By Kirk Curnutt
Five Star Publishing, 2009
Reviewed by John Wendel
Kirk Curnutt’s Dixie Noir is a hard boiled mystery set in the mean streets of Montgomery, Alabama. References to magnolias, crepe myrtles, and oft rhapsodized Deep-South niceties serve only to draw the reader’s attention to the hot and humid August setting. Narrator Ennis Skinner sweats buckets between decaying old town and creepy McMansion sprawl looking for a young lady named Dixie. His search gets him tangled up in a web of murder, mayhem, and Alabama racial politics with a direct line back to the Montgomery bus boycott.
Ennis encounters a variety of rich characters and wild situations. High C, a meth cook turned book publisher, is one of the more engaging scoundrels you are likely to run across since Shakespeare gave us Falstaff. Reese Justice, known in town as the “Kudzu Ann Coulter,” manages her incumbent father’s mayoral race. Her down and dirty deeds give the likes of Karl Rove and Jack Abramoff a run for their money. Thugs and would-be great men intermingle in the state capital, highlighting what a strange and contrary, but fascinating place Alabama can be.
Ennis Skinner is a disgraced former Crimson Tide football hero who spent one decade in a methamphetamine haze, and another in Kilby Prison. He is a man looking to make amends, and hopefully find a little redemption. His journey involves dealing with some dark corners of his life, and Curnutt doesn’t shy away from graphic scenes, specifically in flashbacks to Ennis’ drugged out days with his ex-lover Faye (Dixie’s dead mother). Fortunately, he neither romanticizes their degradation, nor does he simply rub the reader’s nose in a lot of nastiness. He sets the record straight, which means recording nasty events in clear and stark language. Ennis knows all too well our capacity to sentimentalize, if not mythologize, unhealthy people and episodes in our lives. Only when he replays those memories without the fog of drugs or sentiment does he stand a chance at that redemption he so desperately craves.
The memory of the civil rights movement also looms large. It haunts and burdens characters close to Ennis and those he’s forced to deal with. Ennis’ daddy, Quentin, and black mayoral candidate, Walk Compson, remind us of how all-too-human former movement heroes can be. And sometimes memories from that past are just cold factors in the cynical machinations of dirty southern politics.
Dixie Noir twists and turns with plenty of action. You’ll race toward each plot point, but ultimately the characters own this story. The last few pages reveal a little too much, and too suddenly, of who did what to whom, but wit and intelligence abound in this dark entertainment. Dec 2009
John Wendel teaches English as a foreign language for Dongguk University in Kyeongju City, South Korea.