Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2018 December 12 • Wednesday

Nick Tosches once wrote something along the lines of how trying to pinpoint the first "rock and roll" record was like trying to find the exact point on the spectrum where blue becomes azure.

Something similar goes on in trying to draw a border between "fiction" and "literature". There are some works of unpretentious genre fiction that deliver an unexpected epiphany and are so solidly crafted, intelligent and scintillating to read that when you put them down you think, there was really something in there, not just a story, not just action, but that all turned out to be about something that really got to something inside me and connected that something with the outside world and maybe humanity itself.

Eric Ambler's The Mask of Dimitrios (a.k.a. A Coffin for Dimitrios) and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend are two that come to mind. (The former provided the template for Citizen Kane and several other movies.)

The experience you have with a book is important to you and it is whatever it is. Arguing about whether such and such a book rises above whatever fiction is to become whatever literature is, is a waste of time, if you ask me. And yet, it's the kind of waste of time that generates a lot of noise and a lot of heat and gives people something to talk about, which is apparently something that a lot of people need.

All of which is just my way of saying that I read Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel.

I really like these New York Review Books editions. They're handsomely made and a pleasure to read. That is, the physical experience of holding the book and looking at the text on the pages is pleasurable.

Black Wings Has My Angel was originally a Gold Medal paperback back in 1953 and I also like to read Gold Medal books. They generally have sensationalistic and beautifully painted covers and deliver on their promises of sex and violence.

In its original Gold Medal incarnation, Black Wings Has My Angel looked like this:

It's a fairly wild ride and one of the strongest such books that I've read. But I can't agree with Barry Gifford's assertion that it's "an astonishingly well-written literary novel that just happened to be about (or roundabout) a crime".

This is making a claim for the book that the book itself doesn't support. It could have been a book like that. It starts out as a heist story but instead of the usual male crew, the conspirators are a man and a woman locked in a fatalistic crazy sadomasochistic love sex fever.

About halfway through, though, you might get the impression that Chaze didn't know where this thing was going to go when he started it.

And so what began as a solid coherent narrative starts to fragment and go in different directions. Even while reading the first half of the book you might have noticed how the main character occasionally gets injections of "character" and back story, perhaps as the author realized that his people weren't particularly real or more than surface.

In the second half there's a contrived return home for "Tim Sunblade" (not his real name), and it's brutal in at least a couple of ways and for more people than just him.

This is also where Chaze takes a turn to ultra-violence. While there was already plenty of violence, the reader is taken to unexpected extremes, still disturbing today and who knows how shocking to readers sixty years ago.

"When he came back to me he broke the fingers of my left hand, one by one, neatly and with no wasted action, the way you'd snap celery at the table, almost politely."

The celery comparison is horrifyingly apt. Earlier the same people, police officers, have him tied naked and supine to the hood of their police car. "And they had a game. It seems all three of them smoked cigars and in this game they tried to figure out every possible way to use me for an ash tray. Sometimes the cigars went out. But they lighted them again and kept inventing new ways and places to stub out the cigars. They had plenty of matches."

The "It seems" at the beginning of the second sentence might be the most gut-wrenching touch here, almost an over-understatement of violence.

Violence is inevitably partnered with sex in crime stories, and Tim's partner Virginia can keep pace with him and easily take the lead in both departments. She's often too much like a nympho Lady Macbeth and doesn't seem to interest the author as much as the book's narrator does. Often her actions seem to derive from the necessity of driving the plot than from the realistic motivations of an actual person. She's the classic femme fatale, the bad girl, however you want to put it. Like the violence in the novel, she's more extreme than what you're used to, and I suppose it's this over-the-top quality that most distinguishes the story.

In an absurd scene apparently played straight, she passes on huge chunks of information to Tim while they're locked in separate cells of the same jail, by singing hymns along with the other prisoners, just changing the words to tell him what she needs him to know. It's not clear to me how this would work and I think that's because it wouldn't.

Given enough of a shove in one direction or another, this could have been some kind of surrealist or absurdist risky masterpiece, or possibly one of the greatest smash and grab, sex and violence paperback originals of all time. It might have also been just a great, solid "literary" novel. But it just doesn't have the qualities I associate with such books.

It's certainly worth reading if you're interested in this kind of thing, but it didn't convince me as some kind of lost literary classic. It is a wild ride, though, and definitely a classic of mid-century sex and violence and drinking and crime and corruption and despair and betrayal and much that is both uplifting and dismaying about the so-called "human condition".

The first line is "I'd been roughnecking on a drilling rig in the Atchafayala River for better than sixteen weeks, racking the big silver stems of pipe, lugging the sacks of drilling mud from barge to shore, working with my back and guts and letting my mind coast".