July 2010

Dustin Luke Nelson

fiction

Misadventure by Millard Kaufman

Misadventure contains all the quick-fire, lingo-saturated dialogue of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross with the twisting plot arcs of a Coen Brothers noir. Millard Kaufman, one of the creators of the Mr. Magoo cartoon character, weaves a story full of distinctive oddities, mystery worthy of Hitchcock, humor, and overdrawn characters (in the best way possible). Every one of the short chapters turns real estate salesman Jack Hopkins on his heel. Every player is out to get him. He can never quite figure out all the angles, but he wants to play them all. Fleet & Fleet, his current employer, run by Junior and Senior Fleet, ask Hopkins to be a temporary assistant to rival real estate tycoon Tod Hunt, so that they can complete a merger with his much larger firm. Only Hunt wants Hopkins to kill his wife, Darlene, and help him seduce a 14-year-old Mexican girl. Then things get complicated (no, it wasn’t complicated yet).

Hopkins is playing this game out of the hope that he can get away from the hustle of daily working life. He wants some fast cash, an escape to Mexico, and never again to contact anyone he’s known before. The people he is trying to hustle all want something similar: escape, a youthful lifestyle, and something to leave behind and be remembered by. The males in Misadventure all embody some form of the pursuit of legacy. This pursuit, inherently, revels a fear of aging that is relatively common, but ultra prevalent among these characters. The characters act out in odd ways: They marry younger women, they cheat, they pursue underage girls, the fund secret research, they try to get transfers to small towns in Mexico where there is no work to be had.

Kaufman’s twisting narrative gets messier when the Mexican girl’s brother winds up working on a secret island in Mexico, owned by Hunt, full of nicotine craving monkeys, the subject of a lab experiment gone awry, and drug-mule goats -- yet another effort by Hunt at escape, at legacy, also failed. Hopkins’s plaster-eating wife has an affair with his boss, Junior Fleet, who winds up dead, and the detective investigating this mess just wants Hopkins to find him a nice cheap slice of land. This is, still, all before things really start to unravel for Hopkins and he loses track of all the angles he’s trying to play.

The breakneck clips that Kaufman’s prose demands to be read at aids the sense that Hopkins is a man on the edge. He wants a way out of the sterile life that he’s found himself in, but also feels himself approaching a breaking point, a point he’s been to before. Hopkins has a history of snapping at inopportune moments and beating people to death -- or near-death. Nonetheless, Hopkins feels like a regular Joe. He’s a man with a marriage on the rocks -- which his situation isn’t helping -- a dead-end real estate gig, and a violent history that seems to plague him everywhere he turns. Hopkins wants redemption, he wants to be a good guy, to do right by his wife, and to get the hell out of Southern California before it eats him alive. But he’s never able to find that path out of the jungle. And that’s what makes this book feel so vital: Hopkins is a man of the times. He’s hit by economic struggle, and he’s searching for something better, he believes the grass is really greener on the other side, but he’s been stuck on the same side so long that he can’t even see the paradox within the cliché.

As with Kaufman’s Bowl of Cherries, his only previous novel, the book is humorously sprawling, always reaching for unexpected extremes. The beauty is in the peculiar details. This is not boilerplate pulp. There are few writers who could so seamlessly weave pulp mystery and the genre conventions with such huge laughs and distinctive details. Maybe it is akin to Jim Thompson, but Thompson was less apt to really utilize the conventions in order to revise them instead of subverting them from the gate. Misadventure occupies that special place for a murder mystery where the novel is both endlessly entertaining and somehow “literary” in scope. (Here intended to refer to a certain edginess that deems it somehow -- and probably falsely -- “above” popular fiction, if we are to draw a distinction between a popular romance novel and the love stories of Carver or García Márquez. It is more complicated, more densely layered, free of off-the-shelf characters, and attempts to tackle some larger issues of self, regrets, and legacy.) Sadly, there won’t be any more Millard Kaufman novels -- the writer died last year at age 92, and the world of letters is a lesser place for it.

Misadventure by Millard Kaufman
McSweeney’s
ISBN: 1934781541
288 Pages