Dying on the Vine | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Dying on the Vine 

Despite promising starts and a scattering of stars, "midwest noir" remains an unappreciated genre.

In Denis Johnson's epochal 1992 story collection Jesus' Son, the eponymous narrator, Fuckhead, observes a drought-ridden Iowa landscape while transporting two acquaintances, one previously murdered by the other: "The failed, wilted cornstalks were laid on the ground like rows of underthings. Most of the farmers didn't even plant anymore. All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time." Johnson's ridiculous, doomed characters (who elsewhere loiter on el trains, in dreamlike hotels, and in bars scheduled for wrecking balls) are constantly subordinated to the torments of the landscape. Noir may well be the redheaded stepchild of serious contemporary writing, but as noir-influenced writers like Johnson demonstrate, it remains very much in the American grain.

To be effective and memorable, noir--for convenience defined as criminal melodrama where sympathies drift toward the criminal actors, not the forces of order--is always a localized phenomenon. At a time when noir-derived pieces remain an increasingly reliable cash cow of the entertainment industry, the lack of mainstream recognition (or stylistic codification) of "midwest noir" seems remarkable. This is especially true considering how many trends in national crime patterns seemingly gestate in the midwest: our region has long been high on the charts for bank robberies, and in 2001 Chicago was embarrassed to discover it had become the nation's murder capital. Particular and disturbing crime trends have stitched tracks across this city. The exhibitionistic mantle of the serial killer was most recently worn here by Andrew Cunanan, and incidents of ultrayoung killers and victims were epitomized by the "Yummy" Sandifer case. Yet while other regions have been enduringly defined in noir fiction--such as the decaying northeastern cities of George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, James Lee Burke's Louisiana, the Florida of Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford, James Crumley's Montana, and the California of James Ellroy and Walter Mosley--an amnesia seems to shroud the practitioners of midwest noir.

Sara Paretsky is a popular writer who sets her best-sellers in Chicago to good effect. But speaking broadly, her books foreground certain qualities--a reliance on the verities of private eye convention and the ultimate triumph of moral sureties--that move them away from the more throbbing, fragmentary, almost pseudobeat world of "real" noir. (For the sake of avoiding endless argument, one may locate this elusive authenticity within the vanished circle of marginalized postpulp writers of approximately 1930 to 1960, contemporaries of Hammett and Chandler whose more raggedy, personalized work slipped into genre obscurity, among them Raoul Whitfield, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, and Horace McCoy.)

Certain novels of this period capture the back-alley roughs of Chicago with a telegraphic immediacy still accessible today. Little Caesar (1929) by W.R. Burnett remains a tough and picaresque (albeit cartoonishly defamatory) examination of gangster realities, preserving a view of ethnic enclaves that later disappeared beneath expressways and universities--public works projects intended to eradicate the realities of an entrenched underground economy documented both here and in other early noir, such as Whitfield's Green Ice (1930). (According to scholar William Marling, the 28-year-old Burnett worked "as a night-clerk in a seedy hotel" while writing his debut, thus anticipating the countless youthful scribes who've toiled in Chicago's mammoth service industry ever since.)

Jonathan Latimer's novels, such as The Lady in the Morgue (1936), recall 1930s Chicago as a sweltering town of smutty, inebriated violence. Latimer later claimed to be parodying the genre conventions enforced by the commercial popularity of Hammett's Sam Spade novels, yet his books' snarky humor and the foibles of his shambling protagonist ("Detective Crane--Unique and Alcoholic," one tag line boasted) surely presage the alienated noir heroes of Willeford, Ellroy, and Barry Gifford among many others. It's been conjectured that Latimer's fondness for gin-soaked drollery and reliance on DT-addled reporters as Crane's foils derived from his early-30s stint in the newsroom of the old Herald-Examiner.

Fredric Brown, remembered today (barely) as a prolific sci-fi writer, debuted in 1947 with a pungent tale of adolescence and revenge that beautifully occupied its time and place. The Fabulous Clipjoint opens with the youthful narrator's discovery that his boozy, printshop-bound father was murdered, or, as the policeman tells him, "slugged and rolled in an alley." Young Ed's pursuit of the truth behind this killing takes him on a meandering tour of Chicago's grimy bars and Gold Coast swankery; throughout, the breezy, wounded tone of the first-person narrative situates the novel firmly in the Algren idiom. Brown captures an indelible panorama of the near north side's prerenewal skid row venality; in the end the protagonist and his disreputable uncle flee the wicked city for the comparative civility of a traveling carnival. Interestingly, although Brown expanded the Ed and Am stories into six more books, his most popular crime novel was probably The Screaming Mimi (1949), which, as Latimer had, transplanted the newshound's milieu from Michigan Avenue to grittier criminal precincts.

Burnett, Latimer, and Brown's experience as Front Page-era print reporters and as quick and dirty contributors to then-fading pulp magazines like Black Mask arguably factors into the reasons their hyperarticulated prose holds up surprisingly well today, once rescued from the mists of geek nostalgia. More recently, the late Eugene Izzi and Hugh Holton each produced a series of tough, workmanlike procedurals that satisfied local readers while failing to establish a national reputation.

The anonymity of midwestern crime writers seems all the more illogical considering that in the 1990s several debuting writers carved out bleak, locally rooted noir in surprising territories. Scott Smith's A Simple Plan (1993) returned to the contemporary thriller the startlingly atavistic craftsmanship once employed by writers like Goodis. Its tale of an accountant in rural Ohio who with his roughneck brother discovers a load of ill-gotten cash in a crashed plane perfectly updates the Cainian scream beneath smothering normality that's a hallmark of midwest noir: ultimately, the bland uprightness that shields Smith's narrator from suspicion collapses in a spiral of heartbreakingly personalized violence. Even Sam Raimi had to tweak Smith's crueler plot twists in his comparatively restrained and elegiac film rendition.

The following year, a singular crime debut, Craig Holden's The River Sorrow, slipped almost completely beneath the radar. A hipster doctor and recovering junkie is on ER duty in rural Michigan when a burn victim is choppered in, his pocket holding a bag of synthetic opiate that will implicate the doctor in several murders and an outsized, Detroit-bound conspiracy. Offering a plot that folds in on itself with the elegance of origami, Holden achieves a delicate balance between the demands of a mainstream thriller--medical and forensic riffs, a blustering but heroic cop, lurking clouds of moralized outrage--and those of the grittier mode practiced notably by Pelecanos, including snap bursts of violence, a comprehension of the interconnectedness between urban and rural decay, and a sense of the thinned lines between outlaw society and the forces of order. In his portrait of the recovering doctor and the drug-hungry, punked-out denizens of a small town, Holden showed himself to be perfectly attuned to the grim underside of post-80s slacker anomie.

Similarly, John Wessel's This Far, No Further (1996)--set in a wintry Hyde Park--applies hoary gumshoe formulas to a juicily original and unabashedly romantic take on ancient Chicago rituals. Wessel grasped the noir purity inherent in a city of clashing classes and hostile neighborhoods.

Any one of these slick page-turners could and should have been a turning point in establishing a style and method for telling uniquely midwestern crime stories. But thanks to their bleak and oblique twists, a lack of attentiveness by the publishers, or simple bad luck, all experienced underwhelming sales. Holden and Wessel moved on, producing rather more conventional and mainstream novels--Holden a moody east-coast police procedural and then recently a historical novel, and Wessel two more entries in his private eye series--while Scott Smith, surprisingly, remains missing in action. For a while, readers awaiting exciting new fiction of regional avarice seemed doomed, like Fuckhead, to wait a long time.

Which brings us to Scott Phillips. His debut, The Ice Harvest (2000), earned a certain buzz among crime cognoscenti, first appearing in a limited edition by Dennis McMillan, a New Mexico-based boutique publisher who by the late 1980s was nearly the only one keeping the likes of Willeford and Brown in print. McMillan's enthusiasm seems well placed: Phillips's debut is economically written and oozes period grotesqueries. It takes place on Christmas Eve 1979 in Wichita, and its casual prose envisions that era's tired decadence and forced joviality by fingering its modestly decrepit actualities. As one of the book's louche denizens describes it: "Look at these pathetic cocksuckers. Pina coladas and ultrasuede three-piece suits, for fuck's sake." Pathetic they may be, but Phillips's attentiveness to the vanished details and rituals of that sleazy age (one subplot concerns Christmas refunds of the strippers' "stage fees," an unheard-of largesse) adds the adrenal realism that contemporary crime fiction so desperately requires.

In the book's first half the reader follows a mobbed-up, increasingly tipsy attorney named Charlie Arglist on his unsavory holiday errands to Wichita's strip clubs, massage parlors, and taverns (as well as a hilarious drop-in on in-laws he's estranged from) while well aware that Charlie has some grand deception in mind. Necessary violence is handled with surgical precision: in one scene an aspiring guitarist who's assaulted his stripper girlfriend gets all ten fingers broken in the club's parking lot; and when Charlie visits the home of his partner in scamming he finds only a flap of finger caught in a vise. But as Charlie's plans and allegiances go awry, brutally sordid and amateurish murders are committed, the results of a series of small wrong turns that often characterize real violence. Yet Phillips shrewdly focuses on the innumerable humanizing gestures that often provide otherwise unsympathetic noir characters with the ghostly whisper of familiarity.

Phillips's second novel, The Walkaway, published in August, is a sequel of sorts to The Ice Harvest, in a loopy and tangential way. Without spoiling the plots of either, it can be said that an unexpected encounter during The Ice Harvest's conclusion results in a financial windfall for one Gunther Fahnstiel, a dour retired Wichita patrolman who commands a strangely affectionate loyalty from the women in his life. In The Walkaway's prologue, set in 1979, Gunther buries a package on the grounds of a failed farm where, in 1952, there'd been a sex and murder scandal he was around for. Ten years go by, and the now senile Gunther has escaped from the memory-impaired ward of the Lake Vista Elder Care Facility, and while the reader initially assumes he's after his buried fortune, those concerned about his welfare--including his stepson Sidney, who'd accepted a loan from Gunther to transform the decrepit strip clubs of The Ice Harvest into successful silicone jiggle palaces redolent of the late 1980s, Gunther's foulmouthed fourth wife, Dot, and Ed, another elderly retired cop--aren't so sure and have their own reasons for wanting Gunther safely tucked away. A slightly absurd chase narrative is chopped up and distributed along a more personalized, grisly, traditionally noirish recounting (in multiple first-person voices) of exactly what happened at the old farm back in 1952. This secondary story involves a vengefully possessive husband, once the local boy thought most likely to succeed, who returns to Kansas following years of pimping and scamming in Japan intent on chasing down a "sex lottery" at the local aircraft plant. It is to Phillips's considerable credit that the temporal mass separating 1952 and 1989 becomes increasingly subordinate to the fragile web of acquaintances, experiences, and lies binding these eccentric Kansans together and to their pasts.

Perhaps what's most surprising about The Walkaway is how much mileage Phillips gains from Gunther's semicomic wanderings. One woman who knew Gunther in his prime considers him "the toughest bastard she'd ever met," while Sidney reminds the incompetent nursing home manager that "he just doesn't know what fucking year it is, is all." Gunther's senility is represented as a quasi-narcotic haze--returning to his old town, he fakes his way through meetings with people he barely remembers, believing these dead relationships to be the key to retrieving his money--and it serves as a surprisingly efficient metaphor for the noir condition. The oldsters' unease with their own checkered pasts (the war years, which transformed everything, and the curdled aftermath of the 1950s) reflects upon the penny-ante schemes their juniors are currently perpetrating. A rather large number of eccentric, aggrieved characters are running about, but Phillips eventually clarifies how most of them are tied to the missing money and to the violence of 1952. Suggesting a secret fidelity to covert noir principles, even the most minor characters resonate with barely concealed hurts.

The noir writer whose tone Phillips seems to suggest most is Charles Willeford, onetime tank commander turned master of the boorishly psychopathic. Gunther and the aggrieved husband in the 1950s plot respectively recall Willeford's most memorable creations: aged cop Hoke Mosley and jovial killer Freddy Frenger. Phillips revives Willeford's idea of the ravages of age as metaphor for criminal entropy: Gunther "doesn't know who's president of the United States," but his cynical cop's pragmatism and the life-altering force of his illicit fortune make him formidable, as a luckless philanderer discovers on encountering, in his own home, the naked, confused Gunther wielding a pool cue.

Once one comes to grips with the topsy-turvy structure (and Phillips's infrequent willingness to fall back upon hoary plot chestnuts, such as random meetings and a discovered cache of yellowing newspapers), The Walkaway is an enjoyable and quick-paced read that picks merrily at distinctly American bones: even its minor digressions explore the corruption and collusion that we in the midwest have long camouflaged in the bland tones of propriety and shallow censure. (Phillips notes in an afterword that the "Wichita factory sex lottery" was based on several real incidents recounted in the seminal work of postwar muckraking, U.S.A. Confidential [1952], a reminder that noir is a genre well suited to containing real "secret histories" beneath its two-fisted bluster.) In both his books Phillips provides a strong sense of the Kansas environs as a strange confluence of permanence and decay, and he evokes our urban and rural landscapes as the ghosts of divided social classes, recalling in doing so Richard Russo's upstate New York and Willeford's Miami.

Surprisingly, there's relatively little violence in The Walkaway; instead, tension builds steadily through Gunther's peregrinations, as more characters are motivated to look for him and their histories are gradually uncovered. Compared to the feckless bloodbaths currently foisted upon readers by the likes of Boston Terran, The Walkaway is a restrained, genteel piece, but this quality allows Phillips to sneak in larger, more disturbing issues: the process of aging; the allure of fleeting memory and good times; the loss of true American landscapes to generic development; and, most prominently, the lurid hypocrisy of pre-1960 morality, as thrown up against sterile post-1980s porno culture (alive and well in the strip clubs that Gunther's windfall helped support).

The Walkaway is a better novel than The Ice Harvest, albeit without that book's sense of bloody acceleration: Phillips's prose is more considered here, illuminating many more shades of gray within the Kansas landscape. Though he doesn't shy from the grislier bumps in his back story--sodomy, opiate addiction, the "protected" rackets of the 1950s, and postwar sexual malaise all figure prominently--there's an off-kilter sprightliness to this book that, against those lugubrious but best-selling depictions of high-tech, drolly unstoppable serial killers, is as refreshing as cold gin. The enticing combination of The Walkaway's extravagant, meandering temporal structure and Phillips's potent sense of character as the sum of life and place as destiny--that place being a rural midwest that is not empty, however it might look to a passing city slicker--makes it clear that not all the rooms of noir have been vacated: darkened doors still remain for ambitious writers to kick down.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Damon Locks.

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