"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.
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."
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.
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.