Sometime during the Seventies, a decade that took me from 5 to 15, a neighbor who spent a significant portion of his career in Naval intelligence hunting our native Bay Area’s Zodiac because his employers feared the killer’s ciphers made him one of theirs, gave me a worn paperback of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. My mind still reels.
“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and no other.”
The book’s opening graph couldn’t be more cinematic, and I’m not referencing Robert Altman’s shaggy dog adaptation for the big screen in 1973 starring Elliott Gould. Chandler’s repetition of “still” in the second sentence bothers me, but the dangling foot – instant grab. If a body isn’t dropping or little sister hasn’t gone missing on that first page, such a clear, simple, visual image provides the next best hook.
My mother feared I might stay illiterate in those formative years, but since television was verboten at our house save for the odd Saturday matinee of an ancient black & white film classic – notably The Maltese Falcon and King Kong – I came around eventually. Stereo stuck on at all times, I ate through used books from Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley (see The Graduate‘s opening shot) like a woodchipper. I read The Hobbit every Christmas and devoured The Lord of the Rings during my summers in Yucatan, but Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and The Long Goodbye remain my Adam and Eve of literature even now.
“Raymond Chandler wrote with classical dispassion of a romantic and violent society. His vision was not dazzled by the neons which rainbow the Southern California night. He had the X-ray eye that penetrates blacktop and fog. He had the gift of tongue; he was a poet. Metaphors flowered for him in language suited to the exotic people and places he was describing. Chandler didn’t moralize, satirize, deplore, or lament; he saw, selected, and said, in language that lives.”
For decades, I scoured book stores from the The Strand in New York City to Powell’s in Portland, Ore., for that very description. In junior high, charged with a presentation on an important American author, my classmates chose from the English 101 syllabus – Hemingway, Salinger, Steinbeck. I asked if I could do Raymond Chandler.
Naturally, my peers voted my essay top prize, but it was hardly a fair fight. Just about any stray excerpt from my cherished copy of The Long Goodbye, which provides the above assessment, out-zings the classics. The passage I read at the podium has been lost to time, but after I’d finished, a school custodian swept the pile of jaws off the floor.
“I turned and shut the door. It seemed like a good idea at the moment. When I faced her she was already falling towards me. So I caught her. I damn well had to. She pressed herself hard against me and her hair brushed my face. Her mouth came up to be kissed. She was trembling. Her lips opened and her teeth opened and her tongue darted. Then her hands dropped and jerked at something and the robe she was wearing came open and underneath she was as naked as September Morn but a darn site less coy.”
“She was sleeping on her side without sound. Her knees drawn up. Too still I thought. You always make some sound when you sleep. Maybe not asleep, maybe just trying to sleep. If I went closer I would know. Might fall down too. One of her eyes opened – or did it? She looked at me or did she? No. Would have sat up and said, Are you sick, darling? Yes I am sick, darling. But don’t give it a thought, darling, because this sick is my sick and not your sick, and let you sleep still and lovely and never remember and no slime from me to you and nothing come near you that is grim and gray and ugly.”
“‘On your feet, bright boy. Just because I went to college don‘t make me take any guff off a nit like you.’ I started to get up. I was still off balance when he hit me. He hooked me with a neat left and crossed it. Bells rang, but not for dinner.”
After college, keeping only my doorstop Riverside Shakespeare and phone book Dumas, I divested myself of 20 years worth of books so I could ride the rails – play at being Jack Kerouac. There’d been other mysteries, sure: by Dick Francis, Robert B. Parker (who completed Chandler’s Poodle Springs), and naturally Dashiell Hammett, though after the latter’s Maltese Falcon I just kept rereading (and rereading and rereading, to this day) Red Harvest, the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, and Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing.
Dashiell Hammett: Hemingway lean and chiseled to Chandler’s purplish prose of Cairo. Past Philip Marlowe ode The Rockford Files, Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice remains the ne plus ultra modern channeling of Chandler’s private investigator alter ego. With a double White Russian shot of The Big Lebowski thrown in!
Only when I arrived in Texas with all my possessions stuffed into a Datsun did I realize the most grievous error of my naive ways. In San Antonio, I stumbled across a trove of rare editions by Jim Thompson (Hammett meets Chandler at Bukowski), but where I’d always assumed I could replace my Seventies issue of The Long Goodbye easy as The Catcher in the Rye, it eluded me for 20 long years.
Not only did I track down the very Lone Star-looking version of The Long Goodbye I’d had as a preteen, turns out that particular Chandler series by Ballantine in 1971 came emblazoned with equally distinct art by Tom Adams (open the photo gallery above), now easily Googled for his body of work, including a collection of Agatha Christie book covers. My precious paperbacks yellow, but their covers still crackle and pop.
Chicago-born Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), a World War I flyer, journalist, and oilman, became a writer at the age of 45, completing seven novels: (in order) The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, The High Window, The Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, and Playback. As many times as I’ve read that penultimate work, I never remember whodunit. Maybe Chandler didn’t take himself seriously, but in my book, he’s as serious as a carpet-bound body in your bathtub:
“The moon’s four days off full and there’s a square patch of moonlight on the wall and it’s looking at me like a big blind milky eye, a wall eye. Joke. Goddamn silly simile. Writers. Everything has to be like something else. My head is as fluffy as whipped cream but not as sweet. More similes. I could vomit just thinking about the lousy racket. I could vomit anyway. I probably will. Don’t push me.”
Copyright © 2014 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.