My attempt at a spoiler free review. I’m terribly bad at reviews, so I’ll really just give my thoughts.
Isaiah Coleridge is a man of halves – half Maori, half Caucasian (all Army brat, he proclaims). Alaskan, Maori, yet mobbed up, when we meet him. Part biblical prophet, part Romantic poet. With an eclectic yet brutal upbringing, he’s a literate bruiser. As our narrator, he’s possessed of an penetrating and worldly-wise voice that can swing from hard-bit noir to ruminations on mythology. In Laird Barron’s Blood Standard, the heroes of myth are figurative ghosts that the narrator sees everywhere, infesting his storytelling. Yet, this is a crime novel, with missing persons, assasins, the mafia, neo-Nazis, native American gangs. It’s a wonderful intersection of multiple cultures and backgrounds, filtered through the lens of the criminal underworld in New York state’s boonies. Much to my personal delight. “The bonfire built into a roiling pillar, and in my delirium I imagined sacrifices of squalling babes to Baal and Chemosh and all the jolly old death gods that got it in the neck after the New Testament.” Or: “The scene reminded me of a hybrid of a Viking longhouse and a honky-tonk…” Or: “He glanced at me and, by the dashboard glow, his expression was solemn as an Arthurian knight’s from some kid’s picture book.” This juxtaposition of myth and noir works exceptionally well. It’s really a testament to Barron’s style that he pulls this off so effortlessly.
The story rolls along at a steady clip, the plot is surprising and inventive in turns, while still familiar enough to satisfy crime noir tastes. In Coleridge, Barron has found a winning combination, I think – a narrator with the chops to be both brawn and brain while remaining believable and immediate. Identifiable. Also, I’m so tired of reading crime noir books in which the author or his or her narrator adapt a criminal patois, in efforts to make their character harder or tougher. The fact that Coleridge is literate is a refreshing change.
What I think really makes this book resonate for me, is the power of myth in individual lives. In Coleridge, mythology coexists with a hard-boiled reality, making it not only more bearable but giving his existence meaning. We see Coleridge torch his situation with the mob for the sake of animals, risking his own life (very very early in the book – no spoilers!). And that connection to others deepens throughout the course of the story, contrary to most crime noir protagonists – individual men operating alone until whatever bitter end their indomitability brings them to.
Anyway, this novel was a pleasure through and through, and I look forward to whatever other stories of Isaiah Coleridge the author chooses to bring us.
Also, Laird Barron is pretty much, in addition to being an amazing novelist, a master of the horror short story form. His collections Occultation , Swift to Chase, The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, and The Imago Sequence are required reading for horror fans. I haven’t read his novel The Croning yet but I’ve heard great things.
I took some notes as I read. I’ll include them here.
Isaiah = Biblical Prophet
Coleridge = “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Kublai Khan, In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decree… something something… down to a sunless sea.
Coleridge is a man of halves – half Maori, half Caucasian. A literate bruiser. Half hard-bit, noir; half rumination on mythology “The bonfire built into a roiling pillar, and in my delirium I imagined sacrifices of squalling babes to Baal and Chemosh and all the jolly old death gods that got it in the neck after the New Testament.”
Juxtaposition of the mob and Alaska.
Humane treatment of animals, central to Coleridge’s values – tied into Maori belief? Coleridge mentions living with his Maori grandfather
Mister Lucious Apollo – Uncle Lucious – gets Coleridge into working for the mob. Messenger of the gods.
Describing the effects of alcohol: “…a sacred medium between the civilized veneer and the primordial savage.”
Myth and legend: Ourobouros, Rasputin, Bad Wolf, Alexander the Great, Virgil, Dante, Polyphemus, Callisto, Achilles, Hercules, Bacchus, Thor, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, John Henry. Prodigal sons. Alice in Wonderland. The Tenth Circle of Hell. Obi-Wan.
Noir and legend: Sinatra & Martin, Goodfellas, Elvis, Mack the Knife, The Sopranos, Get Carter