A Marxist Reading of Fargo (1996)

Fargo Film

A Homespun Murder Story

Marxist Literary Criticism isn’t so much concerned with how the proletariat is represented in a particular work, but with how plot, theme, and character are a product of a specific period of history. The Fargo movie from the Coen siblings showed up during the neo-noir resurgence in the early to mid ’90s (on the heels of such classics as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994)). And as a piece of neo-noir fiction, it’s wonderfully entertaining though a bit enigmatic; it lacks a femme fatale. Thus my normal structuralist approach disintegrates by my third bullet-point. But, in pondering this missing element (which appeared to be gross error), I discovered that although no ‘fatal woman’ appears in the credits, there was a leading lady after all; money.

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
1 Timothy 6:10 KJV

Americans have always had a strange affair with lucre. We worship an ideology of hope called ‘The American Dream’ which states that anyone in this country can be a ‘self-made man’– anyone can become wealthy if they roll up their sleeves and do the work. As beautiful as this ideology may be, it has a slimy underbelly of assumptions that come along with it. We assume that the poor are poor because they’re lazy or stupid, while simultaneously believing the opposite– the rich are rich because they’re intelligent and hard working. Unfortunately, the reasons for wealth and poverty are never so straight forward.

How does this relate to Fargo?

Fargo (1996) challenges the ideology of The American Dream and the love affair that Americans have with money. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a cheery car salesmen who has accrued a great deal of debt. He devises a way to get the money to pay off said debt as well as amass a small fortune of his own. He hires two thugs to kidnap his wife so that he can extort ransom money from his rich father-in-law Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell) (who would NEVER give him money otherwise) but quickly loses control of events.

Jerry Lundegaard and Wade Gustafson

Jerry and Wade

Jerry is a fascinating character because he is equally pitiable and detestable. We sympathize with him because of the pressure his debts have placed on him and the demeaning way his father-in-law treats him, but we hate Jerry because he has put his innocent wife in danger for such selfish reasons. But we mustn’t forget that Jerry presents Wade with two options during the course of the film; the first being a legitimate business deal, and the second being the ransom of his daughter.

We ache for Jerry when Wade and his business associate Stan Grossman (Larry Brandenburg) take Jerry’s investment opportunity away from him, essentially stealing the deal for themselves. Sure, they’ll offer him a ‘finders fee’ but they are cutting him out of all future revenues. In this scene, Jerry is the everyday man, the average American trying to create opportunity for himself– and the existing socioeconomic power structure squashes him. With his only legitimate option defeated, he is forced to work outside the law for a means of acquiring his fortune.

Later, when the ransom money has been counted and bagged, Wade again takes the power out of Jerry’s hands– refusing to allow Jerry to take the money to the kidnappers. Jerry is emasculated by his father-in-law, by the kidnappers, and eventually by the police; as Wade takes the money to the swap, we see Jerry sitting by his front door in his coat and boots, impotent. Wade makes the exchange and is killed in the process, refusing to let go of his money until he ‘sees his daughter.’

Fargo in the Marxist sense appears to be progressive because it rails against the established socioeconomic structure– A structure represented in the film by Wade Gustafson and Stan Grossman because of the monetary might they are able to wield. But, à mon avis, the story is repressive because it reinforces the existing structure by punishing those who attempt to escape it (or to climb within its rungs). The American Dream is the fantasy, the religion of hope that keeps men vying for wealth– and in this film it kills them in the process.


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“King Of The Weeds” Review

(King of the Weeds is a noir crime fiction novel from the legendary duo: Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins)

Book Cover of King Of The Weeds

Book Cover

King of the Weeds is the latest in the long line of heavy-hitting Mike Hammer novels, the iconic former cop turned private eye, whose cynical world-view is only matched by his tenacity in the face of peril. The central plot is dominated by greed, a hunt for hidden mob treasure, billions in cash laid away by the five families. Mr. Hammer knows where the lost cache is sequestered, and knowing is becoming more and more deadly. Add a healthy dose of conspiracy, expert assassins, and familial strife– King of the Weeds is a tasty layered cake.

How does it measure up? Here is the noir definition run down:

1) The Seedy Underworld

Big city living, New York City diners juxtaposed with back country Appalachian roads. A world where the doorman knows  everything that happens in his building and on the street, and the local bag-lady is an undercover cop.

2) The Anti-Hero

Mike Hammer is an undeniable constant (like one of Newton’s Laws)– he never pulls a punch, never backs down, and never hesitates to shoot up the place. But, time catches up to everyone eventually, and age may turn out to be the only enemy he can’t back down. (Plus, the opening page pits him toe to toe with a professional hitman– is there any other way to begin a Mike Hammer novel?)

3) The Femme Fatale

Velda, the once secretary turned partner turned fiancé, is and ever will be the femme fatale of Mike Hammer’s world. Not because she’s evil, but because she’s so good. In all the twisted sinews that comprise Mr. Hammer’s character, she’s the soft spot, the purple bruise that will eventually cost him his life or force his retirement. She’s the only character in the novel that doesn’t take Mike’s crap, and he knows better than to try it with her.

4) Misogyny

Misogyny is one of those inseparable themes from noir, but King of the Weeds, like most neo-noir, isn’t as guilty of it as the old greats from the 30’s and 40’s. Here was one of my favorite ‘give and takes’ between Mike and Velda:

“Let me mull that,” I said. “Meantime, better call Pat, then make us some coffee.”

“Woman’s work never being done.”

“I’m not chauvinistic, I’m wounded.”

“You’re a wounded chauvinist.”

5) Redemption

One of the central plot threads is tied to Mike’s best friend Pat, and a killer that he put away as a young cop. New evidence surfaces that points to the killer’s innocence, and the revelation could destroy Pat’s reputation as a policeman. Mike spends much of the novel striving to redeem his friends reputation in the face of shocking evidence.

6) Loss of Innocence

This theme typically refers to something horrific being inflicted upon something or someone who is innocent and pure. I didn’t really see that in this novel, but I did see an intense struggle to define innocence and guilt, particularly in the scope of justice. When justice is dealt unjustly, what are we left with?

7) Smoke

Present and accounted for.

8 ) Emasculation

Mike Hammer will not be emasculated (thematically or otherwise)– he is a picturesque titan of machismo, but with Velda he becomes a kitten. She has a softening effect on Mike, and provokes a complexity of character that we’d be missing without her.

I enjoyed King of the Weeds– it’s a swell addition to the Mike Hammer mythos, and I enjoyed seeing the immortal private eye grappling with his own impending mortality.

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“The Wrong Quarry” Review

Cover Image of The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins

The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins

The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins was my first experience with the enigmatic character “Quarry”, a hitman of hitmen as it were. I’ll commence with a disclaimer: I’ve never read any of the other Quarry novels, so I can’t fairly place it in relation to the others or speak to any backstory I may have missed. This review is purely my understanding and opinion of this novel as it stands, alone. Disclaimer aside, I didn’t really care for the book.

Now, I’ve always been a fan of Max Allan Collins, and I greatly respect and admire his work. My problem with this book wasn’t with the plot, the pacing, or even subject matter. I simply don’t like Quarry.

As an anti-hero, I understand that he is flawed (he’s supposed to be). Simply, he’s a loner with a penchant for women who kills for money. But that doesn’t mean he’s likable.

Quarry has severed ties with someone called ‘the broker’– a middle man between hitmen and the individuals who pay for their unique services (I assume this happened in a previous book so sorry for the spoiler).  As a part of this ‘severance package’, he obtained the real names and addresses of all the hitmen then working for the broker at that time. He now uses this list to track hitmen and determine who their targets are before they kill. Quarry then approaches these unsuspecting targets and offers them his services: ten thousand dollars to ‘remove the threat’– and an additional ten thousand to determine the source of the contract and kill them as well. As far as hooks go, this one is dynamite. So why wasn’t I satisfied?

One reviewer said: “I rank the Quarry novels with Westlake’s Parker novels. The two series and characters share a few similarities of a lone criminal. The most important difference between Parker and Quarry is that Parker is not human.” — if this is true, then Quarry’s humanity is what made me hate him. But I disagree. Parker and Quarry are similar only in their operating preference: alone. Beyond that, Parker is a sonuvabitch and Quarry is a horndog with a heart.

Internally, Quarry instantly objectifies every female character in the book, but he wears the facade of someone who genuinely cares for those around him. Perhaps it’s this two-faced nature that peeved me. Additionally, he won’t stop talking to the reader– I understand that he’s the narrator but it drives me nuts when he interrupts a thought to remind me that he’s chatting with me or to make a wry joke of a situation. The book has some wonderful surprises, twists, and turns, but it was like being stuck at the movies next to an annoying acquaintance–  and that acquaintance happens to also be the star of the film.

Noir Crime Fiction Max Allan Collins

Max Allan Collins

The noir definition line up (anyone sick of this? or should I keep at it?) :

1) The Seedy Underworld

A small town in Missouri; run down bars, big-sky hikes, a highschool parent-teacher night, and a dance studio filled with pageant-bound girls.

2) The Anti-Hero

Quarry. Everything I’ve already said. (appended: he’s an ex-sniper).

3) The Femme Fatale

Two femme fatales in The Wrong Quarry: Jenny Stockwell and Sally Meadows. The former a mid-aged wild-child heiress who survived her riotous adolescence, the latter a teenage nymphet dancer with an eye for trouble. Both put the screws on Quarry, exposing him to greater risk throughout the novel.

4) Misogyny

I can’t imagine reading this book as a woman and not being offended. Every female character is a sad regurgitation of a man’s desire; each carefully shaped to look and pander to a predominantly male readership. Sadly, the holy grail of noir crime fiction is for a male author to create a convincing female character. I don’t know that it’s happened very often in the history of the genre, and it certainly didn’t happen in The Wrong Quarry.

5) Redemption

Much of the novel revolves around the disappearance and likely murder of Candy Stockwell (Jenny’s niece and Sally’s best friend)– the powerful Stockwell family is desperate for resolution. Thus the redemptive theme is present, but not through the protagonist.

6) The Loss of Innocence

Candy and Sally are representations of the lost innocence of youth in modern society– children eager to participate in the adult world, who quickly become stained by the sins of maturity.

7) Smoke

Ever present in the lips of each femme fatale, a smoldering cigarette tribute to former authors and film-makers in the noir art.

8 ) Emasculation

Roger Vale, a homosexual dance instructor in east central Missouri, is the sole threat to Quarry’s masculinity. His role is that of the effeminate victim, the emasculated shell of a threat, now victim of prejudice and violence. Yet, his overly flamboyant mannerisms serve as a smokescreen to a much more complex psyche. Mr. Vale is the unknown; the bizarre hermaphroditic anomaly that portends danger.

I’ve loved a lot of Mr. Collins novels, but this wasn’t one of them. I may give the other Quarry yarns a look, but if the character has the same irking veneer I’ll skip him in the future.

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com prepared a 2013 annual report for noirwhale.com– I wasn’t nearly as active this year as I was in 2012. (I really need to get my act together…)

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 140,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 6 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.


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Slayground: Too Good, Too Short

Cover of Slayground

Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground

The day before Christmas I received Slayground, the new Parker adaptation from Darwyn Cooke, and, due to family engagements related to the holiday, had to shelve it until late last night. 30 minutes later I was finished, thrilled to the center of my being, yet devastated by the marquee on the final page of the book “PARKER WILL RETURN IN 2015”– And thus I contemplate another year and more of waiting for the next installment…

I hate waiting.

Cooke delivers an exceptional work once again– the art: perfectly retro, the dialogue: stripped down and punchy,  the pace: frenetic. Actually, the speed with which the plot unfolds is almost jarring. More than any of the other adaptations, Slayground had large sections of zero or negligible dialogue; panel upon panel of brutal silence. I issue this criticism with tongue in cheek, because nothing was lost from the telling of the story during these stretches. Cooke appears to have honed this craft  of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ with each subsequent novel, but the result is a much faster pace, and less average time on each page, than in any of the other three. I truly finished the entire book in one half-hour, and though I loved each minute, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.

Slayground Armored Car Accident

The First Page

Additionally, the plot of Slayground is much more straightforward than any of the other novels. Parker finds himself in the possession of a sack of cash, cornered in an amusement park closed for the winter. Gone to ground with crooked cops and mobsters in the peripheral, he waits for the inevitable violent climax. The story commences mid-heist, and concludes mid-conflict– like a slice of Parker pie (we don’t get the whole thing, only a taste). And then Cooke’s decision to append The 7eventh to the end, felt like a bit like a punchline. The book is an hors d’oeuvre, whetting our appetite for future novels.

(I also noticed that the interior dust jacket of the book was dominated by an advertisement for the upcoming re-release of the Parker hardcover novels, which Darwyn Cooke will be providing cover art and some interior placards for. Perhaps Slayground is simply a clever marketing scheme?)

Slayground isn’t sunk by its brevity, but it’s certainly shorter than the other Parker graphic novels. Let’s be grateful that it retains the same quality we’ve come to expect from Darwyn Cooke.

(pick it up here)


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Character Complexities in “The Killer” by Matz and Jacamon

The Killer Noir Comic

My Copy

Last night, I read a noir comic called “The Killer” volume one by Matz and Jacamon. Originally French, the work has been translated and brought across the Atlantic due to it’s fame. The art is accessible, not hyper realistic, but also strangely devoid of the darkness that persists in most noir-centric comics. Matz style is extremely distinct, and his use of angle and color convey emotional depth throughout the story. For example, at a moment when The Killer appears to be slipping into insanity, the images on the page become choppy and skewed; an outward sign of his inward turmoil. The translation is decent, but there were several moments where I could tell that the verbiage didn’t quite fit; as if the translator didn’t have the language to express authorial intent. But these moments were seldom jarring, and overall immersion in the comic was easily maintained.

The plot of this first volume is clearly foundational– it defines the lifestyle of the hitman, as well as the occupational hazards of such a line of work. Next, the emotional state of our leading man is revealed, bit by bit. What initially seemed glassy on the surface turns out to be a disguise for great turbulence beneath. We’re indoctrinated with his gospel throughout, and we witness his self-inflicted alienation (while we’re simultaneously invited to pity him). Finally, we see him sever his remaining ties with humanity out of necessity– they reject him as he rejected them.

Standing at a distance, and reviewing the story from the beginning to the end of Volume One, “The Killer” is a marvelously succinct story whose complete components create a beautifully balanced work. I know there are subsequent volumes to read, but were the story to end with the final page of Volume One, I would still retain deep satisfaction and affection for this work.

Noir Comics The Killer

Early in the Volume

“The Killer” vs. the noir definition:

1) The Seedy Underworld

A vast tapestry of settings is woven throughout the narrative– The urban sprawl, a lush jungle, white sand beaches, and snow powdered slopes.

2) The Anti-Hero

The Killer is a great character because he is so emotionally complex (although he doesn’t outwardly appear to be)– as the narrator, he is constantly preaching to the reader about his lifestyle, particularly he focuses on the justifications for killing the way he does. He speaks in absolutes, and of his estrangement from the cultural rot of society as a conscious decision. The hitman appears to have no regrets, no emotional baggage, or social attachments, but as the story progresses it becomes apparent that he hasn’t been preaching to the reader, he’s been preaching to himself. In his character flaws, his justifications, his shaky hands, and sweaty brow I found his redeeming quality; at his core, he’s killing himself.

3) The Femme Fatale

A girl he slept with in college who introduced him to his profession is the femme fatale. She remains a nameless flashback in his past, but it’s her influence that changes the moral trajectory of his life.

4) Misogyny

“The Killer” isn’t laden with any blatant misogyny apart from his professed aloofness in regards to the fairer sex. Women come and go, vehicles of pleasure and release, their companionship worthless in his eyes. Yet, there is one woman who remains on his estate in Venezuela… (Again, I believe he’s an untrustworthy narrator– I believe he cares for her or he wouldn’t let her so close).

5) Redemption

The Killer is obsessed with the reasons for doing what he is doing– he is constantly explaining why he doesn’t need to be redeemed, but we realize he needs it more than anyone. He claims that his redemption is found in cash– but he doesn’t behave like someone who only cares about money.

The Killer Jacamon Matz

Later (not in english, sorry)

6) The Loss of Innocence

I refuse to spoil the greatest scene in the book, but I will say that it’s the emotional climax of the nameless anti-hero’s character. It’s perfect.

7) Smoke

Here and there, throughout– the thick cigar, the petite cigarette; chained together by the nervously smoking cast.

8 ) Emasculation

I’ve racked my brain on this, but I can’t find emasculation thematically in the text. Not that it isn’t there, or that it won’t become a prevalent theme later, but I didn’t recognize any in this volume.

I was surprised by the emotional depth of this noir comic, and I can’t wait to read the next one.

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Veronica Lake: The “Peekaboo” Femme Fatale

The “Femme Fatale” segment on NoirWhale.com is designed to highlight the life and merits of exceptional film noir actresses. These women are the embodiment of the femme fatale archetype, and propel possibly the most recognizable and integral theme in the noir genre.

Veronica Lake 1945

Veronica Lake (November 14, 1922 – July 7, 1973) Peekaboo!

“I wasn’t a sex symbol, I was a sex zombie.”

Veronica Lake was born Constance Frances Marie Ockelman in Brooklyn. Her father was a German oiler, her mother an Irish widow. It seems that she was destined to become a femme fatale of the silver screen; as a young woman she was expelled from an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Montreal. Later, when her family had moved to Miami, she developed a reputation in highschool as ‘the hot girl’ and was actually diagnosed as schizophrenic.

In 1938 she attended an acting school in Beverly Hills, small parts in several films got her noticed by director John Farrow (who was entranced by her peekaboo hairstyle) and led to a long-term agreement with Paramount.

She officially “brokeout” in I Wanted Wings (1941), and went on to consistently attract huge audiences to the films in which she starred. She’s best known for being paired onscreen with Alan Ladd (because he was so short for a leading man, few actresses were short enough to star opposite).

People argue that changing her hairstyle during WWII destroyed her career– but she was notoriously difficult to work with. Ms. Lake was known as ‘the bitch’ throughout Hollywood, and Joel McCrea (her co-star in Sullivan’s Travels) is quoted as saying “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.” Her career declined as she became a borderline alcoholic and more and more people refused to work with her.

In 1946, she again co-starred with Ladd in The Blue Dahlia— while filming, the screenplay author (and iconic noir crime fiction great) Raymond Chandler referred to her as “Moronica Lake.” Her popularity completely collapsed by the early ’50s and her career came to a close with her filing bankruptcy.

Veronica was married 4 times and had 4 children– After her third divorce she was a drifter in New York City and was arrested frequently (public drunkeness, disorderly conduct).

Lake died on July 7th, 1973 of hepatis and acute renal failure (due to her alcoholism).

She left a significant legacy in the world of film noir, and as a femme fatale her iconic hairstyle make her an essential component of noirwhale.com

Veronica Lake Femme Fatale

Peekaboo in Color

Veronica Lake Actress

Veronica in Color

Actress Veronica Lake

Veronica in Color

Veronica Lake I Wanted Wings

I Wanted Wings 1941

Femme Fatale Veronica Lake

Publicity Still

Veronica Lake Pilot

She had a pilot’s license, and flew from LA to NY.

Veronica Lake Portrait

up close

Veronica Lake Black and White

Light and shadow

Veronica Lake Shooshing


Veronica Lake Fashion

the way the light hits this dress is otherworldly

Veronica Lake Ramrod 1947

Ramrod (1947)

Veronica Lake This Gun for Hire

This Gun For Hire (1942)

Veronica Lake Alan Ladd This Gun for Hire

with Alan Ladd, This Gun For Hire (1942)

Veronica Lake gif

(via terrymckays.tumblr.com)

*All Biographical Details from: 


*All Pictures (unless otherwise noted) from:


*Quote from:



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Joey Bada$$ and Capital STEEZ “Survival Tactics” Channels Urban Neo-Noir

Capital Steez Survival Tactics

Capital Steez

Joey Badass Survival Tactics

Joey Bada$$

See I was raised that way, I’m from the place where they raise that K
Like every day in every way and every where you go, just ain’t safe
The only thing I can say, to you is pray

“Survival Tactics” is a raw piece of music– charged with urban anxiety and angry overtones. I haven’t featured enough rap in my noir music category, as much of it taps directly into the most central themes of the genre (loss of innocence, redemption, the anti-hero, etc.). The sample is simple, but the sincerity of the language is potent, wartime poetry. The video styling reminds me of 100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso— powerful imagery, stark contrasts, and the exposed underbelly of a broken system. Musically hypnotic and undeniably gripping, Joey Bada$$’ flow is superb, and pairs like socks with Capital STEEZ (RIP).

*The song is very explicit so consider yourself warned.

It’s either, them or you
It’s sort of like, survival you know. Survival of the fittest you know
You do what you do to stay alive

[Verse 1: Joey]
Niggas don’t want war
I’m a martian with an army of spartans
Sparring with a knife in a missile fight
Get your intel right, your intelligence is irrelevant
But it’s definite I spit more than speech impediments
Brooklyn’s the residence, the best and it’s evident
We got them niggas P-E-Nuts, like they elephants
Throw ’em in a trunk if they hate though
We don’t give a f*** as long as we collect our pay, so
Ya’ll collect pesos, ya money ain’t right here
I got them girls next to the wood like they lightyear, I’m right chea
Tryna get a buzz, tryna pollinate
STEEZ got that presidential shit out to inaugurate
My P.E conglomerates bout to P-E-E on any wanna B-E, weak MC
Air ’em out to leave ’em empty congratulate the semi-auto
Fire flame spitter like komodo
No time for fake people, they be simmin’ like Kimora
I’m the empor-ah in search of the adora, my heart go:
*Ba boom Ba boom Ba boom boom Ba boom*
It’s panic like Dora when shots blast
See I was raised that way, I’m from the place where they raise that K
Like every day in every way and every where you go, just ain’t safe
The only thing I can say, to you is pray
Cause when niggas start equippin’
And throw the clip in
Your blood drippin’
And got you slippin’
Under the victim
Don’t know whats hit them, through his spinal
Just another man who defeated by survival
That’s your biggest rival, in your whole life
These bars you can’t handle you better hold tight
They sayin’ I’m the best, I’m like you’re so right
Still ain’t got enough shine to last the whole night, nigga

Yo, f*** the police nigga
F*** every ass corrupt politician on Wall Street
P.E, Public Enemy, Assassinate us, bitch
F*** that, f*** everything son
F*** government, F***, listenin’ and shit

You want f****n’ energy? Dickheads

[Verse 2: Steez]
It’s like 6 milli ways to die my nigga choose one
Doomsday comin’ start investin’ in a few guns
New gats, booby traps, and bazooka straps
Better play your cards right, no booster packs
Everybody claim they used to rap
But these ain’t even punchlines no more, I’m abusing tracks
Leaving instrumentals blue and black
I’m in Marty McFly mode, so tell em’ that the future’s back
Riding on hoverboards, wiping out motherboards
Stopped spitting fire cause my motherf****n lung is scorched
King Arthur when he swung his sword
A king author I ain’t even use a pen in like a month or four
I had a hard time writing lyrics
Now I’m way over heads, science fiction
You can try and get it, my man the flyest with it
With a mind of fine of interest for your finest interests
They say hard work pays off
Well tell the Based God don’t quit his day job
Cause P.E’s about to take off
With protons and electrons homie that’s an A-bomb
F****n’ ridiculous
Finger to the president screamin’ “f*** censorship!”
If Obama got that president election
Then them P.E. boys bout to make an intervention
F*** what I once said, I want the blood shed
Cause now-a-days for respect you gotta pump lead
I guess Columbine was listenin’ to Chaka Khan
And Pokémon wasn’t gettin’ recognized at Comic-Con
It’s like we’ve been content with losin’
And half our students fallen victim to the institution
Jobs are scarce since the Scientific Revolution
And little kids are shootin Uzi’s cause its given to ’em
Little weapon, code name: Smith and Wesson
And you’ll be quick to catch a bullet like an interception
If your man’s tryna disrepect it
Send a message and it’s over in a millisecond

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Web of The City by Harlan Ellison

Web of the City by Harlan Ellison

my copy (cover art by Glen Orbik)

Web of the City by Harlan Ellison is the author’s first novel, beautifully republished in Hard Case Crime’s definitive collection. From the jump, it’s obvious that Harlan is a skilled wordsmith– and his prose has all the bleak accoutrements of the most skilled hard-boiled writers. Yet initially the book reads like “West Side Story”, with Jets and Sharks (now Cougars and Cherokees) dancing down the paragraphs. But any resemblance to the musical classic is brutally shattered by horrible (and frightfully realistic) violence mere pages into the work.

Russell “Rusty” Santoro was the leader of the Cougars, but now he wants out. In his neighborhood, he’s a traitor and a chicken- to his mother, a disappointment- to his sister, an embarrassment. As he copes with unexpected loss and the inner turmoil of his shifting morals, he’s filled with the hope for a future that he may never obtain.

Today had taught him something. The break had to be a violent and final one. No one gradually grew away from the streets.

Web of the City vs. the Noir Definition:

1) The Seedy Underworld

The setting for Ellison’s creation is the gritty crime-centric streets of New York City. Almost post apocalyptic in its rendering, the violent youth  control their progenitors with the looming threat of chaos. Drugs, sex, money, and power drench the streets with the portent of ‘rumble.’

It was a gaping hole in a line of apartment buildings. The street was run-down. The houses had once been stately brown-stones, but refugee owners had divided each apartment into dozens of minor one-room closets and had rented them to Puerto Ricans, fresh to New York. It was a dirty, noisy street with cardboard milk cartons crushed flat in the gutters, battered garbage cans on the sidewalks and obscenities chalked on pavements and walls. Laundry hung from windows. The smell was oregano and some sweet, the odor of cigarettes and pine cleanser fighting a losing battle with dirt-caked corners. It was a depressing street. It was all too familiar to Rusty.  It was typical.

2) The Anti-Hero

Rusty is a Salinger-esque creation– a hard-nosed kid who understands the language of the streets yet despises the dialect. He’s a dynamic anti-hero who you’ll applaud even as he drowns in the slime of his own poor choices. He despises his father for abandoning his family, yet he obliviously imitates this behavior. I was pleased with his complexity and irked by his weaknesses– he not only moves through the drama, he creates it as well.

But there seemed no way out, no way to escape being dragged in. It somehow, terrifyingly, seemed predestined. He was forging his own chains.

3) The Femme Fatale

Rusty’s girlfriend Louise “Weezee” seems the obvious cast for the femme fatale, but she doesn’t fit the part. The real femme fatale is Dolores “Dolo”– Rusty’s younger sister. Introduced to the gang world by her older brother, she becomes the embarrassed sibling of a ‘chickie’ traitor– and her shame drives a painful wedge between the two. When her anger and recklessness places her in danger, Rusty must plunge himself back into the gangland to pull her out. Her actions are fatal to his newly woven moral fiber.

4) Misogyny

The women in the plot are sexual play-things– possessed by the strongest ‘studs’ in the gang. Rusty’s view and treatment of females is challenged and altered throughout the text, but the changes are neither easy nor swift. The older women in the Puerto Rican community demand more respect, yet it’s seldom given. The tradition of abuse, marginalization, and disloyalty are too ingrained; a culture of heartbreak.

He took her with him in the way the rules decreed. Not by the hand, gently, as he wanted to for that would have left her confused– but with the hand at the back of her neck. Commanding, leading, directing, roughly, the way a mean stud did it to his broad.

5) Redemption

Redemption is the strongest theme in the novel– Rusty’s desire to redeem himself from his past, and to redeem his sister from her present, motivate his every action. The central conflict orbits about his struggle to utilize his new morals in world that lacks them– and the guilt that grips him when he fails to do so.

Harlan Ellison Web of the City

Harlan Ellison

6) The Loss of Innocence

Rusty feels the most anguish over inducting his sister into the gang world. He feels as though he robbed her of her innocence, and destroyed the only pure influence in his life. This guilt knits his fate to hers, and drives him to desperation. (Love and guilt are his slave masters).

7) Smoke

More reefer than tobacco, the silky signal of addiction hangs thick over the streets and crawls across the minds of the indifferent youth. They’re inoculated from their guilt by both druggy haze and habit.

Rusty dragged out a cigarette, lit it by snapping his thumb against the head of a kitchen match. It flamed abruptly, casting a bloody shadow over his face.

8 ) Emasculation

As Rusty surrenders his leadership of the Cougars, his masculinity is immediately challenged by his former friends and allies. He’s ruthlessly teased and abused until he’s willing to stoop to their level of violence again (the only language they understand). His journey through the piece is fraught with constant challenges to his self-constructed definitions of masculinity as a basically fatherless loner in the ghetto.

Web of the City is not the best work of noir crime fiction that I’ve ever read– but it sure was fun to read. Harlan does come across as a novice, but his passion more than makes up the difference. You can get it here.

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Noir Quotes | Jim Steranko

Jim Steranko

Jim Steranko

“I’ve got 72 hours to live, Mr. Chandler. I want you to find my murderer.”

Jim Steranko

Red Tide: A Chandler Novel


Red Tide Chandler Jim Steranko

My tasty 37 year old copy…

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