Newton Thornburg’s sun-kissed, pulpy novel of murder and intrigue in California and Mexico is issued for the first time in the UK by Serpent’s Tail, and the main question has to be: Why? All in all it is pretty weak, and—my main problem, really—lacks any kind of bite. It is something of a standard-issue crime novel, which is fine for a weekend away or a train journey, but I can’t understand why a prestigious and smart publishing house would be bothered to republish it, particularly 20 years after initial release. There is a case that Thornburg represents the last “classic” noir fiction before the genre was invaded by darker visions from James Ellroy to David Peace, that this in some way is a period piece. However, the novel disappoints on many other criteria than simply timeliness.
Based around a conventional vengeance narrative, Dreamland encompasses shady militant organisations, the CIA, Mexico and Los Angeles’ Mulholland Drive. Crow, a drifter and musician, comes back from Seattle to see his retired-cop father in LA, picking up a vulnerable young female hitcher on the way. A photograph of an illicit liaison is accidentally taken and those in the picture murdered in a variety of baroque ways. Reluctantly, Crow is dragged into a world of scheming and paranoia, trying to work out the story and outmanoeuvre a series of shady characters who may or may not be government funded.
These bare bones demonstrate the level of unconsidered cliché and resonance within this text; you can pick out any number of antecedents that do this material better or might drive it in an unanticipated direction. Dreamland has an idealised, freewheelin’ central character who lacks charisma and point—Crow is a mass of caricatures. The plot is full of holes and vague conspiracy theories that have no contemporary resonance, and there is no sense of an outside other than shady references to “Arabs.” Any redeeming corruption, sleaze and seduction of California in Thornburg’s hands fails to sustain any kind of punch.
Unfortunately, the novel continually suffers by comparison: to James Ellroy, obviously and mainly—Thornburg’s LA just misses any kind of bile and edge; to Raymond Chandler, whose eye for an angle and shrewd characterisation (as well as hard boiled dynamism) is alluded to but never more than echoed; to the hardboiled writing of Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson and James M. Cain; to better, tighter genre novels of the early 80s that managed to have more to say, like early King for instance; to better and darker versions of Hollywood and the American dream, from Polanski’s Chinatown to Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
Thornburg’s style is idealistic, overblown and hollow, lacking bite. The dialogue is woolly and the characters are little more than ciphers. In good noir this shouldn’t matter—it is not as if most detective fiction is highly dense and allusive—but this text is just moribund. Woodcut psychopaths, effete nancy-boys and lesbian seductresses abound—I did at one point wonder whether this was a parody, but no—and the central Lolita character, Reno, is presented as knowing jailbait with a heart of gold. The plot droops and runs out of steam a long time before the by-numbers ending.
Take the opening, as an example. Like all good, crumpled noir heroes Crow is presented to us “sipping hot black coffee” while watching a young couple fight and hitchhike. Boy hits girl, and “it nettled Crow to see how she accepted her boyfriend’s peevish discipline, with such a practiced resignation, as if it were already an old routine in her new life.” Crow is a watcher and a judger, although his more voyeuristic instincts serve him badly when he collects the hitching couple in his pickup and ejects the boy for hitting his girlfriend. The style is tortuous, slightly moral and tendentious. The opening sets up the slightly laconic, overwrought attention to character and detail that leaves the novel feeling like it is trying too hard.
Maybe it is a problem of presentation. Pulp and noir go through periods of marginalisation and then mainstream acceptance, and it hardly seems fair to attack a book for its lack of literary value when it is issued out of its rightful original context. The gentrification of genre fiction—a world where Ellroy and King are prestigious and important authors in their own right—means that such minor lights as Thornburg are exhumed and presented to a willing public. That said, this book is a poor example in this still underrated field, and not about to win it any more serious followers.