AMERICAN CRIME FICTION, at least in its so-called “golden era” of the 1940s and ’50s, has always given me the creeps. No matter how much I rooted for the doomed hero at the heart of the narrative, whenever his journey brought him face-to-face with anyone who resembled me — that is, a person of color — he seldom viewed them as an ally or a peer, but as an agent of dread malignancies gathering at the urban core; cancers which his own flawed, if indomitable, energies had been honed to sweep clean. Operating under the descriptive rubric “noir” — which is, in a literal translation from the French, “black” crime fiction — noir connotes all things shadowy, duplicitous, corrupted, and Other. Its denizens (including the white hero tasked with sussing out its mysteries and bringing its myriad wrongdoers to heel) inhabit a world from which most decent folk, that is, most “white folk” have rightly fled.
In Woody Haut’s new novel, Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime, this literary (and moral) paradigm is turned on its head. All the heroes and heroines in Haut’s narrative, no matter their race or points of origin, are outsiders. And it is the white folk in the story, as often as not, whose lives can be described as duplicitous, corrupted, Other. Yet, they are not “caricatures” as they would be in many of the works by authors who lived through, and embodied, in real time, the bad old days of the golden era not just of noir but of America’s macho exceptionalism (literary masters like Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway; or James Ellroy, the contemporary kingpin of white power poetics and nostalgia). Rather they are “characters,” that is, full-blooded participants, complicit in the double-deals, dirty schemes, and foul crimes that make the tale worth telling and its perpetrators worth watching.
In a classic noir fable, the typically faceless outcasts (that Haut chooses as his heroes and heroines) would have been pressed into action to serve as comic foils and objects of both the reader’s as well as the novel’s white-wounded-tough-guy-hero’s comic relief and scorn. But in Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime, this familiar lineup of insignificant “perps” — that is, the blacks, Latinos, Jews, homosexuals, ball-breaking women, et al. — are not bit players or living vessels of the city’s corruption and veniality, they are the native sons and daughters of its hellish streets and hangouts, searching for love, illicit or otherwise, for redemption and a stiff drink, for easy money and a place at the “grown-up” table, as earnestly as any other harried and desperate American would do.
The flawed hero at the heart of Cry for a Nickel is Abe Howard, a freelance photographer of prodigious luck and skills, but also of questionable morality and tastes. Abe is also a Jew, although one suspects Abe wouldn’t recognize Jehovah even if He exhorted him from a burning bush with free tickets to a Dodgers game. Faith, religious or otherwise, is decidedly not the subject of this work. As in all classic crime stories, the engine of this narrative is human frailty, man’s struggle to master the demons in his own heart, and his battle, patently doomed, against insuperable forces arrayed against him.
Abe Howard, according to Haut, “is very loosely based on a mixture of my father, Albert Haut, with a dash of Weegee thrown in.” The Weegee to which Haut refers is Ascher (Usher) Fellig, an acclaimed photographer of American street life and crime in the last century. His distinctive moniker “Weegee” is said to be a phonetic corruption of the word “ouija,” as in ouija board. Weegee, like Haut’s father Albert, was endowed with uncanny prescience, which he used to sniff out his bankable images and appalling crime scenes, often before the cops arrived.
Both men were dead-eyed “shooters,” notable for snapping their pictures at the moment a crisis reached its apotheosis; and, if the subject of their gaze was a corpse or corpses, neither man was above restaging the scene to pump up its most memorable dramatic effects. Like Abe, both Albert and Ascher were self-taught, rubbed elbows with molls, criminals, and cops, and made their reps staring with unblinking objectivity onto the inner city’s most violent and demoralizing settings. The ace photographer, Howard, provides Haut with a witty and reflective counterpoint to the hitmen and bone-breakers that populate his story. That is: Abe shoots to get a killer image that he can readily sell; hired killers shoot to leave a lifeless body with no secrets left to tell.
In Abe’s hands, the camera is both a shield and a weapon, as menacing as any wielded by the gunmen who seem determined to silence him.
All Abe could think about was snapping off a few more pictures. Anything to separate him from what confronted him. To cushion himself against what seemed like his imminent death. Or maybe to document it. In any case, put a camera in Abe’s hands and he would have been willing to face the holocaust. Take the camera away and Abe, faced with death and with nowhere to run, was as much of a coward as anyone else.
Riffing on the novel’s photographic leitmotif, Haut sometimes arranges text as if to convey an urban skyline.
Like a passing thought, trapped in time.
Creating something out of nothing.
In the dark.
Where no one could bother him.
No answering the phone. No talking to anyone.
No traffic to fight.
No movie stars to humiliate or placate.
Just Abe alone with images he had seen through his camera eye.
His true eye.
The gradual appearance of a photograph.
Creating something out of nothing.
The story of his life.
Phrases are stacked like skyscrapers …
The Democratic convention.
I call this Haut’s “vertical poetry.” Farther down the page, he lines out his texts like negatives arrayed on a light table …
The drugstore cowboys. Jailbirds. Okies. Hustlers. Hookers. Fruit chasers. Junkies. Queens. Pushers. Panhandlers. Hellfire preachers. Gospel singers. Slumming movie stars. Undercover cops. Uniformed cops patrolling the pathways. Stroking their night-sticks. Hungry to beat or bust someone for vagrancy or vice.
Or packs them, squat and flat as a western butte, mimicking the horizon.
Cashmere sweater. Pumps. Tight fitting slacks. Not much in the way of underwear. Blonde hair glistening in Phil’s dime store lighting. Waltzed into the living room, only to be stopped in her tracks at the sight of another woman, who, in comparison, looked like a poor cousin from a world untouched by movies, TV and dime store novels.
I call this Haut’s “horizontal poetry.” And the author uses these visual effects to invoke a topographical map of 1960s Tinsel Town.
There are two primal specters in the book — I call them “specters” because they are seldom, if ever, seen, although they and their fateful presences haunt each chapter of the narrative. They are Los Angeles’s colorful and terrifying postwar gangster Mickey Cohen — a publicity whore and widow-maker of the first order — and the alluring new candidate for president, John F. Kennedy. Both are significant characters, and serve as emblems of Los Angeles’s fading frontier hooliganism as well as portents of its glamorous, if tragic, future. But this is a crime book, straight up, and the intriguing religious provenance of Cohen, a Jew, and Kennedy, a Catholic, is reduced to a paradoxical element of their humanity.
In an echo of the world we live in now, where each month there seems to be a new report of some unarmed black boy shot down by forces charged with his protection, the crime that sets in motion all that will come to pass in Cry for a Nickel is the murder of an unarmed African-American youth — Jimmy Estes Jr. — a jazz musician of considerable promise. In novels of the 1940s and ’50s such a crime would have hardly garnered a mention. Haut makes it the centerpiece of his story. This device, with its musical and cultural subtext, allows Haut to explore the arcane, generally ignored, worlds in which he delights, and to which he brings a probing and formidable awareness: whether his subject is “women who liked country blues and whiskey,” or the faultiness between blues and rock ’n’ roll and between traditional jazz and bop, or the polluting effects of big business and big crime on America’s native arts.
Cry for a Nickel, Die for a Dime takes its title from “Last Fair Deal Gone Down,” an enduring blues work from Robert Johnson, one of the seminal artists in the American musical canon. According to Haut, he chose the title because,
Everyone in Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime appears to have a price, or, if not, are going to be forced to pay a price. Put another way, cry all you want, if you compromise for so little, you’re bound to give up everything for just a little bit more.
And each elliptical phrase in Cry for a Nickel attempts to articulate what it was like to live through the final gasps of the 1950s, before “the Catholic kid” Kennedy was killed, and the 1960s began in earnest. Or as Felix, one of Haut’s more eccentric characters would put it, to sketch out a time, “when things were simpler and the world had not yet turned to shit.” Yet, the molls, cops, criminals, creeps, and kooks who are our guides through the twisted labyrinth of Los Angeles life that the novel describes are not searching for a “black bird” or hidden loot from some big score, they are obsessed with treasures few Americans want, treasures hidden in plain sight — artifacts of culture: 78 records, photographs of murdered artists, of compromised movie stars, and they will cross any line, pay any cost to get their hands on the goods.