Maybe that was the idea, but it totally didn’t come across that way. It became a running joke by Mass Effect 3 that if Miranda was around, the “camera” had to be positioned behind her. It made her seem less like a character and more like a sex object–which was too bad, because she actually is a good character, and it’s a shame she became the butt of jokes instead.

This is something that’s always bothered me, and what I took away from how Miranda is perceived is that making a character sexy is a very dangerous thing to attempt. It can very easily turn your well-crafted character into a ridiculous figure. I think this is especially true for men writing women.

Mary Sues vs. Competent Men

There’s another common criticism that I’m surprised no one has yet leveled at Gannon, but which I fully expect I’ll hear someday: that she’s a “Mary Sue”. “Mary Sues” are “idealized and seemingly perfect” characters, as Wikipedia puts it. Characters who exhibit preternatural skill in a variety of areas. Such characters seem too good to be true, and as such are hard to relate to.

The term “Mary Sue” comes from a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, so this is an issue for sci-fi writers especially. And the original Mary Sue was even a lieutenant, just like Gannon is! So, I probably am guilty of this.

Here’s my defense: there’s another stock character in fiction, referred to as the “Competent Man“. This character archetype is strongly associated with the work of science fiction author Robert Heinlein, who wrote a passage extolling the virtues of having many skills, concluding with the famous phrase, “Specialization is for insects.His heroes tend to have a wide variety of skills.

And indeed, having many skills is rather key to becoming a hero. Incompetent characters would not be terribly effective at having heroic adventures.

As a few readers noticed, many elements of The Directorate are intended as an homage to exactly the kind of military science fiction that Heinlein pioneered. I think such stories lend themselves to having competent protagonists–after all, usually people who are or have been in military service possess a lot of training in a wide variety of skills.

Have Female Editors

One piece of advice for any men who are writing female characters: make sure you have female editors and/or beta readers. I would never have attempted to publish a novel with a female protagonist if I hadn’t known women who could critique it first. And am I ever glad they did, because their feedback improved Gannon tremendously from the first draft to the one I ultimately published.

That said, there were still times when I would overrule their objections and refuse to modify something. Because, first and foremost, Gannon had to be somebody I understood. If I didn’t do that, I would have no chance of writing her plausibly. So when somebody suggested changing the character in a way that didn’t sit right with me, I would stick with the way I wanted her. I feel it had to be this way, but it’s quite possible this made her less-relatable to everyone else.

“Everywoman”

As I’ve discussed before, my early writing has been rightly criticized for having too little description. I tried to correct this in The Directorate, and not just in describing the setting–which is essential in sci-fi–but also in how I described the appearance of the characters.

The exception is Gannon. I was deliberately vague about how she looked, because I wanted the reader to project their own image of Gannon. For most of the book, she is the proxy for the reader, and they experience the world through her eyes. My idea was that by leaving her description largely to the reader, they could create their own image of a character they found relatable. (This is something I picked up writing horror: what the reader imagines for themselves is usually way better than whatever you as the author create.)

It’s possible I made her too vaguely-defined, however; and this could make her difficult to relate to.

Conclusion

Creating convincing female characters is one of the biggest challenges of writing fiction for me. I try to avoid obvious pitfalls that I’ve seen a lot of male writers fall into–lengthy descriptions of their anatomy, character traits that are nothing more than clichéd stereotypes–but I’m still not entirely satisfied with what I’ve done so far. The good news is that I can tell I’m improving, and the more I write, the more I feel emboldened to experiment with characterizations, which hopefully will lead to better and more relatable characters.

iwI saw this book after reading Jersey Ghost Stories, which Goats co-authored with Erren Michaels. One of the reviews of Incomplete Works likened it to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which in my opinion is one of the greatest comic novels ever written. I decided to give it a try, although I doubted very much that it could live up to such billing.

Within a page, I was hooked. The protagonist of Incomplete Works reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly, the twisted but unforgettable lead of Dunces. I knew then that I was in for a treat.

Thornton Mordecai Lathrop is a student at Snaketree College in Buffalo Wallow, Wyoming. Coming from San Francisco, he is uncomfortable with life in the small, rural community, with it hard-drinking, bull-riding cowboy ways. Thornton is a bit of a snobbish dandy, whose letters home combine references to classic literature with pleas for money.

These letters are mixed with chapters of a book Thornton is writing—a fictionalized account of his own life, in which he has named his surrogate “Larry Lambert”. Larry’s exploits echo Thornton’s, though with various alterations. This ingenious device establishes him as an unreliable narrator early on, which I loved.

There are all sorts of humorous episodes and memorably over-the-top characters, most of which feel distinctly Wodehousian, from a zealously vegan love interest to a drunken ride on a mechanical bull. One dream sequence in the novel-within-a-novel, wherein Larry attempts to sell his soul to a demonic car salesman, felt like something from a Russian satire.

In addition to the hilarious setting and characters, Incomplete Works is brimming with clever turns of phrase, again very much in the spirit of Wodehouse. I rarely laugh out loud, even when I’m reading something funny, but there were a few lines of this that got me audibly chuckling. Goats has an immensely enjoyable wit.

I don’t want to give away too many plot details. Indeed, this book seems not to have much of a plot at first, but gradually the disparate zany characters and situations do tie together to a degree. It’s not as intricate as Wodehouse’s novels or the incredibly layered plot of Dunces, but it works pretty well.

I had a few nits to pick here and there—sometimes the structure of the novel-within-a-novel makes it a little difficult to keep track of who’s who. (Thornton changes the names of his roommate and his girlfriend, so names alternate between his letters and his novel.)

There were also a few typos here and there—mostly of the sort where it was obvious the spellchecker had automatically altered something (e.g. “dues ex machina”) I am always very sympathetic to this sort of thing in indie books—it’s something I’ve struggled with myself. This is why I so love the easily-correctable format of ebooks.

Despite the modern setting, Incomplete Works—like Thornton himself—feels like a throwback to an earlier era of writing. The abundant wit often relies on references to literary works that are hardly read anymore, and Thornton more than once uses expressions that sound like something Bertie Wooster would say.

To be clear, this is one of the most wonderful things about the book—its timeless quality. It feels like it could take place at almost any point in the past century, give or take a few passing references. And that was what made Wodehouse great, and what made Toole great as well. Anyone who enjoys those classics will likely appreciate this novel.

It’s a short read; only a few hours, and well worth the time. Incomplete Works is a delightful tale, ingeniously told. It was a pleasure to discover that people are still writing books like this—now if only more people would read them.