Summer Reading Recap: Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man

Dorothy B. Hughes

I’m not often very good at making a to-read list and then sticking to it. More often than not, I go off course when one of my to-reads turns out to just not be what I’m in the mood for, or I run across an exciting and unexpected title and forgo things that have been gathering dust on my shelf in order to satisfy spontaneous curiosity. This is neither good or bad, as far as I’m concerned, it just tends to be how I read. But this summer, I actually made a to-read list (here), and I’ve done a decent job of  keeping up with it. Of the five books I listed, I’ve read two so far, starting with Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable ManMy brief and informal recap is below, and if you’re at all interested in Hughes’ work, you may also enjoy the following pieces on her work:

The Sultana of Subversion: Three Hardboiled Novels by Dorothy B. Hughes,” by Jenny McPhee, bookslut, June 2012.

An Unsung Heroine,” by Sarah Weinman, Bookslut, February 2004.

Fever Pitch,” by Ariel Swartley, Los Angeles Magazine, May 2004.

Dorothy B. Hughes, A Mystery Writer and Historian, 88,” New York Times Obit from 1993, written by William Grimes.

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I was primarily interested in Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man because it is a crime novel (written by a woman) set in Arizona and from the cover description, it sounded like the main character was in some way dubious or not what he seemed–I love those unreliable narrators. About 60 pages into the book, however, my expectations were completely turned on their head in one of the cleverest narrative twists I’ve read in some time.

I’m not often troubled by spoilers, but I won’t ruin this for anyone by going into the aforementioned twist in detail. Suffice to say that Hughes’ revelation is partially a revelation because it shouldn’t be one at all, and yet the dropping of one small fact changes everything you’ve read up to that point and contextualizes the rest of the novel in a far more meaningful way than your average ‘wrong-man’ scenario. She’s a gifted writer–her prose is spare but really descriptive when it needs to be, and she puts a great deal of empathy into her characterizations, which I think is pivotal in a good crime novel. Through her characters in The Expandable Man Hughes not only effectively conveys a sort of looming paranoia and tension–and the agonizing feeling that the person one most needs to escape is, perhaps, oneself–but also ably places both herself and her readers in the same frame of mind, which makes for a rather jittery reading experience. (In a good way, of course.)

I’ll also say that this is one of the best evocations I’ve read of Arizona since Betsy Thornton’s High Lonesome Road (makes sense–Hughes lived in New Mexico), and it’s particularly touching to read her descriptions of Phoenix on the verge of becoming the sprawling, overdeveloped, contentiously urban city that it is today. I loathe Phoenix as it is now–as it’s been since my childhood–and in some ways, that’s just the Tucsonan pride coming out. But in the 60s, when the book is set, Hughes describes a city which is not yet large enough that one can easily hide there, a city which is only just starting to raze the natural landscape for suburban housing developments and which still lays claim to meandering country roads winding next to canals shaded by mesquite trees.

I wasn’t totally sold on the way the plot wrapped up–there’s some last minute amateur sleuthing that is a little contrived–but this is beside the point. I will certainly be tracking down more of Hughes’ books soon–maybe next In a Lonely Place, which was turned into a movie with Humphrey Bogart.

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El libro que no puede esperar

Yesterday, I came across this Galley Cat post about El libro que no puede esperar (The Book That Can’t Wait), a new collection of Latin American fiction published by Eterna Cadencia which is printed with disappearing ink. Once the book is exposed to light and air (it’s sold in shrink-wrapped plastic pouches which have to be torn open), the ink will begin to fade. So it is only actually readable for about two months. After that, all you have is a blank book.

If this seems like a somewhat self-defeating, gimmicky concept, consider the rationale. Per the video embedded below:

“Books are very patient objects. We buy them and then they wait for us to read them–days, months, even years. That’s okay for books, but not for new authors. If people don’t read them, the authors don’t make it to a second book. That’s why Eterna Cadencia, an independent publisher and bookstore, decided to create something different, to launch their new authors into the market: The Book That Can’t Wait.”

Okay then. So now you’ve got an interesting concept, one which actually alters the relationship between the reader/book buyer and not only the purchased book, and also the book’s author. Additionally, given the limited time frame during which you can actually read it, this book challenges the expectations that most of us have for a reading experience. I’m not sure I’m totally in favor of it, honestly, but it’s worth parsing a bit.

On the reader/book relationship:

  • Part of the appeal of buying books, honestly, is owning the object itself. I freely admit this–I like being surrounded by books in my home and while I could just get everything from the library, there are a lot of books that I prefer to own rather than borrow. But it’s not like buying a painting–unless you are a collector of artist books, the object itself is still valuable and desirable because it’s functional, not solely because it has a beautiful cover. So if you buy a book which quickly loses its functionality, and isn’t in and of itself a beautiful, timeless object, what do you have, really? A conversation piece, I suppose, but not much else.

On the reading experience:

  • Part of owning a book is that you can always refer back to the text–can re-read and re-experience a story or novel. I’m not a chronic re-reader myself, but I do often find myself going back to specific passages in a book, or just as importantly, lending it to someone else who I think would enjoy it as well. By essentially restricting the reading experience to one person–the person who buys the book–you lose the communal, social possibilities–the shared experience of book lending. This is not so different from the ludicrous proprietary restrictions on a good many e-books right now which can only be read on one person’s device and can’t be easily or freely shared among readers. I understand that the intent is to encourage people to delve into a book quickly, but if the whole point is to boost new authors, wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest if those authors could be exposed to more readers through book sharing?
  • Again, most readers expect that their reading experience is not finite, but that it can be repeated, at least in part, over and over again. You return to a favorite passage, re-read a memorable scene, share the book with someone else. Owning a book usually means that you can go back and if not have the exact same experience each time, at least have a very similar one. But if the text itself disappears and you can only really read the book once, then this reading experience becomes much more similar to that of watching a play on stage. As a theater-goer, you know and expect that you will see a play or performance only once. Even if you were to go back and see the same play a few days later, it would be a different experience–you’ll never replicate the first performance completely. El libro que no puede esperar necessitates an experience more like theater-going than reading, and I actually think that’s one of the most interesting, and possibly successful, aspects. You have to be much more present and attentive during the initial reading because you don’t really have the option of going back and revisiting it again in a few months.

On readers’ responsibility to authors:

  • This is where I think the logic gets fuzzy, or perhaps just more transparent. According to the video, if  “people don’t read [authors’ first books], the authors don’t make it to a second book.” I get what they are saying: if an author’s first book doesn’t sell enough copies, then they frequently aren’t deemed successful enough to have a second book contract. But there is a big difference between being read and selling books. And this essentially brings us to the same argument that is being staged about all kinds of media/cultural output (most frequently music).

    To rehash the basic point: People (consumers) have grown accustomed to being able to access cultural products for free, and therefore are not buying nearly as many of these products as they used to. As a result, not only do the (book/music) publishers and corporate entities suffer, but the artists do as well because they can’t make a living from the sale of their art.

    I understand and, to a point, support this argument and its parallel imperative: if you value an artist’s work and want to see more of it, then you should support it–basically, you should pay for it. (I’m not going to get into all the gray areas with copyright law, open access, etc. right now–just keeping it simple for now.) But it doesn’t necessarily follow here that it is my responsibility as a reader to support all new authors by buying expensive books that I can only read once. It doesn’t follow that just because I buy this anthology and read it right away that the publisher will put out all of the included authors’ second books, either. It may be arguable that as a reader who is interested in international fiction I should make an effort to become acquainted with (and purchase, even) the work of up-and-coming authors, but I’m not sure that it’s any more my responsibility to support work just because it is new than it is the responsibility of the publisher to create multi-book contracts with new authors who may not furnish them (the publishers) with immediate best-sellers.

    And it still is a pretty slippy slope to imply that new artistic talent can only be nurtured by the frequent purchase of hard-back, first-run books.

To conclude: this is an interesting concept for sure, and it has kept me thinking (and writing) for two days now, so at the very least, Eterna Cadencia can be pleased that its hope to bring attention to the project has worked out. Although, I have to say, what I’ve spent all this time thinking about is the book’s format, not its content. I don’t know a single author in this collection. So maybe this project was a bust after all?