Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mixed creel with a full limit in Catch and Release

Lawrence Block’s story collection, Catch and Release, gives the reader interested in several genres a full sampler of possibilities and tones, all of them intriguing and many echoing literary styles more frequently found in fantasy of historical fiction. Block’s keen ear for dialogue and sharp eye for detail appeal not just to the senses in crafting scenes, but make his characters vehicles for connection between stories, films, and the collected images that readers forget they have until the many “Ah ha!” moments. Block’s subtle stories arrive not explicitly paired together, but they lend themselves to linked reading, which in turn links the whole collection quite gracefully.

[mild spoilers follow]

The title piece, following the thoughts and actions of an occasional stalker and murderer, has the contours of anticipation and dark actions expected in a crime story, but woven intricately into the language of any addict explaining his impulses and rationalizing the slips along the way to recovery. Block’s presentation of the matter-of-fact, third-person voice, and a tone of Oprah-inspired confessional to the narrator’s thoughts, engage and repulse in equal measure, keeping the line of the story taught until the last, self-serving moment.

Balanced against such self-absorption is “Scenarios,” a very short meditation by a potential, and very hesitant, killer. The inner workings of those who don’t quite follow through with plans takes a wicked twist here, and just as the bitter cry of “wait ‘til next year!” is balm for the sport fan’s soul, “Next time , for sure,” is the frustrated promise the failed villain gives himself.

“How Far,” a one-act play, and the two linked stories, “Speaking of Greed” and “Speaking of Lust,” reveal Block’s prowess with crime fiction and are particularly strong gestures to other genres. Initially, the play seems most innovative, but the fascinating construction of the two “Speaking” stories carries the tradition of medieval stock characters, frame tales, and play cycles forward to Anytown, USA and any time, 1900 to present. The doctor, soldier, priest, and policeman are engaged in playing cards and trading stories, tales which are set up by the immediate conversation but touch on the elemental aspects of crime fiction and the particulars of their jobs. All of this is more than a tip of the hat to Chaucer, as Block’s stories within the frame could readily stand alone, but the well-knit nostalgia for an imagined literary and social past infuses these two stories with powerful aesthetic and lends a contemplative light to the other stories in the volume as well.

The thoughtful, almost wistful, style of “Who Knows Where It Goes” and “Welcome to the Real World” continues the linked but separated feel of the book, circling the way age and people dance together as time moves on. Balancing action and stationary life with boldly different outcomes, these two pieces are perhaps the best examples of Block’s writing gift: moving into Chandler’s dark streets, taking up a conversation with the second hit man from the third scene or the forgotten passer-by, and revealing that the rich literary life within the noir world of crime fiction.

By Lindsay Craig