Christopher Moore, the author of 15 wacky novels, explains in an afterword that he had planned for his latest book Noir to be about a “poor working mug” who got entangled with a “dangerous dame” in a dark and desperate story that involving a lot of fog, gunplay and danger.
“What I ended up with is essentially ‘Perky Noir,’ a lot closer to Damon Runyon meets Bugs Bunny than Raymond Chandler meets Jim Thompson…But what was I going to do? ‘Noir’ was already typed at the top of every page.”
The central character of a Christopher Moore novel is always a beta male, i.e., a nice guy who’s more than a little aimless, distracted and confused. In Noir, that’s Sammy Tiffin, a bartender in 1947 San Francisco who has a damaged foot and a past that he fears will catch up with him.
Often, Moore’s guys are rather randy fellows, such as Pocket, King Lear’s jester in Fool, his 2009 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Moore is nothing if not gutsy when grabbing and remaking the works of great writers from the past. Indeed, he even retells — hilariously and, in an odd way, reverently — the story of Jesus in his book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (2002).
Sammy’s not quite as randy as Pocket or Biff, but, like other Moore heroes, he falls in love in the first few pages. In Fool, Pocket’s true love is Lear’s nice daughter Cordelia (although he has some bawdy moments with the two bad ones). In Lamb, Biff is enamored of Mary Magdalene who carries a torch for Joshua, the guy we know as Jesus.
Nice girls all, and so is Sammy’s love, a war widow whose first name is Stilton, like, she explains, the English cheese. From then on, he calls her Cheese or the Cheese — and, in the test of true love, she’s enjoys it.
“Flunked out of sad clown school”
While Noir isn’t Chandler or Thompson, Moore has produced a book that’s moodier than his usually snappy fare. For his cast of characters, occupying the lower levels and the margins of society, post-war America is a place of job shortages, housing shortages and “broken veterans” as well as racial prejudice and sexual exploitation. One minor character, for instance, is Phil, a diner fry cook who is “a rangy, scruffy mug who looked like he’d flunked out of sad clown school.”
The day after Sammy and Stilton have a fight, Sammy feels bad, and he knows she’s hurting too because she’s “a good kid, maybe a little daffy, sad daffy…but sweet daffy.”
Sammy is “sad daffy,” too, and their love is sad and daffy. After a night of strenuous lovemaking, they sit outside under a blanket watching the sun rise over San Francisco Bay.
“…and, sore and exhausted, they began to laugh, and they laughed until they collapsed into each other’s arms, each holding so tight they lost their breath, holding back sobs of joy, for they had found it: safe harbor.”
Lest any of Moore’s regular readers think he’s gone sappy, it’s worth noting that he’s as silly as ever. Consider the novel’s opening sentence about Stilton’s arrival in Sammy’s bar:
“She had the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes — a size-eight dame in a size-six dress and every mug in the joint was rooting for the two sizes to make a break for it…”
And then there’s his description of a fog which “lay spread across the city like a drowned whore — damp, cold, smelling of salt and diesel — a sea-sodden streetwalker who’s just bonked a tugboat.”
Petey and moonman
The hallmark of most Christopher Moore novels, in addition to the snappy dialogue and descriptions, is the involvement in everyday life of some otherworldly entities, such as vampires, demons, an Indian god, dragons, Death Merchants, ancient gods, lust lizards and “the stupidest angel.”
In Noir, the otherworldly element is a diminutive space alien, called moonman by Sammy and the Cheese. Oh, and a talking snake named Petey who bites a character who deserves it. Yet, as Petey: who does a bit of narrating in the novel, explains:
“Humans are a waste of venom. You can’t even eat them….I’ve tried. You get one hand down, maybe up to the elbow, then you have to barf them up and go find a rodent or bird or something decent to eat. Just for the record, I am not the villain here.”
“Like bowling for him?”
The villains are teams of identically dressed super secretive government agents, who pose as tax men while kidnapping and killing people. Two agents get their comeuppance when moonman puts together a ray gun out of spare parts and vaporizes them.
In the aftermath, the alien makes a lot of clicking sounds which neither Sammy nor Stilton is able to decipher.
“Maybe,” Sammy theorizes, “where he’s from they just go out vaporizing stuff for fun and this was like bowling for him.”
Noir is a sad and daffy and wacky, and surprisingly heartfelt, novel.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review initially appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 4.16.18.