Getting Better

Over the weekend I read the new Jason Starr novel, Lights Out. I’ve been a bit critical of Starr in the past. In my review of the anthology Plots with Guns I called him “middling.” Other Booklist reviewers have been mixed. Frank Sennett wrote that Twisted City was “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac.” But Stephanie Zvirin called Starr, in her review of Tough Luck, “relentlessly clever.” And Joanne Wilkinson said, of Nothing Personal, “his deadpan tone is a perfect match for his material.”

(If you want to read those reviews but you aren’t a subscriber to Booklist Online, click here to sign up for a free trial.)

Is his work uneven, or does Starr have the misfortune of having too many reviewers? Booklist editors do generally try to keep authors with the same reviewers to provide some continuity, but that’s not always possible. Reviewers come and go and are sometimes even allowed to take vacations. Also, authors who are well-reviewed tend to find regular reviewers more easily than those who aren’t – authors who receive middling reviews get passed around following the supply of available labor.

Conversely, some authors probably don’t want to be stuck with the same reviewer – I’ve reviewed most Ken Bruen’s books, but his only starred reviews have come from Emily Melton (for London Boulevard) and David Wright (for The Magdalen Martyrs).

We do our subjective best to be objective but it’s all relative. And whether an author’s oeuvre is reviewed by committee or by a single reviewer, it’s still not always easy to say with certainty whether the author is getting better or just getting better reviews.

I really enjoyed Lights Out, for instance. The story of a superstar baseball player and his unlucky former high-school teammate (his Tommy John surgery couldn’t cure his love of the curveball), it has the usual Starr elements: unlikeable, self-interested losers who make one bad decision after another. This one just seems funnier and more insightful than usual, but it also has a broader scope, and even includes moments of sympathy for a few characters. Theoretically I’d know if those elements were missing before – which I think they were – but if I was simply finally in the mood for Starr, maybe I looked harder for supporting evidence this time.

Here are three funny sentences that I underlined, all having to do with J.T., the superstar, and his desire to prevent bad publicity from a possible statutory-rape charge by setting a wedding date with his high-school sweetheart, Christina:

Of course, he’d make her sign a prenup in case the marriage fell apart, but it was still good to know that their love was real. 

And, discussing his fiancee’s lack of an intense fitness regimen:

It was still a nice ass, an above-average ass, but once they got married he’d have to watch it closely. 

Lastly, regarding his desire to finally plan the wedding, he says to Christina:

“But now that we’re older and more mature and whatever, I’m ready to do it.” 

J.T.’s churlish assessment of Christina’s posterior – which becomes an obsession for him – is funny for the way it reveals his utter lack of depth, but it’s the word “whatever” in the last quote that kills me, as if, even in the act of wooing, he’s too lazy to think of a third reason that now is the right time to wed.

While Starr has a good eye and an ability to bring to life a truly diverse cast of inner-city strugglers, strivers, and schemers – there are the faintest echoes of George Pelecanos and Richard Price – this isn’t much more than entertainment. But for people who like a wicked sense of humor and don’t need to identify with the characters, this is very good entertainment.

(Incidentally, add Lights Out to the Bumbling Criminals list.)

Back to the central question. If, as a reviewer, I warm to a writer I haven’t always liked, is the writer getting better or am I just liking the writer better?

Book reviewers don’t get paid for ambiguity and soul-searching (hell, we barely get paid at all), so, obviously, the writer is getting better.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

3 Comments on "Getting Better"

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  1. Likely Stories » Blog Archive » Ellis on Starr | March 28, 2007
  1. Interesting post. I reviewed that Starr novel quite a while back, and just recently reviewed an anthology, Hard Boiled Brooklyn, in which he has a story. Either he’s putting more effort into his novels than his stories these days, or I’m just not ready for him yet, as you put it. My latest review line about Starr, which was cut before getting into print, was: “Although editor Coleman might have helped his book by salting a few classic tales among the sometimes-slapdash new works (Jason Starr, in particular, needs to learn a new punch line)…” My feeling about the guy is that he’s got talent, but I catch the whiff of smug and maybe a bit lazy in there sometimes. But I’m glad to hear you liked the latest novel better than the previous one you reviewed, because he writes the kind of thing I usually tend to like…

  2. Keir says:

    I do think Lights Out is an improvement, but I know what you’re saying. And it’s funny because you’ve hit on my feelings about Ken Bruen, who co-wrote Bust with Starr (and I think they might pal around a bit, too). Bruen has a great, entertaining voice and is starting to get some buzz, but I feel like he doesn’t push himself. He doesn’t take his plots or characters in new directions, or build the scope of what he’s doing. Each book is pretty much the same, and a kind of self-satisfaction seeps through the writing. The books are decent, but you feel like they could much more than that.

    The jacket of Lights Out dubs it “The Next Step in Jason Starr’s Climb to Bestsellerdom…” I know that’s just PR hype, and you never really know, but I just don’t see it. I don’t think either of them is a) broad enough, or b) invested enough in their material. But I’d love to have them prove me wrong.

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