April 13, 2008

Neither Tarnished Nor Afraid

Crime isn't a disease, it's a symptom
About one month ago, I discussed how much I was looking forward to rereading Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye as part of the Chicago Public Library's "One Book, One Chicago" program. It was a good chance for me to revisit my youth, as well as, well, get reacquainted with one of my favorite writers.

Obviously, this is going to be a positive review, but my first impression upon rereading this was how cinematic the writing is...and how Robert Altman's film really missed the point of the novel, sacrificing its meditations on friendship, corruption, and creativity to create a slightly more generic private eye film. (I still like the film on that basis...however, I'm willing to adapt it in screenplay form for an HBO mini-series. It deserves that kind of treatment).

The novel begins with Chandler's hero Phillip Marlowe meeting up with Terry Lennox at a bar. (As, well, all good noir should begin). As the two men become friends, Lennox asks Marlowe to drive him to Mexico, no questions asked. As the novel progresses, Marlowe finds himself "babysitting" for an alcoholic writer named Roger Wade...and throughout the novel, Marlowe finds himself revisiting Lennox, who makes his presence known, even though he is reported to have killed himself in Mexico.

What impresses me, years after first reading this, is how eminently quotable this book is - this is Chandler writing at the top of his game. It was also written at a very traumatic time in Chandler's life, as he was dealing with his wife's illness, decline, and death. (Which may also account for the "social criticism" that permeates the novel - this is Chandler at his most cynical and venomous, but his remarks sting not with harshness, but honesty). Remarkably, it is the only Chandler novel that did not recycle stories previously published in Black Mask.

Despite the "historical significance" that the novel has...it also burns with razor-sharp language. It feels like it could have been written yesterday, despite taking place in the early 1950s. It doesn't quite make me feel like I first read it in my twenties, but that's all right...because it hits with a much stronger impact upon rereading it at this point in my life.

And it's proof that good literature - no matter what genre - will stand the test of time.

I am planning to head up to the Harold Washington Library this Saturday for the 11:00 am discussion group. If you're planning on attending, please don't be shy in saying "hello". In fact, if anyone's interested in a pre-event Panera Bread gathering, I'm game.

Highly recommended.

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