Sunday, February 19, 2012

Juggling for Nazis: Germania by Brendan McNally

In today's dispatch from the Department of Whatever Happened To?, I dug up an old review I wrote of Brendan McNally's novel Germania for The Barnes and Noble Review.  Here's how that review began:
If the image of Albert Speer, a prominent Nazi, juggling rubber balls as a way to relieve stress in the waning days of the Third Reich doesn't make you sit up and say, "Mein Gott, vas is los?" then Brendan McNally's debut novel, Germania, might not be for you. On the other hand, if rollicking adventures of Jews masquerading as Nazis, secret wartime shipments of gold, SS officers dreaming of hunting walrus in Greenland, and the tense emotional dynamics of theatrical families intrigue you, then Germania will fit the bill quite nicely. At the heart of the novel are the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers, a popular German juggling act (in more ways than one, as it turns out), who split up just as Hitler is rising to power in the early 1930s.... 

I greatly enjoyed McNally's novel and often wondered why he hadn't published anything since Germania--which, frankly, didn't do as well in sales as Simon & Schuster was probably hoping.  His debut seemed to have joined that long list of novels deserving better treatment by the reading public than ending up in the Barnes and Noble Bargain Books section.  Sometimes you want to cheer for new writers, then cry disappointing tears when they don't take off like you'd hoped.

For that reason alone I feel some kinship with McNally.  His background is in journalism--specifically, writing about the defense industry--so we have that in common as well.  He's also worked as a merchant seaman, bookstore manager,  and oyster shucker (trades I have yet to pick up).  At his author page on the S&S website, he says one of his best qualities is his "endless curiosity," and that shows in his writing.  He goes on to say:
After bombing out of Art School, I went to work on a tugboat hauling oil rigs around the Gulf of Mexico. It left me a lot of time of read and during that time I read Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. It was all extremely interesting, but what put the hook in me was his description of being in Flensburg in the days immediately after the fighting had stopped. In particular Speer mentioned two very bizarre things: how he and Werner Baumbach planned to take a flying boat and fly away to Greenland where they would hunt walrus, and fish and write their memoirs together. Speer also mentioned having the United States Strategic Bombing Survey come visit him and how they staged a faux-collegial "University of Bombing" in order to get him to spill his guts about how he kept the German war machine working despite all the unending Allied bombing campaigns. This put the hook in me and I decided to learn all I could about this very oddball moment in history.

I was delighted to find Germania was not McNally's one-hit wonder. About a year ago, he came out with an eBook called Friend of the Devil, which has this description on Amazon:
Herbert T. Barrow (a cousin of Clyde Barrow of Bonnie & Clyde) is a reefer-smoking, 1930s jazz musician on the run from the law. He is on his way to Del Rio, a Texas border town rolling in dough, thanks to a quack doctor whose ‘goat-gland cure’ brings in well-heeled suckers by the trainload. And just across the river, the Doc’s got a million-watt “border blaster” that he uses to advertise himself along with yodelers, pitchmen, preachers, mystics, and singing cowboys. There Herbert figures he can hide out in plain view. But then Herbert does a favor for a stranger in a jam who turns out to be the Devil himself. Now the Devil owes Herbert a favor, something Herbert, a fervent atheist, has absolutely no interest in collecting on. Next thing Herbert knows, he’s stuck in the middle of a convoluted wager between the Devil and God, both of whom seem to take his refusal to acknowledge their existence personally. Herbert vows revenge. Luckily he finds an ally in Rose Dawn, an underage, pregnant radio clairvoyant prone to sneezing fits.

Who can resist a plot summary like that?  I couldn't.  I clicked, I downloaded, I started reading.  I was pulled in by McNally's style right from the opening lines, set in Mississippi in 1933:
Old man standing at the side of the road, got on one of them black, old-time country preacher suits and he's waving at me, desperately, to please, please, stop and give him a ride. Now to begin with, I don't hold at all with preachers and I got my turn coming up in just a couple more miles. And being that I am presently a wanted fugitive, I don't want anyone slowing down my escapitude. Never mind the fact that with the Depression now in its fourth year, there's a million other dusty guys out on the road with eyes imploring and their thumbs out, and, like everyone else with any means, I stopped caring about them a very long time ago.
Chances are very good you never heard of Brendan McNally before you started reading this blog post.  But chances are also very good that if you read either of his novels, you won't soon forget his name.


  1. I wonder if Germania didn't find its hoped for wide audience in part because of its cover. Having read what you say about, it sounds like something very worth reading. I have to admit, shallow creature that I am, I doubt I'd have given it a second look if I happened upon it at the bookstore. That said, I'm glad you pointed it out!

  2. I love the cover and the concept, and if I'd run across it, I'm sure I would have bought it. Never too late to resurrect great books. Revolutionary Road by Yates was nearly forgotten until a writer penned an essay about it, which sparked interest, and then much later the movie. I love the idea of people flagging older books that didn't get enough attention the first time around. Online bookstores (the company that shall not be named) are not everyone's favorites, but at least there is a place to find these forgotten gems.

  3. P.S. Clicked through only to realize this book isn't that old -- paperback in 2011! (unless I'm understanding wrong) And lots of good reader reviews.

  4. Andromeda, I've got plenty more Books That Never Got a Chance posts where this came from. :)

    It's true, "Germania" isn't *that* old--it came out in hardback 2009--but I do think it's worth a mini-resurrection.