Bakersfield is a noir town. It is a hard, bitter town. It is the kind of town where any crime is possible, and with enough of a good-old-boys essence that cover-ups and conspiracies are easy to believe.
There are at least 400,000 noir stories to tell in this Kern-river city, but there’s really only one that has to be told: The Lords of Bakersfield.
The Lords mythology, set in a hot, isolated valley town just hours from Hollywood cesspools, defines Bakersfield almost as much as the music of Buck Owens or Merle Haggard. If N.L. Belardes hadn’t given Bakersfield the noir novel it richly deserves, then who would have done it? The only way to write this book is to believe in the conspiracy, fear the conspiracy, and then write it anyway. You’re only bound to make as many enemies as you are to gain readers.
Lords: Part 1 is a good book. It’s not great, and I’ll tell you why shortly, but it is still a book people with an interest in the darker side of Bakersfield should read.
Belardes might like to think of himself as the Bukowski of Bakersfield, but judging by Lords: Part 1, a better comparison might be another Southern California writer: Raymond Chandler. Like Chandler, Lords wallows in psychosis and shadows. Like Chandler, Belardes aims at prose lyricism. To say Belardes is no Chandler would sound like an unfair and cruel overstatement. He’s no Chandler, but his descriptive passages still ring with enough poetry to keep them effective. He is never callow nor maudlin. He is at his best descriptive powers when writing about the winter fog or the dust storm of 1977. The dust storm descriptions are, from a literary perspective, the creative height of the book.
Lords is based on a series of stories by writer Bob Price and published a couple of years ago in the local paper. The alleged lords were (and maybe still are) a group of perverted, powerful local men who lust for little boys and use their positions in the community to protect each other. Belardes takes liberties with the basic story to create what he calls a fantasy novel on the topic.
The book has scenes of hallucinations and dreams that pull in local Native American legends, but mostly it reads like a straight mystery novel.
The Lords myth seems a little too real to allow the reader, or at least this reader, to get taken in too much by the fantasy passages.
Are the Lords real? It’s hard to say. Based on my short life in Bakersfield, I would say that this town breeds enough paranoia to make conspiracy seem plausible. The sun shines brightly in Bakersfield, but always through a haze of smog. Winter fogs make it hard to get around town. In 1977, as Belardes accurately retells the story, Bakersfield was blighted by a dust storm that obscured all sight. Such an environment seems to only invite deception.
This is a town were you see few smiles on the streets or in the stores. The isolation of the town seems to be reflected in many of its citizens. It’s hard not to suspect hidden agendas and secret lives.
My friends thought I was crazy to move to Bakersfield. Now I understand why. I also understand better, especially after reading Belardes’ book, why the streets are littered with glassy-eyed, stringy-haired, leather-skinned homeless wretches. Bakersfield seems to breed those kinds of lives the way canine breeders breed dogs. They are all victims of a hard town that promises more than it gives. That, apparently, is “Life as It Should Be.”
So while Belardes has accurately captured the essence of the town, not all of his characters are equally compelling or reflective of the citizenry.
The major flaw of Lords is one the story’s main characters: Simon Sundale.
Sundale is the publisher of the local daily newspaper, the Tule Reader. He is a murderous megalomaniac who believes he exercises absolute mind control through his paper over the entire population of Kern County. He is pure evil.
Unfortunately, there is not a single thing about him that is believable. This makes passages about Sundale unbearable to read at times.
It just isn’t possible that man such as Sundale could exist in real life. His criminal intent, his unethical practices, his boasting about his omnipotence are so exposed that he simply could not exist.
Unlike what I suspect the real Lords to be like, if they exist, he isn’t even driven by lust. Sure, he has an unusual interest in Joey Minstrel, who is openly a sex toy for the the Lords, but lust never enters into the equation for Sundale. It is all about control and power.
That’s not to say that characters can’t be motivated by control and power, but that is all Sundale is.
A far more compelling character, and more believable, would be a publisher who in most of his working, daylight hours, believes in good journalism, cares about ethics, wants to do right by the community, weeps when people succumb to choking dust, but struggles against his own lusts and his own need to keep even his own reporters from uncovering his secret life and must protect the other Lords in order to also protect himself. Such a character would find that one deception only leads to another, and eventually to murder. He can be lost enough to swing the bat, but guilty enough to be tortured by his lack of self control. Such a character is far more freighting than pure evil, because he’s proven he will do anything to protect his secret perversions.
What makes Lords worth reading is Belardes strong sense of plot, his descriptive powers, his easy to follow prose, and the fully drawn characters of Minstrel, Carol and Ricky Rollins. What keeps Lords from being a great book is Sundale. And that’s a shame, because clearly, Belardes is a good enough writer to have a great novel in him. I hope some day I get to read it.