[This 2018 poetic fiction is in four parts, and I decided to read two at a time. I wrote about the first two before reading on.]
15 March 2020
The title is a cinema reference, and this book is full of the noir movies of the 1940s and 50s. It’s also full of the gritty black-and-white American news photographs of the era, found text from shop-fronts and posters like you might find in a cubist painting, vivid memories of life in a cold fishing community in Nova Scotia, and unwelcome flashbacks of appalling incidents in a war that just won’t end. ‘An inter-genre tour de force,’ another poet calls it in one of the many long quotes that fill the pages before the title, and you know what he means. Short, poem-length sections take us through something like five years of the protagonist’s life. Thoughts, conversations, photo-realist descriptions of the vivid, slashing light and shade of a Los Angeles July build it up for us, an America that isn’t interested in anything or anybody except the bottom line. For everybody else it’s Skid Row.
I’m trying to decide why a poet from northern Scotland might want to evoke this world so vividly, or why he would focus on the consciousness of an outsider. To the New Yorkers in the first, short section and the Angelinos in the second, he’s recognisably Canadian… which make him only a little bit of an outsider. Maybe Robertson is writing about what he knows. He’s a white man, he speaks the same language as the people around him—Robertson lives in London—but his take on things isn’t identical to theirs. The (relatively) wild Celtic Fringe he knows is, as far as any of us readers know, just like the one his protagonist remembers. And, of all the people in LA at that time, his wanderer—the only name he goes by is Walker—is the one who not only sees America for what it is, but is also in a position to do something about it.
What he can do is write. Another set of texts that get interleaved with all the others are snippets of Walker’s own diary entries, often poetic in themselves, dated and presented in a different font from the rest. But this is his private voice. His public voice is, at first, that of a rookie reporter on a left-leaning paper whose editor wants to give a returning soldier a chance. But after two years of living close to the denizens of Skid Row—he rents a single room a few blocks up the hill—he’s written enough, in his own time, for the editor to commission him to write a full-blown feature. And he’s sending him to San Francisco to do it, because (I guess) things have got really bad there. That’s where the third section is to be set.
I called Walker a wanderer. Is it his job not to be an Everyman, or not only that, but to be the observer who comments on universal experiences? Robertson, writing in 2018, has chosen to write about a time when, following a period of hope, the most pressing issue in society is inequality. In America, as in Britain in the second decade of the 21st Century, the gap between those at the top of the wealth scale and those at the bottom has become wider than in living memory. And I don’t need to know Robertson’s politics to know that he’s concerned about this as he presents a microcosm of exactly this. Los Angeles is being torn down, is having the heart ripped out of it—I’m paraphrasing what those at the bottom of the heap are telling Walker—and it’s all for the sake of those who already have plenty. Then, as now, it’s all about money.
Meanwhile, despite the links I’m noticing with the present, Robertson’s presentation of an America that existed 70 years ago is very precise. A map of the places described, grainy black-and-white photographs, references to how particular locations are used in named movies—some of which Walker sees being filmed—these all evoke a very particular time and place. There’s Robert Siodmak getting a shot just right, there’s Robert Mitchum—or is it someone else?—having to do another take before the director is satisfied. Robertson knows, and seems to love, those old movies. But when he has a group of men argue over the which is definitely the best death scene—Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death, they decide—I don’t think he’s only making a comment about how, following a war and with another one starting up in Korea, these men are hopelessly desensitised. We know from Walker’s nightmares that they aren’t…. So what else is going on? Is it another dig at our own times, when extraordinary scenes of violence in movies has, over maybe 30 years, become perfectly acceptable? I’m from the same generation as Robertson, and I can still remember when it wasn’t like that.
But is this book any good? Well, I think so. It’s hugely readable, not at all like an anthology of poems even if that’s what they are. Walker, his memories a disorientating mix of harsh marginal childhood and horrendous wartime sights that can never be un-seen, is bound to be sympathetic. His fellow-feeling for the underbelly of Los Angeles, and especially the ever more vulnerable Billy, makes us want him to do OK. We hope he’ll be able to sustain a relationship with another woman soon—the girl he left behind, whether before the war or after, is hardly even a memory now—but the hookers and would-be starlets he meets don’t offer anything he needs.
And I love the kaleidoscopic presentation of urban life. The three or four short bursts of conversation, description, diary, or whatever on each page make the passing months and years of this man’s life seem no more substantial than a flicked-through copy of Life magazine, and I’m guessing that’s the point. How on earth is Walker to get a handle on anything if it’s off and away within seconds of his noticing it? Buy a cat? (He does, and it doesn’t work.) By the end of the second section, it’s been five years since his first view of a smoky, impressionistically-rendered New York. And what has he got? The chance to do something, maybe, with the social conscience he seems to be carrying for a society that doesn’t give a damn? I’m not getting my hopes up.
1951, 1953—to the end
Ah. The long take isn’t, or isn’t only, the one that had been lovingly described near the end of the second section. Walker had taken a girl—I think she’s only sixteen—to see one of his beloved noir movies. At the end of a description of the shot that takes up half a page, her response is that ‘she preferred musicals, actually.’ But before that, this: ‘He thought about it all night. That long take / inside the getaway car: one shot that lasted three minutes easy / and was just like real life, right there. / It made sense of some things…’ and we get how one character wanted one thing another something different, ‘the guy can’t kill, and the woman wants to.’ Why didn’t I describe it before? It doesn’t matter now, and besides, Walker is able to discuss this very shot with the director when he’s next on location in town, near the start of the book’s long final section.
By now, our man’s take on reality is starting to become a little shaky. Or, rather, his obsession with the way movies are put together—he’s very happy to see them three times or more—seems to have come about because the rest of his life, like LA itself, is losing its moorings. In the year or so while he’d been researching and writing in San Francisco, which takes up the short third section 1951, the process of demolition in LA has begun to gather pace. Long before the end of the book, it’s become unstoppable, and the people forced to make their lives at street level are constantly having to move on. They are the victims of corrupt politicians working with the Mob, who only ever take and give nothing back. Robertson doesn’t use this meaning of the word explicitly, but it’s there…
…and another implied long take is turning out to be Walker’s own life since D-Day. We had glimpses of some of the terrible things he’d witnessed in France in the first two sections but, as life in LA becomes more and more unbearable for him and the people he’s befriended, there’s the memory of yet another atrocity on what feels like every page. For me, these had become too much long before we learn of the particular atrocity he confesses to at the end. I can remember when graphic descriptions of grisly deaths started to appear in literary fiction, and began to think of these as a new trope. There’s hardly a death you can imagine, or remember from all those novels, that poor Walker didn’t witness from the landing on Utah Beach onwards. Robertson doesn’t draw a veil over them—quite the opposite—but that’s what I’m going to do.
Should I rewind? I haven’t really mentioned the San Francisco section which, in some ways, becomes a kind of dream interlude. Nothing marvellous happens, but the view from his apartment high above the bay—it’s a tiny room, but the view makes up for it—makes it an ever-changing landscape of fogs and marine light. For the first time since he left Nova Scotia, he writes two postcards to the woman he left behind—a woman he didn’t allow to see the man he talks about himself as having become after the war—and, from time to time, there are the sweetest of memories in amongst the rest. He meets a German Jewish academic at Berkeley, and they discuss the way America is drifting into fascism. Senator Joe McCarthy and his House Unamerican Activities Committee have been a presence since the second section, and the academic is disgusted. In 2018, the parallels don’t need to be spelled out.
And then, once he’s back in LA, things begin to fall apart. How many different elements are on a downward trajectory? There’s poor Billy, only just managing to get by—until he’s evicted along with everyone else on his block, the latest to go under the wrecking-ball. Walker describes more than once the way the machinery of demolition tears open the fronts of buildings—it’s never men doing it, somehow, as though that would bring a human dimension to the scene—and they might be juxtaposed with the way terrible wounds expose parts of a body’s insides that should never be on view. The early 20th Century layout of the city, with its parks and walkways, is ripped apart, thoroughfares turned into dead-ends as the freeway system punches through the old map. Billy, left homeless and in debt, is murdered before Walker can make the confession that has become a desperate imperative for him….
He does make the confession, to another man near the end of the book, but there are other downward trajectories on the way. Walker gradually alienates the two reporters who have been his buddies since his arrival at the newspaper. They don’t get why he’s so difficult to get to know, have no idea of the terrible living nightmare that his life is turning into, and the terrible secret he thinks (wrongly) will leave him free if he can only confess it. Meanwhile, there’s an ambitious young reporter, restless and careless of anything but his own success. He becomes a terrible thorn in Walker’s side—he’s called Pike, much more deadly than a thorn—because the editor seems to be taken in by the young man’s enthusiasm and drive. Worse than that, he comes to represent everything bad about the mainstream media, white, complacent, and with a sense of its own destiny. ‘Kike,’ Walker hears Pike say, his only comment on the director of that scene after Walker has been talking to him in a bar. And, when Billy is set on fire for non-payment of his debts, Walker sees him nearby, and hears his comment. He loves the smell of burning Negro flesh.
Realistic? Not by this point, late in the book. It becomes more and more a kaleidoscope of horrors, interleaved with the downward spiral of the lives of the Skid Row men and women Walker knows. And he is, by this time, becoming one of them. One particular bar-room fight—is Walker the one who punches the wise-guy to the floor for his stupid comments? It’s becoming hard to tell. More than once he catches sight of an old man shambling towards him looking terrible—and realises, of course, that it’s his own reflection. If he eats, we don’t hear about it. What we do hear about is the drinking, and the hangovers. And when he destroys the cracked mirror in the bathroom when trying to fix it, is it really an accident?
It’s become a horror show. Charlie Parker’s dead. Bogart is dead. Nothing good has happened to our man for a long time, and… now that Billy’s gone, what’s he going to do with the guilt that’s tearing him apart? Finally, he goes to find Glass-face, a friend of Billy’s he’d got to know because they were both in the same section of the army after D-Day. His face is a scarred mess because the Nazis turned a flaming torch on him to get him to talk—and this is the man he tells. Glass-face hears the confession before we do, and he is disgusted. ‘You’re no better than them’ he tells Walker, meaning the Nazis, and Walker says, ‘I know.’ This is the truth he has to live with because, in this world, confession is no route to redemption. There’s even a bible-thumping street evangelist telling Skid Row that it’s about to (cue capital letters) REAP THE WIRLWIND.
The atrocity Walker himself had performed is gothic in its horror, and… and what? Robertson had lost me some time before this, with his heaped-up catalogue of the flayed and eviscerated victims of war. When writing about the first two sections of the book, I had commented on how people of Robertson’s generation—and mine—can be uneasy about the portrayal of violence in movies. Well, he at least has taken steps to get over it, to an extent I find unhelpful. It’s as though he’s decided to write as viscerally as the men who had been through the war, that generation of post-war Americans for whom writing could be as proudly masculine an activity as war itself. But anybody can describe horrors, and it ends up being alienating. Worse, it’s implausible. I’m sorry, but Walker did not use his trusty knife to cut away all the flesh of a sadistic Nazi’s face, leaving just the eyes ‘so the German could see what had happened to him.’ We’ve seen enough American comic books to know that it’s straight out of one of them.
So, for me, a disappointment. The subtleties of the writing—and the subtleties never go away—do not make up for the sledgehammer crash-crash-crash of the last 40 or 50 pages. What is the message, exactly? A generation can lose everything from its dignity to its very sanity while a new breed comes along to take the sweet pickings? You tell me.