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A stroll of sorts down a somewhat perverse memory lane
on April 15, 2013
Geoffrey O'Brien has made a name as a critic or analyst of popular culture. HARDBOILED AMERICA, from 1981, was his first foray in the field. It now is somewhat dated, but if you are a fan of hardboiled (or noir) American fiction there still are three reasons to track it down and spend some time with it.
First, for the bounteous examples of "the lurid years of paperbacks" - i.e., the Forties and Fifties. The book contains well over a hundred reproductions of the covers of the paperbacks peddled for twenty-five or thirty-five cents from bookracks and newsstands by Pocket Books, Dell, Avon, Graphic, Popular Library, Signet, and their kin. Buxom dames were featured on many of these covers, and garish colors on virtually all of them. (In this regard, N.B.: In the original 1982 publication of the book, which is what I have and which bears the sub-title "The Lurid Years of America", almost half of the covers are reproduced in color on high-gloss paper. I understand that in one or more of the more recent printings or editions none of the reproductions are in color.)
Second, as a checklist of authors and their works you might want to read. O'Brien devotes at least two pages to each of the following hardboiled writers (in order of discussion in the book): Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Horace McCoy, Kenneth Fearing, Jonathan Latimer, David Goodis, Dorothy B. Hughes, Cornell Woolrich, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald, and Ross Macdonald.
Third, for O'Brien's comments on the genre, although this is a mixed bag. Some of his comments are, I think, pretty much on the mark. For example:
"Certainly the characteristically cool and cynical tone of the tough-guy novels was a distinctly American invention * * *. It represented an antidote to an equally prevalent American penchant for bombast and self-glorification, as evident in the earliest effusions of patriotic oratory [or] in the latest brand of hype for oil companies or television networks. One of the primary services of the hardboiled novel has been the deflation of such rhetoric. From Hammett to Ross Macdonald, we have been cautioned again and again to beware of the forked tongues of politicians, preachers, lawyers, and movie producers, as we would beware of a vacuum-cleaner salesman. In place of their sickly-sweet reassurance, there is offered no sustaining message, no heroic struggle - just a hard, bitter silence, a determination to act, even if the action takes place in a void * * *."
Other comments are provocative, though perhaps a little outlandish. For example, what explains the turn to the fantastic in so much of post-WWII American culture, including hardboiled fiction? With World War II and "the hells of Auschwitz and Hiroshima", "reality rushed in on the world of fantasy; and, the barrier between them broken, the two flowed together. Since the unbelievable had already happened, henceforth anything could be believed. * * * In such an atmosphere, the pulp imagination can rise to new heights of glory. An L. Ron Hubbard can move from second-rate science fiction to the founding of a worldwide `religion.' A hack thriller writer like Howard Hunt can end up acting out his fantasies as national policy at the Bay of Pigs and the Watergate."
But some of O'Brien's comments are silly and at times you're torn between wincing and guffawing at his exuberant, supercharged prose. For example: "The men and women frozen in such portentous tableaux of fear and anguish and violence and desire are now more likely to evoke hearty laughter than the heavy breathing they solicited so strenuously when, newly created, they bared their passion on thousands of newsstands across America."
Skimming through HARDBOILED AMERICA was for me a stroll of sorts down a somewhat perverse memory lane. If nothing else, it convinced me that with the demise of my generation of readers, American hardboiled fiction - probably even that of Hammett, Cain, and Chandler -- will become an historical and academic curiosity.