– Post by Molly
I’ll admit it. I picked this one mainly for the title of the book – I’m a sucker for anything with violence and facial hair in it, and this book clearly had both. Aside from the amazing title, and the novel’s Brazilian setting, I knew nothing else about this book when I started reading it. After finishing it, I can confirm that the contents of Blood-Drenched Beard, Daniel Galera’s first novel to be translated into English, are just as good (as impossible as this might sound) as the title.
Blood-Drenched Beard follows an unnamed protagonist who, after his father’s suicide, takes his father’s dog and moves to a tiny seaside town. The picturesque village is perfect for triathlon training and far from the prying eyes of concerned relatives. His ulterior motive for moving to the middle of nowhere? In the 1960s, his grandfather had lived in this same seaside town until his murder at the hands of angry townspeople in an act of vigilantism.
“Much of what makes a noir can be found in this valley of the uncanny between the readers’ interests and the the characters’ needs.”
Galera’s hero resembles his grandfather enough to spook the townspeople. Initially he finds little help in his quest, and quickly loses himself in the grueling physicality of extreme fitness training while overcoming his grief and working to prove that his father’s dog, too, can thrive after his father’s death. His lack of clarity finds literal representation in the main character’s face blindness: secondary characters, depending on their context, go back-and-forth between familiar and unfamiliar, friend and stranger, in the perfect marriage of character trait and noir sensibility.
In Blood Drenched Beard, Galera’s attempts to solve what I like to think of as the Hard-Boiled vs. Healthy Dilemma. Authors today usually do not embrace the chain-smoking and gin-guzzling antics of their predecessors; not without catching a fair amount of flack for glamorizing bad habits, anyway. When authors step outside the traditional trifecta of booze, beatings, and tobacco, they are confronted with a new problem: how, outside of these habits, can they mimic the obsessive nature and cool style of a hard-boiled detective? How are they to go about pushing the main character to the brink of mental and physical collapse (a necessary part of any well-written noir) without also passing on his or her bad habits to the reader?
“When authors step outside the traditional trifecta of booze, beatings, and tobacco, they are confronted with a new problem: how, outside of these habits, can they mimic the obsessive nature and cool style of a hard-boiled detective?”
Some have dealt with this problem by simply substituting a drug more suitable for modern consumption. Pineapple Express, one of the more creative crime films made in recent years, merely substitutes marijuana for cigarettes, as does the HBO show Bored to Death, while Matthew Scudder, Lawrence Block’s eternal detective, made the switch from bars to AA in the early 80s and has stuck with coffee since. Other authors have responded to this dilemma by having their detectives simply consume every drug, thus potentially negating any particularly harmful influence to the reader by focusing on just one. Detective Sean Duffy, protagonist of Adrian McKinty’s Troubles Trilogy, may smoke like a chimney, but he also smokes opium, hash, and heroine, snorts coke while downing valium with a whiskey chaser, and by the end of the series, steals enough drugs from the evidence locker to be able to open up his own pharmacy.
An author can also choose, in place of substance abuse, to substitute addiction to a behavior or ideology. Galera’s hero is an avid triathlete before his move to the Brazilian coast. His devotion to exercise grows alongside his obsessive search for his grandfather. He eventually undertakes a trip to the Brazilian interior that physically taxes him to the mask, bringing him to an almost total physical breakdown, and leads to that magical noir eureka moment where he is pushed to the brink of endurance and and is thus able to find clarity.
The protagonist’s approach to excessive exercise is the perfect noir response to today’s fitness culture: take a popular habit and turn it into a dangerous obsession. Much of what makes a noir can be found in this valley of the uncanny between the readers’ interests and the the characters’ needs.
“Galera has written a novel set in an ever-changing country, mired in its past yet looking towards its future.”
Blood Drenched Beard, come to think of it, explores the Valley of the Uncanny in multiple constructs. The unnamed hero sees himself reflected in his father’s eyes as his grandfather. To escape his father’s crushing legacy, he decides to relocate to the town that killed his grandfather, to whom he bears an increasing resemblance as the the novel continues. His search for his grandfather quickly becomes a search for himself.
The main character’s face blindness, too, explores the valley of the uncanny – a familiar figure, in a different context, or even different outfit, instantly becomes a stranger. His failure to recognize his own resemblance to his grandfather parallels the village’s recognition of his face as that of his grandfather’s, allowing him to sublimate his own identity into that of his grandfather, instead of escaping his father’s legacy through establishing his own, independent concept of self.
Galera’s novel exists on many levels. It is a deep and powerful novel about family, identity, and community memory. Galera subtly explores the fear and paranoia characterizing Brazil’s military dictatorship of the 1960s, as well as the uncertainty of political, economic, and environmental change in modern-day Brazil. The novel delves into conflicts between fathers and sons, cities and country towns, and modernity and tradition; Galera has written a novel set in an ever-changing country, mired in its past yet looking towards its future. Blood-Drenched Beard reflects all the contradictions and inspirations of its setting, and is a great novel for so doing.
You can find copies of Blood-Drenched Beard on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.