bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Noir Saved My Life


I just finished writing what has to be the darkest DAN FOWLER G-MAN story ever, and I got to thinking…

Back in the twentieth century I pretty much lost everything. Career, money, health, hope, sanity—all those were behind me. Seriously, I learned about how low the human soul can sink, the lengths to which some people will go and the power that some wield unthinkingly—until some miserable bastard who just doesn’t care anymore comes along and throws a wrench in the works, or at somebody’s head.

Yup, clinically depressed and alcoholic, I resided in a fleabag hotel, and waited for the world to end. I was at the stage normal people call NO HOPE. And a man who’s got nothing has nothing to lose. I was the guy with the wrench, and I laughingly chucked it into the wheels of your favorite machine, hoping I could see the jaws drop before the explosion. The only thing that hurt was caring.

Well, pain is growth, and eventually I decided to grow because, well, the universe just wasn’t ending the way I’d planned. Now, in the past I’d always been a reading fool, but somewhere in my vodka-is-a-food-group-lifestyle I’d forgotten about that. So I started reading again. A lot.

Except a lot of the stuff I’d read before didn’t do it for me. I’d pick up the books where the heroes were bigger than life, and I’d still realize they wouldn’t last ten minutes in my city. They couldn’t survive here, because they didn’t have to. They had money, fast cars boats, women…hope. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet were but appetizers, along with a healthy helping of other detectives… So I started searching…

I started reading Donald Westlake’s PARKER books again and actually coped, using that character’s emotional disassociation to deal with the world. I’d get up, do my job like a machine, then go home and write. It even worked for a little while. And sent me searching for something more…

Now, I’m the first to admit that Jim Thompson and David Goodis may not be the best reading for a guy trying to sober up, but I was at the library and, somehow, a copy of Lawrence Block’s A Dance at the Slaughterhouse wound up in my hand. And Matt Scudder was a recovering alcoholic, who went to AA meetings and had seen more than I ever hope NOT to.

And while I know and care next to nothing about “the beautiful people” and the sexual affairs of suburban housewives that the literary world was shoving at me—noir touched my heart. The losers that lived there, lived outside the regular world; and whether forced there knowingly or unknowingly, by fate or by choice—if they did not change, they were doomed. And I felt that. The random private-eyes had already been blessed with the gift of a perspective outside the norm—most likely by a life that pushed them there. They knew when things were too good to be true, and they knew the foibles of man. And, their version of justice seemed a lot more right than the system I’d seen, where promotions are based on how many people you can put in corporate, for-profit jails.

Sure they didn’t all have happy endings; that just made it more real. Plus, if you go into a story thinking there’s no way it’s going to have a happy ending, and it actually has a one? Well, damn. There’s hope.
So in a horribly lonely, isolated, not-talking-to-anybody-on-the-street-for-days sort of way, noir spoke to me. Me, the person nobody and nothing spoke to.
And damned if I didn’t find a little more hope.