08 September 2015

Noir and the Returning War Vet Sub-Genre

My name is Paul and I’m a film noir addict.

If I don’t get my fix of noir “I feel all dead inside. I'm backed up in a dark corner, and I don't know who's hitting me.”*

Fodder for another piece is why I’m so addicted to noir. For this piece I want to talk about a specific sub-genre of noir, the returning veteran. My latest book, Vortex (released 9/1), comes under this category.

The story originally went to a different publisher, a publisher of mystery-thriller novellas. somewhere_in_the_night_xlgUnfortunately they went belly up. But in talking with that first publisher, my pitch was to do a story—homage might be too strong a word, but yeah, let’s call it an homage—about a vet returning from the war in Afghanistan a la some of the classic film noir movies like Somewhere in the Night, The Blue Dahlia (written by Raymond Chandler), Ride the Pink Horse, and Act of Violence, etc., and books like David Goodis’ Down There, whose main character had been one of Merrill’s Marauders, or from later, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, both inspired by the Viet Nam War.

Hey, even Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is a returning World War II vet, who helped liberate the concentration camps.

47694-devil-in-a-blue-dress-0-150-0-225-cropMy favorite short story of any genre is Hemingway’s Soldier’s Home, about a disaffected WWI vet returning home and how he can no longer relate to anyone or anything. Close to that is Mayday by Fitzgerald. Both were written in the aftermath of World War I. Neither could be classified as noir, but they have a sort of hopeless noir sensibility.

When the vets in all of these stories come home it’s usually not all mom and apple pie.

There are arguments in some circles as to whether film noir is a post war movement or whether it was a result of (mostly) homefront conditions during the war. I think both sides are right, but ultimately I don’t think it matters. For me, the quintessential film noir is Double Indemnity, which came out on September 6, 1944, almost exactly 71 years ago from today. As the war still had a good year and half to go, this would preclude it from being a post-war movie.
But, of course, the Neff charac20_robert_stone_dog_soldierster (Huff in the book) is not a returning vet. Still, this film is (for me) the pinnacle of all noir movies and the jumping off point for the true noir cycle. Then, with the war ending, came a string of movies about returning vets, including those mentioned above. But not all were noir. The Best Years of Our Lives, Till the End of Time and others dealt with the difficult adjustments many vets faced on returning home in a non-noir way.

The war changed American society in a variety of ways. We lost our innocence as a country. Soldiers had seen things no one should have to see. Many came back cynical. Black soldiers came back wanting full rights for the country they had fought for. Women, Rosie the Riveters, weren’t so sure they wanted to be only housewives anymore.

And the Hells Angels motorcycle club (gang) was formed in Fontana, California (not far from LA, the noir capital of the world), in 1948 (just three years after the war) by disaffected World War II vets.

Many soldiers came back from the war who, if not physically wounded, were psychically wounded. Shell shock, combat fatigue, PTSD, “invisible” diseases but diseases that, nonetheless, tear at a man’s soul. Soldiers coming back from Korea were “forgotten,” those returning home from Viet Nam were often called “baby killers”. Those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan are often depressed and alienated. One recent study says that roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day, more than any previous generation of war vets.

It’s from there that the creative process began and I started to create characters and situations in Vortex. Call it an updating of the returning war vet noir genre.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00019]Vortex is the story of Zach Tanner, a recently returned Afghan war vet, who finds more trouble here than there. In his words, he went to “hell and back and back to hell again,” upon returning home. But that latest hell is one of his own making. A quagmire of quicksand that he’s sinking deeply into and struggling hard to get out of. And that predicament is fueled by his own greed. He’s also bringing his girlfriend, Jess, down into the mire with him. They’re on the run, careening down Sunset Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway, being chased by a flashy red Camaro, when Jess says to him:

“What’re you doing?” Jessie said, clutching the handhold.
“We have to get out of here.”
“Talk to them, Zach.”
“We can’t go back, Jess. Don’t you understand, they’ll kill us.”
“They’re your friends.”
“Yeah.” The first rule of war is know your enemy. And I knew mine, too well—or maybe not well enough.

They’re on the run—from Zach’s best friends, or should I say former best friends. And now it’s up to Zach to get himself and Jess out of trouble, while at the same time trying to make sense of a world that has changed radically for him. A world that he now perceives differently because of what he saw and did in the war.

Zach and Jess are part of a generation that’s grown up on unreal reality shows that give them a false expectation of what success is and how to achieve it. A generation that watched the Bling Ring climb to fame and success by breaking into celebrities’ homes and stealing from them. And though some got minor  punishments they also got movies made about them and a couple starred in their own “reality” shows. That’s the quick and easy way to the top of the American Dream that many of Zach’s friends feel entitled to. They fall out when Zach realizes that getting something for nothing isn’t meaningful and when he wants more meaning and purpose in his life now.

Unfortunately, that’s what Zach’s friends still want when he returns home, that quick ride to the top at any cost. But after recuperating for some time in a hospital with plenty of time to think it’s no longer what he wants. Still, he’s part of their plan and even though he wants out, like quicksand they pull him in and under and won’t let him escape.

But what is escape? Zach and Jess hide out down at the Salton Sea, in the desert near Palm Springs. A once promising resort community that’s now dilapidated and going to hell, the underbelly of the American Dream. Built to be a waterfront paradise, it’s now a wasteland of dead fish and dead end streets.

As Zach, the narrator says, “The American Dream crashed and burned right here at the Salton Sea.”
And that’s where Zach finds himself. Now he must extricate himself from a mess largely of his own making and find some kind of equilibrium in a changed world. Will he?

I hope Vortex does a decent job of carrying on the returning war vet sub-genre.  I think these two quotes from Robert Stone and Ernest Hemingway epitomize that genre, even if they’re not noir per se.

“At first Krebs...did not want to talk about the war at all.  Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it.” ―Ernest Hemingway, Soldier’s Home

“If you haven't fought for your life for something you want, you don't know what's life all about.” ―Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers

*Quoted from “The Dark Corner,” written by Jay Dratler, Bernard C. Schoenfeld, Leo Rosten, directed by Henry Hathaway

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  1. Best of luck with Vortex!

  2. Interesting piece, Paul. I think you're right that the 'returning vet' is a sub-set of the noir genre. They certainly make attractive characters for writers, as there are so many layers possible, not to mention providing the ability for social and cultural observations. An old story of mine, "Ibrahim's Eyes" is one of the few times I've made a returned vet the protagonist. It was set (in part) during the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. It seemed to appeal to a wide audience, and I predict "Vortex" will do the same.

  3. Good piece, Paul. Actually, I think the "returning vet" is a sub-set of every genre - older British mysteries are studded with the retired soldier, back from "In-jah". And I think returning vet novels are more interesting to the general public than stories actually set in wartime/war scenes, because they're back home, and because in those novels it's admitted that everything has changed - and not just the soldier him/herself. The world back home has changed, too. Things have happened, and a lot of them no one's talking about.

    In "The Best Years of Our Lives", Al Stevenson - Milly a/k/a Myrna Loy's husband - comes back an alcoholic [if he hadn't been one before], and Milly isn't that thrilled, especially when he passes out; Milly's found her own life, and making room for Al is tough; Fred Derry finds out his wife's a two-timing bitch, and realizes that he himself is too damn old to go back to being nothing but a soda jerk; Al & Milly's daughter Peggy decides that the married Fred is the only man for her, and makes no bones about it; and of course Homer doesn't have any arms, and people don't know what the hell to do with him. Life has changed for everyone. BTW, EVERYONE drinks too much in this movie. The only reason it isn't noir is that most people don't end up dead or in jail - but it sure ain't all happy.

    Re noir, I agree about "Double Indemnity" - CLASSIC film noir. And "The Postman Always Rings Twice". And, in its own way, "Mildred Pierce", the novel, not the movie. (James M. Cain is hard to beat.)

  4. Thanks, David. And I think you’re right about the layers that are possible with this genre. There’s a lot to work with. And I’d like to think that though Vortex is a noir-thriller that it also deals with things on a deeper level as well. Your story, “Ibrahim’s Eyes,” sounds interesting. I’ll have to give it a read.

  5. Thank you, Eve. And I think you’re right that the returning vet is a sub-set of pretty much every genre. It gives us an opportunity to examine society as well as the soldier.

    As for “The Best Years of Our Lives,” I think part of the reason it’s not noir is there’s no real crime/s involved and it pretty much as an optimistic ending. And totally agree about the Cain books/movies you mention.

  6. Returning Vets make for great characters in most stories. They have depth just by their experiences. They make the tale more interesting.

    I think my favorite is Michael Connelly's short story "Christmas Even". In it detective Harry Bosch reflects on a sax player he heard while he was back in the military and wounded in "Southeast Asia" back 1969. At the end of the story, Connelly thanks the person who told him the tale that this story is based on. I have been there, I know that this story was based on real events. I could smell the smells and feel the feelings.

    "Vortex" didn't invoke the same visceral response because I have no experience with the Afghan desert/mountain landscape nor the struggles those vets endured, but it did provide exceptional storytelling in an extremely fast paced tale.

  7. Thank you, AJ. I think your right about soldiers having depth by their experiences, to put it in my words. And much as I love Connelly I don't think I've read that story, so I'll have to check it out.

  8. Great post, Paul! I'll offer up a twist on that with Dorothy B. Hughes story, "The Homecoming," which isn't from the point of view of the returning vet but another character.... Still, dark stuff, to be sure. It's in Best American Noir of the Century, feel sure you have that one.

  9. Thanks, Art. And I think Hughes is terrific. And I'm happy to say that I do have that book. But haven't read that in a while, so I guess it's time.


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