The heated relationship of actor, director, and camera proves more durable a flame than a gossiped-about crosstown romance in Manuel Muñoz’s debut novel, What You See In The Dark, an evocation of small-town ’50s America slowly letting in the outside world. Teresa, a Bakersfield shoe-store clerk who dreams of becoming a singer, is scrambling to an audition for her first gig when she meets and falls for nightclub manager Dan Watson. The most sought-after bachelor in town, Dan pursues Teresa over the objections of his mother and their Latino and white neighbors alike (including Teresa’s coworker, who narrates the novel’s opening without hiding her own designs on him), until tragedy separates them for good. Coinciding with the beginning of their affair is the arrival of a famous actress (referred to only as “The Actress”) who’s working on a movie for a once-innovative director now considered past his prime. Playing a married man’s mistress instead of an ingénue for the first time, The Actress struggles to locate the character whose death sequence she has come to town to shoot, weighing the backlash from her fans against the director’s promise that his new film will break ground with audiences who have grown accustomed to his tricks.
Introduced as an interlude, the story of The Actress and the complicated chemistry between herself, her driver, and the director gradually replaces the lovers’ passions in attention and interest. Muñoz’s recreation of a famous movie scene from its participants’ perspective deliberately builds to a crescendo unmatched by any other word or gesture in What You See In The Dark, pulling in the townspeople’s disapproval and The Actress’ fears for her career and reputation, and blending them into a creation story more beautiful than terrifying, regardless of the result.
When the love story this work of art faces re-enters the picture, it’s with elegance but a lack of depth. Teresa and Dan somehow appear less real juxtaposed against the passions depicted onscreen—they’re a boring pair surrounded by tantalizing rumors. Having built them up at length as an object of disapproval, Muñoz reveals that there isn’t much more to know about Teresa and Dan, and their chemistry flattens out on the page. Their much-foreshadowed fates are rolled into a confusing finale without any of the tensions their initial appearances together could evoke. When Muñoz decides not to linger on them, but to chronicle the behavior of the crowds around them and the soon-to-be-famous cinematic moment being created on their doorstep, he gives their eventual separation a meaning it lacks standing alone.