Jul 31 2012

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, with an afterword by Walter Mosley

Len Gutkin

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A young doctor drives through the California desert on his way to a family wedding in Arizona. He stops at a drive-in. A pack of teenagers taunts him. He's more anxious than the situation seems to justify. Back on the highway, he passes a young girl, a hitchhiker. At first he ignores her, but qualms of conscience prompt him to turn around and pick her up. She says her name is Iris Croom. He wants to drop her in Blythe, but she finagles a ride all the way to Phoenix. She asks him to perform an abortion. He angrily refuses, slams the door in her face, hopes to be rid of her for good. Who might have seen them together? Even back in Phoenix, surrounded by family, he can't shake the fear. Then the newspaper headline: The girl is dead, perhaps murdered. The police track him down and he tells them what he knows. Officer: "This Iris Croom a white girl?" A little more than fifty pages in, and the doctor's panickiness has at last been decoded. Dr. Hugh Densmore is black, the girl was white, and it's the early 1960s.

The Expendable Man, first published in 1963, was the great noir novelist Dorothy B. Hughes's last work of fiction. (Hughes remains best known for her terrifying 1947 serial-killer novel In a Lonely Place, which Nicholas Ray adapted for the screen in 1950 with Bogart in the lead.) The Expendable Man is not a whodunit. We know from the outset that Hugh is innocent of murder; what we don't know is whether the actual killer, with the complicity of a racist police force, will succeed in framing him. Hugh, now stuck in Phoenix and responsible for proving himself innocent, suspects some combination of Iris's boyfriend and a backroom abortionist, and we have no reason to doubt that his hunch is correct. His detective work is punctuated by threatening phone calls and a note sent up to his hotel room: "NIGGER GET OUT OF TOWN."

The novel works best when it dwells on the rational paranoia produced by a pathological racial order. Here is Hugh, concealing his trouble from his family while half-expecting the intrusion of the police: "His voice sounded normal. He hoped his demeanor didn't belie it. He must remember to be supranormal all day, not let an inflection or glance betray the inner nerves." Hugh's hyper-alertness recalls earlier psychological crime narratives like Crime and Punishment or "The Telltale Heart" or, indeed, Hughes's own In a Lonely Place, with the important difference here that our man is innocent. His anxiety stems not from guilt but from blackness. As Chester Himes had shown two decades earlier in If He Hollers Let Him Go, the hardboiled noir idiom was well-suited to evoke the pressures and risks of being black in pre-Civil Rights America. Hugh's upper-middle-class black identity is threatened by the specter of white violence, by the fear of a primordial American racism against which no level of status or attainment can insulate him: "It was surprising what old experience remembered could do to a presumably educated, civilized man."

The set-up is strong, but Hughes, disappointingly, plays it awfully safe in her depiction of what such murderous historical torsions might do to a "civilized man." Hugh is rather boring. We are never in doubt as to his steadfast decency, a decency that can verge on primness. Here, for instance, is his chivalrous handling of the beautiful Ellen, his ally and love interest: "He would not take advantage of whatever emotions propinquity and absorption in his troubles might have engendered in her." Well, gee. Whenever Hughes plays up her hero's moral righteousness her prose falls down.

Hughes's idyllic depiction of the Densmore family also largely fails. "It was all so homey and safe," we're told early on, and the contrast between this domestic security and the threatening world outside structures the novel. But this familial happiness is preciously overstated. Hugh, faced with a big breakfast: "Grams! I'll be too fat too waddle." Hugh, responding to his mother's attempt at matchmaking between him and Ellen: "She's gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous, as you darn well know." You'd never guess from this stuff that Hughes could be a master of dramatic dialogue. She draws the extended Densmore clan without any shadows, or even any suggestion of mild discord. In her laudable desire to depict black innocence under the violence of systemic racism, she ends up with something too close to an animated Norman Rockwell painting.

Luckily, we don't stay in the Densmore home for long. The cops take Hugh in for questioning, and Hughes is back in her menacing element. Her scenes of police interrogation are masterful little dramas of containment and rising panic, and their nervous energy spills over into the rest of the novel. Here she is at her best, providing a description of Hugh's nocturnal sleuthing:

The only indication of life was at the far end of the block where there was a night club of sorts with a painted sign on its roof, lettered black on red: THE CAN-CAN. The building was an ugly frame shack of a depressing dark red color. The windows were painted black. Here and again on them were vivid scratches, as if the inmates had, in a sudden attack of claustrophobia, clawed a glimpse of a cleaner world outside.

As Hugh and Ellen set out to find Iris's killer, the threat of disappearance stalks Hugh. He could end up in jail or murdered, the fact of his race denying him any margin of protection. Lest the novel's allusive title be lost on anyone, Ellen spells it out: "In our country, more often than not, we are what Ellison so well describes as invisible." The Expendable Man dramatizes the relation between existential invisibility and actual expendability. It was Hughes's virtue to discern, far more clearly than Harper Lee (that other white woman with a '60s novel about a black man's innocence and an unjust society's guilt), the systemic quality of American racism. Hughes's virtue, but also a virtue of her genre. In the noir novel, after all, corruption and abuse are not individual moral failings. They are etched in society's bones.

Len Gutkin is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at Yale. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review of Books, jacket2, MAKE, The Brooklyn Rail, and Rain Taxi.

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