(Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, A Library of America Volume)
While you’d be forgiven for not remembering why I put this multi-title volume down, I can’t. Part of me thinks such behavior would be more understandable if the book contained works of a single author. I can even offer proof: one of the several Henry James volumes from the Library of America sits across the room, daring me to pick it up and finish. But multiple authors? Wrap it up and move along, right?
Easier said than done as I recover from another short, brutal tale that makes the Eisenhower era seem like it was all nightmare and not much dream home at all.
That’s the continuity with the preceding two titles in this volume. In many ways, I find this novel more consistent with the earlier LOA volume than its nearby pagemates. There’s something about the tone and cadence, the terse sentences and no-nonsense rhythm that fits right in with the earlier masters.
What marks it as being in the proper time period, though, are the primary characters. Let’s allow them to introduce themselves:
“My name is Harry Jordan, ” I said solemnly. “I’m thirty two years of age and when I’m not working, I drink.”
Her laugh closely resembled a tinkling bell. . “My name is Helen Meredith. I’m thirty three years old and I don’t work at all. I drink all of the time.”
There’s no requirement that literary characters be moral exemplars. There might even be an argument that the opposite is a requirement. But Harry and Helen are neither moral or immoral. They’re drunk or on their way to intoxication all the time. Morality of any sort isn’t even in the frame.
The only thing in the picture is alcohol. Drinking is almost all they talk about. It’s what they think about doing most. It’s the first thing on their minds every morning and if they weren’t blottoed it would probably be at the end of every evening, too. They describe themselves, almost proudly, as alcoholics.
I realize I’m scolding fictional beings, which is a ridiculous thing to do. For a lot of closely-held personal reasons, I don’t find what I call ‘addiction entertainment’ engaging. So I’m fighting a deeply-held personal bias. But by the time I was eighty pages and innumerable hangovers into the tale, the claustrophobia of alcoholism was getting to me. “Is there even a crime?,” I wondered. “And how would either of them commit it?”
To the extent that writing illuminates truth, the story of Helen and Harry accurately depicts the existence of drunks. I intentionally used the impolite word because there’s no room for empathy or applying the disease theory of addiction with these two. There’s just the same boring, repetitious behavior that’s of greater interest to both of them than it is to anyone else.
Even Harry’s past as a trained, aspiring, maybe even promising painter can’t compete with the loathsome bottled stuff. Everything is pushed out and what’s left is not a pretty picture. There’s almost no room for the reader so totally consuming is the quest for the next drink. That, my friends, is the reality of addiction. It pushes out everything in life and destroys what’s close before getting down to the final task of killing the host. Willeford captured that empty misery and put it on the page, which I suppose is quite an accomplishment. In an earlier time, it would be a cautionary tale. In the aftermath of total war, it’s just numbing.
There’s another question raised here as well: does noir, as a genre, even require a crime? The victims in this novel are engaged in criming against themselves. I mean, what sort of bad guy goes out and finds jobs so he can keep his drinking partner/soulmate in hooch and hearth? There’s no big getover. There’s no need for a heroic extra-legal mind to assist in righting a wrong. There’s no femme fatale seducing the otherwise upright citizen into capital offenses.
No, this book makes and seals the case that noir is a mood more than anything. The story didn’t need to be set in San Francisco, though the cable cars offer a nice respite from the dingy bars about town, including one on Market Street that I swear is still there. The story, such as it is, doesn’t require police, though they’re involved. It just required the right atmospherics.
In a book so light on plot, saying almost anything would give too much away. There’s more than one visit to a mental hospital and the psychiatric profession doesn’t come away looking well. Nor do saloon owners, though I often think that’s a problematic calling. Mostly, though, the folks that come off looking worst are our hero and heroine.
The other ingredient that indicates this story has been correctly characterized by the LOA editors is the violence. In the books published during the 30s and 40s, the violence was almost always necessary and purposeful–at least within the confines of the tale. Here, as in Jim Thompson‘s novel, the violence is sudden, brutal and mostly pointless.
Maybe that’s what a global war will do. Or maybe it makes a point related to the secret disclosed in the book’s penultimate sentence.
Welcome to the New Year.