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What's Hitchcock's Psycho got to do with a murder in a small California city? Not much, but the friction between them drives this refreshingly innovative first novel.
Muñoz returns to the Valley, the setting of his fine story collection The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (2007): Bakersfield, 1959. Dan Watson is the handsomest guy in town. His mother Arlene is a waitress and motel owner. Dan is seen around with a Mexican store clerk. With his encouragement, she sings under a spotlight at a cantina. Then, shockingly, it's all over. Teresa (we learn her name from the cemetery marker) is found battered to death outside her apartment, and Dan is a fugitive from justice. Cut to the Actress (an unnamed Janet Leigh) in Bakersfield for some exterior shots. She's thinking about her character, a love-struck secretary who's stolen money to facilitate her affair. Can she retain audience sympathy? It's a strait-laced era, and Muñoz captures it brilliantly, as he progresses to the notorious shower scene while constantly circling back to the Bakersfield murder. What's striking is the pinpoint clarity of the Actress's death (the silhouette behind the shower curtain; the knife; the scream) compared to the details of Teresa's murder, a blurry conjecture. While Hollywood fabricates stories every day, gossipy Bakersfield is no slouch either: If you don't know the story, make it up. Muñoz follows behind to set the record straight. He leaves Tom as a silhouette. Teresa we get to know better; she dismisses a humble Mexican suitor, dazzled by Tom and her first glimpse of show business. However, it is Arlene who takes center stage. The climax comes when she surprises Tom making his post-murder getaway. What does it mean to be the mother of a killer? Drawing on his compassion for the beaten down, the author provides an unbearably poignant answer.
Muñozhas upended the conventional crime novel, lauding a cinematic master while downplaying his own crime scene and concentrating on a secondary victim. Nice work.
“The making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho would seem out of place in a serious literary novel about small-town California . . . [But] Manuel Muñoz pulls off this strange juxtaposition with stunning success . . . An audacious debut novel.” —The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Eerily cinematic.” —O: The Oprah Magazine
“One of the cleverest suspense conceits I’ve encountered in a long time: two young lovers become entwined in a doomed affair, while, at the same time, Hitchcock and his minions begin setting up their equipment in sleepy bakersfield . . . This atmospheric tale of twisted minds and small-town murder would’ve put a demented gleam in The Master’s eye.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR.org
“[A] stellar first novel . . . with a subtlety worthy of Hitchcock himself.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
He was the most handsome man in town for sure, and his mother owned a little motel out on the highway. He always seemed to be wearing only brand-new shirts: no one could keep shirts that color, that softness, time after time, hanging them to dry stiff on a backyard line.
He would be a good man to marry.
They were eating in the café located on one of the choice corners on a better stretch of Union Avenue, the café that still had the plate-glass windows all the way down to the sidewalk, one of the few places that still did after the '52 earthquake. You could see the entire booth through those windows: the table, the red vinyl, their dishes, the waitress's white shoes when she came by to check on them, how the girl crossed her feet and rocked them nervously. She was not dressed as crisply as he was. Even if her clothes looked clean and pressed, you could tell right off that the day she began wearing nice things around town was the day the two of them had done more than talk and have lunch. His mother, whom everybody knew, had worked at the café since before the earthquake, and the waitresses who served him at any of the shifts—breakfast, lunch, dinner, or late-night coffee and cherry pie—had all known him as a boy, so it was hard to tell if their attentions to him were motherly or something more flirtatious.
And yet the one to grab his attention was that skinny brown girl who lived above the bowling alley. Always on foot, always staring into the windows of the record shop, of the TG&Y, of the furniture store, of the Rexall, even of the shoe store where you worked, as if she hadn't set up the displays herself. A very plain girl, not too tall, with slender hips, and hair as dark as her mother's. Her mother had worked at the café, too—with his mother, in fact—almost eight or nine years ago. No doubt his mother remembered.
You could see that girl walking to work at the shoe store, back and forth, going to her apartment during the lunch hour, then home again by the end of the day, no matter what the Valley weather brought: summer heat, fall rains, the terrible winter fog. Even in late November and December, when the sun had gone down by near five o'clock and the streets fell dark, she would walk home alone after the store closed. And that's how it should have stayed, a plain girl like that all alone.
But now this: a thin sandwich and Dan Watson, who was surely going to pay for it, then the waitress coming round with the dessert menu, the girl glancing at the clock, Dan urging her to choose something, then clearly instructing the waitress to hurry back. The waitress indulges him, of course, he being who he is, and comes back with two small silver dishes of vanilla ice cream. He leans over and spoons a small scoop of her ice cream into the cola glass. There is still a lot of soda left, the way she has been sipping it, savoring it. He points for her to take a taste and she does so warily, as if she's never tasted anything like it before. But you have to believe she never has, once that look crosses her face, an amused arch of her eyebrows and a nod of approval.
How people change when they get a taste of the good life! When suddenly the dollar bills in your hand can go for things you want instead of need. A fork-and-knife meal at the café; scarves and pearl chokers; pendants and brooches; jewelry boxes with ballerinas springing to attention; that lovely sound of pushing rings and earrings and bracelets against each other while you're searching. Flowers from Holliday's like the good husbands do: tulips and Easter lilies from Los Angeles in the springtime, a wrist corsage for attending a wedding. A car trip over to the coast, to Morro Bay and the enormous, beautiful rock basking just off the shoreline. A day in Hollywood, the exhilaration of knowing movie stars breathe in the very same sunshine. Silk blouses brought home in delicate paper; dresses that require dry cleaning; lingerie so elegant it refuses to be scandalous.
Is that the life she knows she has ahead of her, the way she is sitting there, her feet rocking nervously after nearly a whole hour? Does she know how every young woman in town wants exactly this? Does she know that people turn their heads to watch them leave the café, to watch him open the door of his Ford truck for her? Does she know people discuss what they've seen, what his mother must think?
Summer carries on, the heat still scorching into September. Harvest time has arrived in Bakersfield and more people have come into town looking for work, whole caravans sometimes. Faces are not as familiar as before, not at the supermarkets, not on the downtown streets. Bakersfield is the open door to the southern part of the state, and the workers come pouring through. So many people have arrived that it becomes difficult to find parking spots, to buy fresh meat, even to get a bench at the Jolly Kone hamburger stand. But this will be short lived—by the end of October, after much of the late-summer crop has been brought in from the fields, the town will go back to normal. The strangers will leave, counting their money, and Bakersfield will wait for those first few weeks of November when the sky goes gray and the fog rolls in over the coastal range and lingers for months on end.
In all the commotion of the harvest boom, most people don't notice that the girl is no longer walking the streets to work. At the lunch hour, she's nowhere to be seen over near Chester Avenue, where her apartment is. But at the shoe store, she's there sure enough, dutifully stepping from the back storage room when Mr. Carson snaps his fingers and tells her the sizes he needs. She never says a word unless a Spanish-speaking customer comes in: this is why she was hired. Mr. Carson cannot refuse the potential business from these customers and leaves the girl to tend to them, stepping away and occupying himself with other business. The girl points to several shoes—she never used to do that!—and smiles boldly at the Spanish-speaking customers, bringing out boxes and boxes for inspection.
Enough word has gotten around town about her eye for beautiful shoes, for high heels that don't necessarily strain the arches, for knowing a budget without having to ask. She moves with confidence and assurance, even if she is not allowed to ring up the sales on her own. She stands nearby to translate, and you handle the money: you, the girl who should be trusted, the kind of girl that should end up with a man like the one she has.
She is no longer walking the streets, but riding around with Dan Watson, her elbow resting on the truck door while they drive with the windows rolled down. The two of them at the café for lunch sometimes, the waitresses acting as if nothing could be less ordinary. The two of them stepping out of the record shop several times a week with brown-papered packages stuck under his arms. People saying, by late September, that she's picked up a second job, serving drinks to the patrons over at Las Cuatro Copas, the place where her boyfriend tends bar, and the owner of the rival place across the street is peeved because even the white crowd has trickled over there just to get a look at her.
Las Cuatro Copas isn't the best cantina in town, but if you go there, you would do well to put on your best long skirt, the wider the better because there's good music for dancing. Farther up Union Avenue is a grander space—a real nightclub—with a terrazzo dance floor so smooth you have to hang on tight to your partner to keep from slipping, and gorgeous dining rooms off to the sides with a full wait staff and a Los Angeles menu of roast beef and rib-eye steaks and Cornish hens. But Las Cuatro Copas does just fine by itself. It welcomes everyone, the little tables crowded as people sit to eat and drink until the kitchen closes at eight thirty. All the while, that girl comes around with plates of chicken legs and taquitos and bottles of beer, along with the check on a green slip of paper with her neat handwriting, and she collects the bills and brings everything over to Dan Watson, hurrying people along with their meals because the tables get put away for the dancing. Not enough space for a wide skirt to flow out full, and a wooden floor that sends up dust, but it's dancing all the same. Friday nights or Sundays or Wednesdays, she's there, handing the green slips of paper over to her boyfriend and waiting for the change, the two of them running the place smooth as smoke.
But you don't have to go to the cantina to see all of that if jealousy gets to be too much. You can avert your gaze as they exit the supermarket, where he comes out holding two paper bags stuffed full of food. Or pretend not to see them loading boxes of tequila into the truck bed over at the discount liquor store. They show up everywhere: just a little west of Bakersfield, just far enough away from the city lights, is the local drive-in theater, a line of cars idling at the dusty entrance at sundown. A concession stand sits in the middle, and everyone goes there for big striped boxes of popcorn and hot dogs and candy, cradling everything close so only one trip is necessary. Horns beep whenever a car pulls in with its lights on, even though the sky is still lit orange with sundown and the double bill nowhere near beginning. Music comes in over the speakers, old big-band numbers that no one listens to anymore. Some couples sit out on the hoods after the engines have cooled down. The people returning from the concession stand darken to shadows as dusk finally breaks into night and the first feature starts, always something of mild interest: a monster movie with a beautiful blond raising her hands to her ears and screaming, then a pursuit with gunfire popping through the speakers all up and down the drive-in lot. Laughter carries across several cars, friends having spotted each other and walking over to say hello. Car trunks pop open quickly for six-packs to be brought out. By the end of the first film, night has settled in deep, and the drive-in lights up once more to help people make their way to the concession stand and the bathrooms, where the girls walk together in threes and edge for space at the mirrors, everyone finding out who came with whom.
She's there, that girl. You looked for her among the faces surrounding the bathroom mirrors, but she was nowhere to be found. But you know she's there—you spotted Dan Watson's beautiful form gliding across the dusty lane toward the concession stand. He returns now to his pickup, just ahead, holding a box of popcorn in his hand and sporting a cowboy hat, his jeans taut, everything lean and hard the way he glides from one end of the windshield to the other before disappearing into the cab of his truck. That girl is the other shadow. He is handing her the box. Ten minutes later, the lot darkens and the second feature begins—a detective story. You can tell by the hat the lead actor is wearing. No one wears hats like that around here, unless they're from Los Angeles. On-screen, a beautiful girl screams before a pair of anonymous hands close around her neck and she collapses as if struck by a sudden urge to sleep. She did not scream as terribly as the beautiful blond who was attacked by the monster in that other movie, but somehow it was more real, more probable, and enough to make you turn your head away and look out past the edge of the drive-in's lot, the stretch of oil fields, the ring of mountains to the south and east of Bakersfield, to Los Angeles. Is that where the movie is set, where something like this could happen?
No one seems to care about questions like that, not by how the shadows in the cars ahead begin to blend together, one by one. Some stay separate, but most don't. There's been beer and slugs of whiskey and lipstick applied in the bathroom mirror and cigarettes and sweet talk. Hands on knees and short whispers and legs shaved that evening, baby smooth. All over town, getting ready, everyone knowing—or hoping—the evening would come to this, a lot of sweet talk in a dark car and the squeak of the vinyl as your polite date slides over. The taste of the beer in his mouth, slightly bitter, but sweet, too, the surprise that men taste sweet inside. All of them. Rough but sweet. Your hand on his cheek to feel the itch of his whiskers, what you can't see but can feel. Forceful but sweet, and it's that sweetness that calms the alarm about where his hands move, sometimes above the knee or underneath the hem at the back of your blouse, just two fingertips in that hollow space at the bottom of the spine. Forceful but gentle at the same time, his mouth moving to your neck, the smell of his hair, Prell shampoo just like your own. A moan escapes from your mouth, uncontrollable, because his weight is delicious and so is the thought that he's leaving that sweet taste of his mouth on your skin. He reaches over to turn the knob down on the speaker, and the movie goes mute and you watch the screen while he's occupied, the detective at a desk saying something into a phone, how you have to guess what he's saying, the way you have to guess at everything in life—what you see and what you make of it, what you know for sure and what you have to experience, what others tell you and what gets confirmed.
You can see Dan over in his pickup truck. His shadow has merged with the other one, slipped into the same space, the passenger side of the cab. It is that girl. It must be. She knows that sweet taste, too, what that space in the hollow of his back feels like. A moan comes out of your mouth just from thinking about him, and here, in this dark car, this boy—earnest but inconsequential, strong but too sweet—hears your moan and lets his hands glide up, cautious, to the unworkable bridge of the bra hooks. There is patience and inexperience all over the drive-in, some hands retreating in defeat, and then there are others, like his, that manage and move quickly before being denied. On-screen, the detective lights a cigarette and seems to look out at all the cars. There is a woman whom the detective loves, too, but in the movie, you already know he's going to have to wait to get to her. And still, it won't be this, an earnest but inconsequential boy who is sweating at the brow from nerves and delirium, his mouth impatient at each nipple. He has never felt a pair of breasts before, not by the way his hands clamor underneath your bra. He has to learn to open the blouse completely first, how to caress buttons. He has to learn to be gentle and enjoy the feel of skin, give pleasure instead of just taking it. But right now, his eyes round out, dewy and unblinking at his first sight of rosy nipples. He is twenty-three but still a boy. He puts his mouth on each nipple and has to have his hand guided to your other breast. You reach down to feel him because this is what he wants, what he needs, and there's just the sound now of months and months of his desires finally being met. He's doing the moaning now, the teenage voice from years ago stuck in his throat as his thick cowboy belt buckle gets undone for him and the top button released. He wore brand-new underwear—the elastic is too tight—and there is his warm thickness. It's enormous and probably beautiful, but he's too young and inexperienced to know that yet. His stomach is coated with that familiar stickiness and he rests his forehead on the car door while he's fondled. Who can tell what he is thinking, a soft hand stroking him hard enough that he actually has to pull away, but keeping his forehead on the door as if he's ashamed? The detective on the screen is giving chase along the dark streets of a city, but no one cares about the pursuit. A car just ahead is bobbing ever so slightly. There is nothing wrong with wanting like this. Even better with a young man of twenty-three, still mired in shame: he won't be bragging to anyone, still thinking what he's doing is dirty, and you can go back to work at the shoe store with no one ever gossiping about you. His hands have to be brought down to the wet warmth that he's never come close to, even in his imagination, his fingers guided around and inside. He's a sweet boy, but you know, after he drops you off, that he'll be smelling those fingers all the way home.
Excerpted from What You See in the Dark by Manuel Muñoz Copyright © 2011 by Manuel Muñoz. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 11, 2011
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.
Posted July 8, 2011
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!