APRIL 10, 2018
WITH THE COLLAPSE of literary writing into popular culture and the smudging of boundaries between genres, the status of noir fiction may seem uncertain. But then, noir has always been a protean category, a shadowy realm for novelists to develop their signature styles and work out their obsessions. So-called mainstream novelists sometimes make forays into the genre, raiding its attributes. When the culture roils with angst (and when doesn’t it?), noir fiction makes a blunt drama from our distress. No one knows the traditions, mutations, and contemporary aspects of noir fiction better than Woody Haut. In lively studies such as Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War (1995) and Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction (1999), he has tracked noir from its roots in hardboiled crime stories to the urban narratives of Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, and James Ellroy.
In 2014, Haut produced his first novel, Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime. Set in Los Angeles in 1960, as the United States turns the corner toward the Kennedy years, the novel centers around Abe Howard, a freelance photographer whose shots of a murdered jazz musician put him in conflict with the city’s interchangeable criminal and corporate elements. Cry for a Nickel glories in classic noir tropes: it deals with civil disorder and personality conflicts, its clashes are triggered by basic drives, its language sounds as if it were spoken over a tumbler of bourbon, and it thrives on the generation of fear.
Now comes Days of Smoke. The time is June 1968, the place Pasadena. As the action opens, a college-aged woman named Connie Myles observes three men walking into the office of the Pasadena draft board where she works. Mike Howard has arrived to present his petition for classification as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He is accompanied by his father, Abe Howard, who opened a camera shop after a violent ordeal in Cry for a Nickel. Connie thinks of herself as “a kind of secret agent who had successfully infiltrated enemy territory […] she held fast to her guise, doing her job, waiting for her moment.” Meanwhile, Mike “had no intention of going to Vietnam. There was no way he was going to fight in a war he didn’t believe in. Nor did it bother Mike that he was doing his best to finesse the situation; if necessary, scam the draft board into believing his story.” Soon after, Connie finds, or rather, creates her “moment” — she destroys Mike’s file and becomes an updated rendition of a noir femme fatale.
If the noir vibe has shape-shifted over time, it has also evolved in Haut’s work. Days of Smoke places more emphasis on its societal and political contexts than Cry for a Nickel, and also propels its main characters into irresolvable situations. In Pulp Culture, Haut observed that “the 1950s was an era of psychotic behavior and suicidal impulse […] pulp culture writers produced a class-based popular literature, which, with its compelling tales of corruption, violence and obsessive behavior, indicated a nation struggling with itself.” In an email exchange with me, he added, “No matter which class noir has portrayed, it was, and should still be — about subverting the repressive values of that class or the dominant culture.” He extends this mentality to his new novel of 1968, as Connie and Mike each grope for means of resisting the powers that oppress them. While Abe, a former Socialist activist, is now deeply skeptical about politics, the young people embrace Robert Kennedy. Of course, we know what is going to occur at the Ambassador Hotel. But the murder takes an unexpected personal toll on Connie and Mike, leading them into a dark and sinister spiral.
Our unnamed narrator tells the story in the style of a police procedural — as if statements and interrogations had been taken, thoughts and motives revealed, and actions explained. This is a noir novel, after all, and its mordant tone is never tempted to relax nor does its narrative eye ever blink. It does not care at all about charming the reader. Instead, it suggests a frightening common denominator in human behavior, an implication that a sudden turn of circumstance could channel anyone’s best intentions into a series of tragic events. Naturally, I’m loath to reveal any more of Haut’s shapely plotting. I’ll just say this: you’re in for it.
Days of Smoke may be steeped in the culture of 1968, but it strikes me as a novel informed by the paranoia, divisiveness, disillusionment, and anger of our own time. Early in the story, Mike agrees to hide a handgun for a friend despite his father’s adamant opposition. But in Haut’s world, even an honest attempt to dispose of a weapon leads to horror. Abe speaks: “I can’t condone anyone using or, for that matter, possessing a gun. All this armed self-defense is bullshit. I’m sick to death of it. And that includes the goddamn Panthers, as much as I agree with them politically. Because if it comes to shooting, we know who has the fire power.” At the same time, Connie drifts into the protest movement, but it demands more from her than she can abide. Mike is more circumspect about the supposed revolution:
Well, I’ve got nothing against SDS, but they’re really not my thing. I think it has something to do with their attitude. It’s like they know everything, or, at any rate, think they know everything. You know, like they have the correct line on any issue, when they probably don’t know any more than anyone else.
Our friends on social media may be posting links to indicate their outrage at the latest violation of ethics. We may head to the village green to carry placards against guns or misogynists. But we struggle to find effective ways to counter the most brutal forces that impede social justice. Days of Smoke, like any hard-working noir, revels in exposing the morbidity of our communal life, makes space for a range of shady characters, and leaves us with the uncomfortable sense that the trials of Connie and Mike are still ongoing. The novel impresses us with its fealty to the events of that dark year of assassinations, but its attitude is derived from current affairs. It’s hard not to see the contemporary relevance of Mike’s thoughts on violent resistance, which “might work in other places, but it was unlikely to accomplish much in America with its corporate power structure, its military, police force and indentured middle-class, where power trickled down only as far as it was able to serve those at the top.”
In 1968, Woody Haut appeared at the office of the Pasadena draft board to reestablish his status as a conscientious objector. The nuances and ambiguities he has invested in Days of Smoke seem to arise from a long cultivation of an inner aversion to being pushed around. What Connie and Mike want most of all is autonomy — the freedom to do as they wish. What noir has to say is: You’re screwed no matter what you do. It’s hard to say whether or not this novel will satisfy the hardcore noir junkie looking for a quick fix, but if you’re of a certain age and your former hatreds of LBJ and Nixon are being revived by today’s presidential meltdown, you may react quite strongly to Days of Smoke. Speaking personally, I can say that Woody Haut has certainly delivered the fearful verve of the genre he knows so well to my already jangled nerves.