Friday Five: 5 Favourite Books of 2014
Fiction: "The Interview" by H. Sivia

Underground Reading: Hot Night in the City by Trevanian (2000)

Hot night in the CityHot Night in the City (2000) is a collection of short stories by the singular (pun intended) Trevanian. The pen name of Rodney Whitaker, Trevanian was the author of a handful of (extremely) best-selling novels, including The Eiger SanctionSummer of Katya and Shibumi. (The latter is, perhaps, one of the best action thrillers ever written.)

(Wikipedia-sourced fun-fact! Trevanian got a screen-writing credit for The Eiger Sanction, but the bulk of the work was apparently done by The Destroyer's Warren Murphy. Given that Trevanian noted that The Eiger Sanction was supposed to be a spoof of books like Murphy's... no wonder he wasn't so happy with the final result.)

Hot Night is an extremely - and deliberately - uneven collection - a showcase of both the author's talent and a certain degree of indulgent experimentation. Individually, the stories are all fine (or better) - as a collection, however, there's very little to link them but their diversity. This is, basically, "showing off". 

The title story - the first in the collection - is perhaps the strongest. "Hot Night in the City" follows a young man - a drifter - as he encounters a young woman late at night in New York. He charms her with his film star impressions, they have coffee, they connect, they fool around and... then it gets awfully harrowing. In one of the book's many self-conscious literary exercises, Trevanian revisits the story at the end of the book, this time through the woman's perspective. He uses virtually the same phrases and structure, showing how the two have a shared experience. But in the final tense paragraphs, he sets off what must be the longest first-act gun in short story history and changes the ending. The new ending is no less harrowing, but also very different. Again, a literary exercise, but not an unsuccessful one.

Where the author also fares well is in another traditional milieu of the short story: the writing about being a writer. "The Sacking of Miss Plimsoll" is the story of a hyper-masculinity manly-man writer of manly-man books, who feels he is betraying his own (manly) image by having a plain (if talented) secretary. And "After Hours at Rick's" features a world-weary professor at a singles' bar, out on the prowl and showcasing his 'bag of tricks' to a young woman. In both, Trevanian sets up the sarcastic, impressive, clearly self-inspired author figure... then subverts the character by the end of the book. It, happily, doesn't read as self-loathing - more tongue in cheek, and the wry voice of these two stories helps ameliorate some of their pretension. By contrast, "Mrs McGivney's Nickel", a story seemingly inspired by the author's own youth, and has an openness that serves it well - it rings with genuine feeling, as opposed to darkly humorous self-flagellation.

Less successful are the handful of Basque-inspired pieces: "Minutes of a Village Meeting", "That Fox-of-a-Benat" and "The Apple Tree". The quirky misadventures of a tiny Basque village are less charming than they are affected. Also slightly dull. These feel, perhaps by intent, like artifacts from a different world - warm, plotless squishies from a pre-War Saturday Evening Post.

Several of the other stories are more straightforward concepts, and more successful for it. "Sir Gervais in the Enchanted Forest" is a cheeky Arthurian legend that perhaps goes on a little long, but is no less funny for it. "Easter Story" also suffers from an over-long setup, but is a surprisingly warm re-interpretation of the character of Pontius Pilate. As Trevanian explains in an end-note, Pilate is the most famous Roman in history, yet we know nothing about him. Like Howard Pyle's Rejected of Men, retelling the most famous story in Western civilisation is extremely ambitious, but, like Pyle, Trevanian has an empathetic new perspective to bring to his effort. "How the Animals Got Their Voices" is a Just-So Story thoroughly skippable.

"The Engine of Fate" is a retelling of a lesser-known Robert Chambers story ("A Young Man in a Hurry"). I recognised it from the original immediately (who knew that Chambers fandom would ever be so useful?) and awaited some sort of pointed Trevanian twist... that never arrived. Instead, this is exactly what it seems - a romantic comedy about two people connecting on a train. Trevanian's version is just as twee and charming as Chambers, and, although perfectly enjoyable, I can't help thinking that I missed something.

All in all, an offbeat, not-uninformative collection from one of the most versatile and talented commercial writers of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the collection is more about the former than the latter, and, if I am impressed by the stories' range, I would've been more so by added depth. Given how easy it is to find copies (very) cheap and second-hand, this may be worth picking up for a few of the tales, but for an actual demonstration of Trevanian's (rather amazing) skill, his novels are a better place to start.

Comments