This Week's Show •

Boston Noir

Noir heroes tend not to be gangsters of Whitey Bulger’s grandeur; not tough cops either: they’re punched-out boxers and junkies, little perps, prisoners, victims reduced to victimizing each other and themselves.
Nick Flynn Reads "Embrace Noir"
Nick Flynn: The Day Lou Reed Died
Howie Winter, Whitey Bulger's rival inside the Winter Hill King, kissing criminal-turned-actor Alex Rocco, with Robert Mitchum in the front at left. (Photo courtesy Howie Carr/Emily Sweeney.)

Howie Winter, Whitey Bulger’s rival inside the Winter Hill King, kissing criminal-turned-actor Alex Rocco, with Robert Mitchum in the front at left. (Photo courtesy Howie Carr/Emily Sweeney.)

Boston noir is an art of darkness, under an overcast sky and fishy salt-air smell of the  waterfront. It’s now a sort of signature of our city, in novels that became movies, like The Town, The Departed, and The Fighter. You can hear a lot of it  in the broken voice of Robert Mitchum, playing the title character in the movie, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.  He’s in a breakfast joint with a rookie gun dealer, warning him that there’s a price to be paid for screwing up, as he did in a botched gun sale, earning a new set of knuckles:

They just come up to you and say, “Look. You made somebody mad. You made a big mistake and now there’s somebody doing time for it. There’s nothing personal in it, you understand, it just has to be done. Now get your hand out there.” You think about not doing it, you know. When I was a kid in Sunday school, this nun, she used to say, “Stick your hand out. ” I stick my hand out. Whap! She’d knock me across the knuckles with a steel-edge ruler. So one day I says, when she told me, “Stick your hand out” I says, “No. ” She whapped me right across the face with the ruler. Same thing. They put your hand in a drawer. Somebody kicks the drawer shut. Ever hear bones breaking? Just like a man snapping a shingle. Hurts like a bastard.

Dennis Lehane, who wrote Mystic River, says noir is working-class tragedy — different from other kinds. “In Shakespeare,” Lehane puts it, “tragic heroes fall from mountaintops; in noir, they fall from curbs.”  Noir heroes tend not to be gangsters of Whitey Bulger’s grandeur; not tough cops either: they’re punched-out boxers and junkies, little perps, prisoners, victims reduced to victimizing each other and themselves. Noir is the bottom of underground capitalism, talking to itself.  It’s bad things happening to bad guys, giving and getting the punishment they think they deserve. More noir images from camera of Leslie Jones, preserved on the Boston Public Library’s Flickr page. Use arrows to navigate, and see more here.

Podcast • May 19, 2009

Colm Toibin: the living spell of Henry James

Colm Toibin at the James family graves: “hallowed ground” of novels, diaries, sacrifice. “It’s very rare.” Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with novelist Colm Toibin. (44 minutes, 22 mb mp3) After The Master, his ...
Colm Toibin at the James family graves: “hallowed ground” of novels, diaries, sacrifice. “It’s very rare.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with novelist Colm Toibin. (44 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

After The Master, his breakthrough meditation on Henry James, there’s no detaching the Irish novelist Colm Toibin from James’ own “dramatizations of secrecy.” Toibin’s new novel Brooklyn will remind you oddly of The Portrait of a Lady, as his modest Irish heroine, Eilis Lacey, arriving in the States from County Wexford in the early 1950s, can be read as a re-casting (in a different direction) of Isabel Archer.

I suppose I was aware that I was dealing with a young woman, as Henry James said about Isabel Archer, “confronting her destiny” but doing so almost ironically in the sense that she doesn’t really confront anything and she doesn’t really have a destiny; and that I was dealing with something that is one of those great, almost hidden subjects, oddly enough, which is the subject of Irish immigration. Though we know so much about it, we end up knowing so little about it. There are very few novels about it, for example…

The James thing was interesting to me, too, in that James deals with dramatizations of secrecy and of people having things they keep to themselves and that, if known, will be explosive. So too, in this book there are two sisters and they keep things deep in themselves. And I was interested in that dramatic power of withholding, which is something I think I learned a lot about from James — in his own life and perhaps moreso in his work.

Colm Toibin in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, May 2009.

Our fresh conversation on Brooklyn is topping up a sort of seance Colm Toibin and I enjoyed five years ago at the James family burial plot — on the fringe lawn, oddly enough, of the lesser Mount Auburn immortals. For me, nothing summons the ghost of the great Jameses, all of them, more studiously and more persuasively, than the melodious Irish voice of Colm Toibin. On Henry, for example:

You begin by admiring the work. But then I found that the life is so ambiguous and so interesting. His relationship to his family is constantly in a state of flux. He himself — in London, say — longs to go out. He longs for society; he gets an enormous number of stories from duchesses and archbishops. But he also longs to be alone. He never longs for the same thing twice. The next day he wants something else. He is a very fluid and mysterious character.

He sexuality remains mysterious. What sort of erotic life he must have had, what sort of dream life, remains entirely mysterious. It’s a pre-Freudian existence as Freud is coming into vogue. It’s a pre-Wildean existence as Wilde is coming into vogue.

He exile is also strange: the way in which he never really wrote about the English very well. His English characters don’t work for me. And yet he couldn’t write about a settled Boston. The Boston of the Metaphysical Club — that is lost on him, too.

So he realized in his last years that he could actually go and describe those Americans in Europe again — the disruptive presence of Americans whose wealth or whose ambitions would fit against an older and much more duplicitous society. He knew about duplicity, just as he knew about secrecy… His life as lived — the level of industry, the level of care taken with work, the secret suffering and also the secret glamor, the going to Italy, the living in palaces — all that is what he had.

Colm Toibin in conversation with Chris Lydon, in Cambridge, 2004.