A Stab in the Dark
Mystery based on Hitchcock and heavy petting needs a cold shower
What You See in the DarkManuel Muñoz
(Algonquin Books · paperback · $13.95)
What You See in the Dark by Manuel Muñoz relies strongly on the outward appearance of being about an Alfred Hitchcock film. So the absence of the creepy Englishman for the first half of the proceedings stands out like his famously bulbous profile.
Upon completion, I felt like I'd been hornswoggled. I was expecting more insight into the pear-shaped misogynist master of suspense. The book is certainly marketed that way. All I got was bad sex and meandering. Even the parts about Janet Leigh were lacking.
Muñoz’ book purports to tell of all the shadiness in Bakersfield, Calif., during a visit by Hitchcock. The director’s in town scouting locations for his masterpiece, Psycho, a film about a boy who really, really loves his mother (and killing women).
I think it bears mentioning that Bakersfield must be the worst place in the world. I've never heard it brought up in a positive context. And nothing is new here. The story begins with a prolonged chapter concerning Dan Watson, a man who loves his mother and is dating a Hispanic girl named Teresa (mixing of races being a frowned-upon practice in Psycho-era Bakersfield). Teresa is the object of jealously from the unnamed narrator, who constantly speaks in second-person.
Writing tip: Refrain from the unnecessary use of directly addressing the audience. After the fiftieth “you” in the first 10 pages or so, I began praying for third person. Even first-person plural. We would have loved that very much.
It's hard to discern what’s going on in this first chapter, only that whoever is speaking desires Dan, a man with his “jeans taut, everything hard and lean the way he glides from one end of the windshield to the other before disappearing into the cab of his truck.” Who wouldn't want this man-steak? My palms are sweating even now. Such lucid prose is rare in this short-attention-span decade.
Muñoz embarks on an extended and lugubrious description of awkward drive-in movie sex that seems to involve the long-suffering narrator (and, consequently, the long suffering reader):
Dan is an “earnest but inconsequential boy … 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'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.”
It's enough to make me swear off sex forever.
Books, unlike movies—which need a certain amount of structure—can meander. But this book begins to feel like it’s bathing in its own aimlessness. Get moving. There’s a murder at about page 30. Mother-lover Dan apparently kills the lovely Teresa. I think there’s some sort of parallel with the movie. Unfortunately, I’ve been beaten over the head with the parallel and I'm not moving so fast.
The murder is written with the same ethereal absent-mindedness as the dreadful love scene earlier on. For a book billed as an “unflinching examination of American violence,” the violence seems like it's taking a half day. Violence needs to pop. Life is a quilt show, quiet and boring—then violence pops up from the fabric and freaks everyone out. The murder needed to be in the first 10 pages. It's a book about a film. It needs an inciting incident. We don't get one.
In any case, a book about Psycho seems too obvious. Instead, why not a book about the making of Marnie, but written in the style of an Irvine Welsh novel? The inner thoughts of Sean Connery as he wishes he was in another movie—now that would make a good read.
The ’50s are the most nostalgia-invoking period in the United States. Some Americans harbor a nauseating affinity for the “good old days,” a fictional time that never existed. This is the epoch that Republicans wax philosophical about, that magical time when amphetamine-laden housewives were forced to carry their Thalidomide-ravaged babies to term and the constant threat of thermonuclear combat loomed large.
All it takes is a quick gander at Katherine Dunn’s Death Scenes, a book of old crime scene photos, to know there were no good old days and people have been strangling each other with phone cords since the invention of phone cords.
I don't know what's worse, ’50s-style diners or books like What You See in the Dark, which attempt to show the seedy side of the drive-in years. The phrase “tedious backseat fondling” comes to mind. Sure, rock ’n’ roll made its meteoric rise in that decade. But the wholesale drug use and cheap sex didn't come until later. Let's face it. Without sex and drugs, rock 'n' roll is just not that good. Neither is this book.