Re: RARA-AVIS: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

From: Michael Robison (
Date: 15 Oct 2006

Robert Elkin wrote:
  Re "a wonderful affirmation of the strength of the human spirit" & "a refreshing return to traditional values"--are you planning on running for congress?

********** Haha! Good one, Rob. But the answer is no. My country will have to be satisfied with my modest efforts in engineering to preserve the free world. Heading down to Florida tomorrow to do the deed.

In order to bring this back within the scope of rara-avis, here's a leftover review I wrote for September:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the predominate form of literary analysis was centered around two criteria that influenced the text, an examination of the historical background and biographical information on the author. As the century progressed, both the Russian Formalists and New Critics objected to this type of analysis, insisting that the significance of the text be found within it, not through an extrinsic process. In Pulp Culture, Woody Haut has returned to a historical and biographical literary critique, focusing on the hardboiled and noir genre in the early years of the Cold War. Haut's theory is that the paranoia in hardboiled literature of this period originates in Cold War fear, and that the personal crimes portrayed are allegories for state crimes. Drawing from the classic genre authors of the era such as David Goodis, Chester Himes, and Jim Thompson, he constructs his case. Although Haut struggles with his thesis, he shows himself to be well read in the period and provides a fascinating tour of the classic hardboiled and noir literature of the early Cold War era.

Build My Gallows High is a story of about Bailey, a former private detective who, working for some dangerous clients and involved with an even more dangerous woman, traded that life for a peaceful existence running a gas station in a small town. The peace does not last long and he finds himself blackmailed back into the business, only to be framed for a murder. In the end he finds himself betrayed again by the same woman. Haut parallels Bailey's situation with those who were investigated as potential Communists during the red scare. As Haut puts it, by allowing himself to be blackmailed, Bailey
"aligns himself with those working against the social order."

Gresham's classic Nightmare Alley is about a young man, Stanton Carlisle, who joins a carnival doing odd jobs, eventually working his way up the ladder to a mind-reading act and then making it big as a spiritualist, conning big money out of rich people who want to contact dead loved ones. It is a spectacular moral parable about the dangers of greed and selfishness, imbued with a strong Freudian undercurrent involving memories of his parents. Haut sees Stanton as a metaphor for "a McCarthyite witch hunter as he seeks to exploit those wishing it escape the object of their fears." The pattern of Haut's interpretations is clear.

So Haut interprets both these books as metaphors for the communist investigations in the United States during the early Cold War years. There is at least a minor problem with this reading. The Cold War does not play an overt part in either of the two books. Paranoia has been a popular theme in literature for centuries, so what is the justification for claiming that the paranoia in these books is fueled by the Cold War? A temporal relationship does not establish cause and effect, but even the temporal is tenuous. Both these books were written well before the communist investigations in the United States had made much progress. Nevertheless, even without establishing a convincing causal relationship between the two, Haut is still entitled to interpret the books this way. In a similar vein, Jake Barnes's conflict with himself and his friends in The Sun Also Rises can be seen as a proletariat struggle to free itself from bourgeois longings. John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress begins to look more Marxist than Christian, and Dante's Inferno becomes an allegory for the capitalist oppression of the masses. A man with a hammer sees the whole world as a nail.

Rather than the arbitrary interpretation of Build My Gallows High and Nightmare Alley, within several of Spillane's novels Haut had the ideal opportunity to explore material that featured overt Cold War themes with a clear link between paranoia and the Cold War. Unfortunately Haut's politics gets in the way, and rather than apply his thesis to the Hammer novels, his efforts are spent denigrating them. First Haut notes Raymond Chandler and Anthony Boucher's dislike of Spillane's work. He describes Spillane's work as perverse, and anybody who appreciates Spillane's work is open for the accusation of being perverse, also. About Ayn Rand, a big fan of Spillane, he states,
"Apparently only Ayn Rand, confusing objectivism with objective realism, was perverse enough to remark that
'Spillane gives me the feeling of hearing a military band in a public park'." Aside from the ad hominem attack on Rand, Haut appears to not even grasp the concept of objective realism. Objectivism being Rand's philosophy of the self, Haut is suggesting that Spillane's writing is objective realism. Objective realism has been effectively described as a camera eye view. It relays what is happening with little or no reporting on anything a camera could not pick up, such as the thoughts of the characters. Implying that Spillane's Hammer novels display objective realism is ludicrous. The Hammer novels are filled with the unspoken personal thoughts, judgements, and emotions of the protagonist.

Haut's discussion of Spillane continues its downward spiral with two other unsupported declarations. He accuses Spillane of misogyny with, "It doesn't take much insight to realize that Hammer hates women almost as much as he hates 'commies' and organized crime." Misogyny has been a common accusation leveled at Spillane for many years, but convincing evidence has never been produced. The usual reasoning parallels Haut's unquestioning acceptance of it, choosing to pass it off as intuitive without any significant support. Haut is consistent with this kind of argument. He uses it again concerning Hammer's penchant for violence, "Try as he may to convey the notion that violence is a means to an end, it's obvious that violence, for Hammer, is an end in itself." Saying "it's obvious" is about as convincing as "it doesn't take much insight to realize." Both these unsupported arguments involve two logical fallacies. The first is ad populum, implying that his conclusion, that Hammer hates women, is true because it is common knowledge. The second logical fallacy is ad hominem, a personal attack on those who disagree by implying that they are stupid for not having adequate insight.

Logical fallacies aside, and regardless of whether he personally approves or disapproves of regarding Spillane's writing, Haut can't seem to come to any understanding of the relevance of it. He notes correctly that Hammer employs vigilante justice, but he fails to follow the thought to completion. The reason that Hammer is a vigilante is because in the dark world he inhabits, a corrupt system often does not serve out justice, and even if the system were not corrupt, what is legal is not always just. It is ironic and significant that Haut chooses not to take this step. It is ironic because Spillane is engaging a scepticism towards the inadequacy of the state to provide justice, which is one of Haut's favorite themes. It is significant because it reveals a shortsightedness in Haut's ability to read a text that doesn't fall safely within his world view. Haut is unable to maintain an academic objectivity in the face of Spillane calling his baby, communism, ugly. Haut's primary problem with this is that he refuses to take into consideration one of the most important sources of paranoia during the Cold War, a fear of communist expansionism. Haut is only interested in fear of the American government during the red scare investigations.

Haut is nervously ambivalent towards Himes. He appears hesitant to criticize him, yet there are several recurrent themes in the Harlem novels that he cannot abide with. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones exhibit a strong inclination towards a particularly violent form of vigilante justice. In the Harlem series they beat a dwarf to death and slit a woman's throat when she won't talk. In a disturbingly capitalistic viewpoint, Ed and Gravedigger shrug their shoulders at the plight of several prostitutes, concluding that the women have to work for either one pimp or another. Haut eventually takes Himes to task for what he calls "political weakness," criticizing him for privileging law and order over "radical social change." Haut understands that the proletariat revolution trumps law and order any day. A little blood may flow, but the resulting workers' paradise will be worth it. He resolves his disapproval of the extreme methods of Ed and Gravedigger by declaring that the two cops are obvious representatives of the state. He condemns their actions as state crimes and concludes that Himes's work maintains "that paranoia is the result of a specific state crime."

Haut occasionally slips beyond mere political posturing into the dubious. His assertion that Iceberg Slim was politically conscious is doubtful. When Iceberg Slim had the chance to meet the Black Panthers, he was surprised and disappointed that they did not welcome him into their arms as a noble liberator of the black man. The thought that his lifelong role as a pimp might be construed as oppressive towards black women never crossed his mind.
 And this of a man with self-proclaimed genius IQ. In another section Haut states, "With the workforce becoming increasingly de-skilled and inactive, it appeared that only criminals possessed the skills around which a personal code and ethical position might be constructed." Haut implies that an honest ditch digger is the moral inferior to a skilled thief.
 This is absurd. When speaking about racism, Haut suggests a racist interpretation of Chandler's statement about the streets being "dark with something other than night." Views on race expressed in the mid-twentieth century hardboiled genre often do not meet the standards of the contemporary politically correct, but this represents a purposeful misreading of Chandler on Haut's behalf, leaning beyond dubious and bordering on sleaze. He also got the quote wrong.
 In his ability to misquote and misrepresent meaning, Haut perhaps has more in common with Joe McCarthy than he would think.
  At the conclusion of the book Haut declares that there is little of value beyond his metaphorical interpretations of the genre, stating "pulp culture crime narratives generate interest in so far as they reflect state crime." It is worth noting that when Haut talks of state crimes, he's not talking about the seventeen million dead from Lenin's purges, or thirty million death toll from Mao's cultural revolution. State crime is broadly defined in his context, just as long as the perceived offenses are actions of the United States government, such as the heinous act of consumerism. One of the great contributions literature has to offer is a chance to expand one's normal range of thought to encompass other experiences and ideas. Reading offers the proverbial chance to walk a mile in another's shoes. It is unfortunate when a reader chooses to restrict their reading to forcing a text to meet their preexisting concepts, in effect pounding a square peg into a round hole. Self-serving at best, dishonest at its worst, Haut's book is always in danger of revealing itself to be little more than a private political agenda thinly disguised as literary criticism.


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