Obscure Lives, Quiet Deaths, and Noir’s Forgotten Men of Tepid Conscience
by Jonathan Ashley
No law, Gerald would say, could ever erase the
practice of taking. According to Gerald, the basic
and primary moves in life amounted to nothing more
than this business of taking, to take it and get away
with it…. Among the gorillas, the clever thief became
the king of the tribe. Among men, Gerald would say,
the princes and kings and tycoons were the successful
thieves, either big strong thieves or suave soft-spoken
thieves who moved in from the rear. All thieves…
I had better play God safe, just like everybody else.
I lifted my eyes above the people… “Thanks God,”
I whispered, “for nothing.”
It’s an ending drenched in pathos and an irony that would’ve impressed O’ Henry and it bespeaks something cruel and cold about the world in which the con man operates, an America in which the only safe passage to success includes chicanery and where a man can’t think of anything to be grateful for even when he breathes free air after breaking every law in Florida.
While these authors seem to ask us to go easy on their flawed protagonists who, after all, are only following the ideals of their society, Willeford and Goodis also point out the ultimate banality of American values. At some point in the stories, both Harbin and Springer essentially forsake true love, or at least the possibility, in exchange for a chance at fortune. And, while both characters realize their mistake and both attempt to rectify, it is too late. One dies. One watches the woman he hoped to betroth walking into the sunset with another man. And both, like the ideals and the moral character and the collective conscience of this allegedly great nation, are lost, perhaps forever.
He lives in Lexington, KY.