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The Prole Inside Me

The literary vaudeville

Crime writer Jim Thompson spent his final years in Hollywood amid decidedly grim circumstances: None of his twenty-nine books remained in print, he was in ill health, and his talents were exploited by up and coming young Hollywood spoon-wearers. Shortly before he died in 1977, he is believed to have told his family to maintain all the rights to his fiction: “Just you wait! I’ll be famous after I’m dead about ten years!” It could have been a moment from one of the astringent family melodramas he’d produced among his crime novels. Except, of course, that the decade or so following his demise proved the old man right. In 1983 Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me was issued as a “Quill Mysterious Classic” amid a general revival of interest in Thompson and the violent, melodramatic fiction of his era. In 1984, three years after Geoffrey O’Brien published his survey Hardboiled America, Barry Gifford’s Black Lizard Press began reprinting the rest of Thompson’s oeuvre along with the forgotten works of other crime writers of the Forties and Fifties. After both The Grifters and After Dark, My Sweet appeared in theaters in 1990, Black Lizard was even absorbed into the formidable Vintage line of adult trade paperbacks.

At the same historical moment that this initial revival was finding a certain market success, the mavericks of academic postmodernism were admitting all manner of once-secondary literatures into the sacred canon of culture. Crime fiction was among the first and most widely noted in a slew of rediscovered splinters that would eventually include rock videos, sci-fi cults, pornography, and the collected works of navel-baring pop singers. Yet texts like Robin Winks’s Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays (1988) and anthologies like Tony Hillerman’s 680-page Oxford Book of American Detective Stories (1996) still conspicuously omitted the works of Thompson and his colleagues Chester Himes, David Goodis, and Charles Willeford. Thus Robert Polito’s recent compilation of eleven writers in the two-volume Library of America anthology Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s/1950s (990 pages, hardback/892 pages, hardback) gives a peculiar final legitimacy and visibility to both the revivalist and postmodern thrusts. In it the works of forgotten novelists are pulled from oblivion’s maw like so many black teeth and transformed into elegant, embossed, cloth hardbacks with ribbon markers, well-sewn bindings, and all the other accessories that a $35-per-volume price tag entails. Though Messrs. Goodis, Willeford, and Himes may never achieve the kind of stature among the ambitious young literati as, say, Chuck Bukowski, the Library of America anthology gives their erstwhile ten-cent paperback products the hushing gravity of permanence.

The Library of America volume also comes in the wake of a third canonization: These novels are now the ur-texts of the age of Tarantino, an instant tradition to sanctify Hollywood’s newest ultranoir product lines. Like the B-pictures of the Forties and Fifties that were remade into a host of major-studio action films, these books are a trove of theme, prop, and gesture ready to be transformed into salable attitude. The novels work as pulpy confirmation of what we now know from Pulp Fiction (and the raft of pointless imitators—Two Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead—which still lurk like muggers on the video racks): the cinematic recombination of violence into irony, the nuanced terrors of intentional assault transformed into a snappy, empty contradiction, a meaningless rebus whose solution is “No, fuck you” (Bang!). The reader of today must make an imaginative portage around the post-Tarantino Niagara in order to see a history worth tracing: the ways in which these novelists, working under tight deadlines for short money, constructed a vision of their times wholly different from the ultranoir of today, where every scumbag is witty and the law never arrives. Read closely and their claustrophobic world still materializes; the quaintness one expects never shows up at all.

The crime fiction of our own day is different. Unlike the old paperbacks, the genre now rests on a bedrock of moral comfort that provides its readers—all their prurient enthusiasms notwithstanding—with reassuring references to their own carefully monitored public lives. In most contemporary detective stories (the works of Patricia Cornwell or James Patterson, for example) criminal action is approached from the comfort zone of outrage, understood as a ghastly, contemptible flouting of the forces of order. Most such novels—despite the badass boasting of their blurbs and glossy jackets—return to a fundamental affirmation of this wholesome, imagined social norm.

By contrast, the novels collected in the Library of America anthology, despite their diversity in date and style, only offer this sense of group propriety either as a savage narrative joke on a hapless character or as a thing to be savaged by an outwardly jovial but inwardly fractured man. Their jaundiced social vision, used to connect to a similarly alienated reader, makes these novels seem less a precursor of today’s product and more a mutation of the proletarian literature of the Depression, which gained some prominence in the Thirties and Forties, but then dropped precipitously out of favor in the postwar period (a time, of course, when overt leftist expression in general took a hard fall down the station house staircase). Almost nobody talks about proletarian fiction today. Yesterday’s transgression has a knack for reappearing as today’s fashion, but for this genre, with its earnest Okies and utopian faiths, it seems unlikely that the marketing tricks that have made vintage crime so appealing to today’s eager daddy-o’s will work or even be tried.

The recent public enthusiasm for the tropes of noir obscures the commonalities between these schools. And yet so similar were the circumstances under which proletarian and crime writers emerged in the Thirties that any distinctions between what are obviously different sorts of novels become blurred upon close reading. Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929), for example, can be read as a representative of both styles, with its “Continental op” (read Pinkerton) who shifts allegiances between a corrupt mining concern and the mob in the booming Montana company town of “Personville” (read Butte). Hammett describes potential social resistance but little comes of men’s earnest efforts except for a large pile of bodies. Or consider the career of Jim Thompson, who joined the Wobblies as an itinerant oil worker in 1926, and then had a twenty-odd-year long “apprenticeship” writing for true-crime magazines and less respectable outlets like the Los Angeles Mirror. During this time, he wrote a number of openly leftist manuscripts, including a “hobo novel” and a nonfiction study based on his work with the Oklahoma Writers’ Project, “We Talked About Labor,” both of which were eventually scuttled. His debut novel, Now and On Earth (1942), a protracted portrait of a high-pressure bookkeeping job in a wartime aircraft plant populated by gung-ho rabble, merged a hellish take on family life with his gathering disillusionment with the proletarian cause. The Killer Inside Me, which remains arguably the most claustrophobic paperback original ever, describes the life of a police officer who both enforces a town’s cloying normality and indulges privately in all manner of sadistic pastimes (among other things, he extinguishes a cigar in the outstretched palm of a Thirties-style hobo).

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), the first entry in Polito’s anthology, is a compact tale that reminds us of the crime novel’s origins in the Dreiserian overtness of proletarian narrative. Cain’s narrator is as cynical about capitalism as one of Hammett’s hard-boiled protagonists, but rather than an enforcer of bourgeois order he is a minor grifter adrift in Depression California, his station summarized by the book’s opener: “They threw me off the hay truck around noon.” Professing a yen for “the road,” he only lingers in a cafe job to seduce the proprietor’s sullen, bitter wife. While the narrator is laconic about his life circumstances, she simmers with a sexualized resentment (describing her life in California as “two years of guys pinching your leg and leaving nickel tips and asking how about a little party tonight”) that somehow gets reconfigured as adulterous violence seasoned with purely proletarian economic reasoning: “And do you think I’m going to let you wear a smock, with Service Auto Parks printed on the back, Thank U Call Again, while he has four suits and a dozen silk shirts? Isn’t that business half mine? Don’t I cook? Don’t I cook good? Don’t you do your part?” Here the hard knocks of working-class life evolve into crime fiction archetype: The amoral woman, made sexually dominant by poverty, lures another archetype, the hapless and economically impotent male grifter, into criminal violence. Such themes are frequently adduced to characterize the mostly male genre of crime writing as misogynist hackwork; here, however, such misogyny might be better understood as a natural consequence of the grinding economic deprivation that reduces both men and women to quasi-pornographic components.

Although Cain is almost never recalled for the social consciousness of his crime fiction—or for his thoroughly redbaited 1946 attempt to form a writers’ union—his debut bears comparison to that of proletarian writer Tom Kromer, whose sole completed novel, Waiting for Nothing, was published by Knopf in the same year as Postman. Kromer’s book is a disjunctive, immediate narrative of life “on the stem”: bargaining for green baloney butts, riding the rails, coupling with an amateur prostitute for warmth and a well-heeled homosexual for food. Although his narrator is chattier and more overwrought than Cain’s bitter, calculating lovers, they all concur on the lack of space between personal circumstance and the dark abrasiveness of the larger society. Unlike the era’s more epic-minded writers, Kromer and Cain portray every move of the dispossessed as a roundabout dance of futility. Where Cain’s narrators remain elliptical even while setting up their murderous “accidents,” Kromer’s language becomes a dripping salve, running over and over the callous and hopeless everyday routines of millions during the Depression, including Kromer himself (his book was written in a CCC camp; debilitating illness brought on by several years as a hobo and rail rider eighty-sixed his later efforts). Waiting for Nothing becomes a sort of parody of the actual tedious “working grind” of the socialized man, whose way of life seems as remote and even humorous to Kromer as the eggs-n-yeggs milieu of the crime novels now seem to us. Kromer was not a crime writer except in the sense that he viewed society itself as criminal, but this militantly critical attitude is one shared consistently, if in more modulated tones, by the writers of American noir.

Several of the writers in the anthology were even more closely aligned, by either association or emulation, with the proletarian impulse, and the ways in which they are received and recalled today speaks to the gap between a “popular” (yet considered anti-intellectual in its time) genre and a “populist” (yet politically suspect) one. Kenneth Fearing was already a well-regarded poet known for undiluted leftist sentiment when he published his fourth novel, The Big Clock, in 1946. The novel’s “ensemble” narration both reflects the smugness of the book’s publishing-conglomerate setting and conceals Fearing’s politicized “voice” to a degree his poetry rarely does. The quasi-criminal desire that informs the protagonists of all these novels is here manifested in Organization Man terms: the corporate honeycomb as voyeur’s paradise, the addictive power of the perks, and what the yups of any era never understand—how easily one’s participation in the money dance can become one’s grinding end and devourer. Although the melodramatic plot—a crime magazine editor, framed for murder, is forced to hunt himself—may creak like an old Philco, the creeping horror of work inside a media conglomerate and the gassy authenticity of Fearing’s callously relaxed protagonist remain effective. Fearing’s commercial fortunes fell rapidly, however, especially after the FBI officially labeled him as a “potential” Communist in 1950, and having made little money from the film sale of his best known novel, he drifted into obscurity and a staff job at Newsweek.

Chester Himes, read today primarily as a seminal African-American writer, remains the Missing Man of classic crime fiction. Like Thompson’s debut effort, Himes’s first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1946), is also set in the labor furnace of wartime California. Here a young black shipyard worker finds that the casual treachery of his white co-workers, the rigorous segregation of “public” life, and the harrying patriotism of the war effort essentially derive from the same shadowy system. As with Thompson and Hammett, Himes’s hard-edged leftist perspective was forged from experience, rather than through the cooler routes of the academy. And, again like Thompson, Himes would evolve from the workerist style to a more individuated consideration of social authority. Himes’s own break with the American left came early, when he offended his core audience with Lonely Crusade (1947), a chilly portrayal of a young black pawn in the midst of a UCLA “red conspiracy.” Like Thompson and Fearing before him, Himes came to write crime novels accidentally, and in his case literally in exile: Living abroad in 1956, he was recruited by Marcel Duhamel, the editor of the French detective line Série Noire, to produce “police procedurals.” The result was a series of eight “Harlem Domestic” novels featuring a memorably sorrowful/brutal duo of black detectives, Coffin Ed Jones and Grave Digger Johnson. These are intricately plotted urban picaresques, dense with Himes’s recollection of both Harlem’s sensual pleasures and the creeping rot beneath, a place where Jones and Johnson loom as enforcers of a weighted ghetto code. The Real Cool Killers (1959), Himes’s representation in the Library of America anthology, is a comparatively slow and stationary fiction in which the apparent killer of a white soda pop salesman (who paid young black schoolgirls to take his fierce whippings) is snatched from the detectives by a “gage” smoking gang of faux-Arabic teenagers, the Real Cool Moslems. In tracking the gang down, Himes’s detectives are more a roving version of Harlem’s anarchy than representatives of a comforting “downtown” social order. In its sharply etched portrayal of black-on-black cruelty and of the appetite of dispossessed youth for fantasy allegiances, the book is weirdly prescient. Like all these writers at their best, Himes used the knuckleheaded stylings of crime fiction to produce something more: a fully realized portrait of the black city’s street life, social stratification, and underground economy, a document of a people beset by a rigged game and illicit temptations.


As the small paperback houses reached their commercial apogee during the Fifties, the crime fiction they published became increasingly estranged from the left, even as the left itself turned away from its more inclusive proletarian past. It’s telling that Mickey Spillane came to personify the genre in the public mind in those years: His seven original Mike Hammer novels, universally condemned for their “sado-fascist” tendencies while moving some fifteen million units, told of the widening chasm between the unwashed of the working class and their affronted intellectual betters.

Meanwhile, more marginal crime writers pursued increasingly interior and personalized fictions. Charles Willeford, author of at least seventeen crime novels, seems to flicker and fade as a human presence against his improbable early fiction. Willeford joined the Army Air Corps at sixteen, served as a tank commander in Europe in World War II, and remained in uniform for over a decade more while becoming a self-taught novelist, eventually publishing a string of kinky, truncated novels with some lower-rent paperback houses. These books are meticulous portrayals of the American alpha-male as social bayonet, welding a lush evocation of the swinging bachelor life (“We drank the shaker of stingers and went to bed”) to the unsettling narrative perspective of all the sociopathic women-chasers whose scrim of tawdry macho recklessness is still celebrated today in the high tide of Cocktail Nation drivel. Willeford’s second novel, Pick Up (1955), presents an odd variant on this approach: a meandering romance between a restless lunchroom attendant and an attractive woman whose tendency toward drunkenness dwarfs his. Although any description of the book makes it sound like cheap romantic tragedy, Willeford’s narrative is not maudlin or exploitative voyeurism. What strikes one are the inflections of delicacy and domestic concern which Willeford sneakily highlights, as in the minutiae of the protagonist’s fruitless attempts to keep the couple in T-bones and whisky without holding a steady job. Unlike their prewar predecessors, Willeford’s characters carry on a hungry romance with normality and all its accompanying sense of male entitlement. Like the lonesome sideburn-toting cocktail boys of our moment, clad in their spectral rayon, they wear the skins of conformists even as they explode in slow-mo in their greasy spoons, seedy bars, drunk wards, and jail cells.


The appearance of Polito’s ample anthology signals a canonical apogee of sorts for the fetishized revival of crime fiction that began in the early Eighties. That this revival has been often superficial is demonstrated by the disproportionate attention usually paid to the voluptuous, oil-painted cover art of the paperback originals: Reproduced in glossy postcard books and endlessly rehashed in film and advertising and rock band imagery, it is these unambiguous images that have resonated most powerfully for American consumers of the Eighties and Nineties. These static scenes are what we remember, what we intimately recall. But Polito’s anthology presents different problems. Nearly all of its eleven novels function, on some level, as angry critiques of American-style capitalism, accusing it of degrading the average, nonprivileged citizen to the level of the criminal. And yet these novels’ relationship to the proletarian writing of their time has almost never been considered. Nor are they likely to be read as social texts now.

No, these novels are remembered as legitimation, as a crude pedigree for the decontextualized-violence-product being excreted by the Culture Trust these days after its long process of profit-entertainment calculation and digestion. Just as the hipster embrace of the primitive pornography of nudie loops and girlie mags removes them from the racist and sexist Fifties “smoker” milieu, the chic elevation of noir occurs even while real-life criminal violence becomes ever more exclusively the province of an emerging polyethnic mystery class, about whom we generally hear only when individual incidents are horrific enough to merit close coverage. Both the pious, vampiric attentions of the news programs and the fetishized ghost of noir serve to obscure for consumers the ways in which the reconfiguring of violence is anything but accidental. In the cities, where the gentrification of decrepit areas has played its own role in the redistribution of crime, young urbanites (themselves steeped in noir accessorization) are now free to lounge in their “edgy” rehabbed apartments (exposed brick! Eurokitchens!) and luxuriate in the voyeuristic simulacrum of popcult perversion, zapped on the chemicals of their choice (Cosmopolitans, doobies, smack?), free from either police or criminal invasion, secure in the knowledge that by the bright light of day their employed lives will resume. In these same cities, mere blocks away, of course, the scales of safety and danger for different citizens are much jiggered. In the suburbs and in the “heartland,” in the gated communities and on the New Jersey highways where the state smokeys still use race profiling in their traffic stops, the disconnect between public fear and public risk is even greater.

None of this detracts from the relief one feels that the Library of America anthology (and despite the smugness of its demographic, the Vintage crime line) ensures that these novels are again widely available, nor from the respect one must grant writers such as Fearing, Thompson, and Himes for surviving absurdities of circumstance that would turn most young writers today into publicists and salesmen, as well as for their audacity in insisting that the thrill-driven potboiler (a genre fundamentally welded to the market) could still connect to real humanity despite the hackneyed plots of safes, yeggs, and fast black sedans. The quiet storms of these novels remain inviting against a contemporary aesthetic where the subtleties of real violence are lost in the universal translator, dumbed down into a single sick joke. What real murder or heist or cabal can reach us—can touch us with the fundamentally perverse and recognizable human impulses of the perpetrators—now that we all know enough to appreciate the zany humor of hitman John Travolta “accidentally” firing a .45 hollowpoint into the skinny guy’s head, getting hitman Samuel Jackson’s kool ride all fucked up with brains and shit? It’s funny, we respond, in unison, as the synthetic blood patters down, as the Pepsi-drinking hitman rants on the big screen. We may flinch and giggle, but we’re not particularly surprised or concerned, because what we’re viewing bears no more familiarity or relevance to our lives than, say, a spectacle of giant gore-spraying gladiator insects. Despite their hoary vintage, the best of classic American crime writing offers no such divorce from prosaic reality, and it’s this element that makes them still convincing and sometimes chilling, and that weaves into even a book as gray and personal as David Goodis’s Down There (1956) an undeniably political consciousness. For readers who no longer recognize the fear that lurks behind everyday normality, these novels will seem only dated. But the curious circumstances these long buried writers portrayed are still with us—the too-quiet cafe, the too-helpful lawman, the darkness just beyond our brightly lit spaces—and as the news reports from such ordinary, frightened places as Junction City and Jonesboro confirm, we still live in a country where the civil dance of white flight—lock the door! dial 911!—is but a placebo in the face of ever more probable collisions, a lame imitation of the safety we crave.