Friday, September 24, 2021

Not All Darlings Need Killing. By Josh Stallings

 Q: Show us your darlings. Give us five or ten lines of your own work that you think shine.

“There is nothing quite like the cold taste of gun oil on a stainless steel barrel to bring your life into focus.”

That is the opening line of my debut novel, “Beautiful, Naked & Dead.” It remains the favorite opening I’ve written. The next paragraph is;


“I was six years old the first time I honestly considered suicide, not as some cry for help, touchy huggy bullshit. No, for me death was a gift, an escape. Like those vests divers wear that fill with air from a CO2 cartridge and pull them to the surface. At night while the Monster roared through the thin walls of our bungalow, I would pull that thought up and let it comfort me like a warm blanket.” 

Moses McGuire, the dented and rusting knight errant is the narrator of the McGuire hard boiled trilogy. His power rests in the simple idea that no one can be harder on him than he is on himself. How do you threaten a man who welcomes death? He becomes vulnerable only when he starts to care for others. Starting with a bull mastiff.

Side bar ramble: Hard boiled and noir get jumbled together when they are close to opposite world views. 

Noir is bleak, it has been described as “things start bad and get worse.” It is a nihilistic view, proposing that we are all screwed. Ken Bruen is the reigning king of modern noir. His Jack Taylor books are a study of one man’s often self inflicted descent into hell. Every time you think it can’t get worse, it does. They are painful, and real. Bruen writes so tightly and without apology for the world he exposes to the reader.

Hard boiled, is chivalric and romantic in the medieval sense. Chandler’s Philip Marlow is a day drinking skirt chasing detective, he is broken but fighting to bring order to a chaotic world and live by his own code. Beat him down he just keeps getting up and stumbling forward. Chandler and James Crumley are two of my favorite hard boiled writers. Both end their stories with their main characters bruised and battered, and the world incrementally better than it would’ve been had they not been there. 

What, in name of words, does noir vs hard boiled have to do with my “darlings?” Sub genre dictates a book’s world view, and to some degree this dictates the author’s voice. Noir demands non-sentimental and unadorned prose. Brutal cleanliness.

Hard boiled asks the writer to be more poetic even when presenting a bleak view.

Pulling out onto the highway I noticed a stone pillar commemorating the Donner Party. They were a true testament to the American spirit, push forward at all costs and eat the dead when necessary. Wasn’t that the American dream in a nutshell.  - Beautiful, Naked & Dead

After the McGuire trilogy I wrote a disco heist novel. Moving away from hard boiled I aimed at a lighter tone. Almost like Westlake’s Dortmunder books if they starred teenage thieves in a sexually fluid time and place. The hat trick here was to deliver the late 1970’s without clobbering the reader or slowing the action.

“One hundred feet past the Humboldt County line was a liquor store/ gas station. She did not buy skunk weed from the kid selling it out of his wizard-painted van. She did make a phone call.” - Young Americans

Dialogue is also used to deliver time and place. 

“Time to di di mau up North and start putting heads on pikes.” Valentina from Young Americans.

In Tricky there is a line that delivers the depth of Cisco’s moral dilemma, I love it’s simplicity; -

“I must be a bad man if my mother hates me… Right?” - Tricky

The longer I write the more I am drawn to ideas and away from the poetry of their delivery. Tricky is about who we are at our core. Are we the sum of our past behavior? Can a bad man become a good man or are scorpions doomed to strike the frog and drown.

I have the next three books mapped roughly out. I know what I’ll be writing for several coming years. When they are finished I may return to hard boiled if only to dip my pen in the purple ink once more. A friend keeps saying he’s waiting for me to write a hard boiled western. I might, who knows, I sure as hell don’t.

And once again I have stumbled way off the path of the question. So I’ll leave you with a darling that I killed recently. I like the thought behind it. But, it didn’t fit the novel that is taking shape. Two girlfriends are talking, Haley has been graphically describing a woman Villalobos was having drinks with. 

Villalobos says, “The male gaze has nothing on you.”

“Oh, Babe, not even close to the same deal. I was appreciating not appraising her ass.” 


Catriona McPherson said...

See now if I had been able to use darlings to *say* something . . . Great post, Josh.

Susan C Shea said...

A lot of genuine darlings, Josh. Keepers.