The Canonization of Pulp 
By Greg Bottoms

From Gadfly December 1998


The minute a person is born, any person, he is in the middle of a jam, and there is no way out of it except through death.
—Kenneth Fearing, Dagger of the Mind (1941)

Well-Worn Tropes
Men stand in dark alleys in pools of yet darker shadow, drinking dark amber fluids from flasks that shine like the very grail. Booze, here, is salvation. The gun, a cross. Smoke leaks from square, unshaven faces, blue as sadness. Neon signs across the alley are greasy and smeared, buzzing in the never-ending rain. Trash scutters along concrete. Sirens blare in the distance. Taillights wiggle in sky-black puddles; the sky itself leans like a drunk on the tallest buildings

One would think the knees of these men would buckle under so much angst, stuck here between the covers of an old paperback. They wear desperation wet and heavy as a trenchcoat.

Now a shadow in the alley, long and slender, bending up a building wall.  Here comes the dame, to break his heart and ruin his life, guaranteed, but he can't not help her (and she comes needing help, just a small favor, really, which will snowball into an avalanche of corpses). Staccato click of heels on concrete. She'll light him on fire with sex. He's already at the edge of himself. She'll finish him off.

Becoming Passé
These are caricatures of desperation, of course, cultural symbols so weighted with overuse that they've actually transcended irony or parody. The classic characters of noir are as familiar and solid and cheesily evocative now as Mickey Mouse or Elvis. As with the tried and true southern belle or the Vietnam vet or the prison warden, the screen has informed us of the characteristics to expect from them; all they have to do is show up, take a walk into the frame, and we know who they are and the part they'll play. Forget character development. Just give them a tilted hat and a smoke. It's the short-hand of shared culture.

But there was a time when noir novels contained the essence of underground, playing as the dark foil to Doris Day and Frank Capra America. There were the burgeoning suburbs, an ever-expanding middle-class, Sunday drives, 2.2 kids, two-car garages, church bells, coverdish suppers, milkmen and malts. Beginning in the 30s noir novels, like rock and roll would in the 60s, showed us the other side, the underneath, holding up a funhouse mirror to our accepted aspirations, our collective definition of Self and Society. They were radical, salacious, campy, running the gamut in terms of merit from third-rate schlock to nearly sublime, yet always pushing the edge of acceptance. And now they're back—as literature.

The archetypes of classic crime novels, once commodified and transplanted into other mediums—particularly television in the 50s and 60s—became heavy on the wisecracks and the looks, yet the desperation and revulsion, the psychosis and existential dread, the real edginess of the literary dark side, was glossed over. The fast tempo and stripped-down-to-essentials plots stayed; the hard, slangy, rat-a-tat-tat poetry, which was an essential part of what raised the aesthetic quality of these books, was reduced to TV clichés ("Book him, Dano," "You dirty rat"). The brooding, gone. The lush, dank, dangerous atmosphere, gone. What was left was simply symbol—antiseptic, declawed, ready for commercials. The art of noir seemed lost (outside of film), or, perhaps worse, America forgot that there was an "art" of noir, that writers like James M. Cain (whom Camus called his biggest influence), Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith tilled the American id and turned it into eminently readable literature.

The Death Blow of Pretension
After its peak in both popularity and accomplishment in the 50s, with novels like Jim Thompson's After Dark, My Sweet, Chester Himes' The Real Cool Killers and David Goodis' Down There, the pure noir seemed to vanish, though its influence can be seen throughout American letters. In fact the best of the pulp writers—Himes, McCoy, Willeford, Thompson, Goodis—are a kind of literary link between writers like Celine, Dostoevsky, Hawthorne, Poe, Anderson and Hemingway and later transgressive writers such as Genet, Bukowski, Hubert Selby, Jr., John Rechy and J.G. Ballard. William Burroughs' first book, Junkie, was actually published under the pseudonym William Lee as an Ace Books paperback original, or pulp, so his link is in fact literal; Kerouac's slim elegy for his brother, Visions of Cody, produces a dreamy poetry uncannily like that of Horace McCoy's Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye(both of which revel a bit too much in the then-fashionable ideas of Freud).

Yet despite their obvious link to, and influence on, more "literary" novels, it was perhaps high culture that delivered the ultimate death blow. Cultural shifts in ideology and taste during the 60s proved too much for noir, deeming it not only distasteful but a thoroughly hackneyed example of a larger literary problem. Postmodernism had arrived.

Led by Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, John Barth and Gilbert Sorrentino, among many others, the new and fashionably anti-establishment "experimental" writing was deeply concerned with breaking away from conventional notions of narrative, even more so than the high modernism before it (traces of which can actually be found in many noir novels). Part of its formal aesthetic had to do with cracking open the artifice of something as low-brow as "plot" and strolling into the text as authors for a little linguistic puzzle-making. Literature was—always had been—a smoke and mirrors show, the new anti-lit lit insisted, clogged with simpletons, bogged down by some agenda or other; don't believe us, it seemed to say, and for God's sake don't believe in all the crap that's been pedaled before. Even writers like Cain, Goodis and McCoy, all of whom garnered great critical acclaim at the time of publication, weren't even blips now on the radar. In this literary context—a context in which all things traditional were viewed as not only fraudulent but oppressive and mind-numbing, the product of the man—the pulp couldn't have seemed further from art. The rigid and repetitive dramatic structures of noir suddenly read like a "kick me" sign on the back of its shirt.

Positive Bleeding
So pulp was dead as far as high-hat literature was concerned. It would be a couple decades before it rose from the grave. Incidentally, "pulp" was the term used for these crime stories in their time. The term noir was coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946 to describe the dark (literally and metaphorically) films of such greats as Welles and Wilder in America, Tourneur in France. Webster's has the first English usage of the term as 1958. So if you'd have mentioned to David Goodis or James M. Cain that you liked his new noir in, say, 1945, you would have received a blank stare. It was in the 60s, and with a certain air of both hip kitsch and condescension, that the term made its way through film speak to the books and stories that preceded. Now, of course, the term "pulp" sounds antiquated, derogatory—used only ironically by such auteurs as Tarantino—while noir sounds, well, cool.

Pure noir, or pulp, as defined by the Library of America, is slightly different than the police procedurals of Hammett, Chandler or Ross McDonald, though certainly contingent upon their prior existence. These novels are harsher and bleaker, the protagonists more likely criminals than cops (or criminals and cops, such as in Thompson's The Killer Inside Me). Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, for instance, was an arch moralist, a chivalrous, wise-cracking, cynical knight. The anti-heroes of a Goodis or Thompson or McCoy live in an aestheticized American Hell, the scenery burnished to a perfect cinder-colored heartlessness where a character might jump to violence unbidden, unprovoked (Charles Willeford has a character, an otherwise decent fellow and good neighbor, who goes around poisoning dogs with the special point of his cane—for kicks; and reading this you don't think, What a sicko; you think, What a world we live in, a reaction which perhaps points out an essential difference between crap masquerading as art and art).

Violence, in the most artful of these novels (though always over the top), never feels gratuitous because the drama keeps us rapt. Brutality and forward-movement are intertwined. Action and interaction, the constant and fast-moving plot complications, serve to prove to us the sad reality of the violence, a violence that plays as simply an unflinching look at the American underbelly, at broken dreams and lives never afforded dreams, and the dark roads these lives travel. Unlike a sensational headline or a Bruce Willis movie, a David Goodis novel gets uncomfortably close to the killer and victim, and one suddenly understands on an intimate level what makes a person one or the other. There are no random acts of violence, not even such a thing.

Cool Again
Rejoice for relativism, the ever-shifting scope of American acceptance and rejection. Last year the Library of America, a non-profit publisher of the classics of Western literature, issued two volumes of eleven noir novels from the 30s, 40s and 50s.  These novels, by such writers as Kenneth Fearing, Jim Thompson, Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith, Edward Anderson, David Goodis and Horace McCoy, are now securely in the pantheon alongside Tolstoy, Melville, Woolf and Faulkner.

Film has played an important role in this revival (most of the classic American noir films of the 40s came from the popular "pulp" novels and stories of the 30s and 40s). Its influence cannot be overestimated. In the last two decades, the success of new movies and remakes based on noirs—The Postman Always Rings Twice, Shattered, After Dark, My Sweet, The Grifters, The Getaway,etc.—have brought attention to many languishing books (oddly, contemporary French film adaptations of noirs like Coupe de Torchon, based on Thompson's Pop. 1280, and Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, based on Goodis' Down There, may have been responsible for American film's rediscovery of noir more so than the books themselves). The amazing posthumous career of Jim Thompson, who died penniless and had less than twenty people attend his funeral in the late 70s and is now literature's dark darling, is certainly another factor, though this is also at least partially related to film. Literary imprints like Vintage (Black Lizard) and Serpent's Tail (Midnight Classics) publishing lost classics in smart-looking trade editions helps, too. And new attention to the pulp classics by estimable critics like Geoffrey O'Brien, Luc Sante and Robert Polito, who wrote a biography of Thompson and edited the Library of America's two volumes, has also bolstered their credibility. Now the influence of pulp seems nearly ubiquitous—from the films The Usual Suspects, LA Confidential and Wild Things to recent literary novels like Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red, Denis Johnson's Already Dead and Jen Banbury's Like a Hole in the Head.

But of course it is the American—the human—fascination with crime that makes the finest noirs—pulps—timeless. Crime writing has been around since Cain and Abel. Thompson's The Grifters has a plot similar to that of Oedipus Rex. Shakespeare's tragedies aren't so far from noirs (think of Hamlet). The pulp writers of mid-century simply focused their attention solely on the criminal impulse, cooking criminality and dead American dreams down to their dismaying essentials. The real cultural worth of noir novels comes from their pure distillation of life's darkest moments, their unflinching, unironic look at what is worst about us. That, and they're a lot of fun to read.