Setting In Noir Fiction: Going Nowhere Fast

by Matt Phillips

Here’s what I love most about stories: They let us travel from one place to the next, from one reality to the next, without getting our asses up out of the easy-chair. Call me lazy for reading so darn much, but while I have a book open I’m walking the seedy streets of New Orleans with Anthony Neil Smith (The Drummer), or wandering Texas with Marie S. Crosswell (Texas, Hold Your Queens), or hustling Detroit with Elmore Leonard (too many to name).

I’m not lazy. I’m wandering.

The one thing I’ve never thought too much about––not until now, that is––is why the hell I need to escape my own reality, the rootings of my own presence.

When I was a teenager, my family moved from a mid-sized city to a more rural area (one stoplight and a Circle K). Big deal, right? Well, as a kid, a move like that makes you feel dragged into a place you don’t understand. Thing is, you don’t have a damn bit of control when it comes to the setting of your own personal story. You’re just a minor character wrapped up in a complex plot that seems––somehow, dammit––already outlined by some bullish writer in the sky (here’s looking at you, God). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to bitch about moving when I was a kid. Who gives a darn, right? I’m trying to get at something more cruel and uncanny. Lots of us wake up one day and think:

How the heck did I end up here?

Where in the hell did I go wrong (or right)?

This uncertainty––how in the heck did this happen?––runs through noir fiction like the best traits of any bloodline.

Take Daniel Vlasaty’s book Only Bones. Our main character, a bike messenger and addict, rides the streets of Chi-Town looking for his next high. When he goes in debt to his dealer, our man winds up in the drug trade––oops. A wild ride ensues.

Or The Fury of Blacky Jaguar by Angel Luis Colón. Rage through the South Bronx with Blacky––the man’s on a violent quest to retrieve his sweet-ass Plymouth Fury. A simple question––Where in the hell is my car?––becomes a downright impossible situation.

In Knuckledragger by Rusty Barnes, we get a similar thing. Our small-time muscle––named Candy––gets sweet on the wrong lady. Gangsters in Revere, MA don’t take kindly to that. Forced to go on the run, Candy’s internal compass spins like a punch-drunk boxer.

The question inherent to all these stories––how the heck did I get here?––has a cousin:

How do I get out of here? Please, how do I get out?

Funny, that’s exactly what I was saying to myself when I first picked up Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. I was in my early twenties, bartending in a dead-end job, lonely as a ghost in my rented room, and a hell lot less of a writer than I imagined myself to be.

I was looking for escape, sure, but I was also on a hunt…

For purpose. For adventure. For a reason to keep going. For a place to go.

And keep going.

There I was, riding around the streets of Los Angeles with my pal and confidant, Philip Marlowe. Turning those pages, I became a private “I,” and I lost (and found) myself in the streets of Angel City. But to do that losing (and finding), Raymond Chandler had to take me there. Had to put me there. He had to be specific and honest, and he needed to know the city from the limits of his sight to the pores in his skin.

Now that I’ve actually sat my ass in the chair and written some books (rather than say I want to write some books), I realize that my own work functions as a kind of escape (and discovery) for both myself and readers. A way in, and a way out…

In Accidental Outlaws, my characters live in a high desert landscape called The Mesa. Deep in the Mojave Desert, this setting gives rise to lawlessness and disillusion. It’s a place where people feel both at home and unsettled. I’d compare The Mesa to staring hard at a Joshua Tree; it’s a beautiful organism, to be sure, but there’s something odd and unsettling about its shape.

In Three Kinds of Fool, my main character, an ex-con, roams the urban setting of San Diego and surroundings. His job is to clean pools for rich people, but he’s so much more at home in the dive bars and dirty downtown avenues…He can clean as many crystal-blue pools as he wants, but he’ll never be the guy diving into them on a hot Sunday afternoon.

And in Redbone, a rural noir that follows an Army veteran as his psyche unravels, I sketch the good old American small town. Same old, same old. Until it’s not. And never will be again.

All these places make my characters want out. Paradoxically, that’s what makes readers want in.

Funny, isn’t it? Here we are, all of us, wanting out at the same time as we want in.

Well, shoot. I guess I’m right back where I started. Like always.

Another noir character going nowhere (and everywhere) too darn fast.

Matt Phillips lives in San Diego. His books are Three Kinds of FoolRedbone, and Bad Luck City. He has published crime stories across the web at Powder Burn Flash, Near to the Knuckle, Out of the Gutter’s Flash Fiction Offensive, Pulp Metal Magazine, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Manslaughter Review, and elsewhere.


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