My uncle sent me Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye as a retirement present. I’ve read a fair bit of Chandler but not that one and I devoured it over the last three days. It’s a terrific book, maybe not as tightly plotted as The Big Sleep or Farewell, My Lovely but it’s not the story or the mystery that makes a Chandler novel rock. Seeing the world through the eyes of Philip Marlowe is what makes Chandler worth your time and you get his remarkable prose as well. Chandler must have thought in metaphors as his books are loaded with original and savagely funny analogies describing people and places. Speaking of places, he captured both the beauty and ugliness of post-WWII Los Angeles with his crisp and detailed descriptions of everything from architecture to weather. More than anything, though, Chandler wrote about money and power. Corruption, whether civic or moral, flows through his stories like an ocean breeze. Marlowe’s struggle to keep his hands clean and do what he thinks is the honorable thing for his clients is Chandler’s way of exposing all the venal and tawdry things he detested about Hollywood and big business. Marlowe is a celebration of American individualism and his unyielding nature—a virtue, to Chandler—serves only to get him into deeper and deeper shit.
The Long Goodbye takes a looks at the nature of friendship as well. Marlowe is a loner and too prickly for most people but has an old-fashioned sense of loyalty. The book is littered with dysfunctional and ephemeral relationships and Marlowe’s attempt to befriend the pathetic Terry Lennox causes him both physical and emotional pain. In the end he has to say goodbye to him and to all the other people Terry brought into his life including the beautiful Linda Loring, the only woman the virile but normally celibate Marlowe finally beds. She proposes to him after their one-night stand and he rejects her offer, believing that she is too shallow to make a marriage last. In the coda of that scene is the line that sums up the theme: “To say goodbye is to die a little.”
While The Long Goodbye, like all the private eye novels of that time, is formulaic and clichéd, Chandler writes so well and invests Marlowe with enough empathy and humanity to keep you interested in what happens to him. The genre boundaries don’t confine Chandler, rather they seem to liberate him to say whatever he wants. It’s like Miles Davis playing a pop tune—he finds all the places to go in and around the melody no matter how insipid it might be and thus creates something unique and original. Much of Chandler’s work (and Dashiell Hammett’s as well) is full of casual racism that is sometimes shocking to the modern ear. These men—the writers and their character mouthpieces—were surely products of their time and their language reflects that. Marlowe is too cynical and at the same time too honorable to be genuinely racist. That is, he judges everyone by the same standards regardless of their skin color. Nonetheless he refers to Candy—the butler, who is from Chile—as a “Mex” throughout the book even after he is corrected. He and Candy actually part amicably however, having earned each other’s respect, while all the rich whites turn out to be horrible people! It’s a funny world Marlowe inhabits. And speaking of funny, Chandler manages to infuse his sordid story with quite a bit of humor, especially in the dialogue:
“Who’s your buddy? ” I asked him.
“Big Willie Magoon,” he said thickly. “A vice squad bimbo. He thinks he’s tough.”
“You mean he isn’t sure?” I asked him politely.
I’ve been experiencing my own long goodbye this summer. I retired from a thirty-year career in teaching in June and have spent the last few months doing mostly nothing. School is back in session and I must say I miss the fun parts. At least I knew what I had to do Monday through Friday! I’m looking forward to building a new life, one that doesn’t revolve around a job, but it has been surprisingly difficult to shed Mr. O’Connor. It’s like trying to take the “corned” out of “corned beef.” You have to keep changing the water in the pot before all the brine is leached out. I’m getting there, and doing my best to enjoy the journey. Reading my new book was like a batch of fresh water—the salt is almost gone. And I think I’ve stretched the simile to its breaking point.
Thanks for the present, Uncle John. You knew just what I needed. It figures—you’re a retired teacher, too!