The outside of this book is beautiful; the title is a knockout, and the author, David Bowman, is "currently working" on a biography of Paul Cain, one of the most elusive and seductive hard-boiled novelists of the '30s.
So you get out your dog-eared copy of Paul Cain's "The Fast One," open its grubby pages and read: "Kells walked north on Spring. At Fifth he turned west, walked two blocks, turned into a small cigar store."
Ah! The simplicity, and the promise of violence to come: the dozens of bullets that Kells will soon take--with equanimity--and the ice pick stab to his ribs. If David Bowman loves Paul Cain, what can go wrong?
But the difference between "The Fast One" and "Let the Dog Drive" is the difference between a pound cake and a fruitcake. In one, everything extraneous has been taken out. In the other, everything extraneous has been thrown in.
In 1976, Bud Salem--son of an obese and totally crazy woman television evangelist--wanders in the Western American desert and meets an attractive, 40ish matron, Sylvia Cushman. She drives around in a futile attempt to escape from her sociopathic husband, pitching oranges from her car at passersby. She picks up Bud, and takes to calling him "Orange Boy."
The young lad has myriad problems. Beyond his evangel-mother, he is also burdened with an eccentric grandfather who wrote many hard-boiled novels (his protagonist was named Tim Fontanel). His father really was a detective but a villainous one--an amoral Peeping Tom snoop who roamed Hollywood in the '40s taking pictures of celebrities in compromising positions.
Together, Bud and Sylvia go on an odyssey of sorts, sleeping in motels, making their way east, "looking for the plastic heart of America." Sylvia has her own worries. She has an older son, Ben, an extremely troubled musician, a younger son, Lester, who's riddled with mysterious allergies, and a husband who has suffered an almost indescribable affliction (he can't stand sound ).
This husband is lower than a toad. He works for the American car industry. When Bud shows up as a house guest, Cushman treats him like a Japanese sedan. He takes "Orange Boy" out to a testing ground where he straps four sweet dogs into a big American car and sends the car careening full blast into a wall.
Bud picks up the narrative here: "The Dalmatian dips his head again and slides out of the car. And then I see what can't be right--because the dog that slides out of the driver's seat is only the front of the dog--the front of the dog still alive. . . ." Well, there's hard-boiled, and there's really gross . As a foil to all this American-made violence, Sylvia is writing her thesis on Emily Dickinson; is obsessed with the number of poems that spinster wrote, and the smoldering passions she nourished. "Orange Boy" sharing Sylvia's obsession with Dickinson, is concerned that as the poet got older, she gained weight, becoming almost as thick through the middle as his own mother.
It's not unfair to say that this book smacks of pastiche. It's not only full of allusions to made-up hard-boiled novels like "Hot Guns Don't Lie," and to real artifacts like "The Black Mask," the great periodical of the hard-boiled genre, but it also takes as its subject film noir, debased American Christianity and debased American industry.
If that isn't enough, there are overcooked references to the aforementioned Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Marcel Proust, and to that form of erotica which pairs beautiful women and handsome dogs. The narration takes on the character of all these subjects. It's jumpy and jerky and self-conscious and clever. It's either way-hip and trendy, or already passe beyond words, and the final word on that probably depends on the particular person who reads it.
One wonders what Paul Cain, that wonderful hard-boiled novelist, would have thought of this book. His own detective, Kells, is evoked here, as is Sam Spade, Lew Archer, and many many other fictional private eyes.
When "Orange Boy" decides to write a hard-boiled novel of his own, he invents "Bud Crowley"--which reminds me that "Bud," as the narrator's name, is only mentioned--that I could see--on the book jacket.
It takes all kinds of people to make a world, and all kinds of writers to make a literature. Many people will love "Let the Dog Drive." But I turned with relief to Paul Cain's honest prose and Detective Kells, as he roamed the mean streets of Los Angeles, who took his three dozen bullets and his ice pick thrust, drove for miles up PCH, turned into a dark canyon where " . . . After a little while, life went away from him."
Pound cake or fruitcake. Pay your money, and take your choice.