Review: The Man In The Rockefeller Suit (The Astonishing Rise And Spectacular Fall Of A Serial Imposter) by Mark Seal

Can You Spot A Con Man? (A review of The Man In The Rockefeller Suit, The Astonishing Rise And Spectacular Fall Of A Serial Imposter, by Mark Seal)
rockefekkersuit
Fascinating nonfiction, conversationally written and well-paced with a near-thriller feel, with some twists and surprises along the way. The Man In The Rockefeller Suit vividly portrays how even the most intelligent and accomplished among us can be easily duped by a skilled con man, adept at hiding his lies and deceit (and worse) behind an audacious facade of charm, wealth, and privilege.

The Man In The Rockefeller Suit is highly recommended, and available at Amazon here.

“Writer’s Block,” A Free (And Very Offbeat) Short Story

tinyelvisWhere do writers of weird fiction get their inspirations? Perhaps some of us are born slightly warped, or are made so by an early and heavy diet of sci-fi and fantasy, with a dash of Mad Magazine thrown in for good measure.

Case in point: the short story below. The inspiration was a series of zany and inspired “Tiny Elvis” skits on Saturday Night Live from many years ago. It’s my homage to many of us writers who — despite many hours of trying — often fail to achieve a proper ending for what we initially think is a sure-fire plot.

-N. E. Walker

Writer’s Block

by N. E. Walker

“Hey, man, you’re huge!”

Pete, a few stools to my left, was slouched forward and morosely staring at the brown beer bottle cupped between his gnarly fingers. Johnny the bartender had his back to me, watching the game on the ancient overhead TV. I glimpsed my reflection nestled behind the array of cheap booze set haphazardly before the mirror at the back of the bar.

“Yeah, man. Huge! Heh heh.”

I swiveled around to see if someone had sneaked up behind me, but the room was empty. My puzzlement was interrupted by a light tap against the leg of my stool, and I reflexively leaned over and peered down. A small being, about six inches high with black pompadour hair and dark sunglasses, dressed in black skin-tight leggings with a matching leather jacket that was opened half-way down his bare chest, was peering up at me.

“Hey, man, give me a hand,” he said, holding up his little arm.

I straightened up and glanced to my left. The drunk remained adrift in his own happy-hour world, and Johnny was still watching the game. I laughed, rubbed my eyes, and downed another slug of whiskey.

“C’mon, man, I don’t have all night.”

Startled, I inhaled some of my drink and coughed, spraying droplets across the top of the bar. After I wiped my mouth I cautiously peeked down over my right shoulder. The little figure was still there.

“Johnny!” I barked.

After a couple of beats, he managed to pull his eyes from the ballgame and turned around, slapping on a grudging smile. “You need another hit, Norm?” he asked.

“Johnny, take a look at this, will you’?” I tilted my head to the right.

“What?” he said.

“On the floor. What do you see?”

Johnny leaned across the bar, peering down. “Oh, hi, Elvis,” he said. “How’ve you been? Give Elvis a hand up, Norm.”

I blinked my eyes rapidly, uncomprehending, and then took the path of least resistance: I bent down and cupped my hand around the small figure, who immediately jammed his little shoes over my pinky and draped his arms across my index finger, holding firm, as though being lifted in a giant’s hand was an everyday occurrence. I raised him up and gently placed my hand on the counter, whereupon he jumped out and executed a half-twist in the air, nimbly landing with knees bent, his right arm stretched outwards, pointing dramatically at me. “Thanks, man,” he said in his unmistakable baritone, straightening up and smiling. “I don’t like stayin’ down on the floor, you know; too easy to get squashed.”

“Where’s your bodyguards?” asked Johnny.

The little man’s expression turned sour. “Johnny,” he said, frowning. “Like I’ve told you before, they’re not my bodyguards, they’re my friends. Anyway, I gave ’em the night off.”

“Sure, sure, Elvis,” said Johnny. “You want your usual?”

“This is nuts,” I said.

“Oh,” said Johnny. “Elvis, this is Norm, one of my best customers.”

“Hi, Norm, nice to meet you,” said the little man, giving me a quick glance. “Naw, Johnny, I’m not in a Pepsi mood tonight. How about a shot of that new whiskey you sampled me last week.”

“Coming right up,” said Johnny, who quickly swiveled and walked towards the back of the bar.

“This is nuts,” I said again, louder, banging down my glass.

“Hey, Norm,” said the miniature figure, turning to face me. “Your drink is huge, man. Ha, ha. Seriously, though, what’s buggin’ you?”

“What’s bugging me?” I said loudly, staring down at the tiny man, as I wrestled with a mixture of anger and fear. “I come in here most days after work for a quiet drink, and everything’s peaceful. Maybe there’s a drunk or two like Pete, sometimes a few guys are hanging out and we talk sports; occasionally a cute babe stops by. But there’s never been any miniature celebrities walk in, until tonight. So I think I’m going nuts.”

“Could be,” said the little man.

“And listen to you,” I spluttered. “There’s no way your deep voice can be coming from your tiny body. Anyone with a basic science education knows that someone your size should have a voice that’s squeaky, high-pitched. Yet you sound just like Elvis — the original big Elvis.”

“Cool, man; good observation. I dig it. But–”

“This is ridiculous! You’re just a distorted fantasy from a Saturday Night Live skit from years ago. Which means that I am going crazy, or someone spiked the booze, or maybe I’m suffering from a temporal lobe epileptic seizure, or–”

“Yeah, I did a few gigs on SNL,” interrupted the little man. “The ‘Tiny Elvis’ bit. The audience dug it, but it required some tricky special effects.”

I laughed, and slapped my hand down on the bar. “Okay, I’ve got you now, my hallucinogenic friend. Why would you need special effects since you’re already tiny?”

The little figure threw up his hands. “Norm, Norm, what mad universe are you living in, man? Don’t you remember? Everyone was tiny then, after the Celebrities War. All of us performers, anyway; the bombs didn’t affect the squares like you, obviously — Hey Johnny! Where’s my drink?”

“Oh. Sorry, Elvis, I got distracted by the game–”

“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, Norm, for the Tiny Elvis skits the special effects team had to make it look like everyone else except me was large, like before the war. Dig it?”

I grasped my throbbing head in my hands, and squeezed my eyes shut, hard. But when I opened them Johnny was setting down a thimble filled with some amber liquid in front of Tiny Elvis, who grabbed it with both hands and lifted it to his lips.

“Mmm. Thanks, Johnny. Hey man, while you’re here, tell Norm about the Celebrities War.”

Johnny raised his eyebrows. “You’re kidding, right?” he asked.

“No, Johnny. Your buddy Norm here appears to be suffering from amnesia.”

“Well–” started Johnny, giving me a puzzled look.

“Wait a minute!” I interrupted. “This is absurd! There’s been no ‘Celebrities War,’ and this — this Tiny Elvis person here — well, he’s not real!”

Johnny cocked his head and pursed his lips, like bartenders do when they’re getting ready to tell you that you can’t have another drink. “Hey, Norm,” he said, firmly, “I really appreciate you being a regular customer, you know, but… well, if you’re going to insult Elvis, then I’m going to have to ask you–”

Elvis walked in between us, waving his arms at Johnny. “Hey, Johnny,” he said, “it’s cool, it’s cool. Maybe Norm has a point.”

Johnny froze, and then shrugged and walked away. “Whatever you say, Elvis,” he muttered.

“Damn straight,” I mumbled. “This must be just a dream.”

Elvis turned to face me. “Aw, Norm, no, that’s so lame. That’s an old hackneyed plot. It would never sell.”

“Sell?”

“Yeah, Norm, don’t you get it? If you don’t remember the Celebrities War, then maybe this is just a story.”

“What? A story? That doesn’t make any sense.” I felt the room spinning and tightly grasped the edge of the bar.

“Whoa, Norm, hang in there. Hear me out, man. We can test my theory. Scoop me up and jump up and run out the front door. But don’t squeeze me, man, I don’t want to get crushed.”

“I don’t get it,” I said softly, fearing I was having a breakdown.

“Just do what I ask, man, and you’ll see.”

“Okay,” I said. I gritted my teeth, lightly grasped Tiny Elvis, and then jumped up and ran over to the front door and pushed it open, stepping out onto the sidewalk.

“Look!” he shouted.

I gazed across the street towards where his tiny arm was pointing. The row of buildings was hazy, indistinct, as though we were looking at an abstract muddled painting, or a shoddy facade on the back lot of a low-budget movie set.

“See!” yelled Tiny Elvis. “He can’t keep up.”

As we stared across the street, the buildings started to become more defined. Windows appeared, and then their frames. Bricks and stonework and doors and alleyways suddenly emerged from the former blankness, their empty grayish hues rapidly replaced by evening pastels, tinged yellow by the setting sun. Vehicles popped into existence in front of us, accompanied by beeping horns, the smell of exhaust, and the light hissing of tires as they spun along pavement made damp by an earlier rain. A moist breeze stirred, and the sidewalk erupted with evening revelers, bombarding us with snippets of laughter and conversation as they scurried past.

“We caught him off guard,” said Tiny Elvis.

“I… I still don’t get it,” I stuttered, amazed at what I had witnessed.

“Norm, buddy, you’re pretty slow. Take me back inside and I’ll explain.”

As I turned around I glanced quickly to my left, staring down the street. The scene was hazy, just stick figures of people and cars, set against an amorphous bland background. But immediately the view started to become more solid, like watching an artist apply pen and ink to a penciled sketch, then quickly dabbing in vivid colors. I pulled open the door.

“Hey, man, careful,” said Tiny Elvis. “Don’t squeeze.”

“Sorry, Elvis,” I said, loosening my grip. I walked us back inside, set Elvis down carefully on the bar, and slid onto my stool. “Okay, Elvis,” I said, trying to stay calm, “I give up. What’s going on?”

“Norm,” he said, flinging his hands up in exasperation, “haven’t you ever heard an author say that a story wrote itself? Hey, man, this is one of those stories! Except the author can’t keep up; the story’s running on ahead, faster than the author can describe it. Maybe the author’s exhausted or drunk. Who knows?”

My mouth dropped open. It made sense, in a crazy sort of way. Elvis was staring at me patiently, tiny hands on his famous tiny hips. “Yeah, Elvis,” I finally muttered. “I think I’m starting to understand. We’re just characters that–” The top of the bar abruptly turned black, inscribed with an array of white-lettered squares. Elvis’s legs were straddling the K and the L, his body tense and eyes filled with fear. His right arm shot up as he pointed over my head.

“Norm!” he shouted. “Man, that finger is huge!”

I jerked around and tilted my head back, watching in horror as the giant hand swiftly fell towards us, its index finger aimed at the square marked Del.

Sci-Fi Short Story “Face Off” Now Available in Cosmos Magazine Online Edition

“Face faceoffOff” by N. E. Walker is a futuristic vision of our celebrity-obsessed culture, where Face Masters recreate long-dead fan favorites. “Face Off” was selected for publication in the print edition of Cosmos Magazine, issue # 44, and has recently been republished (31 Jan 2013) in the online edition, available here: Face Off

Now For Something Really Strange (A Review of The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer)

theweirdDo you enjoy stories that are darkly offbeat, quirky, strange, fantastical, and/or have a touch of the Twilight Zone? If so, have I got a book for you: The Weird, a Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.

This is a large book (110 stories, 1152 pages, available at Amazon here (hardcover) or here (paperback)) that delivers many hours of wondrous reading, a great investment. Arranged chronologically from 1907 to 2010, each story is preceded by a brief and interesting bio of the author, included mentions of other notable works; very useful roadmaps for future reading.

For my tastes, a surprisingly high percentage of the stories in this anthology were very enjoyable, making The Weird a particularly good value.

An observation: The older stories, even though they were wordier, tended to embody a higher literary standard than some of the newer tales, reflecting a culture that was more refined then than today. I have observed this cultural downward trend in other anthologies; perhaps some day we will see the trend reverse.

The Weird is highly recommended.

(Note: To ensure objectivity, no compensation, referral fees, etc. are received for reviews published on Journeys to the Edge of Reality.)

Purgatory: Madness Or A Window Into The Soul?

Available As Part of Double Visions

“A riveting read … Walker’s work is like a theme park ride”
-Amazon reader review

Glen Graves, a successful and wealthy entrepreneur with a beautiful wife and daughter, has only one problem: he’s in a coma. And it’s a strange hellish coma where Glen can hear, but no one else knows he’s in there. His mind soon finds a way to escape from the boring immobility of his hospital bed, as he begins to explore a nightmarish underworld. Struggling to understand the meaning of his disturbing hallucinations, Glen is finally forced to come to terms with the dark side of his personality.

Tags: short novel, offbeat, suspense, drama, mystery, coma, psychological, disorder, thriller, twilight zone

Can You Trust Amazon’s Book Reviews?

Am I being overly pessimistic? It seems that our culture is decaying at an ever-increasing rate. Too many of us cheat our way through college (or purchase fake diplomas), lie on our resumes or to our spouses or to our colleagues, and generally do whatever we want to further our own interests, regardless of the dishonesty required.

This shameful behavior has, predictably, seeped its oily way into the Internet, adversely affecting purchasers who expect to be reading honest product reviews, but who may instead be reading cleverly disguised advertising.

For example, prize-winning mystery writer R.J. Ellory, using false names, has posted numerous flattering reviews of his own books on Amazon, while posting unflattering criticisms of competitors’ works:

“…Although the story broke over the Labor Day weekend, it spread quickly to the ranks of American crime writers and beyond. Dozens of authors signed a joint letter condemning the practice…The letter reads, in part, “More and more books are bought, sold, and recommended online, and the health of this exciting ecosystem depends on free and honest conversation among readers. But some writers are misusing these channels in ways that are fraudulent and damaging to publishing at large….few in publishing believe [these cases] are unique. It is likely that other authors are pursuing these underhand tactics as well.”

¬†“The furor over ‘sock puppet’ Amazon book reviews” by Carolyn Kellogg, 4 Sep 2012 Los Angeles Times

Some related commentary:

“…Consumer reviews are powerful because, unlike old-style advertising and marketing, they offer the illusion of truth. They purport to be testimonials of real people, even though some are bought and sold just like everything else on the commercial Internet…”

“Mr. Liu estimates that about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake. Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.”

The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy” by By David Streitfeld, 25 Aug 2012 New York Times


Opinion Spam image: http://www.engadget.com

Why I Like Celebrity Memoirs: A Review of Dropped Names by Frank Langella

Although I don’t read celebrity magazines, or follow celebrities via social media, I do enjoy reading celebrity memoirs. Why? Because — as evidenced by my fiction writing — I find human psychology fascinating, particularly at its farthest edge where abnormalcy is the norm, and I have found that the far edge is the home of the psyches of many celebrities. Because of the nature of their work, celebrities inhabit an alternate universe, one that would be the worthy creation of an imaginative science fiction author, if that universe did not already exist in reality.

Celebrity memoirs, in my rather large sampling, are often me-me-me-moirs, providing a glimpse of a narcissistic world view beyond the farthest reaches explored by the Starship Enterprise. This squinty-eyed vista, however, is typically widened by the inclusion of stories about other celebrities that the memoirist has encountered. These vignettes can range from crude to elegant, angry to funny, ponderous to witty, myopic to insightful, tedious to riveting, and — on rare occasion — humble and achingly honest.

Memoirs often surprise. William Shatner’s Up Till Now is the overall funniest memoir with the most laugh-out-loud passages that I’ve ever read. At the other end of the spectrum, Bruce Dern’s Things I’ve Said, But Probably Shouldn’t Have is a memoir I’ve read, but probably shouldn’t have. Apart from raising me-me-me to record-breaking heights, it also assaults the reader with a vocabulary surprisingly restricted to numerous unnecessary and tedious recitations of a common four-letter expletive.

And now we come to a memoir that is really unique: Dropped Names by Frank Langella. Although Mr. Langella has played leading roles (e.g., Richard Nixon in the play and film versions of Frost/Nixon (highly recommended)) and is an established and respected stage actor, Langella is probably best known to the general public as a character actor in movies and television.

There are several reasons to use the over-hyped word “unique” to describe Mr. Langella’s memoir. First, it is not a me-me-me-moir. Indeed, it is hardly a traditional memoir at all. Mr. Langella is certainly present throughout, but only within the strict context of the stories he relates about “Famous Men And Women As I Knew Them” (the book’s subtitle), and the reader is left to understand Mr. Langella only by induction. For example, there is mention of past wives and children, but few specifics. Also, a thread of bisexual ambiguity runs throughout, evidenced by Langella’s expressed interest in (and empathy for) gay colleagues. In the end, however, this thread is not unraveled.

Second, these stories are not presented linearly, but are stand-alone vignettes of famous people with whom Mr. Langella interacted either briefly or at length, but always with enough depth to allow him to absorb engaging insights. You may not recognize every “dropped name,” (I had only hazy recollections of some) but that did not detract from the enjoyment of each story.

And finally, we reach one of the strongest features of Mr. Langella’s memoir: it is beautifully written, of literary quality, carefully composed with wit and style. The stories evoke pathos (Mr. Langella expresses deep empathy for the neglected children of certain celebrities), disdain (he is definitely not a supporter of the Stanislavsky school of “method acting”), and humor (laughter eruptions are induced throughout: caution, do not read Dropped Names in a quiet zone).

Rating: Highly Recommended

Caution: Although not presented gratuitously, expletives are contained in many instances of recounted dialog.