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03-22-11: Alexander Yates Howls With the 'Moondogs'

The Shape-Shifting Novel

Novels are slippery. With most works of art, say a film, or a painting or a piece of music, you can pretty much get the measure of the work in a short time; at most, the length of the film. But a novel can fool you. You get pulled slowly out of your reality, into that of the novel. But the novel can shift right before your eyes, tilt and tremble, shake up not just its own world, but your perception of your world as well. Novels start out in one place, but they can lead to not just a very different world, but a succession of them.

Alexander Yates' first novel, 'Moondogs' (Doubleday / Random House ; March 15, 2011 ; $25.95) offers all the action, all the wildness, all the thrills of a cult action film festival, but it offers much more besides. Because rather than watching the films, you are in them. And yes, I use the plural deliberately. 'Moondogs' will pick you up and put you in one reality after another. Rest assured the world you return to after closing the book will not be the one you inhabited when you began.

Of course, the world of 'Moondogs' is itself something else. The story at its most basic level is a father and son re-union, dipped in a surreal mix of international intrigue, foreign locations and increasingly wild tall tales. From the first paragraph, readers will know that they are in uncharted territory. But Yates is a smart and powerful writer who uses a dry, controlled prose style to steer readers though a large cast of characters and a complicated plot. The writing is crisp, clear and focused, no matter how wild and outrageous the scenes and characters are.

Seen through the clear vision of Yates' prose, his characters are indeed really wild and a joy to encounter, whether you're with Benicio, who flees the US after his mother's death to make amends with his father who skipped off to the Philippines, or someone like Reynato Ocampo, a legendary Philippine policeman who is the subject of a series of hit movies. Yates' cast grows faster than vines in the jungle, but he has a great knack for voice and character. No matter how outlandish things get, readers will find his characters both distinct and a hoot to read about.

What happens to the characters is nearly as outlandish as the cigar-smoking rooster who opens the novel. Benicio arrives to connect with his Howard, his father, who is nowhere to be found. There's the kidnapping, the meth addict, and of course, Ka-Pow, the special unit of cops with supernatural powers. There's the actor who plays the cop, embassy employees who figure in, the bad father — who may not be so bad as he seems and the good son, who may be capable of more than he seems. Yates' talent is to take this cast of characters and bring the plot together in ways that are truly surprising and pleasurable to read. It's an engaging, entertaining, bigger-than-life novel. But it is life, stuffed into the pages and bursting forth to obliterate the world around us and make us realize that there is more than we see, that our lives are bigger than we might think.

'Moondogs' is certainly the kind of novel we're not supposed to find these days; a hardcover debut that kicks all kinds of ass, the sort of book that makes readers realize just why reading is so important, so irreplaceable. Sure, you can imagine this as a movie, and indeed, the style and action have the feel of what you find in movies. But Yates' skill as a writer makes sure that you get to live 'Moondogs' from the inside. And who in their right mind does not want to be a cigar-smoking rooster?

03-21-11: Kevin Poulsen Captures 'Kingpin'

True Crime for the 21st Century

In many regards, the 21st century is a disappointment. The International Space Station is more like a military barracks than a luxury hotel and the most interesting human artifacts on the moon are footprints. Robots vacuum the floor, and our cars are resolutely earthbound. Even our computers, arguably the fastest-evolving technology, don't do much more for most of us than word processors did thirty years ago. The web, a true innovation, was quickly transformed into an advertising wasteland that is struggling to measure up to the technology of 1970's-era cable television. "The future" seems to be on hold for most of us — except criminals.

Kevin Poulsen's remarkable 'Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground' is an exciting, lean look the life of Max Butler, a complex and troubled man who helped crime, at least, become decidedly futuristic. Poulsen does much more than give us a true-crime biography; 'Kingpin' is an examination of a culture that could only have been born in the future that is our present.

Of course, every future has its roots in the past, and Poulsen starts his story back in the 1980's, when Max Butler was growing up as the troubled son of a broken mid-western home. Butler was diagnosed early on as being bipolar, and it's a vision that haunts this immersive story. From high-school pranks to college girlfriend woes that land him in jail for the first time, Poulsen draws Butler's portrait against a rapidly-changing technological and cultural background. Readers get a personal version of a very big picture.

'Kingpin' is non-fiction, but it reads very much like a fast-paced crime thriller. Though he has large cast of characters and relatively complicated time-line to deal with, Poulsen brings it all into focus by letting readers live the life of Max Butler, who became known as Max Vision and eventually as Iceman. Within the nascent Internet, Butler forged an identity first as a white hat hacker, helping to identify computer intrusions. But his bipolar personality and early incarcerations distorted his already unsteady judgment. Everything was easy for him — even crime.

Poulsen's biography is a compulsively readable as a history not just of Max Butler, but also of the future arriving on time with regards to criminal enterprises. He charts the use of the first Internet chat rooms as bazaars where stolen credit cards were sold. We see the rollout of technology used to create false identification and credit cards to a growing cadre of criminals who were social networking long before Facebook. These websites grew first in Eastern Europe and then were duplicated in the United States. The story of how Max Butler managed to hack the hackers is thoroughly entertaining.

Poulsen also tracks the efforts of law enforcement officials to keep up with forms of crime that are coming into being right before their eyes. Particularly enjoyable is the story of Keith Mularski, an innovative member of the FBI who forged an online identity as Master Splyntr, supposedly a Polish spam king. Mularski is a good match for Butler — and both make mistakes as they match wits on a frontier that is expanding to this very day.

Poulsen is a smart, skilled writer who manages, against all odds, to write what can only be described as a fast-paced epic. This book has a huge scope, but is astonishingly economical. When explaining complicated technology, Poulsen knows just the right level of detail. When he's focusing on Max Butler, his work is dispassionate and exacting. He does not judge his subject but he does not spare him either. If the future has arrived, it's largely underground — or in your wallet. 'Kingpin' will have you hoping it stays there.

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