I've spent the past couple of mornings reading Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, with fits of both pleasure and annoyance. Chandler has a distinct view of a certain type of American life, and the story is fairly absorbing. It's genre fiction, and I can't claim to see a whole lot of depth to it beyond what's there, so I must confess I'm a little baffled by all the blurbists who think of him as some kind of first-rate literary artist.
Detectives in hard-boiled fiction live in a kind of purgatory, I think: they live above the inferno of the damned and well below the paradise of the decadent wealthy, and on a moral scale they are leagues beyond either -- they, and Marlowe is fairly typical in this regard, tend to be somewhat smug observers of rottenness, which makes him a little tiresome as a narrator. Marlowe speaks in a know-it-all voice -- he wears his toughness on his sleeve and wisecracks overmuch, which is why the hard-boiled tone has always been so ripe for parody. Beneath that voice, though, you get a raw moral sense of the distance of American lives from each other -- that of Marlowe versus the writer Roger Wade, for example.
For those who haven't read the novel -- and I haven't yet finished it (although I've seen the Robert Altman film many times, so I have a hunch how it ends) -- it has a couple of plots running that eventually dovetail. One is that Marlowe meets a drunken prettyboy named Terry Lennox and helps him get out of town just after Lennox's rich slutty wife Sylvia turns up dead. Lennox -- whom Marlowe believes is innocent -- goes to Mexico, where he presumably kills himself out of guilt; case closed, as far as the cops are concerned, although not for Marlowe, who doesn't believe Lennox committed suicide and still pokes away at a case everyone wants to cover up. Marlowe then gets another job looking after a commercial writer, Roger Wade, an alcoholic who is unable to finish his latest novel, possibly because someone is blackmailing him. The Wades live right near the Lennoxes; Wade's wife is a real wacko and her doctor is Sylvia's brother-in-law, Wade had an affair with Sylvia, Wade winds up dead as well, and, well, that's about as far as I've read.
Anyway, there were an interesting couple of passages in this morning's reading that contrast Marlowe and Wade.
Marlowe talks about what a rotten town L.A. is, but that he chooses to live here, chooses not to pursue the American Dream of a house with five kids and a mortgage. That kind of life, he seems to say, is not only a dead end, but one which avoids life; for him, living means taking your chances visiting this glorious hellhole of despair -- with its adultery, whiskey (it runs freely), cigarettes, and casual deaths -- a place where he could never afford to be a permanent resident.
Roger, on the other hand, is a resident; he lives the good life by writing historical romances about a world which he knows never existed: a fanciful past that was actually far less sanitary and sensual than he claims. The real world of the esteemed past was, of course, as much of a cesspool as the world he lives in. He's a liar and a fake, and he's been one so long that he has to wash away the nightmare of what he has become with booze. He lives that L.A. dream people want, and it has exhausted him.
Marlowe's life, for all its shortcomings, isn't lived dishonestly. His ethics can be slippery, but there's a moral core to him which keeps him from falling victim to the allure of the easy way out.