Millard Kaufman’s posthumously published novel evokes noir films of the past in the contemporary labyrinth of Los Angeles.
Jack Hopkins is a real-estate agent, and things aren’t looking too bright for him. You might think that’s just a sign of the times, but Jack is a Gulf War veteran living in mid-1990s Los Angeles. It’s not that business at Fleet and Fleet Real Estate is all that bad—it’s just that Jack hates the business. Uninspired, restless, and fickle, Jack halfheartedly agrees to meet yet another client, who proceeds to turn his world upside down: the beautiful, coy, and manipulative Darlene Hunt, a femme fatale cut from the Brigid O’Shaughnessy mold, who offers him ten million dollars to kill her husband.
Such is the setup for Millard Kaufman’s second novel, the posthumously published Misadventure, a rollicking comic-noir page-turner that is equal parts Elmore Leonard and Dashiell Hammett, with bits of Glengarry Glen Ross and Lolita thrown in for good measure.
Darlene’s husband is Tod Hunt, a severe man who carries a torch for his fourteen-year-old ex-housekeeper and who boasts a penchant for throwing coffee pots when enraged. He would seem to be the perfect villain and an easy target for Jack, but, as is the case with any good noir novel, nothing in Misadventure is ever so cut and dried.
Complicating matters is the fact that Hunt doubles as a real-estate mogul and Goliath to Fleet and Fleet’s David. Looking to merge with Fleet and Fleet for opaque reasons, Hunt draws Jack into his confidence and makes him a counteroffer—to kill Darlene. Thus begins a spiraling and labyrinthine tale of murder, mayhem, statutory rape, and real estate that will have the reader laughing, cringing, and guessing until the very end.
Kaufman’s debut novel, Bowl of Cherries, was published in 2007 when the author was ninety years old. A World War II veteran nominated for two Oscars for screenwriting (Take the High Ground! in 1953 and Bad Day at Black Rock in 1955) and the co-creator of Mr. Magoo, Kaufman passed away in 2009. From page one, Misadventure sparkles with the late writer’s wit and wisdom. His prose is precise, efficient, and often surprising. Elegant words like “miasma,” “bromides,” “paucity” and “diaphanous” mingle easily with visceral classics like “batshit,” “wanko,” and “dumb fucking horse’s ass.” Jack feels as if he’d “caught a wet flounder across the mouth” when he learns that his live-in girlfriend has moved out; his boss, Jerry Senior, has a “marshy head.” That the plot eventually leads Jack in search of a strange, unknown island off the coast of Baja partially explains all the watery imagery.
Jack Hopkins serves as a compelling noir narrator—possessed of a perfect mix of self doubt and self determination, a knack for well-timed violence, and of course, an unthinking ease with the opposite sex, all of whom throw themselves upon him at one point or another. Kaufman’s other characters leap off the page with vivid insistence, defined as much by their foibles as their physiques. Jerry Senior keeps a gold toothpick on him at all times, and is described as “a man full of exquisite self-tortures, all of them inflicted by that toothpick.” Jack’s girlfriend, Gayle, has a penchant for pulling his leg-hairs out with her toes and digging plaster from the wall for a mid-day snack.
That the three female characters fulfill the stereotypes of the femme fatale, the nymphet, and the nag makes Misadventure feel dated at first; as the novel progresses, though, Kaufman deepens and rounds these females into three-dimensions. But all three still function primarily as sex objects—the most problematic of these being the 14-year-old Carmen Ochoa, Tod Hunt’s would-be mistress. That precocious Carmen is perhaps the wisest of the novel’s characters feels unrealistic, an authorial justification for her sexuality. But by the end, when all has been laid bare, Carmen emerges as perhaps the most fascinating—if still problematic—character in the book.
To his credit, Kaufman never stoops to judgment of his characters, preferring to present them in all their sticky, amoral glory. “People are endlessly interesting, but on the other hand,” one character acknowledges, seeming to articulate Kaufman’s own thesis on humanity, “they can be mean, miserable pains in the ass.” Such is the world of Misadventure—a fascinating array of damaged thugs, lowlifes, schemers, millionaires, nymphets, and manipulators, all of whom straddle the line between sympathy and incredulity: complex and imperfect people struggling to ride the waves of a complex and imperfect world.