You read John Sacret Young's novel not for plot or even its considerable amount of raucous action, but for sheer style and tone; for the way it evokes the oblique melancholies of southern California; for the hard-edged, barroom lyricism and the bantered ironies of main characters Dennis Murphy and Rufus Blue.
"Here were Murphy and Blue, but . . . they couldn't make a successful move. They weren't tan, they had no bucks. So they drank . . ."
Murphy and Blue have been buddies for 25 years, since they met in a fight in a Navy bar in San Pedro, at the end of World War II. California was the land of opportunity, then, and they stayed on. They've gone through marriages, mortgages, fatherhood, a lot of jobs, a lot of unemployment lines. They used to do some stunt work for the movies. The novel opens with their quitting a construction job in favor of an afternoon at the nearest bar. Later on in this chronicle of their slide toward oblivion, together they get a job hauling garbage. They refuse to surrender the adolescent privileges of buddyhood, of good times forever. They spend a lot of time on bar stools, plotting to make millions.
" 'But to do it without bustin ass. To be rich tomorrow morning--without haste. Consider.' Dennis numbered with his right the fingers of his left hand, 'the hula hoop, feminine hy-GENE deodorant, Tupperware . . .' "
They talk this way. They know they talk this way. It's their style, as Young is careful to point out: "They had an adopted affected contagious way of talking."
As Young has a way of writing--an oxymoronic compression of the formal and the vernacular, of psychic distance long and short. For instance, Murphy and Blue get talking with a hustler in a bar called The Raincheck. Young describes him as follows:
"He talked quickly, loudly, leaned his face in as he did, like a co-conspirator; he knew that trick. He had one wily brow and plump folds beneath each eye, a maggot of flesh: a squeeze like recent stupor can leave, or dissolution's lineaments. He jittered limbs and expressions; his motor ran fast."
The hustler has a Mexican girlfriend whose "swift slurred Latin-Spanish was as quick a chatter as an electric typewriter."
After the inevitable fight with the hustler, the police haul Murphy out into the California afternoon: "Light skewered space: the sky was blinding and seemed to be falling. It was hard and hot and waxy, like looking into a new car hood. Faces in it turned to carrion, and others pickled behind tinted glass."
This is syntactical strutting, and it may irritate people in this gray age of Strunk & White, and the modesty that informs our most approved literature. Young dares to be gorgeous, and more often than not he succeeds.
But it isn't scenery and swooning, it's life as lived by a couple of bozos whose trajectory is nothing but down and out. Young wrote the script of the television movie of Philip Caputo's Vietnam memoir, "A Rumor of War." He caught the cadences of men in combat about as well as anyone has done it on film. He's just as much at home here with an American tragedy of two men who can't figure out how to grow up.
The world is turning on them. Murphy, in his forties, still acts like a sulky adolescent in front of his ex-wife, whose continuing love is turning to the kind of pity that's hard to distinguish from contempt.
Time is running out--Blue's son gets the stunt man job his father might have had a few years ago.
Macho sentimentality makes them the prey of girls who meet them in the Saloon or the Buccaneer or The Pastime and size them up as guys who are good for a good time only as long as the money lasts. Bunny Brown, a terrifying teen-ager who would seem to be the girl of Murphy's barroom dreams, lays it on the line, cold and hard: "This is what I want: I want sex and no questions, I want a man who's a good provider, I want to be left alone when I want to be left alone."
Everybody in this world is running on pure style, California dreaming, the hard-eyed baby faces of eternal springtime.
They know that they're doomed. Murphy, for instance, realizes that it's time "to dismiss the dreams and nonsense. He wasn't going to make anything of himself except to have fun while not working. But by the time his hangover was spent, revelation had joined it. Buffalo chips. He had become an Angeleno, his one success: He had learned to make himself up as he went along. It was his failure as well: He successfully made himself over into further failures."
As in that "buffalo chips" in the last paragraph, Young can be too clever by half. But he wants to evoke pure images, a sense of the Real, which means he has to take chances. Win or lose, he has good old Murphy and Blue to keep things elemental and vigorous. The combination of the exquisite and the coarse, if it's to your taste as it is to mine, produces a terrific, hell-of-a-book energy that stays with you well after you've read the last page.
Here's Young's account of Murphy and Blue racing garbage trucks side-by-side up a suburban street:
"Once there were cars on both sides: The loaders shinnied and the two trucks made contact, kissing in collision, and then blew through. Chrome tore and hooped, silver snakes wriggling in the air. Side bumpers franked the parked cars, leaving cancellation marks with metallic shrieks, a descant to the larger racket. Bones shook. Hard hats flew. The trucks blasted on undaunted."
So do Murphy and Blue, except that by novel's end, the money, luck, women and time are exhausted. The sunset is gone before these cowboys get a chance to ride off into it.