Existentially speaking, Alan Slater isn’t exactly moving mountains. At age 32, he’s a home windows salesman who drinks too much, smokes too much, and has such an anger management problem that he’s stooped to using a self-help method of counting dolphins to try and keep his head together during his many flare-ups. His boss seems to get a kick out of sending him on false sales leads, and while his 21-year old girlfriend is sexy and smart, their relationship brings him as much aggravation as it does satisfaction.
All of that notwithstanding, if it wasn’t for Slater’s friendship with his co-worker Les Beale, he would be just another regular bloke plodding his way along. If Slater’s a guy whose self-actualization process could use an overhaul, Beale is just a flat-out loser. But he’s worse than that, because he’s also dangerous. Beale abuses substances and he also abuses people. He’s a bully, a user, a boor, a racist, a gambling addict, and he’s the worst kind of ne’er-do-well: the kind who always thinks he’s just on the verge of hitting his big stroke of good fortune. Slater’s relationship with his girlfriend might be troubled, but at least he has a girl; Beale’s wife, fed up with his ways, left him some time ago, and took their daughter along with her. Beale’s the kind of shit that, when he goes down he has no qualms about taking others with him. Beale is Slater’s albatross. But he’s also Slater’s only friend.
As Slater, the narrator of the novel under discussion here—Ray Banks’s The Big Blind—describes his troublesome pal in an early part of the tale:
Beale’s a man that most people have trouble spending an hour with, me included. This is why I drink so much.
But as Slater explains later on in the story:
He’s not to everyone’s taste, granted. But he’s the closest thing I have to a friend and I’ll stand by him.
Stand by him, Slater does. Through an endless stream of fuzzy nights that see him acting as Beale’s chauffeur, chaperone, and bodyguard, as Beale goes from one gambling site to another through the drinks-sodden wee hours, risking his money and talking junk to various people who cross his troubled path. But it’s one thing for Slater to have to tolerate this kind of bother, and it’s even bad enough when one of their deranged nights ends with him running over a dog while he’s drunk driving, then having to dispose of the dead animal’s carcass in the pissing-down rain. No, all of that is child’s play compared to the real trouble Beale brings to Slater, which I won’t spoil for readers by telling about here.
So this is the storyline that drives The Big Blind, Banks’s debut novel from 2004, as published by Point Blank Press. Set to a great extent in the Manchester's gaming rooms, the book was an impressive U.K. debut that immediately put Banks on a par with modern-day masters of noir, such as Ken Bruen and Jason Starr. The characters, settings, and plot elements are all utterly contemporary, yet the novel’s theme—that of a (mostly) innocent person being brought down by association with a fuckup—is timeless, and something that calls to mind the best work of David Goodis.
Ray Banks’s writing is so evocative that when Slater suffers from a hangover, you feel his grueling aches and pains so keenly that you find yourself trying to remember how many drinks you had last night. When he reaches for an antacid tablet in an effort to offset an explosion of toxicity running through his innards, you remember the heartburn you felt after devouring that third slice of pizza while drinking too much red wine the week before last. Banks is also humorous, and this talent of his is no small feat in the world of noir fiction. In the best hardboiled novels, there generally isn’t a damn thing funny, as a hapless protagonist gets taken through some hellish, escalating nightmare. But Banks manages to work in some acerbic laughs while writing with a razor-sharp edge. This dual capacity of his is something akin to how bands like The Ramones or The Cramps were always able to pen song lyrics that evoked giggles, while remaining fully edgy and rocking and never allowing themselves to be reduced to novelty acts.
Following are just a few examples of Banks’s sardonic wit, as exemplified in The Big Blind. This one is from one of the many gambling house scenes in the novel. Remember that Slater is narrating:
Beale shakes his head and sniffs. “When a casino opens, the manager is supposed to spin the first ball on the roulette wheel, right?”
“The number that comes up is a lucky number for the casino. You never want to forget that number, man – it never comes in, I swear to God.”
“Which number was it?” I ask.
“Fuck knows. I was arseholed.”
Here’s Slater contending with a hangover:
I should get up. I smell bad and it’s doing nothing to stop my stomach lolling around inside. Bladder tight, stomach swinging like a pendulum and my brain smacking against my skull. I’d promise myself I’d never drink again, but it’s be such a whopper, I couldn’t live with myself.
And here he’s in reflection mode, while in the midst of the epic trauma that Beale has brought to his life:
You can’t have an open container of alcohol on the street. It’s illegal. The upstanding citizens of Manchester frown upon it.
The upstanding citizens can go shit in a bucket. They haven’t had the day I’ve had.
The Big Blind is far from Ray Banks’s only noteworthy book. His run of Cal Innes titles—particularly the first (Saturday’s Child, 2006) and last (Beast of Burden, 2009) in the series—are among the finest works of noir fiction done by anyone in recent years. But I’ve chosen to single out Banks’s first novel here because, for one thing, I don’t know that it’s gotten the same recognition as the Innes books, and it should. And, for another, it stands out to me as a particularly impressive debut work. It’s like when a new band comes out with a first album that’s so good that you’re immediately hooked by them; maybe they took things to deeper places with later releases, but because of the revelatory experience you had getting introduced to them via that initial effort, it’ll always have a certain hold over you.
Interestingly, for the e-book edition of this story that Blasted Heath released in 2011, Banks did a rewrite of the tale and changed the title to Dead Money. There are some differences in the plot between the two versions, such as Slater being married in the latter one, and his student girlfriend being the other woman. The writing in Dead Money is probably cleaner than that of The Big Blind, as you’d expect from an ace writer who’s had seven years to sharpen his stuff. Yet I find that I still prefer the original, its infectious feverish energy not quit there for me in the rewrite.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.