Wherein I learn something about noir literature

If you follow my twitter feed you'll know that I recently took Nick Mamatas’ 9-week fiction writing class at the Writer’s Salon in Berkeley. It was really good. The next session is starting on October 9th. If you live in the East Bay (or San Francisco) and you are a writer who is as good as or worse than me and you want to become alot better, you should definitely take this class.

Anyways, during the class, Nick mentioned several books that I was totally unfamiliar with. I not only had never heard of the books, I’d never even heard of their authors. The books were The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson and The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford. When I looked them up, Wikipedia said that they were “crime” novels and/or “noir” novels. The former is about a murderous deputy sheriff in a small Texas town; the latter is about a Florida-based art critic who gets a tip for a hot interview with a reclusive European artist who’s bunkered down in a nearby cabin.

I read both books. And they were both awesome. But they left me confused. The two novels clearly shared some DNA. They were both first-person narratives starring amoral wretches who succumbed to temptation (and got their comeuppance in the end). They were both detailed, well-observed portraits of very small milieus. They both had a strong sense of setting. They were both fast-moving and gave short thrift to explanations. They both had structures that played around with narrative chronology (Thompson’s novel has frequent, quite long, background explanations and most of Willeford’s novel consists of an internal flashback). They were both quite short (around 40-50,000 words). And they were both unlike anything I’d read before.     Clearly, I was dealing with a whole strand of American literature that I’d never encountered before.

But I was (and still am) a little confused as to what that strand is. I am, after all, at least somewhat familiar with detective novels. I’ve read Hammett and Chandler. I’ve read Sherlock Holmes. And I’ve read novels about organized crime, like Mario Puzo’s works or Layer Cake. But these novels weren’t really anything like that stuff. There was no mystery or procedural element (although in Thompson’s book, at least, there was a question as to exactly how the killer would be caught), and there was no detective.

In a way, the novels were like an adjunct to the mystery genre: the story of a crime as told from the criminal point of view. But they didn’t offer the same pleasures as mysteries. They didn’t hinge on any sort of revelation. Nor were they, quite, psychological novels. The criminal impulse was, in both cases, glossed over. In a way, it was seen as being somewhat obvious. Of course anyone in these situations would be driven to commit crimes...the only difference is that these guys actually did it.

The major joy of the books was in seeing the consequences pile up. It was in seeing intelligent people thrash around against the limits of their environment and try, desperately, to outwit the almost insurmountable odds they were facing. The minor joy was in reading about the kind of people and the kind of places that aren’t normally the subject of novels.

So I decided to investigate further, and conduct something of a survey of this kind of novel (which is, I guess “noir” literature...although that is a term that I had previously associated with Raymond Chandler’s detective stories).

In assembling my reading list, I relied heavily on the Library of America’s two compilations of crime novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s and American Noir of the 1950s.

The novels I read were:

Thieves Like Us Edward Anderson
The Postman Always Rings Twice James M. Cain
Double Indemnity James M. Cain
The Big Clock Kenneth Fearing
Down There David Goodis
Nightmare Alley William Lindsay Gresham
Real Cool Killers Chester Himes
The Killer Inside Me Jim Thompson
The Grifters Jim Thompson
The Burnt Orange Heresy Charles Willeford
Pick-Up Charles Willeford
I Married A Dead Man Cornell Woolrich

In addition to these, I am currently planning on reading Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, Willeford’s Cockfighter, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.

It’s been a really interesting journey through noir literature, and over the next week or so, I hope to post more about what I’ve learned. But the biggest thing I’ve taken away from this experience is astonishment that I could have been unaware of something--a whole subgenre--that was (and to some extent, still is) a vibrant part of American literature. I mean, I know that it's impossible to read everything, but I had thought, for some strange reason, that I knew--at least in broad strokes--about all the kinds of stuff that I hadn't read. But clearly that was not true. I wonder what else I've missed?

Wrap Up Season: Surprisingly Good Books, Part One

In an effort to sum up my year’s reading, I divided up the books I read into four categories: Surprisingly Good, Predictably Good, Left Me With Mixed Feelings, and BAD!!! (there’s also a fifth category of books that I didn’t feel like listing, or talking about). Then I divided up them up further by the list of books that I had something to say about and the list that I had nothing to say about.

There were 31 Surprisingly Good books that I decided to honor with little capsule-thinks.  That’s a lot. And that’s why I decided to present sixteen today and the other fifteen tomorrow. Now, first of all, maybe you’re owed a little explanation. What makes a book “Surprisingly Good”? It’s an entirely subjective assessment. I gave it to all the books which surprised me with their goodness. As I noted yesterday, sometimes one goes into a reading experience knowing that the book is going to be good. I feel like it’s much more satisfying when you’re just bopping along, reading a book, for whatever reason, and then suddenly, wham, it turns out to be really good.

Now, there is an open question as to whether I should have been surprised by the goodness of some of these books. After all, some of these authors, like James Baldwin, are hella famous and were on the cover of Time and everything! Some of these books, like the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, are genuwine classics, from hella far back, and have provided the titles to like fifteen Doors songs. But for whatever reason, usually owing entirely to some personal prejudice or lack of knowledge, I was not sure that any of the following books was going to be any good.

(Okay, I am halfway through writing these capsule-thinks, and I note they are extremely lacking in any sort of depth, and usually don’t even manage to explain much about the story and why I liked it. Often they devolve into some kind of personal anecdote that has little relevance to the book in question. But what can you expect? They are a single paragraph long!)

Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin – All I knew about James Baldwin before I read this book was that he was black and gay and American and wrote in a vaguely post-WWII time frame. Now I know much more about him, because this novel is the bomb. The “present-day” action of the novel takes place within an all-night prayer session that the teenage protagonist is attending at his father’s church in Harlem. But most of the novel is taken up with three long stories detailing the lives of the boy’s father, aunt, and mother and how they got to where they are, and how their lives became so complicated. I read this book on a plane (to India), and a plane is something like an all-night prayer vigil. It is dark and hushed and still, but with a constant thrum of noise and flickering of light.

 Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke – Burke is hailed as one of the intellectual forebears of modern-day conservatism. In his day, the liberals were those damned French revolutionaries, and one of those nitwits wrote to him asking what he thought of the exciting events in France (he published this in 1790, well before most of the blood started being spilt). In this 90,000 word letter (or, I hope, series of letters), Mr. Burke certainly set that fool straight. I thought it was fascinating in the places where it denounced the idea that radical change is something to be desired. I really have no clue what the actual relationship of Burke’s thought is to modern-day conservatism, but I hope it is related. I don’t think that being suspicious of change or of utopian promises is a bad thing (especially not after reading this book).

Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather – I read this on the same plane-trip during which I read the Baldwin novel, above. Yes, it was a truly magical journey. I picked up this novel solely because of the title. It was not any kind of Gothic horror, though…it was about Catholic priests in the 19th century Southwest. The novel is incredibly flat. There are no big conflicts. There are no huge struggles, or character issues. There is a lot of tromping through various wildernesses. But the flatness is somehow part of its charm. Tales of exploration somehow never manage to convey the bigness of the world the way this story did. If the path in front of you is unknown, then every place is a destination. But if you’re on a long, lonely journey between two isolated outposts – a road that has been mapped, but rarely traveled – you’re somehow far more alone than Lewis and Clark ever were.

Journey To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineYou might have noticed that sometime around the end of March I began using a lot of ellipses in my online conversations…yeah…that was because of this book. It’s basically a picaresque involving a brutally cynical Frenchman who gets involved in a lot of unpleasant adventures: WWI, acting as a colonial agent at an outpost in Africa, working at a Detroit auto plant, being an orderly in a hospital, entering into private practice as a doctor in a poor Parisian suburb…….all of these things turn out to be extremely disagreeable to him! Also there are ellipses, glorious ellipses…

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel R. Delany – I expected a lot of good things from this book, since I am a big fan of Samuel Delany’s work. But my expectations were exceeded so dramatically and in such a different way than I imagined, that I am putting it on this list.

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I dunno about you, but I am a little on the fence about Dostoyevsky…I mean, I liked Brothers Karamazov and all, but somehow it was just a tiny bit…overwrought…and all over the place…but after reading Camus refer extensively to this novel in an essay on absurd heroes, I decided to give it a shot. Also, it’s about politics and revolutions and conspiracies. Except the first hundred and fifty pages are not about that at all! They’re about the exceedingly sweet platonic romance between an old has-been (who really never-was) scholar and his wealthy widowed patron. It’s difficult to describe the cuteness of this beginning part (which is long enough to be a regular person’s whole novel). The rest of the novel is pretty good too, at least, I liked it better than Brothers K.

The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner – Yes, I know that Faulkner has been certified “the shit” by the King of Sweden, but the court of Rahul’s bookshelf obeys a much sterner master! And this master does not like being confused! It makes him feel stupid! He squeals and wails and bays like Chewbacca whenever he feels stupid! So my jury was out on William Faulkner. But now it is in. He’s pretty good. Otherwise, there’s not much to say.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward FitzGerald (and also, I guess, Omar Khayyam). – This is the first book of poetry I have ever read. Somehow poetry just doesn’t sit with me. I mean, I enjoy poems on occasion. But I don’t understand how one reads a “book” of poems, just poem after poem. It’s madness! Luckily, Edward FitzGerald (the translator) edited together the poems to, kind of, tell something of a story. At least, it made sense as a story to me. Furthermore, my version had the first and the fifth edition of the work, one after the other, so I read everything twice (albeit the second time it was subtly different). I liked it a lot. I read this while I was snowed in for seven straight days by the East Coast’s Great January Snowpocalypse.

Sandman by Neil Gaiman – Sandman has always struck me as having an extremely dull premise – “Oh there’s this guy, the personification of Dreams…except he doesn’t really do anything…he just gets progressively more emo”. Also, I don’t know about you, but I am not totally committed to Neil Gaiman’s work. Sometimes, as with Stardust or Good Omens, I like it a lot. But other times, like with American Gods, I don’t dislike it…I just don’t quite…understand the point of it…or why it exists…….But after reading it, I totally understand the point of Sandman. These comics are extremely horrifying. I read pretty much all of them between 3 AM and 5 AM, while I was pulling a string of late nights for a work project, so that might have contributed to the feeling. But there’s just such a bleakness to the Sandman cosmology…no one really cares about anyone…even Dreams’ brothers and sisters can only muster up a tiny modicum of concern for him. There’s nothing to hope for. But then it’s shot through with little wonderful things, like the adult woman who goes into her own childhood dream-world to save her little dream-kingdom from a great, big dream-evil, or Merv Pumpkinhead, the wise-ass janitor of the dreams. I guess all of those are typical Gaimanisms (American God was full of them), but they seem so much more enchanting in Sandman than ordinarily…

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett – The first Dashiell Hammett book I’d ever read, and it was an amazing experience. First of all, this is not a mystery…this is just bodies piling up until answers come tumbling out of the pile. Secondly, it’s kind of amazing how Hammett can give you a protagonist with no real background, no desires, not even a name, and make you like him. There’s something flamboyant and fun about the Continental Op. Later on, when Hammet gets around to creating a real character, in the Thin Man, it is truly mind-blowing, but by the time I read that (two weeks after Red Harvest), I had grown to expect the mind-blowing from him, because in that intervening two weeks, I’d read all the other novels he’d written.

The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne – If you’ve ever lived in anything resembling a quasi-utopian cooperative community, you have to read this book! I think I underlined this book more than any other I’ve read, just because various passage so strongly reminded me of Synergy (in a good way, although all the passages were about slightly ridiculous aspects of communal living). Basically, back in the mid-1800s, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife and a whole bunch of their other Great Awakening-type buddies (Margaret Fuller, some other transcendentalist folks, etc), all decided to move out to a farm in New Hampshire and make a whole new and more honest society. Evidently, it was hilarious. But this book is better than most books about utopian experiments because it is not about the failure of said experiment (although the farm does fail, horribly). Instead, it’s a dark and tragic love story. But it’s hard to take said love story seriously. This book is really just sweet, and funny. It’s about friends hanging out together and shooting the shit. It’s about falling, in the course of a single summer, strongly under the sway of a strong personality in a way that disfigures you for life.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – So, like three years ago I was visiting a friend in Portland (Hey Brian!) and he loaned me his copy of A Moveable Feast. And in between bouts of getting hammered, I finished the entire book before the weekend was over. But I had always assumed that the brilliance of A Moveable Feast was an outgrowth of Hemingway’s intensely bombastic personality, and I was suspicious that if he was allowed to fictionalize his pretensions (more so than they were in A Moveable Feast, that is), then I would very much dislike the result. But…I didn’t. He manages to keep it under control. Like a lot of these sorts of books (egotistical young man books), it’s saved by love, and by understanding. The ego of the protagonist gets displaced onto his friends, and he delights in building them up…also the fiesta that caps the book is really something….

Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume Mr. Hume has satisfactorily demonstrated to me that it’s impossible to directly perceive any sort of causal relationship, it is only possible to deduce one from repeated observation. That’s a lot of good to get out of a work of philosophy, and much more than I get out of most of them.

Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood – I finished this book while I was on a train to Berlin. I read it because it was the only book I knew of that was about Berlin. It was indescribably good. Like, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. I’m sorry I already used up my line about “egotistical young man books” because I want to use it again, but only more so. Isherwood paints all the people his author alter-ego (which is, for half the stories, actually named “Christopher Isherwood”) meets in Weimar Berlin with a very kind brush. There’s not even a single villain amongst them. Most magnificent is his landlord, Frau. Schroeder. In any other book, she’d be a stock character. She’d be predictably ridiculous and consequently ridiculed. I’ve read that character many times. But Isherwood makes her, if not quite a real character (all of his characters are faintly unreal), then at least a beautiful and enchanting character.

Varieties of Religious Experience by William James – Few books describe themselves so well, or so succinctly, in their titles. This is a series of twenty lectures that James gave at the University of Edinburgh around 1901. In it, he goes through, and describes, very comprehensively, and from a psychological point of view (with no eye towards their truth or falseness), the “Varieties of Religious Experience”. When I read it, I was surprised that I had never heard of anyone doing such a thing before. It’s the kind of book that teaches you to see, not by showing you knew things, but by explaining what it is you’ve spent your life looking at, without noticing.

Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce – When I read Dubliners a few years ago, I was like, “Wow, this is actually really good. I expected it to be totally unreadable.” I don’t know why that didn’t preclude me from having exactly the same reaction to this book. I particularly enjoyed the scene (of some ten or twenty pages), where a priest at Dedalus’ school is calling down all kinds of awesome hellfire on them.