Michael Harris writes noir’s descent into darkness better than anyone else I know. A lot of people can write dark characters in varying shades of too-often cliched and flawed fatalities. But no one quite manages to draw the likeable, decent-if-only-they-weren’t-slightly-too-broken-to-be-decent characters that Harris does, with their tenuous grip on their identity and their thoughts and their lives and their homes and their jobs. The aging men whose pasts are full of ghosts, who have been pushed past their personal line in the sand though you’re never quite sure when that happened. They probably don’t know either, just that it happened back then — childhood maybe. The relationship with their father maybe, their time in prison, Vietnam. They are so vulnerable to that slight, final nudge that will send them circling into a colorful and richly detailed spiral into hell itself, both of psyche and circumstance.
You ache with their vulnerability. You ache too, with the pain they inflict, on themselves and on others. There are no good guys and bad guys, only guys who are trying to be good in spite of everything, and those who gave up a long time ago.
His novella Where Desert Rivers Die exemplifies this.
…is there no end to the blood in the world? He dabs at the nicks with toilet paper, all the while thinking of the toilet itself and the drain in the floor. They pull at him, like Death Valley. Like all those sinks where desert rivers go to die.
You see? Down.
This is slightly lighter fare than The Chieu Hoi Saloon, which we were proud to publish in the Switchblade imprint. That is a long, brilliant and brooding book that builds like a thunderstorm to the finale. It envelops you. Desert Rivers does too, but its length means it is more of a flash and a thrill ride across California up to Colorado, where the point of no return has already been reached before you start and you are already racing towards an uncertain finish. You and Warren both are just waiting for the crash. This is a book you will finish in an evening, but that will linger on with you for a long time. It is a book that means something.
All this praise aside, I love both novel and novella even more when they are set alongside what is perhaps the most beautiful, exquisite novella I have ever read, and that is Canyon. Also by Michael Harris, not yet available anywhere I don’t think except through a request to the author. A novella of childhood. A novella of wonder.
But all of his work has wonder in it.