Saturday, April 30, 2011

I hope I don't break your trust in me by reminding you that I'm unreliable... (The Rum Punch Review of "Virgin Territory" by Patrick Dilloway)

I am going to try very, very hard, not to spoil the ending of this book.

But, as I am completely unreliable, you may want to tread carefully in this review, and don't blame me if I wreck things for you.

And, even as I write this, I'm now wrestling with an even larger question. I began with the question of Should I, in this Rum Punch Review, continue my trend of just going ahead and spoiling things because if you're reading a review, you know you're going to get spoilers?

And I thought, no, I shouldn't, because... and that's where the second big question came in -- all philosophical questions having a precedential question, as you know -- and I was going to pose that second question when I suddenly got hit by a third, and deeper philosophical question about the second question, and now you know why I never get anything done.

So I'm wrestling with these thoughts, metaphorically speaking... and wondering if you can wrestle with a thought metaphorically, too, while I'm at it. I'm not doing something that's like wrestling with a thought, after all; I'm actually wrestling with a thought.

Let me think about it a little longer and get back to the Two Big Philosophical Questions while I jump into the review.

I read Virgin Territory for two reasons:

1. The author, Patrick Dilloway, is a good blogger and leaves comments that struck me as thoughtful and funny on my blogs, making me want to read something he wrote, and
2. The title had "Virgin" in it, and
3. Oliver Twist, the book I was reading at the time I bought Virgin Territory, wasn't really holding my interest and I was tired of reading it.

And, yeah, that's technically three reasons, but I'm a big Dickens fan and didn't really want to pan one of his books, but, let's face it, Oliver Twist is kind of hard to get into. It's no Great Expectations.

So, after getting to the part where Oliver gets recaptured by the Artful Dodger, I got really bored one day and decided to buy a new book, and decided, too, that I should keep up with the goal I set out for other writers, bloggers, and friends of same, and should buy one of the books from one of the people I know ("know" being used loosely... metaphorically?... to include "people whose blogs I read"), and I settled on buying one of Patrick Dilloway's books.

Patrick (if I may call him by his first name, which feels weird, because I usually call him by his screen name, Rogue Mutt), blogs at Every Other Writer Has A Blog... Why Can't I, where you'll find very good, concisely written, tips and thoughts on writing, querying, and related subjects (like Movies About Writing). He also did a thing a while back where he had something of a tournament a while back that I think had to do with books, but I don't remember the exact concept and I didn't get a lot of sleep last night, so cut me some slack.

Patrick "Rogue Mutt" Dilloway is the author of at least four books that you can buy
, and is obviously at least tangentially aware of the process that people like me use to select many of our entertainment options, because two of his books have immediate appeal: Virgin Territory and The Naked World both are destined for greatness based on their title alone.

When I decided to buy one of his books on my Kindle, I did so not because I knew what any of them were about, but because Dilloway comments on my blogs and is a good writer, as I said, on his blog, and I felt that it was something that I could do to support a fellow author: read his book and write up a review of it.

I also hoped that the book would be good, but to be honest, that was secondary to proving myself to be a good person, the kind of person who doesn't just leave comments on someone's blog about how everyone should help each other out by buying each other's books, but who also does that thing, too.

And I selected Virgin Territory after flipping around between The Naked World, The Carnival Papers, and this book. (I briefly considered Where You Belong, his newest work, but that storyline didn't hold as much appeal for me; I was looking for more of a thriller than an Irving-esque life story).

I opted not to get The Carnival Papers because I wasn't really in the mood for short stories. Short stories, for me, are kind of like the television show Monk: if I start reading them/watching it, I'll generally enjoy it and finish reading/watching. The hard part is getting started on it. I think it's because I associate short stories with school, and they always feel a little bit like homework to me.

So that narrowed it down to The Naked World and Virgin Territory, and I settled on Virgin Territory because of the premise: a lonely man in a small town in Michigan finds a woman washed up on the beach. She has amnesia, and he has something wrong with him, and (the blurb on the book promises) they begin to fall in love.

Truth be told, he had me at naked woman on the beach.

From the opening chapters, Virgin Territory is gripping in a way that's hard to describe -- because when I describe it, it doesn't sound gripping.

Here's my description of the opening chapters:

Gary is a part-time accountant who lives in the town of Dagger Lake, a sort-of summer resort town. While picking up trash on the shore one day, he finds a naked woman washed up on the beach, takes her into his house, and revives her.

Okay, I mean, that does, after all, sound kind of gripping, but much of the first few chapters manages -- quite well-- to make what could have been a Lifetime Movie of the Week be, actually, a sort of quietly-emotional drama that nonetheless kept me reading.

I'm not doing a good job of describing this, so let me try a different tactic.

The woman, who at first doesn't have a name (because she's unconscious), wakes up and has amnesia. So, woman with amnesia washed up on the shore sounds like the book is going to move in the direction of ferreting out where she's from, possibly finding a mean boyfriend or mob-connected husband or something, and the two going on the run, but it's pretty clear from the start that that's not going to happen.

Instead, Dilloway takes Gary and the woman through what I imagine would be the routine steps to take upon finding a naked woman with no memory on the shore of the lake: he takes her to the doctor to get her checked out, takes her to the police station to file a report, and then takes her to ... the end-of-the-summer fare for a beer?

Yep, that's right, as Mr Bunches likes to say. What's genius about Dilloway's writing -- in part,l because there's other genius -- is that he takes this strange setup that could have gone off in all the old familiar ways -- and turns it into an Irving-esque story after all: damaged people with unusual pasts living commonplace lives that are not at all commonplace.

And I say that as a compliment -- that he made it Irving-esque, because, notwithstanding the Two Philosophical Questions that I haven't yet decided I can ask, I can tell you that, after all, Virgin Territory is also not really an Irving-esque tale in the end, either.

It's a hybrid, and it's a strange sort of hybrid -- but Dilloway keeps the reader moving along with writing that is brisk and well-done and pushes the story forward so that you don't stop to wonder what kind of book is this, you just read it to keep finding out what happens.

That was one thing that struck me about the writing, in a good way; I've said before that if you notice the writing in a book, that's often not good. (See Franzen, Jonathan.) Here, I noticed the writing, but in a good way, because the writing was what made the book move at such a brisk pace that I kept accepting what was happening and wanting to find out more.

After all, Dilloway started with a couple of things that might put off a reader: amnesia, small-town main character with mysterious past, locals that might have appeared in Newhart like the gossip-y mayor and the single-mother waitress. It's like he set himself up a writer's challenge: take a bunch of things that ought to by now seem boring tropes, and make them interesting.

Which he did -- by grounding the characters and letting them acknowledge that the situation was a little strange, and by giving the reader a reason to keep on going by slowly feeding the mystery around these characters while not acknowledging it's a mystery at all.

By that I mean, there's clearly a mystery here -- or two, at least: Gary, the main character, is hiding out from something: he's living in a cabin in Dagger Lake, not having much contact with people, only working part-time. Meanwhile, the naked lady, who Gary dubs "Andrea," is obviously a mystery, too.

And Dilloway, while facing up to the fact that there are mysteries surrounding these two, doesn't seem to acknowledge it much. Instead, he focuses on the mundane details at times -- Gary and Andrea are driving and Gary is pointing out little things that Andrea sometimes recognizes and sometimes doesn't -- and walks them through the motions of what is pretty much a standard "hey here's a person with amnesia" set-up, before turning his attention almost completely away from those mysteries and having the two go to lunch and then clothes shopping and then to the aformentioned fair.

Or so it seems -- because while Dilloway is misdirecting you with the local stuff, he's also shelling out some details that will sink in and keep you reading, details like how the doctor warns Gary that Andrea may be playing him for a fool because she doesn't seem to be really what she claims. Or how there's been no missing person's reports filed anywhere.

Or how Gary decides to call her Andrea in the first place because she looks a lot like a girl he used to know named Andrea.

Dilloway just drops those things in there, matter-of-factly, and also adds little things like how Gary thinks to himself that he doesn't need to worry about using "protection" with New Andrea because...

... and then it's off to the lunch counter.

All of which gets you into the book before you realize you're into the book; I was a third of the way through it before I stopped to try to sort it all out.

That's a good start to the book, and it only gets better from there.

Click here for Part Two.

1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

Yeah, in your face Dickens! I have to admit that none of that stuff you said actually occurred to me during the writing.