Noir Classics: Those Who Walk Away – Patricia Highsmith by K. A. Laity

Art, Crime Fiction, Euro Noir, Existentialism, International Noir, K A Laity, Noir, Patricia Highsmith, Punk Noir Magazine

those who walk away

Don’t let the pull quote form Slavoj Zizek put you off. This too-little read classic by Highsmith is a cracking read. It’s suffused with an existential dread so thick you could cut it with a Derwatt paint knife. It starts in Rome and quickly moves to Venice, currently repopulated with swans and dolphins, which is no less bizarre than this book.

Adding to the head-jerking oddness, it’s dedicated to Lil Picard, ‘painter and writer, one of my more inspiring friends’ in Highsmith’s words. The Jewish artist was once part of the Dadaists scene in Berlin, hanging out with Brecht and Dix, then fled to New York where she hung out at Andy’s Factory and made performance art with Caroline Schneeman and Yoko. It’s a surprising choice for the notoriously anti-Semitic writer (they’d not spoken in a decade) but it speaks volumes to her yearning for art and artistry.

Art permeates the story: Ray Garrett is thinking of starting a gallery as he grieves for his wife’s suicide, fearing that he might have been able to save her if only he’d seen the clues (Highsmith dealt with the same when her lover, the artist Allela Cornell, committed suicide). This is the least of his problems, however.

The book opens with Garrett walking through Rome with his passive-aggressive father-in-law who, quiet suddenly, takes out a gun and shoots him, and then runs off. More shocked than injured, Garrett panics and runs back to his hotel to put a Band-Aid on the graze and clean the blood from his shirt. And to think: how did Colemon get a gun? What would he do when he discovered Ray was not dead?

This begins a weird tale of cat and mouse that quickly moves to Venice. ‘If he saw Coleman alone again just once, he could say it all plainly in words—say the plain fact that he didn’t know why Peggy had killed herself, that he honestly couldn’t explain it.’ But her father won’t accept the truth. So much so that Ray begins to wonder if he does bear some guilt. When Coleman shoves him off a boat into the wintery canal, Ray goes into hiding to let him believe he’s been killed. It may, in part, be fueled by the fever he catches from his soaking. But it becomes quite surreal.

He begins to think like a criminal, inventing lies sometimes for cover and sometimes just for a kind of romanticised desire to disappear from himself. Ray tells himself he’s not trying to change his appearance with the beard at the same time he’s cautioning himself to invent a ‘decent’ story: ‘The nearest to the truth was best, or so he had always heard.’ I love how Highsmith tips her hand here about her own easy story-making. Ray looks at himself (oh the cliché but this is 1967) and sees a lot more than he wants to:

It was an American face, slightly on the handsome side, hopelessly marred by vagueness, discretion, the second thought, if not downright indecision.

As gruesome as this all sounds, there is actually a lot of humour in the novel. Ray and his partner consider opening the Gallery of Bad Art in NYC, if they can’t find enough good painters to share. ‘Call it Gallery Zero, for instance. The public’ll soon get the idea.’ Highsmith obsesses over art and its quality in a very different way from Ripley’s blithe assurance that forgery is better than ‘good’ art. The humour pops out quite unexpectedly (like Highsmith’s own ‘jokes’ apparently) and so do the astute observations, like a sharp knife in the dark. I think Camus and Sartre would approve of this one which seems to sum up so much of her work:

Perhaps identity, like hell, was merely other people.

Existentialism in Noir by K. A. Laity

David Goodis, Existentialism, Graham Wynd, International Noir, K A Laity, Noir, Non-fiction, Patricia Highsmith, Punk Noir Magazine, Writing


shoot

A few years back I was on an existentialism panel at NoirCon that went a bit off the rails (those who were there may recall why) so we never really got deeply into the topic. It’s hung around in the back of my brain pan for a while and two recent reads pinged a few sparks around that got me thinking about different ways of embodying existentialism.

The first book had been one of those gaps in my noir reading: Down There AKA Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis. You probably know the Truffaut film even if you haven’t read the book. I sort of thought I had, but I hadn’t. If you know Goodis at all, you know not to read his books when you’re feeling low. The most painful sort of existentialism that might be summed up as the “just put one foot in front of the other because that’s all there is” school. Edward Lynn is the titular player and he’s playing hot music when his brother Turley staggers into the bar and upends his life.

But we find that’s not the real beginning of the story. We backtrack eventually to find out how this prodigy went from concert halls to an ex-wrestler’s dive bar. And we meet Lena, the first bright ray of sunshine and an all-right dame who makes Eddie remember what it’s like to want to live.

Things don’t stay that way: this is bleak stuff with some great jazzy prose in between. The last line, “He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard” epitomises the alienation Goodis makes you feel. There is no hope. All you can do is just soldier on.

tremor

In some ways, the existentialism of Patricia Highsmith’s The Tremor of Forgery is even more disturbing. Howard Ingham goes to Tunisia to work with a director on a screenplay only to find out the director has committed suicide back in New York—in Ingham’s own apartment no less. He decides to hang around anyway and work on his book about an unrepentant con man, feeling superior to both the locals and to the other American resident, Francis J. Adams, the purveyor of All-American propaganda behind the Iron Curtain (it’s 1969) arranged by a private donor.

Without all his normal social interactions, Ingham goes to pieces. His moods swing, he loses interest in then fanatically loves his lukewarm girl friend. His writing goes great. His writing stops. He enjoys Tunisia. He hates it. In short he has no moral centre. And things get weirder. The director may have committed suicide because of Ingham’s gal. Adams is maybe CIA or something or maybe it’s all his imagination.

Maybe Ingham kills someone. But if he does, no one seems to care.

He travels. He moves out of the hotel. His girlfriend visits. He’s not going back. He’s going back. It gets to the point you don’t know what’s real. Ingham certainly doesn’t. How much of this is Highsmith’s own xenophobia, racism and misanthropy? It’s all subsumed in the noise. Even Ingham’s final words are obscured, “unheard in the shuffle of sandals, the din of transistors, the blare of the unintelligible flight announcements” and the possible and ever so apt murder weapon, “the typewriter in his hand weighed nothing at all now.” It’s all messed up. As Denise Mina warns in the introduction, “Her books will make you reckless.”

Think I might be up for a trip to Tunisia. It’s not like anything means anything, right?

K. A. Laityis an award-winning author, scholar, critic and arcane artist. Her books include How to Be Dull,White RabbitDream Book, A Cut-Throat BusinessLush Situation, Owl Stretching, Unquiet DreamsChastity Flame, and Pelzmantel. She has edited My Wandering UterusRespectable HorrorWeird Noir, Noir Carnival and Drag Noir, plus written many short stories, scholarly essays, songs, and more. Follow her on TwitterInstagram or Facebook.

She also writes crime as Graham Wynd and historical fiction as Kit Marlowe.