It’s no secret that Eugene Robinson is a tough guy with a dark turn of mind. It’s a reputation that he earned as the front man for noise-rock provocateurs Oxbow and one that was only bolstered by his first book-length foray into the literary world: Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking. But the thing that got me excited about A Long Slow Screw, Robinson’s first published work of fiction, was an under-publicized collaboration with European post-rock collective Strings Of Consciousness. At more than nine minutes long, “Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness” was like noir concentrate injected straight into the base of the skull. Robinson’s moaning, keening spoken word weaved a hallucinogenic tale of betrayal and frustrated revenge. The confusion, the anxiety, the sheer neurosis of Robinson’s narrator got to the very heart of noir.
And this is important, because, though noir and hardboiled literature have become common-place throughout the entertainment industry, they remain frequently misunderstood. Like punk rock, noir has become so closely identified with specific stylistic hallmarks that most people don’t realize it represents a deeper philosophy, a particular way of looking at the world that is not limited to the clipped, Hemingway-esque prose of Hammet or the tarnished knights of Chandler. Central to the noir universe is noir scholar Nicholas Christopher’s image of the city as a labyrinth built of seedy back allies and dead-end dives. The archetypal noir hero is not the grizzled detective or the unflappable tough guy, but the low-life, the loser who dreams too big and reaches too far.
The novel (which takes its name from a Swans concert video compilation from the mid 80s) reflects this understanding. The central idea, according to an interview with the author on BrooklynVegan, is “the functioning of filthy lucre and our relationship to the corrosive power of cash…” It’s a theme Robinson remains unwaveringly faithful to. Even the most virtuous are not immune to its wicked allure. The economic circumstances of the characters circumscribe everything that they do, and in Robinson’s vision of New York of the late 70s, The Big Apple comes across like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s like there are two New Yorks: the safe, brightly lit one inhabited by office workers and day traders, and its nocturnal sister, the subterranean caverns inhabited only by predators and bigger predators. Throughout the novel, we get glimpses from afar of the daytime world of 9-5 jobs, which looks, at turns, opulent and hopelessly drab to the souls damned to the underworld of the shadow city.
The majority of the novel’s action centers around three principal characters. There’s Jake, a former leg-breaker gone straight, whose theft of a shipment of uncut diamonds thrusts him and his girlfriend, Easy, into the labyrinth. They quickly find themselves squeezed between two of the city’s major players: Joey “Bag o’ Donuts” Baggo, a rapacious independent operator, and Bloom D’Blue, a flamboyant and deadly liaison between the mafia and the legitimate business world. The latter two are some of Robinson’s finest creations. Baggo is a figure worthy of Dante: grotesquely obese, unrepentantly treacherous, and above all constantly hungering for more. Without hesitation, Baggo double-crosses Jake when he tries to enlist the crime-lord’s aid in fencing the stolen diamonds. Yet, for all of his wealth and dirty dealings, Baggo dwells in squalor, running his ragged empire from the fetid confines of his office in a scrap yard (not so subtly named “The All American”), from which he almost never emerges. He’s like a corpulent spider trapped in the center of his own web, a bottomless appetite consuming everything that comes within reach. Bloom D’Blue, by contrast, swathes himself in luxury. Despite being openly gay in a macho criminal underworld, he is feared and respected for both his physical prowess and his ruthless cunning. A captivating mixture of brutality and refinement, D’Blue dominates almost every scene he’s in, but by the novel’s end feels tragically under-utilized.
As a vicious immorality play, A Long Slow Screw functions brilliantly. As an actual narrative, however, it doesn’t quite stack up. This is due, in no small part, to Jake’s utter lack of relatability. He is avaricious and self-serving to a fault and treats anyone who cannot be of immediate use to him with contempt. The one facet of his character meant to humanize him for us—his intractable love and devotion to Easy—is rendered totally unbelievable by his greed and selfishness. Easy herself is a complete cipher. Her only motivation seems to be to stand by her man (albeit grudgingly, on occasion), even when that comes at the cost of her home, her job, and potentially her life. And while Robinson drops hints that perhaps Jake and Easy’s relationship is not built on as firm a foundation as it seems, the narrative never really plays this possibility out. As a result, it feels like there’s a vacuum at the novel’s center, leaving the reader a little disengaged from the action.
Robinson has spoken favorably of the artistic license that Robotic Boot (a publishing imprint of Hydra Head Records) gave him in writing his book. While I can understand the appeal of being able to write what you want without having to answer to an editor, this novel would definitely have benefited from a pair of more critical eyes. There are too many ancillary characters that pull the narrative down blind alleys and dead-end streets, derailing the break-neck pacing that a story like this needs in order to give the conclusion the necessary sense of inevitability.
Although A Long Slow Screw falls short on a lot of levels, Robinson still shows more than a glimmer of promise as an author of hardboiled fiction. He sidesteps the common pitfall of recording artists attempting to cross over into the literary world: that is, A Long Slow Screw reads like a novel written by Eugene S. Robinson rather than self-made Eugene Robinson fan fiction (And the Ass Saw the Angel, I’m looking in your direction). He’s already proven himself well-versed in the philosophy of the gutter and the poetry of the streets. I only hope that in future efforts, he will continue to hone the fundamentals of his craft in order to keep his audience engaged in every twist and turn along the journey to the blackened heart of the dark city.