Friday, April 4, 2014

In the Dark

You are in the process of making another of one of your most favored kinds of lists.  This particular list has to do with a subgenre of literature known as noir fiction, thanks to its persistent investigation of the darker landscapes of the human condition.

You were drawn at first to noir from your exploratory days at used book stores, where it was possible to build something approaching a library for a few dollars and a great deal of patience, browsing the shelves in the manner of an amateur archaeologist, searching the discarded treasures of others.

Often, for less than a dollar, you were able to take home anthologies, multi-author collections of short stories from which you learned the names of writers, some of whom were still living, others barely a generation before you.

From such anthologies, you learned among other things that D. H. Lawrence was a prolific and accomplished short story writer, that you quite liked the work of Ring Lardner, whom you'd only heard of in connection with his sports writing; John O'Hara, whom you'd thought of only as a short story writer, and a list of names of mystery writers who took you well beyond your interest in the writers of exquisite puzzles, in a sense into the back rooms.  Indeed, these, writers, some of whom you would actually in time become editors for, made their names in what were called pulp magazines.

There was a room for such magazines, your introduction to mysteries, science fiction, and the landscape of the bottom rung massmarket paperback mysteries published by such houses as Beacon, Lion, Paperback Library, and Gold Medal.  In such publications, as well as your growing collection of the Dell mysteries with maps printed on the back cover, you met in many ways your future, as a reader, a writer, an editor, and a teacher.

Example:  for fifteen cents, you purchased a used copy of "Cosmopolitan" Magazine, which frequently published a back-of-the-book mystery novel, condensed somewhat to about 30 or 35,000 words.  In this case, the novel was "A Portrait in Smoke" by Bill S. Ballinger.  Some years later, you would reissue this novel as a part of a "threefer" including two others, previously published.  Then, Ballinger went on to write an original for you, "The Forty-Nine Days of Death," a mystery based on Buddhist tenets from "The Tibetan Book of the Dead."

You've only come in recent years to use the expression noir to refer to some of your most favored readings, instead using such terms as "hardboiled" and "tough."  Ballinger was not by any means hardboiled nor tough.  Neither were Day Keene, Bob Turner, Tom Dewey, Dorothy B. Hughes, or Kenneth Millar, aka Ross Macdonald, even less so William Campbell Gault, who once confessed to you he'd rather be the world's worst writer than a good anything else.  

And what about Steve Fisher, of "I Wake Up Screaming," a novel that kept you up not so much from fear as from its intensity.  One evening, as you and Fisher grew comfortably tiddly over steaks and beers at the old Malibu Inn to the point where you wondered how you were going to get home, you dared Fisher to write you a better book, and you believe he did.  It is called "Saxon's Ghost," its protagonist a manipulative magician who falls hopelessly in love with an assistant.

Fisher's old pal, from the pulp days, was Frank Gruber, one of the most prolific noir writers you'd met. Gruber was the story editor for the TV series, "Tales of Wells Fargo," and had a two-book-a-year contract with Dutton.  You got two nice memoirs from him, and two collections of his pulp short stories.

Some of these names do appear on the list you are compiling, their appearance,in a lovely way of surprise, remind you of the subliminal presence of noir on your reading and writing tastes.  The aggregate presence of the list and the names on them reminds you how noir can appear in F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner as well as some of the writers whose work first appeared in the pulps and massmarket paperbacks, ratifying your belief that noir is neither pessimism or a philosophy that expects the worst, rather an awareness that the human condition has room for recognizing the traps and hidden land mines awaiting all of us over the arc of time.  It they can fall this far, they can raise this high.

You've often said that were it not for your experiences with schools when you were no longer a student, you would still be casting about, looking for a place or thing to write about.  You've also said you learned story from enduring faculty meetings and indexing the feelings you experienced as you endured them.

Once these observations and feelings were classified, catalogued, color coded within, you believe you can apply them to most other, non-academic landscapes.

Compiling this list of noir fiction for, of all things, a class within a university, leaves you with the comforting sense that you are in the correct emotional place.

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