Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The man in the maze; the maze in the man: The Archer Files by Ross Macdonald, edited by Tom Nolan

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, 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, in which Macdonald's name does not appear until the final few pages, one could be mistaken in thinking that Archer might be the real character and Macdonald the fictional invention. That's because Nolan, in what he calls a biographical sketch, works  to give Archer his autonomy, a notion not very 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 someone who  wrote the definitive Ross Macdonald biography. Nevertheless, Nolan comes up with facts that even the most hardened Macdonald reader would probably not have known. As someone who has read at least a dozen Macdonald novels, I would still be hard pressed to say much about Lew Archer's past. Sure, I know he used to be a cop, had a drink problem, was married,  had served in the armed forces, and such. But that's about it. Perhaps such information is handed over in such a seamless fashion. Or maybe  I'm so locked into Macdonald's stories that such information passes me by. Ironical, since  so many of those stories are similar, to the point that the titles lose their significance, and the books tend to constitute, to quote the title of Avery/Wong/Nelson's recent book, all one case. But Nolan knows subject so well that he's able to dig deep and bring all the personal asides together.  It's quite a feat, one that I couldn't possible be repeated for many other  hardboiled protagonists, including Chandler's Philip Marlowe, much less Hammett's Sam Spade. All of which makes Nolan's short biography makes The Archer Files a more than worthwhile investment. And that not even counting the various Macdonald stories that the contains worth the price of the book alone, and that's not even taking into account that after the biographical sketch one arrives at the complete Lew Archer stories, a more than enticing prospect in itself.

Nolan's "Archer In Memory" is, in its own unassuming way, so literary that it seems almost Borges-like in the way it's able to reconstruct a particular world. Though Nolan sticks to the facts, he's not afraid able to speculate, whether concerning Archer's women or his final days. Could it have been Alzheimer's,  the malady that struck down that man called Macdonald- after all, Archer becomes increasingly forgetful in his later books. Or could Archer, always a moving target, have succumbed to gun violence in a city where, according to Nolan, handguns are nearly as plentiful as new cars. But he leaves questions in the air, and in the place of answer he postulates a simple fade-out, a kind of long goodbye, and a  poem comprised of lines from  Macdonald's books about Archer, 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."

Friday, December 02, 2016

Reconstructing Goodis: Retour Vers David Goodis by Philippe Garnier

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.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Black Night Falling: David Goodis On Central Avenue

A version of my talk given on October 29th, at NoirCon 2016, in Philadelphia, is now up at the L.A. Review of Books. Here's how it opens:
THE 1940s was, by anyone’s reckoning, a decisive decade for noir master David Goodis. He married and divorced Elaine Astor, scripted for radio serials, wrote a number of screenplays, and published three novels, including his breakout hit Dark Passage (1946). Although his work and his fate are irrevocably bound to his native Philadelphia, he spent the larger part of the ’40s in Los Angeles. As a lifelong devotee of jazz and of the world surrounding it, he reputedly made periodic visits to L.A.’s Central Avenue, when the music played there — an amalgam of jazz and blues later packaged as Rhythm and Blues — was at its creative peak. It’s a music and a place that I tried to evoke in my novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime:
They drove.
Into the heart of the matter.
Central Avenue.
Once the Harlem of the West.
Back when black night was falling and white punters were pouring down like a shower of rain.
Of course, by 1960, when Cry For a Nickel is set, the lights on Central Avenue — a.k.a. the Main Stem, the Brown Broadway, or simply The Block — had all but gone out. Most of the clubs were boarded over and the music had been co-opted by corporate and criminal concerns. But in the mid- to late 1940s, Central Avenue was still a vital thoroughfare for African-American music and culture.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

From Little Sandy to the Blue Hammer: It's All One Case- The Illustrated Ross Macdonald Archives by Paul Nelson, Kevin Avery, with Jeff Wong

Way back when, before I began reading Ross Macdonald, I was already well into Paul Nelson's writing, mainly through his and Jon Pancake's folk music magazine, Little Sandy Review. I was probably one of all of 200 subscribers. At that time, the magazine was, for me, the arbiter of taste in early 1960s folk America.  Nelson's reviews were both conversational and erudite, as likely to cite Bergman, Truffaut and J.P. Donlevy as Uncle Dave Macon. It took Nelson a couple years  to get to grips with his contemporary and fellow-Dinky Town contemporary Bob Dylan. Probably because it was hard for Nelson to move beyond traditional types, and dedicated disciples like the New Lost City Ramblers. But when he fell for Dylan, he fell hard. I remember in particular Nelson discussing the cinematic imagery in Dylan's The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

A few after my foray into the realm of Little Sandy, I crossed the rubicon and begin a long descent into the world of  Ross Macdonald. It was Macdonald, along with Hammett and Himes who would be my introduction to hardboiled noir fiction. Which is to say,  corruption in high places, accompanied by the poetry of street-level circumlocutions. To this day I still can't tell one Macondald novel from another. They really are all one novel, all one investigation and, as in the title of Kevin Avery and Jeff Wong's book, all one case. Which is say, they are all about the culture and its discontent, particularly when it comes to families, and how, as the man said, they really do  fuck you up.

I stopped gumshoeing Nelson in the 70s, though I remember reading some of his rock criticism in Rolling Stone and elsewhere, always finding it interesting and eclectic.  Because for him, as for Macdonald, it was also all one case- fiction, film writing, westerns, noir, music. Whether Gatsby,  John Ford, Hammett or Warren Zevon,  it was all part  of the same American landscape. But instead of using his multiple interests and talents to take him to new heights, Nelson would apparently find the combinations so overwhelming and intense that they would eventually silence him. Or maybe he'd said it all, was unable to say anymore. Or it could simply be that he could not edit himself any longer or make it all cohere. Capable of so much, Nelson would end up delivering much less than he could have. Even so what he did manage to produce was always interesting and often brilliant, whether  zooming-in for close-ups of his favorite musicians or writers, or panning-out for wide shots of the culture in general. Unfortunately, he could never get it together to write that elusive novel or film,  until it all went silent and he ended his days as a reclusive clerk in a video store. Not so different from the way a young Quentin Tarantino began his career. And there is  a little bit of Nelson in Tarantino.  As for Macdonald, I would over the years revisit his work,  occasionally picking up one of his novels only to marvel at his writing, the depths he was able to reach, all of which reminded me that this was why I got interested in this type of writing, because it's capable of saying so much. Of course must have felt much the same way.

Kevin Avery's biography of Nelson expanded on the information I had previously gleaned from Nolan's biography of Macdonald, namely that Nelson had conducted a marathon interview with Macdonald, pitching up his tent in Macdonald's house for some weeks.  I remember writing to Kevin saying, just as so many others had, something along the lines of  what, there's hundreds of hours of interviews Nelson did with Macdonald. Shouldn't they be made available. He assured me that they soon would be.

But I had no idea the material would be presented so exquisitely, thanks largely to graphic designer Jeff Wong. In fact, with the exception of photos by Kurt Vonnegut's widow, Jill Krementz, virtually all of the images in the book are from Wong's personal collection garnered over the years, many of the items  from Nelson's personal collection, bits of it purchased by Wong when Nelson was strapped for cash.  And the interview definitely lives up to its billing, covering, as it does, not just Macdonald's books and writing but a range of related subjects. I suppose one could call this  the ultimate noir coffee table book. Because one could spend hours simply looking at its superb reproductions,  and an equal number of hours reading it. Of course, you have to be a fan of Macdonald's fiction to fully appreciate it. And if you also happen to be one of those who also harbours a more than arcane interest in Paul Nelson's writing, It's All One Case is going to be irresistible.  It's already in serious contention for my book of the year. A big book- with a short forward by the great Jerome Charyn- in more ways than one, and worth every penny.

Friday, September 30, 2016

It's Algren Time Again

From "Single Exit" (first published in 1947) in Entrapment by Nelson Algren:

"He walked down endless flights, turning at last into the hotel entrance to the bar. Juke music funneled out through the entrance in a roaring bass, beating out 'Blues in the Night' in a vocal that rang hoarsely, like a manacled madman's voice full of hoarse glee at his own pain. Beneath it, standing in the doorway, Katz heard the fast and slippered shuffle of the same shoes he had heard whispering so lonesomely away, down an uncarpeted hall and out into the lonesome street. A soft-shoe shuffle! Would there be applause to greet him? And many friends? He brushed down his coat and hurried in. As the juke died out on a troubled whine.

The dancers all had gone. The singers all were still. There was no one but a sweatered fellow placing chairs along the bar.

Katz stood shifting restlessly from one foot to another, trying to down his disappointment at forever, all his life, arriving just a moment too late for everything.

'Closing up?' he asked diffidently.

The fellow moved on toward the back without answering, drawing chairs soundlessly across the floor, tossing them slowly, without effort, along the bar, so that no matter how carelessly he moved, they fell, softly, into neat rows, and stayed so strangely motionless, all along the bar.

Above the bar mirror a neon kitten flashed two suggestions off and on, in bright and blood-red steel:


Why doesn't anyone write like this anymore?

Maybe there are those who do, but, if so, they are most likely on the margins of the literary world. Because most writers, including crime writers, haven't the nerve to put themselves out there like Algren did, while, at the same time, doing so with all their heart and soul. Not, at any rate, if they intend to sell books or, for that matter, get published. Of course, there are examples of extreme literature, but it's usually pretty sterile stuff in comparison, too ironic or pretending to be tough and in your face. Few are willing to be as overtly political, literary and as cantankerous as Algren. Always concerned about those at the bottom end of society. This even though Algren believed that his work had no effect on the culture. Nevertheless, Algren won the National Book Award for Man With a Golden Arm and was, for a while, a best selling writer.

Algren, based on the stories, essays, poems, prose poems and fragments of a novel in Entrapment, and much of his other work, could be arrested for incitement to intelligence, much less riot. In fact, it's almost impossible to comprehend that Algren could have been so popular during the 1950s and early 1960s. We have Otto, Sinatra, Kim to partially thank for that, though Algren's popularity started before that. Yet Man With a Golden Arm was such a mess of a movie, at least compared to the book, that it ruined the novel for many subsequent readers. Nor was Walk on the Wildside, with a script by John Fante (aided by Ben Hecht), much better. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine how anyone might be able to capture Algren on film, that is without sacraficing so much of the literary quality of his novels. Maybe it's just that Algren, with all his ruminations and characters who move from the comedy to tragedy, sweet wise yet so innocent, can't be filmed.

Algren was part of a generation of writers that included James T. Farrell (in fact, there is a short piece in Entrapment which constitutes Algren's apology for dissing Farrell on ideological grounds and recognising that, though Farrell was not a great stylist, Studs Lonigan affected a generation of people), John Dos Passos, Richard Wright whose last remaining personage was probably Studs Terkel. They were all political radicals with a sense of the street and literary enough to hold their own with more established types. Algren has been compared favorably to Faulkner, and one can see why. Okay, so maybe he's more erratic, but at his best he is every bit Faulkner's equal.

I might be alone in thinking his early writing, particularly his short stories, constitutes his best work. Not that I didn't enjoy his later novels, but they are just a bit too contrived for me. I like him best when he is in Whitman/Farrell mode, railing against the rich and the stupid and the reactionary, and doing it with his heart and soul.

Entrapment- the title comes from Algren's unpublished final novel, a semi-autobiographical work about the love-sick- is already one of my favorite books of the year. One wishes Algren, capable of breaking your heart with a single phrase or sentence, had been able to finish the book. But, as the editors, who have done an exemplary job in putting this collection together, say, it was far too close to the bone. Likewise, I wish he were around today to comment on what was going on in the world.

Friday, August 19, 2016

New York Noir

“Cities are made of desires and fears.”
Italo Calvino

In that not so distant era of mean streets, dangerous dames  and post-war angst, New York was known as the noir capital of the world, containing all the  ingredients- neon lights, gangsters, corrupt city officials, fast-talking newspapermen, lost souls and an avaricious skyline- associated with the genre.  Though the period in which classic film noir flourished lasted only  some fifteen years, it was enough time for the Golem to turn into the flaneur, and for the Thin Man to exist alongside Mike Hammer, Dutch Schultz and The Shadow. This in an era  when New York was still considered the most, rather than the least, American of cities, and when the country, moving from the  politics of the Depression to that of the Cold War, had assumed a position of unprecedented power, accompanied by fears of reds under the bed, the atomic bomb and economic insecurity.  

                No other city has been as noir as New York. And no other city in film noir is like New York.  It was not only where  the Old World met the New World, but where German Expressionism met hardboiled Hollywood melodrama. Romanticised it might have been, but it’s depiction drew on reality. With its cultural mix and nightlife centered in hotspots like Times Square, 42nd Street and Harlem, Gotham  would be associated with an assortment of conditions specific to the genre, whether paranoia (Phantom Lady), claustrophobia (The Window), agoraphobia (Nightfall),  vertigo (Side Street),  alienation (The Gangster), or despair (Edge of Doom). 


So evocative is New York of that era that it was able to push film’s narrative to disastrous conclusions, and even, as in The Naked City,  assume the role of  protagonist. At the same time,  New York noir, for all its features and faults, has never been overly reliant on an all-knowing detective or tough-guy perspective; it’s noir atmosphere has been enough, relating less to a wise-guy  behind the wheel of a car than to the pedestrian left in the hands of fate. Since, in New York the ambler is king, something unfortunate is more than likely to befall that person set in their belief that their assigned role comes with an automatic right-of-way.  No wonder Albert Camus, visiting the Big Apple for th"e first  time  in 1946,  said, “Everybody looks like they’ve stepped out of a B-film.” True,  all New Yorkers appear to be  part of their own low-budget noir narrative, if not guilty of crimes they perhaps have yet to commit. As Jerome Charyn, author of novels featuring New York Jewish cop Issac Siddel, writes in Maria’s Girls (1994), “Psychosis is everywhere, in your armpit, under your shoe...How do you measure a man’s rage? Either we behave like robots, or we kill.”

As Charyn would maintain, noir New York has long been an immigrant’s city.  Protagonists like John Garfield in Force of Evil, Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, Farley Granger in Edge of Doom and Richard Conte in Cry of the City  come from specific communities, while petty crook Richard Widmark in Pick Up on South Street and enforcer Robert‡ Ryan in On Dangerous Ground deal with these communities on a daily basis. Yet immigrants were often cosmeticised for the sake of mass consumption. Abe Polansky, a native New Yorker and blacklist victim, would alter the Jewish names in Ira Wolfert’s capitalist-indicting novel, Tucker’s People, on which  Force of Evil is based. While in Gordon Wiles’s 1947 The Gangster, any outward sign of the Jewishness permeating Daniel Fuchs’s Brooklyn-set novel Low Company, from which that film derived, was conveniently exorcised. Blacks were even more peripheral, a rare exception being Wise’s 1959 Odds Against Tomorrow in which Harry Belafonte, the most acceptable African-American in show business, plays a Manhattan nightclub singer who takes part in a small-town bank robbery.  

Yet it was through multicultural New York that European noir directors  Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Premminger, Fritz Lang and Edgar Ulmer  travelled  on their way to Hollywood, carrying with them ideas aÂbout old world montage and mise-en-scéne. In turn, New York would  leave  its mark, leading to Big Apple films like  Wilder’s Lost Weekend,  Lang’s Woman in the Window, Siodmak’s Cry of the City and Premminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.  And it was during a visit to Manhattan  that Ulmer decamped in Harlem to make  low-budget films about Yiddish and African American life. There he learned enough about American culture to become a Poverty Row pro, directing Detour and Ruthless, both of them partly set in New York. While Lang, after visiting the city for the first time in 1924, was so affected by its skyline that he decided to make Metropolis. A decade later, Jean-Paul Sartre gazed at the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building¥ “pointing vainly toward the sky,” and concluded that “New York is about to acquire a history, that it already has its ruins.”

These ruins seem like they have always figured in noir images of the melting pot known as New York, the seeds of which were present in narratives like Stephen Crane’s  “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” (1896),  Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925),  Mike Gold’s Jews Without Money (1930), as well as in Weegee’s 1940s street photographs.  Weegee’s work roughly parallels the history of film noir, influencing The Naked City, whose title derives from his 1945 book of New York photographs. Illustrating his relationship to the genre, Weegee would appear in Wise’s The Set Up (1949), a boxing tale in which he plays a ringside timekeeper, and a film that would inspire former Look  photographer Stanley Kubrick when it came to making The Killer’s Kiss (1955). As for the ruins suggested by Weegee and others, their extent and historical significance  would not be  realized for some  years to come. 

In fact, film noir might never have existed without New York.  After all, film, much less film noir, was born in New York City, where it thrived until World War One. Though New York studio pioneers Zukor, Fox,  Goldwyn, Laemmle, and Mayer, had vacated the city by the late 1940s, the financial backbone of the industry remained in Manhattan. Hollywood backlots might have been three-thousand miles away, but New York noir was still in fashion, which meant studios had to send photographers and production designers across the continent to record sites vso they  could be replicated in Tinseltown. In Sweet Smell of Success (1957), the interior shots of Gotham watering holes like Toots Shor and The Elysian Room were recreated on Stage 8 at the Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. This, along with the film’s location shots, added to the ambience of Alexander MacKendrick’s savage critique of the world of tabloid journalism. With a script by Clifford Odets which pretty much deconstructs Ernest Lehman’s novella, the film presents a different side of the city from the tenements and working-class neighborhoods depicted in Ted Tetzlaff’s The Window (1949) or John Berry’s He Ran All the Way (1951).  

As suburbanisation became the 1950s norm, the Big Apple pedestrian was  eclipsed by the Sunbelt car owner, quickening the pace if not the pulse of the  narrative. Essential to, but separate from, the rest of the country, New York would become the city middle-America loves to hate, its streets portrayed as darker and more dangerous than they might actually be.  While some believed New York to have  held the promise that was once America, others saw it as a vertical dystopia, not quite American, its height indicating its vulnerability,  and, with citizens living on top of, rather than alongside, one-another, a sign that profits will invariably precede people. 

All this feeds into the city’s noir character, revised in the 1990s by Andrew Vacchs, whose  over-the-top  crime fiction seems to  imply that New York is mostly populated by criminals, muggers, hustlers, psychos, perverts, and, by now, terrorists. But New York noir, particularly since the early 1970s, has long sought to exploit pathology and fear of the other. This is the case in neo-noir films, from Seigel’s Coogan’s Bluff (1968) and Winner’s Death Wish (1974) to Scorssese’s After Hours (1985), and derives partly from social classes rubbing shoulders with one another,  not to mention the failure of trickle-down economics, and animosities created as one group replaces another in a given neighborhood. Of course, this also makes New York an ideal setting for narratives regarding disparities, unease, chance encounters  and the vagaries of fate.  


As the years progressed, New York noir would be depicted in ever more paranoid terms. And why not? For its recent past includes not only terrorist attacks, but riots, racial antagonisms, zero tolerance, bankruptcy, gentrification and extreme urban-planning. Consequently, one  can track the fate of New York noir, and New York itself, by following the circumstances of protagonists from the classic era to later  films like The Warriors, Taxi Driver, King of New York, New Jack City or 25th Hour. Or noir fiction, from Cornell Woolrich, author of  narratives like Phantom Lady, The Window and Deadline at Dawn, to Chester Himes’s Harlem detective novels; from Wolfert’s Tucker’s People  to Nick Tosches’s Cut Numbers, Paul Auster’s City of Glass and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. The classic era may be over, but New York’s relationship to noir remains no less pertinent. With the post-9-11 era assuming ever nastier  proportions, it’s understandable that, in this era of perpetual fear, some will opt  for a more romanticised, if not innocent, view of the city.