Murdaland No. 2
A mountain trapper matches wits and guns with a surprise guest and a card dealer. A Chinatown man repays a debt from the old days. A newspaper photographer takes more than pictures at crime scenes. And a cop follows up a few bad decisions with some even worse ones. Welcome to the second installment of the crime-fiction journal Murdaland, put out by Baltimore-based publisher Cortwright McMeel and Pittsburgh-based editor Michael Langlas.
"Crime fiction" here is only partly accurate. What you won't read here are stories that deliver the genre's traditional narrative devices, such as the good forces of law enforcement chasing and/or catching the bad forces of psychotics, thieves, rapists, killers, and what have you. Murdaland isn't that interested in how criminals are caught. It's more interested in why and how people do things that end up being called crimes. Call it visceral fiction.
And what a rush it produces. Scott Phillips' "The Emerson, 1950" follows a newspaper photographer in a small town around on his daily activities. It's a small town with a disarming amount of death--a botched diner robbery, a woman bludgeoned by her daughter-in-law, a knife fight over a bottle of cough syrup, and a three-week-old dead body in a bathtub that looks like "a thick, soup liquid, but containing what appears to be a human skull partially exposed." In his off time the photographer contends with his older aunt Ivy and his uncle Pell--and has a knack for picking up crime-scene souvenirs. By the time something resembling an actual crime in the Law & Order sense occurs, you've been drawn so into this man's mundane universe that it feels less like a socially transgressive act than the arrival of the inevitable.
Such is the worldview in many Murdaland stories here, from the just-out-of-Rikers Island Latino muscle in R. Narvaez's "Roachkiller" to the otherwise law-abiding middle-aged American-born Chinese man in Henry Chang's "Bo Sau (Vengeance)," a nighttime security guard who sees a face from his past and knows he has a karmic duty to repay a debt in corporeal kind. The past, the present, and needs both personal and psychological pull on the characters here. People don't steal because they need money; people steal because they need what the money will enable them to achieve.
Such is the bizarre predicament Dallas police officer Bobby Ray finds himself in Harry Hunsicker's "Vivian and Bobby Ray," one of the more what-the-fuck soap operas you'll come across this year. Vivian is Bobby Ray's love and smash-and-grab running mate, and they're saving up for--well, you really need to read it for yourself. And then read it again just to make sure your brain didn't invent the absolutely insane motivations therein.
Elsewhere, erstwhile City Paper contributor Rupert Wondolowski checks in with some colorful Baltimore characters; an anonymous Army reservist runs through some of the near-brilliant Chuck Norris inspired graffiti he comes across in Iraq--sample: "Chuck Norris could slam a revolving door"--and contemporary crime great Vicki Hendricks seamlessly and surreally combines a streetwise yarn with a fairy tale.
Murdaland's continued coups, though, are its classic reprints and novel excerpts. This issue contains a piece from 1966's Hard Rain Falling by the criminally out-of-print Don Carpenter, whose devastating 1971 marriage autopsy novel Getting Off should be nabbed whenever it's come across. Also included is an excerpt from Rudolph Wurlitzer's The Drop Edge of Yonder, a new novel due out this year. Wurlitzer most famously penned the screenplays for Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Little Buddha, but he also wrote a series of wildly fragmented novels in the late 1960s and early '70s--Nog, Quake, Flats--that are as sparse as Beckett and as unflinchingly bleak as Cormac McCarthy's The Road. In "Zebulon" here, Wurlitzer opens up his cold-blooded prose veins with the blade of the western genre, and something sinister and mystically unsettling gushes out