Friday, January 04, 2019

Chicano Noir

Next week I’m a participant in a program for students in the MFA writing program at Regis University here in Denver.  The program is devoted to noir literature.  I’ll be on a panel with fellow writer Jon BassoffMario Acevedo will moderate the panel.  In the evening, Jon and I will read samples from our writing that we believe could be classified as noir.

During the program we’ll try to answer questions such as what are the types of noir, why write noir, and what’s the attraction to noir?  I’m looking forward to this event – I can always add to my limited noir knowledge base.  Although I will be one of the speakers, I don’t claim to be a noir expert.  Hell, often I’m not even a noir writer. 

Mariano Mercado, Mexico City private eye, first appeared in Dime Detective in 1944
I write crime fiction, for the most part.  My characters consist of various races, genders, and class status.  I’ve written detective mysteries, hard-boiled yarns, careening caper stories, lawyer thrillers, and dark slices of urban life.  My protagonists often are Chicanos or Chicanas, and these main characters don’t always enjoy happy endings or even a bit of peace and quiet.  They suffer and endure tragedy, double cross friends or lovers, or barter one pain for another. They can, and do, betray themselves. Their one common trait is that they all are survivors.

Hence, someone once said I was the “godfather of Chicano noir” -- so there I’ll be on the campus of the Jesuit university, the dutiful padrino trying to understand (and defend) my wayward, prodigal ahijado.   I’ll talk about noir literature and films.  I’ll mention noir writers I admire, and throw out a few noir tropes.  I’ll add, when I can, what I understand to be the similarities or differences between the generic noir and the more specific Chicano noir.  And I’m hopeful that when I’m in too deep and the discussion has overcome my bit of anecdotal knowledge, I’ll have enough sense to shut up and listen.

Here’s where I’ll most likely start:  what is noir?  The online dictionary says that noir is “a genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.”  Years ago, reputable sources said that in a noir story, “the protagonist is screwed on the first page and then it goes downhill from there.”  If that one sentence doesn’t sum up a good chunk of the historical Chicano/Mexicano experience in the U.S.A., then Donald Trump isn’t a racist, the border wall is a good idea, and Pancho Villa never invaded New Mexico.

Noir master storyteller David Goodis always wrote from the bottom of human experience
Typically, noir has no heroes.  The protagonists are criminals, suspects, victims, or witnesses.  The atmosphere is loaded with insecurity that often dips into paranoia.  A crime may be involved but, more likely than not, no solution to the crime is revealed.  At least, no easily accepted, conscience-satisfying solution. The ending frequently is dismal.  No surprise there. 

You realize we haven’t got past the dark and dreary words of the definition of noir.  What can we expect from the actual literature?

Well, more of the same, of course.  So, then why read this downer lit, this blackness, this noir?

Good question.  Last year I gave a talk and wrote a piece here on La Bloga about the necessity of crime fiction in today’s world, so I won’t repeat those remarks. You can see the post, entitled The Relevance (?) of Crime Fiction Escapist Literature in 21st Century USA at this link.

But I’m going to let you in on something you may already know.  People read the darkest literature so that they can better appreciate the light.  Crime and Punishment is not a joyful celebration of life and happiness. One doesn’t read the old Russian for laughs.  Dostoevsky’s masterpiece doles out smoking mountains of guilt, depression, and violence, not because he walked in the shadows, but because he wanted to spotlight those shadows, expose the guilt, assuage the conscience.  And that’s what readers get.

James M. Cain's dissection of the American Dream

In walks the Chicano, and says, “What am I doing here with Dostoevsky and James M. Cain and Patricia Highsmith?”

In my short story, The Skull of Pancho Villa, the Chicano, Gus Corral, searches his rapidly gentrifying barrio for the lowlife who stole Pancho’s skull from his sister’s house. Against the background of economic warfare on the neighborhood old timers, Gus goes from bars to taquerias to street basketball games to more bars. Before his quest is over, Gus has stumbled across old friends and enemies trying to make it in a world that has given up on them.  Fittingly, when Gus finds the skull, he also finds the body of Jessie, a gangster nemesis, done in not because of his recent transgressions, but because of an old injury he’d inflicted. Payback was past due. Gus can only shake his head at the way the world works.

A bulb, dim but flickering, goes on in my head.  That may be what Chicano noir is trying to get at. The viejita on the corner shaking her head, shrugging her shoulders, blinking an eye. She walks into her drafty house, waiting for the memories to again hit her hard in the heart.  She mutters that she has no regrets.  But she shakes her head again.  Así es la vida.



Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction.  His latest is The Golden Havana Night (Arte Público Press.)

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