Sunday, June 16, 2013

Free Country

Everyone loves a crazy stunt, especially one that's perpetrated and documented by two mostly congenial guys on holiday: in this case, author George Mahood and his cranky friend Ben. Cycling the length of Britain starting without bicycles (to say nothing of money, clothes, food, or a tent) qualifies. Mahood's Free Country is a winning entry in the time-tested "Wry in the Rye" genre, which Jerome K. Jerome founded with his classic, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), and to which Bill Bryson contributed, entertaining trail-walking wannabes with A Walk in the Woods.

Reading any two consecutive chapters of these English lads' travelogue will put the most hardened cynic in a cheerful mood. My only complaint is the author's repeatedly mocking his own turns of phrase every tenth sentence or so in a flat-tired attempt at cleverness. Other than that, the chain stays on the metaphorical bicycle, so to speak -- unlike the one on the author's sorry two-wheeler.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bank Shot

This second installment of Donald E. Westlake's "Dortmunder" series combines familiar, bumbling criminals, a reluctant, curmudgeonly mastermind, and oblivious members of the constabulary, to lighthearted comedic effect.  This is a Robert Redford caper movie in novel form, with Bugs Bunny dialogue, only slower and with less Mel Blanc-sy voices; in contrast, however, Robert Redford and Bugs Bunny always come out on top.  Here, you get the feeling after each episode falters that John Dortmunder will invariably be back on his home turf, conning moms and widows out of their tens and twenties in his fallback encyclopedia sales scam, shortly after the big bank job that he and his henchmen have conceived, planned, and taken farcical pains to execute washes away, just out of reach.

The second novel in a series is the hardest, so they say.  Westlake succeeds by reducing the degree of difficulty, relative to the series opener, the serial gem heist caper The Hot Rock, while maintaining the same mad, mad sensibility.  It's a comedy writer's version of productivity growth: the same laughs for a simpler book.


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