Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes

More than most books, this novel is one you should just jump into without preamble. So don't read the back cover, don't read any reviews that reveal plot, and so on. What I thought I would do here is write around all that, and so encourage you to pick it up without specifically telling you the story.

I first discovered Hughes many years ago, probably the mid to late eighties, when she was already having a revival of sorts. It was a time when major publishing houses still quite frequently brought older, half forgotten works to the reading public's attention again and it was through these auspices that I discovered the likes of Josephine Tey, Mary Roberts Reinhart, Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham and many more. I believe there were about four Hughes novels reissued together, the ones I remember best, because of the arresting titles, being The So Blue Marble and Ride a Pink Horse. I read these two and I may have read others; in fact, there were times as I read this one, that I thought I may have read it back then as well. I don't think so--I think it's because Hughes' protagonists share some similarities. For one reason or another, they are isolated people, forced into increasingly desperate circumstances.

Some writers would seem to be able to turn their hand to anything, and Hughes' writing life was more varied than most. Before she was a novelist, she was a journalist, but before that, she was a poet dazzling enough to have hard her first book, a poetry collection, published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

Her poetic gifts come through in this novel as well. This is a book of fairly terse prose, but in her descriptions of place and particularly of the Southwestern desert where much of this takes place, she reveals her poet's eye.

The time of the book is somewhere around 1963, when it was published. It is a very particular moment in American history, and Hughes gets this moment exactly right. It stood out to me because after watching so many episodes of the much vaunted Mad Men, it's very clear that there is a big difference between throwing in period detail, and chronicling the period in which you live. I am not sure that even Hughes herself could hope to get this particular story right, but the sense of what people believed and feared and felt possible is much truer to my own childhood memory of the era than our 21st century simulations of this.

It's funny that I thought at first that this novel was perhaps a bit derivative. It reminded me a bit of Red Lights, an American novel by the great Belgian writer, Simenon, which, like this edition, is another  reissue of the wonderful New York Review of Books imprint,  and which I wrote a brief review of HERE . And it also recalled the movie Kiss Me Deadly, a 1955 film that I only saw within the last few years. What all three share are a road trip and the hazards of the road.

Trust me, though. This one is different. 

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