Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#2

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#2. "Master of Misery"

We've seen already on this Countdown that Joe R. Lansdale has a knack for channeling literary greats (without necessarily resorting to pastiche).  In 1995's "Master of Misery" (collected in Bumper Crop), the author invokes a true heavyweight of American fiction, Ernest Hemingway.  His hard-boiled tale of fishing, fighting, and other acts of machismo would certainly make Papa proud.

On a charter fishing boat in the Caribbean, protagonist Richard Young encounters a wedded couple who prove that love and marriage don't necessarily go hand in hand.  The wealthy husband, Hugo Peak (the pinnacle of prick-dom) is cocky, obnoxious, and misogynistic, his trophy wife Margo beautiful yet abused.  A long opening scene establishes the pair of characters fully, as Peak harangues and humiliates Margo after she unintentionally insults his male ego by landing a bigger fish than he did.  Peak's behavior is blatantly repulsive, but by scene's end the reader learns there is more going on here than meets the eye.  Richard has been lured onto the charter boat with the Peaks, and boorish Hugo has been trying to antagonize the man into fighting him.  That's because Richard is a former world-champion kickboxer who retired from competition after killing his opponent with an illegal blow, and Peak (a trained Thai fighter) "was the kind of man who would want to know a man who had killed someone.  He would want to know someone like that to test himself against him.  He would see killing a man in the ring as positive, a major macho achievement."

When the initial baiting attempt on the fishing boat fails, Peak next sends a battered Margo to Richard's apartment with an ominous message: Peak will continue to beat her mercilessly if Richard does not agree to come to his private island for a square off.  "He told me to tell you that he can be a master of misery," Margo relays.  "If not to you, than to me."  Richard scoffs at first at the whole sordid scenario ("the goddamn son of a bitch must think he's a James Bond villain"), but when he finally does accept the invite to fight Peak, it's not for the $10,000 prize or the promise of Margo as a bonus ("I got to be happy somewhere else besides below the belt," Richard sardonically informs the temptress when she assures him she knows how to make a man happy).  No, the real enticement for Richard is the chance to commit unbridled violence once again. In an introspective moment, Richard acknowledges his primitive urges: "It was a scary thing inside of him; inside of humankind, mankind especially, this thing about killing.  This need.  This desire. Maybe, he got home, he'd go deer hunting this year.  He hadn't been in over ten years, but he might go now.  He might ought to go."

Richard's showdown with Peak is a pugilistic-rules-be-damned fight to the finish.  The story waxes philosophical over such bloodsport, with Peak professing to his foe: "Death, it's nothing.  You know what Hemingway said about death, don't you?  He called it a gift."  Literary allusion soon gives way to physical brutality, though, as Lansdale's expertly choreographed battle between the two male warriors features a slew of graphic detail.  We get to feel the bones of the human skull cracking beneath a vicious heel kick, to hear an ear rip off the side of a head "like rotten canvas."  And while the hurricane that breaks in on the climactic bout does smack of deus ex machina, it is also fitting, underscoring the notion of human wreckage.  Indeed, Lansdale doesn't waste any blows in this story, with each sentence perfectly crafted to create narrative power.  The end result--a tale defined by rich characterization, overtly dramatic
incident, vivid settings and strong themes.  "Master of Misery" causes anything but unpleasantness for the captivated reader, furnishing a stunning reminder of why its author is the undisputed Champion Mojo storyteller.

No comments: