The last decade has been one of outrage piled upon outrage, from 9/11 to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, on to Hurricane Katrina, the Asian tsunami and the smart-ass bankers who thought they ruled the world they were in the process of destroying. On the first day of the new decade I was faced with something less outrageous, perhaps, but somehow even more puzzling than any of these things.
I was walking along a street near my home in Jerusalem with a friend. A few paperbacks had been dropped on the ground by a dumpster. I glanced down. "That can't be," I thought. Then, aloud, I said: "You've got to be kidding me."
Someone had thrown out "The Long Goodbye." Someone had put Raymond Chandler in the trash, with a few disposable beach-reading tomes. I picked it up gently.
For me this is the greatest American novel of the last century, yet it was sitting alongside the kinds of holiday reading people tend to ditch as soon as they've skimmed to the "exciting" conclusion.
Chandler would've raised one of his wry eyebrows, or perhaps one of the gimlets that appears as a motif in "The Long Goodbye." He knew what people thought of his work--those who hadn't read it at least. Not real literature, genre stuff. People say the same thing to me sometimes, until they read my books. Chandler once wrote that as many bad "literary" novels are written as there are bad crime novels, but the bad literary novels don't get published. (One might note that this no longer seems true, but you get his point: people thought his books were trash, like the genuine trash that was sold alongside it.)
Why's his novel so good? Many reasons, not least of which is Chandler's astonishing way with an image. Try this one: a beautiful woman has just walked into a bar where sleuth Marlowe awaits a client. "It seemed to me for an instant that there was no sound in the bar," Chandler writes, "that the sharpies stopped sharping and the drunk on the stool stopped burbling away, and it was like just after the conductor taps on his music stand and raises his arms and holds them poised."
You don't even have to be a male who once sat lonely in a dingy dive for that sentence to stop everything--the narrative, your breath, your heart. Turns out the woman will be an important character. We don't know it yet for sure, but somehow it's been signaled by the punctuation point of this image.
The friend I was walking with declined at first to take "The Long Goodbye," when I proferred the grubby edition. "I don't really read crime novels," he said.
I shoved it into his midriff. "Read it," I said. "It's a masterpiece."
Then I looked at the other books on the floor. Sometimes around where I live people dispose of the library of a deceased person by placing it on the street for others to pick up. I shook my head. Even when I die, I don't want my copy of "The Long Goodbye" left in the dust and wind of a desert winter.
I want to be buried with it.