August 11, 2011

BOOKS: What You See in the Dark, Manuel Muñoz (2011)

Muñoz tells the interwoven stories of three women in 1959 Bakersfield, against a backdrop of murder, both real and imagined. Each of the women is, in some way, dealing with what happens when desperation leads to violence.

Arlene is a middle-aged waitress and motel owner. Her husband has abandoned her, leaving her on the outside of the social circles she once traveled in; her greatest pride is that she's raised her son to adulthood with no serious problems.

Teresa is a poor Hispanic girl, dating a popular white boy, which raises eyebrows. He nurtures her gift for singing, and she begins to think that her voice might be a way to a better life.

And The Actress is in town with The Director to shoot exterior scenes for their new movie. (Though they are never named, it quickly becomes obvious that they are Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock, working on Psycho.) She fears that the role, more of a bad girl than she's ever played before, will alienate her fans.

Muñoz's style is a bit cool and detached; the characters may be passionately emotional, but his narration rarely is. The writing is never difficult, but it's got a richness to it, a density that required me to set it aside at the end of each chapter to digest what I'd read. (It is to prose what cheesecake is to dessert.) A sample:

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 cafe; 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 exhiliration 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.

The period details are impeccably re-created, and Muñoz is particularly fine at capturing the emotional impact that music has when you hear the right song at the right moment. What You See in the Dark is a lovely book, a muted tragedy of potential unfulfilled.

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