Noir is a French word meaning dark. It’s used to identify a certain type of grim fiction or film. Don’t let the French name fool you. There’s plenty of noir right here in East Texas, though it’s mixed with Southern Gothic and Western and all manner of stuff; it’s a gumbo boiled in hell. I know. I’m from East Texas. I’ve seen it. I’ve written about it. Weird as some of it is, fictionalized as the work is, it comes from a wellspring of true events you just can’t make up.
Let’s clear up one thing. There are plenty of good people in East Texas (saw one yesterday), but if you’re a writer of crime fiction, which I am at least some of the time, you’re not looking for good people. You’re looking for weirdos, criminals, malcontents and the just plain stupid. That’s your meat if you write crime.
In spite of the word, not all of the fiction or films associated with this genre are completely dark. Noir wears many hats, some even with bright feathers in them. Sometimes noir can laugh, which is where I come in. It’s where East Texas comes in. You can’t point at noir and call it one thing, but it usually has some of these elements: existentialist attitude, cynical and desperate characters, wise-ass talk, rain and shadows, a lightning bolt and shadowed blinds, sweaty sheets and cigarette smoke, whisky breath and dark street corners where shots are fired and a body is found, and long black cars squealing tires as they race around poorly lit corners.
For me as a writer, noir takes place in the backwoods and slick, brick streets and red clay roads and sandy hills of East Texas. My noir is about Baptist preachers claiming with lilting poetry to be called by the Lord to preach The Word, but who have intentions as false as a stuffed sock in rock star’s pants; pretty soon they’re gone with the congregation’s money and three deacon’s wives are knocked up. My noir is about the deep backwoods and small-town girls with inflated dreams and big blonde hair and the kind of oozing sex appeal that would make a good family man set fire to the wife’s cat and use it as a torch to burn down his house—with his wife in it.
You got your slicked-backed-shiny-haired used car salesman with more better deals and a plan to burn his business for the insurance money. You got your muscle-armed, pot-bellied hick with a toothpick and a John Deere gimme cap, forever dressed in hunting boots, camouflage pants and a wife-beater T-shirt—even if his destination is just the barber shop or the barbecue joint. He’s the kind of guy who likes to get drunk every night and drive home weaving. He’s the kind of guy whose last words are to his best buddy in the passenger seat—“Hey, hold my beer and watch this”—and who then proceeds to unzip his pants and attempt to drive his truck with his manly appendage.
You got this same kind of guy at the Wednesday prayer meeting, wearing a conceal-carry pistol tucked under his worn-out high-school letter jacket in case the Muslims attack or there’s an unexpected run on grape juice and tasteless wafers by liberal Democrats. He’s the kind of guy who carries a pack of condoms in his front pocket to signify high hopes for the big-breasted, blonde church organist with an orthodontist’s grin and an ass like two volley balls banging together in a croaker sack. If that don’t happen, well hell, on his way home he’s got a spotlight and a rifle in the trunk for popping blinded rabbits. In fact, in that trunk he’s got so many guns that his guns own guns, and who knows where that kind of firepower might lead? For example, there are those guys down at the job who done him wrong, the ex-wife that got the kids, the dog that digs in his yard, and all those folks who want the new health care program so they can pull the plug on grandma. They could all get a taste of his ammunition if the mood strikes him right.
You got the Aryan Nations with their pale skins covered in jailhouse tattoos, crosses and swastikas, a heart with Mama written across it on a crawling snake, their necks so covered in tattoo print they look like they fell asleep on a damp newspaper, talking authoritatively with tears in their eyes about the Bible they’ve never read, cussing science and man-made books.
Then you got the Dixie flag, Southern heritage guys talking about how fine it would be had the South won the war, worrying that they’re losing their white heritage, which when you get right down to it is most likely great-grandpa’s weed-infested grave, a mayonnaise sandwich on white bread, a MoonPie, a bag of pork skins, a big Bud Light and a Jim Beam chaser. Here in East Texas, we got rampaging horse-shooters, wife-beaters, child abusers, murderers, gangs (yeah, really), scripture-quoting psychopaths and enough crystal meth that if some cooker gets drunk and drops a match, he could blow us all the way to Mars.
The people I write about lurk in small East Texas towns, living in same-alike houses, on cleared clay lots with little anemic bushes in their yards, yards that often sport mossy gnomes and colorful wooden frames painted up like bent-over grannies. In the backyard, the flowers may even be holding down that missing relative not seen since 1985, or the freezer might contain a human head next to a plastic bag of hotdogs.
Let’s come back to this, as it might save me from a lynching. Yes, East Texas is full of good people. Some of them might even be Christians. Some might be used car salesmen and back-road runners wearing camouflage with a toothpick in their mouth. They might be public servants so paranoid they want college students to be armed in the case of a nut going wild; students could kill the nut and each other in a crossfire, but these are otherwise good people with the best of intentions. Not everyone is out to do bad. Some have done well with their GEDs, and they have a nice library—consisting primarily of Guns and Ammo magazines, and others where naked women wear only staples. Seriously, I even know one person who has been to clown college—and graduated. These are my peeps, man.
Sometimes you look at noir and realize it’s real, not just a story or a film. Some of it is so like a sucking gunshot wound that, to keep from hanging yourself from a shower rod, you have to laugh at it, make fun of it. You got to do what firefighters and policemen do—and when I speak of the latter I don’t mean senselessly beating a suspect with three feet of water hose and a telephone book. I mean laugh at the terrible things, because laughter is the only antidote. It’s the 800-pound gorilla that holds the dark at bay.
My noir may not be your noir, but nonetheless, it is noir, and though it’s not all I write, it’s a lot of what I write. It often informs work of mine that I meant to be absolutely as far away from noir as I’d like to be from the Tea Party. East Texas has its own kind of dark side that comes deep-fried, baptized, and sanctified with a side of hollow points and racial epithets. That’s my beat, here in the shadows and sticky heat, nestled up tight as a hungry chigger in a fat man’s armpit.
When you write crime, you’re not looking at the good that exists. You’re thinking about and looking at the bad, at the criminals, at the lowlifes and how they affect those who just want to do their part—people who just want to go to their jobs, raise their families, and maybe retire with a lakefront view and a good supply of adult diapers, with no one cooking crystal meth next door or kicking in the door to take their plasma television or sell their crippled dog to medical research.
Those bad folks are out there, like the flu. Waiting. They are outnumbered by the good, but all it takes is one bad sucker to ruin your day. We all know that therein lies the appeal of the noir tale, the books of mystery and suspense, crime and sacrifice, trips to the Dairy Queen gone horribly wrong. Stories like that are a way to flirt with the dark without having to actually date and marry it.
We know bad can happen, but mostly we like to think we’re pretty safe in our bedrooms at night with books in our hands. We can turn the pages and see what happens, or we can put it down, turn off the light, and go to sleep. On some level, it’s like an inoculation against disaster, pre-coping with things that might happen and probably never will, a metaphorical way of dealing with the Big D. And I don’t mean Dallas.
That part will happen. Be it by crime, poorly chewed steak lodged in the windpipe, car wreck, or lying in an old folks’ home wired up like a spaceman watching shadows move across the wall. Noir is our way of saying howdy to the dark side without going there to live.
At least not yet.
Originally published in The Texas Observer. Posted with permission.
Joe R. Lansdale is the author of numerous novels and short stories. His work has received the Edgar Award, seven Bram Stoker Awards, a British Fantasy Award, and has twice been named a New York Times Notable Book, among other honors. The film adaptation of his novella “Bubba Ho-tep” was directed by Don Coscarelli and starred Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis. His novel Vanilla Ride, from Knopf, has just been released in paperback by Vintage. He lives in Nacogdoches, Texas.