I’m reading The Big Sleep for the third or fourth time – I haven’t read all of the Philip Marlowe books, and for some reason instead of reading one of the ones I haven’t read, I keep re-reading this one. It’s a weird book to read because it’s about an underground pornography ring. It’s not just the illegality of it that’s hard to appreciate in the age of the Internet, it’s hardened Philip Marlowe’s disapproval – he’s astonished and morally offended, underneath his jaundiced prose. I read this book for a class in college and know how it ties in with his knight errantry, symbolized by the painting at the beginning where he humorously (but significantly) surmises that that knight isn’t trying hard enough. He’s old school even then. He wants to protect what is pure and good, and his disconcertment with the pornography racket is wrapped around a respect for women that he doesn’t often show when he talks to them.
Anyway, it fills me with regret, an era where even hardened detectives could be appalled by the exploitation of women.
Also, there are bookstores every two blocks and telephone booths and other marks of time. One that struck me on this read is describing a man of “medium height” as “fat, maybe 160 pounds.” Even if medium height is, say, 5’7”, 160 lbs. would hardly be considered fat today. Was it then? Sure, people were thinner, but would “fat” be the first adjective that came to mind for somebody who is on the outside edge of healthy weight? Or was “medium height” 5’0” in the 30s? Or maybe Raymond Chandler just didn’t have a good gauge on these things.
I’ve also been reading, randomly, pages from Thurber and Ring Lardner in their respective Library of America volumes which I impulse purchased directly from the publisher. (The Chandler is also LOA, but I got it from the library.)
Oh, what a delightful detour it is to go through Lardner and Thurber. They work in the same vein, an appreciation for vernacular and a deft way of turning a joke through syntax. Lardner was a big influence on Mudville, in that he was a big influence on every single person who writes about baseball. For me it was a bit more direct—Lardner’s influence is obvious in Mark Harris’s baseball writing, and his baseball novels are such a huge influence on Mudville I named him in the acknowledgments. I’ve even read passages from his books at my own readings. But Lardner’s essays are new to me.
Lardner and Thurber had a way of writing humor that makes everyone feel in on the joke. I miss that. Well, OK. Garrison Keillor works in that vein, intentionally arcane, early-last-century tone. Maybe there are other exceptions.
I love this era, the spirit that runs through this prose, the way it feels casual and expertly crafted all at the same time. I feel like I missed the boat. I should have been a wise-cracking editorialist or detective seventy or eighty years ago.
There are sentences in Thurber that make me want to quit the business all together, because I’ll never match it. On the other hand, nobody else is matching it so I might as well struggle on with my casual but not expertly crafted bloggy early twenty-first century prose style.