Monday, January 16, 2023

The Hard-Won Vitality of America in the “Vast Obscurity beyond the City”: Guest Post by Jay A. Gertzman

Jay A. Gertzman
published Beyond Twisted Sorrow, The Future of Rural Noir in October 2022. Beyond Twisted Sorrow 
describes new directions in American noir crime fiction taken by writers such as Crews, Woodrell, Offutt, Post, Proulx, Johnson, and others who set their work in rural not urban settings in October 2022. 

JAY GERTZMAN: The Hard-Won Vitality of America in the “Vast Obscurity beyond the City”

The diverse, still-emerging genre of Country (or Redneck, Ridgerunner, or Ozark) noir is marked by protagonists who have an instinct for community as a coherent territory and recreate the possibly self-destructive but stubbornly self-assertive traits that characterized what Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America.”

While reading classic era crime stories by Hammett, Goodis, Thompson, and  Highsmith, Millar, and Williford, one admires the protagonists’ acceptance of their inability to overcome the hostility and distrust that make happiness impossible.  That acceptance is brave, clear sighted and stoically aware. McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, and Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice are examples.

Recent crime narratives set in rural America have just as much noir insight into desperate motives, repressive social control, and megalomaniacal villainy as their mass market predecessors. The contrast lies in their strivng to present more hopeful closures, some of which are deeply spiritual. Larry Brown's Dirty Work concerns a Vietnam vet left without arms and legs. He speaks to a smiling angel and with God himself.  The man in the next bed, whose face has been seared by napalm, sacrifices  his own freedom to end the roommate’s suffering by a violent act, but one  of selfless kindness.

            Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is replete with angry, emotionally frozen, and cruel people. In contrast is Sheriff Willoughby, whose immediate task is calming a populace coping with a rape murder. The victim’s mother has erected, on signboards, direct challenges to his handling of the case. He has no answers for her, and does not have the time to find them. He is dying. Among those who weep for him are every member of his hard-bitten staff. Sheriff Willoughby kills himself to save his loved ones from witnessing his painful decline. His sacrifice brings a new awareness about what it takes to keep a town alive. Citizens begin to respect the hate-filled mother’s actions; a fired deputy takes up his own investigation; and with that hard-won intelligence the mother and deputy join up not just to find the rapist but to consider what, beside punishing, they ought to do. That indecision may be due to the suspicion that PTSD from service in Iraq might have caused the rapist’s violence.

Chloé Zhao’s 2020 film Nomadland dramatizes American perseverant ingenuity, using a protagonist with a defiant bullbleep detector who, like Harry Crews and his characters, “stands up to life and spits in its face.” It is based on Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, which The New York Times cited as a “Notable Book” when it appeared in 2017. It is about van dwellers whose nomadic travels took them throughout the vast western part of the country. They took part-time work, learning how to repair their vehicles and appliances on their own, using all their strength to circumvent a system that had allowed the Crash of 2008 to occur, as a result of which they had lost their homes. Zhao’s background colors, i.e., the film’s “palette,” can be described as “low mist.” The soft piano chords imply isolation. It’s usually either dawn or dusk. Low lights in the distance might border on the badlands, “The Great American Desert.”

          There are several night scenes, with neon marking restaurants, bars, or motels. The first episode is at Christmas, with Fern driving to the Amazon CamperForce parking lot. Snow sits on the roadside; one could imagine the mud and ice being a shadowy omen, visible despite the dull light. The ambience reflects Fern’s own state of mind. She cannot bring herself to go to a more comfortable climate. She is not yet ready to break the emotional tie to her home in Empire, Nevada. Nor can she trade in her vehicle, which she has dubbed Vanguard, for one in better shape, because she lives in it. D. H. Lawrence specified the American need for wandering and discovery as “the sloughing off of the old skin, toward a new youth. It is the myth of America.” That image captures the process Fern is undergoing.

Other narratives capturing it include Steph Post’s Lightwood, Peter Heller’s The Painter, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, David Joy’s The Line That Held Us and Where All Light Tends to Go, and Harry Crews’ Scar Lover. All the protagonists seek, and some find, what Lawrence called a “bigger, more various, less finished self.” Zhao has said of the scene where Fern is walking among the rocks in the Badlands, that Fern is “exploring and lost at the same time.” She’s still sloughing off the old skin. The “new youth” is not yet at hand. With her singularly obsessive and narrowly focused determination, she must continue to be a stranger in wide open spaces. 

Maybe she is not ready to stare into, and stare down, the grief of her husband Bo’s death. She goes back to Empire, knowing Bo and the neighbors are gone. After running her hand over the kitchen counter and looking at the view from the window, she drives on.  If this visit is her last, she may have been on the way to extirpating the “twisted sorrow” of homelessness. She drives across the badlands toward the mountain range she loved to stare at from her home’s kitchen window. Notably, she’s facing west, “somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”  


JAY A. GERTZMAN has written on the distribution and censorship of erotic literature, the publisher Samuel Roth’s unauthorized editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses, the publishing history of Chatterley, and the crime novels of David Goodis. His Pulp According to David Goodis was nominated for a 2019 Anthony Award in the category Best Critical or Non-Fiction Work. He has published on Western crime fiction in Paperback Parade, Mystery Readers Journal, Tough (website), Down & Out Books Newsletter, and  

Gertzman has recently published Beyond Twisted Sorrow, The Promise of Country Noir, which describes new directions in American noir crime fiction taken by writers such as Crews, Woodrell, Offutt, Post, Proulx, Johnson, and others who set their work in rural not urban settings. "It covers not only noirish works but expands to include the genre of the Western. He draws insightful parallels while also recognizing differences.”  “A much needed exploration of a literary niche harboring some today’s best writers.”

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