Buster Midnight’s Cafe, Sandra Dallas’ first novel, is a movie-struck retro fable, grounded in Montana grit and the no-nonsense voice of its narrator, a tough gal with a tongue as sharp as a miner’s pick. Effa Commander, as she is called, wants to set a few things straight about the scandalous ”Tinseltown Love Triangle Murder,” which torched the reputations of Butte’s most famous former residents — Buster Midnight, national boxing champ, and Marion Street, a platinum-blond screen star who started out with the name May Anna Kovaks and hair the color of mine runoff.
Effa knows the skinny and she’s not afraid to start a row. Spurred on by her lifelong sidekick, Whippy Bird (”road-stripe orange corkscrew curls and rhinestone earrings”), she follows Buster’s meteoric career and May Anna’s transformation from hooker to B-movie heroine to queen of the weepers. Segueing from Butte to Beverly Hills, she shows us May Anna’s adventures and the events leading to the murder (a spin on the Lana Turner-Stephen Crane drama).
None of this, as Effa might say, amounts to doodle. Plotwise, Buster Midnight is pretty much pure cartoon. Dallas doesn’t exactly have the narrative instinct of a conventional storyteller. What she does have is an entertaining thrift shop of an imagination, well stocked with tabloid twists of fate and the kinds of plot turns that jerked tears in ’40s melodramas and radio serials. Nothing that happens is unexpected or unfamiliar, but Dallas slings her shopworn scenarios around like old boas and catches us up. And, luckily, she knows enough to keep the action moving.
What really matters in Buster Midnight’s Cafe is the writing, the characters, their voices, and the rich, quirky abundance of detail. Dallas, it’s clear, loves detail: the blue neon champagne glass that adorns a restaurant window; made-up movie titles like Moon Blood and Mobster Moll that seem plucked from the pages of old Photoplays; picture postcards with inscriptions like ”Keep your shirt on till you see me, Toots.” It’s fun stuff. But Dallas does more than pile on the knickknacks.
She loves characters, too — not your average Charlies but characters with a capital C: faded Hollywood glamour girls with slashes of Max Factor running across their lips; battered prizefighters and rowdy good-time girls with hips that make music when they cross the street. Like May Anna and Buster and Effa herself, they’re all a bit larger than life and that distances us from them, but we never get bored with what they say or do. Effa Commander — a woman with a good-size appetite and no fancy airs — is particularly appealing (though her references to ”queers,” ”fruits,” and ”fairies” violate the character’s basic live-and-let-live spirit and make you wonder why Dallas made both of the book’s least-appealing characters either suspected or actual homosexuals).
The best thing about Buster Midnight is Dallas’ reimagining of Butte, where her movie-size imagination gives play to every romantic detail it comes across. Buster Midnight’s Cafe is twangy entertainment with more than an occasional kick.