Thursday, March 22, 2007

Butte College administrator is a friend of hard-boiled novelist John Shannon


Ken Meier, on the job for less than a year as Butte College's vice president of learning, introduced this naive book review columnist to the gritty work of Los Angeles writer John Shannon.

In a series of nine novels featuring Jack Liffey (who recovers missing children), Shannon plumbs the cultural diversity of the south land. The fourth Jack Liffey novel, "The Orange Curtain," puts the detective in Little Saigon in Orange County, looking for the missing daughter of a Vietnamese bookseller. I haven't read this one, published in 2001, but I do know it's dedicated to Ken Meier.

Shannon's Web site explains the book's epigraph: Meier, he says, has been "my political mentor for almost 30 years, though he tried to abandon me almost as soon as we met by moving to rural Arizona to teach in a community college, a calling which he fiercely believes in. A working class lad himself, who could have become a first-rate professor of the history of ideas at any Ivy university, he has dedicated himself instead to making our community colleges fulfill their forgotten promise to the children of the working class." Now, of course, after serving a stint in Bakersfield, Meier finds himself at Butte College.

National book critics have found John Shannon. In late February, the New York Times Book Review published a note by Marilyn Stasio about the ninth (and newest) Jack Liffey novel: "Long a champion of teenagers in trouble, especially kids from L.A.'s culturally torn-up ethnic neighborhoods, this hard-boiled sleuth is on familiar turf in 'The Dark Streets' (Pegasus, $25), searching for a Korean film student named Soon-Lin Kim who went missing. But the landscape shifts when Liffey discovers that a paramilitary group of Asian-Americans has taken an interest in Soon-Lin Kim's student project. Although racial tensions always run high in Liffey's world, the violent turn they take here causes him to question his faith in 'the innate goodness of man.' And another old friend loses his way in the dark."

If he doesn't lose the way, perhaps the author might one day turn up in Chico for a reading and book signing.

"The Dark Streets" was my first foray into Jack Liffey's world. He is 60 now; his daughter, Maeve, who was shot in a previous installment, is now 17 and hot for the guy next door, a gang leader named Beto. Jack's girlfriend, Gloria, "a half-blood Paiute ... raised by Indian-hating fosters," is a cop and breast cancer survivor. Maeve's mother divorced Jack years before after he lost his aerospace job and turned to drugs and booze. His new job has not come cheap. Jack "had a metal plate in his head, titanium pins in his legs, a bullet scar on his shoulder and a weakened lung."

Kim's project is about the so-called "comfort women," Koreans forced into prostitution during World War II. Japan has not apologized, and an international hearing on the matter generated headlines in our own world just in the last few days. Liffey also gets caught (who knew?) on the wrong side of the Patriot Act.

The book is a verbal analogue to "24," keeping multiple storylines in the air at once, quick cutting from one to another. Yet "Streets" is not as dark as I expected and by the end it's clear there is at least some rough justice in the world. And Maeve, Jack realizes, pregnant Maeve, is still a sign of grace.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2007 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.
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