Monday, August 25, 2014

P.I. Philip Marlowe, My Hero, in THE LONG GOODBYE

Mike Welch continues his ruminations on Raymond Chandler’s Immortal Private-Eye.

My cousin Jamie has a complicated attitude about God: “I don’t know if he exists,” he says, “but if he does, he’s got some explaining to do.”

I think Philip Marlowe has a similar attitude. He finds himself wanting to hold on to something of real value in a universe where everything is worthless. He is at once an existentialist who would, like Ahab, strike through the mask, and a romantic who would bring back chivalry. In fact, that gesture, that thrust through that mask, is at once a kind of defiance—a cry in the wilderness against a creator who makes chivalry impossible—then a chivalric gesture. I think Marlowe would like to imagine there is some kind of malevolent, or at least indifferent creator hiding behind that mask, and that, with a bit of luck, he might poke him or her in the eye.

Marlowe is a hero, or at least an anti-hero, and as such he defends the values of community, is a bulwark against the raging chaos lying in wait outside the city walls; or in his case, within the city limits of a malignant L.A., a tropical paradise where the golden fruit on the trees is poisoned. He is to be admired.

But can you both admire, and have sympathy for a hero? Can you feel his loneliness, his isolation, at the same time you marvel at his ability to risk everything for values you only pay lip service to? Why not? Most heroes I can think of are lonely. Even if they have a chance at Love and Friendship, it is ultimately thwarted: King Arthur betrayed by Lancelot and Guinevere, Jesus by Judas and Peter, Aeneas by the Roman destiny that awaits him as he sails away from Carthage, even as Dido’s funeral pyre illuminates the wine dark sea.

Great heroes are lonely figures. If they bring civilization to us, if they bring law and order, peace and prosperity, they suffer for it. And part of that suffering is their solitude. Of course, the trio above got something for their efforts: Arthur brings civilization to the savage Britons, Aeneas turns Troy’s tragedy into Rome’s triumph, and Jesus, well, all he does is save mankind from eternal damnation.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Marlowe gets nothing. He invests something in his friend Terry Lennox, or at least he invests in the idea of friendship, only to be disappointed. And he finds deceit and murder underneath the glamorous surface of the Wades, a couple he befriends in spite of himself. And finally, a beautiful and rich woman, Linda Lorring, the sister of Sylvia Lennox, the one whose murder kicks off this carnival ride of homicide and deceit (not necessarily in that order), offers herself to him, offers him a way out of the solitary drunken asceticism (if there be such a thing) he has held to since The Big Sleep—holds to still at age 42—as he turns her down.

Is there some kind of personality flaw in Marlowe? Can’t he be a hero and a happy family man, or at least the kind of guy who will have more than a gravedigger witness his burial? Or maybe only someone like Marlowe himself would turn up at that graveside, someone who didn’t really know how to be a friend, but wanted to make a friendly gesture, to affirm the idea of friendship, to say in some symbolic way that someone like Marlowe, someone who stood for something, should be acknowledged.

Chandler lets us know precious little about Marlowe. We know he once played football, he knows fighters and fighting, he plays solitary games of chess against the great masters. He is cultured, but not in a hurry to let everyone know it—in The Long Goodbye, he mentions Kafka and Dante, Toscanini and Hindemith, but only in asides to the reader, or in response to people who would try to get an intellectual leg up on him.

Solitary drinker, chess player, thinker, mensch. And yet, he calls himself a native son, both parents dead, recipient of an high school football injury. Just a regular guy, but you wonder what turned him sour and angry. What great ache or rage drives him?

Lost love? The loss of his parents? Was he a veteran like Terry Lennox, carrying psychological wounds that will never heal? At one point, Marlowe does say, when referring to the corrupted and corruptible world he finds himself in: “We have that kind of world. Two wars gave it to us, and we are going to keep it.” But it’s better that Chandler not make the hurt explicit, so we can project our own great hurts onto Marlowe. And maybe it isn’t something specific anyway, but just that Marlowe sees this ugly world too clearly.

It’s not the plot of The Long Goodbye I find most compelling. You know all along that pretty surfaces will be penetrated only to find ugly depths, and they are. Everyone ends up somehow culpable, except perhaps the writer Wade, who is duped into thinking he may have killed Lennox’s wife, Sylvia. Of Wade, Marlowe says to his wife Eileen, “Your husband is a guy who can take a good hard look at himself and see what is there. It’s not a very common gift.” Perhaps a kindred spirit, this Wade, and so he comes a cropper.

And Terry Lennox, whom Marlowe helps to escape to Mexico, whom Marlowe later thinks is dead and may have been framed for the murder of Lennox, shows up at the end of the novel, having not been killed or committed suicide, instead having escaped into a new life, selfishly. Lennox could have helped bring the real killer to justice, but did nothing. Marlowe says to him: “You had standards and you lived up to them, but they were personal. They had no relation to any kind of scruples or ethics. You’re a moral defeatist. I think maybe the War did it and then again maybe you were born that way.” And so, Lennox has not lived up to Marlowe’s standards, does not have a Code to live by, in spite of the absurdity of having a code in an absurd universe.

Perhaps the closest thing Marlowe has to a friend is Bernie Ohls, the cop who is always threatening to throw him in jail for good, “… a tough hard cop with a grim outlook, but a very decent guy underneath.” Maybe he is the guy who will show at the graveside, which even Marlowe knows will be sparsely attended: “I’m a guy, who if he gets knocked off in an alley somewhere, nobody will feel the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.” In spite of his anger at Marlowe for taking the law into his own hands, Ohls saves Marlowe from being killed (in both The Big Sleep and The long Goodbye. As people on both sides of the law seek to take Marlowe down, Ohls respects his nemesis-gumshoe for living by his Code, consequences be damned.

At novel’s end, Linda Lorring, sister to the murdered Sylvia, has an assignation with Marlowe. Of course, there is a lot of yakking about what they are doing there, and what they want, and Marlowe has to get her good and pissed off before he beds her—this is the Marlowe M.O. with his women—but the bottom line is he respects her. Maybe she is one rich broad who is not all shiny on the surface and all tarnish underneath. He says: “You’re spoiled a little—not too much—by money.” It’s about the nicest thing Marlowe ever says to a woman, but he goes on about his independence, about the illusion of love, and finally, “I pulled her close and she cried against my shoulder. She wasn’t in love with me and we both knew it. She wasn’t crying over me. It was just time for her to shed a few tears.” And so Marlowe turns down her millions and keeps his integrity, and stays alone at an age on the precipice of permanent bachelorhood.

Some critics see misogyny in Marlowe’s (and perhaps Chandler, if there is no ironic distance between author and narrator) treatment of women, and perhaps they are right. More to the point, however, it is sound authorial plotting and believable characterization. Marlowe’s mistrust of women allows Chandler to keep his hero solitary. Heroes have to be single-minded and separate from the community they protect, never to completely belong. As Marlowe says when he contemplates living the quiet suburban family life: “You take it friend, I’ll take the sordid, crooked city.” And I’m glad he does.

Mike Welch

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