In his debut novel, “The Mean Reds”, author Dale Bridges masterfully weaves a story full of mystery and conspiracy, subverting expected noir cliches with rich narration and multi-dimensional characters.
It’s raining outside, thick droplets hammering against my window. The interview hasn’t started yet – I’m watching the clock as if it’s about to get up and run out of the room. I’ve changed into a dress shirt and nice jeans – interviewing a published author in $15 Mickey Mouse pajamas doesn’t feel quite right even if it is just a phone call from my apartment. It’s my first time interviewing anyone and I’m doing my best to calm my nerves, but stress-sweat has already begun to form under my arms. I take a deep breath, look over at my notes one final time, and dial Dale Bridges, author of “The Mean Reds.”
The novel follows Sam Drift, a movie critic for a local newspaper, who finds himself in over his head when his editor assigns him a story about a dead exotic dancer. Set in Mountainview, Colorado, the story is a love-letter to noir. Sam is anything but the standard hard-boiled hero of the genre, however, trading the badge and gun for a blog and self-destructive alcohol habit — though that is debatably very on brand for noir.
“He’s not tough,” Dale tells me with a laugh. “I love the genre, I love noir… but that’s not nearly my experience… This is the kind of person that I know… and I hadn’t seen that kind of person in fiction before.”
Much of the set up for the novel is based on Bridges’ real experiences in Boulder in the late 2000s. As a young Arts & Entertainment editor for Boulder Weekly, he was regularly invited to attend musical and art events for free, and when the Nitro Club opened on Pearl Street, he was the one that covered the story. With exception of changing a few key names, his retelling in “The Mean Reds” acts as a perfectly believable set up for the novel, in part because it actually happened.
“My time in Boulder was transformative, as far as my writing career kind of took shape and took off.”
This novel doesn’t take place in Boulder, however. This novel takes place in Mountainview, a once-small college town grappling with the growing pains of a capitalistic pilgrimage. Migrating from all over the country, Mountainview is experiencing an influx of wealthy elites that change both the town’s geography and spirit, not always for the worse, but not always for the better either. Locals are pushed to the fringes in a kind of tectonic subduction from exponential growth.
But also my hometown, Ojai, California, and any number of small towns across the country. In setting the story in Mountainview, Bridges is able to take liberties with it in a way that grounds the fictional town in a recognizable reality. Mountainview acts as a surrogate to all towns of this nature, and we as the reader are able to let go and experience the town through Sam’s eyes while still recognizing pieces of our own lives.
Throughout the novel, Bridges explores the cliches and conventions of the noir genre, only to subvert expectations with rich, multi-dimensional characters and mis-directions. An early scene sees the classic noir case assignment mirrored as Drift is assigned this story by his no-nonsense and Lord of the Rings obsessed editor, Victoria Wood. Another scene finds an indisposed Sam being talked at by his conspiratorial landlord, vomiting into a toilet all the while. These subversions of the genre allow Bridges to explore key concepts from within noir archetypes while simultaneously honing the edge of what makes these stories compelling.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rich narration of the novel’s protagonist. Drift is a complex, multi-faceted character who is aware – sometimes painfully so – of his inner-world. We watch as Drift shamelessly pursues self-destruction, worrying for his safety as he eloquently explains his thinking in a style that is one-part noir, two-parts Dale Bridges style — a style that he wielded masterfully in his award-winning column for Boulder Weekly, “That’s Irrelevant.” It’s on his website. You should check it out. In response to my shoe-horned question about this choice, Bridges chuckles, explaining that it certainly would have been easier to make Drift stupid. These self-destructive choices, though, aren’t made out of stupidity, and while it is often suppressed, “you have your inner psychology trying to change those patterns.” When confronting addiction, changing these patterns can be, “pretty difficult to do and most people don’t.” Bridges lays bare the hopes and dreams and aspirations of Drift, and we believe him because the honesty and vulnerability we see in him comes straight from Bridges himself.
“This novel, first, is examining my own psychology. So, making myself the first thing that gets dissected, taken apart before anything else, was something that I think finally made it click and seem more real.”
While there is much about Bridges that is reflected in Drift — a deep love of old films being one of the more explicit examples — he explains that the fundamental moment in the novel when they diverge comes fairly early, as we are given a glimpse into Drift’s backstory. In a chapter that expertly manages to come off tonally as Drift’s retelling of a story passed to him by his father, we see a true divergence from Bridges’ own experience.
“My father was a fundamentalist preacher,” Bridges tells me. As he explains it, his father was as strict as someone with that job title could be expected to be, and he tried to write this into Drift’s backstory. The religious undertones, though, didn’t fit. “It would be a major plot point and that wasn’t the book I was writing.” It was only after several attempts at writing and rewriting that Bridges eventually reformed the chapter into what appears in the novel. In allowing Drift to become his own character, Bridges was given creative agency to explore the town and events of the novel in a way that is all the more sincere for its fictionalization.
“Yes, this is based on Boulder, my experiences in Boulder, but I don’t need to try to be accurate.”
“The Mean Reds” is a novel brimming with creative intent. Everything, from the names of the characters to the chapter titles, is layered with symbolism. I found myself scribbling notes in the margins, dissecting little pieces of information for future review — yes, partially because I was going to interview the author but also because good books demand dog-earring, note-taking and attentive reading.
True to form for any good noir, the plot twists and turns in unexpected ways that give more than enough context to solve the central mystery… if you’re paying attention. The novel draws clear inspiration from films such as “The Big Lebowski” and “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, with certain scenes nearly shattering my comfortable anonymity at a local coffee shop with a burst of wild cackling. Still other scenes had me tearing up at that same coffee shop — it’s lucky I chose a corner seat.
All in all, “The Mean Reds” is a masterclass in creative storytelling through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. It’s a novel that can be read casually on a rainy afternoon, or peeled apart for deeper themes and commentary.
Go read it.