Magical Realism Meets Noir: On Michael Fessier’s “Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind”
By Jack MearnsNovember 17, 2022
Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind by Michael Fessier
The book opens with Price stumbling upon a sidewalk shooting. While leaving the scene, he strikes up a conversation about the murder with a “little old man,” during which the man asserts he is the killer. The two part, but the old man soon becomes an uninvited fixture in Price’s life, appearing without warning anywhere Price might be. The old man initially seems innocuous … until he confronts those who rile him with glowing green, catlike eyes that paralyze the target of his glare with terror.
Price cannot shake the old man. Even his apartment is no refuge: the old-timer unpredictably enters — whether or not the door is locked — and makes himself at home. “Him slipping in like that’s just about as pleasant as finding a cobra in your bed,” Price complains. A consummate everyman, Price has no identity beyond recounting and reacting to other characters’ actions. Eventually, he fears he is going crazy.
Price seeks respite in late-night strolls through Golden Gate Park, where he spots a young woman swimming naked in a lake. He falls for the swimmer, named Trelia — but there is something eerie about her as well. Price and his painter friend, Dorgan, debate whether these two beings are human or supernatural. Dorgan — the voice of reason — says:
After all we’re not kids. Why in hell should someone be trying to sell us a fairy tale? […] We are adults […] and we know ogres and ghosts and Zombies do not exist. Therefore your little old man is made of flesh and blood and possesses no magic. […] [H]e is an ordinary human being with an enormous capacity for evil.
Fessier, though, remains noncommittal regarding these characters’ origins.
As this plot synopsis makes clear, Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind defies categorization, making it a kind of literary Rorschach test. The novel’s melding of mystery, horror, fantasy, and science fiction has enabled fans of all four genres to lay claim to it over the last 87 years. However, Fully Dressed’s distinctive amalgam might best be classified as magical-realist noir due to how matter-of-factly it portrays the absurd’s intrusion into everyday life: “It had never happened to me before and I don’t suppose anything like it ever happened to anyone before. But that’s the way it was. It happened to me and it was still happening,” Price asserts. “I knew I should feel amazed or frightened but I didn’t.”
Fessier was born in 1905 in the Northern California gold-mining town Angels Camp, where his father ran a saloon. The youngest of four children, he was 14 when his mother died and his grief-stricken father abandoned the family. As did many authors of the era, Fessier started in journalism, writing and editing for several California newspapers. By the mid-1930s, Fessier was publishing short fiction in popular national magazines like Story and Esquire. One of Fessier’s first stories, “That’s What Happened to Me” — about a bullied high school boy who wins the hearts of townspeople with his miraculous jumping ability — was anthologized more than 70 times.
Fessier landed in Hollywood, where he wrote and produced. As the Los Angeles Times put it, he scripted “witty Westerns” and several Fred Astaire–Rita Hayworth musicals, including You’ll Never Get Rich, which made Hayworth a star. Horace McCoy dedicated the existentialist noir They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (also published in 1935) to Fessier. By the late 1940s, Fessier had relocated to New York, where he wrote a satirical novel, Clovis (available from Turtle Point Press), about “a bumptious, bumbling, highly educated, highly opinionated parrot” that comes to lead a “‘phony’ Los Angeles religious cult.” In the mid-1950s, Fessier turned his creative talents to television, writing episodes for an eclectic mix, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Mr. Ed, Lost in Space, Gilligan’s Island and Bonanza. Fessier retired in the late 1960s and died in 1988 at age 82.
Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind had its foundation in two Esquire stories. “It’s a Helluva Note” features a man who witnesses a neighbor woman shooting her husband. Caught up in events beyond his control, he is initially suspected of the murder by police and then is compelled to testify at the woman’s trial, where he is treated like more of a criminal than she is.
In “The Man in the Black Hat,” a nameless protagonist who’s lost all his money in the stock market meets by chance the titular Man — unremarkable, except for solid gray eyes that “gave [him] the willies.” The Man offers him a brand new car, no strings attached, which turns his luck around. Later, the protagonist runs into the Man, now down on his luck, and returns the favor — giving the Man his newly purchased automobile. Eventually, the Man commits a street killing, for which the protagonist is nearly arrested. Throughout the story, the two men are tied together, their fates and fortunes mirroring each other’s in a way that spooks the protagonist: “I didn’t want to think about the old man. I was too afraid to […] [fearing] I’d go crazy.”
These stories contain two central components of Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind — the inexplicable shadowing of a protagonist by a murderous old man of ambiguous origin and a protagonist facing punishment for crimes he did not commit. Flesh out the plot and add in a skittish love interest who may be a naiad, and you have this bewitching novel.
Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind was published by Knopf in 1935 with a dust jacket by Arthur Hawkins, the top-flight designer of iconic jackets for William Faulkner and for James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. For Fully Dressed, Hawkins eschewed his typical geometric or pictorial artwork for a futuristic abstract design. Gollancz issued the novel in England. And in 1950, Lion put out a pulp paperback. Today, all three editions are scarce and expensive. Fortuitously, in November 2022, Staccato Crime Books, an imprint of Stark House Press, is reprinting Michael Fessier’s Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind as one of its “Jazz-Age Noir Classics,” enabling readers to again be enthralled by this magical-realist noir.
Reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic have praised the novel’s lean prose, calling it “as clipped and colloquial as Hemingway’s” and noting that “the dialogue crackles […] like machine-gun fire.” Many reviewers interpreted the book to be high-minded, symbolizing the battle between good and evil. The New York Herald Tribune also noted that Fessier “shows the terror for the innocent of the workings of the legal process.” For all the old man’s wickedness, the morally bankrupt police force may be Fully Dressed’s most monstrous entity. In its depiction of the dread that comes with being caught in the jaws of an intractable malignant bureaucracy, Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind echoes Kafka’s The Trial, whose first edition in English appeared in 1937.
Beyond just a simple allegory of good battling evil, Fully Dressed can also be read as a personification of the cataclysmic decade of the 1930s, which afflicted Americans with the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, and rise of fascism in Europe. The more unpredictably menacing the world seems, the stronger becomes people’s desire to make sense of it. We balk at seeing ourselves as pawns of capricious forces indifferent to our suffering. Surely, our misfortunes cannot be due to happenstance: someone or something must have it in for us. Seeking out personal explanations for the impersonal cruelty of fate dates to the dawn of humans’ capacity to think abstractly. In the Bible’s book of Job, God torments His most loyal adherent simply to demonstrate His power to command veneration. In Greek mythology, gods toy with humanity for their own amusement. The old man’s nefarious conduct in Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind is quite in keeping with this age-old tradition.
In a metacommentary on the novel itself, Fessier blurs the line between truth and imagination, suggesting the futility of art to fully portray reality. When Price first meets Dorgan, he is repeatedly painting and repainting the same seascape, unable to capture the essence of the view. Later, Dorgan submits a portrait to a competition knowing he has no chance of winning a prize: “If the original Mona Lisa were hung in that exhibition the judges’d condemn it on the grounds it’s too sentimental.” In a self-referential gambit, Fessier has Dorgan attempt portraits of Trelia and the old man.
Fully Dressed also asserts that the real can never live up to our fantasies about it. Dorgan describes Trelia’s appeal to Price this way: “She’s a vague, mysterious, illusory being and she intrigues you. […] If you mind your own business she’ll always be the perfect, sexless embodiment of beauty you imagine her to be.” After mooning over her for weeks, Price convinces Trelia to kiss him. Before the kiss, he imagines: “When I kiss her it’ll be the only real thrill I’ll ever have in my life.” Instead, kissing the innocent nymph is abjectly disappointing — “like kissing a child.”
It is equally likely, though, that Michael Fessier composed Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind — absent deeper commentary on the modern era or on the hopelessness of artistic ambition or love — as an eminently readable lark. Despite the seriousness of its themes, there is a wry undercurrent to Fully Dressed. In tone and mood, it most closely resembles the ecstatic first section of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It also has a flavor of the sitcom My Favorite Martian … if Ray Walston’s character had been a homicidal fiend. There’s also the apparently nonsensical title — in fact a reference to the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus casts demons out of a naked possessed man. Finally, in its zaniness tinged with menace, Fully Dressed recalls Robert M. Coates’s surrealist burlesque, The Eater of Darkness, first printed in the United States in 1929.
It is no surprise that an author who experienced such sudden and devastating loss in his youth would write so strikingly about characters who are dogged by unpredictable, inescapable, and undeserved persecution. What makes Fully Dressed so compelling and unique, though, is the inventiveness and sly humor that shine through Fessier’s dark tales — the eccentric wit that enabled the author not only to survive adversity but also to flourish.
Contemporary Americans have come to expect as their birthright the comfort and safety that modernity bestows. Yet in the last two years, over a million US citizens have been felled by an invisible assassin, the COVID-19 pandemic. And on any day, without warning, we may be hunted down by crazed strangers, simply because of our religion, the color of our skin, or the fact that we happen to be schoolchildren. Minorities may be killed, brutalized, or wrongly convicted due to chance encounters with authoritarian police. The national psyche festers with suspicion.
Published in a similarly tumultuous time, Fully Dressed may seem revelatory of life’s latent, inimical forces to a cynical public that feels singled out for injustice. Price asks the little old man:
“You’re not a magician or something supernatural, are you?”
“Oh no,” he said, “I’m just an ordinary man but it seems I have peculiar mental reactions.”
“That wouldn’t keep you from being caught if you really did kill those fellows,” I said.
“The reason I’m not caught,” he said, “is because I have a gift […] [f]or unobtrusiveness.”
For conspiracy theorists obsessed with New World Orders, shadow governments, and crepuscular nether-realms inhabited by devils, demons, and fauns, Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind may hold answers to life’s arcane mysteries. For the rest of us, this refreshingly innovative novel offers welcome diversion from our tribulations.
Jack Mearns is a professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton.
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