reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Have I been set up?
Lord knows, cranky old me has been railing for years, in blogs and reviews and columns and web sites and any other place people will let me speak, about the excesses and paper-thin characterization that mar so much of the sub-genre often referred to — with a certain amount of misplaced pride — as neo-noir.
Meh. Most of it just doesn’t impress me.
The emphasis on gore, torture, bodily fluids, foul language, lazy cynicism and anything else that might shock or offend “straight” readers?
Sorry, but it’s all just much easier to lampoon than to take seriously.
Although, of course, those who work the dark vein of neo-noir often take themselves very seriously, indeed.
Unless they’re called on it, of course. In which case, they’re quick to dismiss what they write as simple parody or satire. And equally fast to tag those who don’t “get it” as hopelessly square. Out of it. Ready for the old fart’s home.
And Brian Lindemuth, reviews editor, knows all this about me. We’ve turned this thing over on the spit several times. Hell, just the other day I pondered whether, due to the “surprising lack of power tools in classic noir, Cain, Goodis and Woolrich” should be “disqualified from the noir canon.”
And now, along comes “Take Arms Against a Sea,” a nasty little piece of business by Mark Jaskowski, a young writer from in Gainesville, Florida, that features as one of its dramatic centrepieces one of my pet peeves and one of neo-noir’s most popular tropes: torture and/or death by, yes, power tools.
So, did Brian set me up, or is Lady Luck just taking me for a ride?
* * * * *
“The power drill has a nice loud motor. The bit looks expensive, durable. I move the drill in circles in front of his face, letting him get the picture. His eyes go wide. He pushes himself back as far as he can.
I start with the feet.”
Granted, that’s a fine little piece of writing. Strong. Direct. Taut. We’re spared the needless play-by-play — we’re already creeped out. Jaskowsi is to be commended for showing such savvy restraint, especially in a book devoted to a genre that far too often relies on shock and awe. It bodes well. Very well.
… it’s an isolated bit of storytelling in a narrative that doesn’t really go anywhere special, doesn’t really even come from anywhere. Except maybe the dubious expectations of its own sub-genre.
It’s good, but it loses strength through sloppy editing and some details that only seem right if you don’t think too long about them, like the carefully noted temperature of spilled liquid on a kitchen floor in the midst of a confrontation.
But that’s nitpicking. Here’s my real beef: where are the people?
Scrape away the murders and the betrayals and the inevitable doom, and classic noir was always, first and foremost, about recognizable people. The doofus insurance man in Double Indemnity led astray by a wily seductress. The goody-two-shoes detective who becomes part of the nastiness in Chandler’s The Big Sleep and a zillion other private eye tales. The hapless hitchhiker in Ulmer’s Detour who takes a wrong turn and just keeps on going. That’s what noir is to me: ordinary working grunts who get slapped in the face by a combination of bad choices and worse luck. Look at noir’s classic protagonists: they aren’t kingpins of industry or evil geniuses — they’re folks out there sweating for a buck, hustling to get by, knowing they’re still got a way to climb, but often, at least at first, unaware of how far they might fall. If they’re cops, they’re bulls. If they’re crooks, they’re grifters and petty thieves. They’re not senators or millionaires and crime lords. And they’re not saints, either. Most are willing, when push comes to shove, to cut a corner or turn a blind eye. Just this once.
If they sound vaguely familiar, they should. They’re you. They’re me. We may not always like them, or even approve of their choices, but we can understand them. There’s almost always a sense of empathy or identification in traditional noir.
But neo-noir? Not so much.
Instead we’re asked to identify with sociopaths and serial killers and people like Jim, the twenty-something slacker video store clerk in “Take Arms Against a Sea.” He’s going nowhere, and he knows it. But he’s happy enough, binging on free rentals (mostly trashy B-flicks, of course) from work and living with Stephanie, a waitress/drug dealer who’s into a little rough sex now and then (she keeps handcuffs on the bed).
Okay, so far, so good. We don’t have to be Jim to relate to him.
But Jim’s reaction when he suspects his co-worker Andy, also a dealer, of roughing up Stephanie over a business deal gone south? Off the charts.
Accidents, mistakes, misunderstandings and the like are the fuel that noir runs on. But it’s hard to get behind a person whose response to his girlfriend’s new black eye is to show up at the suspected culprit’s house armed with handcuffs, a convenient change of clothes in the trunk of his car and only vague suspicions.
Good luck convincing a jury it wasn’t pre-meditated. And good luck really caring what happens to Jim after the drill comes out.
Sure, the icy cold finger of fate is still to come, but you’ll be able to hear the snap of that rubber glove from a long way off if you’ve read much classic short crime fiction. In fact, if you leave the “twist” right where it is, strip away the self-conscious noir trappings, and make Jim and Stephanie a nice suburban middle-class couple, this could be a short story from Alfred Hitchcock or Ellery Queen circa 1959.
For me, the pull of noir has always been about the dance of light and dark; the play of shadows even as things fall apart and the centre starts slipping into darkness. Too much of what is considered noir these days ignores the light. It simply paints the world black, and prides itself on its own glib cynicism. It’s the descent into hell without the fall from grace, the darkness without the light. And so the nightmare angst of a world weary of world wars and depression that first drew readers in the thirties and forties and fifties to these strange dark stories is replaced by the literature of a sneering adolescent mindset inured (or not yet exposed) to real pain, grooving on ever-more-sensational cheap thrills.
Jaskowski has managed to write a black little tale, without resorting to those sort of tricks, but he fails to give his characters enough depth or credibility to really bring it home. He has proven he can write dark. Now let’s see him be brave enough to let in a little light.