Nowhere to go, no place to be.
On the seventh episode of the superb BOARDWALK EMPIRE on HBO, a soldier turned gangster, whose Princeton education was interrupted by WW I service, goes to a VA hospital for his wounded leg. He meets a guy with half his face shot off, who had served as a sharpshooter. Leg is reading so face offers him a book his family sent. It is a Tom Swift novel.
“Don’t you want it?” leg asks.
Face says, “Can’t read fiction anymore.”
“It occurred to me, the basis of fiction is that people have a connection. They don’t.”
It is a strikingly cold existentialist statement. It puts one in mind of Hemingway. Not that Hemingway ever showed such naked cynicism, but it was there, just under his ironic tone.
Turns out face lost his eye and half his face just after shooting and killing a German soldier, whose own bullet got lucky and hit the sharpshooter’s rifle. Further, face can still shoot, as a later “return of favor” scene shows.
BOARDWALK EMPIRE is based on a chapter from a history of Atlantic City, New Jersey. It focuses on the Prohibition days when the Volstead Act allowed gangs to flourish. Hard, cynical, and greedy men made war for as much as each could grab from the others. As usual, the people suffered while being told how blessed, patriotic, and exceptional they are. They swallow it every time.
A generation later, the deep cynicism of returning WW II vets would move post WW I’s hard-boiled fiction into noir cinema, where lost men in a totally corrupt world tried to stick to a personal code of honor for no good reason they could articulate. It was a kind of formula for producing tough prose: Go to war, be shattered, see through the bullshit, and come back to write as bluntly as possible. No more decadent excess to keep minds off reality. Those guys wrote to kill or be killed.
This is why the fiction of the Lost Generation and that of the Forties Film Flatfoots resonate today. We are like them. In both cases the veil of lies was torn and we got a glimpse of how bad things are when scum prevail, as they do so very often, being prone to cheating and theft, thuggery and murder. They operate in a landscape where politics is gangsterism and the rest is up for grabs. See that clearly and the toys get put away so the tools of economic and cultural war can be handled more effectively.
Plain writing for clear communication stems from writers who have seen where pretty distractions and cringing escapism allow the scum to go -- straight into power -- and take us -- straight to hell. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Sleep with one eye open. We know the watchwords. Why lull ourselves with nonsense when reality is so hostile?
It has always been this way. Go back further and you’ll find Twain and Bierce favoring direct writing over flowery crap. Twain was a deserter from and Bierce a veteran of the Civil War, which created cynics as fast as it created widows and orphans. Go back further still and you’ll find more wars. There is always a war of one kind or another, thanks to the sociopaths always harrying us. We each have a war that shapes us.
My war was cultural and economic, in the 1970s, in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania. Back then it was called coal country. Mountain hick gnomes with immigrant names and often accents, too, who dug the deep seams for steel in Pittsburgh, were scraping out a living in the most depressed region of the country. Then big steel moved overseas and the railroads were no longer needed. Everything dried up. Bruce Springsteen’s album THE RIVER summed it up so the nation could move on in good conscience, having shed a crocodile tear for us.
We who were stuck there were left strangely uncomforted.
An economic war against the people, waged by corporations with no national or human allegiance, devastated our lives. It destroyed my father and so many others. We learned then economics was a war, with weapons, killings, and deaths. Consequences of greed, short-term profit frenzy, and zero-sum cutthroat business-as-usual haunted our every moment. Poverty dogged us.
My scars run deep.
My writing tends to be terse.
Now that I and my family have once again voted the connection between war and how one writes makes sense to me. I write this as I watch the latest economic and cultural war again devastate the people for the benefit and amusement of the corporate rich and I only hope to stick to my code of honor, craft, and art. The connection now makes clear for me where my abiding anger comes from, as it builds toward fury at what the scum have done to us, and how I must use that tempered steel. I will write.
Write to kill or be killed.
Nothing less counts.
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