The Driftless Zone: Or a Novel Concerning the Selective Outmigration from Small Cities.
The title of Harsch's first novel refers to a demographic theory: small cities lose their most ambitious, talented, and beautiful natives to the lure of larger cities. The "high percentage of misfits, fools, [and] various mediocrities" who remain account for the high per capita incidence of ineptitude, shabby grandiosity, and "enlarged capacity for botching ill-conceived projects." The Driftless Zone is a test case for this theory.
The novel's protagonist, a driftless La Crosse down-and-outer named Spleen, unwittingly becomes the target of a notorious contract killer who is in town on a job. A wiser man might leave town under these circumstances, but Spleen is constitutionally unable to operate outside of La Crosse. Therefore, his survival depends on his ability to unravel the mystery in which he is enmeshed while staying a step or two ahead of the killer on his tail. As a local, Spleen would seem to have the advantage of knowing the territory. But familiar surfaces mask unguessed-at secrets, and Spleen's inability to leave town might deny him the perspective he needs to understand La Crosse the way his would-be killer does. Even Spleen's most worldly acquaintances can do little better than recommend that he model his escape strategy on the plots of old B-movies.
Like Spleen's survival plan, Harsch's novel largely outfits itself from a storehouse of film-noir conventions. In spirit and tone The Driftless Zone is an homage to hard-boiled detective fiction (how could it be otherwise in a book whose characters wear names like the Sneering Brunette, the Fag with No Eyebrows, and Billy Verite?). But in its central concept of geography-as-character, its postmodern pastiche of references and sources, and its occasional attempts at Joycean prose, Harsch's novel is more interested in referring to noir than being noir.