May 28, 2012

He's all Hart

John Hart's Iron House is his fourth novel and seems to be a culmination of the stylistic tics he developed in the previous three.

Hart specializes in people under pressure, at the limits of their ability to cope with the rough stuff life has thrown at them. The stories usually play out in a sub-Tennessee Williams environment, where close family relationships are fundamental and nothing must be allowed to cast them asunder. In his first best-seller, The King of Lies the lead character has to discover who murdered his father and to protect his sister from accusations or murdering him. Similarly in Down River and The Last Child, the heroes struggle to protect their families or to find out 'The Truth' about what happened in the past. We're in the same territory in Iron House, with all kinds of family secrets being hidden and exposed, hidden and exposed, hidden and ... well, you get the picture.

In order to capture the Importance of the revelations to his characters, Hart writes in a style that I'll call Headline Lite:
He’d tried before, of course, not one time but a hundred. Yet, with each failed attempt, the certainty had only grown stronger.
     He could not live without her.
     He could make it work.
When he has something terribly serious and game-changing to say ...
He says it on two lines.
So we take it seriously.
This is when a tic becomes an irritation. Harlan Coben has a tendency to use this trope too, but at least he does it with a sense of humour. I don't think my mouth lifted once during the whole of Iron House ... in fact, probably not once in his entire oeuvre. You don't read Hart for the jokes.

The story itself is relatively interesting to begin with - a youngish man, Michael, is passing himself off as a dishwasher at the restaurant where his girlfriend works, when in fact he's a killer who enforces for an organized crime boss. He wants out of The Life but some of his old compadres don't want him to go, especially as he knows secrets that could be incriminating. The family storyline starts here, because Michael was an orphan who the Don took under his wing, giving him love and the kind of life he'd never had before. As the story progresses, we're introduced to Michael's brother, Julian (what kind of backwoods name is that, incidentally?), and to other members of an overly-extended family. The discoveries about who is who's mother, father, daughter and brother are the core of the book, overlaid with a thriller plot that just about keeps it ticking over. (Having said that, the real climax of the book occurs about three-quarters of the way through - the remainder includes a plot-twist that is just silly and a denouement that is tacked on.)

It's Hart's style that is the real problem with the book. To call it overblown would be to minimize its effect:
The name was a smile on her lips, and he wondered if she was dreaming. She shifted and a warm-bed smell rose in the room. It carried the scent of her skin and of clean hair. It was the smell of home and the future, the promise of a different life.
The night outside was just as black, its skin stretched tight.
She had faith that each moment would be finer than the last. She believed that people were good, which made her a dash of color in a world blown white.
The scarf was silk, and very light to land with such force on two lives. It led to coffee, then more, until emotion came in its wildness, and the coming found him unprepared.
It's hard to know what some of this even means ... how does the night have a skin that is stretched tight? How is a world 'blown white'? How does emotion come 'in its wildness'?

The problem with it is not necessarily that the language doesn't have any correlation to the real world, or the world of real emotion - for the most part, one can just about get a sense of what he's trying to say. But when you've ramped up the emotional level to this extent when describing ordinary events, there's nowhere to go when you want to describe events that are out of the ordinary; the language loses its ability to really move you because your 'language-receptors' are burned out. It's like trying to hear someone talking while you're wearing ear-muffs - they have to shout louder and louder.

And boy, does Hart shout:
It would start over. The payoffs. The worry. The fear. He would be forced to yield, forced to bow. Another puppet master would take the strings, and the great Randall Vane would be made to dance.
     Again, again, again!
     The fire tool came alive in his hands. It smashed vases and crystal, tore great, white streaks in all his lovely wood.
     “Shit!” He threw the heavy metal against the wall. “Shit, shit!”
Here, language has in fact failed Hart. In order to express Vane's displeasure he's had to resort to having him break objects, as though he's having a middle-aged hissy-fit.

Names also seem to be a problem for Hart. At least, finding names that don't sound like they're just a bunch of consonants thrown together: Stevan Kaitlin, Arabella Jax, Jessup Falls, Salina Slaughter, Victorine Gautreaux ... of course best-sellers need characters that are strong and strong-sounding. But they don't need to sound like rejects from a daytime soap.

What can writers take from all this, and from Hart's success? Well, his success is largely down to structure. Hart organizes his plot in such a way that you want to know What Happens Next. This is because he sets up big Antagonisms early on and puts his characters in danger. (Though in fact placing Elena, Michael's girlfriend, in a life-threatening situation seems over-the-top - how did Jimmy even know where to find her?) Also, Hart sets several plot hares running and involves you in the inner lives of a number of different people. This can be tiresome when the characters aren't interesting (why do we need to know what Victorine is thinking midway through the book ... when she is then shunted aside later on?). But what it does do is move the story briskly from location to location, thus maintaining our interest.

And despite the extremities that his characters go through, there is at least a depth of emotion that makes it appear that the events of the book are important to them. Ross Macdonald was another crime writer who focused almost exclusively on the failure of family relationships, but Lew Archer, his private eye, observed their machinations with a cool and cynical eye. Hart is anything but cool - in fact the phrase over-heated comes to mind - with the result that reading his books is like being beaten over the head with the Important stick.

Authors would do well, perhaps, to take note of Hart's success because many readers find his stories gripping owing to the fact that his characters have depth - of a sort - and go through emotional catharsis. However, too much emotion can make you poorly and leave you pining for a long cool drink of reason. And a lie-down.

No comments:

Post a Comment