Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ron Slate on Days of Smoke (from the Los Angeles Review of Books)

WITH THE COLLAPSE of literary writing into popular culture and the smudging of boundaries between genres, the status of noir fiction may seem uncertain. But then, noir has always been a protean category, a shadowy realm for novelists to develop their signature styles and work out their obsessions. So-called mainstream novelists sometimes make forays into the genre, raiding its attributes. When the culture roils with angst (and when doesn’t it?), noir fiction makes a blunt drama from our distress. No one knows the traditions, mutations, and contemporary aspects of noir fiction better than Woody Haut. In lively studies such as Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995) and Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction(1999), he has tracked noir from its roots in hardboiled crime stories to the urban narratives of Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, and James Ellroy.
In 2014, Haut produced his first novel, Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime. Set in Los Angeles in 1960, as the United States turns the corner toward the Kennedy years, the novel centers around Abe Howard, a freelance photographer whose shots of a murdered jazz musician put him in conflict with the city’s interchangeable criminal and corporate elements. Cry for a Nickel glories in classic noir tropes: it deals with civil disorder and personality conflicts, its clashes are triggered by basic drives, its language sounds as if it were spoken over a tumbler of bourbon, and it thrives on the generation of fear.
Now comes Days of Smoke. The time is June 1968, the place Pasadena. As the action opens, a college-aged woman named Connie Myles observes three men walking into the office of the Pasadena draft board where she works. Mike Howard has arrived to present his petition for classification as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He is accompanied by his father, Abe Howard, who opened a camera shop after a violent ordeal in Cry for a Nickel. Connie thinks of herself as “a kind of secret agent who had successfully infiltrated enemy territory […] she held fast to her guise, doing her job, waiting for her moment.” Meanwhile, Mike “had no intention of going to Vietnam. There was no way he was going to fight in a war he didn’t believe in. Nor did it bother Mike that he was doing his best to finesse the situation; if necessary, scam the draft board into believing his story.” Soon after, Connie finds, or rather, creates her “moment” — she destroys Mike’s file and becomes an updated rendition of a noir femme fatale.
(The remainder of the review can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books)

Monday, April 09, 2018

The Best-Laid Plans: William Boyle's The Lonely Witness

If you've read William Boyle's Gravesend (my review of which you can find here), you will certainly remember Amy.  In fact, Boyle's latest, The Lonely Witness, begins pretty much  where Gravesend ends. Amy's girlfriend, Alessandra has left Amy and Gravesend where she grew up to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles. Leaving Amy, raised in Queens, on her own, a foreigner in a place in which Alessandra is her only connection. No wonder that wherever Amy looks she is reminded of her girl friend. Though no longer a bar-hopper, Amy's relationship with the world has become, in the intervening time, and, despite her efforts to the contrary, more complicated than ever. To get her life back to basics, Amy has rejoined the church and spends much of her time visiting old people, taking communion to them and, in general, making sure they're okay. One elderly woman she sees complains about the son of a friend who has been visiting her, only to to rummage through her things, as though in search of something to steal. Amy meets him, takes an instant dislike to him, and, wanting to know what he's up to, decides to follow him. While doing so, she witnesses his murder. Moreover, despite the dying man's pleas, she, thinking of what a low-life he is or perhaps of an event that occurred when she was a teenager, does nothing to help him. It's at that point that things, as they say, turn from bad to worse, and Amy's life goes from simply messy to a whole lot messier.

Caught up in her own little world, Amy might have various flaws but she tries to  do her best in a world over which she has no control. And no matter what she does, it only seems to make matters  worse.  But Boyle's novel is not just character-driven, it's also driven by his sense of that part of the world he is writing about. While his portrayal of Amy and various others is invariably convincing, what, for me, works equally well  are those instances in which he  conjures up the place in which she Amy lives. Particularly when Boyle reels off places in a litany of remembrance, the rhythms of which are not only evocative but poetic; like a series of time-lapsed photos of a place that, for better or worse, straining to retain a fractured sense of community:
"Amy watches storefronts zip by through the open window, hoping to avoid any other interaction with the driver. Tile and marble store. Tire shop. Tasty Chicken. Tasty Bagels. Paint store. The Utrecht branch of the library. East Ocean Buffet. Threading salon. Marshall's. New Utrecht Avenue brings the El with it where it intersects Eighty-Sixth Street, Capelli's Funeral Home on the corner. Under the El, red lights flash. Brake lights. Double-parked cars. A woman on a treadmill in the window of a brightly lit 24 Hour Fitness. Duke's Deli. That Polish restaurant. Meats Supreme. Cigar Emporium. A few sushi joints Amy doesn't remember being there before. A Popeyes with Chinese writing on the sign."
The Lonely Witness (pub date May 1st) is a tense, and, at times, darkly funny, thriller. Reminiscent of writers from Daniel Fuchs to George Pelecanos, it's safe to say that if you liked Gravesend, you'll love The Lonely Witness. And if you haven't read Gravesend, you will no doubt  want to do so after reading The Lonely Witness.