Thick with Noir: Tom Lutz’s BORN SLIPPY
By Sean Hooks •
“A drunk sees the world in fragments and I wanted to recreate that,” says Karl Hyde of pioneering British electronica outfit Underworld. “The first time we played it live, people raised their lager cans and I was horrified because I was still deep into alcoholism. It was never meant to be a drinking anthem; it was a cry for help. Now I don’t mind. Why ‘Born Slippy’? It was a greyhound we won money on.” Gambling winnings from a dog track and an addict’s fragmentation serve as bipartite aperitif to Tom Lutz’s appropriation of one of Underworld’s best-known songs, recognizable from Danny Boyle’s 1996 movie Trainspotting (from Irvine Welsh’s novel), a long ecstasy-soaked slot machine of a song, a remix. Adaptation and mashup are Lutz’s delights as he remixes the global noir, one in which the theme of the survival of the fit and ruthless is prevalent.
Lutz is a non-dilettante-ish dabbler, relentlessly eclectic, age sixty-seven and having released his debut novel earlier this year. The language in Born Slippy is frutescent. Immediately noticeable are Lutz’s stellar character descriptions. Protagonist Frank Baltimore is a carpenter/constructor/contractor who employs a partner, Jillian Gustafson. “She was from the Midwest and looked it, like a minor Willa Cather character, all muscle and mild disapproval.” Frank’s jobsite coterie includes Trog, “round-faced and round-bodied, bald on top with long stringy side hair, a wild grey beard, and an oversized, misshapen potato of a nose. He looked like a cross between an angry, gone-to-seed David Crosby and a nineteenth-century Polish syndicalist bomber.” Paul, for whom Frank builds a house, is “in his thirties but looking younger, he had the blond, pudgy, All-American look of the young Beach Boys before they met Charlie Manson.” This embrace of ostentatious metaphor is a Raymond Chandler shout-out, and the genre is noir of an international métier, though there are detours into the midlife-crisis tale, the globetrotting-rich-and-famous novel, and a satirical straight-from-the-headlines takedown of late-capitalist power brokering.
This is not a minimalist spin on the genre or a hipster noir. Born Slippy is hearty, diverse, and heavily seasoned. Frank Baltimore is anything but frank (especially with himself) and reflects the hardscrabble mid-Atlantic port city known as home to both Edgar Allan Poe and David Simon’s The Wire. Like Poe, Lutz is unafraid to plumb the murk, and like in The Wire, no one’s entirely good or bad, corruption abounds, tainted institutions reign, and power is leveraged without mercy.
Frank’s quip-happy frenemy, and the book’s other major character, is Liverpudlian immigrant Dmitry Heald, a fast learner and fertile farmer of capitalist crops whose name nods to the Romanovs. He is never a dim tree and he preternaturally knows how to heal himself, usually by bringing misery to others. A zero-sum realist, some critiques have called Dmitry a sociopath, a misleading simplification. From what Dostoyevskian and Freudian sources vicious and sociopathic tendencies may be borne, that is the question herein, especially when Heald’s familial background and early sexual experiences are revealed, a deft bit of character building.
The handling of both main characters’ families is a strength of Lutz’s as well. This novel’s struts and wiring show at times, but the supporting characters are well-hewn. While cutthroat Dmitry is no believer in psychoanalysis, he admits that there are neurophysiological underpinnings to his social-Darwinist-unbound worldview, and readers love a character who defies social norms and mores. To reduce him to “sociopath” is as lazy as critics who refer to lead characters with any degree of complexity or non-saintliness as “antiheroes.” Dmitry is superficially the surrogate son to Frank Baltimore but he’s really more minor key and allegorical, a narcissistic shadow self that Frank can’t shake.
Dmitry, alpha to Frank’s beta, displays his savvy early on by using a diminutive, “Franky,” in referring to Frank, who is ten years Dmitry’s senior. Dmitry is better written, a complex and involute character. Frank gets more page time but cuts closer to the standard self-critical establishment figure of modest but ultimately insulated means. Frank is stable and middle class, not precariat.
Noir fascinates because of its strangeness, its difference from our dreary day-to-days. Absurd wealth ensorcells for similar reasons. Same for true sociopathy, i.e.: the phenomenon of the serial killer. The past enthralls likewise: ‘God, things were so different then,’ in the novels of Henry James or William Faulkner, major touchstones alluded to frequently in Born Slippy. Another great exoticizer and oddness reinforcer is travel. As Theodore Dreiser said, “Next to love, it is the one thing which solaces and delights.” Lutz is trying to craft a naturalist ‘A Worldwide Tragedy,’ not merely an American one.
Lutz is cofounder of Los Angeles Review of Books, and the city of Angelenos is warmly and variously played in Born Slippy. The narcotic allure of this birthplace of noir also figures in Sam Wasson’s treatise The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood (2020), which doesn’t just dissect one of the silver screen’s lasting contributions to the genre, it space-and-places urbanity itself as locus du jour for global economies, making a salient point about not just Los Angeles but citified realms en masse:
Writers of LA detective fiction “radically reworked the metaphorical figure of the city,” according to Mike Davis, into a “pessimistic antimyth” of American free enterprise that the German exile Theodor Adorno, adept at recognizing totalitarianism, would decry as “the absolute power of capitalism,” and the French, when they saw its likeness on screen, would call noir.
Capitalism, in Lutz, is a global stranglehold, the sun-never-setting reign of fiscal empire, what the back cover of the trade paperback from UK publisher Repeater Books calls “neo-imperialism.”
Commerce, desire for victory/status, and income inequality are some of Born Slippy’s themes. Dmitry at one point observes that gangsterism is as universal and normative as a child’s desire for ice cream. In his own scoops of nonfiction, Lutz sometimes goes hyper-micro and zooms in, as in Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America (2006), and other times engages in travel writing via wider-lens titles like Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World: Wandering the Globe from Azerbaijan to Zanzibar (2016), but the veteran writer’s socio-politics actually become more explicit here in his fiction, an interesting move in terms of craft considering the span of his oeuvre.
Born Slippy initially appears rather unsubtle for a novel. Its gritty parallels are not in now-I’m-riffing-about-this-place scions of high literature like Joan Didion, Paul Bowles, Geoff Dyer, or Richard Wiley. The unending stream of literary and philosophical references, the constant namechecking of canonical authors, strains credibility. Frank’s reading list seems more like Lutz’s than his own. That said, as a larger modus operandi for politicized genre fiction, Lutz boldfaces what would in literary fiction be dismissed as “too much commentary,” a subversion quite subtle indeed.
Lutz unpacks explicit commodifications through setting. Frank and Dmitry frequent strip clubs and brothels both high-end and third-world. Frank’s journeys begin in Connecticut, and Lutz then sluices through Jakarta, Taipei, Phuket, and Qatar. An important scene transpires at a Hooters in Santa Monica. Dmitry, a Starbucks franchisee, UFC lover, and Fight Club namedropper, also comments directly on seeing the world as constant competition. He seeks to conquer enemies and vanquish opponents while Frank seeks internal satisfaction and long-term catharsis. Yet Frank isn’t averse to a cocaine-and-sex whirl with his younger buddy’s girlfriend or later an entanglement with Dmitry’s wife, an intriguing character in her own right.
Both men are trying to realize a dream. Dmitry wants to acquire money and monopoloid power by any means; Frank wants to own a boat, sail the world, and fall in love. Frank builds. Dmitry destroys. Frank’s flaw is that he wants to be the great white savior. Dmitry’s is that he wants to be the great white colonizer. It’s downright parable by the end: noble DIY carpenter and callow conspicuous consumerist are not just coin sides but akin.
The world-weary-traveler editorializing reads like Lutz’s nonfiction voice, but this is more than made up for by the fits of humor, the little landmines of laugh-out-loud harshness that regularly punctuate the novel. There are uproarious set-piece moments, but the consistency of witty jabs Lutz deploys impresses most.
If this novel were a fight it would not be a knockout (“knockout” is far too liberally used in blurbs these days), it would win on the scorecards. The size and pace are leisurely, but brutality is something the novel is bent on exposing. MMA is a greatest hits artform, a Spike TV compilation, a men’s magazine listicle. The athleticism and seriousness of combat sport is not puerile or degraded, but it’s also over rather quickly. This is not something Born Slippy wants to be. It aspires to luxuriate in its critique of luxury. An MMA match ended by submission has a wow factor, a shock-and-awe, but it lacks the graceful beauty of pugilism. MMA is a sport and a science, but not a sweet one. It isn’t banal, but it’s lacking in poetry. If Lutz’s novel is occasionally overwrought, so too is fine verse, and as long as trenchant poems emerge from a volume of ballads, be they Keats’s or Bukowski’s, you can forgive the weak and remember the strong.
The primaries here perform well in the ring, a prowler versus a counterpuncher. Frank thinks of himself as soulful and Dmitry is summarizable as soulless. Though Born Slippy is not in first-person perspective, it’s clear Lutz thinks of Frank tenderly, which calls to mind Olga Tokarczuk’s 2019 Nobel Laureate Lecture, “The Tender Narrator”:
This radio later became my great childhood companion; from it I learned of the existence of the cosmos. Turning an ebony knob shifted the delicate feelers of the antennae, and into their purview fell all kinds of different stations—Warsaw, London, Luxembourg and Paris. Sometimes, however, the sound would falter, as though between Prague and New York, or Moscow and Madrid, the antennae’s feelers stumbled onto black holes.
Tokarczuk’s best-known book, the category-defying Flights (2018), is enmeshed in international travel and enigma. Its formalist post-Sebald hybridity and literary-ness separate it from Born Slippy, but Olga and Tom share a yen to perpend the realities of the present world, what constitutes it externally and how we’re dealing with it internally. For Tokarczuk, reality is something “we weave daily on the great looms of information, discussions, films, books, gossip, little anecdotes. Today the purview of these looms is enormous—thanks to the internet, almost everyone can take place in the process, taking responsibility and not, lovingly and hatefully, for better and for worse.” Frank Baltimore fancies himself a good man, a hero, opposed to tyranny, but he’s also culpable, nested and vested in the system. Tom Lutz’s novel tenderly narrates a massive thing (the economic machinations of global corruption) into existence. He gets his storytelling arms around it in a clinch.
Tokarczuk’s speech uppercuts the present thusly:
Our problem lies—it seems—in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world. We lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables. Yet we do see frequent attempts to harness rusty, anachronistic narratives…no doubt on the assumption that an old something is better than a new nothing, or trying in this way to deal with the limitations of our own horizons. In a word, we lack new ways of telling the story of the world.
Born Slippy is a new way of telling a noir story to the world, for which Lutz deserves credit.
SEAN HOOKS is originally from New Jersey and currently lives in Los Angeles. He holds a BA-Liberal Arts from Drew University, an MFA-Fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA-English from Loyola Marymount University. Find his published work at seanhooks.com.