From: Brian Thornton ( tieresias@worldnet.att.net)
Date: 06 Apr 2007

So I finally finished Megan Abbott's second novel: THE SONG IS YOU, and after taking a couple of days to digest it, I wanted to share some comments with my fellow Rare Birds. Based on a real-life Hollywood mystery (the 1949 disappearance of a lovely movie extra and L.A. party girl named Jean Spangler), this book sizzles, man.

SPOILER ALERT!!! Scroll down for more..

OK that ought to do it:

I recall many of you mentioning that you are fans of James Ellroy's work (or at least of some of it). A quick trip through the group's archives will alert the reader that I am not. My reasons are simple: he delights in rolling around in the gutter, trying to shock his readers as part of some vainglorious attempt to have the exterior of his characters mirror the internal existential crises through which he (as the author) is putting them. He never succeeds, although I felt that he came close with THE BLACK DAHLIA.

With Gil Hopkins in THE SONG IS YOU, Megan Abbott succeed where Ellroy fails. Her descriptions, stacatto naration, punchy dialogue, even the rat-a-tat-tat of emotions playing through him, how he surprises himself with his thoughts and his actions, it all rings true.

Speaking of Hop, Abbott did a great job of pulling off a cross-gender POV narration. He was a believable character, and his slide into that near-gibbering, giddy, drunken, sleep-deprived, guilt-ridden state was as artfully executed as any central character transition I've seen in fiction of any stripe.

It's not just Hop, though. His soon-to-be-ex-wife Midge is fully and artfully drawn (I think I dated her, or maybe one of her spiritual descendants, while I was in college), and so is girl reporter Frannie Adair. There was a high yella 13 year-old in the brothel that Hop visits who was a terrific character as well.

And so was the Godot-like Jean Spangler. Her exchange with Hop in the apartment where she shows him her "whore scars" is played pitch-perfect. Oh, and I *loved* how Abbott not only tied up the loose end where she and Midge knew each other before, the red herring that maybe Midge was involved in the blackmail, but also how she explained the actual note that the police found when her purse was recovered in Griffith Park a few days after she disappeared, and how it turned out that Hop had not in fact covered up a murder, just a really nasty rape/beating/cutting. Again, it was pitch perfect.

For that matter, so was the denouement. I've always believed that great literature gives us characters who undergo experiences that change them forever. I've also always believed that once our characters are formed as adults, our baseline behavior doesn't vary much. The tension between these twin truisms is inherent in Abbott's ending. I *loved* not just what she said, but the silences between her passages, her ability to leave unsaid all of the changing (and all of the staying the same) that Hop does throughout your book.

99 out of every 100 writers who would have essayed writing this basic plotline would likely have thought of it as plucky girl reporter Frannie Adair's story, and I'm sure that several of them would have written credible stories based on the basic framework of this plot. BUT to tell it from the POV of one of the people she's trying to get something out of, who knows something (he thinks) and is wracked with guilt about it, guilt so subtly played up over a period of a few hundred pages that it seems unremarkable that he would become (in a sense) an amateur sleuth on the same trail? And talk about ratcheting up the tension! He's trying to get to the bottom of something he thought he sort of knew something about a couple of years back, trying to cover his own tracks, all while keeping Frannie from following the same trail he's following? PHEW!

It takes an adroit writer, and a deft hand on the wheel to accomplish this.

Don't kid yourself, this *is* great literature. Not great genre fiction or great crime writing. It's road-tested, self-assured, well-plotted and tautly written, crackling with as much energy as the POV character on three days of no sleep and lots of booze. You can have MacCarthy's THE ROAD. Megan Abbott is the real deal.

If you've paid attention to the stuff that I post here on Rara Avis at all, you've no doubt noted that I am not given to lavish praise. There is a lot of crime fiction out there now, and hb/noir is hothothot. The sad thing for me is that most of it (both old and new school) is not worthy of much mention beyond a cursory "I enjoyed it." Much of it is deeply flawed, with whole plot turns that call on the reader to suspend their belief beyond the point of credulity.

Abbott's book isn't perfect (but then again, what is?), but it's a great read that moves like gang-busters toward and ultimately ironic noir finish. Coming from picky ol' me, that's saying something.

Your Mileage May Vary-


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