Monday, March 25, 2013

Double Take Book Review: Lake Charles by Ed Lynskey

Every now and then things line up right and Barry and I have read and reviewed the same book. Such is the case here with LAKE CHARLES that I did back in August 2011 and Barry is doing now. When things line up that way readers get the “double take” review. Barry leads off and I follow with mine……    

LAKE CHARLES (2011) by Ed Lynskey

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

The year is 1979. Charged with the murder of Ashleigh Sizemore, with whom he spent a drug- and sex-driven night in a motel, awakening in a haze to find her dead in bed beside him, and at present out on bail and awaiting trial, Brendan Fishback wants nothing more than a relaxing Saturday of fishing on Lake Charles near his hometown of Umpire in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains. With him are his best friend and brother-in-law, Cobb Kuzawa, and his sister Edna, Cobb's wife. The couple has been separated for a while, and whether their marriage will survive is debatable. Brendan hopes that having them together on this outing might move them to reconcile.

The two young men take their bass boats out into the water, and Edna rides her jet ski. She and Cobb continue wrangling until she angrily takes off on the jet ski and roars out of sight. When she doesn't return, Brendan and Cobb begin to search for her. The search results in sudden death and more difficulties and complications for Brendan as he, with the added help of Cobb's Korean War-veteran father Jerry Kuzawa, a man whose attitude is ever shoot first and damn the consequences, tangles with or tries to dodge a variety of individuals. These include a pair of corrupt sheriff's deputies; the operators, enforcers and mules of a grand-scale marijuana-growing operation; DEA agents; a lawyer of dubious character; and Ralph Sizemore, the wealthy, vicious and vengeful father of Ashleigh who is both politically connected and a potential candidate for office. In dreams and reveries, Brendan converses with Ashleigh and gradually pieces together what happened in the motel room that led to her demise.    

Central to the story's action is the man-made Lake Charles, symbol of man-made corruption, violence, evil, darkness and death.

Before I start picking nits, I want to emphasize that I greatly enjoyed and can recommend this tense, hard-charging coming -of-age thriller to readers who aren't easily offended by occasional raw language.

Besides having written several other novels as well as short stories and non-fiction articles, Ed Lynskey's background includes poetry published in prestigious journals and mainstream literary magazines like The Atlantic Monthly. His sense of language shows in Lake Charles which, in an era when a minimalist approach to narrative seems to be the norm, has its own vivid, distinctive style. Lynskey long ago learned that well-chosen action verbs replace the need for too many adjectives and adverbs: "I staggered into the bathroom where its vent fan clanked away. My tingling fingers lay a lit match to a Marlboro. I inhaled, bagged the soothing nicotine, and exhaled smoke. I lived in a nightmare, branded as a killer, but now I was free on bail. The sheriff's deputies could jug me again at any time. My second, deeper puff calmed my jangled nerves. I knew organic causes explained why the dead girl ransacked my dreams."  

Sometimes, however, he gets carried away and certain word choices (taking poetic license?) might, as they did with me, yank the reader out of the story to consider them. Bagged in the preceding example, for instance. Another example is the smoker who doesn't merely light a cigarette, he Zippos it, the lighter's brand-name becoming a verb. Speaking of a former girlfriend named Salem, Brendan says: "But hell, I reasoned, I'd meet a galore of other Salems." Galore is an adjective, not a noun.

Reminiscent of some of the lesser pulp magazine fiction from the Thirties and Forties are overwrought passages like this: "Resentful blood heated by the new rage blasted into my face as I nodded."  Others are unintentionally silly: "As we crested the last knoll, the mansion's glittery windows vaulted into our eyes." The bizarre (and physically impossible) image this conjures up is not the risible effect the author wants, even though the reader understands what he's trying to convey. Then there are the clumsy sentences—e.g., "My walk headed to the spot where he stood." 

Nevertheless, I applaud Lynskey's lexical enthusiasm and his willingness to err on the side of overzealousness over blandness.

He has a couple of verbal quirks I can't help remarking on because they show up frequently throughout the novel and because they once again pulled me out of the story for a beat or two while I thought about them. The first is the use of a construction common enough in narrative and exposition but—at least in my experience—utterly uncommon in dialogue. I can't recall ever having seen it used in fictional dialogue, and I'm sure I've never heard it in real-life conversations. Yet throughout the novel a number of Lynskey's characters employ it frequently when speaking to others. Examples include the lawyer Herzog: "More of a hunting enthusiast, I shun the violence but savor the excitement of the chase"; Brendan: "Actually a little under the weather, Cobb is taking it easy"; Alicia: "Stacking on the pounds, I'll burst apart like a whacked piƱata" and "Strict Catholics, they don't hold with abortion and help girls like me." Unless this usage is a regionalism I'm simply unfamiliar with, I'd call (to alter one of the examples) "Cobb is actually under the weather and taking it easy" a more normal conversational construction. 

The other quirk is the use of to in sentences where of is more common: "The hypnotic thrum to the truck tires eating up the hardtop enticed me into the realm of dreams, an all too familiar terrain." "The mustiness to old books and lemon furniture polish hosed over us."

I was 32 in 1979 so my memory may be faulty, but I can't help thinking some of the expressions Lynskey uses here and there throughout the novel are anachronisms. At the very end of Chapter 21, Herzog says, "That's a no brainer." In one of Brendan's dream moments with Ashleigh, she asks if someone's van isn't "da bomb." In another, Brendan wonders if her mention of a motel is a "booty call." Jerry Kuzawa advises Brendan to "keep it real." Did any or all of these expressions enter the language in or prior to 1979?

In exchange for my objective review, I received a copy of the electronic edition of the novel from the author. I can't speak to the physical edition, but better proofreading is definitely in order for the e-book. There are a multitude of sentences throughout that lack necessary or contain  unnecessary commas. There are also a couple of lines of dialogue that are ungrammatical but shouldn't be because the speakers are not semi-literate individuals: "'How many jurors have Sizemore bought off like he did you?'" and "'I've never took one dime.'"  Ungrammatical narrative passages: "The screen of silver maples hid us rather than our parking at his gate protected by a guardhouse." "Flanked only by the canyons of unread books diverted us on to the kitchen."

There are several places where word choices are wrong or, at the very least, highly suspect—italics mine: "Room 7 at the Chewink Motel in Yellow Snake, Tennessee, sat primed to accommodate cheap rendezvouses and cheaper murders." ("Rendezvous" is both singular and plural.) "Anxiety over Edna's strife diverted me as my sore gaze traveled out to the state road." (What is a "sore" gaze?) "Kuzawa chuckled as an escapee sprung from the lobotomy ward." "Armpit sweat eked a slime trail down my ribcage." "The middle-aged clerk, still slender with prim breasts, seated at a walnut desk was dabbing a piece of sticky Scotch tape to pick the lint off her uniform blazer." (How exactly are breasts "prim"? There should be a comma after "desk," and "sticky" is needless when describing Scotch tape.) "Chatting with Alicia on the drought causing the brush-and-timber fires, Mr. Kuzawa pointed a finger at the cut-off swerving into a deserted, shady wayside." ("On" or "about"? Moreover, I don't think the hypens in "brush and timber" are necessary.)

Redundancies: "Soon after, we soon crested the treed mountains and, with my ears popping, swooped down into the next leafy draw." "Out Mr. Kuzawa's window, the cerise red streaks painted Wednesday's breathtaking sunrise on the indigo horizon." (Italics mine.)

I must now reiterate that despite the preceding cavils, I highly recommend Lake Charles as an exciting, absorbing, and compelling read. Fans of noir thrillers who aren't repelled  by the occasional use of street language will find it somewhat different from the run-of-the-mill, and worth their time.   

Barry Ergang ©2013
Barry Ergang has a lot of books for sale from his personal collection at He'll contribute 20% of the purchase price of the books to our monthly fund, so please have a look at his lists, which have recently been added to in several categories. For links to material he's written that's available online, and fiction that's available for e-readers, see Barry’s webpages.

Ed Lynskey

It is 1979 and Brendan Fishback isn't doing too well in the game called life. Waking up next to a dead woman can cause huge problems. The fact that she, Ashleigh Sizemore, was the daughter of the wealthy and powerfully connected, Ralph Sizemore is a huge problem. Word is old Ralph is going to be a Senator. The fact that drugs were planted in the room is a huge issue. The fact that Brendan keeps having strange dreams and visions where the dead teenage girl talks to him about her murder is a huge problem.

Despite the odds and the nice frame job against him, Brendan Fishback gets out on bail.  Besides avoiding the shyster slime ball lawyer his mother, Mama Jo, hired for him Brendan plans to go fishing with his brother in law and good friend, Cobb Kuzawa. A quiet couple of days at Lake Charles, a local man-made lake created by the Tennessee Valley Authority, will be as good a break as he can get these days.

Like Brandan, the best days seem to have gone by the lake as it and the surrounding area is in bad shape. If trying to detox from all the pot he has done isn't enough, the area flat out reeks and is depressing to look at. Back in the day, it used to be a happening place. Not only is nobody apparently around, but there is the stench of rot and decay at the marina area and large sections of the lake are fouled by algae scum. Not only do they have to get the bass boats through that, Brendon has to listen to his sister Edna and Cobb bicker.

Edna invited herself along and that had not been the plan. What been initially planned as a guy trip has mutated into a cranky family outing. Edna and Cobb fight constantly and both of them are driving him nuts. Clearly, Edna should have never married Cobb and certainly she should never have come on the trip. They are driving each other nuts too and before long Edna rockets away on her jet ski towards the dam area leaving the other two behind on the lake in their boats.

And she never comes back.

The search is soon on and leads Brendan and Cobb into a violent confrontation. The first of many confrontations proving that the lake area is not at all deserted like they thought. Brendan wants his sister back, alive and in one piece, and knows too well they can't get help from the corrupt local police. The trail of the missing Edna leads back and forth across the Lake Charles area and the Tennessee Mountains while Brendan soldiers on getting the answers he seeks. Some of them won't be pretty.

The front cover has a blurb quote from author Ed Gorman, "Lake Charles is going to scorch your soul . . . I loved it."  That pretty much sums up things very well for this very complicated book where everyone has a dark backstory that gradually comes out. A dark and twisted noir tale that starts with a bang and goes in many different ways by use of dreams and flashbacks and forward literary narrative before bringing the whole thing to a surprising conclusion.

Simply put, Lake Charles by Ed Lynskey is a mighty good book and one well worth your time.

Lake Charles
Ed Lynskey
Wildside Press LLC
June 2011
ISBN# 978-1-4344-3046-5
Paperback (also available as e-book)
192 Pages (includes one page of reference sources)

Material supplied by the author in exchange for my objective review.

Kevin R. Tipple ©2011, 2013


Randy Johnson said...

Read this one a few years back and really enjoyed it. Some of the areas the story was set I've been over.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I really enjoyed it back when I read it a couple of years ago. Never been there.