Midnight Plan of the Repo Man a Delicious Read

W. Bruce Cameron
Forge Books, 334 pages
* * * *

I’ve wanted to read this novel for quite a while, but the library wait list was so long I simply bought a copy. Now I understand why the demand is so high. The Midnight Plan isn’t exactly path-breaking literature, but it sure is a satisfying read. It is, at turns, social commentary, a ghost story, a murder mystery, a romance, and a black comedy. It’s also surprisingly well plotted (even when implausible) for a writer hitherto known mainly as a humor writer specializing in dog/human connections and disconnections.

The book’s protagonist is Ruddy McCann, a former college football superstar destined for an NFL career. That dream disintegrated in a single bad night in which circumstance, poor judgment, and bad luck aligned in a perfect storm. Now he’s 30, single, and living in the backwater town of Kalkaska, Michigan, in an unkempt bachelor pad he shares with an elderly dog named Jake. The bright lights of the NFL have given way to late nights: Ruddy is a repo man for a local collector/small-time operator, and doubles as a bouncer and co-manager at his sister Becky's not-very-successful bar and club. Shall we say that neither job is anyone’s idea of the fast track? Ruddy has become, simultaneously, an object of pity and a big fish in a small pond that includes characters such as malaprop-prone Kermit; hunky, dumb-as-a-brick and naïve-as-a-kitten Jimmy; and the lovely Katie, who may or may not be interested in Ruddy.

As we learn, Ruddy’s repo work—mostly cars in auto-crazed/cash-poor/post-industrial Michigan—is a combination of dullness, danger, tact, daring, and sleaziness. It’s fueled by adrenaline and caffeine and it's so stressful that it has its own associated malady: “Repo Madness,” a variety of slow nervous breakdown marked by squirrely behavior, insularity, and under-the-breath muttering. Ruddy is pretty sure he has it when a voice appears in his head and claims to be that of Alan Lottner, a dead realtor who has no idea how he has come to be inside Ruddy’s body.  Alan becomes a combination mentor, superego, nag, and major inconvenience, but somebody needs to help Ruddy think beyond his next repo job. And, as it turns out, Alan needs Ruddy’s help as well––he’s pretty sure he was murdered, but by whom and why? There’s your murder mystery connection, and Cameron spins a dizzy little swirl that involves swindle, infidelity, real estate, and small-town graft. 

Of course, none of Cameron’s tale is pure fantasy. This book isn’t intended to be anything other than what it purports to be: a frothy read. Cameron concocts memorable characters about whom we care, even though we know that their circumstances are implausible and the action set-ups equally improbable. People do really dumb stuff in this book, but we appreciate it, because we harbor gnawing suspicions that our own foibles are only a few degrees separated from theirs.  Ruddy thinks he does his best repo work after midnight, though we quickly discover that’s part of the self-deception he needs to jettison. But then there’s Ruddy’s Alan Lottner alter ego to remind us that we’re often not the best judges of our own strengths and weaknesses. Credit Cameron for making us laugh at all of this.

I ripped through this book like it was a package of opened Oreos sitting beside a glass of milk. Add this one to your summer-read list. Take it to the beach, curl up on your beach chair like lazy old Jake, and gobble it.  Rob Weir


High Mountains of Portugal Needlessly Obtuse

Yann Martel
Spiegel & Grau, 353 pp.
* *

Those who've read Yann Martel's 2002 Man Brooker Prize-wining The Life of Pi know that he thinks animals communicate with humans in deep, unspoken ways. That theme was evident also in his third book, Beatrice and Virgil, and it's repeated in The High Mountains of Portugal. This one has been highly praised by critics, but I found it a work with more valleys than peaks.  

Martel is a hard-to-categorize writer as his work has elements of magical realism, but doesn't really fit that bill. In his latest, it's often hard to know whether Martel is spinning fantasy, metaphor, allegory, or just cloaked self-indulgence. High Mountains is decidedly a meditation upon grief, belief, solitude, faith, anguish, and mystery. Its structure is that three interlocking novellas, each set roughly 30 years apart. I was amused by the first, baffled by the second, and mildly touched by the third, though the last felt contrived. It centers on three men, each of whom has lost a wife. Each is going through the motions, but is essentially an empty husk from which meaning has been wrenched. Empty vessels, of course, can be refilled. Sort of.

Part one is set in 1904, and its protagonist, a Portuguese museum curator named Tomàs, is so damaged by the death of his wife and son that he walks backward everywhere he goes–as if he's literally turning his back on God. Purposefulness of a sort comes reenters his life when he discovers a medieval diary from an obscure priest that mentions having deposited a great treasure at an unspecified chapel in the High Mountains of Portugal. Already Martel is having us on a bit, as his "high mountains" are not the Serra da Estrela of central Portugal, rather in the far northeast corner of Portugal near Bragança and the Spanish border, which is a grassy plain that Martel populates with oddly shaped boulders. Tomàs decides to find the treasure, with the vague goal of brining it back to the museum and with the implied goal of perhaps restoring his faith. He prevails upon a rich relative, who loans a 1904 14 hp Renault, one of the first motorcars seen in the country, though Tomàs hasn't the foggiest idea of how to operate it and there are few paved roads outside of Lisbon. I enjoyed this part of the book tremendously. Let's call it an eventful journey–and a very funny one to boot, despite a tragedy at its heart. Without giving away a thing I tell you that neither the fate of the car nor the treasure is expected. I also enjoyed this section because of Martel's precise geographical descriptions of places I've actually been.

None of this prepared me for part two, set in 1938, where Eusebio, a pathologist and Agatha Christie enthusiast, holds imaginary debates with his deceased wife. This sad, but familiar ritual is interrupted by an ancient woman who comes to his lab carrying the body of her dead husband in a suitcase and demands an on-the-spot autopsy, which she insists upon witnessing. Shall we say that the grand opening unveils unexpected things?

Part three unfolds in the late 1960s, where a widowed Canadian politician, Senator Peter Tovy, engages in an ambassadorial visit that takes him to an Oklahoma primate research center. Within weeks he decides to resign his post, purchase a lab chimpanzee (Odo), and move to a village in the High Mountains of Portugal, where he and Odo share a house and are treated as residents. This section is also amusing and affecting, but it feels like a forced completion of a triptych. The ending, I presume, is allegorical, though I'm not sure of what.

Albrecht Durer (1515)--He never actually saw a rhino
That ending is one of several things that feel self-indulgent. Chimps factor into all three sections, but why? Are we supposed to see humans as thinly haired primates so lost in their own self-centeredness that they have lost sight of what is of value? Muse upon our curse of living in the past rather than the present? Think upon the uneasy relationship between nature and faith? Reflect upon the curse of grief? Conclude that Nietzsche was right about God? Or do I give Martel too much credit? The book also contains references to the Portuguese rhinoceros, but these make no sense at all other than the fact that wooly rhinos were there 150,000 years ago. Martel's ploy is more likely either a reference to a sketch made by Albrecht Dűrer in 1515, or to the gift of a rhino made to King Sebastian in 1577. If this sounds to you like thin soil for a metaphor, I'd agree. Overall, The High Mountains of Portugal reads too much like an author penning thoughts for himself rather than an external audience.

Rob Weir


Cowboy Junkies Live at the Belly Up: June Album of the Month

Live at the Belly Up (2015)
* * * * *

A few ago, I was famous for a New York minute for teaching a college-level course on the Grateful Dead. (Put aside your outrage: It was really just a hook for exploring recent US history.) Even now, someone—students, media, a person I met at a conference—corners me to ask, "What's your favorite jam band?" They expected me to name groups like Phish, Assembly of Dust, Umphrey's McGee, or String Cheese Incident, but my answer is: The Cowboy Junkies. Students often reply, "Who?" It's a fair question in an unfair world. The CJs, after all, are Canadian and haven't charted in the U.S. since 1994. Those a bit older may recall that their "Sweet Jane" rose as high as # 5 on the pop charts back in 1989*, and that "Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning" went to #11 the next year. That's a long time ago, I suppose, but the Junkies never went away: 17 studio albums, 9 live albums, 4 compilations, and 10 singles in the past 26 years.

Let me go a step further. If you ask me to name the best jam band of all time, I'm tempted to say The Cowboy Junkies. Before you call me nuts, here's the deal of the century: go to Noisetrade's Website, and for a suggested "tip" of $5 you can download a 2014 concert from the Belly Up in San Diego whose 12 tracks sample from various CJ releases from 1988 through 2012. One of the things you'll hear on this and the band's other live albums is that, unlike the Dead, the Junkies never gave a bad performance and they continued to grow as they got older. The other thing you'll hear is lead singer Margo Timmins and if you never have before, you'll curse those who've kept her a secret from you. I like to think of her as a singer with the husk, power, and sexiness of Janis Joplin, but with the control of Grace Slick. You'll also hear that, like the Dead, the Junkies' repertoire draws from psychedelia, the blues, country, and jazz. In fact, on acid rock offerings such as "Sweet Jane," "Wrong Piano,"** and "Hunted," you can mentally time travel up the coast to the Bay Area and imagine yourself at the Fillmore circa 1967 (except the sound quality will be better)—fuzzed out electric guitar, reverb, sonic walls through whose cracks liquid guitar notes pore, robust swirls, and bring-me-up-ease-me-down arrangements. Check out also the country blues vibe of "MisguidedAngel," *** which is the sort of song Joplin would have sung, but maybe not as well as Ms. Timmins. It's about a woman in love with a bad boy. She knows the relationship is an addiction and won't end well, but she's all in. Timmins grinds out the pathos, but she never goes over the top, which heightens her vulnerability.

On the latter score, many CJ songs deal with women in precarious, even dangerous, situations, but her women are more complex than mere victims. Add solid songwriting to the list of CJ virtues. How about this line from "Sun Comes Up…:" Lunchtime. I start to dial your number/then I remember and reach for something to smoke/and anyways, I'd rather listen to Coltrane/than go through all that shit again.  Or this one from "Misguided Angel:" Telephone's ringing but I don't answer it/'Cause everyone knows that good news always sleeps till noon.

If you can buy a better album than this one for five bucks, buy two and I'll reimburse you for the second, plus shipping. Buy this record folks. Then get out your floodlight, shine it through a glass pie plate filled with veggie oil, drop some colored water onto the surface, crank up the Junkies, turn off the room lights, swirl the pan, and groove. You can enhance your time travel by listening to songs that take down hucksters and a lot of crap that used to be dismissed as "plastic." Peace, brothers and sisters.

Rob Weir   

*Oddly, "Sweet Jane" never charted for Lou Reed, though he wrote it. It first appeared on a Velvet Underground album in 1970 and didn't make it onto the rock/pop charts because the Underground eschewed commercialism. Reed released it as a solo single in 1974, but it never cracked the top 100. Today, of course, it's an iconic Reed song, but he always claimed that the Cowboy Junkies' version was the best he ever heard.

** "Wrong Piano" was written by a sadly neglected musician, Vic Chestnutt (1964-2009), who was paralyzed in an auto accident in 1982, but continued to write and perform until his untimely death at 45.  

*** On this clip, Timmins shares the song with Natalie Merchant. Wish I had been a fly on the wall for that one!