Of Human Bondage
Bill Pronzini’s latest novel chronicles the adventures of Matt Cape, a salesman who abruptly quits his job, leaves his wife and heads out to find ‘freedom’ in a used Corvette. Written with ironic, hard-boiled prose, Step to the Graveyard Easyhearkens back to the soiled elegance of Chandler and Cain. Yet, with its references to computers and credit cards and safe sex and self-help, the book also presents a cultural snapshot of contemporary America.
Pronzini, with over 40 novels published, isn’t as well known as he probably deserves to be. An adherent to the bleak themes and pitfall-heavy plots that characterize the ‘pulp fiction’ genre—a literary movement that rose up during the Depression and thrived until the ‘50s—he shuns the sentimentality and contrivances that best selling’tough guy’ writers like Janet Evanovich and James Lee Burke embrace. Since he steers away from social criticism and post-modern homage—in contrast, say, to Walter Mosley and Joyce Carol Oates—he fails to win favor with academics, too.
Perhaps this is because, as Peter Bogdanovich once told Orson Welles, “America likes its artists and its entertainers to be either artists or entertainers, and they can’t accept the combination of the two.” Welles, of course, was one of the greatest storytellers of the twentieth century. He understood that any type of tale—be it a Shakespearean adaptation like Othello or a cinematic pulp piece like Touch of Evil—can be compelling as long as the characters are in some way sympathetic and the conflicts that challenge them epistemologically transcend the story’s immediate milieu. With Matt Cape, Pronzini fulfills these criteria regularly, forcing his protagonist to encounter internal and external obstacles that range from acrophobia and low self-esteem to gun-wielding drug addicts and poker table grifters. In addition, Pronzini creates a raison d’etre for Cape, a motivating objective that should strike emotional and intellectual chords in most readers. Early in the novel, Cape tells a friend:
[T]hat’s been my entire life, a tight little box, a trap with only one door that keeps inching down a little farther every day. And the unstable world situation only makes it that much tighter. I’ve got to get out now, right now, while there’s still time. Before the door comes down all the way.
As he takes his stand and abandons the security and obligations of his past, Cape transforms. Freedom, whatever it is, he believes “damn well does exist.” Because he has it, and others don’t, he assumes new duties, becoming a guardian and a protector for the defenseless, the exploited and the weak. “I used to be selfish as hell. I figure it’s time to find out how the other type lives.” Driven by this existential obligation—which grows stronger with each challenge—Cape eventually develops into a hard-boiled knight, the sort Chandler describes in the essay, “The Simple Art of Murder”:
He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be,to use a weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
Nevertheless, though it centers on the problem which Faulkner calls “the human heart in conflict with itself”, this novel is not, and never will be, a candidate for the Norton Anthology of American Literature. It is a genre piece, a story that uses ‘tough’ character types, plot devices, and language (“The bank officer was a plump middle-aged woman with a smile that she wore like cheap perfume”) that have all been in circulation and used repeatedly for almost a century. Because Pronzini uses these elements habitually, he creates a product that isn’t really new. Rather, he honors the rules of the game, the traditions of form and content that started with Poe, matured with Hammett and survived Spillane.
Yet, this novel is not a nostalgic transport to some romanticized noir past, filled with trench coats, fedoras and cigarette smoke. It’s set in the technology-choked present, where the symbols and fears of modern life—ranging from suburban sprawl to strange blood diseases—materialize. Their frequency invests the story with a freshness that overcomes the familiarity of its conventional structure and style. Moreover, the time-worn techniques of the hard-boiled school imbue these descriptions of everyday life with interest and suspense, a strategy that should inevitably force some of us to reconsider what we think we know and understand and trust and disdain and love and hate and so forth.
Writing like this—popular or otherwise—warrants the highest praise.