I’m going to start out by destroying my progressive non-sexist street cred right out of the gate: I prefer male novelists.
I didn’t realize I could make that blanket statement until I read Car Tag by H. Lee Barnes, and I was analyzing just why I like it. In these days when the male novelist is a member of an endangered species, I don’t think I have to apologize, but I do think an explanation might provide illumination.
I think it gets right on down to the fundamental differences between men and women. We perceive things differently. Things that are important to one may be unimportant to the other. For example, many times in my life, I’ve heard a woman analyze the meta-meanings represented by clothing another woman was wearing at an informal social event. Most guys don’t see women’s clothing the way women see women’s clothing. It’s not important to guys. That gender filter gets applied to writing, to what goes on the page. Clothing is just an obvious example. There are many kinds of details that would stick out like a toddler in the road to women that, in real life, a man wouldn’t see at all.
So, I look at my favorite writing eras in history, the Lost Generation writers of the ’20s and ’30s or the Beat Generation writers of the ’50s and ’60s, and they’re all men. Yes, there are exceptions to prove the rule—Gertrude Stein and … OK, I can’t think of one of the Beats—but in general, I liked the way the guys wrote in those times. And by the way, my favorite authors of all time—Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy—are not of those periods. And nobody’s going to say John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway wrote similarly, they just naturally applied the male filters of the time, which resulted in books with themes I like.
And now, halfway through this “book review,” I’m going to make a discernible statement about Car Tag: If you like the types of writers and topics I’ve just described, you’re going to like this book. I’m not saying H. Lee Barnes is a member of that pantheon of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Burroughs types, I’m just saying he writes like them. Like if someone were reading novels written in 1940 before starting this, he or she wouldn’t be fundamentally sidetracked by intrinsic differences.
Car Tag is a story of two brothers and a half brother. One’s a cop, one’s a cop killer, and one’s the voice of reason between extremes. The cop is trying to prevent the cop killer from dying by the death penalty. None of the men are wholly good. They’re members of a family that was tempered under less-than-perfect conditions with a flawed mother and sociopath stepfather. They’re real, Nevada-real, characters who you might have gotten drunk with in an early afternoon sitting on a bar stool in one of the divier Fourth Street bars.
The brothers represent the dichotomies—OK, schizophrenia—of Nevada and Nevadans. So much of what Nevada is today will come to a bad end, but it’s possible to love what and who we are—even with a sense of cynicism and impending doom.
Really, the only thing in the writing I don’t like is the occasionally stilted dialogue. It’s like Barnes is trying to say something profound beyond what’s actually being said—for example, establishing place through pretentious Western-isms like, “He left the hearin’ madder’n a bee with a missin’ wing,” or “All I know is that politics is bullshit with power backing it up.”
But then, that’s often what I didn’t like about those Lost Generation writers. Maybe it’s a guy thing.