RARA-AVIS: Difficult Lives review (long)

From: Michael Robison ( miker_zspider@yahoo.com)
Date: 04 Feb 2004

It is fitting that Sallis would choose to write this account of three authors whose lives and literature tread the same dark street. Sallis' fiction, grounded in violence and alcoholism, failure and desperation, reflects the same motifs as the authors he discusses. Indeed, Sallis is often compelled to interject his own personal experience into the book.

Sallis traces the roots of the authors back to the hardboiled tradition established by Hammett and shaped by Chandler, and further back to the foundation of American literature in Cooper and Twain. He notes that although the works of Hammett and Chandler involved crime-solving and detective work, their real focus was the harsh nature of the world the characters moved in. Sallis states:

"...much of their power derived from a recognition that there is no moral order save that which a man creates for himself. Like high art, these stories worked hard to unfold the lies society tells us and the lies we tell ourselves."

Sallis also establishes the three authors within the context of the paperback boom of the Fifties, declaring that the high demand for material allowed their deviant literature to slip through editorial cracks, and that authors who met deadlines were often granted literary license to write as they pleased. Sallis notes that these writers "turned from simply telling stories to pursuing personal demons, to an exploration of evil and states of mind generally considered more properly the domain of 'serious' literature."

Sallis extrapolates the personal nightmare of Thompson's protagonists into a damning commentary on society. He quotes Geoffrey O'Brien's belief that Thompson was "Always well aware that the horrors of the individual psyche are rooted in the formal horrors of state..." Sallis further supports his argument by pointing to biographer McCauley's comment that the self-deceit and confusion of Thompson's protagonist are a mirror to the same characteristics in a society where image and appearance is more important than substance.

It's difficult to argue with such a strong quorum, and the idea of criminal as victim is a popular one, lending an appealing social relevance to Thompson's works beyond a mere story of a loser on his way down. Nevertheless, it's equally difficult to imagine Lou Ford's salvation in a kinder, gentler world, and it's doubtful that Doc would have abandoned his bank robbing career in a world where the worker controls the means of production. Although meliorism is an understandable by-product of a brutal evironment, passing judgement on an immoral society is not the essence of noir. Noir, instead, is an examination of lives locked into a dire fate resulting from limited choices and bad decisions.

By 1952, when Thompson wrote KILLER INSIDE ME, paperback publishers were waging a full-blown war of sensationalism. Sallis declares that Thompson was breaking loose from the genre by subverting and destroying the conventions, and maybe this was true, but so were a host of other writers. In 1952 Vin Packer's SPRING FIRE took a bold look at female homosexuality, Flannery O'Connor's WISE BLOOD explored a twisted religious inversion, and Mickey Spillane's KISS ME, DEADLY revelled in violence and hatred. Every one of these books stretched the limits. Rather than destroying conventions, it would be more accurate to say that Thompson was one of many authors who were redefining the borders of the hardboiled and noir genres.

The phrase "genre literature" is considered an oxymoron by most literati, and many writers of noir and hardboiled, such as James Cain and Horace McCoy, despised the label. Even Chester Himes struggled for a reputation outside the genre label. Not so for David Goodis. Goodis embraced the genre in such a way as to compel a critic to state: "Goodis did not choose the pulps. They chose him." Sallis goes on to say: "There's no evidence that Goodis had high, or any, artistic goals in mind; he seems simply to have adopted a kind of fiction that would at the same time support him and guarantee anonymity."

Sallis also notes that Goodis essentially rewrote the same book over and over. A talented man has fallen far and is more or less resigned to his defeat. Something happens which triggers him into action, perhaps igniting the faintest glimmer of hope in his life, but by the end he has come full circle back to the hopelessness that is his life. O'Brien states that Goodis' best books create a "unique poetry of solitude and fear."
   Sallis credits Goodis with sound mechanical skills:
"At his best Goodis could make a few careful sentences, a key image or figure of speech, the colors of a room, do a prodigious amount of work." According to Sallis, his writing skills are sometimes the redeeming characteristic in a morass of "aberrant psychology and obsession." Goodis' concentration on the psychological side and lack of concern for the almost obligatory twist of irony at the end prompted his Gold Medal editor to declare him second rate because his plots weren't complex enough to generate suspense and surprise.

As mentioned earlier, Sallis identifies with all these writers, but his closest affinity is with Chester Himes. Sallis' LONG-LEGGED FLY, about a troubled black detective, evinces a strong influence from Himes' novels. It parallels the violence, the seedy locales, racial issues, and the ambiguous, unresolved plots that characterize Himes' works.

Sallis is ambivalent concerning Himes' intentions. In one passage he denies Himes as a protest writer because this implies a chance for societal improvement, and Sallis declares that such hope is not evident in his work. Yet, on another page, Sallis reneges on this with: "Again and again, I wrote then, he has held a mirror to this country, hoping the monster would see itself and feel shame, know what it is."

When Himes wrote the Harlem series with Coffin Ed and Gravedigger it appeared as an anomaly compared to his earlier work which featured mostly passive and powerless protagonists. Sallis suggests that rather than a digression, the Harlem series is a natural progression of his work after purging himself from autobiography and social commentary:

"Released from the twin burdens of autobiography and social significance (at least in any purely programmatic sense), Himes found the ideal vehicle for his particular gifts. The climate of suspicion, fear and violence so much at the heart of the detective story mirrored Himes' own feelings about the black in American society and allowed him a kind of privileged expression. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, men of ruthless action, supplanted the passivity of earlier protagonists, and Himes fully embraced life's fundamental absurdity."

The Harlem series got started by a suggestion from Marcel Duhamel, the translator for the French edition of IF HE HOLLERS LET HIM GO and director of Gallimard's famous La Serie Noire. Duhamel asked him to write a detective story. Himes said that he wouldn't have any idea how to go about it, and Duhamel told him about Hammett and how he plotted and populated his novels. Interestingly, Sallis notes:
"It was not to Hammett that Himes turned, however, but to Faulkner, reading SANCTUARY again and again in what became a virtual rite of preparation for the detective novels." Of the Harlem detective series, Sallis writes: "He had moved from finding to making, from the purely representational to a kind of epic poetry."

I will end this discussion by quoting Sallis' final judgement on the works of Goodis, Thompson, and Himes:

"These books, I insist, are rare and wonderful things
- commercial diamonds, but diamonds nonetheless. Meant for use, not beauty, all are flawed deep within themselves. Yet, held to light, they fold a world we thought we knew into strange new forms. And all cut deeply into the glass of the windows that world happens behind."


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