My essay “Ten Essential Neo-Noir Authors” is up at Flavorwire in case you missed it. What exactly is “neo-noir” and who are the voices you absolutely have to know? Click on through and read up. Maybe you’ll recognize the names and maybe you won’t, but these are some of the most powerful authors writing and publishing today, and some of my favorite voices as well. They’ll all been major influences on my own writing, and I encourage you to pick up their work ASAP.
This was something I did for my MFA at Murray State. My professor, Lynn Pruitt, really liked it, and in fact, I’m bringing down a copy of KMJ for her, she was so intrigued. I don’t know if any of you die-hard WCB fans will get anything MORE out of this, you’ve probably all come to similar conclusions, BUT…maybe it will be an interesting read anyway, and something to do until we get Godspeed. I hope you all enjoy it, and let me know your thoughts.
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“Use of Unreliable Narrator in the Phineas
Poe Trilogy by Will Christopher Baer”
by Richard Thomas
Perhaps one of the strongest voices currently out there in the world of neo-noir, Will Christopher Baer weaves a disorienting, compelling, and layered story through the three books in his Phineas Poe trilogy: Kiss Me, Judas, Penny Dreadful, and Hell’s Half Acre. Poe is an unreliable narrator from the moment we start Kiss Me, Judas. Baer uses many different devices, themes, and techniques to show us the shadow worlds that Poe inhabits, but the main executions involve Poe’s love/hate relationship with Jude, his questionable sanity based on events in his past, the extensive use of drugs and alcohol, the game of tongues in Penny Dreadful, and the use of a script and snuff film in Hell’s Half Acre.
The novel opens with a rich depiction of a blurry scene, a vision, uncertain but vivid nonetheless. We will later realize exactly what has happened here, which only adds to the altered perception and richness:
I must be dead for there is nothing but blue snow and the furious silence of a gunshot. Two birds crash blindly against the glass surface of a lake. I’m cold, religiously cold. The birds burst from the water, their wings like silver. One has a fish twisting in its grip. The other dives in again and now I hold my breath. Now the snow has stopped and the sky is endless and white and I’m so cold I must have left my body.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.1
At this point in the story we don’t know anything. But later, we will realize that we have just witnessed the extraction of one of Poe’s kidneys, by the organ thief, Jude, his soon to be nemesis and lover. The silver birds are the tools she uses to slice him open and extract the kidney, and the cold is a bathtub of ice that he is sitting in, close to death.
Quickly we see how he wavers back and forth between his love and lust for Jude and his hatred for her, his fear of her, this assassin in a lace bra and black boots. Witness this conversation between Rose White and Phineas shortly after he has realized what has happened, and has vowed to track Jude down:
I’m weak. I need to be strong when I see Jude.
Let me help you.
No. I need to do this alone.
What are you going to do?
I’m going to take her to a hotel room.
I don’t want to know. I really don’t.
I’m going to drug her and fuck her senseless.
Phineas. That’s enough.
Then I’m going to kill her.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.40-41
We are introduced early to the questionable morality of Poe, and see how he is both attracted to Jude, and at the same time, focused on erasing her.
One of the most succinct and extensive examples of this complicated relationship comes late in the trilogy, in a section about halfway through Hell’s Half Acre, the third book, where Poe contemplates his feelings for Jude, and the validity of pursuing her:
I used to watch her sometimes, when she was painting her toenails or brushing her teeth or yawning on the floor in her underwear, flicking through a glossy woman’s magazine. I loved her. I didn’t love her. Once, I watched her take the television apart in the middle of the night because she was bored. I watched her reduce the television to a scrap heap of apparently ruined fuses and wires. Then I watched her put the television back together and was not surprised when the reception was improved. I thought I loved her, then. I watched her smash the same television to bits two days later because she didn’t like some snotty actress and in that moment, I thought I loved her. But there was fear between us, truly. There is always fear but when two artists, two liars, or two killers occupy the same house and sleep in the same bed, rage runs rampant and becomes entangled with mistrust and doubt and alcoholic despair. The love between them isn’t safe in the bones, the marrow.
Jude doesn’t belong to me and never did. I don’t belong to her because our love is unsafe in the marrow.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.186
That says it all. This vivid reflection shows us the reader the constant dilemma that Poe is in, and how deeply he is effected by Jude, how much she effects him. We know what lengths he has gone to in the past to protect her. He questions everything about their relationship, and yet, seems unable to get free.
The second example of utilizing this unreliable voice has to do with Poe’s sanity. From the second page of the first novel, Kiss Me, Judas, we are shown that he has a sordid past, and is unstable in many ways. Here we find Poe and Jude in a hotel bar, before she steals his organ, as Poe tries to adjust to his new life:
Are you a tourist? she says
I’m not even sure what city this is.
I’m a salesman.
That’s funny. You look like a cop.
I’ve just been released from a mental hospital.
Perfect, she says.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.2
In fact, Poe IS an ex-cop, and he has been recently released from a mental hospital after the questionable death of his wife, Lucy. There has been talk that she killed herself, and talk that Poe did it. Out of anger, or vengeance, or simply to end her misery, end the cancer, or finish the unsuccessful suicide attempt, we never really know.
His wife was dying of cancer, but there was drama towards the end, there was hope for a child, there were young boys involved, and her death in a row boat was questionable, all of which would later contribute to Poe’s mental instability:
We tried different positions that might improve the sperm’s ascent. I fucked her underwater and upside down. We used leather and dogs and vegetables and ice and cellophane and handcuffs to make it interesting. I fucked her fully clothed in the rain. Her face was ever a grim mask. She couldn’t enjoy it, she said. She had to concentrate. I fucked her until I had nothing left, until my penis shrank at the thought of her. None of it mattered because I was sterile and when the doctors told us so, her face became a death mask.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.38-9
I told her I didn’t care about the boys. Lucy borrowed youth and time and strength from them, things she couldn’t get from me. I told her I had problems of my own and I wanted her to be happy. I told her she wasn’t dead; the doctors were wrong and she had years to live. I told her I loved her and I didn’t smile, because I wanted her to believe me.
The boy in the bedroom had asthma and later I would sit in the dark and listen to his terrible wheezing on my headphones.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.71
The guilt for not being able to give her child, a lasting image of herself, after she died, it would weigh heavily on him. The boys, as much as he tried to convince himself it was okay, upset him deeply.
Throughout the trilogy, Poe uses a wide variety of drugs, sometimes of his own free will, but other times, he is not told the truth or the full details about what is in a drink or syringe. While not an exhaustive list, he did at various time ingest beer, vodka, gin, whisky, tequila, champagne, absinthe, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, morphine, and ecstasy. Poe readily admits he has issues with drugs and control. Often he has a festive attitude, simply looking to use drugs in a social environment, like the drinking of the Pale, in Penny Dreadful, an important component in the game of tongues. Other times, for example, when he takes a shot to alleviate the pain after having his kidney cut out, it is to help him cope, to numb the pain, and function:
[With Crumb, an ally, pornography shop owner, as well as amateur doctor.]
What kind of shot was that? I speak slowly. The words pass my lips dense and textured as meat.
A mild speedball. Morphine for the pain. A touch of methamphetamine to give you energy
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.27
[On a bus with Eve/Goo.]
I bounce around in my seat, manic and juiced. My skin doesn’t feel right. It feels rubbery and stretched, as if two people are sharing it. Soon it will come apart. I’m stupidly high, of course. Jude could have slipped me something. Or Pooh might have lied. Perhaps those little blue pills were not muscle relaxers at all…
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.58
[Trying the Pale with Griffin/Major Tom.]
I sipped at the Pale and it shivered down my throat like mercury, cold and thickly sweet.
What is this? I said.
Wormwood and licorice, said Griffin. With a drop of cyanide. Don’t ask.
Absinthe? I said. You are full of shit.
Oh, I stink of it.
— Penny Dreadful, p.72
[Later, with Griffin/Major Tom]
You want to tell me what’s in that Pale beverage, now?
Griffin shrugged. It’s mostly herbs, vitamins: ginseng and ginkgo, various algaes and concentrated wheat grass. And the wormwood, of course. It’s really pretty fucking good for you.
It’s a fucking smart drink? That’s what you’re saying?
I said mostly herbs. There’s also a mild dose of Ecstasy and a touch of synthetic heroin.
— Penny Dreadful, p.126-7
Whatever his reason for choosing to partake in the various pharmaceuticals, the outcome is a distorted reality, and a vision of surroundings and events that we the reader can’t take at face value. It also allows us some of the most vivid, surreal, and revealing passages in the trilogy.
The game of tongues is a dominant aspect of Penny Dreadful. This real world role playing game has a caste system filled with Freds, Tremblers, Mariners, Exquisitors, Redeemers, Breathers and the Gloves, the masters of the game. For some of the characters, we only start out knowing their real name – Poe, Detective Moon, Griffin. For others, we only know their name while gaming, such as Mingus, Chrome, and Theseus the Glove. For a select few, to further distort our perception, we know both, as with Eve/Goo. In time, Poe becomes Ray Fine, Griffin is Major Tom , Detective Moon is revealed to be the elusive and destructive Jimmy Sky, and Detective Lot McDaniel, Moon’s partner in the real world, is the master of the game of tongues, Theseus the Glove. These plot twists help to add a depth to the novel, and a blurring between reality and what is seen when in the game:
[Jimmy Sky, the alter ego of Detective Moon is thinking to himself, talking about his life.]
Then he got sucked into this game, this game of tongues. Which was interesting for awhile. A nice, harmless fantasy ripe with vampires and magic spells, with medieval weirdness and good drugs and a fair amount of nudity. The drugs were a concern, though. Moon had got himself hooked on this sweet narcotic potion called the Pale. Or Jimmy did, as Jimmy Sky was his name within the game. Jimmy was a rare self-aware Fred, who was angling to hook himself up as Redeemer.
— Penny Dreadful, p.118
We are constantly unsure of what is real, and what is part of the game. And when Chrome crosses the line and actually starts taking tongues, and killing cops, not pretending with blood packs and illusion, the story takes a dark turn.
The final aspect of deception comes in the form of a snuff film, kidnapping, and script that fills the second half of Hell’s Half Acre, the third book in the trilogy. Jude and Poe have found each other after a several year separation, and things are complicated, to say the least. When they get lured into a snuff film, we the audience don’t know what is for the camera, and what is for real. Is that blood on the kitchen floor or is it syrup? We are as much behind the camera as we are in front of it, and that leads to further confusion, including the format, in the novel, as an actual movie script:
Exterior, house of Miller. Day.
Wide angle of yard. Long shadows stretch across a gravel driveway. Two white men, fat and thin, struggle under the weight of a large, black metal case.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.211
Poe turns his head to the right and looks directly at the camera. Now he glances back at Jeremy.
Poe- If you call me brother again I will eat your fucking heart.
Huck- Oh man, this is gonna be fun.
Poe approaches the camera.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.213
Poe and Molly exchange glances.
Jude- Come on. You can’t tell me that’s not funny.
Molly- I hated that movie.
Jude- Don’t even think of fucking with me.
Molly- Yeah, well. I just kept wishing the English guy would die, already.
Poe- Where is the boy, Jude?
Jude- I can’t tell you.
Jude begins to laugh. Molly chews a thumbnail, worried. As Poe exits the room, Miller opens his eyes and draws a thumb across his throat.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.217
It is extremely effective in recreating the feeling of disorientation, and the paranoia that goes with not knowing what is going on, what is part of the script, and what is the real world, what is going on behind the scenes, and what is for the camera.
In conclusion, we see that Baer runs a thread through all three books, tying Poe and Jude together, while pitting them against each other, to see what will survive. Will they kill each other, or run off into the sunset together? At the end of each book, we have been given a certain amount of information, and that information is twisted, confirmed, destroyed, and altered as each new part of the trilogy resumes, and then finishes. But by the end of the three books there is indeed a clarity, and a sentiment of everything aligning, and ending up at the only conclusion possible. Baer takes us for a wild ride, keeping us constantly on our toes, eager to turn the page and see what happens next. By utilizing such a flawed and unreliable narrator, and by distorting the vision and emotion of Phineas Poe to such a degree, we the audience are allowed to share that imagery, and the gamut of human emotions