Reviewed by Michael Lipkin
When James Ellroy and Otto Penzler offer a book called The Best American Noir of the Century, noir fans, scholars, students should simply go out and buy it—or borrow it, steal it, take it out of the library—whatever.
Don’t worry about reviews, flaws, omissions, disagreements over definitions of noir. You HAVE TO have this book. Reading it is like taking a college course in noir fiction taught by the true experts.
The second-to-last of the thirty-nine chronologically arranged stories in this monumental book is Bradford Morrow’s “The Hoarder.”
“I have always been a hoarder,” begins this tale of a nameless young boy—intelligent, introverted, sensitive. Yet the boy doesn’t seem like an obsessive hoarder at all—just a collector.
In an almost idyllic description, the narrator tells of his younger days living along the Outer Banks and “filling my windbreaker pockets with seashells of every shape and form” and then of arranging them on his bed by color or form.
Not a very noir beginning. Or is there dark foreshadowing in a reference to this “mosaic of dead calcium”? Or that his favorite piece was the complete skeleton of a horseshoe crab?
The boy’s next “obsessions,” as he then calls them, are “Kentucky birds’ nests” and, after that, “bright Missouri butterflies.” Dead butterflies, of course.
The shifting geography of the collections helps introduce the family and its plight, making the tale a little less idyllic. The father is an “itinerant” worker—not a migrant laborer, but a luckless loser who, for unknown and always suspicious reasons, uproots the family every year.
Their mother has deserted them, and the father, despite his hapless life, does keep the family together—the boy, younger sister Molly, and the oafish bully of an older brother, Tom.
After just a couple of pages, the narrative moves to the main setting, which the boy describes as, “a nondescript oceanside town in California.”
But one part of this new setting—the part where the boy winds up—is not at all nondescript. It’s an old miniature golf course called Bayside Park, where he gets a job by lying about his age. It’s the most striking—and most noirish—locale in the story.
“The first time I laid eyes on the place was early evening. Fog—which seasonally rolled in at dusk . . . was drifting ashore like willowy, ghostly scarves.
“What lay before me, smaller than the so-called real world but larger than life, was a village of whirling windmills and miniature cathedrals with spires, of stucco gargoyles and painted grottoes. A white brick castle with turrets ascended the low sky, its paint peeling in the watery weather. . . . And everywhere I looked, green synthetic alleys. All interconnected and, if a bit seedy, very alluring.”
This change in setting and new job correspond to dramatic changes in the boy—now well into adolescence. He no longer hoards objects, but essences more abstract:
“ . . . fragrances, gestures, voices, the various flavors of nascent sexuality, the potential for beautiful violence that hovers behind those qualities . . .”
The boy begins “collecting” these essences by hiding in a windmill on one of the miniature golf holes at Bayside and spying on couples (especially young women) out on dates. An “outsider” with limited social skills, he watches from his hiding place, as couples play miniature golf, flirt, laugh.
“The physical urgency I felt, spying on these lovers, I sated freely behind the thin walls of my hiding place.”
Soon, his main focus becomes a sweet and innocent young woman named Penny. But to tell more would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that the voyeurism goes beyond the golf course; a camera becomes part of the story; a grave crime occurs quite unexpectedly; an investigation follows; and the story comes to an uncomfortable, ambiguous conclusion—but one that is rich and substantial.
Morrow, an award-winning author and a professor of literature, creates his characters and setting flawlessly. He brings the reader to dramatic, heart-pounding moments effortlessly and with an artist’s touch.
“The inevitable happened on an otherwise dull, gray day. Late afternoon, just after sunset. The sky was like unpolished pewter, and late summer fog settled along the coast.”
The reader knows that something major is brewing, yet is lulled by the peaceful sky and fog before being jarred, hit hard, by a dramatic jolt.
With that same skill, Morrow transports readers to the strange, decaying miniature golf course and into the troubled mind and ill-fated life of this isolated, damaged young man.
An excellent story. Does it belong in The Best American Noir of the Century? That’s certainly a question for debate.
In the Foreword to Best American Noir, Penzler gives his own definition of noir. Noir, he says, is not an offshoot of the hard-boiled detective story. The typical detective “retains his sense of honor.” Noir tells of characters who are flawed and morally questionable.
“The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic with characters whose greed lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitable go awry.”
Ellroy, in his Introduction, defines noir similarly, but in his own colorful, jarring prose. Noir, he says, unveils “a Secret Pervert Republic . . . just pathetic enough to be recognizably human.” (It can’t go without mention that Ellroy himself was an admitted peeper and sort of “essence” collector in his younger days, which could have—just conjecture— influenced the choice of this nevertheless excellent piece.)
Penzler and Ellroy are gurus of noir. And “The Hoarder” certainly fits their definition. Yet many intelligent, well-read fans don’t hold this definition.
One online “Neo-Noir” discussion, for example, has readers who are addicted to dark, noirish stories of detectives with at least a shred of decency and morality—like Bruen’s Jack Taylor, Block’s Matt Scudder, or Millar’s Karl Kane. To them, these stories are a major part of noir.
Which is all to say that the typical noir fan may find “The Hoarder” an unexpected read in this collection. There are no tough guys, rain-slicked urban mazes, cops on the take, seedy bars, whores, or deserted docks.
But unexpected is not necessarily bad. It’s part of the lesson in noir that this huge gift of a book offers. It’s something to think about, to argue about over a tumbler of bourbon.
Noir fans as well as short story fans in general should definitely take a shot at this dark, perverse, unusual tale.
Michael Lipkin runs the Noir Journal site