I planned to review an Alan Black sci-fi novel each month here at the Nameless Zine, but I found that I only have the two on the shelf that I've already covered. Without the opportunity to pick up more until Phoenix Comicon, that leaves an interesting general fiction novel, 'Chasing Harpo', as the only one left on my shelf. So, until I can stock up on my Alan Black sci-fi, here's an unusual romp through the Alabama countryside with the orang-utan of the title!
As we begin, Harpo lives in the Birmingham Zoo, part of a breeding program for endangered species. He's a contented ape, with food a plenty; no males competing for his women; and a servant named Carl. In fact, Carl is presumably why he's called Harpo. Carl is Carl Marks, with the inevitable nickname of 'Red', so his favourite ape gets to share his surname. As befits the nod to the Marx Brothers, Harpo has an overt sense of humour, though it's a generally inappropriate one that we might recognise more from grade schoolers.
As the title suggests, he doesn't stay in the Birmingham Zoo for long. A band of former Rwandan soldiers, who are building a small crime empire in Alabama, plan to steal the gorillas from the next door jungle for nefarious purposes: necklaces, medicine, the usual. Unfortunately for them, they run into people working late and, before they know it, the orang-utan is defending his territory. Harpo knocks one intruder out, then picks up his MAC-10 and squeezes it; the ensuing gunfire takes out two more, leaving just one to run away.
You'd think that Harpo would be seen as a hero but no, he's an animal rather than a human and so different rules apply, especially with the District Attorney, who's aiming to be the next Governor. So, before he can be euthanised, Carl whisks the ape out of the zoo and they aim for the high country. Hopefully they can survive long enough on the run for Carl's lawyer friend, Chuck, to make the situation safe enough for them to return.
Three books in and I'm seeing a pattern in Alan Black's writing. He starts out with a couple of awkward pages with sentences that don't quite work, then settles in with capable scene-setting and an engaging set of characters to keep us turning pages faster than we expect, before finally nailing us with a superb passage that has us clenching our fist and crying 'yes!'. This always seems to be a confrontation scene, played out with glorious dialogue and sheer balls, and this one is no exception, with Master Chief Petty Officer Gary Scopes, U.S. Navy (retired) taking apart the state Attorney General, 'Stan the Man' Porrizzo, with aplomb. And in front of massed reporters, no less. It's a magic scene and it's what Alan Black does better than anything else, because there are similar scenes in each of his two novels that I've reviewed thus far.
In fact, much of what I like most here rings consistent with those sci-fi novels, 'Empty Space' and 'Metal Boxes', even though this plays out in a completely different genre.
Even though there's nothing sci-fi here at all, with its rednecks and cops, its zoo workers and its Rwandan drug dealers, there's still a clear Robert A. Heinlein influence; this time out, I saw a lot of 'The Star Beast' here, though it's far from a translation from science fiction into romantic comedy thriller.
Another thing that feels quintessentially Heinlein is the way that people with apparently different political persuasions can work together when their cause is just. One of the ways Heinlein changed my life was in teaching me that few people are truly one side or the other, unless they've been brainwashed into towing a party line. Black's characters work like Heinlein's: big on liberty and personal responsibility, which are traditionally right wing characteristics, but also big on tolerance, more usually associated with the left wing. He thinks nothing of having a character tote guns and plan on joining the Marines but not care one whit if a friend happens to be gay.
Black's talent for character development, especially through strong dialogue, extends to his avoidance of stereotypes, even when we think he's going that way. 'Chasing Harpo' features a supporting cast of tough women, redneck gun nuts and even a kid with Down's Syndrome. Not one of them feels like a token. Even the single sentence that highlights that one particular cop is gay plays fine to me; Black isn't trying to get minorities on his side, he's just pointing out that good people (or, indeed, bad people) come in all shapes, sizes, races and any other criteria you can come up with. The rednecks are especially well-drawn, playing up every cliché but only on the outside; when we finally get inside their farmhouse or their conversation, we find ourselves in very different territory. There are a few clichés in play here, but for every dishonest politician, there's an honest cop and we're OK with that.
What's new here on the positive side is that Black writes a few sections from Harpo's perspective and it works rather well; he could easily have overdone this but he keeps it to an appropriate level. He even adds a glossary at the back of the book to explain that, to Harpo, 'people' are orang-utans like him, while the human being population are 'hairless-not-people'. He's a smart ape who knows how to get through the 'rock-not-rock', or door, to the 'cave-between-jungles', or corridor, as he knows the security code by heart. Frankly, the glossary isn't needed, because Black introduces each new term capably, so we keep up without needing a cheat sheet.
There is a negative side and it's a little more obvious than in the sci-fi novels I've reviewed, though it's on the level of little annoyances rather than anything of real substance. What annoyed me most was the lack of contractions in dialogue, especially when given to the characters who are otherwise so good at playing rednecks. Lines like, 'He is not big on zoos,' or, 'That is the guy,' ring untrue; every time, these should be 'he's' or 'that's'. As a film critic, I'm well aware that June Allyson's name contains a 'y' not an 'i', and fugitives don't 'go on the lamb', they drop the 'b'.
More important than those minor proofing errors is the fact that the ending feels much too short. It does much of what it needs to, but such a solid build deserved a longer payoff and there were a few little loose threads that I'd have liked to have seen sewn up. For instance, I'd like to have known who got promotions out of this case and whose careers found an unexpected downward turn. 'Chasing Harpo' runs just over a couple of hundred pages, but it could have done with a couple of extra chapters to wrap things up better.
As it stands, though, it's still a fun and engaging read. I'm three Alan Black novels in and not one has been more than a two-day read. I just don't want to put the things down! I can heartily recommend each of the three that I've reviewed thus far and I'm looking forward to picking up all of his other books still in print at Phoenix Comicon. You should do the same! ~~ Hal C F Astell