Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Explaining the Inexplicable: Another Dream About Fielding Dawson

"I mean that if I chose to make the most wonderful thing that I could make, I would make whatever I am, and it would be invisible, because it would have to be invisible, because what I would make would be whatever it is..."
                                                                                                 "Krazy Kat"

In the dream I was attempting to explain to poet  Ed Dorn the extent to which I liked Fielding Dawson's writing. I think I was making sense, but, then again, it was a dream, so who knows. However, whether awake or asleep, I tend to think I have a bit of form on this particular subject. After all, there was a time when I could think of nothing better than to wallow in Fielding Dawson's  free-flowing prose- which for me worked in the same way Dawson's Abstract Expressionist friends at the Cedar painted, or the way his beloved be-boppers constructed their solos, with sinuous lines, improvised yet based on theory and practise. For me, Dawson, no mean artist himself, was one of the few writers able to catch what others have found so elusive- which is the ability to move between the inside and the outside, perhaps what Dawson's fellow-Black Mountaineer Dorn referred to in an early narrative- was it Idaho Out or The Land Below?- as the insidereal/outsidereal.

I guess Dawson-mania first hit me in the early 1970s, with his first, and I still believe his best, collection of stories, Krazy Kat and the Unveiling, published by Black Sparrow in, I think, 1969. Even now I find those stories remarkable, particularly when one thinks that many were written by someone barely in their twenties.  Other writers, similar in age, locale and temperament, whether Lucia Berlin, Douglas Woolfe or Robert Creeley in The Gold Diggers, were able to explore a similar  terrain, but none were able to own the territory so definitively as Dawson. He not only moved seamlessly between extremes- inner and outer, emotions and situations (exemplified by the title of his Franz Kline book: An Emotional Memoir of Franz Kline)- but he did so with an intensity that made it seem like his words were about to singe the pages on which they were written. All this while maintaining a conversational manner and  matter-of-fact tone, willing to entertain the everyday as well as the near-miraculous.  Krazy Kat... was,  of course, followed by other collections  and   novels- A Mandalay Dream, Penny Lane, Virginia Dare, Open Road and  A Great Day For a Ball Game- though, for me, only a handful approached KK's power and intensity. Which is not say that I did not hungrily consume every book  as soon as I could get my hands on them.  

Perhaps it was inevitable that, over time, Dawson's writing would become less intense and introspective, and, in the process,  more chekovian, which is what Ed Sanders had once said about his writing, an assessment  I initially dismissed. Indeed, some of Dawson's intensity would be channelled into other work, which began in the early 1990s, namely teaching writing to prisoners, first at Rikers Island, then other New York institutions, becoming, in the process an advocate for writers ensconced in the prison system. Though maybe Dawson had written himself out, which would be understandable, or it could be that he found a pursuit that was just as,  if not more, fulfilling.

By early 1990s I was, for some reason, no longer reading Dawson.  Maybe I was too involved  in politics, or maybe it was a matter of my tastes and concerns having changed.  Then, one morning in early January, 2002, I woke up realizing it had been over a decade since I had last read a Dawson story or novel and suddenly wanted to reread him, as well as find out  what he'd been writing in the intervening years. So I ordered his two most recent books, then googled him, only to discover that two days earlier Dawson had passed away. Though his death hit me hard, I didn't find  it altogether strange that I should be thinking about him only a couple days after he'd passed away. Probably because I'd always felt a strong connection to his writing. And, if the dream in which I was trying to explain my liking for Dawson is anything to go by, it's a connection I clearly harbour to this day. One thing I do regret is never having had the opportunity to  meet the man, nor fortunate enough to ever hearing him read live. Still, I've recently managed to make do with the handful of readings archived on sites like Penn Sound. And while I'm not sure how Dawson is regarded these days, I notice there's even a piece of music one can hear on YouTube by composer and one-time Bjork-associate Nico Muhly entitled Fielding Dawson in Franz Kline's Studio. But, for me, it’s the stories on the page that matter. The rest is simply life, as we know it. Or maybe  a dream in which one tries, and fails, to explain what might be, in the end,  inexplicable.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Noir Favourites, 2016

My favourites of the past year,  in no particular order 

1 It’s All One Case- Ross Macdonald, Paul Nelson, Kevin Avery, Jeff Wong.  

3 You Will Know Me- Megan Abbott 

6 El Nino- Mercedes Lambert

8 The Hight Life- Jean-Pierre Martinet

9 The Sympathizer- Viet Thangh Nguyen

10 Spook Street- Mick Herron

10 favourite pre-2016 books read in 2016

1  Hubert’s Freaks- Gregory Gibson

3 Simenon- Tropic Moon 

4 The Deepening Shade- Jake Hinkson

5  Immobility- Brian Evenson

6 The Whispering Swarm- Michael Moorcock

7 We Gotta Get Out of This Place- The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War- Doug Bradley and Craig Werner

8 Manchette's Fatale- Max Cabane, Doug Headline

9 The Archer Files: The Complete Lew Archer Stories- Ross Macdonald

10 Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing- Charles Bowden

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The man in the maze; the maze in the man: The Archer Files by Ross Macdonald, edited by Tom Nolan

I can't remember reading anything quite like Tom Nolan's introduction to The Archer Files- the complete short stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator.  In fact, Nolan's "Archer In Memory" must be the most complete, and possibly only, biography of a fictional private eye. And one taken entirely from the writing of some guy called Ross Macdonald, who seems to have devoted an inordinate amount of time writing about Archer. Reading this biography which runs to almost fifty pages,  Macdonald's name doesn't appear until the final few pages, making one think it's Archer who is real character and Macdonald a fictional invention. But, then, that's because Nolan, in this biographical sketch, does what he can to give Archer his autonomy, a notion not all that different from what any writer might wish on his or her protagonist.

Nolan has certainly done his research.  Which is what one would expect from the man who wrote Ross Macdonald's biography. Nevertheless, Nolan comes up with facts even the most ardent Macdonald reader would probably not have known. As someone who has read at least a dozen Macdonald novels, I would be hard pressed to say much about Lew Archer's past. Sure, I know that in his earlier years he had been a cop, had a drink problem, was married and divorce and had served in the armed forces. But that's about it. Perhaps that's because Macdonald conveys such information so seamlessly. Or maybe I'm always so locked into the stories that I'm nearly oblivious to such information. Which is ironical, since so many of those stories are similar, to the point that, for me, the titles lose their significance and the books tend to constitute, to use the title of Avery/Wong/Nelson's recent book, one case. However, Nolan knows his subject so well he's able to dig deep and bring all those Archer personal asides together.  It's quite a feat, one that couldn't be repeated for many other  hardboiled protagonists, including Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade. All of which makes Nolan's  The Archer Files a more than worthwhile investment. And that's not even counting the  Macdonald stories that follow.

Nolan's "Archer In Memory" is, in its own unassuming way, literary enough to seem Borges-like in the way it reconstructs a particular world. Though Nolan sticks to the facts, he ends up doing a bit of speculating, particularly when it comes to Archer's final days. Could it have been Alzheimer's,  a malady that struck down Macdonald- after all, Archer becomes increasingly forgetful in his later books. Or did Archer, always a moving target, succumb to gun violence in a city where, according to Nolan, handguns are nearly as plentiful as new cars. But Nolan leaves questions hanging in the air, and in the place of answer he postulates a simple fade-out and a  poem comprised of lines from  Macdonald's books, though the words could have come from some forgotten song by Macdonald's old pal Warren Zevon, a man who knew Archer as well as anyone:

"See Archer at night then, one last time, parked perhaps in his car above Mulholland, a single human cell in that luminous organism of an endless city, while a God's-eye camera pulls back and back and back- and the internalized soundtrack of a benignly fraying mind yields pieces of stored-up memory:

The man was in the maze; the maze was in the man.
The problem was to love people, to try to serve them...
-wish I knew who you were-
Got to take  a sentimental journey...
You'll have to learn a trade.
A man is only as good as his conscience...
Ora pro nobis."

Friday, December 02, 2016

Reconstructing Goodis: Retour Vers David Goodis by Philippe Garnier

If any single person is responsible for post-1980s interest in David Goodis, it's surely Philippe Garnier, arguably the first to write at length about Philadelphia's favourite noirist. While a handful of others have tried to thumb a ride on Garnier's coat-tails, he remains, at least when it comes to Goodis's retreat from oblivion, the primary investigator. Not only has he done the ground-work- interviewing the relevant parties and scrounging the archives- he's conveyed what he's  found with no small amount of panache. That goes for David Goodis, Un vie en noir et blanc, or his "translation" of that book David Goodis, A Life In Black and White (my review of that book can be found here). "Translation" because A Life... is anything but a word-for-word translation of his earlier book, rather an adaptation meant English-speaking Goodisites.

The same in reverse could be said for Garnier's latest,  Retour vers David Goodis (published by La Table Ronde). Like A Life..., Retour... is hardly a strict translation into French of a book translated from the French.  That doesn't seem to be Garnier's truc.  Rather,  in his own words, it's plus serein, mois énervé, plus informé than his previous book. Regardless of whether one considers Retour... a revision or stand-alone, it has a great deal to offer in the way of new material. Whether that material has been gathered together since the appearance of those earlier volumes, or retrieved from  the cutting-room floor hardly matters. Because one finds here what seems an assortment of new informants, central as well as peripheral, all of whom, in their own way, add pieces to the puzzle which constitutes Goodis's life. And if that's not enough, Garnier's latest includes some high-quality images- photos book covers, stills, etc.- which makes the  book quite a bit more interesting visually than previous Goodis volumes.

By referring to, and expanding upon, earlier books, Garnier, consciously or otherwise, implies that discovering Goodis could be an on-going process, shifting with the latest research, and offers that can't be easily refused. Whichever the case, Retour... dives deeper than ever into the murky waters that constitutes Goodis's work and world. Of course, this, in turn, necessitates new angles and digressions, the kind one has come to expect from Garnier, and an aspect of his writing- moving in and around his subject- that makes his work as interesting as it is informative. Likewise, one can't help but wonder  if and when  Retour... might be "translated" into English, and what that "translation" might look like.  In the meantime, anyone with  a rudimentary knowledge of French, shouldn't hesitate in giving this one a go.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Black Night Falling: David Goodis On Central Avenue

A version of my talk given on October 29th, at NoirCon 2016, in Philadelphia, is now up at the L.A. Review of Books. Here's how it opens:
THE 1940s was, by anyone’s reckoning, a decisive decade for noir master David Goodis. He married and divorced Elaine Astor, scripted for radio serials, wrote a number of screenplays, and published three novels, including his breakout hit Dark Passage (1946). Although his work and his fate are irrevocably bound to his native Philadelphia, he spent the larger part of the ’40s in Los Angeles. As a lifelong devotee of jazz and of the world surrounding it, he reputedly made periodic visits to L.A.’s Central Avenue, when the music played there — an amalgam of jazz and blues later packaged as Rhythm and Blues — was at its creative peak. It’s a music and a place that I tried to evoke in my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime:
They drove.
Into the heart of the matter.
Central Avenue.
Once the Harlem of the West.
Back when black night was falling and white punters were pouring down like a shower of rain.
Of course, by 1960, when Cry For a Nickel is set, the lights on Central Avenue — a.k.a. the Main Stem, the Brown Broadway, or simply The Block — had all but gone out. Most of the clubs were boarded over and the music had been co-opted by corporate and criminal concerns. But in the mid- to late 1940s, Central Avenue was still a vital thoroughfare for African-American music and culture.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

From Little Sandy to the Blue Hammer: It's All One Case- The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives by Paul Nelson, Kevin Avery, with Jeff Wong

Way back when, before I began reading Ross Macdonald, I was already well into Paul Nelson's writing, mainly through his and Jon Pancake's folk music magazine, Little Sandy Review. I was probably one of all of 200 subscribers. At that time, the magazine was, for me, the arbiter of taste in early 1960s folk America.  Nelson's reviews were both conversational and erudite, as likely to cite Bergman, Truffaut and J.P. Donlevy as Uncle Dave Macon. It took Nelson a couple years  to get to grips with his contemporary and fellow-Dinky Town contemporary Bob Dylan. Probably because it was hard for Nelson to move beyond traditional types, and dedicated disciples like the New Lost City Ramblers. But when he fell for Dylan, he fell hard. I remember in particular Nelson discussing the cinematic imagery in Dylan's The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

A few after my foray into the realm of Little Sandy, I crossed the rubicon and begin a long descent into the world of  Ross Macdonald. It was Macdonald, along with Hammett and Himes who would be my introduction to hardboiled noir fiction. Which is to say,  corruption in high places, accompanied by the poetry of street-level circumlocutions. To this day I still can't tell one Macondald novel from another. They really are all one novel, all one investigation and, as in the title of Kevin Avery and Jeff Wong's book, all one case. Which is say, they are all about the culture and its discontent, particularly when it comes to families, and how, as the man said, they really do  fuck you up.

I stopped gumshoeing Nelson in the 70s, though I remember reading some of his rock criticism in Rolling Stone and elsewhere, always finding it interesting and eclectic.  Because for him, as for Macdonald, it was also all one case- fiction, film writing, westerns, noir, music. Whether Gatsby,  John Ford, Hammett or Warren Zevon,  it was all part  of the same American landscape. But instead of using his multiple interests and talents to take him to new heights, Nelson would apparently find the combinations so overwhelming and intense that they would eventually silence him. Or maybe he'd said it all, was unable to say anymore. Or it could simply be that he could not edit himself any longer or make it all cohere. Capable of so much, Nelson would end up delivering much less than he could have. Even so what he did manage to produce was always interesting and often brilliant, whether  zooming-in for close-ups of his favorite musicians or writers, or panning-out for wide shots of the culture in general. Unfortunately, he could never get it together to write that elusive novel or film,  until it all went silent and he ended his days as a reclusive clerk in a video store. Not so different from the way a young Quentin Tarantino began his career. And there is  a little bit of Nelson in Tarantino.  As for Macdonald, I would over the years revisit his work,  occasionally picking up one of his novels only to marvel at his writing, the depths he was able to reach, all of which reminded me that this was why I got interested in this type of writing, because it's capable of saying so much. Of course must have felt much the same way.

Kevin Avery's biography of Nelson expanded on the information I had previously gleaned from Nolan's biography of Macdonald, namely that Nelson had conducted a marathon interview with Macdonald, pitching up his tent in Macdonald's house for some weeks.  I remember writing to Kevin saying, just as so many others had, something along the lines of  what, there's hundreds of hours of interviews Nelson did with Macdonald. Shouldn't they be made available. He assured me that they soon would be.

But I had no idea the material would be presented so exquisitely, thanks largely to graphic designer Jeff Wong. In fact, with the exception of photos by Kurt Vonnegut's widow, Jill Krementz, virtually all of the images in the book are from Wong's personal collection garnered over the years, many of the items  from Nelson's personal collection, bits of it purchased by Wong when Nelson was strapped for cash.  And the interview definitely lives up to its billing, covering, as it does, not just Macdonald's books and writing but a range of related subjects. I suppose one could call this  the ultimate noir coffee table book. Because one could spend hours simply looking at its superb reproductions,  and an equal number of hours reading it. Of course, you have to be a fan of Macdonald's fiction to fully appreciate it. And if you also happen to be one of those who also harbours a more than arcane interest in Paul Nelson's writing, It's All One Case is going to be irresistible.  It's already in serious contention for my book of the year. A big book- with a short forward by the great Jerome Charyn- in more ways than one, and worth every penny.