Thursday, May 24, 2018

Small Crimes 2018 pt. 1

Asura: The City of Madness - Kim Sung-su - Jung Woo-sung is a dirty cop caught between the filthy mayor Hwang Jung-min and an anti-corruption task force led by the pitiless Kwak Do-wan in this potent, nihilistic, runaway train of a thrill ride. Woo-sung spends his time inciting riots, manipulating witnesses and covering up murders for Jung-min while getting squeezed into calculated betrayals by Do-wan and he only wants to stay alive and out of prison long enough to take care of his dying wife. Once the bonds snap that kept his life, and seemingly the entire machinery of the city, together the whole house of cards against humanity is gonna fall and kill everybody inside. Buckling in is only strapping yourself to the wreckage.

Bad Day For the Cut - Chris Baugh - A middle-aged sad-sack bachelor who lives with his mother and spends all his best moments and all of his meager monies at a local pub comes home one night to find his dear old ma murdered and not in some half-assed home invasion gone wrong kind of way. No, seems she was worthy of somebody hiring professionals to do it right, but it goes just wrong enough to send hapless Donal (Nigel O'Neill) off on a seek and destroy mission with results as unexpected as the whole thing is ill-advised. Plenty is revealed about Donal's roots and latent character - when pressed he finds that bottomless determination and a sprinkling of intelligence will take him further than anybody would have guessed - and the pervasive melancholy mood is punctured by surprising moments of brutal violence and gallows humor worthy of comparisons to similar fare like Fargo, No Country For Old Men or Blue Ruin. First contender for year's end honors at HBW. Can't wait to see what Baugh does next.

Bullet Head - Paul Solet - A trio of thieves hide out in a warehouse after a heist goes right and the getaway goes wrong. While the cops comb the city outside they find they're trapped inside with a more immediate threat. Turns out the warehouse has been used to host dog fights and a wounded, ferocious mastiff left to die has recovered and wants to eat them. There's a good movie or two trying to claw their way to the surface of the mess this one ultimately proves to be. If you pitched me Reservoir Dogs meets Cujo I'd, um, bite, but the overly elaborate and long chase/shootout climax is encumbered by bad CGI monsters, gunshots and an Antonio Banderas performance that might as well be too. There are a few weird and off-beat character moments early on that had me holding out hope for a better outcome that didn't show up. Starring Adrien Brody, John Malkovich and Rory Culkin.

Creep 2 - Patric Brice - The Duplass Brothers hit and miss along a surprisingly diverse spectrum of projects: drama, comedy, documentary, science fiction and horror films - all slightly ambitions and carried off by low-budget ingenuity and audacity. Serving as producers their Creep franchise handily tops their directorial effort Baghead in producing actual suspense and horror-ish thrills. The first Creep film was a found footage exercise in is-it/isn't-it horror/comedy discomfort with a two-person cast. The is-(co-writer/producer)-Mark Duplass-a-killer-or-just-a-weirdo question is answered by the end of the first film so the set-up of the second, though similar in size (again, a two-person main course with one extra cast member in the brief prologue), has very different dynamics on account of the audience already knowing that - yes, he is in fact a killer. He's also a weirdo or creep. We go a lot deeper into his story and character this time and are tickled by the dilemma of whether or not to call bullshit on his confession/revelations. On the one hand he is alarmingly honest, on the other he's undoubtedly manipulative - and honest about that too. I admire these films for proving you can engage and hold an audience with only solid writing and performance without being a self-important capital-A arteest. A bold choice or two doesn't hurt either.

Crocodile - John Hillcoat - Technically the third episode of the fourth season of the technology-based anthology TV series Black Mirror, I'm including this 60-minute short film because I won't be covering the not-necessarily-crime-centered show anywhere else. Yeah, a lot of the episodes include crime, but this one has a classic noir set up and fucking John Hillcoat directing. It's the story of a woman (Andrea Riseborough) with a crime in her past unwittingly drawn into an insurance investigation of an unrelated event she witnesses. The technology angle concerns a method of collecting memory from multiple witnesses to construct a more complete picture of the incident. Of course she's concerned that different memories will be accessed by the investigator (Kiran Sonia Sawar) and a gauntlet of no-win situations present themselves. Sci-fi elements aside this could play with the brief nasties of classic film noir express trains to hell that I'm (and I suspect you) are so fond of.

Den of ThievesChristian Gudegast - Gerard Butler is the alpha cop leading a leatherdick task force and in Pablo Schreiber's gang of thieves there ain't no cucks allowed so fuckin strap in and strap on cuz everybody's strapped on these streets and... oh who am I kidding? I enjoyed the hell out of this silly best-scenes-of-your-favorite-macho-crime-movies-strung-together-for-maximum-ka-pow!-turned-up-to-eleven-testosterone-smoothie. Yeah, the posturing is abrasive at first, but this one actually improves as it goes and by the end I even had emotions and shit. Plus the final heist is pretty great - clever, but stops short of eye-roll-inducing - and the climactic chase/shootout is staged and executed well. No, Michael Mann shouldn't feel threatened, but David Ayer should probably check his rearview - I'd be happy to see more crime stuffs from Gudegast.

Detroit - Kathryn Bigelow - Totally get it if you don't want to sit through two hours of white cops torturing black folks - as a thriller it isn't a great premise and as a drama of social importance it feels constantly upstaged by same old shit every time you turn on the evening news - but as an immersive experience it's pretty potent (though the riots outside are where I'd rather have spent the run time). The period pops and Bigelow is great at generating and sustaining an atmosphere of impending violence and Anthony Mackie continues to make me wish he had a leading man vehicle that matched his potential.

Gemini - Aaron Katz - Slick looking, low-budget murder mystery serving as a tour of L.A. glitz and a rare movie about movie stardom that isn't off-putting in its treatment of celebrity culture. Solid cast includes Zoë Kravitz, John Cho, James Ransone, Michelle Forbes and Ricki Lake. Lola Kirke holds the center effortlessly and, while the low-grade thriller resolves and dissolves with a little less intriguing post-film brain itch than Katz's previous deconstructionist detective flick Cold Weather, I'd absolutely be down for a hangout picture with Kirke and Kravitz's characters.

Hangman - Johnny Martin - I watched the trailer for this serial-killer thriller starring Karl Urban and Al Pacino's hair and thought: was that their best effort to get me to watch the movie? Then I watched the movie. Joke's on me.

Hollow in the Land - Scooter Corkle - Dianna Agron plays the elder of two siblings from deadbeat, no-account parents who've disgraced the family's name and community standing before abandoning their offspring to fend for themselves in a small, dead-end industrial community where drugs are the only escape and violence the sole guarantee. Alison (Agron) works in a factory to support her wayward younger brother who's tempting many potential bad ends with his careless behavior and when he disappears after a violent encounter that the cops say is murder big sister takes it upon herself to find him before he's killed by the police or various criminal types he's managed to piss off. Surely pitched as a more-thrillery Winter's Bone it manages to work by its attention to detail and place and avoids the pitfalls of too many rural noirs that play up the outrageous aspects of small town life in an exploitative fashion (not that I'm not down with exploitation once in a while). There aren't any grotesques in the cast, neither are there lingering looks at squalor, and the lesbian sexuality isn't sensationalized. It's also refreshingly free of any sense of inherent nobility in blue collar life, but all these elements add credulity to Alison's outsider status and Agron's jaw is set for optimal resolute determination. It's a nicely executed, muted (but not dirge-like) tale of life in the margins and the director's name is Scooter.

Kills on Wheels - Attila Till - Two wheelchair bound boys find a mentor of sorts in a disabled gangster/hitman who takes them on as apprentices. It's a helluva premise and mostly works with utter nihilism not quite overtaking a healthy dose of teenaged fuck-the-world angst. The last ten minutes are a little disappointing, but make sense out of questions bothering me in the structure, and won't keep me from enjoying a revisit in the future.
Last Rampage - Dwight H. Little - True crime drama about Gary Tison's escape and murderous final days in Arizona. Robert Patrick is the second Bob to play Tison (Robert Mitchum had the role in 1983's A Killer in the Family) and during the opening escape sequence I was excited by the prospect of following him on a kill-crazy adventure, but the film quickly deteriorates into joyless melodrama and you get the sense that it's really kind of tedious having to kill everybody who crosses your path. Honestly I expect movies where fathers and sons consider murdering each other to be more fun. At Close Range this ain't.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Getting Dicked

It's been a good year for Eryk Pruitt. His novel What We Reckon is nominated for an Anthony Award, his first two books, Dirtbags and Hashtag are back in print and his first collection of short fiction, Townies, will be available later this year from Polis Books. Plus the investigation into the 1971 Valentines Day murder of a North Carolina couple that he helped re-open and work on is quickly reaching a possible resolution and his true crime podcast documenting that story, The Long Dance, will (hopefully) be released this summer.

Never mind the accolades and lesser accomplishments though, as far as I'm concerned, outmaneuvering the Chene-gang on a quest to get a copy of D*CKED signed by the Haliburton Hawk hisself is some heroic shit deserving Homeric retellings.

Here's his account...

Recently I flew to my hometown of Dallas, Texas, so that I could attend the George W. Bush Leadership Forum being held at the George W. Bush Institute on the SMU campus. Mind you, I’ve never fancied myself a fan of Mr. Bush, but I chose to attend for two solid reasons: First, the Bush family posthumously honored my mother, Jan Pruitt, with the first Trailblazer Citation Award for her lifelong fight against hunger as head of the North Texas Food Bank. Second, I wanted Dick Cheney to autograph my copy of D*CKED: Dark Fiction Inspired by Dick Cheney.

Going into it, I knew this would be no easy task. For one, security at the GWB Institute was pretty tight, on account of W’s constant presence. Despite the recent passing of his mother, he attended every meal, forum, panel, and lecture, and could often be seen walking the halls and shaking hands. Every entrance was manned by secret service personnel and metal detectors. Knowing contraband such as D*CKED might bar my entry, I was left with only one option. I won’t go into detail how I smuggled the book into the event, but let’s just say my dedication knows no bounds.

Also, Cheney was known for being particularly persnickety. The event had to be rescheduled three times, due to Cheney’s avoidance of a full moon. The menu had been altered so that no garlic could be served in his presence. A recent rash of children at local orphanages had gone missing, which could only mean that his arrival was imminent.

After a private audience with W and Mrs. Bush, my family and I took our assigned seats in the middle of the ballroom. No expense had been spared and, although I felt somewhat guilty enjoying such opulence, I remembered that summer when gasoline was over four dollars per gallon and reckoned I’d already paid my fair share. While it was overwhelming to be eating dinner in attendance with folks like pop singer turned activist Bono, or Karl Rove, Condi Rice, the Bush family, and dozens of other whos-its, I was only there for the former Vice President and his chair still remained empty by the time we took our seats.

However, no sooner had the first course—lobster salad—been served, than did the security staff erupt in immediate frenzy. They rushed from every corner to cover mirrors and reflective surfaces with table linens. The fiddle player quit her upbeat rendition of Where the Streets Have No Names and eschewed it for a slow, meandering dirge. Condi wept.

Dick Cheney had arrived.

He did not enter through a door, but rather with great cacophony, through a window. His tuxedo in tatters and freshly sprayed with broken branches, leaves, straw, and other detritus from the forest floor. His lips smacked of grease and blood, still fresh from a recent kill, and it took four Presidential handlers to wrest him to the floor so that he might be cleaned for dinner.

Heckuva entrance, Dick!” called the former President.

As luck would have it, Cheney's keepers positioned him to a table directly over my shoulder. I could hardly focus on my entrée of Herb-Crusted Lamb Loin. I fidgeted the entire time Laura Bush presented my mother's award to my sister, Natalie. I could barely contain myself throughout the hour long discussion between Bono and President Bush. Finally, when the festivities drew to a close, I made my move. I removed my copy of D*CKED from its hiding place and approached the man at his table.

"Mr. Cheney," I said with a shaking voice, "would you please autograph my—"

Then, it happened. One of the table linens fell from yonder mirror and Cheney caught sight of his own reflection. At first, it seemed as if little incident would pass. He considered it with only a glance. However, once his eyes fixed on his own visage, he let fly a terrible howl. Across the ballroom, wine glasses shattered. China splintered. Cheney leapt atop his table then to the President's table next to him. Before the Secret Service could make their move, he'd jumped to the next table, then the next, until finally, in a mad clamor, Cheney quit the room.

The silence that followed could have swallowed us all whole, but I was not to suffer it long. I was thrown to the ground immediately by security and whisked from the room. Whatever happened to my copy of D*CKED, I may never know.

Fortunate for us all, I was quickly forgiven. In this particular circle, Cheney was known to overact. Besides, my mother's memory had been so revered that evening, I had been given a pass. (Thanks again, Mom) My dad led me from the ballroom by the ear and, once safely inside the Uber, proceeded to lecture me just as he did when I was a child.

But the entire evening would not all suffer a loss.

For, once I reached inside the pocket of my tuxedo, I found quite the surprise:

Keep up with Eryk at his website and read his books. And buy D*CKED while you're at it.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Afflictions of Outlaw Author Roy Harper

Someone said to me once, 'even if you managed to escape and remain free you couldn't work because someone might recognize you, so how would you make a living?' Well, I'm not sure, but these words of wisdom my dear Mom once told me are always in the back of my mind: "As long as you remember these three words you'll always have money in your pocket - stick 'em up!" - Roy Harper

When Henry Roi first told me about Roy Harper and Tool's Law I was intrigued because crime fiction written by folks with first-hand experience is often extra potent, gnarly, authentic or unflinching. The following piece was written by Roi about Harper's experience writing the Tool's Law novels and does not focus on his crimes or multiple escapes. You can learn more about those elsewhere.

The Afflictions of Outlaw Author Roy Harper
(Previously published as Tribulations of an Author Convict)

by Henry Roi
PR Manager, Crime Wave Press 
Tool's Law was written in a hostile environment, a Mississippi Supermax, where the strongest of minds deteriorated from incessant chaos, government oppression, and inhumane treatment condoned by local culture.

Roy Harper has been many things in his life. A thief, bank robber, carjacker, kidnapper, an escaped armed and dangerous fugitive. He doesn't brag about these things, but neither does he apologize. He accomplished his proudest endeavors as a convict, spending over a decade advocating prisoner rights and was instrumental in the civil suits that ultimately closed down Unit 32 Supermax, starting a ripple-effect that changed correctional philosophy around the country.

In 2004 Roy wrote a novel. Money was the original motivator for penning Tool's Law, though as the process developed, it became an outlet, an escape from a harsh reality. Far more than just a way to make money; the project became a source of pride and the first legitimate hard work Roy had ever embarked on without grinding his teeth in reluctance.

No computers, word processors or typewriters were available. Paper was hard to get, and because of the high-security environment "regular" ink pens were banned. 1,162 pages handwritten multiple times to render a final clean draft  with a "flex-pen" (a plastic ink cartridge with a soft, flexible rubber shroud). It took years to complete.

Unit 32 was filled with the worst-behaved prisoners in the state. Mentally ill or terribly disruptive, the psychotic, violent and juvenile actions pervaded the buildings without interruption, exacerbated by policies and staff that offered no incentives for good behavior – no T.V., radio, fans, or even shoes.  They acted like animals because they were treated as such.

High Risk inmates like Roy can expect weekly shakedowns as well as movement to different cells. Officers routinely trash property, out of spite or under orders, and do not care about the perceived value of a prisoner’s property. Family photos, artwork, cherished letters from loved ones, legal work, poems, and manuscripts like Roy’s were commonly destroyed or taken during these movements and shakedowns.

It takes several days to get mentally adjusted to a new cell, with new neighbors, noises, smells, critters, floods, fires, and fears of being scalded, stabbed, or assaulted with excrement. After acclimating to a new cell, Roy worked on Tool’s Law during lulls in the chaos.

In 2006, the ACLU took interest in several lawsuits filed about inhumane treatment in Unit 32. Roy worked closely with the Associate Director of the ACLU National Prison Project, Miss Margaret Winter, who used a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling filed by Roy in previous years to supplement the class-action that eventually closed down Unit 32.

A federal judge ordered MDOC to provide Long-Term Segregation inmates, including High-Risk, incentive programs that allowed well-behaved prisoners a chance to earn more privileges and freedom of movement.

In 2008, Deputy Commission E.L. Sparkman created the High-Risk Incentive Program. Roy was the poster-man Mr. Sparkman used to promote the program, “selling” it to other states and even the federal system. Mr. Sparkman’s change of correctional philosophy – from take everything and lock ‘em down to providing them incentives for good behavior – was a national success, and the Supermax facilities around the country began closing as other states took note.

Out of appreciation for Roy’s help and good behavior during the development of the High-Risk Incentive Programs, Mr. Sparkman helped Roy with Tool’s Law, appointing a deputy warden to have the manuscript scanned and burned onto DVDs.

In 2012  RAW TV producer Jenny Evans contacted Roy to interview him for a feature in National Geographic’s Breakout! series. RAW TV wanted to do a documentary about Roy’s May, 2000, escape from Unit 32 Supermax. Miss Evans could not pay Roy for the story, but offered to help with Tool’s Law. It was her idea to use Facebook for recruiting friends to help type it up, and over the next six months the entire manuscript was typed by more than a dozen awesome, caring people Roy had never met and would never know.

Three more years went by before any more progress was made. The handwritten pages were typed, but they needed to be edited, proofread, and submitted to publishers. The Incentive Program had more privileges, but Internet access was off-limits.  And Roy had no help on the outside… but he had help on the inside.

His friend, Chris Roy (Shocking Circumstances, Her Name is Mercie) had access to the Internet via a contraband Galaxy Android smartphone. Chris had no experience with writing apps, but learned quickly, working with Roy to edit and proofread Tool’s Law. Roy drew his own cover art, which Chris took pictures of and used image-editing apps to create the book covers. They published Tool’s Law in a four-book series on a self-publishing service.

After only selling a handful of books in a matter of months they changed their strategy and began submitting to publishing houses around the world.

As escape risks housed in maximum security they operated under constant fear of the phone being discovered. The Incentive Program did not lessen the frequency of shakedowns. Their manuscripts, queries, sample chapters – every file created for submitting to publishers and agents – was at stake.

The phone was eventually discovered and confiscated, but not before Tool's Law had found a home at Crime Wave Press. With Tom Vater's editing the first two volumes of Tool's Law were released in 2016 (Shank in May, Heist in November). Roy has completed a prequel to the Tool’s Law series and fans have another Roy Harper crime thriller to look forward to in the near future.

Listen to Roy speak with Greg Barth on Noir on the Radio

Watch Breakout - Escape From Supermax about Roy at National Geographic.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Spit Take

Just saw that Jules Dassin's Uptight is streaming on Filmstruck and it feels like a perfect moment to revisit the movie about racial tensions and a traitor who sells out his friend to the cops and loses his soul during the boiling over unrest immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

It belongs in conversation with Dassin's other great noirs with Julian Mayfield's character as desperate and haunted as Richard Widmark's at the end of Night and the City, footage as raw and viscerally dangerous as the riot in Brute Force and certainly as socially conscious as Thieves' Highway. A retelling of Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer (also the basis of John Ford's film) it concerns members of a black radical group rather than the Irish Republican Army and opens with actual footage of Dr. King's funeral.

The specter of King haunts the film and the feeling of urgency in the characters is contagious, stirring and ultimately sad knowing that none of the actions they're so desperately weighing will bring about the change they want and need in their lifetimes... but that's also part of why it's so great. If you've got Filmstruck check out the introduction from Barry Jenkins and dig the whole cast - Ruby Dee, Max Julien, Raymond St. Jacques, Frank Silvera and a really terrific turn by Roscoe Lee Browne - everybody's just doing great work.

Few days ago I was talking about Uptight thanks in part to this Catapult piece by Michael Gonzales on Uptight star Mayfield's novel The Long Night. It's out of print, but I found a reasonably priced one and purchased it.
If I dig it I'm looking for The Hit next. Had no idea these existed.

Another interesting race-relations book I read this week: I Spit On Your Graves by Boris Vian - a particularly nasty novel of sexual taboo and racial animus. It's the story of a southern black man who passes for white and is seeking revenge for the lynching of his younger brother who dared keep company with a white girl.

There's a lot to admire about the writing. With clean, un-fussy prose the twisted first-person account of someone bent on murder enjoying tormenting and debasing his prey is unperturbed and unflinchingly frank about ghastly deeds... like really, really gross stuff - so awful and unapologetic it was a huge bestseller upon initial publication in France.

Vian was a French novelist who wrote the book in two weeks after declaring he could and would write a best-seller. He published the book claiming to have translated it for an African American author named Vernon Sullivan who couldn't get it published in the States. After the book was banned and suits brought against the publisher Vian admitted that he was the author.

The book outsold all of his other titles including more race-baiting stuff under the Sullivan name, and in a twist too Hollywood for the movie studios, he died of a heart attack in his seat at a preview screening of the film version of J'irai cracher sur vos tombes after publicly disowning the movie and interrupting the proceedings in 1959 at the age of 39.

The English translation I have includes a note from the French "translator' Vian talking about American 'author' Sullivan's clear debts to James M. Cain and James Hadley Chase - it's a weird little note. Thanks to Kieran Shea for bringing the book to my attention. James Sallis wrote the introduction of the volume I read, but this piece by Scott Adlerberg at Crimereads sums up the weirdness of the thing pretty succinctly:

“'These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!' Perfect last words for a white Frenchman who pretended to be a black American writing about a country he’d never visited, upset that the actors portraying his characters didn’t seem real enough."

Thursday, April 26, 2018

No Way Giovanni

Watched Jean-Pierre Melville's Le deuxime souffle this week and was, again, fucking rocked by it. Such a terrific hardboiled crime flick full of the best themes and made with such understated elegance and style. I get why the Melville flicks with Alain Delon at the center are so iconic, but c'mon Lino Ventura deserves all the recognition - as I told my son when he sat down to see what dad was engrossed in: whenever you see that guy on screen, it's probably a really good movie.

Delon does the smooth criminal thing better than maybe anyone, but is such a mythically cool presence, so suave and pretty whereas Ventura looks fucking tough and grounds those stylish Melville flicks in a recognizable reality that Delon's presence can't share - Ventura might be Humphrey Bogart to Delon's Cary Grant (that's too simple, but maybe points in the right direction).
Take that opening jail break for instance. Ventura is going over the wall with two other, younger, stronger cons and wouldn't have made it if he hadn't been helped over or onto the train, but, as James Caan's Joe Sarno says in Way of the Gun - the only thing you can assume about an old man like me in this business is he's a survivor (or something like that) and this tough older guy struggling to jump the train? He's gonna outlast everybody.

Afterward I looked up the author of the source novel, José Giovanni, and noted two fucking impressive things: First - Le deuxieme souffle is not the only one of his novels to be made into a top-notch crime flick. Classe tous risques (also starring Ventura alongside Jean-Paul Belmondo) and one of the all-time great prison escape flicks Le trou are also based on his novels.

Second, and even more astonishing, I can't find any of his books available in English (and see no previous, now out of print translations).

What the actual fuck? How could that guy not have been snatched up by Gold Medal, Black Lizard, Serpent's Tail, Soho, Melville House, Orion, Hard Case Crime or... NYRB?

Please somebody get on translating this stuff to English.

Born Joseph Damiani and using the name Giovanni in his work as an author and film maker, his life prior to his celebrated creative output includes criminality and prison. The results of my very brief online searching vary quite a bit in accounts and implications. Take the Wikipedia entry that accuses him of Nazi collaboration and consider it against this obituary in The Guardian (Giovanni died in 2004 at the age of 80) where no mention is made of Nazi collaboration and in fact it claims that he was a member of the French underground resisting the occupation.

What remains untouchable and undiminished is the work... that ridiculously good trio of films that I've seen (I've also seen Deux hommes dans la ville - directed by Giovanni and starring Alain Delon as an ex-con trying to go straight and relentlessly harassed by a cop who doesn't believe he can change - but I don't hold in the same esteem that I do the others... it's good, but not on the same level).

And I've only begun to scratch the surface of his body of film adaptations (as well as films he directed himself). I made this Letterboxd list of flicks based on books, stories or scripts written by him (and check other lists I've made there with the tag 'author' for films based on the work of other crime writers).

I'm currently reading the work of another ex-con - Sin Soracco's Edge City - and I just finished former prisoner Massimo Carlotto's Poisonville... People who've been through the shit (whether it was foist upon them or they had it coming) tend to write crime fiction that I find particularly stirring.

I'll also be publishing a piece soon on Roy Harper the convict and author of Shank and Heist FYI.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Rumination upon The Day of the Locust, Its Antecedents, and Its Successors

I've known John Joseph Ryan for a few years - anybody living in St. Louis with a noir-bent crime fiction habit is bound to eventually find the similarly afflicted to enable their lifestyle - and every time we talk I leave the encounter enriched with a little more insight and bothered by a deeper itch for devouring the literature and film John and I share an attraction to.

John is the author of A Bullet Apiece and you may know his name from short fiction at Shotgun Honey, Akashic Books' Mondays Are Murder or The Flash Fiction Offensive. Even though it wasn't written for the series I'm adding this piece to the Picture Books line because it's about both Nathanael West's book and John Schlesinger's film adaptation of The Day of the Locust and you know how much I dig those conversations.

Give it a read and if you like what you see check out his fiction.

A Rumination upon The Day of the Locust, Its Antecedents, and Its Successors
by John Joseph Ryan

My dad first introduced me to The Day of the Locust in one of his many points of reference to art I had yet to experience. He recalled either the book or the film. (I’m not sure which.) What made an impression upon me was a grown man stomping an obnoxious child to death. I was a child myself. (I can’t remember how old.) As was pretty typical for my Jesuit-trained father, he did not screen me from much about the world. (He was Jesuit trained in two senses: both a graduate of SLUH and a novice with six years of training for the priesthood before departing their incipient ranks and meeting my mother not too long after.) I can remember imagining the scene as my dad described it—I had not seen the film nor read the book yet. I can also remember understanding both sides: there were some kids in my grade I wouldn’t mind seeing stomped upon by an adult; on the other hand, I felt empathy for the stomped boy and tried to imagine what it would feel like to be crushed repeatedly until dead. It sounded terrible.

I might have seen some of the film with him. I know I have seen the whole thing, but it has been at least twenty (if not more) years ago. I remember the Mexican, Miguel, atop Faye in a sweaty bed scene. I remember Donald Sutherland. And I remember the scene of him stomping, bug-eyed, upon the boy. I think in the film they might have given Faye’s song, Jeepers Creepers, to the kid in order to enhance his annoying qualities. I remember Sutherland’s terrific, crazed, bug-eyed stare as he stomped remorselessly. I connect that look in his eyes in my dim mind’s eye with the final scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which a curly-coiffured Sutherland turns to the camera with those same buggy eyes, opens his mouth, points, and makes a guttural animal croak; he’s been snatched, too.

The image, whether in print or film, of Homer Simpson stomping Adore Loomis is what makes the Grotesque so savagely attractive. Oh, we shouldn’t laugh at that. Is anyone looking? No? Oh, good. Oh, God, that is so fucking funny. That is so dark. That is perfect.

I must have read The Day of the Locust for the first time fifteen or so years ago. I remember picking it up because an older colleague used it in his American Literature class at the high school where I teach, and I had some aspirations to model at least some of my approaches to American Lit on his. The edition of the novel was bundled with Miss Lonelyhearts, so I read them both. I devoured them both, actually. I remember them as being particularly hard-boiled in a mid-twentieth-century way.

The Day of the Locust is certainly hard-boiled. With its cast of misfits, there is not really anyone you can point to and call moral in any conventional sense. Tod Hackett spends a fair part of the book entertaining fantasies of raping Faye Greener and composing his magnum opus, The Burning of Los Angeles. Homer Simpson is a timid, self-loathing time bomb, and when he commits his atrocious act against young Loomis, it is only the target of his violence that is the surprise, not the act of violence itself, coming as it does from such a pent-up palooka as he.

Faye Greener is a femme fatale without the complexities of the classic ones from film noir and the novels of Chandler and Hammett. But God is she alluring, and it is no wonder she has a host of saps doting on her and vying with and bruising each other in order for the opportunity to bed her. That Miguel succeeds is a twist of a punchline, one which her late father, Harry, would have appreciated as a vaudevillian. The cowboy Earle, the bon vivant Claude, the tough dwarf Abe Kusich, are all from central casting, yet each is unique enough to make his the base of his stereotype wobble: Earle really is able to live off the land, but he is unfit for the fast-paced schemers of L.A.; Claude may have a house imitative of an antebellum mansion, but he is a dessicated man, not a Big Daddy, and he can’t handle the reality of cock fighting and true sex-induced violence; Abe, the bookie, displays such tenderness for his wounded red rooster that the cock fight scene’s deplorable violence lingers even longer for his solicitude and care for a bird he has refused to bet upon. It’s the grey, after all, that makes noir compelling, not the black and white.

But The Day of the Locust is so much more. Rereading it now, I cannot help but see the influence of Scott Fitzgerald (who was an early admirer of West’s work); additionally, I realize that West’s novel must have inspired other writers whose own forays into the Grotesque and the Absurd bear, I now realize, a resemblance to Locust.

The novel has two imbedded set pieces, one near the beginning, the other near the end, each a kind of matte cut to fit inside the larger frame of the studio lot in motion and the later riot. The first imbedded seat piece is almost a Great Gatsby knockoff with Tod Hackett going to a house party with Claude, replete with drinking and zooming around in roadsters. Tod behaves like a guileless Nick Carraway in this chapter, making observations and generally staying out of the way. The second imbedded set piece also recollects Gatsby, only this time it is Faye Greener (not Daisy Buchanan, nee Faye, interestingly enough) who is the center of attention; in this chapter, set in the hapless Homer’s house, Faye deploys her sexual energy to a terrifying level that Daisy Buchanan could only pretend to possess with her pose of cynicism. Also like Fitzgerald, West was a hell of a stylist, and one could fill a notebook with his great turns of phrase.

A second literary antecedent might be Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, not only for that novel’s deployment of the Grotesque, but also specifically for its character Wing Biddlebaum—who cannot control his hands—and his connection to Homer, who also cannot control his hands and painfully admits to an annoyed Tod that “ ‘I can’t help it, Tod. I have to do it three times’ ” (chapter 22). In other instances throughout Locust, Tod is analogous to young newspaper editor George Willard in Winesburg, observing the behavior of his outlandish townsfolk and writing about them (while Tod has his sketches of L.A.’s oddballs).

But West’s novel is truly his own, and its unique marriage of the Grotesque and the hard-boiled seems to prefigure some of the later Southern Gothic writers, particularly Flannery O’Connor. In Wise Blood, we have a similar cast of characters. Homer Simpson is a combination of the obtuse (and later murderous) Hazel Motes and the gullible and friendless Enoch Emory. Harry Greener is not unlike the preacher Asa Hawks, whose daughter, Sabbath Lily, becomes a source of attraction for Hazel (as Faye does for Homer). Faye doubles as the prostitute, Leora Watts, who teases and belittles Hazel just as Faye does to Homer (and Tod, in a way, by making him pay for dinner while she smooches Earle in front of him). In both novels, the dark humor becomes laugh-out-loud funny at times, but the seriousness of their discoveries about humanity’s isolation and violence prevent their being mere farce.

Filmmakers have also borrowed from West. I can’t imagine Paper Moon could have existed without Day of the Locust. Sweet and Low Down, Woody Allen’s sentimental flick about a jazz guitarist who falls in love with a mute woman, is the title of a film in production at the studio where Tod works (chapter 15). Perhaps Larry McMurtry had characters such as Earle in mind when he wrote The Last Picture Show. (And if not, the producers of the film version surely did.) Raymond Carver’s short stories, at least those which formed the basis for Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, also puncture the myths of southern California and reveal the cynical, deadly side of Hollywood in a manner at least as grotesque as West’s. Finally, of course, where else could The Simpsons’ Homer Simpson have come from? It is too odd a name to be coincidental. Tod even addresses Homer as “Homie” (Marge Simpson’s pet name for her thick husband) in a scene where Homer realizes he has lost control of his own home (chapter 22).

The Day of the Locust may be specific to the disenchantment of Hollywood glamour, and it certainly succeeds there. But is much more. All of America could fall under its indictment. Few native Angelenos populate the book. Harry and Faye are from the East, as is Tod. Homer is from Iowa. Maybelle Loomis proudly proclaims that she is “an old settler” in California, having been there just six years (chapter 19). It may be where Americans go “to die,” as Tod oft proclaims throughout the book. In the novel’s apocalyptic finale, he seems to know. As he returns to his vision of The Burning of Los Angeles, he imagines embellishing the flames he has painted in with the mob he is presently crushed within. In a chilling condemnation, he observes that they are “poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence” (chapter 27). Nearly eighty years after The Day of the Locust’s publication, the United States beset by a charlatan who is not a head of studio but head of the most powerful nation on earth stirring the masses with “the promise of miracles,” surely the violence of this epoch is just starting.

John Joseph Ryan writes unusual tales, verse noir, and crime fiction. His work has appeared in River Styx, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Akashic Books' Mondays Are Murder series, Out of the Gutter Flash Fiction Offensive, the Noir Riot anthology, Shotgun Honey, Suspense Magazine, and elsewhere.  His debut novel, A Bullet Apiece, was published by Blank Slate Press in 2015. John is currently working on a new novel featuring a woman who may or may not have a killing habit.