Noir Abattoir, Part II

I concluded Part I with an assertion that noir is Tragedy, which would seem to contradict an earlier statement that noir is all about attitude. Ellroy’s caffeinated optic of noir is 100% attitude directed at film noir, a visual medium and expression. The ’tude is fatalistic, pessimistic and, arguably, existentialist, a philosophical stance that could be traced back to berets, baguettes, and Gauloises cigarettes in post-war cafés, where discussions about the futility and hopelessness of life got black and then blacker. Put émigré directors such as Fritz Lang, Edgar Ulmer or Billy Wilder behind the camera and the output is of a shade and shadows, brooding chiaroscuro that is the sinister enticing viewers. I ask that you consider an uncommon literary predecessor to noir literature.

When Otto Penzler and James Ellroy edited The Best American Noir of the Century, they sidestepped detective fiction to give readers an eclectic sample of noir literature. The logic goes something like this: Poe had given us the first detective; pulp authors, particularly Hammett and Chandler, had given readers the Continental Op, Spade and Marlowe, in that order, with their contemporaries writing variations on the same theme. Then James Cain and Jim Thompson came along and offered readers crime fiction from the criminal’s point of view. Whether you are looking at the world through the eyes of PI as a modern knight (Marlowe), a cynical investigator (Spade), a criminal (Lou Ford) or the screws being put to Joe Palooka (pick any film noir), noir literature may have had its subgenres, but it is and foremost Tragedy.

songisyouPart 1 began with a discussion of Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You, in which I suggested that readers have forgotten the fundamentals of the noir genre. I had indicated, however briefly, that Abbott does something differently with the female protagonist, but I didn’t specify what since that would spoil the story for readers.

Step back in the time machine with Bill and Ted to four centuries before Christ. Aristotle outlined the requirements for Tragedy:

  • An elevated person is brought low through some poorly thought out action (hamartia)
  • Said person realizes it at the worst possible moment (anagnorisis)
  • The play uses elevated diction
  • The audience is witness to:
    • The protagonist’s series of emotions
    • Their own journey of emotions (catharsis)

Substitute drama with literature and the voyeurism changes in magnitude. Reading is still visual; still a form of viewing, where the narrative is imagined. Film is also visual and the narrative is displayed on the screen, keeping in touch with theatre’s tradition of a communal experience. Drama, film, or books may seem disparate mediums, but suffering is the common theme, the ‘serious’ and ‘entertainments,’ to recall Greene’s distinction.

Authors have tweaked the definition of tragedy through the centuries. Chaucer’s Monk Tale in The Canterbury Tales discussed tragedy in terms of the vagaries of Fortune in life, or as we say in modern English: Sh*t happens. Capital S there, and speaking of modern English: Shakespeare did away with elevated diction. Chaucer, a writer with a very un-modern world-view, ultimately upholds Christian morality: focus not on earthly things and pleasures because it is illusory. Spenser, though a Renaissance writer, would arrive at the same medieval conclusion: life is corrupt, people are corrupt, and best avoid the ephemera of this carnal life. Not quite the espresso of existentialist writers such as Camus and Sartre, but bleak is still black and Nothingness includes no morality, as “the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Shakespeare, working in a literary tradition that exploited material wherever it was found, is the granddaddy of tragedians in English drama and literature. Les Reid provided a better summary of Hamlet as both noir and tragedy:

Consider Hamlet, certainly a film noir anti-hero: alienated, cynical, and abrasive in his wit, hostile to the society in which he lives, shrewdly intelligent in his pursuit of his enemy and ruthless when others block his path. His black attire, specified in Shakespeare’s text, suits his dark broodings and the pessimistic outcome of the play. Hamlet deals with all forms of killing: accidental manslaughter, deliberate murder, impulsive killing and suicide. Hamlet ponders on the morality of the killings, but events often outstrip his philosophizing, and the audience are swept along in his wake. Emotions run high, and the interludes of rational thought are brief and ineffectual. At the end we feel sobered by a grim pursuit of justice in which many innocent people have been killed. Hamlet dies, and “the rest is silence.”

The Achilles heel of my argument for noir literature as Tragedy is with the status change of the protagonist, the High brought Low that Aristotle mentioned. Hamlet is a prince; Lear, a king, and Coriolanus, Macbeth, Mark Anthony, Othello, Titus Andronicus are all military leaders. The shamus Spade and Marlowe are commoners in such a pantheon, but is not America, the great equalizer, the democracy, where hard work and abiding by the rules promise a chance at happiness and success?

Tragedy American-style, noir says “fat chance,” and the light in the dark tunnel of a film noir is not just Freudian innuendo, but the freight train named Bad Luck that has a schedule to keep. Noir is about how low can Low get. Male protagonists in noir literature, regardless on which side of the law they are on, or how they got there, do their best to fight a rigged match; they don’t embrace the suck like Willy Loman did.

Part 1 began with a discussion of Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You, in which I suggested that readers have forgotten the fundamentals of the noir genre. Jean Spangler works her charms, though not with the criminal intention of a femme fatale. Jean-SpanglerShe was a victim (in real life and in the fictional account). Misogyny and women in noir literature is another topic altogether. The femme fatale is often the destroyer of men. I view Megan Abbott’s Story as both literary noir and tragedy. The language is elevated and stylized, but it is consonant with the expectation of the genre. Is The Song Is You tragique à l’americaine because Jean Spangler (or Everywoman’s) had limited options in postwar America? Is the story tragic for her wrong choices (Aristotle’s hamartia) and her inevitable fall from Low to lower? Is there a case for her as anti-heroine, a Shakespearean Cleopatra, who knew the score but wanted to do it her way, on her terms?

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Noir Abattoir, Part I

The word ‘genre’ is an after-thought, a signpost of a word to coach the readers’ expectation between the pages and direct them to the aisles of the bookstore. Genre is an ancient word, derived from the Latin genus, meaning ‘kind’ or ‘type.’ Genre has shifted in nuance, from classification to literary consumerism.

Genre is adolescent: Young Adult; genre is titillating: Erotica; genre is impossible: Science Fiction; genre is real: Nonfiction; genre is speculative: Fantasy; genre is dark: Horror; genre is gendered: GLBT and women’s fiction; genre is possibly racial, as some bookstores, inexplicably (to me, at least), shelve authors by race. I have set aside one genre for a moment to make one last point: genre implies Difference and not just of literary expectations from type of story told, how it begins and ends, and what happens along the way. Genre is freighted with judgments. I think of Graham Greene’s often-quoted distinction, one that he made when referring to his own works: “serious fiction” and “entertainments.” The implication is High and Low literature. I now offer the last genre: crime fiction.

Crime fiction has a curious pedigree. Cheap in price and once called ‘pulp fiction’ for the quality of the printed pages, the genre was affordable and democratic, available at the drugstore. BM-November-1925The prose style was unaffected, down-to-earth, hardboiled, so named for the hardboiled eggs that working men ate for lunch. The reader expected a savvy detective who talked a certain way, carried himself a certain way; readers expected a crime, a customer, and bruised knuckles and faces along the way to some kind of resolution. The client may speak half-truths, complete lies, but the detective did his best with what he had to work with. The PI is always a man, and the she in these stories is either the good girl or a femme fatale. The hardboiled world is masculine, violent, and unpredictable. The detective conducts himself according to some code of conduct, a set of principles. Sam Spade may have slept with Miles Archer’s wife, but he won’t let his partner’s murderer get away with it. Pulp fiction, the genre, no matter how it’s packaged, has a beginning, a middle, and an end; it’s Aristotelian even when it wears a fedora and speaks out of the side of its mouth.

Imagine my surprise when I read reviews of Megan Abbott’s The Song Is You on Amazon and Goodreads. songisyouGreene’s High and Low showed up: if Amazon is the agora for demotic opinion where everybody wears their toga, then Goodreads is the genteel salon with powdered wigs. The Amazonians were nearly unanimous in agreement: Megan Abbott (day job is professor at NYU) has served up “the best throwback hard-boiled novel,” while across the digital divide, some Goodreaders dinged her novel, with one reviewer saying: “nothing too new in the ideas department” and “blatantly derivative of all the classic noir writers.”

Ouch. Serious vs. Entertainment?

93% of the nearly 30 Amazon reviewers gave the novel 4 or 5 stars, whereas the 100+ Goodreaders dished a rating of 3.72 stars. The author of ‘blatantly derivative’ went so far as to say Abbott plagiarized Chandler (for the record, I have read all of Chandler’s novels several times and I’m certain that others who have done the same would agree with me: Abbott is no word-thief.) So what gives, Gentle Goodreaders?

The accused, Megan Abbott, it seems, wrote too close to genre expectations and worse, and entered the ring against Mickey Spillane, the dominant writer for the era she chose. Hence, the charge of ‘derivative.’ I disagree. Another dissenting and minor squeak of a complaint was that some Goodreaders couldn’t get Ellroy’s novel, Black Dahlia, out of their heads while reading Song, which is a shame since the two writers have very distinctive narrative voices.

Dahlia is Ellroy before he took the Hemingway weed whacker to his writing and rendered his prose so staccato and so telegraphic that Papa would’ve had a blinking migraine. That aside, Abbott is lush with exposition and her dialogue. I’m not sure, though, that women of that time would have been so generous with the use of the F-word: it may not be alien to our ears, but back then it would have been shocking to hear it from women. Then there was that lone charge that took a moralistic tone: shame on Abbott for drawing inspiration from the real missing-persons case of Jean Spangler. Perhaps, it is sexist that nobody took Ellroy to task with his Dahlia, which was based on the gruesome murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short in 1947. Nobody criticized him because the Short case-file would become a cathartic subtext for his own mother’s murder in 1958. genevaellroy1958The goose gets cooked and the gander struts free. Dostoevsky wasn’t the only author who penned stories “ripped from the headlines.”

Goodreaders may have missed Abbott’s toying (subverting?) genre expectation. Her female character is no femme fatale, though she is ambitious, coarse at times, sexual, and does what she can to survive, as a single mom in a man’s world. Shocker. My edition of Song came with a nice blurb from the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction himself, James Ellroy. He praised Megan Abbott as a “deconstructionist,” among other things, and I think therein is the problem for Goodreaders: they are making that distinction of High and Low such that neo-noir has to be ultra-gritty and über-violent, with lots of sex and profanity, and Low, of the “throwback hard-boiled” variety, which Abbott offered readers, is perceived as static, old-fashioned, retro, and ‘blatantly derivative.’ In a word, a parody: the visuals and language are outdated because we all have seen too many movies called ‘film noir.’ Bogart is the Marlowe moviegoers remember, not Dick Powell, and it just so happens that Bogart spoiled us with his Sam Spade, too. Hammett’s and Chandler’s respective prose set a standard. The noir decades, Twenties to Forties, is a safe world in retrospect, a world, known to us through film and novels, and not our world.

Crime fiction — call it pulp, hardboiled, noir, or neo-noir, expectations have not changed with the genre, even when we confuse it with cinema, its dark shadows and fatalistic tone. Noir has always been about Attitude. Speaking of film noir, Eddie Mueller defined noir as “suffering with style.” Ellroy worded it more colorfully, with:2124014153_e58d02823a

The great theme of film noir is: You’re fucked…That giddy sense that doom is cool. You just met a woman, you had your first kiss, you’re six weeks away from the gas chamber, you’re fucked, and you’re happy about it.

Megan Abbott-1

Abbott’s own definition teeters on the melodramatic:

Noir is heightened – all the emotions and feelings – and that’s how the world feels to a lot of us. Desire is intense, greed is overwhelming, the need for revenge… It’s how things feel on the inside before we modulate them in order to be a functioning, non-sociopathic person. When we read noir, we get to see our Id run free.

Rather unfortunate that a few Goodreaders had thought that Abbott had written an ‘imitation’ of noir – a confounding statement, if there ever was one – because I don’t think that she did a paint by numbers. She met expectations and more. Dialogue in noir, as in all fiction, is stylized. What wears thin Then and Now in crime fiction is banter: readers know that sarcasm spoken to a drunk hooligan in a bar invites a future fitted with dentures; readers know that the average dick does not wax poetic as Chandler’s descriptions might have us believe. It’s called suspension of belief. The ‘entertainments’ in Abbott’s evocation of late-forties Hollywood is the Studio System, its stifling hold on all the players, and the options (or lack thereof) for women such as Jean and Iolene. There is a killer of dreams, as there was a murderer of Jean Spangler, and our common enemy is Nostalgia, that belief that life was simpler back in the day; it wasn’t, it was just as deadly. Abbott brings it in tight, distinctive prose; the problem is our rigid expectations and not the writer.

In a future post, I’ll argue that, while detective fiction is a subgenre of crime fiction, the dark heart of noir is Tragedy, American-style, where Low is brought lower.

Part II next Wednesday.

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The Wedge Through Society

Nobody had expected the French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century to become the bestseller that it did in 2014, yet another bestseller from yesteryear is equally relevant, equally incisive in its analysis, though its prose is difficult to negotiate at times. Read these observations:

What has destroyed every previous civilization has been the tendency to the unequal distribution of wealth and power.

Going to work for a large company is like getting on a train. Are you going sixty miles an hour or is the train going sixty miles an hour and you’re just sitting still?

It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.

Unlike Piketty who has a doctorate, the author here had nothing more than a sixth-grade education; he would become a successful editor and journalist, a self-made man, when he wrote Progress and Poverty in 1879. 415_large_imageHe dared to ask why poverty increased with material and technological progress, why his America was beset with violent labor strikes and why workers were deprived of opportunity. Henry George had prophesied that Big Business was the greatest threat to the country.

George placed the blame on corporate monopolies, those entities that swallowed up land, controlled resources and set prices. Today, we think that monopolies no longer exist after Teddy Roosevelt sparked antitrust legislation in the early years of the twentieth century, yet revisiting Progress and Poverty reveals how utterly amnesiac and brainwashed we have become in our perspective of capitalism.

We celebrate the entrepreneur as an American hero, though we show some fear and respect when we call the successful businessperson a shark, We admire him or her for their ingenuity, their creative solution to an ineffective process: Henry George would have no quarrel with that interpretation. He would agree with our modern sociological observations and conclusions: poverty begets social injustices, racial tensions, and poor health outcomes.

Where George’s point of view is different than ours is that he believed that wealth and power vested in one individual or a corporation is patently un-American, that the America around him was becoming European, the very social construct that the Founding Fathers had fought against: the robber baron and his company act like tyrants, foster an aristocracy and privilege that furthers class distinction and warfare. George’s conclusion, however, is more than the Haves versus the Have-Nots that we understand today. The robber baron is an individual with appetites, George would say, but state governments have created the unintentional despot. We have forgotten the secret history of corporations in America.

monopoly stakeMany colonial governments before the Revolutionary War were founded as corporations. State governments, after the Revolutionary War, granted corporate charters, using England’s creation of the East India Company as their model. These charters offered special privileges. The first corporations created public works: roads, bridges, and later, railroads. As time went on, the state’s control of corporations decreased, corruption and the size of the corporations increased, as did the power of the few over so many, thereby limiting employment opportunities.
There are jobs in town, but only one boss. Americans in George’s day interpreted Carnegie, Gould, Rockefeller, and Vanderbilt as the new aristocracy, like their titled and decadent counterparts across the pond. They had money and they were arrogant, living in opulent mansions, sending their children on Grand Tours, tracing their family trees back to the Revolution and marrying off their daughters to European nobility for prestige and pretense. Today’s wealth disparity rivals that of the Gilded Age. The difference is that in the interim between the sunset of the nineteenth century and the sunrise of the twentieth century, America had several Koch Brothers and each man was determined to have his way with the country’s politics and economy.

Henry George surveyed the landscape and saw that class lines were established and entrenched. While the violence was not equivalent to the French Revolution, the working class was angry and violent: the United States would experience 37,000 labor strikes between 1880 and 1905. America maintains the record for having the most violent labor history for any industrialized nation. Henry George’s book presaged a decade of protest and violent reprisal. He had had the deadly Great Railroad Strike of 1877 behind him Single-tax-posterwhile he was writing his book. The Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886, the formation of unions, and the Pullman Strike of 1892 were ahead of him. George died in 1897. His solution to inequality was to propose a single tax on the rental value of land.

We have forgotten that, up to a certain point in time, Americans had equated corporate titans with tyrannical George III. Then came the brainwashing. Andrew Carnegie may have given his wealth away, dotted towns with libraries; George Pullman and Milton Hershey may have built company towns with their company stores and houses, where their employees could spend their wages, but celluloid dickeys would denote “white collar”; denim, “blue collar.” Class distinction had been established. When the smoke cleared after the labor stoppages in the early twentieth century and especially after World War II, the concentration of power had been redefined in terms of popular culture: consumer choice; a middle class, and the call for less government and intrusion into daily life.

740 Park Avenue still remains the largest concentration of American wealth in the nation, the wealthiest apartment building in the world, and lobbyists in plain sight have replaced men such as Henry Frick, who had done Andrew Carnegie’s dirty work.

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Sugar and Sweat

Like any writer, I seek to improve my skills. Most days I’ll return to the imaginarium to watch how other authors have whetted the nib, so I can improve the down strokes on my keyboard, but some days I’ll read a how-to book to get some insight, another perspective on Process.

In James Scott Bell’s Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure, I came across this nifty, but simplistic schematic that distinguishes the differences between Commercial and Literary plots. I call it Sugar and Sweat. See the paradox? See the inverse relationship?

graph

The Commercial plot is a lot of work, with its forward and backward, its ups and downs, its emphasis on Action, yet it is the successful one in terms of that elusive goal: readership and sales. Sweat in terms of Plot, but sugar for success. Its counterpart, Literary is deceptively easier, strong on Character, far more linear, and splits off into two destinations like a subway train. Action is less hectic, more serious and introspective. In a word, sugar for Structure and sweat for success: the results (read sales and shelf space) TBD, to be determined. As Commercial implies popular, the bestseller and quick fix at the airport, Literary is elitist and intellectual. The question that looms like an ominous shadow over the book cover is: Does the Literary book ‘feel’ difficult for the sake of being difficult, or is it worth the effort?

Whatever your opinion is of his style, his themes, or his treatment in his works of race and women, you can’t help but notice that William Faulkner dabbled with both plots. Who else could have created Benjy Compson, whose ‘Here caddie’ indicates that his idiot creation understood neither past nor present or his sister’s permanent absence? Who else could have conjured up Caddy Compson, Lena Grove, or Rosa Coldfield? Yet Faulkner reached for sugar; he tried the Commercial plot. In his Introduction to the Modern Library Edition of Sanctuary, Faulkner confessed that he wrote Sanctuary in three weeks, worried about poor sales, while two of his novels, The Sound and the Fury and Flags in the Dust (the latter mysteriously and inexplicably renamed Sartorius) languished. While working the late-shift shoveling coal at a power plant, he wrote As I Lay Dying, using the back of a wheelbarrow for a desk. After its publication in 1930, Faulkner would receive the galleys for Sanctuary and substantially revise it for publication in 1931.

The Sound and the Fury (1929) would achieve iconic status as a difficult book, challenging generations of readers with its four-part narrative structure, its Literary plot, its long stream-of-consciousness passages such that those new to Faulkner are advised to read As I Lay Dying or his short stories first. Faulkner himself directed readers to Sartorius, the book he thought would establish his literary reputation. Sanctuary, the most commercial of his output, does not figure into the majority of recommendations; it was the book that Faulkner called his ‘cheap idea’ and a ‘horrific tale.’

Unknown-2Sanctuary is a hard-boiled potboiler, about a southern belle named Temple Drake. It would seem that with this book, which he had written so early in his career, Faulkner had sold out; he had gone Commercial. The irony is that the novels after The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying: his Light in August (1932) and Absalom! Absalom! (1936), would put Faulkner squarely on the path to the Nobel Prize (1950). Yet, he was out of print by 1944, his health deteriorated throughout the 50s, and he died in 1962. The resuscitation of Faulkner’s career came from the unlikeliest of sources: the scholar and his translator Maurice Coindreau at Princeton. He was the first to champion Faulkner. Coindreau’s translations would inspire Sartre to write an essay on The Sound and the Fury in 1947 and André Malraux, a preface to Sanctuary in 1952.

In the aforementioned Introduction, Faulkner was aware of his own artistic compromise. He wrote The Sound and the Fury for ‘pleasure’; money mattered little (his father had been supporting him at the time) because he was ‘young and hard-bellied,’ but then he got ‘a little soft’ and, seeing no money from sales, thought of himself as ‘a printed object.’ Temple Drake, the Ole Miss debutante and daughter of a prestigious judge, is no astute Scarlett O’Hara who had tried to get Ashley Wilkes to declare his love for her. Miss Drake’s behavior and methods would make Lindsay Lohan’s escapades appear tame. Temple demands sex. She drinks. She ridicules Popeye’s impotence and for that he’ll rape her with a corncob and imprison her in a whorehouse where she prostitutes herself. She’ll demand sex from Red in a back room, have intercourse with him while Popeye watches them. She flouts convention, but in the lurid end several lives are destroyed. Whether Temple Drake is a femme fatale or an anti-heroine is a matter of semantics.

william_tales_02In 1933, Paramount Pictures released The Story of Temple Drake, with Miriam Hopkins in the lead role. The film escaped the strictest of Joseph Breen’s censors and instigated the Hays Code, the precursor to our current movie-ratings guidelines. The Story of Temple Drake is considered Southern Gothic and an antecedent to film noir. Film noir itself is difficult to define, but if Otto Penzler is correct in that it and noir fiction are about ‘losers,’ their bad decisions and the ‘downward spiral from which they cannot escape,’ then Temple Drake fits the bill almost to a T. She did escape, unscathed and unpunished.

Raymond Chandler, because he wrote genre, bemoaned the fact that he was never considered a real writer: ‘the mystery writer is looked down on as sub-literary merely because he is a mystery writer.’ Isn’t all fiction some form of genre? Faulkner dodged that writer’s curse with his admission into the literary canon. Faulkner, however, paid his bills for twenty-two years in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He worked on numerous films, but his two most famous credits were adaptations for Howard Hawks: Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1944) and Chandler’s Big Sleep (1946).

That’s a lot more sugar than sweat.

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The Twice-Murdered Dream

Richard Yates chronicled the American Dream from the inside, as he knew and lived it; he was an American writer. Compared to Chekhov and considered the poor man’s Fitzgerald for his style, Yates received praise from the likes of Andre Dubus, Dorothy Parker, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams, yet sold so few books in his lifetime for him to make a living as a writer; in fact, the only novel of his that I’ll bet you’ll find at your bookstore is his Revolutionary Road. Yates is our inside man.

MV5BMjAxNzkwOTk5Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzE5NDg4Nw@@._V1_SY317_CR49,0,214,317_AL_Georges Simenon, a Belgian and a name that nobody associates with the American Dream, wrote about it from the outside, as an astute observer, when he lived in Lakeville, CT, while his son attended the prestigious Hotchkiss School. Yates’s post-mortem is Revolutionary Road (1961). Simenon had rendered his conclusion in The Rules of the Game (1955). Like The Mahé Circle, which French publisher Gallimard released in 1946 and Penguin made available to readers in a translation this spring, Game had slept for decades until it was translated into English in 1988.

The American Dream; it is the national epic, the story of the self-made man who becomes somebody, a contender for upward mobility, a number in the race for economic and material security; a dream that F. Scott Fitzgerald satirized in The Great Gatsby, that Arthur Miller eulogized in Death of a Salesman, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to resurrect in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” At the heart of the American Dream, beneath the noble sentiment of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” is Obsession, which is the theme and backdrop to all of Yates’ writing and all of Simenon’s romans durs, his ‘hard’ psychological novels.

newyatesxYates and American writers before and after him have responded to the existential crisis that film noir illustrates so well: the good guy works hard and does all the right things but goes nowhere, often making some bad decision along the way. The schoolbook yarn about republican simplicity, the virtue of a selfless life and public service are not enough. As the nation grew, so did its economy with its cheap labor from slaves, immigrants, or its exploited lower and middle classes. Whether it was Old or New Money, the wealthy imitated European aristocracy, built their palatial mansions, housed servants, and hosted costume balls. These new aristocrats would establish exclusive clubs and marry their daughters off to European royalty, who had titles but no money. They sent their children on grand tours of Europe and reintroduced the practice of tipping, a custom that the Founding Fathers despised because it implied class distinction. The few who had so much lived well, while the many who had so little did not.

45001Frank and April Wheeler do all that society has asked of them. They are middle-class. They buy a house in the burbs. They have children. They are subscribers to the Dream. Both are conformists. He has a monotonous job, a monotonous commute and she suffocates in taking care of the house and minding the children. They are miserable; they come to loathe one another. They are frustrated failures, unhappy with their lives. The Wheelers are domestic combatants, skilled at verbal and physical abuse. They aspire and they reach for more because they feel entitled, but neither Frank nor April has the will or impetus to effect change. They have a vision, they have a plan that they fail to execute. Their antecedent, Gatsby, had charisma, energy and a romantic imagination in his destructive quest for Daisy Buchanan, and dies a tragic figure, having been blinded by his obsession. Jay Gatsby was murdered in the end, but he was a living suicide inside an unsustainable dream. Death had saved him.

Death does come to Revolutionary Road, but there is no overt tragedy in its wake. A clueless character, a stagnant person remains unchanged. The American Dream is flawed, dead at the end of the street Yates named Revolutionary Road, but the people doing the dreaming were dangerous, dull, and unimaginative. In a word, unending materialism and a lack of self-awareness lead to narcissism and nihilism. Readers today are accustomed to, if not desensitized to, suburban malaise, but the psychological portrait of the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road remains a very uncomfortable and visceral read. Yates paints a portrait of devastation, using simple words and layering the details, page after page, letting them sneak up on the reader.

rulesSimenon’s Walter Higgins is the opposite of Frank Wheeler. He sincerely loves his wife, worries about his tomboyish daughter, Flo, and does all that is expected of him, including mowing the lawn, without any bickering. Walter, however, is restless, but he has a plan. The problem is that he is dependent on others. His bootstraps have lifted him only so far.

Walter believes that membership in the town’s country club will prove that he has ‘arrived.’ The club is his Obsession. He believes that this one thing will secure respect and status for his family. He is rejected. Worse, he knows the individuals who voted against his application, and worse than that is that he is rejected a second time. Simenon’s cynicism is darker than Yates’s in that the reader knows that Walter will never be accepted. The reader understands the country club acceptance as something banal. Walter does realize where he came from, how far he has come up in society. He goes back to the neighborhood where he grew up with his difficult mother, appalled at the complacency and ignorance he finds there. He returns to the burbs, grateful, but his is an embattled contentment. His quiet despair is not in living the life of quiet desperation, but understanding that human life has no worth in American society. This is the unspoken rule in a cynical game.

Just as the fisherman places a stick in the pail to stir his captive crabs, the grocer bands the lobster’s claws to prevent cannibalism, likewise Yates and Simenon demonstrate their interpretations of the American Dream. Yates knows that inevitably a crab will try to climb its way up the stick and out of the pail because the crab, just as the Wheelers, wants more. In real life, in this analogy, the other crabs in the pail will pull down the ambitious escapee. The Wheelers drown each other. Simeon, though, has a deeper, noirish understanding of the situation; he knows that there are greater social forces at play: someone stirs the water with a stick to create chaos, while another bands the claws to protect his interest.

There is no crime in Rules and readers may think that not much happens in this novel, unlike Road where each scene between Frank and April blisters with tension. Simenon’s style is understated, just as cumulative in his details as Yates, but the violence isn’t the car accident as it unfolds frame-by-frame with Frank and April, but how fast, how senseless and how worthless life is to the people on the street before and during the accident. People will walk on.

Simenon valued his romans durs because he considered the psychological portrait harder work than his popular procedurals – this from a man who wrote over four hundred novels, seventy-five of them with Inspector Jules Maigret. Simenon extends some hope. Where the Wheelers remain ignorant, Higgins has some awareness. The crime is that nothing will change, despite his energy, his movement to better himself. It is easy to forget Simenon’s prescience. He wrote Rules in 1955, at a time when Ozzie & Harriet was on television.

Yates wrote from his own life. He did ‘all the right things,’ yet success eluded him. He was married (twice) and had three daughters. Revolutionary Road, his debut novel, was nominated for the National Book Award along with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 but lost to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. He received a Guggenheim, wrote speeches for RFK, and scraped by with teaching positions and the largesse of friends. All the literary praises and rewards did little for Yates. Perhaps, Simenon was correct: try, but it might not matter. Yates would experience several shattering mental breakdowns. His one-time student and lifelong supporter and admirer, Richard Price, wrote:

Richard Yates was a magnificent wreck, a chaotic and wild-hearted presence, a tall but stooped smoke-cloud of a man, Kennedyesque in dress and manner, gaunt and bearded with hung eyes and a cigarette-slaughtered voice…

Yates died a bitter and sick man in 1992, aged 66, not from a daily 4-pack-a-day cigarette habit that rewarded him with emphysema, or from drink, but from complications arising from a hernia surgery.

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Excerpt from Roma Series Book 4: Turning to Stone

“We should go, Alessandro,” Gennaro said.

“Just a minute, Boss. I’m waiting to see what the financial analysts have to say.”

“We can listen to the news in the car.”

“I know, but why wait when we can get the forecast now.”

Alessandro, standing near the office’s flat-screen television, clicker in hand, spiked the volume. Gennaro DiBello resigned himself to staring out of the high-rise window, overlooking the Bay of Naples. He saw a U.S. destroyer in the distance en route to Bagnoli.

Dante was putting his papers away before leaving for lunch. He put the stack into his desk drawer, locked it, and began the ritual of backing up his electronic files to a jump key and powering down his monitor. Living with Bianca was showing in his daily work habits. Silvio was at his desk, in his own world, with his own mound of paperwork, his Italian-English dictionary closed but ready.

“Here they are,” Alessandro pointed the remote at the screen and stepped up the volume again. He was a defiant kid who had to get the last word, Gennaro thought.

Gennaro saw their boss, Pio Piersanti, approaching. “Incoming.”

“What is it?” Alessandro said and, seeing Piersanti through the glass, shut off the television.

“What’s the word, DiBello?” asked the man entering the room.

“The word is nothing.”

“Monotti,” Piersanti gestured toward Alessandro, “turn that back on. I want to see what they have to say.”

The television screen crackled to life. A scrolling marquee on the bottom of the screen repeated Moody’s judgment: Downgrade on Italian bonds.

Piersanti’s face soured. “Shit. There goes the bond auction tomorrow.” He turned from the screen to Gennaro and said, “Shouldn’t you be on your way to meet with Giurlani, DiBello?”

“I am. We are. I’m waiting for them.”

“Late lunch,” Piersanti said, confirming the time on his wristwatch.

“Yes, and then we’re back here to give our reports to you and Giurlani.”

“Excellent. Giurlani has a lot faith in you and your group here. He pulled some serious strings to get your team transferred from Milan to Naples, including Isidore Farrugia. The Brooks murder was a PR nightmare. I don’t know how he did it.”

“I thought the answer was simple: Aldo Giurlani is the regional commissioner, and when Milan talks, Naples and Rome listen. If you’ll excuse me, we should get going.”

“I won’t delay you. You and this crew of yours have healthy appetites so please don’t kill me on the expense report. My boss might think I’m in bed with the System.” System was local slang for the Camorra, the infamous Naples crime syndicate.

Pio Piersanti, Gennaro’s new boss, was a decent man, with an alliterative and triplet of holy names. Unlike Pinolo, Gennaro’s former boss in Rome, he wasn’t a penny-pincher or a ball-breaker. Perego, their boss in Milan, was supposed to come to Naples, but was called away to another investigation.

Dottore?” It was Enzo, the mail clerk.

“Something for me?”

“Yes. I have a package. You’ll have to sign for it.”

“What is it?”

“Books in English. All the same title and author,” the young man answered.

Gennaro’s name and address were typed out. No name in the sender space. All rather peculiar, Gennaro mumbled. He hadn’t forgotten the heightened security measures. The postmark was days old because the Neapolitan Guardia di Finanza Security downstairs used canine units for sniffing out suspicious parcels for chemicals and explosives. Security was not victim to Italy’s latest austerity measures.

Gennaro signed and handed over the clipboard. Enzo left and Alessandro, Dante, and Silvio gathered around him as he examined the contents. The enclosed books were rubber-banded together. Five copies.

“What is it, Chief? Looks like a thin volume. Poetry?”

“You’re just like a kid, Sandro. You know that?”

Dante looked at the cardboard mailer and noticed the postmark. “Better for a package to be late than have someone go to pieces. Literally. Security probably dusted this for prints.”

“C’mon, Boss. What is the title?” Alessandro pestered.

The Man of Smoke. Aldo Palazzeschi, a dead writer,” Gennaro answered.

“Why five copies, Chief? And why in English?” Alessandro asked.

“How the hell should I know?” Gennaro said, as his eyebrows lifted. “There are four of us here. One for each of us, I guess, but that leaves one extra copy.”

Dante took his copy and then another. They all looked at him.

“One for Bianca since she is part of the team. Now, let’s go meet the commissioner for lunch. The elevator is waiting. Shall we?”

Alessandro said to Gennaro when the bell chimed, “Palazzeschi was the pen name for Aldo Giurlani.”

“I know, Sandro. He was an anti-Fascist.”

 

Commissioner Aldo Giurlani, who had worked with them in Milan, insisted on meeting the group in the city center for lunch. A public place was best, he had said, but had kept his travel itinerary secret. All Gennaro knew was the name of the restaurant, the appointed hour, and that the commissioner was arriving by car with a modest security detail. The commissioner, who had been receiving death threats, was fast becoming a worthy successor of Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone for his innovative strategies against organized crime.

Gennaro, at the wheel, was stalled in a stagnant sea of cars on Via San Biagio. They heard them in the distance, but could not see any emergency vehicles in the side-view mirror. Nee-nah. Nee-nah.

“What the hell is going on?” Alessandro said in the backseat.

“No idea,” Gennaro answered, peering in his side-view mirror.

People were running on foot between cars, around them, like water over rocks. The flood of flesh was fleeing like hordes of humanity in a science-fiction film. Gennaro gripped the wheel, seeking some escape with his small Fiat Punto. He had navigated the construction site near the Greek and Roman ruins, passed remnants of colonial rule, ignored the Fascist architecture of Banca di Napoli on Via Toledo. Yet there he sat, stranded, adrift, among motionless cars, surrounded by people on foot. As he surveyed the congestion as far as the eye could see, he realized he could get out of his Punto, walk over to the Banca Commerciale Italiana, visit the Caravaggio on the second floor, and light a votive before any car began to move again.

Sandro’s finger tapped his shoulder. “There’s a lollipop.” One of the carabinieri, a blue-suited policeman with a Stop-and-Go paddle, had come out to direct traffic.

Gennaro rolled the window down. The policeman’s torso neared his window. Gennaro showed his identification before he asked for an explanation. There was the intimation of smoke in the summer air: Gennaro could smell it. The policeman held up his lollipop and peered down and surveyed the group inside the car. The policeman tipped his hat.

“There’s been a car bombing in the Spanish Quarter on Via San Gregorio Armeno.”

“Camorra?”

The officer shrugged. “Perhaps. I can use my whistle to move you to the curb.”

“We’re supposed to meet someone for lunch.”

“I’m afraid that you’re not going anywhere, unless you can fly. I will direct you to the side of the road. Park there and call your party on your cell phone. You will be at least half an hour late. They still have to cordon off the scene.”

“Damn,” Gennaro said. He slapped the steering wheel hard. He decided to admit defeat. He said to the cop, “That’ll do, thank you.”

After several loud whistle blows and slow, painful cuts of the wheel and hostile stares from other drivers, Gennaro managed to squeeze his Punto near the curb. His parallel parking would have failed a driver’s exam. Giurlani was going to be pissed off, but what could he do?

“Let’s get out and see what we can make of the scene,” he told his passengers. Dante exited from the passenger side, Alessandro and Silvio maneuvered out of the backseat. Once he was on the sidewalk, Gennaro flipped open the cell phone and speed-dialed Giurlani. Without saying a word they started walking uphill in the direction of the acrid stench until they saw wisps of black and grey smoke.

“No luck getting through to Giurlani?” Dante asked.

“I’m trying, but he’s not picking up.”

Dante’s own cell phone began to ring. He fished it out of his jacket pocket. “Pronto . . . Isidò? Where are you?” Dante stood still and the rest waited for him to say something. Dante cupped the receiver. “Farrugia heard about the car bombing. He’s at the restaurant. I’ll tell him that we’ll be late.” A few words later Dante closed his phone.

They traversed the cobblestones together. Farrugia had been working undercover to track the Camorra’s trade in steroids and recreational drugs. Narcotics work was where he had started his career until he became an anti-mafia expert. Illicit drugs in Naples were yet another hothouse of endless euros for the System.

“It smells nasty,” Alessandro said, squinting his eyes and coughing.

“Burnt rubber and melting plastic are the worst,” Dante said while Gennaro tried Giurlani again on his cell phone. Dante noticed but didn’t say a word.

“No answer,” Gennaro said, snapping the cell phone shut.

The stench and smoke worsened as they crested the hill. They saw the car and several policemen across the street. Firemen had yet to arrive. The car and its contents were nothing now but crackling flames and twisted steel. The top of the car had been sheared off at a jagged angle. A torso in what was the driver’s seat was still visible, smoldering, as well as the shape of an arm and a hand faithful to the wheel. The passenger in the backseat was nothing more than a charcoal stump of charred flesh. Gennaro thought of the late Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five, and fried jumbo grasshoppers.

Alessandro, flashing his badge, called over to one of the cops, who began walking toward them. “What happened?” Alessandro asked.

“Witnesses said the car was coming down the street when three motorcyclists ambushed it. One motorcyclist came out in front to block the car. The driver jammed on his brakes. Two gunmen with Kalashnikovs on the other motorcycles sprayed the car while the one in front took out a bazooka or an RPG and fired it into the car.”

The young policeman pointed to the ejected shell casings and shattered glass on the stony street.

“A bazooka, an RPG?” Alessandro asked. “I wouldn’t expect witnesses to know the difference between a bazooka and a rocket-propelled grenade.” Alessandro wiped his tearing eyes. “Did any of the witnesses have anything to say about the gunmen or the victims?”

“Not really. The motorcyclists wore helmets, visors down. Three men were in the car. We’ll know more once we trace the plates.”

“Camorristi with AK-47s. Typical,” Dante said.

Gennaro, like the rest of them, looked at the license plate. Milan.

Dante said, “Maybe you should call Giurlani again, Chief?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Why not?”

“Still have that book?”

“It’s in the car. Why?”

“Because the books were a message.” Gennaro stared at the car wreck. His eyes seemed distant and immune to the smoke.

A confused Alessandro asked, “What is he talking about?”

“Aldo Palazzeschi was a pen name. You said so yourself, Sandro.”

“For Aldo Giurlani, why?”

Gennaro nudged his chin at the wreckage. “Dante’s book might be in my car, but Giurlani is in that one.”

Alessandro stared at Gennaro for an explanation.

“That’s the message. Our Commissioner Giurlani is now a man of smoke.”

Gennaro started the descent back to his car.

Nee-nah. Nee-nah. The sirens had arrived.

Turning to Stone

TTS

COPYRIGHT © 2015 by Gabriel Valjan

Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing

Please visit Winter Goose Publishing and browse around to find excellent books, new authors, enjoy their blog, and subscribe for e-mail updates.

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Jagged Ice: The Works of Iceberg Slim

Ever discover an author who made you feel like as if you’ve been living under a rock? And I don’t mean just discovering good writing, but, to quote Hammett, “like somebody had taken the lid off life and let [you] see the works”?

I found Iceberg Slim by accident. After writing a series of blog posts on World War I, I went into the I-section of the BPL stacks to reacquaint myself with Ibáñez, whom I had read when I was younger, fascinated by the cover art for the author’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In pulling Ibáñez from the shelf, out popped a slim volume entitled Trick Baby.

0870679333Curious, I read the first few pages and was like, “Who is this guy? [Insert expletive here].” I then pulled Mama Black Widow, Long White Con and Death Wish from the shelf, read the first pages of each novel and decided I had to read the man. All the books, with the exception of Doom Fox, which was a reissue with a Pam Grier-like profile on the cover and an introduction by Ice-T, were sad, tattered copies from the seventies.

Iceberg had done the bulk of his writing by 1978, with Airtight Willie & Me, his last work, published in 1985. Doom Fox was a posthumous publication. Iceberg died at 73 in 1992 from complications of diabetes. I borrowed Trick Baby and his autobiography Pimp from the library and read them together before I moved on down the line to his other works in chronological order.

I was a kid in the seventies ( and I know that I’m generalizing here) but it was either the punk scene, metal or rap music that ‘spoke’ to my peers when we were teens in the eighties. It was all a pose, but adolescents in search of expression and an identity latch onto what they can. Another sweeping statement: blaxploitation was already a cliché and, having been weaned on Norman Lear productions for television such as Good Times, Sanford & Son and The Jeffersons that brought black families and their concerns into the living room, we didn’t know Black outside of epics such as Roots, but what we did see we thought was prefabricated as cereal inside a box; and with Reagan retro-morality running 24/7, a serious examination of race was dismissed as oh so liberal and très progressive. To my friends, hip-hop and rap were their music, just as Delta or Chi blues was authentic Black music. We, at least, didn’t buy the subscription that Elvis had invented rock. We knew Black folks had been ripped off since Day One.

We didn’t use the word African-American then. It was Black, just black, and no hyphens needed. African-American poetry and drama, if and when it was taught to us College Caucasians, was Baldwin, Ellison, Jones and Wright. Poetry was Angelou, Brooks, Giovanni, McKay, and Wheatley. Hansberry was shoehorned in with Wilson. When I was in college, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were not in the curriculum. Rodney King hadn’t happened yet. So finding and appreciating Iceberg Slim is a function of accident and curiosity.

Flash-forward to the present: in my mind, one of the most cynical and capitalistically exploitative acts in entertainment was that a bunch of white middle-aged record executives sold the idea to white kids that they could act Thug and dress Gangsta. Norman Lear is still alive, but the stunning TV-series Empire might just convince people that Black people are caught up in what Ice-T and Iceberg’s called The Game. Empire vindicates what U2 had said in Bullet the Blue Sky, “Outside, is America.”

Iceberg Slim jumps off the page because he writes with authenticity. He has a voice, but it isn’t the Voice of the MFA workshops. His honesty is brutal and lacerating. If you are PC about language, gender relationships, and are MLK-idealistic about race relations, or need trigger words, then don’t read Iceberg. Samuel L. Jackson in rant-mode could take a few pointers from Iceberg Slim — not that his stories are anti-white, hateful and venomous. No. I think that misses the point. They are unpleasant and they are raw. He does say harsh, misogynistic things about women, not because he dislikes women, but rather he is all business. Imagine a black Michael Corleone saying, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” That’s Iceberg Slim. He doesn’t give a F.

Iceberg-slim

There is brutality and there is the tragic. Slim tells the reader that in order to survive in business, to survive in the world, to survive in America, a person can’t bare his or her feelings. Weakness is stone cold fatal. To be clear: he isn’t about redefining masculinity and drumming in the woods with Robert Bly. He is crystal about one thing: people will take advantage of vulnerability, including women, family and friends. He doesn’t buy into men are providers and women are nurturing. We are social and tribal animals. Life is a ledger book and it is either profit or losses; it is a matter of life and death. Go soft, get comfortable, and you might as well put the toe tag on yourself.

Surprisingly, Iceberg Slim was not born into abject poverty. His dad had abandoned the family. His mother worked hard, owned a beauty salon, and provided him with a middle-class existence and education in Depression-era America. That is quite remarkable, regardless of race. He attended college (with Ralph Ellison) but dropped out. Ice started pimping in 1936, seduced by the money and artificial sense of power.

At the height of his own empire, he had 400 women in his ‘stable,’ and at his lowest, he was a desperate, strung-out heroin junkie; and from apex to nadir, he perfected a ruthless persona as cold as a coroner’s drawer. When you read any of his novels, you feel the weight of the mask, the conniving; the energy it takes to stay one-step ahead and others (mostly women) underfoot. Ice wasn’t worried so much about The Man as he was about maintaining his niche in the urban food chain. His stories are a metaphor about American capitalism: there is no such thing as a Free Market: it is all domination and somebody is always under the wheel. Money is green and it doesn’t care whether the pocket is White or Black. The Game isn’t about the justice thing, nor is it a social thing, and gender has nothing to do with it: Survival in America is Darwinian. Deal with it, or die. Welfare and social programs are not a helping hand, but dangerous narcotics. Unfortunately, Ice makes it clear that pimping has always been a Black thing.

9781451617139_p0_v1_s260x420Iceberg landed in jail, did ten months in solitary confinement. He left the Cook County Jail a changed man. He stepped away from pimping and hustling because by then he was an old man in the game. He was 42 in 1961. He started writing about his life, about cons, about mulattoes, and “his whores.” Holloway House, an independent Black publishing group in Los Angeles, would publish all of his books, starting in 1967. Cash Money Content now reprints all his titles with distinctive covers. Iceberg Slim became an underground icon to rappers like Ice-T, Tupac, and Notorious B.I.G. Ice-T would take his stage name from Iceberg. Later, he would back a documentary on Iceberg Slim. The documentary is available on DVD at Amazon.

Slim writes in a dialect that has probably dated itself, along with the clothes, but the dialectic is frighteningly clear: the hard work that it takes for the entrepreneurial success of Horatio Algers — whether they are from the street or tony MBAs with inherited wealth from suburbia — is predicated on predation. The pimp may use intimidation and the corporate wingtips may use lawyers and loopholes, but the result is the same. Slim doesn’t stop there. Equality in America, especially for Black Americans, equality between men and women are all smokescreens for the vicious necessities for survival in a nihilistic society that eats its own. I suspect that, as Ice-T wrote in his introductory essay to Doom Fox, Iceberg Slim gave a voice where there was no voice. Slim didn’t bemoan the state of Black existence in America; he accepted it as self-evident. Deal with the Reality, play the Game, or it will kill you. There is no sideline, or place to catch your breath.

Now, the lure behind Iceberg’s stories is the Hollywood glamorization of the pimp lifestyle, just like the mafia has been romanticized, but I think that is to read the man wrong, for he’s very forthright: all that is a fast track to the morgue, and why make it easy for others who want to put you there in the first place? In his autobiography, his advice is to educate yourself, steer clear of smack and enrich your life with reading; it might be square and Old School, but you’re not the fool and you’re keeping it real.

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