All the talk last week about Jack Kerouac, as well as the name of an interesting new blog, sent me back to Who Walk in Darkness, a novel published in 1952 by Chandler Brossard. Brossard’s book is a study of downtown Manhattan hip circa 1948…albeit a study of a somewhat better-dressed, better-fed crowd than, say, the denizens who inhabit William Burroughs’ Junky (still my favorite take on 1940s NYC bohemia)–as one character puts it, mildly insulting the novel’s narrator, “You’re the Arrow Collar man of the underground.” It’s also a sort of strange valentine for mid-20th-century New York.
Steven Moore notes in the introduction to the 2000 paperback reprint that Who Walk in Darkness has sometimes been touted as an early Beat novel–a straighter take on the beginnings of the scene, a la John Clellon Holmes’ Go. As Moore points out, it’s actually closer to books like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Camus’ The Stranger–trying, if anything, to be an American existential novel. Two of the primary characters are based on the writers Anatole Broyard and William Gaddis, when they were in their struggling, up-and-coming, iceberg-lettuce salad days. Broyard, in fact, actually threatened to sue when he got wind of the book, and Brossard was forced to make some changes, toning down some of the references to Porter, the character based on Broyard who is passing for a white person. (Much more on Broyard’s real-life roots here.)
The book certainly does invoke Hemingway’s Sun, with Porter serving as the Robert Cohn figure that the reader is supposed to ultimately dislike, and Porter’s girlfriend Grace as the Brett Ashley woman with whom the narrator is in love. The Gaddis-based character even seems to parallel Hemingway’s alcoholic-but-likeable Mike Campbell, and there’s a significant boxing match as part of the narrative to boot. What I realized this time around–and I reread the book with increasingly mixed feelings–is that Hemingway is an early model for hip. Normally we think of big-game-hunting Ernest H. and 1950s/60s hipsters as antithetical, but the whole notion of code, of living by a set of unspoken values (to speak of them is bad taste at best, destructive of the values themselves at worst) is deeply embedded in ideas of hipness. Throughout Who Walk in Darkness the narrator’s coolness is constantly being telegraphed; sometimes through silence and indirection, sometimes through explicit talk from other characters, we are manipulated to understand that Blake Williams (said narrator) is with it, nearly incapable of making a wrong move or saying the wrong thing.
Such narratives come off to me these days as dubious and annoying. It may be paradoxical to say, but I trust the unreliable narrator more than I do the Hemingway hero. In Who Walks in Darkness we’re expected to view Porter, the image-conscious, passing African-American, as “inauthentic” in his attempts–his rather successful attempts–to reinvent himself. Yet in the end I found him more sympathetic than the self-righteous Blake Williams, who tells the story as if it’s a grudge match.
Brossard wasn’t the only author writing about the hip milieu with Papa Hemingway shadowing the pages–Norman Mailer is a prime example of how that influence was filtered through the 1950s. And this book is not without its pleasures. It does capture the gage-smoking, jazz-beat world of late-1940s Greenwich Village, and Brossard writes with a spare elegance as he describes the sounds, sights, and smells (especially the smells–the book is rife with allusions to various aromas of the city) of New York. There’s also a sense of random violence hanging over the narrative, an awareness that urban life is becoming more dangerous. And then there are humourously-polished dialogue exchanges such as this one, in which Goodwin, a well-paid, downtown-slumming advertising executive who’s treating the narrator and his friends to round after round of drinks, asks Harry (the character based on Gaddis) about his literary progress:
“Oh yes. I do all right. Harry, when do you expect to finish your book?”
“Are you writing a book, Harry?” I asked.
“I’m not only doing it, I’m living it. Which reminds me. What happened to that underground man you came in with?”
“He’s casing the joint,” Porter said. “He’ll be back.”
“What do you mean by the underground man?” Goodwin asked.
“The man who will do anything. He’s a spiritual desperado.”
“He means Max Glazer,” Porter said. “He’s a very smart guy. Really very hip.”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t. He is a desperado, though. Do you know what his ideal is? His ideal is to look like a street-corner hoodlum and be the finest lyric poet in America at the same time.”
“He sounds remarkable,” Goodwin said. “I would enjoy meeting him.”
“Don’t say it that way,” Julia said. “You’ll meet him.”
“Tell me some more about the underground man, Harry,” Goodwin said.
“I’m writing a book about him too.”
“It seems that you are writing these books with your mouth, Harry,” said Porter.
“It is a new literary form,” Harry said.