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BOOK REVIEW: 'Three War Stories': David Mamet Uses War to Parse Human Behavior
It's a good thing Mamet fans -- and I'm one, big time, especially of his plays and films -- never know what to expect from the Chicago native, because "Three War Stories" delivers the unexpected. Mamet, like Stephen Crane ("The Red Badge of Courage") before him writes convincingly about combat although he never experienced it -- unless the bare knuckle variety of the world of Hollywood and Broadway counts!
In "The Redwing" -- the title refers to a ship the narrator served on, as far as I can determine, a ship of the British Navy -- the unnamed narrator, a 19th Century Secret Service naval officer turned prisoner, then novelist and finally memoirist recounts his own transformations during the course of his service and imprisonment. It's written in the style of the classic navy novels of the period -- think C.S. Forester of the "Horatio Hornblower" novels or Patrick O'Brian or Herman Melville. I'm leaning heavily toward Melville, because the novella draws on elements on display in Melville's "Billy Budd" and "Typee". If you're accustomed to the author's rapid-fire "Mamet Speak," "The Redwing" may be a chore to read, but it's worth it.Also employing a narrator near the end of his life writing about his wartime experiences, "Notes on Plains Warfare" has a Union officer who served in the Civil War, now fighting in the post-Civil War Indian wars, comparing and contrasting the behavior of the Indian warriors he clearly admires with that of their antagonists. Like "The Redwing," "Notes on Plains Warfare" explores religion, psychology and philosophy in the form of a memoir.
"The Handle and the Hold" takes place in 1948, on the eve of Israel's declaration of independence, with two American Jewish World War II veterans, Nicky Greenstein and Sam Black, working to steal a war surplus bomber aircraft and fly it loaded with arms to British mandate Palestine. Not being the gambling expert Mamet is (beautifully on display in his 1987 movie "House of Games" -- his directorial debut -- starring Joe Mantegna and Mamet's former wife Lindsay Crouse) I had to look up the definition of the terms used for the title. The “handle” is the total amount of all coins played through a slot machine. The “hold” (also called “win”) is the amount the casino held as profit.The shortest of the three novellas, "The Handle and the Hold" crackles with "Mamet Speak" as Nicky and Sam work to evade government officials who oppose their arms smuggling plan.
"Three War Stories" is Mamet's first self-published book. For more about self-publishing services like Argo Navis: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/17/business/media/david-mamet-and-other-big-authors-choose-to-self-publish.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
For a critical look at Mamet by a Los Angeles Times staffer: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/29/entertainment/la-et-cm-david-mamet-notebook-20130331