Noir must be back. Or more likely it never left. Last year I can think of Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move and Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Not to mention the two “Noir” collections (Boston and Bronx) I read earlier this year. Now comes Robert Coover getting his hand in with Noir. Coover is the author of one of my favorite ever novels, 1968’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. Great read, a great baseball book, and a great discussion novel.
Coover’s hero here is Philip M. Noir, Private Eye. There’s his lover, Flame, who may or may not be what she seems. There is his faithful secretary Blanche. Or is she? There’s Loui and a Rats, and a Mr. Big. Really. A yakuza moll, Michiko who gets caught between two rivals and becomes a message board for their rivalry.And a metaphor for the mirage of ‘history’.
Michiko…ended up tattooed from crown to toes with layers of exotic overwritten graffiti, a veritable yakuza textbook, slang dictionary, and art gallery, a condition that served her well in her subsequent career, once the museum, which claimed ownership of her, was paid off: she was worth a C-note just for an hour of library time. All of it fading now. Losing its contours, its clarity, the colors muddying, wrinkles disturbing the continuities, obscuring the detail. Suffering the fate if all history, which is only corruptible memory. Time passes, nothings stays the same; a sad thing. A Haiku somewhere on her body says as much.
Captain Blue, Snark and Fat Agnes. A colorful cast of characters including a mysterious woman in black. Behind a veil. What self respecting noir novel would be without a mysterious woman in black? And did I mention she’s dead? But keeps showing up with large wads of cash?
More than Pynchon, and more than Johnson, Coover plays in the noir sandbox, but pushes the boundaries at the same time. Take the patois of noir – with a slash at the end.
And there was something about these dark nameless streets going nowhere that resonated with your inner being. The desolation. The bitterness. The repugnant underbelly of existence. Well, you’d eaten too fast.
This is, like many noir knock-offs, a funny novel. When Philip Noir finds a severed hand outside his office as he comes in, he picks it up tosses it in the in-box. And Coover refuses to tie it all up in a big bow, decrying the neat denouement, Coover has Noir muse to himself that he’s “sleuthed up a well-made scenario” but his characters are leaving it. Staring at the stub end of his cigarette, Noir tells himself he should “flick it away, that’s always an impressive punctuating gesture.” Coover at his very one-step removed best.