I originally reviewed Lights Out by Jason Starr on November 16th, 2006.
At some point in time the word noir, when used to describe a certain type of fiction, became synonymous or even interchangeable with the words crime and hard-boiled. Three separate groups of fiction that despite having some shared traits all had distinct qualities that stood them apart. When looking back on the early noir novels it’s readily apparent that they aren’t crime novels even if a crime is present. Classic novels like They Shoot Horses Don’t They and A Streetcar Named Desire are described as American Noir and serve more as an examination of the sometimes downtrodden parts of the human existence. The Library of America published two omnibus editions a couple of year’s back that served to highlight the so called American Noir novels. They brought some attention to some deserving books and writers and are a real educational eye-opener of what the potentials of fiction are, and the heights that it can rise to. Jason Starr’s latest novel, and his first hardcover release, Lights Out consistently reminded me of those classic noir novels from the 30’s, 40’s & 50’s.
Lights Out is a deep character study of the three main characters. They are not only given a third dimension by Starr but he breathes so much life into them that you expect them to step right off of the page. As the many facets of their personalities are presented to us it makes it increasingly difficult to predict how any of them are going to act as the various decisions are presented to them. Though they are all in fact perfectly realized characters they all seem to lack a certain spark of humanity, a piece of their soul that is even just a little likeable, to make us truly care about what happens to them.
From the beginning there is a sense of impending doom and dread that permeates every page and drapes all of the characters in a shroud. It’s slow building in nature with very little respite. It’s this build up of tension that will find its eventual release in unpredictable climatic moments. Not one to present a neatly wrapped bundle of story threads Starr instead leaves us holding on to at least part of that tension with an ironic ending that does little to put us at ease. Though it didn’t happen I became convinced early on that a certain character was going to die.
Perhaps the most successful aspect of Lights Out exists in the character of Jake Thomas. He epitomizes all that is hated about the modern professional athlete. As all of his personality is revealed he starts out despicable and quickly becomes loathed. The surgical precision with which Starr dissects and exposes the cult of personality is frightening. It makes one question even the most benign of athletes and call in to question the entire system that creates such monsters.