The title of Manuel Munoz’s first novel, “What You See in the Dark,” refers, among other things, to that act of unashamed voyeurism called moviegoing. At the heart of Munoz’s novel, set in Bakersfield, California, in 1959, are the preparations for the making of “Psycho,” which would come out the next year. Munoz understands Hitchcock’s thriller as a series of ruptures presaging the greater ruptures waiting in the wings of American life. Among those ruptures was this: “Psycho” was the first film to suggest that what we saw in the dark, saw us.
The first shot, the camera sneaking into a cheap motel room to catch Janet Leigh and John Gavin in a midday tryst, invites us to be voyeurs. After that, Hitchcock arranged the film so that it’s the moviegoer who’s under scrutiny.
The “cruel eyes” watching you that Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates speaks of are there in the photos of relatives looking down on Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane as she prepares the getaway with the $40,000 she’s stolen; in Marion’s boss looking enquiringly at her as he catches sight of her hightailing it out of town; the cop interrogating Marion from behind his impenetrably dark aviator glasses; the stuffed birds looking down on her in the parlor of the Bates Motel; Norman watching Marion undress through a peephole; Marion’s dead eyes staring accusingly into the camera after her murder; the surprised and terrified eyes of the detective Arbogast looking into the camera after his face has been slashed; the rotted eyes of Mrs. Bates’ corpse mocking us; those same eyes superimposed on the face of her now completely insane son as he leers obscenely at us after complaining of the eyes he imagines watching him.
The eyes in Munoz’s novel aren’t as cruel, but they’re nearly as prevalent. Mostly they’re the small-town eyes primed to notice every bit of public behavior and use that information to speculate on private behavior. One pair of those eyes belong to the unnamed waitress at the local diner, the character whose voice bookends the novel. She’ll surrender to the clumsy and earnest longings of local boys at the drive-in, but she only has eyes for Dan Watson, the good-looking bartender whose mother, Arlene, is the diner’s senior waitress, and the proprietor of a motel on the outskirts of town.
Elsewhere, the eyes belong to the audience drawn to Los Cuatro Copas, the club where Dan tends bar and where he plays guitar to accompany the occasional singing appearances of Teresa, the Tex-Mex girl he’s started seeing, much to the disappointment of the women in town whose eyes drink him in greedily. They belong to the day laborers who gather in the dawn hours outside Teresa’s apartment, hoping they’ll find work, catcalling to her when she leaves for her day job in the stock room of the local shoe store. They belong to Cheno, the shy one of their number, who quiets the catcalls, and shyly brings Teresa small presents. The eyes belong to Dan’s mother, Arlene, not quite approving of the attention Dan is showing the Mexican girl, and refusing to see the changes coming into Bakersfield, like the freeway that will leave her motel far from the view of anyone who might stop there for the night. The eyes in the novel also belong to the young waitresses Angela works with, all agog when The Actress (read: Janet Leigh) comes into their diner. (Not knowing that the man lunching with her is her driver, they assume that she’s cheating on the husband they read about in the movie magazines.) And the eyes belong to The Director (read: Alfred Hitchcock), who’s come to town to look at local motels to get ideas for the one that will figure in his film.
Slipping in and out of the consciousness of these characters, Munoz uses what’s essentially the story of a small-town romance gone bad to recreate the feel of America in the fragile moment when things that were whispered, known but not acknowledged, were about to break into the open.
I said that Munoz understands “Psycho” as a series of ruptures. When Arlene goes to see it, she walks out, shocked — but before Marion’s murder. That’s crucial to Munoz’s understanding that the shock of “Psycho” isn’t just Hitchcock killing off the star 45 minutes into the picture, or the manner of Marion’s death. What shocks Arlene is the sight of Janet Leigh in her brassiere — and, in the moments before Marion is murdered, the first-ever sight of a toilet in an American movie. Here is Munoz describing the moment:
“Arlene rose to her feet and walked with purpose up the aisle, the silhouettes in the dark leaning to see around her. She could hear the pull of the shower curtain and she grimaced at the audacity of people like that Actress, people like that Director, people who reveled in adultery, in bras and cleavage and hairy chests, in theft, in deceit, in madness, in nakedness, in peepholes and lurid spaces. Arlene pushed her way through the velvet-padded door of the screening room to the plush carpet of the lobby, no one out there except the clerk at the concession stand.” [p. 204]
It’s as if, in that passage, a wall has fallen between the luxury that used to denote the movies (the padded door and carpeted lobby) and the starkness of what’s now on screen. This is the moment when the movies cease to be “the movies.” Arlene turns her back on it, but the dislocation “Psycho” presaged is what, in a few years, will define the world she knew.
The way Munoz suggests art bleeding into life has less to do with the echoes of Hitchcock’s film in his novel’s plot — a good employee’s impulsive theft; the murder of a young woman; the mother who smothers her son; the roadside motel slowly dying — than with the irruption of the unforeseen into what seemed like the immutable touchstones of everyday life. No one expects a star to be killed 45 minutes into a movie. And no one expected a young president to be killed, or, as Arlene sees when she watches Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte sing a duet on television, a white woman to rest her hand on a black man’s arm. No one expects businesses that have been solid fixtures of life to decline and die. (Imagine a world without Woolworth’s.) And Arlene, stuck behind the increasingly shabby plate glass of the diner windows is, like Janet Leigh, imprisoned behind what might be a screen of another kind, sentenced to live out the slow winding down of everything that once seemed certain.
None of this would sting had Munoz not made the changes we see coming to Bakersfield hurt in the way that any interruption of life as it is lived hurts. His prose is precise, his people alive and yet ghostly, as if, like the streets and characters we see in “The Last Picture Show,” the people, the town itself, everything were in rehearsal for its own disappearance. What I keep coming back to in this remarkable first novel is a passage of Teresa watching the light of dawn slowly come through the window of her one-room apartment. The colors have that Sierra Club feeling you always associate with the west, saturated yet delicate. Maybe it’s perverse to remember an image of the rising sun in a novel in which the dark figures so prominently, but it seems the only thing here fixed enough for anyone to count on.
“What You See in the Dark” by Manuel Munoz, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $23.95.