Thursday, April 19, 2018

Ron Slate on Days of Smoke (from the Los Angeles Review of Books)



WITH THE COLLAPSE of literary writing into popular culture and the smudging of boundaries between genres, the status of noir fiction may seem uncertain. But then, noir has always been a protean category, a shadowy realm for novelists to develop their signature styles and work out their obsessions. So-called mainstream novelists sometimes make forays into the genre, raiding its attributes. When the culture roils with angst (and when doesn’t it?), noir fiction makes a blunt drama from our distress. No one knows the traditions, mutations, and contemporary aspects of noir fiction better than Woody Haut. In lively studies such as Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995) and Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction(1999), he has tracked noir from its roots in hardboiled crime stories to the urban narratives of Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, and James Ellroy.
In 2014, Haut produced his first novel, Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime. Set in Los Angeles in 1960, as the United States turns the corner toward the Kennedy years, the novel centers around Abe Howard, a freelance photographer whose shots of a murdered jazz musician put him in conflict with the city’s interchangeable criminal and corporate elements. Cry for a Nickel glories in classic noir tropes: it deals with civil disorder and personality conflicts, its clashes are triggered by basic drives, its language sounds as if it were spoken over a tumbler of bourbon, and it thrives on the generation of fear.
Now comes Days of Smoke. The time is June 1968, the place Pasadena. As the action opens, a college-aged woman named Connie Myles observes three men walking into the office of the Pasadena draft board where she works. Mike Howard has arrived to present his petition for classification as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He is accompanied by his father, Abe Howard, who opened a camera shop after a violent ordeal in Cry for a Nickel. Connie thinks of herself as “a kind of secret agent who had successfully infiltrated enemy territory […] she held fast to her guise, doing her job, waiting for her moment.” Meanwhile, Mike “had no intention of going to Vietnam. There was no way he was going to fight in a war he didn’t believe in. Nor did it bother Mike that he was doing his best to finesse the situation; if necessary, scam the draft board into believing his story.” Soon after, Connie finds, or rather, creates her “moment” — she destroys Mike’s file and becomes an updated rendition of a noir femme fatale.
(The remainder of the review can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books)
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