What a Reader Wants

“To be sure of getting something above the average,” Edmund Wilson tells us, in his disparaging take on the genre, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories” (October 14, 1944), “I waited for new novels by writers who are particularly esteemed by connoisseurs.” But Wilson is repeatedly disappointed, in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, in Agatha Christie, in Dashiell Hammett. Wilson acknowledges Graham Greene may be on to something: “The spy story may perhaps only now be realizing its poetic possibilities.” And Wilson separates “the psychological horror [story] an entirely different matter.” But of the detective story, he has trouble understanding its popularity. He ascribes the taste for it to a search for guilt in a world where nearly everyone seems in some way partly to blame. Since no one is trusted, everyone under suspicion, the detective performs the clarifying and clear calm act of calling out the true bad guy, and everyone else, including the reader, is free to go.

For readers who rely upon the opinions of connoisseurs, The New York Review Books: Classics is the place to go. From its online About description:

The NYRB Classics series is dedicated to publishing an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.

Maybe “the classroom” and “discoveries” serve different purposes. In any case, last week, in another walk around the block, I pulled a NRYB Classics out of the neighborhood library box down around the corner in the lot at the Line 15 stop. It bears an odd title, mainly for a syntax which seems uncharacteristic of the sentence structure found in the book: “Black Wings Has My Angel.” Written by Elliott Chaze, it’s the only one of his novels worth reading, according to connoisseur Barry Gifford, who took on the “Introduction” responsibility for the 2016 NYRB reissue of the 1953 Gold Medal Books original. It certainly is a discovery.

“Black Wings” has the look and feel and taste and aftertaste of the detective story genre, but it’s not a detective story. There is a detective, an FBI agent, in fact, but he remains a distant foil, lurking off center stage like a bad guy. Gifford thinks Billy Wilder “would have been the ideal director” for a movie make. I’m thinking Alfred Hitchcock, or the Coen Brothers. “Black Wings” is a dark, dark, dark situation comedy. Gifford also points to Chaze’s obvious study and use of the Hemingway style: “brief, often blunt sentences devoid of unnecessary frills or explication.” That is mostly true, but for the plot and themes, a greater literary debt is probably owed Theodore Dreiser and the characteristics of the Naturalist school of literature: the ironies of fate; the missing brick responsible eventually for the collapse of the wall; chance reversals; inescapable socioeconomic determinations; greed for a wealth and lifestyle little understood by a protagonist looking to get ahead of society’s mind your manners expectations and aversions to rumination.

Though we know the first person narrator protagonist of “Black Wings” is a bad guy almost from the get go, we’ve a lot to learn about him. His fatal flaw, to use a Naturalist literary term, is falling in love. How love and bad guys get defined and treated are themes that are illustrated outside the norms of genre literature. His disappointments, his reversals, are tragicomic. His attitude might even borrow something from Camus’s “The Stranger.” “Black Wings Has My Angel” is a study of the outsider who thinks he wants in to something he doesn’t fully understand until it’s much too late. He isn’t a true existential character, because his decisions are too fraught with misunderstandings, false preconceptions and assumptions, misused talents.

Is the protagonist of “Black Wings” a free agent? Or is he at the mercy of an impossibly complicated series of chance events leading inexorably to one ignoble unavoidable end? Of protagonists, we usually ask what it is they want, and what it is that’s preventing them (the antagonist) from getting what they want. One thing he wants is to confess his story, but his story is not an apology. What he wants changes throughout the story and at the end remains ambiguous and irrelevant, such that we might not get what Edmund Wilson saw to be the attraction of the detective story – we might not get the feeling we are free to go.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, the Plumber Rarely More Than Once

I read a book this week, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” There is no postman, but plenty of rings. The title page of my copy is stamped “WITHDRAWN,” and below that, “CIRCULATION STORAGE,” and above the publisher info., “SIERRA MADRE PUBLIC LIBRARY.” When a library “withdraws” a book, perhaps some helpful librarian might add a note of explanation as to why the book is being withdrawn. My copy, a casual gift from an old, steady friend, is still in decent condition, 187 pages of hardback, hard read, not to be confused with hard to read, but hard in the deadpan noir sense, where none of the characters are likeable, not even the so-called good guys, and all are static characters – no one changes from beginning to end.

I also repaired a toilet this week, having to drive to the hardware store only twice, which is par for home repairs in my neck of the woods. To drive to the hardware store only once in the process of a repair job like fixing a toilet is a hole in one. A real plumber rarely requires more than one trip to fix a toilet. A real plumber is a master of the hole in one repair job.

A cat plays a prominent role in the “Postman” book, illustrating the randomness with which animal nature creeps about, often spoiling plans with ironic gifts from the cosmos, like Flannery O’Connor’s grace (the cat in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” comes to mind, too, reading “Postman”). The lead prosecutor in the “Postman” case, Sackett, calls the anti-hero, Frank Chambers, a “mad dog.” Frank Chambers is an interesting name, a formal place of serious purpose. There is also rank in the chambers, and, in the tradition of the Naturalist writers, one cannot change the rank into which one is born. There’s only one murder, but two attempts, perhaps the twice ringing of the title. I found no evidence that a cat played a role in the toilet failure business mentioned above, but I wouldn’t have been surprised. Meanwhile, I was also thinking ahead to Flannery’s “Good Man” anti-hero character’s name, “The Misfit.” The Misfit would be a good name for a cat.

“Postman,” by James M. Cain, was originally published in 1934. My copy is a tenth printing, October 1945. Edmund Wilson thought that perhaps it was the hard times that seemed to call for some hard writing. But some are born into hard settings, others into easy chairs, and the postman seems to ring indiscriminately, without regard for regal versus rough. And he can find you on Route 66 just as easy as out on Highway 61. My copy has library markings on the inside back cover. There are two sets of 5 vertical lines crossed diagonally left down to right in the upper left corner. Under that, vertically down the inside back cover, 82 with 4 hash marks, then 82 with 1 hash mark, and so on: 84, 4 hash marks; 85, 2 hash marks; 89, 1 hash mark; 90, 1 hash mark; 91, 2 hash marks; 92, 2 hash marks; 93, 3 hash marks; 94, 1 hash mark; 95, 1 hash mark; then, a new column: 98, 2 hash marks; 99, 1 hash mark; 02, 1 hash mark; 03, 1 hash mark; 04, 3 hash marks. I’ve added, below the 04, 12, and 1 hash mark. If someone else reads it, I’ll add a second hash mark under 12. Maybe I’ll start my own library of library discards, “The Used, Used Library.” We find ourselves in hard times for libraries.

I don’t know if Cain was ever at the Sierra Madre library, but maybe he was. And if he was, I wonder if he checked out and read Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” which came to mind as I was reading “Postman,” later in the book. Dreiser’s book, published in 1925, also tells of lives and plans of deception all gone awry thanks to chance occurrences but that result nevertheless in crime and punishment. Dreiser, though, filled his book with background and foreshadowing, motivations and cross-purposes, not to mention long sentences. Cain’s book is terse, devoid of metaphor. But what links “Postman” to “Tragedy” is the notion of Naturalistic purpose, helpless humans trying to create some sense of reason in a reasonless and unreasonable world, and of the influence of chance in ruining the seeming reasonableness of planning for something, for anything. Camus’s “The Stranger” also comes to mind, particularly given the parallel scenes with a priest at the end of both “Stranger” and “Postman.”

If “Postman” is good, it’s because it accomplishes its purpose. Whether or not that purpose is good is another matter.

I discovered the problem with the toilet had to do with the overflow tube, which was higher than the critical level mark on the filler valve. Thus when the float stuck, the water spilled out the handle hole before it reached the overflow tube. The toilet never even had a chance to run. I replaced the filler valve and flapper, and took a hacksaw blade and cut the overflow tube down to 1″ below the CL line on the filler valve, which, I discovered, is code. The toilet had been out of compliance. Then I had to make the second trip back to the hardware store, to buy a new handle, which is what broke to begin with – there were two problems at once – but I had so focused on the sticking float problem that I had forgotten about the broken handle. This is how noir plots are constructed.

Theodore Dreiser and Flannery O’Connor were Neuroscientists, too

Over at The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has posted his Wall Street Journal article in which he takes the pow out of will power, arguing the busy brain is to blame for human frailties. It’s a classic defense of the human condition (Dreiser used it in An American Tragedy), and a blow to the motivational-speaker market.

The reduction of will power also suggests the neuroscientists may be close to removing the free from free will. No wonder a good man is hard to find. There might be some will left, but not enough to satisfy being saved as a one-shot deal. Flannery O’Connor explains in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: The Misfit, having provided the grandmother with her final jolt of grace, says, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” This is Flannery’s depiction of the Catholic view of will and grace, and it explains the Catholic necessity of being saved every moment of one’s life, of the necessity of being reborn daily, not just once, for one could live, in the Catholic tradition, a good life for 80 years, but a single hanging curve ball that goes against the signs and you’re yanked and sent down the tunnel, for in Catholicism, as in baseball, it’s not about what you did for me yesterday; it’s what you can do for me today that counts.

Motivation depends on the quote, a bite of sugar; motivation is entertainment – motivetainment, ads directed at the brittle brain. Quotes are empty calories. If losing weight is a resolution for 2010, skip the motivation; instead, read Theodore Dreiser, go for long walks, and eat bananas. Bananas are funny and literary – you’ll need both after reading Dreiser.