Sunday, February 9, 2014

Obscenity Is a Necessary Evil

I blogged about this earlier, but it bears repeating. Do I use obscenity liberally in my day-to-day speech? No. Do I consider obscenity objectionable? Most of the time, but it depends on the situation or context. If I hit my finger with a hammer, I will guarantee you that I will utter an obscenity. (So too will most, if not all, of the pastors I know.)

There is a key phrase I used, and it concerns the use of obscenity in the novels I write: It depends on the situation or context. Now, I have never had a character hit his or her finger with a hammer, so the use of an obscenity in that situation has been a non-issue. I do, however, have a detective who litters the literary landscape with f-bombs. My antagonist does, too, usually when he is frustrated by the way events are unfolding.

Why do I do that?

Because that is the way life is, and I want my characters to be lifelike and exist within lifelike situations. I don't think there are many places of work where you don't hear a few obscenities during the course of a normal day. I work in a newspaper newsroom, and, trust me, there are more than a few obscenities uttered every day. Many of those are uttered by people who have a great love for the English language. But newsrooms are populated by people who face intense deadlines daily, face situations that can be quite trying as far as subject matter they cover, and almost every journalist develops a hard shell because of the nature of their work. "Hell" and "damn" are the tamest words you will hear in a newsroom.

(I will include a quick aside here. That "comfort zone" with hearing obscenity in a newsroom can be tested. I worked with a photo editor who not only would have made a sailor blush but probably would have caused Satan to say, "Did I hear what I think I just heard?" The photo editor was a walking Merriam-Webster's of obscenity. The thing that was objectionable to me was that there was no context to the swearing. It was an almost constant barrage. References to coitus, scatology, parts of the human anatomy, disdain for the focus of certain religions, etc., were all part of the daily, minute-by-minute language used. It was overused, and it became tiresome and bothersome in a hurry.)

For every character in my novels who swears there is a counterbalance of someone who doesn't. Another lawman who works with the detective regards obscenity as objectionable, and he points that out to the detective. My antagonist is balanced by my protagonist (who has several major flaws in his nature, but use of profanity isn't one of them). I have a woman who uses a few obscenities, but there is nothing out of kilter in that. Some of the choicest obscenities I hear are from that gender that is rumored to be so nurturing by its very nature. Yeah, well, there is the ideal and there is the reality. So it goes.

My point is simple: People swear, it is a part of life. I will use that if it fits a character or situation. It doesn't constitute my endorsement of it. It doesn't mean I am comfortable with it. I also am not comfortable with murder, but I use murder in my novels. I am not comfortable with violence, but I use violence in my novels.

I write about life, with its high and low points. Obscenity is just part of that landscape.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Dennis Lehane Masters the Tough Detective Genre

George Pelecanos is a victim of poor timing. It isn't his fault. He's a good author, and his The Way Home is a decent novel. It's just that I started his novel after reading Dennis Lehane's Moonlight Mile. Sorry, but anyone writing in the detective/prison/mob boss area of literature is at a serious disadvantage when Lehane's work is involved.

Lehane writes well enough that some of his books have become movies -- Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island. A wise producer needs to grab Moonlight Mile. It has the natural hook because it is a sequel to Gone Baby Gone, with an older Amanda McCready again in extreme peril.

Part of Lehane's master's touch is the plot line. He has a 16-year-old Amanda, a series of American goons who enter the world of Kenzie and Gennaro (Lehane's protagonists in a detective series) and the Russian mob. Danger lurks throughout the novel, as expected. But Lehane separates his work from the lesser detective series through two things, dynamic dialogue and unusual and vivid characters.

Lehane's dialogue crackles. The exchanges are sharp but not in a forced way. There aren't a bunch of pop culture references thrown in to provide "authenticity." Kenzie and Gennaro talk like the married people they are. An exchange Kenzie has with a reporter is particularly entertaining. And, best of all, the dialogue between Kenzie and Amanda and Kenzie and Yefim, one of the Russian mob goons, is literary gold.

The development of Yefim's character particularly intrigues me. Yefim is a bad man in a Russian-mob way, which means he won't hesitate to do anything no matter the brutality involved, but Lehane injects his character with a vein of sinister charm. Yefim's statements often come across as a Russian trying to sound like a modern American guy. Here is a snippet of Kenzie-Yefim dialogue:

"I like the Sony, but Pavel swears by the JVC. You take two. You watch both with your wife and daughter, tell me which you like best. Hey?"


"You want PlayStation 3?"

"No, I'm good."


"Got a couple, thanks."

"How about a Kindle, my friend?"


"You sure?'

"I'm sure."

He shook his head several times. "I can't give those (expletive) things away."

I held out my good hand. "Take care, Yefim."

He clapped both my shoulders hard and kissed me on both cheeks. He still smelled of ham and vinegar. He hugged me and pounded his fists on my back. Only then did he shake my hand.

"You, too, my good friend, you hump."

See what I mean? I am looking for a copy of Lehane's Live by Night but haven't found one yet on my journeys to Barnes and Noble. Maybe I will order it online, but it's next on my list of "want to read" novels. There is a good reason for that. The man is immensely talented.