Friday, February 26, 2010

The Long Goodbye

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Long Goodbye (Houghton-Mifflin, 1953).

I've said on several occasions that I enjoy reading stories where events spiral out of control. Raymond Chandler's sixth novel, The Long Goodbye, belongs to a school where the events get out of hand, but very slowly and deliberately, and the actions of desperate people are telegraphed with a tone of menace and foreboding. Not very many authors could pull this off. Watching people make the wrong decision is rarely pleasing; as readers, we have the choice to close the book and walk away. Chandler's prose is so beautiful that it remains captivating even when it's relating the stories of foolish people doing dangerous things.

The Long Goodbye is the story of Philip Marlowe's friendship with an alcoholic named Terry Lennox, and how that friendship has consequences beyond the grave. Lennox married into money, but gets along better with his father-in-law than his wife Sylvia does. After several months of camaraderie over gimlets in one LA bar after another, Marlowe tactlessly offends Lennox and they don't see anything of each other anymore, until Lennox shows up looking for a ride to a Mexican airport. That drive is the last Marlowe ever sees of his friend.

Marlowe is one of fiction's greatest creations, a stubborn, judgmental loner who never seems to maintain a friendship, but who values the bond of trust that comes with it above everything else. When Chandler mixes that trait with the character's established belief in always pursuing the truth, no matter what ugliness is exposed, it results in an explosive book. Marlowe's reputation and notoreity for being mixed up with the Lennoxes gets him an unusual job offer from a publisher representing a drunk writer named Roger Wade. The intersecting, disintegrating relationships of the Wades and Sylvia Lennox's sister puts Marlowe in an enthralling web of complex, emotional histories, one that's slowly making its way to an unavoidable conclusion.

This is absolutely one of my favorite novels. The way Chandler slowly brings things to the surface, letting readers catch glimpses of what is soon to be revealed, is one of the most consistently satisfying experiences in fiction, and he does it better here than anywhere else. It's a book which is informed by loneliness, trust and faith in equal measures, and is a novel that everybody should read. It was later adapted into an utterly baffling feature film by Robert Altman, starring Elliot Gould, of all people, as Marlowe. It bears as much relationship to its source as an orange peel to a grizzly bear, but even it has its charms, somehow, because the story is just that captivating. Very highly recommended.

No comments: