RARA-AVIS: Constantine's Bad Blues

Bill Hagen (billha@ionet.net)
Thu, 14 Jan 1999 17:51:16 -0600 (CST) Speaking of "Blurbs That Kill," I would propose a second, larger category,
"Blurbs That Discourage" one from reading anything more by the same author.

Case in point: K.C. Constantine's Bottom Liner Blues (1993), tenth in the
Mario Balzic series, described on the back cover as "Balzic/Constantine at
his peak" by a Detroit News reviewer. If it's a "peak," and the nine
novels before it are valleys or foothills--and if I hadn't read some of
them--, I would give up on KCC. The reviewer is caught up in the old
illusion, maybe, that each book inevitably represents an improvement, that
a writer's career always progresses (upward). (Like Orsn Welles did his
best work after his first film, Citizen Kane.)

Although Constantine starts and ends decently, the novel sinks under
massive monologues: Mario's wife on the U.S. invading Iraq, his wife on
redefining their relationship, and then, the leaden climax, a 56-page rant
(with few interruptions) by a down-and-out novelist who has a 22-pistol
which we know he will not use on Mario.

It's always dangerous for writers to put writers in their work. It's hard
not to talk shop or mouth off through your alter ego. The thing that most
pissed me off was the too cute self-reflection in the middle of the rant:
"You write fiction, you don't get points for the originality of
your ideas, man. You get points for creatin' characters. Those characters
can have the dumbest ideas in the world, that ain't the point. It's
whether a writer can make you believe a character could think all those
dumb ideas and still make you keep turnin' the pages to find out where
those dumb ideas are gonna take the character..." (162).

"still make [me] keep turnin' the pages"--at which point, I realized I was
being had. Only a fan would read so far (though I was skimming) and KCC is
, in effect, telling me that I am a fool for reading so far. And, in point
of fact, the novelist's ideas don't take him anywhere. At least, he later
apologized to Mario. How about the dogged reader who went through the same

I was reminded of experimental novelist John Barth's turning on the reader
in one of his pieces, with "You, dogged, uninsultable, print-oriented
bastard, it's you I'm addressing, who else, from inside this monstrous
fiction. You've read me this far, then?" Difference is that Barth was
writing comedy in short form ("Life-Story" in Lost in the Funhouse), and
KCC was making that fundamental error of realistic fiction--imitating,
point by point, what is tedious or tiresome or banal enough in everyday

My take is that Constantine had alot he wanted to get off his chest and no
editor was going to tell the established author to cut some of the talk.
Don't publishers have Maxwell Perkins' editor types anymore, the kind who
can say "Revise" and make it stick? (Perkins is the famous editor who
shaped Thomas Wolfe's stuff into novels.)

I will continue to read K.C. Constantine, but I've about decided that he
must get worse as he goes along, especially after Joey's Case.

Now he's prompted me to rant too.

Bill Hagen

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