Searching for Noir in All the Wrong Places
Matthew Carnahan is an author, a film director (the documentary Rudyland) and screenwriter (the upcoming Lions for Lambs, starring Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep), a television mogul (the upcoming FX series Dirt), and a playwright. Any other reason to envy him? Well, he is the boyfriend of a famous actress, but let’s not drop that name here.
His 2005 novel Serpent Girl has been re-packaged as Copping Free and published in an inexpensive paperback edition. It is being marketed as “neo-noir,” and Carnahan certainly tries hard enough to make this description fit; just about everyone is amoral and addicted to something, there are lots of quirky settings (a depressing little circus, a meth lab), people say sharp things to each other, and let their rage (and their genitals) do most of their thinking. Carnahan, however, is no Chandler or Cain, or even Himes or MacDonald. But who is?
While the plot zips along, it is marred by a protagonist so unbelievable that he becomes the ultimate distraction. We first meet Bailey Quinn, as he lies holding his balls in the middle of a desert. His throat has been cut, and he has been thrown out of a car and left for dead by his partners in crime. Quinn, we discover, is a college dropout who was working as a carny, planned a rip-off of the circus where he worked, only to be double-crossed by his partners. He sets out after his money—but wait! Someone might be chasing him too ... (Didn’t see that coming, did you?)
Quick-thinking though he is, Quinn is just too perfect to be a true noir hero. He is wittier and more intelligent than everyone here, but this proves a fairly easy task when most of the other characters are lunatics or idiots. He is a deadly shot, a quick healer, and a dogged tracker. And, of course, he is fatally attractive to every woman around. This includes the legless freak-show star (she of the book’s original title), his friend’s tattooed girlfriend, and a heart-of-gold ex-addict whom Quinn only starts digging when he learns she’s not a hooker. Kind of hard to believe in a guy like that, especially when he’s supposed to be in his very early 20s.
On top of all this, Quinn is nicer and more ethical than everyone else, even before he starts learning and growing during the course of this short novel. The book’s new title comes from his early crime M.O. of stealing from stores, not people: “I called it ‘copping free’ because no one got hurt and the big insurance companies got the tab.” He is kind to animals, even when it threatens his own safety, and he tries not to hurt other people’s feelings, unless they dare steal from him. This is a pretty high level of adorability; Bailey Quinn makes even Philip Marlowe look like an amoral hack.
It gets worse: Quinn is a criminal, but he is the nicest and hottest and most perfect criminal in the world; he is driven by revenge and lust, but he has a highly developed sense of honor and always makes unselfish decisions when the chips are down. Oh, and we also get a full explanation of why Bailey, with his high I.Q. and big dreams, went spiraling out of control. (Hint: parental issues.) The dude is just too improbable for words, at least in the context of a 200-page book, and it’s wearying.
My hackles are further raised by his vocabulary, which has weird wrinkles to it. Would a 22-year-old American use words like “copping” and “sussed” instead of “ripping off” or “figured out”? Can someone really be served a “big, nasty mocha”? The prose turns more and more purple as the book goes along: “I just wanted out of this place, with its boardwalk full of shattered Vietnam vets and psychics, its obsession with beauty, and its voracious appetite for gasoline and power.”
But these problems don’t mean this is not a fun or worthwhile read. It is full of hip characters with awesome names, from unfortunate hottie Xana Calipatria and idiotic wannabe musician Nik Slave, to stoner Tank Deerflower and a gang called the Skullfuckers. Bailey’s devotion to dogs is to be admired. And there’s an original death scene worth tracking down, too.
Carnahan really seems to be trying to do something different—modern noir with dashes of the absurd, and this is all fine and good. Maybe next time, he will try a little less, and accomplish more. Or he might just keep cranking out TV series’ and movies and babies and stuff. Either way…