Monthly Archives: December 2017

After Claude by Iris Owens

Ever since I read Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding back in the autumn of 2014, I’ve been searching for something similar, another hidden gem of a book with a spiky (anti-)heroine in the central role. While Iris Owens’ striking novel After Claude – first published in 1973 – doesn’t quite reach the same heights as Cassandra, for the majority of its 200 pages it comes pretty close. The story centres on a trainwreck of a woman, so outrageously forthright in her interactions with those around her that there are times when she makes Cassandra seem like a relatively normal, well-adjusted human being.

The character in question is Harriet, a fiercely intelligent lady with a razor-sharp line in cutting one-liners. The trouble is, she also displays a terrible lack of self-awareness and understanding of her impact on others. In her own mind, Harriet is a smart, considerate, lively companion; but in reality, the situation couldn’t be more different. She is lazy, rude, bitchy and relentlessly argumentative, always believing herself to be in the right whatever the circumstances or topic under discussion.

When we first meet Harriet, she is in the throes of reflecting on her very recent break-up with Claude, ‘the French rat,’ the man she has been living with for the past six months. The story is told through a series of flashbacks covering various timepoints in Harriet’s recent life – more specifically, the days leading up to her split with Claude, one or two interactions with her best friend, Maxine, and a disastrous evening spent with Claude and his friend, a French playboy names Charles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the acrimonious nature of their break-up, Harriet paints a rather scathing picture of Claude. As far as she sees it, Claude – an assistant director of a French television news crew based in the US – is the somewhat uncommunicative, artistic type, often conveying his responses via facial expressions instead of words, especially where women are concerned.

He could talk for hours, days, but only on carefully selected topics, such as every disappointing course of his most recent meal. But discourse? Converse? Exchange ideas? Never, and certainly not with that brain-damaged segment of the population called women. (p.10)

The problem is, Harriet’s innate tendency to respond to virtually every comment with a counter-argument or snide remark has succeeded in alienating Claude to the point of no return. (The novel opens with an extended quarrel between Harriet and Claude on the artistic merits or not of a movie they’ve just seen, ‘a sort of Communist version of Christ’s life,’ as Harriet puts it. Naturally, she hated the film, and she outlines her objections with great gusto. The whole exchange is both painfully funny and sharply acerbic, a combination that sets the tone for the book itself.) Here’s a brief excerpt from one of their exchanges shortly before the split – Harriet is the first to speak.

“Are you hungry?” The creep still didn’t answer. The fact is that Claude, not having been raised by kidnappers, was habituated to regular meals, not scavenging.

“I’m not hungry.” It walked! It talked! It went to the kitchen and got itself a can of beer.

“I can’t find the opener,” he complained in that same hurt voice I’d been tolerating for two full weeks.

“Why don’t you telephone Paul Newman? I read he always wears a can opener around his neck, like a cross. Maybe he’ll lend you his.” (p. 19)

Shortly afterwards, Claude hits Harriet with the sucker punch. He wants her out of his flat by the following Monday, belongings and all; she has simply become far too difficult to live with.

“Me a bore?” I laughed, amazed that the rat would resort to such a bizarre accusation. I have since learned never to be amazed at what men will resort to when cornered by a woman’s intelligence.

“When you get an idea in your head, when you have an opinion, which is always, you’ve got to make a speech about it, not once, but ten times. If anyone manages to break in, you bury them; you grind them into little pieces with your big mouth. I’ve had it, Harriet. I want you out.” (p. 22)

The weekend ultimately ends with Harriet being driven to the Chelsea Hotel by Charles and Claude, but not before she has had an opportunity to change the locks on Claude’s apartment and been tackled by the police for trespassing on her (former) boyfriend’s property. Quite an eventful few days all in all.

Interspersed with the recollections of the dying days with Claude are passages on the only other significant relationships in Harriet’s life – those with her friends (or in the first case, ex-friend) Rhoda-Regina and Maxine. Here’s Harriet on Rhoda-Regina, her former friend from school, the girl she went travelling with some five years ago.

Rhoda-Regina had been my oldest and best friend. I’d known her almost as long as I’d known myself. We’d gone through school together, except that she, being insecure as a female, had gone on to collecting degrees. We’d sailed to Europe together, me to stay for five crucial years, during which I’d grown out of my Brooklyn chrysalis into a creature of indeterminate origins, while Rhoda-Regina had barely lasted through the summer, rushing back to her beloved highway-robber analyst like Dracula making dawn tracks to his coffin. (pp. 67-68)

Back in the story’s present day, Harriet has now succeeded in destroying any relationship she ever had with Rhoda-Regina as a result of her unreasonable behaviour as a tenant. After returning from Europe following a crisis some months earlier, Harriet turned to her old pal R-R, who agreed to take her in for a little while. Unfortunately, after another outrageous and terribly misjudged incident (this one designed to encourage the perennially uptight and stingy R-R to chill out a little), Harriet found herself out on the streets. It was at this point that she met Claude for the first time as his apartment just happened to be in the same block as Rhoda-Regina’s. So, for the last six months, Harriet has been running the gauntlet on entering and exiting the premises, desperately trying to avoid any unpleasant confrontations with R-R, her bête noire on the ground floor.

Harriet also bitches about her current best friend (quite possibly her only friend), the wealthy and pampered Maxine – both behind her back and directly to her face. Here’s a typical example – Maxine is the first to speak.

 “You’re lucky to have such a wonderful skin,” she crooned, but since she didn’t look up from her gold compact, I couldn’t tell which of us was supposed to be so lucky. She glanced up. “Not a wrinkle or a blemish. What do you use?”

“Sperm,” I said, damned if I’d let her drag me into one of her beauty commercials that begin with compliments and finish with her imploring me to consider plastic surgery. (p. 46)

And here’s one of Harriet’s personal observations on Maxine, so typical of Iris Owens’ ability to pepper her writing with pointed one-liners.

There was a sufficiency of rhinestones in her thong platforms to refinance the purchase of Manhattan. (p. 45)

In essence, After Claude is a character study, a portrait of a complex woman who says what she thinks without filtering anything or sparing anyone else’s feelings. She is uber-demanding, sarcastic and combative – and yet, underneath it all, there is a vulnerable, insecure woman, someone who is terrified of being on her own, especially if it means having to survive without a man. (There are several points in the novel when Harriet tries desperately to cling on to Claude, even though she knows in her heart of hearts that their relationship is over.)

As the story proceeded to unfold, I found myself growing increasingly fond of Harriet in spite of her many flaws and annoying habits. Yes, she is a car crash on legs, but she’s also very sharp and witty with it. During the novel, she turns her irreverent gaze on a number of stereotypes – the fussy and pretentious playboy, the self-satisfied domestic goddess, the bimbo air stewardess (who really does come across as a name-dropping airhead) – all to very good effect. While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the final section of the book, in which Harriet gets involved with the members of a drugged-up hippie sex cult (very 1960s/early ‘70s), I loved the rest of it.

To finish, I’ll leave the last word to Harriet. Here she is responding to a taxi driver’s comments on her resemblance to Anne Bancroft (I guess he must have had the character of Mrs. Robinson in mind here).

“I bet a lot of people have told you, you look like Anne Bancroft,” he said, gazing into his crystal ball.

“Why? Has she been complaining to you lately?” (p. 91)

After Claude was published by NYRB Classics; personal copy

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Last year Dorothy B. Hughes made my end-of-year highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. There’s a good chance she’ll make the list again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse was published in 1946, the year before Lonely Place. It’s a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there. I think it’s my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I’ve read this year.

The novel focuses on Sailor, a former street kid turned city slicker who has travelled to a ‘hick town’ near the US border with Mexico in search of the main man, a corrupt state Senator referred to here as ‘the Sen’. While the Sen believes he has finished with Sailor, our protagonist definitely hasn’t finished with Sen. According to Sailor, the Sen owes him a sizeable bundle of money, the remaining payment for a murder that didn’t quite go to plan – and if the Sen refuses to pay up, Sailor thinks he has enough knowledge of what really happened to pin the rap on the Sen. When he gets what’s due to him, Sailor plans to cross the border into Mexico. Once there, he can set up a little business peddling liquor or suchlike, maybe even find a beautiful girl, a silvery blonde with clear, shimmering eyes. All he has to do is to find the Sen and shake him down.

The trouble is, it’s Labor Day weekend, and the town is packed full of people, all there to celebrate the Fiesta. When he arrives on the bus from Chicago, dirty, sweaty and in need of a wash, Sailor is frustrated to discover that all the local hotels are full (even the crummiest ones), leaving him no other option but to bunk down on the ground for the night. Nevertheless, he soon discovers that the Sen is holed up in the smartest hotel in town, the swanky La Fonda complete with its plush bar and fancy restaurant. And so the quest begins, as Sailor confronts the Sen and pushes for his payoff. At first, the Sen is elusive, playing for time while he considers his options. But Sailor is determined; he knows what’s due to him, and he’s out to get it.

He wasn’t going to give up that kind of money. He needed it; it belonged to him; he was going to have it. What was owed and what he deserved above it. Five thousand dollars. The most he’d ever had at one time. Peanuts. He should have asked ten. The dough wouldn’t do the Sen any good where he was going. (p. 172)

To complicate matters further for Sailor, there’s another significant player in the mix – McIntyre (aka ‘Mac’), a Chicago-based cop and long-time acquaintance of Sailor’s, who also happens to be in town, allegedly for the Fiesta. Mac is the wise, down-to-earth type, someone who watches and waits and plays his cards fairly close to his chest. At first, Sailor thinks Mac is trailing the Sen; but as the weekend unfolds, it becomes clear that Mac is keeping tabs on Sailor too, a dynamic that adds another layer of tension to the situation, certainly as far as Sailor is concerned.

If only he could only bust open McIntyre’s head, see what was inside it. If he could only lay out those little squares, like lottery tickets, each one labeled with a name and a thought and a plan. Was his name on the winning ticket, the losing ticket; or was it the Sen’s? He couldn’t ask McIntyre; he could only sit tight and wait. And make talk. (p. 128)

Hughes makes good use of the animated backdrop of the Fiesta, complete with its mix of Spanish, Indian and gringo revellers, thereby conveying the frenetic atmosphere in the local bars and streets. (As one might expect, the novel’s language and racial descriptors reflect the prevailing attitudes of the day.) There are times when Sailor feels caught in a labyrinth, an encircling trap from which there appears to be no escape – a feeling that is reflected in the rather circular nature of the chase as Sailor tries to get what he desires from the Sen.

The streets were whirling louder, faster; on the bandstand a fat black-haired singer blasted the microphones and the crowds screamed ‘Hola! Hola!’ as if it were good. A running child with remnants of pink ice cream glued on his dirty face bumped into Sailor’s legs, wiped his sticky hands there. Sailor snarled, ‘Get out of my way,’ a balloon popped behind him and the kid who held the denuded stick squalled.

He had to get out of this. (pp. 116-117)

On the face of it, the Fiesta appears to be gay and jolly, a time for release and celebration; but below the surface glamour lurks a much darker undercurrent, a terrible note of death and destruction, a hangover from the days of previous crimes against humanity.

Fiesta. The time of celebration, of release from gloom, from the specter of evil. But under celebration was evil; the feast was rooted in blood, in the Spanish conquering of the Indian. It was a memory of death and destruction. (p. 24)

As the story unfolds, we learn more about Sailor and his troubled childhood – in particular, his abusive, alcoholic father, downtrodden mother and the impact of poverty on his formative years. There are echoes of the past here, sights that trigger memories of desperate times and circumstances, things that Sailor would much rather forget.

He knew then what was familiar in her; she was the hopeless face and sagging shoulders and defeated flesh of all poor women everywhere. He wanted to bolt. Even in this small way he did not want to be pushed back into the pit of the past. The pit he believed he had escaped forever. (p. 187)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hughes also excels at capturing the inherent sense of loneliness and alienation that Sailor is experiencing. It’s a quality that also underscores her portrait of Dix Steele, the lone wolf protagonist in her brilliant novel, In a Lonely Place.

What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. (p. 57)

The Sen, on the other hand, emerges as a sly, shadowy figure, a somewhat elusive presence. He is the one who first spotted young Sailor’s talents at the pool hall all those years ago and subsequently groomed him for a key role in his organisation.

As the weekend plays out, it becomes increasingly clear how hard it will be for Sailor to carve out a new life for himself given the nature of what he’s attempting to pull off. There are various points in the story when he could choose to do the right thing, to set himself on a better track for the future – to find out if he decides to take any of these opportunities, you’ll have to read the book. Mac, an honest and decent man at heart, is keen to help Sailor – if only Sailor would agree to talk to him about what really happened on the night of the murder. (In another life, Mac knows that he could have ended up like Sailor, and vice versa, the two men having grown up not far from one another in the same rugged neighbourhood.) Another possibility for redemption comes in the form of old Pancho, the kindly man in charge of the battered fairground carousel, who takes Sailor under his wing, offering him tequila and a blanket for the night while also trying to set him on a straighter path.

Ride the Pink Horse is an excellent noir, one that highlights the existential nature of our existence, how our lives and destinies are largely shaped by our own choices and actions. The title refers to the coloured wooden horses on Pancho’s shabby merry-go-round. It could also be viewed as a metaphor for life itself, e.g. the ups and downs that we all experience as we make our way from the cradle to the grave or a few minutes of enjoyment in which we can forget all our troubles. Either way, it’s an apt title. There’s a film too, directed by and starring Robert Montgomery. I’m hoping to track it down fairly soon.

Ride the Pink Horse was published by Canongate Crime; personal copy.