Friday, August 12, 2011

What You See in the Dark by Manuel Munoz (fiction)

Change-both progressive and regressive-is the theme of this quiet thriller set in Bakersfield, California in the 1950s.  Three stories are told that intersect in varying ways, leaving the concept of "what you see in the dark" meaning entirely different things.  Darkness is the time to ruminate over bad decisions, the time when crime often occurs, and the only way to see a movie-all demonstrated in this novel.

As the book begins, we're introduced to a young couple who defy their small town's expectations by dating, even though their 'interracial' relationship is a scandal.  He's white and successful, a veritable catch, while she's a poor Hispanic, living alone in poverty, abandoned by her mother.  As the town gossips, the story seems to be on track for a fairly predictable resolution...that is, until you realize that the narrator isn't identified.  Who is this person that seems to be watching and seeing what is going on in the lonely town?  This unknown element changes the novel, making it less predictable and adding tension.

While this is going on, a famous Actress comes to Bakersfield with a Director to film a new and somewhat scandalous new movie, using the small town as a location to set their prospective movie.  I was terribly annoyed by the way the Actress and Director were only referred to by those became annoying.  Yet, it's not long before you figure out that Munoz is alluding to Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock, and that the movie is a not-subtle nod to the film Psycho.  The film's elements also refer to change, in the form of what is seen on film in terms of morality and violence.

Amid this is a small hotel (Bates, anyone?) on Highway 99 facing obsolescence due to the progressive new I-5 freeway being built nearby.  (I've driven these roads before, so it's easy to picture the setting.)  Again, change threatens to alter both lives and the city itself, and when a unexpected murder occurs, the intersections all make sense.

At times the story loses its rhythm, often in lengthy asides wherein film history (European vs. American style) is analyzed for far too long.  Yet, in other places, the methods of filming and lighting individual scenes is fascinating.  It's almost as if there's too much knowledge packed into the novel that might have made an excellent nonfiction film exploration.

In any case, I didn't really get attached to any of the characters.  Arlene, mother of the popular young man and owner of the hotel, is a sad old woman living in the past, and who doesn't want to move forward.  The young Hispanic woman, Teresa, seemed far too stereotypical to be believed;  too dependent and needy for a young woman already managing on her own.  And the Actress, who studiously analyzes her role and the implications of it, comes off more like Pollyanna than real.

The setting of Bakersfield is spot-on, however:  the street names, weather descriptions, even the crops and sports are all true to life.  The anomaly of this small town being just a few hours from Los Angeles, yet world's away culturally, and the conflict between both ways of life, is something that propels much of the action.

Special thanks to Michael Taeckens of Algonquin Press for the Advance Review Copy.

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