“Once they get you in there in the pen, there ain’t no long-nose bastards writing about you and talking about you on the radio. Not till maybe thirty years from now, when they might let you out if you behave yourself, or till someday they kill you if you don’t.”
Otto Penzler, founder of Mysterious Press, continues his unflagging quest to put classic noir titles back into the hands of readers: this time it’s with a Charles Williams Revival–a writer who seems to have been largely forgotten in the annals of noir fiction. So it’s back to Charles Williams (1909-1975) for another noir gem. Big City Girl (1951) is an unusual noir for its setting, and it’s certainly a change of pace from perhaps this author’s most famous work, Hell Hath No Fury (AKA The Hot Spot), a novel I read and reviewed a few years ago.
Big City Girl is a story of a family of dirt poor sharecroppers in the American south. Widower Cass Neely, a hopeless man who’s losing his mind, used to own an impressively large cotton farm, but for the past 14 years, he’s sold off one parcel at a time.
There was nothing vicious about him, and the money he had received over all this period of time from the piecemeal sale of his land and farming equipment had not been thrown away on liquor or gambling or any other active vice, but had disappeared down the bottomless rat holes of shiftlessness and bad management and a perennially wistful fondness for secondhand automobiles. And now the deteriorating carcasses of seven of the defunct cars squatted about the sandy yard around the house where they had wheezed their last, giving it the appearance of a junk yard.
Now all that’s left is the crudely-built house and a few acres of poor soil, and Cass and his son Mitch, who basically does most of the labour, find themselves working the land they used to own. Mitch also has a young, impressionable teenage sister named Jessie, and there’s also a brother, Sewell, a brutal, violent criminal who was involved in rival gang wars until his conviction for armed robbery. At first glance, Sewell’s criminal career appears to be an anomaly, some quirk of nature that set this son on a bad path while Mitch stayed on the straight and narrow. A closer look at the family’s bleak, hopeless, back-breaking existence offers another explanation of Sewell’s life for crime: he simply broke free of a lifetime of virtual slavery and decided to take his chances with crime.
When the book opens, Sewell’s blonde, trashy wife, Joy has joined her husband’s family out of desperation, and she reasoned that at least with her in-laws she’ll have a roof over her head and food in her stomach. A good-time girl addicted to the attention of men, Joy is now thirty and beginning to lose her looks. Just as Mitch relies on his strength to get by, and Sewell counts on his ruthless violence, Joy has counted on her looks and her body to see her through the hard times, and with the prospect of aging, Joy is worried about what lies ahead. In theory she can stay on the farm, but the lifestyle is driving her mad with boredom. There are only two elements to her new life that she finds remotely interesting: Jessie’s worship (Jessie acts as her ex-facto maid) and the distinct possibility of teasing and seducing Mitch. While Joy acts out her own little dramas at the cotton farm, Sewell “Mad Dog Neely” is being transferred to the state pen to begin a life sentence for armed robbery….
You lay awake when you were dead tired and needed the sleep, lying there on the cot in the darkness thinking of hunting squirrels with Sewell and running the setlines at night along the river’s banks with the pine torch blazing and sputtering and throwing your long-legged shadows against the trees, hunting coons with him to the baying of hounds on frosty, starlit winter nights a long time ago before he began to get into trouble, and all the way you always had to run to keep up with the endless vitality of him. You thought of him then and you thought of him now, and it was like a sickness eating at you from the inside where you couldn’t get at it.
But with the crop, thank god, it was different. You could still lose because the rain could whip you and the boll weevils could whip you and any one of a half-dozen things could do it too, but at least you were fighting something you could see and when you hit it you could feel something solid under your hand. It was an elemental problem, with nothing fancy about it. The crop was there and if you didn’t save it you went hungry. It had rained far too much already and there wasn’t much chance now of that big crop you were always going to make next year, that fifteen bales or more when you would come out at the end of the year with more money ahead and Jessie could go back to school and you could buy some more of your own equipment again and not go farming on halves all your life. That was probably just a dream for another year. What you were fighting for now was survival. You had to pay off the credit to get credit for another year to go on eating to make another crop.
Big City Girl has an unusual setting, but all the hallmarks of excellent noir fiction are here with the twists and turns of fate determining moments of apparent choice. The lines between the good and the bad characters are blurred and murky with heroes and villains defined by a brutal society that refuses to recognize that the have-nots are forced to sell whatever it takes to get by. Sewell sold his strength to become muscle for gangsters. Joy sells her body because that’s all she has to sell. Mitch is the hero here, the one decent character, but his decency is based on his willingness to work himself to death. The energy required to farm cotton stops Mitch from thinking about anything except the crop, so during the day he’s able to keep on the treadmill, but at night it’s different. There’s a deeply buried unasked question underlying the validity of the two brother’s respective, grim choices: In breaking away from the back-breaking subsistence work of the farm, Sewell makes a bid for freedom through a life of crime. Mitch doesn’t reject his brother’s choices and understands that Sewell is fighting society–a largely invisible and unconquerable enemy. Which of the two brothers is a freer man? What will Mitch think of his choice to stay on the straight and narrow when he’s a broken, worn out man by the time he’s 50?