TURNING NOIR'S RACISM ON ITS HEAD: WOODY HAUT'S LATEST
AMERICAN CRIME FICTION, at least in its so-called "golden era" of the 1940s and '50s, has always given me the creeps. No matter how much I rooted for the doomed hero at the heart of the narrative, whenever his journey brought him face-to-face with anyone who resembled me - that is, a person of color - he seldom viewed them as an ally or a peer, but as an agent of dread malignancies gathering at the urban core; cancers which his own flawed, if indomitable, energies had been honed to sweep clean. Operating under the descriptive rubric "noir" - which is, in a literal translation from the French, "black" crime fiction - noir denotes all things shadowy, duplicitous, corrupted, and Other. Its denizens (including the white hero tasked with sussing out its mysteries and bringing its myriad wrongdoers to heel) inhabit a world from which most decent folk, that is, most "white folk" have rightly fled.
In Woody Haut's new novel, Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, this literary (and moral) paradigm is turned on its head. All the heroes and heroines in Haut's narrative, no matter their race or points or origin, are outsiders. And it is the white folk in the story, as often as not, whose lives can be described as duplicitous, corrupted, Other. Yet, they are not "caricatures" as they would be in many of the works by authors who lived through, and embodied, in real time, the bad old days of the golden era not just of noir but of America's macho exceptionalism (literary masters like Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway; or James Ellroy, the contemporary kingpin of white power poetics and nostalgia). Rather they are "characters," that is, full-blooded participants, complicit in the double-deals, dirty schemes, and foul crimes that make the tale worth telling and its perpetrators worth watching.
In a classic noir fable, the typically faceless outcasts (that Haut chooses as his heroes and heroines) would have been pressed into action to serve as comic relief and scorn. But in Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime, this familiar lineup of insignificant "perps" - that is, the blacks, Latinos, Jews, homosexuals, ball-breaking women, et al. - are not bit players or living vessels of the city's corruption and veniality, they are the native sons and daughters of its hellish streets and hangouts, searching for love, illicit or otherwise, for redemption and a stiff drink, for easy money and a place at the "grown-up" table, as earnestly as any other harried and desperate American would do.
The flawed hero at the heart of Cry For a Nickel is Abe Howard, a freelance photographer of prodigious luck and skills, but also of questionable morality and tastes. Abe is also a Jew, although one suspects Abe wouldn't recognize Jehovah even if He exhorted him from a burning bush with free tickets to a Dodger game. Faith, religious or otherwise, is decidedly not the subject of this work. As in all classic crime stories, the engine of this narrative is human frailty, man's struggle to master the demons in his own heart, and his battle, patently doomed, against insuperable forces arrayed against him.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.