NOIR

Robert Coover
Overlook Duckworth
Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
New York, London, 2010
$24.95 (hardback), 192 pp.

Review by JR Foley

      A new novel from Robert Coover is always an event. He has published over 20 works of fiction, including The Origin of the Brunists (1966), The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968), Gerald's Party (1986), John's Wife (1996), and The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (Director's Cut) (2002). His notorious 1977 novel, The Public Burning, about the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for alleged atomic espionage, features as narrator one Vice President Richard Nixon, who manages both to consummate a fatal lech for Ethel in the electric chair and subsequently fall in love with an Uncle Sam who treats him to a little anal rape. The book was rumoured to have been shortlisted for the Pulitzer -- which, however, went to no one that year. In view of years of delayed publication thanks to threats from Nixon's lawyers, and a no-lawsuit deal in which the publisher agreed to kill the book's promotion campaign and remainder it instantly, it is not so surprising that even in the post-Watergate era the Pulitzer Prize jury looked elsewhere. One used book dealer has told me, though, that The Public Burning was the "fastest-selling remainder" he'd ever seen.

     Like certain other very different novelists, Graham Greene and Gore Vidal, Coover has alternated more substantial works with "entertainments," more or less comic, sometimes "mere" novellas. Coover, who loves to probe the stories behind stories, has used shorter fiction to explore and play with pop genres, particularly in film. He started with short stories in A Night at the Movies, or You Must Remember This (1987) but soon expanded. Charlie in the House of Rue (1980) conducts Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp round a fantasmagoric whorehouse (anticipating the erotic divigations of Lucky Pierre), as Ghost Town (1998) rides a desert John Ford would not recognize (though Sergio Leone might) through every sort of classic western motif into and out of which sagebrush and saloon and showdown can morph.

     Noir (Overlook Duckworth, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., New York, London, 2010) plays in the gutter where Raymond Chandler famously praised, and thanked, Dashiell Hammet for dragging murder out of the drawing room. One difference between it and Coover's earlier comic novellas is that, notwithstanding every shadow, rain puddle, and venetian blind-stricken light it reflects from every crime and detective flick you've ever watched, Noir follows Chandler down those mean streets, not Huston or Hawks or Wilder or Mann. (Oh, maybe Welles and The Lady From Shanghai.) The homage even extends to Chandler's hopelessly un-unravelling plots, multi-page anti-climactic expos of what should have been dramatized if the author hadn't painted himself into more intriguing corners, and of course -- de rigeur-mortis -- the blonde fatale.

     It can be argued that, as earlier with Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret novels, and later with Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels, the true purpose of Chandler's detective stories is the exploration of milieu, especially social milieu. Chandler writes of the cityscape of Los Angeles, low and high, with the sardonic lyricism of a cheated lover. But in most film noir of the late 1940's-early 1950's the identity of the cityscape -- LA or NYC or SF -- is incidental; it's the nightside, the underside of whatever city that the camera gives its eye. The one aspect of Noir that pays more homage to the film than the literary tradition is disregard of city identity. The milieu Philip M. Noir explores yes, that's his throw-away joke of a name, and we can guess what M. stands for though he never lets on the milieu Phil M. Noir explores is ... the docklands.

     As nobody rereads Chandler for the whodunit, I won't give away the plot ofNoir. It starts and ends, or returns eternally, with a knock-out lady in black; but you knew that already. No matter how adroitly Coover plays peekaboo with clues, what really keeps the pages turning is the pleasure of his prose. Here are the docklands:

Before you could see anything, you could hear water sloshing lazily against stones like crumpling metal. The dirty spatter of rain, squawk of gulls. You were down at the waterfront. They must have dragged you here. You opened one eye. Everything is shades of gray, slick with rain. Could be twilight. Probably dawn. You were lying on your belly on wet rocks and broken concrete under an old iron bridge down in the docklands at dawn. In the rain. Everything hurt. Head felt cracked open. To rise up on one elbow took an heroic effort, but you were a hero. Your clothes were a mess. But your tie had been laundered.
     Vividly idiosyncratic with physical description as Chandler is, he's even more vivid with idiosyncratic character. Think of old Col. Sternwood and daughters in The Big Sleep. Here's Coover pushing Chandler much, much further.
Michiko was not always a suffocatingly perfumed bag of old painted bones. She had a certain enigmatic Eastern aura when she was younger and worked the snazzier joints. Before that, while she was still just a kid in schoolgirl clothes and white cotton panties (white panties used to be a big deal; you miss those times), she had been the moll of a notorious yakuza gangster who had his own portrait tattooed on the inside of her tender young thighs. Where he could keep an eye on things, he said. A rival gang leader kidnapped her and "blinded" the portrait with red splotches, and just for good measure added a mustache and blacked out two of the teeth before returning her to her lover. He also had his own hand, recognizable by its don't-fuck-with-me dragon tattoo on the back and the superhero code ring on his pinkie, tattooed over her plucked pubes, the middle finger disappearing between her lips. Her lover responded by sending her back to the rival with the dragon tattoo reduced to a simpering please-fuck-me position, the ring finger chopped to a bloody stub, signifying a humiliating three-knuckled yubizume, and the middle finger blackened as though torched by its impertinence. The lover also tattooed Michiko's ears with haikus celebrating the "black mist" of summer and winter's "ice-heart," which was a play on his own name, and inked the circles of a target on her buttocks around the bull's-eye anus with the phrase "You're next, asshole!" on the right cheek. The rival was not dismayed. ...
     And back and forth they go, gangster vs. gangster, re-tattooing and re-re-tattooing Michiko with escalating art and insult.

     But speaking of character, who is this Philip M. Noir anyway? The first clue if you haven't guessed is the first word of the novella: You. As in: "You are at the morgue." Philip M. has no more backstory than Philip Marlowe. Because you, the reader, are him, and him as projected voyeur -- you. You -- and he -- are, above all, style.

You consider your fate. It has a flophouse look about it. You take the folded handkerchief out of your lapel pocket and blow your nose in it. Fuck it, you think. You're getting too old for this shit. Back to the office. The sofa. A friendly bottle to suck. Sanctuary. You step out, step back again. Police car. Rolling through the watery street, light wheeling. But in dead silence. As if floating an inch or two above the puddles. No, that's right, can't go back to the office. Blue will have it staked out. What's that sonuvabitch up to anyway? Did he invent a body and send you off chasing phantoms, just to land you in trouble? Probably. But then what really happened to the widow? Or her remains? You wish you could talk to her again. She was afraid, seemed drawn to you. You were so slow to apprehend. Yet any move you made got you nowhere. And what does all of this have to do with Mr. Big?
     You get all that? Even you -- Phil M., that is -- is equally bewildered, and he's actually living this plot. Not to fret. "Dead's dead, no residue, all's as if it never was." But you could get used to it.
You are moving through pools of wet yellow light, surrounded by a velvety darkness as soft as black silk stockings, and it is not the light but the obscurity that is most alluring. The mystery of it. The streets are deserted and, as you turn into them, kissed by the drifting fog, they open up before you, the buildings seem to lean toward you. Stuttery neon signs wink at you overhead. Behind a steel chainlink fence in an empty playground, a child's swing creaks teasingly. Somewhere there's a melancholic sigh of escaping steam. It's beautiful to be walking down these lush wicked streets with the widow at your side, ...
     Oops! Have I said too much? Yes. No.
Where the hell have we just come from?


     Where indeed? Anywhere, nowhere. But one thing is inescapable.

You are at the morgue. The light is weird. Shadowless, but like a negative, as though the light itself were shadow turned inside out. The stiffs are out of sight, temporarily archived in drawers like meaty data, chilled to their own bloodless temperature. Their stories have not ended, only their own readings of them. In your line of work, this is not a place where things end so much as a place where they begin.