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'Dragonfish' Offers A Noir Vision Of An 'American Dream Gone Rancid'


A just-published literary noir called "Dragonfish" puts a new spin on the old formula. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has fallen hard for this tale of gamblers, dark alleys and dangerous dames. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: In the dead of summer with the sun beating down, what could be more refreshing than a straight shot of literary noir? After all, noir is the stuff of shadowy landscapes and even shadier characters. It always seems to be raining in noir, even in California. Pick up a copy of, say, "Double Indemnity" by James M. Cain or "In A Lonely Place" by Dorothy B. Hughes, which has been reprinted by the Feminist Press, or watch the film masterpieces that were made from those and other noir classics, and you're sure to feel a soothing darkness closing in.

But noir's appeal isn't just nostalgic. It's a form that gets remixed by each new generation of fans and practitioners, which brings us to "Dragonfish," a superb debut novel by Vu Tran that takes the noir basics and infuses them with the bitters of loss and isolation peculiar to the refugee and immigrant tale. "Dragonfish" opens in Oakland, Calif. circa the year 2000, where a worn-out white cop - evocatively named Robert Ruin - is still stuck on his ex-wife, Suzy, a beautiful Vietnamese woman who's now remarried to a fellow Vietnamese exile, a high-stakes gambler and crime boss operating out of Vegas. As Robert describes her in flashbacks, Suzy was always a strange one, a woman plagued by nightmares whose idea of home decoration was to hang crucifixes in every room.

Robert should have known Suzy was femme fatale trouble from the get-go. They met when he was called in to investigate a robbery at the florist shop where Suzy then worked. As he recalls, (reading) when I arrived, she stood at the door with a baseball bat in one hand and bloody pruning shears in the other. I understood about a quarter what she said, but I knew I liked her. We found the perp two miles away limping and bleeding from a stab wound to his thigh. The pruning shears had done it. Suzy and I married four months later. But that's all in the past, right?

Except that the past is never past in noir. It turns out that Suzy has recently deserted her crime boss husband whose name is Sunny, and he wants her back. With the help of an incriminating video that shows Robert doing things that could cost him his badge, Sunny strong-arms Robert to track down the woman they both find unforgettable.

The plot of "Dragonfish," like every respectable noir, is as tangled as a set of sweaty bed sheets in a no-tell motel. There are nods to noir classics like "Gilda" and "Vertigo" in this novel, but Tran also puts his own special stamp on the genre, particularly through the way he intersperses stories about the rootless-ness of his Vietnamese characters and the immigrant American dream gone rancid. We get snatches of hollow-voiced letters and journal entries written by Suzy, dating back to the time she spent in a refugee camp in Malaysia after the fall of Saigon.

When Robert drives to Las Vegas to track down Suzy, he enters shabby Rat Pack-era casinos staffed by a new wave of washed-up dreamers. Here's his description of a joint called The Coronado. (Reading) I wandered through the throng of afternoon gamblers hunched over table games amid a cigarette haze. Nearly every dealer I passed was Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese. I wondered how many of them had actually come from somewhere far away and how many were right at home.

But nobody's right at home here. Even the weather is out of place. Just as in the LA of Chandler and Cain where it's always raining, there's a freak snowstorm in Las Vegas at the end of Tran's novel.

Noir has always been a nightmare genre about displacement, about people and things fated to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of the greatest noir film directors like Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang were themselves refugees, in their case, fleeing from Hitler's Germany. In "Dragonfish," Vu Tran has given us a haunting literary noir about a newer regeneration of refugees and immigrants who find themselves lost in America.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Dragonfish" by Vu Tran. On tomorrow's show, ProPublica's T. Christian Miller tells us about the serial rape allegations against former NFL star Darren Sharper and why it took police so long to make an arrest. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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