Written by William Hjortsberg — Sometime between the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis and the murder of Meredith Hunter by Hells Angels at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969, the hippy dream died. Free love, civil rights, and gender equality all took a beating and the naïve optimism of the Beatles was replaced by darker music of the Rolling Stones. It is this period that William Hjortsberg, who wrote the screenplay for the excellent Angel Heart, turns to in his return to fiction more than 20 years after his last novel, Nevermore.
Tod and Linda left Haight-Ashbury when they found the scene getting too heavy. They’re in Mexico hoping to make their savings go further and so Tod can finally complete his novel. Now they are in the quiet coastal town of Barra de Navidad. It’s true that they like to smoke some pot and drop acid occasionally, but they would say it’s only the stupid drug laws which make them criminals. They are not dealers or violent in any way.
When Nick and Frankie arrive next door things gradually start to change. Frankie is an ex-prostitute, Nick hints he has been involved in some small-time crime and both are junkies. Gradually Tod and Linda find themselves seduced by the frisson of danger that surrounds the new arrivals, and they begin to mix more with Nick and Frankie’s friends, including a pair of older ex-cons, Doc and Shank. Their drug use starts to change and intensify, the mellow high of pot being augmented with downers, then synthetic opioid pain killers, and then fatal heroin.
The morning after his first taste of heroin, given as a skin-pop by Nick, Tod wakes up with no recollection of what happened afterwards. Turning over in bed, he finds Frankie next to him, naked, covered in blood, and with her throat cut. The rest of the party are nowhere to be found, and their two apartments have been cleared out. All that Tod has left are the keys to his battered VW camper van, and its contents which include a few lousy pesos and some prime grass. Tod has no idea who killed Frankie – perhaps he did it himself – and is worried about Linda. Has she chosen to leave him, perhaps disgusted that he killed Frankie? Or, has she been abducted by Nick, Doc and Shank, a witness to murder who can’t be allowed to speak to the police? Tod realises he must find the others to get the answers to these questions and save Linda, but he won’t get far without money, even in Mexico. That means having to sell the pot….
Perhaps it’s because it’s so long since his last novel, but Hjortsberg really indulges himself in Mañana. The story only occurs over a week, and the chapters are split up into days, but the author gives himself plenty of space to describe his characters, especially Tod and Linda. Mexico is brought to life splendidly with descriptions of the countryside, people and culture. Hjortsberg’s affection for the country shines through, and the felling of an author enjoying himself is very evident.
Tod’s descent from idealism into criminality and murder mirrors the ending of the Summer of Love, and I think is also supposed to echo the corruption of Mexico that has followed with the emergence of the drug cartels. This book has a similar feel to Kem Nunn’s seminal surf noir Tapping the Source, in which paradise is bespoilt by man’s base nature. That book has become a cult classic, and Manãna might well come to be thought of in the same way.
Manãna is released 12 May. For more noir click here.
Open Road Media
CFL Rating: 5 Stars