Running Out of Dog By Dennis Lehane from Best American Noir of the Century – review

best american noir of the centuryReviewed by Kevin Burton Smith

There are a lot of ghosts haunting this moody slice of Southern noir. To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee Harper, the works of Jim Thompson and Erkskine Caldwell and William Faulkner, even Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller and Vicki Lawrence’s kitschy 1972 AM pop warble, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” lurk in the shadows here, just out of sight, rattling their chains, filling in the gaps in Lehane’s sure, sparse prose.

It’s quite a stretch for a Boston boy whose fiction is more closely associated with hefty novels set amidst the cold grayness and hardscrabble “go fuck yourself” class-bound tribalism of his beloved Dorchester than the hot, sticky damp cloth of Southern lust and violence. It makes for one of Lehane’s finest – and still one his strongest – all-too-rare excursions into short fiction.

Not that the small Southern town of Eden, South Carolina doesn’t have its own share of tribalism and class warfare – the war in Vietnam a kind of litmus test that serves as a dividing line between true grit and cowardice, between have-not and have. Between those who went and those who didn’t.

Representing those who went is Vietnam vet Elgin Berg, a hard man trying to be a good man, working construction and more than ready to put the war behind him. But he’s soon drawn into a sticky, messy affair with Jewel, a childhood friend now married to Perkin Lut, a local big shot who definitely didn’t serve, hiding out behind a string of college deferments and his old man’s money. One gets the sense there’s more than just lust driving Elgin’s affair with Jewel.

To complicate matters, Elgin’s begun courting a comely divorcee, Shelley Briggs, who works as a receptionist at Perkin’s Auto Emporium.

“… one day Elgin had brought his Impala in for a tire rotation and they’d got to talking. (Shelley had) been divorced from Drew (Briggs) over a year, and they waited a couple of months to show respect, but after a while they began showing up at Double O’s and down at the IHOP together. “

Notice how Lehane sketches in all you need to know about a courtship in a few spare lines? Right away you know these people; you know this world. Now that’s writing. Tight, concise, pointed. A bleak tautness, if you will, that many of Lehane’s angsty, hand-wringing longer works might have benefited from.

But I digress…

The point is, Lehane quickly assembles all the basic ingredients for classic noir: a couple of overlapping triangles, illicit lust, a suggestion of corruption and a wash of class resentment, and stirs in plenty of room for unexpected complications, because, as Lehane points out, “a small town is a hard place to keep a secret.”

But then he tosses in the real loose cannon; the real blackness at the soul of this story: Blue, Elgin’s other childhood friend, a lost boy who never quite grew up, and certainly never grew up right. A sad little man, Blue had “never had a girlfriend he hadn’t rented by the half hour… too ugly and small and just plain weird to evoke anything in women but fear or pity.” Twisted and warped, semi-raised by an alcoholic mother and left too long and too often to his own devices, this strange, dirty child grows up a budding sociopath, finding joy in such simple boyhood pleasures as dousing captured cockroaches in gasoline and then setting them alight. His only friends are Elgin and Jewel, and so naturally, he carries a fierce loyalty for him and a whopping big torch for her, the only girl who’s ever showed him any sort of kindness.

The story kicks off when Eden’s good ol’ boy mayor, Big Bobby, sees a way to both beautify his city and put Blue’s particular talents to use. He hires Elgin and Blue to take care of Eden’s stray dog problem, offering to pay them a bounty on each mutt they kill. “On the QT,” of course.

Elgin begs off, but not Blue. For him, it’s a dream come true. Get paid to shoot dogs? Sign him up. And then Perkins and Jewel have a falling out, and Jewel seeks temporary refuge with Blue.

Anyone who thinks this is going to have a fairy tale happy ending is reading the wrong book. As the unidentified storyteller who opens and closes this story like some gloomy, dark-hearted Uncle Rebus observes, “when hope comes late to a man, it’s quite a dangerous thing.”

He sure ain’t whistling Dixie.

Suffice it to say that when the end comes, it’s violent and bloody, somehow both inevitable and shocking…

Like all the best noir, “Running Out of Dog” is spare and unsparing; a morality play gone awry, delivered through clenched teeth.

I know plenty of people love his novels, but for me, Lehane tears into the guts of something here with an economy, a savagery and a bleakness that he rarely approaches in his longer works of fiction, something disturbing yet vital.

More, please.

***

Kevin Burton Smith is an editor, author, critic, essayist and blogger whose work has appeared in Mystery Scene, Crimespree, Details, Blue Murder, The Mystery Readers Journal, Word Wrights, Over My Dead Body, Crime Time (Britain) and Crime Factory (Australia). He is a contributing editor for The Rap Sheet and January Magazine, and is a columnist, book reviewer and feature article writer for Mystery Scene.

Kevin is also the founder/editor of the award-winning Thrilling Detective Web Site

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