Tuesday, January 30, 2007

When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, by Lawrence Block.


Part of the noir reading list I put together for my thesis with the help of Robert Polito and Jeffery Allen. As such, it was "required reading."

Matthew Scudder is an ex-cop without a job per se. Instead, he bums around Manhattan doing detective-style "favors" for friends in exchange for their donations. This keeps him in liquor, pays his hotel room, and occasionally a visit to the ex and their kids. This story, then, follows Matthew as three mysteries revolve around each other. He decides to tackle two, and to leave the third alone, but of course they're all entangled, so...

An appropriate place to start, perhaps, is with this book's evocative power. I haven't encountered much else, literature-wise that has made me feel so gooey and delicious about living in New York City. This comment is almost more powerful, being a thoroughly noirish piece set in the midtown of the seventies, with its million rundown parts, murders daily, burt-out buildings and sleazy strip clubs. But who am I killing. That scene has a romance all of its own (and one which most New Yorkers seem to wax nostalgic about).

The greatest strength in the book is its ability to balance out something unredeemably icky with an odd, idiosyncratic appeal. This is most powerfully demonstrated in the relationship of the protagonist to alcohol. He is clearly an alcoholic, in a very un-subtle way (both in the way his public and private lives completely revolve around drinking at the expense of all else, and also with his capacity to drink enough to kill a horse). He frequently demonstrates how nasty he bourbon can be. And yet... and yet... he makes that burning brown liquid that almost ended North by Northwest a half hour in the most tempting thing in the world.

This ambivalence toward the stuff, which is evidently an issue in other books featuring Matt Scudder, is echoed in every major relationship in the story, including that of the protagonist to the reaser. He's incredibly sympathetic, to the extent that his actions become not so much an issue of accountability as expectation. However I am inclined to judge what he does, I am rarely tempted to judge him. This extends to the morose and grim and somehow warm depictions of Midtown and Brooklyn, to his shady bartender friends (most evocatively Skip and the Morriseys), and even to the plot itself. In fact, something truly impressive that I almost lost beneath the striking characterizations was that this is a true example of narrative idiosyncracy. While the "story" is hardly experimental in the modern tradition of a conspicuous variations, it trumps both whodunnit conventions and those of a linear story by upsetting expectations. The upset(s) (which I won't disclose) is not so much an unexpected plot twist as much as a lack thereof. That is, for once this is a novel where a "plausible/lifelike" resolution does not rest upon an assumption of balanced and suspended symmetries. Things need not be all tied up, and they don't.

It might sound like a story that ends without much of acrescendo, but this is where the building of suspense, raising of stakes, revelation of information (all, strictly speaking, "convention") are so well executed that the ending does have the feeling of a climax.

And it's dark... dark and gritty.

You'll want to floss afterwards, it's that gritty.

But also a lot of fun.

I enjoyed reading this book a lot. It had enough energy and ingenuity to drag its subject matter out of the gutters.



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