Thursday, March 31, 2016

Forgotten Books: The Crimes of Jordan Wise, by Bill Pronzini.

The Crimes of Jordan Wise, by Bill Pronzini.

Actuary Jordan Wise tells a joke on himself a third of the way through the novel: (paraphrase) an actuary is somebody who doesn’t have the personality to be an accountant.

If you watch many true crime shows, you see a lot of Jordan Wises. People who fall into crime through circumstance rather than those who go looking for it.

Jordan becomes a criminal only after meeting Annalise, a troubled and very attractive young woman who needs two things badly – sex and money. But in order to get the sex on a regular basis, Jordan must first provide the money. He embezzles a half million dollars and flees with Annalise to the Virgin Islands. In this first part of the novel, there’s nice James M. Cainian detail about how Jordan comes alive for the first time in his life. Some of this is due, whether he admits it or not, to the danger of committing a serious crime. But most of it is due to Annalise and his profound sexual awakening.

The central section of the book reminds me of one of Maugham’s great South Seas tales – lust, betrayal, shame played out against vast natural beauty and a native society that, thanks to an old sea man named Bone, Jordan comes to see value in – even if Annalise, her head filled with dreams of Paris and glamor, does not. Old Maugham got one thing right for sure – as Pronzini demonstrates here – a good share of humanity, wherever you find them, is both treacherous and more than slightly insane.

There are amazing sections of writing about sea craft and sailing that remind me not of old Travis McGee but of the profoundly more troubled and desperate men of Charles Williams who find purity and peace only in the great and epic truths of the sea. That they may be as crazed and treacherous as everybdy else does not seem to bother them unduly.

There are also amazing sections (almost diaristic sections) where Jordan tells of us his fears and desires, his failings and his dreams. In places he deals vididly, painfully with his secret terror of not being enough of a man in any sense to hold Annalise.

The publisher calls this a novel and so it is. Pronzini brings great original depth to the telling of this dark adventure that is both physical and spiritual. He has never written a better novel, the prose here literary in the best sense, lucid and compelling, fit for both action and introspection.

You can’t read a page of this without seeing it in movie terms. The psychologically violent love story played out against a variety of contemporary settings gives the narrative great scope. And in Jordan Wise and Annalise he has created two timeless people. This story could have been set in ancient Egypt or Harlem in 1903 or an LA roller skating disco in 1981. As Faulkner said, neither the human heart nor the human dilemma ever changes.


Ben Boulden said...

This is probably my favorite Bill Pronzini novel, and speaking for accountants everywhere we out-personality actuaries like nobody's business.

Deb said...

I was absolutely blown away by this book. I loved the long set-up; there was something almost DAY OF THE JACKAL-esque about the way Pronzini shows Wise setting up the entire identity theft and embezzlement part of the plot. But the book is also a powerful study of an inert/depressive personality who only comes alive when in the presence of a catalyst--in this case, the sexually alluring Annalise. One of Pronzini's absolute best!

Rick Robinson said...

I've read lots of Pronzini books, but all of them Nameless. I really have to try this one!

Anonymous said...

Richard Robinson, you must do yourself a favor and read "Masques", "A Wasteland of Strangers","Blue Lonesome",and "The Other Side of Silence",all Pronzini stand-alones that are among his best works, and all time favorites of mine regardless of genre.
Mr. Pronzini is an amazingly intelligent and inventive author.