Seattle author Ross McMeekin is probably best known as the founder and editor of Spartan, the minimalist literary journal. Spartan has, over the course of a few years, become one of the more influential literary forces in the Seattle area; it’s rare to find a group reading in the city, for example, that does not include a Spartan author on the bill.
So when McMeekin announced that his debut novel would be published by Skyhorse in February of 2018, most local folks assumed that The Hummingbirds would be something, well, Spartan — that is to say: minimalist, and literary, and stripped-down, and interested in furthering the Seattle aesthetic McMeekin has promoted over the course of his career.
In fact, The Hummingbirds is something entirely different. Instead of something rain-soaked and sparse, it’s a joyfully lopsided sun-baked thriller set in modern Hollywood, a fairly classical psychological study in the vein of Jim Thompson about a handsome young groundskeeper and amateur photographer named Ezra who is hired by a movie star’s husband to keep watch on Sybil, his famous wife. Of course Ezra and Sybil wind up having an affair, and of course things threaten to turn violent.
This plot is characterized by one of the characters in the novel as “PI, noir shit.” And it must be said that a lot of this book does feel quite familiar. It’s the kind of book where someone caught in an illicit affair blurts out the cliché “It’s not what you think,” and the narrative doesn’t seem to be entirely aware of all the thousands of cheesy movies and paperback novels in which that canned response has been uttered.
Another overworked cliché is the scene in which the female protagonist — in this case, Sybil — briefly spots herself in a mirror, which then sets off the kind of rueful self-assessment that generally only happens in novels written by men:
She saw a brief glimpse of her body in the full-length mirror as she walked by, enough for a familiar dread to set in. Her beauty was fading, as was her career; matter of fact, they seemed to be competing for which would collapse first. She had a front row seat and no say in the outcome.
And sometimes, The Hummingbirds is stuffed with far too many words. Get a load of all the layers of meaning that get stacked on a simple chuckle:
He laughed, jowls quivering with each chuckle; its sound was gruff and trustworthy, a laugh that said I’m in control, but don’t worry, I’m benevolent. For a quick moment, Ezra wondered whether his own father might have laughed like that, might still be laughing like that.
That’s a lot of work for a mirthful sound: “gruff and trustworthy,” “in control” yet “benevolent,” and crammed full of all the attendant daddy issues of our narrator. Heaven forbid the chuckle expand into a full-on cackle or else that paragraph would have never ended.
The Hummingbirds raises an array of questions relating to intentionality. When a writer walks down the well-trampled paths of genre like this, how much cliché is acceptable? How much familiarity is preferable? And what purpose do these echoes of other genre works really serve?
McMeekin is intentionally playing at least some of these genre conventions up to get reactions from his readers. There’s a real and intense study of the strictures of noir storytelling going on in the background of The Hummingbirds.
And there’s also a very complicated conversation about artificiality and authenticity happening here, too. The image of Sibyl is consistently at war with the real Sibyl, both in the minds of her fans and in her own mind. A distracted Ezra learns that “Pretending to care about taking photographs was much more difficult than caring about taking photographs.” Simply acting out an action isn’t authentic enough, even in Hollywood. You have to struggle to find the depth to care about the action, to make it real somehow.
A very successful subplot in The Hummingbirds slowly unravels Ezra’s upbringing in a doomsday cult, and many of these passages are so raw and emotional that they tend to make the more aloof noir chapters feel lesser in comparison. Here’s a complex realization that takes place in a flashback early in the book:
…A terrible thought occurred to Ezra. What if he somehow prevented the Apocalypse? What if while everyone else had been confessing, out loud for everyone to hear, the Lord had been waiting on him to do the same, and because of Ezra’s pride, the Lord had decided to postpone the event? It was absurd, he knew it even as he thought it — who was he? — but at the same time, he could imagine how his name would be spoken of were it in Scripture: All the faithful were ready, but at the last minute the son of the Prophetess proved unfaithful, and for that reason the Lord decided to wait on His followers so that His followers would truly learn to wait on Him.
Imagine being a young boy who not only had to shoulder the certitude of the apocalypse, but also the nagging doubt that he was the one who accidentally kept the apocalypse from happening. Imagine that averting the end of the world wasn’t a heroic action of salvation but the failure of a morally insecure human being.
It’s not by mistake that Ezra already lives with the guilt of failing to cross the threshold into paradise. He exists in sunny Hollywood with movie stars and other beautiful people. He takes photographs of hummingbirds in a paradisiacal garden. But it’s never enough to make him happy. There’s always some new way to reject paradise, to ruin it for everybody else.
This theme — of religion and sacrifice, of the apocalypse and being unworthy — is by no means separate from the central noir plot of the book. What is Paradise Lost, after all, but the world’s first noir? Wasn’t it the great private investigator Lucifer who once said it’s better to work on your tan in hell than bore yourself to death in heaven?
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant