Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Killing Floor

Why Jack might be hard to identify with: He’s a Republican homeless drifter. Who can identify with that? 

  • It’s tricky because he doesn’t have a life: He’s just drifted into town, seemingly for no reason. No job, no friends, no history he wants to talk about. So he doesn’t have much life for us to believe in, but he has a very consistent voice, plainspoken with a lot of periods, and a very unique way of looking at the world.
  • I mean, it’s very tricky that a tweedy Thatcher-hating BBC writer with no military or police background (who’s never lived in America) can one day choose to write about a badass Clinton-hating American military-policeman-turned-drifter (who’s never lived in England). And Child insists he does no research! It’s really remarkable that he’s created a believable voice, but it’s totally convincing. He has really channeled this guy, seemingly out of the ether.
  • The first paragraph is “I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.” We can tell he’s being falsely arrested, and there’s no bigger humiliation than that.
  • We love what he can see, and what he knows. As he’s being arrested, he notes: “The guy with the revolver stayed at the door. He went into a crouch and pointed the weapon two-handed. At my head. The guy with the shotgun approached close. These were fit lean boys. Neat and tidy. Textbook moves. The revolver at the door could cover the room with a degree of accuracy. The shotgun up close could splatter me all over the window. The other way around would be a mistake. The revolver could miss in a close-quarters struggle and a long-range shotgun blast from the door would kill the arresting officer and the old guy in the rear booth as well as me. So far, they were doing it right.”
  • But then they make a mistake and Jack convinces us he could turn the tables, but he’s too smart to do so: “The guy with the shotgun came closer. Too close. Their first error. If I had to, I might have lunged for the shotgun barrel and forced it up. A blast into the ceiling perhaps and an elbow into the policeman’s face and the shotgun could have been mine. The guy with the revolver had narrowed his angle and couldn’t risk hitting his partner. It could have ended badly for them. But I just sat there, hands raised.” We believe him.
  • As he’s being arrested, he tips the waitress, so we know he’s a good guy. (And he does so in a very manly way: “I crammed egg into my mouth and trapped a five under the plate.”  Lots of cramming and trapping in this book!)
  • He gives us lots of news we can use has he describes his arrest. Number one: Never say anything at all, not even to acknowledge your rights. “Again I didn’t respond. Long experience had taught me that absolute silence is the best way. Say something, and it can be misheard. Misunderstood. Misinterpreted. It can get you convicted. It can get you killed.”


Harvey Jerkwater said...

Fiction often intends to show us how to live. It explores our interiors, helps us learn about the contradictory ways of the human heart. Child’s novels intend to show us how to survive. He's explaining to us technical skills theoretically useful in navigating the external dangers of the world. Jack Reacher is not someone who can help you understand how to handle your grief at the death of a loved one or how to resolve a conflict between two priorities. He is, however, the first person you’d consult when you want to know how to avoid a sniper in a shopping mall food court.

Given his omni-competence in the world of asskicking, Reacher feels to me like Batman for people who would be embarrassed to love Batman. He scratches the same itch - total combat mastery, vast knowledge of survival skills, a hero who inspires terror in those who frighten us - minus the rocket car, metal boomerangs, or murder clowns.

The scene you cite does tell us everything we need to know about Reacher and does this efficiently, but does it qualify as "believe, care, invest" when he's a total cartoon? There's so little to the man. The scene tells us he's The Last Man You Should Mess With, the Pro's Pro, but that's not a lot to work with. You like to point out the values of irony in fiction, and Reacher feels pretty irony-deficient. He's a big, scary looking man who is actually...big and scary. He acts like a cold, efficient Hard Man, and well, that's exactly who he is. -sigh-

Matt Bird said...

Well, it's sort of ironic that a homeless man is so competent. I would say we get full BCI. Care is easy because he's falsely arrested. Invest is very easy because he's so bad-ass. In terms of believe, I think I'm figuring out that a big part of believability is perceptiveness. The more a hero perceives and processes, the more we believe in them. Reacher perceives a lot. I guess you're saying that that it's hard to believe because it's *too* easy to invest: His level of badassery is cartoonish, so we shouldn't believe in his reality. But I'm not sure I agree with that.

Jonathan Auxier said...

I continue to be shocked that you hold this book up as an example of doing anything right.

James Kennedy said...

If there are any Chapo Trap House fans here, if you allow yourself to hear this prose in your head in Felix Biederman's Lying Military Guy voice, it becomes hilarious. The kind of guy who wears a tactical keffiyeh all the time, thinks it owns the libs when he drinks some mail-order coffee marketed by a Troop, and says things like "Sir, I have kinetically ascertained the infil point of this rogue operator" when he means he saw where someone went.

Matt Bird said...

Primarily I cite this book as an example of how to make gobs of money, but it does have serious literary fans: http://www.secretsofstory.com/2018/10/so-why-do-david-remnick-and-malcolm.html

James Kennedy said...

David Remnick and Malcolm fucking Gladwell, that's hilarious. Two perfect characters of the aughts, when we eagerly hot-taked ourselves into a pair of forever wars. We Americans love our charlatans and our grifters, and never more than today, but mercifully that particular aughts flavor of bamboozlement, the fake-smart airport-book Gladwell Style, seems to be going out of fashion ("You know that thing that's Obviously True? Well Actually, It's Not True!" -- but it turns out, after the dazzle of Gladwellian dust has settled, he was wrong, It In Fact Was True All Along). In the aughts we enjoyed constructing elaborate intellectual justifications to persuade ourselves into stupid shitty opinions; for the past five years or so, we've ditched the explanations, and prefer to assert our stupid shitty opinions as simple expressions of identity and aggression. That's more honest, at least! These days we find Gladwell spending time making tortured defenses of Jeffrey Toobin masturbating on Zoom, so that's perfect, water finds its level. In short, "literary"? Nah, Edmund Wilson he ain't.

I haven't read much Lee Child other than what you annotated and a few chapters I read for free online, but I couldn't go on, it's such hilariously debasing wish-fulfillment, bully worship. Its audience is that lying cousin everyone has who totally could've been a Navy SEAL but he claims was kicked out because he accidentally killed a guy in basic training by using some MMA moves he learned on YouTube, you know this type, "I could totally kick everyone's ass if I really tried but I won't, you're lucky my friends are here to hold me back, you don't even know, man." The fact that it's all written by some mild-mannered English guy who did zero research is the perfect cherry on top, it just goes to show how simple it is to grasp and reflect back violent American fantasies, and profit from them. Lee Child deserves every dollar. Great fiction to accompany the collapse of empire. Have at it, hogs!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

To be fair to Lee Child, the scene is very good at what it's trying to do. The scene is efficient and tells us everything relevant about Jack Reacher in very little space. It also gives us the tone of the story, that we're in Hard Man World, which sets expectations. Reacher's interpretation of what's happening betray zero fear, telling us that he's a psychopath, delusional, has a death wish, or has been around so much violence that it doesn't bother him anymore. The rest of the scene instructs us that the latter interpretation is the intended one.

What gets in the way of buy-in is that Reacher feels fictional. I believe that even a man who has spent a great deal of time dealing with guns and violence is unlikely to first appraise the tactical acumen of his arresting officers when they dash into a diner and point weapons at him. Also hindering the emotional realism is the use of the two-word sentence "Textbook moves" twice in one page. That's Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, that's big-talking veteran who spent his time in the motor pool, that's "82nd Chairborne" Internet Tough Guy talk. We learn who he is by what he does, and what he does is condescend to armed men in his head because Our Guy Knows Better. Guys who think like that are plentiful in real life, and they're all tiresome dorks.

His thoughts about disarming the officer with the shotgun suggests a man who unfamiliar with real violence, because while he peppers his narration about attacking the officer with a few "coulds," Reacher doesn't consider that it might not work, a possibility that real life teaches. Real life introduces a thousand variables and you can't foresee them all. Only in the realms of theory and fiction would a person be unafraid of the move not working as planned. (Again, he throws in "coulds," but the tone of his hypotheticals suggest that he knows exactly what would happen and the "coulds" are faux modesty.)

All that said, since the scene is pure mastery by Reacher, narrated with faux-modest Hard Man talk overflowing with Knowledge of Violence and Tactics and Tough Guy Stuffs, the scene tells us what it intends to tell us in just a few pages. We're in a story where the tough guy hero is such a tough guy he has confidence in his ability to disarm shotgun-toting deputies and approaches unjust arrest with the serenity of a man noting the weather. To me, this feels phonier than a $3 bill with a picture of Kevin Hart on it, but to lovers of Hard Man Fiction, it's a welcoming intro, showing us that the author knows his genre and is going to give it to you just the way you like it.

So I think this is less a case of standard "believe-care-invest" and more an intro to demonstrate genre awareness and competence. Or maybe it's "believe-care-invest" but for people whose understandings of how the world works are differently attuned than mine and other commenters'.

Matt Bird said...

I just pray none of you lily-livers ever have to learn the brutal facts of life and Jack Reacher and I have learned the hard way.

James Kennedy said...

"phonier than a $3 bill with a picture of Kevin Hart on it" -- loving Harvey in this thread

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