Skip to main content

Gutter Black: A Memoir. Dave McArtney (Harper Collins)  The frontman for N’Zild pub-rock mainstays Hello Sailor completed this long-awaited memoir months before his death last March. Throw on some deep-cuts and revisit that rarest of local talents: a rocker whose best work never became IRD hold-music.It’s funny how ima­gin­a­tion works. A fac­ulty as broad as the human capa­city for ‘fantasy’ dis­tils to wiz­ards, dragons and cas­u­al fas­cism. The entire com­pass-dir­ec­tion of ‘west­ern’ boils down to the prom­ise of horses and Stet­sons. And ‘noir’ — from film noir, or black film, the mor­al miasma seen by crit­ic Nino Frank to per­vade Hol­ly­wood polici­ers of the 1930s and 1940s — sug­gests a vast paint­box of nar­rat­ive and psy­cho­lo­gic­al hues; but wheth­er it’s The Big Sleep or a loc­al release like Ben Atkins’ Drown­ing City, you know you’re get­ting cigars and fedoras.

But before Atkins, back to Frank. As he observed, noir applied Hollywood’s nar­rat­ive assembly line to an unflinch­ing cri­tique of the Amer­ic­an mind, shot through with the Goth­ic exist­en­tial­ism of an immig­rant European cre­at­ive class. The res­ult was an artist­ic creole of no fixed abode, a drift­er pressed into ser­vice as needed — much like oth­er 20th-cen­tury innov­a­tions such as jazz or pavlova.

And yet there’s an irre­du­cible con­crete­ness to the black­est of noir — and equally to its black broth­ers, sit­ting along­side Atkins’ effort in the ‘crime/mystery’ sec­tion of your pre­ferred writ­ten-word pur­vey­or. Like hip hop, whose grav­ity-defy­ing flights of word­play belie a per­sist­ent emphas­is on real­ness, noir or hard-boiled fic­tion can’t just throw togeth­er a few leggy dames and hard-bit­ten gum­shoes and call it a day. Trail­blazer Dashi­ell Ham­mett did a stint clean­ing the toi­lets while incar­cer­ated at a Fed­er­al pen­it­en­tiary. L.A. Con­fid­en­tial author James Ell­roy, reign­ing king in the genre’s yel­low­ing pages, secured his claim to real­ness as a peep­ing Tom, panty-thief and dis­trib­ut­or of pro­hib­ited literature.

For a genre seen to thrive most verd­antly in the shad­ows of New York, Chica­go or Los Angeles, it’s easy to for­get noir’s inter­na­tion­al ped­i­gree. But do we not have dark­ness here too? Not to men­tion cor­rup­tion, mor­al miasma and a long-stand­ing drink­ing problem?

Sam Neill’s 1995 doc­u­ment­ary Cinema of Unease makes a sol­id case for New Zealand’s long-stand­ing tra­di­tion of black thought and art. Gaylene Preston’s Wel­ling­ton-set debut Mr Wrong (1985) deployed sly fem­in­ism while Hol­ly­wood noir was still coast­ing on its own fumes. And Edmund Bohan applied noir’s stand­ards of enquiry — of broken his­tor­ies, bur­ied secrets and archetyp­al vice — to the past of Wel­ling­ton (and the coun­try at large).

Atkins’ debut turns that dark glass fur­ther inward: to the tropes and tru­isms of noir itself. His nov­el takes place in a lim­in­al city some­where between Depres­sion-era under­world USA and noir’s ima­gined spaces. This quint­es­sen­tially 20th-cen­tury genre, fuelled by the dis­sol­u­tion of delin­eations — Europe and Amer­ica, law and under­world, vice and vir­tue — has long had its back up against an unas­sail­able bul­wark, as if real­ness and arti­fice weren’t once more sol­uble. Now, authors like Atkins are mak­ing a brave effort at map­ping even that shift­ing territory.


Avatar photo

About Tom Goulter

Tom is Fish­Head’s book colum­nist. A Mas­ter­’s degree in Cre­at­ive Writ­ing from Vic­tori­a’s Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute of Mod­ern Let­ters launched Goulter on the life of an itin­er­ant man of let­ters, wan­der­ing the frac­tious United states in search of.. whatever it was Peter Fonda and Den­nis Hop­per were after, prob­ably. Instead of get­ting shot by red­necks (yet), he returned to Wel­ling­ton, where he essays semi-reg­u­larly into pop­u­lar cul­ture, psy­cho-geo­graphy, under­ground film-mak­ing, and the uncanny in all its myri­ad forms. Not a day goes by that he does not wish Man­ners Street still had Crys­tal city on it.

Tom Goulter

Tom is FishHead's book columnist. A Master's degree in Creative Writing from Victoria's International Institute of Modern Letters launched Goulter on the life of an itinerant man of letters, wandering the fractious United states in search of.. whatever it was Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were after, probably. Instead of getting shot by rednecks (yet), he returned to Wellington, where he essays semi-regularly into popular culture, psycho-geography, underground film-making, and the uncanny in all its myriad forms. Not a day goes by that he does not wish Manners Street still had Crystal city on it.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.