How to Review a Friend’s Book

Posted: November 18, 2012 in Reviews and Critical Stabs
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How do you rate a friend’s book? You rate it on the jealousy meter.

On the jealousy meter, I’d rate Bloodlines of Cain a 5 Star smash. If it wasn’t excellent in its essential stamp, I wouldn’t be so damned upset. Fagiani does an excellent job plotting the plot. His execution, however, is excellent here and junky there. Shakespeare had the same problem. But I can’t forgive Fagiani’s lapses and forfeit the right to bust his balls.

The story takes place at the turn of the 19th Century. A time in which the North East and the North West were more than miles apart. The East was already settling into decadence as the West was, if not lawless, still operating under the rule of Darwin’s Law: survival of the fittest. That’s not to say that the there wasn’t blood-letting in NYC where “Cain” begins amongst the American Museum of Natural History wogs. But the blood-letting was, in contemporary terms, snarky. Death by a thousand cutting remarks, war- ranted and unwarranted character assassination, backstabbing, cut-throat, murder with a smile and all that high-class winnowing. To Fagiani’s credit as a rookie novelist, he doesn’t mark these WASP’s as hypocrites. Rather, he portrays them as sporting dudes who, after clawing to the top, prefer to minimize collateral damage as they jostle for incrementally higher-rank. Their style is to avoid dirty messes. They have, at least, an aesthetic.

Fagiani does a fine job with the transition between the increasing effete WASPs of the NYC museum/ philanthropy set and their distant mirrors: the half-civilized white-men, red-men and hybrids in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. And he also does an excellent job with his reluctant hero, Hathaway, who transitions between man’s East and mother nature’s West. This traveling poise, requiring buttery manners here and raw violence there, is the strength of his book.

Fagiani has a steady talent for examining the ways of men across the arc of the American continent and up `n down the pecking order. Furthermore, he doesn’t preen in a first novel. Consequently, there are many effortless passages. They zip along. They are entertaining and instructive. But there are junky scenes, phlegmatic characters and lazy renderings that beg an editor with a whip. All of these are reoccurring local stinkers. Which leads me to the book’s almost, but not quite, structural flaw. Because Fagiani’s foil to the reasonable men of science is well-placed and well-spaced. It’s just lacks, for all its abrupt ugliness, a necessary dearness. Maybe Fagiani didn’t love his devil enough. In the one place in “Cain” where he had not only a license to preen as a rookie writer, but a fuckin’ mandate from the inner-godzilla inside us all, he maintained a cool-hand. A modesty. A mature remove while, I’ll say for sport, his dog on a leash turned into the Beast of the Apocalypse.

But there’s no problem with Bloodlines of Cain’s story-line. It takes one from an analytical East Coast scientific culture, to a savage yet soulful American Indian culture, to a place in the “forbidden” mountains where a species of purely sinister forces rule. Untamable by science. Untamable by rite and sacrifice, too. I love the step into the beyond. Furthermore, I accept that Fagiani was grasping in the dark no more than Carl Jung when he explained the Nazis as the spirit of Wotan awakened and enraged. So, I respect Fagiani’s reach into the black-black warp. I just don’t think that, as a meta-character, his rendering of The Dark Force is rigorous and dear enough. However, as an agent of drama it works pretty darn well.

All in all, I’m jealous of Fagiani’s accomplishment. I give it 5 Stars on the jealousy meter. I’m also giving him a beginner’s handicap. As first-books go, “Cain” is excellent in its design and variable in its execu- tion. The book mirrors one of its most poignant characters: a smart and stiff-backed painter of natural scenes, a well-connected insider at the Museum of Natural History, who lapses into stupors. Opium relieved him of tension and sent him floating. In as much as fiction creates a dream world it’s extremely hard, almost impossible, for an author not to drift and blur in his own spell of creation. That’s why editors with a whip are necessary. If not pricklish friends. 

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