Newton Minow, then Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, once called television a “vast wasteland”. He touched a truth so deep, so penetrating that now, fifty years after his speech, it has entered the English language. Stein, Stung by Hal Ackerman is an example of creeping literary desertification. The wasteland is creeping away from the 40 inch flat screen and into print.
It’s easy to see that Hal Ackerman is an insider. He works through a circle of friends and pays attention to his day job (UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television for twenty-four years). Actor John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun), provided the headliner review comment in both Stein, Stoned and Stein, Stung. His publisher, Tyrus Books, is a veritable factory for this kind of fiction. In their lineup we have the Moe Prager series (eight books), the Loon Lake series (fourteen books), and the Quint McCauley series (just five books). Ackerman is just getting started since Stein, Stung is only his second in the Harry Stein series. It was published in 2012 and Stein, Stoned was published in 2010. We’re due for Stein, Stuffed any day now. (I just made that up.)
Stein, Stung is a proud example of tradition of Hollywood screenwriting in novel form. The Hollywood screenwriting formula goes something like this:
Take one stock character type (private investigator), add ethnic flavor (Jewish in this case, but Italian, Polish, and French are popular choices too) and crunchy sexual situations (Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, 2 Broke Girls), stir well and bake in a professional scriptwriter oven.
It’s nice to know that your reading entertainment is in experienced, well-trained hands.
Even the format of Stein, Stung is cast in the latest commercial mold. Instead of starting with Chapter One, it opens with a prologue. TV sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory start with an opening scene to snare the audience before the title even appears. All that is missing in Stein, Stung is five minutes of commercials.
As an aspiring author myself, and with full knowledge that Ackerman is also a professional educator, I couldn’t help viewing Stein, Stung as a writing tutorial. I was acutely conscious of the graceful embellishments where my own writing was as severe and stark as a software tutorial (something I can write). Was it necessary to the plot to know that the rubber-tree plant in the courtyard made it look like New Orleans? Probably not, but it put my mind more clearly into the book. Other references, even more foreign to the plot, were like biting into sweet cherries in the confection of the story. “Waste had become America’s chief manufactured product” and “Century City smog scrapers”.
I’m betting that the three chapters, Prologue, Apologue, and Epilogue earn huge acclaim from readers … especially the Apologue. Putting the reader in the mind and body of a queen bee so empathically was positively lyrical. And the cold water of the Epilogue hit a theme that I thoroughly identify with. Ackerman’s considerable language skills sound a chord that resonates in those chapters. If you don’t want to read the whole book, read just those chapters.
Here in darkest Utah, the language and situations in the book may upset some but I found that part of the book entertaining. People … some people … really do talk that way. Some even act the way they do in the book. But other things seemed out of scale. Fourteen thousand dollars to repair a hot tub? Fourteen hundred a month for a walk-up two bedroom apartment? Five thousand for an insurance claim interview? Was Ackerman just setting us up? Is that what things really cost in California? No wonder they all want to come here.
It’s clear from the first paragraphs that this is pure entertainment and not a moral guide, but the total lack of a character who seems to have any consistent moral values is jarring. The hypocrisy of Stein worrying about his daughter having sex with her boyfriend at the exact moment that he is having sex with his own casual girlfriend is just too much to take. It stops being even entertaining.
“Character development” is a key part of this genre of book and Ackerman gives it a game try. The descriptions of the four members of the Peering family are painted in bright, primary colors. The daughter is “slouched into an impenetrable C-curve”. Father and son have white hairless legs exposed below Bermuda shorts. Yet, the brilliant prose doesn’t make them interesting. They’re as different as he can make them, yet they’re still stereotypes. The daughter is pouty, the son nerdy, the wife repressed and the husband emasculated. They’re right out of a sitcom.
Later, all of the characters start to seem the same, in part because they all speak the same language: California Snark. None of them seem to be able to speak a normal sentence without turning it into a sardonic snarl. The coroner, who works on dead people side by side with his wife, excuses her saying, “She’s grown to have more affection for the dead than the living.” The cop who pulls Stein over on the freeway asks for Stein’s pilot’s license and says, “Weren’t you trying to do loop-de-loops back there?” I can almost hear the laugh track in the background.
Two different married women committed cold blooded murder, not to protect themselves or for greed or jealousy, but because someone was making their husbands look bad. Barb Peering killed the truck driver Monahan because, “He took my children’s respect for their father away. That I could not abide.” Ruth Ann Greenway drove a maguey spike through Henny Spector’s skull … twice … as, “a response to seeing how completely the man had her husband Hollister under his thrall.” Indeed, the murder back story … the only other actual murder in the book … framed the constancy of womanly true love. Commodore Bancroft killed his rival Sunny Cataluna so he could steal the love of Lucy Lester away from the man she really loved. Lucy loved Sunny so deeply that three-quarters of a century later, she dropped the man she had been married to all that time at the first suggestion of foul play from a total stranger with a plastic likeness of her former lover’s face. One wonders why Ackerman thinks women act this way. One wonders whether Ackerman thinks women should act this way.
In the real world, a transmission doesn’t fall completely out of a car and bounce down the freeway. A 93 year old woman can’t do a cartwheel and then the splits on stage. And a housewife doesn’t have the strength, the tools, or the time to destabilize the load of a 40-wheeler while she’s supposed to be in the ladies room. We need the break of an audio enhanced commercial assuring us that the right drug can make old age disappear to remind us that nothing here is real.
The most believable characters are the ones that have only an ephemeral existence in the book. As a result of their brief existence, their character is consistent, yet interesting. Examples are Skip, the walking encyclopedia son in the Peering family and Henny Spector, the urbane philistine crook who gets murdered too soon to become incongruent. Other characters, especially the women, are examples of literary shape shifters. Barb Peering, for example appears three times and each time is a totally different person. In her first incarnation, she is a repressed housewife; in the second, a lover out for revenge at any personal price; in the third, a murderer driven insane by the need to protect her family. Who is Barb Peering? I don’t know and the book leaves me confused and, well … uninterested anymore.
The essential problem is that the reader isn’t invited into the unreality of Stein, Stung. Unreal worlds have a proud tradition in literature. Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels come to mind. But Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Swift let the reader travel with the story from a sane, logical universe to one that makes no sense for a reason. Alice had to go “down the rabbit hole” before things got weird. The Red Queen has a distorted sense of morality that the reader is invited to think about. In Stein, Stung, one is left with the impression that all you have to do is drive west from Primm, Nevada for reality to evaporate and motives to lurch around randomly, but the reader is never brought along for the ride.
I freely confess that I indulge in the mindrot of TV as much as the next guy, but I demand more of books. TV sitcoms are the diet Coke of mental activity. Books can be, and with me, should be the main course. I’ve never liked diet Coke. It leaves a slightly unpleasant aftertaste with me.