Thursday, December 02, 2004

Now playing in the Batmobile (er, Ratmobile)

Been listening in the car to the audio cassette version of Andrew Vachss' 1995 Bat-novel, The Ultimate Evil. I was vaguely aware of the book when it came out, along with accompanying comic book adaptation, but I'd never heard of Vachss, and besides, the whole premise sounded like it wouldn't be my cup of tea. (I'm not a huge fan of those periodic incursion-into-the-real-world side projects where the Caped Crusader is recruited to deal with land mines, or whatever--mainly because the chances of catching him shirtless and/or bound seem mighty slim under such circumstances. And yes, I am exactly that shallow.)

But lately I've been getting into the books-on-tape phenomenon in a desperate attempt to liven up my daily commute to my soul-draining job. I don't wanna pay too much for these things, since they strike me as single-use items (unlike actual books, whose pages can be turned more effectively than tape can be fast-forwarded), so I limit myself to library selections, remaindered items at bookstores, and used ones. The book I listened to just before this one, as I've noted before, was Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis, which turned out to have some eerie conjunctions with my personal bat/rat saga.

I'm not quite done with Ultimate Evil--I have maybe an hour to go--but it has its appeal. On the downside, it's read by Tony Roberts (whom I always sorta liked as an actor in mid-70s Woody Allen movies), and it's a little disconcerting to hear "Max" from Annie Hall as the Batman and a host of other characters. His Batman sounds like a bad Bogart impersonation more than anything else, and that's just not how I hear him at all. It throws the whole thing off; our hero comes across as this slightly cranky, ultra-dorky old coot. Maybe Vachss' prose has something to do with that, but I blame Roberts more.

The story, though, is pretty compelling after all--considerably more interesting than the plots of any of the films, for sure. It's refreshing to see the character taken very seriously by a very adult writer of prose; the third-world child-abuse angle is less stilted and didactic than I might have guessed, at least in this abridged version (though it still has its creaky moments); and, let's face it, I just plain get off listening to detailed descriptions of my favorite fictional hunk and his wardrobe.

Vachss is really on to something with his complex stew of real-world childhood trauma, adult sexual fantasy, and the role of masked manhunters in both. (Added thrill: Batman undercover in a gay bar! In a Time/Warner-approved product!) I know for certain that it's various sad/scary experiences in my own childhood (nothing like the slavery rings depicted in the book, thank god) that inspired me to adopt the Bat as my hero and lifelong mythical counterpart (just as the murder of his parents led young Bruce Wayne to create his alter ego), so it's interesting to watch someone work with all that as subtext in a crime novel.

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