Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Noir Doesn’t Come Much Darker

By Linda L. Richards
I once heard his fellow Canadian author Owen Laukannen describe Dietrich Kalteis’ writing as being like “jazz on the page.” If you want to boil Kalteis’ work down very tightly, for me descriptions just don’t get any better than that.

Kalteis’ voice is taut, tight, and if it were any more noir, it would be too dark to see. With all of that, there is a graceful muscularity to his writing. And a sparseness that reminds one of jazz, as well.

Zero Avenue (ECW Press) is Kalteis’ fifth novel, and it is confident and mature. No uneven beats here, at all. Publishers Weekly said in its review that “if a literary prize existed for depicting the most offensive club lavatories, [Zero Avenue] would win it hands down.” And while that’s pretty much true, there is so much more here than that. Kalteis’ highest ninja skill is that he can make the reader feel deeply with a simple shrug of his super-cool shoulder. The aforementioned bathroom scene is a good example. It is vivid and classically, achingly noir, and he accomplishes it in just a few bold strokes:
A lone bulb hung from the center of the room, a dead fluorescent tube horizontal over the sink, two toilets, only one with an enclosed stall, a urinal and a plugged-up sink, soapy brown scum floating in it. Toilet paper unfurled like crime scene tape across the floor. Graffiti all over—the voice of the people.
Another example of this seemingly effortless intensity can be found in what may be the best-drawn chase scene I’ve ever read. In it, Frankie, a young punk musician running drugs to raise enough money to cut her debut EP, thinks she’s picked up a tail in the middle of doing a delivery. Her battered Karmann Ghia is running on fumes, and the rubber on its tires is so low, a gas-station attendant feels it necessary to point out the potential danger. She’s stoned and paranoid; and between evading the tail and checking in with the mad-dog gangster who is her handler, and finally (spoiler alert) making her delivery, there is enough tension here that it can be difficult to read. With all of this against her, you just know it can’t turn out well.
Passing the Italian joint, Paesano’s, the place Marty wanted to take her to dinner, night she clocked the blonde. Everything slow-cooked and homemade, mozzarella and olives shipped from the old country. Espresso done right. Cannoli to die for.

Bopping to “Fan Club” now, she licked somebody else’s tongue around her mouth, her nerves still shot. Frankie thinking she could use a chunk of bhang. Her eye on the rearview, keeping watch for the four-by-four, Serpico with the shades and beanie.

Past Pender, she stomped the brakes, some kid in a ball cap on backwards dashed from behind a parked Buick, dashing across the lane, a paper bag in his hand. She yelled at him, sounding like somebody’s mother, the kid flipping her the bird, Frankie flipping it back.
Frankie has put together a little band called Waves of Nausea, which is playing low-level gigs in 1979 Vancouver, British Columbia, near the birth of the punk rock movement. Johnny Falco runs Falco’s Nest, the fictional club just down the street from the non-fictional Smilin’ Buddha, where a lot of significant punk acts got their start. Falco is sweet on Frankie from the beginning, and wondering if she’d ever entertain the thought of going out with a mug like him, especially since we open on her at the beginning of an uncomfortable relationship with local gangster Marty Sayles.

Among other things, Marty is involved with an ingenious pot-growing operation that has seen his goons seeding pot in farmers’ fields hidden in rows of corn. After harvest, the pot is processed in an old barn Marty owns on a property he picked up along Zero Avenue.

I grew up in the area described, so I came to this novel knowing that Zero Avenue is the street that runs on the northern side of the U.S./Canada border for, well, a long ways. But the part of it I knew, and the part described in this book, runs from South Surrey all the way to Abbotsford and probably beyond: just a double ditch and a country road—no fence or guards or anything but the occasional patrol run separating two big countries that have a lot of inhabitants who like drugs of various descriptions. Obviously, a recipe for drug-related high jinks, in reality and now in fiction. While this local knowledge possibly added to my enjoyment of the book, one could come to Zero Avenue without it, as Kalteis does a good job of making the reader feel not only the where but the when.

With sex, drugs, and rock-’n-roll on the menu, crime is not far off. This rich combination pushes Zero Avenue along at a graceful burn. The book is tight and rich and as hard to pin down as smoke. If you love noir, you’ll love Zero Avenue. Simply as good as it gets.

1 comment:

June Lorraine Roberts said...

It's a great book and I posted my own review on Murder in Common https://wp.me/p3XU1u-4Hm