Book Review

Crime novels have always been about the traces crime leaves in the external world and within the psyche of the criminal, and how the criminal and those who follow him make meaning of these traces. Modern entries by authors like Kobo Abe (The Ruined Map) and Paul Auster (The New York Trilogy) have elaborated the genre into high literature while also underscoring essential deficits of meaning in traces in the post-industrial world. With many of the narratives of his predecessors tipping into the void, where is a literary writer of the hard-boiled to go? On one hand, there is a return to economy of plot and rugged realism as represented by Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Urban Waite’s The Terror of Living. On the other, there is Jeffrey DeShell’s Arthouse, a piece of pulp fiction related to a Tarantino-esque pastiche of filmic styles translated into prose. Like Tarantino’s films, Arthouse is, by turns, banal, mystifying, and brilliant.

The bones of the plot: we find a former film professor, aptly named The Professor, making a small fortune as a large-scale meth cook on a compound in the foothills of eastern Colorado. The operation is rounded out by The Professor’s brother and his ex-military squad mates, a stock country idiot, and the brothers’ mother who has been infantilized by dementia. The fragile rhythm of life on the compound is disrupted by the arrival of a Range Rover in the night. The unknown vehicle’s approach sets off a sequence of rash decision making that turns the cracks in the compound members’ relationships into fissures. These fissures widen when they take hostage a passenger of the Range Rover. This provokes a crisis in The Professor’s conscience, and a shoot-out and flight to Europe ensue. The narrative eventually spirals outward to a villa on the island of Capri which serves as an immemorial place for The Professor, where the imaginary and real intersect in seamless, unexpected ways.

Each chapter is titled after a movie—The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Fellini Satyricon—and translates the representational strategies of these films into prose. To accomplish this, DeShell employs radical stylistic gestures such as strikethroughs, an entire chapter of poetry to enter moments of violence in all their sensuousness, and a prose style hyper-obsessed with detail inspired by long takes of the seven-hour Sátántangó to document the ragged textures of the compound and the social dynamics of the crew. In turn, familiar dramatic plot points are delivered in an uncanny light. The hero’s moment of despair—here The Professor in a nursing home parking lot contemplating suicide—is rendered from the clinical distance of a movie script. Stripped to only the slight sounds and gestures of his body, The Professor never seems more vulnerable than as the target of an imagined camera:


…The truck sits near the edge of a circle of light surrounding a streetlight.

Back to interior shot (#372). He suddenly leans forward.

Close up of glove compartment. It’s very dark, and so we can’t see much. We hear, rather than see, him open the glove compartment. He removes something and sits back.…


Close shot Professor. He stares down at the pistol in his lap.

Close shot Professor. A car passes by (headlights and sound).


While some of the voices DeShell tries on fall flat, in trying on so many voices, he creates an unpredictable, dynamic rhythm to counter the lock-step forward motion of the noir plot.

Perhaps DeShell’s most provocative decision is to cast his protagonist as a former film student. Here is The Professor approaching the Casa Malaparte, which plays a central role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt: “There it was, the house nestled into the punta, its outlines unmistakable even in the fading light. His heart skipped a beat. There was the little bay where BB dived naked into the water, her body mysterious and beautiful, but forever inaccessible to Piccoli’s sorrowful gaze.” In the capacity of fiction to saturate the emotional life of The Professor, the real house is overlaid with a more genuine fiction. Further, the poetry of this line also serves to define The Professor’s relationship to Shelby. Through scenes such as this, a complex dynamic is expressed between several intersecting fictions, The Professor, and the reader, through which it is clear that The Professor’s actions are determined by his own devotion to fictions. Via this inflection, DeShell dramatizes one of the tenants of the cultural philosopher Guy DeBord: “Man is more and more, and ever more powerfully, the producer of every detail of his world.” This is to say, The Professor does not blindly flee the compound for an excursion to Italy, but he becomes an artist of flight, composing it from the fragments of other romantic narratives. In the uncanny collation of his idealizations of art and the results of his own life, The Professor dodges “the real” and embraces a fantasia.

This is intriguing, yet one is troubled by the suspicion that The Professor is a vehicle of wish fulfillment for the reader and writer—a sensitive, aging man, who also has a “hard” criminal history, wins in firefights, escapes justice, and copulates with the girl while still carrying on a self-justifying internal ethical and aesthetic dialogue. It is too much to believe in him. As soon as he moves to the center of the narrative, a principle of unreality is introduced, and we bump up (purposefully?) against the limitations of po-mo self-reflexivity. The narrative is driven by a pulpy sequence of violent events but also includes a cul-de-sac in which hardcore pornography is, on one hand, deconstructed, and The Professor, on the other, begins to masturbate. The narrative disposes of underdeveloped villains in video game, headshot fashion, and then in its closing movements meditates characterization via a conversation between Buster Keaton and Maria Falconetti:


Buster leans forward and reads, “Carlos Gutierrez. . . . Allegations of rape and unlawful civilian fraternization continue and persist, and . . . warrant a DISHONORABLE DISCHARE from the United States Army, effective forthwith.”

Maria lights a cigarette and takes a drink from her glass of wine. “Write instead that ‘Cruelty and hate made his face ugly and his posture grotesque, twisting the very muscles, bones and tendons into a misshapen mass of stupidity and violence.”


Surely DeShell is a mad scientist, swerving back and forth across the line that separates egregious indulgence and skillful interrogation of genre tropes until that line is thoroughly distressed. At one point, Shelby, the hostage, asks, “How do I tell one tweaker from another?” This is not a question DeShell is interested in answering. His book speaks to a set of more abstract concerns—how life and art define one another. That is, Arthouse is not necessarily a book for fans of noir, but, rather, those with an appetite for the po-mo ballet of a narrative trying to surgically remove its own skeleton while still ambling forward.

About the Reviewer

Joe Hall's first book of poems, Pigafetta Is My Wife, was published by Black Ocean Press in 2010. With Chad Hardy he wrote The Container Store Vol. I (SpringGun 2012). His chapbook, Post Nativity, and second book, The Devotional Poems, are forthcoming from Publishing Genius and Black Ocean.