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By Stephen Meier
Self-published / ISBN: 978-1-43921-633-0
As I'm often mentioning here, I don't like thinking of books in such simple terms as whether they're "good" or "bad;" I prefer instead to examine how much a certain book will be liked by certain people under certain circumstances, and how much it won't be by others under different ones. For example, of all the genres out there, the one I myself am most a slavish fanboy of is definitely science-fiction; and thus can I sincerely enjoy a whole series of books in that genre that make most others frown and say, "Jeez, Pettus, how can you read that crap?," which then keeps me careful about what I say here during reviews of SF books, in that I know most people out there aren't as big of fanboys as me and therefore won't agree with most of my opinions on the subject. This is part of the entire process of being a fan of the arts, after all, of learning what we like more and what we like less, and hence seeking out more and more of the former and less and less of the latter.
Take the recent self-published novella Katka, for example, the very first book by Las Vegas author Stephen Meier; because the fact is that it's not much more than just a basic pulp-fiction tale, nothing more and nothing less than a typical film-noir B-picture put out by Hollywood in the 1920s and '30s, updated in this case for modern sensibilities and cultural references (i.e. kinkier sex and more bling-bling). And if you're an existing fan of such stories, you're going to be nicely satisfied by this book; while if you're not, you're going to find serious problems with it, and that's just how it is with simple genre exercises like this one. In fact, ironically enough this story shares many of the same basis premises as one of my most favorite contemporary novels of recent years, Michael FitzGerald's Radiant Days, which only helps illustrate why that book is so phenomenal and this one only so-so; like the former, Katka too is about a young American frat boy and now expat living in Prague, and all the trouble he finds himself in after joining up with a group of beautiful, manipulative eastern-European women, in order to run a series of con jobs on his fellow rich clueless Americans, during the height of the "Hubris Years" when Americans thought that a platinum credit card gave them the moral right to commit whatever unspeakable acts of monstrosity they felt on a whim like committing while in foreign lands.
The plot itself is not too complicated, because there's simply not much of it in this hundred-page novella; it's mainly the story of Gavin, an incredibly good-looking failed stockbroker who has slinked off to the Czech Republic recently with his tail between his legs, the busted perpetrator of some shady insider-trading deal that is never detailed, but which has gotten him into legal trouble back in the US and made him the black sheep of his tony east-coast family. He's in Prague to hang out with an old friend and do nothing but have a good time for awhile, a good expensive time; and that's how he ends up falling in with the titular Katka, a veritable walking stereotype of the young, sexy Slavic woman so desperate to get out of the region that she'll do just about anything to make it happen. She and her friend Simona have been contemplating starting up a mail-order-bride service featuring exclusively their hot young sexually adventurous stripper friends, but haven't been able to compete with the big Mafia-controlled agencies; but with the help of a suave, smooth-talking American as their public face, though, the two become convinced that the quality of their "merchandise" will be enough to let them compete with the larger aboveground services out there, and make them all very rich indeed. And thus do the two hatch a scheme to bring the not-as-hardcore-as-he-seems Gavin into the fold; and thus do things rapidly start going wrong, just as any good noir should, the details of which I'll let remain a surprise.
Now, let's just be honest and admit that this book has several large problems, when it comes to how we judge literature just in general terms; for example, there are entire pages (and pages and pages) of semi-hacky rat-a-tat one-sentence paragraphs, and so much cursing among the characters as to become self-parodying at points. But let's face it -- that existing pulp-fiction fans are looking exactly for this kind of stuff (including not only the aforementioned details but also lots of gratuitous sex and violence, plenty of complicated double-crosses, and a milieu of designer suits and crumbling old mansions), and that such fans would be disappointed by a noir that didn't contain such elements. And there isn't anything bad at all about such a thing in my opinion, of wanting to deliver a nice, simple genre exercise precisely to those who love that genre the most; and for all of you, Katka is going to be well worth your time, definitely worth the mere afternoon it takes to read the entire thing. But of course there's a reason that a book like Radiant Days gets so much more praise from me even while sharing so many of the same basic ideas; and that's because a book like that is constantly seeking to elevate itself above its stereotypical tropes, while a book like today's is happy to wallow among the tropes themselves, to be nothing more than a simple genre piece that delivers exactly what you were expecting and not an ounce more.
Katka is a fine literary debut in my opinion, an unremarkable yet solid tale that Meier has every right to be proud of; in a perfect world, in fact, this book will serve as a jumping-off point for Meier's next book, a chance to push and stretch himself beyond the safe confines of genre and deliver next a book full of startling originality. The writing chops are there for sure; now it's time for Meier to do something more exciting with them, something more unexpected. It comes recommended to existing fans of not only old black-and-white con-artist films but also contemporary supermarket thrillers.
Out of 10: 7.3
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