I completed my first read of 2010 last night – The Devil’s Punchbowl by Greg Iles. Even in the non-light of an early January morning, I’m not sure how I feel about it. At first I thought my ambiguity meant I wouldn’t even review it on this site, since I prefer to review books I have stronger reactions to, good or bad, but the reasons for my ambiguity bother me and I think they might be worth exploring, just a bit.
I loved at least the first half of this book, if not the first three-quarters. The book is set in Natchez, Mississippi, a place I’ve long been fascinated with (and now wish we had added to our itinerary during our deep South vacation), and Iles does a fantastic job describing Natchez, from the natural beauty surrounding the area to the town’s slow downward spiral over the course of the last many years. The narrator, Penn Cage, is the town mayor, former lawyer and current best-selling writer, and he is a trustworthy, compassionate voice to follow.
The premise of the book – that the riverboat casinos along the Mississippi have brought a criminal element to town, an element that stretches gambling from the casinos into the woods surrounding Natchez with dog fighting, as well as welcoming prostitution, drugs, etc., is a good one. For quite a while as the book took off I thought I would be able to write a pretty fun, peppy review – do you like bad guys from Ireland with unclear ties to the IRA? Do like cocktail waitresses who serve as spies and are just hoping for a little redemption? Do you like a handsome, smart hero who you know will get the bad guys and the girl, in the end? Do you like books that take place in the south and crochety old doctors who save the day? Then read The Devil’s Punchbowl!
But something happened in the last third of the book (and there might be some spoilers coming up so if you think you might read it go ahead and stop now). First, let me say, I am not a woman who minds violence in her books. I LOVE crime novels and mysteries and rarely have I come across a bothersome severed head or a worrisome mysterious mass grave – these are not things I lose sleep over. Secondly, when I am reading for pleasure I rarely engage my inner English major voice – I LOVE book blogs and writers that do but I truly don’t read as a critic, especially as any sort of feminist critic. It’s part of the reason I didn’t pursue a Ph.D. – I LOVE reading, but sometimes I find applying theory and critique to books quite hard labor. And so.
The last three hundred pages or so were too violent for me. I don’t want to give away the details entirely but the situation Iles put his female characters in – well, at times I had to stop reading, they were so degrading. I kept thinking to myself “Wow, this author REALLY hates women.” I have no idea if Iles is one of those animal rights people (and here I sound dismissive but I am not, I swear) who believe that the way we treat animals is inevitably how we treat fellow humans, and cruelty to animals means we will treat our own race cruelly (all true, I don’t doubt!) but I kept thinking he wanted the reader to draw some parallels between the way the criminals treated the dogs and the way they treated women. But really, it didn’t come across that way for me, at all – the way the two main female characters, Caitlyn and Linda, are treated near the end of the book was so terrible that I literally felt uncomfortable while reading the scenes. And once I was uncomfortable, once I was taken out of that zone of the willing suspension of disbelief, I couldn’t fall back into the narrative and found myself riled at all of the following action, beginning with the fact that the woman who sleeps around with a lot of men and works only as a cocktail waitress dies the worst death I have ever read in a book while the virginal newspaper reporter-heroine survives, to the fact that while said newspaper reporter (Caitlyn) swears to her lover Penn Cage that she was not raped or injured while kept captive (and she wasn’t in the course of the novel) but Penn Cage silently questions this and will always wonder if she was raped (and so what, Penn Cage? Does that mean you will love her less? And why don’t you believe her? The reader knows she’s telling you the truth!) to the ending, which, people, IS A CLIFFHANGER. Yes, 800 some ridiculous pages later and Iles doesn’t even bother to complete the story. I threw the book across the room last night when I finished.
And so. I don’t think that it is over for me and Gregory Iles – I have thoroughly enjoyed two other books of his that I have read and never before have I thought negatively about him as an author, but this book was hard – too hard, for me. I honestly can’t think of anyone I would actually recommend this to, but I am bothered by this because it’s the situations in the book – fictional situations – that cause me to feel this way, and not the writing or character development or plot. There is something about ME that is bothered by this book – and someone else could very well love it.
Heading back to the library to return my books today – four of which I didn’t even read – definitely the month is off to a slow reading start for me – I’ve been in a bit of January fugue state lately. Hopefully I can find the perfect book to shake me out of this state!