He still didn’t move. When I extended my arm he just looked at the gun. It was no more than eighteen inches from his face. I squeezed the trigger and the bullet hit him in the left eye and a drop of fluid squirted and the eyelid fell over the hole as a window shade falls over a pane of darkness. There was no blood at all.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is a wonderful noir crime fiction tale from Horace McCoy. His prose is brutal to the taste, a vintage flavor that slides down your throat and slugs you in the gut. Within the first pages you are greeted by Ralph, a cruel protagonist who’s prone to violence and the short-con. He’s stuck in a California pen, picking melons with labor gangs of criminals and plotting an escape.
I was surprised by the gripping intensity of the novel, it reads “thriller” with a capital “T”. This effect is heightened by the fluidity of the prose; a semi-committed half-conscious half-present narrative style that thinks more frequently than it speaks and lies enough to make us uncomfortable. A fuzzy yet bitter morality is the only thing separating Ralph from sociopathy, and each page takes us deeper into his troubling psychosis.
Horace McCoy’s prose is entirely his own, the only comparable author that I’ve sampled personally is James Cain, a veritable master of the noir genre. McCoy’s metaphors aren’t the tired regurgitations we’ve come to accept contemporarily, and he spins a yarn that is as effortless as it is entertaining.
Here’s a quick noir definition rundown of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye:
1) The Seedy Underworld
Old California, when arrest records were lost from state to state, and a quick switch of your license plates was all it took to lose Johnny Law.
The Marakeesh Apartments were on the corner where the bus had stopped, a two-story brick building that looked cheap and rundown, as if what went on inside was exactly what you suspected.
2) The Anti-Hero
Ralph is a frightening portrait of a hero. Egotistical, self-centered, and surprisingly violent, he skirts the unpleasant area between dislike and disgust. The real magic of his characterization is when you realize you’re rooting for him, silently agreeing with his angry assessments.
‘You’re sweet. I adore you,’ I said, feeling a fine fast exhilaration that today was the day that I was going to kill him, that I was finally going to kill him as soon as I got my hands on those pistols I was going to kill him.
3) The Femme Fatale
Holiday is a babe with all the right moves, a femme fatale who’s as manipulative as she is pretty. She understands the price of controlling the men in her life, and she’s more than willing to pay it.
This noir crime fiction joins the ranks of other misogynistic works of the era; a dame is only as good as what she can do in the bedroom.
Unlike the intellectual redemption themes that we find in detective based noir, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye highlights the illegal activities of Ralph and his associates. It seems their redemption comes from success, from cash and freedom.
Actually, this novel is particularly tame in its approach to sexuality. But it’s only tame in details, not frequency.
She smiled at me, unbuckling her trousers but not unbuttoning the fly, slipping them off, arching her shoulders against the back seat to raise her buttocks out of the way. Her legs were slim and white. I could see the skin in minutest detail, the pigments and pores and numberless valley-cracks that crisscrossed above her knees, forming patterns that were as lovely and intricate as snow crystals. And there was something else I saw too out of the corner of my left eye, and I tried not to look, not because I didn’t want to, not because of modesty, but only because when you had waited as long as I had to see one of these you want it to reveal itself at full length, sostenuto.
7) Loss of Innocence
Ralph’s utter disregard for human life is the alarming thread that wraps itself around this book. If you’re between him and the score, you’ll be removed.
‘Jesus. Ralph,’ Jinx said, as we drove out. ‘You shouldn’t a done that. He’s lame.…’‘So much more reason why he ought to be careful what he says to me,’ I said.
8 ) Smoke
The smoke in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye is the ever present reminder that this is work of noir crime fiction, and a damn good one at that.
Ralph is dangerous because he’ll allow himself to be emasculated. Taunt him, hurt him, swindle him and you’ll feel like you’ve gotten away with it; that he’s a ‘nance’ pushover or something equally spineless. Later, when you’ve forgotten him entirely, he pays you back.
Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy is a great piece of vintage crime fiction. Get a copy.