May 17, 2018
(++++) THE MOORE, THE MERRIER
Noir. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $27.99.
Secondhand Souls. By Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $15.99.
Christopher Moore writes picaresque novels that are really more like picaresque scenes strung together so they kind of fit but never fully cohere, and it does not really matter. Moore’s wonderfully pithy description of one character in his latest novel, Noir, actually fits the entire Moore oeuvre: this character, a foul-mouthed kid of a type much favored by the author for scene-setting and other nefarious purposes, is described as being “well stocked with enthusiasm and bad intentions.” That is Moore himself to a T.
One does not approach a Moore novel seeking coherence or carefully arranged plots dependent more on comic-but-realistic life flow than on comic-and-ridiculous coincidences. One approaches Moore in the knowledge that everything he does is a sendup of something or other, of a genre or a character type or of other people’s storytelling or of his own style. One example from Noir of the last of these has the narrator, a distinctly non-poetic protagonist named Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin, saying, “the fog off the bay was streaming between the buildings like a scarf through a stripper’s legs, leaving everything damp and smelling of sailors’ broken dreams.” That is a remarkably good parody of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett genre, a doggone good description of how the fog in San Francisco really does behave (and presumably did in 1947, when Noir takes place), and a passage so dramatically over-the-top that Moore must have known he was using it to go over the top of his own over-the-topness. Moore’s descriptive passages about San Francisco, like Richard Kadrey’s about Los Angeles in Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels, are not at all the point of the books but are a major reason they are so compulsively readable. It is hard to imagine anyone but Moore writing that, when it comes to driving in San Francisco, “it was like trying to find your way in a bruised martini full of lightning bugs.”
Sammy, the guy talking about the scarf and martini, is at the epicenter of a series of bizarrely Moore-ish characters and bizarrely Moore-ish events. Among the former are a blonde named Stilton, aka “the Cheese”; the already-referred-to kid, who is a semi-professional nuisance and misuser of just-learned vocabulary words; Eddie Moo Shoes of Chinatown notoriety; the smarmy General Remy, who is in charge of a dump of a military establishment out in New Mexico in a town that goes by the name of Roswell; a bunch of guys in black suits and ever-present sunglasses who belong “to an agency that was so new, and so secret, that it had failed its basic mission the day the second guy joined”; and the usual mixture of girlfriends, boyfriends, girlboyfriends, corrupt cops, maybe-Satan-worshiping bigwigs – you know, just your normal Moore cast of characters. It is almost a disappointment when, toward the back of the book, everything starts to make a weird kind of sense, including the previously confusing presence of two narrators (Sammy plus someone using the authorial third person and promising to explain later). Moore loves low comedy: the scene of Sammy trying literally to ice his ex-boss, “ex” because said boss unwisely pried open a crate containing a deadly snake that Sammy ordered for a Chinatown-related scheme, is a bit of hilarious slapstick that definitely fits the definition of “black humor” if that phrase is even allowed nowadays. Moore also loves formulaic heartstring-tugging, as when Sammy hears a street musician playing the blues, gets the blues himself, and gives the guy almost all his money. And Moore loves pushing a plot in so many directions that readers can barely keep up and it is obvious that things cannot possibly fit together – then fitting them together. Most of all, Moore loves writing, the sheer cadence of words (including more than a few four-letter ones), the unfolding of a story set in a world distinguished from the real one only by the occasional intrusion of supernatural elements – although, come to think of it, maybe it is the real world, only slightly unmoored (or Moored). Noir is part tribute to its genre, part spoof of it; part satire, part fond replication; part clever sendup, part trying-to-be-clever parody. What matters is that it is all Moore, which means it is compulsively readable – not because of cliffhangers (although it has plenty of them), not because of any desire to know what happens how to whom (although Sammy and Stilton are characters about whom readers can actually care), but because of the sheer power of Moore’s writing, the certainty that however weird and bizarre and peculiar a description or observation may be, there is going to be another one, equally weird and bizarre and peculiar, on the next page. And there almost always is.
The pattern is recognizably the same even though the story is completely different in Moore’s previous novel, Secondhand Souls, originally published in 2015 and now available in paperback. However, this is not a standalone book, although it makes some half-hearted efforts to be one. It is a sequel to A Dirty Job (2006), set a year later and bringing back just about all the characters who survived the earlier book and a few who didn’t. Be advised that trying to read Secondhand Souls on its own will indeed produce all the typical reactions to Moore, from groaning at groaners to puzzling at puzzles to laughing out loud at laugh-out-loud scenes, but the reactions will be far more muted than if you read A Dirty Job first. That is, it is one thing to know that a former nun has implanted the soul of “beta male” Charlie Asher in a 14-inch-high meat puppet with a crocodile head, duck feet and 10-inch penis, but it is another thing to know why she did this. The “why” is told, in excruciating and excruciatingly funny detail, in A Dirty Job. In Secondhand Souls, you just kind of have to accept it as background. Likewise, the role of Charlie’s now-seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, as the Luminatus, a kind of death-beyond-death figure, is central to Secondhand Souls but makes more sense (at least a little more) if you know the earlier book. Also likewise, the reason the disappearance of Sophie’s “goggies” (a couple of gigantic hellhounds that protect her) in Secondhand Souls is so important has to do with their appearance in A Dirty Job. And so on. In Secondhand Souls, Sophie fills the profane-mouthed-kid role, Archer is the somewhat feckless but basically good guy in Sammy “Two Toes” mode, Audrey the ex-nun is the Cheese, and the various hangers-on are the various hangers-on. But the characters are different enough so that the good-vs.-evil story of Secondhand Souls reads nothing like the what-the-heck-is-going-on story of Noir. In fact, what is at stake in Secondhand Souls is pretty much everything, as readers will realize when the harbinger-of-doom banshee and the three murderous raven-women show up in (where else?) San Francisco. Secondhand Souls, like Noir, has a stylistic oddity, in this case not in the narrators of the main narrative but in several of the stories-within-the-story in which unsettled ghosts tell the sad tales of their lives, resulting in deviations from rather than deepening of the book’s plot. The save-the-world-again idea of Secondhand Souls is, to be sure, secondhand, but the reason it works as well as it does is that it is secondhand Moore, which is well above firsthand almost-anybody-else. On its own, Secondhand Souls is less successful than Noir. But when paired, A Dirty Job and Secondhand Souls are, together, just as strange and delightful and out-and-out peculiar as all the books that Moore has been producing, with remarkable consistency, ever since Practical Demonkeeping (1992). Moore has never written anything that is not worth reading: his is a uniquely skewed worldview, wrapped in a style both playful and pointed, inside plots that are almost incidental to the hijinks and low humor with which his novels abound.