Let’s start with the obvious, okay? This is a book called Frank Sinatra in a Blender. I want you to let the pure wonder of that sink in for a second. I am a massive sucker for a catchy title. This probably has something to do with being raised on science fiction short stories with titles like “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” or “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”. You don’t often get titles like that in novels, which right off the bat had me rooting for Frank Sinatra in a Blender to knock it clear on out of the stadium.
And from the outset things look very promising indeed. Matthew McBride commands a powerful and distinct voice, and his hard-boiled prose sucked me in immediately. There’s a kind of magic in this style of writing, a kind of siren song that calls out to the writer in me and says, “Maybe you should try to write like that.” By this point I know such forced emulation can only end in frustration and fakery, but this powerful and evocative style wielded so fearlessly still excites in me a certain awe and perhaps the slightest tinge of envy.
But then the other shoe drops. Actually that’s probably not the best metaphor to use here. For me the problems in this book became visible, not in a single flash of insight, but instead crept in like shadows cast by a slowly sinking sun, a sense that there was something off here. I tried to shake the feeling at first. By this point, I was more than a little invested; I was enthusiastic even, but something kept nagging at the back of my mind refusing to let me give myself over wholly to this story.
Why? Well, for a proper explanation it might do to examine what Frank Sinatra in a Blender actually is. Frank Sinatra in a Blender is crime fiction. And when I say crime fiction, I’m not talking about the kind of story where a crime is committed and someone is trying to solve it (though there is some of that present in the narrative.) When I say crime fiction, I mean this is a story about criminals. Both protagonists and antagonists are decidedly bad guys.
Now let me be clear here: this kind of story can work. As a reader I am perfectly capable of rooting for someone on the wrong side of the law. Bad guys fighting against worse guys make for some great stories. Probably the best known example of this in popular culture would be Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction, which follows a couple of hit men and other assorted criminals through a twisted and unpredictable series of events. Very few of these characters are dudes you’d want to sit down and have tea with. And yet, Tarantino goes to great lengths to show us that these guys aren’t wholly defined by their work. He paints them as characters rather than criminals, giving them long tracts of meandering dialogue, prodding us to remember that these aren’t caricatures defined by their crimes, but real people with deep layers of personality. He helps you to connect with these bad guys.
This connection is what is missing in Frank Sinatra in a Blender. The protagonist is a coke-snorting, stripper-loving, corkscrew-crooked P.I. and all of his friends are worse. The lack of likability here is frankly staggering. The only attribute you might argue gives him a twinge of humanity is his relationship with his dog (who happens to be named Frank Sinatra, and —I don’t want to give too much away here, but— it turns out the title is functional as well as aesthetic.)
All of this means that by the time the novel was over, I wasn’t invested in what happened to anyone (except perhaps our eponymous canine cutey). Who will get the money from the bank heist? Who will take the rap for the turd on the mob boss’s pillow? Who will survive the ensuing carnage?
However. This complete failure of likability wasn’t enough to make me stop reading, which says a lot for McBride’s impeccable style and twisted plotting. But by the end my excitement about this book had waned considerably.
I’m not going to make a recommendation one way or another on this one. Obviously these kinds of opinions are highly subjective at the best of times; I’m fully prepared to consider the possibility that this story just wasn’t for me. After all, Charlie Sheen liked it. So if you’re looking for a fresh an interesting writer with a powerful voice, and you can stomach a despicable protagonist, then you could do worse than giving this one a look-see.