Books

Topless, a Noir Tragicomedy That Anticipated the Scandals of the Present

(M-Production/iStock/Getty Images)
A keen observer of the fallen nature of the contemporary world, D. Keith Mano in his 1991 novel imagined an Episcopal priest who gets mixed up in a New York strip club.

A well-liked young woman has died by strangulation, and the sole person of interest in her death, a troubled man who was romantically involved with her, has disappeared. The only people who may have a clue as to the man’s whereabouts are members of his family, and their evasiveness to the police, media, and public about what they do or do not know is so infuriating that some come to suspect them of having abetted the fugitive in trying to escape the consequences of his crime — a possibility that cannot entirely be ruled out, given the facts as we know them.

This fall, Americans have had ample opportunity to reflect on the cases of people who do awful things and then vanish. Besides the tragedy of Gabby Petito and her missing former boyfriend, which has made so many headlines in recent weeks, we are coming up next month on the 50th anniversary of one of the most notorious unsolved cases in history, and the only unsolved commercial-airline hijacking ever: the D. B. Cooper case, which unfolded the day before Thanksgiving back in 1971. Both of these dramas have obsessed millions around the world and will continue to do so.

But the scenario described in the opening of this piece is actually the premise of a 1991 novel by a writer whose uncanny prescience emerges over and over in his work. The novel is titled “Topless,” and the author is D. Keith Mano (1942–2016), a prolific writer and journalist and the talent responsible for the long-running National Review column “The Gimlet Eye,” which offered trenchant commentary on culture and society.

In his 1973 novel The Bridge, Mano gave us a dystopian nightmare that managed to anticipate both the COVID pandemic we have endured over the past year and a half and the ravages of a cancel culture that seeks to outlaw any sense of pride in the heroes and achievements of the un-woke past. The Bridge has long been out of print. If a publisher released the book today, people could easily believe they were reading a contemporary novel about the realities around them. But even that is not Mano’s most prescient book.

In this 30th-anniversary year of the publication of Topless, it is well worth revisiting that later novel, which manifests its author’s interest in comings and goings and the promise if not the reality of a Second Coming. The book foreshadows a number of notorious recent crimes and, in particular, scandals that have enveloped the Episcopal Church.

Topless is a different proposition, literarily speaking, from The Bridge. It’s about 60 pages longer, more playful in style and tone, more nuanced in its presentation of social and moral issues and conflicts. Possibly a better novel, definitely a more mature one. There are elements of Martin Scorsese’s seamy, violent New York filtered through the comic sensibility of an S. J. Perelman and the experimental whimsy of a Flann O’Brien, and the plot is consistently gripping.

Topless is the first-person account, in the form of diary entries, of a Nebraska-based Episcopal priest, Mike Wilson, who comes to New York after the death of a young woman named Rita and the disappearance of a man involved with her, who happened to run the Smoking Car, a strip joint in Queens. The man is Tony Wilson, Mike’s brother. How pitifully unprepared poor Mike is for the world — of exhibitionism, prostitution, alcohol, and drugs — in which his brother thrived. Many of the early scenes, where Mike shows up at the topless lounge to make inquiries about his missing brother, have almost an “undercover boss” type of humor. The strippers and whores seem amused at this prim, upright stranger and do not suspect his ties to their boss. But a few of them are clueless enough to ask if Mike himself is Tony.

It soon becomes clear to Mike that Tony has enemies, from local criminals and mobsters to the owner of a rival strip lounge to the various people Tony has exploited from his position of relative power. But Mike is so determined to track down his brother and find out what happened to Rita that he forges ahead, even after a dancer named Bubbles dies of a drug overdose while performing at the club and then yet another dancer becomes a murder victim, arousing suspicions about Mike’s possible role from a pair of highly unpleasant and vindictive NYPD detectives, from the public, and even, as he grows distraught and confused, from Mike himself.

The late liberal columnist (and “humorist”) Molly Ivins used to say that conservatives believe what they do and say what they say because they tend to live in sheltered communities where you cannot see the urban realities in which so many people struggle from day to day. Reading Topless, you will quickly see how little truth there is to this generalization, at least where D. Keith Mano is concerned. The novel will impress you with its verisimilitude — Mano knows the exotic dancer’s trade, and he packs the book with detail about pay scales, lewdness statutes, and the rules and conventions of New York versus New Jersey strip clubs — even as it makes you feel that you need about ten showers to emerge fully from its world of sleaze and violence. Engaging again and again with sex-trade workers as he seeks to glean a sliver of information about his missing brother and Rita’s murder, Mike Wilson is a bit like Travis Bickle as a priest, minus the will to vigilantism. The smut that he finds in his brother’s world appalls him, but he cannot avert his eyes and on some level may not want to do so. What Ivins said of conservatives may, in the past, have applied at least to him. This is the world he never saw as a priest in Nebraska.

If The Bridge dealt with the breakdown of moral strength and resolve in the face of relativism, and with the consequences of a particularly nasty variant of white guilt, Topless strikes this critic as a novel about the messiness of the human condition. It foreshadows the difficult position of members of the church who may feel appalled at the behavior of their colleagues or, quite possibly, their own conduct, at a juncture when two of the most prominent Episcopal dioceses on the East Coast face legal action over the alleged conduct of a prominent priest. Closer to the time of the novel’s writing, the church in 1995 grappled with a crisis of trust partly related to embezzlement committed by a former treasurer and the suicide of a bishop accused of sexual shenanigans.

Mike Wilson is in a tough spot. He purports to be a spiritual avatar offering moral guidance to others but is increasingly unsure of his own character, even to the point of losing his ability to recall precisely what he may or may not have done. Moral comedy, ambiguity, and the contradictions of a priest’s role in the contemporary world, where some people acknowledge sexuality as normal and healthy even as they seek to restrict it to a highly specific and discrete area of life, are baked into the premise of Topless.

It is no accident that Mano has made Mike the brother rather than, say, the cousin or friend of the errant Tony Wilson. Their siblinghood expresses the messiness of an age in which the guardians of organized religion must show charity, warmth, support, and love even and especially for those whose conduct and very vocation exemplify the fallen nature of the contemporary world. Mike wants to find his brother and clear both of their names, even as he knows he cannot deny the knowledge of what sort of person Tony Wilson is and what kind of milieu Tony has done his best to foster and promote.

You will have to read Topless to find out what happened to Tony, Rita, and the others, and to learn the fate of Mike Wilson, but suffice it to say here that Mano does have answers to the difficult questions he raises. Part of the fascination of the novel lies in confronting those questions and, particularly, the conjoined nature of such a radically different pair of individuals, who are both deeply human and without whose idiosyncratic traits it is hard to imagine the human family in aggregate. There lies the mystery of man’s identity.

Topless may leave you thinking back to another novel about a man looking for his lost brother, Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which ends: “I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we are both someone whom neither of us knows.”

Something to Consider

If you enjoyed this article, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS. Members get all of our content on the site including the digital magazine and archives, no paywalls or content meters, an advertising-minimal experience, and unique access to our writers and editors (through conference calls, social media groups, and more). And importantly, NRPLUS members help keep NR going.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more premium content like this, we have a proposition for you: Join NRPLUS.

 

Become a Member

Recommended

The Latest