TV Between Book Covers
A review of Stein, Stung by Hal Ackerman

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.

This entry was posted in Library Book Club Reviews on by .

About Dan Mabbutt

I was introduced to Zion Canyon as a teenager working for Utah Parks Company at Zion Lodge. (See my Zion Park Centennial writing contest winning essays "Zion Lodge Stories" here under "About ZiCC".) I bought land here as soon as I could and moved here after a career misspent in corporate data processing. Springdale and the Zion Canyon Community is special and this website is my contribution to the strength and unity of the community.

5 thoughts on “TV Between Book Covers
A review of Stein, Stung by Hal Ackerman

  1. Fay Cope

    RE: Stein, Stung
    You should have included big Spoiler warnings at the beginning!
    I realized during our conversation when you told me about this review that you didn’t like the book, but I was interested enough in the book (and your review) to read your review before tracking down the book. Now I feel like I already read the book and didn’t like it any better than you did. I think you saved me some time.

    This is an aside comment – nothing to do with the review:
    Before I got a Kindle, I could never understand how someone could give up the *physical* substance of reading: the rush of opening a brand-new, hardbound book with stiff binding, the turning of pages, the movement of the bookmark, the final closing of the covers. I was IN LOVE with books. I read several dozen a year. It’s impossible to read that many books without gaining an unconscious, if not conscious recognition of successful non-fiction formats or non-fiction’s structure. Using a non-fiction format that can be dropped into a screen-writer’s style editor isn’t anything new, and I haven’t ever felt it was a flaw.
    Now, however, I read ebooks. I LOVE ebooks and read dozens of them a year. Many of them are self-published or e-published or whatever it’s called. Not many of them are written by any of the writers I found in the public library or bookstores. Some of them need SERIOUS editing. Most of the ones I read are free, and I sometimes think I get what I paid for. Unlike hardbound books, which I would feel morally obligated to finish, I delete unfinished e-books without flinching. The flip side of that: I have found a few e-books that were so compelling, so unusually composed, so *un-formula* I can’t forget them. They would never be published on paper, because no editor or publisher would take that kind of an investment risk. I like this new kind of reading. Kindle and Amazon have changed everything.

  2. Dan Mabbutt Post author


    How nice not to be talking to myself. Thanks for the comment.

    I didn’t think about the “spoiler” effect until about a day after the review had already been on the site. It actually didn’t occur to me before that. But … Remember the paragraph where I recommended that you read at least three chapters. Since they have copies at the library (or … I’ll loan you mine), it wouldn’t be a lot of trouble to do that.

    Indeed, Amazon is changing everything. For example, if you get a Prime account, then you can get books free. (Amazon is desperate to suck you into their Prime whirlpool.)

    “With Amazon Prime, Kindle owners can choose from more than 500,000 books to borrow for free with no due dates, including over 100 current and former New York Times best sellers and all 7 Harry Potter books.”

    Who pays? Well, one group is the authors. Since the actual cost of the book is nothing, authors don’t get paid. Amazon makes their money from the Prime subscription fees. (Amazon is currently being sued for this practice, by the way.)

    And Amazon is fast establishing a monopoly. All they have to do is drive Barnes & Noble over the edge and THEY HAVE GOTCHA!!!

    What you say about the benefits for the consumer is correct … now. A monopoly is a mousetrap. That cheese tastes really good until the trap springs.

  3. Fay Cope

    I’m not even embarrassed to admit how much I enjoy Amazon Prime, God help me. Not only can I hook into books and movies, now I grocery shop with them. Only a person who understands the misery and pain of going up and down long concrete-floored aisles assembling a grocery list can totally empathize with my immense satisfaction in knowing I don’t have to endure Costco again until I am suffering from Irish Cheese withdrawal. Fedex Don or UPS Ken will deliver my increasingly power-granting purchases in boxes with an Amazon smile on them. I know it’s even scarier than the Walmartization of America. That’s totally puny compared to what Amazon’s cloud full of inventory will do to the world.
    Are you sure ebook writers don’t get paid? I’m not. I have a friend whose ebook is on Amazon as well as available as an Audible Whispersync book. She said it was challenging to find the right narrator (they are like other actors – if you recognize their names, you know their pricetags will have longer numbers on them. I can’t remember her exact words, but in effect she said her first Amazon check didn’t help much with the narrator’s fee. My point is: they sent her a check for something.

  4. Dan Mabbutt

    My point was never that Amazon was evil or anything like that. I was an early investor in Amazon. (I sold way too soon, however. I didn’t make that much.) I like Jeff Bezos as an individual. And I shop there myself all the time. My philosophy is that hurting yourself doesn’t really help others and if I refused to shop at Amazon, I would be hurting myself (as would you). So no criticism is intended there.

    But if we, as citizens and voters, allow the Walmarts and the Amazons to distort our country and our economy, then we, as citizens and voters, will pay the price together. I don’t advocate that you stop using Amazon. I advocate that we stop allowing Amazon to run our country with their outsized influence and money. (As well as all the other corporations doing the same.)

    For example … Why do we not have a national sales tax on Internet sales? In my view, it’s because we have the best legislators that money can buy. Barnes and Noble would not be at quite so great a disadvantage if they were on a more level playing field.

    As for authors getting paid, my source is a blog of an author who says he is part of the lawsuit against Amazon and says that he isn’t getting paid for all of the books that are lent free. He has sold a handful but his claim is that few people actually buy a book when they can get one lent to them free and indefinitely. Authors still get royalties on books that are actually purchased, but the odds are stacked against that thanks to Prime. I didn’t save the link, however, so I can’t quote it. If this is really important, I’ll do some more research.

    The reason Amazon can get away with this is that they have a commanding lead in the market. Railroads used to have this advantage back in the late 1800′s. If you were a farmer and the only way you could sell your crop was to take whatever offer the railroad decided to give to you, you took the deal and lived in poverty. Today, traditional publishers are up against the wall. Newspapers and magazines are going out of business. There is a real possibility that if you are an author, in the future you will take the deal that Amazon offers because it’s the only game in town.

    Back when the government took their role of managing the economy seriously, they would do things like breaking up monopolies and requiring companies to use standards so startup companies could enter the same market and compete. Today, once you get control over a market, you can do whatever you like and the government doesn’t do anything. Amazon can establish their own unique, proprietary, and exclusive protocols that prevent any other company from competing.

    In a phrase, we have socialism for the rich and powerful and capitalism for the rest of us.

  5. Dan Mabbutt

    News Story This Morning …..

    Mar. 13, 2014 10:09 AM ET
    Amazon hikes Prime membership to $99 per year
    By MAE ANDERSON, AP Retail Writer
    NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon is raising the price of its popular Prime membership to $99 per year, an increase of $20.

    What was that I was saying about “GOTCHA” and monopolies …..

    … Dan (Amazon customer when it makes sense, non-Prime member, and advocate for a uniform, federal sales tax)

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