Widespread Panic is not an easy book to like or recommend. It’s the exact opposite of that in many ways: the prose is difficult to parse, the plot seems nonsensical for an uncomfortably long stretch, and the characters -- if you can call them that -- are all petty, amoral, and unlikeable.
In fact, there seems to be no real characters in this book: just the same person over and over wearing different clothes, bearing different names, showing varying degrees of jadedness and indifference and corruption. It’s a bleak life in a bleak version of 1950s Los Angeles, and the writing is as infuriating as it is unique. We’ll get to that.
Told through the eyes of real-life ex-cop and private investigator Freddy Otash, Widespread Panic could be the platonic ideal of a modern noir novel. Freddy works as an investigator for Confidential magazine, a scandal rag that prides itself in digging up the darkest, most depraved secrets of the L.A. and Hollywood elite. Freddy fits the noir definition of the flawed protagonist, and in this case, extremely so: Freddy is so morally bankrupt that he could be the antagonist of the story if not for the fact that everyone in his various social circles is just as bad, and most of the time even worse.
Tensions rise at several points when extreme acts of violence occur, but for the most part, the plot reads like Freddy’s stream of consciousness as he “bops” from one situation to the next, encountering other real-life personalities like Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, JFK, and a handful of other actors and celebrities of the time. To be precise: he encounters their dark noir-universe versions, where each of them is a scheming, sexually deviant monster walking around in a beautiful person’s body.
Freddy indeed “bops”: he narrates his story in a strange combination of terse, simple sentences and comically alliterative jive talk: “My head felt homogenized. My cerebellum sang sad songs. My cranium creaked.” “The sun salved me. The breeze went warm and bid me to bask. I dipped and dozed. The bungalow behind me went muffled to mute.” Freddy also occasionally and intentionally uses misspelled words like “nite”, “laff” and “fone”. It can be jarring and challenging to read at first -- especially the sentences that positively drip in metaphor -- but it is also incredible in the way that it remains consistently thick throughout the entire novel.
As Freddy wiretaps, photographs, and bribes his way into witnessing all sorts of disturbing situations, another discomforting realization begins to take shape, albeit outside of the novel’s continuity: how true could these intrusions into privacy have been? How true could they still be now? Did James Dean really act like that? Did Liz Taylor? The novel does a very good job of weaving its dark noir fantasy with reality that you as the reader might run the risk of becoming jaded and cynical yourself.
The plot does take shape towards the end of the book as the scandals give way to darker revelations. The story spirals into an ending that perfectly fits the genre. This is what makes the book itself so conflicting: with all said and done, it’s a great noir book. It really could be the platonic ideal. The characters are hateful, the system is rigged, and existence is meaningless. The unique writing style is just a bonus. For all the same reasons though, it really is hard to recommend.
Stay away if you’re looking for something inspirational. If you’ve ever been curious about how dark and nihilistic noir fiction could get though, or if you’re already a fan of the genre, Widespread Panic will be perfect for you.