Friday, December 28, 2012

New York Jewish Noir: Under the Eye of God by Jerome Charyn

Okay, I'll come clean. Jerome Charyn ruined my life. It was  that Zomba collection back in the 1980s that did it: Marilyn the Wild, Blue Eyes, The Education of Patrick Silver and Secret Isaac, all in one volume. I'd never read anything like it before. I'd been into Hammett and Chandler,  Goodis, Himes and Thompson, but I'd never read anything quite like those four novels. Poetic, operatic, funny, heart-breaking, they were like a cross between comic-books and Russian novels, and made me aware of the possibilities inherent in hardboiled/crime/noir fiction. I searched for similar writers, and when I couldn't find any, I found myself going back to early Black Maskers like Paul Cain. Not really  the same thing. Nevertheless, a number of them seemed to suggest Charyn's particular brand of grand-gesture poetic-realism.

Flash forward thirty some odd years, and I'm still reading Jerome Charyn. In fact, I've probably now read about twenty books by him, which represents approximately half his output. Though he's written mainly fiction, there are also  biographies (Babel, Dickinson, Marilyn Monroe, DiMaggio), histories, particularly when it comes to New York, including its Jewish crime bosses, and the cinema. He's also written graphic novels and even a book on ping-pong, which, in the tradition of his character Blue Eyes, is apparently Charyn's game. When it comes to crime fiction, the breadth of Charyn's oeuvre  can also be suggested in his taste in crime fiction, on full display in a  collection he edited back in the early 1990s, The Crime Lover's Casebook/The New Mystery, in which one finds writers like Ellroy alongside Borges, Faye Kellerman alongside Clarice Lispecter, DeLillo and Joyce Carol Oates alongside Mosley and Westlake.

Charyn's Under the Eye of God (Mysterious Press), is the latest volume tracking the life and times of Isaac Sidel, one-time cop and police commissioner, then New York mayor and now U.S. vice-president-elect, with even greater, or, depending on how one looks at it, worse, things on the horizon.  At any rate, that's his destiny if he plays his cards right, which, of course, he's never quite able to do. Because Issac wears his heart on his sleeve and a Glock in his waistband. Here Isaac the Jewish cop-trickster haunts old hotels, before venturing beyond the environs of New York,  to Texas and points east. After all, a veep  has to campaign, no matter how dangerous it might be, or who might be plotting against him, whether  Texas oil money or wealthy New York hermits. It's a book that  conjures up the past, most specifically Jewish crime boss Arnold Rothstein and his minion.  Which makes  Under the Eye of God more or less a fictional companion to Charyn's book from 2005 about New York, Gangsters and Gold Diggers.

Of course, it's also an homage to  New York of days gone by, of what has been lost, and cannot be regained, however much  ghosts from the past continue to haunt the city:

"Isaac had lived at the Polo Grounds. Had stolen through the gate countless times as a boy. He loved the New York Giants almost as much as he loved AR. He could become the next Methuselah, celebrate his thousandth birthday, and he still wouldn't recover from the Giants' betrayal of New York- they lit out for San Francisco like a pack of greedy dogs. The bastards took Willie Mays, who had to stop playing stickball in the streets of Harlem. He was never the Say Hey Kid in San Francisco, just another ballplayer with a sweet bat and glove....and without the empty plains of the Polo Grounds."

As the old disappears, leaving nothing more than a series of fading memories, the Bronx is about to be turned into military reservation, a real estate killing that will benefit less than one percent of the one percent. Here there's a shadow behind every shadow, a deal behind every deal, a conspiracy behind every conspiracy. People impersonate those who exist in a nexus between dream and reality. Children become political advisers.  Decrepit hotels and eateries become holy places. Prostitutes become goddesses. Crime bosses and their accountants become the last remnants of civilization, as urban decay is flattened into concrete and, like a Koch Brothers wet-dream, all profits end up in the hands of misty-eyed oligarchs. This is crime fiction that only a first generation American with English as a second language could write.  Because Charyn still manages to approach language and syntax in a fresh way, returning both writer and reader  to the mythic, poetic and tragicomic roots of the genre, be it in the comic books or the stories read while growing up. At the same time, Charyn takes the genre forward, into uncharted territory. Who else can write like this? Who else can address large issues with such legerdemain deftness?  How many writers can so easily ruin one's life?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Noir On Horseback: Flint by Arnold Hano

Someone once said that the best westerns are just noir on horseback. Well, over-simplication or not, that seems definitely true in the case of Anrold Hano's Flint. Originally published by Signet in 1957 under the nom de plume Gil Dodge, and recently republished by Stark House, in a collection entitled 3 Steps to Hell, that includes two other excellent Hano novels, So I'm a Heel and The Big OutFlint is noir with a vengeance. As well it should be since the plot was borrowed from Jim Thompson's noir thriller Savage Night.

Though Hano, in transposing the narrative from the mid-twentieth century to what must be  the 19th century, gets rid of the weirder, more surreal elements of Thompson's book. Too bad since that's what I so enjoyed about Savage Night. Nevertheless, this is as dark as any western is going to get. I suppose it's fair-play since Thompson took many of his plots from Greek tragedies. Or in the case, based on a synopsis his publisher, Lion, had given to Thompson. Of course, Hano was Thompson's editor (as well as David Goodis') at Lion during the latter's most prolific period, between 1952 and 1954, when he wrote some fourteen novels. Savage Night, which had always been Hano's favorite ("the best crime syndicate novel ever."), and had worked on it with him. So, realizing he could turn it into a decent western, asked and was granted permission to use the plot.

It's a simple, yet complex tale. Flint is a retired killer with a bullet lodged in his lungs. His retirement is interrupted when someone arrives at his Arizona farm to blackmail into doing one more job in Colorado.  A rancher wants him to kill Thomason, who owns the  adjoining land,  as well as Slott the town sheriff.  But things don't go exactly to plan.  Mr. Good, the man who s hired Flint, is playing everyone against everyone else. And then there's Cora, Thomason's wife. Interestingly, Hano's editor for Flint was none other than E.L. Doctorow. An unexpected link if there ever was one.

Hano, who was born in New York in 1921, also wrote a number of novels and sports books (Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Muhammad Ali, Robert Clemente, as well as his best known book A Day in the Bleachers) under his own name, including The Big Out, originally published in 1951, about two brothers  (which put in mind of John R. Tunis' Russell brothers in The Keystone Kids) and a protagonist who is banned the game only to escape to Canada. Then there were books published under the names Matthew Gant, Ad Gordon and Mike Heller. It was the latter pseudonym which he used for  So I'm a Heel, originally published by Gold Medal in 1957, about an embittered, sadistic cripple who, out of revenge for the hand that life has dealt him, resorts to extortion. But it's Flint that caught my attention. And I wasn't disappointed. Now over 90 years old, Hano still lives in Laguna Beach. By the way Stark House collection also includes a short interview with Hano. Not to be missed.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

JIm Tully: The Origins of Hardboiled Fiction?

"Across a chasm of years the outlines of even the most vivid of life are blurred. But impressions gained as a youthful hobo are likely to endure until the rover has wandered the last road home. I have often wished that Cervantes had written a tale of his wanderings on the sunlit roads of Spain, or that Goldsmith had written in matchless English of the days when he played a flute for bread, or that blind Homer had left a few pages about his experiences while tramping the roads of Greece. The old minstrel might even have immortalized a Greek slave who fed him."
                                                             (Jim Tully, Beggars of Life)

I've been collecting books by circus worker, laborer, road-kid,  boxer and writer, Jim Tully for the last twenty years, so by now I have a pretty good collection. But I dare not open them too often for fear of damaging them. So these  reprints- seeing the light of day for more than half a century- are particularly welcome. I think I must have first heard of Tully sometime in the early 1970s, most likely in Kenneth Allsop's forgotten classic text of the open road, Hard Travellin.' I think that must have been where I first heard of Tom Kromer as well. Two writers I immediately knew I had to find out about. While someday a biography of Kromer might appear, there is now  an excellent and long-awaited biography of Tully, written by Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidzirk. The thoroughly researched Jim Tully- American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, published in 2011 by Kent State University,  portrays Tully warts and all, and should be read by anyone interested in hardboiled fiction, proletariat writing, or books about the open road.  

The Tully reprints all come with excellent introductions: Shanty Irish  by director/novelist John Sayles; The Bruiser by boxing expert and cultural critic Gerald Early; Circus Parade by graphic novelist writer Harvey Pekar; and Beggars of Life by Bauer and Dawidziak. While Bauer and Dawidziak's  biography sports an  intro by historian Ken Burns. The latter makes the point that  Tully is a quintessential American writer, comparing him favorably to Mark Twain. Born in 1891 in Cleveland, Ohio,  Tully, whose forebearers came from Donegal, Ireland, became friends with  Charlie Chaplin, for whom he worked as publicist, but about whom he was not beyond criticising in his writing.  He was also a friend of W.C. Fields, Langston Hughes, Stanley Ketchel, Jack Dempsey, who, regarding The Bruiser, "If I still had the punch in the ring that Jim Tully packs in The Bruiser, I'd still be the heavyweight champion of the world today," and H.L. Mencken, who also promoted Tully as a writer. No doubt about it, The Bruiser is one of the best boxing "novels" ever written; Circus Parade, one of the finest portrayals of what occurs beyond the big top; Beggars of Life arguably the best depiction of life on the road; and Shanty Irish, an incisive, often humorous portrayal of working class immigrant life. Influenced by a range of writers, from Jack London to the Russians, Tully, in his time was ranked alongside Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neil and Dreiser. It's claimed that, before becoming an actor, Robert Mitchum went on the road after reading Tully's Beggars of Life. 

Nathan considered  Tully was the original hard-boiled writer, preceding Hammett, Chandler or any of the other Black Mask writers. I suppose one could make a  case for this, though it remains arguable. No matter, because the autodidact Tully, whether writing about poor Irish, boxers, movie people, hoboes, or circus folk, always had an eye on the  lower depths, a literary precursor to Woody Guthrie, whose book Bound For Glory, he admired.

It was hanging around hobo jungles and libraries where he could get warm and not be harassed by the police, that Tully began to read. Encouraged by his sister to write, he was, according to Charles Laughton, the most intelligent man in Hollywood. Always a hard drinker, Tully saw his book- here, as Bauer and Dawidziak point out, it's  difficult to call any of his books novels, more like fictionalized autobiography- Beggars of Life made into film starring Wallace Beery and Louis Brooks, who apparently found the short, red-haired, odd-looking Tully somewhat repulsive. His Laughter in Hell was filmed in 1933, starring Pat O'Brien. He also worked uncredited on the screenplays for 1935 The Raven starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karlof, and appeared in the 1930 Way For a Sailor starring John Gilbert and Wallace Beery, not long after  Tully decked Gilbert in the Brown Derby after writing a profile of the heartthrob. Tully died in Hollywood in 1947, a literary star already in decline. Soon he would disappear from literary history.

Anyone reading these four Tully titles will find that, after all these years, they hold up well. If you haven't read Tully, you might start with the biography or, if you want to get straight into his work, try Beggars of Life.  These are all important books that anyone interested in early noir/hardboiled fiction, hobo and low-life literature should read.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Redheads Die Quckly by Gil Brewer

For my money, Gil Brewer was one of the best pulpsters around.  Like his novels  13 French Street and The Red Scarf, Brewer's short stories, published from the early 1950s through the 1970s, still have the power to shock. And they might even be better than his novels. They are certainly wilder and more intense. Though some might complain about their occasional similarity,  Brewer could always find a new way to twist in the knife. Some of his stories, like Moonshine, even come close to a kind of pulp prose-poetry. Brutal, concise, and often misogynistic, everything in the collection seems to have been published during the 1950s, and usually  set in Florida, where Brewer moved once he'd been discharged from  the army. It should be pointed that Brewer's career continued right through the 1970s. Nevertheless, what's collected in Redheads Die Quickly is  Brewer at the top of his game. Moreover, they provide an  insight into the type of fiction published at the time in magazines like Manhunt, Detective Tales, Detective Fiction, Hunted Detective Story, Justice, etc.. The days of those magazines and stories are over, as is the role of jobbing writer. Gilbert John Brewer was born on 20 November 1922 in Canandaigua, New York, and died  9 January 1983, yet another writer paid by the word, and whose word-count never exceeded the parameters of his narrative. This collection, which comes with an excellent introduction and a thorough bibliography of Brewer's short fiction, both by editor David Rachels, should be read by anyone interested in the last days of the pulp era, as well as by those seeking to go beyond the usual suspects like Hammett and Chandler, to the real workers of the genre, who, struggling to make ends meet,  produced some of the best writing of its kind. While I can't agree with Rachels' assessment of Brewer as a descendant of literary naturalist Frank Norris, particularly the latter's McTeague,  I do agree with his assessment that Brewer's protagonists are ordinary people "whose circumstances cause them to break the law." Which, along with a straight-forward prose , is what makes his writing so powerful.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Edward Dorn Collected Poems

Finally we have in one volume all of Ed Dorn's poetry, including a large helping of uncollected work and assorted ephemera (anything but ephemeral).  And what a remarkable collection it is. From those exquisite early lyric poems and political narratives like The Land Below, Idaho Out and West of Moab found in The Newly Fallen (1961), Hands Up (1964), Geography (1965) and North Atlantic Turbine (1967), to Dorn's immersion into the possibilities of the narrative that would eventually become the metaphysical comedy of the West, Gunslinger (1968-75). With  "I" as a character/narrator disposed of, Dorn would go on to the slimmed down, but no less political, homage to Native Americans, Recollections of Gran Apacheria (1974). Having seemingly exhausted the parameters of the narrative, Dorn, on some level, must have had to reassess what his poetry could accomplish, which led to a reduction in scope, while doubling-down on political intent. This resulted in those short, sharp lines of attack that comprise  the epigrammatic poems in collections like  Hello, La Jolla (1980) and Abhorrences (1990). Of course, Dorn had always been political, e.g., The Biggest Killing, On The Debt My Mother Owed at Sears Roebuck, up to prescient North Atlantic Turbine, but that handful of books-  accessible, very funny ("only laughter can blow it to rags") and deadly accurate- comprise a venomous attacks on the Reagan-Bush era, and no doubt caused offense to some in the poetry establishment. Never one to stand still, it wouldn't be long before Dorn had once again repositioned himself,  with a series of dyspeptic narratives in the 1990s, which were further critiques of the culture, beginning with Westward Haut (1986-99),  and his investigation of the Cathar world,  Languedoc Variorium (1992-99). And lastly,  the excruciatingly beautiful, and perhaps most political of all,  Chemo Sabe (2001), in which he follows his own cancer treatment and catalogues the final days of his life. And that's just a broad outline of what's in this book. We also get such items as the hilarious Bean News (1972), which could be seen as the precursor to Ed and Jennifer Dorn's Rolling Stock, the lyrical Manchester Square (1975), Captain Jack's Chaps (1983), etc. A number of items included here  have, up to now, been hard to come by, which is another reason to welcome this volume which weighs in at close to a thousand pages.  Though I can't help wishing  the long-unavailable Bean News had been reproduced in such a way that one could read it without resorting to a magnifying glass.

With  informative essays from editor Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, and long-time friends and fellow-poets Amiri Baraka and Jeremy Prynne,  this is  a book that will keep anyone busy for a lifetime.  For me, Dorn was amongst the finest and fiercest practitioners of verse, notable for  his contrary politics (deploying Wyndham Lewis' notion of The Enemy as something of a  model), his willingness and ability to say  the unsayable, and attitude to poetry. Though he's long been associated with Black Mountain, specifically Charles Olson, Dorn, in the end, belonged to no school and no movement, but  a force unto himself.  Though he held up poetry as the noblest of pursuits, he often found those pursuing it came up short, whether because of their view of the world or their view of themselves. At the same time, he was never one to give poetry a status beyond what it deserved, maybe no more so than an array of other pursuits gained by brain or  by hand. With an ability to map the culture, and, at the same time, to laugh at it, it's unfortunate  he wasn't around to lay into the second Bush years, or, for that matter, critique the  economic scams of the early 21st century.  As this collection so ably illustrates, Dorn was as fierce and honest (Baraka: he wd rather / Make you his enemy / Than lie) a poet-critic  as you're likely to come across. If you only buy one book of poems this decade, this is the one to get.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Red Jungle by Kent Harington

It's only taken me  eight years to get around to reading Red Jungle by Kent Harrington, but it was  more than worth the wait. In fact, it was probably the best noir novels I've read since Winslow's Power of the Dog. Well-written and intricately plotted, Red Jungle is set in Guatemala post-9/11, and reminiscent of writers like Robert Stone and Graham Greene. It makes me wonder why it hasn't been picked up by a major publisher, or, for that matter, why no one has tried to adapt it for the screen.  So hooked into present day Latin American politics is it that I kept checking the newspapers to make sure this wasn't also happening in the real world. After all, there was Chavez winning the election against an American-backed free-market moderate. But, no, so far nothing about a coup, revolution or civil war in Guatemala. Then I came across a recent article about a military and police massacre in Totonicapán, Guatemala. On October 4, 2012, Maya K’iche’ communities carried out a peaceful protest organized by the Alcaldía Indígena, the indigenous authority of the 48 Cantones of Totonicapán, in regions of Alaska, Xecanchavox and Cuatro Caminos in the highlands in Guatemala. The protesters demanding  the state work to scale back the most recent hikes in electric energy costs, reform education, and  reverse the trend toward militarization of civil society.During the demonstration the military and civil police shot indiscriminately at the demonstrators, resulting in eight deaths and thirty-five wounded. It could have come right from the pages of Red Jungle, which is to say Red Jungle comes right out of  the history of Guatemala.

The novel revolves around  Russell Cruz-Pearce, born of a wealthy all-American father and a wealthy upper class Guatemalan mother. He's attended military school and university in the US where he studied economics. Pearce is torn between exploiting Guatemalan culture for his own profit and working for the anti-military forces.  He believes his mother has been killed by the communists, which has for many years  affected his life. Working as a journalist in Guatemala, he buys a coffee plantation at a time when coffee is at rock-bottom levels, and the country, thanks to US policies,  is on the point of disintegration. A German archaeologist has convinced Russell that a Mayan Red Jaguar, which might not exist, can be found on his newly bought property. So, after Russell purchases the property with money he doesn't have, the two of them look for Red Jaguar. Along the way Russell falls in love with the wife of the murderous presidential candidate.  

Harrington portrays a divided culture, laid low by neo-liberal economics and the effects of neo-colonialism. A culture in which, at the top, practically everyone knows each other, and, some, even though they are in opposite camps politically, are related to each other. Despite their gentlemanly ways, their politics is ruthless. Political assassination and plotting are commonplace. So Guatemala provides the perfect setting for a book about the effect of a particular murder on one person's life, and how that, in turn, affects those close to him.  I recently read that it resembles the story of Harrington's own family. That may well be, but, more  importantly, it's the story of Latin American politics and history. Red Jungle successfully tackles important themes like under-development, neo-liberal economic policies, and the influence of the US on Latin American foreign policy. For me, Harrington's Dia de Los Muertos, published in 1997, and set in Mexico, was excellent, but Red Jungle is even better.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hippie Noir: Any Day Now by Terry Bisson

Well, not exactly noir,  but a novel in which things turn very dark indeed. In fact, it's more a what-could-have-happened novel; sort of  a hippie version of Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. A speculative fiction writer with a number of novels under his belt, Bisson writes with considerable fluidity, not quite a minimalist, but he has clearly honed  his writing down to its essentials.  His subject here is much the same as Peter Coyote's in Sleeping Where I Fall.  In other words, it's a memoir of the 1960s, but this one moves from Kentucky to Weatherman apartments in New York to hippie communes in New Mexico. So far, so familiar. But, gradually, one notices various discrepancies between what we know happened during that described,  and how Bisson has recorded it. At first, it's small things, like a slight difference in the chronology of events, which, at first, you  think might be a mistake or editorial oversight. Then you realize you've entered  Bisson's world.  Martin Luther King hasn't been assassinated. Nor has  Robert Kennedy. At least not at the moment recorded in the world  outside Bisson's novel. More than that I'm reluctant to say. Other than, with the help of the Weather underground and conflicting forces, things rapidly unravel, the country is torn apart, and the novel's protagonist, would-be poet Clay, moves from New York to a commune in New Mexico. From which point things deteriorate even further. What's interesting about the novel is how history can be so easily altered. What, for instance, what would have happened had RFK lived, or, for that matter, had Gore rather than Bush become president in 2000. Or,  in the UK, if  Tony Benn, back in the 1980s, had defeated Dennis Healy as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in the run up to the miners' strike.  It's all speculation, and Bisson takes it to its furthest possible conclusion. And he does so with a considerable amount of style. It's his ability to do so that makes  Any Day Now  more interesting than Coyote's memoir, and, for me, puts it up there with some of the speculative fiction by  Michael Chabon or  Jonathan Lethem.  It's the first novel I've read by Bisson, but I doubt very much if it will be the last.

Friday, September 07, 2012

What Is Noir?

What is Noir?

Is more than darkness. Is
corruption of the heart, behind
closed doors, boardroom or
street. Is fucked whether
you do, don’t, sing, moan, sniff or
shoot. Is a ticket to all we have, never
enough. Is greed, lust, fatal kiss,
the banker inside you screaming for
mercy. Is a dream of autonomy, femme
fatality, breathing, “hey, baby, take
it,” a corpse, a handful of dust and
who cares, if the only punishment
Is death.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Noir Poetry: The Big Cycle

An adjective, clinging like a dead insect in an abandoned
Hollywood swimming pool. And so 1950s. Today big would
have to be biggest. Leading to various ambiguities:
The Biggest Sleep: would that be the most boring movie
ever made, or a pill to get you through the night?
The Biggest Clock, a travelogue, or a typo in a porno ad?
The Biggest Combo, a burger found on the Strip or
the world’s largest aggregation of musicians. Back then,
big mean something, from war to war, anxiety to
consumerism. Framed by cigar-smoking expressionist
emigrés, their motto: I shot therefore I was. Assuring us
that time leads to paranoia, perversion to crime, and
sleep, not sex, constitutes the little death. That coffee
thrown in Gloria’s face doesn’t become real until she
sees herself in a mirror. A woman with a gun more
dangerous than a scar or an explosion. It’s always night
in high-contrast Los Angeles. Except when it isn’t.
Back in the land of the small, the average man is king,
and everything was big: Clock, Combo, Heat, Sleep,
Steal, Night, Knife. And still far too nuanced for color.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

From Drive to Driven: James Sallis' Plus-Perfect Noir

If  the title of James Sallis' latest is anything to go by, one could say that noir, at least in a classical sense, is best suited for the past perfect. Yet it's the present that Sallis has always exploited so impressively, not least of all in his latest novel. Though Driven is the sequel to Drive, it should, grammatically speaking, be a prequel. Or maybe that's wishful thinking, because, for me, sequels- disregarding the likes of Macdonald or Crumley who recycle the same character rather than taking the narrative a step further-  are often disappointing, the energy and impact often dissipating with each  installment. But the Arizona-based Driven is an exception that must prove the rule, and, if not Sallis at the very top of his game, one to savour until the next one comes around.

So this is a further investigation regarding Driver's  hitherto impenetrable motives and manners, as well as a novel  that, as usual for Sallis, is firmly within the noir tradition. Though in the past his novels have sometimes functioned as marginalia to the likes of Goodis and Himes, Driven, like its predecessor, reads like  the great French polar writer Jean-Patrick Manchette has finagled  a Green Card, and is currently living incognito in the suburban sprawl around Phoenix, writing as if he were back in the day when  Gold Medal and Lion paperbacks ruled the roost.

As with Manchette, and his pulp predecessors, Sallis is skilled at editing, deploying David Mamet's maxim about arriving at a scene late and leaving it early. Likewise, Sallis is adept at juxtaposing chapters, and paring everything down to its expositional essentials, deploying dialogue that gets to the point whatever that point might be. But, then, that's the pulp tradition, practised by the likes Prather, Macdonald, Marlowe, etc... And like his French comrade, Sallis even gives his peripheral characters  something to say, whether sad stories or pearls of wisdom. Despite such humanitarian leanings, Sallis here depicts life on the verge of disintegration, in the process of being replaced by something to which his characters can only be tenuously connected. Consequently, Driver's chances of survival can only be minimal. In this desert landscape, pock-mocked by cities approaching  their sell-by date, Driver at least has the ability to modify and operate cars. A former stunt-man who would walk the straight and narrow if he only had the space to do so, this anonymous anti-hero's days are numbered. After all, anyone attempting to drive through the wreckage, is living on borrow time,  dependent on road-kill, the price of Middle-East oil and insane gun laws. As a sequel, Driven delves below the surface that was Drive, and a king-of-the-road survivor who, like the editing technique imposed on him, is destined to arrive late and leave early. Driven might be a reprise, but if you're Driver, and the highway is your narrative thread, retracing your steps has to be a cultural necessity. And the road is bound to be  convoluted, not so different from the narrative in which he's embedded. Yet, like they say about railway tracks, at some point, it all connects, or, in this case, coheres. Or comes as close to cohering as things do in a Sallis novel.

Finally, I'm probably in a minority on this, but I was greatly disappointed by the film adaptation of Drive. I felt it was trying to push too many buttons, while, at the same time, trying too hard to be ironic. What's more, it seemed too mired in  the 1980s, as opposed to Sallis' fiction which, though it recognizes and plays upon the history of noir, is indelibly set in the over-anxious present. But I should also add that my take on the film has nothing to do with the acting, which was excellent, or any similarity it might have to Walter Hill's 1978 The Driver.  For me, there's  room for any number of car movies- Two Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, Thunder Road, etc.. No, for me the problem lay, sadly, in the director misperception of the novel. A good comparison would be Boorman's Point Blank adapted from Richard Stark's novel, a film, like the novel, and in contrast to Drive, devoid of nostalgia and irony. My reaction to Refn's film came as a surprise since I've been an admirer of his past work, not just Pusher, but the remarkable Fear X, whose underrated virtues I've extolled to any number of people. On the other hand, I can see that it might be difficult to adapt adapting Sallis' work. Not just finding the right tone, but how to convey the internality of Sallis' sentences in a simple gesture or line of dialogue. Of course, film dialogue operates on a different level than it does on the page. All of which is to say that  if Driven should ever be adapted for the screen, I hope its director will be familiar with  not only 1980s crime films like Live and Die in L.A., but the history of noir, and its relevance to the present. Perhaps such a director doesn't  exist,  or even if he or she does, it's  likely that no studio would want  to live so  dangerously. Life, in Driven, might be a simulacrum of a movie, but it's neither glittering nor seductive. It just is.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Scott Phillips, Andrey Kurkov: Crimes, Predators and Penguins

These days I find  I'm more often than not reading more than one book at a  time, dipping into one, then the other as the mood strikes me, not quite channel-surfing but more like alternating between my favorite programs.  What I find interesting  is how these books have a tendency to echo each other and sometimes merge together, whether in terms of theme or narrative. Or maybe that's simply a reflection of my reading habits, politics and interests.  Sometimes I even find myself placing the character one novel into the narrative of another.

It can sometimes get pretty strange. Recently, I read Scott Phillips' excellent The Adjustment in tandem with Ukrainian Andrey Kurkov's Death and the Penguin.  On the surface these two novels have little in common. Yet both   are imbued with their own particular brand of dark humor. While Phillips bears the indelible mark of Cain (James M. and Paul), Kurkov occupies the edges of Euro-noir, but never succumbing to the genre's  more mundane elements. The Adjustment, set in Wichita, is written in the first person, and the Kiev-set Death and the Penguin in the third, yet both concern protagonists who negotiate some very tricky terrain, both manipulated by and  manipulating the system.  Kurkov's protagonist, Viktor, has to look after a penguin recently liberated from the local zoo, while Phillips' main character looks after a  lascivious, drug-addled boss. And even though penguins are noticeably absent from The Adjustment, Phillips' novel does contain a number of sexually available women and predatory men, not one of them as cuddly as Kurkov's narrative foil. Kurkov's book might be the lighter of the two, but it concerns and is written from,  a very dark, and often surreal, political situation. Moreover, both protagonists have a way with the written word. Wayne Ogden, an educated man recently having returned from WW2 where he participated in the spiv economy, uses words to his advantage in dealing with others, whether his wife, other women or his fellow aircraft workers. Whereas Viktor pens obituaries for those who've yet to die, only to find that his obits  become hot news and he becomes increasingly embroiled in a world of organized crime and politics. No wonder that I occasionally found myself  transplanting Viktor in Scott's book and Ogden in Kurkov's book. And in both cases, writing style aside, they more or less fit.

The Adjustment might be stylistically less literary than Phillips' The Ice Harvest and Walkaway, and less stylized than his uproarious, revisionist western Cottonwood, but it's still an appealing book, peeling back the layers of post-WW2 society,  the undercurrents of which I'm still thinking about two weeks later.  Kurkov, on the other hand, not only inhabits the margins of Euro-noir, but he's in that Bulgakov/Platanov tradition of political satire. Though his book includes a small animal and a little girl, it's not a cute novel, but is biting and bittersweet as a piece sun-drenched chocolate. Stripped to its essentials, Kurkov's prose is every bit as hardboiled as Phillips', though it comes from a different angle, a different culture, and a different literary tradition. Kurkov writes, "The crazy idealist was extinct- survived by the crazy pragmatist." While I've long been a fan of Scott's fiction, I'll definitely be trying to get hold of some of Kurkov's other work.  For Kurkov's sideways take on current Ukraine politics have a look at the following Guardian article:

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Working-Class Pre-War London Noir

As well as an excellent novel, Scamp is a valuable piece of London literary and social history that, in an age of multi-culturalism, instant publishing and networking, has probably been lost forever. Camberton, real name Henry Cohen, was born in Manchester and raised  in pre-war, working class Hackney. What first hits you about this book is the cover  by the renowned artist John Minton, reproduced from the original Lehmann edition in 1950. But it's not only the packaging but the contents of the novel that is going to impress any interested reader. Standing the test of time, Scamp  focuses on Ivan Ginsberg, a young would-be author and editor who flits between  Bloomsbury and the back streets of Soho and Fitzrovia, trying to put together a literary magazine that bears the same title as the novel itself.  To get the magazine off the ground, he has to find the money to finance it, a printer to publish it, and contributors to write for it. To do this, he plays off one against the other two, telling each that the other two exist. It's a typical literary hustle in a world where the printed word meant something. Living in a filthy rented room in Bloomsbury notable for its  congealed fat in the frying pan and dirty dishes in the bath-tub, Ivan  perambulates the streets of London, from a Charlotte Street pub where he mixes with the local bohemians to cafes in Fleet Street where he breakfasts with a variety of newspaper hacks and printers. A flanuer novel about literary hustling, Camberton writes evocatively about the night life and those inhabiting it-  crooks, homosexuals, prostitutes, bookies, sex seekers and hardboiled tough-guys- as well as the likes of the well-endowed Mrs Chabbers who would like to take Ivan- her bit of rough trade- to the Riviera, or the millionaire book collector and slum landlord who dresses like a tramp. This edition published by Five Leaves in their New London series comes with an informative introduction by Iain Sinclair- probably the only place you are going to be able to read about what little is known of Camberton's life. On its own, Scamp  ranks up there with Simon Blumenfeld's Jew Boy, John Summerfield's May Day, and Alexander Baron's Lowlife. It should also be noted that New London Editions publish two excellent Baron novels: Rosie Hogarth and King Dido, as well as Camberton's Rain on the Pavements.
The latter  comes with another evocative John Minton cover. Set in Hackney, and originally published in 1951, Rain On the Pavements is clearly more autobiographical than Scamp. Consisting of interconnected short stories about growing up in an orthodox Jewish family, it begins with the protagonist, David, as a six year old travelling on a London tram with his cousin,  and ends with David and his friends watching some older boys fight Mosley's fascists in the battle of Cable Street. Both Camberton novels are excellent depicitons of working class Jewish life in pre-war London and shouldn't be missed.