Thursday, September 15, 2011

Iron House: John Hart Stops Being Comfortable

You don't have to spend much time going over my pantheon of favorite authors of fiction. There are two: John Hart and Ken Kesey. The reason is simple. Both write characters who are very real, very universal and exist in worlds I can touch every day. Kesey could take the Stampers and make them Maine lobstermen and not lose a thing. Hart could take Work Pickens or Johnny Merrimon and drop them into Idaho and it would feel right. Kesey wrote about his beloved Oregon, and Hart does that with his native North Carolina.

But I believe Hart missed that basic point with his latest novel, "Iron House." Hey, it's a great novel, and I loved reading it. It is a marvelous work. My problem is that universal aspect of his characters got lost in this one. Let me explain.

I have no problem with the main character, Michael, who, as Hart says, is "a cold-blooded killer." But there is a basic human foundation to Michael despite his line of work, and I can accept him. He loves a woman deeply and wants to do what's best for her. He wants to change his life. He is willing to do whatever to make that happen. He has a horrendous personal history. OK, Michael is fine.

It's some of the other characters I don't accept as readily ... the senator, his wife (who becomes a main character on which much of the action centers), his brother Julian. The universal quality to Hart's earlier characters were that they were taken from Hart's Rowan County roots, that North Carolina foundation. Every detective, every protagonist, every supporting character could have walked the streets. The senator and his wife in "Iron House" are disjointed from that familiarity just by their status. Julian is disjointed because of his afflictions. They went from being universal characters to literary figures ... from comfortable folks to people of the imagination. That is a great distinction, in my opinion.

But no character jarred me more than Jimmy, who is the other major "cold-blooded killer" in the novel. I can understand how Hart almost HAD to make Jimmy as irksome as he is. If Michael is the protagonist, then Hart must make an antagonist who makes Michael look like a choir boy. And, my, Jimmy is that kind of antagonist. The level of violence Hart lays out is close to "Silence of The Lambs" violence. Jimmy is that twisted and that intent on exacting punishment to get what he wants. Give me the "simple" murders in Hart's earlier works ... "King of Lies," "Down River," "The Last Child."

I wrote a scene of murder-suicide in the novel I am trying to sell, and it was a difficult thing for me to sit in my office and detail what was happening. I'm just not a murder-suicide kind of guy, which I'm sure is good news to my family members. But it is a basic foundation to part of my novel as I put together issues a protagonist must face. I have talked to and exchanged e-mails enough with Hart to know he's a basic good guy, a real Rowan County type of person. I wonder whether he had problems taking Jimmy to the levels he took him.

I will make one more link between "Iron House" and "Silence of The Lambs," and it is a good link. No novel grabbed me by the shirt collar and pulled my along more than "Silence of The Lambs" ... I started reading it on vacation, and I couldn't let go of it. The first 100 pages of "Iron House" have that same grab-the-shirt-collar quality. I think it is Hart's best writing as far as character development and pacing. Some of that pacing ebbs later in the book, but never to the point that it becomes a problem. It went from being simply sensational to merely great. I would like to be able to write as well as that.

How can I praise "Silence of The Lambs" and give "Iron House" a rap or two on the knuckles? Notice I don't include Thomas Harris, the author of "Silence of The Lambs," on my list of great fiction authors. He writes great stories, but there is a disconnect with me as far as characters. No author will make it to my lofty-author status without nailing characterization to which I can relate. So few are able to do it.

My original thesis on this blog entry was that readers had a similar disconnect with "Iron House" characters and sales suffered because of it. I saw that "Iron House" showed up at No. 10 on the New York Times bestsellers list, but it can't be found on the list now, or even on the USA Today 150. I sent John an e-mail detailing that argument, and he shot it down by using the facts. (As a journalist, I like that method of disagreement.) Early sales on "Iron House" were 3-to-1 over early sales on "The Last Child" ... and both showed up at No. 10. It's just a matter of timing ... a No. 10 at one time doesn't equate to a No. 10 ranking at another time. OK, that part of my argument is gone, but my basic feeling about characters remains.

Read "Iron House" ... you won't be disappointed ... but take time to read John's other novels as well. He is a master craftsman. I treasure my time of reading his novels. I wish him the best (as if he needs my goodwill). I just hope his next novel gets back to what he does best.

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