Sunday, April 19, 2015

Dave Barry is the Greatest Life Coach in the Multiverse

The below piece is a submission for Book Riot’s Our Reading Lives

I am connected on Facebook with the majority of my friends from high school, but my actual communication with them is fairly rare. While most of them are still somewhat close with each other, I was left on the outside due to moving across the country for a number of years, devoting a great deal of time and attention to other relationships, and the fact that I was regarded as a pretty serious oddball from ages fifteen through…well, I guess I still am. 

I was happily surprised earlier this week to discover that one of my core friends from high school had posted a photo of a book I had given him back then, which he had loved and shared with the rest of our social circle, many of whom bought their own copies. The book that had engaged us so much during the height of the TRL and WWF Attitude era was Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys.
While I don’t like to generalize, teenagers typically don’t connect with the work of a guy who “turned 40” when they were seven years old. However, there are some artists, like the Beatles, John Belushi, and Gallagher, who transcend generations, and I honestly feel Dave Barry belongs in that rarefied ring of honor.  

I cannot speak for my friends from high school, but Dave’s writing has served as an insightful introduction to mature topics (both “Hollywood mature” and actually mature) supplemented by bladder-busting humor. I read Guide to Guys when I was first trying to make sense of my own awkward personality and stop-start maturity. Dave’s wisdom in this book changed me from anxious, spacey, confused nerd to…an awkward, spacey, confused nerd who knew that I would be okay.  

Guide to Guys’ “Hardware Store Problem” anecdote illustrated one of my major insecurities. My father designed and built my family’s first house, but those skills didn’t pass on to me. I can’t process or assemble complex items, and Dave perfectly described my problem, “Guys are supposed to understand, automatically, as though mechanical aptitude were a growth stage in male puberty. One day you wake up and discover that your armpits are sprouting little hairs; the next day you wake up with the ability to repair a transmission.” The “Hardware Store Problem,” which painstakingly details the embarrassment resulting from failed home repair, comforted me and also made me realize I had other skills that would make me a strong, functional adult. 

I also learned valuable lessons that I carried with me as I matured from Guide to Guys. Writing about the communication disparity between men and women, Dave wrote, “A guy in a relationship is like an ant standing on top of a truck tire. The ant is aware…that something large is there, but he cannot even dimly comprehend what this thing is. And if the truck starts moving, and the tire starts to roll…right up until he rolls around to the bottom and is squashed, the only distinct thought that will form in is tiny brain will be, and I quote, huh?” Once I was able to somehow attain a relationship, I made it a paramount priority not to be that ant. I listed, and observed, and contemplated, and took everything all elements of my relationships seriously, and eventually I met my wonderful wife who did the same for me. 

Dave Barry has covered a wide variety of complex subjects in his extensive catalog, ranging from family planning and parenting to the aging process. These are frightening topics, but Dave has given me a valuable perspective on these life stages, namely, “they are normal, and they are also a bit silly.” I am expecting my first child this summer, and will be looking to buy a house in the near future. When those major events approach, I know I will be able to turn to I’ll Mature When I’m Dead (“you will have frequent fantasies – elaborately detailed, very explicit fantasies – about napping”) and Dave Barry’s Money Secrets (“real estate is an exciting field, offering many exciting opportunities for a financial novice such as yourself to screw up”). The greatest lesson I’ve learned from reading Dave Barry, is that when confronted with life’s challenges, you need to laugh in their faces, and P.S., don’t forget to fart.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Devil and Myron Bolitar

I started writing this piece earlier this week, during a very late night, with a huge smile on my face. I had just finished my marathon of Daredevil on Netflix and was reading the tremendous response the series had received, and was eager to share the joy and gratification I experienced watching my favorite comic series come to life beyond my greatest expectations. While reflecting on why I connected with Daredevil’s alter ego, Matt Murdock, throughout my years of devoted reading, I was suddenly struck by a revelation that another character I bore an uncanny resemblance to the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.

Harlan Coben introduced me to the modern mystery genre in high school, and I count his writing, along with Dave Barry and Isaac Asimov, as a blueprint for engaging an audience. His signature character, Myron Bolitar, has headlined ten best-sellers, with the series also winning multiple prestigious genre awards and birthing a young-adult spinoff.

Matt Murdock and Myron Bolitar are separated by a generation, as Marvel’s Daredevil series debuted in 1964 and the first Myron Bolitar novel, Deal Breaker, was published in 1995. However, the shared character traits between Matt and Bolitar, as well as the narrative and thematic similarities in their stories, are uncanny.

Matt, a defense attorney, and Myron, a sports agent, were both put on the path to assume their dual identities by traumatic events in their lives. Murdock was blinded while saving someone from getting hit by a truck carrying toxic chemicals, while Bolitar suffered a career-ending knee injury from an intentional hit during his first training camp with Boston Celtics. Both characters rose above these circumstances to graduate prestigious law schools and open their own practices in the New York metro area, and became trained experts in martial arts as a cathartic release (and narrative convenience). The Daredevil persona arose within Matt Murdock due to his father’s murder at the hands of the mob, while Myron Bolitar’s vigilante activities are a series of unhappy accidents when his prized clients are blindsided by scandal.

The supporting casts in both series have near-direct analogues to each other as well, and add key dimensions to the protagonists. Matt Murdock and Myron Bolitar both claim their college roommate as their professional partner, confidante, and best friend. Foggy Nelson, while initial designed as Daredevil’s comic relief, provides a voice of reason and emotional grounding for the melodrama that typically engulfs Matt Murdock. Windsor Horne-Lockwood reflects a more extreme viewpoint in the Bolitar series. Unlike Myron, Win is an old-money playboy who fully embraces the lifestyle of the loner vigilante, acting almost as a walking cautionary tale to his proclivity for violence and complete lack of empathy. Karen Page and Esperanza Diaz round out the “core trio” character setup that both series adopt, and while both function initially in a secretarial role, Karen is damsel in distress for almost the entirely of her existence in the written Daredevil mythos while Esperanza grows into an equal partner for Myron and represents a human connections that Myron steadily loses throughout the series.

Daredevil and the Bolitar novels are heavily steeped in noir conventions. The lives of both central characters are regularly impacted by “femme fatale” characters. The doomed romances with Elektra Natchios (first love/college girlfriend) and Milla Donovan (trauma-prone community activist) are defining moments in Matt Murdock’s 50-year history, and Myron’s involvement with Emily Downing (first love/college girlfriend), and Terese Collins (trauma-prone television anchor) have acted as catalysts to push Myron down increasingly dangerous paths. While both series are set in a “modern” era, organized crime is still alive in both worlds, and Matt’s complex relationship with Wilson Fisk echoes Myron’s ongoing issues with the Ache brothers in many of his novels.

I could easily spend another thousand words describing the oddly specific surface-level similarities between Matt Murdock and Myron Bolitar, but my intent is not to make any insinuations regarding Harlan Coben, one of my literary idols. The basic template for both characters has existed long before either was created, as exemplified by Zorro, the Shadow, and Batman. These characters have uniquely inspired me because the most important traits they share are their unbending morality and endless resilience.

Matt Murdock and Myron Bolitar are both influenced by their religion. Matt’s Catholicism is more overt than Myron’s Judaism due to the more in-your-face nature of comic books, but in each case their faith is deployed to examine the nature of their choices, make the correct decisions, and comfort them in the face of adversity. Religion in both books isn’t works as the evangelical sledgehammer or blanket excuse for discrimination it is in today’s world, but rather a ploughshare for fixing injustice or solving the problems of those in need. While Matt Murdock may have heightened senses, he and Myron are both ordinary men working to the best of their ability and means to heal their worlds.

Matt and Myron’s commitment to their morality frequently forces them into adversity that would easily overcome most people, but they make the hard choices and refuse to yield to their obstacles because that determination is ingrained in their identity. The pain Matt Murdock endures in Frank Miller’s classic story Born Again could occupy six noir novels, the entire premise of the Bolitar novel Promise Me is that Myron made a casual promise to keep his friends’ daughters safe, and he never abandons that promise even when protecting them becomes deadly. I have a tough time making myself floss and finish 20 minutes of yoga a day; reading about these characters leveraging their intelligence and endurance against seemingly insurmountable odds made them strong aspirational figures to me.

One element that I feel can be missing from authors’ work with long-running characters is remembering that their protagonists are role models to their readers. While real-world role models often let their admirers down with unfortunate and even occasionally frightening personal flaws, authors have direct control over their creations. When crafting a new story for characters that carry a deep attachment from their audience, writers should remember how they have defined their characters’ personalities, and not cross those lines unless willing to seriously explore the long-term ramifications of their decisions. When Matt Murdock seriously considers killing a baby in the execrable Guardian Devil by Kevin Smith, or beats Wilson Fisk to death in public in Brian Michael Bendis’ End of Days, the disrespect for established characterization for fans is shocking, and an unfortunate byproduct of a character being owned by a corporation rather than a singular writer. However, when a novelist takes a jarring, ugly turn with a central character, trust with the audience can be severely damaged. Long Lost, the 9th Bolitar novel, took a very dark turn with Myron as he graphically murdered several people while investigating a terrorist cell, which was also a plot that was far outside the character’s traditional realm. This would have been an interesting choice for the character if was extended into future installments of the series, but Myron was essential back to “normal” by the next book, Live Wire. While Live Wire was a solid read as a standalone novel, the events in Long Lost had almost completely broken my immersion in the world that Coben had built.

One of the greatest rewards a writer can attain is creating characters that audiences grow to love, and build an attachment far beyond the typical escape from reality found during reading. While the characters I chose as aspirational icons are largely derivative, the origin and influence is not nearly as important as the lessons these characters can impart to the audience. Authors are also teachers, and should remember their own lessons while building their worlds.