Thursday, February 21, 2019

14. The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes

Wow, this book kind of blew me away.  I suspected it would be well written and interesting, because I had already read and enjoyed Hughes' Ride the Pink Horse and it certainly started off on competent familiar ground.  A medical intern, Hugh Densmore, is driving from LA to his family's home in Phoenix for the wedding of his niece.  He himself is tight on money (using the family car) but his family is well to do and he was clearly raised educated and with class.  However, there is an edge to everything, a kind of nervousness that I didn't fully consciously register.  I thought it was bourgeois anxiety and then confimed that it was when he stops to pick up a girl hitching a few miles outside of town.  He knows it's a mistake and almost doesn't stop but a sense of responsibility (she's in the middle of nowhere and it is the desert) causes him to pull over at the last minute.  She's super young and lies about visiting an aunt in Phoenix and he vows to get rid of her at the bus station of the next town.

His nervousness made more sense to me and I thought I was in a very similar story to Nicholas Monsarrat's Something to Hide (which has almost the exact same setup; just in England).  I was actually a little disappointed, as I thought I knew where we were going, another exploration of bourgeois white male guilt as he can't shake this teen girl who spells doom to his reputation and class standing.  I was quite wrong about that as things get really interesting both in the story and in the perception of the reader.  I will leave it at that here and say that it is a well-crafted and well-written novel with a rich and convincing portrayal of Phoenix in the 60s as well as an important (hate to use that word) and very relevant reveal of the nastiness at the heart of America.  It's crazy to me that this book doesn't show up more in college curricula or referenced where other important books about 20th century America get mentioned.  I guess it did get chosen as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series, which is the version I read, so that is something.


Though honestly this book is way better when you have no idea going in.  I am glad I didn't even read any of the blurbs at the back, which had enough of a hint that I would have been looking.

Densmore is African-American.  This is very, very subtly implied once he makes it to Phoenix but becomes explicit when the girl turns up dead, quite likely after having had an illegal abortion.  He is also from an upper class black family, with his father being a succesful doctor, his daughters all sent to good universities.  His race becomes more and more of a factor in the story until by the end, it is (realistically) the biggest issue.  It never feels like a polemic, but it reminds you how powerful and deep racism is in American culture.  It is also fascinating as well to see it portrayed from the perspective of an upper class African-American man, though equally fascinating to parse how accurate/acceptable that is from a white author.  There is lots to unpack here and after finishing this blog I am going to see if I can hunt down any smarter than me people who might have interesting things to say.  Walter Mosely writes an afterword which is okay but doesn't go into it very deeply, beyond sharing his father's own experience of moving to LA in this time. 


Budwhite said...

You see, I think this has been the only book that I had to stop reading in the middle. I am not a super fans of Mrs Hughes but although I enjoyed The fallen sparrow and Ride the pink horse.. i had to put this one down. Perhaps in a future. Anyway, hanks four your great blog and your reviews. Greetings.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Thanks for the comment, Budwhite. It may be that it is not for you. I found the second half to pick up a bit more in terms of noir investigating, but it never really takes off. It's more of an exploration than a crime adventure.