natural born losers: bust, slide, and the max

Musicians regularly get together and jam.  It’s not always serious.  Sometimes it’s just jazzing about, goofing off, making shit up while still searching for a note, a thread, a pathway to something viable.  Actors do the same thing through improvisation.  Comedians too.

Writers, however, are rarely thought of as improvisers in the same way.  The obvious difference is that writing is a solitary vocation and they’re usually not open to input from family, friends, and colleagues until well into revision stage.  To put it bluntly, most writers simply don’t play well with others.

Collaboration still occurs between writers though.  I’ve always wondered how those things work when two hot-shot novelists get together.  Do they sit in the same cramped room together bashing the keys?  Does one type while the other dictates, then they switch roles at the end of every chapter?

I figure what ever way crime writers Ken Bruen and Jason Starr managed the practicality of writing their Max & Angela trilogy, they sure as hell had a great time doing it.  All three Hard Case Crime mass market paperbacks–Bust, published in 2006; Slide, published in 2007; The Max, published in 2008–feel like two writers having a laugh.  It feels like a lark and I haven’t giggled so hard reading in a long time.  The humor, though, is dark.  This is caustic stuff, but always hilarious.

“Max was barely listening to the rabbi’s eulogy, but when he realized that everyone was breaking down in tears, he knew he had to show some reaction.”

Bust is the most traditionally noir of the three.  It introduces our two anti-heroes–schlubby middle-aged businessman Max Fisher and his busty unqualified assistant and mistress Angela Petrakos–and digs a hole deep for the both of them.  Neither one of them is smart, to put it nicely, and part of the diabolical fun of the novel is watching these two overconfident idiots get themselves into terrible situations and… get into worse situations.

Max wants to knock off his wife.  He hires a sketchy Irishman with mangled lips (they were cut with a broken bottle) named Popeye to do the deed.  Popeye claims to be a professional killer, that’s why Angela brought him to Max in the first place.  It should go off without a hitch, but hardly anything goes right and when Max’s wife is horribly murdered it sets off a chain of misfortune that would make the Coen brothers’ heads spin.

Novels like Bust, including the rest of the series, are essentially perverse reads.  The comedy arises from events that are truly terrible–beatings, murder, kidnapping, and a whole lot of other nasty business.  The worse it gets and the farther Max and Angela descend into the pit, the funnier it is.  Max is the worst offender of the two.  He’s arrogant, delusional, and sociopathic.  He’s one loathsome character, but he’s also funny because he’s completely clueless about how bad he really is.  And as we move through the subsequent books, Max gives into those negative characteristics even more.  Angela, a half-Irish-half-Greek American bombshell, is horrible in a whole different way.  She’s certainly amoral, dumb, and gold-digging.  But I think her worst trait is her horrible taste in men.  When it comes to hooking-up, the woman would bed a rock if she thought she could squeeze some gold out of it.

“Max’s big problem was, despite all he’d been through over the past few months, his ego was all there.  He might’ve looked like a cesspool on the outside, but inside, he was still the same happening, suave, debonair, hip Max Fisher he’d always been.”

Slide picks up a year after the events in Bust.  Max aka The M.A.X. is now a “big time” coke dealer living in a Manhattan penthouse apartment with his new mistress Felicia (a stripper Max pays to be with him) and his in-house sushi chef.  He’s living the American Dream, or so he believes.  Maybe he’s just watched Scarface too many times.  Angela has fled to Ireland, her ancestral homeland, in hopes of riding the Celtic Tiger to wealth and fame.  But the economic boom has flat-lined and she gets mixed up with an American culture-loving Irish serial killer named Slide, who originally intended to kidnap and murder Angela when she accosted him on a Dublin street.  He quickly feels that she’s a kindred spirit and Angela, as per her usual routine with bad men, gets stuck with another loser… albeit a very scary, fucked up one.

I missed not having Max and Angela interact like they did in the first novel, but I thoroughly appreciate that Bruen and Starr don’t repeat themselves.  No fun in that.  And while Bust was undoubtedly a comedic book, it still very much adhered to noir tropes in a straightforward manner.  Slide‘s plot is looser.  It feels like a free-for-all at times… not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It feels like two writers jamming.

I don’t know how Bruen and Starr actually divided the work load, but you get the feeling that each one tried to set up the other one with improbable (and hilarious) plot complications and then said, “Now, try to get out of that one!”  It feels improvisatory to some degree.  If you go in looking for a ruthlessly plotted suspense tale, you may throw down the book in frustration.  It is suspenseful and quite the page-turner, but this is even more of a lark, and an outrageous one at that.  The transformation of Max into The M.A.X. is indeed a sight to behold.

“You got The M.A.X., you don’t need nothin’ else, dig?”

If The Max was a song, it would be turned to 11.  This is one hysterically over-the-top book and slightly better than the second one because it amps everything up to an even more ridiculous level.  This kind of far-fetched plotting is understandably not for everyone.  And The Max is really out there: The M.A.X. is now in prison, Attica, and reality is crashing down on him hard.  Angela is now in Greece, her other ancestral homeland (Ireland didn’t work out too well), and trying to live the high life with no money.  She gets involved with a suave grifting Englishman, Sebastian, who comes from money but doesn’t have any, and the two set off a domino effect of mayhem that will travel halfway ’round the world and end up intersecting with Max at Attica.  Toss in a desperate midlist crime writer who wants to write a biography of Max, plenty of crime genre/writing biz in-jokes, loads of politically incorrect humor, and you’ve got yourself another Hard Case winner.

All noir fiction straddles a line between humor and horror, tragedy and comedy.  If the existential odds are stacked up too high against our poor sap protagonist, a writer runs the risk of alienating their reader, pushing them too far.  There’s only so much trouble a character (and a reader) can take.  Maybe the size of one’s ego determines how far you can shove them closer to the void.  Max–who is oblivious in the first book but turns into a monstrous caricature by the second one and insanely destructive by the third–is unlike any fictional character I’ve ever run across.  At times he comes across like a sociopathic Elmer Fudd… a cartoon character with malicious intent who thinks he’s Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, or Al Pacino in DePalma’s Scarface remake.  The latter comes up a lot in Slide, since Max watches it all the time and tries to pattern his gangsta-lite persona on Pacino to become the de facto King of New York.

Or so he imagines.

If there’s one major theme running through these novels, it’s self-delusion… of characters not being able to see themselves clearly, of being unable to deal with reality truthfully.  For all of the gratuitous violence and extreme situations Bruen and Starr wallow in, they are completely insightful about this negative trait in us.  Everyone is capable of self-delusion.  I couldn’t help, however, seeing this as an exaggerated (because everything in these books is cranked up really high) examination of a specific strain of American self-delusion.  If the last ten years has taught us anything (you did learn this lesson, right?), it’s that American exceptionalism is a fantasy.  You can believe all you want that Americans are inherently different from everyone else in the world.  But that kind of destructive thinking only works so long and only within the borders of fortress America.  Go out into the world–and I’m not even talking the “exotic” Third World–and try acting like a know-it-all exceptional American.  Try it.  See how far it gets you on your crusade to win friends and influence people.

Max and Angela are American self-delusion personified.  Max adopts personas (badly) throughout the books–loving husband, good boss, ladies’ man, murderer, drug kingpin, gangsta, convict, genius.  He is incapable of being authentic, incapable of being what he truly is.  The frighteningly funny depth of his psychosis is brilliantly shown in how he reacts in the aftermath of his wife’s murder.  He eventually convinces himself that he didn’t hire Popeye and that he was the real victim of the whole affair, not his dead wife.  Max was the one suffering.

Angela’s delusions are more normal… for what it’s worth.  She’s dumb as hell, but she’s aggressive about living the good life.  Unfortunately, she’s not very good at attaining what she wants.  But damn if she doesn’t keep trying.  That’s what you call a real American can-do spirit!  Which is not a bad thing, mind you.  She’s a survivor, no doubt about it.

These are not sympathetic characters.  They don’t need to be.  The only thing that matters in fiction is that the characters are engaging.  Noir has always traded on that… not catering to good taste or offering up vanilla protagonists for fear of alienating readers/viewers.  The only moral or decent characters in this book–less than a handful–end up either dead or ineffectual… as it should be when we’re talking noir.

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on the chisel: act of violence (1948)

Men who saw combat in World War II returned to the good ol’ U.S.A. plagued by dark thoughts.

Many of them understandably couldn’t quite shake the experience.

They came back changed in ways their loved ones couldn’t imagine.

But many of the so-called Greatest Generation did keep it together.

They assimilated back into society with relative ease.

They started families, built up businesses, and kept their dark secrets hidden.

Until someone reminded them of things they’d done.

Things that you’ve trained yourself not to think about because they reveal aspects of your character…

You’ve kept hidden from the people you love more than anything.

And that makes you sick.

Smothered.

Crazy.

Scared.

So you panic and flee…

Deep into the night…

Into the realm of lost souls…

Because there’s nowhere else to go when you hit bottom.

But there are always others to share the pain with…

People who’ve been at the bottom a lot longer than you…

People who’ve seen it all… done questionable things… and will never

judge you for who you are or for what you’ve done in the past.

People you can confess your sins to.

But no one said confessing would necessarily make you feel better.

No one promised that the darkness in you would magically disappear.

You feel swallowed by it all…

Facing the horror within you doesn’t help…

It just devours you even more…

And that’s a punishment worse than death.

So the panic floods your senses all over again…

You can’t live like a trapped animal.

You have to make a drastic decision about your future…

That you no longer have one.

But new friends think differently.

They’re not done with you yet…

They want to give you a helping hand…

They want you to confess your sins a little more…

Because your new friends want to make a deal with you…

Help get you back on your feet, back to where you belong…

Only problem is you don’t fit in like you used to.

But you can try…

Because she is worth it.

It’s time to take a stand and face your problem…

To deal with your demons once and for all.

That’s usually dangerous business though…

Old friends with grudges usually aren’t so forgiving…

Especially when you try to tell them the truth…

And new friends don’t take kindly to chums who renege on beneficial propositions.

You only make…

One more haunted, confused widow.

port tropique by barry gifford

In fleeing… I mean leaving America, I made some difficult choices, decisions that I feared I would regret later on when I found myself in some ramshackle yet comfortable pub in Ireland or baking in the hot sun in Andalucia:

Why did I box up those damn Graham Greene novels? I knew I shouldn’t have packed that first Robert Stone novel! I wonder if I can find Under the Volcano here in Granada?

Big deal, right? Is that the world’s smallest fiddle I hear? Whatever.

For the most part, I think I made out okay. I packed a handful of paperbacks—mostly some film reference books and a book on Spanish football, Phil Ball’s Morbo—and some noir fiction, namely three David Goodis novels (Cassidy’s Girl, Black Friday, and Street of No Return), Bill Pronzini’s and Barry Malzberg’s Running of the Beasts, and Barry Gifford’s Port Tropique.

Gifford has long been a favorite of mine. I’m no completist, and I haven’t liked everything I’ve read (Arise and Walk was especially disappointing). But when Gifford is cooking, it’s like mainlining lightning. The Sailor and Lula novels are great, of course, as is the novel Night People and his book of film reviews, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Movies (long out of print, though it’s been reprinted under the title Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir, with some slight revisions). And then there are his collaborations with director David Lynch: Wild at Heart (1990; based on the novel), Hotel Room (1993), and my personal favorite, Lost Highway (1997). The latter film, with its neon bad mojo, deranged Möbius strip logic, and sudden impact va-voom courtesy of Patricia Arquette, all speed toward high fetishism for me and I make no apologies for it. There’s also Alex de la Iglesia’s 1997 film Perdita Durango (based on the novel of the same name), starring Rosie Perez as the title character, future Academy Award winner Javier Bardem, pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini, and director Alex Cox in a bit part. It’s ugly, indulgent, violent, sleazy, unpleasant, clever, and I’m not even sure that I like it. But I keep going back to it because I was such a fan of Iglesia’s horror/comedy El dia de la Bestia (1995), and with every new viewing hope that Durango’s misguided dramatic free falls will drive me to some kind of new understanding or new insight. So far, though, it hasn’t worked out.

I pulled out Gifford’s Port Tropique a couple of days ago, sat out in the sun, and with each finely honed paragraph, each charged chapter fueled with death and a sort of sultriness that sours to malaise within seconds, I succumbed to the book’s undertow and felt the vibrant blue sky over me darken. The trip was short—Gifford, a master of sparseness and clipped Zen phrasing, kept it all perfectly down to 136 pages—but the afterburn of images and torrential negativity have stayed with me long into the next day’s read.

With its Central American locale, dissolute Norte Americano expats, and literary/cinematic references liberally staining the pages, I was sold. The noir-laced bad vibes aren’t Gifford simply dazzling us with some post-modern jazzing about, knowingly winking at us while mining a wealth of film noir imagery and Papa Hemingway’s chest of literary devices, not to mention mugging Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, B. Traven, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Robert Stone, and Sam Peckinpah for kicks. No, it’s not as simple as that. Gifford may be blunt at times, but he’s not obvious. In essence, this post-Beat American minimalist, poet, chronicler of the heartsick and dream-crushed, constructs his narrative with the materials of the true 20th Century American fiction legacy–hardboiled pulp fiction—and houses it with the only protagonist Americans truly understand: the loser.

Fuck Superman. Fred C. Dobbs is the true iconic American character. Or is that J.R. “Bob” Dobbs? I can never remember.

Lost in translation, memory-haunted Franz Hall spends his days drinking in the saloon, pining for the wife who has long given up on him and the dead child that he couldn’t save, and wastes his nights longing for the big score while guzzling Superiors at the local bar. Like an insect trapped in amber, Franz can’t escape from his memories. But he was a dead man long before he ever crossed the border. Port Tropique is a wasteland, a purgatory for the poor night creatures unable to speed up the inevitable curtain call, and Franz is center stage.

He eventually gets reined into working as a bagman for some local smugglers. Franz goes down to the docks in the middle of the night with his suitcase… some men in a boat will load him up with cash… he returns to his hotel until contacted and then unloads the money. He’ll earn some ducats in the process and everyone will be happy. Simple, right?

Not on your life. Franz can’t help but get wise and splits for the border with half a million dollars when Marxist rebels overtake the city, thrusting the country into chaos. The road from then on out grows darker for poor Franz. But that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of the noir genre. This is night country… and salvation is hard to come by, if at all. Noir fiction, as well as in the films, is a bitter tonic and we like it that way. You’ll hear no complaints here. We like it hard and we like it mean. I just wish the book wasn’t so short. But that’s Gifford: never over staying his welcome and always keeping the story clipped and resonant with the power of vibrant bad dreams.