RARA-AVIS: can noir writers advocate social reform?

From: Jay Gertzman ( jgertzma@earthlink.net)
Date: 24 Nov 2006

I had always believed that noir describes, gives reality checks, and faces clearly the power of violence, predatory behavior, and self-deception. No one is relieved of guilt or moral compromise. Therefore the sinister, brooding atmosphere it projects. But recently I read Steve Lopez's 1994 novel _Third and Indiana_, about the organized drug trade in Philadelphia, set in the "badlands" section of Kensington. It has all the ingredients of noir: young teens trapped in the distribution system and unable to escape from the sadistic drug lord, except when he murders them b/c he suspects them of shorting him, or just wants to spread terror. It's very good about the social injustice, governmental hypocrisy (hiding indifference behind propaganda about "a war on "drugs" and "super-predators"), and newspaper priorities that focus on sensational thefts but ignore the suffering of the decent but poor residents who lose sons and daughters to addiction, or murder at the hands of the organized criminals. But Lopez's moving and tragic ending is clearly designed to make readers take action: with melodramatic eloquence, Lopez incites, even shames, his readers. I assume that this, then, is a proletarian and polemic novel of social protest, therefore not noir and not hardboiled (in that hardboiled has connotations of noir). It does not (at least at the end) project that sinister, brooding, resigned noir aura. I assume that novelists who can be called noir, like Cain, McCoy, Algren, Dahlberg, Fante, or Benjamin Appel are not social reformers or proletarian novelists inciting to social change, and that social reformers like James T Farrell, John Dos Passos or Michael Gold, however much they deal with evil, the criminal underclass, and political corruption, cannot be considered noir or hardboiled. Does this distinction make sense?

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