“Two Variations of American Noir: 

20th Century Urban ‘Failure Stories’ and More Recent Rural Adventures”

by Jay A. Gertzman

Blurbs for both 20th century mass market newsstand crime novels and recent “Country Noirs” (Daniel Woodrell’s phrase) share similar phrasing: “official voice of working class literature”; “This is what noir is…blunt force drama stripped down to the bone”; “everything you want in crime fiction”; “The strange, fascinating, and dangerous fringes of American life”; “working class antiheroes as they indulge in theft, murder, and lawless shenanigans.”

Both kinds of fiction are about people in long-workable communities that have suffered economic enfeeblement, in an increasingly crime- and poverty-ridden 20th century inner city or in an equally distressed contemporary rural America with decaying infrastructure, shuttered hospitals, and unaffordable medicines. Woodrell disavowed the subtitle he used for his Give Us a Kiss, but it does help denote differences from earlier narratives. 

Urban crime’s narratives of the prevalence of injustice implicitly inhibited an individual’s ability to break free from anxieties. Only the dubious compromises of salary, safety, and tolerance could relieve them. With poverty looming, keeping what one had, especially in the working- or under-class community pecking order, was a priority. One source of the common man’s acquiescence was the war itself. In From Here to Eternity, James Jones describes the notes of the company musician’s plaintively beautiful jazz as it embodied the “common soldier’s” resignation. They were “filled with an infinite sadness, an endless patience, a pointless pride, the requiem and epitaph of the common soldier.”

Despite the subversion of class, ethnic, and political absolutes that lifted so many 1950s mass market crime stories above the level of ephemeral escapism, the courage and hard-won self-awareness of post-World War II pulp crime protagonists often result in stoic acceptance of impassive, callous fate. It is a basic truth in the time of The Big Fear. Jim Thompson’s protagonist in The Killer Inside Me, cursed by child abuse and a misanthropic father, wanted readers to see his trauma as their own: “All of us that started the game with a crooked cue…that meant so good and did so bad.”

  Orson Welles once described American crime fiction as “failure stories” of personal fateful choices. Striving to overcome the obstacles of their financial, familial, or amatory frustrations left protagonists stymied by “twisted sorrow” (Dylan, “Mr. Tambourine Man”): a fate beyond their control. This suggests that twentieth century pulp writers were immersed in, although they did not serve, a cultural consensus. “Every production of mass culture,” stated Robert Warshow, acute observer of popular entertainment, “is a public act and must conform with accepted notions of the public good.” This conviction of resignation to “things as they are,” so constantly reoccurring in post-war crime stories as to be part of the era’s Weltanschauung, or sensibility, is what Country Noir gets beyond. That does not mean that all such writing ends with new self-awareness, liberation from compulsions hardened into workaday habits, or with the knitting together of a sympathetic community. 

Many but not all, however, do imply if not directly state what D H Lawrence termed “a sloughing off of the old tight skin.” It takes the form of a contest with wildness, and the revelation that results. Examples are The Revenant in Michael Punke’s novel, Huck Finn on the river, Robert Grainier’s visits from his drowned wife and daughter in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Zebulon Pike’s “mountain doings” in Wulitzer’s Drop Edge of Yonder, and lone shootists such as Shane, Miles Swarthout’s John Bernard Books, and Harmonica in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Lawrence saw the experience of a wilderness impervious to law and order to be a keynote of our literature. If Country Noir is a revolutionary departure from the world of newsstand crime, it lies in the contrast between urban prescriptions and rural exploration. 

On the last page in The Great Gatsby, Nick talks of “That vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” Nick says this as he was “brooding on the old, unknown world . . . commensurate with man’s capacity for wonder.” Part of the wonder is the exhilaration of strange discovery, not autocratically imposed restraint. Each of the following works are energized by a need for subversive wildness: Harry Crews’ A Feast of Snakes, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Allen Carr’s Opioid, Indiana, Robert Coover’s Huck Out West, Chris Offutt’s Kentucky Straight and Country Dark, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing.

Paperback crime novels are no longer considered throwaway distractions. However, middlebrow genre fiction is a denigrating enough category. Reviews are often segregated by a grouping such as “Crime and Mystery.” A positive recent development is that that pulp hard-boiled novels of both the pre-and post-World War II period are now acknowledged to be of formative importance in defining the hostility, aggression, distrust, and despairing resignation of people striving to escape the anxiety, poverty, and decay of both Depression and Red Scare nightmares. Country noir is similarly respected as revealing the alarm, disorientation, and dread of communities whose institutions and traditions are no longer able to sustain their inhabitants. Harry Crews wrote, “The world that circumscribed the people I came from had so little margin for error, for bad luck, that when something went wrong, it almost always brought something else down with it.” That sounds like classic pulp crime: Cassidy’s Girl, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, or The Nothing Man. In both kinds of stories, protagonists lack the decorum and the self-restraint that inhibits public outbursts of emotions in middle class people. The results are sometimes disastrous, and sometimes beneficial, to the characters’ fates. Readers cannot help thinking, “I wish I was that guy or woman.” But as the story complicates and endangers the protagonist’s chances, s/he is glad they are not. Then, s/he might think about why. They have and they do.

James Sallis makes succinctly clear that American crime noir since the 1930s has an essential consistency.

Nowadays nothing tells us more about our society . . . than crime fiction. Hammett and Chandler recollect our attention not only for their precedence and brilliance, but as much because their tales occur at America’s edge, with the frontier used up, at almost the very moment that our society was shifting from rural to urban. And perhaps nothing tells us more about the American psyche than the image of the West.

In American crime fiction, violence is all-pervasive. It is, after all, the bedrock of confrontation with wilderness, at “America’s edge.” In 1950, critic Geoffrey Gorer wrote of the influence of American crime novels in Europe, suggesting the appearance of a new myth of “a very strange society in which violence is normal, and normally unpunished.” James M. Cain’s most famous passage describes a wife and her lover making violent love with the body of the husband lying a few feet away (The Postman Always Rings Twice). Writers like Harry Crews, Donald Ray Pollock, David Joy, and Frank Bill integrate violence and brutality with the tapestry of the suddenly moribund American small town and farmer’s field. Here are some hints at the shock twenty-first century noir crime can evoke: 

–A young mother has to prove that her father, the owner of the house where she and her child live, is deceased, so that she can inherit the place. She is shown his corpse by his murderers, so that she can cut off a hand to make a case before the legal authorities. (Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone).

–A man sells his teenage granddaughter to nearby degenerates in order to pay for his wife’s cancer treatments. She shoots him when she finds out. (Frank Bill, Crimes in Southern Indiana)

–An obsessed game warden tracks down three poachers, killing two in the same way they waylaid their prey, and blinding a third. (Tom Franklin, “Poachers”)

–A novel’s protagonist throws a bag of hornets at a gunman, who is half blinded and “webbed” with welts. Our hero can now use the gunman to find who sent him. (Chris Offutt, Country Dark).

Another often-occurring characteristic is help from unlikely places. Given the grim progress of the noir plot, the introduction of unexpected benevolence gives depth to the protagonist’s situation, reminding the reader of the complex humanity of the story. In urban crime stories, it surfaces in hash houses, fat Tillie’s establishments, the ’till dawn poker in the barbershop back room, the rotgut bars, or the dime-a-dance clubs. In country locations, it might enliven the scenes of midnight cock fights, the negotiations for oxys or cocaine, the hard core erotic movies just across the Mexican border, or the virgins for sale in the back streets of Matamoros or Tijuana. David Goodis’s novels contain some of the best examples of the hero finding nurture not in an acquisitive bourgeois setting, but among rejects who have nothing left to lose and are open to empathy and charity. Peter Rabe, Steve Fisher, William McGivern, Gil Brewer, and Lionel White sometimes use this kind of story. The country noir stories of Denis Johnson, Chris Offutt, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Carolyn Chute, Ron Rash, and Larry Brown also do. Many of Bonnie Campbell’s stories are moving due to their writer’s ability to look up from the bottom and get the reader to compare the characters favorably to those on top. In Campbell’s “King Cole’s American Salvage,” the protagonist is a thief, but relief of his friends’ needs is one of his desires, if not the primary motive. At his trial, they absolve themselves of complicity by lying in court. The thief goes to jail, where he consorts with people who know the difference, as he does, between purchasing security at the price of betrayal and taking responsibility for others as well as himself. In Denis Johnson’s novels, people confront their visceral responses to horrific auto crashes, manslaughter, invasion of privacy, and aggressively asocial instincts until they discover a universality of human compassion.

While many twentieth century crime novels delineate hostility and fear based on income level, race, ethnicity, and neighborhood, one of rural noir’s defining contrasts is love of community and pity for long-settled families which can no longer offer their sons and daughters the house or livelihood of previous generations. Once-stable towns have become controlled by an underworld of drug dealers, loan sharks, and black-market operators, just as the inner-city urban neighborhoods did two generations earlier. In a few stories about the latter, even the toughest mob bosses so sometimes find relief from their isolation by treating a gang member as a surrogate son or daughter. In rural noir, criminals sometimes realize that they are essential to the town economy. Law enforcement deplores this, since it diminishes its authority. But for citizens, survival might mean accepting the illicit procedures of the powerful if by doing so they stay safe and functional. See Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and “Joanna Stull.”

To conclude, Daniel Woodrell disavowed the term “country noir” partly because “noir” has maintained its twentieth century moorings as a film or novel where betrayal and failure were usually dominant. Woodrell does not want the “form or structure” of noir to limit his writing to a genre-specific ending. He prefers the term “Gothic” for stories from rural America that feature suicide, rape, murder, sadism, impotence, betrayal, or demonic gangsters, all in a carefully documented regional setting. Horror, the supernatural, and variating point of view and time sequences are other gothic elements. Gothic writing emerges when a culture’s explanations of, and remedies for, divergent behavior no longer explain sensibly causes and results. That was true of post-war America too, as Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Horace McCoy, and Robert Bloch show. People search out their own uniquely weird explanations for, and freedom from, loneliness, criminality, tabooed sexual compulsions, and unexplained and irresistible anxieties regarding supernatural presences. That is what is going on in the novels of a wide variety of Southern, Ozark, Appalachian, Great Plains, and Big Sky novels. Whatever they owe to the twentieth century gothic elements in hard-boiled crime, the universe they create points in a different direction than failure, stoic resignation, shame and fear, or lack of love.


Jay A. Gertzman is Professor Emeritus of English at Mansfield University. His latest book, Beyond Twisted Sorrow, The Promise of Rural Noir, will be published later this year by Down and Out Books. His other books include Pulp According to David Goodis, and the seminal study of Samuel Roth, Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist. Specializing in American publishing history, Gertzman has also written books on the editions of Lady Chatterleys Lover and on the distribution and prosecution of erotic literature in the 1920s and 30s.