Saturday, February 5, 2011
"The legs were the legs of a twenty-year-old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long with just enough curve and give and promise."
Our unnamed 22-year-old narrator is working as a bookkeeper at a rundown nightclub when she encounters Gloria Denton in Queenpin. Gloria has a world weary been there-done that attitude, but she also has a remarkable style and ease and confidence. Gloria is no man's wife and she's no moll either. She's not the femme fatale that seduces and breaks the heart of the leading man, she's another kind entirely, a presence that overshadows all the characters. Everyone knows and fears Gloria.
So dazzled by the money and surroundings, the narrator doesn't see the danger until she's in Gloria's spider web. The narrator is remade into Gloria's "girl", picking up collections or placing bets. And it all goes well, until our girl meets Vic Riordan, a perpetually down-on-his-luck gambler. The wheels start to come off a little as she falls for him and she gets ensnarled in his world. Suddenly the narrator has to find a way to stay a few steps ahead of her mentor, only to discover nothing was quite how she figured it.
The frustrating part is the POV. Our narrator has a very clear voice full of sass and attitude. But it's really a story of two women and sometimes I feel Gloria's side is shortchanged by the POV. The narrator doesn't how to separate the stories and legends about Gloria Denton from the reality. Because the story is so securely in the narrator's eyes, neither do we. We never see beyond Gloria's motivations, what drove her or what she really thinks of her young protégé. Like her, we only get glimpses into Gloria; we can only imagine what she was really like in her heyday when she partied with the big boys.
Megan Abbott has made quite a name in the crime writing circles for writing period era noir stories, including Die a Little, The Song is You, and Bury Me Deep. They're all standalone books, so you can read them independently and in any order.
What I love about Megan Abbott's writing is her use of language, the clever turn of phrase. Abbott doesn't sound like a modern writer playing around in an earlier era. Queenpin sounds like it fits squarely in its chosen time frame of the early 1960s. This is a hard world, filled with crime and corruption, of bribes and payoffs, but Abbott never flinches from any of it, but she twists around the descriptions and metaphors in inventive ways. It's only when she's describing the actual blood and violence that the poetry breaks down a little.
Queenpin includes all the usual hallmarks of noir: greed, corruption, desire, and deception. There are twisted loyalties and double-crosses. Everyone has an angle. Everyone is playing someone. The question isn't really what they want as much as what are they willing to do (and how far are they willing to go) to get what they want.
Queenpin is noir in all her infinitely screwed up glory. There are no happy endings, no driving off into the sunset. All the characters dig themselves deeper and deeper into trouble, no matter what they do. Even when they think they're out of danger, something reels them back in. It's hard to sympathize with any of them, even our narrator. She's already lost by the time she meets Gloria. She gets a taste of the other side of life when she starts working at the nightclub. She talks about staying after clocking out so she can soak up the atmosphere. Rather than being scared by this other world, she's intrigued and fascinated by it. She wants that life. Even after it's utterly destroyed her, she still craves it again and again, like an addiction.
"More. I want more."
(Megan E. Abbott; Queenpin: A Novel; Simon & Schuster; 2007; 180 pages; available in trade paperback)