By Owen Hill
A Flaw in the Motor
September 24th, 2012
This first appeard in Post Road, a magazine that comes out of Boston College:
“ I think crime fiction is almost like a product of capitalism. It’s about social inequality.” Ian Rankin
If America ever sees a successor to Steinbeck (and we need one) I think he or she will come up through noir. What we call “literary fiction” can’t seem to grapple with the silenced near-majority that makes up the underclass: the unemployed, the underemployed, the dirt poor. MFA infused journals, the New Yorker, and mainstream publishers mostly address the problems of the “middle class”.
The Indy presses, especially those with crime fiction lines, offer a tougher alternative to the soft focus “problems of the rich” aspect of mainstream fiction. If you want to read smart and you’re willing to look around the scene is teeming with Steinbecks, Zolas, Dreisers… except that their work usually involves a murder. Although come to think of it those other guys dealt with murder, too. Maybe they were writing genre.
My nomination for the Next Steinbeck award is Benjamin Whitmer. His first novel, Pike (PM Press, Oakland) is plenty tough, as you’d expect from noir. But it’s more than that.
He won’t let us believe that his characters are losers. Beaten down, prone to quick violence, but not without dignity. Whitmer draws them with great heart and a lack of pretension. You won’t exactly like these characters. Pike has a coiled snake quality, Wendy made me shudder with the depth of her anger, and they are surrounded by thieves and perverts. You will come to some understanding regarding them if you pay attention. And, forgive the word but there is a universal quality there—what they do to survive is what we all do, or will do when circumstances turn against us.
All good crime writing must have a sense of place. Hammet’s San Francisco, Chandler’s LA, and so on. Whitmer brings us to the slums of Cincinnati. Neighborhoods like this don’t get written about much anymore. Whitmer nails it with a painful elegance:
The Long Drop Center is the first place you look when you go hunting for bums, especially if it’s wintertime and the bum’s a junky. So says Bogie. The staff makes a policy of not bothering to check the bathrooms when it’s cold out. Unlike most of the other charitable spots in Cincinnati, they’d rather bums get high on their toilet than turn into an icicle in some alley.
Grave, but precise and in its way, poetic.
I can’t imagine this appearing in a Review or a Quarterly. But, then, where would Steinbeck publish now? Perhaps in crime fiction magazines.