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Making Sense of Nothing and Making Nothing of Sense: A Maundering on the Taxonomy of Writing and I Forget What Else

“Fair is where you go to see the pigs race.”
— James Luther Dickinson

Nick ToschesWe are uncomfortable with works that can not be placed comfortably into a category. The English-speaking literary establishment has embraced the French word genre since the eighteenth century. We would do well to remind ourselves that the term, via the Latin genus, is a cognate of another French word, générique, whence the English generic. And, for example, noir, given generic catch-all meaning by American critics in the 1940s, is but another blanditude that consigns to the supermarket-aisle school of literary values many books whose unique qualities are thus obscured.

As George Eliot said in her 1856 essay on Heine: “In every genre of writing it preserves a man from sinking into the genre ennuyeux.” The “it” refers to wit, and the French phrase displays her own subtle wit: “the boring genre.” And it is true that most books consigned to one genre or another belong to the far-encompassing genre of boredom, even if there are no Boring sections designated as such in bookstores.

Most best-selling books belong to one genre or another—espionage, crime, horror, suspense, romance, mystery, self-help, ghost-written political memoirs that take the genre of boredom to a ghastlier realm. Best-sellers that perfume themselves with a contrived literary air fall short of what good genre writing offers. What, after all, was The Name of the Rose but a bad mystery whose plot-workings could not be believed at any turn? I actually read that one. We speak of putting the wounded out of their misery. I have now long felt the same about semiologists. As for something like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was said to far transcend the romance genre, I would never read a book with such a pretentious title so like the whine of a moon-calf. Semiologists and moon-calves aside, even straightforward attempts at genre by real writers of true greatness often fail dismally: William Faulkner’s 1949 volume of mystery stories, Knight’s Gambit, is one of the worst books he did.

I am not saying that any genre writers, be they scriptomanic pulp hacks or masters of their corner of the marketplace, could ever beat out, except maybe financially, the few writers of our time who have doomed themselves, or been doomed, to the lower-paying racket of greatness.

But what of the latter, the great, or of those who walked the edge of greatness, who have been relegated to the ranks of the former? That’s what I want to talk about here.

Specifically I want to talk about Patricia Highsmith and George V. Higgins. Why these two? As I’m not auditioning for a creative-writing teaching job—I’m too old to look up girls’ skirts and fill them with the unbearable lightness of being—I’ll tell you the truth.

For years, a lot of years, I’d been told by people who knew me well that I would enjoy reading Patricia Highsmith. I ignored them. I figured, based on her name, that she was some British broad who wrote British-broad mysteries. Then, early this past spring, a British guy I know told me that people who knew him had long been telling him the same thing. He at least knew that she was from Fort Worth, Texas, far from the quaint Devon village where Miss Marple took her tea and solved her crimes. I walked over to the Mysterious Book Shop on Warren Street and bought a copy of her 1955 novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Forget about Crime and Punishment, which bored the hell out of me. For all his hallowed Towering Russian Author schoolroom stature, Dostoevsky was a plodder who passed off brow-furrowing and stern beard-stroking for explorations of the depths. Highsmith had it all over him. Her Ripley had it all over his Raskolnikov when it came to the frightening ring of the truth of the complexity of the secret chambers of mind and soul. And in Highsmith’s world—which hung from her mouth like the cigarette hanging from her sultry lips—there was no stupid, candy-ass punishment. It was Rimbaud with a vengeance: “La morale est la faiblesse de la cervelle.” She was beyond that feebling disease of the brain called morality. And her prose was as fine and lucid as could be, invisibly infused with the mastery of conveying the most subtly enlaced and ambiguous psychological intricacies with a clarity and enchanting simplicity that must have come in part from her Latin scholarship and in part from her own beautiful, salubrious, wicked mind.

So I finished that one and passed to the second Ripley novel, her 1970 Ripley Under Ground. The third of the five Ripley novels—the last of them, Ripley Under Water, was published in 1991, a few years before her death, at the age of seventy-five—awaits me, as do the others. My discovery of her is one of the blessings that have brought to this summer a rare and lovely happiness.

George V HigginsAs for George V. Higgins, different story. In 1974, I was eking out a living but had yet to publish a book. I came upon Higgins’s first novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which had come out two years before. I may have come to the book after being blown away by the movie, with Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle. I don’t remember. What I do remember is that it was the most powerful illumination of what one could achieve by going against the whole jive-ass in-the-American-grain line of shit about literature, the first and hardest prison an American writer must break out of. It was a freeing inspiration of the sort that I had not experienced since I read Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn when I was a teenager.

I was impelled to write Higgins a letter, asking him where he got his style and his perfect pitch for dialogue—and it was perfect; he was the only one since Faulkner who had it.

Recently, about the same time I found Patricia Highsmith, I came across the letter he wrote me in return, on his law-practice letterhead, dated March 17, 1975:

“I invented my style; I am a fucking genius,” he wrote. He ended the letter: “This is a long way of saying that I have no better idea about the origin of what I do than you do. Perhaps I simply have a dirty mind and the good fortune to live in a generation that talks and does dirty.”

With that letter, I rediscovered another, written from his home in Milton Massachusetts, on January 30, 1984. His latest book, A Choice of Enemies, had taken a beating in the press, for being offensive. I had written a review in his defense for The Village Voice.

“Aware as I am that it’s a breach of decorum to respond to a review, I nevertheless thank you for your remarks on ENEMIES. I suppose by now I should be inured to the plaintive bleatings of the righteous who confuse tales of wickedness with benign approval of it, and perceive no entertainment possibilities in its presentation, but I’m not.”

Over the years, I read almost every one of his more than twenty novels. When his nonfiction book On Writing: Advice for Those Who Write to Publish (or Would Like To) came out in 1990, I approached it with great curiosity. I wasn’t looking for any advice, but I was interested in what he had to say about the nature of the job of writing. It was the worst thing he ever wrote, from the grammatical error in the title to the last, limping page. Like every other writer worth reading, he had no clue as to how he did it. What was in that letter of fifteen years before—”I have no better idea about the origin of what I do than you do”—wasn’t in that book.

Higgins went the way of Highsmith, and Eddie Coyle and so many of his other unforgettable characters, in 1999, a week shy of his sixtieth birthday.

So that’s why I’m talking about Highsmith and Higgins, rather than others who might fill the bill to make my point. Highsmith and Higgins are with me, now, this breath, this summer, in discovery and rediscovery. And if it’s taken a long time here to get to that point—and I’ve almost forgotten what it is, or if there need be one: I mean, after all, does your life, or mine, or anything, have a point?—bear in mind that the only point that can really pierce us, the point of a blade or an icepick or one of them things, is the smallest coruscation at the very end.

How could these authors be placed, as mere crime writers, in the same box of junk with the likes of, say, Jim Thompson, one of the most godawful, unreadable, and inept writers to ever stain a page?

If the genre stuff makes big bucks, how come some, like Highsmith and Higgins, end up irredeemably misclassed as such without getting their share of the loot until after they’re dead?

Now that I look at this last sentence, I realize that the point was up there in the first sentence. Fuck it; no matter. Structure is artifice, and artifice is for saps.

NICK TOSCHES is the author of the novels Cut Numbers, Trinities, and, most recently, In the Hand of Dante, as well as of nonfiction works such as Hellfire, Dino, The Devil and Sonny Liston, Where Dead Voices Gather, and King of the Jews. Thirty years of his writing is represented by the The Nick Tosches Reader. His poetry has been widely published, and his collection of poetry, Chaldea, is a bestseller in Hell. He lives in New York and is presently at work on a secret project that will be published by Little, Brown.