Saturday, September 29, 2012

Thoughts on "The Distance" by Eddie Muller

The first and best thing I liked about The Distance, Eddie Muller’s 2002 debut noir novel, was its protagonist, Billy Nichols.

Billy is no hero, or at least not the one commonly found—and acclaimed—in genre fiction nowadays. He’s neither big nor strong. He kids that he looks like William Powell but may be more like an aging Dick Powell. He wears both glasses and dentures, stands a bit on the short side, and describes himself as a flat-footed, 4F draft reject (though a few strings may have been tugged to keep him out of World War II).

Despite these shortcomings (and a bad marriage), Billy is a champ in his world—that of a famous, respected boxing reporter and columnist for a San Francisco newspaper in the rough-n’- tumble late 1940s. Throughout the City and beyond, Billy is known as “Mr. Boxing.” Everyone in and around the arenas and training gyms has their hand out for him, hangs on every word that clacks and rolls out of his Royal typewriter, and papers their scrapbooks with Billy’s columns.

But while Billy sees himself as king round the ring, this absorbing entertaining novel tosses him on the hot skillet right from page one: One foggy San Francisco night, Billy pops by the apartment of Gig Liardi, a small-bore fight manager, to pick up a sizzling hot tip. But the only tip he finds when he arrives is that Gig’s been turned into morgue meat.

Standing over the body, his massive knuckles smeared with the dead man’s blood, is Gig’s only fighter, Hack Escalante, a gentle giant on the downslope of his career, who will tolerate anything except someone—anyone—insulting his beloved wife, Claire.

For reasons mysterious and poignant (as you will discover later), Billy decides to help Hack out of this jam by hiding Gig’s corpse in the sandy soil of Golden Gate Park and then concocting a shaky alibi so Hack can account for Gig’s disappearance when folks—especially the cops--come nosing.

However—this time for reasons I’m unable to fathom—Billy decides to pass this alibi on to his readers in a subsequent column without anyone even asking him (one of this novel’s few stumbles).

Credible or not, once this trigger is pulled, Billy’s life takes that hard turn deeper into noir alley, especially after those ocean winds scour away the sands to reveal Gig’s true whereabouts.

As suspicion slowly circles in on him, Billy sniffs out that there may be more behind Gig’s death than he realizes. Billy becomes snared in a labyrinth of bribery, blackmail, and other sordid chicanery that spans the bruising world of big city boxing. Exactly why did Hack kill Gig? Was there someone else in hiding that night? What does Claire Escalante, Hack’s lovely wife, know and when did she know it?

But this is a good novel and like all good fictions, The Distance dives deeper and travels further than its than its plot. Without the hard-boiled, know-it-all hero, we have a more human and believable book. Away from the glamor of the boxing ring and his trusty typewriter, Billy Nichols learns that he’s not the high-stepping, big-city strutter he thought he was. He may be a smaller man in the corrupt scheme of things, but he’s also more than just a boxing writer.

The novel also leads readers on a colorful, gamy tour of San Francisco’s boxing world of the 1940s, a world now pushed to the margins (though I was lucky enough to attend fights at the Kabuki theatre as late as the mid-1980s.) We get a neat Runyonesque mini-history of boxing, sports, and gambling up to that time, portraits of hangers on, hustlers and gamblers, large and small. It may not have been the best of times, but it was quite a time.

In this world, almost everyone—even Billy--has changed their birth names—Jews take on Italian names; Italians take on Spanish names, and so on, all to remake themselves and become more acceptable to the wider establishment as they desperately hustle for the big time. Most everyone shines with a sheen of sweaty desperation.

Author Muller—known in these parts as “The Czar of Noir”--is a San Francisco native and son of a famous boxing writer. He’s done an excellent job in picking which details to include and which to leave out in his loving evocation of a bygone era. Unlike some other historical genre novels, the particulars are painted in just right rather than allowed to crowd and weigh the canvas, as sometimes happens when authors get carried away with their research (an issue I’m wrestling with in my own trip into noir, Butchertown).

I also like the various clashes and interrogations Billy’s find himself in, told with all the tension of a boxing match without laying it on thick. There’s an oblique sense of life as something like boxing as characters emotionally circle each other, ducking, weaving, feinting. Accusations and recriminations come like jabs, punches, and haymakers. Unlike with other “hero” characters, you worry whether Billy can go the distance. To me, that’s suspense.

In addition to my issue with the plot trigger, there are a couple of other stumbles along the way. Scenes dealing with such meditative matters as faith, Catholicism, and God feel like a couple of stitches too many and the plotting, while not overly baroque and elaborate, does seem to get a little misty now and then.

But ignore those quibbles. The Distance is a novel worth going the distance for.

(re-edited 9/30/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author.

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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