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.
This is one of those books that should come with both a caveat and a health warning. The latter should probably accompany any book by the contrarian poet of the American west Edward Dorn. Maybe something like reading this book can seriously endanger your relationship with the world as you know it. But it should also come with a caveat that any potential reader, before dipping into Derelict Air, should first crack open Dorn's Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2012). Not that most of the poems in Derelict Air, painstakingly put together by Justin Katko and Kyle Waugh for Enitharmon Press, aren't strong enough to stand on their own. But to fully appreciate these poems one should, at the very least, have some knowledge of Dorn's published work, from The Newly Fallen and Hands Up to Geography and North Atlantic Turbine, from Gunslinger to Recollections of Gran Apacheria, and from Abhorrences to Westward Haut, and Chemo Sabe.
The title Derelict Air: From Collected Out, comes from an early poem in this collection, but it also carries overtones of Dorn's narrative poem Idaho Out which appeared in his 1965 book Geography. "Collected Out" also suggests that these poems might be out-takes, though Katko and Waugh prefer to call them "poems of becoming." True, Derelict Air, weighing in at over 500 pages, represents a substantial amount, though not all, of Dorn's mostly unpublished poetry. But what's impressive here isn't just the quantity- apparently there was a good deal more that could have been included- but the quality of the work. The fact is, most of these poems, in some cases only parts of a whole, read like finished products. While Dorn's Collected Poems contained a good whack of uncollected work, Derelict Air has ventured a step further. Of course, a book of mostly unpublished poems can be tricky. After all, how many poets can you think of whose unpublished work merits reading? But, in this case, it definitely makes for an interesting and important book. Particularly for those Dornistas who, over the years, have poured over the contents of The Collected Poems. Equally important, it makes one realise that Dorn was not only constantly writing, but constantly editing his work, boiling it down to its essentials.
So one is hardly going to feel short-changed by Derelict Air. After all, these poems comprise, or are part of, over twenty different collections, dating from 1953 to 1999, the year of Dorn's death. While even the most dedicated Dorn reader will be unfamiliar with titles like Looking For a Thing (1957-59), Poems of Washington, Idaho and Mexico (1959), Late in the Revolution (1960-62), Silent Guns (1961-63), A Circle of Songs (1964), In the Face of the Liberal (1964-68), A Convention in a Wallpaper Store (1968), The Grave of Diana (1968-70), The Day and Night Report (1970), Office Equipment (1976-83), The Theater of Money (1971), A Mexico Scrapbook (1972), From the Wrong Side of the Partition- At the Houston MLA (1980-81), and The Connection to Nowhere (1992-99). Likewise, that reader may or may not be surprised by the subjects and formats, from a book of illustrated children's poems to political critiques, such as his poems on the Cuban revolution and missile crisis, and a series of short takes "Intended to be strewn on the floor/ of the 1968 Democratic convention."
Other poems will be more familiar: Gunslinger Fragments and Satellites (1970-74)- "Nought was on the set/ when zero placed his bet/ on by whom/ the engine would be BLED and with whom/ the secret train departed/ and, exactly when/ the man had/ started his trip"- Translations with Gordon Brotherston (1971-75, some of which appeared in Dorn and Brotherston's The Sun Unwound), Mellow W/ Teeth (1972-76), Homage to Gran Apacheria (1973), More Abhorrences (1983-89), Abominations (1991), Denver Skyline (1993-99) and Plus De Languedo Variorum: A Defense of Hersey and Heretics (1992-99). Some of these out-takes could have been included in the appropriate collection. But even though there are some real nuggets here, I'm not sure their inclusion would have necessarily improved the already published product. However, reading them here, they actually add substance to the finished versions, while, at the same time, demonstrating Dorn's ability, despite his range of subject matter and approach, to perceive the superfluous.
Some of the early poems fall short of what one would come to expect from Dorn, but not by much. Here, for instance, is the first stanza of the title poem, from sometime around 1953: "A sharp green counter/ was where she sat/ & her color was/velvet it darkened/just right, like love." Not all that far off from lyrical poems that would appear eight years later in Dorn's first collection The Newly Fallen. On the other hand, one tends to forget that Dorn didn't really mature as a poet until he was in his thirties. And while he's often lumped in with various Black Mountain poets, he soon moved beyond the confines of that nebulous, if not meaningless, category. Still, there are those who would portray him as such, citing Gunslinger as the point at which Dorn broke ranks with his former associates. Disregarding the fact that Dorn's poetry was always shifting in accordance with his interests, one could just as well cite other such points, such as Idaho Out, which mutated into the more radical North Atlantic Turbine. Then shifting once again in poems like The Cosmology of Finding Your Place and The World Box-Score Cup of 1966. That inhalation of the culture would crystallise in Gunslinger, which, following the death of (the) "I," would lead to Recollections of Gran Apacheria, gradually bringing the narrator back into the poem with the writing of Abhorrences and beyond.
These shifts are equally apparent in Derelict Air, moving, as it does, from the lyrical to the political and paradoxical. The final poems in Plus de Languedoc Variorum: A Defense of Heresy and Heretics demonstrate that, though he was always political and, at least since Abhorrences and Hello, La Jolla, always flirting with the subversive, it's around this time that he really cranks up the volume. For instance, in Unabomber as Heretic, Dorn says, "The real and effective criminal here is not Ted Kaczynski but the legions of industrialists and their hierling scientists who for the past quarter millennium have hewed to the principle that if it can be found out if must be found out- the serpents in the Garden of Eden climbing the tree." While in A Review of Volume 10 of the Olson/Creeley Correspondence, Dorn contemplates suing the Olson estate, with Creeley as co-conspirator: for "the failure to hold up the text of James Thomson's/ City of Dreadful Night was deep intellectual abuse, intentional/ and deceitful- there's no forgiving such selective omission." And in Jesus- He was a Handsome Man, An Essay On the Reconstruction of the Whole Western Myth, Dorn, committing the ultimate Black Mountain heresy, writes, "One of the most powerful crossroads in modern poetry occurs in the West, when ee cummings meets Buffalo Bill, when cummings writes Bill's obit. Buffalo Bill's/defunct is the quintessential 'modern poem, not The Wasteland or The Cantos." After Subtexts, which extends the contrarianisms of Abhorrences while demonstrating that old Gunslinger adage that "only laughter can blow it to rags," one arrives at NAZDAKS, parts of which underscored the version found in The Collected Poems. But it appears here in unadulterated form, all caps, consisting of warped news flashes, absurd updates and state of the nation stock exchanges: "TELEFONUS INTERRUPTUS--BREAKFASTUS INTERRUPTUS--MENU MENISCUS--LUNCHCHECK UPCHUCK--DUMP IT--EERIE THEORY UP AN EIGHTH--DREARY THEORY UP A QUARTER--LEERY THEORY UP A HALF--QUERRI THEORY UP ONE AND A QUARTER--DUMP IT QUICK--SPEED OF THOUGHT DOWN A FIFTH...".
Reading Derelict Air, I kept wondering whether Dorn had read many of these poems in public. This, in turn, made me think about Dorn's relationship with publishers. One would have thought that at least some of the collections in Derelict Air would have been published during Dorn's lifetime? Was it that Dorn held them back, or was it that no one wanted to publish them? Katko and Waugh, writing in the preface, quote a 1963 letter from Dorn to Jeremy Prynne: "I have been screwed of publication in america for verse." But that was quite early on, a year before Hands Up, published by Totem Press, and two years before Geography, published by Stuart Montgomery at Fulcrum. Katko and Waugh go on to say that most of the early manuscripts and lost books made the rounds of publishers, and were presumably rejected, after which they were turned into other poems, lost or left behind. While this illustrates the task Katko and Waugh, with the help of Dorn's family and friends, had in putting this volume together, it also hints at Dorn's relationship with publishers. Some like Totem, Black Sparrow, Fulcrum, Grey Fox, Frontier, Wingbow, Turtle Island, Etruscan, and, after Dorn's death, Carcanet, Shearsman and, now, Enitharmon, were more than willing to publish his work. At the same time, he's noticeably absent from the likes of City Lights and Grove Press, not to mention larger publishers who occasionally dabbled in poetry. Whether Dorn had any desire to publish with such companies is another matter. Though, given his disposition, it's difficult to imagine Dorn publishing with some corporate subsidiary. And what about the unpublished collections from the 1960s onwards? But as Dorn was wont to say, if a person says what they think and does so in a straight-forward manner, they aren't going to get a lot of grants, nor, one supposes, are they likely to find many publishers.
Impossible to classify, Dorn wasn't just a poet of the west, but, to quote the title of his 1993 book, a poet of the way more west. While that might sound like the name of an outlaw country singer, it indicates, as do the poems in Derelict Air, that Dorn's west stretches all the way to the horizon. Beyond boundaries, to a kind of Manifest Destiny in reverse, first glimpsed in North Atlantic Turbine. And he would remain committed to that pursuit, whether in quick lyrical shots, narrative journeys, critiques of history, short sharp shocks, screeds of metaphysical humour and paradox, or incendiary tracts and rants. In any case, it's all here in Derelict Air, proving that Dorn, whether published or unpublished, was a force to be reckoned with. Someone who, as Amiri Baraka once said, "wd rather/ Make you his enemy/ Than lie." Though Neophytes, heed the caveat: tackle The Collected Poems first. You won't regret it.
This is a dark book in more ways than one. Not only is the story dark, but so is the landscape in the which the story takes place. After all, there's very little daylight in the small Alaskan village in which Core, a nature writer from the lower forty-eight, finds himself. He's the author of a book about hunting down wolves. Medora, having read the book, writes to him, asking him to come to her village to track down the wolf that has stolen her six year-old son, and, if possible, bring back his remains. All this while Medora's husband, Sloane, has been fighting, presumably in Iraq. Core finds the boy, though not anywhere near where he thought he'd be. Probably best not to say much about the plot, if only because Giraldi has constructed something so taut that every beat and turn seems essential. Suffice it to say, the husband returns, and various murders ensue.
The village where Medora and Sloane live is certainly an eerie place, if only because no one speaks to outsiders and barely to one another. It's a place of snow, myth, superstition, ancient rites and a history that everyone feels but almost no one seems to know, much less articulate. As the days grow shorter and the weather turns increasingly nasty, one realises there's no way this story can possibly end well. Though, with everyone trudging through the snow, from one destination to another, most of them unknown or rarely visited, who can predict the chances of survival, or how order might be brought to a world that has gone so far out of whack.
"What kind of man does this?" asks Core, regarding one of the murders. "The human kind," answers Marium, the chief of police. Because humans are capable of anything. Likewise, animals. Core, "the chosen story-teller," loves wolves, particularly when it comes to their intelligence. And it's only Core who is capable of noting the relationship between animals and humans; specifically, where does the animal end and the human begin, as well as what connects and separates them. Why does Core stay in such a hostile environment? Because, at the core of the story, he can't leave the place until he can get a grip on the village and everything that's happening around him. Besides, he is essential to the story, and, as the wolf chaser, the one able to connect human to animal, protagonist to antagonist, cause to effect. In a book with shifting points of view, Core fights to control the narrative, only to eventually fade away, overtaken by Sloane, definitely part-animal himself.
In Hold the Dark "The dead don't haunt the living. The living haunt themselves." Here everyone, to one degree or another, is out of place and alienated from themselves and those around them. Core might know about wolves, but he doesn't know much about his daughter. Marium knows about policing but hasn't a clue about his wife, or, for that matter, Sloane and the ways of the village. In fact, Marium can't even communicate with these villagers, even though he grew up and works in a small town just a few miles away. Then there's Sloane, who knows about the land and his village, but has no idea about people, including certain secrets held by his wife. While Medura knows very little other than how to survive, and the truth about her child. At least Core feels just how foreign this part of the world is, even if that realisation comes too late. Still, it's only Core who, because of his connection to the wolves, who has tenuous relationship to the village, which Sloane acknowledges with simply a nod of the head.
A bleak, brutal and beautifully written book, its sentences carved in such a way as to make you think nothing like this has been written before. I suppose if authorial comparisons are necessary, one might cite Cormac McCarthy or Daniel Woodrell, but neither, no matter how good such writers are, comes close. Not that Giraldi is better, it's just neither McCarthy or Woodrell could have written Giraldi's novel. In the end, as the sayings go, the map is not the territory, and the plot is not necessarily the story. As the characters in Hold the Dark tell us, it's the lived thing that matters, even if that lived thing can be fully disclosed or understood. Hence the beauty of Giraldi's writing: "She'd want to know all he'd witnessed. She'd want to hear the truth of these events. But he would have for her only a story- one that seemed to have happened half in dream, rent from the regular world he knew- and that story would wear the clothes of truth. Propped up in bed, he prepared himself for this tale. He searched for the beginning, and for the will to believe it."
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.