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Eyes Full of Empty enhancedIf walking the dark streets of Paris, mayhem around every corner, learning skulduggery from residents of the banlieues, is your idea of pleasure then Eyes Full of Empty, the third volume of Jeremie Guez’ Paris noir series — the first in English, by Edward Gauvin– is for you.  For me, the gore gets more attention than the noir, and spoils the appetite.

Idir is a petty criminal about to get out after six months in the slammer.  His good friend Tarik brings him some blow for his birthday.

“This joint has fried my brain. Hash so bad you have to squeeze the glowing end till your thumb blisters, just to break it up.  … the fucking piece-of-shit hash has done time in plastic wrap, pockets, socks, probably even someone’s ass, before getting fobbed off in the yard.”

So there you are: opening page.

Jump cut: Ten years later.  He is trying to make it as a private dick, with all the talents and morals of his criminal self.  Great opening line:

If there are some people you don’t see anymore, it’s usually by choice.

Just the short, sardonic tone we like in our hard-boiled detective stories.

This particular person is Oscar Crumley whose beating landed Idir in the slammer; he is very rich and like the very rich needs “an easy answer to his problem.”  At a meeting across the street from the Rex movie theater (2nd arrondissement,) Crumley, whose nose Idir broke in three places ten years ago, asks him to find his half-brother, Thibaut, missing for more than a few weeks.  He is most likely gay despite having a girlfriend, he is smart but naive, intimated to be hanging with a bad crowd, and Idir isn’t to interview other family members. Not much to go on, and frankly not cynical enough in accepting the job.

In the early pages of Idir’s search he interrupts a copulating couple in Thibaut’s apartment (in the Marais), slaps the man around and meets Eve, “her full breasts pointing proudly my way,” who is Thibaut’s girlfriend (of sorts) as well as of the fellow she’s with.  As a way to get information he persuades Eve – with a pocket full of “party favors” — to take him where some of Thibaut’s friends will be.

Guez takes the old hard-boiled noir, and juices it for the twenty-first century.  Not enough to beat a guy unconscious, Idir beats him to death (he, of course, deserved it.)  Not enough to be tempted by his best friend’s wife, he beds her, or she him, and, well, the promising beginning turns down a bad road.  And, by the way, Idir doesn’t like his his family, and avoids them — all Kabyle (Berbers from Algeria)– unless he needs his smashed-up head stitched by his physician father.  All in all he is a pretty unlikable fellow.

The lines of two investigations –missing man, missing car– are fairly interesting, but not compulsive. Their tie-in seems more contrived than having grown naturally out of a time and place and characters. A major help to Idir, Cherif, promises to add texture to the story, but he appears mainly as an even tougher, badder guy than Idir, pulling him out of several scrapes.  We don’t learn much about him, or the milieu they inhabit.  Despite some flavor of the North African community in Paris, Guez doesn’t immerse us in it in the way say, writers of American mafia novels do of the transplanted and first generation Sicilians.

The English rendition by Edward Gauvin reads almost effortlessly.  Narrated in the first person by Idir as if telling a long recollection in the present indicative — “I pay, take a first sip, set my glass down on the counter. Take a look around.” —  the flow is chopped from time to time with jump-cuts, sometimes in sequence to the preceding bit, sometimes jumping off to an unknown, and unfamiliar place, without linkage — and so, to our puzzlement.  Being puzzled isn’t always bad, but in a forward rushing crime novel, I think fewer “wait a second, what just happened?” pauses are better.  Gauvin has a sure handle on up to date American street slang, though I did  wonder from time to time, what the French looked like.  “Fucktard,” “you can’t see for shit,” “the fuck you doing here?,” “douchebags,” “I’m a huge pussy,”are all commonplace English in certain circles but does French slang do the same, with the same level of aggression? Does French combine fucked and retard into fucktard as English does?  If not, is the sense I get from the book not only the author’s “gangster” writing but something further juiced by the translation?

The other edge of the translation sword is when the language register is mixed.  This can happen in the original as well.  When a street-thug uses PhD language we notice: is this for some purpose, an indication of character, background, pomposity, or is it because the writer is unaware? If a character in Paris uses a very American phrase is it because he knows it, and affects it, or because the American slang seemed plausible for French slang?  So, in the English of Eyes Full of Empty, my attention meter quivered at “window of opportunity,” “sipping my gross coffee,” “another cuppa joe?,” and “he sets down his cutlery.”

Within the tough obscenity bejewled language there are quite a few images that seem original and from the world of the novel:

[I eye] a hideous painting in the hallways.  Like the guy who did it squeezed a bunch of colors down his throat and threw them all back up on the canvas.”

And some nice insights into humanity.

[He had] the face of a young guy who hasn’t made the right choices in life but doesn’t know it yet.”

While I began losing interest in thugs with good intentions some years back not all feel the same way. Here are some upbeat appreciations, including from James Ellroy, here, here and here.

 The Un Named Press, which published Eyes Full of Empty, has a nice catalog of noirish and off-beat stories from writers beyond the U.S borders.  Step out of the ordinary, have a look