Thursday, October 21, 2010

The gestalt of the hardboiled

Geoffrey O'Brien, Hardboiled America : Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, New York : Da Capo Press, 1997. Expanded edition. 197 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. (some col.) ; 23 cm. Front cover design : Trudi Gershenov [adapted from James M. Cain, Sinful Woman, Avon 174, c1947; cover artist unknown].
Contents : Chapter 1. Icons on Yellow Paper.  Chapter 2. Origins of the Paperbacks. Chapter 3. A Disposable Gallery.  Chapter 4. Mythologists of the Hardboiled.  Chapter 5. The Paperback Detective and His Discontent.  Chapter 6. Afternoon of the Fifties. Epilogue - The Long Morning After.  Appendix. The Hardboiled Era: A Checklist, 1920-1960.
[Originally published, 1981, as Hardboiled America : the Lurid Years of Paperbacks].

Mirroring the plethora of riches offered by the vintage pb originals is the ever-growing critical literature on the topic. Indeed it seems that hardly a year goes by that we're not blessed with another deluxe volume with ever more vivid graphics and atmospherics [1]. Most of these volumes are of the coffee table variety and they subsequently – and rightly – emphasize the visual elements, i. e. many high quality cover reproductions. Some of these have sprightly texts which focus on the ironic and camp qualities present in the covers. 
   Standing out, however, for its historical sensitivity and polished style is O'Brien's classic tome, which lovingly talks of all things paperback. The small book also surveys, somewhat less compellingly, the great practitioners of the hardboiled art, the usual suspects of Hammett, Chandler, Goodis, Woolrich et al. In one sense this slim volume is little more than an extended essay, to be precise the aforementioned two essay topics in one. The first three chapters in particular on the history and aesthetics of the paperback are where the true stylistic nuggets and critical insights reside. Like pearls on cushiony velvet, O’Brien’s mots justes roll off his pen in seemingly effortless fashion :  

   It is easy enough to see them as farcical relics of an earlier generation’s suppressed desires, monsters safely declawed and defanged. But those passionate stances and the artfully rendered settings in which they are framed – alley, tenement, motel room, barroom – were linked, at their origin, to the real feeling of a particular place and time . . . . it is their fate to be perceived as lurid and absurd by the skeptics who came after. Yet, if we look hard, we can still discern in these toylike figures the heroes and demons of a generation, the enduring archetypes of an era haunted by all-too-real violence and tormented by desire it could not quite fulfill.

   The people on the paperback covers lived in a single image, frozen forever in a moment of violence or in a sullen calm preceding the outburst of some unimaginable passion. What came before? What would come after? . . . . Against a murky background of menace or erotic suggestion, the human creatures stood out with stunning clarity, sculpted, motionless.
   What surprises in the end is how much of the paperback art of the Forties and Fifties conveys a sense of reality and a warmth of emotion. Even the fantasies have a homespun texture, and the most unreal of them are brought down to earth, if only by the crudeness of their execution . . . . when the bright lights and synthesized soundtracks of today's conglomerate marketing merge into a single vast blur, it is comforting to rest a while in the clear lines of the ramshackle porch on the cover of Erskine Caldwell's Journeyman, or to sit with Studs Lonigan in the park on a warm summer night. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that such simplicity once sold books. 

   One could cite many such passages, but what is most important is that O’Brien’s florid yet eminently accessible style is always in the service of the subject matter, and as a result the whole is the equal to the sum of its disparate parts. Hardboiled America is a veritable gold mine of information on a surprisingly broad range of topics - art and graphic design, literary criticism, popular culture, film noir, gender studies, among others - and will richly reward repeated readings.

[1] For a partial listing see my posting at History of Vintage Cover Art I [fn 7]

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