Reality fiction: a review of What You See in the Dark

by Chérie Newman

What You See in the Dark: A Novel
Manuel Muñoz
272 pages, hardcover: $23.95.
Algonquin Books, 2011.

It's 1959, and the shiny façade of America's white culture is beginning to tarnish. Schools are being desegregated and black people are starting to march in the streets of the South. There's an "unsavory mixing of whites and Mexicans" in California nightclubs. Young men "of a certain type" are migrating to San Francisco. And Alfred Hitchcock is about to inflict moral mayhem on the movie industry, and on his viewers, by filming the murder of a naked woman in a shower.

Hitchcock ("The Director)" wanders into Manuel Muñoz's novel, What You See in the Dark, in Bakersfield, Calif., seeking a motel location for his new movie, Psycho. And Muñoz crafts his hybrid story, an artful blend of fiction and history, around the making of that famous film. "He (Hitchcock) was in the midst of doing something extraordinary and uncanny with some actresses, finessing their star wattage and burnishing it into a singular, almost iconic image."

Analogous to "The Director" and "The Actress" (Janet Leigh) are two ordinary people. Teresa Garza and Dan Watson are small-town lovers. She wants to be a famous singer; he directs her nightclub debut. Their relationship ends with her brutal murder: "The stairwell up to her apartment had a side wall smeared in blood. ..."

Muñoz's skillful use of second-person point-of-view in the opening and final chapters gives the story a cinematic feel -- you can almost hear the soundtrack as Candy, Teresa's co-worker, searches for her: "She's there, that girl. You looked for her among the faces surrounding the bathroom mirrors, but she was nowhere to be found. But you know she's there. ..." Candy also judges: She can't imagine how "that skinny brown girl who lived above the bowling alley" managed to snag "the most handsome man in town." The rest of the novel is told from a third-person point of view. It's an unusual approach, but the shift works.

With his debut novel, Muñoz knits a complex web of storylines into one smooth narrative, pulling the reader through backstory, action and multiple perspectives with the subtlety of a literary master -- or even a film director.

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