Monday, November 26, 2018

William Goldman, master of the airport thriller

When I heard William Goldman died I checked my stacks to see which of his books I still kept around. To my surprise, besides a hardcover of The Princess Bride I'd given my wife some Christmases back, I had only one other title — Control, his 1982 . . . what? . . . paranormal thriller, I guess you'd say.

For my money William Goldman was the master of airport thrillers. He excelled at stoking a fever of expectation — Goldman knew what his characters wanted, and he knew how to make the reader want those things for the character, too. Often, after a tortuous cat-and-mouse pursuit, Goldman would grant the character's deepest wish. Then, just as reader and character were exhaling a post-coital sigh, Goldman slipped in the hook and yanked the whole thing sideways.

Slipped in the hook — no, I'm getting the sequence wrong. The whole thing went sideways, that's for sure — violently, more often than not. And what the reader realized at the end of the astonishing was that Goldman had actually slipped the hook in some chapters earlier.

Goldman's astonishment-delivery-system wasn't just attuned to the “Oh NO!!” end of the spectrum. My first Goldman novel was Marathon Man, which I read in my final year of high school (1983). I hadn't yet seen the movie, but I'd heard about, “Is it safe?” I read Marathon Man in one sitting after taking it home from the library. Goldman trotted out various characters, giving them each a chapter and narrating events from an authorial point-of-view that sat behind the character's eyes and sorted through episodes, thoughts and feelings.

“Doc” Levy is some vaguely-defined professional who works for The Agency (again, no specifics) and what preoccupies Doc's thoughts is his lover Janey. He mulls ruefully over Janey's teasing expressions of concern, and admits to himself that this sass is what made him fall for Janey to begin with, how the early conversational exchanges led to longer exchanges and finally to the glorious realization that Doc wanted Janey there beside him for every morning of every day, and — joy of joys — Janey felt the same way!

I don't recall how much further into the book it took — probably one or two more chapters — for me to realize, “Wait: Janey is a GUY?”

I can't overstate what a liberating realization that was for an adolescent who'd survived the '70s. Since I didn't know any gays personally (ikr?) I'd been puzzling over how it all worked, and what the hell was really going on with Those People. Goldman threw open the blinds, cranked out the window and let in the fresh air — and all for an “inconsequential” plot-twist.

That's how his thrillers worked — the prose was disarmingly casual, often jokey, always focused on where desire was leading or mis-leading characters.

I loved his sex scenes. Not for Goldman the pornographer's tired lexicon of placement and rote sensation. Goldman's sex was sensational to be sure (this being, for the most part, the '70s after all) but never gratuitous. Goldman preferred the dance toward and into the boudoir reveal elements of yearning and conflict unique to the characters and the story.

When I recovered Control I was all set to do another sex scene dissertation à la E.L. Doctorow. I gave Control a quick re-read and decided there were far too many integral narrative threads running through the first, lushest sex scene for me to explicate. What's more, with Goldman, once the element of surprise is exhausted re-reading becomes a very cold and calculating experience. After investing so much emotion in the first reading, applying analysis to the next feels strangely like a disservice to the author.

Which is why William Goldman's thrillers were the perfect airport novel. Reading one was the equivalent of Daffy Duck swallowing a hand grenade. The novel blew up and rearranged your innards. You weren't ever going to forget it, so you lurched to your feet and staggered onto the airplane, leaving the novel behind for the next unsuspecting reader to pick up and be blown away by.

RIP, sir.
The William Goldman I knew and read had a handle-bar mustache, and slightly stoned visage.
Were I to rate and recommend them I'd say:
  1. Marathon Man — newcomers should definitely start here.
  2. Magic — but only if you haven't seen the movie, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret, which is not bad, but contains all the spoilers.
  3. Control — this is my favourite, actually. Goldman never shied from looking outrageous, and this time his premise is beyond bizarre. I got into an argument with a friend who'd read it and thought it ridiculous. My friend is right, but that only deepens my love for this novel.
  4. Heat — contains Goldman's last good sex scene, at the opening of the novel between two characters we never see again. They manage to find their passion together, but the degree to which the participants are world-weary and disingenuous with each other is a jolt, and mirrors my sense of where Goldman was at with the tropes he was working. Alright, you've got a washed-up Vegas “fixer” who gets on the wrong side of the mob because he still cares about something. Why should the reader — why should the writer — care? Goldman devotes the novel to this personal quest, and it has a subtlety that finally works. Heat provided material for two movies, one starring Burt Reynolds in post-Smokey freefall. Wild Card is the other, starring Jason Statham — surprisingly solid and worth streaming.
  5. Goldman followed up Heat with Brothers, a sequel to MM which reads like a sad version of a late-career Charles Schulz Road Runner cartoon. That Goldman never wrote another novel after Brothers seems to have surprised him, but probably not his most ardent readers.

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