What You See in the Darkby Manuel Munoz
The long-awaited first novel by the award-winning author of two impressive story collections explores the sinister side of desire in Bakersfield, California, circa 1959, when a famous director arrives to scout locations for a film about madness and murder at a roadside motel. Unfolding in much the same way that Hitchcock made Psycho—frame by frame, in/i>
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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 titles...it 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.
I picked up this book because I am from Bakersfield and lived there half my life. I was excited to see that there was a novel set in Bakersfield, and was eager to know more about the author, particularly because the issue of Anglo (white) vs. Mexican is so prominent in the story, and because the author is of Hispanic origin. I don't typically read mysteries or thrillers. I liked most parts of the story. It was nicely written. Mr. Munoz captures so many of the elements of Bakersfield that are so ordinary, but what makes Bakersfield: the color of fall sunlight, the imagery of wide open spaces and even the pleasant smell of fertile soil in the heat. It's not a love letter to Bakersfield, but it is a great setting to this story, and if you are familiar with the city (or any larger Central Valley town), you will be able to envision the landmarks in the novel. It's not the type of book I wished would go on for another hundred pages to tie up loose ends, but I do wish he would have explained a little more about the mother, Mrs. Watson, her son Dan, the Mexican day laborer and the young lady who was killed. It is billed as a mystery/thriller noir, and while it does have plenty of noir, it could have used more mystery and thriller. It like a Hemingway story, where so much is explained by terse dialogue, and the reader is left to make his/her own inferences about what is actually transpiring. I wasn't around Bakersfield in the 1950s, but the way that the shoe store was described, and the way the young woman was treated as an employee by her Anglo boss and co-worker sounds very probable. The corollary to the action with the main characters is the journey of The Actress and The Director, which you may come to identify as Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock on a fictionalized trip to Bakersfield to scout filming locations and, naturally, freeway motels for a film project. Those more familiar with Hitchcock will probably eat this up with a spoon, as there are several parallels between "Psycho" and this story: a young woman on her own, a mother/son in the motel business, etc. I think most readers won't be disappointed by this very interesting story. Enjoy!