Owen Hill’s the Incredible Double
The Professor of Pop
October 16, 2009
Owen Hill’s first novel, The Chandler Apartments, was a page-turner, read literally in one frenzied Saturday morning. Declaration of (minor) interest: Owen is a friend of a friend (& once kindly gave me discount @ Moe’s but don’t tell anyone that.)
Here’s the opening para from his new novel The Incredible Double, words that will draw you in like a punter to a strip club — ok then problem drinker to a dive bar — if you read them aloud:
“My ’87 Tercel is in great shape, only a hundred thousand miles and almost new everything, but it does have trouble with the Bay Area hills. Coming out of the tunnel on 24, leaving Berkeley, heading toward the suburbs, I was losing speed and the SUVs were losing patience. I shifted it down into second and wagged my middle finger. My best friend Marvin says that driving slow in a small car is a revolutionary act. Maybe’s he right. A woman in a Hummer, no lie, who probably weighed in at 97 pounds, half of it hair, gave me a look that could kill and, waved her phone at me. When you think of spoiled little brats in military vehicles careening through the ‘burbs, you know how rotten the twentieth-century will be.”
Most important 2 words: no lie. That gives you the genre for cert & tells you that while our narrator has some ironic distance on Marvin, they are perhaps (or were) ideological cousins. Owen isn’t afraid of cheap shots if they’re funny & tell you something (“half of it hair”) because he knows he’s been freed by genre. The prose never drifts into agitprop but it’s constantly hinted at it, as if this were an Op-Ed piece in Socialist Worker, written by a poet with an acute sense of humour. The first para immediately sets up the dystopian world we are about to enter but you don’t feel trapped in it exactly. You just know that the mise-en-scene for wherever our story & our narrator are headed is going to be “rotten”.
And this rotten-ness dear voyeur from cyberspace is happening right here right now in river city as Berkeley gets increasingly comfy with being a rich town (a security guard asked Susan to move her bag from where it might be stolen last night @ about 6pm… on a main throughfare in mf Rockridge) where even the south side (site of the Historic POP Homeland) has monster homes and monster cars and of course therefore monster peeps.
Like The Chandler Apartments, The Incredible Double captures a time & a place perfectly: here, now. But that would be boring because it would be too obvious, so Hill never forgets that you make it interesting (& significant) if you pepper the story with nostalgia for times passed.
He does, after all, drive an ’87 Tercel.
Raymond Williams once described literature as a record of lived experience which is of course not always the case since neither lived nor experience are really the correct terms for a lot of contemporary fiction. But in the case of the savvy crime-thriller, if you can set the noir against the nostalgia then you have one powerful vehicle (if you’re a poet) for evoking the time & the place that is the fag-end of Berkeley as we now know it.
And anyway, whether or not you care about that (& you should), Owen Hill has written another page-turner.