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Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella

What is this, be kind to a fuck-up week?”

The protagonist of Charlie Stella’s wonderfully entertaining novel, Eddie’s World is a man who lives on the border between the straight life and a life of crime, and he “resisted impulses to drift too far one way or another.” He works occasionally as a data operator, but that’s just a job that checks the box ‘respectable citizen’ if the cops or the IRS come sniffing around. Eddie’s main source of income is loan-sharking and what he collects is enough to live on. He’s a wannabe–not a made man, but a man with connections. Eddie’s second wife Diane, a senior marketing executive makes a lot more money than her husband, and when the novel opens, their marriage is in trouble. She wants a baby, but having another child is the last thing Eddie wants–he already failed at fatherhood with a son from his first marriage; he doesn’t want to repeat that mistake. So while Eddie juggles the criminal world and the straight world, he also tries to find a balance between marriage, his obligations to Diane and his need for independence.

“Hey, we only knew each other a couple months when we got married,” Eddie said. “We both thought it was the right thing to do, you know. Like it was magic or something, I don’t know. We got along. I liked her flakiness. I know she was intrigued with me, with us, what we do. Brother, did that rub off fast. Now she was wants a kid. Her eyes get wet every time she sees one. Scares the shit out of me.”

“I know the feeling,” Tommy said. “My old lady sees a kid, her eyes get all fucking big, and I want to catch a flight across the country. They just don’t get it, some broads.”

Discontented and bored, and possibly trying to get a reaction from Eddie, Diane, using the screen name BeigeThong has turned to internet chat rooms and virtual sex to spice up her life. At the same time, Eddie, according to Diane and her therapist, is in the throes of a midlife crisis.

Eddie's worldWhile Eddie’s personal life is going down the toilet, he’s planning a heist with his friend Tommy to steal $15,000 cash in a simple smash and grab job. He’s received a tip from an alcoholic named Sarah, “one of life’s losers,” who wants revenge on her slimeball boss for his extracurricular demands, and so she’s given Eddie the tip that there will be $15,000 sitting in a desk, ripe for the picking one weekend. Eddie doesn’t need the money, but he needs the thrill, “a spark of life.” It will be a three-way split and Tommy who’s heavily in debt thanks to gambling losses, badly needs a score…

The problem is Sarah has terrible taste in men, and when she picks up freshly released ex-con Singleton, suddenly there’s just not action to go around. Eddie finds himself set up for the fall.

Author Charlie Stella makes wonderful use of dialogue. It’s realistic, sharp, witty, and occasionally crude. Here’s Sharpetti, “longtime captain of the Vignieri family” longing for the good old days:

Used to be you had to be Sicilian. Then both of your parents had to be Italian. Then just the father. Pretty soon, things keep going the way they have, we’ll be making anybody ate a slice of pizza.

Part of the novel’s humour comes from these mob men trying to live in a PC world where men are supposed to be more sensitive and receptive to the needs of the women in their lives. So you have 62-year-old Sharpetti, who has a vicious side, complaining about his much younger girlfriend who now runs a gym “the business she always dreamed of.” Now that it’s ‘her’ business, she doesn’t want to keep her end of the bargain, and she complains about fulfilling the sex part of their agreement and also tells Sharpetti, who’s watched by the FBI, to stay away from ‘her’ gym.

Sharpetti sipped some orange juice, coughed up some phlegm and yawned loud. “Her business,” he said. “I take her useless ass off a strip stage and put her in here, in her fucking name, and all she does is show up in tight clothes, and work out, and now it’s her business. She ever wakes up and just tells me out right, she don’t wanna suck my dick, I think I’ll tell her, Oh is that what you’re doing? I couldn’t tell.”

While there is a lot of humour here, there’s also some hard-boiled action, and because it follows the humour, the swift violence is shocking and reminds us that while these people kid each other and make jokes about their lives and their women, they’re ready to kill in order to save their skins or to protect their families. Also under scrutiny here is Eddie Senta’s decision to straddle both worlds–the straight and the criminal life. During the course of the novel, Eddie finds himself in deeper than he anticipated when he planned this minor job, and he is forced to call in favours from Sharpetti. Eddie has managed to balance his life so far–never going too deep into crime, but he’s also not harnessed by a 40 hour week job. The fallout from this crime may change all of that forever in a world in which connections become liabilities.  If you are a fan of Donald Westlake (his humourous crime novels) or Elmore Leonard, then chances are that you’ll like the novels of Charlie Stella.

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The Burglar: David Goodis (1953)

“Look at the way he moves around. This is a trace artist. It’s a very special gift. One in a million has it. Like a mind reader, a dealer in some kind of magic.”

The Library of America edition of five noir novels by David Goodis (1917-1967) is not only a compendium made for noir fans, but it is also an acknowledgment of this author’s contribution to the genre. Many of Goodis’s novels have been long-out-of-print, and if you can dig up used copies, some of the titles fetch a pretty price. For this volume, The Library of America has included:

Dark Passage

Nightfall

The Burglar

The Moon and the Gutter

Street of No Return

To sweeten the deal, all five of these titles have been made into films. Earlier this year, I wrote a post on Dark Passage. It’s a tremendous novel–a story that explores the plight of an innocent man who went to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. This story was made into an unforgettable film which featured the iconic Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Burglar is another winner from Goodis, and if you love noir fiction, then do yourself a favour and read this. It combines elements of the inescapable reach of fate, the heist, the lam, and the femme fatale, and the result is one of the darkest noir tales I’ve read in a long time.

The Burglar drops us right in the action by beginning with a “foolproof” burglary which takes place in a mansion. The burglar of the title is Nathaniel Harbin–a 34-year-old man who has made this his career–not by intention, but by fate. The story finds him the head of a gang of 4, and together they make a successful, tight team. Harbin is the brains behind the operation. He picks the jobs and methodically makes the preparations.

He had never been caught and despite the constant jeopardy he had never been forced into a really tight corner. The way he operated was quiet and slow, very slow, always unarmed, always artistic without knowing or interested in knowing that it was artistic, always accurate with it and always extremely unhappy with it.

The other members of the gang are: Blaylock, a nervous man in his 40s who’s been to prison and swears he won’t go back, Dohmer who’s not too swift in the brain department but has his uses as muscle, and the waif-like blonde Gladden, whose job is to case the joints the gang target for robbery. Gladden is the daughter of Harbin’s dead mentor, Gerald–the man who saved Harbin from starvation and taught him the trade. A strange relationship exists between Gladden and Harbin–“something about it was unnatural.” He feels responsible for her, and yet while Harbin is deeply troubled by his relationship to Gladden, he can’t define why and he can’t get rid of her.

Glow from a streetlamp far back came through the rear window, came floating in to settle on Gladden’s yellow hair and part of her face. The glow showed the skinny lines of her face, the yellow of her eyes, the thin line of her throat. She sat there and looked at Harbin and he saw her skinniness, this tangible proof of her lack of weight, and in his mind he told himself she weighed tons and tons and it all hung as from a rope around his neck.

Goodis takes us inside the heist with an incredibly tense scene. The goal for the gang is $100,000 in emeralds (worth over $845,000 in today’s terms). The heist goes smoothly… well almost… but after the heist things start to unravel. That’s as much of the plot of this incredibly dark tale as I’m going to reveal. But I will say that things don’t unravel in quite the usual way. The tension never stops and when the violence explodes, Goodis writes with a raw, shocking intensity.

Here’s a scene with Gladden and Harbin sitting inside a bar that’s dimly and eerily lit with green bulbs:

He leaned back in his chair, his head to one side a little as he studied the pale green glow on the top of Gladden’s head.

“Always,” he said, “after we do a job you get dreamy like this. The haul doesn’t seem to interest you.”

Gladden said nothing. She smiled at something far away. “The haul,” he said, “becomes a secondary thing with you. What comes first?”

“The dreamy feeling,” Gladden slumped languidly, “Like going back. Like resting on a soft pillow that you can’t see. Way back there.”

“Where?”

“Where we were when we were young.”

“We’re young now,” he said.

“Are we?” Her tall glass was lifted, her chin magnified through the rum and soda and glass. “We’re half in the grave.”

“You’re bored,” Harbin said. 

“I’ve been bored since I was born.”  

The characters in The Burglar operate in a twilight life that exists outside of society. Harbin’s gang is composed of losers who don’t have regular jobs or normal lives and the constraints demanded by their profession bring a heavy price. Together they operate as a family, and they are fairly successful, but it’s when those relationships chafe and begin to unravel that the trouble begins. Goodis shows the sliding scale of morality here, and as Harbin and his gang enter a maze of miscaluation and deception, they run headlong into true evil. Harbin’s sense of being trapped by fate is illustrated through his memory of being 16 “with lifted thumb begging for a ride” and right at the brink of death when he was picked up by seasoned burglar Gerald and taught the trade. There’s the sense that fate took Harbin for an 18-year-long ride and now he’s back at the point of his death, the point of his life right where Gerald intervened.  

As the situation unravels and Harbin tries to repair the damage, interpersonal relations underscore repetition, and foreshadowing reinforces the inescapable nature of fate. Written with an underlying yet overpowering sense of doom, this tale’s haunting conclusion has to be one of the most memorable in the genre. Mystery writer Ed Gorman said that “David Goodis didn’t write novels, he wrote suicide notes,” and after reading The Burglar, I see what he means.

I’m hoping that The Library of America has a second Goodis volume in the works….

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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The Getaway: Jim Thompson (1958)

“Flight is many things. Something clean and swift, like a bird skimming across the sky. Or something filthy and crawling; a series of crablike movements through figurative and literal slime, a process of creeping ahead, jumping sideways, running backward.”

A few months ago, I committed to a Jim Thompson Noirfest. I had several Thompson titles sitting neglected on my shelf, and I’d intended to read his books for years. A conversation here sparked the commitment to hold a Thompson Noirfest, and I selected 7 titles for the read-a-thon. I blasted through The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, A Swell Looking Dame, and A Hell of a Woman. Then I made the strategical error of watching Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway right as I started the book. I couldn’t wash away the images of Steve McQueen as bank robber Doc (along with his side kick wife played by Ali McGraw). So I put aside the book and let some time pass and the film fade.

The Getaway (and I’m glad I read this title BTW as it’s a complete change of pace from the other Thompsons I read), is about a bank robbery and the subsequent attempt to escape to Mexico. The unreliable narrator is absent, and also absent is an intense character study. Instead it’s a rapid robbery, the double-crossing relationships between the thieves and then the getaway takes up most of the story. The story is punctuated by a very strange ending, but more of that later.

Thompson doesn’t neglect character in The Getaway, but neither does he linger on it (as in The Killer Inside Me). His characters are wrapped up in just a few succinct sentences. There are no layers here (The Killer Inside Me, A Hell of a Woman); what we see is what we get, and what we get isn’t nice at all. Doc, for example, is the son of a small town corrupt sheriff (back to that Thompson biography again), and Doc’s seemingly pleasant and generous nature coats the character of a cunning predator:

Doc, then, was born popular; into a world where he was instantly liked and constantly reassured of his welcome. Everyone smiled, everyone was friendly, everyone was anxious to please him. Without being spoiled–his father’s  strictly male household took care of that–he acquired an unshakeable belief in his own merit; a conviction that he not only would be but should be liked wherever he went. And holding such a conviction, he inevitably acquired the pleasant traits and personality to justify it.

Doc’s moll is Carol–a former librarian, the daughter of a nice middle-class family. Her walk on the wild side has negated any return to her former life. When the book begins, she has a taste for the bad boy in Doc–or at least she thinks she does, but things are about to get wilder than she imagined.

When the book begins, career criminal Doc McCoy is out of jail on parole. This was his second sentence. The first sentence was no biggie, but the second sentence is different as McCoy now has a much younger wife, Carol who’s “almost fourteen years his junior” left on the outside to worry about. Doc is looking at a twenty-year sentence, but with his loot to pay for the services of a “topflight criminal lawyer,” the sentence is reduced to ten years. Any hope of early release is dashed when Doc’s appeal to the parole board is denied, and at that point, Carol decides to approach one of the board members, Beynon, personally. This works, Doc is out on parole and when the book begins, he’s about to pull off his final heist before ‘retiring’ to El Ray, a remote area in Mexico that specialises in harbouring wealthy criminals on the lam.  

The robbery is swift and brutal in its execution. Doc’s partners are the horribly misshapen and mentally twisted Rudy, and a young kid named Jackson. The money is going to be split after the robbery, but both Rudy and Doc have no intention of splitting the pot, so Carol and Doc hightail it to Mexico with Rudy in hot pursuit.  Here’s Rudy–a paranoid sadist who, in many ways, is the opposite of the self-assured, confident Doc:

He was afraid to sleep, and equally fearful of awaking; from the dawn of his memory, the days had also been identified with terror. In the latter case, however, his fear was of a different kind. A cornered rat might feel as Rudy Torrento felt on coming into full consciousness. Or a snake with its head caught beneath a forked stick. It was an insanely aggressive, outrageously furious fear; a self-frightening, self-poisoning emotion, gnawing acidly at the man whose existence depended upon it.

He was paranoid; incredibly sharp of instinct; filled with animal cunning. He was also very vain. On the one hand, then, he was confident that Doc McCoy intended to kill him, as soon as he had served Doc’s purposes, and on the other, he could not admit it.

The book is full of interesting contrasts. Doc is an affable, well-liked criminal whose past behaviour has secured many allies, and this proves to be a useful factor along the escape route. Rudy, on the other hand, has no friends to help, and he kidnaps the Clintons, a veterinarian and his lascivious wife for the trip. Doc and Carol make a tight team, and Rudy sees them as an enviable couple, but as the pursuit lengthens, Doc discovers some truths about Carol that begin to irk him and which threaten to sever their partnership. Underneath Doc’s affability, lurks a predatory reptile, and it’s clear that Carol is out of her depth. 

A thread of sadistic action runs throughout The Getaway and this mainly explodes on to the many characters who fall into Rudy and Doc’s paths. There are some wonderful characterisations here–my favourite has to be Ma Santis: “Daughter of a criminal, wife of a criminal, mother of six criminal sons.” She’s a Ma Barker figure–well she would be if all that shit fabricated about Ma Barker by the FBI were true, so instead I’ll say that Ma Santis is the sort of Ma Barker figure J Edgar Hoover dreamed about.

As for the novel’s unexpected ending (not at all like the film BTW)…think nasty shades of Shirley Jackson. While the film ends on a happy note, well, that’s Hollywood for you, the book’s savagely twisted ending somehow fits the sadistic action of the rest of the book. 

On a final note about the film–It’s amusing really to hear the criticisms lobbed against Peckinpah who was known as “Bloody Sam” for his use of violence. Obviously the critics hadn’t read the book–otherwise they’d have appreciated how the screenplay toned down the book’s sadistic passages. Although I must add that the touches added regarding the Clintons are brilliant. Sally Struthers plays Dr. Clinton’s hot-to-trot wife, and the film elaborates on her role as she giggles and floozies her way into a sleazy relationship with Rudy which is openly flaunted against her tormented husband. This elaboration is a truly subversive addition to the film as Rudy’s insertion into the Clinton’s marriage acts as a sexual liberator for skanky Fran–yet another woman with a secret taste for the dark side of life:

He’s seen this babe before–her many counterparts, that is. He knew her kin, distant and near. All her mamas, sisters, aunts, cousins and what have you. And he knew the name was Lowdown with a capital L. … This babe got around. She was the original square-plug-in-a-round-hole kid. But she never changed any. She had that good old Lowdown blood in her, and the right guy could bring it out.

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