Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Monday, February 14 2000, 8:01 PM
In his essay "The Synoptic Chandler," Frederick Jameson argues that a major distinguishing narrative feature of noir fiction lies in the modernism of the radio voice. The voice-over, radio aesthetics, and reportage of political crises during the '20s and '30s shaped a noir narrative style that emphasized directness, emphatic sentences and closure. The narrator is in far great control of the story than the story's characters, who live in a world out of control.
If times and media change, then what of the noir novel's voice? What direction has it taken at the beginning of a new century? One answer lies in reading noir 'at the edge,' noir that both borrows and transforms the distinct Americanisms of its genre origins. Two writers I have read in the past year have reached that creative edge, which for me is a point where novels achieve the political critique of Hammett's Red Harvest interwoven with the hardboiled action or desperation of a Vachss novel.
The first writer is Jakob Arjouni in his Kemal Kayankaya stories, beginning with his wonderful 1993 novel, Happy Birthday, Turk!. Arjouni's novels, translated from German by Anselm Hollo and published by No Exit Press, explore the identity dilemmas of a Turkish-German private investigator and a German society that cannot shake off its old habits of racialist hierarchies. Arjouni's use of an alienated and often angry ethnic narrator, reporting from Frankfurt's streets in the first person, speaks to the continued expansion of noir's international adaptability. The Kayankaya novels are very popular in Germany. If noir once appeared in Europe in the French pseudo-translations of Boris Vian's 'Vernon Sullivan' novels (four of which appeared from 1940-50), where Vian literally invented a black American expatriate author in order to attain the status of a marginalized author, now a writer like Arjouni explores the genre's potential as a natural home for the alienated. As the publisher's blurb copy has it, "Not only by color, but also by character and profession, Kayankaya is the outsider and the outcast in a rampantly unjust and racist society."
That operative word --- 'outsider' --- realizes the potential that lays implicit in classic noir's code of individual self-preservation. Given class and ethnic hostilities, how will the protagonist preserve life and worthiness? Although Himes wrote powerfully racialized noir fiction like If He Hollers Let Him Go as early as 1945, the general drift of noir writing over the last half-century has been from an individualistic idea of outsiderliness towards an understanding of alienation as a group characteristic. As the noir genre enters a new century, it has become far less exclusive in its ethnic and gender characterizations, and far more cosmopolitan in its sources. To be 'outside' is no longer simply an establishing convention for fictional characters, but rather a more realistic appraisal of everyday life for the broad mass of humanity.
José Latour is a second international noir writer worth reading who captures these preoccupations of marginalization. Latour's new novel, Outcast, repeats this search as its title. This is the first Cuban crime novel published in English in the United States and is packed with fascinating political observations on both Cuba and the US. If early twentieth-century noir captured the radio voice-over style, then Latour's end-of-century novel captures the competition of Radio Havana against 'Crossfire' programs broadcast from Miami to broken-down Russian black-and-white TV sets.
This is a cross-cultural novel that straddles Cuban and US societies, quite at home in both. Latour wrote the novel in English, evidently to establish himself as a writer in the US market as well as in Cuba. It's a risky undertaking to write and publish in a second language, but Latour largely carries it off well. If Latour writes a hokey sentence like "The upper rim of the blood-red sun was dissolving in the Gulf of Mexico as he entered the coffee shop," the same page also has a snappily evocative sentence like "The place smelled clean and green."
Latour makes no bones about his dislike for the authoritarianism, petty investigative zeal, and hypocrisy of the communist government. The opening sections of the novel provide an inside view of conditions of life amid Havana's electricity blackouts, ever-present prostitutes, and tourists-only restaurants. It is not the US embargo that creates energy shortages and blackouts, an economist among the characters argues, but a straightforward poverty that exists with or without access to the US economy. This is a world where "unknown persons behind closed doors could make, on an essentially political basis and with full impunity, irrevocable decisions on absent human beings...those who didn't approve of every single political or governmental measure were considered potential enemies." Even when the protagonist, Eliot Steil, crosses the Straits to Florida, Latour's political humor follows him. Entering a Salvation Army hostel as a refugee, Steil "was pleased to find an ideological organization that did not make observance compulsory." That desire for personal independence from any controlling system has made Steil an outsider, together with his profession as an English teacher, tuning in US stations, possible political unreliability due to a long-absent American father, alcoholic tendencies, and a promiscuous sex life. An outsider in a society controlled by insiders, Steil takes up an opportunity to re-establish himself in the United States after an American stranger turns up with an escape proposal.
If Latour is deeply critical of Cuban society under the Communist Party, neither is he especially charitable to Florida under the Republican Party. The all-consuming materialism of the US is rife with corruption, where environmental despoilation continues because it is cheaper and bent police officers protect smuggling operations. In Cuba rotted state authority is intrusive and abusive; in the United States, that same malignancy is not as immediately visible but runs deep.
Eliot Steil, who first takes up car theft and then finds a better racket in contraband freon, has a temperate reaction to America. "Most Americans knelt and prayed at the altar of money," he observes with accuracy but no particular originality. Shelter in this environment, Steil finds, comes from common experience as much as common ethnicity. And so Steil finds himself in the company of other immigrants, particularly a warmly protective Hebrew-speaking freon mafioso with a preference for eye-for-an-eye self-help. The commonalities created by immigration form a far more powerful sense of family and obligation than ordinary kinship. The American family relations who Steil discovers are the greatest danger inasmuch as they value money far more than family ties, and the story's conclusion turns on the Yankee valuation of dollars over life. Latour is a clever plot writer, and the novel contains neat, unexpected and violent twists.
Outcast is ultimately a tough-minded parable of an outsider's integration, of surviving long enough to discover redemption through love. At the novel's end, the outside is neither outside entirely nor inside entirely. Rather, Elliot Steil has achieved a new maturity that enables him to understand both possibilities.
Latour was fortunate to have been searched out by a committed independent publisher like Akashic Books. Fortunately for readers, José Latour deserves that support. Hopefully, several of his Spanish-language noir novels will eventually see translation. There is no defensible reason to maintain the nonsensical boycott against Cuba and US readers can only benefit from more contemporary Cuban literature.
Outcast is available from Akashic Books