Black Maria

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Kevin Young’s Black Maria is a strange treatit is a film noir in poems. As Young explains, “Black Maria” means both hearse and paddy wagon, and this story tells a tale of both. It creates the world of a detective story with the private investigator (PI), A.K.A. Jones, and a dangerous heroine, Delilah Redbone, who has come from the South to make her way in the city. The narrative is disjointed and creepy, marked by the turns and betrayals which are common to the detective films of the 1940’s. The poems appropriate all the clichés of dialogue and action common to the genre the book follows, but they have odd lyrical twists and riffs that keep the reader’s attention focused.

The cover indicates that the book was “Produced and directed by Kevin Young” and features a black jacket over a cover picture of a moll with stocking seams, red high heels and a gun; the hole in the cover reveals only her skirt hem, a glimpse of leg, and the gun. Thus the reader is made complicit by being invited to “look in,” and this sense of complicity, of looking through rather than at, is present throughout the collection. One is invited to look through the keyhole into the noir world, where the only thing one can count on is betrayal. The artistically designed book provides illustrated scene-division pages with brief hints about the action, and there is a film-noir feel to the book as an object.

There is a kind of freshness of snappy dialogue; the clichés are rebuilt to provide a continuous state of surprise. The clichés of detective novels and films of the 1940’s and 1950’s are deftly exploited, and a constant feature of the sequence is the clever wordplay that uses the language of the films and plays with it and distorts it, producing the effect of a performance. The book, in fact, seems to be a performance; it is a polyvocal recitation. The collection is divided into five parts or “reels,” each of which is introduced by a “voiceover” which summarizes the action, comments on the characters, and poses the question of the “reel.” The first sets the scene: “Aliases and ambushes. Throughout, a hint of a crime, or at least a world in which everyone is a suspect.” The noir world is maintained with consistency and wit throughout the collection.

The story involves the detective A.K.A. Jones, the femme fatale Delilah Redbone, and the other characters, who are identified by characteristics rather than names and who populate Shadowtown, the dim city where the mysterious events take place. The characters are not intended to be realistic, exactly, but are more like figures in a dark allegory. A.K.A. Jones is drawn toward Redbone despite repeated treachery; she is drawn toward money. “The Gang” surrounds the main characters and keeps the action flowing, comprising “The Killer,” “The Boss,” “The Goon,” “The Gunsel,” “The Snitch,” and “The Champ,” otherwise nameless characters who move through the bars and alleys of Shadowtown, creating an atmosphere of violence and fear. The pleasure of this book, as is often the case with Young’s poems, is largely in the sound of itthe spare interior monologues filled with topsy-turvy clichés and riffs and street language. The element of music is strong, even though this collection is not directly based on music.

The action begins with the meeting of Jones and Delilah and the beginning of his fatal attraction to her. The rest of the plot follows the reel titles: “Honeymoon Rain,” “Stone Angels,” “Low Noon,” “Alibi Saloon,” and “Hemlock Lane.” The PI, true to form, puts away a lot of scotch between attractions and betrayals. Redbone uses him repeatedly, and he is constantly...

(The entire section is 1518 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Black Issues Book Review 7, no. 2 (March/April, 2005): 34.

Booklist 101, no. 11 (February 1, 2005): 936.

Library Journal 130, no. 3 (February 15, 2005): 135.

The Nation 280, no. 18 (May 9, 2005): 28-32.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (May 1, 2005): 8.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 51 (December 20, 2004): 52.