Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Someone recommended this to me a while back. I took a chance on it when I noticed it was available cheap for the Amazon Kindle. (Maybe it still is.) Written by the terrifically-named Elliott Chaze, and published in 1953 by the legendary Gold Medal outfit, it’s a noirish crime tale about an escaped con named Tim Sunblade who’s torn between practical and impractical impulses. On the one hand, he wants to pull off the ultimate bank heist — to die rich and sated, like a retired congressman. On the other, he’s driven, mostly against his will, to satisfy his deepest erotic longings, which stretch all the way back to his small town upbringing — to sleepy tree-lined streets and furtive kisses on the front porch swing. Both impulses find outlets in the figure of Virginia, a fugitive call girl whom he hires between jobs, uses enthusiastically, and then can’t get clean of. Like any good noir dame, Virginia cares only about money. Loves it so much she’s wont to take off her clothes and roll around in it. Tim recognizes this, of course, but he’s so besotted with her that he keeps inventing new exceptions to his “no attachments” policy. He eventually compromises, working Virginia into his crime plan, and for a while the couple plays at aping suburban normalcy. You can probably guess where that leads.
Hey, isn’t this a sensationalized version of the standard male relationship story? “I dreamed of doing this and this and this, but then I met this leggy blonde thing, and now here I am with a potbelly, floral curtains, and three mewling whelps.” It seems to me that mid-century crime writing was uniquely suited to that sort of thing. Noir movies too. Today much of this stuff is considered misogynistic, because — gasp! — the female characters are little more than obstacles thrown into the paths of men. But this is pulp we’re talking about, not Chekhov; it’s all about distillation and tanginess. Besides, why shouldn’t dudes have their own private desecration fables? And what asshole determined that all art is required to present an unbiased and “balanced” image of the Way Life Ought To Be?
Anyway, one of the book’s most notable aspects is Chaze’s use of language, which could be described as hardboiled if it weren’t so damn florid. He loves setting off Roman candles of terse-but-vibrant description. These have an impressionistically immersive effect, but they also tease you out of the narrative — because you can sense Chaze leering over every evocative line.
Here are a few extended quotes:
I hadn’t had a hot-water bath in almost four months. The soap was oily and fragrant and it slid down my chest making little zeros of suds, each filled with the milky-green color of the water. I slumped down in the water so that my chin rested just on the surface of it. I soaped my head and scrubbed it with fingertips and fingernails, then ducked beneath the deep hot water, holding my breath, feeling the dirt of months float loose. I always cut my hair short, so short I can use it for a fingernail brush when I wash my head. I credit this trick to Washington and Lee University. It’s about the only thing they taught me there in that splendid woman-starved nest of culture where students address one another as “gentleman,” where freshmen wear nauseatingly cute beanie caps, where no one walks on the hallowed grass, and everyone is so sporting it hurts.
. . .
Thinking back, I remember the stupidest things; the way there was a taut crease just above her hips, in the small of her back. The way she smelled like a baby’s breath, a sweet barely there smell that retreated and retreated, so that no matter how close you got to it you weren’t sure it was there. The brown speckles in the lavender-gray eyes, floating very close to the surface when I kissed her, the eyes wide open and aware. But not caring. The eyes of a gourmet offered a stale chunk of bread, using it of necessity but not tasting it any more than necessary. I remember getting up and coming back to her, and of throwing a shoe at the light bulb, later, when the whisky was gone. I remember the smell of rain-darkness in the room and her telling me I’d cut my feet on the light-bulb glass on the floor. And how she said I was no better than a tramp myself, that I made love to the cadence of the raingusts on the roof, and it was true I was doing just that, but it seemed the natural thing then. And I felt so marvelously clean and soaped and so in tune with the whole damned universe that I had the feeling I could have clouded up and rained and lightninged myself, and blown that cheese-colored room to smithereens.
. . .
You’ve never heard a siren until you’ve heard one looking for you and you alone. Then you really hear it and know what it is and understand that the man who invented it was no man, but a fiend from hell who patched together certain sounds and blends of sounds in a way that would paralyze and sicken. You sit in your living room and hear a siren and it’s a small and lonesome thing and all it means to you is that you have to listen until it goes away. But when it is after you, it is the texture of the whole world. You will hear it until you die. It tears the guts out of you like a drill against a nerve and it moves into you and expands.
Pretty heady stuff, huh? Pretty show-offy too, but I can forgive that in writing as fun and as sexy as this. Truth be told, I’ll take a pulp show-off over a literary show-off any day of the week. I’m looking at you, David Foster Wallace.
FWIW, Chaze himself was hip to this tendency in his writing. When asked about his motivation as a writer, he said: “If there is any discernible, it’s probably ego and fear of mathematics, with overtones of money. Primarily I have a simple desire to shine my ass — to show off a bit in print.” If only more “serious” writers were so candid, not to mention so willing to make their affectations palatable to the commercial audience.
Anybody got some other Gold Medal recommendations?
- I learned while Googling Chaze that a movie version of “Black Wings Has My Angel” is set to be released in 2013. Here’s hoping it isn’t terrible.
- Paleo Retiree, né Michael Blowhard, has a go at the Gold Medal phenomenon.
- An informative write-up on Chaze by Bill Pronzini.
- Some wonderful examples of Gold Medal cover art.