Classic Novels Speculative Fiction

THE BIG WIN by Jimmy Miller

In this careening kitchen sink of a novel from 1969, we spend the majority of our time in the head of Gerry—rapist, murderer, sociopath, racist, and desperate player of The Game. The Game, a sort of Pokémon with human targets, is the only upward path for the poor in the far-future year of 2004 where the US and Russia have been devastated by a pandemic unleashed by the Chinese, the Chinese in turn have been nuked by the French, and the French have taken over the world.

Our second protagonist is a member of the new French nobility, 26-year-old Nicole, who is involved in an incestuous triangle with her mother, “a knockout blonde Snow Queen,” and her brother, equally golden and decadent. “The sight of his huge, shockingly beautiful face and coarse blond hair, his blue eyes with their yellow-striped centers and their vertiginous intensity, let her endure the long evening meal with some calm.” He’s waiting to be posted abroad; Nicole doesn’t know what she’s waiting for.

Meanwhile, on Venus, Franky is living a hippie fantasy with a band of exiles from Earth, tripping on Viz-Nez and grooving with the dinosaurs.

Only on page 72 does Miller finally put the engine of the plot in gear as the three protagonists meet up at the Hunt School in Mérida. Each is in pursuit of Suan N.Y., the most notorious of the Chinese war criminals, and that quest will take them the rest of the novel and send them to Venus and finally to the twilight zone of Mercury.

This is the sort of pseudo-SF that drives some fans crazy, convincing them that a mainstream writer has invaded their dancefloor without bothering to learn the steps. Yet there is ample evidence that Miller is having fun with genre conventions rather than acting out of ignorance. For example, she uses the term BEM without defining it (for those of you who don’t know, it’s a fan initialism for “bug-eyed monster”). Dinosaurs on Venus and the twilight zone on Mercury were staples of SF before science deprived us of them.

Who is this Jimmy Miller, anyway? Per the Encyclopedia of SF, she was born Jane Curley, and was married to Warren Miller, the criminally underrated author of THE COOL WORLD and FLUSH TIMES who also wrote the superb SF novels THE SIEGE OF HARLEM and LOOKING FOR THE GENERAL. She clearly expects you to keep up with her erudition, wit, and wordplay—for example, significant passages in French and Spanish are not translated. Her prose is luminous and rhythmic throughout, as in this description of the long voyage to Mercury:

“[T]he hunt…had taken them here, away from their planets, plummeting them out where their senses answered there was no floor to the universe, only blacker blackness. No visit to the Eiffel Tower had prepared Nicole for the acrophobia of the ship, and Viz-Nez had only indicated to Franky where space began.”

At some point I began to suspect that the brutal sex, the incest, the drugs, and the bloodshed were meant not only to épater la bourgeoisie but to camouflage Miller’s own sentimentality. And as the characters move ever closer to the cleansing heat of the sun, Nicole does stand up for herself against Gerry’s sexual assaults, Franky finds enlightenment, and an unexpected character finds a path to redemption.

THE BIG WIN is very much of its time, and your enjoyment of it may depend as much on your willingness to overlook the author’s all-too-frequent insensitivity as it does on your appreciation of love, peace, and idealism.

In the case of Jimmy Miller, count me in.

Contemporary Novels


City of a Thousand Gates

This amazing first novel is blanketed by a cloud of hopelessness that makes it impossible for its huge cast of characters—or for the reader—to take a long view of anything. And that’s as it should be, because this is a realistic novel set in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Israeli settlements in the present moment. Sacks’s ambition is to cram as many sides of the story as she can into 379 pages, and she succeeds spectacularly.

The plot centers on an explosion at the Tunnels Checkpoint outside Bethlehem. A number of our viewpoint characters are there, including: Mai, a young Palestinian woman studying at Bethlehem University; Ori, an Israeli soldier; and Vera, a German freelance photographer. Against her better judgment, Mai pulls a seriously injured Ori from the rubble, helps him to an Israeli ambulance, and then runs away. Unknown to her, Vera has photographed the iconic moment, which immediately goes viral with the caption, “This is what hope looks like.”

Of course the caption proves ironic. Mai immediately regrets her kindness and would take it back if she could (not least because most of her fellow Palestinians would happily murder her for it). Ori derides her, joking about her with his friends. Israel’s occupation of Palestine is not a problem that can be fixed by a futile gesture and a wishful slogan; even if the will to fix it existed.

Mai, Ori, and Vera are three of maybe two dozen viewpoint characters, all of whom we come to know intimately (and sometimes biblically). There’s a lot of sex in this book (most of it, interestingly, viewed in retrospect), tying into recurring themes of possession and the violation of boundaries. Who actually “owns” the West Bank? Why does one of the characters get such an erotic charge when her lover whispers “You’re mine” during sex? Time after time we see people penetrating borders and crossing lines, both cartographic and ethical.

On the first page we meet a vulnerable young Palestinian man in Israel, in the wrong place without the right papers. (Opening line: “Hamid is fucked.”) We see the naïveté of the Jewish-American woman raising her newborn daughter with her Israeli husband in Palestine. The isolation of the only Palestinian on an Israeli professional futbol team. The hopes and struggles of their mothers and fathers and siblings and friends. The texture of their daily lives, rendered in crystalline prose:

They drove down from the hospital campus, through the shuttered shops of the village, down past the Mount of Olives, past the unforgiving settlement block there, past the Israeli flag the size of a dump truck, past the silent graves like teeth in the moonlight.

If the novel is ultimately depressing, it is far from grim. Sacks is wonderful at capturing the many dialects of Jerusalem, and not above having a little fun with them:

He wrote down the antiquated Hebrew phrases he heard the [Holocaust] survivors use, the ones still struggling not to speak Yiddish. They spoke like Moses. “And I spake unto the taxi driver, saying, ‘Lo! Do you take me for a proletariat that you have tithed me thusly?’”

Other than a few instances where the tone strays from compassion into satire, like with the liberal US academic blind to her own racism, or Vera’s descent into self-loathing, the characters feel solid and real and motivated by everyday human concerns. Sacks’s love for them is palpable.

To say there are no easy answers here is an understatement. There are no answers at all, except maybe for this one: the best literature— like CITY OF A THOUSAND GATES—opens our hearts as well as our minds, lets us find our own reflections in those blanketing clouds.

Music Nonfiction

STEP IT UP AND GO by David Menconi

The sole criterion that the musicians in this book had to meet was that they were in some sense “from” North Carolina—born here, raised here, or did their most important work here. That’s a broad remit that’s bound to create some strange bedfellows: Clay Aikin and Charlie Poole, for example, or Superchunk and Nina Simone. I kept waiting for a chapter that didn’t hook me immediately, that made my restless fingers want to skip over to the next one. It never happened.

After nearly 30 years covering music for the Raleigh News and Observer, Menconi has that bone-deep knowledge of his subject that only a few music journalists can match—Richie Unterberger, say, or Ed Ward in his prime. And he’s got an amazing gift for contextualizing an artist or a song or a genre in a few words without sacrificing accuracy or nuance.

There are acknowledged legends in North Carolina music, like Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson, but Menconi’s net stretches much further, to include hip-hop, biker rock, and beach music as well. The latter was particularly interesting to me, as a relative newcomer (1996) to North Carolina—reading Menconi’s book was the first time I finally understood that phenomenon. (And if you think The Beach Boys are “beach music,” you really need this book.) Menconi treats all the performers he covers—even the teenagers from AMERICAN IDOL—with generosity and respect. He’s at his very best when covering the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill rock scene, his home turf, and his farewell to Sadlack’s Heroes—hangout for so many local musicians nursing broken dreams—is positively heartbreaking.

Even with the dozens of artists he covers, he was bound to leave out a few favorites—by choice, clearly, not by error. Still, I wish he’d been able to find room for singer/songwriter Marti Jones, and Dana Kletter’s brilliant band Dish. I suppose that just further demonstrates the richness of the North Carolina source material.

I have to add kudos to UNC press who did such a fantastic job on the design, layout, typesetting, and photo reproduction in STEP IT UP AND GO, making it a physical pleasure to simply hold this book in my hands. If there’s a heaven, there’s a special corner there for those who work at academic presses.