En español | What You See in the Dark, Chicano writer Manuel Muñoz’s first novel after two short story collections, is a performance in literary night vision set in his hometown of Bakersfield, California, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Drawing on tremendous empathy and an exacting eye for detail, Muñoz conjures up a vanished era in which the people nevertheless feel indelibly real. Through a small cast of characters, he gives the reader an intimate look into dark places both literal and metaphorical: the anticipatory dimness in a movie theater, the well of regret inside a devastated older woman, a late-night murder in a shadowy stairwell.
The victim of the mysterious murder in the stairwell is Teresa, a young Mexican American who lives a lonely existence until she takes up with the local hunk, Dan Watson. Going back before her death and moving forward, the narrative plumbs Teresa’s and other people’s lives in the town, excavating their desires and disappointments. One of the characters the reader ends up spending time with is, curiously enough, Hollywood star Janet Leigh, referred to only as “the Actress.” Accompanied by Alfred Hitchcock and a driver, Leigh passes briefly through Bakersfield for a day shoot during the making of the iconic scare flick Psycho. Leigh’s brief encounter with Dan Watson’s aging mother, Arlene, provides the beguiling point at which Teresa and the town’s story obliquely tangles with that of the movie and its famously shocking shower scene.
While the looming presence of Psycho makes for an especially intriguing aspect of the book — Muñoz finds opportunities to contemplate, without tipping into tediousness, such subjects as storytelling, acting, depictions of violence, and American versus European cinema — another of the novel’s chief pleasures is its language. Muñoz’s lean, graceful prose, shot through with quiet bursts of poetry, enlivens every page. Here’s a quick sampling: “the hushed violet of five in the morning,” “an electric necklace of shimmering bulbs,” and “they sounded … silky, like looking at cigarette smoke but not having to smell it.” As beautifully as he can write, Muñoz never lets style trump story, and he never lets his characters — least of all Arlene, Dan’s long-suffering mother — be reduced to simple phrases.
Abandoned years before by her husband, then later by her grown son (it’s not giving anything away to say that Dan disappears after Teresa’s murder), Arlene feels alienated from her past. "When she looked up from the counter, it was 1968 and she was 56 years old. It was as if she’d never been anybody’s anything." Through Arlene, the reader experiences the erosions of time as Bakersfield changes, trading in the past for the promise of the future — a promise that holds little light for Arlene. But as Muñoz so aptly puts it: “What you do with darkness is pitch yourself into it.” While Arlene may not have it in her to do so, this is a sentiment all readers will relate to, even without night vision to guide them.