Friday, March 25, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Naked Matador

When I was a kid, I was huge into mythology, so it's no surprise that I wound up reading as much Zelazny as I have. Of course, when I was a kid, mythology meant Greek mythology, and as I read more Zelazny I was somewhat disappointed that he never really worked more with the Greek myths. (And call me Conrad was one of the very last of his books that I read, and I don't know if young Josh would have appreciated it anyway, seeing to him that Greek myths were epics about Zeus and Athena and Achilles and not stories about some kallikan-something thingy he'd never heard of.)

Which brings us to The Naked Matador. Our narrator remarks on the similarities to Hemingway's The Killers, and if he hadn't, I would have. In the introduction to the piece, Zelazny said he felt like writing a Hemingway piece. I think he succeeded outstandingly.

It's quite a minimalist work, having virtually no plot to speak of.  Descriptions are pared down to the bone. And yet it works. I think it's just shy of brilliant.

The story opens with Nick Adams "Jess Smithson" in a diner, on the run. He takes a seat next to an attractive woman with a scarf over her hair and smoked glasses over her eyes.

We paid our checks. She was short. About five-two or -three. I couldn't really see much of her, except for her legs, and they were good.

We went out and turned left. She headed toward a small white car. I could smell the sea again.

We got in and she began to drive. She didn't ask me where I was staying. She looked at her watch again.

"I'm horny," she said then. "You interested?"

It had been quite a while, running the way I had been. I nodded as she glanced my way.

"Yeah," I said. "You look good to me."

She drove for a time, then turned down a road toward the beach. It was an isolated stretch. The waves were dark and high and white capped.

Whenever I think about Hemingway, I think about something Vonnegut wrote about him somewhere or other, wondering what kind of thesaurus he had, because he always got away with dinky little words that everybody knew, and was yet one of the giants of the 20th Century. I ran Matador through MS Word's readability analysis and it got a Flesch–Kincaid score of the second grade. And yet, it's a great story.

I mentioned in my review of Coils that I associated that book with this story because they both featured houseboats. On rereading, I see that I was mistaken about the houseboat, because there isn't one in the Naked Matador. Don from Coils does mention a condo in Key West, so I think that's why I made the connection between the two stories. (I wish he would have said "cottage" instead of condo, so that way I could pretend that M is renting Don's place while he's away.)

One of my favorite traits of Zelazny's writing is his penchant for omitted scenes, a trick, he says, he stole from Hemingway, where the author omits from the final draft of the story something he knows to be true. I wonder what those papers are in the manila envelope in bottom of the suitcase. I wonder what interest the men in the blue Fury might represent. But they're not important. The papers are the Macguffin and the men in the Fury are the men who want it back. That's all we need for the story.

My favorite part is the phone call from Perseus. I can't remember if that's when I knew for sure that the woman was Medusa, but I think it was.

"Em . . .? Is Em . . . there . . .?" said a man's voice, sounding as through a seashell. "Who is . . . this . . .?"

"Jess," I said, "Smithson. I'm renting this place for a week. It belongs to some lady. I don't know her name."

"Tell her . . . Percy's . . . called."

"I don't know that I'll see her. But is there any message?"

"Just that . . . I'll be . . . coming."

I just love the detail that he sounds like he's speaking through a seashell.

Here's another part I enjoyed:

We went back to the bedroom and I showed my gratitude for as hard and long as I could. It was still a hands-and-mouth-below-the-neck proposition, but we all have our hangups, and it was certainly wild and interesting country. Afterward, she broiled lamb chops and I tossed a salad. Later, we drank coffee and smoked some small black cigars she had. It was dark by then and the rain had stopped.

Heh. I'm glad NESFA collected the stories, because if I had done the project, it would be nothing but me breaking into the text every couple of paragraphs to say "Great line!" or "I love this part!"

Much later that night, Joe and I pushed the two limestone statues over the side into the Gulf Stream. I leaned on the rail for a long while after that, before I realized I had forgotten to tell her that Percy was coming. Later, the sun rose up at my back, turning the sea to a fleece of gold in the west.

Nice reference the Golden Fleece there at the end.

I don't think it's one of Zelazny's all time great short stories like Divine Madness or Comes Now the Power, but it a lot of fun to read, and I imagine that he had a fun time writing it too. The process probably went something like this: I went to my typewriter to write a Hemingway pastiche. I sat down. I wrote it. It was pretty good.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Matador is a strangely memorable and appealing little story.

    --Chris DeVito