Books: Paperback round-up

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
John Wayne: The Politics of Celebrity by Garry Wills, Faber pounds 12.99. Wayne has rarely received the consideration he deserves, thanks largely to his stridently primitive politics and the sheer awfulness of some of his later films - his self- produced Vietnam film The Green Berets, a Homerically embarrassing mix of gung-ho patriotism and inept sentimentality, remains one of the worst films ever made by a major star. Still, 15 years after his death he was still regularly topping polls of America's favourite movie stars, and he was publicly deferred to and imitated by Ronald Reagan. In purely practical terms, then, his career is worth close examination, to see what it says about America. Wills - a historian and an outspoken liberal commentator on American politics - swallows his own prejudices to give Wayne his due as a great screen actor, and perhaps the most enjoyable thing about this book is the detailed, sensitive scrutiny he applies to his performances. The book opens with a penetrating discussion of Wayne's presence, the size and strength and unobtrusive grace that make him such a monumental figure; Wills is shrewd and thorough, too, on the classic westerns, though he has a blind spot where Rio Bravo is concerned, and is too casually dismissive of Wayne's war-films. Perhaps he could not shake off the distaste that accompanies his examination of Wayne's reasons for staying out of the armed forces in the Second World War - a decision Wills sees in purely careerist terms, summarising Wayne's many excuses as "The dog ate my homework". But a clever, challenging book, in many ways the book Wayne deserved.

On Beulah Heights by Reginald Hill, HarperCollins pounds 5.99. Andy Dalziel is back in action, as massively coarse and rude as ever, along with the earnest, troubled Peter Pascoe. In this book - the 16th novel to feature the pair - they are investigating the disappearance of a small girl in the middle of a heat-wave, a case that brings back painful memories of a series of vanishings 15 years earlier. Hill has his tics and foibles. In particular, the broad Yorkshire dialogue sometimes feels, not precisely overdone, but too painstaking; his exploration of Pascoe's emotional life is only intermittently convincing (the family history dug up in The Wood Beyond is gnawing at him to an unrealistic degree); his plots can sometimes get dangerously contrived. Against that, you have to set the sensitivity to place and class, and the humane affection he feels for his characters. All in all, Hill is still the most brilliantly entertaining and intellectually satisfying writer now practising in the field of the classic English detective novel.

Gunfight! ed James C Work, Bison pounds 9.50. A highly inviting collection of 13 western short stories, some of them classics via Hollywood - "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance", "The Tin Star", which was the basis for "High Noon", and a Hopalong Cassidy tale - others interesting variants on the theme of the gunfight. The writers range from O Henry (1862-1910) to Mark Holden (b 1951) and the literary quality is variable; but there is a useful introduction, dealing with the historical background and the evolution of pulp comics. The only really bum note is sounded by the simple-minded afterword included with each story.

Finbar's Hotel ed Dermot Bolger, Picador pounds 5.99. A portmanteau novel, or possibly a collection of short stories, to which seven writers (Bolger along with Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Hugo Hamilton, Jennifer Johnston, Joseph O'Connor and Colm Toibin) have each contributed a chapter. Each chapter is set in a different room on one floor of Finbar's Hotel, a gone- to-seed establishment on the Dublin waterfront, and each chapter is a self-contained story: two estranged sisters talk over their past lives but fail to reach an understanding; a housewife comes to say goodbye to the city before she succumbs to cancer; a middle-aged man tries to get laid on his one night away from home. But under Bolger's guiding hand, the collection has been shaped into an impressively fluent, coherent whole, with scenes and characters recurring, the briefly glimpsed figure of one tale becoming the hero of the next. And there is an extra gimmick: you are never told who wrote which chapter, so you can turn it into a kind of literary quiz if you like.

The Rise of Rome, Books 1-5 by Livy, trans and ed T J Luce, Oxford pounds 8.99. The question is, why read Livy? Well, for a start, he is one of the founding fathers of modern culture. This volume, which takes us from Rome's beginnings up to her sack by the Gauls in 390 BC, is packed with familiar stories - Romulus and Remus get suckled by the wolf, the Sabine women get raped (as does Lucretia), Coriolanus gets exiled, Horatius saves the bridge, and so on. More to the point, it makes a surprisingly larky read in Luce's new translation. Recommended.

The Warrior's Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience by Michael Ignatieff, Vintage pounds 7.99. Worrying about the doings of people in far away countries of which we know nothing is a comparatively new trick for human beings. In these five essays, Ignatieff draws on travels in Africa and central Europe and on an impressive range of learning to observe ethics on the frontline - he watches television film of massacre and starvation, and links the global village with an enlightenment ideal of universal morality; he flies across Africa with Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and questions him on the UN's failure at Srebrenica; he recounts the history of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention, then watches the modern Red Cross coping with a new breed of trigger-happy adolescents who have no idea of rules or honour. The danger with a book like this is that it might seem an indulgence, using massacre as fodder for philosophising; but Ignatieff blends reportage and moralising skilfully, and his conviction of the importance that the facts are what gives the thought its weight makes this a moving and persuasive book. It is hardly a happy work, but it does find some grounds for hope even in the chaos of Bosnia and Rwanda.

Robert Hanks

Comments