“It’s a screwed up, bitched up world…” (Lou Ford in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me)
Was it always like this? The feeling that nothing is real. Not just ersatz, but a fake of a fake, a photograph of a photograph of the world falling apart. That food you’re eating, it’s probably genetically modified. The building you’re living in, most likely made from cheap, probably flammable, materials. And, most of all, that creep in the White House, a political illusion thrust on the world. How did we end up like this? Cheap imitations, and a TV huckster scamming the country. Selling us products we don’t want or need, from real estate to an out-dated way of life. Shilling for gangsters and low high-rollers, pimping cultural Viagra to Mr and Mrs Lonelyhearts. It’s as though we’ve woken up to find we’re trapped in a novel by Jim Thompson or Philip K. Dick, in which an ignorant racist has been elected to the highest office in the land and the world is teetering on the verge of destruction. It can’t be real, yet it is.
While speculative fiction has periodically imagined the present, it’s noir fiction that, over the years, has set the parameters for the world we live in, while providing reality-based background to our present state. And no doubt about it, these days we all seem to live in a noir world. On the other hand, we’ve been living in a version of that world for some time now. Admittedly, things have rarely seemed quite so dark. But what could be more noir than having an infantile ignoramus sharecropping the White House, and knowing that, with outside assistance or not, we have helped put him there? Less a figment of our collective imagination than a parody of a noir nemesis, who, crippled by paranoia, narcissism and braggadocios claims, has sentenced us to live in a warped world where money screams and bullshit splatters.
But noir fiction has been investigating the contours of this nightmare ever since Hammett’s 1929 Red Harvest, in which Mr. Big who lords over “Poisonville” and its mining company, beats down the strikers but looses control of his city to the very thugs he employs. Hammett’s world view would later be elaborated upon by others, not least Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Chester Himes. These writers described, to one degree or another, the world as one in which class determines situation, chaos dominates, prejudices reign, nothing good lasts, and everything is for sale. So it’s not like we haven’t been warned. Perhaps what we face at present is just payback for an inertia that has placed us all in the Club Mar-a-Lago level of hell, where the streets are paved with gold-painted shit, the big rock candy mountain is coated in novichok, and every strangelovian nuclear device has been placed on a hair trigger. Or for all those hours we’ve spent watching TV, eating junk food, settling for the lowest common denominator, while watching others being criminalised, deported, renditioned, droned and scammed by trickle-down politics.
Readers of noir fiction, enamoured of stories about creeps drunk on power, and obsessed by prostitutes and beauty queens, should have seen this coming. If so, they probably bear some responsibility for our current predicament. And there might even be those who take a perverse pleasure in watching the way reality so easily imitates fiction. With all those stories about scams of one type or another now becoming fact, we no longer even bother to blink at money laundering real estate deals, fake religionists and phoney for profit colleges. Not that scam-ridden stories aren’t squarely in the American grain, part of a tradition that stretches back to Melville, Poe, Twain, Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, and up to the likes of Thompson, Willeford, Highsmith and Leonard. The difference is that these days those stories are coupled with a debilitating passivity- sure, reading is a passive activity, but one meant to have the opposite effect- that, thanks to our addiction to technological toys, is not only encouraged but practically enforced. It’s easy to see why one would adopt such an attitude. Faced with present circumstances, who wouldn’t want to disappear, and say fuck everything, the world deserves to go down the toilet. Who wouldn’t want to do a runner like the dispirited Hart in Goodis’s Black Friday: “He was walking very slowly, not finding the bite of the cold wind, not feeling anything. And later, turning the street corners, he didn’t bother to look at the street signs. He had no idea where he was going and he didn’t care.” However, there comes a point when even Goodis’s characters, whether Vincent Parry in Down There or Michael in his Street of No Return, realise they can’t run forever.
The problem isn’t just the latest incarnation of El Rey and his kingdom, both of which Thompson depicted in the final chapter of The Getaway, but all that has gone into creating that person and that kingdom. With simulacra running amok and cynicism reaching pandemic proportions, our inability to separate fact from fiction has sentenced us all to doing time on El Rey’s farm, that semi-civilised place where everything is for sale and life is so cheap there’s no point in thinking about the future. It doesn’t matter how much we cringe when the El Rey declares he knows what’s good for us, that only he can prevent an imminent dystopia by building that wall. When he says, fuck Mexicans, blacks, Muslims, women. Especially women, can’t keep my hands off them. Or declares himself a genius deal-clincher, with our interests at heart. And if we don’t acquiesce, he will punish us, the likes of which you have never seen. So we prefer to sit back and let it unfold as though it were nothing more than a spectacle, with all the importance of a reality TV program, which is, in any case, pretty much what it is. Try to protest and El Rey will tweet you to death. He might look and act like a baby, but, like all babies, El Rey knows how to demand our attention, and, with a bloated ego, pea-sized brain and Scrooge McDuck eyeballs, how to manipulate us. And if you don’t like it, the ghost of Roy Cohn will see you in court.
The prescience of Goodis, Himes and Thompson, or the likes of Cornell Woolrich and Horace McCoy, wasn’t just that they tended to look on the dark side of things. After all, these were literary workers, churning out copy by the word or pulp paperback original for readers who scrambled in the reality of the everyday world. Those limitations and that audience defined their style and gave them the courage to stare into the abyss. As was their style, so was their attitude. Readers expected as much. What those writers saw when they delved deep into the culture wasn’t pretty, but it was a recognisable representation of the world in which their readers lived. It’s no coincidence that such writing reached its peak in the1950s, the very era to which El Rey would like to return. But contrary to what many pundits claim, stories composed by noirists are not simply about how fate conspires against us, but how society works against ordinary people, complacent and unconscious regarding the past, and unaware of what the future will bring.
No doubt about it, the origins of noir fiction come right out of this country’s criminal past- from the ethnic cleansing of the native population, slavery and witch-burning, to other and more recent transgressions. Mencken’s “jackasses led by jackals” might be an accurate, though it’s a description that does a disservice to both animals. Perhaps it’s a matter of evolving to the point where we no longer want to survive? Perhaps that is what noirists have been telling us all along. Which would explain why we make the worst possible choices and inflict our killer instinct on others. The odd anomaly, thanks to good branding or a periodic surge of compassion, only taking us from bad to worse to not so bad, before it becomes worse than ever. It’s hardly surprising that noir fiction should reflect the anxiety and paranoia of a country ill-at-ease with its own guilt and psychotic tendencies, a paranoia as personal as it is political. Something hinted at decades ago by Horace McCoy, with portrayals of dime-a-dance civic corruption and existential angst, or Cornel Woolrich, with his investigations of the psychological states of low-income heroes and white-collar scramblers who, wrongly accused or subject to blackmail, try to salvage what’s left of their world, only to find that nothing coheres and their world is falling apart.
Clearly America’s history of racism forms the basis of any unease in Chester Himes’s fiction. As the narrator in If He Hollers Let Him Go says, “I could always feel race trouble, serious trouble, never more than two feet off.” Though it might be more than paranoia that prompts Coffin Ed in Himes’s The Heat’s On to say, “Is everybody crooked on this mother-raping earth?” Another type of unease and paranoia stems from the rise of consumerism, which can be located between the lines of a poem by noirist Kenneth Fearing, entitled Sherlock Spends a Day in the Country: “The crime, if there was a crime, has not been reported as yet;/The plot, if that is what it was, is still a secret somewhere in this/wilderness of newly fallen snow.” Related to this is the condition produced by the demands of mid-century McCarthyism, as in Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers, replete with hatching pods and replicants: “She says he looks exactly like Uncle Ira, talks just like him, acts just like him- everything. She just knows it isn’t Uncle Ira, that’s all.”
But who better than Thompson, his psychos spouting cliches while wielding lethal weapons, at capturing the guilt and paranoia of the culture, pre-empting the present in that final chapter of the The Getaway: “Most immigrants travel to the kingdom in pairs. In the beginning, each will handle his own money, carefully contributing an exact half of the common expenses. But this is awkward, it leads to arguments, and no matter how much the individual has he is never quite free of the specter of want. So very soon there is a casual discussion of the advantages of a joint account…And from then on- well, the outcome depends on which of the two is shrewder, the more cold-blooded or requires the least sleep.”
No wonder Vincent Parry in Goodis’s Dark Passage wants to alter his appearance: “With a new face I won’t need to worry.” However, the past can’t be changed quite that easily. The sickness that Thompson wrote about in novels The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280 runs too deep. Even if they don’t articulate it, Goodis’s characters know that, given past crimes, history can’t help but work against them. In Street of No Return, Whitey is told , “You’ve played a losing game and actually enjoyed the idea of losing, almost like them freaks who get their kicks when they’re banged around.” While the gris eminence in Goodis’s The Burglar makes it clear that criminality is just the way things work: “Every animal, including the human being, is a criminal, and every move in life is part of the vast process of crime.” But there are criminals and criminals. Some resort to criminality as a hyper-capitalist pursuit, for others it’s a matter of survival, with any dissembling and concealment a personal as well as political necessity that takes place at street level. It’s a complicated process, as illustrated in The Burglar: “We had to be disguised. Both of us, all of us. Yet obvious as the fact was, he would not see it. He would not look through my guise, as I had looked through his, to the man beneath. He would not look through his own, which would have done practically as well…. It was too bad, and he would be punished for it- as who is not?”
What these noirists have in the common is the knowledge that the system is rigged. As Thompson wrote in that final chapter of The Getaway, “So the complaints go on. El Rey is unfair. You can’t win against him… He listens courteously to all grievances, but you get no satisfaction from him. He tosses your words back at you, answers questions with questions, retorts with biting and ironic parables.” While years before, Hammett’s op in Red Harvest, realising the futility of trying to play by the rules, admits, “I might just as well have saved the labor and sweat I had put into trying to make my reports harmless. They didn’t fool the Old Man.”
Woolrich came to a similar conclusion, as he attempted to pierce the gauze separating pretence from reality, whether in a novel like Phantom Lady or a short story like The Boy Who Cried Murder. In the latter, ten year old Tommy, responding to his mother demand that her overly imaginative son go outside to play, says, “But there is no place to go….” For Tommy, the outside world is no less claustrophobic than the run-down apartment where he lives. When he does go outside, he witnesses a murder the adults insist he has only imagined. His discovery of the world coinciding with the realisation that his conception of reality has been called into question. This, of course, sets off a chain of events that leads to the unveiling of what the culture is really like. For Woolrich, one has no choice but see how those events are played out. As he said, “The path you follow is the path you have to follow; there are no digressions permitted you, even though you think there are.” For Woolrich, there are “no realities…only approximations of reality…[No] two the same, from man to man, from case to case, from place to place.” Which takes us back to the ersatz and that photograph of a photograph of the world falling apart.
Caught in a web partly of our own making, we find ourselves played upon by the likes of El Rey. Something Woolrich sensed as an eleven year old in Mexico, when he looked up at the stars with “[that] trapped feeling, like some sort of poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass.” Then, should we ever taste freedom, we discover evening has come, that, like Woolrich, our bodies are rotting and only amputation can save us. That sound you’re hearing must be El Rey howling with laughter. Fate? Retribution from the Gods? More like digging our own graves. Yet we shrug and accede to El Rey’s henchmen. After all, this is, for the moment, his warped world, and, as Woolrich would say, we are “adrift with only approximations of reality…[No] two the same, from man to man, from case to case, from place to place.”
If this is our last gasp, we can only emulate Himes, and resist. It’s that condition that constitutes the real noir world. Otherwise it comes down to gawking at the TV, crowd-sourced by the rich and powerful. Naturally, there are bread and circuses, though more the latter than the former. No wonder Himes’s Plan B has such an explosive ending, prefaced by an oppressive lethargy: “A man called T-Bone Smith sat in a cold water slum flat on 113th Street, east of 8th Avenue in Harlem, looking at television with his old lady, Tang. They had a television set but they didn’t have anything to eat. It was after ten o’clock at night and the stores were closed, but that didn’t make any difference because they didn’t have any money, anyway.” Which is as cogent a description as any of what constitutes the noir life.
So forget all those middle-class moans about fate, bad luck and devious women. Better to realise our history, and the world we live in, is noir to the core. Death. Greed. Gangsterism. American exceptionalism. The military industrial complex. Neo-liberalism. It’s all part of what has been thrust upon us. And to which we have, to some degree, acquiesced. That is to say, we are what we have swallowed. Which is the reason hardboiled noir fiction, when it seeks the truth, remains so important and so powerful. Of course, how noirists respond to El Rey remains to be seen. Will they sit back and say I told you so, or will such writing once again take a scalpel to the culture, uncover the past and subvert the present. As darkness descends, and the cries get louder, the outrages will intensify. This is, indeed, a noir world, one that grows darker by the day. All one can do is resist and wait, riding out this nightmare until morning breaks, respite comes, the ante is raised and a new nightmare begins.
This essay originally appeared Retreats From Oblivion