November 16, 2010
It sounds almost too nuts-and-bolts to be something you actively think about, but I’ve been thinking about character a lot lately. That’s most of what I’ve been talking about in interviews, and most of what I’ve been working on in my own writing. It comes, I think, from trying to pin down what noir is, what separates it from everything else, and I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the focus on character over plot that allows the distinction between noir and other kinds of crime fiction.
It’s probably not incidental that I’ve been thinking so much about character while reading Michael Harris’ The Chieu Hoi Saloon. It’s one of the most harrowing depictions of a character in crisis that I’ve ever read. Denis Lehane once described noir as working class tragedy, where the characters “don’t fall from great heights, they fall from the curb.” Harry Hudson, The Chieu Hoi Saloon‘s protagonist, falls from curb to gutter to sewer, and somehow manages to keep falling. The stakes are small, there are no hamhanded plot points, there’s just this one broken and heartbreaking character doing the best he can to play with the hand he’s been dealt. It’s a minor miracle he even manages to survive the hell of his day-to-day existence; that he does so with a kind of grace and courage is evidence of how wonderful a writer Harris is.
To give you a taste, here’s the beginning of a scene Michael would read aloud when we were hitting bookstores together in San Francisco. It fucked me up every time I heard it.
That night, sleeping on the cot in the storeroom of The Chieu Hoi Saloon, Harry Hudson was spared the worst dream of all—the one in which he lay pinned to the chaise lounge by the swimming pool of the apartment complex in Garbersville, Oregon, unable to move, while his two-year-old daughter, Sally, wandered slowly but unstoppably toward the water; below the ruffles of her bathing suit (yellow with little blue flowers) were pink ovals on the backs of her thighs from lying on the hot concrete. This was only the second worst dream—the one in which his squad waited in ambush at the edge of an old Michelin rubber plantation twenty clicks northwest of Phuoc Vinh.
If you’re anything like me, that should be all the inspiration you need to get yourself a copy.