Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Life in Poisonville

"Play with murder enough and it gets you one of two ways. It makes you sick, or you get to like it."

Dashiell Hammett's 1929 novel, Red Harvest, begins when our story's narrator, an unnamed detective from the Continental Agency, arrives in a small California town called Personville, pronounced and better known as Poisonville by the local population. While the detective is waiting for his client at his house, Donald Willsson, the client, is murdered. There are some obvious suspects, Willsson's gold digging wife, Mrs. Wilson, as well as a femme fatale called Dinah Brand and of course there are the local bootlegging gangsters-- Lew Yard and Pete the Finn, and a gambler monikered  Max "Whisper" Thaler. We're not a third of the way into the book before we've nabbed our killer (who is, of course, not one of the usual suspects), but there are too many bad guys in town for our detective to close the case and move on just yet. The detective cajoles the town's millionaire patriarch, the dead Donald's father, Elihu Willsson to employ him to root out the city's rampant corruption.

Turns out that Donald Willsson was one of the few reformers in town. His father Elihu, had built the city and it was a prospering mining town when city workers began striking fore better wages and living standards. Rather than give in and provide his miners with a better life, Elihu called in scabs to break the strike and gangsters to enforce his will. The strike was broken, the people's will demoralized, but the byproduct of Willsson's victory was villains staying on and taking over the city. Even the chief of police is in on the take and no one is safe from a double crossing. Thus Willsson's (albeit reluctant) acquiescence to the Continental Operative.

Though it begins like a conventional murder story, it does not stop there. A lot of people die in Red Harvest (one of the chapters is titled "The 19th Murder.") I suppose when one is birthing a genre, it is bound to be painful, and Hammett's novel is if not the first, one of the earliest novels of hardboiled noir fiction. The stories are violent, complex, and full of surprises, which are interesting in themselves, but the best reason to read the genre is the tough guy argot that permeates every page. Even more so than the Whouddnit aspect, it is the novel's language that makes it so uniquely noir. Nearly every line in the book is tightly wrought, a bit cruel, somewhat funny, often smart-ass: "'Who shot him?' I asked. The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: "Someone with a gun." The bad girls are incorrigibly bad but they are also tough, smarter than nearly everybody and hold their own boldly. Dinah Brand might be the nexus for every scam in town but she's a survivor in a time when most women gave up their freedom for housework. Her lines are among the choicest in the novel:  "You're drunk, and I'm drunk, and I'm just exactly drunk enough to tell you anything you want to know. That's the kind of girl I am. If I like a person, I'll tell them anything they want to know. Just ask me. Go ahead, Ask me."

Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett could write like this because he lived this life as a detective for the famous Pinkerton Agency and had been assigned to investigate labor disputes (not many aspiring writers have such an advantage with "Write what you know" advice). Incredibly talented, he should be more famous than he is (even if you've never heard of Hammett you're probably familiar with his most famous story, The Maltese Falcon, a classic story adapted for the screen with Humphrey Bogart as Hammett's best altar ego detective, Sam Spade). On the surface, noir fiction might seem like absolute mayhem and blanket nihilism, but at its core it's a blistering narrative of the consequences when society goes horribly wrong.  The title, Red Harvest might suggest Communist bushels of wheat, but the real harvest is blood and too much of it. And this violence is begotten not from the will of common thugs, but when political and economic forces conspire into disastrous conditions. Detectives like our hero in the Continental Op might be able to clean up a rotten place like Poisonville, but it's only a small town in a big, big country. Still, it is a start...

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Real Monsters

"What is the cause of man's inhumanity to man? Desensitization. The numbness of the perpetrator. Whether an activity produces pleasure, pain, discomfort, guilt, joy, triumph-- before too long the soul grows tired and stops feeling. It doesn't take long. Not too long at all, and then man becomes the devil, he laughs at his former scruples, he enslaves and tortures without compunction." 

As far as I know it all starts with Joseph Conrad, Africa forever and ever being contemplated as a heart of darkness. Its territory might be well mapped and colonialism finished and slavery (mostly) eradicated, in literature, at least, Africa continues to be represented as a kind of Wild West where adventurers, knaves, and plunderers thrive in the absence of law, order, and justice. Once it was human chattel, then precious metals like gold and diamonds, and lately, it is petroleum and other energy sources sought after by unscrupulous Chinese and terrorists. The great powers have long thrived treating Africans as pawns in the chessboard of diplomacy, not caring so much when pawns get knocked off or their land exploited or destroyed. Often in these stories our hero is the anti-sort, neither heroic nor monstrous, but with some compromised morals being tested by greed, mayhem, and slaughter.
Some of the better books I've read in this motif are Norman Rush's Mating and Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. Denis Johnson's The Laughing Monsters will not be among my favorites. It's about a 30-something adventurer, Roland Nair, who comes to Freetown, Sierra Leone to meet a friend named Michael Adriko, an African who had served in various African armies as well as American military units. Nair works for the N.I.I.A., the Nato Intelligence Interoperability Architecture, which sounds more bureaucratic than mercenary. Like any rough type making do in hell, he gets sloshed and cavorts with prostitutes. Adriko is on his fifth fiancĂ©e, Davidia, a black American beauty whose dad happens to be Adriko's commanding officer from the base he's gone AWOL from. Anyway, Adriko has some get-rich-quick information that's not forthcoming, stringing along an increasingly frustrated Nair, who has his own game going with some info on a US fiber optics cache location that he might or might not sell to an Arab named Hamid, who is probably not one of the good guys.

Speaking of good guys, Nair isn't one of them. He might be our voice in the novel, but there is nothing redeeming about him. He isn't charming, compassionate, sympathetic-- although that might be purposeful, as the true hero might be Michael Adriko, who is mysterious, charming, wily, and though he might be as corrupt or self-serving as Nair, he is, at least, a little bit likable. But corruption wears many faces and an epigrammatic con artist is still a crook. Adriko leads both Nair and Davidia on in a ruse to get them from Sierra Leone to the hinterlands of the Uganda-Congo border to meet his clan (Congo: now we're in genuine Heart of Darkness territory). There are other evil dudes fishing for money in the pot, leading to conflicts, shootouts, getaways-- Adriko runs over an African peasant on a hilltop road, blaming her for not watching the road more carefully. What's another life in Africa, even to an educated African?

Denis Johnson makes the point that this story centers on the shadowy world of post-9/11 scheming: "We talk about how the world has changed since the Twin Towers went down. I think you could easily say the part that's changed the most is the world of intelligence, security, and defense. The world powers are dumping their coffers into an expanded version of the old Great Game. The money's simply without limit, and plenty of it goes for snitching and spying. In that field, there's no recession." But there have always been types like Nair and Adriko, self-serving buccaneers with no loyalties and many frenemies.

Things get pretty messy and ugly in The Laughing Monsters (the title refers to some terrible mountains in remote Congo). Nair and Adriko are captured, interrogated, and then left to die in the jungle, where the novel gets really bizarre, into something so horrific that it seems more waking nightmare than a fight for survival. They end up in a village run by an obese witch-queen named La Dolce, who wears "a buzz-cut Afro on her hippopotamus head, eyes leaping from the sockets and eyelids like birds' beaks closing over them-- her mouth is tiny and round, but it opens to shocking hugeness, displaying many square white teeth." The groundwater is toxic, the peasants are starving, old men have no teeth, children are emaciated and dying and La Dolce is pronouncing this or that drivel while Adriko brandishes a machete and Nair pens sloppy letters to Davidia and an ex-girlfriend. By now, most readers will hardly care whether Nair and Adriko survive yet another quagmire and the climax thus feels more incoherent than terrifying. If I were to tell you (disappointingly) that the ending is a happy one, what would you think I mean?