Laura Lippman famously said on a panel once that in noir fiction, “dreamers become schemers.” It’s probably the best, and most simple, description of noir that I’ve ever heard; it’s broad enough to include James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (the book is different from the film) because Mildred does become a schemer, even though there is no crime in the book. That’s the part of noir that most don’t get; there doesn’t really have to be a crime in the story for it to be noir; although most noir has a crime. The first time I ever tried to write noir (which I love) was when I was asked to write a story for New Orleans Noir; that story, “Annunciation Shotgun,” is one of my favorites of my own work, and I was very pleased with my dark, nasty little story. So, you can imagine my horror when one of the other contributors told me, at a reading for the book, how much she loved my story “because it was so funny.” I hadn’t intended it to be funny, of course, but when it became my turn to read, sure enough, the audience laughed in parts. And I learned a valuable lesson: noir can be funny, too.
This is clearly a lesson the Victor Gischler learned at some point in his writing career because his second novel, The Pistol Poets, is noir but at the same time one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.
Moses Duncan was in the barn up to his elbows in the fried engine of his Harley-Davidson when he saw the girl driving too fast down the dirt road to his ranch, her Toyota pickup kicking up dust, the dogs barking. He knew who it was. The girl, one of those college kids. Sexy.
He looked at himself. Wiry arms sticking out of his sleeveless AC/DC T-shirt, greasy jeans. It was freezing in the barn, but he couldn’t work on the bike in a jacket. He hadn’t shaved or bathed in two days. Damn, he hated to look so shitty when the pretty ones came around to make a buy. He pushed back his shaggy dishwater hair, accidentally smearing grease on one side of his head.
He wiped his hands on a rag, stepped out of the barn just as she parked her truck. Moses squinted at the sky. Clouds rolling in. It was rain soon, sleet maybe if it got cold enough.
As Constant Reader is aware, plot is probably my weakest point when it comes to my own novels. I can do character, dialogue, scene, setting, place, mood–all of that. But when it comes to plot…well, I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around how to intricately construct a plot and weave the strands and characters together. Carl Hiassen is really good at this (and manages to be funny at the same time); Victor Gischler does the same thing. And The Pistol Poets manages to contain the same level of farce as Hiassen, while being truly hardboiled and noir at the same time. There are any number of characters in The Pistol Poets, and many of them are point of view characters, at least briefly; again, very hard to pull off and make work.
The book begins with a college student buying drugs from Moses Duncan; she is having an assignation later on with one of her instructors at Eastern Oklahoma University, a second (maybe even third) rate college in a bumfuck small town, a visiting professor and published poet named Jay Morgan. Jay is the erstwhile hero/anti-hero of the story; having a sort of midlife crisis as he moves around the country at bad colleges as a visiting professor, filling in for tenured professors on sabbatical, drowning in alcohol and an “i-don’t-give-a-shit” attitude. The story also involves Harold Jenks, a two-bit hoodlum in East St. Louis who becomes accidentally involved in the murder of a young college student, heading for the bus station to attend the MFA program at EOU. Harold is sick of the life and decides to take the student’s place, which just happens to be in Jay’s poetry seminar…and the story is off to the races. It’s hard to imagine, given the high amount of violence and high body count, that the book is also funny; it manages to skewer MFA writing programs, poetry, academic writing/literature conferences, department politics, drug dealing, and so, so much more. It’s highly, highly entertaining, and I highly recommend this without any qualms.
And now, back to my edits.