Monday, July 22, 2019

Review of 'Evil Never Sleeps' by Robert Fleming

The best of these stories flow with the hypnotic lyricism of cool jazz—think a laidback mid-50s riff on Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight,’ or Miles Davis and John Coltrane grooving on ‘Kind of Blue.’ Robert Fleming (also known to erotica fans as Cole Riley) transports us into smoky ex-pat jazz clubs in Paris, mob-run speakeasies in 20s-era Chicago, and crowded juke joints in Jim-Crow Mississippi, settings that come uncannily alive with the pulsing rhythms of popular tunes, the dangerous frictions of desire, and the ominous, ever-present undercurrents of racial tension, the weary dread of oppression and injustice at every turn. 

Fleming is adept at getting into his characters’ heads, finding out what makes them tick, and what makes them hurt: More often than not, these are the same things. He explores and illuminates inner conflict with sympathy and grace, clearly respecting his characters’ dignity as much as he feels their pain. These are people of color, but they are Everyman and Everywoman, too; everyone who has experienced the double standards of a system in which they will never be good enough; ever (as Langston Hughes put it) “sent to the kitchen when company comes,” though they may “laugh and eat well,” dreaming of their place at the table, invisible until they step out of line—a line so arbitrary and thin that only some capricious evil could have drawn it.

Fleming has carved out a long and distinguished career as a journalist, and his nonfiction roots are plain to see—though this is not always a good thing. Where journalism is about presenting facts in a succinct and straightforward format (as represented by the reporter’s inverted pyramid), fiction has a logic of its own, often less tolerant of irony or coincidence than real life. The journalist must always take care not to put words in his subjects’ mouths, or make assumptions about their unspoken thoughts. The writer who wants to tell stories through fiction needs to give his characters room to breathe, the freedom to move in the inner space of their own often-imperfectly articulated ambitions: he makes stuff up that would get a respectable journalist fired—stuff that is more powerful in its concentration and emotional impact than mundane existence, not necessarily real, but always true.

The best dialogue in fiction is seldom straightforward, precise, or on the nose; it draws out character even when those characters resist being revealed—as often as not by what they don’t say, those evasive silences between words that speak volumes. At times, Fleming’s dialogue can be stilted, wooden, an expedient device for exposition as opposed to an elegant vehicle for the revelation of unique, individual characters—this is a common pitfall when even the most expert nonfiction writers try their hand at fiction. If an author does employ a character to offer exposition or backstory, let the character be cagey—or, at least, colorful—about it; let the story unfold by poetic fits and starts, by moans and sighs, by interrupted questions, the allision of half-baked thoughts, by uncertainty, and wonder.  

Several of these stories felt like nonfiction pieces in transparent fictional drag: In his career as a journalist, Fleming has encountered or interviewed some of the real life characters who show up in his fiction: It may be that he has too much respect for these great and important figures to transform them into fully-realized fictional beings. Unfortunately this reluctance results in flat, fact-spouting ciphers, tightly buttoned-up beings, seemingly incapable of letting their hair down or speaking for themselves, ultimately nowhere near as interesting as their true-life counterparts. A few of these plots feel perfunctory and under-developed, resulting in something so arid and stiff as to be barely readable. Occasionally, settings can seem like an afterthought, with convenient props (furniture and food) miraculously appearing out of nowhere!  

But when Fleming creates a character out of his head—whether born ex nihilo in his imagination or based on something ordinary in his own true lived experience, those characters are always his most memorable, as are the finest stories in this collection.


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