Thursday, May 28, 2009


Anthony Neil Smith's The Drummer is a fucking strange-ass crime novel, but it somehow never crosses into the "wacky" crime novel sub-genre. I mean, it's about eighties hair metal (the stupidest of all the metals) but The Drummer resists the urge go all Spinal Tap on your ass. It's got a classic crime plot (guy disappears only to be discovered years later by those he was trying to escape from) but for a lot of the book Smith is giving us flashbacks that are mainly meant just to develop our narrator and his relationships to the other characters. There are mysteries to be solved, and there's a bit of ticking clock shit going on and the big secret is revealed at the end and all that, but for the most part The Drummer feels more like an acutely observed character piece than a crime thriller. And our hero is involved in murders and beat downs (receiving and giving) and all that good pulpy stuff, but there's also this cool New-Orleans-right-before-the-flood portrait being painted steadily throughout the book.

In other words, The Drummer is a fucking crazy original noir in the Goodis-ian sense (the best of the senses).

The Drummer tells the story of Calvin Christopher, drummer for the band Savage Night (fellow nerds: note the Jim Thompson nod), a successful hair metal band in the late eighties (you know, when hair metal was dying fast). Seeing the end in sight and getting word that the band owes tons of money to the IRS and others, Cal decides it's better to burn out than to fade away. He torches his mansion - cool vintage cars still in the garage - and changes his name to Merle Johnson, hoping that people will figure he's dead even without a body for proof. He eventually ends up in New Orleans, makes a nice life for himself with a girlfriend named Beth and a gay best friend named Justin, just drinking away the nights in cool bars listening to good music on the stage.

Then the grade-A douchebag lead singer (is there any other kind?) of the band shows up after fifteen years. Todd Delacroix has never left Hollywood (though Hollywood wishes he'd leave) and figures resurrecting Calvin Christopher would be a hell of a way to give all of their careers a good shot in the arm. Merle/Calvin has no interest in coming out of hiding but tells Todd they'll work something out the next day, stalling for time to make another escape. Then when he does go to Todd's hotel, he finds the singer with a belly full of booze and a suicide note detailing Merle's whereabouts, saying the proof is in the car.

But somebody has fucking stolen the car...

So begins the big chase with cops, band members, and mysterious thugs all coming after Merle's ass while Merle has to either salvage his nice hidden life in New Orleans or decide to light out for the territories again. But like I said, it's not as nutso as you would think. The story kicks the most ass when it's just about Merle's fucked up relationships with women and how he's hurt his friends past and present with his evasion and lies. It should be said that of all the noir authors working today, few match Anthony Neil Smith for sheer emotional pain. And not in a sentimental "woe is me" bullshit sort of way, no fucking sir. Smith makes you hurt along with the characters in a sobering, stark way that never veers into sentimentality.

But don't let all my high-minded bullshit talk keep you from picking up The Drummer. Like any great noir, it's got the sex, drugs and violence to pull your through it, but has the smarts and emotional impact to make that shit stick in the mind after ward. The Drummer is unlike anything Smith has yet written, and sure as fuck different from anything else on the current shelf that we call modern noir fiction. You better believe The Nerd well fucking approves of that shit.

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