Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Robert Coover's NOIR Reviewed in Dallas Morning News

Jane Sumner reviews Noir by Robert Coover in The Dallas Morning News: "Who but Robert Coover would name a hard-boiled detective character Philip M. Noir? In fact, that's the title of the postmodernist's latest short novel – Noir.

Makes you wonder if Coover listens to A Prairie Home Companion, or if Philip M. Noir is any relation to Garrison Keillor's hilarious creation, Guy Noir: Private Eye.

If the public radio storyteller spoofs the conventions of film and pulp fiction of the '40s and '50s, Coover deconstructs them for 192 pages. With its flashbacks and glittering allusions, Noir is an exuberant, edgy laugh in the dark.

Keillor is constrained by Federal Communications Commission regulations, but Coover, who's been called "a potty-mouthed Svengali," doesn't shrink from sex or mayhem. Noir has a penchant for getting conked on the head and, like Sherlock Holmes, is not averse to the occasional opiate. At 78, the author writes like a young lion on Red Bull. Either Coover has lusty genes or a good memory, because sex is still forefront in his wordplay.

Written in the slightly disconcerting second person instead of the subgenre's customary first, Noir opens with: "You are at the morgue. Where the light is weird." A veiled beauty in widow's weeds hires Noir to find her late husband's killer – if he was killed. Then the comely client – if she was his client – is killed. When Noir goes to view her body, it's gone. Only a black veil remains.

The game's afoot and so is Noir, as he chases down mean, dimly lit streets and even meaner, darker underground tunnels in what his unpaid secretary Blanche calls "The Case of the Vanishing Black Widow." Along the way, Noir encounters human night owls like Fingers, Rats and Snark, who has a contortionist wife and Siamese twins for kids. The dockside detective's lady friends include Michiko, a totally tattooed sex worker who was passed back and forth by "two yakuza bosses as a kind of message board," and Flame, a red-haired torch singer with a "smoky voice and the sort of body that cracks mirrors."

In his 23 works of fiction, this literary maverick has broken all the rules. Brian Evenson devoted an entire book to Understanding Robert Coover that's a primer for reading his outrageous, stylish prose. As in the Western sendup Ghost Town (1998) and parlor mystery Gerald's Party (1986), the master of magic realism seems to be having a high old time in Noir. We are, too, although with Coover, there's always a mordant undertow, a whistling-past-the-graveyard feeling. Examining old myths can be unnerving.

If you're looking for a Sam Spade, Mr. Noir is not your sleuth. He's an empty trench coat, which makes the ending so delicious. If you're a Coover groover, you'll love how the writer gooses this classic subgenre. Noir is an obsidian gem."

1 comment:

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