Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Books

Review: Dufresne blends noir mystery, surrealist humor in 'I Don't Like Where This Is Going'

In No Regrets, Coyote, his first noir novel about therapist-turned-investigator Wylie "Coyote" Melville, John Dufresne basically laid out the book's action in one of its earliest paragraphs — although that plot summary was not exactly what it seemed.

Dufresne does it again in a new sequel, I Don't Like Where This Is Going. This one begins not long after the first book ended, with Wylie and his best friend, professional gambler-magician Bay Lettique, on the run after a series of unfortunate incidents in their hometown of Melancholy, in southeast Florida. (Wylie and Bay were the good guys, but some people don't see it that way.)

The pair have landed (with Wylie's personable cat, Django, in tow) in Las Vegas, perhaps the only place in which reality is more provisional than it is in Florida. It's also the perfect place for Bay to work his various types of magic.

The first chapter finds Wylie drinking a cocktail in the atrium of the Luxor Hotel, musing on his own future:

"I was a therapist in exile, and I thought, only half in jest, what a marvelous place this would be to set up shop. Right over there by the food court, maybe. I could help my clients who had just lost their life savings or their marriages, or who had behaved disgracefully, in ways so reprehensible they were paralyzed with shame and overcome with despair, help them shape their lives into narratives, so that their lives made some sense again, so they understood that the best story is a story of redemption, and that their personal story was only in its second act."

Sounds kind of sweet, doesn't it? But a lot happens between those lines, starting just a few pages later, when Wylie glances up and sees "a blurry shape of red and white up near the apex of the pyramid." An instant later he is looking at the shattered body of a young woman on the casino's carpet.

Her name, Wylie discovers, was Layla Davis, and she was a medical researcher in Memphis. And beyond that the curtain drops; the casino pretends it never happened, and there's no news from the police on whether it was suicide or murder: "The passing of Layla Davis played like notes from an unclapped bell."

Wylie has been passing the time by volunteering at the local crisis center, where he has learned useful facts: The suicide rate in Vegas is 50 percent higher than in the country in general, and 60 to 80 people go missing from the city every weekend.

But he misses his work with the police in Florida as a "forensic therapist," a kind of improvisational profiling in which he intuits what criminals are thinking by looking at their clothing and possessions. (Take the guy in a linen sport coat, cargo shorts and a pair of Crocs, berating his girlfriend in the casino: Wylie's instant analysis is "Abercrombie & Douche.")

He can't let Layla's death go, and soon he and Bay, with the help of Wylie's intrepid girlfriend, Patience, and Open Mike, "a sketchy but valuable friend," are up to their ears in human trafficking, a war between Mormon and Asian gangsters, an exploding mobile home, a children's beauty pageant, a rocket launcher attack on a brothel and even a Kafka convention — not to mention the miraculous disabling of a tornado.

Dufresne, who teaches in the MFA creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami, has published five other novels as well as several short story and poetry collections and two books on writing. In No Regrets, Coyote, published in 2013, and this sequel, he has set himself quite a task: combining the noir mystery with beautifully literary writing, exuberantly surrealist humor and, despite the outlandish crimes that bloody the books, a sense of redemption.

As Bay says, "(A) shared illusion is a collaborative creation of the performer, who passes his hand over the three of spades, and you, the observer, who now sees in its place the ace of hearts. You are unaware of what actually happened and are unaware of your unawareness."

That's as true of a skillful novelist as it is of a magician. Give yourself over to Dufresne's brand of magic — you'll enjoy the show.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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