There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Black Mass and Black Mask: Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978).

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978).

Do you remember how Johnny Fontaine had the help of his godfather Vito Corleone in making it big as a singer? Suppose Fontaine made a deal not with his godfather, but with the father of lies? And instead of being Puzo's Johnny Fontaine he was Hjortsberg's singer Johnny Favorite?

Falling Angel is a great New York City novel. Protagonist gumshoe Harry Angel flies, to-ing and fro-ing, across a stunningly evoked 1950s Gotham picking up and trying to fit together pieces of a puzzle depicting his own damnation. He works for a client but - alas - the true case is at heart something entirely other.

Private detective tales after Hammett are normally about being detective tales, not ratiocination. From Chandler to Parker they are less about the bloodhound instinct and fair-play cluing than the hero's first-person narcissism and a vigilante Bonapartism of everyday self-glorification.

Hjortsberg sails completely above these cliches for 3/4 of the novel. We float on the author's effortless narrative style through the high and low of Manhattan: penthouses, bars, swank restaurants, Harlem nightclubs and voodoo emporiums. 50s Jazz is celebrated everywhere. The changing concrete landscape of NYC is noted.

Angel is pure Continental Op, the stain-on-the-necktie schlub who is also a predator bird-dogging the truth.

Name some of the cliches of the U.S. detective story: Cops harassing and trying to implicate our dick in the mystery and murders he is trying to solve. Our dick falling in love with an oddball woman mixed up in the mess. A capitalist magnate pulling strings and parcelling-out background matter even when it is too late. And of course the smart mouth of the dick himself, running even when ruined by fists and shoe leather pummelling courtesy of the magnate's goons.

William Hjortsberg disguises his villain, obscured and shielded via chapters of fascinating misdirection. A story-telling pleasure in and of itself.

But the cliches erupt like a Vesuvius in the last quarter of Falling Angel. The narrative angel Hjortsberg gives us is pulled down to earth, where we can clearly see it was all just wax and goose feathers.

But oh, the first 3/4!


13 October 2018

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