Tag Archives: California

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up by Richard Hallas

“And I knew there was something I had to do and something I had to wait for, and it wasn’t till I saw it that I knew.”

Richard Hallas was the pseudonym for Eric Knight (1897-1943)–the man who created the character of Lassie. I’m still trying to get my mind around that. Lassie Come Home is …well… touching and a bit weepy, but here’s You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, pure noir fiction, a superbly dark, hardscrabble tale of crime and moral corruption. Eric Knight was born in Yorkshire but emigrated to America in his teens. He was a Hollywood screenwriter, but in 1943 while a major in “the film unit of the U.S. Army Special Services,” he was killed in a plane crash. You Play the Black and Red Comes Up, published in 1938, was his only crime novel.

you play the redAlthough the book begins in an Oklahoma mining town, this is primarily a California novel. The book begins with the narrator, Dick, leaving his midnight shift to discover that his wife, Lois, has run away from the family-owned roadside diner with their child.  The tiny roadside diner is an iconic American image–a drab place of tarnished, shriveled dreams where the owners wait, hoping for customers as life passes them by. There’s a quaintness to this particular diner that’s submerged by its sad ordinariness. While Dick mentions that he’d “painted the front in blue and yellow squares like a checkerboard so that the truck-drivers on the way down to Dallas would always remember it,” we know that the diner is bigger in Dick’s mind than to the drivers who pass by on the highway. Dick immediately guesses that Lois has run off to Hollywood as she’s “crazy to get in the pictures” and has cousins living there. Perhaps we don’t blame Lois for ditching the diner and the long, lonely hours.

you play the blackDick doesn’t hesitate, he hops aboard a westbound freight, laying on the top of a box car and watching “the glow of the smelters a long way off” slowly fade as he gains distance from the town. He’s in the company of a “bunch of floaters” all headed for California and the myth that “there was a man there going to be elected Governor who would take all the money away from the millionaires and give fifty dollars a week to every man without a job.” In one town, police herd hoboes out of jail and onto the freight train beating the men with their billy sticks as they mount into a box car. The train trip becomes a hellish journey with the strong bullying the weak, the old and black.

It’s funny, when you’re in the dark you can’t get things very straight. Sometimes I knew it would be daytime, because I could see light through chinks in the boards. I tried to figure out when we’d get out, but I couldn’t tell where we were. Sometimes I’d smell desert and alkali dust, and I’d think we were in Arizona. Then we’d feel them coupling another engine and we’d be going up a mountain and we all like to froze to death because it went down to zero and only being crowded together kept us alive.

Once in California, fate, and fate plays a large role in this noir story, throws Dick into the path of eccentric, probably insane, movie director, Quentin Genter. This meeting leads to a number of twists and turns in Dick’s life, and while Dick sees Quentin as his friend, it’s apparent that Quentin is a collector of people, an expert in poison, and an arch manipulator.

Penniless and with no prospect of employment, Dick turns to crime to make an easy buck. This is another event that leads to yet another fateful meeting–this time with divorced lush Mamie and her friend Pat–women who’d “both decided to be blondes.” Mamie sticks like glue to Dick and while Dick is soon ready to move on, she may or may not have the knowledge to send him to prison. This uneasy alliance, with Dick unsure whether or not Mamie knows the truth about his criminal act, keeps him behaving, stuck with Mamie, and on edge. Are the comments she makes threatening or is he just reading this into the situation?:

Then I got to thinking she acted like she knew all about it anyhow. I kept going back over what she’d said and remembering her words. And one time it would sound sure as if she knew everything, and the next time I could prove to myself that she’d said nothing that wasn’t just an innocent remark. And that’s the way it went, back and forth, I could prove either way I wanted; things she’d done, and the next minute proving she could have done and said everything by chance.

That’s the way I sat there, not saying anything, and Mamie sitting there in her new dressing gown, brushing her hair and smiling. Then that got me to worrying whether her smiling meant she had me cornered or that it was just an innocent smile meaning she wanted to be pleasant and make up again.

That’s the way it was.  

You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up is a quintessential California novel. California has always had a certain mystique and undeniable lure: from the Gold Rush to the dream of becoming a film star in Hollywood. This novel was published towards the end of the Great Depression, but that period in history is still seen in these pages–from the hoboes travelling west towards their dreams and opportunities to Dick whose poignant memories of his desperate parents become another dream to pursue for entirely different reasons. Everything that happens to our narrator once he arrives in California has a dream-like, hallucinatory quality to it, an artificiality, a movie set feel to it. Film director Quentin argues that everyone becomes crazy in California, and if he’s anything to go by, well there might be something to it. There’s a bit of a joke behind this, as I learned not long after moving to America. You can live in California and imagine that you know America. You do not. California is unlike anywhere else in this vast country. And yes, some Americans do think that California is off the deep end–an extreme place for its attitude and acceptance of beliefs rejected elsewhere in the country, so I was pleased to see that even back in the 30s, California was seen as an anomaly when compared to the rest of the country. Here’s Quentin on the subject of what happens to people when they come to California:

“It’s the climate–something in the air. You can bring men from other parts of the world who are sane. And you know what happens? At the very moment they cross those mountains.” he whispered real soft, “they go mad. Instantaneously and automatically, at the very moment they cross the mountains into California, they go insane. Everyone does. They still think they’re sane, but they’re not. Everyone in this blasted state is raving mad. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

Dick’s experiences in California begin with a hunt for his wife and child, there’s a detour to crime, and that’s when everything gains momentum. There are twists of fate: a change of fortune, love (with a possibly insane woman), and a cult (even then) but there’s also a lot of darkness and deceit. While often a noir character takes one false step that takes him deeper and deeper on the narrow path of no return, Dick’s one misstep creates ever-widening spaces of tainted relationships, hypocrisy, falsity and moral corruption. Quentin seems to be Dick’s friend but he’s a satanic figure, and if he’s a satanic figure then the novel has an allegorical quality. Told in a deceptively simple style by a narrator who accepts what happens to him, not in a naïve way, but rather after the fashion of an Everyman, You Play the Red but the Black Comes Up, a title that hints at chance, good, and bad luck concludes with a spectacular, and surprisingly moving ending. 

It was pitch-dark but I wasn’t afraid of losing my way. I knew where I had to go, and somehow it was like something would be sure to tell me how to get there.

One of my best of 2013.

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18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev

“Nine days without my wife and I score a drunk Pamela Anderson.”

Ok, so here’s the scenario:

You’re a young Bulgarian man living in California. You once wanted to be a photographer but settled for a lucrative job in the pharmaceutical industry. After your wife, Stella, dumps you, you go down to Tijuana on a bender. There in a drunken haze, you get mixed up with some thugs and through a chain of circumstance, you end up with a huge bag of marijuana. Do you:

a)  turn it in to the cops

b) have a big party and invite all your friends

c) drop it off at the Salvation Army donation box

d) try and sell it.

Well if you’re Zachary, the narrator of Bulgarian author, Zachary Karabashliev’s novel, 18% Gray, you decide, somewhat precipitously on the latter option. Of course there are a ton of problems when it comes to selling somewhere in the region of  50-70 lbs of marijuana, and since Zach knows nothing about how to sell it and has no contacts to help, he decides to drive from California to his friend Danny in New York, taking the huge bag of purloined marijuana along in the car. For anyone who’s driven across state lines, then you know that this is not the best plan in the world, but then again Zach isn’t exactly thinking straight since Stella left.

18 grayIn many ways this is a road trip novel. As Zach packs up Stella’s abandoned convertible with the marijuana and an adequate supply of indispensable Toblerone, he careens from one disaster and misadventure to another including a less-than-thrilling casual sex encounter and a clash with opportunistic car thieves as he passes through drab rural towns, stops at greasy spoon diners, isolated gas stations, and sleeps in bleak cheap hotel rooms. Along the way he buys an ancient Nikon camera and captures amazing images of the American landscape, and as he heads East, he reminisces about his past in Bulgaria, his relationship with Stella, and mulls over exactly what went wrong.

18% Gray (which is a reference to photography btw) is a fictional version of a Jim Jarmusch film. Narrator Zach combines the naiveté of the non-American adrift in the bizarre corners of the American social landscape with the sort of spot-on observations made by a foreigner who interprets the culture with a unique perspective:

At seven I’m in the car because I have to leave L.A. before the traffic really thickens. I take I-10 East. The sun is already up and glinting on the backs of the cars in front of me. I try to find a radio station that doesn’t irritate me. I know that every ten or fifteen minutes I’ll have to deal with the next attack of ads–something I have never learned to ignore after all these years in America. Most likely I never will. The locals handle this as if they have an implanted chip that switches their attention on and off during commercial breaks. Maybe this mechanism is formed in the first early years of television watching. I’m missing the “first seven” in this respect. I grew up somewhere else, with a different kind of television. There–I remember– we had similar reactions to the communist propaganda, which, just like the commercials here, kept the system going.

As Zach heads East, layers from his past are stripped away, and we learn how Zach and Stella met in Bulgaria, their exodus to America, and how they adjusted to a whole new vista of materialistic temptations.

Years ago, I was in a book shop in Santa Monica, which some of you may know is a mecca of sorts for British ex-pats like me. There while perusing the shelves, I overheard a conversation between other British ex-pats who were exchanging thoughts about living in America. One man noted that he fell into the “pitfalls” of the culture without thinking much about it. He said he’d “gone with the flow” and racked up huge debts to match a lifestyle he really couldn’t afford. Not that this behavior is exclusively American by any means, but the man’s point was that he felt adrift in a foreign culture and made bad choices which resulted in painful experiences before he found himself reevaluating just how he wanted to live in his newly-adopted culture.  This overheard conversation came back to mind as I read the novel. As an ex-pat, I appreciated 18% Gray’s fresh and insightful view of American culture as seen through a foreigner’s eyes. When Zach lands in America, all things seem possible, and then he shifts his dream, opting for material gain over every other consideration. Not so Stella. This is, in essence, the experience of ever new-comer to a foreign land. You have to decide how you will adapt, what you will adopt, and what you will absolutely reject. For some, I think, it’s easier than for others. Zach initially loses himself with his new (forged) American identity, and it’s on the symbolic journey East that Zach reconnects with the man he used to be.

I love American roads at night. The prairie outside is dark and cold. The American West. Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a part of this. But why? Is it possible that I had simply been charmed by the idea of the West, the West of absolute, raw freedom? I grew up with my grandparents’ fairy tales, with innumerable stories of our own national heroes–my mom read me to sleep every night.

I now realize that my American West was not a geographical place, but a sacred territory in my dreams. Perhaps everybody has their own Wild west. From a very young age, I knew with certainty that one day I would live in mine. I’d caress the yellow prairie grass and the wind would kiss my face. When did I lose all that? How did I manage to desecrate my West by replacing it with the plastic version of what I’ve been living in for the last few years of my life?

California, of course. The end came with California.

Review copy. Translated by Angela Rodel

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Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a film fan, and so it’s really no surprise that I’d be interested in Christine Sneed’s excellent debut novel, Little Known Factsa book I read in two sittings. Dynamic yet aging film star/director Renn Ivins is at the centre of the book and with each chapter told by various people in Renn’s life, a complex picture emerges of a talented, enormously successful, fabulously wealthy man, yet who, as ex-wife #1, Lucy states is “quite capable of rationalizing any decision he makes that involves his penis.” Through these chapters, both 1st and 3rd person narrative, we see Renn through the eyes of a range of people: his resentful, trust fund son, Will, whose bitterness towards his father hobbles his ability to move on, Renn’s daughter, Anna who’s on her last year of med. school at UCLA, a prop master who augments his income by stealing souvenirs, Renn’s two ex-wives, pediatrician Lucy and Melinda, who’s just written a tell-all memoir, Will’s girlfriend Danielle, and Renn’s girlfriend du jour, up-and-coming film star, Elise, a girl young enough to be his daughter.

little known factsBy presenting these alternate voices, author Christine Sneed not only adds multiple layers to this tale of family relationships tainted with fame, absence, and infidelity but she also infuses a thread of sympathy for her characters–no small feat since we are talking about extremely wealthy people who can more or less do what they want with their time and money. Will, for example, has a chain of pathetic attempts to work in his patchy resume, but with a posh home paid for out of his trust fund money, he has no incentive to get out of bed in the morning. Obviously, there’s no sympathy to be had from this reader for Will’s inertia dilemma, but the situation raises the question: did Renn, who felt guilty about dumping his family and moving on, do his children any favours setting them up with trust funds? It’s also, through Will, we get more than an idea of what it is like to live under the suffocating cloud of a parent’s fame.  All of his life, Will has felt insignificant next to his popular film-star father and has painfully discovered that people want to be friends with him only to get a taste of Tinsel town. Even Will’s girlfriend, Danielle secretly fancies Renn and feel “lightheaded” at the prospect of meeting this charismatic man again:

Objectively, the father, despite being twice his son’s age, is the more desirable man. Along with the money and the fame, it is his confidence, his stature, his sheer Renn Ivins-ness that draws people to him. He is his own thriving industry, a true celebrity, with his metal star already embedded in the famous sidewalk a few miles away. How many women have offered themselves to him over the years? How many women, the world over, believe themselves to be in love with him at that very moment?

Renn’s relationship with his son is already an emotional minefield when he asks Will to fly to New Orleans and take over the job of personal assistant on the set of Renn’s latest film, Bourbon at Dusk. Once at the mercy of his father’s orders and whims, Will becomes incredibly attracted to his father’s new girlfriend and leading lady, Elise, but is the attraction genuine or is it fueled by competitiveness?

With the story told by several voices, there are some time gaps in the narrative, and sometimes a chapter picks up some months later after major developments have occurred. With the multiple narratives and their varied voices, the author keeps the supple story moving in this page-turner that questions the price of fame and power. With the exception of his daughter Anna, a young woman who appears to have her life together, all the people in Renn’s life seem to suffer from knowing him, and none of Renn’s relationships are straight-forward. Renn believes in giving at least 15% of his money back to charity, and is capable of great generosity at several points in the novel, but in spite of his financial open-handedness,  Renn never really gives himself completely in a relationship. He’s not even on loan. It would be more accurate to say that he’s there for that moment, and nothing more. It’s almost as if Renn has acted in so many films, played so many roles, that there’s no centre to this man. He even keeps 2 sets of journals: one official journal to be published after his death, and the secret one called J2 in which he keeps a record of “shady things” that he’s “witnessed and done nothing about” or things he’s done he’s “regretted.” J2 is destroyed at the end of each year, and by the time Little Known Facts concludes, Renn has plenty of new material for J2.

Naturally both of Renn’s ex wives have a lot to say about him.  Lucy seems to have him pegged quite well and realizes that her marriage to Renn was doomed:

Our marriage began to exhaust me once people started to recognize him everywhere we went, after he became famous enough that paparazzi sometimes lurked outside the gate at the end of our driveway, but I was still not ready to give up. Still, it was clear that a marriage that lasts does not have the rest of the world pressing in on it; it does not have fanatics or floozies feverishly hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the principals, to touch his hand or whatever other part of him they can reach. A marriage that lasts does not feature one of the principals being paid to simulate sex on camera with someone young and very attractive, which is impossible for the other principal to get used to because this movie sex looks real and therefore it must feel real to the couple being filmed. A marriage that lasts does not have the aura of a siege, of a boat being rocked so hard I felt almost permanently ill. I knew I would lose him; I think I knew this very early on, but it wasn’t something I let myself say to anyone, and I tried never to say it to myself either.

Although Lucy realizes that her marriage was doomed by Renn’s fame, she admits to feelings of “regret or loneliness or anger over nothing that I can clearly articulate,” and still single, she compares other men unfavorably to Renn  Second wife, Melinda’s chapter is written in a pro-and con fashion–clearly the influence of years of expensive post-Renn therapy here, and it’s through this relationship that we see some heavy negatives about Renn balanced with some positive attributes. In one section, Melinda describes what Renn spends all his millions on, and that includes frequent romantic trips by private plane to his favourite restaurant in Napa. Rather hilariously, later on in the book, Renn flies Elise on that same trek–same destination, different woman. More than a bit tacky, and while Melinda reveals this small detail about her ex-, Renn seems oblivious to the fact that he is, in many ways, a predictable walking cliché. Here he is phenomenally wealthy, a man most men envy and most women drool over, and yet the reality is that he resorts to botox to fight aging, is romancing a woman young enough to be his daughter (and is any coincidence that she’s a hot new rising star?) and spends 100s of thousands on a psychic who ‘helps‘ with the major decisions in his life.

While the novel confirms rather than challenges some rather well-worn territory about wealth and fame (it sucks to be rich and famous) ultimately, Little Known Facts is a cleverly structured character study of the life of Renn Ivins: a man every male wants to be and every female wants to sleep with, and glaring exceptions to this are the family members and the exs he’s burned in the past who, of course, have an entirely different opinion of what Renn is really like. Little Known Facts could very literally mean J2–the secret journal Renn keeps as a way of expiating his sins or it could be the dirt the people in Renn’s life know about which is in stark contrast to the glitzy superstar image. The novel’s bottom line is the question: what is the cost of fame? And the author shows clearly and convincingly that it’s not just the star but their immediate circle that pays the price in the corrosive, corrupting culture of the movie biz. 

Review copy

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San Miguel by TC Boyle

“Imagine it, Minnie,” he said. “Just imagine it. Our own island–our own country–and nobody to answer to. We could pull up the drawbridges and man the battlements. I could be king. And you–you, Minnie–you could be queen.”

Although I normally steer clear of historical fiction, for T.C. Boyle, I make an exception. I never know what to expect from Boyle, and he always seems to surprise me with his subject choices. One book, The Road to Wellville includes a fictionalized account of John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of Cornflakes. Talk Talk is the story of a young deaf woman, named Dana, whose life is ruined by identity theft. Boyle has also written a number of short stories including one I can’t forget, Jubilation, the tale of a man who decides to buy a home built inside a Florida theme park. Two of T.C Boyle’s frequent themes are man’s search for the Ideal and people who are obsessed with achieving their goals, no matter the cost, and both of those themes are certainly at play in San Miguel.

 Boyle discovered the history of the tiny Channel Island, San Miguel which is located off the California coast, when he researched his last novel, When the Killing’s Done. When the Killing’s Done pits animal activists against environmentalists in a war over the future of the Channel Islands with both groups holding a passionate set of beliefs. San Miguel, the author’s fourteenth novel, concerns the history of one of the islands told through the stories of three women who lived there. San Miguel is tangentially connected to Boyle’s previous book–although the questions of environment preservation and endangered species are mostly in the consciousness of the reader but creep in right at the novel’s conclusion.

San Miguel begins on New Year’s Day 1888 with the relocation of Marantha Waters, a wealthy San Francisco woman, her adopted, willful daughter, 14-year-old Edith, Marantha’s second husband of seven years, Captain (a title earned in the Civil War) Will Waters, and Irish servant Ida. Marantha suffers from TB, and according to her husband, who’s talked her into staking this business venture with 10,000 dollars, “the last of her savings,” her health will improve with the fresh, clean “virginal” sea air.  They now own a half stake in the Pacific Wool Growing Company partnered with Mills, who moved off the island and now lives on the mainland. The Waters family will live in a “wood-frame sheepman’s place,” which Marantha has romanticized in her imagination–in spite of being warned to the contrary.

What would it be like? The rooms–how were the rooms arranged? And the views? Would Edith have a room of her own–or would she have to share with Ida. And what of the hired man, Adolph Bierson, whose face she hadn’t liked from the minute she laid eyes on him at first light that morning? And Jimmie, the boy who’d been out here looking after things these past months–where did he sleep?

The reality is painful:

It took her a moment to get her bearings, the mule kicking up clods, the boy swinging the sled in a wide arc across the yard so that it was facing back down the canyon even as he reached up for the hame of the animal’s collar and jerked it to a stop. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, some sort of quaint ivy-covered cottage out of Constable or Turner, hedges, flowerbeds, a picket fence–a sheepman’s place–but this was something else altogether. This couldn’t be it, could it?

Raising 4,000 sheep on San Miguel would be a challenge for the young, healthy and highly motivated, but for Marantha, suffering from TB and deprived of any household comforts (including an inside toilet), life is difficult and she feels “marooned” and vulnerable. When the sand isn’t blowing, the rain is pouring, and when it isn’t raining, the fog rolls in….

Edith is first seen through Marantha’s eyes, but then in the second section of the novel, she becomes a much more detailed and interesting character–the second woman to be held hostage on an isolated, desolate island, an unwilling pawn in her stepfather’s dreams of “increase, that was his theme. Increase and improvement and profit.”

The history of the second family who make a life for themselves in the 30s on San Miguel are the Lesters, and while the Waters looked to the island to solve their problems of ill-health and failure, the Lesters are a completely different scenario. They escape the deprivations of Depression America and almost avoid WWII entirely through their chosen, blissful and idyllic isolation.

Author T.C. Boyle explores many ideas in this novel–how the dreams of one man become the nightmare of his wife, and how some people thrive on isolation while others are driven nearly mad by it. The island plays a huge role in the story, and while several people throw their lives, their future prosperity, and their fate at the landscape, they die or move on, while the island remains. Dynamite is used in the building of roads that are washed away, and there’s the sense that while the humans alter the environment for their (mostly economic) purposes, the opposite is also taking place.  The history of the island certainly extends farther than its inhabitants can imagine, and the moment when Captain Waters discovers the Indian graveyard speaks volumes for the temporal moments of man versus the timelessness of the Earth.

The smell of the sea seemed to concentrate itself suddenly, the fermenting odor of all the uncountable things washed up out of the waves coming to her as powerfully as if she were standing down there amongst them. And then a gust rose up out of the canyon, knifing through her, and in the instant she turned to retreat into the house she saw it fan the dead bird’s wings till they rasped and fluttered and strove to take flight one last time.

This is a quintessential American novel with its exploration of character against the landscape, Manifest Destiny, Individualism, the quest for Utopia through isolation, and the dream of self-reliance and freedom through rugged survival. At the heart of the novel, Boyle questions our custodial responsibilities on the planet. We see how our brief lives leave traces in the landscape, and how our thoughtless decisions impact the environment. Marantha’s San Miguel of 1888, for example, is devoid of cats and run over with mice, but by the time the Lesters arrive in the 30s, the place is overrun with hundreds of cats, and we see how humans unsettle the delicate balance of nature. The novel ends on a complex and uneasy note; those who live on San Miguel lose precedence over conservation. Throughout the course of the story, wince-worthy incidents such as the slaughter of an eagle, the capture of seals for the circus, and the gleeful looting of Indian graves evoke a response that at least some societies have progressed enough to recognise the basic wrong in such casually destructive acts. Yet with T.C. Boyle, it’s not that simple, and the novel’s conclusion brings the sense that we still haven’t got it right, and perhaps we never will.

Review copy

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No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker

“I rode off the prison property with sixty-five dollars, a cheap suit (ten years out of style), a set of khakis and change of underwear in a brown parcel, and a bus ticket to Los Angeles.”

Edward Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce is a perfect example of the payoff we readers get when a writer writes what he knows. That’s the only explanation for the authenticity and pulsing desperation of this raw, visceral story about an ex-con’s failed attempt to go straight.  Edward Bunker’s life (1933-2005) was a series of institutions–beginning with foster homes, a military school, and juvenile hall, and by 1951, at age 17, Bunker was the youngest inmate at San Quentin. Paroled in his early twenties, he tried holding down jobs but eventually returned to crime. Locked up and then re-released, Bunker’s subsequent crimes were much more serious, including bank robbery. Back in prison, Bunker published his first novel, No Beast So Fierce in 1973. After that last stint in prison, Bunker did not return to crime when he was paroled in 1975, and instead he made a living as a writer and as an actor. Bunker played Mr. Blue in Tarantino’s film 1992 Reservoir Dogs, and the title of Bunker’s memoir is Mr Blue: The Memoirs of a Renegade.

No Beast So Fierce begins with Max Dembo sitting in his cell in San Quentin on his last night inside. After an eight year sentence, Max wants to go straight (“the lunchbucket routine”), but we know almost immediately that Max’s expectations are off when he complains that he wrote over 200 letters for job applications and got zero response in return. Fellow convict, Leroy tries to set him straight:

“Look here, Max,” he said, “I went through the same shit you’re going through–in your mind–until I decided not to fight destiny, and my destiny was to be a criminal and spend three-fourths of my life in prison. Maybe your destiny is different. But someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe twenty years from now when you’re fifty, you’re gonna realize that whatever you are and whatever you’ve done, it couldn’t have been very different. You’ll see that you’re required to do this in life, and when you’re at the end and everything’s totalled, you’ll have been that, whatever it is. Hope is still ahead of you–but someday it’ll be behind you.”

Since Max is out on parole, he’s required to meet his parole officer and “bête noir,” Joseph Rosenthal. Max understands his relationship with Rosenthal is crucial, but before their first meeting, Max wants to “exercise some choice, buy something,” and so he buys a twenty-five cent cigar and a half pint of vodka. Max admits to Rosenthal he’s a “little drunk.”

If he accused me of doing wrong, I knew I had a prick and could act accordingly, lying to him forever after. If he passed over it with humor or understanding, I would know that I could manipulate him. But he did neither.

So this first meeting with Rosenthal, a significant figure in Max’s subsequent downfall reveals a lot about Max’s psychology. It doesn’t take long for Max to butt heads with Rosenthal, and as Max explains to the reader:

Confrontation with authority was a game I’d played often, and I knew its unfairness.

Although Max starts out with the best of intentions of going straight, the odds are stacked against him. It’s hard to pinpoint when things go wrong, but arguably, the turning point is the minute he gets off the bus. His old friends are still involved in crime on one level or another–even Willy, who has a family, lives in poverty and works, has a sideline as a heroin dealer and uses too much of his own product. It’s crucial for Max to get a job, and he walks himself into blisters trying to find even menial employment, but no one wants to hire an ex-con. Rosenthal wants Max to move into a halfway house, and Max refuses. In possibly the book’s most poignant scene, Max, in his last honest communication with Rosenthal, begs for some understanding:

You’ve got to realize that I’m not like you. I’m too warped and tangled by too many yesterdays to be like you. This doesn’t mean I’m fated to be a menace to society. If I believed my future had to be like my past, I’d kill myself. I’m tired. I can bend enough to stay within the law, but I’m never going to be the guy who goes home to San Fernando to a wife and kids. I wish I was that guy, but I’m not.

While Max thinks that he can argue his case to Rosenthal, he also thinks he has a bargaining position for some basic freedoms:

Bend a little and I’ll bend a little. Just ask that I don’t commit any crimes, not that I live by your moral standards. If society demands that, society shouldn’t have put me in foster homes and reform schools and twisted me. And these last eight years. Shit, after that, nobody would be normal. Just understand my predicament. I don’t know anyone but ex-convicts, hustlers and prostitutes. I don’t even feel comfortable around squarejohns. I like call girls instead of nice girls, I don’t need a Freudian explanation, which wouldn’t change the fact anyway. But because I prefer going to bed with a prostitute doesn’t mean that I’m going to use an acetylene torch on a safe.

Max’s powerful argument that he’ll never be a perfectly upstanding citizen resonants with sincerity, and while we hope the best for Max as he struggles to fit in to society on the humblest level, at times, he isn’t a particularly likeable character. He’s too damaged for that, and it’s a credit to the author that Max is sympathetic in spite of his actions, his bad choices, and his predilection for violence.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the novel is the way Max treats other people. There’s a definite nod to humanity here in the times Max risks his neck to treat people with a little consideration, and as it turns out this character trait is Max’s Achilles’ heel. One example of this is when Max stumbles across another ex-con, Augie Morales, and Max risks Augie shooting up heroin in his room as Augie’s presence on the street will likely get him arrested & sent back to prison. Perhaps Max stubbornly resists abandoning the behaviour model of showing kindness as he has too often been the brunt of the alternative–dehumanization in the various institutions. In addition, part of Max’s downfall is caused by the way he sees the world in terms of predator & victim, and he refuses to fall into the latter category. We see the predator-victim dynamic early in the novel through the violent, explosive relationships between prisoners.  

And though it was free choice, it was also destiny. Society had made me what I was (and ostracized me through fear of what it had created) and I gloried in what I was. If they refused to let me live in peace I didn’t want to. I’d been miserable that week of struggling–miserable in my mind. Fuck society! Fuck their game! If the odds were vast, fuck that, too. At least I’d had the integrity of my own soul, being the boss of my own little patch of hell, no matter how small, even if confined in my own mind.

When morning came I was strong; I’d transcended decision.

The novel is full of well-drawn characters: shabby ex-con Willy who’s trying to juggle family demands with a heroin business, “vice-ravaged” party animal Red, former bail bondsman Abe Meyers, shyster lawyer Allen McArthur, and Allison, the girl who asks no questions.  Occasional “writerly” additions to the author’s blunt style do not complement his natural talent and instead feel forced and discordant. Here’s one example, “But for all the exultation, the joy of leaving after eight calendars in prison was not unalloyed,” and “In this fertile abyss, this void, an encompassing indignation bloomed.” Fortunately these occurrences are few, and the author appears to grow more comfortable with his own style very quickly. Bunker shows us Max, a ex-con who wants to go straight, who is a fairly reasonable fellow, and someone whose desperation oozes from the page, but by the end of the novel, Max’s raw violence and criminal intelligence explodes….This really is a fantastic read.

No Beast so Fierce was made into the film Straight Time. And the book’s title is a quote from Richard III:

No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity, but I know none, therefore I am no beast.

Review copy from publisher Mysterious Press via Open Road Media

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Filed under Bunker Edward, Fiction

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

I saw the film, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? some time ago, and due to my film-book obsession, it was just a matter of time before I sought out the source material. I wondered whether the visual advantages of the film would overrule the novel, but no, for its intense, unrelenting bleak depiction of a luridly exploitive dance marathon in 1930s California, the book outweighs the film. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy (1897-1955) is considered his masterpiece, and after finishing the novel, it’s easy to see why. This is a fairly short novel, and the title makes sense by the time the book concludes.

Robert Syverten is walking down Melrose Boulevard with seven dollars in his pocket when he meets Gloria Beatty. He’s just left the Paramount studio lot after being rejected, yet again, for a part as an extra in a von Sternberg film. Although the name of von Sternberg’s “Russian picture” isn’t mentioned, the date 1935 appears later in the novel. Von Sternberg made The Scarlet Empress in 1934, and Crime and Punishment in 1935, so if McCoy referred to the latter film, then that’s a significant allusion given the events that take place.

Both Robert, originally from Arkansas and Gloria, from West Texas are trying to get bit parts and break into film, and since they are both meeting with little success, they appear to have something in common. They strike up a conversation and then Gloria suggests that they join a dance marathon.

“A girlfriend of mine has been trying to get me to enter a dance marathon down at the beach,” she said. “Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars in you win.”

“The free food part of it sounds good,” I said.

“That’s not the big thing,” she said. “A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture … What do you say?”

Gloria overrules Robert’s initial objections, and so they sign up for the 2500 hour marathon which is held at the beach on an amusement pier. 144 couples begin the marathon, but 61 dropped out the first week. The conditions are horrendous, and this is, of course, an indication of just how many desperate young people are willing to risk their health for $1000.

The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.

Some of the couples in the marathon are professionals and so they have tips for how to maximise the ten minute breaks. As the vicious contest continues, there’s a sense of brewing violence. Tempers are short, exhausted partners begin squabbling and the men organising the marathon arrange a number of questionable publicity stirring events to boost attendance. One of the worst aspects of the dance marathon is the derby–this is a nightly event which exists simply to cut remaining couples. It’s a brutal rapid walk-around the dance floor with the last couple being eliminated, and many others collapsing and seeking medical help in the “pit.”

“Two minutes to go,” Rocky announced. “A little rally, ladies and gentleman–” They began clapping their hands and stamping their feet, much louder than before.

Other couples began to sprint past us and I put on a little more steam. I was pretty sure Gloria and I weren’t in last place, but we had both been in the pit and I didn’t want to take a chance on being eliminated. When the pistol sounded for the finish half the teams collapsed on the floor. I turned around to Gloria and saw her eyes were glassy. I knew she was going to faint.

“Hey…” I yelled to one of the nurses, but just then Gloria sagged and I had to catch her myself. It was all I could do to carry her to the pit. “Hey!” I yelled to one of the trainers. “Doctor!”

Nobody paid any attention to me. They were too busy picking up the bodies. The customers were standing on their seats, screaming in excitement.

The curious thing is that while Robert was reluctant to join the marathon in the first place, he very quickly becomes the team’s cheerleader. Gloria sinks into pessimism and despair, refusing to talk to the sponsors,  and while one of her main (and pitifully sad) reasons for joining was to meet ‘movie people,’ when anyone famous attends, their presence serves to create Gloria’s anger and resentment. Gloria sees life as hopeless, and the contest as a meaningless diversion from their fate:

“This whole business is a merry-go-round. When we get out of here we’re right back where we started.”

“We’ve been eating and sleeping,” I said.

“Well what’s the good of that when you’re just postponing something that’s bound to happen.”

Unfortunately, Robert doesn’t realise that Gloria is one of the “Kamikaze women” we find in Woody Allen films, and as a character says in Husbands and Wives (1992)

 “I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women….I call them Kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.”  (Professor Gabe Roth played by Woody Allen)

Within minutes of meeting Robert, Gloria mentions that she tried to kill herself with poison. A warning for any man who’s listening. This is a woman with a serious death-wish:

“It’s peculiar to me,” she said, “that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it? There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me who want to die but haven’t got the guts–”

The only time Gloria shows any fight is when she meets a couple of do-gooders from The Mothers’ League for Good Morals. In a wonderful showdown, Gloria tells the women where they can shove their good intentions:

“It’s time somebody got women like you told,” Gloria said, moving over and standing with her back to the door, as if to keep them in, “and I’m just the baby to do it. You’re the kind of bitches who sneak in the toilet to read dirty books and tell filthy stories and then go out and try to spoil somebody else’s fun-”

Anyone who’s enjoyed the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? needs to read the novel from which the film sprang. Dancing is a social and cultural mechanism for romance & courtship and here it’s degraded into brutal, demeaning savagery, and the voyeuristic public’s taste for destruction harks to the modern-day excesses and morally questionable abuses of reality television.  While McCoy’s novel is ostensibly about a vicious dance marathon in which the suffering of a few becomes entertainment for the masses, Gloria understands that the marathon–the desperate struggle to survive and the demeaning obsequiousness they must show towards the audience and the sponsors are symbolic of the struggles of a bitter, hard-scrabble, poverty-stricken life from which there’s only one escape….

Review copy from Open Road Media

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Filed under Fiction, McCoy Horace

Watch Me Die by Lee Goldberg

“There’s no reason to spend more than thirty bucks a night for a mattress, a toilet, and a sink, especially for a hardened, professional private eye on assignment.”

I needed to read something distracting–something light, something funny, and so I picked by Watch Me Die by Lee Goldberg. Yes, I know the title doesn’t seem to imply the qualities I sought, but this very entertaining crime book made me laugh out loud upon occasion, and it proved to be a great distraction from the darker side of life. Most of the novel’s strength can be found in its protagonist, 29-year-old Harvey Mapes–an underemployed security guard who’s addicted to crime novels:

I don’t know if you’ve ever read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books before. McGee is sort of a private eye who lives in Florida on a houseboat he won in a poker game. While solving mysteries, he helps a lot of ladies in distress. The way he helps them is by fucking their brains out and letting them cook his meals, do his laundry, and scrub the deck of his boat for a few weeks. These women, McGee calls them “wounded birds,” are always very grateful that he does this for them.

To me that’s a perfect world.

I wanted his life.

This is the story of what I did to get it.

If that quote appeals to you, then you’re going to enjoy the book.

Harvey’s job is boring, so it’s really no surprise that he ends up trying to live the fantasy life of his crime heroes:

My job is to sit in a little, Mediterrean-style stucco shack from midnight until eight A.M. six days a week, outside the fountains and gates of Bel Vista Estates, a private community of million dollar plus homes in the Spanish Hills of Camarillo, California.

Harvey’s job is to sit there, monitor the security cameras, and wave residents through. Once in a while, he writes what is called a “courtesy ticket” to residents  who ignore the stop sign. He doesn’t “have a gun, a badge, or even a working stapler.” Of course, at best he’s ignored and at worst, he’s treated rather badly, and since he sits there all night long alone, it’s no wonder that he reads crime novels and begins fantasizing about a different sort of life.  Then one night a resident, Jag driving (“the one with a forest of wood and a herd’s worth of leather,”) Cyril Parkus makes him an offer. Here’s Harvey’s take on Parkus:

Even just sitting in that car, Parkus exuded the kind of laid-back, relaxed charm that says to me: look at how easy-going I am, it’s because I’m rich and damn happy about it. He was in his mid-thirties, the kind of tanned, well-built, tennis-playing guy who subscribes to Esquire because he sees himself in every advertisement and it makes him feel good.

Harvey agrees to meet Parkus at Denny’s the next morning. Parkus thinks his wife, Lauren, is up to something, and it’s Harvey’s job to follow her and find out what that ‘something’ is. 

“Harvey, I’ve got a problem and, since you’re experienced in the security field, I think you’re the man to help me,” he said. “I need someone followed.”

“Who?”

“My wife.”

I knew he’d say that.

I sipped my Coke and hoped he couldn’t hear my heart beating. In that instant, I’d become the hero of one of those old Gold Medal paperbacks, the ones with the lurid cover drawing of a busty girl in a bikini wrapping herself around a grimacing, rugged guy holding a gun or a martini glass.

I was now that guy.

So Harvey’s dream comes true–he’s a daylighting PI working on $150 a day plus those ever-important expenses.

As the novel continues, pepto-bismal popping Harvey bluffs his low-rent way through various dangerous scenarios relying largely on the scenes he’s read in his favourite detective novels. Things turn deadly, however, as the case intensifies and the body count rises. Laid-back Harvey makes a wonderful narrator as he makes his way through the 2-star motels, the cheap diners, and the tacky trailer parks that are part of his investigation. Every page is full of his  low-key humour which is accompanied by wry observations, and he isn’t afraid to laugh at himself:

I had no self-defense skills at all, unless you include running and hiding.

Author Lee Goldberg is also a screenwriter and producer. He’s written the Monk series, the Dead Man series, and a couple of Charlie Willis books. Watch Me Die was originally called The Man with the Iron-On Badge, and I prefer that title as it matches the novel’s tone and low-rent feel. And I prefer the original cover too.

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Filed under Fiction, Goldberg Lee

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip Dick

The effect of property on the human soul.”

I always told myself that the first Philip Dick novel I read would be Blade Runner. The film version (sometimes given the label sci-fi noir) makes my top film list, and I’ve had a copy of the book on a shelf for years. Recently, however, I came across Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, a novel Dick completed in 1960 . The novel was initially rejected by publishers and was finally published posthumously in 1986.

As the title suggests, the book is set in Oakland, California.  It’s the late 1950s and the tale focuses on the dark ambiguous relationship between two men: 58-year-old car mechanic Jim Fergessen and the much younger used car salesman, Al Miller. Jim has recently discovered that he has a heart problem, and haunted by nightmares that he’ll die under the hood of a car, he puts his shop and the used car lot next door that he rents to Al up for sale. When the novel begins, Jim arrives at work with the intention of telling Al that he’s sold the garage and the car lot for $35,000. It sold faster and easier than he expected, and although Jim doesn’t care what the buyer plans to do with the land, his biggest concern is how Al will take the news:

No, he won’t make a big scene, he thought. Maybe one of those glances, out of the corner of his glasses. And grin while he puffs on his cigarette. And he won’t say anything; I’ll have to do the talking. He’ll get me to talk more than I want to.

Al and Jim have a symbiotic relationship with Al relying on Jim to help fix up the junkers that Al sells on his lot, and Al helping Jim with some of the heavy work involved in car repair. Al isn’t happy at the news of the sale as it’s likely that he’ll be turfed out when his lease is up, and he only makes a marginal living as it is–without Jim’s services, he’ll probably sink. While the news of the sale leaves an awkwardness between the men, it causes explosive reactions in the men’s wives. Jim’s Greek wife, Lydia thinks that Al takes advantage of Jim and envies his success, and Al’s wife Julie, believes Jim “owes” her husband and should ‘gift’ him the car lot.

A major development occurs when successful record company owner, Chris Harman stops by to see Jim. Harman hears about the sale and pushes Jim to invest in a new development in Marin County. Jim, who’d convinced himself that he was looking forward to retirement, suddenly sees his $35,000 as a way of leveraging up the social scale and being “part of the new world,” and meanwhile Al is convinced that Harman is taking Jim for a ride. From this point, there’s an increasing sense of paranoia in both Al and Jim which is fueled by their wives and by certain incidents. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how Dick shows different realities for his two main characters. This is accomplished in several ways: Al becomes suspicious of Harman’s motives and tries to warn Jim. In turn,  Jim becomes suspicious of Al’s motives. Who is correct? When we begin to attribute specific motivations to the behaviour of others, our interpretations of their actions tend to seem real, but are they really? Philip Dick’s tale is so cleverly written that it is entirely possible to read the story in a couple of different ways. 

Another fascinating aspect of the tale is the parallel realities of the white and the black worlds that co-exist but are still mostly separate. Al and his wife rent a $35 a month apartment in a “non-exclusive neighbourhood” (which is a euphemism for saying the building is not ‘whites only’). Al likes his black neighbours and enjoys their company, but the apartment is continually in danger of being condemned:

Sometimes shorts in the walls kept the power off for several days. When Julie ironed, the wall heated up too hot to be touched. All of the people in the building believed that eventually the building would be burned to the ground, but most of them were out of it during the day, and they seemed to believe that because of that they were somehow safe.

Several black characters see Harman as a dangerous man. Are they correct? Since they operate in a parallel society, do they see a different side of his behaviour?

Neither Al nor Jim are particularly likeable characters. Jim, a fan of Joe McCarthy and Nixon, is a flaming racist, full of inchoate rage, and Al is a crook disguised as a used car salesman. Here’s Jim on his customers:

It’s fine for them, he said to himself. I kept their cars going. They can call me any time, day or night; they know I’ll always come and tow them in and fix them where they are, broken down at the side of the road. They don’t have to belong to A.A.A. even, because they have me. And I never cheated them or did work that didn’t need to be done. So naturally, he thought, they’ll be unhappy to hear I’m quitting. They know they’ll have to go to one of those new garages where everything’s clean, no grease anywhere, and some punk comes out in a white suit with a clipboard and fountain pen, smiling. And they tell him what’s wrong and he writes it down. And some union mechanic shows up later in the day with one finger stuck up his ass and leisurely works on their car. And every minute they’re paying. That slip goes into that machine, and it keeps count. They’re paying while he’s on the crapper or drinking a cup of coffee or talking on the phone or to some other customer. It’ll cost them three or four times as much.

Thinking that, he felt anger at them, for being willing to pay all that to some lazy union mechanic they never saw and didn’t know. If they can pay all that, why can’t they pay it to me? he asked himself. I never charged no seven dollars an hour. Somebody else’ll get it. 

Al will do anything to get a sale and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to dump a junker on someone. He doesn’t hesitate to fiddle with the odometer, and he also “re-groove [s] tires

If the guy so much as backs over a hot match, the tires’ll blow. But he thinks he’s getting a set of good tires, so he goes ahead and buys the car when he otherwise might not. It’s part of the business; everybody, or nearly everybody, does it. You have to move your stock. The main thing is to have a story that’ll explain everything. If you can’t get a car started, you always say it’s out of gas. If a window won’t roll up or down, you say the car just came in this morning and your boy hasn’t had a chance to go over it yet. You have to be able to come back. If the customer notices that the mat is worn from wear, you say the car was driven by a woman who wore high-heeled shoes. If the seat covers are torn up from wear, maybe from kids, you say the owner had a pet dog he took with him, and in a week the dog’s nails did it. You always give a story. 

 While the  novel explores Jim’s denial of mortality through his decision to use his new capital to become one of those “enterprising men,” simultaneously the plot follows Al’s idea to also leverage the sale as a way for him to get ahead in life:

My whole life, he told himself, my whole future, depends on it. Can I do it? I have to. I owe it to Julie, and to myself; in fact, to my family. I can’t wait any longer; I can’t go on drifting like this. This is opportunity knocking, this guy Chris Harman; this is the way it’s been set up and if I ignore it I’ll never be given another chance. That’s the way it always is.

It’s very difficult to slot Humpty Dumpty in Oakland into any neat genre category. It’s not exactly crime fiction–although crime lurks under the surface of the narrative. Ultimately I’d argue that this is noir fiction–a bleak tale in which the fate of two flawed characters synergistically manufacture their own destruction in an ever-expanding cycle of paranoia:

Boldness, he thought. You have to be bold. Even ruthless. Or otherwise they’ll get you. They’re always in wait, trying to pull you down to their level; naturally when you get up there they resent it. They envy. You ignore that, however. Like Nixon does; he stands and sneers when they insult him, throw rocks, even spit. Risks his life.

Finally there’s even a snide little aside about writers of science-fiction: “It must be easy to write that stuff; they must bat it out.”

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Filed under Dick Philip, Fiction

Dark Passage by David Goodis

“You see these lines on my face? They’re anniversary presents.”

As a fan of crime author Duane Swierczynski, I read one of his blog posts arranging a bus trip on Saturday January 7th 2012 to the Philadelphia gravesite of David Goodis (1917-1967). I won’t be joining, but reading about the trip inspired me towards my own David Goodis Tribute (and there will be more later this year). I’m a fan of the noir film Dark Passage which is based on a Goodis novel. It’s an extremely clever film in which we don’t see the protagonist’s face until deep into the story. This “point of view shot” or “subjective camera” shows the action as if the camera is literally the protagonist’s eyes. There’s a good reason for the use of this camera technique, of course, as at one point in Dark Passage the main character has plastic surgery after escaping from San Quentin.

The face in question belongs to Humphrey Bogart; there’s no mistaking that signature voice, and the role of the weary, hunted Vincent Parry is perfect for Bogart. It’s a magnificent film–not only for its teaming of Bogart and Bacall but also for its vivid San Francisco setting. At the time of its release, New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther called Dark Passage an “over-stretched fable,” but then again he also called Night and the City ( a film that makes my top noir list) a “turgid, pictorial grotesque.” It’s a fair bet to say that Crowther didn’t care for noir… But back to the book. And here it begins:

It was a tough break. Parry was innocent. On top of that he was a decent sort of guy who never bothered people and wanted to lead a quiet life. But there was too much on the other side and on his side of it there was practically nothing. The jury decided he was guilty. The judge handed him a life sentence and he was taken to San Quentin.

That brilliantly simple passage establishes several things: Vincent Parry, just “a little guy who wasn’t important” repeatedly gets the shaft in life. Note the passive voice in the last line: “he was taken to San Quentin.” That passive voice reinforces the idea that there are bigger forces at work pulling the strings in Vincent’s life. And as we learn more about Vincent, we see that he’s never got a break: orphaned at 15, he stole food and ended up in a reformatory. After being brutalised by a reformatory guard, Vincent’s self-defense ended with more punishment, and that’s how life is for Vincent. He struggles against the injustice meted out by society and ends up being flattened even further. As a result, there’s a more than a streak of defeated fatalism to Vincent’s psyche. Perhaps that’s why he initially meekly accepts a life sentence at San Quentin.

Back to Vincent and San Quentin. What crime is former clerk Vincent convicted for? Well, it’s an ugly one–Vincent’s wife, the trashy Gert is murdered–her skull bashed in with an ashtray. The Parrys’ marriage was noticeably volatile and adulterous, and with a witness who caught Gert’s dying words that Vincent swung the ashtray, Vincent, with no alibi, gets life at San Quentin. At first life there doesn’t seem too bad, and that’s because Vincent doesn’t want much, but then as his existence becomes unbearable, he plans a bold escape….

From this point, fate seems to continue its plan for Vincent, and by the end of the novel, seemingly good luck eventually turns into horrible coincidence. But wait a minute… is there such a thing as coincidence in noir? Or is coincidence just a dark disguise for the tricks of fate?  After escaping from San Quentin, Vincent is picked up by a young attractive, wealthy girl named Irene–a girl who’s taken a special interest in Vincent’s case. Taking considerable personal risks, she whisks him off to her luxury apartment and urges him to hide there until things cool down and she can facilitate his escape from the country. Vincent is suspicious of his good luck:

He said, “If I had a lot of money I could understand it. The way it is now I don’t get it at all. There’s nothing in this for you. Nothing but aggravation and hardship.”

Fate, however, has some cruel games in store, but enough of the plot. What of Goodis’s style?

Goodis has a remarkable way of snaking paragraphs and sentences together. Here’s an example:

Parry was thinking about that as he entered the gates of San Quentin. He hoped he wouldn’t run into any brutal guards. He had an idea that he might be able to extract some ounce of happiness out of prison life. He had always wanted happiness, the simple and ordinary kind. He had never wanted trouble.

He didn’t look as though he could handle trouble. He was five seven and a hundred and forty-five, and it was the kind of build made for clerking in an investment security house. Then there was drab light-brown hair and drab dark-yellow eyes. The lips were the kind of lips not made for smiling. There was usually a cigarette between the lips. Parry had jumped at the job in the investment security house when he learned it was the kind of job where he could smoke all he pleased. He was a three-pack-a-day man.

In San Quentin he managed to get three packs a day.

See how he snakes those paragraphs together? Note the use of repetition and pacing in another section. Goodis would be a great subject for linguistic study. Just think of the fun to be had with T-sentence analysis:

He sat there looking at the floor and smoking cigarettes. He smoked nine cigarettes in succession. He looked at the stubs in the ash tray. He counted them, saw them dead there in the heaped ashes. Then he wondered how long it would take until the police arrived. He wondered how long it would be until he was dead, because this time he wouldn’t be going back to a cell. This time they had him on a charge that would mean the death sentence. He looked at the window and saw the thick rain coming out of the thick grey sky, the broken sky. He decided to take a run at the window and then stopped and turned his back to the window and looked at the wall. He stood there without moving for almost a full hour. He was going back and taking chunks out of his life and holding them up to examine them. The young and bright yellow days in the hot sun of Maricopa, always bright yellow in every season. The wide and white roads going north from Arizona. The grey and violet of San Francisco. The grey and the heat of the stock room, and the days and nights of nothing, the years of nothing. And the cage in the investment security house, and the stiff white collars of the executives, stiff and newly white every day, and their faces every day, and their voices every day. And the paper, the plain white paper, the pink paper, the pale-green paper, the paper ruled violet and green and black in small ledgers and large ledgers and immense ledgers. And the faces. The faces of statisticians who made forty-five a week, and customers’ men who sometimes made a hundred and a half and sometimes made nothing. And the executives who made fifteen and twenty and thirty thousand a year, and the customers who sat there or stood there and watched the board. The customers, and some of them could walk out of that place and get on their yachts and go out across thousands of miles of water, getting up in the morning when they felt like getting up, fishing or swimming around their grand white yachts, alone out there on the water. And in the evening they would be wearing emerald studs in their shirt-fronts with white formal jackets and black tropical worsted trousers with satin black and gleaming down the sides, down to their gleaming black patent-leather shoes as they danced in the small ballrooms of their yachts with tall thin women with bared shoulders, dripping organdie from their tall thin bodies as they danced or held delicate glasses of champagne in their thin, delicate fingers.

The Library of America is releasing a 5-volume set of Goodis novels in 3/12: Dark Passage (made into film), The Moon and the Gutter (made into film), Nightfall (made into film), The Burglar (made into film), Street of No Return (yes! made into a film). I have a review copy of this volume so I’ll be getting to the other novels soon. This review came as the result of reading my own copy of Dark Passage. I read a Goodis novel some time ago that I wasn’t crazy about and it’s always hard to persuade yourself to take a second spin with an author you weren’t that enthusiastic about for the first round. In this case I’ve no regrets I returned to Goodis. Dark Passage is a masterpiece of noir.

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Filed under Fiction, Goodis David, Swierczynski Duane

The Grifters by Jim Thompson

Perhaps watching the film version of The Killer Inside Me drove my interest when earlier this year I decided to hold a Jim Thompson noirfest. It was time to dust off those copies and actually read them, so I committed to seven novels, and whittled down the reading list to:

The Killer Inside Me

Savage Night

A Hell of a Woman

A Swell-Looking Dame

The Getaway 

Pop 1280

And this brings me to The Grifters. Regular readers of this blog know that I’m fascinated by the book-film connection, and this (and curiosity) influenced my Thompson noirfest choices (still have to read After Dark My Sweet). I saw the film version of The Grifters some years back, and while this didn’t cloud my reading, scenes from the film flooded back as I read the novel.  

The protagonist of The Grifters is Roy Dillon. Any relation to Frank Dillon from A Hell of a Woman? The two men must be related in author Jim Thompson’s mind as both Roy and Frank Dillon are restless and on constant vigil for the next buck. That said, Roy Dillon is far more successful than job-shifting, small time salesman Frank, but there again, Roy has selected a goal in life and stuck to it: the short-con.

The Grifters begins by dropping us right in the action as young Roy Dillon stumbles out of a small shop, staggering from a blow to the stomach. Roy just worked the twenties–a short-con grift in which the grifter cons the shopkeeper by presenting a twenty-dollar bill in exchange for purchasing a small item. After getting his change for the twenty, then Roy produces–seemingly by surprise the change after all–and then asks for his twenty back, so in theory, if Roy manages to catch the shopkeeper off guard, he will leave the shop with almost an extra twenty in his pocket. On this day, however, the shopkeeper’s son, who doesn’t seem too swift in the brain department, catches on to the grift and lands a bat in Roy’s stomach.

As it turns out this is a pivotal event in twenty-five-year-old Roy’s criminal career. He’s been immensely successful up to this point mainly due to some crucial lessons early in the game from a seasoned grifter named Mintz:

There were two highly essential details of grifting which Mintz did not explain to his pupil. One of them defied explanation. It was an acquired trait, something each man had to do on his own and in his own way; i.e., retaining a high degree of anonymity while remaining in circulation. You couldn’t disguise yourself, naturally. It was more a matter of not doing anything. Of avoiding any mannerism, any expression, any tone or pattern of speech, any posture or gesture or walk–anything at all that might be remembered.

That’s lesson number one.  Lesson number two is to keep on the move. Here’s Mintz:

New York wasn’t a big city, he said. It just had a lot of people in it, and they were crammed into a relatively small area. And no, you didn’t help your odds much by getting out of jampacked Manhattan and into other boroughs. Not only did you keep bumping into the same people, people who worked in Manhattan and lived in Astoria, Jackson Heights, etcetera, but you were more conspicuous there. Easier to be spotted by the fools. “and, kid, a blind man could spot you. Look at that haircut! look at that fancy wristwatch, and them three-tone sports shoes! Why don’t you wear a black eye-patch, too, and a mouthful of gold teeth?”

According to Mintz, there’s one exception to the constant on-the-move option:

“You can usually play a fairly long stand in Los Angeles, because it ain’t just one town. It’s a county full of towns, dozens of ‘em. And with traffic so bad and a lousy transportation system, the people don’t mix around like they do in New York. But”–he wagged a finger severely–”but that still doesn’t mean you can run wild, kid. You’re a grifter, see? A thief. You’ve got no home and no friends, and no visible means of support. And you damned well better not ever forget it.”

Now Roy is a kid with brains, and he’s reasoned that being a grifter constantly on the move is an easy way to eat up any capital gained, so he moves to Los Angeles where he basically leads a double life. He is a salesman and has been with the same firm and rented the same drab Grosvenor-Carlton hotel apartment for years, and while it’s a gig in which he earns peanuts, he supplements his income with grifting. That supplement adds up to over fifty thousand dollars which is stuffed inside some cheesy clown pictures that hang on his wall:

For his first year in Los Angeles, he was strictly a square john. An independent salesman calling on small businessmen. Gliding back into the grift, he remained a salesman. And he was still one now. He had a credit rating and a bank account. He was acquainted with literally hundreds of people who would attest to the excellence of his character. 

Sometimes they were required to do just that, when suspicion threatened to build into a police matter. But, naturally, he never called upon the same ones twice; and it didn’t happen often anyway. Security gave him self-assurance. Security and self-assurance had bred a high degree of skill.  

Roy’s life changes radically when his mother, Lilly, a woman who’s a mere 13 years older than Roy shows up in Los Angeles. Lilly is bad news–for one thing she works for mob bookie Bobo Justus and then again Roy has some serious mummy issues. Lilly’s job involves travelling around the country betting large sums of money to lower the odds on longshots. Normally Lilly wouldn’t be welcome in Roy’s life–after all they haven’t seen one another for years, but when Lilly arrives, she finds Roy dying from internal injuries, and she uses her mob connections to get him the best medical care. 

As Roy recuperates, Lilly meets his girlfriend, Myra, long-term grifter and part-time prostitute, and while the two women instantly dislike one another, the truth is that they’re made from the same rotten mould, and now they square off over Roy…. 

The double life–a sort of splitting–in which the individual leads both a legal and a secret illegal life is the sort of thing we see in The Killer Inside Me and Pop 1280, and it’s when these two lives collide that Thompson’s characters experience trouble. Roy has kept the fact his real passion, grifting, from Myra, and yet Myra, who isn’t all that she appears to be, knows a fellow grifter when she sees one, and she has a good idea that Roy could be the long-term grift partner she’s been looking for.

As the story plays out, there’s the sense that these three characters are drawn to one another–almost against their will–in a savage dance of self-destruction. The Grifters is a story of insatiable appetites, and none of the three characters can give up a way of life that feeds those hungers–Lilly can’t stop working for the mob, Roy can’t give up the grift, and Myra can’t stop dreaming of the long-term con of a lifetime. These damaged characters are driven by passion for money–money which offers the sort of security that a harsh society has failed to provide any other way. Only money gives them the confidence, assurance, and security they crave, but unfortunately in The Grifters, these appetites collide. There’s even the fourth character whose insatiable appetite is literally just that–concentration camp survivor Carol tries to stuff herself with food to fill the space left by human cruelty.

Author Jim Thompson picked up the short-con from ‘Airplane Red’ Brown at the Hotel Texas in 1920s when working as a hotel bellboy. Airplane Red was one of those fascinating individuals who drifted through Thompson’s life and left a permanent impression.

Here’s one final quote about Lilly, married and pregnant at age thirteen and widowed by fourteen :

Settling down in Baltimore, she found lucrative and undemanding employment as a B-girl. Or, more accurately, it was undemanding as far as she was concerned. Lilly Dillon wasn’t putting out for anyone; not, at least, for a few bucks or drinks. Her nominal heartlessness often disgruntled the customers, but it drew the favorable attention of her employers. After all, the world was full of bimboes, tramps who could be had for a grin or a gin. But a smart kid, a doll who not only had looks and class, but was also smart–well, that kind of kid you could use.

They used her, in increasingly responsible capacities. As a managing hostess, as a recruiter for a chain of establishments, as a spotter of sticky-fingered and bungling employees; as courier, liaison officer, fingerwoman; as a collector and disburser. And so on up the ladder … or should one say down? The money poured in, but little of the shower settled on her son.

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