Monday, September 4, 2017

Keystone Kops and Wrascally Wrobbers

Mike Cooper, The Downside

Finn only steals big stuff: industrial equipment, boxcars, mineral ore. But seven years in prison leaves him wanting a normal, quiet life… until he realizes the Great Recession swallowed the savings he’d squirreled away. Against his better judgement, he accepts a commission from a billionaire who possibly sold him out before. Soon, Finn’s getting the band back together, preparing for a massive payday, if they don’t kill each other first.

I think Mike Cooper wants to recreate those popular post-WWII heist capers, the kind generally made into movies starring Alec Guinness or Michael Caine. He arguably succeeds; this novel has a similar dryly humorous tone, driven by the Rube Goldberg plot and absurd characters. But it’s over-written, slow, and beholden to its outline. It reads like a Hollywood screen treatment, which perhaps Cooper would’ve been happier writing.

Chapter One begins with Finn newly released from a New Mexico prison, where, broke and alone, he finds a beautiful woman offering him dodgy work. That’s stolen from hundreds of big-screen crime capers; my mind immediately revisits Bruce Willis’s megaton bomb Hudson Hawk. As crime capers require, Finn first refuses the job. But when he discovers his last money reserves gone, and his skills unmarketable in commerce, he reconsiders.

Seems Wes, a Manhattan sybarite who combines the worst of Richard Branson and Hugh Hefner, needs rescued. Finn doesn’t trust Wes, who commissioned the robbery that got him arrested, and maybe sold him out, too. But the payday is good. Seems Wes purchased fifty million dollars’ worth of rhodium, a metal more precious than gold, but got bilked, buying rhodium-painted lead. Now Wes wants Finn to steal his “rhodium” before the market finds out.

Mike Cooper
That’s my first problem with this story: an experienced billionaire makes an eight-figure buy without bringing a metallurgist along? (Okay, my second problem. The Prologue commences with Finn robbing a train, like Butch and Sundance, to nab molybdenite ore. Seriously? You can’t fence ore! These numbskulls deserve to get nabbed.) What moron would rather hire criminals to steal his reserves, than perform due diligence?

Wes shows Finn his “vault,” an impregnable fortress surrounded by skilled security. Finn sez no problem, and sets off cross-country to reconnect his scattered crew. Very Blues Brothers. It takes until page 100, of a less-than-300-page book, to reassemble the team. And, surprisingly, that isn’t even the slow part. Finn’s hatched an elaborate plan to burgle the unbreakable safe, a plan we see executed in agonizing detail.

I mean that literally. Cooper’s acknowledgements page credits six technical consultants by name. And he makes the common undergraduate mistake of assuming that, if he researched it, it belongs in the manuscript. We get lengthy scenes of Finn’s henchmen operating equipment and performing elaborate mechanical tasks, while Finn is off romancing Wes’s beautiful, possibly corrupt personal assistant. Meanwhile I’m checking my watch, fearing it has stopped.

Cooper’s chapters run short, averaging barely five pages. This means expository conversations can require two or three chapters to complete. And believe me, that’s what Finn’s dates are, exposition. In movies—erm, books like this, “Tell me about yourself” is an invitation to spill backstory, which you’d better believe will matter later in the plot. Not that these characters need much prompting to spill; they do love talking about themselves.

Nearly every chapter, even the hammock chapters mid-conversation, ends on some revelation, plot twist, or comedic note. It happens so consistently, before very long, you’ll swear you see the camera cuts in your mind’s eye, and hear the soundtrack orchestra. It’s impossible to discuss this book without citing movies it resembles, because Cooper’s prose repeatedly pinches tropes filmmakers use as shorthand cues. This isn’t a novel, it’s a master scene.

I like movies. I recognize the visual boilerplates Cooper recycles because, presumably, he and I watched the same movies growing up. That’s probably why I perceive the different demands which different media place upon writers. Book readers, as James Michener realized three generations ago, want something weightier than film can provide. Screenplays as literature are mostly interesting only to film school students and other screenwriters.

Who knows when, exactly, I lost interest in this story. I know it became transparent around pate 75 that Cooper’s characters were entirely subject to his outline, and wouldn’t change the story particularly. And around page 130, when I realized which Rat Pack members Cooper mentally pre-cast in which roles. All I know is, around page 175, I set this book down, and forgot to pick it up again.

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