Opposites Blur Together: On Dane Bahr’s “The Houseboat”

READING DANE BAHR’S The Houseboat — a gothic noir set in 1960s Iowa — I was reminded of an observation that Jonathan Lethem once made about James Brown. The genius of Brown, Lethem argued, lay in his ability to develop an entire oeuvre out of the interstitial, transitional sounds of R&B songs. Brown turned “the barked or handled vocal aspects, […] the brief single-chord jamming on the outros,” and “the drum breaks and guitar vamps” into the core theater of his unique music. Essentially, he moved background into foreground.

Bahr — a debut novelist from Minnesota, the same region where his story takes place — does something similar in The Houseboat. He turns those elements of style, theme, and motif that typically litter the periphery of traditional detective novels — the dark, bleak, foreboding imagery; clever smiles; sexual perversion; alcoholism; haunted pasts and metaphorical ghosts — into the central focus. He moves background into foreground. Everything else sloughs away.

The Houseboat centers on two main characters. One is Edward Ness, “a handsome and almost tall man around thirty-five years old,” who works as a detective in Minneapolis. Ness is in a hard way. He drinks heavily and has a bad habit of playing Russian roulette some mornings before he even shaves. Every evening after work, Ness visits the cemetery, where he talks to the gravestones of his wife and son, murdered seven years earlier during a botched robbery. The fact that Ness knows who killed his family — and why — is revealing: The Houseboat is less interested in crafting literal mysteries — in stringing together unanswered questions — than in examining the prelude to and aftermath of acts of violence.

The story begins when Ness gets summoned down to Oscar, Iowa, to investigate a brutal murder. This crime has sent shockwaves through the small town, a place where every person knows each other and the sheriff never wears a gun. Not long after Ness arrives, he learns of the prime suspect, a man named Rigby Sellers who lives on a decrepit houseboat outside town.

Here, the novel shifts. We move back to the year 1959 and follow Sellers — the other main character — in the months leading up to the murder. Sellers is a literary creation straight out of gothic horror:

He was thin and almost hairless. The slats of his ribcage threatening to burst the skin. The hair on his head grew like strands of eelgrass. He had dark pebbly eyes that didn’t see well. Coke-bottle glasses that he probably found somewhere. A jutting brow and a bent nose, a patchy beard and an incomplete set of long jaundiced teeth.

He is as much animal as man — often howling like a dog — and a sexual deviant once caught “doin some odd things against one a them tire balancer machines.” Sellers’s behavior only grows more disturbing as his section goes along. He gleefully frightens young boys, spies on sunbathing teenagers, and populates his houseboat with a fake family of plastic mannequins, which he feeds, talks to, and dresses in stolen lingerie. The suspense here comes from measuring Sellers’ bizarre actions against the crime we know he will be suspected of. How much antisocial behavior can you witness before you deem a person capable of murder?

The perspective then switches back to Ness. From here, the novel downplays the actual mechanics of Ness’s instead focuses on the investigation and suspect suspect behavior, both set against the backdrop of a heavy storm and a restless town.

Bahr’s prose style is his main strength: lyrical, bleak, gothic, haunting. The reference points to Cormac McCarthy are clear, even as Bahr develops a voice entirely his own. Here is Sellers visiting the grave where his mother is buried:

The full moon had crested the canopy of trees and flooded the graveyard in an aluminum light. Each headstone threw a spectral shadow over the wet grass. Many were coated in lichen. Some of the nicer ones, carved in marble, were polished and stood gleaming in the night, catching the light of the moon and winking it back so brightly that when Rigby closed his eyes he saw hundreds of moons burned into his eyelids. The crickets out there quit at his coming and commenced again behind him. At one point he climbed atop a headstone and turned back and saw his footprints in the dew vanish like a ghost returning to the grave.

Bahr has a particular talent for the simile, and one pleasure of this novel comes from taking the time to sit back and imagine each one, conjuring up the juxtaposition that his writing invites. Some of my favorites: “Blackened pieces of ash wheeled like paper bats”; “Rigby’s shadow coming out finally at night to follow him about in the sallow oil lamps like a pup”; “Their flashlights traversed the dark woods like satellites in another sky”; “Silhouettes of each doll climbing the walls like crazed puppet hands as each lamp took slowly.”

In a sense, this novel is one elaborate simile. Similes, after all, do not merely provide a comparison. No, they operate at a higher level of complexity than that. Similes short-circuit your mind’s deeply ingrained logical distinctions, forcing you to consider how two things can briefly be one — how two images can blur together even as they remain separate.

For example, take Ness and Sellers. Hero and villain, cop and creep, these men at times appear more similar than different — their loneliness, their violent tendencies and heavy drinking, all that time spent talking to people who don’t exist: Sellers with his dolls, Ness with the gravestones of his dead wife and son. These two men are simultaneously opposite and the same, and the attempt to resolve such paradoxes provides the main tension of Bahr’s novel, a tension that permeates through the characters and the individual sentences.

Fans of the mystery genre will consider the plot a bit thin. The mystery never escalates or complicates, and we barely see Ness’s investigation. Scenes of him interviewing witnesses, gathering evidence, and considering and ruling out various suspects and alternate explanations are mostly absent. The murder, instead, serves merely as a hook — one the novel resolves early and in straightforward fashion. But even despite these weaknesses, The Houseboat thrives on the level of language and atmosphere, resulting in a beautifully written debut by an author to watch.

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Jason Namey is a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. His short fiction has appeared in Post Road, Puerto del Sol, Juked, Hobart, Moon City Reviewand others.

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