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MondayGood morning, all. What a weekend. What a week on the horizon. And it’s only going to intensify over the next month before midterm elections hit us, and then we’ll have weeks of sorting through that….

My survival technique? Keep with what you want to follow, but prioritize real life in encountering people face-to-face.  Read old books. Look up and around and out the window. Say your prayers.

Anyway:

Reading:

The Burglar is one of the more astonishing books I’ve read in recent years. Not because it was magnificent, but because it the overall impact was so unexpected. What Goodis was trying to do was so unusual. It’s a book that I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about for a while, nor do I want to put it out of my head, either. It’s giving me much to think about –  mostly about how existential questions get filtered through pop culture in surprising ways.

I wrote about author David Goodis here. The Burglar is also in the Library of America collection, along with Dark Passage. This time, the protagonist is not innocent or unjustly accused – he’s a professional thief – but the novel is really not about his thieving. It’s about why he’s a thief, the sense of honor that binds him to the people he’s with and shapes his life, and ultimately it’s about the source and potential price of being faithful to one’s code of honor.

And because it’s mid-century, and because it’s noir, it’s a bleak, tight work in which we’re pondering a man who’s pondering the cold reality of being, in the end, alone. And dead.

What I can’t stop thinking about is that The Burglar has some fairly Deep Thoughts coursing through it and some evocative writing, all bound up in this package:

amy-welborn

The last two chapters are quite astonishing, really, and I keep imagining the reaction of the reader who picked up this paperback at the five-and-dime, settled down for a pulpy scorcher of a read, and ends up with our protagonist and the young woman he’s bound by honor to protect out in the inky-dark ocean off Atlantic City in an extended scene that is really a metaphor for life’s forces and our choices combining and pulling us down, down, down.

The plot is: Nat Harbin is a professional thief in his early 30’s. He’d gotten into the business when, as a starving teen orphan, he’d been picked up hitchhiking by a pro who had a young daughter. Eventually the pro is killed during a job and Harbin, the girl and two other men gradually form a family of sorts, a family in which each individual has a burglaring specialty. We meet them in the midst of a huge heist of a stash of emeralds from a Philadelphia mansion. What ends up happening is that a dirty cop decides to take advantage of the situation, enlists a woman named Della to ensnare Harbin, all with the end of getting the emeralds themselves.

Along the way, there are encounters that escalate the way they do only in noir and in the movies, life compressed into meaningful gazes across restaurants, quick cab rides and blunt statements of desire. Every time I read a noir novel, I can’t help but hear the male protagonist speak in Humphrey Bogart’s voice. Typical of Goodis, there is also this intense deep-dive into the protagonist’s consciousness, a commitment to show us what it’s like to see, feel and think.

The thing was purely a matter of timing. To know just when to walk out. And he knew as sure as he was sitting here, this was the time to walk out. Right now. To tell the driver to stop the cab. To open the door and slide out, and walk away, and keep walking.

She held him there. He didn’t know how she was doing it, but she held him there as though she had him tied hand and foot. She had him trapped there in the cab, and he looked at her with hate.

“Why?” she said. “Why the look?”

He couldn’t answer.

She said, “You frightened?” Without moving, she seemed to lean toward him. “Do I frighten you, Nat?”

“You antagonize me.”

“Listen, Nat—”

“Shut up,” he said. “Let me think about this.”

She nodded slowly, exaggerating the nod. He saw her profile, the quiet line of her brow and nose and chin, the semi-delicate line of her jaw, the cigarette an inch or two away from her lips, and the smoke of the cigarette. Then he took his eyes and pulled them away from Della, and then without looking at Della, he was seeing her. The ride to the library took up a little more than twenty minutes, and they weren’t saying a word to each other, yet it was as though they talked to each other constantly
through the ride. The cab pulled up in front of the library and neither of them moved. The driver said they were at the library, and neither of them moved. The driver shrugged and let the motor idle and sat there, waiting.

After a while, the driver said, “Well, what’s it gonna be?”

“The way it’s got to be,” she said. As she floated her body toward Harbin, she gave the driver an address.

What’s it gonna be? The way it’s got to be. 

Well.

What are we doing all of this for, this life business? These choices? Ever wonder? Harbin tries to convince Gladden to pursue a plan, even though it might take months:

She stared at the backboard behind Harbin’s head. “Emeralds,” she said. “Chunks of green glass.”

In a desperate situation, Harbin’s dealing with an antagonist who is probably going to kill him if he gets a chance. I was struck by this simple metaphor that succinctly captures an internal dynamic:

There was a sudden hysteria in Hacket’s tone and Harbin grabbed at it as though it were a rope dangling toward him with quicksand the only other thing around.

The dialogue in this moment – actually a dreadful moment – made me laugh out loud. Someone has a clear sense of reality:

As Della walked in, her eyes were pulled to the red on the floor and Baylock’s dead face resting against the shiny red. She turned away quickly from that. She waited until Hacket had closed the door and then she stared at him. Her voice was low and quivered just a little. “What are you, a lunatic?”

Hacket stood looking at the door. “I couldn’t help it.”

“That means you’re a lunatic.” 

And then this, in which our protagonist expresses his essential solitude and the power of the crowd:

“One thing for certain. We didn’t do it. I wanted those three cops to live. I wanted Dohmer to live. I wanted Baylock to live. For Christ’s sake,” he said, and he saw her gesture, telling him to talk lower, “I never wanted anyone to die.” He stared ahead, at the people seated in the pavilion, the people on the boardwalk, and indicating them, he said, “I swear I have nothing against them. Not a thing. Look at them. All of them. I like them. I really like them, even though they hate my guts.” His voice went very low. “Yours too.”

“They don’t know we’re alive.”

“They’ll know it if we’re caught. That’s when it starts. When we get grabbed. When we’re locked up. That’s when they know. It tells them how good they are and how bad we are.”

If you check out other reviews of this book at Goodreads, you’ll find similar reactions.

On the boardwalk, he approached the hotel, he saw the sun hitting the silvery rail that separated the raised boards from the beach. There were a lot of people on the beach and most of them wore bathing suits. The beach was white-yellow under the sun. He looked at the ocean and it was flat and passive, with the heavy heat coming down on it, giving it the look of hot green metal. The waves were small and seemed to lack enthusiasm as they came up against the beach. In the water the bathers moved slowly, without much enjoyment, getting wet but not cool. He knew the water was warm and sticky and probably very dirty from the storm of Saturday night. Even so, he told himself, he would like to be in there in the ocean with the bathers, and maybe he and Gladden would have themselves a swim before leaving Atlantic City. The thought was an extreme sort of optimism but he repeated the thought and kept repeating it as he moved toward the entrance of the hotel.

I was going to take a break from all of this, but then I started Nightfall last night and was reeled in, both by the initial mystery, but also by the very real, affectionate relationship between a police detective and his wife – which warms my heart, but also fills me with dread because I’m thinking this can’t end well, because nothing ends well in this world.

Writing: I worked on the short story all weekend, pulled together some of the travel posts (see the page above) and tried to unravel All the Problems. Strangely, they remain knotted. I’ll be in Living Faith on Wednesday. Go here for that. 

Listening: My son’s jazz teacher gave him “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” to work on, with the Dave Brubeck variations on the same to listen to. It’s a beautiful thing, this Brubeck – he winds through some standard jazz stylings, then works out an invention/fugue type thing and then something that sounds a little like Liszt. So we’ve been listening a lot to that.

 

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