DíA DE LOS MUERTOS
By Kent Harrington
Dennis McMillan Publications
244 pages, $30
By Jamie Agnew
Owner of Aunt Agatha s Book Store
There's something about Kent Harrington's new novel Día de los Muertos that makes me want to describe it by referring to other authors or unlikely combinations thereof - how about Under the Volcano as written by David Goodis, or maybe Jerzi Kosinsky with plot by Dashiell Hammett? It's one of those reviewer's games that could go on quite a while - I'd also have to mention James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, B. Traven, Dorothy Hughes, Nathaniel West and Ambrose Bierce just to begin with. That's not a negative, it's all good stuff, and maybe in the post-modern world the only way to get down is to mixmaster great old riffs with new technologies, different emphases and ever more explicit sex and violence.
Día de los Muertos even has what Richard Wilbur called our century's most characteristic subject, the disintegration of personality. It begins with Vincent Calhoun, "the reptile from the desert," a gambler who feverishly (literally - he has Dengue fever) reels down the sordid streets of Tijuana, tormented by an all-possessing sense of doom, an occult realization that his luck has somehow run out and that now nothing can save him. Since it later turns out that he's a corrupt DEA agent who has been running human human cargo across the border to pay his massive gambling debts to a Mick Jagger-like crime lord, his final free fall proves as riveting and spectacular as that of Icarus.
But in the noir world the mob and the cops are really minor elements in the destruction of a man - things that a fist and a .45 can get you past - it's always beauty that undoes the beast, and suddenly but inevitably, out of Calhoun's past and into his vision comes Celeste Stone, manacled, stepping off a Mexican prison bus in the middle of the town square. Celeste Stone is, of course, the woman, the one who years earlier was the high school girl whose irresistible allure destroyed his youthful hopes and innocence, and who has apparently returned to his life in order to finish off everything else.
Calhoun's death spiral is fast and sharp, colorfully peopled with border dwellers - disgraced doctors, fascist cowboys, morbidly obese political bosses, beautiful Chinese mules vomiting condoms full of heroin, and a stylish, bisexual family of bank robbers. There are wildly improbable events, unbelievably dramatic moments, and fantastic coincidences, all leavened with flat affect and the constant probability of bloody mayhem and raw sex. Yet for all its pulpy over-the-topness (or maybe because of it), Día de los Muertos seems as plausibly vivid as a fever dream, a bullet from the unconscious ricocheting through black comedy to light tragedy, speeding to the final solution which is, as the crackpot professor tells Calhoun at the dog track bar, that there is no solution, only dissolution and death. Like Harrington's first book, the aptly titled Dark Ride, Día de los Muertos is the real noir deal, hardboiled as hell, yet totally fresh, written with power and crisp precision. If a night ride at 90 miles an hour through the desert in a jeep with no headlights is your idea of a good time, Día de los Muertos is the holiday for you. ■