By Charlie Kondek
I write. I like what I write. I’m writing, now, the kind of stuff I want to read, which, the quality of your writing and your growth as a writer aside, is a pretty good standard for judging your writing. I also feel that, unlike my younger stuff, I don’t imitate as much anymore the writers I most admire or wanted to borrow from. I mostly write like myself. But I have come to realize that doesn’t mean I don’t feel an emotion I thought I was rid of. There are few writers I envy, and those I do envy are the ones I most feel like reading right now.
I envy John D. MacDonald, James M. Cain, Trevanian, and Vladimir Nabokov.
John D. MacDonald wrote a slew of post-war pulp novels but is best remembered for his series of books starring Travis McGee. One of the best things written about him online is here. I am absolutely jealous of MacDonald’s flowing, muscular prose, his lock on the character and the peculiar early- to mid-1960s toughness that was, I think, in large part created by him and exemplified on screen by actors like Lee Marvin. Most fans of MacDonald are hung up on the character of McGee, the renegade “salvage expert” that refuses to buy into the program and lives out of his houseboat, paid for by mingling with some of the nastiest characters ever to inhabit a typewriter. You might not be able to separate what makes these novels great from the integral protagonist of McGee, but I like to think I would read MacDonald if he published his grocery list. There are numerous moments when I read a McGee novel – all them named after colors, like Nightmare in Pink and Bright Orange for the Shroud – where I want to thumb down the corner of the page and come back to a turn of a phrase, a paragraph, and if I followed through on that impulse every time I had it I’d soon have a paperback with every other page marked. Consider this.
New York is where it is going to happen, I think. You can see it coming. The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts. Until locust population reaches a certain density, they all act like any grasshoppers. When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world. One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. But this time they won’t snarl and go on. They will stop and stare and then leap at each others’ throats in a dreadful silence. The infection will spread to all the huge cities of the world, and by dawn of the next day there will be a horrid silence of sprawled bodies and tumbled vehicles, gutted buildings and a few wisps of smoke. And through the silence will prowl a few, a very few of the most powerful ones, ragged and bloody, slowly tracking each other down.
This from Nightmare in Pink. He just tosses this stuff off. And those are just the stand out moments; the guy can describe the movement of a cocktail party or a woman stepping out of the shower smelling of “soapy girl” with equal clarity and vigor.
James M. Cain was the same way. For me, it seems Hammett and Chandler are to Cain and MacDonald what childhood crushes are to marriage. Maybe it’s just that I’m older and encountering these writers at different times in my life. But while Hammett and Chandler are rightly canonized for their role in the development of hard boiled crime writing, for breaking the Agatha Christie formula and developing “the detective novel” or “the crime novel” as opposed to “the mystery,” Cain’s contributions are often overlooked, and he is, I think, undervalued as a stylist. Cain wrote with as much nimbleness as MacDonald, but Cain’s beat was the 30s. If MacDonald is exemplified by someone like Lee Marvin, Cain is Bogart, William Powell, Clark Gable – gosh, hardly anybody can really handle the naturalness of his dialogue, it loses something when it leaves the page, even though it rings bell-proper like the everyman speech that must have existed at the time.
Cain is, I think, too often remembered as a writer who contributed plots than a novelist or storywriter. In the popular mind, we remember the movies based on his works – Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce – and don’t read the works. This is a shame. But like MacDonald, Cain has a fast, flowing style, he gets a narrative on the ropes and then works it with lefts and rights til it falls and you enjoy every blood lusty minute. His work can be about the most ordinary things – for crying out loud, except for a bit of blackmail, there’s no crime in Mildred Pierce. It’s the story of a businesswoman’s rise and fall during the Depression (forget the movie). Cain wrote a book called Career in C Major that was about an architect who learns to sing opera as a way to get back at his wife. That’s it! And I devoured every word. If you had told me when I was 18 that I would prefer a story about a guy singing opera to a lone wolf detective yarn, I’d have thought you were crazy.
Trevanian, if I’ve got this right, is the pseudonym of a college teacher and drama prof. He came to prominence writing satirical spy novels but then wanted to switch genres. With each genre, he wanted to use a new pseudonym. But his publishers complained that they had already invested in the Trevanian brand, so he stuck with it. His spy novels – The Eiger Sanction, The Loo Sanction, and the highly praised Shibumi – are great and all, but it’s for his mature works that I’m really ga-ga. I can even show you the metaphor that made my heart constrict and sold me on Trevanian for good. It’s:
Those of us whose lives are draped across that war find their youths deposited on the shore of a receding, almost alien, continent where life was lived at a different tempo and, more important, in a different timbre.
This from his Hitchcockian psychodrama The Summer of Katya. Here’s a bit from his Montreal detective story, The Main, that knocked me out:
In the window of a fish shop there is a glass tank, its sides green with algae. A lone carp glides back and forth in narcotized despair.
Trevanian puts to great use the tricks of the theater in a pretty, economical prose style. He’s a master at character development, pot boiling, time, pace and setting. There’s just something very special about his work, he knows when to turn it on and when to let it roll. And some of the stuff he was turning out before he died - The Crazy Ladies of Pearl Street - are soulful.
As for Nabokov, cripes, where does one start with Nabokov. Well, the truth is, I just started with Nabokov, in a book of his stories, after years of having a friend recommend him to me. Now it’s on to the Nabokov novels. If you’ve read him – man, where do you start? The man does with words what painters do with light.