Disaffection: A Review of Shadow Dance, by Martin Ott
Described as “the perfect L.A. Noir novel for our times,” Shadow Dance promises classic noir, but the novel is more than an example of the genre. There’s a gritty urban setting, as much of the present story takes place in L.A., but the protagonist comes from Louisiana and spends time in Afghanistan as a POW prison guard, two additional settings from his past. The protagonist has a bleak outlook on human nature, but much of his moral stance emanates from observing others and the events in front of him, and not knowing how to change anyone or anything.
To begin, he is goaded by a superior officer and belts him, separating him from the army. Then, he comes home to a girlfriend cheating on him with his own uncle. In addition, he believes his parents are dead. This severs him from Louisiana and his journey begins.
He heads for L.A. to seek his close friend Solomon, who is “like a brother.” His past comes with him, even as he changes his last name from Rivet to West and tries to leave his past behind. But he is “riveted” to his past. In addition, his first name, Buddy, is ironic because, through much of the novel, he is no one’s Buddy.
While this may be a noir novel on the surface, underneath it’s more than that. It’s the story of someone with a tough upbringing, a tough youth, and a tough army experience. The protagonist might well be one of many American youths disaffected from life experiences.
When West reaches L.A., he enters a new war, this one with a large Iranian family running the Club Paradise with all the noir elements. The owner with a dark side runs the club of pole dancers and prostitution, and engages in other illegal activities. His wife and daughter exhibit their own forms of disaffection and survival. West falls in love with the daughter, Nikki, even as he finds Solomon, who is out for what he can get. West navigates all this, even discovering that his parents are alive and living in Las Vegas.
The novel is first person point of view and Ott is successful in getting West to tell the story directly to the reader. This brings the reader completely into the story and West’s thoughts.
What makes this novel more than noir are the braiding of the stories of Louisiana and Afghanistan into the present L.A. story; the language, particularly the contrast between the terse dialogue and West’s interiority; and the images and metaphors.
An example of the dialogue/interiority contract can be seen in a conversation, when Solomon tells West that “something bad” is going to happen because it “always does,” and West explains “that’s why I’m here.” Solomon cuts to the chase, telling West, “You’re here because you’re lost, bro’.” This leap is great dialogue, moving the action and characters forward. They talk about leaving L.A., but Solomon says, “What’s wrong with us is something we can’t run from. You know that better than anyone.” They are conspirators in their flaws, the dialogue moving story and character forward again.
Immediately after this dialogue, the language shifts in tone as West speaks to the reader: “Solomon stared at the rivulet like he missed Old Man River,” the rivulet being a trickle of water they’re watching. The rivulet is in the present story. The Old Man River takes the reader into backstory, richly described with phrases like “primordial ooze, the legends of monster catfish and river creatures, the siren song to New Orleans.” The whole paragraph is rich with such images.
West is a reader, which provides a metaphor. Early in the novel, on his way to L.A., West encounters a minor character, who says he’s “addicted” to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, a detective who “has a knack for saving the day and never getting paid.” West braids in references to these novels, starting with “The Green Ripper” and reaching the last in the series, “The Lonely Silver Rain.” West wants to be McGee, saving people and righting wrongs. Even if the reader hasn’t read these novels, the savior element resonates.
The other backstory, his army life, particularly in Afghanistan, is interesting in light of Ott himself. West is portrayed as a POW guard, and he observes interrogators and sympathizes with the POWs. In the bio on the back cover, the reader learns that Ott, himself, is a “former U.S. Army interrogator,” an interesting twist. Perhaps Ott wanted to comment on interrogators in the novel or perhaps he didn’t want his novel to be too close to his own life, but the glimpse he offers into what it was like in Afghanistan, from his authentic experience, enriches both the novel and the reader’s understanding. For the character West, his experience in Afghanistan reveals his affinity for the underdog, revealing this savior desire early in the book.
As West travels west, taking the direction as his new name and identity, he enters his new war, this time with the Iranian family, but even as he falls for Nikki, he comes to understand that he can’t save everyone. He is ultimately saved because he chooses to act, to engage in events unfolding before him. When West is “set up” and implicated in a crime, he asks Nikki what she wants him to do, and she tells him to “show us that you’re a good person.” When Nikki moves to kill her father, West takes her hand with the gun in it, implicating himself by placing his fingerprints on the gun. The explosion “fills [his] hand with something approximating love,” and he accepts that there is no control in life. This release gives him peace, and he says there are “no shadows here in the dark.” Each chapter includes “shadow” in the title, but in the last chapter, “Sunrise Shadows,” the shadows leave.
As West drives away from L.A., he acknowledges that “people you trusted betrayed you, and a life without trust is no different from a battlefield.” His dreams of being a hero, based on grief and his “inability to keep people safe, including myself,” are gone with the shadows, and he looks to the future “to face the dance of a new day.”
This novel is not an easy read, but it’s an important one, giving the reader a glimpse into how harsh childhoods and wartime experiences can affect a human being.
Aline Soules’ work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Houston Literary Review, Poetry Midwest, The Galway Review, and others. Her book reviews appear in Tupelo Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, and Matter Monthly. She earned her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles in both poetry and fiction. Online: https://alinesoules.com.