From The Best American Noir of the Century
“The thrill of noir,” writes James Ellroy in the introduction to The Best American Noir of the Century, “is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation.” It’s a doom-saturated genre peopled by – and, Ellroy implies, enjoyed by – perverts and reprobates with a yen for existential malaise and turpitude. “Noir is opportunity as fatality, social justice as sanctified shuck, and sexual love as a one-way ticket to hell. Noir indicts other subgenres of the hardboiled school as sissified, and canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction.”
In his foreword to the same volume, co-editor Otto Penzler points out that noir is often erroneously conflated with the hardboiled detective story, though unlike true noir, that subgenre has an inherent streak of morality running through it. Detective stories find at their centre a cop or investigator who may be complex and willing to bend the rules, but who ultimately operates on the side of righteousness and whose efforts result in a restoration of order and the bringing to justice of criminals. Noir, by contrast, jettisons the upright cop and focuses almost exclusively on the corrupt and culpable.
The tone is generally bleak and nihilistic, with characters whose greed, lust, jealousy, and alienation lead them into a downward spiral as their plans and schemes inevitably go awry. Whether their motivation is as overt as a bank robbery, or as subtle as the willingness to compromise integrity for personal gain, the central figures in noir stories are doomed to hopelessness. They may be motivated by the pursuit of seemingly easy money or by love – or, more commonly, physical desire – almost certainly for the wrong member of the opposite sex. The machinations of their relentless lust will cause them to lie, steal, cheat, and even kill as they become more and more entangled in a web from which they cannot possibly extricate themselves. And, while engaged in this hopeless quest, they will be double-crossed, betrayed, and, ultimately, ruined.
Where Ellroy and Penzler differ is in their respective attitudes toward humour in noir. Penzler seems to find the genre resolutely dour and bleak. “If you find … hilarity” in a noir tale, he writes, “I strongly recommend a visit to a mental health professional.” Ellroy, by contrast (and typically for the author), finds no end of glee in noir: “Doom,” Ellroy writes, “is fun.”
“Pastorale,” the first published story by James M. Cain, who would go on to become one of America’s quintessential practitioners of literary noir, is undeniably fun – and funny – in the manner of an early film by the Coen Brothers. The story, about a bumpkin who conspires to murder his mistress’s husband, prefigures later, more mature works such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But “Pastorale,” first published in 1928, finds its particular energy in its narrative voice, which cleaves to the rural rhythms frequently adopted by Southern writers such as Faulkner or Eudora Welty.
So enjoyable is the voice of the story’s narrator, in fact, that it’s easy at first to overlook how sophisticated Cain’s chosen style of narration is. The central figure in the short tale is Burbie, a rural ex-con who takes up with the wife of a much older man. Inspired by her, he enlists the help of a local roughneck named Hutch to murder the man. But the story is not told from Burbie’s point of view. Instead, it is related at one remove by an anonymous first-person narrator in the folksy, down-home style of a garrulous barstool storyteller. This allows for an ironic distance in the narration, which provides the story with much of its sardonic humour. “Well, it looks like Burbie is going to get hung,” we are informed at the outset. “And if he does; what he can lay it on is, he always figured he was so damn smart.” That Burbie is not “so damn smart” is fairly obvious from the get-go; in case it weren’t, the narrator provides his own assessment of Burbie’s intellect: “But when you come right down to what Burbie had in his head, why, it wasn’t much.”
This evaluation is borne out in the details of Burbie’s plan. He coerces Hutch to aid in the murder by telling him the old man has a stash of money hidden in his home. But Burbie only has $23 to his name, which he changes into coins, “pennies and nickels and dimes so it would look like a big pile.” Of course Hutch doesn’t buy it and as revenge forces Burbie to dig a grave for the corpse in the frozen ground. He then induces Burbie to decapitate the dead man and take his head along with them as a souvenir. This leads to the most Coenesque moment in the story, when Burbie attempts to dispose of the severed head by tossing it into the river, not taking into account the fact that the body of water has frozen over.
All of this, per Ellroy, is great fun, notwithstanding the macabre nature of the material. “Pastorale” – the title refers to a musical play with a rural theme – cleaves to the defining elements of noir in its focus on the morally bankrupt actions of a man driven by lust and forced into increasingly desperate straits by his own machinations. Despite its jaunty tone and pervading streak of dark humour, it is also entirely doom-laden: readers are informed in the opening line that Burbie has been jailed and consigned to death row. The final irony in the story is what got him there: his own pride and attempt at self-aggrandizement that lead him to confess his involvement in the killing to a group of men in a pool hall. With its final iteration, “Pastorale” offers a story within a story, and turns into a metafictional commentary on the practice of storytelling itself.
The layers of irony Cain employs are ambitious and his use of the rural argot as a narrative tactic lends his story colour and verve. Less well known than the novels that followed it, “Pastorale” is nonetheless of interest as an early example of rural noir and a validation of Ellroy’s counterintuitive, yet seemingly inarguable notion that “doom is fun.”