Haute Pulp in the Big City: The Tarantino Factor

Blood Acre , by Peter Landesman. Viking, 260 pages, $23.95.

The Narrowback , by Michael Ledwidge. Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pages, $24.

The new esthetic in high pulp: Mrs. Dalloway meets NYPD Blue . For the cross-over audience, those haute folk who sneak a James M. Cain between their Don DeLillo and Ernest Hemingway; who consider Ally McBeal a pivotal reference in feminist discourse; who appreciate naggingly “human” neurotic characters, a percussive motif, jump-cuts and vertiginous camera angles.

Good stuff in the abstract. In practice, these two recent contributions fall short. They wallow in gratuitously violent pulpiness. And they’re plain-old too superficial to count as literary.

With its lush, nigh on purple, prose, Blood Acre , Peter Landesman’s second novel (his first, The Raven , won the Sue Kaufman prize for first fiction) demonstrates just how far we’ve come from the stingy dejection of 1980′s minimalism–although apparently we haven’t abandoned the drugged-out, morally deficient protagonist. Nathan Stein is a corrupt lawyer, who, following in his corrupt lawyer-father’s footsteps, has an inadvertently racist penchant for Hispanic women (lots of them); steals bail money from his South American clients; is more often than not stoned; and has just been implicated in the brutal murder of his half-sister lover. Déjà noir? He also adores opera–whatever that may or may not do to round out his character.

Blood Acre counts down the last minutes of the last day in the miserable life of Nathan Stein. Whoops, I told you the end. No matter. It’s clear from the first that our villainous hero is careering toward death. The novel opens with the corpse of Stein’s half-sister washed up on a gritty New York City beach, an electrifying beginning. After that first page, anything seems wonderfully possible–that’s before the grandstanding, flittering point of view and diffuse muddle besiege the narrative.

As Stein runs from the cops, his cheated clients and his past, everyone else–especially Stein’s once friend and probable half-brother, Errol Santos–is trying to solve the murder. The investigation is the device through which we learn about Stein’s past and his “true love,” Claire, the one woman who ever got under his skin, the only WASP he ever loved, the mother of his only son (who died). Now she’s involved with Santos. Crushed under the weight of their combined emotional baggage, most of it left over from having once loved Nathan Stein, these two ineffectual “good guys” become the novel’s moral barometer. Meanwhile, Stein is stumbling around, too drug-numbed and dryhearted to confront them–or his sister’s death, or even his current lover whom he has abandoned to die in a hospital from some unspecified disease, and whom he has barely visited since she first took ill and lost her Latina spice.

Michael Cunningham’s recent novel The Hours made Mrs. Dalloway the flavor of the month, but Mr. Landesman also borrows a page from Virginia Woolf’s book. Consider Claire, her desperation forever looped into the specter of Nathan Stein: “Still sore from stitches, the delivery not the easiest, and the baby stone still in the leaching light–drink, baby, drink–already blue, already dead of everything and of nothing in particular. As if there was simply no room in this region for one more life.” Blood Acre echoes with this kind of inner voice, which asserts literary cachet, but too often at the expense of clarity.

Blood Acre ‘s pages are crowded with tense descriptions of tempestuous skies and telephone wires over Brighton Beach, hard-core racist cop talk and third-person stream-of-consciousness narration. You have no idea (and never will) who’s talking, what they’re talking about, why they’re all so bitter, where they’re standing in relation to anything, or why we should care. Like the reader of Mrs. Dalloway , the reader of Blood Acre must forge her way through the perpetual disorientation created by untethered impressionism. Moments such as: “He pulls the rubber stopper to let it all drain. The water slides slowly and evenly down the wall of the sink, the drain gasps, and the rest of it is sucked away. She did this. She killed me.” (It’s anybody’s guess which “she” Nathan is blaming, and whether “drain” makes a better verb or noun.) At least Mrs. Dalloway , unlike Blood Acre , rewards the reader’s hard work with insight, epiphany and really smart prose. And in NYPD Blue , as in much classic pulp, the conflict is between good and evil masquerading alternatively as each other; but the conflict in Blood Acre belongs to the reader: It takes the form of resistance to the dreary, disconnected, dangerous world here created.

The promise of Michael Ledwidge’s debut The Narrowback comes from the premise rather than its literary finesse. Once again, we have a crime-driven novel banking on an ethnic angle, despondency and father obsession. But this time the action is easier to follow: connect-the-dots easy.

The antihero, Tom Farrell, starts out sober and only slips into that annoying stoned numbness after his perfect crime (the one that’s going to get him out of the old neighborhood and on with a straight life as an art student in California) goes badly wrong. The snag? The gang is infiltrated by an Irish Republican Army soldier who wants to steal the spoils to fund the rebel cause–Tom and his crew waste him, of course. As if that weren’t enough, while trying to pawn the loot Tom loses his temper with the godfather of the Albanian Mafia and clocks him with the butt of his Smith & Wesson. So the Albanians, the I.R.A. and the police are all in hot pursuit of Tom and his bag of money. He chooses this moment to tumble off the wagon.

Tom Farrell is a narrowback, an Irish-American from an Irish-American inner-city neighborhood. The paramilitary American branch of the I.R.A. is no longer all that new to readers and moviegoers, though Albanian organized crime is still something of a novelty. Original or not, these worlds are only sketchily evoked. Shifting the landscape, Brooklyn to Bronx, giving the bad guys Irish or Albanian accents–it’s flimsy. We want transport, not set decoration.

Absent the attention and elaboration that could have made The Narrowback a very cool read, we are left to contend with the degree of compassion we feel, or fail to feel, for the main character.

A scene from Farrell’s night wanderings: He meets an uptown girl in a nightclub, gets her high, gets a blowjob, brings her to the Bronx, and loses her absent-mindedly in the midst of ricocheting bullets, pit bulls and a botched drug deal. His morning-after realization of what he’d done–”Jesus God–the girl–he’d abandoned her in that place”–comes across as lip service paid to the plot; the scene itself is just another vignette in a pageant of generic tough-guy behavior.

Tom Farrell is a tortured soul, with a gimpy vision of redemption. Clues suggest that the tough guy is complicated: He wants to make good on his life; he has some sense of loyalty to his best friend (although under the mistaken impression he’s already been murdered, he beds the best friend’s girlfriend); he can’t bring himself to fire a machine gun into a crowded room of Albanian mobsters because he sees a child among them; he misses his long-lost brother who died of AIDS; and, like all of the novel’s secondary characters, he has father issues. But we never really get into his psyche. He’s shut down, motivated by ill-conceived values and loyalties, which he betrays even though they’re ill-conceived.

These two novels suffer from too much hovering: the malaise of superficial sense of place and characterization, free-floating narration. They also suffer from the curse of being good enough to suggest they could be better. Blood Acre and The Narrowback reach for the glory of pulp and the grandeur of literature–Quentin Tarantino with tone. They end up plundering stereotype and cheap thrill–forgettable imitations languishing on the oh-so-cruel city streets.