Lehane's Plagiarized Ageism
Moonlight Mile Reviewed
Private eye novelist Dennis Lehane has never been known for originality. His best novel, Gone, Baby, Gone, ends with externalized moral uncertainty modeled after what Dashiell Hammett did more subtly (and therefore more effectively) on the last page of The Maltese Falcon. Lehane's Prayers for Rain opens with the hero and his deadlier-then-life sidekick terrorizing a stalker, a sequence copying one written in a more serious tone (and therefore more effectively) in the opening of Andrew Vachss's Strega. Elmore Leonard's Freaky Deaky opened with a bomb scare in which a character, sitting in a chair, is informed by phone, "[W]hen you get up, honey, what's left of your áss is gonna go clear through the ceiling." In Lehane's A Drink Before the War, the hero is told over the phone, "You sitting in that chair, I wouldn't get up anytime soon, less you want to see your áss blow past your head on its way out the window." (Lehane should be congratulated, I guess, for coming up with the word "window" all by himself.)
It won't surprise mystery fans, therefore, that Dennis Lehane's new novel, Moonlight Mile, has the same basic plot as Robert B. Parker's Taming a Sea-Horse. In both books, a Boston private eye hero is asked to find a young woman he found in a previous book but who has now disappeared from the place he left her. (In Parker's earlier book Ceremony, the hero had left a teenaged woman working in a whorehouse after concluding that prostitution was the best way for the teenager to be a productive member of society. In Lehane's Gone, Baby, Gone, the hero had left the girl, as a small child, in the care of a dangerously neglectful mother after concluding that this biological mother, and not the loving adoptive parents, was the girl's rightful owner.) In both Moonlight Mile and Taming a Sea-Horse, our hero once again tracks down the now-(20-year-old woman in Parker's version / 16-year-old woman in Lehane's), and this time he gets a lead by investigating a friend of hers who has also disappeared. Along the way, he is confronted by the idea that he may have made the wrong choice in the previous book, but probably didn't.
Moonlight Mile's biggest surprise: Lehane's Patrick Kenzie manages to be more self-righteous and more self-congratulatory than even Parker's Spenser (though I suppose sending a teenager to work in a brothel draws more of the type of criticism that can spark a flicker of self-doubt).
The Pro-Youth Pages isn't here to expose plagiarism, however. We're here to expose ageism. And here is why we are reviewing this book: Moonlight Mile seems eager to ape every ageist idea Lehane didn't already use up in previous novels.
Moonlight Mile's first chapter reads like a tribute to Bret Easton Ellis.
In the 1980s, Ellis was a teenager who broke into print by pandering to middle-aged bigots. In his novel Less Than Zero, Ellis fed youth-haters their own ugly fantasies, portraying a world of teenagers raping and torturing children and fellow teens.
For this, Ellis was rewarded handsomely. Not only did middle-aged publishers publish his book and promote it aggressively, middle-aged critics praised it to the high heavens for its great "honesty" in exposing teenagers as heartless sadists. And middle-aged readers put Less Than Zero on the national bestseller lists. Ellis was like the Stepin Fetchit of Generation X, a sell-out who made himself rich feeding bigots their own lies and luring them into a feeding frenzy.
Before the internet, youth could have no public voice that wasn't selected for them by the adult-run media. As long as Ellis told Baby Boomers what they wanted to hear, as long as he assured them their own generation was superior to those terrible kids today, the media appointed Ellis the spokesman for Generation X.
Ellis's success lasted right up until he tired of writing about teenagers and decided to be more inclusive. Ellis's 1991 novel, American Psycho, was similar to Less Than Zero, but instead of nihilistic high schoolers preying on children and teenagers, American Psycho was about one nihilistic Wall Street broker preying on victims of all ages.
Suddenly, middle-aged critics were furious with Ellis. The same people who had praised Ellis's "honesty" now condemned his exploitative shock-value and his sick imagination. Some middle-aged booksellers refused to stock American Psycho in their bookstores. Middle-aged feminists who had made no complaints about Less Than Zero (with its graphic depiction of teenagers gang-raping a 12-year-old girl) were suddenly outraged by American Psycho's graphic depiction of a broker beheading a prostitute — so outraged that they launched a boycott against the publisher. It was another feeding frenzy, all right, but this time, spurned Baby Boomers were eating Ellis alive.
By 1991, Generation X had gotten old enough for a few members to break into print without betraying their generation or selling their souls to get there, and these authentic voices of Generation X were howling with laughter at how bigoted Baby Boomers had been tricked and bitten by their own lapdog. Ms. Pagan Kennedy, for example, wrote in The Nation (April 1, 1991):
[T]he very same literary and critical establishment now struggling so hard to disown Ellis are the ones who anointed him the new F. Scott Fitzgerald a half-dozen years ago. ...
[W]hy was [Less Than Zero] called "documentary'' and "fascinating" but [American Psycho] condemned as ... "exploitive junk"? If Ellis's murderer had been a drugged-out teen instead of a broker, would the violence have been "gratuitous" or there for verisimilitude? ...
By lauding Bret Easton Ellis for Less Than Zero, the literary establishment provided the jolt of electricity that brought a Frankenstein monster ... to life. And just as in the horror flicks, the mob, armed with pitchforks and torches, is chasing down the beast ... rather than its true creator.
Ellis, however, had never intended to bite the hand that was feeding him. He had simply miscalculated. After the reaction to American Psycho, Ellis returned to writing about nihilistic teenagers, desperately chasing again the praise and riches he had once enjoyed.
This strategy now brought Ellis only limited success. While the middle-aged critics (once bitten, twice shy) would never again embrace him as another Fitzgerald, they did stop attacking him. He enjoyed their cautious approval, but he no longer had any significant audience. Baby Boomers never again trusted him. Generation X never forgave him. And no other generation ever cared about him.
What Ellis Taught Lehane
Before Ellis disappeared from the pop-culture radar, however, he clarified for ageist writers the most effective ways to stereotype youth: either sadistic or totally unfeeling (so middle-agers can hate them without feeling bad), spoiled by permissive adults (so hateful middle-agers can feel proud of wanting to punish young people), rich (so middle-agers will feel envy, fueling hatred), preying mostly on other youths (so hateful middle-agers can enjoy the cruelty and can also hide their hatred for the young offender behind a veil of feigned compassion for the young victims), using slang that is unfamiliar to middle-agers (so middle-agers will feel alienated from them, seeing them as an "Other"), and promiscuous or even sexually deviant (so middle-agers can feel titillated while also feeling morally superior). Roughly 25 years after Less Than Zero left The New York Times bestseller list, this is precisely the stereotype Dennis Lehane uses to launch Moonlight Mile.
In Moonlight Mile's first chapter, we are introduced to a character named Brandon Trescott. (Doesn't that just sound like an Ellis anti-hero?) Lehane quickly establishes that Trescott is young (Check!), rich (Check!), spoiled by his rich, permissive parents (Check!), and heartless (Check!).
What makes Brandon Trescott different? As the author tells us in the first paragraph, "Brandon wasn't your run-of-the-mill rich kid àsshole. He worked double-shifts at it." Trescott got several DUI's (See how reckless he is?!) but continued driving his Dodge Viper (See how rich he is?!), causing an accident that left his girlfriend (Same-age victim? Check!) in a permanently vegetative state. The author informs us Trescott had known this girlfriend for only two weeks (Promiscuous? Keep going.), and that Trescott himself survived the accident "without a scratch." (See how spoiled he is?! Even God is too nice to him! Envious yet?)
We are now two pages into the book. By page three, we learn Trescott refused to give any money to the victim's doctors or to her family, then flaunted his lavish lifestyle "in a wonderful 'fu¢k you' to" the victim's family and to society at large.
But society at large is ready to fight back. That's where our middle-aged private eye hero comes in.
Soon we get some dialogue and discover young Brandon Trescott addresses everyone as "bra." (Weird slang terms? Check!) But our hero is able to lure the evil young Trescott into a trap using Trescott's desire to hire a (Yes!) prostitute who's old enough to be his mom. (Sexually deviant? Check!!) There it is! The whole freakin' checklist in only six pages!!
Lehane must have felt tempted to call Bret Easton Ellis on the phone and yell, "Suck it, loser! You needed a whole book?! I did it in six!! Fu¢king!! PAGES!!!"
After writing the first chapter, Dennis Lehane probably high-fived his agent and sodomized his wife simultaneously, while spraying champaign on everyone else in the room.
But the book wasn't finished. Oh, Lord, was Lehane not finished.
Dirty Up the Dialogue
Elsewhere at the Pro-Youth Pages, we've discussed how novelists clean up the dialogue of adult characters to make it more readable and make the characters sound smarter, but often dirty up the dialogue of young characters to make them sound stupid. Rarely has the issue been as blatant as it is in Moonlight Mile's scene where private eye Patrick Kenzie talks to a group of high school students to learn about the two missing teenagers he is now investigating.
Dennis Lehane belongs to the school of writing that says, Since learning how teenagers actually talk would require actually talking to them (Ick!), either:
- use expressions you hear teenaged characters use on TV; or
- just make up expressions, since your middle-aged readers won't know the difference anyway, and young readers don't matter.
Lehane apparently turned on a TV long enough to hear the recently trendy expression "Just sayin'." But he must have misheard it, because his fictional teenagers use instead: "I'm sayin'." Lehane also crams the teenagers' dialogue with "like" as well as slang terms that are either dated or simply pulled out of Lehane's butt.
Here's a fun, rainy day activity: from the three lines below, try to guess which was actually written by Dennis Lehane and placed in the mouth of a teenaged character, and which ones I just made up as exaggerated examples of what an idiot might think a teenager would say:
- "She was, like, quiet all the time fer sure. She must have been illing after [another character] ripped off her iPod? Because she had, like, a really far out playlist and stuff? And she, like, couldn't afford a replacement."
- "It's, like, if you were talking to her, she, like, listened? But if you waited for her to tell you stuff, like, who she dug or what apps were on her iPad or like that? You'd, like, wait a long time."
- "Like, she built this, like, rad website on, like, Twitter? But then, like, those crum-bums gave her, like, the 23 skidoo."
Now you're probably thinking I made up all three. After all, a best-selling author who also wrote for a highly-rated TV show could never be dumb enough to think teenagers are still denouncing "crum-bums," or discussing whom they "dig," or praising things as "far out," but I assure you one of these lines really appears in Moonlight Mile. And the novel is not meant as a humor book. Lehane presents this dialogue as authentic.
On the next page, the narrator even describes how Lehane apparently wants us to respond to this dialogue:
"As I listened to these girls babble and imagined [my daughter] one day talking with the same banality and ignorance of the English language, I thought of buying [a] shotgun to blow my own fu¢king head off."
Umm, actually it's the author here who is displaying banality and ignorance. And, Dennis, if you want to blow your own fu¢king head off, don't let us stop you.
Bad Role-Models for Parents
Protagonist Patrick Kenzie, in this book, has a wife and a 4-year-old daughter. This allows Lehane to pad his book with family scenes he hopes will be heart-warming, the kind of scenes that provide readers with the thrills we could ordinarily get only by asking a co-worker to tell us once more about that "cute thing" her child did at daycare last week.
Lehane wants readers to see Kenzie as a good parent, but in fact, the parenting techniques he models are harmful. In one scene, Kenzie puts his wife and child on a plane to get them away from the danger he must heroically face alone. At the airport, he tells his daughter to hug him. She refuses. (And, really, you can't blame her.) Rather than respect his daughter's wishes, Kenzie argues. He lectures. He even humiliates her by forcing her to fill in the blanks in his lecture:
I knelt by her and she turned her head. "Sweetie, we talked about this. Throwing a tantrum in the house is what?"
"Our problem," she said eventually.
"And what's throwing a tantrum outside our house?"
She shook her head.
"Gabriella," I said.
"Our embarrassment," she said.
"Exactly. So give your old man a hug. You can be mad at me, but you still have to give me a hug. That's our rule. Right?"
Experts will tell you this is a great way to raise a child if you want to set her up for a child-molester. Tell her she has no right to control her own body, no right to decide who may touch her and how. Tell her she is obligated to show affection she does not feel toward adults who demand it.
Lehane's readers, we can assume, include young parents eager for parenting advice. And Lehane gives these parents dangerous suggestions and irresponsible role-models.
I guess this turn shouldn't be too surprising from an author who previously advised readers that they should disbelieve children who report being raped (in Sacred) and that anyway, children want to be raped (in Mystic River).
As Moonlight Mile progresses, Dennis Lehane finds more ways to depict teenagers as stupid. In one scene, Kenzie and his wife eat at a diner. The scene does nothing to advance the plot. It exists only so the hero can be waited on by a teenager who is so stupid that she (Get this!) doesn't know what a newspaper is. If you find that hilarious, you'll be delighted that Lehane drags that joke out for several paragraphs. Like so:
"A newspaper," I said. "It's like a home page without a scroll button?"
"The front page usually has pictures on it and ..."
This keeps going. The scene, of course, raises an interesting question: Is Dennis Lehane still on AOL? Why would he assume everyone's homepage looks like a newspaper? And just what kind of browser is Lehane using that has only one scroll button? Even the AOL browser, I believe, offers one scroll bar and a few scroll buttons. (But hey, what do I know? Maybe AOL is so deep in the red these days they can no longer afford to include the "scroll up" button.)
People ridiculed George W. Bush for talking about "the internets," but sure enough, it looks like Dennis Lehane found a second one somewhere.
As Lehane neared the end of this book, however, he perhaps felt bad about stereotyping teenagers as idiots. So at the end of Moonlight Mile, Lehane tries to round out his cast, acknowledging that teenagers aren't all cold-blooded and stupid, but that some teenagers can be cold-blooded geniuses.
At the book's conclusion, Lehane reveals that everything every major character has done throughout the entire story has been carefully planned out and manipulated by 16-year-old Amanda.
As soon as we meet Amanda, we know she's different because she never uses the word "like." Indeed, every time she opens her mouth she seems to be reciting dialogue written originally for Lauren Bacall, then polished by a presidential speech writer. As in this exchange:
"We're above morality, are we, Amanda? At the ripe old age of sixteen?"
"I didn't say I was above morality. I said I was above expressions of moral outrage that are a bit self-serving given the histories of the people in this room. In other words, if you think you get some sort of second chance to save my honor twelve years after you handed me back to a mother you knew was incompetent, you don't. You want absolution, find a priest. One with a clear conscience of his own, if there are any of those left."
Amanda is so brilliant and so cold-blooded that, at one point, she murders a man by hitting him with a train; and unlike Snidely Whiplash, Amanda need not even tie her victim to the tracks. She instead manipulates him into standing on those tracks for one second — exactly the same second the train is reaching that spot. How does she pull this off? Aspiring murderers, take note! She tosses a valuable McGuffin across the tracks, knowing the man will chase after it with perfectly lethal timing rather than, say, wait 30 seconds for the train to pass, then step across the tracks and casually pick up said McGuffin.
Many lazily-written thrillers have ended with the revelation that one character manipulated everything that happened by correctly guessing every choice every other character would make. It's not even original for that ridiculously brilliant manipulator to be a teenager. ("Veronica Mars" did it more than once.) The question is, Does this cliché balance out the earlier clichés? Does Lehane, with his unrealistically brilliant teenager, undo the damage Lehane did earlier with his unrealistically stupid teenagers? The answer, I think, is no.
I doubt any readers will find Moonlight Mile's ending persuasive. Readers won't say, "Wow, I guess some teenagers can be really smart." Instead they'll say, "Wow, Dennis Lehane really can't write a good ending." (That, by the way, is what readers say after finishing any Lehane novel. Lehane fills his books with mysterious turns, but he can never come up with plausible explanations for those turns, so he resorts to nonsense like this.)
The earlier anti-youth stereotypes, I'm afraid, will be swallowed by at least some of Lehane's readers. And the readers who roll their eyes through the earlier parts of Moonlight Mile are unlikely to reach the end anyway.
In his early days, Lehane compensated for weak characters and unoriginal plotting by offering a great writing style that kept the reader hooked. Nowadays, he doesn't even bother to polish his prose. This whole book reads like a first draft.
When Norman Mailer reviewed American Psycho, he argued it was a shame that Bret Easton Ellis was so talented because if the offensive novel had been written by a mere hack, it would be easier to dismiss. This is the one way Moonlight Mile improves on the work of Ellis: it is easier to put down and forget.