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Keir Graff and editors from Booklist's adult and youth departments write candidly about books, book reviewing, and the publishing industry

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006 6:40 pm
Greedy Hippies
Posted by: Keir Graff

I finished reading Robert Ward’s Four Kinds of Rain, and it was in some ways what I was expecting – a dark comedy about a bumbling criminal who throws away a chance at real happiness for a treasure that ultimately turns out to be worthless – but in some ways it was a lot more than that.

Right after I wrote my last post I came across a surprising plot twist. And while the second half of the book does explore just how far Bob Wells will go to protect his ill-gotten gain, this isn’t one of those books where it’s all a matter of plot mechanics – crosses, double-crosses, car chases, and shootouts. While there are some of those, Ward enjoys performing psychoanalysis on Wells, teasing out the rationalizations that his character makes in order to justify his career change from do-gooder activist shrink to extremely active criminal.

Ultimately, Wells’s late-life ethical lapse has more to do with his inability to let go of his youthful idealism than simple greed. In fact, Ward is so savage toward Wells’s dippy hippie ethos that I have to wonder whether Ward is: a) exorcising his own past beliefs; b) making a statement about the unsustainability of idealistic belief systems in general; or c) just a cranky guy who never bought into that stuff in the first place.

Wells is fake and shallow, bitter that his humble, quiet efforts to help the less fortunate haven’t made him into a rich and famous person, which is funny. He’s a good target, and an inventive one. Of course, these days sincerity seems more often mocked than cynicism, so the fact that this last remaining holdout turns out to be such an ass made me wince once or twice. I still think it’s more fun to skewer the rich guys, but of course you can’t complain about a lack of political balance in fiction. It’s just one character in one situation, so I’ll shut up about that.

Anyway, Ward is funny and cynical, his book is dark and violent, and I liked it a lot. If I didn’t love it, I think it’s because he spends too much time in Wells’s head. The book could have been even funnier if we had the chance to sometimes discover Wells’s changing attitudes through action, not internal monologue. But it was still time well spent.

And it occurs to me that, in my last post, I was writing about the ways in which Four Kinds of Rain feels like one of those great ’50s pulps. Even though the protagonist is the bad guy, it’s kind of like one of those books where the tough, square cop is disgusted with the beatniks – or one of those ’60s pulps where the tough, square cop is disgusted with the hippies – only Ward is playing the cop in this one.

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One Response to “Greedy Hippies”
  1. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » The Problematization of Plot Says:

    [...] While I was writing (that is, “blogging”) about Robert Ward’s Four Kinds of Rain yesterday, I was trying to make sure I didn’t say too much about what actually happens in the story, which is also a key consideration when writing a review. One of the frustrating things about being a book reviewer is that, if I don’t want to be the jerk who spoils it for everyone – I might sometimes want to be another kind of jerk, but definitely not that kind – I can’t get too specific about things. Using specific examples is essential to good expository writing, but book reviews must balance the sometimes competing imperatives of making an argument and piquing readers’ interest. And if readers know what’s going to happen, they’re less likely to pick up the book. [...]


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