Saturday, August 24, 2013

"You're Not Human Tonight"

Raymond Chandler with pipe and black pussy cat
Watching Todd Haynes' mini-series adaptation of Mildred Pierce has had me re-reading James Cain. And while I like James Cain, and certainly can appreciate the blunt force of his compact style and first person narratives, I have to admit that his prose just doesn't excite or move me like my favorite hardboiled writer, Raymond Chandler. Case in point after revisiting The Postman Always Rings Twice, I picked up Chandler's The Little Sister from 1949, which for no particular reason, simply happenstance, is the one Chandler book I've never gotten around to reading, and from the blue bottle fly opening on I found myself not only laughing aloud at the hilariously sharp dialogue ("He used to wear a little blonde mustache but mother made him cut it off she said- Don't tell me. The Minister needed it stuff a cushion") , but pausing to reread and savor certain sections where his descriptive writing really takes full flight.

Chapter 13 in particular, in which Chandler's Philip Marlowe takes a ride in a reflective and despondent mood after a charged but unsuccessful encounter with Mavis Weld at her apartment, is a breath taking example of Chandler's pure artistry. Allow me then to quote a big chunk. I'm reminded of how Kerouac liked to re-type favorite writer's prose in order to get a more tactile feel for the writing.

I drove east on Sunset but I didn't go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupes and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed north and west towards home and dinner, an evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed car hops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad. Great double trucks rumbled down over Sepulveda from Wilmington and San Pedro and crossed towards the Ridge Route, starting up in low-low from the traffic lights with a growl of lions in the zoo.

Behind Encino an occasional light winked from the hills through thick trees. The homes of screen stars. Screen stars, phooey. The veterans of a thousand beds. Hold it, Marlowe, you're not human tonight.

The air got cooler. The highway narrowed. The cars were so few now that the headlights hurt. The grade rose against chalk walls and at the top a breeze, unbroken from the ocean, danced casually across the night.

Jesus this man could write! It's also interesting to note that Chandler was no fan of Cain's writing. There's an intriguing, albeit depressing book, called Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood -all the biggies spent time in Hollywood working on scripts and almost all of them had a terrible time of it- and in the section on Chandler that details his work with Billy Wilder on the script of Cain's Double Indemnity (the movie is better than the book due in large part to Chandler's work on the script) there's this withering quote from Chandler- "Cain is the kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls, a dirty little boy with a piece of chalk and a board fence and nobody looking. Such people are the offal of literature, not because they write about dirty things, but because they do it in a dirty way".

Now honestly this quote might tell you as much about Chandler and his somewhat prudish background, the man I believe wore gloves even when he wrote (to be fair this was reportedly because of a skin condition), as provide an honest assessment of Cain as a writer, but then again he has a point regarding Cain's pervasive fascination with the intertwining of violence, greed and sexuality to the exclusion of much else. I mean how many people really draw blood from their lover's lips? Or want to? Maybe I've just been rolling with the right (or wrong if you find drawing blood a turn on) type of girls. Digressions aside, I need to read a biography of Chandler, as the brief information in the Heartbreak and Vine book is tantalizing, from his time spent in an English public school with Boris Karloff, his propensity for practical jokes (like going to popular melodramatic films with his friend, sitting on opposite sides of the theatre and laughing loudly at "serious" scenes in order to reverse people's perceptions of the film) to his late start in life as a published writer, dedication to his wife 18 years his senior, and time spent in Hollywood, the man no doubt lived an interesting life.


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