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Andrew Donaldson: Getting Gritty in the Big City

Live by NightBy Andrew Donaldson for The Times:

Short, sharp guidance and observations from a journalist with attitude.


Live By Night by Dennis Lehane (HarperCollins) R250

An epic crime novel set in the Jazz Age with the familiar father-son conflicts that Lehane returns to so often in his work. The rebel son of a Boston police officer gets lost in what one critic described as the “romance and rot” of the 1920s era of gangsters and Prohibition. Swiftly paced and meticulously detailed.


It’s been said that Tom Wolfe’s new novel, Back to Blood, does for Miami what The Bonfire of the Vanities did for New York and A Man in Full did for Atlanta: use a city as a backdrop as its residents once again behave like animals clawing to the top of the social pile.

It’s the social observation, of course, that make Wolfe, the New Journalism pioneer, such a pleasure to read. In 1989, he published a literary manifesto, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”, in which he urged writers to ditch postmodernism and return to a realism based on solid reporting. As he put it: “At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.”

The US literary establishment, like any literary establishment, did not enjoy being shouted at, and heavyweights John Updike, Norman Mailer and John Irving all piled into A Man in Full, dismissing it as too journalistic. Wolfe responded with the essay, “My Three Stooges”, in which he accused them of being a little too, uh, envious.


Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize triumph last week reinforces Wolfe’s point about realism. Mantel won for Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister; she won the 2009 Booker for the first in the series, Wolf Hall, which – no pressure – rather raises the bar for the concluding novel. This was the first time a sequel had won, and so shortly after the first. “You wait 20 years for a Booker Prize; two come along at once,” Mantel joked, upon accepting the award.

Bring Up the Bodies, set over the course of the year 1535, has been compared to a “fly on the wall” documentary of the Tudor period, with the New York Times Book Review declaring it had stripped away “the cobwebs and varnish of history, the antique formulations and brocaded sentimentality of costume drama novels, so that the English past comes to seem like something vivid, strange and brand new”.

Like journalism, in fact.


“He was the reason I knew the difference between an axe and a budgerigar – two things any young woman could so easily confuse.” — Fifty Shades of Red Riding Hood: A Parody, by RR Hood (Amazon Kindle)

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