The Expendable Man
(NYRB Classics, 2012)
Raymond Chandler wrote in his introduction to Trouble Is My Business that, “to exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every magazine writer who is not a hopeless hack.”
The latter part of this quote bears relation to how we have come to view genre fiction: as a form that rarely rises high above the structure that supports it. Though, for true followers, the hunt presses on for those rare jewels, writers who have preserved the form while creating art that transcends it. One such example is Dorothy B. Hughes’s elegant novel, The Expendable Man, first published in 1963 and now thankfully returning to print from the New York Review of Books.
The novel opens on a lonely road through the Arizona desert, with a driver traveling from Los Angeles to Phoenix, wary eyes fixed to his mirrors. Hughes’s initial surprise is not the loud pop of a gunshot, but the bare beauty of her prose. These opening sentences sketch the shadows of American noir, placing us in a bleak and barren landscape that bears only menace.
Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the color of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing.
The driver is Hugh Denismore, a medical student at UCLA. It is unclear why he’s anxious; we wonder if he’s chosen this abandoned path as some sort of escape route, if a body lies in the trunk or a suitcase weighted with bills sits under the dash. But then a young girl appears on the side of the road, and despite his growing concern and better judgment, Denismore pulls over to offer her a ride.
He takes her to Phoenix, where he loses her at a bus stop. But as the reader has begun to suspect, this isn’t the last of her. She reappears at his hotel room that night, requesting he perform an abortion. He refuses, turning her away for good, and the next day the papers reveal she is dead. Denismore soon realizes that all signs of murder point to him.
What separates our interest in Denismore from the likes of Sam Spade is the way Hughes positions her magnifying glass. The mystery of Denismore’s fear seems to have higher stakes than the young woman’s killer. True, there is intrigue in the story of a man wrongfully accused, but the intelligence lies in the way Hughes delivers his unease, communicating a restlessness that slowly builds emotional suspense.
We stew over why a 15-year-old girl would unnerve him, why she would pose such risk. Then chapter two answers: Denismore is black, his truant white, and the year is 1963.
Hughes was white, yet she takes on racial conflict with an ease that is never afforded to her characters. In the chase to clear his name, Denismore struggles against this “different world,” a landscape populated with racist cops, crooked abortionists, and violent townsmen. Hughes structures the political framework carefully, never mentioning events occurring outside the novel in the ’60s, but clouding the pages with the dust and dread of their aftermath. Birmingham sits under every sentence; the march on Washington hovers above them. The title itself is a nod toward Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but the difference with Denismore is that he must confront a fading mirage of safety and societal protection. Unlike that of Ellison’s narrator, Denismore’s family is well-educated and upper class, doctors and lawyers who lunch at the club and enjoy playing golf. Yet a trip to a motel swimming pool may be perilous.
But even when the trail feels coldest, Denismore wants to believe in a better world. In the end, we still see traces of the man we met in the beginning, upon first entering the desert. Despite the oncoming danger, we remember how the colors adjust and the scene brightens through him, if only for a moment:
This was as the desert should be ... the land unrolled to the farthest distant horizon hills, with saguaro standing sentinel in their strange chessboard pattern, towering supinely above the fans of ocotillo and the brushy mesquite. Because there had been some winter rain, the desert was in bloom. The saguaro wore creamy crowns on their tall heads, the ocotillo spikes were tipped with vermillion, and the brush bloomed yellow as forsythia.
This is the kind of character we wish to inhabit, one with whom the prose rises up and sings, signaling hope, even though the distance between expectation and reality widens with every step. What’s beautiful about Hughes’s narrative is that, in the end, there’s nothing formulaic at all. We are happy to be picked up by Denismore ourselves, slung along for the long, lonely ride.