The Stuff Of Dreams
A Novel by Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
Weeb Publishers 241 pages
Reviewed by Jim Tuck
*Review first published in The Guadalajara Reporter
One never ceases to be impressed by the versatility of novelist/film director/screenwriter/magazine editor/cultural commentator Alejandro Grattan. This quality is even more remarkable since a main current running through several of his published novels and movies is the interaction of three cultures: Irish, Mexican-American and Mexican. Yet one never gets the impression of a writer in a rut. He may be consistent in his choice of theme but is multi-faceted in both narrative and philosophical emphasis.
The Stuff of Dreams is a story of two Irish-Mexican-American brothers who are part of an intrigue involving Mexico’s archeological treasures. On first reading you have the feeling that you’re back in the noir world of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain. As you read of a prostitute “whose body was on a short-term lease,” you could be in the pages of Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon or The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Yet it would be unfair to confine Grattan to the corral of such famous literary mustangs. Enormously talented though they were, these adepts of the Southern California School of Hard-Boiled Fiction lacked a moral dimension to their spare, tough-guy prose. That attribute is shared by Grattan and a 20th century French writer who mingled realism and idealism with the virtuosity of Brillat-Savarin preparing his latest culinary gem.
I refer to Albert Camus. While some may consider it a stretch to envision a link between the Southern California hard-boiled realists with an author whose wartime (WWII) writings caused him to be hailed as “the conscience of the French Resistance,” it was Camus himself who acknowledged his debt to the bards of the 1930s/40s style roman noir.
Camus always pitted his ethical vision against philosophical absurdism, which he equated with moral indifference. In discussing his best-known work, The Stranger, Camus made no secret that he had been influenced by the afore-mentioned trio. His unforgettable creation is an alienated man officially sentenced to death for killing an Arab but actually because the jury is repelled by the man’s failure to weep at his mother’s funeral.
But back to Grattan-Dominguez. Few people are harder-boiled cases than “Frank” and “Danny,” the O’Malley brothers. (Grattan’s insights are possibly shaped because he shares their ethnic background.) Frank, a once-successful, hard-driving film director, is a classic victim of the “You’re only as good as your last film” syndrome. When a Hollywood deal goes sour, he reluctantly teams up with Danny, whom he has not seen since they were both very young men. If Frank is a “has-been,” Danny is a “never-was” desperate to free himself from this unenviable status.
While I won’t invade the author’s space by revealing much of the novel’s fascinating story, you’ll encounter characters that won’t easily come unstuck from your consciousness: a redneck Borgia named “Wade Wilson,” “Professor Mondragon,” a Moriartyish figure every bit as sinister as Conan Doyle’s creation, “Topolobompo,” a scheming pseudo-cop with the appearance of a crow and the instincts of a vulture and “Calvin Carter,” a booze and drug-ridden idiot-savant who often comes up with ingenious solutions to seemingly insoluble problems.
The novel’s supreme moment comes when the author finally doffs his Cain/ Chandler/Hammett hat and dons the chapeau de Camus as the brothers, after developing a deep affection for the people—as well as a great respect for the cultural heritage of the country they came to pillage—make the costliest sacrifice of their entire lives, a decision which in an O’Henry-like twist, leads directly to the realization of some of their fondest dreams.
With this adroit maneuver, the novel transcends the slagheap world of the afore-mentioned famous literary trio and brings Grattan’s oeuvre into line with Camus’ literary principle of combining riveting action with strict adherence to moral principles.
(Note: Seven of the author’s novels and a collection of some 100 of his published articles, short stories and film/political/book commentaries are now on Kindle and Quality Softback. Typing in his name on amazon books will bring them into view.)