Friday, September 11, 2020

The Book You Have to Read:
“A Man’s Game,” by Newton Thornburg

(Editor’s note: This is the 166th entry in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books. It comes from Jim Thomsen, a former newspaperman and now an independent writer and manuscript editor, whose fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Pulp Modern, Mystery Tribune, Switchblade, Shotgun Honey, and West Coast Crime Wave, among other publications. A native of Bainbridge Island, Washington, he now splits his time between the Puget Sound area and Lake Santa Fe, Florida.)
“I feel like I jumped off the Space Needle some time ago and haven’t quite reached the ground.”
— Jack Baird,
A Man’s Game, by Newton Thornburg
By 1996, when A Man’s Game was published, Newton Thornburg’s moment was over—long past over—and he was in something resembling career freefall. That moment lasted from 1976, when his noir novel Cutter and Bone was published, to 1981, when it was made into the Jeff Bridges/John Heard film Cutter’s Way. Both had, then and now, a fervent cult appeal to readers who like their noir in a certain shade of sun-blasted, star-and-striped black. Crime novelist George Pelecanos called Cutter and Bone “the novel that best captures America in the last years of the Vietnam War. Thornburg wrote many novels, but this is the one for which he will be remembered.”

But, positioned by the novel’s rave reviews as something like Ross Macdonald filtered through Robert Stone, a crime author with an extra literary gear—an amazingly commercial sweet spot at the time—Thornburg was unable to capitalize on his moment. Not that the commercial failures that followed were his fault. None of his subsequent novels were awful, or anything close to it, but I can guess that none of them were greeted by his agent and publishers with hugs, high-fives, and heaps of cash.

There was Black Angus (1978), a noir set in rural Missouri, inspired by Thornburg’s stint as a ranch owner, which was fueled by film-option cash from his 1973 novel To Die in California (a novel every bit as classic and clear-eyed about post-Vietnam California as Cutter and Bone). There was Valhalla (1980), a doomsday post-apocalyptic novel that was probably the last thing anybody wanted from Newton Thornburg. There was Beautiful Kate (1982), another Midwest novel, and its adult-incest theme was probably the next-to-last thing anybody wanted from Newton Thornburg.

By the time Dreamland, his dour, sour kiss-off to Southern California, appeared in 1983, he had long since divested himself of that particular dream and decamped for comparatively dreary Seattle, Washington. Like hundreds of other disillusioned, transplanted Californians, he was drawn to the becoming of this one-time backwater, which in the early 1980s was just beginning to take on the nouveau sparkle of new technology and the surge of new money that followed.

Thornburg, then in his early 50, didn’t publish another novel for the rest of the decade. His wife died during that time. And even with his own sparkle diminished, he refused to take any easy path back into publishing’s good graces. “I’ve never considered myself a pure crime writer,” he said in a 2008 interview. “Cutter and Bone is a straight novel, no matter how you look at it—strong characterizations, simple plot. I don’t like novels with private eyes you know, formula ones. I like crime stories, but I like them to be about ordinary people, not crime professionals.”

A Man’s Game was published when Newton Thornburg was 67. It’s the second of his two squarely-set-in-Seattle novels (the first was 1990’s well-above-average The Lion at the Door). It was one of his last novels, too, coming just a few years before the stroke that ended his career. (His death in 2011 was followed by a brief flurry of “Newton Thornburg, all but forgotten” retrospectives.)

A Man’s Game is one of Newton Thornburg’s best, in my opinion. But it shows just how much a person can change in the two decades between the beginning of no longer being able to ignore middle age and the beginning of no longer being able to ignore old age. Cutter and Bone was the work of a relatively young man about relatively younger men living as corrosively as possible without having to do more than brush up against consequence. A Man’s Game reads at times as a sort of alternate take on Cutter and Bone in which Richard Bone, the carefree cocksman who had abandoned a life of Midwest corporate responsibility along with his wife and children, had stayed true to his family, or as true as he could possibly stay while staring down the barrel at the one thing he can’t run away from: getting old.

(Above) Author Newton Thornburg

In A Man’s Game, Jack Baird, age 47, loves his wife and his lovely late-teenage daughter, Kathy, likes his job as a paper-goods salesman, likes who he is and likes the slightly upper-middle-class life he’s created for them in Seattle. But discontent is already darkening the edges of his daily existence by the time Jimbo Slade comes along, threatening to hack away at the heart of it. Slade is a more-clever-than-smart young sociopath with a taste for being taken care of by gay men while acting out his darker sexual side with select young women in Seattle, whose bodies turn up in hospitals when they’re not turning up in morgues.

With zero subtlety, Jimbo Slade has set his sights on Kathy Baird—and, with an animal-clever instinct for what the law has to look past, he makes clear to Jack Baird that he has every intention of kidnapping, raping, and beating his daughter into oblivion.

Jack Baird’s life has never been touched by violence before. He’s worked hard for what he has, but, being white, handsome, and blandly personable, life has just sort of worked out for him until now. And it’s only when Jimbo Slade comes slyly insinuating himself into Baird’s life that Jack realizes how impotent and unchallenged he’s been for all of his days, how hard work has failed to make him hard against someone who says things like: “Shit, all rape is, is a guy takin what nature forces him to take. And if the cunt gets a little banged up in the process, that’s her goddamn fault for resistin. After all, what’s happenin to her ain’t no different than what’s happenin to the guy—they both havin sex, right? So what’s the big deal?”

For when Jack Baird is squarely confronted with the question of What am I going to do about this threat to my daughter when the police can’t or won’t step up? he realizes that, even though some part of him knows he’ll have to badly hurt or even kill Slade to save his daughter, he’s still a little too civilized to go to that dark place. Just as I would be, or frankly, just as about all of us would be.

So Baird, through the naïveté of his belief in civilization through his own civility, decides on a novel approach: He’ll befriend Jimbo Slade. Convince Slade that Baird has a dark side Baird’s still not entirely sure he has, that they are brothers somehow beneath the skin, that they share at least a subsection of the same murderous fantasias. Slade, of course, doesn’t buy it. So Baird decides he has to convince Slade, and in doing so convince Slade that there are easier pickings than Kathy among the city’s strippers, prostitutes, and other women on the societal margins. He’s fooling himself, and yet he knows it too, as well as Slade does, and still both decide to play out their charade, each convinced they’ll develop whatever edge they think they might have on one another to keep themselves clean … or clean enough:
Slade was shaking his head and sputtering with laughter. And Baird had no trouble understanding why. Yet this whole approach, this orgy of naïveté, was something he felt he had to get out of the way, much as the Seahawks’ previous coach would almost always run the ball on first down: to reassure the other team, lull it into complacency.
What follows for this unlikely duo is a series of night tours through the heart of Seattle’s darkness, a nightmare kaleidoscope of urban, uncaring bleakness and brokenness, the last of which ends on just about the bleakest and most broken note possible. Murder has finally been done, and for the first time in Jack Baird’s life, there is blood on his hands, and he doesn’t know how to wash himself clean.

From that point on Jack Baird, unable to swallow what he’s done or sick it back up, staggers through his daily life like a daytime drunk, with two Seattle police detectives riding shotgun in his head and all too often at his side. One seems to know exactly what Baird has done, despite his semi-convincing “Do I look like a killer?” denials, and goes about putting together a solid and semi-convincing case with ample circumstantial evidence. The other detective, an attractive woman, takes the extreme opposite approach, and decides on the basis of attraction to believe Baird.

Somewhere in the maddeningly murky middle are Baird’s wife and daughter. The wife isn’t stupid, and sees in Baird’s drift an opportunity to jump-start her own too-safe existence in a way that may no longer involve being Baird’s wife. The daughter, for the first time, starts to lose the lifelong shine of daddy hero-worship in her eyes, and all of the above become almost too much for Baird, or any man, to bear.

The genius of A Man’s Game is that it plays through some heavy character development without losing a step in its robust pacing and plotting. It’s a family drama, a police procedural, a legal thriller, a Hitchcockian suspense tale and a contemporary twisty thriller all at once, soaked in a sunshine-shattered darkness as deep as the well from which bottom-shelf whiskey is poured. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to guess at exactly how A Man’s Game ends, and yet it ends with everybody getting exactly what they deserve. Imagine Richard Bone in middle-age, a not-bad man who’s spent much of his life being not exactly good, doing exactly what needs to be done in the interests of family and justice in his own self-absorbed, half-assed way, and maybe you’ll get a glimpse of what fate—and Newton Thornburg, in 1996 an old but still powerful administrator of family and fictional justice—has in store for men who dare stare too long and hard into their own darkness.

A Man’s Game may lack that sense of nation-sized cultural scope, that Cutter and Bone feeling of capturing America and American men in a particular sociopolitical moment that seemingly only a California novel of a certain bygone time could pull off. But even a sideways view of it during a time of comparative cultural retrenchment from a comparatively obscure corner of America still captures something of the timeless American male struggle between masculine longing and civilized living. And that gives A Man’s Game, now nearly 25 years in the rearview mirror, a timeless appeal to American men—and the American women whom even in #TimesUp time, still see value in trying to understand them.

1 comment:

Todd Mason said...

Sounds less reassuring than CUTTER AND BONE might be curiously be, and interesting (and most TimesUp women have an interest in men, beyond what they need to navigate in the world where various kinds of assault and harassment by men can come from way too many circumstances). Being less reassuring probably has been what's left it, along with the other novels cited, less popular. Thanks for the review.