Thursday, January 05, 2006

Cold Comfort

Hot Plastic, by Peter Craig, Read by Stephen Hoye, Books on Tape, 2004

I have to admit, prior to this review, that I’m a sucker for con stories. If there’s a grifter in the book I’m halfway to hooked already and am so giddy with enjoyment that I probably overlook a great deal of flaws more obvious to others. Peter Craig’s Hot Plastic cribs elements made iconic by Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (or more likely Stephen Frears’ film version). We have a con threesome, a romantic triangle, traveling scams, and a perverted family dynamic. Craig also seems to have scooped up some healthy dollops of Tarantino’s True Romance.

Which is kind of a shame, because those are the best parts of this novel.

As a whole, books of this kind have the most basic weakness that genre fiction is prone to. In science fiction novel it’s the loving detail paid to all the new technological marvels. Fantasy tomes are almost always populated by bizarre species with arcane magical powers and novel forms of society. Westerns squint manfully at the action and the horizon, seeing little else. And romance novels try to hustle an element of freshness to various ways of hooking up and preventing hooking up. Books of specialized category then rarely feature characters deeper than the pages on which they’re printed.

The most ridiculous thing here about having thinly written characters in a scam book is that you have to have a decent understanding of psychology to plan (and write about) effective cons and how they need to work. Craig’s father and son con artist duo (Jerry and Kevin respectiviely) and the teenage girl they pick up, Colette, are barely wafers, each given a kind of idee fixe as a substitute for a soul or a personality. Thompson didn’t write the full Ulysses treatment for his characters, but they were so cannily etched that each felt distinct as a personality, not as a named personality trait.

The book’s most insightful bit of mental projection is when fourteen year old Kevin goes door to door trying to scam people’s personal data for pre-approved credit card forms. He learns that people are more likely to fill out his “charity” questionnaire if he himself is pathetic, adding a limp or a stutter or a vaguely blind stare, all dependent on the nature of the charity. That’s a keen observation and most likely true, but it’s also most likely it’s just something Craig cribbed from somewhere else.

That Hot Plastic’s structure seems mostly designed for the rapid facilitation of the transfer from book to screen we could chalk up to Craig’s insiderish status in Hollywood. His mother being film star Sally Field, Craig writes his novel leaning heavily on film for his impetus. That Tarantino style earlier mentioned has apparently migrated from screen to page and now the movement is likely in both directions. The book begins with a slam bang car chase with a gutshot protagonist then shifts back to the story’s beginning (a la Reservoir Dogs). We move through the early 80s occasionally popping back to the continuation of the story began on page one. The climactic gun battle in the deal gone bad that forms the book’s climax even includes flying goose down from shot pillows, via True Romance (and however many countless films Tarantino himself borrowed it from).

The dilly dallying about with time is supposed to add an element of tension, which it simply fails to do, and is supposed to bring a postmodern sensibility to the old classic form. It’s not merely enough to chop up the flow of the narrative for effect; it has to allude to something bigger than technique, I’m afraid.

Speaking of time, however, Craig seems to have some sort of vague notion of its flow, mentioning just released Apple Computers (early 80s) while also including the skateboard fad (circa Back to the Future, mid 80s) and a bevy of pre-approved credit card forms which really only gained prominence in the 90s. When Kevin learns to decode the information on the back of credit cards, he programs that same information onto “the back of hotel key cards” which is really jumping the gun. And while meth may have been around since the early 1900s, the frequency with which people suggest that there must be meth labs or people are on meth suggests a kind of preternatural fashionableness.

What’s going on here is the drizzling of certain cultural icons as a way of establishing time period credibility. It’s a necessary trick for any novel taking place in a different era, but as far as creating a credible pastiche of time and place, it’s a slight gesture, it’s merely punctuation. The problem with just using this kind of time-capsuling authorial wile is that merely dropping little historical nods (people go to bed after the national anthem) doesn’t create a thorough-going atmosphere. By themselves, they’re not enough. People need to think in early 80s mindsets, which is damned difficult to pull off, and all of Craig’s characters speak and act like they live in this year. Not one iota of dialogue would jar a 21st century mentality as anachronistic.

There is enough, however, that would strike someone living in the 80s as such. The aforementioned meth issues, the gunman who shoots with his pistol turned sideways (lifted straight from rapper gangsta films), the fluidity of digital banking transactions at the consumer level, and so on and so on. When you really get down to it, of course, there really isn’t really any reason for Craig to write his novel taking place in the 80s. Sure, some of the scams are framed in such a way as to have to be old school style, but if you look at Craig’s three novel oeuvre so far (troubled relationships between almost-washed-up parents estranged from their troubled kids), it’s clear that what’s going on here is a more interesting psychological profile than any of his out of time characters present.

Reader Stephen Hoye has a slow, patronizing style, as if he’s above the material he’s been contracted to perform. This doesn’t help make for a completely enjoyable experience. He likewise presents nearly every character in the exact same tone and pace and rhythm which makes long dialogues confusing without attribution, though when Colette and Kevin are in France he manages to wrangle up a French and a Czech accent with credible aplomb. Why he couldn’t be bothered with the rest of the novel’s reading is beyond me.

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