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Hard-Boiled Eggheads: High-Minded Novelists Turn to Pulp Fiction

Crime sure must have some allure. It’s driven untold numbers of men to mayhem, and a certain score of women to murder. And it’s caused some of our highest-minded literary scribes to take some very low roads. The latest egghead to get all hard-boiled is Robert Coover, who joins Thomas Pynchon, John Banville and Paul Auster in the back alleys of our mind. Okay, so Auster has basically been a hard-boiled egghead from the get; he just found a way to keep himself afloat above the low road. Pynchon and Banville (and now Coover) however all made a conscious decision to leave their airy heights and slum it. And the results are as beautiful and as memorable as a broken nose.

That’s good by the way. Damn good. Especially when you’re talking about pulp fiction. But surely these gentlemen haven’t gone surly simply because they feel like a dust-up. Or have they?

By now you may know that Coover’s new book is called Noir. And if you know that much, then you’ve probably heard it features a gumshoe named Philip M. Noir (Marlow and Cain — get it?), a bad guy named Mr. Big (lest there be any mistake of his power), a dame named Flame (whose lovers are called “moths”), and a cop called Blue (standard police issue). Knowing this you may think that Coover is poking fun at the esteemed genre; that with generic names like that he couldn’t possibly be serious about his story. And you’d be quite right. You’d also be quite wrong.

Indeed Coover’s being both playful and serious, and that playful side masks some very serious truths. Truths such as “what mostly made that feller a loser is he didn’t want nothing bad enough.” He’s just couched those truths in the puddled shadows and stuttering neon of a genre once relegated to dime store racks.

This isn’t the post-modern metafictionist’s first stab at rewriting genre, of course — his ’98 novel Ghost Town took equal liberties with the Western. And from the looks of things it’s undoubtedly his last. Coover turned to masters like Chandler and Hammett and Cain, saw how much bloody fun they were having, and decided he too could get in on game. And there’s something delirious about how wholeheartedly he’s rolling around in the gutter. Pynchon had a similar time of it with last year’s Inherent Vice, though he adopted the tricks of more modern pulp masters like Connelly and Crais. No tilted fedoras and belted trenchcoats for ol’ Doubting Thomas; instead he crouched his darkness in the bright white light of a city that never fails to reveal its proverbial secrets, even as it keeps them under wraps.

Banville, in contrast, writing as Benjamin Black, has made a literal second career out of his stroll on the low road. And though he’s just released a gods-soaked story entitled The Infinities, it appears that Banville may never fully recover from the effects of what he’s learned from being Black. And good that he won’t too, because in Christine Falls and The Silver Swan and The Lemur Banville as Black has found a freedom even our most imaginative novelists can never fathom — and that’s the freedom to go as low as you can go and never have to apologize.

And that may be why these high-minded scribes descended in the first place. They’ve all tasted the rarefied air up there and found it wanting, devoid of blood and sweat and tears and bruises and, yes, often even real truths. These are truths that may be self-evident to all of us living down here, but to a writer thrice-removed from the street, not so much. All we can say is it’s good to have ‘em.

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