Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Book: Stephen Dobyns' SARATOGA BACKTALK

This is a light comic mystery with poetic undertones.  If you've tried to read others by this author earlier in the series and laid them aside, go back and start with this one.  If you're completely new to the rich variety of Stephen Dobyns' novels and poetry, you might also want to start here.

This is a continuation of the Charlie Bradshaw/Saratoga private eye mysteries, but the narrator here is Victor Plotz, who often works for Bradshaw as Angel Martin worked for Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files.  Like Angel, Plotz is no angel, but he's older, smarter, and funnier.

I always hear Plotz in something like a Rodney Dangerfield voice.  Just listen:

"I got a girlfriend.  Actually I got more than one but this is the main one, at least for now . . .Her name is Rosemary. . .She's fifty-one.  She's big and plump and I call her the Queen of Softness.  If you ask me, women only come into their prime after they hit fifty.  Before that they've got too much bone and muscle: baby machines too easily distracted by what they have manufactured.  They remind me of Japanese car companies, all style and no soul.  Before menopause a woman can be a real nuisance, she's packed full of hidden agendas and most of them concern her kids.'

"But after fifty a woman's kids are usually grown up and she can turn herself over to pleasure.  And they get soft at that age, almost spongy.  It's the time when a woman gives up her figure and takes on a shape.  Rosemary Larkin has a wonderful pear shape.  No aerobics for her.  Who wants a lady with a figure like a letter knife.'

"Rosemary has got this hot tub in her basement and we sit in it and play Elevator.  I put my hands under her breasts--big white stocking-cap breasts with nipples like the eye of the cyclops who Kirk Douglas bumped off in that movie about Ulysses.  I put my hands under Rosemary's breasts so I can feel their weight, their very consequence and magnitude, and Rosemary calls out, 'Eighth Floor!" and slowly I raise her breasts up out of the bubbling water.  Then she calls out 'Fourth floor!' and slowly I lower them again.  Then she calls 'Bargain Basement!' and we go down, down, down.'

"You can't play that kind of game with a younger woman. . .A woman like the Queen of Softness isn't wound up tight about getting someplace or not getting someplace, she already lives someplace.  She's arrived.  She stands on her life with both feet.  She doesn't mind that I am fifty-nine, or thereabouts, and that our skin is squishy and yielding.  Not only has our skin been around the track, it has been the track.  It's got history.  We rub each other down with body oil and we're like two big seals flopping together on her big waterbed." 

Plotz always confesses himself to be an Angel Martin type of rat, but his droll manner is more endearing and the plot provides him with many opportunities to be wildly funny.  I was first attracted to the series because of the horseracing-related plots, but soon I became hooked on the characters and the writing.  Dobyns seemed to get better with every book.

I discussed his stand-alone, The Church of Dead Girls, last Halloween, and his book on poetry, Best Words, Best Order, is one of the most significant of its kind.

This month, I'm rereading his most recent book of meditative poems, Winter's Journey, about a poem a day when a mellow mood strikes me.  It deserves to be published in a deluxe hardcover edition, but flimsy paperbacks with small print are all that even the best poetry can muster these days, or so it seems.  Even with gifts from Amazon and a score of other sponsors.

In his poetry, Dobyns sounds nothing like Rodney Dangerfield at all.  Instead, I hear him as the sage and older Paul Newman, and I suppose now that I always will.  His books have a lasting place on our "most-loved" shelves.

I plan to give my analysis of Winter's Journey a bit later.

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