Friday, March 05, 2021

6. The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing

This book was given to me in this trade paperback form by a friend who was clearing out his shelves.  I took it because I had heard of the film as well as Fearing's name.  I would have loved the original though normally I do appreciate some of the choices the NYRB puts out.  In this case, though, the introduction was really godawful and made me annoyed at the entire publication.  I don't know who Nicholas Christopher is but I hope he is not chosen to write an intro for this kind of book ever again.  His essay is mostly a recap of the entire storyline overlaid with pretentious and meaningless undergrad-style literary analysis.  So that is not just a waste of space since you are going to read the book anyways, but also full of spoilers.  There are tidbits of helpful biographical detail on Fearing.  However, Christopher seems to be wholly ignorant of the culture of post-war America and of the genre of crime and suspense fiction of the time.  He seems utterly confounded by the coded way sexuality is portrayed in the book and attributes it to the author as a failure rather than the standard of the times. Worse, though, it is just dripping with the kind of insecure, condescending literary snobbishness.  He laments that Fearing's poetry was somehow ruined by his other writing: "it is unfortunate that he never managed to insulate his poetic faculty from the wear and tear of hack journalism, pulp writing and public relations assignments".  Fuck right off. 

Sorry to rant about the introduction.  I read it after reading the book (as I always do) and it set me off.  Just gross and a big failure by the usually solid NYRB editors.  On to the book. It is the story of George Stroud, editor at a succesful and innovative crime magazine whose publishing house is struggling against competition. Stroud is the man in the gray flannel suit except with a bohemian twist (he likes art) and a more varied background (he had many other jobs including running a bar before settling down to the commuter life).  He ends up having an affair with the girlfriend of Earl Janoth, the powerful, charismatic boss of the publishing house and he drops her off at the end of a weekend getaway to see her run into said boss outside her apartment. The boss and she get in an argument, starting with his jealousy but then escalating into counter-accusations of homosexuality where the boss flips out and beats her to death with a heavy decanter.  

The book gets quite interesting here with a very similar setup to Chase's You Find Him, I'll Fix Him.  Janoth thinks he is in the clear except for the guy who dropped off his girlfriend (he didn't recognize him), so he needs to find that guy and silence him.  He chooses Stroud, because he is known for his investigative skills, to hunt this guy down.  Basically, the boss has ordered Stroud to hunt himself.  It becomes a complex cat and mouse game where Stroud leads a team to try and find himself while actually trying to delay the discovery for as long as possible.

It's lively and tight, with viewpoints changing from chapter to chapter, so we also get a fairly critical look at the main character as well, who is kind of a heel.  The ending is quite fun as well and fast, which I also enjoyed.  It is also quite realistic about sex in the city in 1946, which I think the film does not portray at all. It's a bit more poetically written than I usually appreciate and at first it kind of annoyed me.  That was the voice of Stroud.  As I got used to it, though, the prose became more natural. There is a lot of subtle depth here, with hints at corporate intrigue and inter-office politics and some nice asides about working for the system (the big clock).

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