Through the past darkly
With the release of a noir anthology, we take a look at Chicago's shady literary tradition
Chicago Noir is dark and dirty, an anthology filled with local stories about murder, drug addiction, infidelity and corruption. Grim as that is, readers shouldn't be surprised: Our fair city didn't suddenly go to hell in a handbasket. Chicago has had a gritty edge for a long time, at least as far as some legendary authors are concerned.
Nelson Algren was among them, with novels that were, perhaps, the best and bleakest of them all. Eloquently chronicling Chicago's seamy sides in Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness and The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren sits near the top in the pantheon of Chicago authors. Still, Algren's Chicago is a place that today's readers would hardly choose to visit. In the prose poem City on the Make, Algren described Chicago as a place where hardworking people and criminals mingled in a dynamic, powerful-but-cruel town.
"By nights when the moon is an only child above the measured thunder of the cars, you may know Chicago's heart at last: You'll know it's the place built out of Man's ceaseless failure to overcome himself," he wrote.
In its most general terms, noir is the French word for "black," and the term loosely describes a world where everything is gloomy, literally and figuratively. Life is bad, it's going to get worse, and the characters are resigned to the fact that there's nothing anyone can do about it. Outside of Chicago, noir authors earned a sexy reputation, thanks to Hollywood. Decades ago, L.A. detective classics like Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon were turned into big-budget films and characters like detective Sam Spade became part of the pop-culture lexicon.
The quintessential Chicago noir story, meanwhile, has typically been a less sexy piece of fiction, coming from authors as disparate as Algren, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell, Eugene Izzi, Willard Motley and even Ernest Hemingway, whose short story "The Killers" was set on the outskirts of Chicago. Of course, Hollywood tried to glam things up a bit: Hemingway's story was made into two films, and Algren's National Book Award–winning The Man with the Golden Arm was turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra. But Algren's Frankie Machine, even as portrayed by Old Blue Eyes, was too gritty and heroin-addicted to ever become a pop-culture icon.
In Chicago's noir, heroes and happy endings are rare.
"You don't see a lot of Chicago fiction about quirky, academic families," says Neal Pollack, editor of the Chicago Noir collection. "Chicago noir is writing that, traditionally, has been about poverty, violence and a lot of sleaze. Real things. It's the junkie trying to get his fix, the boxer trying to make a comeback. It's people who can't win."
In Hemingway's "The Killers," two thugs plan to kill a washed-up prizefighter, Ole Andreson, letting it slip to a friend that they have a hit out on him. Despite his friend's warnings, Andreson refuses to run for his life.
"There isn't anything I can do about it," he says.
Izzi, one of the genre's more recent and lesser-known writers, suffered an abusive father, poverty, and countless other setbacks before he wrote well-regarded noir mysteries like The Criminalist, The Booster and The Take.
Sadly, Izzi's life was as dark as his fiction. In 1996, the author's body was found hanging outside a 14th-floor window of the Michigan Avenue building where he kept an office. The medical examiner said Izzi committed suicide, while friends and colleagues publicly wondered if he'd been murdered. Dark as the genre is, it's reasonable to assume that, somewhere, some writer was drawn to Izzi's downfall, perhaps working on a new noir tale of his own.
Pollack and cronies will read on Friday 2.