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Existential Noir


Discussed in this essay:

A Dream Come True: The Collected Stories of Juan Carlos Onetti, by Juan Carlos Onetti. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. Archipelago Books. 547 pages. $26.

All the men in Juan Carlos Onetti’s fiction wear hats: not caps, but proper Borsalinos, wide-brimmed and pinched and cocked at the top into Jean Arp sculptures, gray or black with a subtle silk band—no feathers—initials stamped in gold along the unseen interior sweatband. For today’s watchers of late-night films, such hats signal detectives and gang bosses, lonely romantic heroes and rich guys out on the town. As a kid growing up in the 1940s, I can remember my father instructing me to remove my hat when entering someone’s house—but not a public building, except in the elevator, where one unbonneted out of deference to the women present (the hat stayed on in an all-male car). Holding the brim between the thumb and the ring and middle fingers, one tipped one’s hat to acquaintances, male and female, encountered on the street. Embarrassment was dramatized by twirling the hat nervously in both hands at stomach level. The shadows obscuring the face under a hat made it abstract and emblematic, partially disguised, mature but of no specific age.

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is the author of nearly thirty books. Next summer Bloomsbury will publish his new novel, A Saint from Texas.

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