By Steven Nester
Crow, a middle-aged itinerant “who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Buick,” is on his way to reconcile with his estranged father, Orville. A retired cop and an “undemonstrative man,” Orville’s made no secret of his disappointment with Crow’s lack of interest in a “three-piece-suit job.” Meanwhile, Foxy Reno is the nom de guerre of a “gaudy and tasteless” 16-year-old runaway and would-be starlet bound for the Sunset Strip, whom Crow rescues from an abusive boyfriend on the side of a Southern California highway. Crow and Foxy are looking to reboot their lives with purpose. After three bystanders are photographed witnessing a politician fleeing a gay sex party where an accidental death has occurred, the pair are given the chance to put wrong to right—and then some—in Newton Thornburg’s taut and tough noir Dreamland (1983).
It’s the beginning of “the aching eighties,” an era of lurid narcissism, extravagant entitlement, and gratuitous incivility—and also a time when a small network of desultory but violent anarchists with government connections catches the greed bug and forgoes the revolution in return for some quick blackmail cash. An old contact of Orville’s named Gardner Costello is given an assignment from a familiar but nefarious colleague which he knows could land him in danger. He passes the task off to Orville, starts drinking heavily, and points his boat towards Mexico.
The job seems easy: just ID some people in a photograph. But unbeknownst to Costello (and the contractor, allegedly an old CIA hand), Crow and Foxy take over the assignment from the aging Orville, track the subjects down, and complete the task. When an intoxicated Orville later drives off a cliff and the three subjects in the photo as well as the photographer turn up dead, the police fail to see a connection, but Crow and Reno do. The “inhumanely arrogant” killers, whose “imaginative and efficient” methods prevent the police from connecting the dots, galvanize Crow to don his big-boy pants and conduct his own investigation into the situation, no matter what troubles it might spark.
That arrogance had kindled in Crow a small blue flame of rage … that was simply not going to burn out, not at least until it touched off something far grander than itself.He takes wise-cracking Foxy in tow (she creates some moments of precocious levity, opining at one point that “oral sex sounds like dentists doing it”), realizing that she’s one of his best investigative assets. His plan to return the teenager to her cocktail-waitress mother is put on hold. Equally important to Crow’s scheming, however, is Jennifer Kellogg, the glamorous sister of Richard Kellogg (one of the eventual casualties caught in that notorious photograph), and niece to Henry Kellogg, a rich and powerful behind-the-scenes playmaker.
Tenuously connected to the skullduggery in Thornburg’s yarn, and limned as an “old buzzard” in “obscene black bikini trunks,” Henry Kellogg is a “convenient red herring” who seems to have little interest in his gay nephew’s apparent suicide. If his appearances in Dreamland were more prolific, readers would find themselves compelled to hold this novel at arm’s length just to keep the toxic man as far away from them as possible. But that would be futile, for there are enough other sociopaths and ghouls peopling Dreamland to necessitate the use of a hazmat suit; and if the pursuers aren’t already dead, they’re hot on the trail of Crow and his cohorts—or lying in wait.
Henry and Jennifer’s world comprises the clubs and estates around Santa Barbara, land of “old money and diseased livers,” something new and slightly odious to Crow, yet he comes to terms with it all because the 30-something Jennifer shares his commitment to the mission at hand—and it’s Henry’s money which enables this trio to chase after what they hope will be the truth. First to Mexico to find Orville’s initial contact, then to the Rocky Mountain lair of the complicated and utterly vile revolutionary, Barbara Queen, who holds the key to the lofty perches of power where the truth is hidden.
(Right) Author Newton Thornburg
The depth of the characters here and their inner thoughts draws readers into a bond of empathy with the three amateur detectives, and their pausing to reflect on the case and their lives controls the pace of the action. Though they all come from disparate backgrounds, and might have had little in common, readers looking for romance are not disappointed. While Jennifer makes Crow “feel like a tall Mickey Rooney trundling in the wake of one of his stunning wives,” he’s not afraid to act on his desires, nor is he immune from the charms of the “coltish” Foxy Reno, which creates a tense love triangle that keeps Crow and the reader wondering how long the improbable trio can carry on as a team.
Beneath it all, Dreamland is a novel about the relationships between parents and children; of alliances brought on by need and circumstances, and immaturity sprouting to responsibility. Involved but straightforward, Dreamland is a flawless novel with no loose ends. Crow sees to that: the small flame that had ignited his interest in the case becomes a horrific conflagration by his own hand, enveloping evildoers as well as evidence of his team’s involvement, and prompting Crow to understand that not all closures are sweet. As he watches a mountain house burn to the ground, for instance, “it occurred to him that if he hadn’t known what it was, he might have thought it beautiful.” Sleuthing readers who want to catch Thornburg in the act of writing a fine piece of literature would do well to pay attention to this intricate, seamless, and well-executed tale.
READ MORE: “The Book You Have to Read: Cutter and Bone, by Newton Thornburg,” by Kirk Russell (The Rap Sheet).