Excavating San Diego Noir: A Jumping-Off Place

by on June 27, 2011 · 1 comment

in California, History, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

As the Union-Tribune noted in its article on San Diego Noir: “When it comes to the literary genre known as noir—that dark terrain of desire and desperation, of passion and paranoia—certain cities come immediately to mind.  Los Angeles.  San Francisco.  New York.  Not San Diego.”  Well, not exactly.

While San Diego does not have as rich a literary and/or filmic history as Los Angeles, it too has some noir in its past.  In the 1890s, Thomas and Anna Fitch saw Coronado as a suitable location for testing a doomsday weapon in Better Days: Or, the Millionaire of To-morrow. Then famously, in 1932, Edmund Wilson labeled San Diego the “The Jumping-Off Place” as a result of its nation-leading suicide rate.  The city, it appeared to Wilson, promised liberation but could only deliver a chimera of false hope for the sick and economically devastated.  Three years after Wilson’s seminal essay, the narrator in Max Miller’s novel The Man on the Barge, noting the “march of pain” of desperately ill sun worshippers, dryly commented on the unspoken alienation under the azure sky by saying, “Nothing often happened here except the sun.”  And who could forget the perfect San Diego noir swan song of Raymond Chandler who drank himself to death in La Jolla, a place he described as “nothing but a climate,” in 1959?

As I wrote a few weeks ago in my column “City of the Living Dead,” Jim Thompson’s 1942 novel Now and On Earth is arguably San Diego’s greatest classic noir work. While not a crime novel, it captures wartime San Diego through the glass darkly indeed.  In his essay in Sunshine/Noir: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana, local historian, Matt Bokovoy gives some background for Thompson’s vision of San Diego:

Now and On Earth, a wartime novel of socialist realism, captures the bleak landscape of downtown San Diego under racial violence, anti-communism, wartime housing shortages, and social dislocation. Now And On Earth is a story about a failed “hack writer” and aircraft industry clerk caught in a web of graft whose radical past puts him in double jeopardy. In the summer of 1940, Thompson and his family traveled from Pampa, Texas to San Diego in the Oklahoma Communist Party automobile, a gigantic four-door Plymouth donated by Woody Guthrie. Recently fired as director of the Oklahoma Federal Writer’s Project for his communist politics, he took a job at Ryan Aeronautical scraping paint off the floor, and he ultimately became an inventory clerk. He later worked as a timekeeper for Solar Aircraft. The Thompsons lived in a small Spanish mission duplex in Middletown at 2130 Second Avenue, a hilly neighborhood wedged between downtown San Diego and Balboa Park. It also had commanding views of San Diego Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Despite the natural beauty of the city, San Diego’s diversity and cultural fusion fascinated Thompson under the stress of wartime competition and scarcity.

Often prone to periodic drinking binges in the San Diego Rialto, Thompson described the alienation and the broken dreams of war workers found in places like Eddie’s Bar, the Bomber Café at 849 Broadway, and other downtown jazz clubs, dance halls, and juke joints. With the city filled with sailors at all hours, downtown was a 24/7 environment of cafes, restaurants, and entertainments. Many of the dance halls were fronts for prostitutes and drug dealers, who made their living from the meager wages of young servicemen. For Thompson, the difference between work in the war industry and the leisure found downtown had eroded, offering only new forms of degradation and exploitation. Portuguese and ethnic Mexicans stand as the only redeemable characters in the novel, generous and non-materialistic to a fault. In the end, Now And On Earth [argues that] ordinary people deserved social democracy in their own lifetime due to the human indignities caused by a country at war.

And of course, San Diego native, the late (and great) Oakley Hall, author of over two-dozen books, dished up some noir of his own in So Many Doors, Mardios Beach, and others.  And while The Corpus of Joe Bailey has been praised for its mixture of “dread and wonder,” his last book, Love and War in California looks back at San Diego during World War II with precisely the kind of noir perspective Mike Davis discusses.  In my 2007 Union-Tribune review of that novel I wrote admiringly of Hall’s vision of the San Diego of his youth and how his main character comes to disdain the “bullshit” of American life:

In Love and War in California, Oakley Hall takes us back to wartime San Diego and paints a much fuller portrait of the lost city of old than does his first San Diego based novel.  It too is filled with wonder, dread, love, and longing but what makes the book noteworthy is its keen eye toward history . . . The novel begins in the cafeteria of San Diego State College on December 8, 1941 where we meet the novel’s protagonist, Payton Daltrey, an aspiring writer struggling to find his way in the world.  A child of divorce, Payton is the son of a Republican businessman who lost everything in the Depression (and never quite lost his bitterness) and a workingwoman who bounces from boyfriend to boyfriend and, like her mother, is a New Deal liberal.  Payton’s brother, the favorite son, went to USC, where he played football and busted Okies’ heads as a strikebreaker.  After college, Richie works in Hollywood and dates Elizabeth Fletcher, an aspiring starlet and the daughter of the prominent San Diego family, before joining the Navy as a pilot.  Payton is the younger, idealistic, “slacker” son who works delivering groceries as well as for the brand a local left-wing newspaper where he sometimes writes articles about child molestation cases designed to draws readers who might then absorb some of the paper’s social commentary.

It is at the brand, that Payton’s boss Tully, one of his mother’s ex-boyfriends, advises him that, “to understand Social Reality one must be inside it.”  The young writer is not a “commie” himself and dismisses Tully as “all talk,” but ends up taking his advice nonetheless . . . It is in San Diego where Payton is subject to red baiting for working at the brand, tailed by the American Legion, and forsaken by his fraternity brothers.  He sees ugly racism and anti-Semitism at his father’s house and is shocked when his Japanese football buddy from San Diego High is sent to the relocation camp at Manzanar. His other football pal, Calvin King, is a black man who works as a pimp “south of Broadway” and whom Payton helps rescue from marauding sailors when the Los Angeles Zootsuit riots travel south.  Payton comes to befriend one of Calvin’s “girls,” a prostitute named Dessy who ends up jumping out of her hotel window. He is haunted by this as well as the visage of “a kitten-faced girl” of fourteen who he sees working in a donkey show at the Molino Rojo in Tijuana where he has gone to research an illegal abortion clinic for his sweetheart who is hoping to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, the result of Bonny’s pity for the father, who died in the war after he left her knocked up at home.

All of this leads Payton to cultivate a profound sense of outrage at the exploitation of the weak by the strong.  Whether it is the abuse he takes from fussy rich customers while working as a delivery boy in Mission Hills or the abuse he sees the world dishing out to the powerless, Payton yearns to understand the nature of injustice.  At one point, in an outburst to Bonny, he rants, “the rest of the stuff in the brand is about molesteds, too.  Strikebreakers, Okies, and Japs, and bad judges, and money more important than people, and power used to make people miserable. AJAs in a concentration camp, women and children and kids four years old.  Because they have epicanthic folds in their eyes! And what’s going to happen to Calvin King in the Army because he’s colored! And those fourteen-year old girl prostitutes in Tijuana with syphilis.  I mean, it’s all connected.”  Payton comes to add an explanation of war as “the ultimate molestation of the young” to his theory of exploitation.  And when he is driven to enlist early after his brother is killed in action and he inexplicably loses Bonny’s affection, he gets to see “their fucking war” first hand . . . Hall, the war veteran, gives us a masterfully stark view of the war, full of irony and devoid of patriotic bombast.  The result is a portrait of a grunt, full of misgivings, that makes you admire the sacrifices of the many men who defeated Fascism during an era when it was everyone’s obligation to fight, like it or not.  It is during his stay in Paris when Payton decides to leave his French lover and not desert, that he has an epiphany: “I thought I could be a writer from the outside looking in spectatorly on the bourgeois bullshit of Amurrucun life.  But I would have to write about the bullshit from inside Social Reality, condemned to being just what I had hoped to rebel against.”

Amen.  Rest in peace, Oakley.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

avatar Patty Jones June 27, 2011 at 11:02 am

You’ve inspired me, Jim. I just requested a copy of “Love and War in California” from the library.


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