Friday, July 11, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “No Human Involved,” by Barbara Seranella

(Editor’s note: This is the 12th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from San Francisco wordsmith Louise Ure, the author of Forcing Amaryllis [2005] and The Fault Tree [2008].)

She took me by surprise that day, sharing my café table at a conference in El Paso, Texas. The conversation next to us was about graduate degrees, and whether a Masters in Business or Fine Arts was the best preparation for a writing career. The woman next to me was notably silent, then muttered that she’d never finished high school and “still can’t spell for shit.”

Barbara Seranella didn’t need a degree to create the world of ex-druggie, ex-prostitute, and auto mechanic Miranda “Munch” Mancini. She lived it.

And thank God, she wrote about it, too.

In her first novel, No Human Involved (1997), Munch’s father, a small-time dealer named “Flower George” Mancini, is found dead. It was a case of AVA/NHI, the cops said. Asshole versus asshole. No Human Involved.

And here’s the introduction Seranella provided to her novel’s world-weary, cynical protagonist:
“Buy you a drink?”

Munch turned to size up the man who had spoken to her. His sad, baggy eyes were set in a basset hound face. A five o’clock shadow rolled in and out of the loose folds of skin on his cheeks and chins. Deep lines creased his forehead. She squinted a little to bring him into focus, then looked at her glass. There was only ice left.

What the hell. She shrugged an indifferent acceptance.

“Jack Daniel’s. Black Label.” She always said “Black Label” when she ordered. She didn’t know what it meant or if it was any better than any other colored label, but she liked the way it sounded.

The man pulled a worn leather wallet out of his back pocket. He extracted a twenty and put it on the bar. He held up two fingers to Benny the bartender, and the money was swept away.

“What’s your name?” the sad-eyed man asked.

She glanced at the fancy bottles stacked against the mirror behind the bar. “Sherry,” she told him. “How’s that? And we’ll call you John.”

“Sounds fair enough.”

His skin was sallow even in the dark and forgiving rouged light that reflected off the bottles of liquor. She thought he looked tired, beaten down. The calculation that followed was automatic. Taking into account his age, his clothes, and the bulge in his wallet, she knew he’d probably go thirty, enough for a spoon, a six-pack, and a bag of Fritos. Not that she was interested. That part of her life was over. She was getting a fresh start, beginning today. He smiled at her. Maybe even an extra twenty, she amended, making her mouth curve upwards, if he were stupid enough to leave his pants in the room when he went to the bathroom. The man collected his change, and while his attention was diverted, she took a second long look. At least he wasn’t old. She hated it when they were old. It took them forever.
Seranella was equally unflinching when she got around to describing Munch’s heroin addiction:
She never minded the sting of the needle; in fact, she welcomed it. The jab followed by that rush of relief as the thick red blood spurted back into the syringe to mix with the dope, turning it all a muddy color. Then a slow squeeze of the plunger, sending the precious elixir through her bloodstream. Eyes closed, she pictured the dope’s path, flowing through every vein, artery, and capillary till it reached her scalp, the tips of her toes, and that dark screaming place in her gut that needed to be quieted ... Less that one full day clean and she was already mooning over the dope like some jilted lover. She knew from previous experience what to expect. The first three days would be the worst. Her bones would ache and the cravings would consumer her, canceling out every other thought.
But this is not a single-note sonata; Seranella created a full and burnished life for all of her characters. Munch Mancini, ex-prostitute, ex-addict and auto mechanic, struggling to find answers and peace with all the odds stacked against her. Detective Mace St. John, facing both a killer and his father’s Alzheimer’s. And in No Human Involved, she also gave us all the excess and energy of Southern California in 1977, an asphalt landscape populated by self-satisfied bigots and desperate losers, but a place where a bit of humanity can still rise to the surface at the unlikeliest of times.

Barbara Seranella--who died in early 2007 at only 50 years of age, after writing eight more Munch Mancini novels--took writing “what you know” to a whole new level. And our lives are all the richer for it.

Next Friday’s guest blogger will be recovering ex-debutante Cornelia Read. The author of A Field of Darkness and The Crazy School, Read has been a nominee for just about every prize around (the Edgar, Gumshoe, Macavity, and Barry). Her writing voice is distinctive: precise, acerbic, and smart. I expect her blog post will be as well.

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