Today’s guest blogger and friend-of-the-Outfit, Sam Reaves, has written seven Chicago-based crime novels, including the Cooper MacLeish series, the Dooley series and the forthcoming stand-alone Mean Town Blues. As Dominic Martell he has penned a European-based suspense trilogy. Reaves has traveled widely in Europe and the Middle East but has lived in the Chicago most of his life. Visit Sam at www.samreaves.com. (Ed’s note: Sam’s most recent release, HOMICIDE ’69, is a must-read for anyone who loves the Sixties, Chicago, and crime.)
The Long Goodbye is a lot of things: Raymond Chandler’s best book, a jaded look at post-war Southern California dystopia, a savage flaying of the rich, prime evidence in the ongoing debate about whether crime fiction can qualify as literature. It may also be the Great American Novel of Alcoholism.
There’s no doubt that it’s a serious novel; we’ve moved a long way past the pulps here. If Chandler’s unblinking contemplation of human frailty doesn’t move the book into the literary big leagues, his language by itself does.
Chandler’s style has spawned so many imitators that it’s easy to forget how incisive and apt and startling the original was. The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back... The book is full of Chandler’s carefully machined similes, so easy to parody and so hard to nail, and on every page he finds new ways of using the language to convey atmosphere or personality with precision: "I couldn’t hear the laugh but the hole in her face when she unzippered her teeth was all I needed." Chandler was one of the great stylistic innovators in American literature.
And the theme of this novel? A professor told me once that love and death are the only two great literary themes, and they’re both here in abundance. It’s a murder mystery, of course, so the death is a given. As for the love, much has been made of the friendship between Marlowe and Terry Lennox, the supposed homoerotic subtexts teased out and contrasted with Marlowe’s prickly relations with women, but none of the love interests, male or female, really stacks up to the main object of desire, the brooding presence that dominates the novel, which is booze.
Alcohol is the presiding deity of Chandler’s world and the mainspring of the story. It’s hard to think of another novel so sodden with drink (though Under the Volcano leaps to mind). Terry Lennox is “plastered to the hairline” in the very first scene, and there is hardly a passage in the book that doesn’t involve the quest for alcohol, its immediate effects, or a stinking morning-after hangover. It is Lennox’s native dignity even while hopelessly drunk that awakens Marlowe’s sympathy and sets the story in motion. The crime at the heart of the book involves the struggling novelist Roger Wade, whose problem is that he “just goes nuts when he drinks.” In fact everyone in Wade’s circle drinks: Chandler’s description of the nightmare cocktail party in Chapter 23 is enough to make you run to the phone book for the number of your local AA chapter. Marlowe himself downs his share of drinks, of course, even confiding, after a description of the police drunk tank: “That is the depth of misery. I’ve seen it.” Alcohol is a central, malevolent presence in the novel.
Raymond Chandler was, famously, an alcoholic, and this is his literary reckoning with it. It’s hard not to wonder how much of Roger Wade is Raymond Chandler, particularly in the strange soliloquy Wade leaves on the typewriter for Marlowe to find in Chapter 28. Chandler was evidently a man locked in mortal combat with drink, and to judge by this novel, the drink was winning. Far from glamorizing drink, The Long Goodbye does its best to shine a cold hard light on it. Read the extended passage at the beginning of Chapter 13 (unusually discursive for Chandler) as Marlowe sits in a bar , watching a drunk talking to the bartender:
…you knew that he got up on the bottle and only let go of it when he fell asleep at night. He would be like that for the rest of his life and that was what his life was... There is a sad man like that in every quiet bar in the world..
Of course, like all drinkers Chandler was ambivalent about alcohol; this is hardly a prohibitionist tract. Terry Lennox’s ode to “the first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar” at the beginning of Chapter 4 never fails to make me want to rush out and get a cold one. And Marlowe drinks with evident relish and reasonable control throughout the book. He is perhaps the drinker Chandler wished he could be.
If not a prohibitionist tract, The Long Goodbye can certainly be seen as a cautionary tale; the drunks in this novel are wounded, dysfunctional people. But Chandler never lectures as he tells their story, and that is one mark of serious fiction. Great art is not didactic. But it does take us inside human problems and human hearts; it makes us see. And you’re not going to find too many books that do a better job of illuminating the strange calvary of the alcoholic than The Long Goodbye. It is a great American novel.