Noirmonger: Dylan Neal on The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time by Michael McIrvin


The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time, Michael McIrvin, Bewrite Books, 2009
I read The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time at the suggestion of a friend who belongs to a reading group called the Noir Mongers (they meet at a bar every Tuesday, which indicates much about their sensibilities). Bill told me the Mongers were blown away by this noir thriller, but he said, he and his fellow hard-drinking readers were hard-pressed for words to equal the experience. He wanted a literary type like me to explain the book to them as succinctly as possible, but I am not sure I could explain this excellent novel sufficiently if I filled volumes.

It is not that McIrvin’s story is difficult to follow, and in fact, the plot is just complex enough to be damned interesting: the main character is a former CIA agent forcibly drafted by other former CIA agents to do a terrible job in Mexico, and he wants revenge for a murdered lover but must do what these guys want or another lover will be killed. And the novel does indeed have all the characteristics of a great noir thriller: a first-person narrator whose guilt is obvious and whose shifting state of mind is central to the tale, whose role moves from victimizer to victim to avenger (to something far more in this case); a question of identity (actually, several such questions); suspense arising from the protagonist’s involvement in menacing events; an environment of fear and anxiety, of degraded values in which right and wrong become interchangeable; socio-political critique; and so on. But this novel steps far beyond these characteristics too, or rather, dives into them so deep that the book transcends easy classification or succinct discussion.

Much good noir fiction is merely an echo of old Roman revenge plays, of course, and in fact, the main character, Sonny, mentions the works of Seneca at one point and declares himself “all bloody purpose, malevolent intent incarnate.” However, the very best noir achieves the level of Greek tragedy, becoming as much about destiny and the social order as it is about vengeance. The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time is definitely in this category but a very modern version.

For example, the issue of Sonny’s identity is symbolized by the fact that this is not his real name, and in fact his real name is never revealed. He simply settled on this identity as part of his attempt to start over after his stint as a CIA agent, and he seems to be trying to live down to the expectations that come with it. But the bigger question of identity is represented by his code name in his agency days: Blue. Sonny heard an array of associations in the name, in fact our collective romanticized idea of America itself in its many implications, but he discovered his employers heard something else entirely, something bleak and menacing. The reader’s first hint this book has bigger aspirations than typical noir is Sonny’s notion that he completely bought into the specifically American archetype of the hero (as gunslinger, as patriot), and hence his idealized notion of his code name. But when he became one version of an American hero, an agent in the service of U.S. nationalism, he discovered the truth: that identity generally is at best an ever-shifting class marker and at worst an illusion, that “hero” is another word for killer, torturer, and destroyer of cultures (yea, big themes, and they come up within the first 30 pages).

Likewise, Sonny’s guilt is not just an excuse for mayhem. He never once tries to avoid responsibility for his bloody acts, and in fact he carries his guilt like a penitent if not a martyr. At one point, when someone he loves is murdered merely to get his attention, he says like a mantra, “My fault, my fault, my fault.” His guilt is complex too, first a question of destiny and then of socio-political exigency and propaganda, but ultimately we are all implicated in the bloody process of history, which makes this book one of the more extraordinarily grim noir literary novels ever written – and that is saying something given the many harsh additions to the category in recent years (think David Peace). To make discussion even more difficult, this tale is told in a language that is at once disconcertingly poetic and uncompromisingly realistic. Imagine Heart of Darkness as run through Blood Meridian as if told by Don Delillo channeling Ray Chandler channeling Sartre.

And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It is no wonder my friend and the other beer-swilling Noir Mongers were nonplussed. Sonny is part tragic hero and part existential antihero and part symbolic everyman laboring under the delusions foisted upon him by his culture, and his quest is into a heart of darkness that is Western Civilization itself. In a word, the questions this book raises are enormous, and then, the author provides frightening answers to those questions (for example, the boy named Hurricane is, by turns, funny in a macabre way and more darkly symbolic than any character in recent literature). All while entertaining the hell out of anyone who has the courage to read great literature that is also a morality tale for our age, and which is also a great noir thriller that is maybe best enjoyed with a beer in one hand. The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time is an incredible novel. I am about to read it again, and then I am going to call Bill.

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Dylan Neal is on sabbatical, traveling the US in a van and thinking about ways to make a living as a fulltime itinerant writer.

Jazz & Origami: Adrienne J. Odasso on J. Michael Wahlgren’s Silent Actor


silent-actor

Silent Actor, J. Michael Wahlgren, BeWrite Books 2008

Reading J. Michael Wahlgren’s first collection of poetry, Silent Actor, is a simultaneously frustrating and rewarding experience. On the one hand, Wahlgren is a writer whose work evokes a strong, unapologetic sense of his identity. On the other, we get the sense that his seemingly inexplicable obsession with certain single words and images frequently prevents the collection from developing beyond a scope that is in some ways limited by that very persistent sense of self. The final stanzas of the opening piece, “Problem Child,” set a somewhat petulant and disaffected tone:

I refused to pick up my toys, never mind
bring in the barrels, mow the lawn or
the hardest task of all: emptying the dishwasher.

I lash out.

I’m unemployed,
not a child anymore, but a poet, an aspiring
artist on writer’s Aspirin.

We are speaking, then, with a young man whose past is still very much present—and whose present is, if the painkillers are any indication, drifting in a kind of numbed limbo.
From here, one might expect some elaboration upon Wahlgren’s hinted-at childhood that flows compellingly into what eventually becomes a vivid picture of who he has become. Instead, the next handful of poems, as the first piece accurately suggests, “lash out” in erratic, almost random directions: the author likening himself to numbers on a rating scale (“Prime”), natural and linguistic imagery too coy to evoke a clear focus (“Vulnerable” and “Games”), a teenage party game gone not so much wrong as exactly the way we expected it would (“Spin the Bottle”), and undergraduate ruminations on the futility of cram-sessions and dormitory life (“College”). It is not until “Candles” that we feel the collection has truly begun to state its intent:

No more foolish love, but serious

enervated love escalated, elevated to the top.
The candles in our eyes blew out,

after a shout, goodbye. We placed our hands in our pockets,
and eloped with stars in our pockets, our lips a red carpet

we each longed
to walk upon.

In this passage, the collection’s title begins, poignantly, to make sense. So, too, do we get a first glimpse at Wahlgren’s true strength: he has the ability to show love for what it is when the lights go out. In “Familiar,” he asserts,

…Difficult to say
now to what we can attribute
your looks, but without much clue,
you detect a way to see through
all the fame, in an attempt to
remember your God-given name.

This dark lady (or ladies, for we can never be sure) persists as a through-line of she for the remainder of the collection, providing a satisfying sense of love’s ultimately elusive nature. As it does for Wahlgren, it wears many faces down the years for all of us.
Previously mentioned in my introduction, Wahlgren’s peculiar single-word obsessions pop up early. Origami first manifests in “Spin the Bottle” (“locked lips, origami in flight”) and appears no fewer than five more times throughout the remainder of the pieces—sometimes parenthetical and always unexpected, although not necessarily illuminating. In folds that should be intricate, we find only muddled shadows. Jazz, on the other hand, is accorded a more active and effective role, as seen in “Unique Time”:

Waiting for your departure, we hold
hands for the first time—

(You must wonder)
how jazz is composed of laughter & pain,
without a refrain. In Monk’s time

we detest symbols,
straightforward piano keys of pain & mercy…

Tied up in this, too, is Wahlgren’s indelible sense of identity. This is music that he likes—no, loves—and, for a little while, he’ll see to it that we love it, too.
Amongst these ruminations on passion and music, we stumble across occasional moments of semi-transcendental glory. In “The Toy,” we find

The fire
in her palms
is dedicated
to wine

upon which revelation Wahlgren asks,

Which of these
timepieces
has your name
written on it?

As to whether it’s reassuring when he tells us “We all have one,” I’ll let the reader decide. From this point onward, Silent Actor’s poems possess a dreamlike, lyrical quality. Wahlgren shifts his focus from acts of love to thoughts of love, persistently haunted by the enigmatic, personified phrase of you know who. Whether this specter is a past lover or (from moment to moment) his present lover’s ex, that, too, we can only begin to guess.
Ultimately, Wahlgren ends on a note not dissimilar to the one on which he began. In “Rise Up,” the final poem, we find these by-now unexpectedly flippant lines:

I rise up. Catch me if you are kind. Salute your buttocks.

I give an appearance of conceit,
chutes or ladders nowhere to be found
I hide the clues next to my genitals. Perhaps you’ll seek.

What we’ll seek, perhaps, is not so much a clue as some sense of resolution. Still, for all its quirks and occasional inconsistencies, Silent Actor is both a compelling self-portrait and a thought-provoking treatise on the myriad permutations of human relationships.

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Adrienne J. Odasso is currently completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of York (UK).  Her poetry has appeared in a number of publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including Strong Verse, Aesthetica, Succour, Sybil’s Garage, Farrago’s Wainscot, The Liberal, and Mythic Delirium.  Her short fiction has appeared in Behind the Wainscot and the Ruins Terra anthology from Hadley Rille books, with new work appearing in an upcoming anthology from Drollerie Press.  You can find her on the web at http://ajodasso.livejournal.com/.