Cannonball Read 15 Bingo Square “On the Road”: Three men have travelled from Chicago to Santa Fe in a complicated game of cat and mouse
I think that Dorothy B. Hughes’s writing, at its best, possesses a terrible beauty, to borrow a phrase from W.B. Yeats’s “Easter, 1916.” Elsewhere, of course, Yeats wrote that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”, a fragment of a phrase that beats at the dark heart of noir fiction, where comforting myths of love, or integrity, or fairness implode like dying stars, fade like the spark of a bullet tracing across the night sky.
Sailor is falling apart; he’s travelled from his home turf of Chicago to Santa Fe, on the trail of his former employer, a glad-handing senator with a moneyed smirk, who is in town for the Fiesta. Sailor’s purpose is blackmail–as the Senator’s former fixer, he’s seen some shit, and now he intends to be paid off so he can start a new life in Mexico. Complicating matters is the Senator’s paranoia and unscrupulous wielding of his privilege, as well as the unexpected presence of Mac, a Chicago cop who shares Sailor’s poverty-stricken background and suspicions of the Senator, but won’t allow Sailor to act outside the law, and Iris Towers, a beautiful young society woman Sailor imbues with saintly purity: “The blonde was important to the Sen. So important he’d crawl over the body of a dead woman to get to her? Revulsion filled his mouth. Iris Towers was too clean to be in a bloody bed.” (p. 36)
Sailor is adrift and out of his depth–the desert is a whole new ecosystem for him, as is the town. He’s not used to a place that’s so small you can’t find a bed to buy for the night, or where not everyone speaks English, or where you can’t bribe your way to blending in, or where the land and night loom at you, unfiltered by streetlights and city noises.
He mustn’t do anything to make Mac believe he was a killer. Cool off first, see the Sen. tomorrow early, hard and sure of himself. He turned left, out of the hotel.
Out on the street. The night cold closed around him. Cold enough for frost, on the earth. And he had nowhere to go. No place to lay his head. But on the earth. He shoved his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders. There should be a warm room, a soft enough bed. He shouldn’t have to sleep in the dirt another night. (p. 170)
Sailor is confronted not only by his own troubled past, but that of America. Hughes’s writing about the indigenous population of New Mexico is complicated, even for 1946–she acknowledges white colonisers as interlopers, but describes people of Native American and Spanish descent with an awkward mixture of respect, unease, mysticism, and condescension. The novel is focalized very tightly via Sailor, whose casual racism is, at least to begin with, very informed by his own limited experience and education, and who is not a good man.
Ride the Pink Horse is a claustrophobic and bleak novel of suspense; its unsympathetic characters grapple with moral choices that can never quite make sense in this world of saints’ holy days and murder for sale. The “pink horse” of the title is on a rickety carousel, a fairground attraction run by a man Sailor gradually comes to respect, even be fond of–but it also suggests a lost childhood innocence–or a childhood innocence that never was, as well as the cyclical nature of crime and sin, a “turning and turning in the widening gyre” where the “falcon cannot hear the falconer”. I think it’s brilliant.
Title quote from Leonard Cohen’s “Steer Your Way” (2016)