"Prudence Couldn’t Swim,” by James Kilgore, 2012
Some people think leftists can’t write. Kilgore proves them wrong, but then he was an ultra-leftist. He creates an interesting noir story of cons-with-hearts-of-gold who attempt to solve the Oakland, California murder of a beautiful Zimbabwean woman. Kilgore spent time in the Symbionese Liberation Army, escaping to South Africa to hide as a teacher for many years, then spending more time in a U.S. jail upon giving himself up. He uses this experience to flesh out the African side of this story – of desperate girls who try to find sugar daddies to get themselves out of lives of grueling poverty and labor. And by imbuing the book with fear and hatred of the police, fear of life in the joint, and the knowledge of living a double-life. This is the best part of the novel, as some people should be able to sympathize. We all live double-lives, don’t we?
Calvin Winter finds Prudence, his mail-order bride, floating face down in his upscale Oakland pool one evening. Calvin is an honest but none-too-bright small-time hustler who used to smuggle drugs, then people, and is now trying to go somewhat straight. Now he has another gig. He met Prudence while getting U.S. husbands for poor women from third-world countries who are trying to escape their fates. He spends the rest of the book with his ‘SS’ prison buddy Red Eye trying to trap the killer, narrowing it down to two rich creeps, and always being interfered with by vicious, racist cops. (“SS,” see review of “The Outlaws,” below.)
Calvin has a thing for keeping his carpets clean, likes a good scam, sports a harelip and is very short, so Winter has his comedic moments. Kilgore portrays him as a typical American schmuck who can’t find Zimbabwe on a map. He never gets to sleep with the beautiful Prudence, even though he is her legal ‘husband,’ which grates. Red Eye is loyal, way fat and has a hobby of entering hot-dog eating contests, which is funnier than it sounds. The book is a conventional noir, but illuminating the hard life of African immigrants to the U.S. – though portraying most immigrant women as gold-diggers is a two-edged sword. Police in noir film or books, unlike TV cops, are usually either crooked or stupid, and in this book they are both. Which they are in reality too. TV cops, on the other hand, are geniuses, as we all know. (See commentary, “The Meta-Meaning of Ridiculous Cop Shows,” below.)
There is a small cottage industry of making genre books less conventional and predictable, and Kilgore gives it a somewhat successful go. What is really missing from leftist fiction is actual books about the working-class, as this one only glances on the issue. Most books that depict the working class are comedic, or don’t exist. Just as black people get on TV to be buffoons or criminals, workers end up the same way. This is evidently because many leftist writers have more knowledge or fondness for lumpens than actual people who work in a warehouse, or sit in a cube all day.
And I bought it at Mayday Books, which has a good selection of progressive fiction.
November 6, 2013