Friday, July 14, 2006

American Noir, or, Bob, I'm finally going to return your book

For months now, Bob’s been prodding me in the comments to read his two favorite of the novels collected in the Library of America’s Crime Novels: American Noir 1930s and 40s. I finally did so, and I’m glad he kept after me. They were worth it.

The first, Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock (1946) (which, I discovered when I was looking up the book, is just now out from the New York Review of Books), begins with an oddly pixilated and cynical look at a magazine industry cocktail party, and fifty pages go by before there’s any sort of crime. But then Fearing throws a switch, and the steel-trap plot—wherein a magazine editor is framed by his boss for a murder—springs into relentless motion.

The Big Clock reads like an odd but successful mix of Dawn Powell’s satire, Nathanael West’s cold cynicism, and Joseph Mitchell’s appreciations of oddity, the last especially in Fearing’s depiction of a bar where the magazine editor is a regular. Gil, the proprietor, bets patrons that he has any object they can name somewhere along his back bar and that, furthermore, each item has some connection to his life. Even when drinkers ask him to produce Poe’s raven or a steamroller, he somehow wins. He always wins.

And so does Kenneth Fearing, managing to mix all those tones while ratcheting up the tension and forcing events to a surprising conclusion. Now I have to see the 1948 movie, which starred Charles Laughton, Ray Milland, and Maureen O’Sullivan, and read Fearing’s 1941 novel, Clark Gifford’s Body, which is on the New York Review’s Fall list.

The second of the novels Bob recommended, William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley (1946), brings me back to a regular theme of this blog, the concept of contingency in character and plot. Being able to tell a story wherein events seem to happen, not because of the exigencies of plot or theme, but simply because things happen in the world, is one of the greatest of achievements. I feel it in a novel as the absence of what Nick Hornby, in a slightly different context, called “the sense that the author’s thumb is on the scale.” And it must be fiendishly difficult, for a novel must retain some form, or there’s a real danger that it will devolve into the merely episodic or picaresque.

, for all his raving about historical forces in War and Peace , is the master of this: his characters make decisions because of who they are and what’s going on around them, and events unfold as if without regard to an overall story. Penelope Fitzgerald is good at it; so is Haruki Murakami. John Mortimer’s stories, for all their charms, are the antithesis of this mode of writing; his characters only exist in order to relate to Rumpole. Ken Bruen and Jason Starr pulled off something like this in Bust, which I recently wrote about, letting several characters pursue their own selfish agendas, all within the constraints of a tightly organized plot.

Nightmare Alley is much looser than Bust, but as protagonist Stan Carlisle goes from carnival magician to spiritualist con man, each step in the plot is truly surprising, yet believable and organic. Characters come and go, different at each appearance, as if time is actually passing and we’re really following the course of a life. The book teems with insider knowledge, from carnival tricks to mentalist routines to the dangers of riding the rails, and Gresham’s got a way with a phrase. When the carnival enters the South and performs for racially integrated crowds, Gresham relates that the black patrons
stood always on the fringe of the crowd, an invisible cordon holding them in place. When one of the whites turned away sharply and jostled them the words “Scuse me,” fell from them like pennies balanced on their shoulders.

To top it off, for all that I’ve praised Nightmare Alley’s freely unfolding narrative, the book’s last line reveals that Gresham has been leading us somewhere all along. It's a perfect, brutal scorpion sting, and the most surprising, best, meanest ending I’ve read since Scott Phillips’s The Ice Harvest.

So thanks, Bob. I'll repay you in baseball chili come October.


  1. My few thoughts on Nightmare Alley were first posted at Wrybrarian, if anyone cares to read them. And greetings to Rachel if she tracks back to this comment!

  2. One reason I've been pestering you so endlessly to read those novels is that I've been eager to have you put The Big Clock on your Netflix and have me over for baseball chili. In the movie, my favorite character, the eccentric painter Louise Patterson, is played by Elsa Lanchester, "The Bride of Frankenstein," with whom I am mildly obsessed.