John Domini’s sagely genre-tweaking fourth novel, “The Color Inside a Melon,” is in some ways an old-fashioned noir. It’s set in Naples, a city with a seedy underbelly. There’s a corpse, of course — in this case that of a Somali migrant. There’s a crime that speaks to the darker recesses of humanity — rumors of a snuff film, filmed at a dance party. And most essentially, there’s a would-be detective who’s out of his depth but can’t leave well enough alone.
The ersatz gumshoe would be Aristofano, aka Risto, another Somali refugee who’s planted roots in Italy after escaping his homeland’s violence 15 years earlier. That’s long enough to establish himself as the owner of a prominent gallery bearing the evocative, biblical name of Wind & Confusion. But he’s also been around long enough to know his existence there will always be suspect and provisional.
“What did the police care about a brother cut to ribbons?” he thinks. If he wants the case of a dead black man solved, he’ll have to do some of the legwork himself.
The cross-cultural vibe is just one way in which Domini’s novel isn’t so old-fashioned. The narrative has its requisite share of mobsters, cops and bloodshed, but for Domini these are mainly pegs upon which to explore Risto’s sense of displacement and belonging.
Anti-immigrant blogs agitate against African refugees as “the virus that could bring down all of Europe,” and anybody who wants to stay in the country faces, if not outright violence, at least casual bigotry and mountains of paperwork. (Risto escaped the problem, at least somewhat, by marrying an Italian woman.)
So “Melon” functions as much as an assimilation novel as it does a noir. But it’s rhetorically offbeat, as well. Domini is an enthusiast for experimental and postmodern eminences such as John Barth and Steve Erickson, writers whose every sentence was microscopically tweaked for meaning and resonance. In the wrong hands, postmodern paragraphs can read as if they require a pickax to penetrate, and the plot in “Melon” can get dense, as Risto experiences hallucinatory visions that put halos around the heads of people in photos, a “mystic Photoshop” he often noodles over.
But as postmodern crime yarns go, this one is pretty spry, and especially well-turned when it comes to Risto’s struggle to reconcile the crime he’s solving with the violence he witnessed in his youth. The “thug economics”of contemporary Naples evokes the worst of Mogadishu, where “Risto got to see what a skull looked like several days after the machete split it.” The novel’s title is a deliberately queasy evocation of the image, a violent take on the romantic idea that we’re all the same on the inside.
Such Pollyannaish notions are worth attacking, Risto figures, because if we’re all the same on the inside, our insides could use some improving — especially when it comes to migrants. Naples is “a city that gets older but never gets anywhere,” he tells his wife at one point. “Everybody stays in the piazza. Everybody sits around the fire telling the old stories.” Domini’s novel is determined to push the noir — and us — out of well-worn ruts.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.” He writes frequently for the Star Tribune.
The Color Inside a Melon
By: John Domini.
Publisher: Dzanc, 340 pages, $16.95.
Coming Sunday: A review of “The Lager Queen of Minnesota,” by J. Ryan Stradal.