Oyster Boy Review 12  
  January 2000
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» Levee 67


Rick Harsch's The Driftless Zone

Jill Meyers

In La Crosse, Wisconsin, a man jumps off a bridge and then, in mid-air, decides against suicide. This opening image epitomizes the struggle that anti-hero Spleen lives daily—the struggle of making grim decisions, or, more often in his case, dealing with the aftermath of indecision. Spleen is a drifter in the Driftless Zone, living off his brother's money, sleeping with the crime boss's girlfriend, holding philosophical debates with cabbies, and never quite making it out of town. But he is more the norm than a standout in this noirish landscape where everyone—including cabbies and a snitch named The Fag With No Eyebrows—puzzles over metaphysical questions.

Technically, La Crosse is called the Driftless Zone because glaciers left it untouched, but novelist Rick Harsch uses the term to draw the town as an enervated community. It has lost its energy, its "drift"; its best people have chosen to move to larger cities. Nicholas Ray, director of Knock on Any Door and Rebel Without a Cause, is one of these people. Harsch pays him homage by reconstructing La Crosse through Ray's grainy lens. The effect is becoming: the town, all seedy underbelly and unsavory characters, transforms into punchy neo-noir. (Particularly adept is his introduction of a new binary, crooked cops and addled cabbies, "twins of the night," to the genre.) Harsch relies too heavily upon the archetypes of noir and classic film, however, and his characters never move outside their own conscious mimicking of film heroes. Though Spleen does finally act, and boldly, imitating Walter Matthau's actions in Charley Varrick, his plan lacks the brilliance and precision of timing of Matthau's star turn.