Mon November 16, 2009
"Dixie Noir" by Kirk Curnutt
Curnutt is a good-natured man but not a comic writer. I had hoped, and for a few pages felt, that "Dixie Noir" was something lighter. It seemed at first as if Curnutt were having some fun with noir, that this novel might be a send-up of the noir genre, something like what Garrison Keeler does in Guy Noir, Private Eye, but this turned out definitely not to be the case.
By Don Noble
At his day job, Kirk Curnutt of Montgomery, Alabama, is a hardworking professor of American literature. Curnutt is in fact a nationally acknowledged critic of the works of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald with eight academic books including "Coffee With Hemingway," "A Historical Guide to F. Scott Fitzgerald" and "The Cambridge Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald." He is the Vice President of the International Fitzgerald Society, an editor of the Fitzgerald review, and a lot more besides.
In his spare time, as it were, he writes fiction.
He is the author of a collection of stories, "Baby, Let's Make a Baby," and "Breathing Out the Ghost," a gripping but grim novel of child abduction and its effects on the guilt-ridden, devastated parents.
Curnutt is a good-natured man but not a comic writer.
I had hoped, and for a few pages felt, that "Dixie Noir" was something lighter. It seemed at first as if Curnutt were having some fun with noir, that this novel might be a send-up of the noir genre, something like what Garrison Keeler does in Guy Noir, Private Eye, but this turned out definitely not to be the case.
Noir as a genre may be most familiar to readers from the stories of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the Sam Spade mysteries and "The Maltese Falcon."
The action is set usually in a big city, often L.A., quiet, law-abiding, pleasant on the surface, but with a dark underside.
The hero is traditionally the hardboiled detective, often out to avenge the killing of a friend.
Curnutt's hero is Ennis Skinner, just released from Kilby prison after serving ten years for attempted murder. Before incarceration, Skinner had been a meth addict for many years. Before that he was the star quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide, under coach Ray Perkins. Unfortunately, he was also a cokehead, and after having played and won while stoned, Ennis in a post-game interview was asked to what he owed his victory. He replied, injudiciously, "God, a great coach, and the cocaine on the membrane. Not necessarily in that order." (This is some of what I thought was satire, but I was wrong.) Severe NCAA penalties ensued, and many of the more violent faithful still want Skinner's head.
Released from prison he first gets false teeth?meth is bad for your teeth?and then sets about making amends.
Ennis, freed, starts moving around Montgomery, in fact the reader gets a tour?the fountain, the state capitol, Reverend King's church on Dexter Avenue. Ennis even attends a Biscuits game in their new stadium by the river. Curnutt has a couple of characters note that Montgomery is historically special: the birthplace of the Confederacy and of the Civil Rights Movement. But soon, within hours really, Ennis finds himself enmeshed in the mayor's race, mayhem, murders, kidnappings, drug kingpins, pornography, and blackmail, and he falls in love with a red-headed waitress at the El Rey Burrito Lounge. She lives in the Fitzgerald House, where Scott and Zelda lived for a while, unhappily, and she loves Zelda's writings, which I find overwrought, purple, loony, and as the style is the woman, an indicator of poor mental health, but Ennis is infatuated.
Ennis becomes obsessed not only with Red, as the waitress is nicknamed, but also with Dixie, the daughter of Faye, Ennis' girl friend and fellow drug addict before prison. Which leads me to say, sadly, that the scenes in flashback to when Ennis and Faye were addicts together lapse over into the pornographic. If this novel were a movie it would probably be x-rated. Be warned. Meth addicts with hypodermic needles and passion can generate some pretty odd behavior. Ennis is worried that he may be Dixie's father, but several other men are worried too. She seems retarded, and may be the product of incest, so some of this novel reminds one of the noir classic "Chinatown."
But it's not all noir. There is an element of roman a clef as well in this slick, fast-paced book. The incumbent very conservative mayor of Montgomery is named Amory Justice and his daughter is so ferociously right-wing and unscrupulous she is known as "the Kudzu Anne Coulter." His black opponent is fictional civil rights hero Walk Compson. Ennis thinks him to be a great man and actually invokes the Great Man theory of history, which has got to be the first and only time Thomas Carlyle has ever been referred to in a murder mystery.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."