Every writer afflicted with literary aspirations has been dressed down with some version of the following admonition: “Why don’t you write a thriller?” Peter Craig likely didn’t need the encouragement.
Judging from the books that beget the blockbuster movies, the public assumes thrillers or crime novels or action adventures (or any other recognizable genre, from romance to sci-fi) sell better. Do they? I think any particular one probably has the same chance of commercial success as any other novel, which is close to zippo. Genre books roam in thunderous herds, and I have to believe it’s hard to be heard above the din. According to an article in Slate, “Cents and Sensibility,” from April 2, 2003, the classics slowly and steadily trump, decade after decade, the best-sellers, which are generally here and gone in less than a year. (The stats are based on data collected by Nielsen BookScan, a sales tracker launched in 2002; see www.bookscan.com for info about the technology but no sample data.) Still, the Hollywood perception (by way of Tom Clancy, John Grisham, et al) is enough to prompt our concerned relatives and friends to express, in the only way they know how, their sympathy. “Why don’t you write a thriller?”
In other words, why don’t you write something they can understand?
The story of Blood Father is easy to understand. It’s the equivalent of a father-daughter buddy movie. Essentially, it’s a developed screenplay waiting for the movie rights. A Hell’s Angel ex-con and recovering alcoholic named John Link protects his estranged wild child, Lydia, a seventeen-year-old speed-hungry brat, from the bad guys whom she has done very wrong. A book like this takes me a while to get into—like 100 pages. The writing is blunt, literal, stunted in places and overwritten in others. Little is left to the imagination. It’s all spelled out. From gang slang to tragic backstory, the pieces are all set firmly in place with strict adherence to the rules in popular guidebooks. Here are the themes of disappearance, temptation, love and redemption. In the first chapter, Lydia says defensively, “Don’t call me a bitch,” and in the last, she boasts, “I’m the toughest bitch you ever saw.” Viva character development!
“Maybe she’d just turn up dead in a drifter’s suitcase, left in a bus station locker or a rest stop men’s room. Every stranger was his own life-and-death riddle.”
“[H]e bragged that he had never lifted a barbell in his life but had bulked up on a regimen of hurling yuppies through plate-glass windows.”
“In this clutter of trailers, scrap tin, and corrugated titanium awnings, Link had soldered his life back together with God and cigarettes.”
“He stomped Hardy’s ribs, feeling them give way like the wooden keel of an old canoe; he picked up his limp body, propped him against the fence, and busted the chain across his face.”
“When she stood, she was a skeleton except for her garishly fake breasts, which seemed to Lydia like a curse—two young and perfect boulders that this gaunt body was forced to forever trundle uphill.”
“As they continued into the house, all five girls were now quiet and vaguely green, as if seasick at the first dips of open sea.”
“‘You look so major,’ said Chloe. ‘He’s going to die for you.’ ‘I love you so much, sweetie. If it wasn’t for you, I swear to God, I’d be hanging from a meat hook right now.’”
“He was now vigorously rubbing her ass, and Lydia said, ‘Damn dog. What do you think—a genie’s going to come out?’”
I can ignore the cringing one-liners because they seem to be joking references to movie dialogue. You can hear the author whispering to the future screenwriter: “Wouldn’t it be cool if, right after THAT, they said THIS?” And then there’s the updated noir writing, but it’s rare enough that it functions as comic relief, paying homage to its roots, a literary gang sign flashing allegiance to dead white crime writers.
One of the consequences of hewing too closely to that trite bit of writerly advice, “Show, don’t tell,” is that a writer can feel compelled to show everything, and the third-person narration of Blood Father often reads like a laundry list or a tour guide. The descriptive litanies tax the patience.
But I didn’t read this book (the author’s third) for the writing, even though the dude went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I read this book, selfishly, for the plot. The cover expresses the publisher’s marketing strategy: to package the book as a literary thriller or a thinking person’s crime novel. The type treatment strives for cool, almost neon spiritual in its evocation of some religious artifact hung from the rearview, and there’s a photo of boulevard palm trees in the gloomy morning mist, as seen through a windshield with a bullet hole. The cover is subdued, not the racy embossed gold-lettered schlock of the paperback shelves in the supermarket. The cover promises guilt-free fun for lit geeks, a well-written story in which something happens.
And that’s why I read it, because, yes, I’m thinking about writing a thriller. And I wanted to read a book in which something happened, in which characters did stuff and got in trouble and devised ingenious means of self-liberation. And I learned something from Blood Father, something I could have learned from The Da Vinci Code or The Rule of Four. I learned that, despite the advice offered us by our friends and family, I now know exactly why I don’t write a thriller.