Bad things were happening. I was living in a small southern town where most people believe that the earth is a few thousand years old, and where a liberal is someone who believes that executions ought to be painless. I had a job with a boss and co-workers straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the job paid so little that I couldn’t stash away enough to be able to finance an escape from the town. I was in a relationship that made the one in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seem functional.
As will become clear, there’s a reason I’ve inserted two literary references in the first paragraph…
It was a grey Sunday afternoon, and I was walking around what passed for downtown because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I wandered into a bookstore, which, along with many other independent businesses in that place, was closing down. Today was the last day of its “everything must go” sale. I picked through the stacks of books just for something to do, until I found a Black Lizard paperback of The Burglar by David Goodis. It was on sale for a dollar, so I bought it.
I began to read it later that afternoon, and I didn’t stop until I had reached the end. It’s a short book, but it contains a long bleakness. The story of a small group of burglars—one of them a young woman, another the man who leads the crew, and the doomed, unnamed love the two have for each other but don’t share—it offers no hope and delivers less. Where the characters are going is never in doubt; the story is in what they do along the way. From page one it’s clear that this book will adhere to what the novelist Allan Guthrie calls the most important rule of noir: “We’re all fucked, no matter what.”
When I reached the end, I was sure of two things: The Burglar was one of my favorite novels… and I felt better.
The next morning, as I drove to my job, I was still thinking about the book, its terrible sadness, and I was in a good mood for the first time in quite a while.
More than a decade later, I was at an event at The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, AZ. (This was obviously before I, and my books, were banned from The Poisoned Pen as retaliation for my baiting the racist Brad Thor.) Several crime writers were having a discussion, moderated by writer, editor and bookseller Patrick Millikin. I no longer remember who all the authors were, but I know for sure that one of them was Harry Dolan, author of the novel Bad Things Happen. I know this because, when Dolan’s book was first mentioned, Millikin remarked: “That is the greatest title. It could really be the title of every noir novel ever written.”
I thought his remark was so spot-on, I’ve been quoting it ever since. And, when I do, people often say, “Well, why would you want to read that stuff? Enough bad things happen in life. Why wouldn’t you want to read about good things?” And I remember how I was rescued from a dark place by David Goodis.
In Dennis Cooper’s novel Guide, the narrator, a man named Dennis Cooper who writes novels about murder with fetishistic detail—some of the murders being committed by a writer named Dennis—is approached in a club by a friend of his new housemate.
“Dennis,” yelled a voice. I’m deep in the club now. When I turn, squint, it’s that Coffee kid. “Can I ask you something?”
Coffee had five little barbells through each eyebrow, one through his bottom lip, a heavy hoop hanging out of his nose, and several tinier hoops in each ear.
“You’re not going to kill Luke, right?” he yelled. I think he’s kidding. “Because some of us are concerned.” Guess not. Then he turned a crazy ear to my mouth.
“No way,” I yell. “Look… I’m like you. Only you put scary decorations on your outsides, and I put scary decorations on my insides.”
Inside or outside, some of us need our scary decorations. The bookstore event at which Patrick Millikin made his remark was full of people who wanted to read and hear about bad things happening. And, as always at such gatherings, the atmosphere was convivial.
If you want to get a child’s attention, ask that child, “Hey, want to hear something really scary?” Or “really bad.” Or “really gross.” Any of those will get much more interest than, “Hey, want to hear something nice?”
Noir is the Western literary form that most has the spirit of the Japanese term mono no aware, an aesthetic joy in the sadness of impermanence, of inevitable loss.
The most terrifying feeling is that of being alone. I cannot think of a single horror film that does not depend upon that fear.
Take The Bride of Frankenstein. When the monster happens upon the cottage of a blind hermit, it turns out that they have both been suffering the same pain: loneliness. The hermit prays in thanks that God has sent him a friend. Unable to see the monster’s hideousness, all he feels is friendship, and one gets the sense that he might not feel differently even if he could see him. The monster does not harm him. From him, the monster learns to speak, to say the word “friend.” Their respite is brief; other people show up, see the monster and drive him away.
The monster then forces his creator, Frankenstein, to make a female companion for him. Frankenstein does, but when she is brought to life she is repulsed by the monster. He reaches out his hand to her and says, “Friend?” When she rejects him, the pain in his voice reveals the real meaning of being chased from a village with burning torches. He declares, “We belong dead.”
If the monster’s friendship with the hermit had continued, or if the “bride” had wanted him, his violence would have ended. I’m almost certain that this is true of every other being.
When we’re afraid, we particularly need company, need a hand to hold, because the feel of another’s hand tells us we’re not alone. That bleak Sunday so many years ago, I found a friend. David Goodis held my hand. So, at other times, have Daniel Woodrell, George V. Higgins, Elmore Leonard, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Stephen King, Vicki Hendricks, Edgar Allan Poe, James M. Cain, Murakami Ryu, James Sallis, and so many others whose dark, stark, elegant vision has spoken to me when I thought, “I’m fucked,” and told me instead, “We’re all fucked,” told me I wasn’t alone.