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Lions Roar : May 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN MAy 2011 72 the moral codes of the day, they always paid for their sins, even if the only pay- ment was to remain stuck in their dreary, hopeless lives. in the fifties, noir flourished as paper- backs became popular. Writers like Day Keene, David goodis, and charles Wil- liams became household names, their books sometimes selling more than a million copies each. But noir started to change. it became confused with film noir, a genre that has more to do with the look and tone of a film than with the flaws and fates of the characters. and the popular idea of noir broadened to include a wide range of hardboiled sto- ries. for many people today, noir simply means a dark, cynical tone and a hard edge to the writing. the moral codes have changed as well. modern noir sto- ries often have no moral compass at all. in today’s neo-noir fiction—like the sto- ries in Thuglit—the criminals often walk away grinning. and reloading. i was writing noir fiction, old style. my characters were getting what they de- served, more or less. in classic noir fiction, ordinary, flawed characters are ruled by their desires, lead- ing to wrong choices and, ultimately, their undoing. it’s sort of a formula—a fall-from-grace, bad karma morality play. the world of noir is the world of the first and second noble truths without the re- demption of the third and fourth. it’s a world of people ruled by their desires. Desire for money. Desire for revenge. Desire for a better life. or, pretty often, desire for a dame. one of the best-known works of noir fiction is The Postman Always Rings Twice, a 1934 novel by James m. cain. it was a bestseller and was made into several mov- ies. the plot defines classic noir. frank chambers is a drifter who takes a job at a roadside diner and falls hard for cora, the owner’s wife (played by lana turner in the 1946 movie, which explains a lot). they talk about running off together, but cora doesn’t want that life. instead, they wind up hatching a plan to kill the owner, nick, an older man that cora mar- ried to escape her job in an l.a. hash house. their first attempt fails and frank leaves, but he keeps thinking about cora. he returns, telling himself that he and cora can make a life to- gether, and they wind up killing nick in a staged auto accident. the district attorney is sure the accident was staged and cons them into turning on each other, but a slick lawyer gets them off. now they have what they wanted. there’s insurance money, they own the diner, and they have each other. of course, they’re not satisfied. frank wants to go back on the road. cora wants to build the diner into a moneymaker. they quar- rel. their last quarrel leads to another ac- cident. this time, cora flies through the windshield and dies. in the end, frank is on death row, convicted of killing cora. (By the way, there’s no postman. and nothing rings. the title is a non sequitur. or a koan.) frank is ruled by his desires. at the be- ginning, he’s a drifter, always wanting to hit the road in search of something bet- ter. When he meets cora, he quickly be- comes obsessed with her. as he says, “i had to have her, if i hung for it.” When he wins $250 playing pool and thinks he can use that to take cora away from nick, he tries to win more and loses it all. later on, when cora leaves town for a week, he takes up with another woman as soon as she’s gone. as much as he wants cora, he’s not satisfied once he’s with her. and cora is ruled by her desires as well. she escapes her midwestern roots, then marries nick to escape from her life in l.a. she kills nick to escape their marriage, then she plots to kill frank. like frank, she’ll never be satisfied. inevitably, their cravings for something better—or just something else—lead to something much worse: an unhappy marriage, death in an accident, a murder conviction, death by hanging. We’re all ruled by our desires. that’s the appeal of noir fiction. We can all see our- selves being taken over by desire and mak- ing the same bad choices. We can relate. that’s the world of noir. there are no happy endings. no one lives happily ever after. and that’s our world, too. that’s the appeal of noir fiction. life isn’t easy and it often ends too soon. We all want some- thing better, but we have a choice. We can deal with the world as we find it, living in the present and appreciating that. frank and cora had that choice. they could have loved each other and found a way to work through the complications that caused. they told themselves that murder was the only way they could be together. they told themselves that they weren’t really mur- derers, that they were better than that. But they weren’t. they chose not to be. critics often characterize noir fiction as being about people who are doomed to suffer. they live in a cold, hard world, and they have little chance of finding something better. i don’t agree. they have choices. We all have choices. We create our own karma, day by day. the choices aren’t always easy, but we are not doomed by mere circum- stance. We are only doomed by ourselves. i’m trying to be more positive, both in my day-to-day life and in my writing. in my most recent crime story a man is on his way to a job interview at a prison. he stops for a drink to loosen himself up, has five or six. he robs a drug dealer behind the bar and gets ripped on meth, PcP, and Xanax. he takes on a roomful in a bar fight and he’s chased across the des- ert by armed bikers. okay, let’s just say he has a few adventures. and when he finally stumbles into the prison with his clothes ripped and blood all over him, he finds that he’s what they look for in a prison guard. he’s hired. it’s a comedy. okay, he’s not a bodhisattva. and he’s not making great choices. But he’s not dead. and he’s got a job. at least it’s a happy ending, so maybe i’m making some progress. Besides, i had fun writing it. that’s the important thing. ♦ Modern noir often has no moral compass. The criminals walk away grinning and reloading. But I was writing noir, old style.