Falling for the Big Con
By Tom Piccirilli
ChiZine Publications, 2011
If the tragedy of life is not that we lose, as the journalist Heywood Broun said, but that we almost win, then American noir is perhaps the most tragic of literary genres.
Its bedeviled protagonists are nothing if not shards of shattered dreams that somehow eluded the dust pail, convinced they can piece themselves together again. Just one more score, one last grift, and the life they never really had in the first place is redeemed, realized, validated. They’re sullen optimists born to lose, sketched in black, more than aware of their own inescapable fate. Still, they try to beat the odds anyway, usually through nefarious means. We love their desperation. We grin at the prose forged as hard as railroad steel. We envy their demeanor and detached humor, cool as nickel. And we swallow the clichés willingly, masochistically, for to understand noir is to be educated in pain.
This brings us to Every Shallow Cut, Tom Piccirilli’s funeral march of a novella, in which the four-time Bram Stoker Award winner gives voice to another soft, idealist sucker who played by the rules and lost. Piccirilli’s nameless narrator, a disgraced crime novelist, is the modern man to whom has befallen the curse of modern times. He buys into the Big Con, pawns his pride to purchase an infomercial knockoff of the American Dream – bank loans, brotherly love, nuptial bliss, excess flab – and, like any good mark, doesn’t realize he’s been taken until he has nothing left.
But unlike its predecessors, most notably the paperback originals published by Gold Medal Books in the 1950’s, Every Shallow Cut doesn’t feature a man who almost wins. Thanks to a spine as sturdy as a soggy pretzel rod, an unwillingness to look on the bright side and a derivative prose style, he was dead on arrival.
“I still wasn’t sure what happened,” he says of his life. “It had all just fallen apart so slowly and steadily that I never noticed I was walking off the big ledge – until the creditors began repossessing my furniture and my wife started texting a guy she called ‘sweetie’.”
In Every Shallow Cut, Piccirilli exploits our fear of failure in a time in which failure is endemic, and for the most part does so successfully. His narrator has lost everything – financially, socially, professionally and mentally – despite doing everything by the book.
Naturally, he’s congested with rage, of which even random acts of uncharacteristic violence cannot cure him. He’s a cartoonish template for today’s victim of the recession. Like a cipher onto whom we can graft our personal stories, the narrator is an explicit figure worthy of one’s pity and scorn, but also in whom exists very little originality or substance. How much this clichéd character resonates with the reader is contingent upon the depth of their sympathy, the degree to which they can identify with him, and what if any value they place in the questionable yet compelling authorial move by Piccirilli to narrate an entire book in the voice of an unimaginative hack.
Down and out in Denver – the city for which he left New York to marry his ex-wife, whom he met on the internet – with nothing to his name but a bad rep, a twelve-buck royalty check and a hungry English Bulldog to feed, Piccirilli’s narrator, after fending off a few muggers, walks into a pawnshop and trades his late father’s prized coin collection for a Smith & Wesson .38. With nowhere else to go but Long Island, back to his estranged brother, he and his dog, like some twisted version of Travels with Charley are forced to wander across a spiritual skid row of America where they encounter extreme, if not downright parodic examples of a country deep in the throes of poverty: teenage prostitutes, sunken cheeks, abandoned farms, fields of foreclosure signs, a husband-and-wife bank robbing team, and a seven day flood all make appearances. Not exactly a murderers’ row of originality.
Once in New York, he thumbs through his past, visiting his brother, his condescending agent, his high school girlfriend and a fellow writer, all in an attempt to recover some minute form of lost affection to which, like a buoy in the middle of a raging sea, he can desperately cling, if only to glean a bit of perspective before he dies. As expected, he carries the pistol around with him wherever he goes, like loneliness, contemplating the finality of its concealed power, wondering if it will set things right or only exacerbate the situation. In this short chaotic sprint of a book, half of which is consumed by frenetic flashbacks and bitter recollections that tend to obscure the narrative line, it doesn’t take long to find out. For in quickness, said a wise man, is truth.
Reading Every Shallow Cut, then, is like awaiting the verdict in a trial in which the outcome is nearly guaranteed: you know what’s going to happen, you know every timeworn detail of the proceedings, but you can’t help but be intoxicated by the ceremony of waiting. It’s a dark familiarity for which we’re all suckers.
For simple fans of crime fiction, though, the book’s opening paragraph leaves no room for doubt in what it is – a serrated yet small addition to the canon of calamity – or to whose work it pays homage and, on a level playing field, free of the romanticism of history, with whom it has the right to compete. Evoking the memory of Mickey Spillane’s The Girl Hunters (“They found me in the gutter”), James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (“They threw me off the hay truck about noon”), and David Goodis’ Of Tender Sin (“It began with a shattered dream”), Piccirilli wastes no time inserting Every Shallow Cut into the profane passageways of circumstantial, and crudely composed, noir:
I was three days into my life as a homeless loser drifter when they broke my nose and dropped me on the street in front of a nameless pawn shop. I hit like two hundred pounds of failed dreams.
So begins Every Shallow Cut, along with the stampede of clichés: with the narrator being jumped before he enters the pawnshop, a place to which he is no stranger, and literally being kicked while he’s down by a trio of knife wielding junkies, one of whom laughably declares, as if it weren’t already evident, “I’m a suicidal meth-head, bitch! I got nothing to lose!” The junkies also stomp on his mother’s 19th century art prints, which he’d planned to pawn, and try to kick his dog too, for good measure.
The nature of the predicament in which we first find him screams unjust victimization. According to him, he’s merely a good man who has succumbed to, and been spit out by, the institutions to which he has dedicated his life. Divorced from his wife, removed from his home and separated for years from the literary awards that once assuaged the humiliation of his physical and financial shortcomings, he is the Everyman in extremis finally far enough removed from personal fulfillment to fight back. Against who or what, save the three young men rain-dancing on his face, he doesn’t really know.
In reality, he’s a coward possessed by a savage blankness. Life has treaded heavily upon his tired dreams, an offense for which he seeks a futile and selfish revenge. Futile for it is without a tangible and deserving target, besides, of course, himself. Selfish because like many Americans presently mired in debt he bit off more than he could chew, all in a doomed attempt to navigate the gulf between his true and imagined self. Now he’s paying for it, and to kill in defense of such an obvious blunder would be unfathomable, even for him.
That is to say nothing of defending himself against a few junkies, though, which, after taking a pounding, he manages to do with unlikely brutality, considering he hasn’t been in a fight since middle school.
I got to my knees and then to my feet, and I remembered that I was a man with nothing left who wrote stories about men with nothing left who did ungodly acts of violence against each other…I wrote from the safety of a desk but the dark cellar door of my failures had opened and called me through it, and I found all my urgent whispering pain and hate, and I laughed again and they turned to look at me and I went to work.
During the fight, however, he becomes conscious of the changes he’s undergone the past decade and how they affect his outward appearance.
Deep creases of fear distorted his features. It was the kind of expression I’d woken up to in the bathroom mirror every day for the last ten years…Curious, alarmed, stupid. Low print runs, shit sales, invasive editorial comments, the sneer of my wife, it all fucked my face up no differently than a couple of years of crank would have.
After the junkies are thoroughly beaten and their cash filched from the pockets of their oversized designer jeans, he enters the pawnshop, picks up the pistol and heads east, despite loathing the idea of visiting his brother.
He’d point me to a guest room that would have a fruity air freshener plugged into the wall that spritzed the place down automatically every twenty minutes. It would smell like every funeral I’d ever been to. He’d feed me well and offer me money to help me get back on my feet. He’d set me up on dates with successful middle-aged women who would find my grey hair distinguished and cry on my arms after we made love. He’d hide his sneer and I’d do my best to be grateful until the day came when I went for his throat.
A few more confrontations occur, all equally outrageous as the first, but the violence of which the narrator is a part never escalates into the dangerous, desperate kind so prevalent in good men gone mad. Sure, he contemplates going on a rampage and taking hostages, but it doesn’t cost much to call his bluff. He’s a terrified kid talking himself up before a dare, just seconds before he crumbles under the weight of it all.
His outbursts, then, are without motives and aims – they’re nonsensical, impulsive, and often campy. He doesn’t stop himself because there is still something inside him urging him to survive, telling him that the big break is coming. These spasms of violence are the only way to ward off the inevitable, even as he freely admits the end is imminent. Like a decapitated chicken sprinting blindly across the slaughterhouse floor, he’s attempting to prolong death by sheer movement. Yet this response isn’t animalistic but human, for only humans can knowingly deceive themselves so completely.
It’s what initially stuffs Every Shallow Cut with swaths of tension and anticipation, but once we’re accustomed to the narrator’s melodramatic disclosures and failed attempts at black humor, grounds it in predictability. After a while he’s no longer menacing, but sad. It’s obvious that, despite threats to do so, he’ll destroy himself before he destroys another.
Unlike most modern novels that aspire to and purport to be works of and for their times, Every Shallow Cut eschews the grandiose sweep and lofty ambitions of most modern fiction. It makes no judgments, offers no solutions and probes neither the gutters nor the stars, which makes it unaccountably memorable, if not memorably wrought. Every Shallow Cut is personalized, intimate and ever so brief, like a knife fight in a phone booth: someone, or perhaps everyone, will be hurt, and the first pure cut will be swift and ugly and avoidable. It’s a spectacle of transparency, for better or worse. The world stands on the sidewalk, afraid or unwilling to move, and watches from the other side of the plastic – transfixed, horrified and strangely elated.
But such transparency hurts the narrative, too. What should be profound confessions or powerful insights into the narrator’s past are depleted by the telegraphic, overly sardonic style in which they’re delivered, as if they were stock answers anybody could use to explain the deterioration of their marriage. Further, the haphazard manner in which they’re inserted into unrelated scenes jars the reader away from the storyline. This is all for legitimacy of voice, but when employed it doesn’t always translate to a fluid reading experience.
When passing through places like Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois, in which all the stock totems of Middle-American bleakness are on full display, the narrator is caught in a seven-day flood. During the flood, he spends his days cooped up in a hotel room eating pie, watching television, writing furiously on legal pads (he pawned his laptop) and toying with his new gun, aiming the steel at the storm outside his window, imagining it as – you guessed it – metaphor for his life. In between his bouts of indolence, however, he finds time to reflect on his life and where it went wrong.
Of his baby’s abortion, to which he had silently acquiesced, he says:
At that moment I realized, This is the thing I will never be forgiven for. This is what is now being written in the great Book of Life by the weeping saints and martyrs. This is the moment God will point to with his burning hand at the hour of my death…I am committing my baby to oblivion because I’m too fat and lazy and intellectual to work a factory job where I can receive insurance. I am consigning my soul to hell because my taxes are too high. I am sacrificing myself and my blood on the ancient altar of mediocrity and the monthly terror of my mortgage.
Here, in its most sincere moments, his reflections assume, if not in literary brilliance than certainly in tone, the exhaustion and fatalism of John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas and the spiritual dread of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. All three respective male protagonists have resigned themselves to death – whether they know it or not – and even the salve of unconditional love cannot alter the course of their lives.
The narrator arrives in Long Island, in front of his brother’s home, on a weekend at midnight, but decides to sleep in his car and confront him the following afternoon. He spends the morning driving through his old neighborhood, visiting old haunts and ex-girlfriends, and finds, not surprisingly, that he is unwelcome in his old life. In fact, he’s barely remembered. So he sits in his car, flipping through a Rolodex of memories, all of them bad.
Just about every one of the narrator’s recollections concerns the debasement of what should be sources of great joy. Of sex, he remembers only his own obesity and the difficulties it had posed for his wife. Of being published, his mother’s beaming smile receding like an exhausted sun into disinterest. We learn that he resents his brother for having never visited their parents before they passed away; that he still envies the effortless cool and exuberant charm his brother possessed in their teen years; and that, in his novels, his brother almost always appear as the villainous father figure, undeserving of forgiveness.
By the time he does knock on his brother’s door, we’re expecting a pompous frat boy to answer, beer in one hand and blonde bimbo in the other. Instead we encounter a fairly decent, if somewhat withdrawn and conservative, middle-aged man: he cooks his brother a steak, allows the dog to sleep in the house and offers his brother his home as long as needs one. Which leaves not only the reader, but the narrator too, wondering exactly what has happened between these two men.
I still didn’t know why it had gone so wrong. Maybe he had his own premonitions and visions too. Maybe he saw what lay ahead of me and hated me for it. Or himself. Maybe he’d been warning me all along, and I just hadn’t listened.
Obviously, Piccirilli’s narrator is a different kind of hero: indecisive, self-conscious, and permanently scarred. If Spillane’s Mike Hammer blasts his way to information, acting as a true agent of resolution, then Piccirilli’s broken novelist speculates from a therapist’s office, poking tentatively at theories from a safe distance without ever really testing their validity.
As is the case in many of Piccirilli’s crime novels, the protagonist in Every Shallow Cut has no greater foe than his past, the memory of which is continuously thrust upon him like an evil Hitchcockian uncle coming to visit. He is, then, a victim of circumstance searching in vain for a life outside of circumstance’s shadow. His confusion as to whom, if anyone, is to blame for his demise articulates the larger trauma of enduring society’s downward spiral and, as a result, the guilt we feel in the knowledge that, despite the trauma, we continue to perpetuate the spiral.
After spending a quiet night at his brother’s, the narrator continues down his path of self-destruction. While visiting his agent in Manhattan, after having just submitted his novel in progress – written on loose leaf paper in what is later deemed the “scrawl of a psychotic” – he makes a point to show off his new pistol, too. He then heads out to the Bronx to visit a writer-friend who informs him that he’s having a nervous breakdown and needs to be hospitalized. The narrator slips away, furious and confused, and, before rushing back to Long Island, instigates an ugly confrontation with a police officer over an issue of squatter’s rights. Days later, he makes it back to his brother’s doorstep.
“What did you do?” his brother asks.
“I didn’t know,” he silently replies. “I didn’t know what I had done or where I’d gone wrong or how to fix it. I wasn’t sure what the next step should be, where I should go, how I could lift myself out. I wanted to go home. I didn’t have a home to go to. I wanted to finish the new book. I wondered what the ending would be. I wanted to tell my mother, There’s my name, Ma, right there on the bestseller list. I wanted to add new photos to the old photo albums.”
In its barest, most essential form, Every Shallow Cut is a story of violence told violently. But the violence by and large is not of a physical nature. Every Shallow Cut speaks of the violence that occurs when expectations are pitted against reality; when the delusional hope that something will come around and set everything right – the big break, the bestseller – goes unfulfilled. It is the violence of complacency, contentment, and dependency. The kind of violence a man turns to when there’s nothing left to which he can turn but violence, and nobody around to whom he can transfer his pain but himself and those he so fiercely loves.
“I wasn’t afraid,” says the narrator of his imminent death. “I knew what questions God would have waiting for me…I figured I could fudge the answers.”
It’s this undercurrent of alienation and complete resignation that separates Every Shallow Cut from traditional noir, in which a man is typically driven deeper and deeper into chaos by envy, greed, or a woman – and sometimes all three. Piccirilli’s narrator is not tempted into this nightmare. There are no dangerous dames, just good ol’ democracy. If there is a seductress in Every Shallow Cut, it’s the pursuit of happiness, the Big Dream, which never ends in Paradise – just the Big Sleep.
Instead, there is only a man, a dreamer still naïve enough to believe in his dreams after they’ve been smashed to pieces. A writer, always writing, always fantasizing, pushing a pencil so hard, so deep into the page that the point breaks and he doesn’t even know it. All that’s left are pages and pages of indentations, and a writer whose great mad work will never be realized, but simply fade away like the imprint on a bed left by a man nobody ever really knew.
Every Shallow Cut is not so much a broken window into the battered soul of the Everyman, but a broken mirror, lined with age and ignorance, showing each and every one of us what we’re capable of – and, more specifically, so very close to becoming.
Perhaps, then, Piccirilli’s narrator had a bit of Irish in him, for his tombstone would surely read: Better the trouble that follows death than the trouble that follows shame. Maybe he was hardboiled after all.
Craig Dowd is a college student and third-generation title insurance agent living in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where he writes about jazz, boxing and all forms of speculative fiction.