Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hardboiled America

Anyone interested in becoming introduced to, learning more about, or gleaning near-brilliant insights into the beginnings and rise of the paperback book industry in this country, need look no further than Geoffrey O'Brien's Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, originally published in 1981 but re-released and updated in 1997. Beautifully written and masterfully researched, it is one of the indispensable reference works in my library, although to call it a reference book narrows its value as a work of near poetic insights on the writers of paperback noir.

I recall seeing the original publication back in 1981, and if my memory isn't completely shot, it was a handsome coffee table hardback filled with page after page of lush, beautiful reproductions of some of the most incredible cover art ever created. The price was out of my range at the time and I didn't purchase it, but I did spend a long time in the bookstore flipping through page after page of covers to books like Behold This Woman, The Naked Streets and The Splintered Man. Although I spent a lot of time in the many used books stores in and around Washington, DC, and owned a nice collection of old paperbacks, most of the covers were ones I had never seen before, and the titles were unknown to me. Reissued in 1997 as a paperback, the cover reproductions were now, unfortunately, in black and white. I purchased a copy anyway, as even a cursory scan of the writing revealed it to be much more than just an art book.

I'm including an entry on this book as a blog post here in order to quote a few of the things O'Brien wrote about John D MacDonald. His writing on the author is some of the best and most insightful I've ever read:

"... MacDonald proved himself from the start [to be] the kind of storyteller who makes other aesthetic considerations irrelevant. To read him is to hear a spoken voice -- pausing, digressing, joking, all the while drawing you into the yarn. It's not the story that's so remarkable; you've heard something like it before, you may even recognize chunks of it from another of his books, and after awhile, it will blend into all the others. The anecdote may be utterly banal. It's the voice that grabs you, the sure rhythms with which it measures out its story. And it can be any kind of story: MacDonald was a true all-rounder..."

"[The early novels] are considerably rougher and more pessimistic than the later novels. Reading them, one can envision one of those Fifties action pictures in black and white, something along the lines of Budd Boetticher's The Killer Is Loose or Joseph Pevney's Female on the Beach ... They all seem to spring out of some long, hot American afternoon, an unfamiliar Cadillac gliding menacingly through the streets of a small town, a hundred tiny dramas of loyalty and betrayal, small lusts, quiet madness, interior dramas of regeneration, all set spinning about each other, meeting and meshing; and of that meshing a plot is born."

"You may wince at the coyness of the lovers' dialogue, and find the subplots too neatly interlocked, but you can never doubt that MacDonald knows his America, his small town; especially if that town is located in Florida."

"MacDonald's narrative mastery gives him the advantage of being able to digress as much as he likes. So sure is his control over the basic impetus of the story that he can throw in a grab bag of extras, discourse on his somewhat courtly sexual philosophy, analyze the decline and fall of Plymouth Gin, give practical tips on anything from caulking a houseboat to stopping a killer dog in its tracks to doctoring a set of books without breaking the law."

"No use putting him into a category; MacDonald created his own identity, more garrulous than Cain, more full of color and joie de vivre than the monochromatic paranoid worlds of Goodis or Cornell Woolrich ... [T]here is always an element of measure, each book designed to contain a well-balanced set of ingredients as one would balance the ingredients of a meal, implying that MacDonald was not an obsessed man impelled to spell out the horrors of his vision; he was a professional, whose obsession was Narrative."

Hardboiled America is still in print and readily available. Those seeking used copies of the hardcover with the color reproductions may have to look harder and pay a lot more, but in this Internet era, most of the covers can be found online with a little searching.

Highly recommended.

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