Roosevelt Reads: April 2014

Apr 17, 2014

Roosevelt Reads is a monthly column in Antioch College's online publication, The Independent

There are some things you have to look away from if you are going to make it through the day and stay sane. The human population explosion and the extinction crisis among other species is such a topic for me, although I have not stopped reading about it. I recently finished Stephen Meyer’s The End of the Wild and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. But I am not ready to write about it.

Just because there are things I have to run away from does not mean I want to avoid reality entirely, just that part of reality that seems too difficult to bear. For comfort I don’t turn to “cheery” music or stories. Attempts at glossing things over exacerbate rather than relieve a sour mood. Instead, I find that certain kinds of dark books make me feel better, perhaps because they acknowledge life’s myriad challenges, or perhaps because they remind me how much worse things can get.

Of course what kind of dark books hit home has a great deal to do with your life experience and particular way of looking at the world. I am attracted to stories – often crime novels - in which the main character exhibits well-earned world weariness but still struggles to make a difference.

For that reason and because of the magical quality of his writing, Raymond Chandler is one of my favorite writers. He wrote twenty-four short stories and seven novels. His later novels, especially The Long Goodbye, his masterpiece, are wonderful pain-filled searches for things to hold on to, love, or friendship.  His protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, is a loner who somehow maintains a certain wistful idealism. His life experience screams “give up,” but he can’t. In The Long Goodbye Marlowe says “I hear voices crying in the night and I go see what’s the matter.”

In his essay “The Simple Art of Murder” Chandler writes that his protagonist is in search of redemption in a savage world. In his fictional world “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… The detective in this kind of story must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor -- by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it… He is a lonely man…He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in."

Of course this sense of obligation to respond to nighttime cries is a heavy burden. And late in his career, his own life in shambles, Chandler seemed willing to let Marlowe cast it aside. In a draft of the last novel, Playback, Marlowe says “Give up? Sure I give up. I’m in the wrong business. I ought to have given up before I started….The hell with it.” But Chandler eliminated the passage in the final version.

And now Marlowe battles on one more time as the Irish novelist John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black, has just published a new Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde. Banville gets the essential aspects of Marlowe and his world right. His Marlowe knows that he is “a pushover” and understands what that portends. “I thought there wasn’t much more damage that could be done to me that hadn’t already been done. You get hardened by life knocking away at you since you were old enough to feel heart-sore, but then comes a knock that’s bigger than anything you’ve experienced so far, and you realize just how soft you are, just how soft you’ll always be.”

Chandler’s own life was pretty dreary. Before becoming a writer, he worked in the oil business but he drank too much and was fired. Socially awkward and dominated by his mother, Chandler waited for her death to marry Cissy Pascal, a twice-divorced woman eighteen years his senior. They had no children, were easily bored and to avoid staring at the same walls and views for too long moved incessantly. They lived in over thirty apartments and houses in their thirty years as a couple. After Cissy’s death, Chandler, bereft, drank himself to death in five year’s time.

Perhaps fathoming how difficult it is to craft a decent life in a world that seems even madder today than it was in Chandler's day will help us better understand why we cannot get our act together to stop destroying the planet we live on.

But his dreary life did not keep him from writing magical prose. Interviewed in the December 15, 2013 New York Times Book Review, crime novelist Michael Connelly said that he would “ like to ask Raymond Chandler about Chapter 13 of “The Little Sister.” It describes a drive around 1940s Los Angeles, and it still holds up as a description of the city right now. Beautiful. I’d ask him how he pulled that off. And I’d tell him that that short chapter of his was what made me want to become a writer. I’d also ask him whether it takes a tortured life to produce something like that. I’d say, Ray, can a writer be happy and still be good at it?

I do not know the answer to that. But perhaps fathoming how difficult it is to craft a decent life in a world that seems even madder today than it was in Chandler’s day will help us better understand why we cannot get our act together to stop destroying the planet we live on. And we should also appreciate the art that Chandler made from his struggles. As A.O. Scott wrote in a recent film review in the New York Times –“We are, as a species, ridiculous: vain, ugly, selfish and self-deluding. But somehow, some of our attempts to take stock of this condition — our songs and stories and moving pictures, old and new — manage to be beautiful, even sublime.”

Mark Roosevelt is the president of Antioch College.

Roosevelt Reads was produced and edited by WYSO Miller Fellow Wyatt Souers.