Tag Archives: Michael Harris

Michael Harris — Noir’s descent

Michael Harris - Where Desert Rivers DieMichael 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.

Michael Harris - The Chieu Hoi SaloonThis 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.

John Shannon: The Great American Novel I’d Never Heard Of

John Shannon's The Taking of the WatersUntil my friend Michael Harris gave me a copy of this (who has himself written a great American novel, The Chieu Hoi Saloon). Then I realised I had been encouraged to read John Shannon’s Jack Liffey detective novels by Michael and of course Gary Phillips, and I will now, I will. Mike Davis is a character, Ivan Monk pops up in there, they explore L.A. in ways that I love.

But that’s another series…this is a whole different thing. Compare it to Steinbeck or John dos Passos. It reads relatively quick for being so monumental in subject, a history of a century of American struggle over land, work and rights. A history of what was perhaps really at stake in the red-baiting that led to the destruction of so many lives, as well as the tangled relationships between socialism and working people in struggle.

It starts in the Owens Valley and ends there…there could be no better place. I wrote about it in a long ago blog post, it impressed me so profoundly. I was driving up through there with my friends Beverley and Jose, on our way to see Mono Lake. I knew something about the water and how it was stolen by LA (think Chinatown) but nothing prepared me for this landscape.

The Owens Valley

The Owens Valley

I found out that the people who farmed here had organised, had fought back, had dynamited the damn. They filled me respect.

Their saga is the first in John Shannon’s novel, wrapped in a narrative frame of a foreign journalist caught up in the search for redemption and the family histories of a friend of his, a third generation fighter who is no longer quite sure what he is fighting or how. It allows a step back from the intensity of the stories, a perspective Americans rarely get on histories Europeans rarely see. A clever conceit that works well for the most part (my only critique is that occasionally this feels confusing, a little labored, but looking back I’m still not sure what I think about it).

What struck me at first was not wealth at all. To grow up in a Europe of social democracy–whatever one feels about the accommodations the dream has made with privilege–and to arrive here suddenly is to be struck dumb by the experience of an entire subcontinent living, apparently, without a particle of social responsibility: the grandiose and tidy bank only a few meters from a trash-strewn lot inhabited by winos. (11)

The first story is that of Maxi Trumbull, fearless reporter covering Owens Valley and standing with the farmers. Her story is about the land and community, the complicated relationships we have with both. The importance of water to survival. The power of the city to destroy the countryside around it. Also, love. Loneliness. Commitment.

Her son is Slim Trumbull, raised in the valley but moving on to organise plants up in Detroit. His story is that of labour, fighting union machine along with the bosses, fighting across boundaries of race and loving across the boundaries of class — though he is less capable of such things than his mother. It is also the story of the gradual disillusion with communism. Something I see so strongly here in the UK, but confess to knowing no one in the US who had been through this:

…all Europeans defined themselves by when they left groups. After Hungary. After the failure of reform. After Euro-Communism. After Paris ’68. After Prague. After Poland. (270)

I discovered that there was a colour for model trains known as Tucson red. This makes me smile.

Her grandson is Clay Trumbell, and he drags the narrator back to where it all started — Owens Valley.  Fighting gangsters making porn, investigating the death of a woman and the threats against her daughter. The curious silence of everyone still left. This is more noir, and a curious contrast to the first two but one I like I think. What are we fighting these days? There are no grand narratives any more in the US, no driving ideology. Perhaps he could have chosen Monsanto, Nestle, gentrification and mass displacement…is it only time that makes these struggles feel so different to me?

The mob leaves people just as dead.

A fine book, one you should find and read.

[Shannon, John. (1994) The Taking of the Waters. Culver City, CA: John Brown Books.]