port tropique by barry gifford

In fleeing… I mean leaving America, I made some difficult choices, decisions that I feared I would regret later on when I found myself in some ramshackle yet comfortable pub in Ireland or baking in the hot sun in Andalucia:

Why did I box up those damn Graham Greene novels? I knew I shouldn’t have packed that first Robert Stone novel! I wonder if I can find Under the Volcano here in Granada?

Big deal, right? Is that the world’s smallest fiddle I hear? Whatever.

For the most part, I think I made out okay. I packed a handful of paperbacks—mostly some film reference books and a book on Spanish football, Phil Ball’s Morbo—and some noir fiction, namely three David Goodis novels (Cassidy’s Girl, Black Friday, and Street of No Return), Bill Pronzini’s and Barry Malzberg’s Running of the Beasts, and Barry Gifford’s Port Tropique.

Gifford has long been a favorite of mine. I’m no completist, and I haven’t liked everything I’ve read (Arise and Walk was especially disappointing). But when Gifford is cooking, it’s like mainlining lightning. The Sailor and Lula novels are great, of course, as is the novel Night People and his book of film reviews, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Movies (long out of print, though it’s been reprinted under the title Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir, with some slight revisions). And then there are his collaborations with director David Lynch: Wild at Heart (1990; based on the novel), Hotel Room (1993), and my personal favorite, Lost Highway (1997). The latter film, with its neon bad mojo, deranged Möbius strip logic, and sudden impact va-voom courtesy of Patricia Arquette, all speed toward high fetishism for me and I make no apologies for it. There’s also Alex de la Iglesia’s 1997 film Perdita Durango (based on the novel of the same name), starring Rosie Perez as the title character, future Academy Award winner Javier Bardem, pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini, and director Alex Cox in a bit part. It’s ugly, indulgent, violent, sleazy, unpleasant, clever, and I’m not even sure that I like it. But I keep going back to it because I was such a fan of Iglesia’s horror/comedy El dia de la Bestia (1995), and with every new viewing hope that Durango’s misguided dramatic free falls will drive me to some kind of new understanding or new insight. So far, though, it hasn’t worked out.

I pulled out Gifford’s Port Tropique a couple of days ago, sat out in the sun, and with each finely honed paragraph, each charged chapter fueled with death and a sort of sultriness that sours to malaise within seconds, I succumbed to the book’s undertow and felt the vibrant blue sky over me darken. The trip was short—Gifford, a master of sparseness and clipped Zen phrasing, kept it all perfectly down to 136 pages—but the afterburn of images and torrential negativity have stayed with me long into the next day’s read.

With its Central American locale, dissolute Norte Americano expats, and literary/cinematic references liberally staining the pages, I was sold. The noir-laced bad vibes aren’t Gifford simply dazzling us with some post-modern jazzing about, knowingly winking at us while mining a wealth of film noir imagery and Papa Hemingway’s chest of literary devices, not to mention mugging Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, B. Traven, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Robert Stone, and Sam Peckinpah for kicks. No, it’s not as simple as that. Gifford may be blunt at times, but he’s not obvious. In essence, this post-Beat American minimalist, poet, chronicler of the heartsick and dream-crushed, constructs his narrative with the materials of the true 20th Century American fiction legacy–hardboiled pulp fiction—and houses it with the only protagonist Americans truly understand: the loser.

Fuck Superman. Fred C. Dobbs is the true iconic American character. Or is that J.R. “Bob” Dobbs? I can never remember.

Lost in translation, memory-haunted Franz Hall spends his days drinking in the saloon, pining for the wife who has long given up on him and the dead child that he couldn’t save, and wastes his nights longing for the big score while guzzling Superiors at the local bar. Like an insect trapped in amber, Franz can’t escape from his memories. But he was a dead man long before he ever crossed the border. Port Tropique is a wasteland, a purgatory for the poor night creatures unable to speed up the inevitable curtain call, and Franz is center stage.

He eventually gets reined into working as a bagman for some local smugglers. Franz goes down to the docks in the middle of the night with his suitcase… some men in a boat will load him up with cash… he returns to his hotel until contacted and then unloads the money. He’ll earn some ducats in the process and everyone will be happy. Simple, right?

Not on your life. Franz can’t help but get wise and splits for the border with half a million dollars when Marxist rebels overtake the city, thrusting the country into chaos. The road from then on out grows darker for poor Franz. But that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of the noir genre. This is night country… and salvation is hard to come by, if at all. Noir fiction, as well as in the films, is a bitter tonic and we like it that way. You’ll hear no complaints here. We like it hard and we like it mean. I just wish the book wasn’t so short. But that’s Gifford: never over staying his welcome and always keeping the story clipped and resonant with the power of vibrant bad dreams.

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