THE DISEMBODIED PARTS: A Rhapsody by Pablo D’Stair

From author Pablo D’Stair (LUCY JINX, REGARD) comes an inimitable portrait of brotherhood and an excavation of the communal folklore which forges artistic perception.

FOURTH GRADER, ICHABOD BURLAP AND his brother Alvin lived in a neighborhood where the disembodied parts of a corpse, each armed with some implement of death, roamed without restriction. These maledictions could disguise themselves as animals, each one. Rust-colored squirrel, a hand. Overweight pigeon, a head. Some kids said this shape-shifting is needless as the parts could turn invisible, teleport through solid walls and ceilings. Some kids said all kinds of things. Misinformation. Uninformed lunkheads, disbelieving louts, and daredevils sewing confusion.

Were the body parts all of a single corpse? Whose corpse? Was the dead man contemporary, ancient? Were the body parts as much a disguise as the animals? Was this menace – entity, lifeforce – not of our physical or psychic realm?

Some kids said they knew. Some kids said all kinds of things.
Some kids were, one day, never heard from again …

THE DISEMBODIED PARTS is a dramatic performance of the text of Pablo D’Stair’s autobiographical novel evoking a childhood exactly as it was – which is precisely as it wasn’t.

Currently, it’s available via Podbean (where it is hosted) and through Spotify – episodes will begin appearing on Audible, iTunes and other places soon, too.

PODBEAN: www.disembodiedparts.podbean.com

SPOTIFY: https://open.spotify.com/show/7gVD0O5VFvK7sbHEPd42mi

Classic Noir: The Long Goodbye (1973) by K A Laity

Classic Noir: The Long Goodbye (1973)

I read the novel so long ago (back in my L. A. days so looooong ago) I could only remember the basics of the story. There were probably more of them in the original script by the legend Leigh Brackett, but Robert Altman’s style of filmmaking always left room for improvisation and Elliott Gould—unlikely to be most director’s ideal choice to play Phillip Marlowe—works well here.

It’s been so long since I’ve seen this film that likewise memory proves unreliable. So much has changed in the mean time, too. I’ve been soaking in noir and neo-noir for so long now it’s altered my view on the genre, mostly to be much more accommodating. I dug out my vintage paperback to read later and sat down on a sunny Saturday afternoon to visit 1973 Los Angeles with Elliot Gould and co and Vilmos Zsigmond’s singular cinematography.

The ginger cat is the one thing everybody remembers. I should write a book about ginger cats in noir. You can’t cheat a cat. Chandler loved cats. The scene feels genuine to any cat lover: having fallen asleep in his clothes, Marlowe is awakened by the moggy landing on his belly. Ouch. He has no choice but to drag himself out at 3am in his 1948 Lincoln convertible to the 24 hour food store. The car is a nice touch, signaling Marlowe a throwback to another time, Chandler’s idea of the P.I. as a kind of knight with a code.

Then there’s the candle dippers next door. The topless women would feel more gratuitous if they didn’t have a totally believable and completely natural hippy languor. Asking Marlowe to pick up boxes of brownie mix and doing elaborate yoga poses on the balcony at night. The iconic High Tower provides an unforgettable location for Marlowe’s home, outdone only by the Malibu Colony. Apparently the Ward’s house was the one Altman was living in at the time.

Nina van Pallandt embodies the concerned wife with just enough difference from the mostly Californian cast to make her thinking seem mysterious but believable. Sterling Hayden is a legend and manages to uphold that without chewing scenery which would be easy to do in the role of the writer who can no longer write, who is drunk and angry with the world, not necessarily in that order. Allegedly inspired by Chandler’s own struggles as his wife was dying. Ward’s death is changed from the novel and pays off much better, especially in how it affects Marlowe, who develops a fondness for the difficult man. The drinking scene with Hayden and Gould was largely improvised and has an authentic feel.

Henry Gibson, best known at the time as a gentle poet on Laugh-In, is super creepy and menacing in a really unsettling way as the dry-out doctor trying to extort money from Wade.

Jim Bouton, better known for baseball and even more so for his tell-all memoir Ball Four about that career, makes his film debut as the pal asking Marlowe for a lift to Mexico with some suspicious injuries including a clawed face.

What feels most 70s about this movie is the cops. Well, not that they’ve changed much in L.A. according to my friends who still live there. That gritty, don’t care about anything attitude and the clothes—those awful seventies clothes that modern films never quite get right—they provide a good target for Marlowe’s dogged resistance. The ink interrogation scene is another improvised scene.

I had to look it up, but yeah, there’s a portrait of Leonard Cohen in the Ward’s house because Altman was a fan. Speaking of fans, I love the gatekeeper at the Colony and his impressions of the stars.

A cool thing: except for ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ that opens and closes the film, all the other music is variations of the theme tune by Johnny Mercer and John Williams—even the dirge played in the scenes in Mexico. It’s a great thematic device that gives the picture aural coherence.

The changed ending is often credited to Altman, but it was part of Brackett’s original script which was shopped around for some years before finally coming together with this unexpected group of talents. It works. The final scene is almost an inverse of The Third Man’s iconic ending, with a harmonica in place of the jaunty zither.

Well worth a revisit if it’s been a while for you, too. If you’ve not seen it, a treat awaits. Bonus: here’s a great interview with Gould by Kim Morgan.

K A LAITY IS HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE.

Punk Novel Depicts America’s Fall from Grace

August 26, 2020, Los Angeles, California – “Seattle, Minneapolis, Portland, the list of cities rebelling, rejecting our current system of government and social order is growing, and the oppressed, the long-ignored, are now rising up,” claims Russ Lippitt, author of the soon-to-be-released novel F.T.W.: Rise of the Anarchy March. “A ‘new’ normal? Get used to it. The reality is there is no such thing as ‘normal.’ It’s an illusion.” Rising authoritarianism, the cratering of the US economy, and geopolitical instabilities, Lippitt proposes a way out. By showing us what will happen if we decide “to continue on a road that is futureless,” and placing Anarchy in a fictional space, he makes an often-misunderstood philosophy more plausible.

F.T.W. dives deep into the bleak and post-apocalyptic nation once known as the United States of America. When the ideals of, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were taken for granted, those same rights were denied. In the near future, the republic has been torn apart into sovereign countries by politics, greed, and religion. The horrors that ensued from decades of raging wars between the upper and lower classes gives rise to a punk brigade known as the Anarchy March. They fight to overturn their corrupt government’s tyranny on humanity and to save the world from the status quo.    

Lippitt scoffs at the comparisons of his revolutionary and quite disturbing predictive tome, and the “Punks” who lead it, to Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. “They missed the mark by decades and were wrong about the people who would lead the charge!” Does F.T.W. try to solve some of life’s most complex and looming questions. “No,” says Lippitt, but rather, “It’s a warning shot, decrying the savageness when all seems lost.” The expeditions of the Anarchy March shine a spotlight on unfettered religion, war, and politics in order to understand and co-exist with one another amidst diverse philosophies. 

In the spirits of The Outsiders and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I raise my gin and tonic high in author Russ Lippitt’s honor!”

— Outsight Radio (review for Lion’s Share)

Russ Lippitt lives in Los Angeles, CA. He is the Anarchologist of our time; the author of the critically acclaimed Lion’s Share, a sought-after counterculture featured columnist, and has several script and film projects in the works. Lippitt is the articulate voice of the younger generation of punks and societal rebels who believe they have been betrayed by the “promise” of America.

November 2020 · 226 pp · 5.5” x 8.5” · Fiction
Trade Paperback: ISBN 9781893660304 · $19.99
Published by Ravenhawk Books

The Highsmith Blather by Chris Rhatigan and Pablo D’Stair

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Chris Rhatigan: I’ve been trying to pinpoint why Highsmith’s work is so compelling and timeless. And I have not succeeded.

 

But one element I appreciate is the sense of dread that’s the heartbeat of each novel. The main character is doomed from the beginning, either due to their own poor choices or fate or some combination of the two. This, in my estimation, is noir in its purest form.

 

Take Walter Stackhouse in The Blunderer. He only thinks about killing his wife after she tortures him psychologically. She then commits suicide, but one cop believes that Walter killed her. Walter hasn’t committed a crime and yet he becomes ensnared in the possibility of being a murderer, gradually morphing into the criminal he was desperate to prove that he wasn’t. 

 

The reader knows almost all of this from the beginning. There are no twists, no surprises, only the steady march toward the inevitable. 

 

Pablo D’Stair: And you’ve hit exactly what I feel is the majesty of Highsmith – she’s not there to tell us a story, she is there to curate an examination, her talents a kind of Virgil shepherding us through the, well, more the Purgatorio of the human psyche than even the Inferno.

 

I often joke how it’s so frustrating that she thinks up the best stories, the most finely wrought plotlines, the sort of “elevator pitches” one would murder for (which might as well be the opening of a Highsmith! haha) but only to use as a tease, a jumping off point for existential, nuanced excavation of the nightmare which is human perception. ‘Perception’ being the bogey, the plump little worm in all of our fore-brains (“conscience does make cowards of us all” taken to a giddily perverse extreme, perhaps.)

 

In the simplest way, just taking from your observation, yes: Highsmith perfects the philosophy that when we enter her noir world, we are not there to “see if this person gets out of this mess” but to “watch exactly how they don’t” and, most important, to experience the irrevocable for ourselves – to pull on the skin of someone doomed and walk the plank with them.

 

And what planks!

 

She is the most courageous and uncanny writer precisely because she has the gall to almost be … boring! While most authors are looking to provide a thrill, she is so sinister she teases the thrill to perfection in whichever novels premise and then refuses readers even the catharsis of breakneck pacing or “there it is!” twists and turns. She makes us dwell, know (as we would in life) the absurd moments between the moments of an endlessly forking disaster of a situation.

 

In Found In The Street (perhaps my personal favorite of her work) the gloom, the ingress toward such an absolute yet somehow unexpected undoing of everyone is so much an undercurrent, so coded in banality and the glacial loneliness of life and self-obsession that when a reader, upon finishing, tries to re-read in order to spot any MOMENT any SCENE wherein “oh, there’s that bit where it all went to Hell” … THEY CAN’T FIND IT! It almost feels like “Wait … did any of what I felt actually …happen?”

 

Another joke of mine is how it’s always a risk to recommend a Highsmith (especially some of her more perfect works like Found or The Blunderer, A Dog’s Ransom or – another fave – The Cry of the Owl. Why a risk? Because the lurking suspicion in you that the experience of the book was so personal, so absolute that it won’t exist for another reader – instead, it will reveal one of your own secrets, show you for what no one ever thought you were, the person you recommended it to will look at you like you’re a madman once they close the cover!

 

See, I always found it funny how Highsmith’s notions, her “plots” were so mesmeric that OF COURSE they are widely adapted into film … but film never, ever gets it right. All movies (with few exceptions) built from her work make some version of “the Hitchcock mistake”, as I call it, of taking something like Strangers On A Train and making it about “a bad man proposing something to a good/ordinary man who makes a mistake and gets embroiled in something he didn’t bargain for” – turns it into a White Hat v Black Hat situation, an adventure, a “story” wherein we need to witness “a regular decent chap get in over his head and find his way out.” Turns one of the most inimitable, piercing, and pure noir novels ever written, one wherein there is not a semblance, even, of good versus bad or right versus wrong and morphs it into something sadly ordinary – a thrill ride, a potboiler, a vehicle for popcorn delight. (because it’s a very FUN film, don’t get me wrong)

 

But: Hitchcock, in his version, takes US out of it – allows US a kind of removed, moral high ground, as though “well, we’re not like at least one of these people” – lets us choose a side (and makes perfectly clear while one side may be “flawed” the other side is “batshit awful” – and this is no kind of truly noirish soil to till) whereas Highsmith’s whole modus operandi is to show us how exactly “we are like them all” and to dispense with the semantics and the sophistries we use as “moral compasses” so-called.

 

That is: while we read Highsmith, the sinking feeling that everyone gets what they deserve and, well, we deserve exactly what they deserve, too – thus curiously feel guilty how our uppance has not yet come, but may be waiting in the post in forms we cannot even begin to plan to protect against.

Highsmith documents the ways in which her protagonists fall short of their expectations, how they will continue to make immoral decisions, or decisions that appear to be moral but originate from immoral intents, leading to their demise. 

 

I always found my draw to Highsmith was in her inimitable ability to dispense with “outward morality” (that there is Concrete Morality from a third party source or even a common understanding in people acknowledging a like-concept amongst us) – not even to comment on the notion of Morality to dismiss it in some way, but to deftly ignore it – or moreso, to unacknowledged it, as though such a consideration is dreamland fancy, akin to how a piece of literature written by someone who neither believes in God or who has never, in fact, considered a god one way or the other would not address the discussion of a “possible God” but simply write from a place removed of the question, versus someone who even peripherally entertains the question as relevant, wonders “do I believe that?” and so, in their piece of writing, would give credence to the “possible existence of God.”

 

Highsmith does not acknowledge, even, the “possible existence” of Morality (a reader might bring their feelings to her work, but they will be inducing the ideas, not finding them there) and this gives an incredible insight and imperativeness to situations in her novels wherein characters might even address their lives/actions in such words – we feel, or at least I do (and I might be inducing my worldview as much as anyone else, I acknowledge this) the wholly personal, invented identity of each individual grinding against things which to them are imaginary. Just like, to a criminal, consequences are imaginary. Until they aren’t. And even then, they somehow become so doubly. Which you touch on in how you say their intent does not match to their fate – to a Highsmith character, even their worst fear realized immediately feels prologue, levels out to the status quo, to the inevitable, the blasé blasé.

 

I’m repeatedly drawn to what I consider the best scene in fiction from Strangers on a Train. Guy goes to kill Bruno’s father, and as he sneaks into the house and ascends the stairs, he feels he’s already done this a hundred times before. It both works as a classic scene of suspense–with the patient build toward irrevocable action–and as the final revelation to show Guy as the equal of his tormentor. 

 

This scene, I realized over the years, had a profound influence on me. Now: I hasten to say it was not because it was the first time I’d encountered such a moment, nor was it what introduced a new idea for where a story could go. See: I’d watched the Hitchcock film before reading the novel so I think when Guy kills the father in the book (as I’d always said should have happened in the goddamned film!) I literally whooped for joy, clapped my hands, felt in the presence of the ACTUAL way the story was always SUPPOSED to be (which … well … obviously, hahaha, but I felt really smart and in the presence of a comrade). In the novel, in that scene, I discovered something from my aesthetic so perfectly rendered by another author it stunned and halted me – especially because it was handled more innocuously and with such a deft hand than I could conceive of!

 

While it was The Point of everything (Guy not only going through with it but it being the moment in which all his protestations and inner quaking fall away to such pretense) it also just … well … happened. The same as anything. The same as any other moment. As it would in life. The book didn’t slow down or speed up. No sudden, world altering commentary was given … because the world was not altered.

 

The smallest sequence of a Highsmith book, the “moments where nothing is happening” matched this moment tick-for-tock. Guy did that. And in that moment (and to this day re-reading) the feeling in me is: of course he did, because he was always going to, he always had … and he did, always would, always will … because I wanted him to. I KNEW he would.

 

The utter lack of surprise in the exquisitely rendered moment of the axe falling is a trick Highsmith pulls like no other.

 

 

It’s interesting that you bring up that she’s not telling a story, which is an odd thing to say about a crime writer. But it’s nevertheless accurate; Highsmith is more concerned with psychological examination via the guise of a story. And this may be why her work feels fresh and modern forty, fifty years on: it’s never about the particular situation a character faces but their weakness, their inability to alter fate, their certainty that they’ll become all things they despise. 

 

 

Yep – and to piggyback of what I was driving at about Strangers and Guy’s killing – she doesn’t have to tell a story, because it’s a story everybody knows. There isn’t so much a reveal of a character’s character, so to speak, but an acknowledgment.

 

I say it’s funny about Highsmith that “the moments we never see coming are the moments we see coming a mile away” – that she can craft suspense out of not only the mundane and the minute, but almost out of a spoiler! “She’s going to kill him and get away with it” or whatever. And then she writes about her killing him and getting away with it and right up to her getting away with it (knowing she was going to, knowing she will) one is viced in a rattling sense of noia and disquiet.

 

That Highsmith teases us with the conventions of storytelling but then refuses to truly utilize them, that she takes away the imaginary in her fiction is a dastardly masterstroke, in my opinion. Part of our brain wants the artificial rules and agreements of genre or storytelling, we want “what would happen in the movie,” so to speak, to happen in the novel, in life, in us … but we know it doesn’t, it won’t ever, and so are simultaneously bored with our inscrutable flaws and titillated by being recognized.

 

A Highsmith novel makes me feel caught. It makes me feel Other. It makes me feel suspicious to those I love.

 

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Then she takes those elements in plays with them. In Those Who Walk Away, Ray Garrett experiences crushing guilt about his wife’s suicide, despite seeming to play no role in her death. His guilt is so consuming that he resigns himself to allowing her father–who blames him for her death–to kill him, and yet he fails at this, escaping attack after attack in increasingly absurd ways. Here she rotates the formula a bit–the character wants punishment that may not even be deserved, yet can’t endure it.

 

Oh – Those Who Walk Away! Is there another novel like it? The prototype of the anti-thriller, in many ways, but so much more. I could sit around and unpack the ten thousand ways I think every turn and notion of this novel is genius, but will settle for an exploration of its pure, daredevil simplicity.

 

The book feels like the headspace of crime and guilt – the exact way it feels to get away with stealing oatmeal cookies from the drugstore and getting nabbed for stealing cigarillos from the same place, years later. All at once. Oh, the novel just teeters on the sensation of “something irreversible is about to happen” and teases, teases, teases the psychology in us all that insists “things can go back to being exactly the same as they were”. The sadness of the former, the horror of the latter; the horror of the former, the sadness of the latter. And it blunt-force-traumas the reality that: the same thing never happens. Even when it’s the same thing.

 

In a romance, this might be a nice sentiment: every “I love you” is unique, a set of words which repetition makes anew! But in the grip of Highsmith’s ink? Jesus … the notion that this cat-and-mouse, catch-and-kill game could literally go on forever and represent a new mundanity, a day-to-day no different than anything else, no different than if Ray’s wife had never offed herself – that the novel “makes it point” but then “makes it point, again” but the “again” isn’t “again” it’s “another” even though the “another is the same” is intoxicating.

 

It lives in the exact moment of inertia before a climax begins to rise (or, though this would necessitate a whole other exploration of the novel and so a different answer: the entire novel is post-climax, the violence, the irreversible moment being the suicide, the husband and father the roiling victims of it regardless if they remain “in limbo” or not). Delicious!

 

And just the motherfucking title “Those Who Walk Away” depicting a world in which such a thing is proved obsolete, impossible – no one walks away, yet “those who walk away” is the most accurate thing to call us all!

 

“…the notion that this cat-and-mouse, catch-and-kill game could literally go on forever and represent a new mundanity…” That is a brilliant trick. There’s often talk of “cycles of violence” in crime fiction—which does mirror the real world—but in this book it’s a cycle that has no beginning and extends infinitely because it keeps evolving in minute ways.

 

Beneath this is the creeping sense that not one iota of it matters. In Those Who Walk Away, Ray is quickly convinced that all his work to cover up the murder attempts was futile, because no one cares that Coleman is determined to kill him. While in another writer’s hands this would be melodramatic, with Highsmith it feels completely in line with the world she’s created, almost—to steal your word—blasé that someone would be accused of murder, a fact not worth interrupting anyone’s day about.

 

Higsmith has this underlying sense of noia as you described, with an intense, claustrophobic view entirely from the perspective of the main character. I’m curious as to how you see this operating in the Tom Ripley novels versus her other work. Ripley seems to stand alone, in my estimation, as someone who is comfortable being a criminal and very good at it. Yet the cracks in the façade are what make the character memorable.

 

Well, where even to begin with Ripley!?  Rr with the Ripley/English analogs, for that matter …

 

Just to have a jumping off point regarding the latter consideration, I can admit it was not until after I had penned the opening scene of the first Trevor novella that it occurred to me what an unconscious lift (or let’s say … homage? riff?) on the opening of the first Ripley offering it was. The classic “someone unknown walks up to the protagonist under a wrong impression of the protagonist’s character and makes a simple proposition” which then careens unpredictably in directions wholly unique – in Ripley it was Greenleaf Sr. offering to foot Ripley’s bill would he traipse to Italy and make attempt at convincing the wayward Greenleaf Jr. to return home (Greenleaf Sr. under the assumption Ripley and Greenleaf Jr. would have been acquainted at school) while in Trevor it is the unnamed fellow whose wallet English had lifted offering him cash money to hop cross country to deliver a letter.

 

As I’ve mentioned to you on another occasion (at least I think I did) the Trevor English sequence, while I was writing it, had (never something intended for the publication, just an inside-joke with myself) secondary title “The Talentless Mister English.” hahaha

 

But let me backtrack to Highsmith, because that is the meat of this …

 

And you are spot on that, while not exclusively, Ripley is Highsmith’s uniquely criminal criminal. Yes. But even in this, he is so much a criminal as to somehow come off as being altogether nothing of the sort.

 

I always (and it’s a trait I wrote Trevor with, though tilted in a different attitude) looked at Ripley as an artistic criminal – certainly I never viewed him as purely sociopathic, in the common sense, as so many do (and, well, as he indeed may be). Because in a certain sense, his criminality (from the start) is so nonchalant it is hard to call it that. He deceives. He takes advantage of situations as they present. He has ambitions (of a sort). Yes yes yes. But I always read him as one who (which is suggested he was at the start) is perfectly comfortable to skate along as some penny-ante nobody, not putting effort toward any great larceny one way or the other. A dilettante who could just as easily be perfectly legitimate if the breaks shook out a bit different. When a situation presents itself, he has an uncanny ability (in my eyes) not to so much bilk it for all its worth, but to understand the inherent nature of the world it presents and to take what, for all intents and purposes, is on offer. Things go sideways? He is a true tap-dancer and can roll with it.

 

But … there’s more than that. Ripley I read as an individual who sees himself as naturally outside of the world – is almost saddened by it. He is conscious of how he would be romanticized if not actual, but knows he is actual and therefore criminal, unable to move to the same music, to proceed as he naturally is in the world he must inhabit. He is conscious of being an Element with a Nature and a Function and he understands he is one who, if examined, will never be understood for precisely what Element he is, Nature he has, or Function he serves. No – motives, attitudes, ideas will be assigned to Ripley if caught and, if caught, he will lose his very identity, his very nature will be forfeit to the whim of whichever force nabbed him.

 

…If that makes sense …

 

No one will appreciate Ripely for what he is but for what they make him into – and, perversely, this allows him a kind of righteousness in making himself whatever and whoever he wants. He plays an almost childlike chop-logic with his amorality – it seems okay with everybody (at least everybody he acquaints himself with) that he is who he is and does what he does until something goes wrong – at which point other people suffer pangs of guilt or conscious or suddenly desire an outside, legitimized lawfulness to come in to referee – they break the game and want him to pay so they can overlook the very nature of their lives, the worlds they are fine with inhabiting – “Make Ripley the problem, the intruder!” even though Ripley is, for the most part, an interloper who was welcomed in if not outright solicited.

 

I feel for Ripley – he is constantly turned against when (it is perfectly clear, to me at least!) if left to his own devices he would live quite simply.

 

I mean, what is his big crime after the initial novel? Forgery. Dealings with forgers. It is an exquisitely harmless crime! It is Ripley down to the marrow. Who fucking cares? You can almost see him being baffled when things start going shifty in Ripley Under Ground – and it feels more like he is trying to right the world to order than he is trying to make off with the boodle!

 

I always picture Ripley just wanting to step back and go “Hey now, hey now – let’s everybody just calm down” and as though a kid playing Jacks think he can simply say “Nevermind” and give everybody back their wagers or toys or whatever and let the game end.

 

My favorite Ripley novel is the third (Ripley’s Game) and it is the novel which I think is most revelatory of Ripley as a character – indeed, another Trevor parallel is that it is in the center of a five-novella set (Helen Topaz, Henry Dollar) where I found Trevor most fully understood, most nakedly expressed.

 

See, in Ripley’s Game, the honest *envy* Ripley seems to have for Trevanny is one of the most beautiful and nuanced things the sequence of books has to offer. I step away from the standard of treating Ripley as a self-serving sociopath, as I said earlier, but rather as a person so outside the world he accepts that the nearest thing to an inroad to “society” he has is to play a part in the world of crime (as he likewise plays a role in the world of law-abiding).

 

But in the machinations leading up to allowing it possible (necessary in his view – even charitable!) to arrange for Trevanny to commit the murders which had been asked of Ripley and which he had refused – is the rarest, irresistible opportunity for him, nothing at all to do with profit, revenge, or crime at all. No -in all of the intricate reasons which would allow for such an opportunity to come about what he sees is that he has been granted the opportunity to watch himself in a way he has never been able to before. He (in my reading) *is* Trevanny – identifies, empathizes incredibly deeply, sees Trevanny caught up in a plot (albeit at Ripley’s own hand) observes him making considerations, choices, regards him as he goes through the unthinkable motions he does – but motions which Ripley all too well understands and finds natural. The relationship is almost erotic and the closest to intimacy Ripley has even approached.

 

The giddiness Ripley exhibits in the scene where he has to assist Trevanny in violently dispatching with some threats is one of the defining moments of the character (and of the novel sequence) to me. For in that moment we see a Ripley who has forgotten even his own hand in the mechanism of events, we see a protector of the one individual we, the readers, would be legitimately be rooting for (though we haven’t forgotten the reason we are rooting – we are rooting for him against what Ripley has done to him! – we see Ripley loving Trevanny and wanting him to come out unscathed – or as unscathed as possible. They meld into (in Ripley’s mind) a perfect, singular unit – he gets to live the fantasy of himself in the reality of someone else and the reality of someone else in the fantasy he has forced them into.

 

Anyway … I obviously could go on about Ripley at great length, yet! Hahaha.

 

To just explain the Trevor (book three) connecting: all that I have said above regarding Ripley’s Game is one of the many reasons why the scheme Trevor hatches is book three is so self-referenced – a pretend blackmail against himself which he enthusiastically proceeds with only to have it morph into a kind of perverse other-pretend-blackmail orchestrated by a party who doesn’t know his initial blackmail was fake – Trevor finding himself, in a perverse way, as “in the right” as he could ever imagine being when he decides to turn the tables to his advantage – and of course he is left, in the end, in the worst situation he could have ever envisioned … yet somehow, despite it being all his orchestration at the onset, he cannot be faulted for feeling he has been wrongfully accused and treated quite shabbily!

 

That is the primary Ripley/Trevor connection: they are perverse innocents, they are irrevocably not-what-can-be-in-the-world but not through maliciousness, not through anything normally associated with the criminal class – but through acceptance of nature and a curiosity toward its place in the world.

 

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In “The Roots of Ripley,” K.A. Laity explores the idea that Ripley is more comfortable with things than people: “the feeling that after all, it was safest to be on your own luxuriating in all your nice things.” As you noted, he has no propensity for violence and, in some respect, would be perfectly happy leaving everyone else alone, to have the pleasures of civilization without ever interacting with anyone.

 

It is in this way that he appears to be a sociopath. He can put on the guise of the way other people act, he’s finely attuned to everyone around him, and yet he has no interest in other people beyond a sort of benign inclination to push people away from those ugly, clashing emotions that will lead to disorder. Yet his addiction to the game of crime—he is, after all, a master strategist—keeps him coming back.

 

One of the things I find interesting about your series about blackmailer Trevor English is that it’s never clear what he would do if he got everything he wanted. While Ripley’s boredom and restlessness will always get the better of him, Trevor has far more mundane desires—he’s always pursuing cash to keep on living his drifter lifestyle and he never, ever gets a step ahead. So what would Trevor do if he actually landed the big score (something he, of course, never pursues)? In crime fiction the trope is that the criminal would retire to some Caribbean island and live off their earnings, but that’s certainly not the case with the Talentless Mr. English.

 

Now *that* is rather large and probing question – in a way it’s the self-same question I always had to ask when I approached writing Trevor …

 

… though not exactly, as I suppose I knew the ‘answer’. More true is to say: the trick was to navigate the vessel of this ‘answer’ (tease that I am, you see, I hold off articulating it even now – or try to even for a few parentheticals longer hahaha) through the vast seas of the raconteur element of noir, to wrangle the ‘plot part’ of a novella *around what Trevor is* – he, himself, is the pebble the puddle puts up with and closes over (no – I would never call his the boulder the stream must bend to, as everything about my Trevor must remain paradoxically effacing!).

 

Your (and Laity’s) remarks on Ripley are very apropos, here. Sociopath or not sociopath to one side (as it is, perhaps, irrelevant to a literary creation of the calibre of Ripely and to a set of volumes so rich and expansive in treasure) the idea of his wanting to be left to himself, surrounded by his worldly things (ill gotten? Who cares!) content with his own ideas and aesthetic – this is certainly true (and, to me, a beautifully melancholic thing in the character – though there is not *to* the character himself) and if coupled with his noiac (if self-induced) idea that this ‘peace and quiet’ could all be torn asunder if ever he is squinted at too long, that his ability to live as and with himself is always at risk from outside elements, we see how it oddly compels him (even more than an ever present itch toward the ‘game of crime’) to trespass back into interaction with others. A defense posture. Criminality allowed him what he has so therefore it follows that criminality must safeguard it. The notion of interaction with people, to Ripley, is fused irrevocably (an unconscious, a part of his lizard brain) with crime, with manipulation. That is: the only reason Ripley interacts with people is to actively use, and he sues them to keep them, in effect, away from him. If someone comes knocking? Then there is a kind of sigh in his soul – he knows they don’t know what they are asking for just the same as he knows he has nothing to offer but deceit (deceit which might incidentally – especially in Ripley’s Game or, for another example, in his feelings of remorse for the poor forger who entered his orbit in Ripley Under Ground – allow glimpses of unconscious intimacy and genuine emotional connection/regard).

 

Trevor is not dissimilar. The main difference in he and Trevor is down to how they want to be regarded.

 

Ripley: he wants no true self, but rather to be the surface people admire (if he has to consider people) and to keep to himself.

 

Trevor, though …

 

(well, let me digress and then I will return to that ellipsis.)

 

Trevor, in my mind when I wrote, is not a criminal. Not exactly. He is written as a Writer. And not as a writer with ambition for ‘the big leagues’ or ‘renown’ but rather as a writer who, like the unnamed narrator in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, is genuinely attracted to the purity of the Idea and its nuance in execution – the Art, to him, is the reward; and the Art, when shared, should elicit a deep appreciation, no matter the content (the crime) – especially as he is, so to speak, an undergrounder, just a blithe nobody hand stapling his zine! Hahaha

 

Trevor becomes overwhelmingly, almost erotically attached to the *notion* of a scenario his mind recognizes, and the inner drum of him compels his every breath to suck the marrow of every potential he recognizes out. To let an idea or an opportunity go slack, be left unplumbed or unexplored? This is something he is literally incapable of! And he pursues at his own expense, with a childlike innocence and glee, whichever track is the most genuine, the fullest, the purest.

 

From the beginning, when this offer from someone to deliver the letter cross country for cash is presented to him – let’s break it down as the story of the artist:

 

Trevor had picked someone’s pocket (the very fact he is tracked down shows the amateurish hand he has, despite the aptitude he must admittedly possess to pull such a trick). Translation: some scribbler just passing out broadsides of his work has been recognized and approached – his unique voice pleasing to someone who wants to see more!

 

The bag of money and the letter? Sure, the money is important, but let’s be real: throughout the entire Trevor series the poor guy never shows a lack of willingness to work, even the lowliest little crumb-bum job, it’s all the same to him! So, why does he fixate on trying to preserve the two thousand as long as possible? Because it affords him the ability to continue creating on his own terms, outside of the ‘mainstream flow’ – like holding onto a kind review or a generous remark from an audience – he cannot let it dwindle or become just a momentary flash in the pan – who knows when someone else might even read anything he writes, whatever little review must mean *the world*.

 

But he opens the letter (at first, if you recall, quite bored and not even with an angle in mind, doesn’t even get to the ‘juicy bit’ until his second or third attempt to get through the missive!) – and upon doing so gets the greatest gift a writer can stumble on: A New Idea. And this idea *must* be explored. And Trevor *must* be what Trevor needs to be to have it explored. And when he sees an undeniable, aesthetically pure and pleasing avenue the idea can fork – well, he *must* explore that idea too!

 

And again.

 

And again.

 

Sometimes Trevor has to act as the agent, the instigator which ‘causes something’ – but not out of avarice or monetary or even criminal desire, but rather because the *idea demands it*. He never quite knows what to do with himself. Getting money, losing money, it’s all the exact same driving wheel to him, the fuel to make the narrative go, the poetry flow, the idea keep birthing another.

 

His victims are his audience – oh my goodness, Trevor so wants them to be able to appreciate the interesting subtleties and nuances of his ideas, even if he has to expose himself more, risk himself more – he doesn’t need to come out on top, he just needs to know they *read the fucking book he wrote*, did not skim or overlook – Trevor cannot, in his soul, bear being misunderstood!

 

Now, I will not go through the entirety of the series right now, breaking down each mechanism of how it is constructed, sufficed to say each book starts with an idea (based on an observation of something which happens across his path and titillates the Author Soul in him) and intently examines the life of that idea (the writing of that work).

 

There’s a terrific line in David Mamet’s Heist where one character says to another ‘You should see this plan – it’s beautiful. If I were a publisher I’d publish it’ to which another replies ‘So why not publish it?’ to which the first guy remarks ‘I’m saying: that’s what I’d do if I were a publisher. But I’m a thief. So I’ve gotta do that thing.’ Trevor is like that.

 

cover-dstair-norman-court-300x480pxTo return to my earlier ellipsis:

 

Trevor though … wants to be *anything but the surface*. He wants his actual personhood not to matter. He wants to be the underneath, the idea, his own particular existence hardly worth mentioning – but the *ideas* he litters life with, the things he shares and reveals through his observations – he wants those known so very badly. And he wants them admired! He just wants everyone to be pleased with what he thought up and then to understand he’ll go away, leave everyone alone, get another idea and be too busy following it to bother with them again so it doesn’t matter anymore.

 

But, sadly, like Ripley … he’s borderline deranged (so far as the common man’s sensibility) and what he does with his ideas is not the sort of thing people admire and let just fade away. Trevor, like Ripley, certainly *knows* this. And in a subconscious way likely gets off on it (hence neither of them ever seem to ‘learn their lesson’ – or rather, they learn the lessons very well just don’t ever apply the lessons previous encounters have taught them in any way except to dig themselves in deeper next time!)

 

I feel I have rambled around, but that it was necessary – because to get to your big question: what would Trevor do with The Big Score?

 

Because you’re right – he would never go looking for it – he would not even *think* (as a writer) of ‘getting an agent and trying to be the next Steven King’ or what have you. No no – he’s the consummate underground artist and needs to prove it by never being anything else but it – continually, unthinkably, absurdly enlarging and aggrandizing what it means to be nobody. Until the non-entity he is is so unique a prize no one, no matter how well off or famous – can say they have the ability to do and to live how Trevor does. Everyone else’s success or ‘normalness’ in fact *proves* the uniqueness of Trevor. And there is an agitation in him at this not being recognized – the old ‘If you gave me a million dollars and said I could spend all day writing, sure, I could probably be as good as any of the big dogs – but could any of them produce work of their calibre for nothing for no one over and over and over without ever even reaching for more or taking a rest? I could do what they do, but could they do what I do? And so who should we be admiring here!?’ hahaha

 

The easiest way to answer the question is to say Trevor would not recognize The Big Score. The only prize he would see is what new idea it allowed.

 

Remember, I made him a blackmailer and all his acts are through the filter of blackmail – at least once he ‘discovers it’ while riding on the train, reading through the letter. That is the moment he moves from being a wannabe, ‘I’m a writer because I did some stories for class at school’ to – BANG! – ‘I’m motherfucking Dostoyevsky just because I goddamn say so!’ It’s Eureka. Inspiration. Birth. And we witness it and watch how it goes.

 

But see: to stick with my artist analogy: Trevor is a novelist – not a short story writer or a playwright or a filmmaker or a musician or a painter etc. And so if he’d been offered Twenty Thousand in the first book, that would have been all the same. The story of Trevor starts when he reads that letter and gets the idea (the idea that he could do something better than whatever the schemer having him deliver the letter had in mind). Two thousand, five hundred, ten thousand – it’d just have been the new hook, the new potential, the new atmosphere and he’d see what he could do.

 

Trevor gets continually fixated on the amount of ‘criminal money’ he has because ‘the artist is supposed to sustain himself with his art alone’. It is radically appealing and important that he scrimps and saves to keep this technically true of himself. When he hits bottom (which does happen somewhere in the series, not to spoil things too much) we see what happens: he goes on. Bottom feeder, works little jobs, or stays at a shelter – waiting, like any true artist, for another idea to come along.

 

But it needs to be a *new* idea, not a retread. It needs to further his themes, not restate them. Like any artist, he is perfectly satisfied to not exist, but would rather die than suffer the pangs of repeating himself.

Mask of the Nice Guy by K. A. Laity

deep water

If you know much of anything about Patricia Highsmith, you probably know her love for snails. Okay, maybe it’s not the first thing you learn, but it should be. It tells you so much about her. Smuggling them through customs in her bra – the thought of it makes me want to boak even now. She has several stories that feature them, even one where they are giant-sized and man-eating. Sure, she liked cats, too, but she never had the same affection for them that she did with her snails.

In her novel Deep Water, they are the beloved pets/keenly-observed obsession of the main character, Victor Van Allen. Highsmith’s only tender love scene that I can think of in all her writing is about the snail coupling that takes place in this book between his two favourites. He gives them conventional male and female names, though one of the things that most intrigues Highsmith is the fact that snails can morph their sex almost at will.

Hortense and Edgar were making love, Edgar reaching down from a little rock to kiss Hortense on the mouth. Hortense was reared on the end of her foot, swaying a little under his caress like a slow dancer enchanted by music. Vic watched for perhaps five minutes, thinking of absolutely nothing, not even of the snails, until he saw the cup-shaped excrescences start to appear on the right side of both snails’ heads. How they did adore each other, and how perfect they were together! 

[Spoilers here on in]

Vic first poses as a murderer, then becomes one. He gets a thrill from starting a rumour that he had something to do with his wife’s (probable) lover who suddenly disappeared then is found brutally murdered. He tells her new fave, ‘I don’t waste my time punching people on the nose. If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him.’ Vic has been telling himself he handles everything fine. His wife can’t face his oddness directly so she takes up with new men, hoping they’ll sort things for her somehow.

But Vic finds power in pretending to be a murderer. He realises his calm has discomfited the new lover, and further that ‘Vic had frightened him’ and further understands how his own uncanny nature makes that work: ‘People who do not behave in an orthodox manner…are by definition frightening.’ But it’s only at this intimate level that Vic’s strangeness can be seen.

To his neighbours and colleagues, he does all the right things: runs a fine art small press, keeps a nice home (though most don’t know that he lives in the workshop in the garage and not the house itself), has patience in the face of his wife’s flirting, and is a kindly dad to his daughter. People like him and disapprove of Melinda, who’s seen as a bad wife.

When Vic does actually kill her latest lover on a whim, in a fairly obvious way, not one person suspects him (well, maybe his wife). The police who rightly think it’s a bit odd are quickly dissuaded by all the neighbours who vouch for the upstanding-quiet-keeps to himself Vic. They double down on their disapproval of Melinda, too. She brought trouble to their quiet town after all. For a time she is contrite.

But then a mystery novelist comes to town and makes friends with Melinda. ‘People in Little Wesley had not been particularly friendly to the Wilsons since their arrival, and Vic thought it was Don’s fault. He was humourless and standoffish at social gatherings, perhaps because he considered smile and conviviality unintelligent or unbecoming in a writer.’ Highsmith having some fun with her own image here, perhaps. Also Vic publishes poets and important things. ‘[Don Wilson] was such a hack – western stories, detective stories, love stories, some of which his wife collaborated on, though Vic had heard from somebody that her specialty was children’s books. The Wilsons had no children.’

Comic book writer Pat never much reconciled herself with that past. She was quite a snob about things and hated being seen as a niche genre writer. Some of that ambivalence comes through. Yet who unravels the next murder Vic commits? Part of it is simply his arrogance. It’s not enough to plan the murder; he needs to gloat over it with his wife nearby.

At one point as they argue and he baits her with a dare to kill him, she says, ‘You’re so – nuts! I don’t suppose you’d mind that very much. I’d like to smash your lousy ego.’  He explains to her with great patience, ‘”No, not ego. Just the pieces of myself that I can put together and hold together – by force of will. Will power, if you like, that’s what I live on, but not ego. How could I possibly have any?” he finished desperately, enjoying the discussion immensely and also enjoying the sound of his own voice, which seemed to be objective, like his own voice on a tape-recording machine being played back to him.’

So uncanny and he doesn’t even see it, but neither do his neighbours and friends. They all see the mask as real. Such a nice guy. Right down to the end, Vic retains a belief in his superiority, dismissing Wilson and all the rest as ‘ugly birds without wings’ and mediocrities

Laughing at the Great God Pan by K. A. Laity

Pan Joy Morton Cover

Laughing at the Great God Pan

K A. Laity

In 2001 Camden Joy and Colin B. Morton wrote Pan, a book purporting to be ‘A work of imagination endeavouring to recount the Extraordinary yet True events occurring within the City of New York upon April the Seventh, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Eight when: numerous hearts are engaged; feats of Astonishment and Daring unfold: a man loses his found love: a primitive power draws manifold strangers into a supernatural dragnet: a father’s gift sends a son across the ocean: space-time continuums (QSTs) are repeatedly straddled: tears get shed: after which the assemblage of cross entertainers known as The Fall ceases working together (yet again) and everything threatens to remain exactly as it has been’ which is a nicely balanced evocation of bombast and litotes.

There are lots of books about, by and inspired by The Fall. Ex-band member volumes are a hefty shelf themselves and just about all of cracking quality, too. ‘Inspired by’ is a more tenuous category and by ‘tenuous’ I mean there’s some rubbish out there. I’ve always heard Pan spoken of as one of the better ones, so stuck in lockdown and floundering on any number of overdue projects, of course I decided to pick up a copy to finally read.

It’s not cheap to lay hands on; I reconciled myself to the price because I’ve not had to pay for lots of things since March. As frequently happens with things connected to The Fall, a crazy mix-up ended up giving me half-off on the price, so yay. It’s really more of a novella, so I sped through it in no time, even with stopping to look things up that jogged my memory.

The book itself is lovely, a product of Tom Devlin’s Highwater Books, which I knew mostly from comics by folks like Megan Kelso and Matt Madden. It was designed by Matt Lerner of Rag and Bone Shop with exquisite typeface and a subdued yet unsettling image of Pan on the cover and printed on luxurious paper. The title page with the above précis features calligraphy by Nancy Howell and is just beautiful. There’s a pull quote from Jon Langford of The Mekons to offer street cred to the unwitting innocent (i.e. non-Fall fan) who might pick up the book. My copy is signed twice by Joy.

What about the story itself? Buring the lede again: it’s fun. Do you have to be a Fall fan? Possibly, though I think Ballard and Dick fans may enjoy it for non-Fall related reasons. People who prefer their fiction meta will get a kick out of it. Fans of Pan, you will deffo enjoy. It kicks off right at the epigraph which purports to offer a mini history of Pan in the Western world by ‘Magnus the Good’ (resonant of Olavus Magnus but not quite) and translated by an ‘R. Totale’ in two volumes back in 1923.

The epigram establishes the impetus setting all the action in motion: the god of Panic, having been subdued by fire and death was then bisected, his head buried by the Celts, his body taken to the ends of the earth by ‘the North sea-dwellers’ or as we call them, Vikings. ‘His Head, kept by the Celtae in the ground, occasioned sorcery to render the grave as hot as the fires a warrior finds in beastly dens…’

The book opens in a Manhattan office, overlooking the Seagram’s building with Clarke suddenly meeting two very strange fellows who seem rather…shall we say, alien. Clarke being part of the music biz, that’s not so outlandish as it might seem to others, but he begins to be unsettled, especially once they mention his friend Vaughan (I have to believe that’s a Ballard ref). Are they private eyes? Fortunately his boss crashes in with news:

‘The Fall!’ Brandon shouted at Clarke from a short distance. ‘Clarke, hey! The Fall; tonight at Brownie’s; you remember; punk rockers from England? God, Clarke: fuck I always hated all those guitars; no more; The Fall’s in town!’

If you’re not a Fall fan you won’t know the cataclysm that announcement contains. There are bad gigs – and with the Fall legendarily bad gigs – and then there’s the meltdown at Brownies (if you want to see it for yourself, you can). An apocalypse no one thought the band could survive.

[Spoiler: it did (but that’s another story).]

‘Meanwhile, in a far-off place called Newport, Wales, the bell of a record shop rang and Colin B Morton entered.’ Yes, it’s that kind of book where one of the co-authors is a character in the wildly esoteric adventures. His dad, as it happens, has given him the head of Pan which had been dug up at an archeological dig at Caerleon (notebooks out, medievalists). The head has told him to head to New York and to play the fruit machine at his local to provide cash for the journey.

The scenes in the record shop and the pub are excuses for a lot of Fall fan jokes: ‘This amused Colin, for it was the cry of every Fall fan down the ages. At any given moment, The Fall was not as good as it used to be.’ Pointed mentions of Mark E. Smith’s procog intrigue the girl on the not-so-megastore check-out desk to the point where she ignores Colin and pores over the FallNet.

He leaves for the pub to join his mates for a few pints of Brains Skull Attack and discussions of everything from the occult, the Mekons, Swamp Thing, Pan’s head, the Liverpool Scene, and of course, the finer points of why The Fall was not as good as it used to be.

Colin heads off to NYC and many disparate threads begin to intertwine, strangle one another and fray like the band is about to do onstage. While it is not always about The Fall, it is always about The Fall in the sense that physics exists only to examine the finer point of whether the band 1) exists 2) is better or 3) is worse than it is any other given point in the time-space continuum.

‘Do you remember last year, in Belfast, when all the members dispersed? Snook believes that, in the brief period, The Fall still existed. It’s just that there was nobody in it, you know?…Snook also believes…that, for those few moments when The Fall existed with nobody in it, it went spindizzy about the world. Like some sort of prowling phantom, you know? It traveled around the globe, almost as a virus or something, disrupting various musical personalities in which it did not belong.’

Precog: it’s a drug. Like love, I guess. So if this sounds like something you’d enjoy hunt it down like a lost Fall member and lay your hands on it. Don’t lay your hands on ex-Fall members though. They’re not books.

K A LAITY IS HERE

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The Road – A Landmark Novel by Mark McConville

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The Road – A Landmark Novel.

When you think of masters of American literature, Cormac McCarthy pops up as a true contender. Within his works, stories bloom and portray struggle in the wilderness, the American outback where greed escalates and where cowboys try to survive life-threatening onslaughts. His books aren’t for the fainthearted either, they’re works of fearless fiction that bend normality and don’t adhere to rules. The pages are harsh, often controversial, and fully exert the notion to read on.

By bridging the gap between goodness and evil in his novels, McCarthy paints pictures of blood-soaked faces, revolt, rebellion, heartbreak, and fearlessness. He’s a master at this, a genius at spearheading realism in a fictional setting. Often, many writers can’t write like this. Often writers who try cannot place realism into their stories. Not all stories need that spine tingling narration, but when it’s done right, it is captivating.

Some readers may feel overwhelmed when they first read a McCarthy novel as they’re intricate, low paced, slower than your suspense novels. They’re deep filled though, they’re weighty, spontaneous, charged, and there are no flashy instances. Take The Crossing for example, a book which follows a wolf that kills cattle and other livestock. In this work, McCarthy describes the outback and the people like they have blood in their veins and hearts in their chests. But is there any other writer who can use simple techniques to create a piece of unconventional art like this, a story that should be tedious and lifeless? I don’t know if there is.

Picking up The Road by Cormac McCarthy is like giving your time and effort to a newborn child. It is a demanding read, one that is equally breathtaking and cathartic, born from a mind that is knife edged. Also, incredibly devised, The Road marked a grand return to bleakness for McCarthy too, a reoccurrence for the master of American tales. His other frantic novel, Old Country For Old Men, was a blockbuster, and The Road is no different.

The novel follows a man and his son through sprawling apocalyptic America. An American landscape, brimming with scavengers and looters, people hell bent on causing chaos to survive. This chaos erupts at points in the novel, as the man must stave off the enemies who want to capture his son. The man will do anything to keep the boy safe, he’ll grit his teeth, he will pulverize who comes in his way, and he’ll follow the road which may take them to safety.

But, are these two survivalists don’t know what’s up ahead. In their dreams, they think life may be worth living, but we know as the readers, that when an apocalypse hits, life drains rapidly. Armageddon has overthrown every morsel of reason, every piece of salvation, and the man and boy are stuck in a whirlpool of constant dispirit and broken luck.

By walking down the notorious road, they run into obstacles, wild animals, and unpredictable terrains. And this is all captured in McCarthy’s powerful prose, his compelling writing. Writing that takes your breath away, a style which has been strategically worked upon. Through and through, the diction is flawless, captivating and original, marking the road as a stellar piece of literature.

It’s also the bond of these two characters that embeds emotion and grips the attention. They talk, they smile, they clasp hands, and they argue. These are all the traits of a typical father and son relationship, and McCarthy has woven it into his tour de force majestically. And at points, poignant moments are scattered in the pages, moments where realism studs the inner core of sadness. For example, there is when the man and boy find an old drinks machine, one filled with old cans of coca cola. The man eventually breaks open the machine and hands his son the beverage, and as the boy drinks it he falls in love with a taste he hasn’t experienced before. In this simple embrace, this tender instance, the story takes a stab at realism in such a moving way.

The Road is a melancholic piece of work, one which showcases McCarthy at his unnerving best. He notably adjusts his writing style in some places, but we all know it’s him pulling the strings. By weaving prose of wonderment, segments of genius, the American wordsmith deserves praise. His work, through 12 novels, should be acknowledged more so than it has been. Being the underdog suits McCarthy anyway as he is never in the limelight, he scorns interviews, and lives a sheltered life.

After The Road was published McCarthy received the coveted Pulitzer Prize in literature, an accolade some writers dream of winning. This is deserved, as The Road is undoubtedly his most accomplished novel.

The Road.

Murder in My High School by K. A. Laity

in cold blod

This is not going to be a lurid tale; more of a puzzled one. A colleague share a link this morning about the need to compensate formerly incarcerated people for telling their stories—particularly for those events seeking to redress the criminal (literally) imbalances in the justice system. It got me thinking about a weird thing from my own past.

My high school, like many American schools of its time, would have ‘assemblies’ from time to time of varying sizes (don’t get your hopes up, Austen fans—not that kind of assembly). The whole school would get together in the gymnasium, but there was a block of classrooms that were separated by moveable accordion panels to bring six or eight classrooms into one big one.

Sometimes they did it for films: one time Fail Safe, the 1964 Sydney Lumet cautionary nuclear war film (that’s kind of a po-faced remake of Dr Strangelove) –why? Who knows? Cold War romanticism from some faculty member? More striking in my memory is when they showed us In Cold Blood, which gave me a whole new fanaticism for Capote’s novel and true crime. I remember the gym teacher who taught ‘history’—for whom I used to grade quizzes because you know child labour laws were lax and I was bored with the quizzes themselves—making fun of the actress screaming before her character was murdered. ‘Isn’t that the worst scream ever?’ he said laughing, then turning the sound back up.

All the misogyny I remember well, too.

Films were always a welcome relief from the day-to-day grind of classes, especially in that term where I was stuck in a class with a teacher who had given up on everything. But I remember the weird day that they brought in a murderer to talk to us. Once more all the walls folded back. We turned our desks around to face a different front. And a quiet unassuming old man told us that he committed murder in the heat of a moment of anger as a young man and spent a lot of years regretting it.

I suppose, in my school where they were churning out better autoworkers for tomorrow, it was a warning: Think before you knife someone. Perhaps it was just another indication of how little they expected of us: try not to murder someone. I remember his regret, his quietness. I remember more the students’ heady combination of fear, fascination, and a kind of intoxication as the two mixed.

I remember the disappointment many had that he was not some slavering beast held by chains but a tired older man who spoke softly to us about lost time. I suppose things that might have been on adults’ minds at the time included the recent memory of ‘Michigan’s Ted Bundy’ but I don’t recall thinking about that at the time. The invulnerability of youth. I remember his sadness. I remember thinking about all he might have done instead.

Detour(s) by K. A. Laity

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God, it’s easy to kill a person!’

The noir classic Detour (1945) impressed most of my students with the wildest femme fatale they saw all semester. Ann Savage, to borrow a line from Peter and Dud, Savage by name plays a part completely Savage by nature. Her Vera completely terrifies the itinerant musician Al (played by Tom Neal) as well as scarring for life the bookie Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald). Al just wants to get to Los Angeles for a reunion with his gal Sue, but when Haskell unexpectedly kicks the bucket and Al gets mistaken for him things begin to go south. When a passing moment of kindness leads him to pick up a hitch-hiker, Savage’s Vera knows he’s not Haskell and blackmails the hapless schmoe into a scheme to make her rich. If they don’t kill each other first.

The film is told in flashbacks from Al’s point of view, from his first shambolic appearance to the improbable end. Filmed on the cheap, Edgar G. Ulmer gets the most mileage out of smoke, mirrors, cheap sets, and budget dialogue. If you remember nothing else, I guarantee you Ann Savage’s turn as Vera will be seared on your eyeballs. Also the strange plot holes (more about that shortly) which begin to make you wonder how much of the story has been (inexpertly) revised by Al.

The 1992 remake in some ways is even stranger. Weirdly riffing on the relationship of fathers and sons, Tom Neal’s part is reprised by his son, who shares a striking resemblance with his dad, but not the sense of aggrieved every man. It starts out in black and white and like van Sant’s Psycho mostly reproduces the original film. It’s got its fans but I’ve not made my way through it yet. It has interesting moments: the first flashback is when the film changes to colour. Some of the added material has to do with Sue’s life in Los Angeles.

The ending of the film is changed to be more in line with the original novel—that’s right, there is a source novel. Martin H. Goldsmith’s 1939 novel of the same name tells more or less the same story. This Detour had a very different fate from the movie. I tracked down a copy of the 2013 Black Curtain edition which is frills-free even of original publication information and mostly typo free, except for one persistent repeated one. The font is big to give it a novel-length page count (145) but it’s really more of a novella.

I’m always interested in the ways novels get adapted to film. What’s interesting about the novel is how much more noir it feels than the film and how awful all the characters are—and none of them are on to themselves except maybe Vera. She doesn’t get a chance to speak for herself. Chapters alternate between Al and Sue. Al is originally Alexander Roth, changed to the generic Al Roberts in the film. Roth surely chosen for the point of someone waxing wroth, as Groucho might say.

Everybody in this novel is very angry, too. Alex is a lot more of a jerk than the hapless innocent the film makes him. Picked up hitching, he’s asked where he’s from but says Detroit instead of New York. ‘I don’t know why I said that; there was really no call to lie. Maybe I was so accustomed to lying it had become a habit, I don’ know. But that’s me all over. For the life of me, I can’t figure myself out.’ He is indeed in pursuit of his Sue, whom he idealises ridiculously, in the same way he disparages women in general. ‘If there is any worse spot than for a man to find himself a slave to a woman’s whims I’d like to know about it.’ Of course this is when he’s dealing with Vera, but as he concludes, ‘All women are dangerous.’

‘What makes it so tough is you never can be sure what a woman will do. At one moment she’s calm and everything is velvet; then in a flash, it all explodes sky-high and she’s got it in for you. And when she’s got it in for you, brother, look out. There are never any halfway measures. A woman loves or she hates. Pity and all the feelings in between she’s never heard of.’ Alex pities himself more than anybody else, even when he’s murdering someone.

While there’s still some uncertainty about Haskell’s death, there’s no lame attempt to make Vera’s death accidental as with the ridiculous scene in the film. His loathing just wells up. ‘She was the type of woman I have always despised: the kind who knows all the answers and makes no bones about being hard-boiled. Even though I know just how women are underneath, I still prefer them to have that phony sweetness in their manner.’ Alex prefers lies.

The big difference in the novel is Sue. The second chapter catches up with her in California—right after a date rape. She’s full of tears and recriminations, mostly aimed at herself. ‘When a man gets finished, he’s through; his appetite’s been satisfied, except now he wants a plate of ham and eggs. We girls are quite another story. We have emotions and what not. We feel things. Any woman will know what I’m talking about. So I felt terrible.’ 

Singer Sue goes to Hollywood to break into the films but ends up waiting tables. In the film she gets a moment of that on the phone with Al. In the novel we see a lot more of her life. She really has an ambition to get into the pictures, but is hesitating to give in to the casting couch. Her weary dissection of Hollywood’s shabby reality still can’t dim her dream. Sue hopes the B-actor Raoul will give her leg up instead of getting a leg over.

Angry with herself, she finally gets even more angry at Raoul’s obliviousness. He thinks he gave her a swell time and asks for another date. At first she tries to find the easiest way to slip out of any commitment, but his cocksure attitude – flourishing his fountain pen to write in his address book – tips her anger over the edge and she tells him he’s been a terrible lover. ‘There was a jubilance in me for the first time in ages. I watched him flinch and I knew I had struck home, into the most vulnerable spot in the man’s armour.’ She is pleased he’s so deflated and talks of it as a way to ‘avenge poor Alex’ too. 

It would give more sympathy to her character if Goldsmith didn’t make plain that she is everything that Alex thinks of women: duplicitous, vengeful, cruel and above all, an actor. When Haskell’s death is reported as Alex’s, Sue performs grief styles she has seen in films, trying to convince herself she feels something other than relief. All it really does is boost her confidence that she can make it in Hollywood after all.

And Alex? ‘I wasn’t sorry she was dead; just sorry it was me who killed her.’ Nothing is as he claims, except maybe this. The original film had to soften the ending a bit. The remake is closer to the book. The twists and turns match Alex’s own thoughts: ‘God or fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or on me for no good reason at all.’ Not getting caught; it’s the same as not being guilty for him as long as he can keep wondering about that fateful day Haskell picked him up on the road. ‘Well, sometimes I want to curse and sometimes I want to cry.’